the other faces of Mad Miss Mimic

One of the many thrilling experiences of having my first novel published was the cover design process. Authors typically don’t have a lot of say when it comes to the choice of cover, unless they’re self-publishing. If you’re lucky (and I was), you’ll be given a chance to offer feedback, and there will be an Option B if Option A isn’t working for you. The first mock-up my editor sent me was the image on the right, below. Soft pink background and a wallpaper pattern of poppy flowers coming through the title text.


What I liked about it: 1. the poppy as symbol, since opium figures so heavily in the story, 2. the colour scheme, which I thought would stand out nicely in the bookstore, and 3. the insider literary nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic feminist story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

However, my gut told me it wasn’t the cover of my dreams. These orderly rows of poppies seemed too “Flanders Fields”-ish to me; I worried that they were better suited to a WWI-era than a Victorian story. The salmon-pink background, while feminine and bright, seemed a bit too tame. And who besides me would ever look at this cover and think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (answer: nobody).


Sumptuous, pretty, and mysterious. These were my three keywords for the cover I was after. And what came across my desk next made my heart pound with its exactly rightness (bottom image= the book’s final cover). The opium-poppy is still central, but gone is the domesticated, drawing-room quality. Nor is it a bouquet or an arrangement in a vase. Instead, the thick, twining stems arise mysteriously from off-page, the flowers wrap around the jacket, and the black background suggests depth and danger. If you look closely (and of course I looked and looked), there is even a liberal dusting of pollen.


I never laid eyes on the other two options (the image above with girl’s silhouette, and the top-left bouquet against the peach background). I guess they were weeded out at some point by the design team at Razorbill. But it was great fun to get in touch afterwards with Grace Cheong, the genius freelancer behind all of these designs. She eventually posted them in her online portfolio as “final cover design followed by selected comps.”

Thanks again, Grace, for the beautiful cover. And thank you, Lynne Missen, Lisa Jaeger, and the rest of the Razorbill squad for your patience with me as a first-timer!

ace of cups poem


One is more stable than two.

With two there is a swirl of smoke,

a scattering of hand tools,

a Swiss file so fine it will snap.

Pass me the D-string, you say.

There, that packet with the black and gold lady.


Drops scatter,

the bird plunging straight down.

We drink bourbon with mint leaves.

We listen to the Dead, and I cannot

discern a single one of the words you love.


This beak-first idea

runs my cup over, or at least

keeps filling and filling it.


good art is contagious: students make fairy tales


It’s that time in the semester when I eat, sleep and breathe fairy tales. The students in the two sections of my Fairy Tales & Fantasies class have had some practice, by now, at identifying the common bloodlines from one variant to another and discerning how the different cultural contexts affect the stories. Class discussion is lively and insightful, particularly for the 8:00am start time.

They’ve also been making their own fairy tales. The Fairy Tale Redux assignment, worth 1/3 of their grade for the term, asks them to pick a tale, any tale, and re-mount it in whichever way they think will best illuminate something new about the story and show off their creative skills.

It’s harder than it sounds. There are time limits, adaptation challenges, group work frustrations, technical difficulties–and I insist they write an Artist Statement that justifies their approach on a theoretical and aesthetic level.

Sara Jo is a philosophy major who signed up for my course because she’s interested in knowing more about deep story structures in human psychology and culture. She is a gift to have in class: deeply curious, intellectually courageous, highly adept at thinking and speaking on her feet.

For her FT Redux, Sara Jo focused on Rapunzel. She wrote a free-verse meditation inspired by a specific claim in the Grimm Brothers’ variant: that Rapunzel sings from her window in the tower, and her song is what first attracts the Prince passing by in the forest. And Sara Jo decided to illustrate her poetry with hand-drawn tarot cards that capture the archetypal significance of key motifs in the story. What more can I possibly say about this?? You need to see it for yourself, right here:

as sibyl, she sang

up at five

IMG_0066Yep, I’m doing it. I’m getting up at 5:00am to write. It’s been three weeks now, and I’ve reached the point where I’m reliably waking up a couple of minutes before my alarm. Slippers, robe, a cup of tea. Turn up the heat, turn on the lights. Remind myself that doing this entitles me to a 10-min nap later in the day.

Upsides: a) I’m writing from a relaxed, uncluttered mind still connected to the tatters of my dreams. b) Fending off social media and email is easy, since no one is on anything. c) I spend the whole day feeling smug and fortified by my word count. d) It’s crunch time at school, yet I haven’t lost touch with my novel-in-progress.

Downsides: a) By 3:00pm I am officially inept. Even with the promised nap I barely make it till 9:00pm.

Keeping Secrets

This is a guest post I wrote for my friend Sarah Selecky’s Story is a State of Mind blog. You can read the original post and Sarah’s own thoughts on the subject here.

Keeping Secrets

Do you remember writing notes to your parents back when you first learned how to write words? Don’t look, don’t look! you’d say, hunched over the paper to shield your work as you labored over each letter. But when you were finally finished, you’d say Look, look! and if Dad had in the meantime turned his attention to a phone call or your sibling, you’d be quite determined in chasing him down to get him to read your work. My son’s first hand-written note to me was crafted while I was cooking dinner and presented, with great ceremony, when we sat down to eat: The fude is gros.

Every act of writing involves two distinct phases, fuelled by contradictory impulses: a solitary, private phase, where outside scrutiny feels like a threat; and a social, public phase, where the danger lies in being unread or ignored. In my experience, most writers strongly prefer one of these two phases over the other, depending on their personality.

I am secretive by nature and by horoscope (Scorpio: hiding in crevices, scuttling for cover, hunting at night). As a child I showed notes to my parents, but I also wrote notes and burned them. I wrote notes on gum wrappers, folded them carefully back into the Doublemint package and carried them around, so disguised, in my backpack. I wrapped notes in masking tape and wrote DO NOT OPEN UNTIL AGE 14 and saved them in a box in my underwear drawer. I wrote secrets, meant to be discovered by me and me alone.

In my teen years I wrote for recreation and refuge but also for revenge. Puritanical parents, meddling teachers, disloyal friends—all would be excoriated in my diary. I’d write outrageous things about them, disgusting things. I’d tell myself that if any of these people read my diary, the ensuing shock and hurt would be exactly what they deserved for violating my privacy.

Nowadays my daylight hours are anything but private. As an English prof at a big urban university, I lecture to 120 students at a time. I sit in meetings, hold office hours, attend conferences and research talks. At home there is homework to supervise, snacks to prepare, yard work, groceries, laundry. So more than ever before, my writing is my hideout. It’s the place I go to be alone, where I’m answerable only to myself and can actually hear myself over the clamor. Recently I’ve begun waking up at 5:00am to write before the school day begins. There’s no traffic outside, no footsteps on the stairs, no emails. A wholly secret window of time.

Research shows [link to article] that secret goals are more powerful than ones you share. If you gab about your goals—with friends and family, say—you’ll feel pleasant feelings of satisfaction, even accomplishment. But if you’re already feeling satisfied and accomplished you’ll be less motivated to strive for the actual accomplishment. For me, though, it’s even more than a desire not to dissipate the drive. For me the secrecy is an end in itself. The first draft of a new novel has the same delicious-secret sensation attached to it as my childhood hidden notes and my teenaged diary. The creative excitement of I am making something new is boosted through the roof by Nobody even knows. I am addicted to this feeling of audaciousness and transgression. Checking my manuscript’s growing word count gives me a dirty little thrill, like hoarding.

But what about accountability? What about the demoralizing, work-halting realization that if no one knows, no one cares? This is the downside of keeping secrets. I have definitely suffered from drifting off course—from letting work and life pull me away from my writing—and having nobody to steer me back. It’s a little easier now that I’m past the aspiring-writer stage. Having an agent and editors means that someone, sometimes, will ask after the work, and a deadline is always a great kick in the pants. But the real help comes from regular writing dates with a couple of like-minded friends. We don’t read each other’s work. We just sit together at a café with our laptops. These friends support me in showing up to the page without needing to show the pages themselves.

At some point, of course, the cat has to be let out of the bag. The difference between a novel and a diary is that eventually the novel has to find readers. Like all writers I yearn for the moment when my book has its moment in the sun. But when that moment comes, when I’m smiling and saying my thank yous and talking about how I came up with my ideas, I hope to be beavering away on the next secret first draft.

mapping it out

Photo 2015-03-02, 11 46 40 AMWriting a first draft–a “discovery draft,” as I like to call it–has to end somewhere. This is a blessed relief, because drafting is scary and hard. You do it blind. You have no idea whether what you’re writing is “going anywhere” or whether it’ll be any good (in fact, it’s not good, it’s terrible, that’s why they call it a ROUGH draft).

When do you know you’re finished with a first draft? For me it’s when there are no more gaps in the basic story. Figuring this out involves laying receipt tape on the dining table and monkeying with the order of the scenes I’ve written, each of which is represented by a sticky note. What you see here is my entire draft mapped out on a single tape, plus my notebook containing the scenes or part-scenes I still have to write.

What I haven’t done yet is make tapes for individual subplots, character development/relationships, significant objects or any of the many other aspects of the book that will eventually require mapping out. I thought I might do this today too–thus the extra (blank) tapes–but I realized that it’s too early. That’ll be second-draft work, the equally-but-differently scary and hard work of revision.

PS: Instead of sticky notes, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black uses index cards–check out his amazingly organized process.



Lynda Barry is really getting under my skin with her book Syllabus. I can only read a few pages at a time because of the extent to which it hurts my brain. Academics are fairly rational, linear thinkers, and so are writers. We deal in words, after all, and words come one after another, left to right, on the page. LyndaBarryBut here’s a writer and academic teaching a college course whose syllabi are. . .cartoons. Scribbles. Thought bubbles. Doodles.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard of Lynda Barry, actually. A decade ago now, two of my dear writer friends had taken a workshop with her here in Toronto and were singing her praises, and–as per her advice–had taken to keeping a doodle pad beside them as they wrote. Whenever you lift the pen from the writing notebook, she’d taught them, you lower it to the doodle pad and draw.

The careful, tight spiral, in particular, is a doodle that aids the free flow of inspiration. Drawing spirals helps hush the griping Inner Critic (the one who chants, “your story is stupid, you should be answering email right now” whenever you sit down to write) and reintegrates the left brain with the right.

Syllabus is making me think about the rules I follow as a professor, too, and the rules I set for my students. I wonder, what might constitute “colouring outside the lines,” in an English classroom? And what might happen if I encouraged it?

get it on the page


These days I’m in “discovery draft” mode: banging out new material without letting myself think too much about plot arc, character coherence or development, structure, or style. I’m grasping at every trick I know for not stopping, not slowing down, not censoring. For getting Big Brain out of the way so that Little Brain can play.

Little Brain likes lists. She appreciates not having to remember what’s supposed to happen next in the scene or trying to reconstruct the brilliant train of thought she had on the bike ride to the cafe. She also likes check marks and is very fond of pink highlighter.

IMG_0015Oh, and math! Little Brain loves adding up how many words are already on the screen and how many more she needs to produce before she gets to have a croissant, or check Twitter, or doodle some more in the margins.

how to write without writing

This is ridiculous.  I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever had it this bad.  I sulk around all day and snipe at my family all evening.  I cannot physically restrain myself from leaping up seconds after I sit down.  I suffer nightmares about forgetting my lines, choking up, gagging.  I spend fortunes on notebooks, paper, pens.  These lie in a pile on my desk while I binge on Etsy.  I cancel social plans to punish myself.  I am obsessed with planning meals and keeping up with laundry-folding.

In other words, the writing is not going well.

But while I’m not writing, I am making lists.  To-do lists, groceries, lists of my goals and aspirations, ideas for fortieth-birthday bashes, titles for future books, gift ideas for everyone I know, research questions, favorite women’s-lib slogans, baby names (I know; what babies??).  I have dozens of lists and nothing else.

Anchor, Paperback, 9780385480017, 272pp.

So I turn to one of my favorite writing books ever: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  Some Instructions on Writing and Life, is its subtitle, and this hints at the secret of its best-selling staying power.  Lamott stages an effective writer’s-block intervention by recognizing that writing is an activity deeply connected to a writer’s sense of self.  She reassures us, right off the bat, that writing is a cruel and lonely process, and that most everyone goes a bit nutty when faced with a blinking cursor or a blank page.

But the manual is also replete with practical strategies.  I review these with the sensation of being thrown a life preserver.  The next day, I sit down determined to follow Lamott’s sage advice.  Specifically, I give myself only a Short Assignment, and aim for only a Shitty First Draft (both Lamott’s terms).  But it doesn’t work.  Nothing comes to me, and within an hour I’m crawling with anxiety and shame at failing to meet even these most elementary standards.

The day after that I try again.  This time, after ten desperate minutes, I tell myself not to write a Shitty First Draft.  Instead I decide to write a list.

I decide to list, in full sentences and in order,  everything I need to say in the scene I want to write.  I pretend that my memory will be erased at the end of this writing session, and that I’ll need to refer to my list for any salvageable content.  I don’t write actual sentences, you understand.  Just a list of sentences.  Each time I feel myself slowing down or  becoming reluctant, I write “1-2-3” down the page and fill in the list.

In two hours I have more than six pages, single spaced.  I’ve lost track of my numbering system, of course; arrows and crosses and half-sentences abound.  It’s the shittiest first draft I can imagine.  But. . .it’s a draft!

Lamott’s wisdom sounds simple, right?: get out of your own way, avoid perfectionism, give yourself permission to be messy and proceed with half-measures.  But I need to hear it again and again–I need even to find my own, silly trick for enacting it–because for me, starting is always the scariest part of writing.  The self-discipline it takes is an utter paradox to me, in that getting to work means giving up control.

The nice thing about duping oneself into coughing some words–any words–onto the page is that having those words feels just as good as having written something instantaneously brilliant.  I feel like a million bucks tonight, prolific and generous and entitled to all sorts of treats.  And best of all, I feel hopeful about tomorrow’s session.

A draft in the form of a list.  Whyever not?

Tolkien’s traumas

Last weekend I was trying to plow through a whole pile of books on women’s pacifist writings from World War I (the folly of trying to meet a research deadline at the end of a teaching term).  But I got distracted by Mark Heberle’s essay* on the way J. R. R. Tolkien’s WWI experience spurred and influenced his fantasy writing.  The “shadow of war” Tolkien describes as having hijacked his youth is felt throughout Middle Earth in the form of Mordor’s shadow and the Eye of Sauron peering ominously at the hobbits’ doings.

More specifically, Heberle traces how Tolkien found early solace for dislocation and orphanhood in the dragon-slaying tales he invented as a child.  The young writer then became fascinated with language.  An obsession with one obscure, Anglo-Saxon word in particular, Earendel, prompted Tolkien to create a whole suite of fantasy stories to “house” it and other words he discovered or made up.

It’s a remarkable testament to the healing power of stories.  Trauma studies has observed that the process of telling one’s story, and especially of finding a sympathetic audience for it, is integral to recovery.  Instead of simply describing his losses to a therapist or family member, Tolkien went way further: he transmuted his pain into heroic fantasy, and in so doing created a story that resonates with readers of all ages and tastes.

I was surprised at Haberle’s revelation that Tolkein “later regretted the way in which the narrative voice [particularly in The Hobbit] is almost overly familiar and intimate.”  This grandfatherly voice is my single favorite thing about his books, so I’m glad it slipped past Tolkien’s inner censor, even if it embarrassed him later on.

*Heberle, Mark. “Tolkien, Trauma, Childhood, Fantasy.” in Under Fire: Childhood in the Shadow of War.  Ed. Elizabeth Goodenough and Andrea Immel.  Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 2008.  129-42.