annemarie holding a tiny newborn baby. her gaze is soft.

I drove down Academy in our ready-for-baby four-door beige sedan listening to Peter Gabriel as loud as I could stand it, crying. I thought, this will be the last time I can do this. Ever.

I remember laughing when the tall ristretto hazelnut latte kicked in and we could see it kick in for the baby, too, because I was 24 hours into my “labour” and hooked up to the fetal monitors and the heart rate jumped 10 beats per minute across all the accels and decels.

I remember the tornado of hormones and exhaustion when the baby wouldn’t sleep because she was hungry, so hungry, and tired, and I was hungry and tired and gross and overwhelmed, except I’m retconning that, because what I actually remember is feeling that horrible mix of I will die if this goes on and this is so desperately important to me that I will die if it does not work. It was not me who called my aunt to come help us overnight, because I couldn’t. I was just dying.

All three births were moments of my life that have a pin stuck in them; they have been highlighted in neon and stand out from the mundane. They are the midpoint of the boring awfulness of gestation and the boring desperation of sleep-poop-eat.

I take a moment on my children’s birthdays to remember how I felt, on those highlighted days; the over-the-top drama of the events around the first one, the silent, abject horror that I was not going to survive the second, the grim knowledge that I only had one chance to get through the third.

I used to write a mommy blog. I wrote it for myself, and for my parents, but also because I secretly hoped to become a little bit internet famous. Then I realized that monetizing children is pretty gross and I deleted the whole thing. But I miss writing about parenting, and motherhood, because those things are a part of me. I am a far, far better mother because I read other people’s oversharing about their kids.

I still don’t think it’s okay to exploit my children’s lives for clicks. But I do find it valuable to document my life online, because writing for a public lens (even though no one reads this blog) changes my tone. It’s not the same as my journal, which is mostly yelling and swears. I want to write more about being a mother, so I’m going to.

Writing is how I remember what matters. And being a mother matters to me. My children matter to me. So I write.

walkin’ off my first rejection letter

I’ve received my first rejection for this novel! My goal is to try and think of it as an important part of the process, rather than a discouraging slap to the face. It’s so difficult, because in order to do any of this – write a novel, revise it, and query it – I have to live with the astronomical hope that someone will read my query and think “that sounds so great! I want more!” and what an audacious, ridiculous thing to think! And yet, here I am. Putting my book baby in the hands of other people to discard at will.

I’m trying to stay distracted by doing too many other things, as usual. My Shitty First Draft of my next novel is crapping along merrily. I just finished performing Verdi’s Requiem in a choir of 150 with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and that was a pretty magnificent experience. I’m going to the gym, baking lots of bread and other carbs to make up for going to the gym, and working, parenting, folding laundry, and snuggling the cat. I’ve slumped a bit in reading since I finished my Lord of the Rings reread, but my son is really into the Moomintroll books, so that is high on the priorities list. I’m knitting a sweater. So you know, just a few things to distract me.

The polar vortex has finally buggered off, and with any luck Winnipeg will thaw out soon. It’ll be a muddy, slushy mess for a while, but soon I can drink tea on the deck and then I’ll be in heaven, even if I do get dozens more rejection letters. Onwards!

I don’t have any query news. Poor Imogen is languishing, waiting to hear back from various people about how she’s “not a great fit” or whatever.

But I do have other news: I’ve started another novel! I’m quite excited about it. The feel for this one is summer, beachy, and gay af. Very different from Imogen’s wintery, snowy, angsty family drama. My main character is named Astrid and she has a pet raven. She still hears from her dead grandmother sometimes, but the news isn’t good. Intrigued? So am I!

Now that I’m starting my third real novel (yikes), I have a bit of a sense of my process. I come up with a character first, and let her percolate. (I can guarantee that my MC is never gonna be a dude. I like girls too much.) Then I develop a feeling – that includes a setting, my character, her close people, and a sense of how I want the book to feel. I like to make a mood board and a playlist for it at this point to help reinforce the feeling. Then a hook will pop into my head – a first line, or whatever challenge will set the tone in the first chapter, and I get that down. Then I let that sit until the conflict of the book makes itself known. After that, I can start writing.

I’ve tried outlining and the snowflake method, but I work a lot better when I work off my feeling and more or less pants it, developing my outline as I go. I take a lot of notes, but in general I can craft a novel that follows the three-act rules without needing the structure worked out ahead of time. My books tell themselves, and a big part of my process is making the space for the story to come forth. If I’m working too hard or stuck, that means I lost the thread and I have to delete.

So here I go again; I’ve got my Scrivener doc formatted properly, I’ve got my playlist, I’ve got my characters. Astrid has a pet raven and a girlfriend and a bitchy sister and a nemesis. Ariana Grande and Roxy’s aesthetic are basically where I’m starting. Stay tuned!

Me, working on my query letter: “Titles Are Stupid,” a 66,000 word novel, is about a girl who loves the winter even though it tries to kill her.— Annemarie Plenert (@amtastical) January 15, 2019

I’m doing it. I’m prepping my finished novel for the querying process.

Querying is exciting and awful; there’s so much waiting, so much rejection, so much hope. People have written so much about how, why, what it feels like, all of that, so I’m just adding to the noise, but I still want to write about what it’s like for me.

I queried my last novel for about six months before the constant rejections overwhelmed me, and my nagging suspicions that despite two years of hard work, it just wasn’t a good enough novel to publish. I stand by that choice. There’s a chance I’ll one day salvage my characters and some of the neat plot pieces, and I do love the sentient house I developed, but that book is over. I got a couple of requests for chapters, and that was enough to encourage me not to give up, so I put all my energy into this book.

This one is much better, but I still worry it isn’t good enough. Writing a novel is a difficult job; I have to keep all the threads in my mind so I can bring them all together, I have to make sure the characters are themselves, I have to make the plot believable but intense enough to keep the reader interested, I want it to be relevant but I worry that I’m writing from a white cis woman’s perspective that doesn’t have the toolbox to write the types of stories I want. It’s a mess of mentally exhausting, emotionally wringing, ego-driven yet self-flagellating work wrapped up into, in my case, a sixty-six thousand word novel about a seventeen-year-old who just really wants to spend her whole life playing in the snow.

Writing the actual query letter is simple, in terms of the instructions: introduce your novel by title, genre, word count, and one line summary. Then expand that summary into a couple of paragraphs that mimic the style of the jacket description, so make it interesting but don’t give it away. The last paragraph is an introduction of you, the author. Easy peasy! Except that in my description I used the exact same words in the exact same sentence structure three times. I can’t figure out how to introduce characters without monstrous sentences containing fifteen commas. I don’t know which plot points are the ones I should use to sell the book and which ones I should keep for the synopsis and actual text, assuming an agent asks me for them.

That is about how it’s going. But in spite of all of it, as I keep saying over and over, I can’t give up. I love my book and I want to see if other people love it, too. So rejection process: here I come!

When I am writing a draft of a novel, I aim to write one thousand words a day. Sometimes it is drudgery and I have to be very firm with myself to keep my eyes on my document and my ass in the chair, and some days the words come flying out of my mind. When I’m in my groove, it takes about an hour. It’s an achievable goal that allows me to get a draft finished in a reasonable time, even if I have bad days or take breaks. Having a goal keeps me focused and predictable and makes for what I consider to be quality writing.

Sometimes I get sidetracked by other people who write for four hours a day, or have daily goals of three thousand words. Why can’t I do that, I wonder? And maybe I’ve already done my writing time and my words are out, but I try to go back to my manuscript. Inevitably, I fail. My goal works for my brain and my life, and comparison, as in the adage, is ruinous.

Goals are kind of A Thing; there are planners and resources and many, many books on setting goals, being more productive, getting more done, optimizing your workflow, stuff like that. It appeals to me a great deal; I am One Of Those Bujo People and I love it so much, and I’m reasonably well versed in Get To Done and LEAN and systems like that. But they’re dangerous, in my opinion, because they, like our public education system, aren’t designed for humanity. They’re designed for factories.

A lot of the components that still exist in school are throwbacks to the child labour regulations of the Industrial Revolution, when children were sent to school instead of factories at age six, but they were still expected to end up working in those factories a few years later. Regimented classes, school bells, and set eating times are all meant to train children to be good workers, not for good education or joy-filled living. And factories are all about productivity and efficiency, or churning out as much product as possible to earn more money for the company while paying as little as possible in hourly wages.

So while I like efficiency and productivity because I have lots of things to get done in a day, and I don’t want to spent a ton of time on the boring tasks that keep me from what I really like to do, I strongly believe that it is a razor-thin line between freeing up my time to do what I enjoy and “optimizing” literally everything in my life.

Example time: Goodreads. I use it to track the books I read, and I set a reading challenge every year. It’s usually 52 books, which is one book per week. That is a reasonable goal that means that I am always in the middle of a book, reading regularly, and keeping track of what I read. I like having a place to list the books I want to read and the ones I have read, where I can leave myself a couple of sentences about how I felt about the book, and where I can see what other people have thought of the books I’m interested in. But the problem is that my TBR list is nearly as long as my already-read list, and it makes me anxious that I’ll never get to them all, and that I have to read in order to get to them, and I need to optimize my reading time. I also have to stay on track with my goal of reading 52 books. I have to keep up, keep going, never stop. This slowly strips the joy of reading away from me. When I have so many books to read, my pile of purchased yet unread books towers beside me and my library holds feel like a work deadline rather than a joyful gift.

The other example is Ravelry. For some harebrained reason I decided I needed to knit a sweater between January 14 and 31, and I could have done it, except that by the time I had the body finished, I hated it. I hated the knitting process because again, one of my favourite pastimes had been reduced to efficiency, and then I didn’t even like the product. And then, to cap off the shit sundae, I twigged my tendinitis in both wrists and now I can’t knit for a while until it subsides. The reason I was knitting so fast was because I wanted to get to the next project. What kind of nonsense is that? I knit for the joy of the process, and it’s perfectly fine to finish two sweaters and a few socks per year. No one is going to give me a raise or a prize or some sort of national recognition for knitting a sweater in two weeks.

Turning my hobbies into productivity mules ruins them. But it’s everywhere. Ravelry has annual goals now, and the Goodreads Choice Awards makes me feel bad for not reading more of the current releases when I have a backlog of older books that are probably much more to my liking.

I like setting goals. I like getting things done and crossing off items from my to-do list. I love reading a lot and I love knitting every day, and having a library in the basement and enough wool sweaters to sustain me through this polar vortex garbage. I don’t like feeling bad because I haven’t read enough or knitted enough or written enough. I don’t like feeling like a failure when there are gaps in my habit tracker. Efficiency and productivity go too far when I can no longer find joy in the things I do for fun.

I’m going to stick with my thousand words a day writing goal. It works for me. But it’s not going to change; I’m not going to optimize it. I’m not going to optimize my knitting and reading. My goal is a joy-filled life, and that means taking the time to find that joy as I live.

I have written two novels front to back, including revisions and edits. I sent the first one to around fifty agents and received approximately fifty rejections, so I cried for a month and then shelved it. I wrote my second novel, a novel I think is much stronger, and I am just waiting for my last edits to come in before I send it out into the world for further pain and rejection.

I am thirty-five years old for one more month. I’m not old, but I’m also not a hotshot superstar young breakout sensation. I was never going to be that, but there’s always a funny thought in the back of my head that I should have been. Every time I watch the Olympics I age myself out of certain categories. I remember when I was too old to be the youngest medalist (lol) and now I am too old to compete in most of the sports, except maybe golf (further lol). I am not an Olympic athlete; I am keen on sport generally but my body is a delicate flower that collapses under the slightest strain so I need to proceed with caution always. Case in point: I pulled out a nearly-finished sweater the other day because I hated how it was turning out and now I have a repetitive strain injury in my right elbow. What the hell, body.

So I’m not going to break any records or stun anybody. If my beloved book baby gets an agent (big if) and then if my agent manages to sell it to a publisher (oh god) then I will take my little babby advance, probably use it to buy yarn, and then sob into my new sweaters when my poor book gets remaindered. No one does this for the big dollarz or the fun times. I wrote that first crummy novel during the only three months that my youngest child took naps; February-April 2015. I wrote the second one predominantly at Starbucks while paying too much money to have both my kids in preschool every day. It doesn’t make any sense to do this; I could get a job that paid proper money instead of doing this, but whenever I get ready to give it up I full-on weep about how much I want Imogen to be a real, published book. I have journalled every day for the last three years. I have maintained several blogs; I’ve done writing classes; I’ve written two novels. I’ve written two novels! With small children! And yet, here I am, asking “am I a writer y/n”

I think the answer is yes.

I really hope I can do it.

I’m going to start a new feature where I list the books I read, both by myself with my kids each month. I have two extreme readers who are well ahead of their grade levels (4 and 1), and one kindergartener who is just starting to learn, so it’s a range of novels to picture books. And I read a whole bunch of everything. So here we go! January reads!

Leave Me Alone by Vera Brosgol. A grandmother gets fed up with her legion of grandchildren messing up her knitting so she goes in search of peace and quiet to knit their winter sweaters. Extremely relatable. Also, there is a picture of a child’s naked bum on the next page so this book has literal lols. Five out of five stars from both C and me.

Dream Animals by Emily Winfield Martin. This book is new to us C and I absolutely love it. The illustrations are dreamy and the rhymes are very soothing. Also, they scan well, which is a massive pet peeve of mine with children’s books. The book includes a narwhal, and our family loves narwhals so that is a huge plus. The children are diverse, and the concept of “dream animals” is such a beautiful one. My one qualm is that there’s a magical circus full of animals, and animal circuses make me very sad, so romanticizing them is a little unfortunate. Other than that, this is a keeper, and would be great for young children as well. 4.5 stars.

Finn Family Moomintroll and Moominland Midwinter, both by Tove Jansson. I freaking love Moomintroll and have for years, and last month R asked if we could read out loud together. I suggested these, and we are both adoring them. I bought the rest of the Moomin books at once (there are 8) and we are excited to read them all. They are sweet, silly, and delightful, and read out loud extremely well. Five stars from both of us.

Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty. Based on a recommendation, I got this out of the library for L. She said it was “GOOD” with that overly-intense look that means she stayed up past lights-out time to keep reading it. She also insists I read it too, so it’s been added to my list. She gives it five stars.

Other notable five-star reads from L in January: the Wings of Fire series (she has finished all the published ones), El Deafo by Cece Bell, and Harry Potter, which we are mid-seventh-book right now.

I read An American Marriage by Tayari Jones in January, and I can’t exactly say that I liked it, but it has really stuck with me. It was well-written and engaging; the premise (a black man is unfairly incarcerated shortly into his marriage, then suddenly released, and he and his wife need to figure out how to cope with these devastating shocks) is solid, but I can’t say that I cared for the characters enough to be fully invested in them. That might be because the experience of being black in America is not my experience, I don’t know. It’s good, but for me I think it’s only 3.5 cups of tea.

I’m currently finishing up We Are Never Meeting In Real Life by Samantha Irby. The kids are fascinated by it because of the cat on the cover and keep asking me why I’m laughing, which I cannot tell them because it is ALWAYS inappropriate. I didn’t start laughing out loud until the second half, and not every chapter/essay is a winner, but I’m enjoying it a lot. Especially the chapter on water aerobics and zumba. It gets four stars.

It’s been unreasonably cold in Winnipeg this week. Polar Vortex Shenanigans. It was actually -50°C with the wind chill the other day! The schools weren’t closed or anything, of course, and thank goodness, but it is hard to do anything when it’s this cold.

But there is one thing I can do:

the author drinking hot chocolate with three marshmallows in

I can drink hot beverages constantly! I can also make these:

two fresh sourdough boules

And this:

a giant pot of soup

Soup is the key to January this year. I highly recommend it. To create a soup like unto this soup, here is the recipe:

  • Saute 2 onions in olive oil until brown
  • Add 4 cloves of garlic
  • Add sausages cut into disks (if not already cooked, let them cook with the onions)
  • Add several chopped up potatoes
  • Add 6 – 8 cups of stock or water and a generous splash of white wine vinegar, and plenty of salt
  • When the potatoes are done, add three big handfuls of spinach
  • Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed

Go forth and embrace warmth where it can be found.

dressed for the weather in a wool hat, sunglasses, scarf, and parka

It’s fucking freezing outside.

I know I said in yesterday’s post that it gets colder where I grew up, but that doesn’t negate that -30°C with an extra -10° of wind chill is bitter AF.

Living in this climate requires a level of clothing that I have two feelings about: one is that it builds a dangerous economic disparity into the ability to live here, because my full set of outdoor gear is probably close to $1000, and it could easily be higher if I had, say, a Canada Goose parka, and didn’t try to buy all my stuff at the end of the year when it goes on sale. Spending $100-200 per kid per winter season is a huge piece of my budget. Brand names in the winter gear field is even more fraught than usual, because stuff like Canada Goose or The North Face or Uggs or Manitobah Mukluks or whatever is trendy is also getting a big piece of that reputation because of their ability to deliver. When I was a kid and starting to get into this stuff in a big way, only The North Face, Helly Hansen, and MEC were authorized to be worn by Canadian government employees working above the arctic circle. But a 700-fill down parka is at least $350, and that is a lot of money!

But, I grew up upper-middle-class (have since slid a few marks down to mid-middle class, oh no) and having warm gear was not an undue financial strain. I also read Madeleine L’Engle constantly, and Troubling a Star was a seminal text for my adolescence, and sparked an Antarctica craze that has never died. I used to read Troubling and then the MEC catalogue, and fantasize about winter clothing. I know, that’s weird, but it has never really gone away. I love it. I love learning about how the people indigenous to the northern part of the continent we call North America survived before all this “technical gear” – STRANGELY ENOUGH, those methods are still better than anything a factory can make out of petroleum products – coped with the climate. I can “only” afford 700-fill down parkas with synthetic fur on the hoods, but I bet that ring of raccoon on Canada Goose is warm as toast, because NOTHING keeps you warm like fur. (No one reads my blog, but if you want to hate on fur, please take that somewhere else where people are doing it badly, as the traditional and necessary methods of trapping and using animal pelts for warmth is not up for debate, and most of the “discourse” is racist af.)

This is a lot of rambling, which I am allowing myself because, as I said, no one reads this, and even if someone does, they’ll be bored as shit by this point so I am talking entirely to myself, and all of it is to say what I’m wearing today because I’m proud of being clad in literally head-to-toe wool. Wool is in third place of warm badassery after fur and down. I know we do a lot of shitty things to steal the ways animals keep warm to use for our fragile meatsacks, but the fact remains that birbs, sheeps, and fluffy critters Know What’s Up and I really wish we could make use of that without being shitty to both the animals and our fellow humans (in manufacturing AND in exorbitant prices that mean that the poorest among us are also the coldest).

(FUN FACT in the novel I just finished, I threw in a nifty bit of socialism where the government subsidizes the winter gear they wear, in order to make the system more equitable. I also wrote a whole novel around my love of winter gear, essentially. Read it! It’s not boring, I promise! Well, you can’t read it, but hopefully it gets published so you can!)

MY CLOTHING TODAY

  • handknit wool socks, fair isle pattern for extra warmies
  • my new Icebreaker merino wool long underwear, aka my new significant other, I love them so much, and I have my skinny jeans overtop
  • my favourite cable-knit sweater that I knit last year over a tshirt, but if it gets colder I would put my long underwear shirt under it
  • one of my wool scarves
  • a wool toque

WHEN I GO OUTSIDE I WILL ADD

  • my ski pants, which cost a flaming fortune because finding women’s ski pants in extra long is not a cost-saving enterprise, holy shit
  • my down parka
  • my double-layer snowboard mitts (snowboarders are all princesses who also need a lot of dexterity and pockets, so I like to scout snowboarding gear, also it tends to Look Cool)
  • another wool scarf, I have so many, it is excellent
  • a different wool toque that is warmer
  • giant winter boots
  • my sunglasses, to look cool and also because the cold hurts my eyeballs

and I will look amazing. That is all.

I live in Winnipeg. Lots of people call it Winterpeg because it’s accurate. And in the winter, there’s a lot of bitching and whining about the weather – too cold, too windy, too much snow, not enough snow, too sunny, too grey, too icy – no matter what the weather is, somebody hates it. That’s fine; people are different and a lot of people live in a climate they don’t love. And it’s easy to complain about the weather, because it doesn’t hurt anyone and it isn’t going to change because a group of people huddle together like penguins and moan.

In Winnipeg, the cold days (like what we have right now) are around -20°C, which is pretty cold. There’s often a wind, and the wind is terrible and makes it feel much colder. Sometimes it gets below -30°C, but not for long. It’s definitely cold, and the days in December and January are definitely short.

In the town where I grew up, in northern BC, the temperature would often drop to -40°C, which is a lot colder. We didn’t get wind when it was that cold; winds would blow warm air down from the mountains and bring chinooks with them, the unseasonable melts that happen a few times in a winter. When the deep freeze happened, everything would become still. The snow had a different sound; a squeak instead of a crunch. The shadows changed colour and became purple; the sky would often be pink. Up north, our daylight around the winter solstice was only 5-6 hours, and I’d go to school before the sun rose and come home as it slipped below the horizon. So I saw a lot of pink, purple, and blue skies. I lived on the hill overlooking the town, and all the moisture in the air would freeze into a fog and settle onto the town like a blanket, with the ski hill lights across the valley twinkling along with the stars. I used to get a chill sitting by the freezing cold window to watch the sky deepen and the stars come out.

I complain about the cold and the winter along with everybody else, but I don’t actually hate it. It’s not pleasant and it’s downright dangerous, but winter has a special kind of magic that I have always loved. The book I’ve just finished writing is a bit of a love letter to winter, and in spite of spending two years working on it, I don’t think I’ve finished writing about the cold, the snow, and the ways humans interact with it.

The winter is magical, and I love it.