The 99 per cent

Or: why talent is overrated. 

Sometimes we talk about stories like this: the story is an entity with its own consciousness. The story arrives, via a muse. The story reveals itself as it is being written. Writers are mere scribes.

This airy-fairy, woo-woo, magical thinking is a whole lot of nonsense. Writing isn't magic. It's good old-fashioned hard work. It is sitting your butt in the chair every single day and forcing yourself to do the work. Because trust me about this, if you don’t keep the pump primed, it will not yield a drop.

Sure, there are moments that feel sublime but the movie montage of how a book is made would look really mundane. Writing is a nose stuck in a refugee law text book. It is hours trawling the internet for photos of jail cells and then more hours trying to find the correct combination of words to evoke said jail cells. It is reading over something you thought was insightful and poetic the day before only to discover it has morphed into toxic waste. It is revising a chapter for the tenth time. It is writing the same sentence five different ways and then reading each option out loud. It is chucking months of work and going back to square one. It is persistence and effort with a healthy dose of self-hatred. And most of the time it is also working despite deep uncertainty. Not knowing if the story is any good. Or else, knowing it is not good but hoping it might eventually get better.

Where the work  happens

Sometimes, because we are often asked and it is difficult to properly describe how stories are invented, we writers revert to supernatural explanations. Harry Potter famously appeared to JK Rowling in a train car. I believe this anecdote because that is how many of my characters have rocked up too. I’ll be tossing and turning with insomnia when a little girl appears out of thin air.

This is called inspiration (1%). Then comes the perspiration (99%). Now I have to make decisions. What’s this little girl’s name, age, and future vocation? Is she introverted or extroverted, a pessimist or optimist? Decisions mean constraints and constraints are important because good writing is precise. You can’t be specific when you are writing about a character if you haven’t nailed down the details. But then the real questions are: What does this character want more than anything? Who far will she go to get it? And for that, I free write pages and pages and pages, most of which will never leave my notebook. From all this random riffing emerges a picture of who the character is and from there the plot evolves.

It does everyone a disservice to suggest there’s a fairy who selectively whispers sweet nothings into the ears of a chosen few. Talent is real and it sure is helpful but it’s highly overrated and not the key ingredient. If you want to be a writer, write. Do the work. I repeat: talent is not necessary. Work is necessary. That’s the 99%.

Imaginary friends

While signing books in Halifax last week, a reader asked me if I was still in touch with any of the people from the boat. I think she must have assumed I'd interviewed real people from the MV Sun Sea, which of course I hadn't. I have no idea who any of the real refugees were and Mahindan et. al are totally imaginary. But I also thought a lot about her question afterward because it's true that for years I was in communion with all of my characters. They were continually changing and growing and forming and re-forming in my mind as I researched and drafted and revised the novel. But then last April, when I submitted the final manuscript, I drew a line in the sand and put an end to the creation. And now, while I do talk about those characters a lot, I no longer engage with them. They are out in the world being re-imagined anew by every reader. They are no longer my characters to create. They feel like old friends, people I reminisce about but never hear from.

A few weeks ago, I had the chance to chat with Anna Bowen at the Eden Mills podcast (30 mins). We talked a lot about characters, as well as the research that went into the novel, and the scenes that wouldn't have existed if not for my editors. We also talked about a bit of bonus content that you can find here.

I'll be taking part in the Eden Mills Writers' Festival in September and I'm really, really looking forward to it.

Toast is never toast

I've written about dialogue but what about the stage business? Action in a scene - a character moving through a space, physically interacting with other characters - serves several functions. It enlivens the narrative while grounding it in a fictional reality. And it paints a picture, allowing the reader to visualize the story. I'm a fan of interweaving stage business with dialogue, sometimes even using it to replace dialogue tags (he said/ she said). For example, consider:

I don't know, John said. It was there this morning.
I don't know. John buttered his toast. It was there this morning.

This example came from fellow Port Authority writer, Jamie, who smartly pointed out that the toast only deserves to be in the scene if it serves a greater purpose. It's not enough for the toast to highlight the speakers.

Now consider this:

Where's the cheque book? Nora asked, searching the junk drawer.
Dunno. John buttered his toast. It was there this morning.

Better right?

I'd probably take it a little further, show John swiping a pat of butter off the block, describe the dry scrape of knife on toast. Nora, meanwhile, pulls out scissors and rubber bands and junk mail and pens. John dips his knife into the jam and spreads a thick glob of strawberry over the greasy toast. Nora slams the junk drawer shut, yanks another one open.

This is a lot of unnecessary detail and most of it would be cut back in revisions but do you smell what I'm cooking? The toast now tells us who is speaking, suggests something about motivation, and gives insight into character. It furthers the action. The toast provides subtext - something unsaid to read between the lines. The toast is multi-tasking.


Advice from other writers

Glimmer Train - long time home of incredible, award-winning short fiction...have you all submitted work to them? you really should - has a couple of instructive essays on their website at the moment.

First up, British author Rowena Macdonald's tips for writing dialogue. My favourites are: 2. Don't dump too much information in dialogue. In real life, we don't always helpfully explain what's going on AND 7. Don't be afraid to let conversations hang unresolved in mid-air and move onto another scene.

MFA director Josh Henkin explores the link between plot and character. Plot, he argues, is discovered by interrogating character: "My graduate students often tell me they have trouble with plot, but what they're really telling me is they have trouble with character. I remind my students to ask themselves a hundred questions about their characters. Better yet, they should ask themselves a thousand questions, because in the answers to those questions lie the seeds of a narrative." This is a truth I know and yet somehow often forget. When you're stuck on something, go back to character.




I finally got with the times this year and discovered Elizabeth Hay, devouvering first her Giller-winning Late Nights on Air and then her newest novel His Whole Life.

Both books share a parallel story structure. In the foreground are the characters with their everyday trials - in the case of Late Nights, a group of co-workers working at a radio station in Yellowknife and in the case of His Whole Life, a family on the verge of divorce. And looming in the background are larger forces, big political events. In Late Nights it's a proposed gas pipeline that has many in the First Nations community up in arms. In His Whole Life it's Quebec's historic '95 referendum. I've always been fascinated by this structure but it's a tricky thing to pull off. How to not draw too fine a point on the parallels between the stories? How to hold the big things in the background when their natural position is front and centre?

The answer is character. And here is something Hay excels at. Her characters are precisely drawn, flawed, messy, real, and as a result, deeply compelling. They - not the big events - are the through line that pull the narrative along. In His Whole Life, the character who really struck me was George.


George is petty, jealous, a coward, and underlying it all is his staunch, infuriating, refusal to be happy. He acts out in cruel ways that hurt those around him. He's unreasonably jealous of his wife's relationship with her best friend. He refuses to get treatment for a cancer, forcing his family to bear witness to this slow acting suicide. He has no friends. His birth family doesn't much care for him. And no wonder.

But George, unlike a Disney villain, is not one-dimensional. And here's the thing that Hay does so well: she gives George moments of true tenderness, allows us glimpses of the bigger man he could be if only...what? If only his first wife and elder brother hadn't died young. If only his second wife hadn't left him for a woman. If only he didn't think of himself as such a loser. It is possible then to feel sorry for George, maybe even sympathetic. Because Hay has such empathy for him, gives the reader a window on the source of his wounds. And because he's so real, he becomes recognizable. We all know a George, don't we?

And these complex feelings of loathing and sympathy for a person we think we know, this is the formula for a compulsive read. Who cares about the Referendum when there's a truly interesting, nuanced, personal family drama unfolding? The illusion that we're reading about real people is what keeps us turning the page, to find out what happens in the end.



Character is King

Like everyone else with a Netflix account, I am obsessed with Stranger Things. The Stephen King font and creepy opening music, the retro 80s vibe, that nerdy kid with no teeth....all of it hooked me.

Lit Reactor are also fans, as it happens, and Max Booth III has posted a great column today about what the show can teach us about characterization. Without giving away any spoilers, let me summarize a couple of the key points:

Think of exposition as narrative calories. You’re only allowed 2000 of them per book, so you better spread that shit out or you’re going to get hungry awfully fast.
— Max Booth III

1. Don't introduce a character with a massive exposition dump, unless you want to bore your reader. Reveal your characters gradually; allow the reader to meet them over time through the course of the story. Think about how we get to know people in our lives...bit by bit over time, through what they say and do and how they look and how others interact with them. Why should characters we meet on the page be any different?

2. Create nuanced characters. You can write a scene - as the writers of Stranger Things do - where two characters are in conflict but no one is really the bad guy. This, I think, is more often than not how conflict works in the real world. Both people act poorly. Or there is a misunderstanding and each person acts according to their narrow understanding of the situation. Heroes and villains are boring. Anti-heros are compelling. Villains who have endearing qualities, who can evoke even a bit of empathy, are more interesting.

3. Play around with stereotypes. Everyone expects the highschool Queen Bee to be a one-note bully. But what if she's not? What if she's deeply insecure about her dyslexia? Or is revealed to be heroic?

4. Character is King. Above plot and setting and scene, there is character first and foremost. Nothing makes me more perplexed than a character who acts in an inauthentic way; this is what happens when characters act in service to the plot. Ask yourself: is this really what this person would do, how they would feel? And be honest! Sometimes the plot as you originally envisioned it has to change. My advice: Create complex interesting characters and then follow where they lead.

If you've already watched the whole show, take a look at Lit Reactor's column. It's a thoughtful take on what works and doesn't in terms of characterization on the show.

And if you haven't watched the show yet....?!?

Character alignment

Another great podcast is Imaginary Worlds, a show about "how we create them and why we suspend our disbelief." Even though I'm not a sci fi/ fantasy nut, I'm  hooked on this show. Mainly because it gets at what I am interested in: story telling and fiction-making.

The most recent episode, on the topic of character, is especially instructive. Good versus evil and all the shades (six, to be exact) in between.

The Three Types of Evil

  1. Evil but law-abiding: a character like Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter books whose uses rules as a way to enact her cruelty but would never act outside of the law. Remember: Umbridge was never a Death Eater. But maybe only because that was "illegal."
  2. Evil but neutral about the law: a character like Voldemort who cares nothing for laws and institutions and definitely does not mind killing even loyal followers when they cease to be of use.
  3. Chaotic Evil: an anarchist villain whose only motivation is upheaval. The Joker!

It's a valuable exercise to think about character in this more in-depth way. Beyond morality, how do your imaginary friends interact with the law? Kirk and Spock are both good but one is law-abiding and the other will happily bend the rules. And that difference is where the conflict in their relationship lies, it's what makes the dynamic between them rich. Or consider Marvel heroine Jessica Jones who is actually good but wants so desperately to be neutral, a lone wolf. The conflict in the show then becomes Jessica Jones versus herself. Of course there's also a dastardly villain but this internal battle of woman vs. herself is the true emotional heart of the story.

Go listen to Imaginary Worlds to hear about the rest. The episode is called "Why they fight" and it runs 23 minutes.


Lost the plot

Tessa Hadley has perfected a magic trick. And I want to know her secret.

She writes these novels - the most recent one is the excellent The Past - that break the rules of plot. Specifically the main rule that plot should progress in an Aristotelian arc. Characters are introduced. The scene is set. There is pressing conflict and tensions mount toward a peak. The handgun is shot, secrets are revealed, the story blows wide open. Then, climax discharged with, characters settle into a new normal and denouement eases into conclusion.

That is the formula. It's what readers expect, what keeps pages turning. But then along comes Tessa Hadley. And she's got no truck with any of that.

In The Past four middle aged siblings gather in the country home of their grandparents. Hadley tells the story through the eyes of the grown children and then, rewinding a few decades, from the point of view of their mother. Secrets are revealed, sure. There is a mystery, yes (the decaying carcass of a dog is found in an abandoned cottage) but it doesn't feel very pressing. There is a romance, yes. But it isn't very urgent. Doesn't this sound like the world's most boring book?

And yet, The Past is a compulsive read. I finished it in just a few days and then was sorry it wasn't longer (this, incidentally, is how I devour all her books and stories). What is it about Hadley? Her prose is faultless. She has a way of finding words for the things that are indescribable; her writing thrums with arresting moments of insight. And in her stories, character is queen. Her imaginary people - so flawed, so foolish, so endearing - continue to resonate long after the last page is read.

Is this the secret? Can conventional plot be replaced by insightful, well-crafted prose and pitch perfect characters? Are those three ingredients sufficient to propel a story forward? Somehow, I don't think it's as simple as following a formula. My suspicion is it's the exceptional writer who can pull this off, conjure story without plot. And those rare birds aren't giving away any of their secrets.