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.

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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.

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.

Grab your Dream by the Throat and Don’t Let Go

Something lovely happened over the weekend.  Mary Ito, the host of CBC’s Fresh Air, gave a great plug for my book.

fresh-air-

I didn’t hear it, but friends did. They told me that a woman who’d heard my interview with Mary a couple of weeks back sent an e-mail to the show. She’d given a copy of “Ultra” to her 11 year-old grand-daughter. The grand-daughter devoured it in, like, 2 days.

You have no idea how happy this makes me. Not that Mary read the e-mail (though that was nice too), but that an 11 year-old girl actually liked my book!!!  

I spent twenty years writing short stories and novels. They were awful. Then, suddenly, a couple of years ago, a different kind of story burst out of me; a story about the most unlikely of subjects – a 13 year-old boy who runs a 100-mile footrace. And it got published. And now kids are reading it. Not just boys; girls too. That’s thrilling. Better than thrilling. It’s a dream come true.

Which is funny, because that’s what the novel is about too. Dreams coming true. Oh, I know there’s a big, fat running shoe on the cover, and I know the novel is called “Ultra” – as in ULTRA MARATHON, but at its heart, the book isn’t really about running. It’s about something far more universal.

It’s about grabbing your dreams by the throat and never letting them go.

Cavan Hills 4/10 km Walk/Run, 2013

You probably won’t ever run a 100-mile race. That’s okay. Actually, that’s good! 100 mile races aren’t for everyone. It’s an extreme sport, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone – unless they’re into blisters and hallucinations and smacking into bears in the forest.

But here’s what I DO recommend. And here’s what I hope readers will take away from the book. Ready? Here goes. You too can achieve your dreams.

Simple isn’t it? Totally doable. Doesn’t matter what your dream is. Want to write the perfect pop song? You can do it. Want to study at the Cordon Bleu cooking school? You can do it. Want to save Blackberry from extinction? You can do it. Want to become a marine biologist and swim with the dolphins? You can do that too. You’ll get wet, but you can do it.

Figure out your dream, then HANG ON TIGHT. As tightly if you were riding the back of a whale.

Keep chasing your dreams. I know they move fast. But trust me: You are FASTER!!!!!

Inch by Inch it’s a Cinch

A friend recently wrote this on her Facebook wall: Need advice on how to balance 9-5 job with creative projects. 

Trestle bridge

The comments rained down. Kill your TV, get a housekeeper, lose the social life, sleep less.

I thought this: Any self-respecting creative project won’t give you any choice. It’ll hijack your life all on its own.

I know this first-hand. My last creative project (a middle grade novel called “Ultra”) picked me up by the ankles and shook me upside down until 45,000 words came tumbling out.

It was exciting to be swallowed up by the project, but it left me feeling pretty queasy. My little “creative project” informed me, in no uncertain terms, what aspects of my life were priorities, and which aspects needed to be discarded.

There was only one priority. Namely, the novel. Absolutely everything else (family, friends, relationship, wardrobe, personal cleanliness, Game of Thrones) got jettisoned.

I wouldn’t recommend it. I’m still apologising to my wife for that 12-month stretch when I went AWOL.

I love you (again)

There is a better way, of course. If you want to lead a creative life and still keep your job and hang out with your friends and family and children from time to time, the best approach is to play the long game.  Don’t try to paint or write or dance or strum or quilt a masterpiece in a month or two. Instead, scratch out a few minutes, here and there, whenever you can. Every single day. And then – don’t stop.

If you’re a writer, try to write one page per day. That might not sound like a lot, but if you do it religiously, you’ll have an entire book by year’s end.

(True story: I know a writer who keeps a writing pad in the car, so she can jot down ideas in 15 second bursts, whenever she hits a red light.)

It’s like exercising. Experts recommend that we get 45 minutes of physical activity per day, a minimum of 3 days per week. That’s not a lot – barely 2% of the week. And yet if we do it religiously, it’s enough to dramatically transform our lives.

On the road

Photo hat tip: big brother Andy.

Facing Down a Tornado

There’s a scene in my novel (now available, by the way!), in which the main character runs into a tornado while running a 100-mile race.

tornado

IIlustration from an early version of the novel

That’s Quinn, the main character, running along the shore of Hither Lake. Hailstones were crashing down around him, “like rocks in a blender.”

I included this extreme weather in the story because I once experienced a tornado while hanging out at my family cottage in Ontario. Nobody got hurt, but our nerves sure got frayed. Trees broke in two. We lost power for weeks.

This past summer, we had another tornado warning. My brother, The Photographer, caught the threatening skies on film. Here’s what the lake actually looked like.

Tornado warning

This is What a Dream Comes True Looks Like:

first copy of Ultra

Yesssss!

My first novel. In my hands. For realsies.

It was the hardest thing I ever did.  Writing the thing was only half the battle. Getting it published was even harder.

But this feeling, this moment, makes it all worthwhile.

To those of you who are struggling to get your writing into print, please, don’t give up! It can be done. Hard work pays off.

Dave poster 2

And I must give a huge shout-out to my nieces and nephews – who inspired this story, lent their names to some of the characters, helped me with the jokes and dialogue, and even shared early versions of the book with their classmates.  You all deserve a finisher’s medal:

Aaron, Alex, Ali, Ben, Benjamin, Brody, Caelan, Caitlin, Caleb, Christopher, Daniel, Darcie, Grace S., Grace W., Jackson, Julia, Julian, Kara, Kelsey, Kiernan, Leonardo, Lucy-Claire, Luke, Monty, Madelaine, Maggie, Mateos, Nate, Oliver, Olivia, Parisinia, Quinn, Ray, Riley, River, Rowan, Rylee, Sacha, Skyler, Sofia, Sydney, Tahnee, Tobias, Zoe.

Re-writing is your Friend

SCAN0006

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.

Image

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.

SCAN0007

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.

Gifts from our Journals

Write in a journal long enough, and you’ll eventually earn some interest on your deposits.

I’ve been scribbling in journals since 1994.  And seeing as I burn through a 200-page notebook in the same time it takes me to sand down a pair of running shoes (every two months or so), I must have close to 120 old ones lying around.

From time to time, I’ll pick one up and read it.  Just to remind myself what I was thinking at a particular time.

Every now and again I’ll come across a nice turn of phrase, maybe even something I can use in a future story.  For instance, I just found the line “she had sunburned cheeks, the colour of squashed plums.”  It’s a bit florid, but you never know, I may use it someday.

Occasionally I’ll come across something that I’m not 100% certain that I wrote.  For instance:

“Family is like a staple in your heart.  It hurts like hell.  But it holds us together.”

Usually when I steal a line from someone else, I’ll attribute the source.  But in that case, I didn’t credit anyone.  Does that mean I wrote those great lines myself?

Possible, but not likely.  I was sorely tempted to use those lines in my soon-to-be-published book, but in the end, I didn’t trust that it was mine, so I left it out.

Sometimes, while sniffing through old journals, I’ll come across  an unexpected surprise.  I have no idea why I was thinking about fables in 2009, but here’s what I wrote in September of that year:

One day Cricket was tired.  Turtle was passing by, and so she let Cricket climb onto her back.  Turtle swam through the water, which made Cricket very excited.  The waves!  The sunshine!  The sense of adventure! 

In gratitude, Cricket bent his legs, and sang a song for Turtle.  Turtle pulled up onto the shore, and sat there awhile, listening to the beautiful music.  Turtle fell in love with Cricket’s song, and the pair stayed together for many years.  They were very happy, what with Cricket singing songs, and Turtle ferrying the two of them back and forth across the river.

One day, Turtle dug a hole and lay an egg.  When the egg hatched, a funny-looking creature popped out.  It sang songs like a cricket, and had long legs which it used to jump.  But it loved to swim through the water with webbed hands and feet.

And that is how Frog came into the world.

Again, I didn’t attribute it to anyone.  Does that mean I actually wrote it myself?  Or did I hear it told aloud at a storytelling event, or from a child, and rush home to share it with my journal?

I can’t be sure.  I don’t remember.  So if anyone recognizes this story, please let me know.