More Lessons From the Trenches

No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness.” Aristotle

I should have called these last few blogs lessons from the trenches. Not sure where these writing tips have come from. I’m doing more writing and reviewing. I’m perhaps a bit more aware of what I’m doing and not doing. Hopefully these realizations help me with my new project. And if you’re a writer reading this blog, I hope it helps you too. But in the end, you’re the writer and you will find your way with or without any advice.

As you create characters, think about their backgrounds, their experiences, and what shaped them. Listen to their voice, how they express themselves, what they think about when they are alone, or in a crowd, or with their mother, partner, friend. What are their weaknesses and strengths? What do they need and what are they afraid of or hiding? Answering these questions brings a character to life. It helps you identify their madness. We all have a little.

Sure humans—real and imagined—are a twist of contradictions. As I write this, I think about some of the guys I used to work with in my prison days. I so rarely write about that time. Too real I suppose. Perhaps I think the reality of it is too difficult to capture in fiction. I don’t know.


Situate Us

Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.” Abraham Lincoln

“Tell us where we are.” This is the feedback I hear over and over again from my critique group when it’s my turn to discuss my work. “Situate Us.” And finally this week the advice sunk in. Or at least it moved me to take a closer look.

I went back and reviewed what I’d written so far for my new novel. Specifically, I looked at the first paragraph of each chapter. I always seem to create many characters. Don’t ask me why. They appear, and then they become so integral to the story I can’t get rid of them. Or more correctly, they won’t leave me alone.

So first off, I checked to see if I’d named the character in the first paragraph of each new chapter. This is especially important when you have different characters. As a reader starts into a new chapter, he or she needs to know right away whose perspective and version of events they are reading.


It’s All About Story

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

In other words, to write well, you have to immerse yourself wholly and hope the story reveals itself before you drown. Yes, the fear of sinking keeps me moving.

When it’s going well, I am completely in the story I’m trying to tell. I see clearly what my characters are doing and why they are doing it. I find a balance between showing what they’ve experienced in the past so the reader understands why they are doing what they are doing in the present. Dialogue flows because I hear, see and more importantly understand why my characters say what they say.

None of this happens unless I’ve surrendered my brain to the story. In other words, I’m no longer thinking. I’m simply observing and writing it all down.



I can resist anything except temptation.” Oscar Wilde

My uncle came to live with us when I was nine or ten years old and he lived with us on and off for the rest of his life. I only ever referred to him as Uncle. There was no Uncle John or John. It was always just Uncle.

As I’ve written many times, I’ve missed my extended family my entire life, so when Uncle arrived, I was excited. Here was part of my larger family, right there, in front of me. I listened to my uncle and father converse in Greek around our kitchen table. I loved trying to figure out what they were saying. I heard stories of their school-day scamps, their parents (my grandparents), and their sisters. These tales made me laugh and I felt as though I was part of the culture I longed for. We went to the lake on weekends or Banff for a picnic. A bottle of beer always in my uncle’s hand.


Shifting Tides

I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

A few years ago, on a return trip from Costa Rica, we stopped in Boston to visit my cousins. We first entered the United States through New York. At passport control I dutifully provided my Canadian passport. The officer looked at it, then at me, eyed the passport again, and then gazed at me in condescension. He was obviously troubled by something. I couldn’t venture to guess what it could be. I’m a staunch rule follower, but this man made me feel guilty. That glare was meant to intimidate. He was telling me he was the one in control.

After several seconds and more stares at my passport, the officer asked me when I had left Egypt. I was born in Egypt. My Canadian passport proudly states this fact. What does that have to do with anything, I wondered, but with the American rendition flights (another sad chapter in American history) hot in the news at the time, I was thankfully prudent rather than questioning.  And besides I was in a foreign country. I have always seen the United States this way, which overall has saved me a lot of hassles in the end.


Onward I Go

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

Last week I lamented the fact that I hadn’t done much writing since about the end of November. Yes, there have been a few bursts of creativity, then long periods of nothing. So to push myself forward, I decided to set aside three hours every day just to write. Typically, for me, the best time to write is first thing in the morning, before the world wakes up. I think I’ve written about this before, but I love the quiet of an early morning. The stillness gives me permission to be still too, something I don’t do particularly well and something I absolutely have to do in order to enter the fictional world.  

It hasn’t been easy, but as many of you know, I can be a bit stubborn when I set my sights on something. Okay, stop laughing. When I use the words, “a bit” as in I’m a bit stubborn or I’m a bit of an obsessive compulsive or I’m a bit focused, perfect strangers who have met me for the first time, laugh. And that sort of amusement is multiplied ten-fold when I use these words to describe myself in front of friends or colleagues. I’m not sure what I’m doing or saying, but just about everyone seems to understand me better than I understand myself.



Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.” Winston Churchill

I’m constantly revising my resolutions. Tinkering is good. That’s how I’ll get to the essence of what I want to change or improve. This is the lie I tell myself to ignore the fact that I have failed miserably. And only three weeks into the New Year. Yikes!

It all starts off so well. A new year brings with it the opportunity of renewal. In fact, when I’m busy and running around with all sorts of things I feel compelled to do, I reassure myself that all will be well once January comes. This craziness will pass and I will start anew. It’s a break. That’s all.


A Call to Action – Update #6

“I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that, then I realized I’m that somebody.” Lily Tomlin

There are many of you somebodies out there who have helped us this year with our go fund me campaign. Thanks again for all you’ve done on behalf of the Whistler Writers Festival. It lives on because of you. You made the difference. And I am grateful beyond measure.

As promised, this will be my last update about our campaign, but our efforts to secure funds for the festival won’t stop just because you don’t hear from me. In fact, if you want to know how it’s going, send me an email. I love hearing from friends, colleagues and strangers alike. Your notes of support have been uplifting and soul enhancing. They are astonishing really and have brought me to tears (in a good way) more than once. Thank you.

We have now received some $13,000 in donations on our way to our goal of $30,000. I think by the end of this particular campaign we will likely reach the $15,000 mark, which is amazing. I didn’t know what to expect when I started down this road, but each turn in the bend, each note or letter has only served to motivate me further. The last note from my friend, Marilyn, in Edmonton, who has yet to visit the festival said, I believe in you. Or the note I received from fellow author, Fiona Lam, who wrote, we are all grateful for what you do. So I keep going.


A Call to Action – Update #5

“Never settle for a ripple, when you can make a wave.” Janet Louise Stephenson

The Christmas break is over. It was a hectic time with travel and socializing and far too much food and sweets. I’m trying to cut down on the latter, but chocolate and fruitcake are still in the cupboard, and on top of everything else, Santa Claus filled my jellybean dispenser. It sits on the credenza beside my desk like a tease. Mind you I still have to plug it with coins to get at the jellybeans. Unfortunately, this deterrent is a weak one at best, given that my desk drawer is filled with coins. I’m nothing if not a planner with back up plans on top of back up plans.

I hope you all had a nice Christmas break. I wish you the very best in 2017.

Many more donations came in on our fundraising campaign for the Whistler Writers Festival. We have now received some $12,000 in donations on our way to our goal of $30,000. Thank you so much for your generosity and support.

Along with donations, some folks made other fundraising suggestions, or offered prizes for silent auctions and contests or asked questions. I love questions.

By far, the single most asked question was: why do you do it? And by this, I think they were asking why I put on the festival in the first place.


A Call to Action – Update #4

“There is no longer any such thing as fiction or non-fiction: there’s only narrative.” E.L. Doctorow

Mr. Doctorow could be right. I’m not sure, but as promised I will outline my recommendations for the non-fiction reads I’ve enjoyed in the latter part of 2016. Before I do that I’d like to give you an update about our fundraising campaign. This will be the last update and push before the New Year. Christmas is a good time to take a break, don’t you think? I will be back at the beginning of 2017 with a final drive toward our fundraising goal of $30,000 for the Whistler Writers Festival.

Thanks again to those of you who have already donated to our cause. We have now received some $8,000 in donations.

Any amount helps. And donations of $25 and over will receive an electronic tax receipt in the name of the donor. You can donate on our gofundmesite. And if you’d like to watch a very quick video of the 2016 festival, check out this video. Or watch videos of our other programs here.

So now onto my recommendations for non-fiction reads.


A Call to Action – Update #3

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” Ray Bradbury

Easier said than done, Mr. Bradbury, but some authors did just that, very successfully, this year. Here is my list of the novels I enjoyed in the last half of 2016. Next week, I will provide my recommended books of non-fiction. Hope this helps you with your Christmas shopping list. And speaking of Christmas giving, please don’t forget the Whistler Writers Festival on your list (I’m relentless. I know). Our fundraising campaign continues.

Any amount helps. And donations over $25 will receive an electronic tax receipt in the name of the donor. You can donate on our gofundmesite. If you’d like to watch a very quick video of the 2016 festival, check out this video. Or watch videos of our other programs here.

Thanks again to those of you who have already donated to our cause. We have now received some $7,000 in donations. Incredible! Our goal is $30,000.

Okay, on with my fiction recommendations.


A Call to Action – Update #2

“Life is like a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.” Albert Einstein

I have been mentoring students in the Creative Writing Program at Simon Fraser University since the fall. We meet every couple of weeks to review their work and discuss writing.

This past week we talked about the struggle of starting a new project. In these early stages of creation you don’t know what your story is about, who your characters are or what their goals, desires and motivations are. You’ve got a blank page you know you want to fill, but have no idea how. In short, it’s a painful slog.

And this happens to all writers, from the emerging to the experienced. I tell my students this, to reassure them.

It also helps me to hear these words of encouragement.

I urge them to write every day. Even 15 minutes a day will help, I say. It keeps you in the story and close to your characters.

I try to follow my own advice. At the beginning of a project, I simply type words. My only motivation is to keep my fingers moving on the keyboard. Yes, it feels very mechanical until something changes and it (the story) begins to feel natural, real. That something is hard to define. All I know is that the doing and the practice eventually brings me to the story I want to tell.

I don’t really know how this revelation relates to my other passion, the festival and the current fundraising campaign we’ve initiated, but I find myself here nonetheless. It’s sort of like writing, you never know where you’re going to end up, but you know you have to keep moving in order to get there.


A Thankful Heart

“The thankful receiver bears a plentiful harvest.” William Blake

It’s been one of those weeks where I have lots to be thankful for, so this week instead of one blog, you’re getting two. I couldn’t help myself.

In addition to all the donations and kind comments I received for the Whistler Writers Festival campaign at the gofundmesite (yes, still flogging), I also got a note from my friend, author Genni Gunn about my novel, The Brink of Freedom.

Thanks Genni and thanks to all of you who have read my novel and sent me your feedback. It’s very gratifying for a writer to hear from readers, to know her story, her words, touched the reader in some way. Thank you.

I asked Genni if it was okay to share her review and she said it was, so here it is.


A Call to Action – Update #1

“The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.” Helen Keller

Last week I asked for your help. And in the first three days of our new fundraising campaign in support of the Whistler Writers Festival and its other literary programming, we raised $3,200. Thank you so much for your support.

I appreciate the fact that you’ve shared our cause with your friends too. As a result, more have joined us. That couldn’t have happened without your support.

I’ve also appreciated all the kind words that have come along with your donations.

We love this festival. We love you. Happy to support the festival that could. A festival with heart, thank you. A terrific festival. This is great and necessary work. So appreciate all the work you do for Sea to Sky students each year.


A Call to Action

“Action is the foundational key to success.” Pablo Picasso

I need your help. But before I get into that let me start at the beginning.  

In 2002 there were only 20 of us. We chatted, talked, learned. For many of us this was the start of a writing life. Since those humble beginnings we have grown steadily, but most impressively in the last six years−from 395 participants in 2011 to 1810 in 2016. We’ve been lucky enough to host multi-award winning authors (Jane Urquhart, Joseph Boyden, Lawrence Hill, Madeline Thien, Will Ferguson, Emma Donoghue, Lisa Moore, Peter Robinson to name a few) on the same stage as emerging authors (Gillian Wigmore, Jennifer Manuel, Meagan Williams, Steven Price). And now, the Whistler Writers Festival is only one component of the literary programming we organize every year.

We have steadily expanded to provide concentrated support to emerging writers through our Writer In Residence Program (since 2007) and have established an Author in the Schools Program (since 2011), which sees us provide students in the Sea to Sky corridor with class sets of a visiting author’s books. The students read the books, and in some cases, study them as part of their curriculum. The author then meets the students to discuss the book and answer questions.

In the first year of this program, we had 86 students, a handful of teachers and one very nervous organizer. Me.


Surround Yourself With Smart People

“Whatever you do, surround yourself with smart people who will argue with you.” John Wooden

I grew up in a household where we argued about politics, world affairs, and anything we felt mattered. At the time, I wondered why we weren’t like other normal families who ate dinner and talked about their day. If something political was discussed during these meals with others, I couldn’t help myself.  

Have opinion will share.

I like discussion, arguing a point, listening to the counterpoint.

Friends often tease me by raising some sort of issue, counter to what they think my opinion will be. Then they wait for the sparks to fly. It’s always incredible to me how transparent I am and how easy it is to find my triggers.



“Evil is a miscellaneous collection of nasty things that nasty people do.” Richard Dawkins

This morning an image of someone I used to work with came to mind. I’ve thought of him on and off over the years, mostly when I’ve met him in others. He was a brute of a man, overbearing and opinionated. Yet exceedingly accommodating, falsely pleasant, and willing to do anything for his boss. I was his boss.

I worked in a young offender centre back then and he was one of the supervisors on the floor. Having worked in both an adult correctional facility and a young offender correctional facility, I would take the older, more hardened, over the impulsive, out of control youth any day. Occurrences of violence, hunger strikes and attempted escapes and suicide were common with young offenders. Adult offenders, in contrast, for the most part wanted to do their time and get out.

I tell you this so you understand the reality of these places. Having said this, I don’t want to give the impression that young offenders couldn’t be talked out of whatever situation they’d found themselves in.



“Life is 10 percent what you make it, and 90 percent how you take it.” Irvine Berlin

Before he goes to bed, we mull over the day’s events. I wish him a good night in his language.Kalinychta. I feel his smile. There is recognition in that smile. With a few hints, he has remembered the day’s events. I am reassured.

In the morning, I wake him with a kalimera and we set about planning his day. After our discussion, where I’ve answered many of his questions more than once, he says, now I know. But over the course of the day, he will ask me again and again, what day is it, what am I supposed to do today, what do I need to buy?

Yet, ask him about some current affair, the elections across the border or the battles in the Middle East, for example, and he will give you a history lesson, tell you how the past has shaped our present and exactly what he thinks about it all. Or walk with him into his pharmacy where his pharmacist is a Coptic from Egypt and listen to the conversation he engages in in Arabic. Other customers stare and I know what they are thinking, how does this little old European man speak Arabic so confidently.


Finding My Way Back

“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” Francis of Assisi

It’s been more than two months. I’m finally contemplating going back in. But I dread it. I know I will scramble and search. And scramble some more. There will be many long hours of nothing. No guarantees I will find even a hint of what I started.

You see I’ve been distracted, immersed in activity and noise. I like the kind of work that perpetuates this. I’m good at anything that demands quick thinking and organization skills. I’m not so great with work that calls upon me to be quiet. The ruckus gives me the excuse I need to avoid the other work I need to do. And yet it doesn’t squelch the niggling completely. Now it refuses to be ignored. I have to go back, do what I must. I know this and have begun to strategize.


Another Festival Is Put To Bed

“A grateful heart is a magnet for miracles.” Anonymous

It wasn’t too long ago that I wasn’t sure I would have been able to write the words, another year, another festival. They come naturally now as if there is no question we will be back, bigger and stronger next year.

When the day closes today so will the 15th year of what has become the annual Whistler Writers Festival. There were so many times we wanted to call it quits. The effort to put on such an event grew too much and the funds available to make it happen were too limited. But what was once unthinkable has been made possible through the dedication and hard work of our small organizational team.  We kept going and miracles began to happen. Our audience base grew, sponsors and supporters came on board, and others took notice and wanted to help. And again and again I was reminded that no one succeeds alone.


What Are You Excited About?

“The creative habit is like a drug. The particular obsession changes, but the excitement, the thrill of your creation lasts.” Henry Moore

This question−what are you excited about−is what journalists ask me in interviews leading up to the Whistler Writers Festival. Only a few days remain before opening night. At the moment, I’m mostly running flat out, trying to tie up all the final details.

There is no room for excitement.

It is at this time that I anticipate, visualize, hope (endlessly), and keep fingers crossed. And of course, I don’t sleep because I’m too busy thinking of every possible disaster scenario and what if anything I might do to avert it.


Here I Come To the Rescue

“Since we can’t change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality.” Nikos Kazantzakis

I’ve been taking care of my dad over the last two weeks. He’s fine; as he likes to tell me, for an 87-year-old man with one foot on a banana peel. The man missed his calling. He should have been a comedian. My dad’s regular homecare person went on holidays and the various replacements, in the first few days, were inconsistent in when they showed up. This can spell disaster both for my dad’s failing memory and his need to get his medication consistently. So, out I drove to Calgary. 

I realize I’m a bit of a rescuer. Okay, for those who know me, stop laughing now.



“Beware of the bareness of a busy life.” Socrates

I quote him often, but this time, I’m wondering what Socrates means by bareness. I’m currently neck deep in the craziness of life. Less than three weeks away from the festival, lots of small details still being sorted out, and I’m juggling time, commitments and responsibilities. Where the heck is this bareness?

I don’t have time to think about it and I’m not going to write about it either.

Instead, I’ll share a review that recently appeared in the University of Victoria’s Malahat Review about my novel, The Brink of Freedom.

Good, bad or indifferent, I am very thankful for reviews.

Someone has read my words, took notice, and felt it was important enough to write about it. How could I not be grateful?

Emily McGriffin wrote the review . I take this time to thank her for reading my novel, understanding it so completely, writing about it and giving me a bit of light in the bareness of my busy, busy life. Thank you, Emily!  

© All Rights Reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Stella L Harvey


“You can’t cross the sea merely by standing and staring at the water.” Rabindranath Tagore

At the moment I'm knee deep. Yes, I’m trying to cross, but the expanse seems too far. Not sure I can take another step without some help.

But I digress. Let me start at the beginning.

A student I mentored a few years ago gave me a Fitbit. You’ve likely seen these things on people’s wrists. They look similar to a watch, but rather than tracking time, they track steps walked, heart rate, and among other things, your quality of sleep. My student’s son set it up for me because I was intimidated by the gadget. Here was another bit of technology, something else I had to figure out.



“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” Stephen King

“I’ve got an idea.” These are the words that strike fear into anyone who knows me. They frighten me a little too. But I persist because I’m curious and stubborn and want to know what will happen next. How far can I go with my inkling?

I like beginnings. A fresh project, whether it’s a piece of writing or a completely new addition to my festival, comes with an inherent gush of creativity and inventiveness. It’s a time I’m flush with hope of what is possible and completely blind to how I’m going to bring it to fruition. I feel quite smug and cozy in my naiveté.

And then I sit down. What was once so compelling and complete in my head seems to grow tentacles of doubt that I can basically sum up into one niggling, obstinate question: what the hell do you think you’re doing?


Lions and Sheep

“I am not afraid of an army of lions led by a sheep. I am afraid of an army of sheep led by a lion.” Alexander the Great

I had just had a California roll and looked forward to a quick cross-country ski at Lost Lake before heading home. It was a beautiful day, the kind we, who live in Whistler, brag about. The sky was clear blue and a light breeze teased at my cheeks.

A few kilometers into the trail my hands got incredibly itchy. My stomach started to protest and I found it hard to catch my breath. Pretty soon I felt as though I needed to peel my skin off, my lip was swollen (across my face, apparently) and my breathing became even more laboured. It got worse from there.

I wouldn’t know until I was in the emergency room that I was having an anaphylactic attack.  By that time, I didn’t know my name or where I was, let alone what I’d ingested and really the nurses and doctors who worked on me didn’t care either. I was aware of a lot of activity around me. I remember someone putting something into my arm. Instantly everything came back into focus.


Every Day

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

I read the ekathimerini most days. This is the English version of the on-line Greek newspaper. As the name suggests, it is published daily.  

The paper gives me a glimpse into what is happening in Greece.  It makes me feel closer to the country I love. Most days the picture isn’t pretty. The headlines seem to tumble over themselves with the same dire messages: more cutbacks, fewer jobs, higher taxes, and additional poverty. In between the gloom, there are rare stories of hopefulness, a reminder of a once great nation

When I speak to my cousins or aunts on the phone, they paint a dismal picture of the Greek situation as well. “It is not good here. Things get worse every day.”


Writing and Publicity

“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster, and fling him out into the public.” Winston Churchill

My novel, The Brink of Freedom has been on the shelves since the beginning of October. It had already received a certain amount of media attention. This is always incredible for an author who toils alone, uncertain in the end if anyone will notice. Last week The Brink got a little more of a boost on the CBC weekend program, North by Northwest.


Long Awaited, It Has Come

“Roots are not in a landscape or a country or a people, they are inside you.” Isabel Allende

It came this week. As did the tears the moment I saw the foreign writing. I took a breath, tried to control my emotions. Where had all this sentiment come from? I couldn’t articulate it. I have had difficulty at the best of times explaining to others why I have wanted what had just arrived. It’s a feeling. One of wanting to belong.

The faux-leather cardboard was cool in my hand. I stroked it, afraid to glance inside. Was this really mine? Had it finally come? It had been months, and if I think about it, likely years.


Writer’s Block

You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” Jodi Picoult

Last week’s twitter chat hosted by the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University provided tips to combat writer’s block. A whole host of writers participated with some sound advice: rereading favourite authors, staying at your desk until the fog cleared, walking away from the work for a while. I have tried all of these tips with a good deal of success. This discussion got me thinking about other advice I’ve been given and the tricks I have built into own my practice to keep me writing. Let’s face it, writing is bloody hard, anytime, but particularly when the sun is shining and there are so many other things to do.

A few years ago we hosted author Richard Wagamese. He read at the main festival and participated in our Authors in the Schools Program. Richard told the grade 12 students in his session (all had read his novel, Indian Horse) that he had never experienced writer’s block. Asked how that was possible he said, “One word follows another, then another.” It sounded so elegantly simple.


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