Aspiring Voices Interview: Nancy Zrymiak

header image

Here’s a snippet of the interview I did for the Aspiring Voices Series:

This week’s Aspiring Voices guest is Nancy Zrymiak, bringing a welcome look into the non-fiction scene. She’s working on a book about her time spent in India and I was thrilled to get a chance to ask some questions about how the project got started.

Paul: You’re currently working on a book about your two-year relocation from your home in Canada to Bangalore, India. Can you describe a bit about the events that led up to the decision to make the move, and how you arrived at the conclusion that you should transplant your family halfway across the planet?

Nancy: Give me an opportunity and I’ll take it. When my husband came home and told me there was a job possibility in India, I thought it was a crazy idea. But his timing was good. First, it was November, the rainiest, dreariest month in Vancouver. Secondly, I was tired of the rat race and the routine that comes along with living and parenting in the western world: carpooling, commuting, grocery shopping, packing lunches, making dinners. When I thought about India, I thought about adventure, culture, and travel. Once I began to think of the move as an opportunity, the decision to uproot the family became much easier. The warm weather kind of lured me in too.

Bangalore Back StreetsAditya Mopur via Creative Commons

Paul: You blogged pretty extensively while you were living in India. What made you want to write a book about that experience as well? Are you finding the book is more an expanded version of the blog or is the blog more a framework you can use to weave stories through that you didn’t discuss at the time? Or are they completely independent of one another?

Nancy: My India blog was more of a travel blog with photos. In the book, I delve into the lives of the people I met in India, especially the locals, and the roller coaster of emotions that they bring to the story. You’ll meet some interesting characters and learn about their daily lives as well as mine. I also write about the misconceptions that I had about India before I went, what I learned about India and what I learned about myself. Read the rest of the interview.


Tips from the Surrey International Writers’ Conference 2013

SiWC 2013

One comes away from a writers’ conference brimming with all sorts of new-found knowledge, a big to do list, a whole new set of friends and lots of inspiration.


I went to some interesting workshops:

Pitch Practice – a panel of four agents and editors gave us tips for a good pitch We listened to people pitch their books and find out the panels reactions. Most notable comments:

  • Don’t rehearse your pitch.
  • In sixty seconds tell the crux of the story, the genre, word count and title.
  • Don’t give a plot synopsis
  • Do say if you’ve been published or won awards.
  • Keep it simple and don’t be nervous.

Robert Dugoni’s Creating Plots for Page Turners

  • Does the beginning add value to the rest of the book?
  • Something interesting must happen right away.
  • Let the characters entertain, not the author.  In other words, don’t do these: narrative opinion, biography, info dump (too much setting), flashbacks.
  • Flashbacks are okay but only if they clarify something happening now. A good flashback goes back to a real-time present scene and must be necessary for the main story.
  • Anything that can be presumed can be cut.
  • There is action in dialogue, dialogue is action – it keeps the story moving.
  • The end does not have to be happy, but it must be satisfying.
  • Create empathy for your protagonist

SiWC Idol – first pages are submitted anonymously and read out loud to a panel of agents. They tell us when they would stop reading the submission and give their reasons:

  • No character development.
  • Too much scene setting.
  • Uses clichés.
  • Too much back-story.
  • The agent from the USA stopped numerous ones because they were too regional – mentioned the small Canadian town/province too often.
  • Started with someone waking up from unconsciousness.


Just as important for me were the Blue Pencil’s where you can sign up for a fifteen minute chat with an author and have them look at three pages of your work. I got my money’s worth and did four. I think each time I was able to more clearly describe my book and ask more pointed questions. I got positive feedback on my writing and good tips on how to construct a novel. That’s sort of my main problem – where to begin and how to go back and forth in time – the order of the scenes and the dreaded back-story. So I’m doing a little research, reading other books in my genre and deconstructing them chapter by chapter.

Most important are the people who I met. Writers, all of them. Even if they also think of themselves as bankers and personal trainers and teachers and engineers. Whether they write full-time or part-time, they are all writers. Building confidence, helping others. Learning, connecting, writing. That’s The Surrey International Writers’ Conference in a nutshell.

Happy to be Shortlisted!

I am very pleased that my short story, Crossing Mahatma Gandhi, was shortlisted for the Storyteller’s Award at the 2013 Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

When I registered for the conference in June, I wasn’t sure if I was going to enter the writing contest, but I am glad I took time to write the story and I have to admit it was fun to write fiction for a change, to make something up and run with it.

It’s also nice to think that the judges, two such established authors as Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte, read through the pages of my work and thought it good enough to be shortlisted. I did have a chance to talk to Jack who told me (in his wonderful Scottish brogue) that he “really, really liked the story” and passed on some words of wisdom.

I’ve since had the pleasure of reading the winning stories by Jennifer Manuel and Elizabeth Houlton Schofield and congratulate both. True storytellers, their winning tales are intriguing, vivid, compassionate and thoroughly entertaining. I am definitely inspired!

Alice Munro Wins Nobel Prize in Literature

“I can’t play bridge. I don’t play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn’t seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window.” Alice Munro

What a thrill to wake up today and see that fellow Canadian, Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize in Literature as “master of the contemporary short story”. Her stories usually revolve around life in rural southern Ontario, where she grew up, and coming-of-age struggles.

Have you read any of her stories? Wondering what to read?

Dance of the Happy Shades – her first collection of short stories and winner of the 1968 Governor General’s Award for Fiction.

Who Do You Think You Are – 1978 winner of the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction. Published outside of Canada as The Beggar Maid.

The Love of a Good Woman –1998 Giller Prize Winner.

Runaway – 2004 Giller Prize Winner.

Dear Life – Her most recent collection, published in 2012, and apparently her last, as Munro has said that she will retire from writing. She is 82 years old. Dear Life was awarded the Trillium Book Award.

Alice Munro also won the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her lifetime body of work. Watch the announcement of Munro winning the Nobel Prize here.

The Best Places in the World to Write

Ama Dablam, Nepal


Imagine sipping chai, writing, and gazing at Ama Dablam. At a height of 6,856 meters (22,493 ft), Ama Dablam is a stunner. You’ll need to put your hiking boots on and follow the Everest Base Camp trek to get to Pangboche or Tengboche for this vista, but it’s well worth it.

Ucuelet, Canada

Ucuelet, B.C. Canada

Vancouver Island’s west coast is renowned for its spectacular ocean views, ancient rainforests, whale watching and beach combing. There’s no better place to storm watch and write.

Mt. Bromo, Indonesia

Mt Bromo, Indonesia

Want an out-of-this world writing experience? When I looked over the rim for the first time and saw the barren landscape, the volcanic mist and Mt. Bromo – an active crater within a crater – I thought I had landed on the moon.

The Rice Fields of Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Bali Rice Fields

Quite possibly my favorite place in the world to write. There’s a Shangri la feel to Ubud. The soft colors, the warm smiles, the gamelan music, the swaying of the palm trees. Rice is a staple for so many people in this world, and here, while I write, I can watch the workers plow, plant or harvest, depending on the time of year. Subtle changes occur in the fields and on my page, all day long.

Santorini, Greece

Oia, Santorini, Greece

Greek legends, Greek food, and caldera views make this a fantastic place to let the imagination soar. One of the world’s largest volcanic eruptions happened here more than 3500 years ago and some say the legend of Atlantis is based on that eruption. Oia, pictured here, has the best sunsets and is the perfect place to hideaway and write for months on end.

Nrityagram Dance Village, India

Nrityagram Dance Village, India

Take a deep breath and enjoy the silence. Nrityagram is an artistic enclave, one of the few places in India where you can get away from the noise and the crowds. It is a place where dedicated dancers live and breathe dance while living a holistic lifestyle. So how does it make my list of the best places in the world to write?  I can dream about it, can’t I? To be engulfed in their world and be able to write at the same time? Now that would be bliss. Read my post on Nrityagram Dance Village.

Tuscany, Italy

Tuscany, Italy

The food, the wine, the history…the food, the wine, the history… Need I say more. Who couldn’t write a book here?

Gokyo, Nepal

Gokyo, Nepal

Inspiration from the top of the world makes you feel like you can do anything, even finish writing a book. Again, you’ll have to lace up your hiking boots, because you’ll have to trek for days to get to Gokyo. From the top of Gokyo Ri you can see five 8000 meter peaks, including Mt. Everest, one of the largest glaciers in the world, and three dazzling mountain lakes.

Ten Things I’ve Learned (So Far) About Writing a Book

DSC_00401) Getting Started is The Hardest Part

Once I decided to write my book I had to figure out how to do it. A friend suggested reading The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It’s a twelve-week program, “a course in discovering and recovering your creative self.” I needed that because I’d never done anything creative in my life. The book helped me figure out a good writing routine, gain confidence as a writer and find my creative self.

2) Surround Yourself With Positive People

There are naysayers and there are supporters. It’s easy to tell the difference. One group makes you feel like you are wasting your time and not doing anything important. The other group makes you feel energized; they boost your confidence and take a genuine interest in what you are writing. Write these people’s names down. They are your go to people when you want to toss your work into the garbage.

3) Find a Routine, But Be Flexible

The Artist’s Way can help you get into a writing routine. Starting small is a good idea, maybe ten or twenty minutes a day. Find a good time and place to write. For me, it’s first thing in the morning when I have lots of energy. I write at home, wherever I feel comfortable, usually a quiet room with natural light and warmth. But understand that routines change with circumstances. Maybe you have kids, or you work shifts; you go on vacation, or there’s a tragedy in the family. Life happens and routines get messed up. Be aware and be flexible, but don’t give up.

4) Writing is Work

Writing is exhilarating, fun and creative, but it is also a lot of work. It takes a lot of time to write a book. No one just sits down and writes a book from beginning to end and thinks they are finished. That’s just the first draft. Now you must go back and read it and delete the crap and begin the revision. Repeat. Writing is hard work but it’s thrilling to see your book take form.

5) Procrastination is Real

Oh, yeah. There is so much to do. So many T.V. shows to watch, emails to write and Facebook statuses to update. There’s cleaning and cooking and kids to look after. There are books to be read. Okay, so turn off the T.V. Limit the surfing and even, dare I say it, the reading. Now get organized, know what your day looks like and schedule in your writing. Write. Stop procrastinating.

6) Procrastination is a Myth

On the other hand, if all you’re doing is writing, and you’re sick of it or even feeling a little depressed, it’s time for a change. Go for a walk, do something else that makes you feel creative. Go out with friends. Spend some quality time with your family. Don’t feel guilty about not writing. Even writers have to eat, shop for groceries and pay the bills once in a while. It’s not always procrastination. Live a little.

7) Reading Helps A Lot

Tolkien, Rowling, Shakespeare. Who inspires you? Reading improves one’s vocabulary, helps us write better dialogue, and shows us the many ways stories can be told. Recently, I read The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. That book inspired me in so many ways. Not just to write, but to write well.

8) It is Important to Write Well

The first draft is all about getting ideas onto paper. You don’t have to write well. Each draft after that, you must edit, revise, and rewrite until it is polished. You can’t send anything to an agent or publisher that isn’t your very best. Read it out loud. Take some writing classes. Join a writing group (in person or online) and have other writers critique your work. You need constructive criticism from people in the writing world.

9) Social Networking Can Suck the Life Out of You

Some people call social networking procrastinating, and for good reason. It can be addicting and time-consuming and take you away from your writing. It can seriously suck the life out of you.

How do I know? Well, so far, I’m on Facebook and Twitter, and I have my website and my blog. I started them all at once and I found it pretty overwhelming. I think a better idea is to pick one and start with that. Once you’re comfortable, add another, and so on. Set aside a reasonable amount of time each day to do your social networking. Don’t let it consume your writing time.

10) Finishing is as Important as Starting

I admire anyone who has written a book, from start to finish.

And here lies the most asked question: “When will you be finished the book?”

And there is nothing I can say but, “When the creative process is finished and I am satisfied.”

12 Best Writing Quotes

I Love Deadlines

The best writing quotes are the ones that become tiny voices in our heads, egging us on to keep writing. They inspire, they teach, and sometimes, they make us laugh. Often, they leave us nodding our heads, saying, “True, oh so true.”

Here are the 12 Best Writing Quotes:

 1) “I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” Douglas Adams

 2) “When I say work I only mean writing. Everything else is just odd jobs.” Margaret Laurence

 3) “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Elmore Leonard

 4) “So when you’re writing your novel, don’t just be skillful. Be death-defying.” Harrison Demchick

 5) “The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.” Joyce Carol Oates

 6) “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” Stephen King

 7) “I don’t need an alarm clock. My ideas wake me.” Ray Bradbury

 8) “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Elmore Leonard

 9) “Writing is easy. All you have to do is cross out the wrong words.” Mark Twain

10) “Never judge a book by its movie.” J.W. Eagan

11) “If you can’t write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don’t have a clear idea.” David Belasco

12) “Just write the damn thing.” Lois Peterson

Which is your favorite? Did I leave one out? Let me know in the comments section.

Why Dan Brown Should Fire His Editor

you_re_firedDear Dan Brown,

Dan, I’m going to get right to the point: you used the word throngs so many times in your latest book, Inferno, that I lost count.

Why Dan? Why are there throngs of people everywhere that Robert Langdon goes? There are throngs of people in Venice, throngs in St. Marks Square, throngs in Istanbul, and so many throngs in Florence I can’t even talk about it. I know, you change it up a little near the end – you use the word throng instead.

I admit, I spoke to a few other people about this and they didn’t seem to notice. But I noticed, Dan. Do you want to know why? Because throngs is my least favorite word in the entire English language.

I know, I’m blaming your editor for not catching this. He’s the scapegoat here. But Dan, ultimately I have to put some of the blame on your shoulders. There are other words you can use to describe crowds of people. How about mobs, masses, hordes, or bunches. Please have a look at, or if you prefer I’ll send you a hard copy (email me your address).

I have to point out a couple of other problems with Inferno, Dan, like the fact that Robert Langdon has this strange fight or flight response. Instead of wondering, “How the hell am I going to get out of here?” – and then getting the hell out – he stops to take in every minute detail of every building and piece of artwork that he comes across.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the historical facts, the riddles, and the futuristic science that screams Dan Brown. But did you realize that we’ve been to Italy before? Angels and Demons, Dan. I know, you’ve written multiple best sellers and it can get tricky, but have a look through Langdon’s passport – there are other interesting countries and noteworthy pieces of art to be found.

So Dan, it’s time to toss the editor and quite possibly the agent too. And for the next book, try to choose a quiet, remote location, one where you won’t be tempted to use that dreaded word, throngs, over and over again.


Nancy Zrymiak

Using the Five Senses to Write About India

Jasmine FlowersA couple weeks ago I posted a comment on my Facebook site:

“How can I write about India when I’m not in India?” And then I went on to explain that my photos help me recreate scenes. Sight – that’s probably the easiest, but how can I describe the other senses when I haven’t heard, tasted, touched or sniffed India in two years?

One person commented: “Go into a public restroom and all the memories will come flooding back.”  That would be true of my first backpacking trip to India, the one where dysentery ruled and I saw little of India.

Thankfully, the aroma that takes me back to India now, is that of jasmine. I have a small bottle of jasmine oil on the kitchen counter, and every now and then I dab a little onto my wrists and breathe it in. It takes me right back to India – walking down the street, catching a whiff of something sweet and floral. Looking around for the source, it always took me by surprise: a group of sari clad women walking ahead of me; little strings of jasmine pinned to the back of their hair.

As I write about India, there are so many things to describe – what does a dosa taste like, smell like, feel like? What does a sari feel like – to touch, to wear? How many senses does one use to cross the street? And on and on.

I am lucky, because we have a large Indian population just outside of Vancouver. We have sari shops and Indian restaurants. Indian families gather in the parks and at the beaches. The women wear saris and salwar kameez; the men wear kurtas – too cold for dhotis I guess.

There’s no place like India, but little things do pop up to jar my memory. What else takes me back to India, to help me write using all five senses? Here are a few things. (Got some ideas of your own? Please add to the list in the comments section):


Masala Dabba

  • My masala dabba – one of my favorite things.
  • Scooters.
  • Women in saris – there’s a big Indian population close to where I live!
  • Traffic jams –at rush hour, sometimes it’s just as bad.


Chicken Tika with Mint Chutney

  • Cooking a good biryani or chicken tikka at home.
  • Eating dosas at our favorite Indian restaurant in N. Surrey.
  • Fresh mangos between March and June (imported of course).
  • Overdone vegetables – I recently did this and it reminded me of the ashram.


  • Fireworks – the sound of Diwali.
  • Horns honking – almost impossible to recreate the real thing.


Silk Fabric

  • Fabrics: my saris, silk scarves and bed linens from India
  • Hot weather.
  • Dirt.


  • Jasmine oil.
  • Raw meat.
  • Incense.
  • Spices used for Indian cooking.

Is My Book Doomed?


The opening sentence, the first page: they must wow. So I’ve been told and I must agree. I read a great deal, and the best books are the ones where I read one page and then I want to read it again – it is that good.

Take The Outsiders, “WHEN I STEPPED OUT into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.”

And Lord of the Rings, “When Mr. Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.”

It’s not just the first sentence that must make me swoon, but the first page. And then I know we’re off to a good start.

Naturally, I want my readers to feel the same way when they read the first page of my book. And like all serious writers I researched the subject on Google. I came across a blog that turned out to be a satirical step-by-step guide for westerners writing books about India. The blogger advises:

“…Your piece has to start well. Therefore you first create, with good vocabulary, a nice paragraph on the social inequities in India. Keywords to be used are caste, poverty, illiteracy. Statistics like 80% of India lives on farms or 50% of India is illiterate or 70% of India does not use soap can be very handy…mention child marriage.”

That is why I fear my book is doomed. I have neither started my book by writing about poverty, caste or illiteracy, nor have I mentioned the above statistics.

I began to wonder, do all other books set in India start like that? I looked up my own reading list of Books set in India.

I found that The Toss of a Lemon author Padma Viswanathan is a pro. Her first sentence mentions child marriage right off the bat: “The year of the marriage proposal, Sivakami is ten.”

Author Suketu Mehta (Maximum City) is on the right track too: “There will soon be more people living in the city of Bombay than on the continent of Australia.”

The blogger (remember it’s satirical) also advises “avoid talking to maids…Try not to talk to people who are working hard so that their children are educated and their next generation gets out of poverty.”

Again, I feel my book is ill-fated. I have not mentioned child marriage once, but I do talk to maids, gardeners, drivers, photojournalists and chefs who work hard to educate their children and get them out of poverty. Oh look, I just mentioned poverty. Maybe I’m on the right track after all?