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!

Book review countdown #1: Rebel Women

Over the last couple of years, with a baby and book-in-progress, I found I largely lost the ability to read whole books. Sure, I pillaged for research, I browsed magazines, and I frantically devoured books and blog posts about how to get your baby to sleep/eat/stop crying, but I didn’t just read for pleasure. So now that the latest book is completed and toured, I decided I wanted to just read for fun for a bit. Whatever I happened to find on my shelf (or someone else’s), or at a used book sale or library. So for the last ten days of the year, I will do short reviews of this eclectic mix of titles that have helped me remember the simple joy of reading. #1. I found this sitting on the shelf of a vacation property on Gabriola Island a couple of weeks ago. One morning I woke up at 4:30am and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I read it snuggled on the couch cover-to-cover before anyone else woke up!   Rebel Women: Achievements Beyond the Ordinary (Heritage House) By Linda Kupacek A title in the Amazing Stories series of books, this collection of portraits of ‘rebel women’ fits right in with its clear prose, funny anecdotes, and, yes, amazing stories lifted from the lives of some pretty incredible ladies. I particularly appreciated the mentions of silent film actress and writer/director Nell Shipman, as well as Katherine Stinson, who was responsible for the first air mail delivery here in Edmonton. Isobel Gunn was also a fascinating figure and kudos to the author, Linda Kupacek, for the historical digging that went into uncovering her story (as well as the stories of the other women). This is a great way to inspire new generations of women growing up in Canada’s West – and around the world – and an enjoyable way to learn some history while you’re at it!

New Models of Journalism


Zakiya Kassam (@zakkasam on Twitter) is a 22-year-old graduate of the Ryerson University Journalism Program. Recently, she interviewed me for an article she was writing on new models of Journalism like and we thought we’d share the Q&A here!


Z: Tell me about your own personal story with How did you hear about it? How did you become a writer for it?

D: Warren Perley sent me an email a couple of years ago after he’d come across some of my work. I was intrigued by the concept, impressed by his credentials, and we stayed in touch. Because I’m primarily a book writer, and generally can’t afford to write articles until I have a contract in hand, it was some time before I had a piece to submit.

Z: What is your experience working with Warren Perley, the founder?

D: My experience has been very positive working with Warren. He’s an excellent editor and was quite patient working with someone who’s been trained as a historian and creative writer but not as a journalist. I did a significant rewrite to incorporate his suggestions, and it strengthened the piece and my skills overall.

Z: Have you experienced any setbacks or limitations when writing for the site?

D: I’ve heard from some people that they find the idea of paying for articles on a one-off basis frustrating, and are lamenting that a lot of the big (and not-so-big) dailies are going this route. My writer colleagues also question the wisdom of writing “on spec”: doing all that work without the guarantee of revenue. It has certainly been a calculated risk on my part, but I see it as being one more tool in my “bookonomics” kit.

Also, I love that the site works great on tablets, phones, and “phablets,” like the Galaxy Note, but I would like for readers to be able to download copies of the articles they’ve purchased onto their computers and other devices. At the moment, they can only read them when they have an internet connection. This is one area where Warren and I have different opinions: I don’t believe in digital locks. While copyright protection and the fair compensation for content creators is very important to me, I think digital locks end up frustrating the consumer/reader more than anything, and if a pirate really wants something, he or she can easily circumvent them.

Z: What is your readership for the site like?

D: Very small at the moment. I don’t have any demographic breakdowns, but that would be interesting to know.

Z: How long have you been writing for the site?

D: I submitted my first (and so far my only) piece in June 2012. Now I’m back to work on other columns, articles, and a narrative history book called Polar Winds: A Century of Flying the North.

Z: Why did you choose to be a writer for

D: I thought the concept was neat and liked that Warren was trying to create a space for writers to do long-form journalism with lots of great photos. I had it in the back of my mind that I’d like to write for someday, and so when I found myself with a homeless article, I queried Warren. I’m not the most adventurous person technologically, but I think it’s smart to experiment with different means of delivering content.

Z: Given the current state of journalism, do you think that a site like can survive in the long-run? Why/Why not?

D: Journalism, book publishing – it’s all in a state of flux right now and I think having a multitude of connection points with readers is important. I don’t know what the long-term viability of is, but I don’t think anyone really knows the long-term viability of anything at the moment: newspapers, book publishers, agents. Are we headed to a day when all writing will be self-published, crowd-funded, and open-source done by so-called citizen journalists? Who knows!


Nobody Cries At Bingo: Newest book on my wish list

Last year, fellow Edmonton writer Dawn Dumont was nominated for the Alberta’s Readers Choice Award. Her book, Nobody Cries at Bingo makes fun of her misadventures during her younger years on the Okanese First Nations reserve in Saskatchewan. For a province that has 31 bingo halls, locals can’t seem to get enough of the 75-ball bingo that is popular in Fantasyland Bingo,, and Lucky Horseshoe. Even churches in Saskatchewan use the game for charity fundraisers!

In her book, Dawn admits the game was a staple in their family gatherings. She was once quoted as saying: “Bingo was an understood rule in our family.”

Of course, the book goes far beyond bingo: Dawn apparently recounts, with much mirth, her various experiences as a typical Canadian teen who faced weight issues, bickered with siblings, and had boy problems. .

Dawn’s ability to make fun of herself apparently stems from years of being a stand-up comedian. She’s performed in Toronto and New York comedy spots like Laugh Resort, Yuk Yuk’s, Improv, New York Comedy Club, and Comic Strip. She now authors plays and currently writes for radio and television. She is also a story editor for the satirical cartoon series “By the Rapids.”
Some of the reviews from Goodreads have piqued my interest as well: “Gives us a new horizon against which to measure our experiences – inviting us into life on the reservation,” and “she paints a picture of rez life with great affection and understanding and humor.”


YEG Workshop: Finding the Unique in Your Family Story

 Finding the Unique in Your Family Story: a summer-time writing adventure.




How do you write a lively and fascinating family memoir?  How do you draw  and satisfy readers from in and outside the family?  What particular issues arise when writing family stories?

Both the instructors of this workshop, Caterina Edwards and Jean Crozier, faced  these questions and more in producing their own families’ stories. They came to understand the complexities of family story-telling: the benefits and anxieties, the need for accuracy and the need to handle certain materials with great sensitivity.

Through discussion and examples, this workshop will assist students in  identifying the unique characteristics of their own families. The  instructors will assist students in weaving family perspectives and  personalities – and their accompanying foibles, adventures, and challenges  – into an intriguing, readable narrative. Literary techniques such as voice, dialogue, evocation of time and place, as well as truth and viewpoint, will be considered as students practice bringing family members
to life right on the page.

Students will write short pieces in class with prompts from the instructors; class members will read their work and share their situations, challenges, and successes in a supportive environment.

Our students have told us that:

  •  “The two instructors complemented each other so well; they truly enhanced the  program with their individual and shared expertise.”
  • “I leave the course inspired and much further along in my project.?”

Maximum class size: 10 students

Date: Wednesday, August 14, 2013 and Thursday, August 15, 2013

Time: 9:30 AM to 4:30 PM

Price: Early bird registration (registration and payment received by July
20, 2013) just

$225; regular price of $250 payable after August 1, 2013.


For further information, contact Caterina Edwards at 780-436-5867, email or Jean Crozier at 780-481-1899, email

War of 1812 Course Being Offered in Calgary

THE WAR OF 1812: The politics, the battles and the people

Facilitated by Norman Leach

Want to learn more about the War of 1812? Want to know why General Sir Isaac Brock, Laura Secord and Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon were important to all Canadians? Want to know who really burned down the White House?

Learn about the people, battles, tactics and weapons through video, seminars, tours, and group discussions.

The Military Museums Foundation Presents :

WAR OF 1812: The politics, the battles, and the people

WEDNESDAYS: 27 February, 6 March, 13 March, and 20 March 2013

A four week course by

The Military Museums
4520 Crowchild Trail SW
Calgary Alberta
T: 403-246-1687

2012 Holiday Newsletter


The main news this year was the arrival of Andre Barrett Pagnutti on April 17. We named him for my paternal grandfather, André Chenail, and my maternal grandmother, Shirley Barrett, and tried to encompass his French-Canadian, British, and Italian heritage. We’re also embracing his aviation connections as you can see in this photo!

From the beginning we knew he wasn’t going to be a mellow baby. Luckily Home Depot carries inexpensive industrial-strength ear muffs, and nature endowed him with an adorable giggle and a heart-melting smile.

He put these to good use to charm family and friends on “Baby Tour 2012.” The Eastern Leg took us to Ottawa, Gatineau, and Belleville in June, where we introduced Andre to his grandparents, great-grandparents, and about 100 other loved ones. Then in August we went to Victoria to visit another part of the clan and attend the wedding of our dear friends. Of course Doug took this opportunity to sneak in a bit of scuba diving as well.

All this excitement and upheaval has meant work’s been going a bit slower than usual. I stepped down as president of the Canadian Aviation Historical Society and am now “just” on the board of directors. My unofficial portfolios include managing the social media accounts, and helping with promotion and fundraising. I’ve managed to write and publish a few pieces in addition to working on “the book” and hosted a lively panel at LitFest that included Noah Richler, Alexis Kienlen, and Dana DiTomaso. I was also named to Avenue magazine’s Top 40 Under 40 list for Edmonton, which was really neat!

2013 looks like it will be a fun and busy year for all of us: Andre’s now in childcare three days per week, which he seems to love; Doug’s moving into a new phase of his work with Schlumberger as an engineer that could lead to some travel opportunities; and I have a few essays, articles and poems in the pipeline for publication. My next book, Polar Winds: A Century of Flying Canada’s North, is also slotted to be released by Frontenac House late in the year.

Hope this note finds you well and I wish you all the best this holiday season!


Happy Holidays!


And now the making of that photo…

Getting the antlers on the dog and getting him in position was pretty easy. He takes direction well, especially when there are treats involved.

Wrestling the cat into the Santa suit was a different story. And getting him into the “sleigh” was nearly impossible…the dog is getting anxious now!

This photo almost could have worked, except it’s blurry, and the “reindeer” is looking pretty emotionally battered by “santa.”

Finally the photographer comes to the rescue, holding the cat “just so” so we’ll be able to digitally insert him into a photo with the dog. And voila! A Christmas miracle shot after 15 minutes of painting an old drawer, an accidental discovery of a pet santa suit at Homesense, and a bag of pet treats! (Oh yeah, and Photoshop)

Survival of the “Feetest” in Toronto

On a recent trip to Toronto I was able to get together with a good friend from my undergrad years at McGill University, Katie Reed. We met at her shop, Sole Survivor, in Kensington Market.

Katie, who is 28 years old, has owned and operated this cobbling business for two years. As a young woman, she bucks the cobbler stereotype (in fact, she is the only female cobbler in the Greater Toronto Area). After a B.A. from McGill and teaching jobs in Japan, it certainly wasn’t a career path her friends imagined for her. But like all her undertakings, she has thrown herself into it completely and made it a success.
It has required a lot of hard work and determination. Just finding someone in the GTA to apprentice her was a seemingly insurmountable challenge: she was turned away by all but one of the working cobblers in the region. Now that she is experienced and established in this trade, she is taking on an apprentice of her own (another woman) to pass along her knowledge.
Katie is keeping our favourite shoes in tip-top shape (including finance ministers at budget time!), which can save us precious pennies. She is also keeping many out of landfills, a great way to lessen our footprint (if you’ll pardon the pun).
For more information on her and how she got into cobbling, check out these articles:

Katie also has a blog for here:

Tablets That Pass the Test

There are so many tablets on the market that it can be difficult trying to decide which one to buy. Here, guest blogger and tech-toy junky Doug Pagnutti gives his take on which pass the test for the average consumer:

My favourite one so far is the Asus 10″ Transformer. The tablet itself is pretty much like all the other Android honeycomb tablets but the keyboard that comes with it is genius. Not only does it provide a few USB ports and an SD Card reader (perfect for getting pictures from cameras) but it has a built-in battery so you can double the battery life on the road. Basically you get a netbook where the screen detaches and becomes a tablet.

All the other tablets at the moment seem pretty uninspiring. The iPad and iPad2 are probably the best for ease-of-use but the fact you can’t view flash sites, as well as the proprietary ports make it less useful. The slew of android tablets are all pretty much the same although prices seem to be going down quickly. Definitely get one that runs honeycomb (3.X) because Android 2.X doesn’t really work for tablets. The only other 10″ of note is the HP TouchPad that just came out. Apparently the software is great (it’s really made by Palm, which HP bought) but the hardware is already out of date (HP should only make printers).

Personally I’m holding out for a good 7″ tablet with usb ports and there’s a good chance the Acer A100 will fit the bill. Amazon is planning to come out with a bunch of tablets this year too but it’s hard to guess what they’ll be like. The one I was really hoping for was the Asus Memo but they just announced it would be “indefinitely delayed”.

I should also say that if you’re looking for something to read e-books, you’re much better off buying an e-reader. The screens don’t hurt your eyes, they’re much much lighter (easier to hold for extended periods) and the batteries last months instead of hours.

© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.