Why Do I Write? Reason #231

Five months have passed since my little book was published, but I still haven’t gotten used to being an author. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night, see the glowing orange letters on my bedside table, and pat the novel like it’s a dog.

first copy of Ultra

I really did it. I actually wrote a book!

I barely remember writing the thing. Most of those 45,000 words got scribbled down in a fevered dream. That first draft was followed by two years of re-writing, endless rejections and fits of depression that I countered with 30 mile training runs through the forest. I kept asking myself: WHY DO I BOTHER!?

Now I know why. Because of mornings like this, when I wake up and learn that it’s been shortlisted for an award. An award that’s been won by Neil Gaiman and Suzanne Collins. An award that’s largely decided by my favourite type of people – book bloggers!

You can click the image below to read about all 5 books that made the shortlist. Buy them all! Support the arts!

Cybils Logo Large

Ultra-Running on the Radio

Shelagh

It’s always fun to share the weird world of ultra-running with a national audience. So just before Christmas, it was my pleasure to be interviewed by the brilliant Shelagh Rogers on her CBC Radio program, “The Next Chapter.”

In case you missed it, you can catch it here:

Friends tell me I spent too much time talking about the bears and hallucinations other trail demons, and not enough time promoting the book. Oh well. At least I got to repeat my mantra: “Once you’ve run 100 miles in a day, everything else you do seems a lot easier.”

The Weirdest Miles I Ever Ran…

Kids often ask me, what’s the weirdest thing you ever saw while running a 100-mile race?

Easy one! The 75 mile turnaround at the Haliburton Forest Trail Race.

dave stretching before 100 mile race

I got there around midnight, after 18 hours of running. 2 women volunteers were there. They were cooking lasagna and chicken noodle soup over a Coleman stove. They’d hung a disco ball from a tree branch, and a lantern was burning right above it, and the fractured lights from the disco ball swirled across the backdrop of trees. It was freaky and beautiful.

I was about to sit down in a camp chair, but one of the women said “DON’T DO THAT! BEWARE THE CHAIR!

Beware the chair?

‘If you sit down after running 75 miles you’ll never get up again.”

So I kept standing. One of the women asked to see my feet. I took off my shoes and it was a horror show down there. Seriously, it was like I had trenchfoot or something. Trenchfoot times ten. The woman was totally cool about it though. She cut my blisters open and drained them, then squirted krazy glue into the skin flaps to seal them up. After that she wrapped duct tape around and around my feet, and put my shoes back on.

“Good as new!” she said.

I started running again. I only had 25 miles left to go. That’s nothing, right? Just the distance from Toronto to Hamilton. It was a hard grind. I was tired, freaked out, my feet were killing me, and I was having trouble keeping food down. It felt like that race was NEVER going to end!

And then, at 2 am, my phone rang. It was my neice Caelan, calling from Edmonton.

Caelan lounging

There she is. She knew I was running the race, and she’d asked her dad (my brother) to wake her up, so she could call me to cheer me on. I don’t remember much of what she said. But I do know that she told me a knock knock joke. A knock-knock joke that she’d made up herself.  It went like this:

Knock knock / Who’s there?

Banana / Banana who?

Banana had to go to the hospital…

I knew where this was going. I’d say “Why did banana have to go to the hospital?” And Caelan would say “Because he wasn’t peeling well!”

So I did my bit.  I said, “Why did banana have to go to the hospital? And Caelan surprised me. She said: “Because he had puke in his lung.”

Yeah, I didn’t really get the joke either. But it was such a weird punchline, it made me laugh. Believe me, when you’ve run 84 miles in 20 hours, and you’ve had your feet sliced open and krazy-glued back together, you’ll laugh at anything. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard as I did in that moment. Caelan’s crazy joke got me to the finish line.

So as a thank-you present, I put Caelan in my novel. Except I changed the spelling of her name to “Kaylin.”

Here’s another character in my book:

Kara with the bubble gun

Any guesses who she is?

Believe it or not, it’s Kara (the 40 year-old cop)!

The real-life Kara (above) is tough and fearless and deadly with a bubble gun. That’s how she came to inspire that tough-as-nails character.

I should mention that Kara is also my neice. And she’s not too shabby with the knock-knock jokes either.

Why Run? Why Write?

010-funny-animal-gifs-running-duck

Why do I run?

Because running is my church.

Because it helps me figure out what I think about the world.

Because I love buying running shoes.

Because I like being alone sometimes.

Because running helps me sleep well.

Because I run past interesting things.  Bears, beaver dams, hidden valleys.

Running

Why do I write?

Because writing is my church.

Because it helps me figure out what I think about the world.

Because I love buying new journals.

Because I like being alone sometimes.

Because writing helps me sleep well.

Because I get to write about interesting things.  Bears, floating islands, secret valleys where time stands still.

What to do, what to do... (1)

HAT TIP: above two photos taken by my talented brother, Andy.

 

Polishing the Turd

Which is harder: running a 100-mile race, or writing a novel about it?

A lof of people have asked me this question.  I wasn’t sure how to answer it at first.  “Both nearly killed me!” I blurted out.

Now I have a more thoughtful answer. Both the race, and the book, caused me a TON of pain. But the race only lasted 24 hours. The book, on the other hand, took years to write.

Let me put it another way. A week after I ran the race, my body had recovered and I was bounding around like a gazelle. A week after I wrote the book, I was weeping inconsolably while I plowed through the first of thirteen rewrites.

What to do, what to do... (1)

Funny thing about pain though. Once it’s gone, you forget how much it hurt.

I’m working on my second novel now, and ERMAGHERD – why am I doing this to myself?

Writing a first draft is more painful than sitting through an Optimist Club luncheon. You have to create worlds, map out settings, shape plotlines, and stuff your characters full of strengths and flaws and anxieties and senses of humour. HARD!

Worst of all, when you finish the first draft, you’ll read it over and discover that it’s an 80,000 word turd.

marble

Okay, maybe that’s a bad choice of words. Let’s call it a hunk of marble instead. Either way, it’s massive chunk of verbiage that you’ll be chipping away at for the next two years, or roughly 1/50th OF YOUR LIFE.

Relax, Dave. Breathe deep. With luck, that turd block of marble will one day look like this:

Venus_de_Milo_Louvre_Ma399_n3

I finished the second draft of this novel in July. It was 64,000 words back then. Now, 4 months later, I’ve whittled it down to 54,000 words, and I’m hoping to cut 9,000 more before I’m done. With every sentence I delete, the manuscript gets leaner and better. Nothing makes me happier than a page that looks like this.

rewriting clockwatcher

How “Sydney” and “Ollie” Came to Life

first copy of Ultra

“Ultra – the novel”

There it is. It’s 192 pages long. Weighs 396 grams. And it costs less than a fancy Starbucks coffee.

Talk about a bargain! You might enjoy your Starbucks coffee for 20 minutes. This book, on the other hand, will warm your heart forever.

Why? Because it’s fortified with ten essential characters. Including one who was inspired by this young woman:

Sydney Watson Walters

Sydney, aka “Sydney Watson Walters”

Say hello my niece Sydney. She was five years old when this picture was taken (she’s grown since then, and is now in grade nine). She plays basketball and volleyball, and sings and plays guitar. She’s also, believe it or not, one of the world’s coolest aunts.

How did someone so young inspire a literary character? A character who bears a strong resemblance to Oprah Winfrey?

A couple of years ago, when I was still struggling with the book, I called Syd and asked her for some advice. “I’m going to read you a couple of pages,” I warned her.  “Tell me if the dialogue sounds okay.”

I started reading.  I got halfway though one page when Syd said: “Kids don’t talk like that.”

“Really?” I said. “How do they talk?”

“Like kids,” she said.

Syd offered all sorts of good suggestions. She also asked me a LOT of questions. She said: “What are you trying to do with this scene?”  And, “Am I supposed to like Quinn now? Because I don’t. He’s being a dink. Kneecap needs to tell him to smarten up.”

Re-writing a book is kind of like running on the same stretch of trail over and over. If you’re not careful, you’ll wear the trail down so much that you’re running in a deep trench, and you can’t see over the sides anymore. Syd reached into the trench and pulled me out. Then she sent me down a more interesting path.

Those conversations I had with Syd helped the book A LOT. And I’ll never forget the tough questions Syd posed. She reminded me a bit of a TV journalist. Which is why I borrowed her name for the Sydney Watson Walters character.

SWW

Here’s another family member who inspired a character:

Oliver posing

In the book, Quinn has a little brother named Ollie. Ollie acts as Quinn’s “pacer” during the race. He calls Quinn at all hours of the day and night, and recites crazy jokes to cheer him up. Most importantly, on page 171, Ollie utters a six-word sentence that literally saves Quinn’s race.

I based this funny and wise character on my real-life nephew, Oliver. That’s him above, doing his best Usain Bolt.

Years ago, when I was running the Sulphur Springs 100-mile race, Oliver called me on the phone to wish me luck. It was close to midnight, and I’d run 84 miles.  The moon was out, and I was feeling shockwaves of pain, which isn’t unusual when you’re that far into a race. Still, it was a tough spell, and I felt like I was going to throw up.

I can still remember exactly what Oliver said. He said: “Seriously, Uncle Dave? You’ve run 84 miles already? But it’s not even midnight!  You’re doing great!”

Be careful when you use words of kindness like that. You might just find yourself in a book.

You’re the Inspiration!

How do authors come up with their characters? We dream them up in our heads, right?

Sorta. But not exactly.

If you’ve read my novel “Ultra” then you already know that the main character is a 13 year-old kid named Quinn. But here’s something you may not know: I have a nephew who’s also named Quinn.

Quinn (age 4) and David

Quinn (age 4) and David

There he is. The boy who inspired the character. He’s just a tiny kidling in this picture, but he’s 12 now.

So – how did that adorable little kid inspire the tough-as-nails ultra-runner in the book?

Easy. He’s super-fit. He’s wickedly funny. And he’s determined as anything – just look at those clenched fists! Also, my nephew loves the outdoors, and is always chasing after animals. Which is why, in the book, Quinn is always running into frogs and turtles and, er, bears.

Illustration (by Shawna) from an early version of the book

Illustration (by Shawna) from an early version of the book

Unlike the character in the book, however, my nephew isn’t all that keen on running. (He’s far more interested in soccer and hockey.) And unlike his brooding namesake in the book, the real-life Quinn is most definitely NOT a fun vampire. He’s actually the opposite. More like a fun volcano.

20131126_074358

That’s an early version of the book. Back then it was titled “Quinn and the 100 Mile Race.” That’s Quinn on the right, and his big brother Kiernan on the left. And yes, Kiernan inspired a character too.

At the bottom of page 86, a tough old guy named Kern comes ambling down the trail. He’s what’s known in racing circles as a “bandit” – someone who runs the race illegally. But this bandit isn’t evil. Quite the contrary – he actually ends up saving Quinn’s race.

I wrote Kern into the story as a tribute to all big brothers and sisters. As annoying as they can be on occasion, elder siblings can be life-savers. My own big brother rescued me from near-death countless times. I don’t doubt that Kiernan has done the same for Quinn.

Also worth nothing – Kiernan is an awesome hockey player. So I decided to make the “Kern” character a former hockey great. Like my nephew, I made him a goalie. In my mind, he was a superstar with the Alberta Junior Hockey League.

The "Terry Fox" shoe

The “Terry Fox” shoe

This is the best thing about being an author. You get to put all the people you love in a book. I’m especially lucky, since I have 40 neices and nephews to write about.  Like the one below.  Any guesses which character she inspired?

Sydney Watson Walters

You Don’t Have to be Great to Start…

I’ve been spending so much time lately going BLAH BLAH BLAH about running, I thought I should say a word about writing. After all, if there’s one thing I do more than run, it’s write. True story: after spending 8 hours writing for work, and another two or three hours on my novel, how do you suppose I like to relax in the evenings?

No, I do not yarnbomb neighbourhood stop signs with leg warmers. Instead, I chill out by writing in my journal.

I caught the writing bug early. When I was nine, I started cranking out a weekly newspaper. It had a circulation of 5: my mom, my dad, my two brothers and me.  It looked like this:

weekend household paper 1

It was called The Weekend Household Paper. I wrote it because I was bored. And it’s a good thing too. If I hadn’t been bored enough to write that newspaper, I might never have started keeping a journal.

journals stacked

Just a few of the hundreds of journals I’ve filled over the years. Here are more, stuffed into a steamer trunk:

journals in trunk

I didn’t write anything brilliant in those journals.  Usually I just wrote about the weather, or what me and my friends were getting up to on our bikes. From time to time, I’d write a short story. And it’s a good thing I did. If I hadn’t written those short stories I wouldn’t have had anything to send out to highbrow literary magazines.

rejection letter 3

I have hundreds of rejection letters like that one. Each one of them stung, but they also taught me something important. They taught me that if I really wanted to get published, I’d have to work harder. Much harder.

So I bought a high-tech laptop computer –

Tandy computer

And set about writing 3 mediocre novels.

my 3 bad novels

There they are. They all got rejected too. And it’s a good thing they did. If they hadn’t, I never would have gotten depressed and applied to the CBC for a real job – a job writing comedy shows and game shows and dressing up in funny outfits.

Me in headset

I wasn’t a great writer when I started at CBC, but a half million people were tuning in to the show I was working on, so I had no choice – I had to get better. And it’s a good thing I did, because (A) I got to keep my job, and (B) when a good idea for a novel finally occurred to me, I had enough writing experience to write it half decently…

writing floating island story

That’s me, working on my second book, which I’m hoping will get published in another year or two. Some days I’m not so sure, though. Even though I’ve been writing for years, my first drafts always look like crap. Here’s a page I worked on last night:

Copy of rewrite - floating island

I rewrote my first novel 11 times. I expect my second will take at least as much work, if not more.

Happily, with every rewrite, the story gets better. And it’s always worth it when you cross the finish line. (YESSSSS! Managed to sneak in a running reference after all!)

first copy of Ultra

Remember: You don’t have to be great to start.  But you have to start to be great.

Ultra Good News!

Lots of great things have been happening with the novel. A couple of weeks ago, it was nominated for the Ontario Library Association’s Silver Birch Award. And this morning I woke up to this amazing review in Trail Running magazine, written by the astonishingly perceptive Isabelle East, an 11 year-old trail runner in Alberta:

From this month's Trail Running Canada magazine

From this month’s Trail Running Canada magazine

What Maurice Sendak Taught Me

What’s the best thing about being an author?  Signing books for kids.

It’s not enough to just sign your name. Not for me, anyway. I like to write special messages. If I’ve got time, I’ll write a personalized note for each individual reader.

I do this because, years ago, I interviewed Maurice Sendak for a radio show I was producing. After our chat, he was kind enough to sign a copy of “Where the Wild Things Are” for me. Only, he didn’t just sign his name.  He spent five minutes drawing three of his beloved monsters, waving to me from the title page.

I’m no Sendak, but I still believe in giving people more than just a lousy autograph. So I write little messages like this:

my autograph - you are faster 2

I’m a walking fortune cookie, I know.

Here’s my favourite.  I’ve only written this in one or two books so far:

my autograph - coupon 1

I have no idea who wound up getting that copy of the book. I hope he or she drops me a line sometime. I’d really love to go for that jog.

Last week, after speaking to a class of kids in grades 5 and 6 (my second favourite thing in the world is going into classrooms and telling kids about running 100 mile races and making their dreams come true), all the kids wanted my autograph. Huge thrill! Some of the kids had copies of my book, but quite a few didn’t. So I wound up signing not only copies of Ultra, but also math notebooks, agendas, even post-it notes.

In return, some of the kids gave me their autographs too!

Card from kids

Here are a couple of my favourites:

agatha's note

Noah's note