numbers, numbers…

I made the mistake of picking up a book called 5 and flipping through it in the bookstore. And this is, basically, what has triggered my most recent bout of navel gazing.

5 is a bright, colourful picture book for adults that asks the question ‘where do you see yourself in five years?’ It encourages you to think about that span of time in different ways, and to look at all the different aspects of your life, not just career or financial or relationships.

I did the math, and I will be 42 in five years. 42 is, of course, the answer to life, the universe, and everything, so it feels like a good target to be aiming for. And in five years it will be 2020, which is kind of a magical number, too. So I’m starting to think about the big questions.

Do I want to adopt a child? If I do, I should start thinking about it seriously now and making plans, because adoption is not a fast process and I’m not getting any younger.

Do I want to buy a house? If so, where? The city where I live in the off season or the city where I work in the summer? In Canada at all or overseas?

I need to get serious about learning money management, now that I have the career I worked so hard for.

I want to learn to sail. And plant a vegetable garden. And continue to travel.

What does 42 look like for me? What can I do right now to set the wheels in motion? I don’t need to have all the answers right this second, but I do need to start thinking seriously about the questions. Maybe I need to sit and write about it a little, maybe creating the story of it will help.

And once I have done the research, and made the choices, I want to write my goals down. Make them concrete. Something I can refer back to. The book, 5, also encouraged readers to write a mission statement for their lives. What is the big ideal, the driving force?

It sounds a little hokey, and it’s all pure navel gazing, but I think it’s a useful exercise. I just need to follow through.

setting goals

This morning I had the TED radio hour podcast on while I washed the dishes. It was last week’s episode (I think) about Champions, and in a way it became a meditation on the mentality and habits of successful people. Athletes, in this case.

I’ve been thinking about life goals over the last couple of weeks, and this podcast kind of ran with that theme. Athletes have concrete goals. They know what they want, and they have a training schedule to get them there.

So I stood there with soapy hands thinking, what does my goal look like? Smell like? Taste like? Because if I can’t picture it in glowing technicolour, in all five senses, how am I ever going to know it when I meet it?

And, I realize, the goal can’t be “getting published,” because I have no control over that. The goal can’t be external validation, it has to be internal.

So, what does this mean in a concrete sense? I’m not sure yet. ‘Become a better travel writer’ is valid, but vague. Maybe it needs to be ‘finish these five pieces you’re in the middle of, even if all you ever do with them is post them on this blog.’ Maybe it’s ‘learn from what you didn’t get right last time.’ Maybe it’s ‘travel for two months out of every year.’ Maybe it’s ‘stop going back to the same damn places over and over so you can stretch a little.’ Maybe it’s ‘keep going back to that one place until you’ve said everything you want to say about it.’

I’m beginning to understand that it might be time to sit down and actually think through what the big goal is. What do I want to achieve? What does that end point feel like? And what little goals will lead me down the path to that big one?

I need to do some research, and a lot of thinking.

The Great Railway Bazaar, by Paul Theroux

I picked up The Great Railway Bazaar in an effort to broaden my travel reading beyond country guides, Michael Palin, and Bill Bryson. The Lonely Planet book recommended Paul Theroux as a ‘contemporary master of travel writing,’ so it seemed like a good place to start.

This book represents the kind of travel writing that I’m most interested in: I’m going on a journey and I’m going to take you with me. Not so different from Michael Palin or Bill Bryson for that matter. There wasn’t a larger point or any kind of manifesto – just the details of an interesting journey.

Paul Theroux’s descriptions were wonderful, more evocative, more visceral, more poetic than other travel writing I have yet encountered, and I’m sure that’s why the Lonely Planet folk recommended him. But, to be quite frank, I’d rather skip the carefully tailored words and spend the time with Messrs. Palin and Bryson instead. The narrator of The Great Railway Bazaar was a condescending, racist dick. And the complete and utter lack of women as people rather than as sexualized objects was truly appalling.

A masochistic part of me, however, is debating reading his follow up, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, where he reprises the same journey thirty years later, just to see if he has grown as a person at all.

changing gears

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been learning more about travel writing. I bought the “Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing” – because what better authority would there be, I suppose – as a happy-birthday-to-me present at the end of March. I’m still working my way through it.

I seem to swing back and forth on whether this is a kind of writing I want to delve into. I find the idea of writing endless click-bait pieces on the ‘5 Hottest Party Cities’, or the ’10 Most Undiscovered Gems’, or whatever, incredibly depressing. But I love to travel, and I love to write, and there is an area of longform travel writing that crosses over with creative non-fiction, so I’m nibbling around the edges of that.

Maybe all I really want to do is travel and blog. I loved writing those little posts while I was in Paris. I found it helped in contextualizing and remembering my experiences. I regret that I didn’t keep them up while I travelled around Greece, but I just ran out of hours in the day. And I was struggling with travel burn-out around the time I stayed overnight in Milan, so for a couple of days it all just kind of became about endurance.

I did continue to take photographs, though, so maybe before the memories grow too faint I’ll find some favourites and tell the stories behind them.

a new approach

There is something wrong with the way I approach writing stories.

Or… maybe it’s something wrong with the way I approach storytelling. The problem isn’t with the words exactly, it’s with the structure – or lack thereof – in what I’m writing.

I’m not sure if I’m alone in this – probably not – but when I sit down to start writing, I don’t have a ‘story’ in mind. No conflict, no antagonist. When I sit down to write, what I have is a setting I love, and a tone I want to achieve, and a character. And I splatter them on the page and combine them in various ways, and I wait to see what comes out.

I often find it very difficult to finish stories, which is very probably due to the fact I don’t have a specific journey in mind for the character, be it internal or external. And when I do finish them, I often find that things are done to my character, rather than her doing the things.

My system isn’t a complete failure. I have produced two stories that I’m reasonably proud of. But that’s not a great batting average, and neither has been published yet, so I clearly do still have work to do.

So structure is the thing I’m thinking about now. I’m wondering if it might not be a bad idea to just build outlines for a while, one after another, and get some practice. Learn how to do it properly. Build the correct writing muscles and makes some new habits. So to that end, I’m trolling books and internet sites to try and learn more about the nuts and bolts.

I’m going in…

I finished the first draft of a story on new year’s eve and then metaphorically shoved it in a drawer. That draft is a mess, so I had intended to let it sit and percolate in there for several weeks and hope that I could magically work out how to fix it in the meantime.

I realized this past week, though, that the deadline for submitting it to the place I want to submit it is the beginning of February and not the end of February, so I’ve had to shuffle up the timeline a bit. In order to get a readable draft out to my first reader so that I can get notes back and still have time to revise it again, the story has to come out of the drawer today.

I printed it out this morning, and I’m about to wade in. Sharpening the red pen, as it were. Wish me luck.

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

This book is billed on the back cover as, basically, a steampunk story with zombies, and it’s the ‘with zombies’ part that has stopped me reading it before now. Feed by Mira Grant aside, I’m not really a zombie kind of girl.

Still, the whole steampunk side of it intrigued me enough that I put it on my to-read list. And I was pleased to discover that the zombies were mostly incidental. As with Feed, the zombies rose more than a decade ago, and this is how life goes on around them. Sort of.

Rather than reinventing the wheel and summarizing the book myself, the Goodreads description (which I believe matches the back cover blurb) reads as follows:

In the early days of the Civil War, rumors of gold in the frozen Klondike brought hordes of newcomers to the Pacific Northwest. Anxious to compete, Russian prospectors commissioned inventor Leviticus Blue to create a great machine that could mine through Alaska’s ice. Thus was Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine born.

But on its first test run the Boneshaker went terribly awry, destroying several blocks of downtown Seattle and unearthing a subterranean vein of blight gas that turned anyone who breathed it into the living dead.

Now it is sixteen years later, and a wall has been built to enclose the devastated and toxic city. Just beyond it lives Blue’s widow, Briar Wilkes. Life is hard with a ruined reputation and a teenaged boy to support, but she and Ezekiel are managing. Until Ezekiel undertakes a secret crusade to rewrite history.

His quest will take him under the wall and into a city teeming with ravenous undead, air pirates, criminal overlords, and heavily armed refugees. And only Briar can bring him out alive.

I was more than halfway through this book before it really sucked me in. I found the first half dragged quite a lot as the characters meandered through the plots and bumped up against various obstacles that didn’t seem to have much of a point. I think part of the problem is that I never understood what Ezekiel’s “secret crusade to rewrite history” actually was, what it was about. Or how and why he came up with it and what exactly it meant to him. I didn’t know what he wanted. So it felt like he just… went into the walled up city. Briar seemed to have a very firm idea of where he was going and why, but as the reader it kind of felt like she was making it up out of thin air.

In the back half of the book the threads of the plot began to interweave more smoothly and hold more tension. I finally felt engaged with the story and the characters. Zeke finally *became* a character and not just a bumbling idiot boy. And I really enjoyed the secondary characters of Swakhammer and Lucy.

I think if this book had been shorter and more tightly focused, if it had more beginning and less middle, it could have been really great. It was good enough by the end, though, that I might go on to read the next one. So that’s something.

The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley

This book, unexpectedly, inspired quite a lot of feminist rage in me. So this post is going to be me getting ranty-pants more than it’s actually a book review.

Nicola, the ‘protagonist’ (or, at least, the point of view character) for the modern half of the book, is a bundle of neuroses. Rob, the romantic interest, is practically perfect in every way. His job is perfect, his volunteer work is perfect, his family is perfect, his psychic abilities are perfect, his every reaction to every situation is perfect. Also, he’s gorgeous, of course. And his clothes are perfect. And his body is perfect.

Nicola does not do a single thing for herself for the first 400 pages of the book. She doesn’t drive the plot. She barely makes a choice. She’s too overwhelmed. All the time. By everything she’s encountering. She doesn’t drive herself anywhere, doesn’t open a door, doesn’t pay for a meal, doesn’t carry a bag. Ever. She doesn’t even have to think, really, because Perfect Rob is there to lead her around by the hand for the whole damn book.

It’s telling that, in one of the reviews on Goodreads, despite the fact that the book is narrated by Nicola in the first person, when the reviewer mentions the “hero” of the book, they mean Rob.

Why? Why do women – because this book is written by a woman – perpetuate the fiction that chivalry is romantic? What is romantic about being treated like a child who can’t take care of herself? Once in a while, as a game on a special occasion or something, fine, yes, I get it. But every day? Being infantilized every day? This book doesn’t even trust Nicola to walk along a coastal path by herself. Rob is right there to put himself in the way of danger, hovering in case she should fall. Like she’s two years old. There’s never any suggestion that Rob might fall. He couldn’t possibly. He’s perfect.

And what happens when someone treats you that way – and I know this from personal experience – is that you start to doubt yourself. If a person you respect, a person who cares about you, doesn’t believe you can take care of yourself, you stop believing it yourself. You become dependent. This is plainly apparent with Nicola, who started as a capable professional woman, but 200 pages in doesn’t believe she can do anything by herself anymore. Rob always has to be there to hold her hand. Literally! Like it’s her first day of school. And yet the book isn’t commenting on this, it’s saying, ‘Look how wonderful Rob is! Wouldn’t you love to have a Rob of your very own?’

In fact, no. I kind of wanted to punch Rob in the nose. Because I live in the 21st century, and I’m an intelligent adult who is capable of taking care of herself in most everyday situations. I’m also capable of knowing when I need help and asking for it. I would much rather have someone who trusts me, who treats me like a grown-up, who will share burdens with me, so we can take care of each other. If we’re walking down a coastal path, for example, let’s hold hands together so we can both be safe.

You know, like equals.

so many books

My to-read list has gotten out of hand recently – I’ve been picking up hours working at a bookstore over the holidays and keep coming across books that look interesting. A lot of them are by authors that are new to me, so before I start buying, I thought I’d take some of them out for a test drive.

So last week, I placed a whole stack of holds at the library. Many of the books had other holds on them ahead of mine, and what with the library closing repeatedly over the holidays, I thought it would be next week before any of them arrived, and that I’d get maybe one or two a week as books became available. Easily manageable.

Boy did I guess wrong. I got a call from the library on Saturday that there was “one or more books” waiting for me on the hold shelf. When I went on Monday to pick them up, there were four. On Tuesday I got another call from the library, and on Wednesday I picked up four more from the hold shelf.

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Oops?

I do have a lot of time on my hands at the moment, though, so it’s possible I’ll get through all eight of them in three weeks. I’ve finished two already, both of them light, quick reads. The first was A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan (not pictured above, because I took it back to the library on Wednesday when I picked up the second batch of holds), which I really enjoyed. The other was Shades of Milk and Honey, by Mary Robinette Kowal, which I didn’t like at all.

I’ve just launched into The Firebird by Susanna Kearsley. It’s on the borderline of being the kind of chick lit I really don’t enjoy (I threw a book called The Tenth Gift across the room once for being insipid and annoying), but so far I’m still on board.

I can’t remember how many holds I placed in total, so I’m not entirely sure how many more books (if any?) I’m expecting to receive. I could look it up, but it seems like more fun to wait and be surprised.

My story in print!

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The issue of PRISM with my story in it spotted in the wild.

I meant to post this ages ago, of course, back when it came out. But I wanted to include a photo of the magazine actually in a store, and though I visited several branches I couldn’t find it anywhere in the time before I left on my adventure. By the time I got back in late November, it didn’t seem worth posting anymore. Although I did go back to the bookstore to snap my coveted photo.

But this whole year-in-review time seems to be as good as any for remembering that someone paid me for a story I wrote for the very first time this year. It came out in PRISM 53.1, the Fall 2014 issue. I’m delighted with the cover art on the issue, too, which is both classy and whimsical. The little blurb on their page about my piece reads:

“On the non-fiction side, PRISM 53:1 includes K.A. MacKinnon’s “Character Sketch,” a uniquely-structured piece about two women traveling through Europe as circus employees.”

I also wanted to include a link to Ayelet Tsabari’s web page. (If you haven’t read her stuff, you really should. ‘Yemeni Soup and Other Recipes’ is my favourite.) She taught me in the two Continuing Ed. creative non-fiction courses I took last year. Those classes turned out to provide exactly the right information at exactly the right time for me, in terms of the progress of my writing, and the piece PRISM published originally started as an assignment in one of those classes.

Anyway, Ayelet wrote a lovely post recently in which she bragged on behalf of a few of her students who are doing well, and I was one of them.

In other writing-related news, I have two stories out being considered at the moment. For one, I should hear sometime in January, for the other they’re saying ‘the first quarter of 2015’, so sometime before April, I guess.

I’ve been writing with reasonable dedication this month and I have another story that is about 500 words from being finished. I have sworn the first draft will be done this month, so that’s mostly my plan for this evening.