bookmark_borderPerchance, to Sleep

Over the past few years I’ve had difficulty staying asleep. A dream might shock me awake, or, more often, sleep will slip away as if it were a veil and someone simply drew it from my face.

There seems to be popular times for this. 4 AM tops the list, followed by 2 AM, followed by 5:30 or 6 AM which is awkward given that I normally get up at 7:30. This might happen even two or three times in one evening up to four or five nights in a row. If it gets to that point, I’m struggling to get through the day and will have to crash for a nap.

In order to go back to sleep, I’ve learned that I need to keep from wandering through various rabbit holes. I need to focus. Focus on something simple yet complicated enough to keep my attention. Something visual and simple like counting sheep but a little more challenging to keep my mind’s attention.

These worked for me, for a time:

  1. Count your breaths, from one to ten and repeat, while visualizing the numbers (Arabic or Roman) – I worry that this is too close to basic mediation and I don’t want any future attempt to learn to meditate to be disrupted by this.
  2. Count breaths backward from ten to one, and visualize.
  3. Count breaths forward in another language, and visualize. – This works better. In the process I’ve become more fluent with my French, Japanese, and German counting.
  4. Count breaths backward in another language, and visualize.

These sound simple but it takes work to get my nighttime mind to stay with the plan. My mind wants to meander over residue from the previous day or to worry about the next. I need to focus, to be mindful and it will work.

But each of these methods have worn out over time. They became less effective, which is why I needed to make it more difficult. Partly it was me becoming better at counting in French, Japanese, and German, even backwards, but the predictability of the sequences made it too easy.

Now, I’ve modified it, again. Now I pick three digits, like 937, and do the sequence in English twice, then French twice, then Japanese, then German. Then, three more digits, different than the previous three, again in the four languages. Finally, the remaining three. I don’t know zero in the other languages and ten is not a single digit so I avoid that.

Once I’m done, I have worked myself into a state that allows me to go back to sleep, most of the time.

It works, for now, until that gets too easy.

bookmark_borderMe, on CBC

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation recently published an article I wrote: “We Let Our Father Die”.

It was the most viewed piece on CBC that day. Early in the morning it was being read by over a thousand readers, more than twice the next most. Later it was even higher and still more than twice as many readers as the latest from the Ukraine. By evening it had dropped to a little over 400 but that was still ahead of the next most read article at 275.

Apparently the story was trending so hard that if you started Google on your cell phone in Vancouver the article would be within the top few suggestions.

Comments were open. I logged in and liked all the pleasant ones; the ones wishing me well or thanking me for writing about the topic but I did not reply or do more as they continued. There were over 200 when comments were closed.

This was much more than I expected. I am pleased for the CBC and for my producer that it did so well for them. I am pleased that it touched something that many people had an interest in and a desire to talk to and talk about. I am pleased that something that I wrote (with much assistance from my editor since I have no journalism and little non-fiction writing experience) was read by thousands of people.

I am also pleased that my contact information *was not included*.

I am not an activist. I don’t want to participate in discussions about grief or MAID or about similar stories or situations. I don’t want be considered an expert. Neither do I need to be healed, especially by strangers by long distance.

I am happy the story resonated with readers but I’m also happy I am not required to reply to their comments. That would be not only exhausting but triggering.

During a discussion I nearly snapped when someone attempted to help. They explained why I shouldn’t feel bad, that I “had done the right thing so I shouldn’t feel xxx or yyy.” I was furious and about to leave the meeting to stop myself from saying how angry they were making me, but they stopped.

They were trying make me feel better. But they were doing so by trying to convince me that my reactions were wrong, that I shouldn’t feel what I felt because … and I don’t even remember which of the arguments they used: my father was 94, people didn’t used to live this long, he had a DNR, his quality of life had diminished so much, he wasn’t likely to improve, or their parent had been in a similar situation and they had told them … I don’t remember. I was too angry.

I was surprised by my reaction. I thought I was past the emotional parts. When I worked on the last revision of the article I noticed I was trying to edit in past tense: “I felt…”, “I was…” instead of I feel guilty, I am angry, because those emotions weren’t active any longer. I kept the revision in present tense though because those feelings were active when I wrote them down.

Evidently it is a wound that can still be opened.

There is a difference between a few comments among many posted in a setting where I don’t have to respond, versus listening to them from someone I know. And a difference between suggestions or considerations being offered, versus being told a story with the implication that it is the same thing that you experienced with a different reaction or that your emotions are wrong because you’re not seeing your story the way someone else sees it.

What soothed me was to skim through the article comments later, probably paying more attention to the reassuring and supportive ones: the “thank you for sharing”, the “I felt the same way” ones.

Apparently the salve for being told your feelings are wrong, is feeling heard.

bookmark_borderCheating Writers’ Block: Getting the Story Un-Stuck by Seeing Outside the Box

Looking from inside the character or story and trying to see what’s next can be difficult. Trying to visualize what is going to happen or what needs to happen based on tensions and history and theme is a lot like method acting except that the author has no script to follow. And yet as a pantser this is what I try to do to forage ahead in a story.

(this is a continuation from the previous post where I recently experimented with listing bad plot ideas to help me find a way forward with my stories)

This is the box I sometimes get trapped in.

It is difficult to foretell the characters’ future and the story’s future. The author needs to have one foot inside the character (or characters) and another inside the story (as if the story is another character). From inside, it can be hard to foresee destiny. To see around the corner, to solve what’s going to happen is not always easy in life, nor when writing fiction.

As individuals we can try to guess who might be at the party Friday night or whether we will get the job we interviewed for. As readers and movie watchers we can try to predict what’s going to happen: will the officer wearing the red uniform in Star Trek be killed, will the heroine face challenges but end up with her soul-mate? But some of the most satisfying stories do not allow us to predict the outcome so easily but when we get there it feels inevitable.

It makes sense, then, if it’s hard to see one’s own future and if unpredictable outcomes are desirable, an author should also struggle to get there.

This is why making a list of bad plot ideas is useful. Not ‘bad’ as in negative outcomes such as being embarrassed at a party but bad as in outlandish, or random, or cliché.

Because I’m looking for ideas to throw away, these bad ideas have no expected value and carry less judgement and less attachment and the range of results is open much wider. I am flung outside the box and into the realm of the useless, the ridiculous, the boring, the politically incorrect, the racist/homophobic/misanthropic or fantasy/SF/horror/porn/thriller or other outside-the-given-genre based outcomes.

This tactic has similarities to mind-mapping or brainstorming because I’m foraging for ideas but the difference is that I’m intentionally trying to find bad ideas, ones that are silly or barely connected or so far out there they don’t make much sense. I’m trying to stretch as far away from my material (and the writer’s block) as I can.

After I have 12 or 15 bad ideas I work through why each alternative won’t work. Why exactly does it not fit the existing characters or situation or genre or theme? Doing so gives me a clearer definition of what it is that I am looking for, but more importantly, I find that some of the ideas—sometimes with some tweaking or in combination with others—are not impossible. The benefit of now building the plot from modified ‘bad ideas’ is that they may be surprising to the reader. They were, after all, outside the range of what the author had been able to conceive from inside the box.


Alternatively, Emma Coats of Pixar tweeted a list of writing advice. Number 9 is: “When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.”

If that works for you, use it. I read that advice years ago and it didn’t work for me. Maybe what was meant by “wouldn’t happen next” is the same as my list of bad ideas but I interpreted “wouldn’t happen” as a negative, in other words, something that moves the story backward or blocks it. Nemo gets caught in a net and end of story, for example, or Buzz Lightyear becomes inanimate and unable to speak or move. Things that, as the writer, I wouldn’t have happen next.

Those certainly are bad ideas but they are also story killer ideas. Maybe you could work off those and eventually end up with Nemo being put in an aquarium or Buzz and Woody being taken by another child but that’s a long ways to go.

I prefer to take the skeleton of my existing plot and try to connect to it from other genres or from clichés or from random events. That’s been enough to help me find my way to useful combinations of modified bad ideas and to find a way forward with some story fragments that were stuck.

bookmark_borderCheating Writer’s Block

Some claim writer’s block doesn’t exist. If you go all Zen it doesn’t exist but then neither does the writing.

I am a pantser so I have no outline or plot when I start. I also write mostly short forms and have way too many fragments that have solid potential in voice or character or situation but are stuck because I can’t see where they are going.

When I’m stuck, these are some of the things that I try to help me move forward.

  • interview main character(s) or put them on a therapist’s couch and let them ramble
  • write vignettes from POV of minor characters (or put them on the couch) that will not be used directly, scenes that can add depth but can also give another perspective and trigger an idea
  • write histories of the main characters or of settings or situations outside of the main draft to explore possibilities and/or add depth. These may not even fit the story or character but I’m trying to get close and to trigger ideas
  • detail the theme on a conscious level (as opposed to only sensing it) and try to use that to help me grope a direction
  • show the incomplete writing to my wife or a writing group and ask for help
  • brainstorming/mind mapping:  write down any words that come to mind and any words suggested by those new words around the theme or a character or a situation. A variation on this is to export to an .html file and get Edge to read aloud, then note words or phrases that seem to stick out and see if they trigger ideas.
  • similarly, make a list of ‘all’ possible plot directions and permeations with sticky notes or on a spreadsheet. Obviously you will never actually list all.
  • if it’s a long story try jumping forward and write something in the future. This may give you something to work toward.
  • similarly, if I have internal narrative or history or interactions or scenes that are bubbling to the surface, write any fragment that is connected to the story. I have one story where I’m still not sure of the structure or the order or if it’s finished but there are now twenty-two sections saved in two different orders (I use Scrivener so copying and having multiple versions is easy). When I wrote I was in that world and situation and kept writing anything that came to mind without worrying how it was going to fit together or if I was going to use it, it was just all connected.

Many of these ways have similarities to method acting in that they require exploration and fleshing out beyond what’s on the page. If you know the character deeply and truly enough you can improvise or know how they would respond in situations not in the script or novel.


There are other methods that don’t work for me:

  • “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand,” says Raymond Chandler, or use some other object or new character or event (or writing prompt) to shake things up.
  • write badly to keep writing and keep the story in motion, the idea being that the bad material can be removed in later drafts

These are widely offered on the internet, but the problem with them is that they could be part of any story, not necessarily the story that attracted me and I find doing these to be fruitless. I don’t mind trying to feel my way forward but I want to be working on the story that I felt was worthy of being finished, exploring potential ideas that are consistent with my existing characters, situation, voice, direction, and prose quality.


I believe that there are viable extensions to my dozen or more quality fragments. The character is so interesting or the setting so vivid or the situation brimming with emotional bristles that I can sense something is there, I just have to find it.

I just need one answer.

One perfect or nearly perfect one.

One that feels close enough that I can flesh it out so that it touches all the key facets of the characters, setting, and situation.


Lately I’ve been pressing on a fragment that I’m fond of but it refuses to tell me what is going to happen. I’ve tried my standard approaches and nothing has surfaced that feels right. I pedaled for some time trying to find more but I was drawing blank.

So instead of writing badly I tried to make a list of bad ideas. I tried to come up with ten bad ones: managed eight on first attempt, came up with three more later. But some of them weren’t awful. Trying to come up with bad ones faded the ‘box’ that I was in (as in ‘think outside the box’) and allowed me to find some that weren’t so awful, and, tangentially, some versions with even more potential. I tried writing one of the more unusual but possible ones but it spun a little to far off the rails.

Then, I went through and explained why each of those were too far off the mark. Too SF/fantasy for this story. Too extreme, turns the story into something much bigger than it feels like it should be. Too random, no reason for something like this to happen and I don’t see how it adds to the story. Doesn’t fit the characters as I see them.

The point of this list of bad ideas and evaluating why they are bad is two fold: to develop an idea of what doesn’t fit and why not which hopefully leads to a better definition of what I am looking for, and to open the box and see if one of these ideas or their variations are worth exploring.



bookmark_borderDangerous Writing App

Here’s a unique site I keep in my writing bookmarks.

If you don’t keep typing it will erase what you’ve done. If you hesitate, the font turns reddish-brown and fuzzy but it returns to normal if you begin typing again. If you don’t start typing as it is becoming fuzzier, a popup blocks you from adding any more words.

But, don’t worry; even after the popup there is still an option to export what you have typed to a Word document. It’s not lost, you just can’t continue working on it on that site.

There is also an option to allow it to generate a starting line for you and it will paste that line into your document. You can start typing from there, or edit it or delete it if you decide you don’t like it, or you can start with no prompt. The default writing period is five minutes but you can change that before you begin.

This pressure can be good for warmup writing, or for stream of consciousness exploration of a topic or situation or character, or for forcing yourself out of the habit of too much editing during a first draft. I wouldn’t use it for NaNoWriMo except in small bursts; that level of pressured writing to get a daily word count of 1,700 would be too much.


That writing prompt website is provided by Squibler. Squibler is not a product I use. It’s cloud and subscription based. Instead, I use Scrivener because it gives me total control (and backup responsibility) so I can use it offline and it’s not expensive. It took a while to get used to it but I love the way I can dump research and character investigations and ideas and analysis and cut or rewritten texts into side documents. In Word I tried to use comments and track changes and footnotes and separate documents to accomplish this (I don’t know why Word doesn’t have an ability to group documents the way Excel allows multiple tabs) but none of those alternatives are as easy to manage as the multiple folders within a single Scrivener document.



bookmark_borderThesaurus Alternatives

There a group of sites that I frequently use as thesaurus alternatives. They’re all created by the same person and use the same broad structure.

They all take a word or a group of words and search databases for the best matches. Think about how this differs from an online thesaurus. A thesaurus has predetermined links between words that have a strong, medium, or weak similarity to it. People have determined these links and their rankings.

Instead, these sites use algorithms to pull their results from actual usage.

The results are sometimes standard thesaurus answers and sometimes they are wrong and sometimes they are opposites rather than synonyms, but sometimes the wrong results are just weird enough to make you think about what you’re really trying to say.

  • Related Words is like the standard thesaurus. Enter a word and it will find alternatives, or, it may find opposites since the antonym is related to the original.
  • Describing Words is one that is really useful. For Related Words the algorithm has to figure out whether the author meant two words to be connected. Finding describing words is simpler; it searches using the word that you enter and finds adjectives and describing words that authors have used in connection with the word you entered. Use it to help you describe a nose, or use it to build a side character that you haven’t fully defined yet. A “girl” could be “grubby teen-age” or “lovely blind” or “silent, unformed”.
  • Reverse Dictionary is useful when you have the definition of a word but can’t come up with the word itself. Google might help, but this site is designed to do this, plus, it will come up with some weird alternatives that might get your mind expanding on things too.
  • Urban Thesaurus is, I think, the most recent of these. If you’ve ever used the Urban Dictionary for definitions of terms that you heard on television or on the bus and wished there was a thesaurus for them, this site will help. Where else can you search “girl” and find “sista” or “priss”?

These don’t necessarily replace standard thesauruses  but it’s good to have them bookmarked and check out their results. You’ll find less clichés and more interesting results.

bookmark_borderTen Sentence Prompt

This is one of my favorite structures for re-usable prompts. It’s not as easy as some prompts are to get started and can be thorny to work through but it generates material that has potential more often than any other reusable prompt or prompt structure I have tried.




First, you need two estranged family members.

Then, write ten sentences:

  1. Describe the weather
  2. Describe a sound
  3. Describe an object
  4. Update the weather from 1)
  5. Describe a piece of clothing or an accessory
  6. Update the sound from 2)
  7. Using the object from 3), write about the mood
  8. Write about an action or movement using the clothing from 5)
  9. Write about a physical trait of one of the characters
  10. Write a single line of dialog.

By the time I get to line 10) I very often find that I have a situation that is fruiting with all kinds of potential. The tension, the prickliness of the air is alive.

As a bonus, this prompt often gives me characters types and topics that I have never worked with before. Now, at this moment I have only been using this off and on for about half a year so it is possible that I will be less surprised the more I use this. And, it’s not that these characters or topics are hugely original, it’s just that they are out of the range of my own writing to date.


After experimenting with the above, I came up with expansions.


  • the characters needn’t be family members, they need only some connection and/or some history, as well as some distance or tension between them.


  • weather can be substituted with setting or surroundings in general, and
  • sound can be replace with any sense:  smell, touch, taste


One last thought: stories that germinated from prompts and grew into complete stories have required extensive reworking of the material.

For one thing, the forced structures are often not the best sequence for the reader. I break down the material and resequence for clarity.

And, often some of the opening (forced) writing is not necessary for the ultimate story. A prompt using specific words may not need those words once the story is going, or in the case of this prompt, not all the description is needed once I figure out what the story is about.

Prompts are there to help generate stories. Once started, the prompts themselves can be changed or even removed, unless the prompt is required for a competition.

bookmark_borderReview: The Captives

I had hopes for The Captives, by Debra Jo Immergut. Somewhere I read that it was quality prose in a thriller genre. Turns out the prose is okay, nothing spectacular (why use question marks in dialog for one character and not for the reply which is also a question?) and the story? Disappointing.

It opens with promise; setting us in the grown up view of a high school crush and after a bit of foreshadowing in first person, goes to the crush’s POV in third person. It continues to alternate each chapter, which isn’t a problem, but within those jumps back and forth we constantly flip into backstory from all manner of points in time and with a slew of characters, most of which appear in the current timeline. A barrage of short vignettes mixed with short snippets of the current timeline designed to give the reader needed backstory to understand the two characters’ history but so short and so frequent that, were I wanting to seem mean I might warn the reader of potential whiplash.

The jumping back and forth contribute to this reader’s inability to believe much of the backstory as consistent with the current versions of the characters. Rather than an exploration of the characters’ history these backstories feel like justifications that were concocted later, in the same manner that a crime writer might concoct character history to justify the monster that the perpetrator became. Or maybe it’s the vignettes’ brevity and frequency that makes them seem tacked on.

I suppose my credibility when it comes to criticizing the ending is limited since I only skimmed the last half of the book to see what happens but the ending didn’t make much psychological sense to me.

bookmark_borderWriting Fiction as if it were Memoir

There was something in Mary Karr’s “The Art Of Memoir” that stuck with me.

I listened to this as an audiobook from the library so it’s difficult to quote exactly but the specifics are less important than the process. She mentioned searching for a scene from her life that showed an example of her father and, something. How he loved her or some other other characteristic.

Karr had a story, she had a sense of what was important about this angle on her history, and she was rooting around in her childhood for an event that would show the reader something relevant to the story.

This, I thought, is how fiction should be written. Root about in your world, in your character’s history, or in their present, for moments and scenes that make relevant statements about what you want to show to the reader.


There is a subtle difference between this versus being told to come up with the psychological source of your character’s anger or fear or love. For one, there are many existing possibilities and it’s a matter of picking the best one, which is how it should feel in fiction. For another, these fictional character histories are often written as internal narrative: reflective, lacking action, taking place as a dialog from the character to the reader.

As an example, I had three sections of backstory in a recent short story. I used some dialog to make it less dry and telling but they were largely internal narrative. As a writing exercise, I listed the important information of each section and for the first two I wrote scenes that would convey those same key points. With a little revision and some transition adjustments I swapped those in and the story came to life. The third section covered a longer period of time in fewer words, and once I had replaced the first two it was the only remaining section of static internal narrative so I left it as it was. I’ve seen the writing of Alice Munro quoted as examples of good telling, where she packs so much information into three or four sentences that would take paragraphs and paragraphs to convey it all with vignettes. I’m not to that level, but that is the ideal.

But I don’t think I would have written or chosen as good a moment or scene to write had I not first written myself into it, by writing it first as backstory, as largely internal narrative. Perhaps this is because I am a pantser and I needed to figure out the story by writing rather than by making notes or an outline.


So, figuring out what you want the reader to know is one thing and explaining it using internal narrative another, but it may be better yet if you go one step further and do what Karr did for her memoir: root around for a moment, a scene, a vignette that will allow the reader to see what you want them to know rather than telling them.


I am entered in the fall 2019 Sixfold competition.

Sixfold is writer-reviewed. I was assigned six stories to rank and review.

I was impressed by how few grammar errors I found. The grammar quality is far above most of the submissions that come to the online publication that I slush read for. I didn’t expect that and I don’t know what this means. Are these stories well workshopped and fixed? Did some of these writers take their stories to a professional editor for correction? Are some of the submissions written by professional short story writers, slumming? Or by journalists or other professional writers trying their hand at short stories?

The quality of the prose was another matter. And the premises of the stories and depth of characters fluctuated with the prose; the better the prose, the better the characters and premise and execution of the premise.

The worst submission was almost childish. It had simplistic dialog that sometimes had nothing to do with the theme of the story (though it fit the setting at that moment) and flat characters and no realistic expression of a very emotional, serious topic. It reminded me of my first NaNoWriMo attempt except with a more serious theme but no perceptible attempt to understand the characters as real people. The grammar is much better than my story from eleven years ago, but execution of the premise is not. And my story wasn’t particularly good.

Yesterday I finished my second round of reviews.

I expected the quality to improve, that all stories that made it to the second round would be the level of the best one or two of the first round but that’s not what I got. I know there is a random factor involved, but none of my second round stories were better than the best of the first, and maybe not even the second best. What did change is the worst story is not quite as bad as the worst of the first. I had a hard time ranking this round because all six were all clustered around the fifth to third best of the previous round.

For the $5 entrance fee I’m not in Sixfold to win it. I’m in it to find some good writers and to send those writers my contact information in hopes of finding some reviewing buddies. The process is entirely confidential except, if you choose, you can leave your contact information in your review.

Sadly, I’ve only done so once, out of twelve reviews.

Ah well, can always hold out hope for better in round three, starting in a week from now.

Mind you, those that make round three receive 78 reviews (in theory, the first round produces 6 reviews, the second 24). Those that make round three have a huge number of reviews and likely a large number of potential contacts.  On the other side, I guess I can hope to make the second round and get 24 reviews and maybe a few potential story-swappers.