Writing on the wild side

Escape. Whether it’s to a sandy beach in Cuba or a steep moun­tain peak in the Himalayas, every­one longs to get away from their day-to-day routine once in a while.

But as well as leav­ing some­thing be­hind, what about mov­ing towards

Me and Shannon after kayak­ing and hik­ing to the Grassy Knoll.

a goal you’ve held close to your heart for as long as you can re­mem­ber? Something you really want to do but some­how there’s nev­er enough time, in­spir­a­tion or even just plain know-how.

That’s ex­actly what happened the last week in May when a small group of people brought their ideas and par­tially com­pleted ma­nu­scripts to a Wilderness Writing Retreat at Seawatch Cabins in Nuchatlitz Provincial Park.

Surrounded by pristine wil­der­ness, we dis­cussed fo­cus, point of view and act­ive voice. We de­bated ways to carve time out of the day to write and the best way to find a pub­lish­er. And we all cre­ated timelines for fin­ish­ing our projects.

Nuchatlitz is a wil­der­ness area and wild­life is plen­ti­ful. The fawn with this doe es­caped be­fore I could take a photo. 

While do­ing so, we watched a sea ot­ter do­ing the back­stroke in the bay and a mar­tin scam­per­ing across the deck each morn­ing. We also saw five bear (from a safe dis­tance) and wolf sign on some of our walks.

I couldn’t have asked for more con­geni­al stu­dents. Everyone was totally com­mit­ted to tak­ing their ma­nu­script to the next stage…and did. I’m sure some found the red ink on their work daunt­ing but when I saw the re­vi­sions they made, I was astoun­ded at the improvement.

Shannon and Yvonne col­lab­or­ate on some revisions.

A bal­ance of private time and group in­struc­tion ad­dressed in­di­vidu­al pro­jects and skill levels,” notes Yvonne Maximchuk. “Paula gave me ex­cel­lent and per­tin­ent in­struc­tion in how to write to my best abil­it­ies and helped bring my mem­oir to a whole new level. I was thrilled!”

Yvonne leads the way on a kayak expedition.

As a new au­thor I had no idea how to edit my work,” adds Dodie Eyer who is work­ing on a children’s chapter book. “It was a real turn­ing point for me. And Shannon made us all feel very much at home. The food was de­li­cious, fresh, healthy and at­tract­ive. I loved learn­ing how to kayak!”

Yes, neither man nor wo­man lives by work alone. When not writ­ing, we feasted on sump­tu­ous homemande meals. Shannon Bailey, host for the re­treat, wowed us with her flair for put­ting to­geeth­er de­light­ful blends of col­our, taste and nu­tri­tious cuisine.

Dodie ad­mires wild flowers at the Grassy Knoll. 

In ad­di­tion to cook­ing and work­ing on a young adult nov­el, Shannon also doubled as wil­der­ness guide and in­struct­or. We kayaked sheltered la­goons, poin­ted our bows to­wards the white-cres­ted waves of the open Pacific Ocean and hiked gravel beaches and wood­land trails. At night, the si­lence was enorm­ous, the stars a cas­cade of light in the sky. 

Some ran­dom highlights:
• yoga on a sunny deck
• the “Aha!” look on participant’s faces
• Shannon’s stun­ning back garden
• lively dis­cus­sions on writ­ing and life in general
• sea­food bisque made with oysters picked off the beach
• the pro­fu­sion of wild flowers at Grassy Knoll
• chocol­ate brownies topped with rhu­barb-straw­berry sauce
• see­ing ma­nu­scripts move from good to very good 


As well as work­ing on writ­ing, friend­ships were formed, ideas shared and pos­sib­il­it­ies ex­plored. What a great es­cape! I can­’t wait to do it all over again later this year.

The back garden at Seawatch Cabins. All pho­tos by Dodie and Paula. 


E‑book or paper book, which do you prefer?

In my “book,” any­thing that makes read­ing easi­er and ac­cess­ible to more people is a good thing. E‑books and e‑readers are bring­ing a whole new di­men­sion to the read­ing ex­per­i­ence and who can ar­gue with that?

An amaz­ing fea­ture is be­ing able to read an e‑book in the dark. You can also ad­just the size of the text, high­light pas­sages and look up the mean­ing of words. Best of all, you have ac­cess to tons of books in­stantly and can carry them all on one port­able device.

Yep, e‑books are def­in­itely made for trav­el­ling. The next time I take a trip to a for­eign coun­try, I’ll con­sider car­ry­ing my read­ing ma­ter­i­al on an e‑reader. Just think how much more room I’ll have to pack clothes and shoes if I do away with my usu­al six pack of pock­et books!

But in my heart of hearts I’ll al­ways love pa­per books. To be­gin with, I grew up with them, so they’re fa­mil­i­ar and com­fort­able. I love hold­ing a book in my hands and turn­ing the page to find out what hap­pens next.

If you read pa­per books you get to use cool book marks like the one my broth­er bought me in Morocco. 

Besides, pa­per books are in­cred­ibly ver­sat­ile. As dec­or­at­ing ac­cessor­ies they add col­our and in­tel­lec­tu­al cachet to your shelves. They can also serve as door props, as well as do double-duty as stor­age areas for post­cards from exot­ic lands and in­ter­est­ing leaves found on walks. 

If you’re an au­thor you can dis­cretely place books you’ve writ­ten around the house for vis­it­ors to “dis­cov­er.” And signed cop­ies make great last minute gifts. 

Paper books are for­giv­ing too. They’re usu­ally still read­able even after be­ing splashed with red wine or smeared with chocol­ate. Even a dunk in the bathtub doesn’t have to spell the end.

But most of all, I like read­ing what oth­er people have writ­ten on a book’s flyleaf. A hard cov­er book I picked up at a gar­age sale was in­scribed: “To Edna, with love on our first Christmas to­geth­er. From your Jack. December 1932.”

So e‑books get my vote when it comes to con­veni­ence. But if you’re look­ing for char­ac­ter, pa­per books are the way to go. If you have any doubts, check out Lane Smith’s one minute video, It’s A Book.

Writing the first sentence of a book

Eighteen months ago I shif­ted my fo­cus to cou­gars, the sub­ject of my next book. After a peri­od of in­tense re­search, I began or­gan­iz­ing all the in­form­a­tion I’d gathered.

It was an im­mense job that in­volved sort­ing through a Bankers Box full of files and an equally massive amount of in­form­a­tion saved on my hard drive. And then one day it was done.

What now?” I wondered. Then it hit me: it was time to start writ­ing the book.

But how? I knew what I wanted to say but what about that all im­port­ant first sen­tence? I searched my mind. All I found was an im­age of the Sahara desert, a totally empty land­scape stretch­ing into in­fin­ity. Just like the blank screen on my computer.

A knot of pan­ic formed in my chest. Breaking the house­hold rule of not in­ter­rupt­ing each oth­er when we’re writ­ing, I rushed into Rick’s of­fice. “It’s time to start writ­ing my book and I don’t know what to do,” I announced. 

It hap­pens to me every time I write an art­icle,” he replied then con­tin­ued tap­ping away on his keyboard.

I trudged back up­stairs and shuffled some pa­pers around on my desk. I called my mom. I made a cup of tea. I changed the wa­ter in the dog’s bowl. And then I laughed. I was em­ploy­ing the old­est writ­ing trick in the world – procrastination.

My brain is sharpest in the morn­ing and by then it was late af­ter­noon so I let my­self off the hook for the day. The next was filled with er­rands down­town but the day after that…I had to start the book.

I wondered how I’d ever found the elu­sive first sen­tences of my oth­er books. To be per­fectly hon­est, at that mo­ment, I had no idea. The whole concept of writ­ing the first sen­tence of a book seemed daunt­ing, per­haps impossible.

People new to the craft of writ­ing of­ten ask me for ad­vice. So I asked my­self what I’d tell them about start­ing a book. At least that was a ques­tion I could an­swer. “Just jump in and do it,” I’d say. “Don’t worry about it too much, you can al­ways change it later. Something will come to you eventually.”

And the next morn­ing, while I was walk­ing the dog, it did.

Heavily fall­ing snow covered our boot prints al­most as soon as we made them. The fat white flakes, the forest around us and the ar­rival of twi­light meant vis­ib­il­ity was fad­ing fast. And right in front of us, filling with snow as we stared, were the large foot­prints of a cougar….

It might not be per­fect and would prob­ably change over time. But, at last, I had a way in. I could start the book.

Tax tips for writers by Caroline Woodward

I have the fond­est memory of my Dad hol­ing up in the base­ment, from which a cloud of blue smoke and col­our­ful pro­fan­it­ies waf­ted up for sev­er­al days. It was in­come tax time and Dad went head to head with the Prime Minister of the day, de­term­ined not to pay “that bloody .…..” or “that smarmy .…” a cent more than ab­so­lutely ne­ces­sary to keep the Canadian safety net shipshape.

Do you keep your re­ceipts in a shoe box? Caroline has a bet­ter idea.

Since 1981, I’ve filed my in­come taxes as a writer, thanks to hop­ping off the ca­reer lad­der and lug­ging home 1,500 rice pa­per fables that I made in Kathmandu, Nepal. Writers are al­lowed three to five years to pro­duce a nov­el and to earn zero in­come while rack­ing up re­search and travel expenses.

I am proud to say I man­aged to earn more than zero from selling my writ­ing every single year since 1981 but some years, es­pe­cially those fif­teen years when we ran a book­store and when I worked as a pub­lish­ers’ rep, it was a minor mir­acle for me to write a gro­cery list let alone a haiku or to sell a single bon mot.

But if we writers don’t take our work ser­i­ously, then we will be hob­by­ists forever more and the fact is, a great many of us donate hun­dreds of hours and dol­lars to our com­munit­ies and the causes of the world annually.

You can be very sure that the Prime Minister’s min­ions will seek you out and pick your pock­ets when your next book is a best­seller and that they don’t much care if you took an eight­een year ap­pren­tice­ship at very low ‘wages’ to be­come an overnight success.

I’ve used the same one-page format to re­port my writ­ing ex­penses and in­come since 1981. I ig­nore the reams of forms provided for pro­fes­sion­al and small busi­ness people and so far, the Prime Minister has merely sighed and ac­cep­ted my puny efforts.

Here it is:
2010 Writing Income & Expenses
Caroline Hendrika Woodward
Social Insurance Number


(web­site, au­thor pho­tos, schmooz­ing costs at ½ the meal or pub bill. Sadly, not for new shoes to wear when launch­ing your latest book)

Automobile Expenses………………………$y
(get­ting your­self to read­ing tours, work­shops, etc. Fuel, re­pairs, in­sur­ance, park­ing. Keep a mileage log & yes, claim every trip to and from the Post Office)

Office Expenses-ph/­fax/in­ter­net………… $z

Other Office Expenses & Materials……  $x
(magazine sub­scrip­tions, sta­tion­ery, books, a de­cent chair, book­shelves, computer)

Light/​Heat/​Water…………………………… $y
(if you live in a 5 room house with a one room of­fice, claim 15 your an­nu­al costs)

Travel, ex­clud­ing auto………………………$z
(bus, plane, hotel & meals for writ­ing gigs not covered by pub­lish­er or hosts)

Office Rent…………………………………… $x
(if you rent a sep­ar­ate of­fice, oth­er­wise, claim 15 (or whatever) of your house­hold rent or mort­gage payments)

Capital Cost Allowance………………………$y
(see guide, I used this once in the 80’s to de­pre­ci­ate the cost of a new com­puter but am no longer a re­li­able guide to this category)


2010 Writing Income……………………………$not nearly enough
Net Loss………………………………………… (-$ sigh, net loss again-bo­nus, it can be ap­plied to re­duce your re­spect­able in­come as a brick­lay­er, light­keep­er, ranch hand or writ­ing teacher)


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Caroline H. Woodward                           Date

During this hum­bling pro­cess, I of­fer up thanks to the de­term­ined writers who lob­bied for the Public Lending Right so that lib­rary us­age of our books is com­pensated for, ditto for the Canadian Access Copyright group who pay us for our work be­ing used in schools and uni­ver­sit­ies and elsewhere.

In memory of Dad, I curse Stephen Harper with gusto and with good reas­on. And every year, I look long and hard at the de­scrip­tion of the Vow of Perpetual Poverty. There but for the wimple, go I.

Two things: keep every re­ceipt in tidy en­vel­opes for sev­en years and be scru­pu­lously hon­est (the karma thing). Also, try fil­ing on­line. I just got my 2010 re­turn de­pos­ited in my Credit Union in sev­en busi­ness days flat. Hurrah for new­fangled thingeybobs!