How I (Almost) Botched My Writing Career

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Writing in bed on a tea tray — like a boss

Last night I attended my very first writers’ group meeting – a “writers’ salon” at the home of a local wire-tap-transcriptionist turned edgy poet.  And I’m realizing now that my late entry into a writing group is yet more evidence that I have gone about my writing career the wrong way – the hard way, the backwards way.

Let me explain exactly how I’ve botched it – so far.

1)      I should have joined a writers’ group years and years and years ago.  All you kids at home, don’t wait until the advance reading copy of your first novel arrives in the mail before joining a writers’ group.

I’m in the habit of not showing my serious writing to anyone – not my husband, not my sisters, no one.  My utter lack of writing colleagues meant I mistook my work-in-progress manuscript for a finished book, started submitting it too early, and inadvertently ended up work-shopping it with the few gatekeepers at literary agencies and publishing houses who were thoughtful enough to jot a line or two (never any more) about why they were rejecting it.  It was a traumatic, slow, costly, and stupid way to get feedback.

Don’t be like me.  Before anyone in the business reads your work, make friends with writers with similar interests and better abilities than your own.  Read each other’s work and offer feedback.  Share contacts and news.  Learn to be gracious.

2)      I’ve never taken a creative writing course.  When my publisher and I were looking for a “blurb” for my book, Linda suggested I consider my former creative writing teachers.  It would have been a good suggestion if I’d had any.  It’s not that I didn’t take university-level literature classes.  I took them and I did well.  But I never took any courses dedicated to creative writing.  I’ve never had my work assessed and graded in an academic setting.

It’s not a fatal mistake.  Many writers spring up outside post-secondary creative writing programs — but not as many as I used to think.  So far, most of the people I’ve met in the working writing community have some past or present connection to writing as an academic field.  They don’t talk about writing as a vocation merely in a romantic, figurative sense.  They mean it the same way plumbers talk about their vocations – as papered credentials and regular, paying gigs.  There is middle ground between an institution-centred career in writing and never enrolling in a class.  And I should have spent some time there.

3)      I haven’t read much of the current literature in my field.  Instead of keeping up with the industry, I’ve used my precious reading time to polish off classics and to survey the YA books my kids are reading.  By now, I’m pretty well-versed in Dostoevsky and Dickens.  And I know my way around J.K. Rowling and Daniel Handler.  But I don’t know much about – whoever the heck has been important in literary fiction since the 1990s.

This was a bad move.  Stay tuned to the tone and the content of the industry.  Don’t raise your head only to when the mainstream media starts clamouring about yet another wave of erotica.  And don’t worry about being unduly influenced by other artists.  It’s the post-modern age – a time when humans have been reading and writing long enough for all of us to be a little derivative.  There’s no way to avoid it and the best we can hope for is to be able to admit it when our work looks like a freaky chimera of Carol Shields, Emily Brontё, and Napoleon Dynamite.

4)      I don’t have a physical space set aside especially for writing.  I write on my lap, sitting on my pillow, leaning against the head-board of the bed where I sleep at night.  It started as a desperate play for peace and quiet in a large, busy household.  I guess that’s still what it is.  It’s bad for my mattress, my spine, my wrists, and my temper.  Get a desk – or at least a chair.

That’s a short list of a few of my most obvious missteps.  I won’t repeat them during my next project — except for the bed-desk.

But there’s something like irony at work here.  I failed in all these ways yet I continued to publish anyway.  All my stumbling around with an unsuitable manuscript served to match my timing up with Linda’s and we found each other at just the right moment.  There’s no fail-safe formula for good fortune.

And on top of all these errors, I did do something right – something vital.  I finished the dang book.  I took good advice when I was finally given it.  I kept revising and submitting.  I kept fighting.  Of all the things I’ve heard people name as the undoing of their literary ambitions, not finishing their projects has got to be the most common.

Maybe that’s the biggest, most valuable lesson of all the ones I’ve learned so far — the one I’d leave with everyone, the one I kept repeating like a holy mantra at the writers’ group last night.  Finish it.  Keep going.

Carbon Copying Vulcan – Shreds of Reality in Fiction

The Roman God Vulcan, smashing stuff

If my youngest brother-in-law was a Roman god, he’d be Vulcan.  Wait — let’s not let Star Trek confuse us.  I’m not trying to say he’s cold and hyper-rational and his sleeves are too short.  He’s like the original, Classical Vulcan — fiery and powerful and smart.  Like Vulcan, he makes his living building things out of metal with torches and hammers.  When he’s having fun, he still likes to yell and hit things.  I adore him.  And if I was a goddess, I’d be Juno, the shrill but scary wife of the boss-god Jupiter (Zeus, to all you Greek fans).  I also like to yell and hit things.  It’s a sign of enthusiasm and love.  Both Vulcan and I understand that very well.

In the years and years I’ve known him, Vulcan has not been a voracious reader of contemporary Canadian literary fiction.  It’d be out of character for him to rush out and buy my novel when it’s released this August.  But I hope he will.  In order to encourage him, I did what Juno would do: I got up in his face and bullied him about it.

“Hey, are you going to buy my book when it comes out?”

He paused.  “Uh — how much money will you get from each one?”

It wasn’t the response I expected.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “About two dollars maybe?”

He reached into his pocket.  He said, “How about I just give you two dollars right now?”

“What?”

The Roman goddess Juno

He was laughing at me.

“You have to read it!” I bawled at him.  “You have to.  Because…”

This is where my Juno started to lose her nerve.  Even with my loved ones, I am a shy, apologetic promoter of my work.  I tell my friends and family where to find it and then I leave them alone.  There’s no follow-up – no awkward audit of their patronage of my art.  My loud, bossy questioning of Vulcan was not about getting him to cough up a twoonie.  It was about something much more delicate.

He was standing in front of me, towering over me, one hand still in his pocket.  He was looking down with his big brown face, waiting for me to finish.

I began again.  This was important – something between a warning and a gift and a confession.  “There’s this character in the book – and – he might seem like he’s kind of like you.”

Vulcan’s eyes got a little bit bigger.

“But he’s not you,” I hurried.  I explained there’s a scene in my novel where a woman meets her in-laws for the first time.  That meeting is written a lot like the time I first met Vulcan, when I was twenty-one and he was not quite ten years old.

“They’re not us.” I said again.  “They just look like us for a minute.  The little boy grows up and does things you don’t do.  He’s not you.”

“But someone might think he’s me.”

“Yeah.”

“Would he be in the book if you didn’t know me?”

Strictly speaking, it’s an impossible question.  How can I say whether I could have imagined someone so much like my brother-in-law ex nihilo now that I already know him?

What I could say was this.  “If I hadn’t lived the life I’ve lived, I wouldn’t have written the book the way I have.”

This was honest and fair to both of us.  The fact is I could have this same conversation (hopefully without the offer to pre-emptively buy me off) with dozens of people.  There are sparks and shreds and sometimes even long swaths of all sorts of real people in my work.  It feels inevitable.  Even if I switched genres and started writing hardcore science fiction, the spaceships and alien planets would still be full of traces of my friends, family, neighbours – everyone.

I’m certainly not the only writer who’ll admit this.  In an excellent essay, novelist Corrina Chong reflects on “writing as thievery.”  She says, “here’s the truth behind the fiction: as a writer, I am a thief…My writing is a collage of the bits and pieces I’ve stolen.  Once your piece is glued on, it’s no longer yours.  Finders keepers, I say.”

She sounds flippant but writing real life into fiction isn’t something done lightly.  We agonize over it.  We weigh the benefits of doing it against the risk.  And we understand the people unwittingly serving as our literary models might not agree we’ve struck the balance right.  Frankly, it’s scary.

Chong goes on to acknowledge that this theft is actually more like an exchange – a swap.  She says, “the very act of writing a story and releasing it out into the world assumes that readers will be able to see something of themselves in the characters, thereby stealing their own little pieces as keepsakes…any idea that rings true in your universe becomes your own.”

Maybe that’s what makes it possible for my self-consciousness at my own thieving audacity to be outweighed by my sense that it’s important for my reluctant, metal smashing baby-brother-in-law to read my novel – the one with a scene rooted in our shared history.  It’s not about the two dollars.  It’s about us.  Maybe that’s why I want all of the poor souls I’ve pilfered to read it.  I want to complete the second half of the exchange.  I want them to take something from me now – something bigger than my thanks for the inspiration.  Take yourself back, I say, and with it, take a piece of me.

Judging My Book by Its Cover

The Cover of "Love Letters of the Angels of Death"The book itself won’t be out until August 2013 but this week my publisher released the image that will be the front cover of my debut novel, Love Letters of the Angels of Death.   And I couldn’t be happier with it.

Before the cover was created, my publisher, Linda Leith was generous enough to ask for my thoughts.  She asked me even though visual design is not a talent of mine.  It’s the same with me and music.  I know what’s good and what I like when I actually encounter it but creating something from my own imagination is a dodgy venture.  Not surprisingly, my first few suggestions were way off the mark.  But Linda still didn’t dismiss me from the process.

Finally, I said, “I wouldn’t mind a pair of birds as long as they weren’t too maudlin.”

It seemed risky to me — the possibilities for sentimentality putting two birds on the cover of a book about a marriage could inflame.  It’s not that I actually feared I might end up with a book cover with a pair of pastel, cartoon lovebirds canoodling on it.  But just to be sure we all understood what I meant, I did an image search and came up with a picture posted on a British wildlife photography website called Warren Photographic.  As time went on, we agreed we didn’t just want something like this photograph.  We wanted this photograph for the cover of the book.

The birds – with their long tails and iridescent blue-green plumage — are magpies.  Even though this pair has probably never set foot on the North American continent, western Canada, where most of my book is set, is teeming with their far-flung cousins.  They don’t migrate with the seasons.  They stay here all winter long making noise, scavenging food, and cleaning up the remains of other animals naturally selected out of the harsh environment.  They’re the most beautiful carrion birds I know — especially when they’re quiet.

The first time I noticed magpies – as an angry teenager newly arrived in southern Alberta from Nova Scotia – they were perched on some statuary outside a Lethbridge cemetery.  I assumed the city must have planted them there – like the swans in the Halifax Public Gardens – to make the urban landscape more exotic and elegant.  Every Albertan I’ve ever told this story laughs at me.

Like other corvids – ravens and crows and jays – magpies live in mated pairs.  And what I love about the pair on my book cover is the way they’re facing different directions but looking at the same thing.  The smaller one (which my prejudices tell me to call the female) is closer to what they see and the male is watching her as part of what he sees.  It’s like the narrative structure of my novel where the male narrator addresses his vision of the world directly to the female – the “second person” to whom he is narrating, the one individual who’s included in everything he sees.

I love the rest of the cover too.  I’m thrilled to have a blurb by Padma Viswanathan as the header.  Even after seeing it in print, I didn’t have a fit of self-consciousness and start hating the title (something that would not have been uncharacteristic of me).  And I’m grateful the surname I lifted from my husband when I married him is distinctive (unlike my first name and my McMaiden-name) while still being short and easy to say.  Hooray for my fine, Swedish in-laws, doggedly justifying the existence of the little-used “Q” section at the dry-cleaner’s – and now, hopefully, at the bookseller’s.

Writing by the Outline


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I’m thinking of one of my many friends who’d like to be a career writer.  This person is particularly serious about his work.  And he’s talented too.  Sometimes, he’s got this fascinating, original voice that makes me envious as heck.  I admire him a lot.  Here’s where his story gets frustrated: he never completes anything.  He’s written a few unpublished short stories but, so far, all his book-length projects burn out and blow away.  And I think I might know why.

I’ve got another friend who’s also working at making writing into a career.  Last year, one of her novella projects was taken on and released as an ebook by a digital publishing company.  Her enviable strength is story-telling and her work has strong commercial appeal – vampires, paranormal romance, girls with superpowers.  Years and years before there was EL James, this writer’s greatest success was writing PG-rated fan-fiction based on anime series.

Before she told me about it, I didn’t even realize such a market existed.

What surprised me most about her writing projects weren’t all the Japanese names in them but the way the stories are released.  Most of my friend’s books – which typically finish at a whopping 100,000 words — are released online, one chapter at a time, every Thursday.  They’re like old-fashioned serials.  She’s the Charles Dickens of anime fan-fiction.  When she starts writing, she has a general idea of where the story needs to go and how it will get there but she still sits down at her computer each week willing to surprise herself.

Here’s how my burn-out writer friend differs most from my serial-writer friend: outlining.  While the serial writer is free-wheeling, taking her story one week at a time, Mr. Burn-out is outlining.  When he finally cracks open his computer to write his books, he’s already tacked down every element of the story like it’s an entomological display – an array of dead, labeled specimens pinned to a blank field.  He outlines plots and characters until it’s hard for me to imagine how there could be anything left in them to surprise him.

By the time he’s ready to turn his voice and the rest of his talent on his outline, there’s nothing else to discover in his story.  Frankly, I think it might bore him.  Or maybe it’s something more complicated – like the perfect, linear vision in the outline starts to seem too sublime to actually approach.  Maybe it triggers something like an anxiety reaction and paralyzes all that talent of his.

I’ve talked to him about it, tried to get him to write with more of an open-mind.  But he says he enjoys writing the outlines.  When I suggest the outlines might be part of what keeps him from ever finishing a project, he’s unconvinced – for now.

I don’t get it but I’m trying to understand.  Yes, I hate outlines.  Sometimes, when a writing project is getting long and disordered, I’ll grudgingly make notes about plot points on index cards, spread the cards out of my bed, and move them around until I can see how the structure of the story needs to be strengthened.  But that’s the extent of my outlining.  For me, an outline is like punishment for falling into disorganized writing.  It’s remedial and necessary sometimes but it’s not a large or pleasant part of the process.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’d be a better writer if I took the advice of my kids’ elementary school language arts teachers and drew a good “thought-web” every now and then.  But until someone else makes me do it, I’ll just keep typing.