The hype cycle (aka. the process)

Hello. It’s 2019. Is it passe to say Happy New Year?

It’s been radio silence here for the past four weeks because…drum roll…I’ve been writing! As in actual words and sentences and paragraphs and scenes and things that could possibly even be called CHAPTERS. Every time I manage to get words on a page it really does feel miraculous.

Today I was listening to the latest episode of the podcast Zig Zag. It’s about The Hype Cycle which is a graph created by tech analyst Jackie Fenn a quarter century ago. This graph was meant to describe new technology (ie. bitcoin, Twitter, push notifications) but it’s been borrowed by other fields and its basics are a helpful way to think of the writing process.

Image via Gartner

Image via Gartner

The Hype Cycle has five phases:

1. initial spark of innovation
2. peak of expectation
3. trough of disillusionment
4. slope of enlightenment
5. plateau of productivity

Every story begins with the first idea. It might not even be a very big idea but that match gets lit and it sets off a bonfire and you get so jazzed about writing this amazing thing.

That sets off phase two which is when you’re deep in the writing zone, churning out pages and pages and completely engaged with your project. It’s such a happy time, possibly the happiest time! At some point though you tumble into phase three, the pit of hell and despair. I have been thinking about the trough of disillusionment a lot because I know it is looming on my horizon but also because I’ve been evaluating manuscripts for other writers this month and I am always conscious of the need to balance critique and praise. My job is to question areas where I feel the draft is weak and offer suggestions for possible improvements. The risk is - especially with writers who I don’t know well or at all - that my comments will throw them into the trough and they won’t try to climb out.

Here’s the thing: the trough is a necessary part of the process. It’s like driving through the isthmus between St. John’s and Terra Nova National Park. Sometimes that damn isthmus is a death trap and the fog is low and there’s a horrible blizzard and you’re driving with zero visibility. But there’s literally no other way to get to the Park. You just have to white knuckle through it. The trough is the same. There’s no way to get to a better draft without seeing the flaws and feeling bad about them.

The trick is to keep calm and carry on. Don’t give up. And don’t deceive yourself into thinking the flaws aren’t there. Accept the flaws. Start trying to fix them. That’s phase four, the gradual work of revision and correction. And onward to the plateau of productivity. That initial hopeful burst doesn’t really come back. For one thing, after some time, the idea is no longer novel. But what you get instead in these last two stages is gradual improvement. Little by little. Until the end.

Sometimes you have to cycle through phases two and three several times while working on a single project. Dr. Math and I have this running joke in our house. He comes home from a day of research and I ask: “How was it?” If it’s been a good day he says: “I solved this lemma. I’m a genius!” But inevitably, the following day he’ll come home with a hang dog, downtrodden expression and tell me the breakthrough he made yesterday ended up only being a partial solution. Or he’s now discovered some other loose thread. Scientific research and fiction writing, if plotted on graphs would look much like the same rollercoaster. See the ride through to the end. That’s what I’m saying.

Can't Lit

Back in February, during my trip to Vancouver, I had a chance to finally meet two of my heroes: Jen Sookfong Lee and Dina Del Bucchia. Among other professional duties (writing fiction and poetry, teaching, penning think pieces for Open Book and the Globe and Mail, shouting down ignoramuses on Twitter), Dina and Jen also co-host the Can't Lit podcast.

With my Can't Lit heroes Dina (L) and Jen (R) (via @ jenleefur )

With my Can't Lit heroes Dina (L) and Jen (R) (via @jenleefur)

Can't Lit, the self-described podcast about "books and stuff," features guest authors and wide-ranging conversations about pop culture, literature, lipstick, and current events. Also, there's time set aside for griping which I, as a person with MANY gripes, appreciate. I don't know this for sure, because I haven't got access to their audience numbers, but I have a suspicion that Can't Lit is the podcast equivalent of the indie band that only a select (very discerning) group listens to. Soon they will blow up and then I'll be one of those smug a-holes who says things like "I listened to them before they got big."

The three of us had a short but sweet chat in February about The Boat People, personal brands, and the perils of the Adults Only Pool. Also, this was the day I decided to call other writers dorks, not just once but multiple times. Sorry Other Writers. Please don't sue me.

Fainting Couch Feminists

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In case you missed it, Mozhdah was on episode 8 of Fainting Couch Feminists, a podcast hosted by Mica Lemiski and the wonderful Room Magazine. Mozhdah talked about her career, trolls, being thick skinned, the Mozhdah Show, and the death threats and rumours of her murder that forced her to give it up. It was so lovely to hear her voice again and the story of why she ended her TV show is absolutely chilling.

Imaginary friends

While signing books in Halifax last week, a reader asked me if I was still in touch with any of the people from the boat. I think she must have assumed I'd interviewed real people from the MV Sun Sea, which of course I hadn't. I have no idea who any of the real refugees were and Mahindan et. al are totally imaginary. But I also thought a lot about her question afterward because it's true that for years I was in communion with all of my characters. They were continually changing and growing and forming and re-forming in my mind as I researched and drafted and revised the novel. But then last April, when I submitted the final manuscript, I drew a line in the sand and put an end to the creation. And now, while I do talk about those characters a lot, I no longer engage with them. They are out in the world being re-imagined anew by every reader. They are no longer my characters to create. They feel like old friends, people I reminisce about but never hear from.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with Anna Bowen at the Eden Mills podcast (30 mins). We talked a lot about characters, as well as the research that went into the novel, and the scenes that wouldn't have existed if not for my editors. We also talked about a bit of bonus content that you can find here.

I'll be taking part in the Eden Mills Writers' Festival in September and I'm really, really looking forward to it.

Antidote

A few months ago, during a sunny spring weekend that coincided with my 12th wedding anniversary, I read Alain de Botton's The Course of Love. I'd been hearing about the book for a while (and about de Botton for even longer) so I came to it with curiosity and an open mind. In hindsight, this is perhaps the best way to approach The Course of Love. It's a quirky kind of book, part novel, part how-to manual, a hybrid experiment in something I might call didactic fiction. Except didactic fiction sounds plodding and high-handed and The Course of Love is neither.

The book follows Rabih and Kirsten, a couple in Edinburgh. They meet, fall in love, marry, have children, and you as reader-voyeur follow the trajectory of their relationship. It's illuminating and honest and at various points along the way the narrator - sounding very much like a dispassionate anthropologist, a voice-over on one of those nature shows - interrupts with wry commentary. Musing on the fickleness of infatuation, for example, the narrator says: "The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better."

There were times when I genuinely burst out laughing. Or nodded in agreement. What de Botton has written is a necessary antidote to every false and silly notion we've been spoon-fed about love and romance and long-term commitment. It's the kind of book everyone should read when they are young, 19 or 20, and then again once a decade.

"He lost his shirt playing Solitaire"

Good friends know that I am evangelical about podcasts. Truly, there is very little I love more in this world. So when Trudy Morgan-Cole invited me to come on her podcast, Shelf Esteem (isn't that a great name?) and chat about books with fellow author Bridget Canning, I was chuffed.

We spent an hour in the recording studio chatting about the books on our nightstands, formative reads, eavesdropping on strangers, and the strange lists we keep in on our phones. Here's the episode on Sound Cloud; you can also download it from iTunes.

Vampires

I spent two months in India this year, at a DIY writing retreat in Mumbai. I spent most days at a library where I didn't have internet access. Really and truly. There wasn't even a library computer I could use. If I wanted to check email, I had to leave the library, walk down a flight of stairs, exit the building, walk out of the compound, cross the street and enter a completely different compound, walk five minutes to where I was staying and take three flights of stairs to my room. If I had things I needed to legitimately look up for work, I'd make a list and do a bunch of google searches at the end of the day. Also: this research facility was dedicated to the hard sciences. Everyone at the library was a total stranger, none of them writers. So I had no social distractions either. If I wanted a break, there were two options: have a biscuit in the canteen or take a walk by the sea. Sometimes I put my head on the desk and napped. It was simultaneously frustrating and freeing. I was itchy for the internet but also felt immensely free. And productive! My American editor was so impressed by the speed and quality of my edits that she joked she was going to send all her writers to India.

Deep work - concentrating your mind and creative energy for a sustained length of time without distraction - is a non-negotiable of good writing. It is THE ONLY work any of us needs to do. And yet - barring trips to Indian research institutes - it is near impossible. We come at our work in fits and starts, eager for interruption, one ear always primed for the doorbell, the buzz of a text. Now that I'm back in Canada, back in range of my high speed internet connection, I'm the slow, laggardly schmoe who can't get a damn word written.

Last week's episode of Hidden Brain is a gem for writers. Host Shankar Vedantam tackles the concept of deep work, why it's so difficult to ignore the siren song of our to-do lists and email and social media, and what we can do to overcome these mental energy vampires.

A dream of men

People are always saying they have no time to read. So here's the solution: The New Yorker Fiction podcast. Writers are invited to read a story - written by someone else - from the magazine's archives and afterward, the reader joins Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman to discuss the story. The conversation is always on point but the stories themselves can be hit or miss (everyone has different tastes, right?). But a recent episode in which Ben Marcus reads Mary Gaitskill is a definite hit and worth a listen. It's one of those stories that will make you want to stop what you're doing and really pay attention.

Empathy

If you love literature and intelligent conversation, you must subscribe to The Guardian Books podcast. Today's episode is absolutely timely given the heartbreaking result of yesterday's Brexit vote (ie. Britain's decision to leave the EU) and the shameful campaign of bigotry and ignorance that preceded it.

With so much right wing hate and fear-mongering swirling around at home and abroad, it is a balm to hear these writers talk about how literature can build empathy and give people back their humanity.

The poet David Herd speaks eloquently in this podcast about refugee stories and how they go unheard: "the story will be told to the UK [Border Agency] or the Home Office or told in some hearing and on every one of those occasions it's being distorted or broken up and then one version is compared against another and on any of those occasions if there's any reason to doubt the story, then the story is throw out. And so what's been impossible for so many people is the opportunity to tell their story in a way and a context in which the story can actually be heard."

I've just begun revisions to my novel and Herd's insight really resonated as both utterly true and utterly heartbreaking. But what gives me hope is the writers on this podcast, all of them attempting to give people back their stories, to share those stories with the world.

Listen to the full podcast here.

 

 

Character alignment

Another great podcast is Imaginary Worlds, a show about "how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief." Even though I'm not a sci fi/ fantasy nut, I'm  hooked on this show. Mainly because it gets at what I am interested in: story telling and fiction-making.

The most recent episode, on the topic of character, is especially instructive. Good versus evil and all the shades (six, to be exact) in between.

The Three Types of Evil

  1. Evil but law-abiding: a character like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter books whose uses rules as a way to enact her cruelty but would never act outside of the law. Remember: Umbridge was never a Death Eater. But maybe only because that was "illegal."
  2. Evil but neutral about the law: a character like Voldemort who cares nothing for laws and institutions and definitely does not mind killing even loyal followers when they cease to be of use.
  3. Chaotic Evil: an anarchist villain whose only motivation is upheaval. The Joker!

It's a valuable exercise to think about character in this more in-depth way. Beyond morality, how do your imaginary friends interact with the law? Kirk and Spock are both good but one is law-abiding and the other will happily bend the rules. And that difference is where the conflict in their relationship lies, it's what makes the dynamic between them rich. Or consider Marvel heroine Jessica Jones who is actually good but wants so desperately to be neutral, a lone wolf. The conflict in the show then becomes Jessica Jones versus herself. Of course there's also a dastardly villain but this internal battle of woman vs. herself is the true emotional heart of the story.

Go listen to Imaginary Worlds to hear about the rest. The episode is called "Why they fight" and it runs 23 minutes.

 

Pay attention to your boredom

Podcasts are like opinions these days; everyone seems to have one. One of my favourites is Startup (the podcast about what it's like to start your own business). It's hosted by former NPR/ Planet Money guy Alex Blumberg and it's fantastic. If you haven't already listened, go have a binge.

The first draft always sucks. Things want to be bad... the only way to get that stuff to be good is with editing.
— Alex Blumberg

I was listening to this episode one evening last fall and it stopped me short. Blumberg talks about how he and his team create their podcasts, how every second of tape is obsessively edited to catch and hold the listener's attention, to educate as well as entertain, and just how much effort goes into making that happen. Skip ahead to about 21 minutes in and listen to what he says about editing. If you're a writer, it will 100 per cent resonate.

"The first draft always sucks," Blumberg says. "Things want to be bad. Talented people with great ideas still produce horrible stuff and the only way to get that stuff to be good is with editing."

Let's savour that for a moment. Things want to be bad. The only solution is editing.

A few beats later, he says: "pay attention to where you are confused, annoyed, bored. A big part of editing is paying attention to your boredom."

If you listen to the episode, you'll see that much of what Blumberg and co. do in their edits is straight forward deletion, skipping past the verbal diarrhea, straight to the good stuff. And this is much of what I do in my edits too. Delete. Delete. Delete. Sentences, words, scenes, whole characters and subplots. Delete. Delete. Delete.

Originally, there were 50 extra (boring) words and the start of this post. Delete!