Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Benefit of Trying


            “I can’t do this. It’s too hard.”
            The class was loud. Thirty two students jammed into a tiny room, the space between desks so narrow that winding your way through them often felt like you were navigating an obstacle course. I patted Michael on the shoulder and repeated what I said at least once a day at school. “I know. Just do your best, okay?”
            I was chatting with my wife later that night, and reflecting why there were so many things we told kids that we didn’t tell each other as adults. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had told me to just “do my best.” Oh, we offered encouragement sometimes, usually phrasing it in an “adult” manner, like the suggestion we “pursue excellence.” And jobs required results, didn’t they? It didn’t matter if a person was allegedly ‘doing their best.’ If they couldn’t cut it, then changes needed to be made.
The more I thought about it though, the less sense it made. Most of us had jobs that were somewhat protected. As a self-employed youth worker with no benefits, and before that, a self-employed trainer, I was one of the few working in an environment with almost no protection. No union to cover for my mistakes, no recourse if someone fired me. And yet, my chances of getting fired were still slim. And if that was the case, why didn’t we encourage each other more often by telling people – our friends, our employees, our co-workers, our family – that all they needed to do was put forth their best effort. That it was enough.
            Aside from it sounding like something we say to kids – and heaven forbid we sound “childish” – it seemed to me that people felt adults needed to be motivated differently than children. That they needed to be prodded and measured and disciplined without needing simple reassurances. That applying childish axioms was just that, childish.
            And yet, in repeating this simple idea to the kids over the past year, lately I started repeating it to someone else. Me.
            Did I do my best today?
            Am I getting better?
            Yes! Today I learned something new, something I’d never seen before in my writing.
            You did well.
For me, the last five years had been challenging. Writing a book and sending it out, only to see it rejected over and over and then willing myself to get up the next morning and keep going even as my dream slipped further into the Netherland of nothingness. At the best of times it was a psychological slog, a long distance race without a finish line. It was the life most artists faced, one we chose (and in some ways, had chosen for us), and one we did not regret. And yet, when faced by this profound and utterly simple idea, I found strength gathering within me, settling over my shoulders like a cloak of warmth.
            The Takeaway
You don’t need to give more than you can.
You don’t need to carry more than you’re able.
You don’t need to bear a weight greater than your own. 
            Of all the things we forget as we get older, perhaps the most prevalent is our understanding of “getting better.” Or perhaps I should say, our LACK of understanding. We speak often of attaining things, like a new car or a new house. Or, we speak of possible achievements: a promotion at work, a gallery showing, writing a best seller. And in so doing, we forget about the simple beauty of improvement. Of doing our job more efficiently, regardless of who notices. Or learning more about our loved ones so we can be a better dad or a better friend. Why is it that society tells us to measure our life by achievement and accumulation when we tell our children to measure their success by their effort?
            Perhaps it’s time for us to do the same. This week, take a look at the areas in your life you find most frustrating, whether it’s your job or a relationship or something else. Ask yourself this question: am I doing the best I can? Forget the past. Forget the mistakes we all make in our lives. Just be honest with yourself.
            Am I doing all I can do at work?
            Do my kids get my best effort?
            Is my wife getting all I can give her?
            I say I want to be a writer. Am I doing everything I can to make it?
            If the answer is yes, then take a few minutes to congratulate yourself. Buy yourself a treat. Take yourself shopping or something else that you would consider a reward. Be aware of your effort, and notice how different the world seems when we recognize our humanity. When we acknowledge that there is only so much we can do. How much brighter the days are when we don’t spoil this beautiful life with unattainable expectations. 
            You did your best, now celebrate. It’s time for recess.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Dealing With Rejection

When I was in Grade Six, I fell in love with a girl in my class, Kathy. She was smart and pretty, and I was smart and… pudgy. I did everything I could to win her over. Notes. Compliments. Jokes. Clearly tired by my advances, she finally told me she liked  another boy in our class, Craig. Moreover, she told me she liked Craig for his body and me for my brains. (Is that why I became a personal trainer? Hmm.) I was so infatuated with her that I started hanging out with Craig. I thought whatever he had might rub off on me.

It didn’t. My infatuation didn’t fade, however, and for the next three years, until the end of Grade Nine when I switched schools, I kept trying to convince Kathy to go out with me. I didn’t know it then, but if I were to sum up my writing life in one analogy, that’d be it.

These past two weeks, I’ve sent queries and sample pages to seventeen agents. So far, I’ve received six form rejections. Not a sniff of interest. Yes, it’s early. And yes, dealing with rejection is part of a writer’s life. But it still hurts. Especially when you really haven’t had much success in the field of your choice, when you’ve been chasing the same girl, the same dream, for twenty-odd years. I suppose I could try to spin that, try to come up with some positives when those form rejections pop up in my inbox, but I already did that this past weekend. When you take the long view, you can find some light in the darkness. In the moment? Well, in the moment it just sucks, and if you can’t accept that, can’t admit that it feels like your innards are being ripped through your nostrils, then either I want what you’re smoking or there’s an American Idol tryout in your future.

Here’s the thing, though. Most of us feel that way about one part of our life. Whether it’s our kids, our relationships with our family members, problems with our friends or a situation at work, it may not show up in our inbox from a literary agency in New York, but it still smells like rejection. Hell, often it feels like life itself is rejecting us. That all of our plans, all of our hopes and dreams somewhere, somehow, got flushed in life’s sewer, and gave us THIS LIFE instead. Depressing? Yes. Discouraging? Yes. Unusual? Nope.

And it’s that last part, how “unusual” we consider our experience, that strikes me as the one place you can find silver. (Maybe not a whole lining of silver, but a few rough nuggets) When someone tells me that I “can’t possibly understand how they feel,” I am acutely aware of two things: One, they’re right. I have no idea how anyone feels because I’ve never been, not to my knowledge at least, anyone else. Second, it tells me that such a person is in for a very long life, and so are the people around them. As much as the rejection, in whatever form, completely and totally feels like a rusty blade has been jammed into my ribs, I can take some comfort in knowing that we all have knives in us. That these are the things that make us human. And that most of the plans we make, even in an ideal society, usually go awry.

Does that make the form rejections in my inbox any easier to take? Nope. Do I still want to throw my laptop out the window and scream about how I’ve wasted my life pursuing something that very, very few people ever do well enough to succeed? Yes. But it’s also the moment when I identify with more people than I usually do, when I watch someone else fail and shake my head because I know how much it hurts. Rejection draws me closer to the people around me than success. Failure leaves a different kind of stain then the times when things have gone exactly as we hoped.

Some of us experience rejection on a daily basis, and with issues far more serious than a lifelong quest for a book deal. I’ve worked with many kids over the years who experienced rejection from one or both of their parents, and for reasons that were utterly enraging.

But anger isn’t the answer. Neither is giving up. Somehow we must find a way to live in that place where the healthiest of us manage to thrive, that place of dreaming and acceptance that acknowledges our humanity, acknowledges the random nature of life and the hardness of it, without pulling us away from the bigger visions God gives us. It’s a difficult place to be. It requires a self-esteem that doesn’t need extra attention for our particular difficulties, but one that is self-aware enough to know when we need a bit more help.

I’m not sure I’ve always fallen in such a balanced manner, and I’ve been grateful over the years for people who have modeled that gracious kind of life. If I could pick one difference in the ones who modeled grace and those who haven’t, that difference would be compassion and gratitude. That is, all of them had in some way dedicated a portion of their life to helping others, and all of them were grateful for the things they’d been given. Like extra legs on a table, this provided them with stability to face the storms and purpose to keep going when their own dreams didn’t work out as they’d hoped. It didn’t allow for the Navel-Gazing Trap or the Black Hole Syndrome characteristic of people who believe that “no one will ever understand.”

Listen, we understand. We’ve all been there. So what do we do when it happens? And really, is there a question in life more formative to our character than that one?

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can tell you what I’m going to do. Tonight, I’m going to allow myself to be upset for a little while and howl at the moon a bit. When I’m done, I’ll hug my wife, grateful I’ve been given such an amazing life partner. Tomorrow I’ll go to school, and on the way there, I’ll thank God for the trees and farms and the new commute to work this year, one that lets us live in a beautiful little home in a quiet section of the city. When I’m at school, I’ll encourage my kids to the best of my ability, walk with them while they negotiate early adolescence, and when I come home, I’ll make sure that our two young neighbours are doing okay. Somewhere along the way, my cats will get a number of belly rubs and I’ll share a laugh with my wife and friends.

And the next day? The next day, I’ll get up and keep writing.

Whatever your journey, wherever you are, keep going, my friends. You can do it. Even when it sucks, even when the girl of your dreams says ‘no’, your value is more than you can possibly imagine. And if we happen to meet along the way, maybe we can grab a coffee and talk about it. I’ve been there, too.

Much love,


Saturday, September 28, 2013

I Dreamed and Failed... And It Changed My Life

I still remember the phone call. I took it on our portable phone, back when everyone still had landlines. The literary agent said that he’d read my manuscript and loved it. He was convinced my book was going to sell. And this wasn’t just any agent, either. He’d represented a number of best-selling authours. As we hung up, he praised my writing and promised that he’d be in touch.

I remember going to the balcony and weeping, unabashedly. The twelve years of hard work, years that had produced three complete novels and two unfinished pieces, had finally paid off. I was thirty-one years old, not young, but about the age when new authours begin to have success. I fully understood that most novelists weren’t rich, and that it took years to build an audience, but none of that fazed me. For the moment, I was overwhelmed with gratitude – for the people who had supported me and helped me, for a life passion that had taught me so much and would teach me more, and for realizing a dream. A dream I hadn’t expected to achieve.

The agent called me a few weeks later. We chatted about future projects. He emailed me a few more times and then… stopped. Stopped calling. Stopped emailing me. I tried to contact him, but he refused to take my calls. People in the industry told me that this was part of the business, and that it happened sometimes when an agent had second thoughts.

I tried to push the disappointment aside, but I didn’t know how to do that. For the past decade, I’d studiously avoided a career in anything except a nomadic existence in youth work, which meant my jobs, while rewarding, paid me as though I were still in college. I became so discouraged that I couldn’t bring myself to put my novel back on the market, couldn’t bring myself to write another one. I spent the next two years writing a spiritual memoir, but I never ended up sending it out or seeing if anyone was interested in publishing it. One crushed dream was enough.

Five years ago I decided it was time to try again. Only this time I would write in a genre that, when done well, had always been my favourite. My past work had been thriller novels, but a fantasy novel would allow me to speculate on my favourite subjects – theology and philosophy, sociology and family dynamics and politics – in a broad, sweeping manner. I could draw on my favourite Edgar Rice Burroughs novels as a child, my youthful love for adventure. I could pour my life’s worth of reading and experience and work into something familiar, yet something new. Unlike a thriller, a novel like this would take years to complete. I was ready. I was no longer the young writer on the verge of success. I had become just another dreamer, another wanna-be with decreasing chances of ever seeing my dream become reality.

Two years flashed by. Even with the work of some brilliant alpha readers, I knew that my book wasn’t ready. Not yet. I asked my wife if I could work part-time, focus on my writing. I could do this, I told her. I can get there. She believed in me, and for two years, I spent six to seven hours a day hammering away at every Starbucks in the city. The work got better, but was it good enough? I wasn’t sure.

Along the way, I battled despair and a deepening sense of guilt. We weren’t making any money, thanks to me, and the debts were piling up. Every week I looked at the calendar and felt myself age just a little bit more. This past year I finally accepted that we could not afford to live that way. I went back to work. I still wrote, every morning, but there was a sense that this great dream I’d held for so long might be over. Every writer is neurotic, but sitting down to the blank screen had become more difficult, and after the positivity of my younger years, it was like walking uphill.

It still feels that way. That is nature of a dream, the core of being a dreamer. If it doesn’t feel impossible, at least sometimes, then it’s not a dream.

This past month I finally finished the manuscript, five years to the week of when I started it. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sell it. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to call myself a novelist or an author. I don’t know if I’ll ever realize my dream. What I do know is that I’ve reaped great reward from my failures. I’ve been encouraged, time and again, by friends choosing to walk the journey with me. I’ve found a true partner – a love for the ages – in my wife, who has shared my dream with me, given everything she could possibly give to make it a reality. And I’ve learned the benefit of perseverance, the hard lessons forged only in the face of bitter disappointment. They have changed and shaped my character in unexpected ways, helped me to become more empathetic, helped widen my worldview regarding the challenges different people face.

These are not small things. And yet, there are days I feel small. That I sacrificed my life for a one I could not achieve. For as much as dreams teach us, they still cost. Those wounds eventually heal and become scars, but you never forget. For many, this is a reason NOT to pursue your life’s passion. What if you never make it? What if all you ever experience is rejection? Why put yourself through the agony of striving for something you may never achieve?

All I can tell you is that while hope casts long shadows, under its wings we often find unexpected growth. Unexpected joy. Today may be difficult, but dreams give us something that nothing else can: they give us tomorrow. They give us a vision of change – of ourselves and our world – that nothing else can match. Sure, they give us scars. And some days it is all we can do to lift our head and scream at the heavens, at the injustice of it all. But what they teach us is more important than the small aches they leave in their wake.

When I look back at the journey now, my dream feels just that: like a dream. Some days I think of that phone call so many years ago, the excitement of it, the unrestrained joy scampering around my limbs as if I’d been bathed in the brightest of suns. I remember feeling that I’d finally found my place in the world, that my days of roving the classifieds in search of another job, another life, were over. That I was finally coming home.

Eleven years later, and I’m still wandering. Still wondering. Still pushing towards the dream. I can’t imagine my life as something other than an aspiring writer, and though my successes in my chosen field have been few, I have no regrets. Who I am and what I’ve become, the inroads and stumbles, the triumphs and failures, these I lay quietly at the feet of my God-given passion.  

That email from a publisher may not appear in my inbox this afternoon, and the phone call I’ve spent years waiting for may never come again, but tomorrow I’ll wake up and sit before a blank screen.

Tomorrow, I’ll write something great.

Tomorrow, everything will change.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Help Wanted: Pitching an Agent

So we’re finally there, that half-dreaded and yet still thrilling moment when your novel is finished. The years of silent dedication to an often lonely and demanding craft are over. Only one thing is left; convincing a literary agent to take on your manuscript, hope that your new agent can persuade a publisher to buy the rights to your book, wait at least a year for the book to be reworked and reworked until everyone is satisfied, and then hope your novel is able to compete with the other 220, 000 books that will be published that year and that it will sell more than eight hundred copies, the standard for first novels. Oh, and did I mention that a middle sized literary agency will receive over FORTY THOUSAND  query letters a month, and of that forty thousand, they will choose two or three manuscripts to represent.

Hmm. So, maybe more than one thing.

The dread returns. Why am I doing this? What kind of person submits themselves to this kind of punishment and inevitable rejection? And for what?

If you’re a writer, you already know why. And if it’s who you are and what you breathe, the numbers honestly don’t mean a whole lot. We’re a neurotic bunch, capable of seeing great chasms in our work (and our life) and yet striding forward anyway, convinced that we have something to offer, something that people may need or enjoy, and we’re damned if we’ll let a little thing like .004% chance of getting an agent stand in our way.

Writers (and all artists) inherently understand this one truth: you can’t do this life if you’re scared. You can only do it if you must.

It’s been nearly five years since I started this particular journey. When I started SECOND BLOOD, Americans had yet to elect their first black president, Sarah Palin could see Russia from her house, and pop singers had realized their answer to sounding like real vocalists with the advent (and overuse) of Auto-Tune. But the cultural shifts haven’t mattered nearly as much as my life changes. A move to a new city, meeting some great new friends, and most importantly, meeting and marrying the girl of my dreams in a life-altering nine-month span.

Through all of it, the writing commitment never changed. And when I felt a bit weak, I received help from some amazing people who picked me up along the way.

And so here we are, the moment of truth. The moment I've been waiting for… and the one I've been dreading. After all these years, it’s time to send my pitch to these overworked agents in the hopes of catching their attention. And so I’m asking for your help. I probably should be more oblique about it, but I won’t lie. I’m nervous. (Little known fact: when writers do the business part of writing (like proposals) they become as weak as lily frogs in a strange swamp with no tongue.)

So my plan is simple, I’m going to list a few of my pitch ideas, and ask which one you like the best. No, you may not know me personally, but I’d love your feedback anyway. Just throw it in the comments or on my Facebook page.

Here are the pitches:


The Cursh have ruled the Empire for a thousand years. Their church has crept across the land, insidious and unstoppable, eliminating those who would question its supremacy. Only one country stands apart, a country protected by a magical talisman and fiercely guarded by its powerful female army. But even they offer only token resistance.

Only one true foe remains, a legendary group of mystics and healers said to possess strange powers. They alone can challenge Cursh rule. But do they exist? Or are they nothing more than children’s tales, forever banished into myth?

The prophecies say that they will return. That they will be led by a woman. And that she will be a great warrior.

So why are the Cursh worried about an awkward eighteen year-old scholar? A shy carpenter’s son who finds solace in his books and the forest.

Unless, of course, the prophecies are wrong…


…They call me Ghost. I do not like the name, but I understand it, for I am their story. Their guardian. Their myth. But we are all just orphans here, survivors of a shattered realm and veiled to the thousands who walk the upper levels. They choose not to see us, because we remind them of their failure. 

Of our failure.
Even still, the Lament cries out to me. It cries to me things I do not understand, things I do not want to hear. Once, I would have searched my books for answers, but they, too, are gone, buried in a dream that was once my life.

I am trying not to lose hope. My friends count on me, even if I am just another orphan, even if I am nothing special.

There is a chance she still lives. A chance that she will come back. And if she does, then perhaps we can find a way to change the world forever…


What if an Empire’s most beloved priest married its enemy’s greatest warrior?

What if that warrior gave up her powers so that she could bear children, a boy much like his father, and a girl who followed in her mother’s steps?

What if it all went terribly wrong?


What if the most powerful church in history believed you were the one person capable of destroying them? What if their ancient enemies, a legendary group of mystics and healers, believed you to be their savior? What if they were both wrong?


...I wasn't always like this. Tired and weak and wearing these ridiculous dresses like an ornament for festival. I was warned not to marry Caleb or have children, but after the Queen’s betrayal, I was afraid of what I'd become. Of what I was becoming.

Twenty years have passed. Twenty years of life in the shadows. I can feel them getting closer. I can see the signs. But I am more than they realize. Should anything happen to my husband, I will no longer be a tired housewife. I will be as I once was, when battlefields bled on my command and the Empire’s soldiers trembled at my name.

They will not take my family from me. And if they do, may the Creator have mercy on them, for I will not. 

So, what do you think? I appreciate the time, everyone. And thanks so much for your support over the years.  



Sunday, May 19, 2013

Re-Doing The Site

As we move into the final stages of finishing my novel after nearly five years of work, I figured it was time to redo this site. Most of the changes are done, though I'm sure I'll be playing with a few things and double checking the spelling and grammar. I didn't make any changes to my Recommended Reads page, but I haven't made any recent additions either. Hopefully that will change in the coming months.

If you're interested in my novel, you can find a summary here. I'll have a post up later this week about pitching agents and publishers. (I'm hoping for some interaction, your comments as to which ones you like and don't like or any other suggestions you might have.)

In the About Me section, I added a new piece, Becoming a Writer, which tells a bit about my own journey. As a young writer, I always wanted to know how someone fell into this strange calling, a writer's birth story if you will, and what it meant. Many years have passed since my first days of picking up the quill, and it still fascinates me.

I can't say that I've achieved the level of success I hoped for in my work, not yet at least, but hopefully I'll be able to encourage some of you to continue the journey anyway. I don't regret the path I've chosen, and every morning when I wake up to write for a couple of hours before heading to my day job, the exultation of the pursuit is as present as it was when I started doing this seventeen years ago. In that, I've not only been well served by this passion, but through my work I've found the joy in doing what I love. If the world wants to call that failure, let 'em. I'm too busy writing to notice.