The Rewrite Blues

Did any of you have a good weekend? I hope so – because I didn’t.

Chapter 24, page 153, Rewrite #3

I spent the whole weekend re-writing the final chapter of my second novel. It was a grind. I didn’t go outside once. I considered hiking out to the drive shed to split some kindling for the fire but in the end I didn’t even do that. Stayed inside instead. Kept going back to chapter 24. Oh my Lord, it’s so uninspired. It’s the chapter that comes after the climax, so it’s all epilogue and tying up plot complications and trying to frog-march my main characters into a big group hug. They’re not having any of it, of course. Instead, they keep yapping at each other, venting their frustrations, squabbling, coming up with petty reasons why the book shouldn’t end.

ideas

Worse, the writing is completely uninspired. It doesn’t even feel like writing; it’s just a bunch of linguistic droppings.

Relax, Dave.  You’ve been here before. It’s just a part of the creative process.

True. I’ll re-write the chapter again today, and then again tomorrow, and probably the day after that as well. At some point (maybe a year from now) it’ll turn into real writing.

By the way, this novel, unlike my last one, doesn’t contain any running. Instead, it’s about a kid who loves mountain biking.

mountain biking rush

So I did have a little bit of fun this weekend, recalling my experiences as a cyclist, and writing phrases like this:

Flecks of mud thrown up by the tires; puddle-spray slishing against his legs and…

Finn thought of that bike frame as an extension of his own body, extra bones that…

Adrenaline blitzed his senses, sparks were detonating in his retinas…

He kicked harder, until his lungs were bursting. The pain in his legs began to spike…

His tires slipped in the gravel and he cranked the bike forward so hard the frame made cracking noises…

I also did some mountain bike research, like watching this:

Quinn and the 100-Mile Map

winnie

When I was a kid, I loved books that had maps. For instance: A. A. Milne’s “Winnie-the-Pooh” (above). And Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons:”

ArthurRansomeMap

I loved being able to follow along with the characters; to know exactly where they were as they went about their adventures.

Those books inspired me to draw maps of my own. I spent a lot of time designing imaginary worlds; countries jam-packed with hidden tunnels and valleys. Mountains and caves were essential too. Secret getaway places. Strongholds. Forts.

I never lost my love of maps. So when I wrote my novel Ultra, of course I needed a map!

hand drawn map of race course

That’s a map of Hither Lake; the body of water Quinn circumnavigates in his 100-mile race. You might notice that the shape of the lake bears an uncanny resemblance to the lake where I spent a lot of summers as a kid:

Kennisis

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

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.

To DNF or Not to DNF?

Warning: a graphic picture of my feet appears in this post.

But first, a very pleasant image:

r-BABY-BATS-large570

A bunch of baby bats, wrapped up in little blankets.  I don’t know why they’re wrapped up like that.  Maybe they were cold and wet.  Just like me, last September…

***

I already mentioned that I run 100-mile races, right?  That once or twice a year I go to some remote forest, line up with a bunch of crazy people, and run without sleeping for 24+ hours.

It’s a weird sport called ultra-running.  I’ve run a dozen or so of these ultra-marathons in the last five years.

Every single time, I finished successfully.  Until September 2012.  When I ultra-failed.

The Haliburton Forest Trail Run is held at the Haliburton Wildlife Reserve; a sustainable forest tucked into the armpit of Algonquin Park.  You run 25 miles out into the heart of the forest, then you turn around and run 25 miles back.  And then you do the whole thing OVER AGAIN.

Here’s what the starting line looked like at 5:59 a.m.

At the starting line

This is how it looked 90 seconds later:

6 AM, and they're off

One hundred miles. 160 kilometers. Half a million strides. Starting NOW.

The race took place September 8, 2012 which, in case you’ve forgotten, was a rainy day. Very rainy, come to think of it.  It rained for eighteen hours before the race began, and then, for good measure, it rained another 12 hours while the race was happening.  This created a lot of mud.

Here I am at the 50 mile turnaround:

David Haliburton 2012

I look happy, don’t I?  Don’t be fooled.  I’d been running for ten hours, and I was far from happy.  I was…what’s the word….oh yeah – UNHAPPY.

Everyone was in pain out there.  At mile 54, I caught up with a young guy named Pablo.  Pablo was having trouble with his hip, and he squinted with every step he took.  He wasn’t giving up, though.   “Pain equals learning,” he told me.  “If you aren’t feeling any pain, then you’re not learning anything.”

The rain finally stopped, and darkness fell.  At the 68-mile checkpoint I pulled on my headlamp.  I ran for two miles, then noticed that the light was flickering.  Cheap Dollar Store batteries!  I ran two miles back to the aid station and picked up my spares.  These worked fine, but I’d had to run four miles out of my way.

(2nd warning – that picture of my feet is coming soon!)

I reached the 75-mile checkpoint by 11pm, which meant I still had a shot at finishing the race in 24 hours.  Shawna surprised me at the aid station.  She fed me yogurt-covered raisins and salted yams, and told me that I looked surprisingly good, considering the circumstances.

Luckily, she didn’t ask to see my feet.

Dave's gnarly feet 1

Those are the tops of my feet.  Believe me, you don’t want to see the bottoms.

Remember, I’d been running through muddy oil-slicks for 17 hours straight.  I probably should have changed shoes and socks and greased my feet with Vaseline, but that would have taken an extra twenty minutes (it takes a lot of time to perform these seemingly simple manoeuvres when you’re wet and cold from 17 hours of running).

I ran on.  I made it to the 85 mile checkpoint, but then things started to fall apart.  At the top of a hill, I saw a two-storey marble sculpture of a rabbit.  I ran closer and realized it wasn’t a marble sculpture at all, but a tree.  I became dizzy.  My feet were SCREAMING with pain.  So was the chafing on my, er, undercarriage.  I slowed down to a walk.  And then, without the heat generated from the running, my body temperature plummeted.

I was wearing three layers of clothes, plus a running jacket and tights, but it wasn’t enough.  The temperature dipped down to 5 degrees, and I began shivering uncontrollably.  I could barely hike the hills I’d pranced up earlier in the day.  A germ of an idea took root in my mind.  You don’t have to finish if you don’t want to, it said.

It’s called a DNF, and it stands for Did Not Finish.  I’d never DNF’d in my life.

But the pain in my feet was getting worse and it felt like my butt cheeks were being ripped to shreds with every step.  The germ solidified in my mind.

And so, at 3 a.m., after running 89 miles (which was actually 93 if you count the extra miles I ran to get my spare batteries), I did something truly crazy.  At the intersection of Ben’s Trail and Krista Trail, right near the makeshift Shrine which was the inspiration for a VERY IMPORTANT SCENE in my newly published novel (“ULTRA,” Scholastic), I intentionally walked off the trail.

“This is how it feels to DNF,” I told myself, stepping over the line of orange and pink flags.

And you know what?

It felt GREAT.

Mind you, after leaving the course, I still had to bushwhack two more miles through the forest before I stumbled upon a logging road.  And then I had to wait until a car came along and mercifully picked me up.  So in the end I figured I covered 95 miles.

Which wasn’t enough.

****

23 people finished that race.  31 DNF’d.

Pablo, that guy I’d chatted with during the race, was one of the successful ones.  I cheered as he crossed the finish line.  When he saw me, he beamed.

“How did you do?” he asked.

“I DNF’d,” I admitted.  “I couldn’t handle the mud.”

“What?  No!  You were looking so good out there!”

It took a while to convince him that this was good, that this was my decision, and I was comfortable with it.  I’ve had plenty of successful races before, and I wanted to see how failure played out.  There is a cult around winning, around success, completion.  But there is a wintry beauty in its opposite – in failure, chances lost.

“Pain equals learning,” I reminded Pablo.

He grinned, leaned down and rubbed his hip.  “Then we must be geniuses now,” he said.

* * *

One last thought on pain and learning.

rejection letter

This is a standard rejection letter, from one of those highbrow literary journals that almost all writers dream of getting published in, but that very few people actually read.  I’ve got millions of these forms lying around, from all the lousy short stories I sent out over the years.

Every one of those letters stung.   But as Pablo pointed out in the race, pain can be instructive.

If you’re going to be a writer, you’ll have to deal with rejection at some point.  But you can view these rejections in one of two ways:

1) You can see them as stop signs.  As brick walls.

2) Or you can see them as an invitation to keep pushing.

If you’re suffering from hypothermia, or excruciating chafing, by all means, take some time off to recover.  Otherwise, keep writing.  The finish line is out there – somewhere.

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