Five Things I Learned From NaNoWriMo—and How to Have a Productive Yet Peaceful Holiday

1. You can do more than you imagined possible.

I knew I could write more than 1000 words a day. I’ve written a few thousand before. But 50,000 words in a month for National Novel-Writing Month? When I was working at four different hospitals, two of them in another city, one of them for the first time, in a francophone environment? And speaking at Queens for CUCOH? And hosting my daughter’s all-important fourth birthday party?

Balloons! For the party, of course.

Balloons! For the party, of course.

Seemed a little nuts, even for me. But what the heck. I might as well try it. I signed up to write a minimum of 1667 words a day. And on the first day, before my first shift, I wrote 4018 words and felt powerful.

So if you’ve bitten off a bit more than you think you can chew during the holidays, relax. It’s cool. Mr. Money Mustache calls it the optimism gun.

Or as Bruce Lee pointed out, “A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.”

2. Competition is key.

I got a few buddies on NaNoWriMo, and watching them up their ticker tape thousands of words lit a fire under me. Now, I know it’s supposed to be all touchy-feely-huggy writers creating together, but c’mon. That made me want to write ALL THE TIME.

So if you want to produce, surround yourself with like-minded maniacs. However…


Blast from the past: editor John Douglas, me, Lisa Silverthorne, Jerry Weinberg, and Jenna Black (the Oregon Writers Network Master Class 2003), plus dancing Cows

3. Burnout is stupid.

Pushing yourself too hard is counterproductive. I ended up writing 30,000 words in the first ten days, while also working five shifts of up to 12 hours and taking another doctor out for drinks, and hurting my back, probably because of two days of over 5000 words/day, crouched over my laptop.

No. If your body wants to sleep, let it sleep. Make sure you eat, move, kiss your friends and family during your holidays, and every day. You don’t want to end up like that German intern who worked himself to death. (Looks like he also had epilepsy, but working for 72 h is never a good idea.)

Best surfing of my life, in Waikiki after a storm, with Max in utero

Best surfing of my life, in Waikiki after a storm, with Max in utero

4. Community works.

I really liked poking around NaNoWriMo, dropping in on forums around the globe, including Nairobi, Kenya; Hong Kong; and Wairarapa, NZ. And I liked that my word count was added to my community word count, and to my genre’s word count, showing how we were all growing together.

Holidays are for your peeps. Make sure you see ’em and tell ’em you love them.

Matt's Rolls Royce posse. I don't know these people, but they make a good picture.

Matt’s Rolls Royce posse. I don’t know these people, but they make a good picture.

5. Two words: wind sprints.

I did wind sprints once with my brother, like this: race as fast as you can. Walk. Then race again.

My bro, with Max as a baby

My bro, with Max as a baby

That’s kind of how I not only nailed NaNoWriMo by day 17 (would have hit it sooner, but y’know, had to drive to Kingston and motivate some talented young people at CUCOH, plus swim with my kids), but in that month, I not only banged out 50K, but 71,861 words of fiction. Not bad for a newbie.

Anastasia’s party was fun. I invited her whole class, plus a few more friends. “You made four cakes from scractch?” asked my friend Becky.

“Well, yes. Kind of. I made one for school, plus two layers for a chocolate cake and one for a vanilla cake.” Tip: if you make white chocolate frosting, white chocolate chips are not the same as white baking chocolate. You don’t need to add butter if you use the chips.





IMG_7361 IMG_7380 IMG_7381 IMG_7385And yep, I did work at four different hospitals. Then I hit the salsa club with Jos, Celine, Renee, Tim, Darcy, and Elva.

If you go salsa, you, too, may obtain a glowing cleavage.

If you go salsa, you, too, may obtain a glowing cleavage.

That was the sprint. And it came at a cost. For example, I didn’t finish writing AIMG_7319nastasia a birthday letter until today. I missed the first deadline to renew my hospital privileges at one of my hospitals (no worries, they don’t start charging a late fee until Jan). My husband was quietly overwhelmed by working in Montreal and looking after the kids while I was working in Ottawa.

Plus, I’ve had a nap every day for the past few days, and I’m starting to feel human again. That’s the walking part. Can’t have one without the other. See part #3.

Or listen to John Lubbock: “Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”

So what do you think? Got any more bullish tips of your own? Or if you just want to chill out and read, check out my new stories in Ricepaper Magazine and my “darkly comic” debut Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, or pick up one free Hope Sze novel at Kobo before the coupon expires. I’ll add pics after my shift. Happy holidays!


I was going to the CCH Christmas party, but the blizzard kept me away. However, I did pose with Ricepaper and Ellery Queen. Today, Anastasia asked me to take a picture of her holding two books. She assumed book-posing was a “thing.” Awwww.IMG_3896 IMG_3889

IMG_3902 - Version 2bullish-blog-network

I have seen the future at CUCOH–and finished NaNoWriMo!

I have seen the future. Bright, hard-working, friendly, and a lot of fun.

The first time I applied to Queen’s for my undergrad degree, they took a bunch of us on tour, and some students yelled, “Sub-frosh! Sub-frosh!” at us. (I laughed. Queen’s is famous for its school spirit.) The second time, I was applying for medical school,

The third time, coordinator David Wiercigroch invited me to speak at the 10th Anniversary of the Canadian Undergraduate Conference on Healthcare (CUCOH).

Creative Doctor description cut-out

I wish CUCOH had been around when I was applying to med school. It’s for anyone interested in health care, including nurses, physiotherapists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and future health care policy analysts (hi, Emily), but it’s pretty amazing to get a weekend crash course in anatomy, touching and asking questions about cadavers as well as extensive specimens in the enormous anatomy museum. I also would’ve liked to check out the casting workshop and the first aid mass casualty simulation.

Airway Management Trainers - rotated

I love when people send me pictures like this. It makes me feel cool.

Meanwhile, I taught the intubation workshop. After a quick overview of the seven P’s, customized by me, they learned how to bag, how to insert oral airways, how to intubate a dummy, and a few got to use alternate devices (the straight blade, the bougie, and the laryngeal mask airway—with thanks to the Glengarry Memorial Hospital and Dr. Bob Reddoch for adding to the equipment. Bob personally dropped off the LMA’s at my house before I drove to Kingston). We could only take 16 people for each of two sessions, and later I heard that at least 20 extra people lined up each time, asking if there were any extra spots. The lucky few who made it all successfully bagged and intubated. One of the guys, walking out, said, “That was awesome.” Slides here if Slideshare doesn’t work on your device.

But would anyone show up to my seminar, The Creative Doctor? I’d agreed to switch to the 4 p.m. slot to accommodate another speaker, but the end of the day, when everyone’s tired…uh oh.

Just a handful of people showed up at first (thanks, Sarah, Alice, Airiss, Sissi & Brandon!), but once the other sessions let out, the theatre filled up, and a few people even ended up standing or sitting in aisles.

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After Tiffany kindly introduced me, I said, “Well, anyone who knows me knows that I’m crazy” and brought out the fortuneteller/cootie catcher I’d made for my seminar at the Brantford Public Library (slides here). Game on!

I worked through four different sets of slides, each touching on a different aspect of creativity, such as a different approach to emergency medicine:

creativity in my writing;

how other health care practitioners have sought to balance their interests, including doctors (William Carlos Williams & CJ Lyons; my friends Mike Ko, Michael Sanatani, Karen Chien and Jennifer Wong), nurses (such as NYT bestsellers Jeanne Ray and Elizabeth Berg), and forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs. Slide link here.

I ended with the pros and cons of leading a double life in health sciences and the arts, because it ain’t all roses, but the roses you do get smell pretty sweet. Slide here:

I left 15 minutes for questions, and I was impressed at the range: everything from the practical (“How do you do this with two kids?”; “Give me an example of a creative reaction to a stressful situation”; “What’s a locum?”; “Why did you make your name lower case on some of your books?”) to “Do you sleep?”

At the end, I gave away prizes: CODE BLUES to Sereen, THE MOST UNFEELING DOCTOR IN THE WORLD to Nadia, and Kyo got the “mystery prize”: my original med school stethoscope, which I’d recently replaced. Unfortunately, the book to sign up for the draw hadn’t made its way around the room properly, and I ended up having to e-mail two prizewinners after the fact. One didn’t get the message until she was already on the road. Oops.

Then I answered a few questions and posed for a few selfies. ’Cause autographs are old school, although I did sign Grace’s newly-made cast!




This is the worst pic of me, so I made it small even though everyone else looks good. Note to self: chin down!


She sings opera!


I dragged my eight-year-old son, Max, to the banquet. He was a hit, freely answering questions from the keynote speaker, Dr. Peter Lin, e.g. “What is this?” “A zebra!” (Correct.) “How might this patient have died?” “Someone put a rope around his neck and choked him to death.” (Not how the case panned out, but the most off the charts answer. Aww.)

One of the delegates even knew what NaNoWriMo was. BTW, I did pass the 50,000 word mark Sunday morning, before I did the anatomy workshop. I also took my kids to the indoor water park on both days, in between teaching the next generation how to save lives while preserving their own.

The best part about any conference is rubbing shoulders with people who energize you. And here I was, surrounded by smart, dedicated, happy future health practitioners while my family relaxed at the water park at the Ambassador’s Hotel. Yay! Thank you so much to David and the rest of the CUCOH team for inviting me.

As Lincoln Steffens said, “I have seen the future, and it works.”

P.S. Trying to finalize the slides before I send the message out. Thanks for all the sign-ups to my list. I apologize in advance if your e-mail bounces, because sometimes it’s not clear if it’s a 1 or an l, for example (Queen’s–what’s up with those crazy alphanumeric addresses?). You can blame my eyes if you want. 🙂 But seriously, thanks for coming out, thanks for signing up, and thanks for the feedback! I’ll add the wave video later.



They had a photo booth at the dinner. Anastasia is enjoying the mask, the boa, and a Captain America shield.

NanowriME (Or, how I hurt myself by writing thirty thousand words in nine days)

It’s NaNoWriMo!

Wha’s that?

You know, when people try to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. National Novel Writing Month.

I never picked up the gauntlet until now. I was like, I’m busy. I’m in the middle of a novel already—why should I stop and write one ’specially for November, just because some other crazy cats are doing it?

But people told me I could just sign up anyway. 50K is 50K of fiction. “Just call it book two or something.’

And so I said, okay.

And, being me, as soon as I saw my “writing buddies” accumulating wordage, I started racing them. I’ve been writing like a fiend. Like, 25,000 words in the first week. Writing around my emerg shifts. Crouching over my laptop and trying to type one-handed while Anastasia clings to my other hand for the hour plus it takes her to fall sleep. Whatever it takes.

Enough that I pulled a muscle in my back and had to teach two yoga classes while doing sphinx pose instead of cobra/upward dog for the second class.

(Word to the wise: don’t hurt yourself writing. It’s dumb. But if you do, yoga really does help reduce back pain. At least, I can offer myself as anecdotal evidence.)

stockholm syndrome pregnant-200

I’m still going for it. I finished the first draft of Stockholm Syndrome and now I just need to make it, you know, readable. So now I’m going to noodle along, just write a bit each day, piecing it together. I only need to write something like 888 words per day for the rest of the month to get to 50K. I can throttle back, let my buddies race ahead/catch up, and get ready for Kingston.

I’m teaching a seminar on creativity in medicine at CUCOH on Saturday. And they just asked me to teach the intubation workshop as well.

I said, Sure.

Should be interesting.

P.S. Buddy me as dr_sassy on Nano, if you want! I’m at 32,576 right now.

How ’bout you? Do you have any tips? Have you ever hurt yourself doing something stupid? Will I see you at CUCOH? Right on!

Travel: Toronto & Brantford


Sushi Inn:

Bernice introduced me to Yorkville’s Sushi Inn on Tuesday, where we feasted like queens for a combined total of $39 plus tip. I’m talking seaweed salad, avocado salad, sushi pizza, spicy tuna, and one order of salmon teriyaki that came with miso soup, salad, and rice. The spicy tuna was the best I’d had in my life. No joke.


In return, I taught her how to take a car selfie.


Works better with the car light on.



Park Hyatt

I haven’t seen Karen since…medical school? Possibly a wedding afterward. But basically, aeons ago.

She introduced me to the Park Hyatt rooftop bar. Under the warmth of the overhead heaters, I briefly took off my coat, and we drank $20 cocktails and I ate marinated olives and almonds off our own tray of bar snacks.


IMG_3713She had to go to a teaching session on breast lumps, so I meandered into Queen’s Park, then the Lillian H. Smith Library. I’m a library fiend. I read Mariko & Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer and another graphic novel, The Cute Girls Network. Now I want to read Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore.

I ate spicy eggplant at a Chinese restaurant on Dundas street called something like The Best Seafood Restaurant. The fresh scallions were a nice touch, and it cost a grand total of $6.37 plus tip. (The guys at the next table got some sizzling plates and kept talking about the grouper.) I gave the servier $10 and asked if I could bring an extra fortune cookie home for my other child. He gave me four fortune cookies, and we were both happy.

Finally, my chef d’oeuvre: a cheap massage. Not the creepy kind. The Chinese kind.

I chose the 30 minute reflexology and 60 minute Swedish massage for $65 at the Oriental Natural Spa. Yeah! I haven’t had a massage since I was eight months pregnant with Anastasia, and that time, the NYC massage therapist just kept saying, “Gentle. Gentle” because of my baby.

This was the opposite.



He would have backed off if I’d asked. He did ask, “Hard? Not hard?” I said, “No, it’s okay.” I decided to push through the occasional discomfort. I walked back to my airbnb and I felt sore, like I’d done a huge workout, instead of getting worked over for 90 minutes.

It was a good thing. I prefer to know that I’ve gotten my money’s worth.

I left a big tip.

Then I crashed at my airbnb. Super clean, private bathroom, a balcony with a view of City Hall and the CN tower. I only regret that I didn’t get to try the gym.


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I was at the Brantford Public Library on Tuesday as the guest speaker for their memoir program, Lifescapes. It was the first time I’d been paid to speak as an author. “You were talked up a lot,” one couple informed me. (It turned out they’d founded Canada’s Cystic Fibrosis association. Pretty cool, non?) I’d met the brilliant librarian, Robin Harding, at Bloody Words 2014, and she invited me then. I did talk about memoir, as well as traditional and indie publishing, and my tips for success in writing, and in life, frankly (view my cool slides on Slideshare here).

I was a little nervous that no one would show up, so I was super happy that three people came half an hour early. And then we basically filled up the auditorium!

Now I have a soft spot for Brantford. Maybe next time I’ll get to enjoy the city more. The train was perfect and only ~12 minutes walk away from the library.

On Saturday, Majinx did their Houdini show in Vankleek Hill. I did a book signing beforehand, because Terminally Ill is about an escape artist who chains himself up like Houdini and nails himself into a coffin, but doesn’t escape, and needs Dr. Hope Sze’s help to a) survive, and b) figure out who would have sabotaged his stunt. If you want to read this ebook for free Kobo, just enter the promo code HOPEGONE. You can also use this code for Code Blues or Notorious D.O.C., but you’ve got to pick one.

My next appearance is at the Canadian Undergraduate Conference on Healthcare in Kingston November 14-16th. It’s the first time I’m speaking at a health care conference. Previous speakers include astronaut Roberta Bondar and CBC’s White Coat Black Art’s Dr. Brian Goldman, so, no pressure.

Note: this post was delayed by work and out of respect for the shootings in Ottawa. I’m thinking of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and his family, and am grateful to Sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers.

Happy reading and safe travels.