My Week at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Part 2

Last week, I posted about the first half of my week at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Since no one could ever possibly get tired of my literary vacation photos, enjoy another full page of writing exercises, bad bar selfies, and pictures of mountains!

Like this one.


Wednesday began with another character exercise and, once again, if you are a writer with a novel in progress, you're going to take out a pen and a piece of paper and do it with me.

I mean it.

Pick a character. Once again, try to pick a secondary character from your story, because you probably spend more time thinking about your main character than you do thinking about your own children, which is why little Timmy has gone to school in assless chaps three times this week.

The school principal would like to have a word with you.

Once you've chosen your character, get out a fresh piece of paper - or open a new document - and write down everything you know about that character. Seriously, just as much information as you can. Write down physical appearance, hobbies, secrets, hopes, dreams, values, relationships, everything. When you've finished with that, turn to the partner I conveniently forgot to mention you'd need.

You might need to go out and make a friend for this.

With your partner, who has also completed the exercise, take turns interviewing each other as your character. That is, be your character - answer questions as if you really were him or her. When it's your turn to be the interviewer, be as creative as you can with your questions: is this person a cat person or a dog person? Who was their first crush? How often, on average, do they engage in ritualistic cannibalism? Even if the information you uncover during the interview doesn't end up making it into the book, it gives you a better, more well-rounded idea of who that character is. And if your book ever sells a bajillion copies, you've already got a head start on the encyclopedia guide to your world that you'll release in order to pay for your swimming pool shaped like the main character's head. Win-win, really. 

Or shaped like their foot, if money is tight.

To unwind that night after a strenuous round of character interviews, we decided to head out to the Banff Hot Springs. To enhance the ambiance, and to capitalize on discount cab fare, we decided to head out at night, to enjoy the hot springs as snow fell onto the trees around us.  

It looked like this, only it was dark outside.

The hot springs likes to celebrate its history by allowing visitors to rent old, 1920s-style bathing suits, and since I'd been foolish enough to forget my bathing suit at home, I went for it. It actually turned out to be one of the most comfortable and flattering suits I've even worn, but since the internet is not yet ready for pictures of me in a bathing suit, enjoy this picture of attractive people modelling the suits instead.
Just pretend this is me, Steph, Jen and Tena.

On the way home, we managed to snag the most aggressively Australian cab driver to ever get behind the wheel of a vehicle, and he screamed Australian slang at us all the way back to the Centre like he was channeling the coked-out ghost of Steve Irwin. So if you're ever in Banff and you find yourself stuck in the backseat of a cab with a driver that shouts "All righ', mate!" over and over at you, it's okay. That's just his thing. 


On Thursday morning we woke up, and instead of getting dressed and trudging through the snow to get to workshop, we stayed in our pajamas and bathrobes and dragged blankets into the dorm building's writing lounge. Oh, did I not mention that? We had our very own writing lounge, all to ourselves.

Complete with a bucket of free, multi-coloured condoms.

Today's writing exercise was a little different. Instead of thinking about our characters or writing things down, we were all instructed to curl up in armchairs as Alison read us the first chapter of the Giller Prize-longlisted Touch by Alexi Zenter. Having a book read to you out loud is a different experience from reading it off a page, which is probably why the Audiobook industry continues to exist. Instead of stopping to re-read striking passages or getting caught up in the author's wording, you are forced to keep going, listening to the story as it moves along. Of course, if something in the book is confusing and you don't quite get it right away, you're more or less irrevocably fucked, which is why reading your writing aloud is such a valuable tool.

Go read this. 

That afternoon, we pledged to spend at least a few hours of this writing retreat actually, y'know, writing, so we trooped up to the library with our laptops. The view of the mountains wasn't quite as spectacular as the view from the dimly-lit kitchen table I normally write at, but it would have to do. 


Since productivity had been less than stellar on this retreat, we made sure to get photographic evidence that we were actually accomplishing something. 

 Just penning some chick lit masterpieces. 

Oh look, it's me!

To celebrate putting words on paper, most of the workshop went out that night to the campus bar. I'd promised myself I'd leave by 10, so I could get back to my computer and get a few more things done, but then someone discovered that the pulled pork poutine at the bistro is worthy of the Gods themselves, and I was forced to stay. The group just kept getting bigger and bigger with people I wanted to talk to, and by the time I actually broke away and dragged my sorry carcass home, it was nearly three in the morning and I'd had a few more drinks than initially anticipated.

Worth it. Probably.


Before I came to the Banff Centre, I'd never really considered what it might be like to be microwaved. I mean, I was vaguely aware of what it might feel like, and I'd wasted plenty of time on inane YouTube videos, but I'd never really put much thought into how I would personally react to taking a spin around in food-heating radiation.

After making it through this particular Friday morning, I know exactly what it would feel like.

This. This is how I felt.

Despite being a relatively healthy 22-year-old who has spent most of her life at a relatively high altitude, I felt like I'd spent the night in a tumble-dryer. I blamed all of this on the high altitude at the Banff Centre, because there's no way that my personal choices are ever anything less than flawless.

Groups of hip-hop dancers routinely show up to marvel at my excellent life decisions. 

Having learned exactly nothing from the previous night's bar escapades, I went back out to the exact same bar with the exact same group, lured by the irresistible call of poutine and drunk writers.

The dining room at night. Note that they do not serve poutine.

I actually wanted to be at least somewhat coherent for the final day of the workshop, so I actually made good on my promise to leave by 10 (okay, closer to 11), and went home to spend the next 9 hours in something dangerously close to a coma.


For the last day of the workshop, Alison spent our class time talking about something we were all blindly terrified of - the world of publishing.

The average writer whenever the publishing business is mentioned.

I won't post an exact transcript of the conversation, mostly because I couldn't type nearly fast enough to take one, but I will post some of the general advice that we were given. Things like:
  • Don't send unsolicited manuscripts to big publishers. Not only will they not accept it, they'll make fun of your stupid haircut while they wipe their butts with your first chapter. If you want access to the big guys, you need to get yourself an agent.
  • Be realistic about the time frame and the amount of work that go into publishing. These things move at glacial speeds, and when you finally do get the ball rolling, you'll have to get off your butt and do a hell of a lot of self promotion.
  • Don't shy away from newer agents. They're the ones actively building client lists, and they have plenty of energy to hound people until someone looks at your work.
  • Edit your stuff. Don't bother showing it to a professional until you're certain that it sparkles.
  • Do check word count guidelines. 300,000 words is not a middle grade book, it's an entire children's series; likewise, 24,000 words is not an adult novel, that's a stack of pamphlets.
When Alison had finished imparting publishing wisdom onto us, we assembled for a group photo before the end of our final workshop.

Look for our books on bookstore shelves sometime between now and 2048.

After that, it was time for one final delicious prosciutto, arugula and goat cheese pizza lunch at the campus Bistro.

This is basically what I ate for lunch every single day.

The entire group, more or less, went out that evening for microbrews and Greek food. We devoured our own body weight in tiny triangles of pita breads, and ate several types of cheese, at least one of which had been set on fire prior to consumption. Then it was back to the Writer's Lounge for more alcohol and an assortment of snacks that they needed us to eat before they went stale.  

The very last night of the retreat.

I stayed out up as late as I could, drinking wine and hugging any writers whose names I could remember. Eventually the combination of altitude and absolutely nothing else because I'm an effective 22-year-old alcohol metabolizing machine got to me, and I had to turn in for the night. 

My time at Banff might be over, but I learned a lot and I met so many great writers whom I will continue to pester with emails full of The Emperor's New Groove references until they get too famous to talk to me. If you ever have the opportunity to spend time at the Banff Centre for the Arts, I really, really recommend you take it.

And, of course, there were hookers and blow for everyone. And it was great.

The September 2014 Writing With Style group.

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