Being an author is my second job, not my first. And this is something I have to remind myself of daily, lest guilt overwhelm me.
My primary job is as a parent. I’m a stay-at-home dad with three kids. The two eldest are in school now, and the youngest goes to daycare three days a week. One of those days is devoted to housework, because three kids can cause a whole lot of mess, let me tell you. The laundry alone is a Sisyphean task, even when it’s shared with my wife. So I have two days each week to write. And even on those writing days, I spend a lot of hours taking care of the kids, because I have to get them up and ready for the day, and I have to be there when the bell rings. That’s my most important job, and it’s important enough that I want to pour all the energy and care I can into it. Writing comes second.
So, what does that mean for my writing? It means whenever I hear someone say “Write every day,” (as an ill-received Daily Beast article said this summer) I grind my teeth. Partly because it’s a stupid thing to say—everyone writes differently, and you can make it work an infinite number of ways. And partly because it’s something my judgemental brain is already telling me, and I fight a battle against it every day. “You’re missing your chance,” my brain says. “Surely you can find more hours, more energy.” No, brain. No I’m not, and no I can’t. And the books will get done. But in the meantime, two of my kids want snacks and the third just took a swan dive off the couch.
The way I mix writing with full-time parenting does mean I have to navigate some obstacles. This summer, for instance, I went two months without writing. We had just moved to a new city, and the kids were at home, and I wanted them to feel as comfortable and as cared for as possible in our new place, to make a hard transition a little easier. By the time school started up again, my fingers were itching for a keyboard. After that long a hiatus, it took some time to find the flow and the voice of my work-in-progress again. I had to refamiliarize myself with it, shake hands with the characters and bring them back to life in my head.
(Every obstacle is an opportunity too, though, and I found some pretty glaring problems I had been blind to before the summer.)
What I didn’t do was say “Well, I’ve fallen behind, I might as well quit.” For all my brain’s unhelpful mutterings, stopping is never really a consideration. Writing is a part of who I am and how I make sense of the world. So I did the work, got back into the story, and now, several chapters further on, I’m in love with this world that I get to visit two days each week. I sometimes wish I had more time here—hence the long gaps between blog posts, because most often I’d rather be off in fantasyland. But my characters don’t need me as much as my kids do.
So what would I say instead of “Write every day?” I think I’d just say don’t stop. But I’d also say be a human being before being a writer. As important as I think books and stories are, there are things that are more important and it’s okay to put those first. Writing isn’t actually a race. The finish line stays put, and the progress you’ve made—marked out painstakingly by words on a page—doesn’t disappear. Your manuscript won’t suffer trauma from neglect like a real, breathing person will. To finish a book all you need to do is keep going. If you keep going, no matter how slowly, you’ll reach THE END.
So be quiet now, judgemental brain. I have books to write.
In a Q&A, my publisher Orca asked me which part of a book is my favourite to write. I answered honestly (and boringly) that the climax is my favourite. It is, but there was a close second, and I wanted to talk about it. I love the first words.
Now I’m talking about the beginning of the actual first draft, mind, not the outlining I do beforehand. Outlining, to be honest, can be a bit of a pain. When I’m working at that level on the story I often feel like I’m trying to hold too much in my head at once. It gives me headaches.
But then I get to the real beginning of the book, writing the words readers will actually see. Beginnings always feel like a puzzle box to me, and I love puzzles. I need to find the right way in to the story. I already know more or less what’s going to happen in that first chapter, but I don’t know how it will happen yet. Do I need to start in medias res, or does this story require me to establish normalcy before I take readers into the weird stuff? Do I start with dialogue or description? Is this the story where I finally attempt first person narration?
That first chapter generally takes me a few days, and a lot of false starts. I try something and it feels wrong. So I pace for a while, and I try another angle, and it still doesn’t fit—maybe the protagonist’s voice is wrong, or her motivation is underdeveloped. Most times, I write the first two pages four or five times before I find my way in. But once I find the right opening, it clicks into place and the rest of the chapter spills out fast. That feeling, of finding the right way in, is incredibly satisfying.
It also feels terribly inefficient, to write the same section over and over, but it makes my brain hum with delight anyway. When I start, and it goes wrong, it gives me clues for my next attempt. Each time I get closer, and I’m learning the story along the way. And then once I find it, I have to go back to the outline and figure out what damage I’ve done to my story structure, because it never goes quite as planned. If I was tracking my daily word count at this point I would probably sink into a depression. It’s slow, and it’s redundant. But it’s so, so much fun.
Well, tomorrow is the big day. Dominion will appear in stores! My first published book! People I don't know (and might never know) will hopefully start reading it. This is, needless to say, a very exciting time for me. And I'm celebrating by being an emotional kaleidoscope.
Not all at once, really, but for the past few weeks its felt like I had a big checklist of emotions and I was trying to go through all of them before the book came out. A month ago, I actually felt pretty blasé about the whole thing. I was somehow expecting more action, or at least more excitement, as the release date approached, but life felt very normal a month out. I started to settle into that, and looked at the launch like I do a birthday: it's a milestone event, but nothing really changes from one day to the next. Which may still prove to be the case.
Then at the beginning of February, I went to the Ontario Library Association superconference to do my first signing, and it started to feel more like this might be a sea change in my life. For the signing itself I was a bundle of nerves, but people seemed excited to read the book! And I got to meet some of the fantastic folks from my publisher, Orca! And there was a new review in Quill & Quire! I finally had some time to hang out with my wonderful editor Robin Stevenson (who was there for a signing too, being an excellent author herself), who introduced me to many other writers. I had the feeling I was joining a new community, that I was seeing behind the curtain and it was pretty cool back there. This was exciting. Dreams-coming-true exciting.
And then I got home, and reflected on the couple of reviews I'd seen, and got kind words on the book from Tim Wynne-Jones, an author I admire greatly, and I started telling people about my launch event for Dominion (March 5th, 3-4pm at the Guelph Public Library main branch, by the way. There will be cookies). And in all of that, I got smacked in the face by a huge dose of imposter syndrome. It wasn't about the book, though. I still loved the book. But me, I'm not so sure about. Suddenly people were talking about me, and about events featuring me. At some point, someone was going to realize that I'm Just Some Guy. Everyone was sure to be disappointed. (I knew it was imposter syndrome even as I was feeling it, but that didn't really chase the feelings away.) That morphed into a general anxiety that made me, at times, wish the whole thing would just go away.
The anxiety faded, and excitement came back. But then a few days ago, I started feeling very exposed. I hope many people, far and wide, read Dominion. I wrote it to be read! But it also feels so very, very public for something that's so important to me. I'm not a very public guy, generally. Going out for coffee with people can be an effort. (And having kids makes me even less social, because I'm an introvert but I have to spend all day talking to and taking care of tiny, unrelenting chatterboxes.) I had dreams about ending up in public in nothing but boxer shorts, and trying to play it cool like that was what I meant to wear. Having Dominion out there in the world feels a bit like that.
And today? All of it, all at once. Nervousness, fear, nakedness, glee, confusion. I can't believe it's actually here. It feels unreal, even thought I've known it was coming for over two years now.
Tomorrow you'll either find me crowing on the rooftops or hiding under my covers. Maybe both! Or maybe it will just be another day. I've never done this before.
My grandfather died on the first day of this year. It was not unexpected, and yet it was. He had cancer, and we had been warned that it was a matter of months, not years. My brothers and I made trips home before Christmas to spend time with him and say goodbye. I knew I would not see him again.
And yet, it caught me off guard. He was such a steady, solid part of my world, that to discover he was not there anymore felt baffling. Still feels baffling. Like a floor has suddenly been removed from a long-familiar house. Like the Earth’s bedrock is gone.
I do not feel so sad. He lived long, and he lived well, and those of us he left behind are filled with warm memories that keep him with us. But I feel slightly lost, and more than a little nostalgic.
His funeral is today, and I cannot be there. So instead, I am writing this to remember him well. These are some of the memories I have of him.
I remember his house in Regina. We would go there often, driving up from Saskatoon for Christmas, or just to spend a weekend. My brothers and I slept in the basement with its thick, orange, shag carpet, and the huge pillows that we pounded into submission. I remember the sound of train whistles at night, as I was falling asleep, and smelling the earthy, bookish smell of the house.
I remember hearing the popping sound of coffee percolating, just up the stairs, and knowing Grandpa was awake. He was always the first one up in the morning, making the coffee and starting breakfast. I never remember seeing him in his pyjamas—by the time I woke he was always dressed in slacks and button-down shirt, as if he had never slept at all.
I remember him leaning down to me and my brothers, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and saying, “Why don’t you go wake up your Grannie?” She liked to sleep late, and always groaned when the three of us clambered into her bed, all noise and bouncing.
I remember camping in his trailer, with its bed up in a loft that sat above the truck’s bed, its roof too low to sit up properly. I remember losing track of my parents on one of these trips, and finding my Grandpa. No matter how hard I tried he would not simply tell me where they were. (“Maybe they fell in the lake? Maybe they forgot you and drove home? Maybe some birds flew away with them?”) I was scared, and furious, and I cried as he walked me straight to where my parents were waiting.
I remember when my parents were away and he came to stay with us. I had been assigned the task of cleaning up any messes our dogs made. When my parents came home and discovered my Grandpa had done this job for me, hadn’t even known it was my responsibility, I said, “Well I was going to do it, but Grandpa just barged in!” My grandfather told this story again and again, with a grin every time.
I remember the way he smelled. Like burnt coffee, and leather and oak and stone.
He was a good man, and that is not a title I give lightly. He devoted his life to his family. When his first wife died, he raised his three children on his own. When his second wife fell ill and stopped taking care of herself, he cared for her until he couldn’t any more (and a good ways beyond, I would say). He was steadfast, and caring, and loving in a way that was implacable. He did good work on the earth, and now he has earned his rest.
He taught me so much, the greatest of which was how to be part of a family, and to have that be the centre of your life.
Goodbye, Grandpa. And thank you. I hope you are surrounded by those you loved so well now.
Writing as a stay-at-home dad is like being the subject of an experiment to see when and how the human brain can be creative. It's often hard to find set periods of time to write (though it's been getting easier as the kids get older) and the times I do find are generally short. Dominion was written between the hours of 5 and 6 a.m. while I was on parental leave for my second child. Some days I would get an hour to write, some days I would open my laptop and instantly hear a crying baby. I had read that a consistent writing schedule was helpful in Anne Lamott's excellent Bird by Bird, but consistency doesn't happen when you're on kid duty.
So what I've learned about my brain is this: it can adapt to just about any schedule, but it needs some time to settle in. Lately I've had two to four mornings a week for writing, about two hours each morning. For the first while in this new arrangement, I would write furiously for the first 45 minutes, and then I'd hit a wall. My brain was pretty sure this was stopping time, because surely someone was about to start crying, right? Time to shut down and start looking for the diaper cream. It took me a few months to push past that, to start writing longer. Even now I usually have a lull after 45 minutes. I get up, pace for a few minutes, and then I can resume.
The other thing I've learned is that I can't write first drafts in the evening. Our youngest, who is now two, has always been an early riser. I wanted to get up at 5 and do some writing, as I did before, but she liked to get up around 4:30 most mornings, so that was right out. So I tried writing after bedtime instead. But I've always been a morning person, and creatively it shows. When I write something after the kids are in bed, it either stalls out before it begins or it's so full of plotholes that the words hardly stick together. For hard first draft work, or really complicated revisions, I need my wits about me, and by 8pm my wits have already hit the hay. On the other hand, this is the perfect time for some minor revisions--I'm much better at catching writing that doesn't flow, because even the smallest hitch can trip me up when I'm tired.
I remember when I was younger, I could write in a frenzy. I'd finish a short story in a day, sweating over my keyboard. I didn't know about NaNoWriMo back then, but I would have done it. (I did write a draft of an early novel in under a month once. But it was June, so it doesn't count.) Now I'm much more of a chip-away-at-it writer. Small but steady progress, adding up to big things over time. It makes more sense for my life as a parent.
Hello, and welcome to my new website, my home on the Internet. Mostly, the site will feature news about my books, and this blog that will focus on writing, publishing, and how I do those things with three small kids. Not in a how-to way. More like a travelogue.
The whole site was put together by Chris Arbuthnott, my brother and an all-around awesome human being. If you like what you see, full credit goes to him. (Thanks to to Gab White for her input on design, too. You can find her here.)
The website is going up just as my first published novel, Dominion, is getting ready to launch on February 21st, 2017 with Orca Books. I've been working on the book for around four years already, and more if you count the preliminary notes I made almost six years ago, when the novel's world was just beginning to form in my head. It's been a long road, but it shouldn't be so long for the next one. I'm currently writing a sequel for Dominion, which Orca and I hope to have out just a year after the first book.
I'll be on here regularly on the blog, or you can follow me on Twitter @smarbuthnott for updates of a more granular nature. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you like the book!