July 31, 2014

Sitting in judgment

Just in case you're the kind of amazing writer who can whip something off in a day, it isn't too late to mention that I'll be the fiction judge for this year's Room Annual Writing Contest! The extended deadline is August 1st at midnight. 

A few weeks ago, I answered some questions over at the Room blog, which you can read here

I also thought it would be worth mentioning that although I will be judging the contest, there is a chance I won't be reading your story.

The Room contest, like many (if not most, if not all) other fiction contests in this country, employs readers to read and vet the entries before they go on to the main publicized judge or jury. These readers are no slouches, I should add. Often they are published writers with one or more books to their credit, or editors or critics of long-standing. They are used to reading stories, and they know what makes a good one. I've been an early reader for a number of literary fiction contests, and I've always done my best to make careful and considered choices. 

But still. There is a certain degree of subjectivity in any matter of art, and there are questions of taste and style and subject matter that differ from reader to reader. Maybe in one of my previous incarnations as an early reader I passed over something brilliant because I couldn't see past the magical duck or the narrator named Toothpaste or the Pre-Cambrian time period.* (*Not real examples.) Some contests have a safeguard against this, which is to have everything read by TWO readers, so that one person's magical duck bias won't rule out a rare duck masterpiece.

Maybe you read that I was the judge and you looked at all your carefully polished drafts and selected the one you thought *I* would like best. Maybe you even checked my collection of short fiction, Mother Superior, out of the library. I might do something like that, if I was submitting to a contest.    

This is a long-winded way of saying that I will not be reading all of the entries for this contest, but a pre-selected, anonymized stack of what has been vetted to be the very best work submitted. And I'm so delighted to have been asked and to be able to come in at the end and take credit for lots of other people's thoughtful reading and consideration. 

But when the winners are eventually announced I don't want you (or you or you) to think that I didn't like your story. Maybe I never even read it.  

July 25, 2014

Becoming the book: Bronson Pinchot

I don't usually share most of the wonderful things I read on the internet here, mostly because I suspect I am mostly reading the same things that everyone else on Twitter is already reading. However, I occasionally remember that I have readers who fall outside of the social media circuit, and so I will set aside my fears of redundancy. (And thanks, Kelvin K, for sharing the link!)

Do you know how writers sometimes talk about writing for the "ideal reader"? The reader who will intuitively understand what they mean and/or give them the benefit of the doubt, the trust to go on, if they don't? A faceless, nameless, quasi-mythical being who gives one the hope to keep on writing even when one suspects that nobody really cares about literature anymore? Well, it turns out that the ideal reader is actually Bronson Pinchot, or Balki from the late eighties/early nineties sitcom Perfect Strangers, as you probably remember him.  

As a voice actor and narrator, Pinchot has voiced over 100 audiobooks. This long interview with him in Vulture is a fascinating and heartening read for anyone who cares about books and the worlds that authors are trying to create when they write.  

Click here to read it. 

July 23, 2014

NYR check-in

How is everyone faring with their New Year’s Resolutions? It’s actually more than halfway through the year now (aughgh), but as good a time as any to take stock. (If you want to see my original post, full of hope and promise, it’s here.)

1) Finish one project and start another. I don’t know exactly what I even had in mind when I wrote ‘start another,’ since I’ve been midway through two projects for a while now. The ‘finish one project’ part is progressing, though it’ll still be a major challenge to wrap it up before the end of the year.

2) 100 blog posts. Hah!  Unless there is a strong uptick, I think I am bound to fail on this one.

3) Stop buying chips. Also a fail, mostly fueled by my desire to try novelty crisp flavours in Britain. (Cheese and onion! The perennial prawn cocktail! I even spotted haggis-flavoured crisps but managed to exercise near-superhuman restraint to avoid buying them.)

4) Take a photo every day. I’m  not sure at exactly what point I just completely forgot to do this, but it was in the spring and it was only after a week or so had gone by that I realized I had stopped, so there was no recovery possible. However, my manic vacation photo-taking has probably almost made up for this, quantity-wise, if nothing else.

So success is now riding completely on #1. Wish me luck. 

Now, as promised yesterday, here's a random vacation photo of the castle variety:

St. Andrew's Castle, Scotland

July 22, 2014


I’ve been on vacation. Not just vacation from blogging and writing (although, yes, that, too), but from work and my regular life and home. Three weeks in the UK!

It was wonderful to have a day off yesterday to unpack, catch up on laundry, restock the fridge, and remind our place that people live in it. (Centipede hanging out in the sink: take note!!) I was even able to spend the whole morning writing, which was a relief. And I think now I have more of a handle on the story I’m working on.

Also, Montreal feels tropical compared to the Scottish Highlands. It is hot here. Shorts and popsicles weather.

While I was away, I took more photos than I know what to do with, so maybe I’ll post some here over the next few weeks. Get ready for an endless stream of scenic hills and ruined castles....

May 29, 2014

too long

Friends and stalkers, I know I have kept you waiting too long for news. You are bored on the internet and there is nothing to read. I know! It is because I feel just the same way that I am going to write something myself.

What have I been up to in the long silence of blogging? Have I…

a) been visiting lots of book clubs?
b) been wasting time reading lots of light genre fiction?
c) been making and drinking lots of smoothies?
d) all of the above

It’s D)! Of course it’s D), even if the consumption of blended fruit drinks shouldn’t count as an activity in the same way as the others…but somehow it does. I have even purchased a large polka-dotted Kate Spade cup for smoothies-to-go in the morning.

Somewhere in there I took trips to Toronto and Hamilton for writing-related and book-related stuff (more later? no promises, though), and went on a knitting retreat in the country and hosted out-of-town visitors. I also watched all of House of Cards. 


Now you’re pretty much up to date.

March 22, 2014

Metaphysical Conceit watches the movie before reading the book

The movie is White Oleander, which I watched long time ago without knowing it was based on a book. I rewatched it a couple of years ago because I remembered really liking it, and I enjoyed it even more the second time. That was when I found out it was based on a 1999 novel by Janet Fitch, and I kept my eyes open for a copy until I finally picked one up at a secondhand bookstore.

The one I found is the movie tie-in version of the book, which I always do my best to avoid buying, but in this case, it's no more than I deserve, right?  

Movie tie-in cover --- one notch above or below Oprah's Book Club edition??

I read it on vacation in North and South Carolina. I felt like the movie does a good job of capturing the essence of the novel, although there are whole sections left out of the film for reasons of length. 

It's about a girl whose mother is an eccentric, self-centred poet who ends up convicted of murdering her ex-boyfriend. Her daughter is shuffled from foster home to foster home throughout her adolescence. It's sad and hopeful and full of fascinating female characters. 


March 7, 2014

Alma Mater Matters and a trip to Ottawa

You know when something is so perfect that you don’t know how to write about it without somehow diminishing it?

Even two three four weeks out from the event I did at the College of the Humanities at Carleton University, I’m not sure what I can say about it that would do it justice. I really had the nicest time!

Before I went to Ottawa, I thought a lot about what I remembered from my university classes as part of my Humanities degree, and I realized it's hard to predict what will stick with you. I jotted down a few of the random facts that have lingered in my mind in the dozen or so years since I graduated. I listed a few of them at the beginning of my reading, and I'm sharing a couple of them here upon request: 

  • Paradise is shaped like a multifoliate rose 

  • Flatterers are found in the 8th circle of hell 

  • Ezekiel cut his beard into three parts (which, respectively, were burned, chopped, and  thrown to the wind)   

So basically the recesses of my mind belong mostly to Dante and the Old Testament. 

I also dug out some of my old notebooks from university and flipped through them to see what I'd frantically underlined or highlighted in my notes as critically important knowledge from our Humanities lectures. 

Pack rat or archivist: you decide.

Here are some of the choice phrases I’d highlighted in my notes:

  • Socratic speech is always adapted to suit the interlocutor.

  • The experience of transcendence also involves the experience of immanence.

  • Happiness is contemplation.

  • There is an erotic compulsion to intellectual virtue.


After my random reminiscing, I did a reading from Bone & Bread and a Q & A with Ottawa poet David O’Meara. David did some one-on-one feedback sessions with aspiring College writers back in the day and very helpfully stopped me from writing like a Victorian. So it was fun to be able to thank him in person and chat about writing, too. 

Everyone was incredibly generous with their questions and comments, and it was lovely to see old friends and former professors in the audience. I never imagined speaking in that lecture hall and having my (revered!) profs ask me questions about the creative process. It was humbling and thrilling all at once.

There were old friends from Carleton, former classmates and teachers...even a girl I used to babysit! But o
ne of the most exciting reunions was with B., my dearest and very best friend from Grade 1/2, and her mom, who was my fourth grade teacher...and my first serious editor. (The editing is another post for another time.)

B, me, and Mrs. D

I wish I'd taken more photos, but my phone was in danger of powering down all day. I popped back into the seminar room before we headed out to dinner to snap this one: 

A different perspective on my old lecture hall...the front!

After the talk and the reception, there was an alumni reunion dinner. It was so wonderful to catch up with everyone and find out what they’re doing now. There were also old issues of our College literary journal, including some poems of mine I'd completely forgotten about! I was happy both to be reminded of them (okay, of some of them) and to have them restored to me with just a couple of quick photos.

Catching up with former profs/old friends

My friend K came to get me (after a complicated series of back and forth texts in which we realized that even though both of us went to Carleton, neither of us could remember any meeting place accessible by car well enough to describe it to the other person), and after I changed into pyjamas and took a couple of Tylenols (some kind of strange stress headache had taken hold the minute the talk was over) and actually gotten into bed and turned the light out, I managed to touch base with my Winnipeg writer friends and ended up having a long-distance meeting until about midnight Ottawa time. So fun! I keep forgetting about the magic of Skype.

The magic of Skype: illustrated! 

And if all that wasn't already an absurd amount fun to pack into 36 hours, the next day friend K gave me a private cross-country skiing lesson.  Maybe next time I'll fully graduate to poles. And her lovely parents cooked a delicious early supper so we could eat together before I had to catch my train home. 

K said I was a natural, and I almost believe her!