CanWrite! The Canadian Authors Association 2011 Conference

May 2-6, 2011.

Yes, I finally did it.  I managed to do something entirely nourishing to my writer’s soul.

I’d determined that I wanted to go to at least one conference week-long workshop last year and when the announcement went out in November 2010, I signed up right away.  Barbara Kyle, one of the workshop presenters, was also offering 20-page critiques for a nominal fee.  Again, I was in.

My next challenge was how to pay for the venture.  I applied for a Northern Arts Grant for professional development from the Ontario Arts Council, but was not accepted.  So, credit it was.  As far as conferences go, the CAA conference wasn’t expensive.  Even with my day job, I don’t make enough money to drop a thou and not feel it.  Still, it was time and long past that I made a substantial investment in my creative self.

Throughout February, March, and April the CAA conference organizers held little writing contests to get participants in the creative frame of mind.  I submitted to two of the three and though I didn’t even manage an honourable mention, they were interesting exercises and did serve to build a lovely feeling of anticipation.

I made my leave request at work as soon as I could, but operational requirements made it seems unlikely that it would be approved.  As the date of the conference approached, I began to worry that I’d have to withdraw.

Then my father passed away, April 9, 2011 and thoughts of the conference vanished.  For the week previous, Mom, a family friend, and I took turns watching vigil.  Dad had originally gone into the hospital March 18, 2010, and though he never recovered sufficiently to come home, his final illness and his ensuing struggle were completely unexpected.  Needless to say, Mom and I were devastated.

To paraphrase Forrest Gump: that’s all I have to say about that.

In the dizzying days following, my leave was miraculously approved.  Now the conference had a second purpose: I needed to get away and do something that did not involve Dad, his funeral arrangements, or my mom’s uncertain financial situation, all of which were consuming my life in large, ragged mouthfuls.

The drive to Grand Bend from Sudbury, though long, was relaxing.  There’s some beautiful country in Bruce and Gray counties, and now, there are lovely windmills and solar panels dotting the landscape.  I don’t understand the public resistance to wind and solar.  They’re some of the cleanest, greenest sources of energy around, and I didn’t find them ugly at all.  I rather thought them graceful, alien guardians, standing sentinel over the people and the land.  In any case, I arrived at the Pinedale Motor Inn in time for the evening meet and greet, and welcome barbeque.

I discovered that that year’s conference was a departure from previous years.  It was set up as a writers’ retreat with workshops and events, but with the afternoons off to enjoy the town and to write.  No maddened dash to attend competing workshops, this.  Never having attended any conference before, I didn’t have anything to compare it to, but it seemed like exactly what I needed.

I won a bottle of wine in a raffle.  We were off to a good start

The first workshop presenter was Sandy Plewis.  Her session was highly interactive with lots of writing exercises, but she depended heavily on secondary sources in her lectures.  She seemed pleasantly surprised at the willingness of the conference attendees to dig deep and write.  There was not a still pen in the house when it came time to complete an exercise.

Then came time for my critique with Barbara Kyle.

Globally, she was complementary.  My characters were interesting, their conflicts dynamic and immediate, but then, as the critique commenced, the shortcomings emerged: the pacing was too fast, my scenes lacked a sense of place, and I didn’t go deep enough into my characters’ hearts and minds.  And I was too subtle.  While I got a lot of good advice from Barbara, by the end of it, I was dizzy, hardly able to breathe.  I think it was a panic attack.  I wasn’t able to think about things clearly until much later in the day.

Barbara’s workshops, one based on The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, and the other on her own experiences as a first draft survivor, were illuminating.  Though not heavy on the writing, they were professional, and informative.  I had a revelation.

I’d read Vogler’s book, and its inspiration, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey.  The guardian at the gates has been a repeated part of my development as a writer, and my past experiences with those guardians informed my inner critic, the biggest, baddest guardian of them all.  That’s what happened in the critique session.  Though intellectually, I knew that Barbara was giving me exactly what I needed to head into the next revision of my novel, to make it stronger, and better, emotionally, every negative that emerged seemed a confirmation of my worthlessness.

So … I confessed.  Spastically and awkwardly–which is the only way I can confess the deeply embarrassing–I told everyone about my struggle.

That afternoon, Lightning Strikes, a series of mini-workshops, took place, and in the evening, at the Mock Awards Ceremony, I received the “Best Attempt to Make Us Cry” award.

Even the annual general meeting was interesting.  As a professional member, I had a vote.

Overall, the CAA conference was a very rewarding experience, and one I hope to repeat.

Conferences can be fertile experiences.  Have you made a breakthrough at one?  New friends?  Networked connections?


My first “real” working group

It was an education, that’s for sure.

Ostensibly, I was brought in to advise the group regarding training and supports for a new unit that the working group was to establish.  They’d already been meeting for some time and I had a fair bit of catching up to do.  A further complication was that while there were several members of the group in my office, it was a virtual group.  We met by teleconference.

I got the notification while I was out of town, training.  At first, I thought it must have been a mistake, but I was soon set straight.

I’d never done anything of this nature before, and I was flattered that my manager and director had recommended me for the group, but I was completely out of my depth.

With the responsibility came the looming possibility of a needs analysis.  I didn’t think I knew how to do that.  I started searching the Intranet, found a few ideas, canvassed my colleagues, and got a few more.  Then I started Googling and that’s when things got really interesting.

Here are a few samples of the kinds of things I found:

Of all the resources I’d gathered, many were vague, some differing, and a few in outright opposition.  Most weren’t recent.

I even discussed the topic with my husband Phil, who was going through something similar at work.  What he recommended was a process analysis.  Essentially, the work to be done is broken down into its component steps, and then each step analyzed and potentially broken down further.  With a process analysis, task competencies could be easily identified, and from that, training specific to those competencies determined.  It could also be the basis for procedure and/or policy, or even a screening tool for candidates.  I liked the efficiency of the concept, and found it a reasonable proposal.

The unit had yet to be approved though, and so the people working in it couldn’t be officially identified, nor could the new unit or its potential requirements be discussed withanyone outside the working group.

How was I supposed to determine what training and supports might be necessary for a group of people who had yet to be named?  The process analysis still stood out for me as a solution.  The suggestion was not received with enthusiasm, however.

I had no experience.  I didn’t know how these things worked.  The project lead took my under her wing.  Another member of the group who’d had more experience in working groups than I, was also generous with her time and helped me to understand how things were supposed to go.

We were to cast our net wide, and think of all the possible courses that might be required by the unknown members of the proposed unit.  I researched, obtained estimates for training costs, and started to work on a self-study course for one of the applications that the staff would be using.  I also suggested a SharePoint site, which the group did set up and begin using.

Then we discovered that there was no budget, and most of my work had to be abandoned, the arragnements I’d tentatively made cancelled, and apologies and gratitude distributed tactfully.

About that time, things started getting hectic in my personal life.  My father “took a turn,” as they say, and passed away a week later.  After the family time I’d taken to stay with him during his illness, and my bereavement leave, I was approved for a number of additional weeks of annual and self-funded leave.

When I finally returned, the project and the nature of the unit had changed completely.  The necessary training was accomplished in my absence, my training course was not used, and the working group ceased to meet shortly thereafter.

It felt … anticlimactic.

It was an interesting experience and I certainly learned a lot (mostly about myself).

  • I will dive into a new project, even if I have no idea what it is about.
  • I’m a good researcher, so long as I have a defined goal.
  • I’m not confident in proposing my own ideas.
  • I will defer to the current authority.
  • I’ll adopt current procedures, even if I don’t see the value in them.
  • I’ll pursue my own goals and projects on the side (subversive me).
  • I’ll totally forgive myself when life happens.
  • I know my real priorities.

I still think the process analysis would have worked 🙂

Have you ever been thrown into the deep end?  Did you sink or swim?  Did something else happen?  I like to think I dog-paddled my way to the shallows where other priorities arose and by the time I was ready to dive back in, everyone else left the pool.  Special projects and working groups can be great learning experiences, but they can also be trials.

The Windsor years and what they really taught me

Last time on My history as a so-called writer: I found awesomeness at Laurentian University 🙂

I should have just kept writing.   

Unfortunately, I was still insecure about my craft and all of my friends were either heading to teachers’ college, or graduate school, or had already left.  So I thought it was the thing to do, something that had to be done to show that I had “the chops.”

Still living at the mercy of events, I applied to UVic, UNB, and Windsor.  Victoria rejected me outright, New Brunswick said that they would accept me to their academic program, but not to the creative one, but Windsor said they’d take me, so that’s where I went.

Phil was still completing his degree in computer science at Laurentian, so I was on my own.  We took a trip down in August apartment hunting and I signed a lease for a year for a room in a house that was within a five-minute walk of the campus.

I started off filled with hope, but struggled.  My courses in research and methodology, the Pre-Raphealites, and the new Canadian writers were great, but early Canadian women writers was a bomb and because my primary interest was in writing genre, the creative writing part of things did not go very well either.

I even tried to resurrect pieces of the novel idea I conceived of at Guelph, but a very dim view was taken of my fantasy.

I was nearly shamed away from my novel.  It wasn’t worthy.  I wasn’t worthy.  I kept on being asked questions like, “You have this character smoking.  You know that tobacco wasn’t discovered until Europeans reached the New World, right?”  It was all about historical detail.  But my fantasy world isn’t this world, and its history has little to nothing in common with the real world.  “But you just can’t go picking and choosing what you want from history …”  Why not?  Seriously.  What’s to say that I have to write my fantasy like a historical novel?  If I wanted to write historical fiction, then I would.  But I don’t.  (At least not right now.  I have this idea though …)

Therein lay the difficulty.  Submitting two to five pages of my novel at a time wasn’t allowing anyone to really get into the story.  Things would just get to a point where they were developing into something interesting, and then everyone would have to wait until the next week.  Momentum was lost and most of my classmates felt nothing but contempt for my chosen genre.

A lot of comments focused on the impossibility of what I was writing.  “She couldn’t survive what happened to her.”  “That defied the laws of physics.”  My characters are heroes in the epic sense, though.  Their survival hinged on the fantastic nature of their gifts and talents.  They have to be “bigger than life” in order to merit their place in the overall plot.  And magic does defy physics.  Actually, my magick has its own physics (more on that in a future world-building post).

Fantasy, especially the high, epic fantasy that I like to write, is all about the impossible.  I wasn’t trying to straddle the improbable but plausible line that defines most science fiction.  (Although I have an idea or two in that direction as well …)

I tried other stories and genres:  A YA fantasy about a girl whose figments turn out to be real; a post apocalyptic tale featuring a male protagonist; poetry; more traditionally literary short stories.  With the exception of my poetry, my work was largely panned.

My classmate, Laurie Smith, got me involved in the Wayzgoose reading series and some of my poetry was published in the Wayzgoose anthology.  I became editor of Generations, the student-published poetry anthology, and tried my hand at presenting a paper at the ACCCSAL conference (speculative fiction).  So it wasn’t a complete bust.

I have to admit though, with respect to the idea that would become Initiate of Stone, that my characters had no character.  They were merely vehicles to move the plot, which was also evolving at the time.  Theme was also a work in progress.  Still, by the time I was finished at Windsor, or rather by the time Windsor was finished with me, I was well and truly wounded.

My advisor at the time, Alistair MacLeod, did not hide his dismay regarding my choices, and to his credit, I’m sure he was doing his best to guide and support me.  He praised my poetry, and I’m certain that if I’d chosen to move in that direction, we would have gotten along swimmingly.  As it was, the presentation of the work I chose to do, confused him at best, and disappointed him, in the most tragic of senses, at worst.

He was a mentor, a writerly father figure, and his dismay was hard to take.  I was still tender then, and I retreated in defeat.

I’ve talked a lot about teachers, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  You may get the idea that I dislike them, but I don’t.  I’ve had as many positive and supportive teachers as I’ve had teachers that just didn’t understand me, and it’s a matter of timing and circumstances as anything else.

What I took away from my experience at Windsor, though it took me years to discover, is that a teacher’s job is to teach.  The teacher may not agree with the way in which the student wants to apply their knowledge and experience, but that should not be the issue.  Even if the teacher believes that the student is only setting themselves up for failure, it is not the teacher’s responsibility, or even right, to deny the experience of that failure to the student.

Instead, what the teacher should do is his or her best to impart the skills that will enable the student to meet that failure and learn from it, rather than being crippled by it.  If the teacher has such strong reservations that he or she feels that they can honestly not discharge their duty to the student, then she or he should refer the student to someone who can.

It’s not too much to ask.

Mind you, the student should stand up for herself and demand the help she needs.  I still wasn’t very good at confrontation and fled at every turn.  What happened at Windsor was my fault more than anyone else’s.  I have to take responsibility for my poor choices.

I took a year off and once again tried to sort things out, but I was badly damaged.  I worked at both the Huntington and Cambrian College libraries and subsequently became unemployed.  I was entering contests again though and won several, in short fiction and in poetry.  I participated in more readings, and more writers’ groups.

With Kim Fahner, I embarked on what might have been a foolish enterprise: a poetry journal.  The aptly named … like lemmings … only lasted 2 years.  The name was more about the editors than about the poetry, but I’m sure you get the idea.  Kim and I moved on to bigger and better things after that.  It was brilliant while it lasted though.

Then Dani Harris, a former student of mine (I was a Graduate Assistant at Windsor—doesn’t every grad student teach?) let me know that there was a new professor in the English department, Di Brandt.  With Dani’s encouragement, herself and excellent poet, I registered for another year and determined that this time, I would succeed.

I found a new mentor, but I still couldn’t bring myself to trust her fully.  My experiences in writing to that point had only taught me that editors, friends, and teachers couldn’t be trusted with my work.  They’d also taught me that the stories I wanted to tell weren’t the stories that should be shared with anyone.

So I compromised and chose stories that I thought I could tell, that I thought would be accepted.  That was my problem though and not something that I would overcome for some time.  My stories were all of young women finding their way by means of dream, and spiritual quest, and damn good friends.

The one risk was a story that did cross the line and tread into the dreadful world of fantasy.  Initially presenting with obsessive-compulsive disorder and insomnia, my protagonist developed precognitive dreams and telekinesis.  It was the one risk I couldn’t refuse to take.

I wrapped the collection up in shamanism and called it Whispers in the Dark.

Di Brandt was the teacher I needed .  She encouraged me and saw me through to the successful completion of my master’s degree.  For that, I will be forever grateful.

As you might be able to guess, my next great teacher in life was Di Brandt.  With her assistance, I conquered my fears, defended my thesis, and completed that chapter of my life.  I also met Miriam Toews, a friend of Di’s and author of the Governor General’s Award-winning A Complicated Kindness.

Was there a time when you cut and ran?  Did you rally and fight back?  What did you learn from the experience?

Character Sketches Part 2: Eoghan MacDubghall

This is a continuation of my character sketches for my work in progress, Ascension, Book 1: Initiate of Stone.

Last week’s was: Character Sketches Part 1: Ferathainn Devlin

How Eoghan began …

Originally, when Ferathainn was named Rain, and went through half a dozen tumultuous life events, Eoghan was a nameless monk who found the blinded and wounded girl and nursed her to health again, weathering a toxic pregnancy and subsequent abortion in the process.  He fell in love with her, but she never saw him before he was called away by the goddess to become her champion/avatar.

Then I gave him the name of Arastian.  At that time, he was a grown man in his late twenties, and there were some cradle-robbing inferences that I wasn’t comfortable with.

Eventually, when I finally researched and chose Ferathainn’s name, I also decided on the Scottish version (or one of them in any case) of Ewen, child of the Yew.  I’m an unapologetic Celtophile!  (Especially after reading Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.)  He became a character younger than Ferathainn, and his love for her completely unknown to her, because she never regains consciousness while in his care.  I had to put a few more roadblocks in their way.

Now he’s a postulant monk, not even tonsured (achieved by the painful process of plucking, which he dreads) and at risk of being turned out of the Monastery of Aurayene as any time, a particular cruelty in a world where the season that equates to winter is actually a deadly season of storms.  He becomes Auraya’s Kas’Hadden, her hammer of light in another cruel twist.

Eoghan’s brother Callum was to become Kas’Hadden before him, but Yllel, the villain of the novel, conspires to have him executed for heresy before this can happen.  Auraya conserves the remnants on Cal’s spirit at the Well of Souls and when Eoghan reaches her, she forges the Kas’Hadden from Eoghan, incorporating Cal’s qualities, and a few other choice bits.

The goddess has to subdue Eoghan because he has qualities that she does not want in her champion, namely his love for Ferathainn, and basically traps him inside the fleshy prison of her avatar.  So he’s repressed and imprisoned, and it’s painful.  That’s the kind of goddess Auraya can be …

Eoghan’s story line is much more dynamic than Ferathainn’s, an imbalance I am striving to address in my next revision.  He is one of my favourite characters, though.  He has to be: he’s Fer’s love interest 🙂

The Sketch:

Name: Eoghan MacDubghall

Nickname:  none but he becomes the Kas’Hadden

Birth date/place:  14 years ago, Aurayene

Character role:  Secondary protagonist

Age: 14 years

Race: Tellurin (Alban)

Eye colour:  hazel, later blue

Hair colour/style:  Strawberry blonde, wildly curly.  This doesn’t really change.

Build (height/weight):  5’ 4”, slight, not muscular.  When he becomes Kas’Hadden, 8’ + and extremely well-muscled, an Adonis.

Skin tone:  pale and freckled, later golden.

Style of dress:  robes, cassock.  As the Kas’Hadden, hardly anything 🙂

Characteristics/mannerisms: none

Personality traits:  Desperately afraid of everything.  Self effacing to the point of having little personality of his own.

Background:  Born eighteen years the junior of two brothers to a spiritually devout public servant and his wife, Eoghan was largely ignored by his father and never knew his mother who died shortly after giving birth to him.  His father saw Eoghan as the means of his beloved wife’s demise.  His older brother Callum was the favourite, the one on whom all their father’s hopes depended.  Initially Callum hated Eoghan as well, tried to smother the baby, but couldn’t go through with it.  Surprisingly, Eoghan was the means by which Callum was able to heal from the wound of his mother’s death.

Callum became a soldier at a young age and was quickly inducted into the Sanctori but when their father died, Callum took holy orders.  Eoghan came with him as a ward of the Faithful initially, and early signs pointed to him following his brother into the priesthood.  He proved a fair illuminator, but asked too many questions for the comfort of his teachers.

Eoghan has been alternately ignored and protected throughout his life.  He is incredibly naïve and Callum’s execution nearly destroys his faith, but the war coming so swiftly on the heels of Callum’s death, Eoghan has no time to internalize his loss.  Callum was more a father to Eoghan than their biological one.  Eoghan is lost in every sense when Auraya calls upon him.

Ferathainn represents his only chance to find himself and choose what he wants to do with his life.

Internal conflicts: He’s been so ignored/protected/controlled he has no idea who he is or what he wants to do with his life.  When Auraya turns him into the Kas’Hadden, Eoghan finally has the physical power and presence to support his growing internal convictions but is prevented from exercising it on his own behalf.

External conflicts:  Auraya wants to use Eoghan to defeat Yllel and bring her word back to the people of Tellurin.  Yllel wants to destroy him as one of the few beings who could oppose the god’s escape.

Auraya.  To keep the Kas’Hadden compliant, she suppresses Eoghan’s personality.

Ferathainn can’t return Eoghan’s love because of her trauma, besides, he belongs to Auraya and she demands his total devotion.

Dairragh doesn’t trust Eoghan and doesn’t believe in the Kas’Hadden.  He can’t deny how useful the behemoth can be in battle, but isn’t sure what to make of him.

Eoghan attempts to protect Ferathainn from Khaleal, though she proves not to need his protection.

What Eoghan might look like:

I don’t have a drawing of Eoghan.  Sadly, I’m not very good at drawing the male figure.  So pictures will have to do.

When the novel begins, Eoghan is fourteen and hasn’t really hit his first growth spurt yet.  He starts to grow a sparse ‘stache and a few chin hairs that might optimistically be called a beard.  He’s got this unruly bird’s nest of strawberry blonde curls and a plague of freckles.  He’s a skinny, book-fed boy.

Though the hair colour and freckles are absent, I thought of a young Matthew Gray Gubler as a suitable physical analogue.

When he becomes the Kas’Hadden, he’s more like Chris Hemsworth (ala Thor) but has the physical dimensions of the Hulk.

And that is Eoghan.

Next week: Dairragh.

Ta-ta for now, my writerly friends!

Words in the Wilderness

July 23-29, 2010.

This conference was the darling of the Sudbury Hypergraphic Society.  While I did not attend all the events, the workshop with Marie Bilodeau and Jennifer Rouse Barbeau was great.  Hosted at Music and Film in Motion, the session was an intimate affair with wonderful insights into process and what it takes to get published.  Jennifer was about to have her first novel, Swampy Jo, published through Your Scrivener Press.

Marie in particular intrigued me with how she broke into publishing and how hard she had to work to get there.  Starting off with success in e-books, Marie’s first novel, Princess of Light, was so successful that the publisher decided to move it to their print line.  The only condition was that she had to have the remaining two novels in her trilogy written and ready for editing ASAP.

Princess was published February 29, 2009 and the second novel, Warrior of Darkness, was released in July of the same year.  Sorceress of Shadows came out in April of 2010, which will give you an idea of how quickly the work had to be done.  Marie front-loaded the work and still managed to write a phenomenally successful series.  One of her secrets: when necessary, she retreated to a local convent to focus on the task of writing.

I’ve since “friended” Marie on Facebook and follow her blog and adventures.  She’s published two more novels, Destiny’s Blood and Destiny’s Fall.  The latter is just out in March (see Amazon for details) from Dragon Moon Press.

Recently, she wrote that she had another date with “giant Jesus.”  This was a reference to another personal writing retreat she had planned at the convent.

When she got there though, she discovered the convent secularized, and dubbed it the no-longer-convent convent.

Have you discovered anyone through a conference or workshop who inspired you?

Storytelling in learning

Can you see why this might appeal to the Learning Mutt’s sensibilities?

Last week, I attended a great Webinar by Roger Courville of the 1080 group on incorporating stories into training.



His tips (in brief):

  • Keep it short and sweet;
  • Keep it relevant;
  • Keep it entertaining; and
  • Bring it back to your topic effectively.

In the past, I have also attended a Webinar by Nancy Duarte regarding her particular angle on storytelling.  Her focus is more on presentation, which, as Roger pointed out, has a different purpose to training.

She looked at the three act story/play structure and saw a “shape” that could apply to verbal discourse.  She analyzed Martin Luther King and Steve Jobs to see if her theory worked, and it did.  She offered critical insights to presentation, and you can look up her TEDxEast lecture on the topic here.

I’ve also attended a Webinar by Terrence Garguilo of  His point: stories beget stories.  Tell an effective story, and your participants will begin to create stories of their own going forward.

Overall, storytelling in training is a powerful tool.  It’s one of the oldest social networking strategies in existence.

I would encourage you to look up, follow, and/or attend Webinars by these fine people.

How I have used story in training:

  • In design, I use a metaphor to ties things together.  It could be a knightly quest, or planning a road trip, but tying your material into a metaphorical frame work will help to keep everything on track.  This can (and should) extend to the visuals you use/create for the course.
  • In written materials, to link to external resources that are “nice to know,” or might set learners off on a learning tangent.  A lot of blog posts utilize this technique to connect the reader to useful information.  There have been times when I’ve spent upwards of an hour following links from a single post I’ve subscribed to, discovering and learning, connecting the dots.
  • In-class, I’ve used practical stories of my own or other’s experiences to engage participants.

Do you use stories in your training?  In what ways?  Are there opportunities in your training to adopt storytelling as a tool?