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Thursday, 7 August 2014
This Week's Feature

This week, I am away in British Columbia's beautiful Cariboo country and I wasn't sure what my internet access will be like so, in the interest of maintaining my re-commitment to weekly columns, I'm preparing ahead.

Like many columnists - including my favourite daily blogger, I'm resorting, in a way, to the age-old trick of re-running. To be fair, I haven't published it on here before - but I did write it quite a few years ago. About a year ago, I did document how I was venturing into the world of freelance writing.

Below is a feature piece I wrote, originally for The Vancouver Courier, a thrice-weekly newspaper in Vancouver. It was an in-depth story about a company called "e-realty." 

For now, have a look at the piece - I'll share later how that process went in further adventures in the freelance trade.

And if you don't hear from me in week, either I've fallen off the weekly column wagon or I was eaten by a moose.

The quiet, East-side street is barely disturbed by the faint tap-tapping of metal on metal as the stake pierces the ground and announces its wares.  The deed complete, the man in the shiny suit slips back into his long, white car - leased, of course - and heads to his next target: a split level, four-bedroom bungalow with a North Shore view.  He is scarcely around the corner when the telltale chirping is accompanied by the vibrations upon his hip.  A smile forms at the corner of his mouth.  A potential buyer.

Across Vancouver and the Lower Mainland the scene is repeated daily, weekly and monthly and has been on the rise since 2001.    'For Sale' signs in front of houses, town homes and condominiums are scarcely planted in the ground before the offers start flowing in, often before an open house can be held and very often selling for more than the listed asking price.  It doesn't take long to sell a home these days, which makes it a great time to be a seller.

It makes it an even better time to be a realtor.

With homes selling at lightning speed, the real estate industry looks like a pretty attractive career path.  Nearly eight thousand realtors in Greater Vancouver are experiencing a market where just about everything sells - it's a realtor's dream.

But not all sellers are as thrilled about the services traditional real estate agencies have to offer, especially when it seems that homes are practically selling themselves. 

"With the market being the way that it was, we just did our own investigation and realized that it's not worth it to pay a realtor fourteen, fifteen, sixteen thousand dollars to put your house on the market for seven days," says Shawn Hart, a retail manager who sold his east side Vancouver home without a traditional real estate agent. 

Like an increasing number of homeowners, Hart, 30, turned to an alternative means of selling his house, in this case a Vancouver company called   

As the name suggests, uses the Internet as its primary vehicle for connecting not only with its clients but also its clients with potential buyers.  "It really came about once the [Multiple Listing Service] decided to put their listings on the web for public view.  That's when the light went on," says Ian Martin,'s Vice President of Communications.  That light has continued to shine more brightly: since the company started operations in 2001, its number of clients, sales - and its visibility - has risen steadily.

The process seems simple enough. One of the key ingredients to marketing a home is getting listed on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), a service that has always been provided by traditional realtors.  Since 1998, however, the MLS has been available on-line, in Vancouver at


Since then, some surveys suggest that real estate is one of the most often accessed information for buyers on the Internet. 

"The viewer-ship is staggering in terms of the number of hits they get per day, per month," says Martin.  Clients of are provided access to the MLS, creating their own real estate advertisement that's placed alongside every other listing and seen by thousands of potential buyers - and realtors. 


Once a buyer is interested in an listing, contact is made directly with the seller, who shows the home him or herself. Jessica Grant, a research assistant at UBC and another client says, "The hardest thing for me was preparing for the open house.  And that's probably what scared me the most." 

But according to Hart, showing his own home turned out to be not scary at all.  "People came in, they introduced themselves, asked the questions they wanted to know and it was a really fun day," he says.  In many ways, having the seller show the home makes sense.

"Who better to show it than the person who owns it?" Martin concurs.  "I know when the garbage is picked up.  I know where the schools are.  And the great thing is they dictate their own schedule."  Sellers are able to plan as many or as few private showings or open houses as they think necessary.

But the biggest attraction to is likely the money sellers save on real estate commissions. On average estimates its clients save in the neighbourhood of $8,500 on their home sale.

At 0.5%,'s commission fees are very nearly impossible to beat.  And in lower priced properties - if there is such a thing in Vancouver anymore - the savings on commission could be the deciding factor that allows the seller to purchase his or her next home.

The seller also has control over how much commission is offered to cooperating realtors, that is, those who may represent potential buyers.  The seller can offer a flat fee or a commission of 2, 1.5, 1% or no commission at all.  "We allow the seller to dictate how much they're willing to offer to the cooperating agent," says Martin.  "So when they set the terms they go, okay, if I'm only going to offer a dollar, or one percent on the other side, they're pre-warned that [they] may not get a lot of activity as opposed to if they're offering one point five, or five thousand dollars or something."

In a hot seller's market - as Vancouver has been since opened up virtual shop - a homeowner may well decide to offer no cooperating commission, betting they will be able to make a better deal without a buyer's realtor involved. Grant says one agent did call before bringing in a client to try to negotiate a higher commission than what Grant was offering up front.  Grant held firm; the agent came anyway.

Besides, if perceived interest in the property is declining, the seller can always up the commission to attempt to attract more realtors.

There's also the self-satisfaction and cocktail-party bragging rights factor, a sense of sharing success at dabbling in the heretofore-enigmatic real estate industry and coming out ahead.  Says Martin, "It's like somebody who's renovated their own bathroom or something and think, 'hey, I did this and feel good about it.  I saved thousands.'"

For most people, a real estate purchase or sale is the largest transaction they will ever undertake, which makes the thought of going it alone more than just a little intimidating.  But unlike flying completely solo, as in 'For Sale by Owner' transactions, is, in fact, the seller's real estate agent.

Linda Whitehead, president of, notes their product is designed to alleviate the fear and mystique of the real estate transaction.  "We have a fairly structured product," she says.  "That's one of the biggest reasons they use us.  You're going from doing it all on your own - for sale by owner - to a full service realtor.  We're somewhere in between." 

Adds Martin, "We're the coach on the sidelines.  We're watching the field of play; we're just not on the field with them." 

Indeed, apart from the MLS listing itself, the most important part of's service is their role in advising on offers and the sale transaction itself.  "Whenever an offer is made they don't respond to it until we've seen it," Martin says.  "We review it with them and then we'll consult and advise them how to respond to it."

Just like a traditional realtor.

Of course, is not the only way sellers are seeking to find less expensive means to sell their homes.  Apart from private sales, a number of smaller or discount firms have increased their share of the booming market. 

One Percent Realty has turned what has traditionally been viewed as the norm in real estate commissions on its head.  Vancouverites who have sold their homes are familiar with a traditional Vancouver real estate commission of 7 percent on the first one hundred thousand dollars of the selling price, 2.5 percent on the remaining.  On a $500,000 home that commission structure costs the seller $17,000 in real estate fees.

One Percent Realty, as the name implies, charges a straight 1% commission on the sale price, with a minimum fee of $5,000.  On that same home, One Percent's commission is just $5,000, a significant savings, particularly if the seller is counting on every dollar as equity for the next home purchase.

Ian Bailey, President of One Percent Realty, says the key difference between their company and the so-called full service realtors is that One Percent clients are responsible for their own advertising, if they choose to do so.  Other than that, he says, "We offer the same service for a fraction of the price."  

The models seem to be catching on.  In each of the past two years One Percent Realty has doubled its sales from the year before and this year looks to be just as promising. has also achieved constant and steady growth since its inception as well. And neither's clients seem to have any difficulty attracting interested potential purchasers.  Shawn Hart's total transaction time - from signing up with through open house to closed deal was just twelve days.  Jessica Grant's sold in just five, with close to sixty potential buyers viewing the home in that short period. 

It's enough to make a traditional real estate agent curse. 

Finding realtors willing to comment on their competition is a challenge; a code of ethics in the real estate profession sanctions realtors who speak critically of fellow realtors, electronic, discount or otherwise.

But not all real estate agents are ready to pull the plug on their web-based brethren.

Jeff Benna, a Vancouver realtor with ReMax Real Estate Services acknowledges and One Percent Realty are an increasing presence in the market.  But he's not terribly surprised.  "I think there's always been discount brokers, alternative commission structures and different service packages," he says.  "They're definitely a presence and their names come up a lot." 

There's little doubt Vancouver's booming market has helped develop smaller and alternative real estate services.  Benna, 36, acknowledges it's been a banner few years.  This market, in short, benefits everyone, traditional and alternative realtors alike, which also means there's room for a variety of players in the field.

Technology too, as in most industries, has had a drastic impact on the industry.  "Ten or fifteen years ago if you wanted to make a [stock] trade, what did you do?"'s Whitehead asks.  "You phoned your broker, the person would execute the trade and then confirm it with you.  Now, a huge percentage of the populations sits down at their own computer and executes their own trade online. is the parallel to that in this industry." 

Benna agrees.  "The traditional model in real estate was always the realtor is the information gatekeeper.  If you wanted to know anything you had to go to a realtor," he says.  "Now we're not so much gatekeepers of that information but we're interpreters of that information."

Technology and a booming market don't have everyone running from realtors, however. Carrie Gadsby and her husband David Portal recently sold their North Shore townhome to buy their first house.  Even with a valuable property to sell, and knowing of the less expensive, more 'self-service' options available, Gadsby says they hired a realtor precisely because of how quickly homes are selling. 

"With the market that was out there we needed to move fast," Gadsby says.  With houses getting multiple offers, Gadsby says they had to make their offer without subjects, which also means they needed to sell their existing property immediately, lest they suddenly find themselves owners of two homes.  "We couldn't have gotten the house if we didn't have our realtor making the deal," she adds. 

"I think there's always going to be a place for a competent, professional, knowledgeable person that you can go to for advice," Benna says.  "When you're talking about transactions worth hundreds and hundreds and even millions of dollars, I think [for] the layperson, if there is such a thing anymore, it's definitely worth it to get that perspective."

Lately, the traditional real estate industry too has introduced its own innovations.  On August 17, the Greater Vancouver and Fraser Valley Real Estate Boards brought their own new technology online.  Eileen Day, Manager of Communications for both boards says the new web-based software brings her members up to speed.  Essentially, she says, the boards' new ML Exchange program is "bringing them to the same environment as their clients.  It makes the working relationship with a realtor so much more effective." 

With the number of home sales finally leveling off, according to Statistics Canada, it remains to be seen if these new real estate business models will continue to represent a significant threat to traditional real estate agents.  But Benna says companies like and One Percent Realty are legitimate competition.  "So hopefully, you go out and describe what you offer for what you charge and if they see value there they proceed with you," he says. 

"To be quite honest, we're not looking to be all things to everybody," says's Martin.  "We're not going to threaten a majority of the realtors.  There's always going to be enough business out there for them." 

Sellers can also take comfort in knowing that both and One Percent Realty are, in fact, licensed realtors, subject to the same licensing requirements of the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board and the Real Estate Council of B.C.  In that same vain, it is the fiduciary duty of a buyer's agent to show any property the client wishes to see, regardless of the commission being offered.  Sellers, then, shouldn't worry that their listings are being blackballed.

"No.  Why would I do that?" Benna asks.  "That's bad for everybody.  I've sold a couple of One Percent Realty listings because they were the houses that my clients wanted and they were the best fit." 

Meanwhile, Shawn Hart and Jessica Grant wouldn't hesitate to go the unconventional route again.  Says Grant, "We received two competing offers and we had a lot of contact back and forth.  They were really excellent.  Very helpful." 

That's good news for Martin and Whitehead who continue to count on word of mouth to increase their presence in this still highly competitive market. 


And it's one more way even barely tech-savvy consumers can harness the power of information access to open up choices in the largest financial transaction most will ever have.


Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Thursday, 7 August 2014 9:50 AM PDT
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Thursday, 31 July 2014
That's the Kind of Summer It's Been

Last week I made mention of what I've been calling the 'mother of all writer's block.' In short: between everything else I've been doing I haven't done a whole lot of writing.

It may not surprise you to learn that for a writer this is somewhat troubling.

What has been interesting, in that perverse sort of way, is that I'm not by any means at a loss for ideas. I have stuff that I want to write. Hell, I have stuff that I need to write (more about that later). But somehow I have been struggling like mad to motivate myself to actually, you know, write.

A more clinical approach to examining the causes might point to the possibility of my mental health potentially limiting my output. Don't worry - I'm not looking for sympathy or therapist recommendations (who can afford therapy anyway?). But given that there is no physical ailment preventing me from writing, no work obstacle getting in the way (I've been "off", such as my day job is, for nearly three weeks) all that remains is: it's all in my head.

In the making excuses department, surgical recovery, getting my head away from work and just generally decompressing has taken much longer this year than perhaps ever before. The past three years we have been traveling in the summer - significantly so, which has probably contributed to getting into vacation mode faster: by necessity I've had to put work behind and get to the airport.

Of course, this summer has a couple of significant deadlines. One of the things I have been promising myself is that a draft of W3.doc would be completed before I returned to the day job on August 18th. I think I have finally come to terms with the fact that that's not going to happen. By coming to terms, essentially that means that I am no longer going to pretend that I'm still anticipating getting it done on this timeline. And before you rush to judgement - or, more importantly, before I do - I have not yet established a new deadline. Given the potential impact failing to meet deadlines has on my written output, it's important not to set myself up for failure. I need to do some re-evaluating, planning and further outlining so I can set a deadline I know that I can meet.

Which isn't to say I'm okay with it. As I mentioned last week, my pace between books - Deadly Lessons to Last Dance, Last Dance to W3.doc - is definitely off. And as much as I've accepted I'm not going to meet my admittedly self-imposed deadline, that acceptance has not translated into, well, acceptance.

But while we're on the subject of deadlines - I'm up against another one.

At some point I mentioned that I'm working on a non-fiction project. This time, the deadline is real. Oh sure, I could blow it off and decide not to get it done. Except this time, I'm working with writing partners.

As yet, this is an almost entirely new experience (there was a sketch comedy series many years ago - that's a story for another time). I have yet to see how well writing in committee will go. So far, we've each been writing on our own sections so I can't really assess how well we write together. But our deadline is real: on August 11th we're supposed to meet to begin editing each other's work.

Having that deadline - a real deadline - with other people counting on me I think is going to be helpful. But I'm still finding it difficult and all the things that have been slowing down my written output aren't making it any easier to get the non-fiction, partner writing done either.

Hopefully my partners don't read this column.

Next week: I'm away but don't despair. I'm prepared.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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Thursday, 24 July 2014
Where Have You Been?
Topic: Writing

When I initially returned to the weekly blog, a principal part of the purpose was to encourage myself to keep writing, the theory being that if I could convince myself to commit to at least some kind of weekly output, it might well encourage an increase in output towards completion of the next novel and beyond.

For more than a year, I diligently completed the weekly column, documenting issues with which I was struggling in the creative process, sharing some successes when I would begin to see some increase in literary output (I know, I know, some critics, including my own inner critic would chafe at defining what I do with the term ‘literary’) and a host of other (mostly) writing-related topics. Some good ideas came from the columns too, not only from me but from some of the responses I received from readers (yes, there have been some).

And then I hit a dry spell of comparatively epic proportions.

It’s true what I assume they say (because I’m not sure I’ve ever really heard it said outside my own head): once you skip your routine once, it becomes much easier to do so again. And again. And again. And…well, you get the picture.

The weekly column was like a psychological commitment that once broken just became easier to break again. It took me over a year to break the spell but once I did it was like the little devil sitting on one shoulder just let me know it wasn’t so bad and it became easier to skip weeks every now and again. And just as I expected, it has had an impact on my written output elsewhere. To be fair, it could just be that I’m crazy – and I’m not yet willing to rule that out – but giving myself permission to stop writing the weekly column has translated to giving myself permission to stop writing, period.

And it’s been quite a dry spell.

I could come up with a litany of excuses…or reasons, I would prefer to more positively phrase them…for why I have hit such a resounding low in output. They would include things like:

I was busier and more stressed in the day job these past few months than I think I have ever been. Yes, I have now “officially” been on holidays for coming up two weeks but it really has taken this long for my mind to get free of that space, at least some of the time. Truth be told, I’m writing this column at three o’clock in the morning because my mind still won’t completely free itself of its day job obligations, though I would like to remind my mind that it’s supposed to be a day job, not a middle of the night job.

My second night job, going to school has involved more of my time and mental resources than previous classes have been as well. Admittedly, the actual workload paled in comparison to my most recent previous course but the subject matter so closely mirrored the work in my day to day work it added a degree of complexity to what I was studying.

There was the little matter of surgery. Yes, those who know me might rightly point out the surgery was on my ankle, a part of the body not generally utilized in producing written content. But pain is tiring. And while I’m up and about and have been for quite some time, there’s still physiotherapy and just being generally uncomfortable that have slowed down if not my ability to produce at least my will to do so.

Then there’s the epiphany.

Recently, it occurred to me that I’m behind on W3.doc. Okay, regular readers (you know you’re out there) will argue I’ve been saying that for a long time. But this epiphany recognized something of a milestone and it goes like this: when Deadly Lessons was published in late 2006, I was already well under way with the manuscript that would become Last Dance. So while the gap between publication of the two books was an unacceptable, really, five years, I submitted the first draft of the manuscript for Last Dance around about November of 2008, roughly two years after Deadly Lessons was published.

It has now been more than two and a half years since Last Dance was published and I have yet to complete the book, let alone do even a cursory edit before submitting a draft. And rather than spur me into action, this has frozen me on the spot, struck me with the fear that my publisher, already potentially not necessarily keen on continuing publishing my books, will determine the gap is too great and just drop me.

Fear is fun, isn’t it?

But I’m back. For now, I need to re-commit myself at a minimum to documenting this so-called creative process if only to hold myself to account. Feel free to nag me to account whenever the mood strikes you.

Next week: an update on some of the written work I’m doing.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Wednesday, 23 July 2014 3:30 AM PDT
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Thursday, 19 June 2014
Topic: Writing


At some point in the past I've mentioned that one of my resolutions for this year was to put some increased efforts into finding movie possibilities for both Deadly Lessons and Last Dance.

Yeah, okay, I also determined that W3.doc would make it through first draft stage this year too. That one's still on but the movie stuff? Let's look at that.

There are a lot of different ways to get a movie made. I'm not an expert in any of them. In fact, search the entire imdb database and the closest reference you'll find to me is much more widely known for movies about detectives solving existential crimes than heroes of the reluctant high school teacher sort.

But I do have to think that one way for a movie to be more likely to be made would be to have someone bankable attached to it, which led me to naturally begin to wonder who I would want to play Winston Patrick. If you've read the books (and if you haven't - what are you waiting for?) you may have developed a picture of what my protagonist looks like. People who know me both as a writer and in person have repeatedly said they hear me when they read Winston's words. Sure they hear me, but Winston surely doesn't look like me. For starters, he's taller.

I suppose on the one hand I would like to think of my protagonist as the Brad Pitt type. But I like to think of at least part of his charm his geekishness, his just 'regular guy' nature. So I need a different kind of actor with different kinds of qualities, two principally: I want him to be famous enough that having him behind the picture would be more likely to get it produced and I want him to be not so famous he's constantly in demand and unattainable.

Not so much to ask, really.

So after much research, largely consisting of reading Deadline during pilot season and I have settled on….

Josh Radnor.

Yes, that Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother fame. Radnor, while not being completely geeky, isn't exactly traditional leading material (please don't share this column with him if he happens to be your second cousin or something). He has charm, likeable warmth that isn't terribly threatening and he fits the age of the character. Radnor has also written, produced and directed, qualities that just upped his appropriateness in my book for my books.

He also doesn't appear to be working on anything right now.

It may seem that my problems are solved: Radnor likes the books, gets on board to play Winston Patrick and maybe even adapts the books for the screen, large or small.

But reaching out to major television stars, you may be surprised to learn, is not as easy as it seems. Even just accurately tracking down who his representation is can be a significant challenge. And when you do find them, they have a pretty large disclaimer on their website proclaiming they do not accept unsolicited materials for consideration by their clients.

Which led me to wonder if the adventure of trying to get Josh Radnor to make the Winston Patrick movies wouldn't make for a good movie in and of itself. Could I find someone who could produce a documentary feature of my efforts to track down Radnor, get my books in his hand and convince him to come aboard with filmed versions?

Sure if the film was going to be interesting I would have to do more than just pick up the phone and repeatedly try to phone people. It would probably need to involve travel to New York and L.A. and at least the possibility of some kind of stalking charges. Maybe even some cross-promotional opportunities on COPS.

I guess the first stop would be crowd-sourcing sites. Even documentary filmmakers need to get paid.

Of course, if Radnor is your second cousin, getting your help might be a whole lot easier.

Next week: writing by committee

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Wednesday, 18 June 2014 11:26 AM PDT
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Thursday, 12 June 2014
Let's Get Serious
Topic: Writing Non-Fiction


A few weeks back, I talked about planning to write about non-fiction writing.

Really, it was my plan to talk about a new writing project that has a number of unique elements to it, at least unique to me.

For starters, this is a project I am writing with not just one but two writing partners. This is something that is virtually unheard of for me, at least in the last twenty years or so. More about that in a subsequent post.

The other significant element is that it's a non-fiction work, something a bit out of the norm for writing I've done I the last number of years. Since the publication of Deadly Lessons my focus has been understandably, if not terribly swiftly, on the writing of more fiction, including Last Dance and most recently W3.doc.

With the exception of a few forays into op-ed freelancing, my written work - at least that not directly required by the day job - has been in the fiction domain, really since graduating from university, which most recently was in 2001. At least the graduate writing wasn't awful, even if it wasn't always terribly interesting. Not so long ago I came across some papers I had written in my undergraduate days. I'm not sure what was more surprising: that I actually produced some of that schlock or that professors and TA's saw sufficient merit in it to give me the good marks I got.

Two years ago, I wrote a paper for publication in a professional journal. It was nerve wracking. I found myself, despite having had published two books and numerous articles and columns, wondering if the work would be accepted (it was), whether I could still write with at least some semblance of academic credibility (turns out I could), and whether I would have anything meaningful to say (I think I did, though it was so gently couched so as to be able to offend absolutely no one).

But other than that…fiction.

While I'm not quite ready to release the details of the upcoming non-fiction project, suffice to say that while it isn't academic in nature (I have PhD friends who promise to physically assault me should I contemplate undertaking doctoral work), it is intended to be informative - probably not terribly entertaining and God knows whether or not it will sell, though one of my co-writers is convinced of the demand.

On the one hand, I'm excited about the project. It's a good premise, important subject matter that I see a use for (says every non-fiction project writer who's ever pitched). But it's daunting, not the least of which because our timeline is for completion through the summer months, a deadline that meshes with a certain fiction project to which I'm committed to finishing right around the same time.


Next week: Movie making or how I should learn to stop worrying and love the concept of crowd sourcing.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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Thursday, 29 May 2014
So What is it You Do, Anyway?
Topic: Writing

I know, I know. I’ve stepped away for a couple of weeks. It’s disappointing (to me, and hopefully at least to some readers) that after more than a year of faithful weekly blogging I’ve fallen off the bandwagon a couple of times, this time for two weeks.

This is a symptom of the degree of exhaustion my day job has been causing of late (what? Canadian authors don’t make buckets of money?) – coupled with my potentially foolish or at least self-punishing decision to go back to university at night.

A couple of weeks ago I was “tagged” by writing and education colleague Mark Smith, author of Carvaggio: Signed in Blood, as part of a Writing Process Blog Tour. In essence, writers will answer four questions about their writing process (and already I’m nervous about trying to describe what I do as having any kind of “process”), and then we’ll introduce our readers to three other writers we know who will hopefully do the same thing – and hopefully not seem infinitely better versed in coherent process than I.

Thus, without further ado, the questions:

What are you currently working on?

Regular readers of this space (I know you’re out there) know that for longer than I care to admit I’ve been working on what I’ve been lovingly – or at least not hostilely – referring to as W3.doc, the name of the file of the third novel in the Winston Patrick series. At one point I mentioned that the publisher wanted an actual title, only about six weeks after the release of Last Dance, which I took as a comforting sign of their belief in the project and the series. Of course, that was two years ago so it’s entirely possible their patience is fast wearing thin.

Since the premise of the third book begins with a missing person, I initially came up with Failing to Appear, though I’m certainly not married to that title. On the other hand, both Deadly Lessons and Last Dance were ‘working titles,’ neither really intended for final publication. The publishers felt otherwise, though, so they stayed.

In a subsequent post – say, next week – I’ll talk about another project on which I’m working simultaneously, because really, I need more things to occupy my time.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Uh, oh. Does it have to?

I guess I could call the series a very specific sub-genre in which the protagonist was a lawyer but gave it up and became a teacher instead. That makes it different, right?

Certainly, the books fall within the ‘reluctant/amateur sleuth’ sub-genre of crime fiction. Winston doesn’t really set out to solve crimes or be involved in violent incidents; he just happens to be in the right/wrong place at the right/wrong time.

On the other hand, the book’s setting within a high school community but not being written as a young adult novel might bring at least some sense of being fresh to the genre. Those of us who work with teenagers – tortured souls, some might say – have come to discover that we often take for granted some of the extraordinary lives these people have already lived before their twentieth birthdays; their stories are not always given the attention they would merit.

Not that I mine students’ lives for crime dramas, mind you.

Why do I write what I do?

Regular readers know my influences include stalwarts of the genre like Robert B. Parker, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais and others. I’ve always enjoyed mystery writing and legal/courtroom thrillers. My series blends my passion for the law (you don’t want to sit near me in meetings when legal issues come up for discussion – at least most of my colleagues don’t) and what I know and have experienced as an educator. It’s clichéd to say we write what we know but we do: and I know kids. In fact, few things take me out of a story more than when teenagers are portrayed in a manner that doesn’t seem genuine, as in a book I just finished reading.

Still, I’d like at some point to take Winston more in the direction of the courtroom drama – a bit of a departure from the first three books – and the fourth one that’s planning is underway – that would require a great deal more research on my part. Given my inherent disorganization, it’s not clear how likely this will be to develop.

How does my writing process work?

If it could accurately be described as a process, I would say that mine ebbs and flows. I go through periods of real productivity – fewer periods than I’d like, unfortunately – followed by droughts, often precipitated by fatigue, where not a lot happens. I concur with nearly all writers I know who have been asked the question: consistent writing, even if for shorter periods of time, always yields better results than when gaps of time have appeared between bursts of productivity.

Often times, my stories have begun with a single incident: a news event, a story I’ve heard, or an experience that has been shared. From there I’ve literally been pulled into a web of “what would I do if I were confronted with a situation like this” daydreaming, followed by “how would Winston deal with it?” When those questions are strong enough in my mind they form the basis of my story. Admittedly, I tend to do only a very rough outline of where I’m going and I discover the rest along the way. When it happens organically, as it did as I was typing out some handwritten pages the other day, it’s quite inspiring and can spur me back into the story with new gusto.

And now, let me introduce you to some friends…..

Debra Purdy Kong

Debra Purdy Kong’s volunteer work, criminology diploma, and numerous day jobs have provided the inspiration and background for five published mystery novels, all set in the Lower Mainland. The first two in her Alex Bellamy white-collar crime mysteries, Taxed to Death and Fatal Encryption, came from ideas generated while working for a firm of chartered accountants. Later employment in the security field as a patrol and communications officer provided great background material for her Casey Holland transit security mysteries, The Opposite of Dark, Deadly Accusations, and the recently released Beneath the Bleak New Moon.

Sharon Rowse

Sharon Rowse is the author of the historical mystery The Silk Train Murder—which is set in 1899 Vancouver, and was nominated by the Crime Writers of Canada for its Arthur Ellis Awards--and its sequel, The Lost Mine Murders. Sharon has also written four books in the contemporary Barbara O’Grady mystery series, of which A Shadowed Death is the most recent. Sharon lives in Vancouver, where she is at work on the third book in her historical mystery series, The Missing Heir Murders. 

Robin Spano

Robin Spano grew up in downtown Toronto, studied physics at Mount Allison University, dropped out to travel and explore North America on her motorcycle, worked as a waitress in several towns along the way, and now lives in Lions Bay, BC. When she’s not lost in fiction, she loves to get outside snowboarding, hiking, boating, and riding the curves of the local highways in her big black pick-up truck.
Her secret dream was to be one of Charlie’s Angels, but since real life danger terrifies her, she writes crime fiction instead.
She’s a founding member of Off The Page Toastmasters – a public speaking group for writers.
She is the author of the Clare Vengel Undercover novels Dead Politician Society, Death Plays Poker and Death's Last Run (which I just started reading this week)

Visit their blogs to find out about their work and their processes. Tell them I sent you! 

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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Thursday, 8 May 2014
And Now...The News

In the last episode of W3.doc Update we focused primarily on the fact that the story of W3.doc has not been going, shall we say, quickly.

I have spilled a lot of ink - to use the non-digital terminology - discussing the various and sundry blockage issues that have plagued me at points along Winston's latest journey.

There have been positives too, to be sure, particularly in Costa Rica, and more recently, on a quick, five-day trip to the Maritimes for a law conference. The recurring theme I keep encountering is that writing productivity seems to be enhanced by travel. No surprise there, I suppose, particularly to fellow writers: there's just something about being on the road that makes me want to pick up the pen - literally, the pen, in my case - and get writing, even if I'm not writing anything at all to do with the area in which I am traveling.

Under ideal circumstances I would be able to recognize travel as a necessary condition for literary output and just do far more of it, and produce far more pages. I wonder if the Canada Council would provide me with a grant to travel in order to produce more books?

But on to the update. If my book was a telethon, this would be the point at which we would call for new numbers, the lights would dim and a follow spot would hit the pledge board as new totals are revealed. Lacking direct access to Jerry Lewis I'll have to take on this part myself: drum roll please: I'm about halfway done.

Man, that was anti-climactic.

The other day I was typing up some of the handwritten pages I had most recently produced and, with the dozen or so pages yet to be typed, I'm at about fifty thousand words. The good news is that my publisher told me that Last Dance was a little heavy and the general feeling is that I should be trying to bring it in for a landing around a hundred thousand. I say that's good news not only because it should make for a tighter story (fingers crossed) but also, as when I was writing Last Dance, I'm getting tired of writing this particular book.

I know, I know. Regular readers of this column may recall I've traveled down this road before: getting this far into the incomplete book but really quite ready to move on to the next one that I want to write. I also had the experience in Last Dance of jumping ahead of myself and writing the climax, mostly to keep myself inspired, then struggling to bridge the gaps after the fact.

That said I'm feeling pretty good about where the story is. My missing person has yet to be found but I just recently killed someone and I have plans to take out another character shortly. I've discovered a few new wrinkles that are making my villain(s) more interesting to me, and hopefully to the readers.

I know I've said this before, but if I'm going to get this done I need a hard deadline. And as of now - I'm setting one: come hell or high water, the plan is first complete draft is done by the end of summer.

Dear God.

Next week: bring on the non-fiction.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Thursday, 8 May 2014 6:14 PM PDT
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Thursday, 1 May 2014
Listen to Your Grammar

A young man sits down next to his fellow passenger on an airplane. Attempting to strike up friendly conversation, he casually asks his seatmate, "Where are you from?"

His seatmate turns coolly to him and replies, "I'm from a place where people know better than to end a sentence with a preposition."

The young man nods knowingly, and then says, "I'm sorry. What I meant to say was where are you from, asshole?"

I hasten to add that the second man's next response ought to fittingly be, "Toronto," though that was likely not in the joke's original telling and is based primarily on my disdain for their baseball team, particularly as my beloved Boston Red Sox currently sit just one game ahead of Blue Jays at this writing. Alas, having just passed through Pearson International yesterday I'd best tread lightly lest any of them followed me home.

Last week I waxed eloquently (some would characterize it as whining) about my feelings on the chronic abuse of both the preposition and the apostrophe. By the time I reached the end of the column, or at least the end of what I thought the limits of readers' ability to continue a treatise on grammar, I realized so many more grammarian gripes were yet to be aired, from the lowly typo and the complete lack of clarity on the purpose and function of the comma (are you listening, Vancouver Sun?) to the inability to determine where one paragraph really ought to end and another begin (wait - are you still listening Vancouver Sun?).

But rather than create a laundry list - or worse, a bullet list - of language beefs, I remembered my original point of the conversation was to look at how my own grammatical eccentricities impact my writing. In short, how does one maintain good grammar when trying to write about real people?

To be sure, it would be much easier to do if more real people actually used better grammar, but since English language usage standards seem to be dropping faster than Justin Bieber's pants it seems I'm going to need to find a way to swallow my disdain and integrate the common parlance into my work if I want to maintain its authenticity.

Frequently, as I’m writing dialogue in particular, I find myself having to stop from writing in, well, proper sentences. I like to think my protagonist, Winston Patrick’s, use of language even in every day speech is, shall we say, more eloquent than that of many of his peers. At the risk of him appearing snooty – though a certain feigned snootiness is an element of who he is – I do like him to sound a bit different than other characters, that his words are often chosen more carefully and he speaks with the air of one who is well read and considerate of his language usage, not for grammar’s sake but for the sake of ensuring his message is clear, articulate and effective. Essentially, he uses language the way we would expect, to some extent, a lawyer to do. Lawyers, after all, are trained to use language with precision and craft; their work depends on its effective use.

Even beyond dialogue, I sometimes find myself challenged by wanting to write prose in a manner befitting my appreciation of the language but recognize that it often sounds, well, stilted, I suppose. Could it be that we’re so used to the casual nature of language in our 140 character, text message culture (I confess my text messages take longer not only due to my clumsy thumbs but to my need to have them grammatically correct) that deviation from the truly informal is the new unusual?

One time, when writing freelance for a daily publication (not the one previously mentioned but one published in the same building) I was told by an editor to be mindful of the fact that the publication targeted a reading ability between sixth and eighth grades. In other words, park your semi-colon at the door, Mister.

I like to think readers of the crime genre are a somewhat more literate lot, though I recognize they’re likely not expecting Proust when they crack open Deadly Lessons and it had better not read like him if I want them to continue on to Last Dance and W3.doc.

It’s a fairly constant pull for me, maintaining my own commitment to not contributing to the death of the Queen’s English and the authentic, credible sound of my books.

Next week: I guess it’s time for a W3.doc update.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Thursday, 1 May 2014 6:57 AM PDT
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Thursday, 17 April 2014
There's Always Time for Good Grammar

I confess to being one of those relics who believes that grammar is important. In fact, not only do I see it as a critical component of effective communication, both in written and yes, in oral form, I also find it enjoyable.

That's right. Enjoyable.

A cleverly crafted, thoughtfully organized and grammatically correct sentence is a thing of beauty. As a reader I cherish not only the descriptive nature of language in one's writing but the structure of it as well. Consider this example:

    Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child…Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

It is not only the imagery of Nabokov's prose that conveys the anguish and torment of his protagonist as he opens his classic story, it is the structure, the use of dependent clauses, the crafted listing that makes the language work so well.

I'm sure it's kind of annoying to be around.

In the office of my day job, one of the clerical staff (alas, we are all but forbidden from referencing them as 'secretaries' nowadays) told me she found herself being extra careful around me after overhearing a particular diatribe I had given on the ending of sentences in prepositions. Apparently, I made her nervous to speak in front of me for a period of time. Certainly that hadn't been my intention but I can't help but think the world might be a better place if more people were a little more trepidatious about speaking a little more often.

I have my own outrages, of course (doesn't every grammarian take particular umbrage at those errors he or she finds most troublesome - like using "they" when the gender of the pronoun is unknown but clearly singular?). Like Lynne Truss, who has turned a finicky obsession with the rules of language to financial success in her memorable Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the endless torture committed against the poor apostrophe in common usage can occasionally cause me near to physical pain. How difficult is it, people, for all of us to come to terms with the simple fact that the apostrophe does not connote plural? Not ever. Seriously, just stop it. This error finds its way into publication so often as to have almost become acceptable usage, or at least beyond the notice of most readers.

My wife and I frequently reference a hairdresser on Port Coquitlam's Shaughnessy Street thoroughfare who paid a sign maker to concoct this monstrosity: Florens Haircut's. Though it's been more than ten years since we lived near and traveled past it, aloud we still refer to the establishment as Florens Haircut Is.

My present pet peeve is the particular preposition "at." In the past number of years, it has become acceptable common usage to end sentences with "at," particularly as some kind of direct object for "where," as in "let's see where we're at." I have heard this specific outrage uttered in meetings full of professional educators, including English majors, leaders of organizations and yes, even college professors. When I try to explain to people, principally the prepositional offenders, why their usage is so offensive, I supply them with a simple task: replace 'we' with 'you' and see how ridiculously ebonics you sound.

Normally, I'm a big fan of Winston Churchill. He is, after all, the namesake of my protagonist in Deadly Lessons, Last Dance and W3.doc. Churchill was alleged to have proclaimed, "“This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put," in response to an editor's prepositional editing suggestions. And on this front, he gets it right: there are those few, albeit specific, circumstances, in which I can accept a sentence that terminates with "with" or "from."

But don't push your luck.

Next week: When grammar gets in the way of story. Who knew I could fill two weeks of columns with grammar?

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Friday, 18 April 2014 8:50 AM PDT
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Thursday, 3 April 2014
Absence Makes the Pen Grow Stronger...literally

After spending two weeks basking in the tropical warmth of Costa Rica, I'm back in the relative frigidity of Metro Vancouver. I say 'relative,' given the current conditions in the Maritime region, specifically Prince Edward Island, to which I will travel later this month for a law conference. In case you missed my two vacation posts, you'll find them below, though the second one, dated March 27th, wasn't actually posted until Sunday afternoon after I had returned, given the technological challenges my current webhost has in playing nicely with most Apple products, iPad, my choice of device when traveling, in particular being particularly shunned by the kids in the Tripod/Lycos web hosting yard. And the first week's vacation post was a trio of haikus; I'm not sure I would necessarily encourage bothering to scroll down to check those out, particularly if you are at all skilled in poetry.

Julia Cameron advises writers - all artists, really - to take themselves weekly on an "artist's date," an encounter with something away from home that could range from a walk in the woods, a la Thoreau to a trip to the museum, movies or even the mall, if only to refresh the images bank stored in all our heads as we work towards keeping the muse continuously unblocked. Travel, then, ought to be a bonus of image bank filling, particularly when traveling someplace new and even far removed from previous experiences.

It works.

I've written before about the impact travel has on stirring the creative juices and as much as I was looking forward to our trip as a respite from the exhaustion of the day job, I was also hoping time on the Caribbean beaches and jungles of the coast would prompt my own creative renaissance.

To be sure, it didn't happen immediately. Without going into enormous detail about the many reasons for which I needed to decompress from the day job - and it has been a particularly challenging and tiring few months on that front - suffice to say I needed a a bit of time with which to simply unwind from the stresses of the day to day before the creative juices would begin to flow, or at least to dribble. There was also the matter of a paper I needed to write for a university course I'm currently taking (I'm a glutton for punishment), one I had hoped to have finished prior to leaving for the trip but that damned day job again proved prohibitive to production.

But eventually it did. And as I've described before, I was prepared for the possibility that travel would once again provoke a desire to go old school, shunning the technology for the quaint, if somewhat less efficient, prose creation tool of pad and paper. And while I've tried others (my trip last summer was on simple white with blue lines) for inspiration, something about the yellow, lined legal pad not only spurs me to write but for reasons I'm confident not even a therapist could explain, feels less intimidating than white or the nagging, blinking cursor of the computer screen.

My current implement need is for the felt-tip variety, one which has a smooth glide and easy flow of ink without being so thick as to easily smudge should my hand inadvertently run across it in the process (I was quite disappointed when it exploded on the flight home and I had to switch to plain old ballpoint). Blue ink is my preference, darker than the blue lines of the yellow pad, though in a pinch I could probably make do with black. This has evolved over the years; while I've always favoured the yellow legal pad, I used to favour pencil, not because I did a whole lot of erasing but there was something comforting in the perceived temporariness of the lead scribblings that made the process less intimidating. My preference for pens, particularly of the 'easy-rolling' variety I like to think has to do with maturity but it could also be a sign of middle age: it's possible my wrist is getting arthritic and the less resistance on the paper the better. But I still prefer to think it has to do with maturity.

The challenge was that not only did I find the new tropical environment inspiring, it inspired up a whole new story. As much as I was trying to focus on the current book - and to be sure, I hand wrote fifteen or so pages in the final few days of our trip - I couldn't help but see elements of a novel set in Costa Rica everywhere I looked. It's probably important that I set down the basic structures of that story while they're still fresh in mind.

Meanwhile, I'm hoping that my desire to get to those next novels will inspire me to push forward and get W3.doc finished. Soon.

Either that or I need to travel pretty much all the time.

Next week: I feel a grammar rant coming.

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
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