Digging in the Dirt – How to Repurpose Your Buried Words

The first rule of Write Club is…follow all the rules of Write Club. The second rule of Write Club is…there are no rules in Write Club. Therein lies the conundrum. We writers are a cocktail of confusion and contradictions. Do this, don’t do that…can’t you read the signs. But there’s one thing we should all get into the habit of doing. We should all be dedicated pack-rats when it comes to our words. We write the words we write for a reason. That reason may not always be clear when the words are being put down on paper or screen, but we should train ourselves to value them for what they are and what they may one day become.

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Treat your unused words like a garden you can later visit and harvest…

It’s true. Your buried prose and poetry can be repurposed. Have you ever written the first few lines of a poem because they grabbed you with the intensity of fire? Did that fire then fizzle out and force you to discard the work you felt so powerful for having created? Have you spent countless hours, days, weeks, months on a manuscript that you later tossed aside in frustration? Or how about those amazing middle-of-the-night ideas that left you breathless and certain you just came up with the plot for the next Great Canadian Novel? We’ve all been there, on the brink of a brilliance almost touched. I call these moments epiphonies. They’re like epiphanies, but they didn’t quite get you there. They’re phony aha moments, the bane of the writer’s existence. Or, at least mine.

I’m here to tell you to NOT give up. Don’t let these fly-bys into momentarily enlightened consciousness go to waste. If you wrote it, it meant something to you at the time. What’s the cost of saving your words nowadays? Nothing. Your disk-space can handle it.

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Trust that you saw beauty in your words, and that you will find a place for them…or a lesson from re-exploring them.

But how do you reuse, reinvent, recycle, repurpose, re-imagine? Any old way you can. Seriously. First, create a Spare Parts folder. Second, save everything that doesn’t come to fruition as a poem, short story, article, novel, song, etc into this folder. Name your documents wisely so you can remember what they are at a glance. Third, dig in the dirt of this folder every opportunity you have. Pry, pull, wrench, yank, rip and pluck any and all of your buried words and use them in any way you can.

Examples of how I returned to my Spare Parts folder and harvested words from it? Most recently, I stole a character from a novel that was three quarters written when it died. The heavy work on the character was already completed through the birthing of the fizzled out novel. He appeared to me in full, having already been alive in a previous work. I took some prose with me when I excavated him, but mostly I took him…his essence. You can do this with characters or setting or any little aspect of the original novel that you still love and wish you could use. There’s also the time I had a last minute opportunity to have a short story included in an anthology…but no time to write one. I looked through my folder and found another dead-in-the-water novel and I stole the first chapter. I made a few minor changes and, presto-magico, I had myself a short story! Another reason to save your drawer novels is time, growth, and the redoubling of your writerly wisdom through workshops and classes. One of your old unfinished trunk novels may very well be brilliant, but perhaps you didn’t have the wisdom needed to execute the idea to its full potential four years ago. After taking certain workshops, it might be helpful to revisit a dead novel. With your new eyes, you may see a way to rescue it.

Lines and stanzas from unfinished poems? Months later, when you’re having a dry-spell and wishing you could get your poetical groove on…steal those lines, use them as jumping off points for new poetry. Another thing you could do with poetry, once you have a pile of unfinished poems (and this will happen…it always does) is attempt to piece them together. You could very well have a complete poem living among the rubble of seven discarded ones. You must dig through the dirt to find the gold.

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Dig through the dirt to find the gold.

Save everything. Inspiration moments give you lovely little gems. Respect that. They might not be fully formed diamonds, but guaranteed there is something in there worth excavating at a later date. Trust your words and trust why you wrote them. Even if you never unearth them for future projects, it can be amazingly useful to revisit your older words for no other reason than to see how much you have grown as a writer since you first wrote them. That’s a reward you wouldn’t get if you deleted everything that fizzled.

So, be kind to yourself. Save your words. You never know when you’re going to need them. Spare Parts are like little treasure chests of pretty things. If you dig in the dirt long enough, you’ll find your diamond. And you’ll be happy you didn’t throw it away.

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It Grew Into Something We Could No Longer Contain – The Tragically Canadian Thing

“I didn’t want this.” ~ The Hip (Pigeon Camera)

This morning-today-we are all saying the same thing. We don’t want this. Canada has just awoken from a weekend dedicated to one of its unofficial poet laureates and his iconically Canadian band. And we are feeling Hip Hangover. And we do not want the party to end.

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Defiant, Humourous, Courageous, Determined, Free – Gord Downie—Doing it his way.

Gord Downie sang his heart out Saturday evening in Kingston, Ontario, at the Tragically Hip’s last performance of their short whirlwind Man Machine Poem summer tour. But then, Gord always gives his all on stage. Perhaps for him, Saturday night in Canada was business as usual…maybe with a nudge and a wink to the huge elephant in the room that we all acknowledged in our tears and turned our backs on in our joy. The elephant being the Glioblastoma–an aggressive form of brain cancer that affects an estimated four to six in every 100,000 Canadians–that is slowly and inevitably taking our icon away from us. Acknowledge it or not, it is there. And Saturday was an opportunity for the nation to embrace our hero. And that is exactly what we did. We held our arms out high and proud and we hugged him like we would never let go.

With every song, we rocked, we sang, we wept, we felt its lastness, we applauded, we screamed, we sighed. And there were a lot of songs. The band treated the nation to 30 songs…and though it ended too soon for all of us, it also had an aura of neverending while we were in it.

Here’s the set-list for the August 20th concert:

“50 Mission Cap”

“Courage”

“Wheat Kings”

“At The Hundredth Meridian”

“In A World Possessed By The Human Mind”

“What Blue”

“Tired As Fuck”

“Machine”

“My Music At Work”

“Lake Fever”

“Toronto #4”

“Putting Down”

“Twist My Arm”

“Three Pistols”

“Fiddler’s Green”

“Little Bones”

“The Last Of The Unplucked Gems”

“Something On”

“Poets”

“Bobcaygeon”

“Fireworks”

Encore 1

“New Orleans Is Sinking”

“Boots Or Hearts”

“Blow At High Dough”

Encore 2

“Nautical Disaster”

“Scared”

“Grace, Too”

Encore 3

“Locked In The Trunk Of A Car”

“Gift Shop”

“Ahead By A Century”

It is fitting that their last show took place in Kingston, where they began their rock and roll journey. Not only did it take place in Kingston, but it took place in a venue said to have been built so the Hip would have a place to play whenever they came home. Not fitting enough for you? The venue’s address is The Tragically Hip Way.

Wherever you were on Saturday, you probably contemplated mortality, life, music, The Hip, and Canada. For me, it was Canada that I kept coming back to. From the perspective of being a Hip fan, though. And I was filled with appreciation. We are a nation that knows nothing of civic pride. We think of it and feel awkward and ashamed and we shy away from it…pride, after all, goeth before the fall. Maybe no other nation heeds those words more than ours. We are apologetically proud whenever we work up the gumption to feel pride.

But Gord and his band opened the door of our nation a crack and beckoned us to enter…every time they wrote a song. Our Canadian Poet wrote songs that were stories…but not just any old stories. They were OUR stories. Our history. He said to all of us—LOOK! THIS IS YOU! THIS IS ME! THIS IS US! He drags our zeitgeist out into the open and screams, “BEHOLD!” By definition, Gord IS our current zeitgeist (the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time). And he does it always with a mischievous wink and a nod. This is us, but don’t take it too seriously. What I love most about the Tragically Hip lyrics–especially those that reek of Canadiana–is that they give us permission to embrace ourselves. That might in fact be Gord’s greatest gift to us all. Sure, the lyrics are beautifully poetic and the music is solid and soulful and lasting…but the feeling we are left with after partaking of the band’s offerings—That is the thing. That bright shining nugget of pride we get in hearing our history sung back to us? It’s golden. “We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger.”

I’m extremely sad that it has to end this way. I can’t imagine not eagerly anticipating the next Hip album. Gord’s lyrics are so…so…SO! I look forward to unwrapping them with every new song that comes along. It’s a Canadian thing…a thing we will miss more than we know.

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Where did you watch the Hip concert? I joined my brother, sister-in-law, and dozens of others in their backyard party…complete with a large projector screen.

I’ll share my ode to Gord one more time here:

My previously published ode to Gord (Published in Raven Poetry Journal,©2006) :

An Open Letter of Adoration to Gordon Downie

Did you ever see a hypothetical sky, Gordo?
The kind that strips the greys away,
swallows clouds and shivers stars to focus?
Did you ever rest supine, dockside midnight hush,
or did you simply like the way
it fell from your iconic tongue,
beautiful, sublime and free,
filled with nostalgia and tears
of Bobcaygeon love?
Did you ever hypothetical, Gordo?
Twist your words to night
and black and white?
Or did you simply like the way
they fell, iconic from your tongue?
You fill your lungs with melancholy, Gordo,
and send it on its way,
bright the night with shivered sound,
delivering one star at a time.

 

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A shot of Gord I took a few years ago at a previous concert I attended.

“It’s like we burned our boots with no contingency plan.” ~ The Hip (Pigeon Camera)

If I were Gord Downie, I’d be wondering right now if it was enough…if I had arrived close enough to the vision in my head of what I wanted creatively. Creative people are always slagging themselves…I didn’t quite get there, just one more brushstroke would have made it better, just one more pass with the red pen. We are always wondering what we could have done to make it better. Well, Mr. Downie, you did it. “YOU DID WHAT YOU SET OUT TO DO.”

Thank you, Gord Downie. And thank you Tragically Hip…for giving us music, words, laughter, tears, and a sense of who we are as a nation in this world filled with nations. You are Canadian. You are Canada.

TO DONATE TO THE GORD DOWNIE FUND FOR BRAIN CANCER RESEARCH CLICK THIS LINK

Sending love and light to Gord, Gord, Paul, Rob, Johnny & Davis…and all of their families.

The Summing Up – After the Marathon

My first Muskoka Novel Marathon in 2007 was essentially a religious experience. From the drive up to Huntsville to the drive to the Kawarthas after I partook of the 48hr version of the marathon. It was all a haze of Kool-aid drinking meditating worshipping wonder. I was sold. I was a convert. I had found my people, my place, my me.

Eventually, I attempted to get that religious experience down on paper in the form of a poem. But the real joy of writing poetry is in the moments leading up to the writing of the poem and in the hope you feel that you achieve the goal of getting everything in your head down in the stanzas that you write. You never quite get there…you feel the euphoria of being there in your mindscape…but what travels from that video screen in your head through your fingers and eventually lands on the computer screen or paper is nothing like the vision you carried. It sometimes suffices, but it never meets the vision. Words are never enough.

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Here’s the poem I wrote about my first Muskoka Novel Marathon experience:

After the Marathon

As winter whips its winds to frenzy
I am reminded of that time-
forty thousand words in my head
screaming white freedom
inside my withering mind.

And after the marathon,
the tears of no more words,
my insolent venting of could have-
might have beens. And the exhaustion,
like melting ice on pregnant lips,
a scream inside an empty car
with nobody else to hear.

When I thought the oddity over-
passing from Muskoka to Haliburton
with Cohen on my lips-
two deer arrive,
linger long enough to catch my eye,
to stop my hurling car,
to say, “I see you. You are real.”
And tears again. To find yourself
when you are lost; a figment
behind an endless stream of words.

After the deer, when Hallelujah
has played and the light of day declines,
I pray, one hundred-thirty pages
strewn like wild wind across the cluttered dash,
and here am I… stopped again-
a wild bear on hind legs,
pawing the slowly gloaming air.

Stopped, I wonder the wonder,
breathe to say, “I’ve been here too.”
And in the rear-view… three more,
mother, babies dawdling behind the car.
And the bear, as if he knows my head
and where it’s at, he paws again,
lifts his massive claws to night and speaks.

These are the things that I have left,
the shaking memories of a whirlwind journey took.
And forty thousand words inside my lonely head
was not enough. A bear to stand and scream
is what it took to leave it all behind,
the vent, the Cohen din inside the tremulous mind,
and most of all, the words that could have been.

 

 

THE WORDS THAT COULD HAVE BEEN. Every year I regret those words. Every year I mourn them. But I also give thanks for the ones I eventually get down on paper. This year is no different. I went a long time before locking into a story idea…almost a full 24 hours. I do the 72hr marathon now…stay the whole three days. After that first year, I knew I wanted more. More, more, more. 48hrs is not enough.

I already wrote a marathon wrap post when I got home, but I wanted to talk about what happens immediately following coming back to the land of reality. I say reality, because at the marathon it’s a different kind of reality that happens. There is a freedom at the marathon that is very much like sleep-a-way summer camp. It’s silly and frivolous and fun..and very very serious. It’s not the reality we, as adults, are used to. Schedules evaporate…we are on OUR TIME. So, coming back to the land of adulting…you need to adjust, put away the candy and get real.

When you get back to reality, it’s also the first time you get to sit down and read your words. At the marathon, you write and you write and you write. But you don’t read (or, at least, I don’t…I have to point out here that every marathoner is different). You just move ever forward into your story. What happens, essentially, is that you start reading it a couple days after your return and it’s like you’re reading the work of someone else…you don’t remember it, you’re not very deeply connected to it…the concept is familiar, but the words are by and large new to your ears. It’s an extremely odd phenomenon, really. You wrote the story, but it’s not yours. It belongs to the wildness of the weekend. It belongs to Muskoka.

You never quite know what you ended up with until you sit down and read your story for the first time. It’s an eye-opening experience. I’ve come to believe that I write my best stuff at the marathon. Not because it’s a particularly wonderful writing environment–even though it IS–and not because I go in prepared–because I DON’T–but because I connect to Natalie Goldberg’s WILD MIND while I’m there. There is a moment when you put your ego aside and you are no longer a writer writing, but simply WRITING itself. You lose connection to your self as you slip sleeplessly and exhaustingly into your story and soldier on ever forward. THAT is the beauty of the marathon…that you get to dive so fully in to your writing that you disappear. Somewhere after 16 hours, 23 hours, 56 hours…YOU are gone and there is only story—and these seemingly disembodied hands in front of you pounding away at a keyboard you’re barely aware of. WRITING. NO YOU. I know, I know…it’s so zen. It’s hogwash. It’s flighty. It’s new age crap. SHUT UP! Until you’re there, at the marathon, you’ll have to take my word for it. I WAS Wild Mind.

What happens now—THE SUMMING UP. I’ve been reading and editing my novel. I only reached about 100 pages this year, as I didn’t immerse myself into the story until I was a full day into the marathon. My regret was huge. But as I slowly trudged my way into the story, I began to feel better about my productivity. I like it! I like the words that I created. I’m okay with them. AND…I feel that I will be able to continue the story once I get to the end of the editing journey I’m on to read and fix what I left the marathon with. I’m excited about finding out where the story goes, where the lives in the story are taken. I’m turned on by the need to bring it to fruition—TO SEE WHAT HAPPENS!

I have been feeding Michael chapters on my Kindle account as I read and edit them. He has an uncanny ability to find nits and suggest fixes. Last year, his influence was a huge part of my novel writing experience. Without him, I’m not sure I would have finished the novel. This time around, as I am writing about New Brunswick, I have to admit he’s having a bit of an issue with dialogue. If the East Coast of Canada is your ancestral home, you know that there is a dialect to be found there. What might look like twisted and incorrect language is merely the way they talk there. I have a few characters who are very regional. They say things the way New Brunswickers would say them. Editors need to leave these bits in. Regional dialect helps to place a story…it’s all part of the story’s setting. Michael’s just gonna have to flinch at some of these twisted words being spoken by my characters. Especially the story’s grandmother, Imogene, who has shall we say a slightly unique way of speaking.

I’m ready to embrace the rest of this novel’s journey. What the marathon did was start me off…it gave me the roadtrip part of the novel, and brought me to the meat and potatoes of my story. I’m excited to continue. And I have this wonderful thing called the Muskoka Novel Marathon to thank for taking me this far. Every year it starts me off on a journey. I don’t always complete the novels it helps me create…but I always love the experience. And in September…we get to reassemble–us 40+ writers–and we get to award each other with trophies and kudos and praise. It’s the crown on top of the fundraising event. I can’t wait to get there!

But for now…I have a story to tell. It’s the story of Finn Barker, the character I created on a July Saturday night in Huntsville, Ontario while sitting in a room filled with writers creating. Finn is real. And I left him in a vulnerable situation at the end of the marathon. It’s time to rescue him.

Thank you, Muskoka Novel Marathon—for helping me to once again get words on paper. The wonder never ceases to amaze me. Yes, we raised over $34,000.00, and yes…the YMCA of Simcoe/Muskoka county is going to have much needed funds to help with their literacy programs. Yes…lives are going to change for the better because of what we were able to accomplish monetarily with the marathon. And that IS the most important thing here. But for us writers—we get the gift of words, the gift of time, the gift of camaraderie, and the gift of childlike sleep-a-way camp in a beautiful town filled with lovely places and people. The benefits to us writers are vast…and lasting. It’s a religion, and I’m only one of its many preachers. I drank the Kool-aid.

See you all at the wrap-up!

 

(A Short excerpt…the opening lines of my 2016 Muskoka Novel Marathon novel, which introduces the main character—Finn Barker.)

There’s more than one way to go home. Sometimes it’s something we can only do in theory because there’s no home to go back to. Even if it’s still standing. And sometimes we return kicking and screaming, like salmon running up river against their will but with an inborn instinct they cannot escape. Must go home. Must go home.

Unless you never truly left in the first place, chances are the road home will be a painful one. One that will leave you, to paraphrase the words of W.B. Yeats, in a world more full of weeping.

There is nothing like a death to signify the beginning of that journey home. Death and dying. For Finn Barker, that was the straw that finally broke his resolve to never again return.

 

 

 

Unpacking the Marathon – A Weekend with Words & Wildness (#MNM2016)

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This past weekend was the annual Muskoka Novel Marathon (Search #MNM2016 in Social Media to find evidence of its existence). In short, this is a fundraising event to bring both funds and awareness to the literacy programs of the YMCA Simcoe/Muskoka County. Every year, forty writers get together in a room in Huntsville, Ontario, and we each attempt to write a novel over the course of 72hrs. And, every year, we each gather sponsorship donations from friends and family. This year, the marathon brought in over $34,000.00. This is not small potatoes. That’s a huge chunk of money that will be well used for the literacy programs. Amazing! And every cent of what we bring in goes directly to the programs. We are WRITERS SUPPORTING READERS.

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Monday Afternoon of the Marathon – A Respite on Lion’s Lookout (Thanks to Paula Boon for showing me the way to the mountain!). The building in the distance below is where the marathon takes place.

Every year I go through quite a sordid variety of emotions at the marathon. This year was no exception. For the first 24hrs I had to fight through my belief that I was no longer a writer, that I was just this guy who accidentally stumbled into the world as a way to exorcise his demons. I thought that since the demons were now gone, I was not allowed (or worthy) of the sacred act of putting words down on paper. Such is the logic of the artistic wanderer—only when wandering are we allowed to wander. But this logic is so broken, I don’t even know where to begin. As much as I have struggled in recent years to write, I am as much a writer as I am a human being. It’s one of the words that define me. I discovered at the marathon that one could be a writer not writing, but one cannot be a non-writer writing.

My first day panic gave in to my fears and anxiety. I squirreled around inside two different unfinished manuscripts with zero focus. I scraped together twenty pages between the two of them…the whole time bemoaning to whoever would listen that I was over, washed-up, a has-been.

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The Scene of the Crime! The Active Living Centre, at the foot of Lion’s Lookout in Huntsville, Ontario.

My second day a fellow marathoner put a kernel of an idea in my head. “Write your story…just give it the slight tweak it needs to make it fiction.” That’s a paraphrase…and it might be from an amalgamation of conversations I had with various marathoners. The point is, I received wisdom from the great and powerful spirit that flits about the rooms at the marathon and tells us, in song and dance, that every little thing gonna be all right. And one cannot arrive at the marathon with a closed mind. One must be raw and vital and willing to open up to any little thing that may happen over the course of the weekend. It is a time of magic and discovery.

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I was so touched when I found this pack of Popeyes at my desk, along with a lovely note, that I ran away and stupidcried. I had mentioned Popeyes in my most recent post here on this blog. Whoever left this at my workstation—THANK YOU FOREVER!

So, I shut up, I sat down, and I began a story that had just a little too much of myself inside it. I wrote my story. First I turned a crank and tossed in a few lies, to disguise the real world beneath a blanket of myth and bullshit. Then I wrote a story. As I weaved the scenes together I carefully knitted myself out of it. I had finally found my pace and was on my way…

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Photographic evidence that I actually did get writing done at the marathon…

You have to understand that there are a handful of different types that go to the Muskoka Novel Marathon. We are all passionate about the cause and would do anything to raise money to support the literacy programs. We are all passionate about writing, and about words. But some of us are there to put our heads down and write like our faces are on fire and some of us are there for the social game–to be among our people. Some of us are there for both. The first two years or so, I was there to get shit done. I wrote upwards of 50,000 words at my first few at-bats at the marathon. This year? Not so much. Apart from my wasted first day where no amount of coaxing would bring forth an idea for a new project (ONE CANNOT FORCE CREATIVITY—IT IS ON ITS OWN CLOCK), I also socialized quite a bit. A group of us went down into town both Saturday and Sunday evening. And I stayed at the Comfort Inn on the Saturday evening. So, where I used to spend most of my time in my chair at the marathon…I’ve become not so focused on my writing. But this is not a bad thing. How often does one get to gather with like-minds? Sure, we didn’t always talk writing—but it was always there as the thread that brought us together.

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It was on the last day of the marathon that I finally discovered Lion’s Lookout. MUCH THANKS TO PAULA BOON FOR SHOWING ME THE WAY. Turns out I was running in circles around this lookout for years. Sometimes the mountain does not give of itself so freely…you have to find a way to go to the mountain. My way was Paula.

Sunday evening, those who were brave enough to participate took part in the annual midnight reading. I’ve been doing this since 2007, when three of us took part in a reading in a corner. We go around the table and share 3-5 minutes of our raw WIPs (works in progress) that we have just penned at the marathon. It’s important that we all feel safe to share during this reading, as we are reading words that are not yet edited…so there is no critiquing allowed—just listening and appreciating. It was a fabulous turnout this year, with over half of the 40 writers participating in the marathon in attendance. Beautiful words were shared…tears were shed, laughter was laughed, sighs were heard. It’s one of my favourite parts of the marathon.

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Captain My Captain! I first met Sue Kenney at the Pickering Winter Novel Marathon (2006?). I was immediately drawn to her kinetic energy. She was my guide in 2014 when I walked a portion of the Camino de Santiago. She takes peregrinos (pilgrims) on the journey of the Camino twice a year (In May and in September). LOOK HER UP. She is life-changing. Being around her is to know what it is like to live the dance of life. (-: She has been leading a creative walk at the MNM for a number of years. This year, she also participated as a writer at the marathon. She was BIC throughout the marathon, pounding away at the keys. BEAR —that is all!

 

In the end, I wrote over a hundred pages. I have the kernel of a novel I may or may not pursue. I like the story thus far, I’m excited to be writing creatively again. So there is that. You go to the marathon not only to expend a great deal of fuel and run yourself ragged and exhaust yourself to the point of tears—but also to fuel up, to store-up a powerhouse of energy against the coming year. It sounds incongruous, I know, but the marathon is like that. It is an onion, a constantly shifting reality that loses its layers faster than its attendees can write ten pages and award themselves with a 10-page strip (see below)! One realizes, after a few marathons, that it is kind of like Bits & Bites—“You never know whatcher gonna get.”

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The 10-Page Strip. Whenever a writer reaches a ten-page milestone, they mark it with a strip.🙂

The Muskoka Novel Marathon. I can tell you about it, but it won’t accurately describe what happens there. It’s a 72 hour weekend of magic and words and laughter and tears and food and words and food and words and coffee and friends and food and words and sunshine and rain and laughter and tears and tomfoolery and words and snapshots and food and wonder.

Preliminary Tally of Funds Raised for Literacy in 2016

– $34,081

THANK YOU FOR CARING, YOU LOVELY PEOPLE!