Don't lose the plot

A few weeks ago I submitted my very final revisions on The Boat People to my Doubleday editor (praise hands, please). Although I sent off the final manuscript waaaaaaay back in April, there have been rounds and rounds of copy edits (I've lost count of how many), first on the Canadian side and more recently south of the border. I'm incredibly grateful for these reviews and the meticulous copy editors with their magnifying glasses because quite frankly there were MISTAKES. So many typos and instances of poor spelling and factual inaccuracies and poor grammar and on and on and on.... Good thing there are editors to catch the ball when I drop it.

Cartoon by the talented  Gemma Correll  ( via Instagram )

Cartoon by the talented Gemma Correll (via Instagram)

But now. Now. Now, I'm eager to disappear into a new project. When I began The Boat People I dove in without any kind of outline. And that was a mistake I paid for much, much later, when just as I was trying to sell the book, it became apparent how many potholes were baked into the plot. Yikes.

Some writers swear off outlines and others swear by them. I can see the arguments on both sides. Having a detailed a plan and then sticking to it doggedly can strangle creativity. But equally, following your nose without even the faintest hint of a map can be perilous too. Trust me, you don't want to be writing the synopsis - four drafts and two years in - only to discover major structural problems. Note to self, I thought back in late 2015: Start with an outline. Write the synopsis before the novel.

Mind you, this is only my second novel. So what do I know? Not much. But this time around things will be different. Fellow Port Authority writer Morgan told me about a site which outlines the "Snowflake Method" for novel design. Fair warning: It's also an advertisement for software. But you can ignore the software ads if you like and just focus on this post that breaks down how to write a summary (which is different from a synopsis) and how to flesh that short overview out into a more detailed outline.

To be honest, I skipped a lot of the opening blah-blah-blah and went straight to "The Ten Steps of Design." This is the meat of the method. What was particularly helpful for me (as someone who knows nada about playwriting) was to envision the story in three acts and really meditate on epiphany, desire, and conflict, the three key ingredients that captivate readers.

I stopped at the end of step 7. Step eight is about selling a book proposal and step nine gets into more detailed outlining of individual scenes...which is where I draw the line, at the moment, on planning.

What I'd like to do is set up my outline, work on my characters, and then go back to Robert Olen Butler's method of imagining scenes. I'm hoping - this is the goal anyway - to strike a balance between pre-planning and intuition. We'll see how that goes...

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.



Truth in fiction

Write one true sentence, counselled Hemingway. I didn't get the deepest truth out of the idea, complained Mansfield. In fiction writing, the main thing is truth. That is what we, as writers, struggle to convey.

What is "truth" in fiction? To me it is reproducing a mood, character or storyline that the reader recognizes. Bonus points if you can articulate a feeling the reader has experienced. This is truth: that moment of recognition. When the reader thinks "yes!"

Claire Messud fleetingly tackles this question during this interview for the Harvard Gazette. She identifies "these moments that have that energy, you recognize is as a reader... if you recognize a work of literature as true, it has an energy and an authority. And as readers, we want more of that. You will read 1,000 pages or you will stay up until 4 a.m. to have that."


I’m singing the praises of short fiction in this month’s Atlantic Books Today. So here’s a shout out to a few of my favourites:

Zadie Smith is the Queen, utterly incapable of penning a false sentence. And The Embassy of Cambodia is one of my all-time favourites. 

What is there to say about Lorrie Moore? I have read and re-read her work, divining her secrets, hoping her talent will seep into my bones through osmosis. Her very best story, quite possibly the very best short story anyone has ever written, is: People like that are the only people here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk

Tessa Hadley is the writer I would most like to emulate. Her stories are moody, three-dimensional, full of sensual detail. The graceful way a young girl flexes her toes. The quality of light filtering through sheer curtains. It’s always easy to settle into her worlds because they feel so comfortable, so familiar. Read The Eggy Stone or An Abduction and see for yourself.

Adam Haslett's Notes to my biographer  has it all: a cranky first person narrator, pathos, and bullet points!

I re-discovered Katherine Mansfield recently and fell down the rabbit hole of her online biographies.Check out The Doll’s House, a poignant story about childhood and class.

Frida Walks by Alice Zorn won PrairieFire’s fiction contest a couple of years ago. In this coming of age tale, a young woman with a disability looks, not for love exactly, but for desirability, and acceptance.

Jessica Grant’s enigmatic Messiah deserves to be read out loud and often. Find it in her collection Making Light of Tragedy.

Lisa Moore’s shorts are always worth a read. One of her best is Guard of What, published in The Malahat Review.

Pigs Can’t Fly by Shyam Selvadurai is all innocence and wit, the story of a little boy butting heads with his bossy cousin. Read it in his debut collection of linked stories, Funny Boy.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Going Ashore is the final installment in a trio of linked shorts called “Hema and Kaushik.” I have a soft spot for linked stories, especially ones that build to a startling crescendo as these three do. They are found in her collection Unaccustomed Earth.

And speaking of linked collections here are three good ones:


Well, this is exciting! On September 14 Breakwater Books is publishing Racket, a collection of short stories written (mostly) by my writing group, The Port Authority, and edited by our champion and guru (oh captain, my captain!), Lisa Moore. This whole collection is her brain child, really. She had the idea, pitched it to Breakwater, and agreed to wrangle all our disparate pieces into something coherent.

Isn't the cover spiffy? It's a riff on the Purity Hard Bread packaging, which seems appropriate. Port Authorities, Sailor's Grub etc. There are eleven stories and mine is the last one. They let me have the last word. How about that?


Here is one reason why I admire Michael Crummey: he writes in colour.

Take The Wreckage. At heart this is the story of Sadie and Wish, two teenagers who meet in rural 1940s Newfoundland and are then separated by the second World War. Wish goes off to fight. Sadie moves to St. John's. The story has all the makings of white bread and no one could fault a writer for populating a novel set in 1940s Newfoundland with a homogeneous cast. But that is not Crummey's MO. There's a Japanese soldier, a point of view character who is empathetically drawn. And a whole mess of Lebanese people milling about the streets of St. John's (side note: this is how I learned that the Lebanese have been in Newfoundland for centuries).

In Sweetland, a novel that takes place almost entirely on a tiny island cast off  Newfoundland's shore, Crummey tows in a life raft of Tamil refugees. In Galore, there's another life raft, this one bearing a lone black survivor, a story that echoes the tale of Lanier Phillips.

My hunch is these are deliberate choices. Carefully thought out, purposeful decisions to show diversity in unexpected places. Because here is the thing: those Lebanese merchants in mid-century St. John's, the Tamils on the life boat, the sole black survivor of a disaster at sea, those are all based on true stories. Art, when it imitates life, is brilliant with colour.