Re-writing is your Friend

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People often ask me how many times I re-wrote my first novel, Ultra.  Trust me when I say, YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW.

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I wrote the first version waaaaaay back, in the summer of 2008.  It was 20,000 words long, and it swallowed two months of my life.  Back then, it was titled “Quinn and the 100 Mile Race.”

I finished the second draft a month later.  By Christmas I’d rewritten it a third time, and then I sent it out.

I sent it to an agent and also a publisher.  The publisher said some nice things about it.  She said the narration was lovely and warm; perhaps too lovely and warm.  She explained that the warm tone made it hard to believe that the central character was living on top of a calamity.  Which was why she was going to take a pass.

The agent didn’t reply.

I wasn’t too upset about it.  I’ve written lots of stuff over the years that never got published.   That’s the writer’s life.  I stuffed the manuscript in a drawer and forgot about it.

Two years later, I picked it up again.  I re-wrote it for…let’s see…the fourth time.

After 5 months of work, I pitched it 50 agents.  49 of them said, “Thanks but no thanks.”

The fiftieth agent (the brilliant Scott Waxman who represents some of the finest sports writers, including the legendary John L. Parker) called me on the phone.  When I saw the 212 area code on the display, I knew something was up.  Scott told me that he liked my story.  He said, however, that he wasn’t quite ready to offer representation just yet.  There were a few things I ought to think about – if, that is, I was “willing to re-write the manuscript.”   

I thought about the improvements that Scott suggested.  I thought about them for all of ten seconds.

Once again, I started re-writing.  When I finished that re-write I did another.

And then another.

And then another.

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After six months of re-writing, Scott Waxman accepted my novel.  I received an “Offer to Represent” in the mail.

Cue the champagne corks!  Cue the s’mores!

A couple of months later, the novel sold to Scholastic Canada.

MORE champagne!  MORE s’mores!

In the year or so since I signed with Scholastic, I’ve done three more rewrites.  The first took 3 months, the second took one month, the third took a week.

That makes eleven re-writes in all.

I know that sounds like a lot of work, but listen: with every single re-write the book got better!

Lesson learned:

Writing a book, and running 100 miles, are similar in two distinct ways.

(1) Both involve a TON of pain.

and (2) The finish line is incredibly sweet.

Real Life Superheroes, Part 2

Take a look at the runners in these pictures.  Can you tell what makes them all special?

First, there’s America’s Dick Beardsley (on the left):

Dick+Beardsley+and+Inge+Simonsen+finish+the+London+Marathon+together.+Horace+Culter+of+the+Greater+London+council+one+of+the+men+who+made+this+race+possible+watches+on+in+the+background

Up next, Spain’s Fernandez Anaya (in green):

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And finally, Ohio track star Meghan Vogel (blonde hair, on the right):

Meghan Vogel

Any guesses?  Yes, they’re all runners, and yes, they’re crazy fit.  They probably run 100+ miles a week and eat nothing but salads and nuts.  But these incredibly healthy human specimens have something much more interesting – and much more valuable – in common.

You’ve got fifteen seconds to figure it out.  Tick tick tick tick tick…TIME’S UP!

ANSWER: All of these runners are real-life superheroes.  They’re not only fast.  They’re also super kind.

Take Meghan Vogel.  She was competing in her third race of the day.  Ahead of her, a runner crumpled to the ground in the heat.  But instead of dashing past her, she lifted her up, helped her to the finish line, and literally pushed her across the finish line.

Fernandez Anaya (the guy in the green shirt) was equally generous.  He was running second in his race, a ways behind the race leader, Abel Mutai.  As he entered the finishing straight, Fernandez noticed Mutai pull up about 10 metres before the finish line.  Mutai thought he’d crossed the finish line, BUT HE HADN’T!  He still had 30 feet left to go!

Instead of racing past Mutai for the win, Fernandez slowed down and gestured at him to keep running.  He literally helped the OTHER guy win.

Which brings me to the black and white photo of Dick Beardsley at the top.  Dick was running the very first London marathon in 1981.  He and Norway’s Inge Simonsen spent the race battling for first place.  In the finishing stretch, instead of trying to prove who was better than the other, the athletes clasped hands and crossed the finish line together.

How awesome is that?  They acknowledged they were evenly matched, and split the first place prize two ways.

Someone should show these videos to Lance Armstrong.

Out-of-Body Experience

A friend says to me, “hey Dave, want to know the fast track to aging?

What’s that?” I say.

Running!” he says.

Sadly, there’s some truth in the joke.  For every mile you run, you burn 100 calories.  Once you’ve trimmed the fat off the usual places, it starts coming off your face and upper body.  Makes you look a little, er, grizzled.  

I don’t care, I’m addicted.  I’ve got a 100-miler coming up next month, so I’m cramming in as many long runs as possible. Twenty, thirty, forty miles at a time.

I love the long runs.  After a couple of hours of plodding down a trail, I generally slip into a trance.  The breath goes in, the breath goes out.  My feet smack the pavement 180 times a minute.  Running becomes a meditation.  I do not smile or wave at the people I pass.  Instead, I focus on keeping my body tilted slightly forward, and snapping my feet right back into the air the moment they hit the pavement.  (That’s the trick to being fast, by the way – let your feet touch the ground for as short a time as possible.)

I’ve got pictures of me running, and it always astonishes me to look at them. Usually, both of my feet are in midair.  Given that I’ve been running every day for the last 17 years, I have to wonder: how much of my life have I spent completely disconnected from the earth?
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Once, during a marathon, I had an out-of-body experience.  I was running up a nasty hill.  I’d covered 22 miles, and I was getting tired.  “Blinding wall of pain” is a little strong, but I was getting into that territory.

Suddenly, all pain vanished. I couldn’t feel my legs. It seemed to me that I was sitting inside my ribcage, peeking out between my bones at the scenery floating by. I wasn’t doing the running anymore. Someone else was. I was just sitting comfortably in that ribcage, like a kid in a grocery cart.

Then suddenly, I was looking down on myself from above. I saw a short-haired dude in Mizuno sneakers and Drifit shorts, struggling up a ten degree hill. I didn’t see this person as a runner though – I saw him as an extension of the earth. I thought to myself: what silly perseverance! What pointless ambition! And then I stared to laugh.

Of course, the moment I laughed, the vision disappeared. My normal consciousness – and the pain – returned.

Peterborough Half marathon finish - Dave

I finished that marathon in 3:04:25.  Did pretty well in my age category too. My age category, by the way, is 35-49. Of course, I don’t look a day over 60.

Real Life Superheroes, Part 7

You’ve probably heard of exteme sports like base-jumping, free-running, and wake-boarding…

But have you heard of the greatest adrenaline rush of all?

Let me introduce you to…extreme ironing.

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Let’s face it. Everyone’s gotta iron. And ironing’s pretty boring.  So why not make ironing time more fun?

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Welp!

I’m a bit OCD, so this sport really speaks to me. You can do extreme ironing anywhere. Atop a mountain, on board a roller coaster, even at the bottom of the ocean.  All it has to be is…extreme.

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Uh…dude…there’s a shark above your head.

If you love challenging outdoor activities and the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt, then extreme ironing is for you!

And guess what…  One of the stars of the sport is a 17 year-old kid.

Most teenagers aren’t too fond of housework, but Kevin Krupitzer is an exception.  He’s particularly interested in removing creases from his clothes on top of weird rock formations near his home in Arizona.

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My hero, the young Kevin Krupitzer

That doesn’t look too extreme, does it?  Wait a second…let me show you a wide shot:

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No matter how peculiar your passions may be, the world is waiting to see you succeed.

The Man Who Forgot He Wrote a Book

Crazy story – about my talented friend Tim. A warning, though: Tim is successful at, like, everything. He’s an award-winning journalist. Plays violin like Nigel Kennedy. Bakes the most mouth-catering cakes.

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These days, Tim spends most of his time writing children’s books.  But it’s a career that almost never happened.

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Here’s how it came about. A few years ago, Tim’s niece came up for a visit from Colorado. During her stay, she reminded Tim of a poem that he’d written many years before.

“What poem?” said Tim.

She reminded her Uncle of the poem he’d written for her as a gift, back when she was a little girl. A poem about a frog who is appalled to learn that that not all animals share his love of spiders and bugs.

Tim’s niece took the poem to school. Her elementary teacher loved it and read it aloud for the class.

The class, predictably, LOVED the poem. And so, for years, that teacher went on performing it.  An entire generation of Colorado kids grew up on Tim’s poem about the frog – and Tim didn’t even know!

Not long after the niece went back home to Colorado, Tim was telling a group of us about this story. We were at a friend’s book launch, and a literary editor happened to be standing nearby.  It’s a good thing Tim has a loud speaking voice because the editor overheard the story, and asked to see the poem. And presto! That poem got turned into a book.

The book sold a lot of copies. So Tim was asked to write a sequel. That one sold well too, so a third book was requested. It’s coming out in November, with a fourth book already in production.

And it all began from a poem that Tim forgot that he’d written!

What writer doesn’t have dreams like this? That at some point in our scribbly past, we wrote a brilliant poem, or short story, or novel, and forgot all about it? Lord knows we’ve got enough journals and floppy discs and thumb drives full of forgotten writing lying around… Surely, somewhere among all those literary droppings there’s gotta be something  worth publishing, right?

Quite possibly.

As this wonderful story also attests.

Sweaty to Office Ready

A few Februaries ago, while standing on a streetcar, politely absorbing the cloud of germs radiating from the human flu cases all around me, I glanced out the window and had a revelation.

A happy-looking runner bounded up the sidewalk. A vapour trail of snow whorled behind her.

*Jan 19 - 00:05*Brilliant, I thought!  Why hadn’t I thought of it before?  Instead of suffering for hours on public transit, I could be running to work, and losing weight at the same time!

Ever since that revelation, I’ve been running to and from work every day.  I’m saving money on transit, I’m saving time, and my oxygen-rich blood has led to improved performance at work.

Still, I’ll be the first to admit that the running commute can be fraught with peril. Over the years I’ve been caught half-in and half-out of my spandex tights in the photocopy room.  I’ve been referred to as “Chicken Legs Carroll” at a staff meeting.  And I’ve been accused of “stinking up” workstations 2G208 through 2G212.

More on that latter item in a moment, but first, I’d like to address the most significant challenge facing the commuting runner: wardrobe planning.  Any casual runner is capable of keeping a spare shirt or two at the office.  But what about us addicts who run both to and from work, each and every day of the week?  To do this successfully, some planning is in order.

Once a week, I pack a duffel bag full of clean clothes and shlep it downtown. Three pairs of pants, three dress shirts, and four tee-shirts generally do the trick. I also leave a few items at work permanently – sports jacket, belts, a filing cabinet full of clean socks.

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My filing cabinet holds all manner of fine toggery

It’s not a fail-safe plan.  Countless are the times I’ve grabbed a clean shirt, shoes, underwear and socks from my filing cabinet, and headed for the showers only to discover that I have no pants.

What the….WHERE ARE MY PANTS!?!

Ever sat through a board meeting in dri-fit shorts?

But maintaining a satellite wardrobe is only the half the battle.  It’s also critically important to be pre-emptive with one’s sweaty laundry.

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Hide-a-stench

For this, I look no further than my trusty Coleman cooler.  With its airtight seal, that baby can store up to 3 days worth of biological waste without emitting any foul smog.

Despite these precautions, I still get the occasional complaint from my neighbor at workstation 2G212.  I’m doing everything I can, but frankly, I think it’s time for our industry leaders to lend a hand.  If companies really want to attract health-conscious and carbon-neutral employees, they need to get ahead of the fitness curve.  I’m not talking about bike racks and shower rooms.  These days, those are the mere baseline.  I’m talking about lunch-hour massages, Gatorade and Clif shot energy gels in the vending machines, and most importantly, same-day dry cleaning service.

And would it really kill our bosses to keep an ironing board in the photocopy room?  I mean, c’mon!

The evidence beneath my desk

The evidence beneath my desk

You’ll find a good article with tips on how to run-commute here.

In Every Race There is a Surprise, Part 2

I love running 100 mile races.  And one of my favourites takes place this month.

The Sulphur Springs Trail Run is held in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area in Southern Ontario.  The race follows a series of hard-pack trails that weave in and out of steep gorges carved thousands of years ago by retreating glaciers. Over the course of the 20-kilometer loop (which you run 8 times), you pass through dense Carolinian forests and wildflower-strewn meadows.

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Gorgeous

To answer your question, yes, there’s a bit of hill-climbing.  Over the course of the 100 miles, you have to gut your way up 4600 metres of elevation.  That’s like 8 CN towers stacked on top of each other.

Sadly, I won’t be running the race this year.  Instead, I’ll be working this mind-blowingly awesome music festival.  It’s a decent trade-off, but I’ll still be thinking about Sulphur Springs while I’m rocking out.  I’ve said before that every 100-mile race holds a surprise of some sort, and I’ve had more than my share in that particular race…

For instance.  Five years ago I was toeing the starting line with a hundred or so other runners.  It was late May, and it was six in the morning, and most of us were wearing headlamps.

Most – but not all.

“3…2…1…GO!” shouted the race director.

“Yaaaaaaaaa!” we runners yelled, charging heroically into the darkness.

We ran for maybe 30 seconds, down a gravel road toward the trailhead. Everyone jostled for position as the road got narrower, and soon we were funneling into a straight line.

Did I mention that it was dark?  That we were moving fast?

Soddenly, right in front of me, someone shouted: “Look out!  Look out!  Look out!”

The offending posts!

The offending posts

Four metal posts were sticking out of the ground.  They were two-and-a-half feet high.  Castration height.

“Look out! Look out! Look out!”

The crowd parted, and I slipped safely between the posts. The guy beside me wasn’t so lucky, and went down with a horror-movie scream.

IN EVERY RACE THERE IS A SURPRISE.

Poor guy.  He’d run all of 200 metres.

Happily, the following year, the starting line was moved to a different area of the park.  I have no idea if that was coincidental or not.

* * *

Running a hundred miles is not like running shorter distances.  In the 100 mile race, you don’t compete with other people.  You compete against yourself.  More precisely, you compete against your own mind.  You would think that your mind would be on your side in an endurance event.  But it is not.  Your mind is your worst enemy.  Your mind is on the side of your body, and your body wants nothing more than to go home, lie down in a hammock, and eat a bag of barbecue chips.

Oh sure, every now and again, your mind will say something nice to you, like: “The bath you take after this race sure is going to feel good!”  Or, “It sure is nice, being outside in the fresh air!”  But most of the time your mind says nasty things like: “You’re stupid for trying this; you should drop out and go home.”

That’s what my mind was saying to me a couple of years ago, when I was once again running Sulphur Springs.  I’d been running for 80-odd miles and it was the middle of the night and my mind was saying: “You are a stupid bloody fool.  Why are you doing this to yourself?”

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I’ll never forget finishing my 7th loop. At the turnaround, the volunteer lady gave me a high five and offered me a slice of pizza.  I declined, since I still had one final 20-kilometer loop to do.  “No you don’t,” she said.  “You’ve already done your 8.  Just look at the clipboard.”

I stared at the clipboard, and counted the laps.  She was right, I’d done 8, not 7 like I thought.

Which meant –

I WAS DONE!!!

Believe me when I tell you – that was the happiest moment of my life.  

Of course, later that day, the pain really set in.  I had a burning Achilles tendon, and I lost all feeling in six of my toes.  My calves and left shin were…hmmm, let me see.  What were they exactly?  Ah yes, they were a blinding wall of pain.  That’s right, that’s what they were.

On the bright side, I was given permission to use the physical disability washroom at work.  That handle on the wall beside the toilet was a godsend. 

 

Writing is my AEIOU and Sometimes Y

Note to self: kids are really smart.

Case in point.  The other day I got interviewed by a grade 10 student.  He needed to dissect a living writer for a class project, and somehow, poor guy, he got saddled with me.  We went for a coffee, and then I dragged him into a radio studio  (the same studio, I should add, where the fabled literary broadcaster, Eleanor Wachtel, conducts all of her interviews).  The student pulled out his iPhone, pressed record, and placed it on the desk between us. He asked me some very good questions – about writing, working in the field of journalism, how much education is needed to get a job in broadcasting, and how to build a career as a fiction writer.

He gave me a real grilling.  And then, near the end of our discussion, he asked me this: “Knowing what you know now, if you had to go back and do it all over again, would you still set out to be a fiction writer?”

OMG.  He had me.  I froze.

As a seasoned interviewer, I usually love moments like this.  The moment when a question hits the bulls-eye, and you can see your guest squirming, because he or she has secretly been asking him or herself the exact same question – possibly for years.

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

If I had to go back and do it again, would I still set out to become a fiction writer?  I had to hand it to the student – his random drilling had hit a geyser.

“Do you want me to be completely honest?” I asked.

The student grinned from ear to ear.  “Of course,” he said.

No way, I thought to myself, I’d avoid writing like the plague.  It’s nothing but an endless road of pain!  

Want proof?  I wrote my first novella more than 2 decades ago.  It never got published.  Neither did the two novels I wrote after that.   And of the 100+ short stories I composed after that, only a handful made it to print.

NO, DAVE.  BE HONEST.  3 GOT PUBLISHED.  ONLY 3.  And the money I earned from them didn’t even cover the cost of the printer ink and stamps!

If someone had sat me down back in 1990 and done the calculus; if they’d explained how hard I’d have to work, how many hours of sleep I’d lose, how much my arteries would harden, how awkward I’d feel each time a friend asked how my book was coming along…  If someone had told me all that two decades ago, would I still have gone into writing?  No, probably not.  You’d have to be crazy to embrace a career like that.

It’s one of the great mercies of the universe that I didn’t know the odds I was facing when I started out.  This isn’t limited to writing.  If any of us truly knew how much heartache was in store for us, we’d never do anything.  If we knew how hard it would be to maintain relationships, we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.  If my parents had warned me about the skinned knees I’d get while learning to ride a bike, I never would’ve let them take my training wheels off.

Signs of spring

I still hadn’t answered the student’s  question.  Sensing my difficulty, he shifted gears.  “How about this,” he said at last,  “what has writing given you?”

The question was a relief, and I was flooded with good memories.  I started rhyming off the list: writing gave me a purpose in life, it gave me the career I now enjoy, it helps pay my mortgage, it stills my mind during stressful times.

Writing is my sun and my moon.  It is my breakfast, lunch and dinner.  It is my AEIOU and sometimes Y.

And in spite of all those rejections I mentioned earlier, writing eventually did make my dream come true.

Ultra cover

Repeat to Failure

I’ve been upping my mileage lately.  I’ve got a 50-mile race coming up in July, and my usual 100-mile “fun run” in September.  Let the training begin!

I love the extra hours outside, but I’m having trouble keeping my weight up. Yesterday, in the span of five minutes, three different people expressed concern about my evaporating waistline.  They looked startled by my appearance – as if I were a mangy stray who’d left an unwanted deposit on their front lawn.

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The trouble is, I can’t eat enough food to keep pace with my caloric output.  60 miles per week = roughly 6000 extra calories burned.  That’s a lot of fettuccine alfredo.

My friend Paul tells me I should be cross training more.  Paul is a weight lifter, and he keeps promoting this thing called “repeat to failure.”

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You wouldn’t think that weight-lifters are the smartest people.  Paul, for instance, spends most of his free time grunting and lifting impossibly heavy discs.  And yet, weight-lifters have somehow come up with one of the most brilliant concepts of all time.

Repeat to Failure basically means you lift the maximum amount of weight possible – for a limited number of repetitions.  Whereas you might normally lift a 20-pound weight fifteen times, with repeat to failure, you’d lift double the weight – but only for five or six reps.  The idea is to stress your muscles to the point of collapse while also – and this is the tricky part – avoiding injury.

Yes, there’s pain involved.  But, as my friend Paul points out, pain is how you grow.

“Every time I lift a massive weight over my head, I’m literally shredding my back and neck his muscles,” Paul told me. “But later on, scar tissue will grow on top of those damaged muscles.  And guess what that scar tissue will turn into?  Bigger muscles!”

Repeat to Failure strikes me as a wonderful metaphor for life.  Why tread on familiar ground, over and over?  We only grow by pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones.  And the moment of our greatest failure can lead us to the threshold of our greatest success.

This is true whether you’re a weight-lifter, or a runner, or a writer, or a knitter, or a photographer, or a snake charmer or a Minecraft player.  We only get better by taking on bigger and heavier challenges.  And as much as the failures hurt, they almost always make us stronger.

Failures aren’t failures.  They’re stepping stones to success.

Real Life Superheroes, Part 2

Take a look at the runners in these pictures.  Can you tell what makes them all special?

First, there’s America’s Dick Beardsley (on the left):

Dick+Beardsley+and+Inge+Simonsen+finish+the+London+Marathon+together.+Horace+Culter+of+the+Greater+London+council+one+of+the+men+who+made+this+race+possible+watches+on+in+the+background

Up next, Spain’s Fernandez Anaya (in green):

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And finally, Ohio track star Meghan Vogel (blonde hair, on the right):

Meghan Vogel

Any guesses?  Yes, they’re all runners, and yes, they’re crazy fit.  They probably run 100+ miles a week and eat nothing but salads and nuts.  But these incredibly healthy human specimens have something much more interesting – and much more valuable – in common.

You’ve got fifteen seconds to figure it out.  Tick tick tick tick tick…TIME’S UP!

ANSWER: All of these runners are real-life superheroes.  They’re not only fast.  They’re also super kind.

Take Meghan Vogel.  She was competing in her third race of the day.  Ahead of her, a runner crumpled to the ground in the heat.  But instead of dashing past her, she lifted her up, helped her to the finish line, and literally pushed her across the finish line.

Fernandez Anaya (the guy in the green shirt) was equally generous.  He was running second in his race, a ways behind the race leader, Abel Mutai.  As he entered the finishing straight, Fernandez noticed Mutai pull up about 10 metres before the finish line.  Mutai thought he’d crossed the finish line, BUT HE HADN’T!  He still had 30 feet left to go!

Instead of racing past Mutai for the win, Fernandez slowed down and gestured at him to keep running.  He literally helped the OTHER guy win.

Which brings me to the black and white photo of Dick Beardsley at the top.  Dick was running the very first London marathon in 1981.  He and Norway’s Inge Simonsen spent the race battling for first place.  In the finishing stretch, instead of trying to prove who was better than the other, the athletes clasped hands and crossed the finish line together.

How awesome is that?  They acknowledged they were evenly matched, and split the first place prize two ways.

Someone should show these videos to Lance Armstrong.