This writing exercise is making me a better writer

I’ve always found description really hard. Though some writers see a scene in their mind’s eye, I don’t see a darned thing so describing something from imagination it is hard. But lately, a daily exercise is making a difference.

For sever months, I’ve been making #witchyskeet 
posts on Bluesky with photos of interesting houses I find on my Google Street View rambles. This fun little activity puts to good use my passion for exploring on StreetView, and lets me share interesting and beautiful places. After doing it for a few weeks and finding great pleasure in it, I began forcing myself to describe the photos in the alt text.

A large two story house in tan stucco, with a new black roof corrugated like snake scales, and a suggestion of chocolate-colored half timbering on the upper level. A green lawn in the foreground, with a paved path leading up to the accessibility ramp. Tall, narrow windows on the ground floor, framed in dark caramel wood. The eves form an arch over a paned, arched window under the peak, with a single small porthole window above, and smaller windows to either side. There's also a small gabled window in the roof to the left. Green trees all around.
This accessible witchy palace welcomes all visitors. Starý Jičín, Czech Republic.

Alt text: A large two story house in tan stucco, with a new black roof corrugated like snake scales, and a suggestion of chocolate-colored half timbering on the upper level. A green lawn in the foreground, with a paved path leading up to the accessibility ramp. Tall, narrow windows on the ground floor, framed in dark caramel wood. The eves form an arch over a paned, arched window under the peak, with a single small porthole window above, and smaller windows to either side. There’s also a small gabled window in the roof to the left. Green trees all around.

I didn’t want to write the alt test. Description, ugh! So hard! But I felt it was ethical to do so, so I forced myself to do it. Nothing fancy, no trying hard, just describing what I see as accurately and completely as I had patience for.

And surprisingly, not long after, when working on the historical fantasy story “The High Cost of Heat,” I found my drafting more vivid, more easily descriptive.

Never before have I found writing exercises of much benefit, but this one sure is. A little daily stretch of the descriptive muscles gave me some images I never would have found before. What felt like an ethical obligation turned into something that really benefits my writing, so I’ll keep doing it daily and reaping the rewards.

From a low angle, a pink, orange, and red house looms over us. The upper level is orange brick. The middle level is red brick but not the usual color of red, this is rosy and very saturated. The lower level is pink stucco. The roof is flat. Curving from the ground level on both sides are circular staircases, in pink marble, with silver guardrails. Continuing on from the second level, the stairs are grey (we can only see the undersides of them) and there are no guardrails! On the top level, the windows are square holes with no glass, dark inside.
Here we have a witchy house with extremely dangerous staircases. I have never been more intimidated by a structure. Tirana, Albania.

Alt text: From a low angle, a pink, orange, and red house looms over us. The upper level is orange brick. The middle level is red brick but not the usual color of red, this is rosy and very saturated. The lower level is pink stucco. The roof is flat. Curving from the ground level on both sides are circular staircases, in pink marble, with silver guardrails. Continuing on from the second level, the stairs are grey (we can only see the undersides of them) and there are no guardrails! On the top level, the windows are square holes with no glass, dark inside.

When good enough is not good enough

Young Woman Drawing (Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes) by Marie Denise Villers, 1801

Until yesterday, I was super happy with my current story-in-progress. The drafting went comparatively fast, and the second draft revision was smooth. The sentence-by-sentence writing developed a few lovely turns, and I was happy with everything I’d done until the third draft polish when suddenly—

I realized the last quarter of the story was dumb. Beautifully written, but dumb. I mean, it was okay. It was probably good enough. Someone, somewhere would have bought the story. Readers would probably go hmmm at the end.

But I’m not in this to make readers go hmmm. I’m in this to make their heads snap back.

I mentioned this situation to a friend, who asked, “How do you know the ending sucks?” Difficult question. Basically, my instinct told me. It simply didn’t feel right. So I sat down with my big sketchpad and did what I always do when I have story problems—doodle and sketch out my thoughts (why does this suck — this is so bad — I have no idea what I’m doing) until I figured out the problem.

The ending hinges on the main character’s reaction to a big dramatic public proclamation, and the person making that proclamation really doesn’t have a reason to do it. They don’t necessarily need a reason—they’re not the point of view character—but without a solid reason, the story rings hollow and false.

So I’m reworking the whole ending. Not quite sure how I’ll fix it. But it’ll be a good ending instead of one that’s just barely good enough.

My futures include disability

The Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7635, is an emission nebula located 8 000 light-years away. This stunning new image was observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope to celebrate its 26th year in space.

I never thought to wonder why I include characters with disabilities in my stories — and especially in my SF stories. They’re not boxes I’m checking; they’re simply people who worked in the stories I wanted to tell.

Mikkel in “Two-Year Man” has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Jane in “We Who Live in the Heart” uses a wheelchair. And in the forthcoming “Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach,” my 83-year-old hero Minh had her legs amputated when she was a child, and her friend and colleague Hamid is a little person. Minh and Hamid are members of a generation known as the Plague Babies — people who were hit hard by parasitic pandemics and spent their childhoods dealing with medical interventions. This generational shared experience has huge repercussions for the 23rd century Earth of Lucky Peach and is a foundation of the story’s world building.

Recently, I realized why these characters come naturally to me and why I’m interested in the issues. I also realized I cannot envision a future world that excludes people with disabilities, and even more, I don’t want to envision that future.

My reason comes straight from the heart.

My brother was born without an esophagus. This was the early 70s, and he nearly died. The story of his life isn’t mine to tell, but I witnessed it and remember a lot. I saw how much he went through as a baby, as a boy, and as a young man. Photos of his pain-etched little toddler face still bring tears to my eyes.

To be clear, I have never thought of my brother as a person with a disability. I doubt he identifies himself in that way. He’s just a person living his life. A loving dad, good husband, and all-around terrific person. But I came very close to losing him when he was a baby, and he is only here today by a twist of good fortune that put an answer in my dad’s hands when the hospital had given up on trying to save him.

People say, “In the future we’ll be able to make sure nobody is born with X, Y, or Z.” Okay, but what does that mean? Human development isn’t always going to be predictable. Parents who have no reason to worry can birth a child who requires medical intervention to survive, while babies born with serious problems can live and even thrive.

People also say, “In the future we’ll be able to fix disabilities. Even if someone is injured, we’ll be able to fix them.” Okay, but not everything is fixable. Not every medical risk is warranted. Not every procedure is worthwhile. And not everyone wants or needs to be fixed. A person who is managing their disability is still disabled, after all, and managing one’s own life and making choices for oneself is the foundation of human adulthood.

If we envision a future that excludes the possibility of people with disabilities, then that future (a) embraces eugenics, (b) is a perfect place where nothing unexpected happens, or (c) is a place where all problems can be fixed perfectly with no repercussions. Option a is horrible, option b is undramatic, and option c is simply unbelievable.

Despite all the doom and gloom the world is going through right now, I believe in the future. I truly believe humanity will go to the stars — not soon, not easily, but we will get there. And I believe when we do, people with disabilities will be a big part of that success story.


I know nothing about being disabled. For actual information, please see John Wiswell’s “Evil isn’t a Disability” at Fireside, and Elsa Sjunneson-Henry’s articles at Feminist Sonar for starters.

And please support the Kickstarter for Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction. It’s going to be the most ass-kickingest of all the Destroy series.


Guillermo del Toro – A master class on Gothic Romance

GDT photo by TIFF, via Twitter
GDT photo by TIFF, via Twitter

tl;dr Guillermo del Toro is incredibly articulate, charming, loveable, geeky, and a pretty darn passionate feminist, too.

Last night Alyx and I attended the Jane Eyre session of Guillermo del Toro’s Gothic Romance master class at TIFF. Video of the lectures and Q&A sessions from all three nights (Great Expectations, Rebecca, and Jane Eyre) will be available on the TIFF website. The whole thing was utterly delightful and inspiring, and I’m never missing another of his master classes.

Here are my notes, categorized:

GDT on his influences

  • “I have two literary crushes. One is all three Bronte sisters, the other is Mary Shelley.”
  • “Kate Beaton is my hero” specifically referencing this cartoon, or maybe this one.
  • Loves all gothic romances. Especially mentions Uncle Silas: A Tale of Bartram-Haugh by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu.
  • Lord Byron: “When all else fails, shock them.”
  • Two forces exist in our lives: love and fear. Love and fear are the two forces in narrative. We live in a world where it’s easier to believe in fear than love.
  • Sex was the forbidden thing the Victorians dreamed of. Now LOVE is the thing we don’t have permission to believe in.
  • Emotion is the new “-punk.”

GDT defines the gothic

  • Gothic romance is defined by the romantic view of death.
  • Gothic romance is the ultimate feminine drama.
  • Love is allowed to be dreamed of only through a supernatural agent.
  • A female point of view examines other models of femininity.

GDT on gothic elements

  • Love can only exist if the object of love is born in thorns.
  • Love comes through the intervention of something more than human.
  • Contains a huge amount of social S&M.
  • Gothic is also concerned with economic factors. Someone has to inherit wealth.
  • The person going on the journey has to be terribly diminished, humbled, innocent.
  • The illuminated male is often a doctor (caregiver).
  • Children are ultra-creepy when they take on adult roles.

GDT on Jane Eyre

  • Loves the Orson Welles version of Jane Eyre because the visuals are so obviously stylized. Prefers this to a naturalistic style. Especially loves the movie-making choices in the first part of the movie, before Rochester comes into it.
  • He would love to see Jane Eyre adapted, produced, and directed by a woman, because it never has been and a woman would make different choices in telling the story.
  • The love Jane feels is still not enough to tie her down.

GDT on sexual politics and the other

  • Men and women are equally full of contradictions.
  • The entirety of gender perception is false.
  • You can understand any character if you recognize the emotion.

GDT on his work

  • If he doesn’t love a character, he can’t write them. Loves his villains.
  • Wants you to come out of a movie without having your prejudices confirmed.
  • Wants you to come out of his movies feeling that everything you know about the world is wrong.

Tweets with many more great quotes and observations are collected in the #MasterClassdelToro hashtag.

He will be doing a master class series on Luis Buñuel next August , so don’t miss it.

Don’t take the monkey bypass
(an essay on writing)


When Alyx and I visited with two old friends last weekend, we all went to the African Lion Safari south of Cambridge, Ontario. It’s a big exotic game farm where the animals roam in huge  enclosures, and humans drive through them. Humans in little tiny mobile pens, animals in big open habitats. This is the way a zoo should be.

At the gate were signs about the Monkey Bypass, which (the signs implied) you should use if you’re squeamish about bad things happening to your car. Intriguing! We asked the attendant for more details. She said that if you drive through the big monkey enclosure, chances are good the monkeys will abuse your car. Jump on it. Pummel it. Smear shit on it. Rip off your aerial and wipers. If you choose to go through the monkey enclosure, chances are good monkeys will trash your car. If you don’t take the Monkey Bypass, you risk damage.

Awesome, I thought. Can’t wait!

Imagine my disappointment when our old friend decided to take the Monkey Bypass. Turns out he didn’t want to expose his rental to monkey wrath. I can’t say I blame him. But I was disappointed.

What a lost opportunity!

Now here’s my point: If you’re writing fiction, you can’t take the Monkey Bypass. Don’t take your characters on the safe route. Don’t let them bypass any kind of danger — emotional, physical, psychological, financial. Don’t keep them from risking everything. You drive your story right into that monkey enclosure and let them trash the fuck out of your characters. Find the biggest, baddest, cleverest, meanest monkey and drive your car right up to that bastard. Provoke it. Taunt it. Honk your horn. Give it hell, and take every piece of hell that monkey gives out.

I read a lot of stories that take the Monkey Bypass, and it’s just simply not good enough. If you’re driving your story through and the monkeys aren’t giving out the shit, you’ve got to find it. Dig it out of your soul. Find that thin edge of drama and wedge it, hard.

The Monkey Bypass takes you somewhere safe and known. That’s not what we’re in fiction for. We’re here to get the shit kicked out of us.

Thank you, Steven Barnes!

Thank you, Steven Barnes!

One thing is true: Writers need other writers. Aside from the obvious benefits of companionship and mutual understanding, one of the reasons we need each other is that sometimes, if we’re very lucky and listen carefully, a fellow writer will offer a bit of advice that makes all the difference to our work.

I had one of these moments at the 2012 OryCon, attending a panel hosted by writer and life coach Steven Barnes, when he said something that made all the difference to my writing. The advice was this:

You approach a story via either story or character. If approaching via story, ask yourself this: What is the problem and who is the worst person to give the problem to? If approaching via character, ask yourself: What is the worst thing that can happen to my character? And better yet, how can I make them do it to themselves?

At the time I was struggling to draft a historical fantasy set in Versailles in 1738. Steven Barnes’ advice made me realize that I had given the central problem of my story to the wrong character. I couldn’t make the story work because there was no good reason that character couldn’t have solved the problem on about page six.

I threw the entire draft out the window and started fresh in April 2013. By November Waters of Versailles had turned into an 18,000 word novella. And in October of this year Ellen Datlow bought it for It’ll appear there on June 3, 2015. And over the past year I’ve finished four other (much shorter) stories, and sold three of them.

Now, I’m hardly starved for the company of writers. I’m married to a very talented, award-winning writer and writing teacher. Alyx and I talk about writing all the time, but I honestly don’t think any of these writing victories would have happened without Steven Barnes’ advice. He said the right words at the right time. Thank you, Steven!

Steven and Tananarive Due, by the way, are offering an online screenwriting Writer’s Bootcamp this January. I bet it will be superb.

Writing process blog tour

My hero, Alan Bennett

I started the first draft of this Process Blog Tour post by waffling over whether I have enough real writer points to legitimately respond. But screw that. Cut cut cut. Then I delayed posting this because I felt superstitious — like if I posted it I’d never write fiction again. Dumb, hmm? But Caitlin Sweet tagged me because she’s interested in what I have to say, so let’s just do this. Protesting too much is boring. Delay is boring.

What am I working on?

Final revisions on a historical horror story set in 19th century Bavaria. Horror isn’t my thing at all, but I wanted to submit something to a particular anthology so I waded in. When I first started drafting, I got myself quite freaked out while conjuring the horrific elements (I have an overactive imagination). It’s okay now, though.

I was surprised to discover that horror seems to require huge amounts of sensory information, and I loved writing that. It was an excuse to get a little lyrical, where otherwise my writing tends to be quite straightforward.

On the novel side of things, two potential projects are battling for supremacy. One is an alternate-present fantasy and the other is near-future non-genre. Both have their pros and cons. I just need to decide which project will make me happiest — which pinata contains the most candy.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

God, what a loaded question. First of all, I reject genres as anything other than marketing categories. Some people only read within certain marketing categories and that’s great if it works for them. I read the best (as I define it) across all categories. That goes for all media.

So I’ll redefine the question to: What characteristics does my work have that I think might be somewhat unusual?

I’m not interested in writing about characters like myself. To date I’ve mostly pursued male characters. Out of the three stories finished this earlier this year, one MC is a mentally disabled Viennese janitor, one is a potty-mouthed Australian winemaker, and one is an Enlightenment-era French slut. All men.

Maybe that’s because I’m mostly interested in characters who are absolutely convinced by the actions they’re taking and it’s easier to imagine men moving through the world with that kind of conviction. Women tend to be more ambivalent unless they’re pretty extreme outliers. But I’m not interested in extreme outliers.

However, the new historical horror has a lesbian MC. She’s backed into a corner physically, financially, and emotionally, so I hope she’s moving with conviction. I had trouble getting her there, and I’m afraid she might not be sympathetic enough.

Why do I write what I do?

Better to ask why I write at all. Because it would be better if I didn’t. All writers know that the opportunity cost for what they do is huge and the chance of it ever paying off financially is little to none.

I write because I’ve always wanted to — always — and getting the psychological permission to do it was one fuck of a battle that only started turning when I approached 40.

I write because it’s taken over 300,000 words to figure out how to write something I’m proud of. I’ve got great taste, and I can tell when something’s shit even if I’ve shat it out myself. So after learning how to please myself it would be a damn stupid waste to stop now.

I write because it’s mentally beneficial and controls my anxiety. Which is a way of saying that I really NEED to.

I write because finishing something and having people you respect like it, understand it, maybe even love it, is the best feeling in the world.

I write because many of the people I love and respect are writers, and I always felt like an outsider when I visited their playground. That wasn’t a good feeling. It also wasn’t a good way to achieve the recommended levels of mental health and self-love.

I write because I love fiction and can’t live without it, but I don’t love it unconditionally. I have high and exact expectations that are rarely met. So if I want to read something that pushes all my buttons, I have to try to write it myself.

How does my writing process work?


I’ve tried the “quantity not quality” thing and it doesn’t work for me (it was a great way to learn though). It just makes a mess too awful to face cleaning up. Not very many people can write quickly and produce something worth reading. I think the quantity not quality orthodoxy is responsible for a lot of crap.

Some people can write a story in a weekend. That’s not me. For the previous two stories, seems like I’ve gotten a 5000 word draft in a month by working at least eight hours a week. Then finishing it takes huge amounts of revision — 30-40 hours. Maybe 100 hours per story total. I haven’t actually calculated it.


I start a drafting session by grooming the last 1000 words or so to make sure I’m not headed off on a tangent. That means by the time I have a complete first draft it’s already been revised at least three times, except for the end. Which means the ending sucks. Then I rewrite several times before asking Alyx to weigh in on it. She’s wonderful at critique not only because she’s a terrific writer and experienced critiquer, but she also teaches writing so is very smooth at communicating her opinions and fixes. Rewrite again and get another crit from a friend. Then rewrite again and again. Maybe 5-10 revisions?

Revise, revise, revise. There is no other way.


My most unusual tool is an 11 x 14 inch sketchpad, which I use to doodle scene mechanics, story, and plot. If I’m spinning my wheels, the sketchpad will usually put me on track again. Scribbling has always helped me think.


Our condo is too small for me to have a desk. My laptop lives in a drawer. But our condo building has a library with wifi, which is nice. Our kitchen table works too. Often Alyx and I will write in a coffee shop. The current spot is Jimmy’s on Gerrard, which has two upper floors with big tables.

I can draft on an iPad with a regular Mac bluetooth keyboard, which is great to haul around to the coffee shop. This setup is no good for revision because cutting and pasting and flying around a document with efficiency is impossible on an iPad.

Research and inspiration

I read a lot of non-fiction. Good, clear non-fiction primes my brain for the kind of writing I want to achieve. I actually think that Alan Bennett’s essay collections Writing Home and Untold Stories are magical in this way. I can’t recommend them highly enough.