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.”

What a Year You’ve Had!

College and Bathurst, at night

You woke up so early, no one else in the world had been born. You ran so fast they put up new speed limit signs in your honour. You climbed so high, you were blinded by the bald spot on God’s head. You loved so well, France grew ashamed and fell into the sea.

Suddenly, it grew dark – so dark, the stars got lost. You cried so bitterly that your furniture floated away. You slept so deeply, owlings nestled close to you for warmth. When you awoke, you were so beautiful, you were asked to play Beyonce in a movie.

You ran some more. So fast, Einstein’s theories came into question. So fast, the large Hadron collider was deemed obsolete. You worked so hard, Mr. Barack Obama wrote you a doctor’s note and insisted you to take the next day off. You wrote so well, Alice Munro asked for your advice on a new short story.

Morning at the lake

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

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

A Goal is a Dream with a Deadline

Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 2012

48 hours until the Toronto marathon. I’m excited but…is that a hamstring pull I feel? And where’d that hangnail on my left toe come from?

Ah yes, the pre-race jitters. Nothing new there. But the stakes are different this time. I want to run 26.2 miles in less than 3 hours. If the stars align, and God looks down and blows a kiss at my legs, then I’ll succeed. If there’s a bad headwind, or if the temperature dips below 5 degrees, or if I eat too much spaghetti on Saturday night and wind up visiting the porta-potty during the race, I’ll fail.

I put my chances at 50-50. Still – I REALLY WANT IT! In the past, whenever someone has asked me my marathon finishing time, I’ve had to give them a number that started with a 3.  I finished my first marathon in 3:36. A year later I qualified for Boston with a 3:18. A couple of years after that I nailed a 3:04.

Just imagine, I tell myself, owning a finishing time that starts with a 2. I dream of a 2. My kingdom for a 2!

Flash

“Would you say you’re a goal oriented person?” a journalist asked me the other day.

I had to think about this. What is a goal, anyway?

A dream is a goal with a deadline. I didn’t write that. I saw it on the wall at my gym.

I think it’s true though. Dreams are basically useless until you put a clock on them; until you wrestle them to the ground and turn them into reality. If you fail in the attempt, then at least you’ve got a story. But if you succeed, Whoo hoo! Crack open the golden fudge creme Oreos!

So yeah, I suppose I’m a goal oriented person. But I’m not religious about it. I’m cool with failure.

Proof: I tried to break the three-hour barrier once before, and failed. And when I crossed the finish line, I did what I always do at the end of a race: I LAUGHED MY FACE OFF!

Seriously. I always start giggling when I cross a finish line. I’m so happy to not to be running anymore! I often do a pirouette as I sail through the finisher’s chute.

So regardless of my finishing time, I can tell you exactly what I’ll be doing this Sunday morning at 11:45 am. I’ll be cruising up Bay Street in downtown Toronto, with a big goofy grin on my face. I’ll be surrounded by thousands of cheering Torontonians – people kind enough to support loved ones (and some strangers) who are chasing a dream.

go-random-stranger-go-stwm-scotiabank-toronto-waterfront-marathon-bay-street-finish-line-sunday-october-14-2012

And afterward, I’ll go home and rake the leaves in the yard and clean the bathroom upstairs and then I’ll maybe make a borscht. I’ll put my finisher’s medal in the shoebox with all the others. And I’ll laugh about the importance and the folly of the number 2.