Tips on getting back to your writing

Last night I went to Brazos Bookstore here in Houston to hear four local authors chat about how to start or restart a writing project. It’s perfect timing, right? Everyone is burning with inspiration and motivation around New Year’s Day and then come late January we’re all struggling just a little bit (or a lot).

Here is one favourite quote from each of the authors last night. Then keep reading below to see what I’ve found useful over the past decade of being a published author, and what two of my creative nonfiction critique partners do to get themselves back on track – or headed in a new direction!

  1. Bryan Washington (journalist and short story writer): “With a short story, the question bubbles up as I’m writing. Then I figure out what emotion I want to end on, and what emotions need to be in other spots. I write an outline at the beginning, but that outline changes frequently.”
  2. Mimi Swartz (journalist and author): “Accept what you start with will probably be horrible. And there’s a part of a story that’s always a slog – so set up rewards.”
  3. Jessica Wilbanks (essayist and author): “I do not write in a linear way. I write images and scenes in a document on the computer constantly. Then when I go back and look, I see the stuff I’m meant to work with keeps coming to the surface.”
  4. Varsha Bajaj (picture book and middle grade author): “I walk before I sit down to write in the morning and then I have a 500-word per day limit. If I have more ideas, I jot them down on a yellow legal pad with a sharp pencil and go back to them the next day.”

Ceal Klinger (biologist, long-distance runner, and writer):

“When I’m rooting around for misplaced thoughts, I pull my walking/running logbook out of the refrigerator. The logbook is a small notebook where I spend about 5 seconds a day—or maybe every other day, or maybe every few days–scribbling down the date, where I walked the dog or ran, and anything unusual about the day or what I saw. (I leave the notebook in the refrigerator on long trips in the event our home burns down when I’m traveling.) The notebook doesn’t have much in it, but sometimes it jogs my memory. 

After that, I round up other mysterious notes to myself (scraps of paper stowed in the refrigerator, in the trash can, on the floor or stuck to the dog), grab a stack of blank 3” x 5” index cards, and make a separate card for each category of disorganized ideas floating around my head. After about half an hour, I usually have a lot of short, chunked worry lists (e.g., the “call these people back” card, the “errands in town” card, the “procrastinated on this task so long it’s been on several cards” card), but some of the cards are relevant to writing (the “to read” card, the “research” card), and sometimes I wind up with several “to write” cards, each one with a few notes about one particular piece. 

(*Then* I take a deep breath, start up the computer, and open Scrivener and all the most recent documents in my word processing program.) 

I keep the cards in my pocket or leave them next to my computer and flip through them when I have a chance. Eventually, the stuff written on each card gets crossed off, works its way onto my computer with the relevant piece, or gets procrastinated on long enough to be stuffed into the refrigerator with my logbook and other cards from previous roundups.

It’s more primitive than Scrivener, but a small packet of index cards seems somewhat more portable and less intimidating on that first day back. (Also, it’s very pleasant to retire a “worry” card.)

Elizabeth Barbour (life/spiritual coach and writer): “When I’m trying to dive back into a project, I take it and leave my office! I need the fresh energy of an empty dining room table or a cubbie at the library to help me get reconnected. I read through all of my thoughts and notes and then create a “to do” list and chunk things down. It’s so easy with a big project to get overwhelmed and do nothing but if I can make a list of 5-7 small action items I can take, I find it gets me back into the flow.”

In my case, I usually juggle multiple projects at multiple stages of completion, so I’m always starting and restarting something. I find the following help (in no particular order):

1. Bailey’s in my coffee or a special treat to make working on the project feel pleasurable. And/or have a reward lined up afterward.

2. Do a write-in with friends or a short retreat.

3. Set a timer and do word sprints so I shut off my critical brain and just dive back into drafting. My friend (and YA author) Laura Mitzner taught me this one!

4. Migrate all my text from Word into Scrivener. This really jump-started a couple of projects because I could ‘see’ things from a bird’s eye view. I’ve realized I work much better on chunks of text that are 2000 words or less.

5. Print off what I have so far and re-read it (with no critical eye) just to reacquaint myself with the material. Maybe use sticky notes or write in the margin to indicate what the scene or chunk of manuscript is about, write out a quick outline of what I’ve done and where I need to go

6. Do some kind of accountability check-in system with writing friends to get back into the habit.

What works for you? Please add it in the comments!

My first picture book launches in 2019!

I am absolutely thrilled to announce that Alis the Aviator: An ABC Aviation Adventure is coming out with Tundra Books in July 2019 (and is now available for pre-order)!

I first drafted the main text in the summer of 2014 after a friend gave me an ABC airplane book for my (then) two-year-old son. It was lovely in a lot of ways, but just didn’t have the bounce, wit and rhyme I love in picture books. And it certainly couldn’t hold the attention of my very active little boy. So I sat on my back porch in Edmonton one day when my son was taking his nap, and started scribbling out ideas by hand, letter by letter.

By then I’d been immersed in the world of airplanes and aviation officially since 2007, when I started work on my first book for adults, For the Love of Flying. But really, I grew up surrounded by plane nuts from day one. So even though I’m not a pilot myself, the aircraft types, their stories, and their quirks, flowed surprisingly easily. There were some letters I just knew right away: A is for Arrow, for example. And B is for Beaver. Those were such important airplanes for the people I’ve interviewed and family members. Others took a bit of research. But as a trained historian and research-addict, that was all part of the fun.

From there it was the usual rollercoaster of rewrites, critiques, convincing my agent at the time that I was a children’s writer too, and shopping the manuscript around.  But no one was ready to publish the book and my son was getting older, so I decided to self publish with an incredible artist/illustrator colleague, Jason Blower, and got my father (a pilot, francophone, and professional translator) to create a French-language version. That was also when Jason wisely suggested a through-line character for the book. I have always tried to highlight hidden stories in aviation, so I knew I wanted that ‘character’ to be a female pioneer (who was less known than, say, Amelia Earhart). I’ve also been dedicated to spotlighting Indigenous voices and reconciliation, so when I learned about Dr. Alis Kennedy and we started chatting, it felt right on so many levels.

Even though all these wonderful pieces came together, Jason and I were incredibly busy with life and work and decided to send Alis the Aviator around on submission once more with my agent. In early 2016, the wonderful Sam Swenson at Tundra Books expressed interest in the text, but had a different vision for the art. Kalpna Patel, whom I’d read about in Chatelaine magazine just a few months earlier, was brought in as the illustrator. I have baseline craft and drawing skills, so I had no idea how her cut-art designs might translate into a picture book, but I knew enough to trust the experts.

I’m so glad I did. When I saw the first proofs, I knew she was on to something special. When I got to look over the final PDF, I was gobsmacked. Tears sprang to my eyes as I saw my text magically brought to life through her vivid scenes, primary colours, and intricate creations. She really ‘got’ the sense of inclusivity and fun and adventure that I yearned for in this book – and for all the readers who come to it. And the scrapbook design at the back of the book where I tell Alis’s story – illustrated by her own photographs – is just gorgeous.

I love that all my son’s friends will see themselves in this book. That the young girls in my life can picture themselves flying, maintaining, and controlling aircraft from the past and present in these pages. It has been a long time coming, but good things come to those who wait. And this is something truly special that I can’t wait to share with my son, with my friends and family, and will all of you!

Q&A with Darrel McLeod for Hamilton Review of Books

Darrel J. McLeod is Cree from treaty eight territory in Northern Alberta. After a varied career, including the position of chief negotiator of land claims for the federal government and executive director of education and international affairs with the Assembly of First Nations, he now devotes himself to writing and music in Sooke, B.C. Mamaskatch: A Cree Coming of Age (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018), a memoir, is his first book. It won the 2018 Governor General’s Award in Nonfiction.

Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail: This book has been described as a series of linked vignettes, and you’ve said they started out as short stories in your course with Betsy Warland at Simon Fraser University. How did you access all those memories?

Darrel McLeod: One of the things I do when I’m writing is I put on music: I put on a song or two from that era, and floods of memories come. The time I spent at my great grandfather’s cabin in the bush. My cousins. My early childhood. That wasn’t difficult at all.

The childhood songs were just there in my memory from listening to them over and over again, and singing them too. Other ones that I didn’t know as well, I’d research. Then one song would lead to all these others. I’d listen to those songs over and over again. It turned on a lot of emotions – so evocative.

To read the full interview, please click here.

Review: Mamaskatch

Mamaskatch was an utterly mesmerizing book told in a series of linked vignettes, like the stories the author grew up hearing from his mother. McLeod is honest about the incredibly complex life experiences he had growing up Cree in Alberta in small towns and big cities. He does not shy away from the difficulties he had in his relationships with family members – especially his mother and siblings – or other people around him, and he is raw and explicit about the abuse he suffered and its aftereffects.

And yet, he never overwhelms the reader, just as his spirit was never overtaken by those times of darkness and pain. He is searching and tender and empathetic, while never absolving anyone of their responsibility. And there is always a sense of humour. Sometimes McLeod delivers these punchlines at the ends of chapters, and they really do hit you with theiry wry poignance.

Author Darrel McLeod has also woven in his love of music and language, and captures accents and ways of speaking in a pitch-perfect way. His scenes are vivid and richly rendered, and his prose is as bracing as a cold Alberta stream. I am so glad I was able to spend time with this brave, optimistic and smart “young Darrel”, and to watch as he overcame life’s struggles with his trademark optimism – yet realism – to become a whole, caring man. I can’t wait to read the follow-up to this book, and anything else McLeod decides to share with the world.

Review: Thou Shalt Do No Murder

Thou Shalt Do No Murder
Inuit, Injustice, and the Canadian Arctic
Reviewed by Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail

Thou Shalt Do No Murder: Inuit, Injustice, and the Canadian Arctic
by Kenn Harper
Nunavut Arctic College Media, 452 pages, $38.95

In 1923, three Inuit men were put on trial at Pond Inlet, on Baffin island, for the killing of qallunaat (white) trader Robert Janes. This story is not widely known outside the North, but it has fascinated me ever since I discovered Shelagh D. Grant’s book Arctic Justice over a decade ago.

Kenn Harper has been gripped by this history for much longer and has produced a hefty tome entitled Thou Shalt Do No Murder: Inuit, Injustice, and the Canadian Arctic.

Harper has lived in the Arctic for fifty years, working as a teacher, historian, linguist, and businessman. He speaks Inuktitut and is the author of the bestselling Give Me My Father’s Body (recently republished as Minik: The New York Eskimo and optioned for film).
He first heard of the Pond Inlet trial in the 1970s, shortly after he moved north. It is clear both from the text and from his bibliography that Harper has immersed himself in this history via many hours spent with Inuit elders and much time in archives.
One of those elders, Jimmy Etuk, was alive when the killing and the trial took place. It is Etuk who begins the book in gripping style. His “speech was volcanic,” Harper tells us, as Etuk launches into the tale of Robert Janes’ descent into apparent madness and the circumstances that apparently forced Nuqallaq and two other Inuit men to end his life.


To read the full review, as it appeared in the October-November 2018 issue of Canada’s History, please click here.

© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.