My Year of Yes: We Are Light Rays

Not one of Sook-Yin's pictures, since hers are copyrighted. This one is by Alvimann.

Not one of Sook-Yin’s pictures, since hers are copyrighted. This one is by Alvimann.

I pushed myself to go to We Are Light Rays at the Ottawa Art Gallery last week. My body desperately wanted sleep, my throat ached, I had chills, and my nose dripped, but I wanted to meet Sook-Yin Lee. So I forced myself to drive to Ottawa, through the construction, and listened to SYL.

What I love is how she can draw a story with a few details, and she’s completely open. About her childhood: “I had to come home from school right away. I had to have high marks. I was on the swimming team. All I could do was watch TV.” “My mother is like Kali. Don’t mess with her. She will destroy you.” “I never finished high school. I left home when I was 15 and joined the art scene in Vancouver.”

About other people categorizing you: “I was a VJ, so everyone put me in this box. ‘You’re a VJ.’ And some of my friends were like, ‘Why are you working for the man?’ and I said, ‘It’s just a new medium that can reach so many people.’” It hadn’t occurred to me that TV was what the Internet is now, a new medium to reach millions of people. TV was just TV to me. So I thought that was super cool.

She’d also made a lot of interesting artistic choices, like displaying her photographs on small light boxes instead of blowing them up huge like everyone else does, although she said she’d like to experiment with large photos printed on linen. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to use light boxes, but she works in film, so it’s more natural to her. And linen? Wow.

If you go see the exhibit, it’s an auditory as well as visual experience because she’s singing original music in the background. I was in a hurry because my parking metre had expired and I needed to sleep, but I still liked it, and the gallery person said that it’s cool to rotate 360 degrees and take in all the photos and the music.

I liked that SYL works in all sorts of media (radio–she’s the host of CBC radio’s DNTO; music; film) and tries different things. People already think I’m strange enough for writing in all different genres. And I asked her what she did when people told her “You can’t do that. Stick to one thing” or criticize her for succeeding, which happens to me.

SYL basically said that she doesn’t listen to naysayers. Sometimes she has doubts, but she creates the stuff first and then says, “Uh oh. What did I do?” afterward.

I missed her show the next day, How Can I Forget. I would have liked to see the interplay between her and her siblings (SYL said that the emotional highlight is a Skype call between her and her oldest sister, a successful businesswoman who refuses to dwell on sadness in their past, whereas SYL is the crazy artist who does nothing but dwell on “crap”). Unfortunately, I was still sick and a bit tired from my two Kali yoga classes, which will be the next post. But if you have a chance, go see Sook-Yin Lee. Go support living artists.

Terminally Ill…with Kobo’s Mark (Leslie) Lefebvre and Scarlett Rugers

Hope Sze’s third medical mystery adventure, Terminally Ill, will hit the stands on February first, 2014, with a kicking cover by Scarlett Rugers, commissioned by Kobo:


And a mini picture of the upcoming print book:

Terminally Ill POD cover

As I mentioned in the Kobo interview, I was very excited to win this cover, since the last thing I remembered winning was a very nice set of bath soaps. More details here:

And here’s the blurb:

Magic? Dr. Hope Sze steers clear of magic.
But when “Elvis the Escape King” chains and nails himself inside a coffin and lowers himself into Montreal’s St. Lawrence River, he can’t break free.
So Hope restarts his heart and saves his life. But now Elvis demands to know who sabotaged his stunt.
Hope hung up her amateur detective badge two months ago, in order to tend to cancer patients on palliative care. The only cases she solves right now are case studies on pain and over-stuffed emergency rooms.
Which gets just the tiniest bit boring.
Hope could escape Montreal any day now. She could transfer to Ottawa to join her beloved ex-boyfriend, Ryan. No more unspeakable Montreal drivers and stymied medical care. No more working with the charming yet infuriating Dr. Tucker.
Hope the Escape Artist can afford to act generous. As parting gift to Montreal, city of festivals (and murderers), she could help Elvis out. Just asking a few questions won’t hurt anyone.
And so Hope plunges into her most unconventional and, possibly, her most terminal adventure yet. Where the magical art of escape and the dastardly art of crime vie for centre stage, and the better man may lose. Forever.


I got to meet Mark Lefebvre, Kobo‘s director of author relations, at the Advanced Master Class in Oregon in July. I hadn’t realized that he was also Mark Leslie, the editor of Tesseracts 16, who’d recently published my short story, “Burning Beauty,” which just meant I liked him even more.

I could fawn all over Mark, who’s one of those guys that you just meet and you’re like, yup, I like you. I could give a shout out to Kobo, with it’s beautiful and simple interface, writer-friendly approach, and Canadian roots, but that sounds totally self-serving now, right? So you can read J. Steven York’s much more informative Kobo post here, and I’ll just show you some pictures of me and Mark L, hanging out on the Oregon Coast.

First, we did the traditional standing side-by-side thing. You can see that a) he is much taller than me, b) Kris Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith own a lot of books, and c) I am fake-smiling.IMG_0812

So then I suggested that we do more crazy pictures. Those are more fun. Mark immediately decided to pick me up, which is great. I love wacky people. Also, you can now see my surf shoes. Unfortunately, Kobo chose to run the picking up picture of me where I seem to have giant hips, but what can you do? (This one is a little better.)


We brought out a chair next. Props are always fun, and we reprised a classic pose. Clearly, he was saying something fascinating, like “Rutabagas, rutabagas.”


Then we realized we had much better props–books! And what if we looked fascinated, reading each other’s books? Fortunately, Chris York happened to have a copy of her latest Christy Fifield book. And who wouldn’t jump on Mark’s books, like Haunted Hamilton?


Which was cool, except I was like, Are we supposed to pretend to read while surreptitiously displaying the covers, or what? (I just think that Sean Young, the photographer, captured a pretty funny expression, so I included it.)


And then we said, forget reading, we’ll just strike a pose.


Back to the classic stance again. Everything comes full circle. Except see, now I’m the taller one. I think Max’s Magic Hat did the trick.


The Next Big Thing (It’s Big! It’s Massive! It’s Chocolate Bun Cake Goodness!)

I kind of hated tag as a kid, because chasing other kids or running away from “it” just made me think, Why am I doing this?

“The Next Big Thing” is a much better sort of tag.

To wit, the insanely talented Cindie Geddes tagged me as the next big one so that I can talk about my next big one. I know, it sounds like a porno, but it’s actually writers hand-selecting other writers they admire to answer ten questions. Here we go.

1) What is the working title of your next book?

Terminally Ill

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?

The unofficial title is “The Escape Artist.” I was listening to a podcast of DNTO and they interviewed an escape artist named Dean Gunnarson who nearly died after he was handcuffed, chained, and nailed into a coffin that was submerged into a river on Harry Houdini’s death day. I’d already started writing the third Hope Sze medical thriller, but that plot required a lot of research. Plot is not my forte when I’m sleep-deprived between my small children and my shift work as an emergency physician. But once I heard Dean’s story, I immediately envisioned him coming to Montreal for his stunt, with Hope as the doctor resuscitating him. It was so much fun, I just started writing.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

Medical thriller

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

To be honest, ideally, I’d like to play Hope myself. Yes, I am an actor manqué. But if not, maybe Zhang Ziyi with Sandra Oh’s voice? (Hope doesn’t have an accent and is not soft-spoken like Zhang. We already know Sandra can handle the hard-hitting doctor persona and medical jargon, but she’s so closely associated with Christina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy, people would keep projecting that character on Hope because, well, they’re both female Asian doctors! Can’t have more than two of those in the world.) As for Tucker, Ryan, or Alex, I’m not up on hot male actors because I rarely have time to watch movies. Can someone help me out?

On second thought, Hope is not transcendently beautiful like Zhang Ziyi. I’d rather give the part to an unknown who needs a break. Like, have you seen Elaine Marcos in Every Little Step? I thought she was great, but her Imdb profile is full of parts like “Sexy lesbian” or “Paramedic #2.” I’d love to cast some relative unknowns burning with talent and ambition. Underdogs unite!

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

After Dr. Hope Sze resuscitates an escape artist who nearly drowns while nailed and chained in a coffin, she must deduce who sabotaged his act and wants him dead.


6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Indie pub all the way, baby.


7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Started it April 25th. Started winding it up October 8th. Now I’ve set it aside to gestate while I work on my African travel essays/poems, but I’ll pick it up again.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m no good at comparing, but I’d love the readership of Tess Gerritsen and C.J. Lyons.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See #2.

I will add that I wanted to write a medical book because I returned to the ER after maternity leave, and I thought, I need to work hard on my skills so I don’t end up being “the dumb doctor.” If I write about medicine while I do medicine, I could kill two birds with one stone. Plus, nearly all my sales are from The Most Unfeeling Doctor in the World and my two Hope Sze books (Code Blues and Notorious D.O.C.), so the readers have cast their vote.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Sheer awesomeness.

Seriously, I don’t know what to say, except I love romance, so there’s still the Tucker-Ryan love triangle going strong, with Ryan pressuring Hope to transfer to the University of Ottawa and leave Montreal (and Tucker) behind. There’s the escape artist angle, with a bit of Harry Houdini lore thrown in, so if you like magic/crazy people who risk their lives for fun, that’s something new. On a more serious note, I talk about palliative care and end of life issues. The escape theme runs throughout. Will Hope escape Montreal and her reputation as the detective doctor? When is death an escape from life? If your life was unbearable, what kind of steps would you take to escape from it? That sort of thing. I’m trying to describe the plot without spoilers. So hard. Moving on.

On December 12th, Maggie Jaimeson ( will take over the reins as the Next Big Thing. I consider Maggie one of the hardest working women in the writing business, combined with excellent business and research skills, not to mention a kind heart and a sense of humor—exactly what you need for long-term success in the field. Her latest romance, Healing Notes, is her best yet. I can’t wait to read her next big thing, Chameleon, an SF/Fantasy YA about lichen modifying human behaviour. Well, I guess it’s about the people. But I’m very excited about the lichen because I’m a geek that way.

Leslie Claire Walker (

My next Big Thang is Miss Leslie. I’ve been friends with Leslie since we were both winners and roommates at Writers of the Future in 2000. At a novel workshop seven years later, I literally cried because her writing was so good (and because I thought mine hadn’t improved like hers, but anyway). She writes about characters at the edges of society, about magic, about possibilities. Read Leslie. And read Hunt while you’re waiting for Demon City!

Three other writers I recommend, who are also Big Things:

Robert Jeschonek

Brilliant. I hate writers who bore me, and Bob never does. He’s got everything: heartfelt characters, thrilling adventures, humor, pathos, and a wild imagination. Run out and read him.

Steve Mohan, Jr. (also writes as Henry Martin)

I usually don’t read techno-thrillers because of cardboard characters (usually alpha male vs. The Bad Guy, with a love interest who isn’t very interesting), but Steve combines real characters with tough choices and stirring action, exploding genre lines.

Maxwell Innes

He’s six, so this is a long term bet, but according to me, his hopelessly adoring mother, he writes the most beautiful poetry I’ve ever seen.

Why My Status Updates Are Unpopular

One of my friends gets tons of Facebook love. She posts witty comments along with funny pictures of her kids and stupid things her students say. Winning combination.

At one point, she posted a few links about politics. Her “likes” dropped to one or two.

Now, Dean Wesley Smith has admonished writers not to bother promoting themselves (yay!) and said, in passing, not to write about politics on social media.

I’m going to have to disagree, respectfully, on the latter point.

Of course I know most people go on Facebook for entertainment and connection. But I still post sometimes about the earth, animals, and oppressed people. Even if no one “likes” it. Even if no one comments. Even if I lose “friends” over it.

Why? Because I don’t believe I’m here just to sell books or get “likes.” I want to leave the earth a slightly better place, if possible. So yes, I post about my kids sometimes, because I love them and their beautiful faces brighten up my newsfeed. However, if I’m going to take the time to write or post, I will occasionally point out injustice.

Because I can. Because I’m lucky enough to live in a society where I can speak out.

I will point out that it’s possible to be political and entertaining. The Bloggess gets up to 2 million visits a month, and when she’s comparing male vs. female body bag costumes, y’all, she’s really pointing out the double standard, but it’s funny right down to the comment about a sexy ramen noodle costume.

On my much more modest scale, one of my FB posts started off, “At the risk of becoming the crazy rhino lady, I’m posting another petition…” My witty friend commented, “I will sign the petition. But in exchange, I want you to change your name and profile pic to Crazy Rhino Lady.” (I did change the picture, but could not figure out how to change my name—maybe Facebook doesn’t let you do this anymore?) And we all had a good laugh, and maybe a few more people signed the petition.

I admit, when I read about Ai Weiwei, for example, my first thought was, Why don’t you keep quiet? It would be so much easier. You could just do your art and enjoy your international success without getting harassed, detained, imprisoned, etc.

But then I decided that while the majority of any population goes along with the status quo, there will always be some dissidents. There will always be some people to whom popularity without morality, without justice, is a hollow victory.

I’m no Ai Weiwei. But I do care about what’s right. In the emergency room, if I wanted to do what was easy, I would just hand out antibiotics, narcotics, and sedatives to anyone who asks. Instead, I have to spend my time explaining why those things are not always in the patient’s best interest.

And I will continue to speak out on social media.

It’s really no skin off the reader’s nose either way: you can click a few keys to sign a petition, or you move on to your other millions of Facebook friends who commiserate with you about how work sucks but your dog is awesome!!!!!!


Winners of the Code Blues/Devil’s in the Details Contest

Congratulations to our wonderful winners who completely surpassed my expectations.  I thought people would post little details like “My respirologist has a squeeze toy in the shape of lungs,” but instead, these people offered full-fledged stories!  (You can tell they’re all professional writers.)

First place:  Michael Angel

Second place:  Anonymous

Third place:  Cindie Geddes

Honourable Mention:  Dr. Michael Moreton

And now, on to the stories!

First place:

Michael Angel

My only medical ‘detail’ story is really a small item that many others would miss, as it was about a young doctor, not a device or strange implement.

Back around 1999, I ended up in the emergency room when my ulcers ended up rupturing a blood vessel in the stomach. Once it was determined which end of my GI tract was bleeding, I was prepped for surgery to put a scope and a laser, I believe, down the esophagus to cauterize the leak.

I was very woozy, but remember being by myself in the hospital bed, late at night, feeling all alone. Two doctors, one crusty old resident and one young doctor, came to check on me one last time before I went in. I put on a brave face, but honestly, I was flat-out terrified. I’d never been so close to feeling out of control, completely at someone else’s mercy as to whether I’d make it through the night.

So I shivered. The older doctor noted this, saying something to the effect of “What’s the matter?” I replied, “I’m…just…cold.” He huffed, “It’s not that cold in here.”

The younger doctor didn’t say anything. He saw the look in my eyes, and simply reached out and took my hand in his. The very act, that ounce of compassion, instantly calmed me. He knew I was scared, knew I was shamming the ‘cold’, and let me know that though I wasn’t out of the woods, they were going to do their best.

I stopped shivering.

As you can guess, I made a full recovery, which included a regimen of drugs to kill H. Pylori. And though I never learned the young doctor’s name (I was too out of it that night to note his tag), I’ll never forget what he did.

– Michael Angel

Second Place (Anonymous)

Make Me a Woman

I recall as a teen contracting The Clap in the early ’70s, back when it was the second worst STD on the scene. (It was more fun to horrify each other with stories of Syphilis-inspired brain rot and madness.)

Although I made light of it, waxing lyrical about the “annoying drip, drip, drip of Gonorrhea”, and singing, “Gonorrhea, Why?” (to the tune of “Cara Mia Why?”) I was actually quite distressed, and I was a very shy young thing, too. I slipped into the VD Clinic as anonymously as possible (as I am now writing this post) and submitted with quiet dread to a pelvic exam given by a retired (back from the dead) male doctor with a hearing problem. Like going to Grampa for an oil check. (Oh, God.)

On my back, blinking at the bright light, trying my best to keep my mind elsewhere, I endured his fumblings with the speculum, which wouldn’t go in. Instead of taking it out and having a peek, he kept pushing on it, rather painfully from my end of things, as I, having analyzed the problem, called out, “I think I have a tampon in! I think I have a tampon in!” The nurse at his elbow lent her voice to mine. “Doctor, she thinks she has a tampon in!”

At last he heard us, stopped trying to shove my cervix up my nose from the inside, and allowed me to take the tampon out. It is no surprise that after the exam, when he got me to stand up and gave me a nice big injection in the butt, that I finally passed out cold on the floor.

Gonorrhea, why, indeed?

Third Place:  Cindie Geddes

I went to my favorite doctor for an allergy shot. We got to talking and I mentioned some pain I was having in my abdomen. He felt the spot I pointed to and said it was likely some kind of calcium deposit (he probably said something more medical, but I’m not a doctor, so I don’t really remember) on my sutures from a hernia operation a year earlier. He used to be a surgeon. “We can just go in the next room, and I can get it right now,” he said.

“Can I watch?” I asked. I’m always fascinated by how my body works.

“Sure. We’ll use the vasectomy table.”

We went in, set the table so I was nearly sitting up, and went to it. He gave me some numbing injections, cut my ab open and dug around until he found the sutures. Sure enough, he found what looked like little rocks at the ends of my sutures. But cutting them off was going to be awkward because he was the one holding the retractor thingies.

“Can I help?” I was loving the whole thing. Couldn’t feel anything but tugging, but he was giving me the tour of what he was cutting and why, and it all looked pretty damn cool.

“Sure,” he gloved me up and handed me the retractor thingies, and I held them while he snipped the little rocks off. Then he let me feel the little rocks (still gloved), and that’s exactly what they felt like — rocks. Suddenly, my pain made perfect sense.

My recovery was the easiest I’ve had of any ab surgery (I’ve had, I think, nine) because I knew exactly what had been done and understood exactly what was happening during recovery.

I had a similar little surgery two years earlier. Cost: $7,000 (thank dog for insurance). With that one, I was knocked out, had the usual huge staff, waited in pre-op for three hours, post-op for six. Cost for this one: $700. Complete time from entering the vasectomy room to going home: 35 minutes.

My doc gave me his cell phone number to keep him posted on how my recovery was going and insists I use it still for any little question or concern I have.

This is all very very wrong in the US. I don’t use his name because I suspect he could get in big trouble. But it’s my favorite interaction with a doctor ever. And the easiest procedure I’ve ever had. I love this guy.

Cindie Geddes

Honourable Mention:  Dr. Michael Moreton

Dr. Moreton was gracious enough to contribute two stories.

The call came when I was in the Ante-Natal clinic at the United Family Hospital
in Beijing. It was from the Consular department at the American Embassy. A
pregnant American woman who was working with an aid agency in Tibet had
gone in to premature labor, they had contacted the assistance company to fly her
out but Washington had insisted that an Obstetrician go with the team. A wise
precaution. As, at that time in 2000, I was the only licensed western Ob in Beijing
there was not much choice of who should go.

I picked up an Emergency delivery pack from Labor and Delivery and the
appropriate medications that we were using to relax the Uterus from the
pharmacy and while waiting the SOS team to pick me up, did a little shopping.

We were using a military plane as they were roomier than any other planes. The
Chinese military is very business orientated and their ambulance planes were
available for hire.

We took off and had an uneventful flight and we landed in Lhasa. It was crystal
clear day and after the murky skies of Beijing the intensity of the light gave
everything film-set appearance. Unfortunately there was no time for sightseeing
and we drove to the hospital.

I was apprehensive; I had been to Chinese hospitals on evacuations before where
they were reluctant to release the western patient. Partly as it was a loss of
face but also a loss of a golden goose. This time it went without incident and
the staff were very accommodating. I handed out the products of my shopping,
canned hams, pantyhose and cigarettes always seemed to be useful for this part
of the ceremonies. The patient was pleased to see us and her contractions were
infrequent and mild. After monitoring things for a few minutes we loaded her
onto the ambulance and started for the airport. It was at this point that I started
to feel light-headed and a little breathless. I discounted this feeling that just
thinking about Mountain sickness had caused psychosomatic effects.

When we were on the runway loading the stretcher on which she was lying
was a difficult maneuver. It took four of us to do it as we had to raise it to chest
level to get it onto the plane and I was in a position where I took a lot of the

weight. When the stretcher was loaded, I stepped back and at that point it hit.
A blinding headache, a wave of nausea and a desperate feeling of shortage of
breath overwhelmed me. They bundled me onto the plane, shut the door, gave
me oxygen and within minutes I felt better. Luckily the plane had two beds, so the
patient and I lay alongside each other on the return journey. She was very calm
and reassured me that everything was under control.

Dr Michael Moreton is a Canadian OB/GYN who spent over nine years in China. He is
now the International Medical Coordinator of The Bangkok Hospital, Thailand.

The call came when I was in the Ante-Natal clinic at the United Family Hospital

in Beijing. It was from the Consular department at the American Embassy. A
pregnant American woman who was working with an aid agency in Tibet had
gone in to premature labor, they had contacted the assistance company to fly her
out but Washington had insisted that an Obstetrician go with the team. A wise
precaution. As, at that time in 2000, I was the only licensed western Ob in Beijing
there was not much choice of who should go.

I picked up an Emergency delivery pack from Labor and Delivery and the
appropriate medications that we were using to relax the Uterus from the
pharmacy and while waiting the SOS team to pick me up, did a little shopping.

We were using a military plane as they were roomier than any other planes. The
Chinese military is very business orientated and their ambulance planes were
available for hire.

We took off and had an uneventful flight and we landed in Lhasa. It was crystal
clear day and after the murky skies of Beijing the intensity of the light gave
everything film-set appearance. Unfortunately there was no time for sightseeing
and we drove to the hospital.

I was apprehensive; I had been to Chinese hospitals on evacuations before where
they were reluctant to release the western patient. Partly as it was a loss of
face but also a loss of a golden goose. This time it went without incident and
the staff were very accommodating. I handed out the products of my shopping,
canned hams, pantyhose and cigarettes always seemed to be useful for this part
of the ceremonies. The patient was pleased to see us and her contractions were
infrequent and mild. After monitoring things for a few minutes we loaded her
onto the ambulance and started for the airport. It was at this point that I started
to feel light-headed and a little breathless. I discounted this feeling that just
thinking about Mountain sickness had caused psychosomatic effects.

When we were on the runway loading the stretcher on which she was lying
was a difficult maneuver. It took four of us to do it as we had to raise it to chest
level to get it onto the plane and I was in a position where I took a lot of the

weight. When the stretcher was loaded, I stepped back and at that point it hit.
A blinding headache, a wave of nausea and a desperate feeling of shortage of
breath overwhelmed me. They bundled me onto the plane, shut the door, gave
me oxygen and within minutes I felt better. Luckily the plane had two beds, so the
patient and I lay alongside each other on the return journey. She was very calm
and reassured me that everything was under control.

Dr Michael Moreton is a Canadian OB/GYN who spent over nine years in China. He is
now the International Medical Coordinator of The Bangkok Hospital, Thailand.

I was a House Physician at the Liverpool Royal Infirmary in 1964. A
patient was admitted with confusing symptoms and after investigation
it was found that he was suffering from chronic arsenic poisoning, as he
had been exposed to arsenic in his workplace for many years.

Even on the professorial medical service nobody had any experience in
treating this problem. We made rounds and presented the case to Dr
Sutton the junior consultant on the service. When we came to therapy
he turned to me and said “Phone Dr Preble and see if he has any
advice” This was quite logical Dr P was a Consultant Veneriologist and
had had experience in using arsenic in the treatment STDs before the
advent of penicillin. He surely would have seen overdoses and would be
able to advise.

I called him at his private clinic in Rodney St.

‘Good afternoon sir, I am Dr Moreton, a House Physician at the Royal
and I need your advice —- “ He cut me off.

“Don’t say a word on the phone, dear boy. Come and see me this

For more of Dr Michael Moreton’s tales, please read the Medical Post.

Indie Publishing, Buddha Style

You’re a writer and you’ve decided to start your own publishing company.  But in the first three months, you’ve only sold three copies of your book.  You

a) start making fun of all the bestsellers. A bunch of hacks. They all sell their stuff for 99 cents. And the traditional publisher’s fat cats have publicity machines behind them. They’re all bastards;

b) start hiring people to make more beautiful, sophisticated covers or edit your novel again–the first two versions obviously didn’t cut it;

c) run to the Kindle boards and start posting and PM-ing, meeting writers, tagging each others’ work, trying to get a review or make friends with a self-professed avid reader who has 5 bucks to spend on one book (but you’d give them a coupon from Smashwords to they could save that 5 bucks!). Just, somebody, somewhere, buy my book!  Please!

d) start troubleshooting. So many things could be wrong. The cover. The formatting. The language (how unfortunate that most Estonians don’t seem to have e-readers yet). The lack of reviews. The one two-star review. Should you make it free? What about 99 cents?  Is that too much?

e) realize it’s a waste of time. No one makes any money at this anyway. Take the book down and walk away.

The five Buddhist hindrances (mental mind states that lead you away from enlightenment) are

Aversion (anger, ill will)

This one is pretty self-explanatory. It’s easier to blow up at other writers than to deal with the fact that no one wants to read your book.

Lust (sensual desire)

Everyone else has a nicer cover, a better proof-reader, or a more dedicated bunch of friends who buy their books and tweet about them.  If only you had that, or the money for that, someone would read your book.

Restlessness (worry, remorse)

I can’t stand it. I’m checking my numbers again. Argh! Still no one’s bought it in the last 12 hours! I hate you all! I’m going to call my friend! Shoot, no one’s home. I’m going for a run. Okay, now let me check my numbers. Still nothing! Aaaaargh!!!!!!!

What’s wrong with my book? I should post it and ask people for help tweaking my cover.

Again, it’s easier to stomp around, creating a lot of sound and fury, instead of dealing with the fact that no one has bought your book in the past 8 seconds.


Because everything from content to cover to publicity is under your control, that leads to a lot of doubt and a lot of things you can fiddle with while waiting for people to buy your book.

Sloth and torpor

It’s easier to pull up your stakes and walk away than deal with the fact that very few people are buying your book.

Okay, so I’ve gone through all these things myself.  This is what I’d advise intellectually, in a “do as I say, not as I do” thing:

1. Low expectations.

Three people bought your book? Wow! Good for you! They spent their hard-earned cash on your words. That’s an honour.

Nobody bought your book? Well, that will just make it even more exciting when someone does!  (And by the way, if you go through Smashwords and wait for their premium distribution, etc., it will take six months to hear about any sales, so you may be selling without knowing it.)

2. Take the long view.

You have years, not days, to connect with readers and make your money. Your copyright lasts for a lifetime plus 50-70 years. Dean Wesley Smith points out that five books sales a month on the Kindle can equal $10,000 after 10 years; one book a day for 10 years can equal $30,000. (I can’t find this link right now, so please ping me if you can find it.) Sounds good to me.

3.  Stop letting the numbers determine your self-worth.

From what I see, writers used to obsess about rejection by editors and agents. Now that we can easily publish ourselves world-wide, we’re obsessed about our sales.

You are not your numbers. They’re just numbers.

My husband told me to stop looking at my numbers.

This just made me more desperate to look at them and fret, and no matter how good or bad they were, I wasn’t satisfied.

I know some people input their numbers into spreadsheets every day. It’s just data. My friend Genevieve encouraged me to do this, so it would be like, “Oh, do I have to input my numbers again today?” Since then, I haven’t looked. It works better for me.

4.  Write more.

The more content you get out there, the better.  My Kindle sales jumped as soon as I put up a bunch more short stories. And it just feels good to create something brand new that hasn’t been rejected yet.

5.  Publish more.

Now get your work out there. They can’t buy it if they can’t see it.

This takes courage. I didn’t want to go indie. I dreamed of traditional publishing, with an advance and a beautiful book I could hold in my hand. Just jumping in, with no guarantee anyone would read anything I wrote? Especially when I only sold three stories in my first two months? Yikes.

Two sayings I hung on to were a) “past performance does not predict future performance” (so even if I sucked now, I might not later), and b) “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Independent publishing is rising. I can see it lifting all the boats. It’s a beautiful thing.

Copyright Melissa Yuan-Innes, 2011

P.S. I’m writing a book about the Unfeeling Doctor and Buddhism and decided to detour into Buddhism and indie publishing. If this article helped you, please consider buying my books. Thanks!

What “American Idol” Can Teach You About Writing

I never watched American Idol and very little Canadian Idol because the overwrought high notes and copious commercials turned me off.  But last night, my brain was full after the very good National Capital Conference on Emergency Medicine and I laughed until I cried, watching Idol on Youtube.  I also came away with some lessons for writing.


If you’re a singer, practice, practice, practice so you know your lyrics (and tune) so that even if you’re “really nervous,” you can carry it off instead of forgetting the lyrics, as in some of these renditions of “Before He Cheats.”

If you’re a writer, write fast and write hard.  Challenge yourself.  Don’t be afraid to throw it out and write more.  Have fun.

Act professional

Don’t do this:

Xenophopia and delusions of grandeur don’t play well.  Don’t beg to start again or do another song or start crying.

Writers, don’t argue with rejections, don’t stalk editors in conference bathrooms, don’t beg them to read the story again and don’t cry (at least in front of them).

Look Professional

In writing, that means you use standard manuscript format, white paper, and a big-enough font.  Editors need their eyes.  I used to use Times 12-point until Kris told me it was too small, so I use New York 12 or Times 14.

If you’re a performer, your audition, you want to  might want to avoid freaking people out with your look.

For example, the Cowardly Lion stood out, but you know that’s not the look Idol is going for

Don’t give them what you think they want.

Writers get told what’s hot, but by the time a book’s published, the contract was signed about two years ago.  By the time the vampire craze hits, it’s late to hop on the coffin wagon.  Be yourself.

I think a lot of these singers could’ve picked a song they liked and suited them better than trying to channel “Don’tcha” by the Pussycat Dolls.


In the end, a lot of good singers and good writers don’t make the cut for no really good reason.  They think your nose is crooked or your protagonist shouldn’t drink Lipton’s tomato soup.  But if you’ve got the dream, you keep on truckin’.

Believe me, I know it’s not easy.  I’m right in the trenches with you.

Remember what Gandhi said:

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

Waste not, fun naught


I hate waste.  Unless food is pretty much inedible, I will clean my plate.  I hang on to old clothes, especially if they have sentimental value, because I figure someday I’ll make a quilt out of them.  It doesn’t matter that I don’t really know how to sew.  My parents raised me to work hard and squeeze penny until it screams.

Then Kris and Dean taught me to write fast.  So I pounded out my second mystery novel, 60,000 words.  But when I read it later, I realized it needed more of a plot, setting, and maybe more character and emotion–yes, just about everything.  I said to myself, “What’s at the heart of this novel?  A mother wants justice after her daughter is killed in a hit-and-run accident.  Plus one of my favourite themes, a love triangle.  Okay.”

I basically had to throw away the 60K and redo it from scratch, with just those ideas.  Another 75,000 words while taking care of our infant son, getting up every night to breastfeed, going back to work in emergency medicine, and my dad getting diagnosed with aggressive brain cancer.

I finished it, but I was so burned out, I didn’t write anything mystery-related or plot-heavy for, mm, almost two years.  I wrote romances instead. Now, romance was probably an escape from my life.  But it also curdled my milk to think of 60,000 mystery words gone to waste.  Sixty thousand!  You wouldn’t throw away 60,000 dollars, right?  So why throw away 60,000 words?

After a week-long tutorial with Kris, I realized that one of my psychological hang-ups was this waste.  I don’t mind putting in the writing time, but I would like to get paid for every word.  Every scrap becomes a poem, every paragraph gets knitted into a short story or novel and in the end, everyone fawns over me and gives me money for my work.  Sounds good, right?

Kris just looked at me.  “It’s practice.  You don’t think you’ve wasted time in medical school, learning with patients, do you?”

I had to think about that.  Sure, I’m grateful to all those patients who let me practice on them.  But if I could’ve just started practicing competently and making money at it instead of paying $8000 tuition, I’d take that.

I tried to come up with an example of practice not being a waste and what finally made sense to me was yoga.  I don’t usually have a specific goal when I do yoga.  I do it because it makes me feel good, because it’s like a physical form of prayer.  Yes, I grow more flexible and incrementally more strong, but I love the mental space it delivers to me.

I also realized that my parents had raised me to save, save, save.  Save money.  You’ll need that for university, for retirement, for the next generation.  Save your old clothes.  Everything comes back into fashion and you might get anorexia and fit into your jeans from middle school.

This served me well for most of my life.  I saved my money religiously.  We own our house and cars outright.  I don’t have student loans even though the government deregulated tuition when I was in the middle of medical school.  And so on.

But I didn’t have fun.  And I was afraid waste those potential money-making words.

So I’m slowly learning to let go.  The words come out.  I create new worlds, new people, new languages.  I may get paid or not.  But I try to have fun, even if I can’t monetize that phrase or even an entire novel or twelve.

Fun.  What a concept.

Copyright Melissa Yuan-Innes, 2010

Say Yes

My husband came home from guitar school with a lesson: never turn down a gig.

His teacher’s band was asked to play in some miniscule town.  Other bands had refused because of the expense to travel, minimal exposure, etc.  But this band said sure.

The local radio station promoted the hell out of this one band willing to travel in.  The band got continuous airplay, building up support.  On the actual day of the concert, a ripping audience of new fans screamed for more.

A decade later, they still travel back to that tiny town for their hard core fans.

They said, never turn down a gig.  You never know where it might lead.

In October, a major national magazine approached me.  The health editor had read my work in the Medical Post.  She said they’re looking for the next Dr. Oz to write articles and make “occasional media appearances.”

It’s a sample article.  It might not go anywhere.  But I actually hadn’t considered that the Medical Post, with its circulation of about 50,000 to a relatively specialized audience of doctors might lead me to a regular gig at a national magazine.  Which would create a platform.

A platform, my dears, is what makes agents and editors breathless.  It’s a built-in audience so the publisher doesn’t have to work so hard to sell books.  You can see why they like them, but for the average Joe/Josephine, the platform is mostly limited to blood relatives and friends.

As it stands, I have a lot of little publications scattered through magazines, books, journals, newspapers, and e-zines.  A small platform.  Maybe a diving board.  But this opportunity has opened my eyes to the possibility of reinventing myself as a brand.

To sell my books, I’d be happy to flog a book of doctor writing before moving on to my medical thrillers, YA, middle grade, picture books, women’s fiction, erotica, science fiction–oh, yes.  I have a lot of books that have not been published.  Some of them probably never will be.  But the rest of them need a home.

So I’m saying yes to this opportunity.  I want this gig and the next.

You have to weigh the risks and benefits, of course. All writing is good practice and I’m always looking to expand my writing income.  OTOH, between medicine, writing, and my family, I sometimes feel stretched tighter than a porn star.  So I sometimes have to say no.

You also have to select what format to say yes to. The article that started this off was a humor piece about patients telling me I looked too young to be a doctor.  I sent the 600-word story to Stitches, a medical humour magazine.  The editor accepted it as an anecdote and told me I wouldn’t get paid, but I’d get put in a draw for a stethoscope.  Now, my stethoscope works just fine and I like to get paid for my work.  So I added another 100 words, turning it into feature length, and he accepted it for the next issue at 35 cents per word.  Considering that a lot of fiction markets pay anywhere from “exposure” (nada) to the “pro rate” of 5 cents per word, me likee.

However, I never heard back from him.  Since I was too busy going back to work, raising an infant, and dealing with my father’s diagnosis of brain cancer (high grade glioma, for the medical types), I didn’t really pursue it.  At a continuing education course almost a year later, another doctor said, “I think Stitches went out of business.  I haven’t gotten it in a long time.”

Ah.  So that was why they didn’t answer my e-mails.

I looked them up and sure enough, they had folded.  Dang.

Next, I sent it to a respected medical journal’s humanities section.  That section is generally well-written stories about patient interactions or what it’s like to become a patient when you’re a doctor.

The editor told me she’d showed it to a physician and it passed the “laugh test.” She sent me a contract.  I read it.  They wanted global rights but made no mention of compensation.  I wrote back and asked.  She said “fame and glory alone, I’m afraid.”

I wrote to a few other journals and they also told me they didn’t pay.

C’mon.  Doctors are a huge market.  I have to empty my mailbox regularly because of all the free journals stuffed with drug ads, not to mention the occasional luxury car fold-out.  You’re telling me you’ve got nothing?

So I wrote to a few places, including The Medical Post.  They paid 20 to 30 cents per word.

The editor responded within a few weeks.  She wanted to buy it.  She published it within a few months.  I sent them some more pieces and so far, they’ve published a grand total of three.  Since my mail gets sent to my secondary hospital, I usually find out it’s been published because one of my undergrad or med school friends I haven’t talked to in years Facebooks me and says, “Good one!”  I even got fan mail from a doctor based in Thailand.

And now, a potential new stepping stone.

Like I said, I don’t know where this one’s going to go.  But I’m hankering for the ride.  Enough that if this one doesn’t pan out, I might take the initiative to ask other national magazines to take me on.

And although I won’t feel like I’ve “made it” until my name is on the cover of my own spanking new novel, there are side bennies to the nonfiction gig thus far.  For example, I have explained that I don’t do full-time emerg because I write and have a toddler. But to my sensible doctor colleagues, writing seems like code for smoking weed and eating corn chips if I don’t have a book with my name on it.  In the meantime, when my name shows up in their mailbox in the Medical Post, complete with cartoon illustrations, they take me a little more seriously.  Like, maybe they think I drink vodka and eat organic corn chips instead.

In general, my motto is to say yes.  Say yes and plums and cherries may drop out of the sky, along with the occasional hail storm, but that’s life, right?

Copyright Melissa Yuan-Innes, 2009

Top Ten Reasons to Do a Book Launch


Second Time Around Books. L to R Melissa Yuan-Innes, Denise Nielsen, Yasmin Harrison, Monty (dog)


Cornwall book launch

Book launch at Sat Nam Yoga: Erin Bush & Juice, Julie Herman, Alan Davis, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Max, Luc Paquin

1.    It’s a party/miracle

I always felt a sort of post-partum letdown after publication.  I don’t know why.  In 2000, Writers of the Future hired an illustrator for my story, flew me out to L.A. for a week-long workshop with A.J. Budrys and Tim Powers, and hosted a huge gala.  I posed for photos and gave an acceptance speech in a sapphire ball gown.  But I still felt a bit of a letdown.

Fast-forward to 2009 and my publication in Escape Clause:  the Anthology.  Here’s one way of looking at it:  it’s a poem.  Big deal.  I’ve already been paid for it.  I should just stay home and write more.  This is how I spend 99 percent of my life.

And this is the other way of looking at it:  success!  My poem is published in a book!  Let’s celebrate.

Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Which one do you think is more fun?

2.    Good karma

Ink Oink Art is a start-up publisher.  Kit St. Germain is a writer/actor who says, “Any idiot can renovate their kitchen. It takes god’s own egg-splattered fools to make books.”  I heart any artist who has the chutzpah to fly in the face of conventional logic and risk their own money in order to support other writers and illustrators.  So when I had the same choice, to accept my contributor’s copy meekly or to risk my time and money trying to sell this puppy at a book launch, I leapt into the abyss.  I call this good karma because I’m helping the publisher and thereby myself by getting my work out there.  But obviously I used my judgement.  I still made sure I wrote 1000 words/day and marketed my novels and stories instead of going all book-launchy-wonky.

3.    It teaches you flexibility

I now live in the country.  The nearest bookstore is 20 minutes away in Alexandria. Gale, the owner of Second Time Around Books in Alexandria, was delighted to host.

The closest chain that sells new books is about 40 minutes’ drive away.  The manager seemed underwhelmed at the idea of launching a book, maybe having been burned by self-published tomes.  But I still wanted to do a second book launch, so I thought, why cling to the idea that a book launch has to take place in a bookstore?  I know a high-ceilinged, wooden-floored studio that’s one of the most elegant places in Cornwall where we could read by candlelight.  Erin Bush, owner of Sat Nam Yoga, said no problem and even agreed to make mint tea.

4.    Small business training

A book launch is a business.  I’ve done book launches in Montreal, Berkley, and the aforementioned LA.  I showed up, read if asked to, and signed books, blissfully ignorant of who ordered the books or provided free eats.  (This was my father’s most-impressed moment.  “Who’s paying for this?”  he asked, eyeing the cornucopia of food and drink.)    Since these events were DIY, I asked Gale what kind of cut she wanted, thinking she’d order the books and take a percentage of the profits.  It turned out that she’d prefer to take no cut (and no risk).  Her bookstore would just be the venue.

So I bought the books myself.  At first, I thought ten would do it.  I should be able to move five and if I had to give a few away as Christmas presents, so be it.  But when Christina Dudley Facebooked that she’d sold 77 in one night, I realized I was thinking too small.  Also, shipping was egregious, and the more books I bought, the more I could spread the costs out.  So I ordered 20.  If I sold 14, I’d break even.  If I didn’t, well, that’d be a lot of Christmas presents.

5.    Marketing

I did Facebook and Twitter, but what I think helped the most was that I told our local paper, the Glengarry News, about the book launch and Steve Warburton decided to do a feature on me.  Old school works!  If nothing else, I got my local 15 minutes of fame.

Even more old-fashioned, I printed up posters and asked my friends to post them.  I chatted with people at both hospitals and asked them to come.  Repeatedly.

Since I hate hard sells, I emphasized that it was a party and you could buy a book or not.

In my emails, I explained that I was taking a personal financial risk with the book launch.  Three people bit.  Before the book sale, I’d pre-sold three for cash and gotten verbal promises to buy another eight.  So if I sold three at the book launches, I’d break even.  Shoot, I might even run out!

6.    Plan for success, prepare for failure

I bounced into Sat Nam Yoga with 24 cream puffs and 30 banana muffins, all mini-sized to minimize the guilt.  Erin had set out three types of cheeses, pepper jelly, hummus and pita, grapes (“Look, Mommy, they have grapes, just like us!” my son Max exclaimed), cookies…a feast.

The hordes of people who said they’d come or might come turned into a handful. I felt like a right idiot. But my son was in heaven:  a giant space to run and slide in his socks.  The reading turned into a cozy candlelit Q&A about my writing and a discussion about our missions in life.  I felt bad that Erin had splashed out for a small crowd, but she said it didn’t matter to her if there were five people or 50.  In the end, I decided the only person who could decide if it was a failure or not was me.  And I had fun:  good food, good company, and I sold three more books, so if all the “save one for me” people came through, I’d already broken even.  I probably wouldn’t choose to do another event on a Friday night, especially the night of Black Friday, but it’s all learning, right?  That’s a metaphor for the writing life and maybe life in general.

7.    Networking

Ottawa author Leslie Brown joined me the next day in Alexandria.  One of the first things she did was ask me if I’d joined Access Copyright.  If you have Canadian publications, you can sign up and two years later, they’ll start sending you money.  I don’t know the details, but it’s a million dollars they’re dividing up.  I’d never heard about this, but I don’t really end up talking to writers much, and a lot of my writer friends are American.  I’d let my SF Canada membership lapse just because I changed email addresses and I didn’t want to wade through all their emails.  My bad, but something I was able to correct by networking at my book launch.

Networking, part II.  The Glengarry News article talked about another writer, LindsayBelow, who came to the book launch with her mother.  I actually knew her because her teacher, Andy Rorabeck, had invited me to speak to his writing group at his high school a few years ago and she was one of the members.  They invited me to join their critique group.  Since my latest book is set in high school, a recent graduate and two teachers could really give me some reality checks.

8. Get the audience reaction you craaave

After I read my poem, one of my friends mouthed “Wow.  Wow.”  The audience applauded.  Leslie’s brother Steve said, “It’s the kind of thing you have to sit for a minute, and then you applaud.”  No higher honour.  And not the kind of thing you get sitting in your room.

9.  Sell your backlist

Only two people read the magazines I brought with my previous publications, but one wanted to buy “Space and Time Books” and the other “Waiting for Jenny Rex.”  This is a tiny taste of what it’s like if you write, say, _The DaVinci Code_ and then everyone runs out to buy _Angels and Demons_.  Small scale, but still beneficial to the magazines who bought my work even years ago.

10.  Pay it forward

I hope Erin might get more yoga subscriptions.  I know Gale certainly got more business.  My neighbour didn’t even know where that bookstore was, but he walked out with $82 worth of books, not counting my own.  Other friends browsed and bought, including children.  Who knows how their imagination may get fired up by their books?  An elderly lady bought my book and said she wanted to give me some greeting cards.  I paid her $10 for the cards.  She didn’t even know what to charge me because she wasn’t used to asking for money for her work.  “Don’t be ashamed to make money from your art,” I told her.  Maybe it will help her. Who knows?

It certainly helped me.  I sold my 20th book in Alexandria, leaving me with just my contributor’s copy–plus at least six people who couldn’t come to the launches but asked me to save them a copy.  So that’s a help to the publisher, Ink Oink Art.  And for me, because I’ve always been afraid I could never make a living from my writing.  I would like to make a cork board and pin up all the cash I made from these books so that every time I se it, I think, “Look at what you did.”  Of course the money is trivial compared to what I could have made in the emergency room, but I don’t care.  The money is a tangible reminder that dreams can come true and that I am trying to live as though everything is a miracle.

Second Time

The hordes at Second Time Around Books, incl. at table: writers Lindsay, Leslie Brown, Melissa Yuan-Innes

More photos here.

Copyright Melissa Yuan-Innes, 2009

Marketing Your Writing

A fellow writer told me how much he enjoyed my last blog on staying positive.  So I’d like to share a topic that’s been on my mind:  how to enjoy marketing.

Marketing means sending out your work, generally getting it rejected, and sending it out again.  And again.  And again.

Oh, once in a while, you’ll hit gold.  My first poem submission got accepted right away to Tesseracts7.  And once you’re at a certain level, or an editor “gets” you, you can sell immediately.

But all authors who make their living with their words, even bestsellers, face rejection.  And we all know rejection doesn’t taste like chocolate raspberry torte.

So what’s a girl or boy to do?

I read Kris Rusch’s blog on discipline.  Her trick is to find the love in what you do.  So, for example, she runs and listens to her iPod because she loves music enough to break out the running shoes.  She doesn’t read fiction until after she writes because otherwise, the day is over and she’s read a book and hasn’t produced anything.

This makes sense.  And yet, I wasn’t feeling it.  How was I supposed to find the love in querying editors who said “No, thank you,” “You certainly have voice, but I’m not sure our readers will connect with it,” or just didn’t respond at all?  How was I supposed to relish it?  Sure, I liked the ones who said “Send me a full,” but that didn’t happen enough to suit me.

While I mulled this question over, I picked up Martha Beck’s book, The Joy Diet. I love this book.  Ten steps to joy.  One of them is Treats.  She said most of us don’t treat ourselves enough.  We don’t act kindly towards ourselves.  That doesn’t mean buying a Maserati, necessarily.  A treat just do something you love, whether that’s having a nap or singing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (all singing parts).

So where do the pigs come in?  It’s Beck’s analogy.  You can train pigs to stand on their hind legs and push shopping carts with their front trotters.  How?  By operant conditioning.  By giving them a treat every time they do a tiny step.  Pig goes near shopping cart?  Treat.  Pig hops on hind leg for a second?  Treat.  Treat.  Treat.  Pretty soon Petunia Pig can buy your organic lettuce and run your credit card for you.


I realized that the discipline aspect didn’t appeal to me.  After four years of medical school, two years of residency, and one year of emergency medicine, followed by years of medical practice, devoting myself to my baby Max, and writing, I’ve had discipline up the wazoo.

But not enough treats.

I still got ‘er done.  I had set my goals to turning around my short stories and trying to do five book queries at a shot.  If I get deep into querying, I’ll zone out, continually hunting this editor or that agent.  An hour or two will go by and my husband will say, “Hey.  I thought we were going to watch the Tudors.”

But after the first marketing deluge, it was a joyless process.  It was mostly stick, no carrot.  Which is mighty dull after a while.

So.  I decided that if I didn’t relish the marketing itself, I should just enjoy the treats.  One book query a day (which makes 365 a year) and then immediate treat, whether that’s playing with Max whole-heartedly, reading Glamour maagazine, doing yoga, or whatever.

Natalie Goldberg wrote that when a boy first reads the Torah, he is given a bit of honey so he’ll always associate learning with sweetness.

By setting my goals low and achievable, and administering myself some honey, I find myself looking forward to marketing.  If I send two queries, I say, “Good job, Melissa!” instead of “Only three more to go.”

So my recommendation is, whatever’s blocking your quest du jour, whether that quest is marketing, de-cluttering the closet, or building a rocket ship, try to find the love.  Like my husband likes to quote, if you enjoy your job, that’s eight more hours a day you get back.  And if you can’t love that job–or even if you relish every sweet moment–remember to administer yourself treats.  Regularly.  For fun.


Our new dog, Mika, who certainly enjoys treats

copyright Melissa Yuan-Innes, 2009

Wet Spell. A.k.a. persistence or “Fall down seven times, get up eight”


You all know what a dry spell is, don’t you?  I sure do.  For what seemed like aeons but what measures out as three years, I didn’t sell one story, poem, or novel.Looking back, I can see reasons for that.  My first pregnancy ended with a stillborn baby girl named Isadora.  I kept on writing, mostly about what had happened, but felt very screwed up.  I paused and eventually took baby steps back to creativity:  cooking, drawing, writing short stories I didn’t like.  When I finally got back to writing novel-length, I aimed for a lighthearted romance.  My husband read it and said, “Why is everyone so angry?”I also kept submitting, but the rejections depressed me, and I did not need any more depression.  So I still turned stories and novel proposals around, but slowly, and if editors didn’t respond, I forgot about the story.  For, like, years.


So here I am, four years later, and I’m having a wet spell.  It started slowly:  an acceptance to Stitches, a medical humor magazine, for a piece on all the patients who told me I looked too young to be a doctor.  The magazine folded before it could publish me, but I accept no responsibility for that.  Nature accepted and published a story I originally wrote as an undergrad about infertility, technology, and red hair (I was in love with my redheaded boyfriend who is now my husband, Matt).  Dog vs. Sandwich took the story I wrote based on Matt’s dream that he was swimming with an undulating slice of dill pickle.

Last year, I won two writing contests, maybe three.  (Two sectors of one contest, judged anonymously.)

1)   The Innermoonlit Award for Best First Chapter of a Novel.  I admire Brian tremendously for putting up his own time and presumably money to encourage other writers out there.  And, of course, I salute his exquisite judgment.  No entry fee, no weird rules.  He just reads your work and picks out the ones he thinks are the best.  In Jane Juska’s book, Unaccompanied Women, one of her men says that rich people are more likely to sponsor a university building than become a patron for artists.  I would like to support other artists.  I use this as an excuse to shop at Etsy.

2)    Cornwall Public Library Writing Contest, Best Fiction.  3000 words aren’t a lot to play with, but I went to talk to a writer’s group at Char-Lan High School.  I didn’t get paid for my time, except for a mug and a nice pen, but I came back with a few ideas.  One of the students felt bad if she saw a loaf of bread sitting by itself.  She thought it looked lonely.  So I wrote a story about that.

3)    Cornwall Public Library Writing Contest, Best Children’s Literature.  When my son Max was born, I took six weeks vacation from writing.  “I really enjoyed that sabbatical, but now I want to work again,” I told Matt.  He shook his head in disgust.  “You weren’t on vacation.  You just had a baby!”  “Yes.  That was a good vacation.  Now I want to work again,” I said.  I wrote a picture book for Max, inventing a magic hat for him, scribbling rhymes while breastfeeding.

I also had my first mystery story accepted to an upcoming crime anthology based in Indian country.  That was lots of fun.  I wrote my first story based around Cornwall and I researched Mohawk culture.  I put myself in the story as the emergency doctor.

In the last few months, I’ve had so many acceptances, I actually have trouble keeping track of all of them.

Outshine took my werewolf/monster limerick on April 25.

The Medical Post is publishing the young-looking doctor piece June 2nd.

Escape Clause accepted “Metamorphosis,” a poem I wrote in medical school about the transformation of a lonely housewife.  Just before this acceptance, Kit St. Germain, the lovely soul funding Escape Clause with her insurance cheque (again, I bow down before these modern day patrons of the arts), wrote the most flattering, funny rejection ever for a short story I’d written at the same time.

Interzone accepted “Iron Monk,” my story about Shaolin monks and other Chinese exiles in space.

A week or two later, Kit accepted that story for an iPod application.  It’s called “Dancers with Red Shoes,” a story about the magical red shoes that still won’t stop dancing and the ensuing human havoc.

The Medical Post just accepted another piece called “Why I strive to be type B, or at least A minus,” which I started off a blog.

And today _The Dragon and the Stars_, a 2010 DAW anthology of Chinese sf writers, wants “Dancers with Red Shoes” as well!

So what is this, a brag fest?

Um, not exactly.  It’s a wet spell.  I’ve had one other writing wet spell before, in 2003, and at least two other aforementioned dry spells.

As I read in Geri Larkin’s funny, honest, and wise book, The Chocolate Cake Sutra, there’s a Chinese saying, “Ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows.” In every life, you get both.  North American culture loves perfection, youth, beauty, overnight success and excess.  In other words, wet spells.  We like to pretend the dry spells don’t exist, or exist only for fat, smelly people on welfare.  But guess what?  We all get ten thousand joys, ten thousand sorrows.  You’ve got to figure out how to ride the wave, whether you’re soaring or crashing.

Have I learned anything from crashing?  Oh, yeah.  Compassion.  Tenderness.  Joy and sadness in small things like seeing my son Max’s chubby buttocks, realizing they aren’t as fat as they used to be and they’ll get thinner still as he grows older every day.

Writing-wise, I’ve learned that it’s easier to be a rat with an island.

I know, that makes no sense unless you’ve read the inimitable Jennifer Crusie’s article.  Basically, they conditioned swimming rats to believe they’ll be saved (find an island) or perish (no island) and the ones who believed in an island swam twice as long.  And that’s the key to getting published, or succeeding in life in general:  keep trying.

When I look at everyone else’s writing–say, my friend Steve Mohan, who wrote a killer thriller called Paper Eagle, or Leslie Walker, whose voice and humor surpise and delight me–I know that they will be successful.  Like Michael Chabon prescribed, they have the talent, luck, and discipline they need to succeed.

The problem with this business is all the rejection.  Open your e-mail:  “not for us.”  Open the mailbox:  bills and “we appreciate your interest, but…”  Day after day, people turn you down.

It wears you down.  You think, Boy, I must suck.  Plus I’m fat.  No one cares if I’m ever published, so why do I bother?  I should do the laundry instead.  At least then I’m accomplishing something.

You have to rise above this.  You have to have faith in your writing.  You have to believe in yourself, like that book I read when I was a kid about Louis Pasteur.  I truly, honestly believe, like Julia Cameron, that everyone is creative and should be encouraged.  I don’t care if you write or sing about penguins or like to krump naked.  But if it moves you, do it.  And who gives a crap if a publisher or American Idol’s Simon or anyone else agrees with you.

Ah, but the problem is, I’m talking about you.  I don’t have a problem believing in you, dear reader.  You’re going to make it, you’re going to get all the awards.  But me?  I’m toiling away in the salt mines.

I’ll admit it.  When I read J. Cru’s article, I was confused.  Okay, be a rat on an island.  But how am I supposed to do that?  How am I supposed to believe there’s an island there if I don’t see one?

But I kept my eyes open.  I got rocked by ten thousand sorrows and I paid attention to my ten thousand joys.  And I saw there are other ways of being a rat with an island.  Another way of putting it is, have faith.  I know faith is a very religious word nowadays, but I just means faith in yourself or at least in your work. Kris Rush calls it being a “hard-bitten optimist” in her freelancer’s guide.  How to do that?

Here are my hard core recs:

1.    Write down all the good things people say about you so you’ll remember that and not just the @#^@ you get.  Put it somewhere you can see it.

I’d made a Word file called “compliments,” another called “reviews,” another called “writing-compliments” (you get my drift), but I never looked at them unless I needed a pull quote.  So I went on and made my own laptop sticker literally covered in praise.  I still don’t look at it much, but occasionally, my eye falls on “Huzzah!  W00t!  Kowabunga!” and it feels good.  Martha Beck recommends sticking a list like that to your mirror.  Whatever works for you.

2.    Make friends with people who like you and say so.

I know this sounds odd, but we all have friends who really like to talk about themselves instead.  Hell, I am that friend–sometimes.  But I love my friends who cherish me enough to listen, even though they are all busy up the wazoo.  And even just acquaintances who respond to your Facebook status about natural ant killers (thanks, Brenda) let you know that they care and you matter.  That you have an island.

3.    Read what calls to you.

I’ve read a lot of Buddhist books lately and they’ve really made me re-think my assumptions (check out my Zen book recs).  But I can find lessons anywhere. Elizabeth Gilbert said her goal was to be published while she was alive.  So she felt quite serene because she just needed one publication, plus she was young and in good health.  That was her island.  Malcolm Gladwell’s Ted Talk about, among other things, spaghetti sauce, made me think about how publishers think they know what consumers want, but again and again, they are surprised by the audience’s love of, for example, chunky spaghetti sauce.  Find solace in these gems, whatever they are, and then keep on creating your own creme brulee.

4.    Pat yourself on the back

Before Max was born, I didn’t know how I’d write while being an active parent.  I asked writer parents for advice and got a lot of wisdom back, but the truth was, in the end, I had to live it and figure it out for myself:  the mountain of laundry, the fatigue, the awe and inspiration.  I used to wake up and think, okay.  How am I going to get my writing done?  Can I wake up before him?  Give up my own nap?  Rush off when Matt gets home?  Drug Max with TV while I scribble?  And the truth is, now, I just figure I’ll get the writing done one way or another and it usually works out, but I don’t freak out if I don’t.  I have an island.  Yay, me.  Back patted.

5.   Easier said than done:  serenity

As part of my crazy sorrowful-joyful life, I have confronted some of my fears.  Like, what if no one ever publishes my novels?  And I now think, okay.  I can deal with that.  I’ve published a fistful of short stories and poems.  I’ve won some prizes.  I want my novels out there too, so I can feel like a Real Writer, but I can live without it too.  At this point in my life, I’m not looking to self-publish or go with a small press.  But that could change. In the meantime, I’m just trying to enjoy my life, which is pretty sweet, despite the speed bumps.

Thanks to Buddhism, I realize that for me, worrying is useful maybe 10 perent of the time, when fear motivates me to brainstorm solutions, and I can get pretty creative with solutions.  But after that, it just gives me gray hairs and makes me follow my husband around saying, “What do you think?  What do you think?” and it just drives us both batsh*t.

So here I am.  I’m having a wet spell.  I know dry spells, as well as more joys and sorrows, are in store for me.  Regardless, I’m building an island.

Join me?


Copyright Melissa Yuan-Innes 2009