Keeping Score: 8 July 2022

This week I’ve mostly been focused on typing up the mix of notes, scenes, and outline from my notebook for the now expanded, gender-flipped, sidekick-to-protagonist science fiction story (whew!).

I’m having to do a bit of expansion and interweaving as I go. I didn’t write the scenes in order, to begin with, and then I’ve also been blending it with what I wrote in the second (typed straight to laptop) draft, so that hopefully the whole thing is coherent.

I’m nearing the ending, which I haven’t written yet, but I’ve got such a strong image for that I think I can just type it out when I get there. Also I’ve got to lay the path for it, so to speak, by weaving in elements in these earlier scenes so the final one feels like a proper payoff, rather than an abrupt turn (though there is a turn, I just don’t want it to jolt a reader out of the story).

One thing I want to pay particular attention to, and change if I can’t get it right, is the (now) main character’s ethnicity. In my mental storyboards, she’s a second-generation Asian-American, and that’s how I’ve presented her in terms of name, etc. But in reading books like Craft in the Real World and The Girl at the Baggage Claim, and novels like Earthlings and The Woman in the Purple Skirt, I’m starting to doubt whether I can properly portray such a character. I’ve been thinking I can use my experience as an internal (and now international) immigrant as a bridge to their worldview, but I think now that that’s not enough. There’s the pervasive racism experienced by minorities in the States, and on top of that the misogyny that uniquely harms Asian-American women (I say harms, not harmed, because it keeps happening: witness the one character in “The Boys” who is introduced as completely feral and whose voice is silenced is the one Asian woman in the cast). And that’s before we get into differing family relationships, unique cultural touchstones, etc.

So I’m not sure if I should change the POV character’s ethnicity or not. I think that during these handwritten drafts I’ve found an approach that can be both representative and respectful. And I don’t want to be the kind of white writer that only writes white people (any more than I want to be the kind of male writer that only writes men). The world is diverse, and I want to represent that in my fiction. But I want to do it well, which means more than just changing a character’s name or skin color.

We’ll see how the draft comes out. And what my sensitivity readers say when they review it.

Three Things I Loved About My First Canada Day

As someone who grew up in the States, I’m used to celebrating July 4th, but I’m not used to really enjoying it. The fireworks are often cool, but the sheer volume of jingoism and military parades rub me the wrong way. They always made me feel out of place, like anything less than my-country-or-else patriotism wasn’t welcome. Not to mention the holiday itself is set on the absolute wrong day; the Declaration of Independence has absolutely no legal standing, and nothing to do whatsoever with the way the US is governed or the rights of its citizens (bringing this up at the Fourth, of course, is an easy way to get glared at).

So I was unsure what to expect for Canada Day. I’m also by myself, so no family or friends to go hang with. Thankfully, the City of Victoria threw a celebration downtown, right on the harbor, which turned out to be just about perfect.

Here’s three things I liked about this year’s celebration:

The Community

The first thing was having a community celebration at all. San Diego’s a city three times the size of Victoria, but if you look for their events for the Fourth, they’ve got the fireworks show at night, and a pub crawl, and…that’s it. No concerts, no closing off streets and setting up street vendors, nothing. The Fourth is meant to be celebrated at home, with family, and that’s it.

Which is fine if you’ve got a large family, or network of friends, but for a new immigrant like me, I was incredibly grateful to have the city’s Canada Day celebration to go to. It was completely free, with a central concert stage, bleachers on the hill facing, flanked by an open-air market and a bevy of food trucks. Oh, and a bouncy-castle style playground for the kids. And yes, there were flags, and people were wearing maple leaf shirts (and umbrella hats), but it was all low-key. No military fly-overs, just folks from all over the city out having a good time. I fit right in, and that felt great.

The Inclusivity

Speaking of fitting in, one of the reasons I wanted to go down to the celebration on Friday was to see all the shows they had lined up. They had Native dancers as part of the opening ceremonies, and Ukrainian dancers, and Chinese lion dancers, and…Just a whole host of people and communities that I’d never seen perform before.

In fact, it struck me that I’d never seen Native performers before, in person. Not in forty-three years of living in the United States. There’s never been a Fourth celebration that I’ve heard of or attended where Native Americans participated; they’ve probably never even been asked.

Now I know Canada’s record here is very far from blameless. The residential schools, the Oka Crisis, the conflicts over land and self-government that continue to this day. But one of the things Thomas King remarked on in his The Inconvenient Indian is how often colonial governments want to make native peoples invisible, to make exploiting them all the easier. And in this case, at least, the Lekwungen Traditional Dancers were making themselves more visible, right there on stage.

I confess it moved me, and as I watched them dance, followed by the Ukrainian dancers, the listened to the Ukrainian choir, then watched Chinese lion dancers jump and gambol in front of the stage, I realized they’d turned Canada Day into a celebration of diversity, instead of a suppression of it.

The Scope

That inclusivity was a reflection of another thing I noticed and liked: the breadth of the celebration.

Again, unlike the US, this wasn’t a primarily military holiday. No call-and-response about army figures who “died for our freedom.” Not that the military was absent, mind you — they had a booth in the market where they were recruiting, excuse me, “hiring” (as they put it) — just that they weren’t the focus.

So there was plenty of room for a Ukrainian choir, talking up the deep connections between Ukraine (many Ukrainians settled the Canadian plains) and Canada. And room for a local white blues musician. And for a Guinean-led band. And for a Vancouver-based electronic group. And for every announcement to be interpreted live in ASL by a woman standing prominently on the stage.

And for me.

Keeping Score: 1 July 2022

I think my writing brain is telling me to move on from the short stories.

I’ve kept up with the notebook writing this week, jotting down scenes and brainstorming directions for the plots of both short stories (the shorter mystery and the longer sci-fi one). But on Monday my fingers refused to write anything for either story, instead choosing to talk about the summer weather (which became my last blog post). And yesterday, when I reached for my notebook, I had a spark of an idea that turned into a plot for an entire rom-com novel.

It’s like my subconscious is telling me it’s bored of drafting the short stories, and wants to move on, to something different. Before I can do that, though, I need to actually type up what I’ve written freehand, and try to edit it into a coherent piece.

So that’s what I’ll be working on this weekend and next week. Typing, editing, and revising both stories, till the ideas in my notebook have been fitted into place. Hopefully that’ll be enough to keep my writing brain engaged and happy; it’s different work, after all, from drafting, and uses different muscles.

And then…maybe I’ll give this rom-com a shot? Or maybe it’s a thriller. It really depends on the ending, you see, and…

Well. We’ll see.

Summer Arrives in BC

It’s too damn hot to want to do anything, really.

Just when you think you’ve adjusted, some internal thermostat finally clicking over to “This is Fine,” the humidity kicks up another ten percent or the breeze you were depending on just to be able to breathe drops away or the thermometer slides up another degree or two. And then you’re right back where you started, standing in front of the floor fan with your shirt raised and the blinds shut tight to keep out the traitorous sun. Waiting. Wondering what’ll give up first, you or the heat.

And you think fondly — yes, fondly, now! — on early spring, when buds were just starting to poke shyly out from the trees and the sky was still dark and cold. And wet. God, you remember rain pattering against the windows and wind rattling the panes but you were safe inside, weren’t you? Not breaking out in a sweat just from crossing the room.

You do not, ever, think of winter. Winter was worse.

Keeping Score: 24 June 2022

I’ve been reading Craft in the Real World and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, two books that both approach the issue of how the traditional writing workshop in the US — silent author, readers and teacher judging the work, comparison to an all-white literary canon — was constructed less to promote healthy writing communities and more to reinforce white supremacy in the States.

I confess it’s been hard reading, sometimes. Being confronted with the way I’ve been taught — and taught to teach others — about writing and being shown its racist underpinnings does not make for comfortable reading. But I’m pushing past that white fragility of mine, and interrogating it, and each time what I find at the root is simply fear. Fear that I’ll be the one erased, in the kind of workshop these authors describe. Fear that I’ll become the marginalized. Because the one thing all white people know, even when we don’t want to admit it, is that being in the minority in the Western caste system sucks.

When I face that fear, and name it, I’m able to move past it, and see the workshops they’re presenting as what they really are: places where everyone can take center stage for a time, where each author is empowered with the tools and the confidence to better their craft. Those tools are there for me, too, if I’m willing to listen, and use them.

So I’m testing them out, so to speak. I don’t have a formal writing workshop to go to, but I am trying a new approach with the feedback I give to the other writers in my writing circle. I’m aiming my feedback less at “I liked this” or “I don’t like this character” and more towards highlighting the choices I see them making. Like asking how scenes might play out differently if X were changed, or querying about the symbolism behind the repetition of a certain element. I don’t know if I’m succeeding, just yet, but I’m striving for the kind of centering of the author as an actively participating artist that Salesses and Chavez encourage.

I’m also borrowing some of their practices for my own writing. For this new short story I’m writing, I’ve taken to writing out the new draft by hand, in a notebook. Chavez says she insists her students write by hand, as a way to silence the inner editor and let the words flow onto the page. And so far, it’s working; writing it out has helped me get out of my own way, and make progress on the draft, when staring at the computer screen would feel like too much pressure. Chavez is right: Something about using hand and pen and paper is liberating, making me feel less like every word needs to be perfect and more like the story in my head needs to be written down right now.

As a result, the new draft is taking shape. It’s going to be longer and more complicated than I originally thought, with POV shifts and an expanded world. The side character that I had in the first draft and then gender-flipped has now become the protagonist (!) with all the changes that entails. But where I initially approached this new draft with trepidation, now I’m excited to see it come together.

What techniques do you use, to quiet your inner editor and feel free to write the stories you most want to tell?

Going Native

So I’ve decided to apply for permanent residence here in Canada.

I know, many people apply for PR first, before they upend their lives and move thousands of miles. But I went for the work permit to start, since a) It was faster, and b) I didn’t know if I’d like it here.

After my gushing last week about how much I love living in Victoria, that second reason might sound silly. Canada’s safer than the US, with a smaller prison population, more public transit, and (generally) better health outcomes. What’s not to like?

And yet I worried. I’m 43, well past the age most folks immigrate. I worried I’d be unable to adjust to a new system, and end up clueless how to take the bus, or rent a car, or handle my finances. I worried I’d encounter a version of the ice-cold reception I got in Seattle, and never get a chance to meet new people. I worried it would be too cold, or too rainy, or cloudy, for me to ever dream of going outside the apartment.

I worried, in short, that Canada would reject me. Spit me out like a bad piece of gristle, sending me back to San Diego on the next plane.

But — so far, at least — that hasn’t happened. I have had to depend entirely on the kindness of strangers in order to navigate the various bureaucracies here, but so far, that help has been forthcoming. From the ICBC clerk who told me exactly how and where to send over my driving record to lower my insurance premiums, to the librarian who quietly reminded me that my “password” for using the self-checkout was probably the final part of my phone number.

It’s only been two months, and already, I want to stay.

So I’m assembling the pieces I’ll need to apply for Express Entry. The first part was an assessment of my college degree, to see if it meets Canada’s standards for university credit. That’s done (and my degree passed!), so now it’s on to the next piece: Taking an internationally-recognized test of English skills to verify my fluency. I’m not too worried about the test, but I’m going to take some practice exams anyway, just in case.

Once that’s done, all I’ll need is a letter from my current employer that they intend to keep me on for at least a year after I get PR status. I certainly hope they’ll be okay providing such a letter!

At that point, I’ll be able to apply. But I’m going to take one more step: Take an exam for French proficiency.

I studied French for two years in college, and I’ve brushed it up every now and then. It’s been good enough when I’ve needed it, on trips to France, so that I could get by without English. I’ve never kept up with it enough to get fully fluent, though. That’s going to change.

I found out that in 2020 they changed the rules in Canada. If your main language is English, and you test well in French (thus proving you can communicate in both official languages), they’ll give you an extra 50 points on your application. To put that in perspective, the current cutoff for getting invited to apply for permanent residency is just 66 points. So if I do well on this test, I can boost my application up and really increase my chances of getting through.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Submit my initial application as soon as possible, and then study, study, study, for the French exam. I’m hoping to be ready to take it sometime in October, which means I’d be able to update my application with the results before the end of the year.

Wish me luck!

Keeping Score: 17 June 2022

Gender-flipping one of the characters in my new short story turns out to be the best decision I could have made. Whole new story possibilities have opened up, and I’m following through on them as best I can.

Which is to say, I haven’t made any progress on the horror story I started last week.

I’m basically back to draft zero on the sci-fi piece (now gender-flipped). The story’s going to need to get longer, much longer, in order to capture these new ideas. Somehow I’m going to need to pull off switching POVs inside the short story form, which is usually a no-no.

And it might still be! But I won’t know for sure until I try it out. Maybe switching POV between scenes will be a disaster. Maybe I’ll read the new draft through and find it’s a horrible mess. But then again, maybe I won’t.

So I’m trying to give myself the freedom to explore. I’m still forcing myself to sit down at least 15 minutes a day and work on a story, any story. But I’m not judging the output of those fifteen minutes. If it’s character sketches, great! If it’s brainstorming possible plot twists, also fine. Just so long as it’s effort spent on the story, in whatever form that takes.

This weekend I’m hoping to carve out some time to do some drafting based on the notes I’ve put together over the week. It’d be nice to have a finished draft together, however messy, that I can start editing next week.

Hope your own writing is going well, and that you’re avoiding the trap of judging your work by anyone else’s standards.

Three Things I Love About Living in Victoria

When I made the move from San Diego up to Victoria, BC, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never been to British Columbia before, hadn’t even been to Canada except for a brief trip to Toronto in 2019 (which was great, despite it being November and thus cold as hell). I’d heard good things from people who’d vacationed on Vancouver Island, but stopping by in the place for a night or two is one thing, living there is altogether different.

So two months in, I’m happy to report that I love it here. I feel like I really lucked out with my choice of apartment and city; if anything, I’m kicking myself for not moving out here sooner.

Here’s three of the many reasons I’ve fallen in love with Victoria:

The Size

Even though it’s the largest city on Vancouver Island, Victoria is incredibly walkable. From my apartment (which is on the edge of Chinatown and Harris Green, near North Park, aka nowhere particularly interesting in and of itself, and outside the core) it’s a ten minute walk to the Save-On Foods, there are two coffeeshops within two blocks, and the Parliament Buildings (where the BC provincial government meets) are just twenty minutes hike south.

It’s not just the distance that make it walkable, of course. There’s gotta be sidewalks (check), bike lanes to keep the walkways free for pedestrians (check, there’s so many people biking around town), and cross-walks clearly marked plus lights so getting across the street is safe (check!). One of the main bridges between Victoria and West Victoria/Esquimalt has about one-third of its width dedicated just to pedestrians and bike traffic.

So far, I’ve only found one place in the entire city (and I’ve been walking 10-20 km every weekend, exploring) where the sidewalks end, and that was in a super-ritzy neighborhood on a one-way street heading down to the beach. I’ll forgive it. All this infrastructure and density add up to a city where you not only can walk everywhere, you kind of want to, because…

The Outdoors

It’s gorgeous out there!

Seriously, I swear there’s a park every few blocks. And most of the streets are lined with trees as tall or taller than the buildings. And they’ve lined most of the coast with public parks, so you’re never far from being able to see, hear, and smell (not always pleasant, I’ll grant) the ocean.

I grew up in West Texas, where the deserts of the Southwest meet the central prairies. Trees were few and far between; you were more likely to see briars and thorns growing in a yard than grass. Forests were things I’d read about, but never seen.

So to be dropped onto Vancouver Island, a temperate rainforest, is like a kid’s dream come true.

In one of my first weekends here, I grabbed a locally-written book about walking/hiking trails in the area (from one of the five (!) bookstores within walking distance) and I’ve been working my way through it. Granted, these are all managed parklands — no wilderness trails for me, yet — but hiking through them, I feel like a little kid again, exploring the fields around my house with a backpack and a compass.

There was a point last weekend when I was hiking through Highrock Park where, towards the top, I came to a stop in a little clearing. No one else was up there. It was just me, and the trees, and the rain. I couldn’t hear the city. No traffic, not even a dog bark. Simply glorious.

Not that I mind my fellow Victorians, though, because…

The People

They really are nicer!

One of the many things I worried about, moving up here, was that it would be like Seattle. I found Seattle to be absolutely dreadful; unlike Portland, no one at Seattle seemed to want to acknowledge my existence, let alone my humanity. I visited the library, and in that hall of cold glass and stone I made the mistake of trying to take the elevator between floors. When the doors opened, there were a handful of people in it, all spread out to occupy the whole space. When I asked if they could scooch in so I could get inside, they just stared at me, vacantly, like they could not even contemplate making way for someone else.

Brrr.

Thankfully, my experience in Victoria has been the exact opposite. Everyone’s been welcoming, and they don’t seem to mind that I’m from Southern California (another thing I worried they’d be cagey about). The folks at the bank actually seem to want to be helpful, which is a revelation after decades interacting with US banks. Even the people at ICBC — the equivalent of the DMV here — went above and beyond to help me out, giving me advice on how to get my complete driver’s record transferred so I don’t have to overpay for car insurance (!). And after just a single meeting of the Victoria Creative Writing Group I found a writing circle to join.

Conclusion

I’ve only been here two months, true, but so far I’m very, very, glad I made the move. If you’re thinking of making the change to Canada, have a look beyond the big cities of Vancouver, Montreal, etc. Maybe you’ll find your own perfect spot to explore.

Keeping Score: 10 June 2022

Started the first draft of the new horror story this week, but just barely. Managed to bang out a single scene before my brain came to a screeching halt.

At first I was scared, thinking my writer’s block had come back. But after a day to calm down, I figured it out: I still needed to edit the flash pieces I banged out last month. My writing brain — who commutes between my subconscious and Tír na nÓg, I call them Fred — wasn’t ready to move on to a new story just yet. Outline, sure, but draft? No way. Edits first.

So I’ve mostly been editing. Two of the flash pieces I wrote are ready to go. A third is on its second draft, but I think it needs a third major one before any fine-tuning passes. I had an idea for gender-flipping one of the characters that I think will make the dialog more interesting (because it’ll bring out more of each character’s personality) and easier to follow (because the dialog tags will be different).

I’ve also been (kind of) editing my prison break novel. As I mentioned before, I’ve joined a writing group, so I’m using it as my submission — 2,500 words at a time — for each session. We’re using Google Docs for sharing, which I thought would be annoying (ok, it is annoying) but has given me a chance to edit each section before I copy/paste it into the shared doc. It’s mostly cleanup edits: Fixing a typo here, reworking a bit of dialog there. But it’s making the draft stronger, and they’re giving me some very useful feedback on it (like catching that a character didn’t bother to put on a pressure suit before heading out an airlock!).

It’ll take us (as a group) a while to get through it all, but I’m hoping at the end of it I’ll have a firm sense of what needs to be updated in one more editing pass before I can start sending it out to agents. Then maybe I’ll start (finally) editing the novel previous to that one, and so on and so forth, till they’re all edited and all out on sub. Meanwhile, I can keep churning out short stories, and work to find each of them a publishing home.

Wish me luck!

Three Things You Should Do Immediately After Moving to Canada

Getting to Canada — securing my work permit, opening a bank account, finding an apartment — turned out to be just the start of the things I needed to do in order to settle in here. Besides learning the ins and outs of my new apartment building and trying to find — emphasis on find, supply chain problems are everywhere — furniture so I didn’t have to sleep on the floor, there were a few more bureaucratic hurdles I needed to jump through.

I’ve picked out the biggest three below, in the hopes that someone else might be able to plan for them better than I did.

Change your health care

I talked about this one before, in that you should not expect to have health care coverage when you first arrive. That said, one of the very first things you should do on arrival (you can’t do it before you’re here and have secured a Social Insurance Number) is sign up for health care in your province.

I say province, because Canadian health care is administered differently by each province. There’s no one-stop federal service to sign up with, and they don’t auto-enroll you when you get a SIN. Depending on the province, you’ll be able to sign up online; the website for BC is here.

Note that there’s normally a wait period before your covered, which could be 60-90 days. Which is why you should sign up as soon as you possibly can. This is the first thing I signed up for when I got here, and it was the last card to arrive.

Change your driver’s license

Even if you don’t plan to drive in your province (like me), if you have a driver’s license, you should swap it out. For one thing, Canadians use their driver’s licenses a lot as their primary means of ID, so getting one means you can stop carrying around your passport everywhere. In addition, it’s often illegal for you to keep your old out-of-Canada license past a certain point (in BC it’s 90 days), so the sooner you take care of it, the better.

Unlike the California DMV, I found going to ICBC to actually be delightful. I made an appointment online, got seen immediately, got my eyes tested (they’re stricter here, and won’t let me drive without my glasses, which made me feel oddly safer), and took an oral “test” where they asked me what I’d do in certain situations, and then corrected my answers as I gave them. That is, instead of the test being a way to filter me out, it became a way of bringing me in, of letting me know some of the key differences in driving in BC versus the US.

The picture was still terrible. I think that’s just a law of the universe, though.

Change your phone number

This one seems trivial, but don’t ignore it. Not only did I rapidly get tired of having to give my country code out everywhere, my cell service was terrible for any local call, and I hit my roaming data cap really fast.

Your cell number affects your credit, as well. Remember how you won’t have a credit history when you move here? Well, without a local phone number, you can’t even apply for some of the credit cards you could use to build that credit history. You’ll be stuck going to your bank, hat in hand, begging them to take pity on you and “give” you a credit card.

Since I plan on going back and forth to the States for the next year or so, I got a separate phone for my Canadian number, and I’m thankful I did. Calls don’t sound like staticky garbage anymore, and I have a local, properly Victorian number I can hand out. I even went the extra step of setting up a localized (Canadian) Apple Id for the phone, which has also helped clear up some issues I’d been having with using my debit card (but that’s a whole other post).

Conclusion

So: phone number, driver’s license, local health services plan. Get ’em switched over as soon as you can after moving, so you can actually start to relax, explore, and enjoy your new home.