The hype cycle (aka. the process)

Hello. It’s 2019. Is it passe to say Happy New Year?

It’s been radio silence here for the past four weeks because…drum roll…I’ve been writing! As in actual words and sentences and paragraphs and scenes and things that could possibly even be called CHAPTERS. Every time I manage to get words on a page it really does feel miraculous.

Today I was listening to the latest episode of the podcast Zig Zag. It’s about The Hype Cycle which is a graph created by tech analyst Jackie Fenn a quarter century ago. This graph was meant to describe new technology (ie. bitcoin, Twitter, push notifications) but it’s been borrowed by other fields and its basics are a helpful way to think of the writing process.

Image via Gartner

Image via Gartner

The Hype Cycle has five phases:

1. initial spark of innovation
2. peak of expectation
3. trough of disillusionment
4. slope of enlightenment
5. plateau of productivity

Every story begins with the first idea. It might not even be a very big idea but that match gets lit and it sets off a bonfire and you get so jazzed about writing this amazing thing.

That sets off phase two which is when you’re deep in the writing zone, churning out pages and pages and completely engaged with your project. It’s such a happy time, possibly the happiest time! At some point though you tumble into phase three, the pit of hell and despair. I have been thinking about the trough of disillusionment a lot because I know it is looming on my horizon but also because I’ve been evaluating manuscripts for other writers this month and I am always conscious of the need to balance critique and praise. My job is to question areas where I feel the draft is weak and offer suggestions for possible improvements. The risk is - especially with writers who I don’t know well or at all - that my comments will throw them into the trough and they won’t try to climb out.

Here’s the thing: the trough is a necessary part of the process. It’s like driving through the isthmus between St. John’s and Terra Nova National Park. Sometimes that damn isthmus is a death trap and the fog is low and there’s a horrible blizzard and you’re driving with zero visibility. But there’s literally no other way to get to the Park. You just have to white knuckle through it. The trough is the same. There’s no way to get to a better draft without seeing the flaws and feeling bad about them.

The trick is to keep calm and carry on. Don’t give up. And don’t deceive yourself into thinking the flaws aren’t there. Accept the flaws. Start trying to fix them. That’s phase four, the gradual work of revision and correction. And onward to the plateau of productivity. That initial hopeful burst doesn’t really come back. For one thing, after some time, the idea is no longer novel. But what you get instead in these last two stages is gradual improvement. Little by little. Until the end.

Sometimes you have to cycle through phases two and three several times while working on a single project. Dr. Math and I have this running joke in our house. He comes home from a day of research and I ask: “How was it?” If it’s been a good day he says: “I solved this lemma. I’m a genius!” But inevitably, the following day he’ll come home with a hang dog, downtrodden expression and tell me the breakthrough he made yesterday ended up only being a partial solution. Or he’s now discovered some other loose thread. Scientific research and fiction writing, if plotted on graphs would look much like the same rollercoaster. See the ride through to the end. That’s what I’m saying.

Earning an income

Back in April I did a Q&A with a group of highschool students. How much do you make from a book, they asked. Is being a novelist a realistic career choice? I think the teachers were slightly mortified but I found the candid questions refreshing. Frankly, these teenagers were a hell of a lot more pragmatic than most adults.

The answers, by the way, are: not much and no, not really. As I told the teenagers, most writers have day jobs. Because even if you hit a jackpot like the Giller, you have to make that windfall last until you sell the next book. And books take years to write (I started The Boat People in 2013, 4.5 years before it came out). Advances, even when they are generous, don't amount to a whole lot when spread out over the gestation and infancy of a book.

Those of us who are full time writers usually have a bunch of side hustles and income streams. This list is not exhaustive. It is limited to my own experience and what others have told me.

BOOK SALES

If you’re lucky, your publishing house will give you an advance. A small house might give you zero dollars or a thousand or $500. Someone recently told me that a generous advance for a debut novelist is $20K. I don’t know if this is true. In any case, these numbers assume you make a Canadian sale. There is more to be made on an American sale and then of course there are other international English-language sales, plus translations.

I think everyone should at least try to get a good agent because agents know everything and have an incentive to get you the best possible deal.

An advance is an advance against earnings. Meaning you have to sell enough books to earn out your advance before you see any royalties. Royalties are usually very detailed with a whole mess of percentages. I like to think of it as 10% of the cover price but that’s not really true. There are different percentages for all kinds of things. E-book percentages for example can be renegotiated after two years (because e-book sales are ever changing!) This is also why agents are helpful. They can spot contractual bullshit at a 100 paces.

FILM/ TV RIGHTS

People seem to think every book is being made into a movie (or at least that my book will be) to which I say: don’t hold your breath.

Writers get paid when a book gets optioned (which can happen several times over without a movie getting made) and then if the movie gets made, they get paid again for the rights and possibly also if they have some kind of role in the production. You really need an agent to get any of this done and I know nothing except that even getting an option seems pretty good because it’s cash money. And that is what we are all here for. CASH. MONEY. MAKE IT RAIN.

SPEAKING ENGAGEMENTS

Some writers are on the speaker’s circuit, meaning they give key note addresses and speeches at conferences and fundraisers and large public events. The Massey Lectures are one example. But there are lots of other opportunities too (for example, law firm lunch and learns). I was asked to give a speech at Pier 21 in the spring as part of their author series and that’s when I signed up with a speaking agent. Since then my agent has found me other opportunities and looking forward to 2019, I can see that it’s going to be a key part of my income. The great thing about these events is there’s almost always a book sale table. Which means….royalties + speaker’s fee. These events are totally exhausting and hard work but they are also a great way to pay the bills.

MANUSCRIPT EVALUATIONS

Providing feedback on someone’s manuscript or short story takes time and intense creative energy but it can also be a good income stream. I personally get a lot of joy out of helping other authors improve their manuscripts. (Get in touch if you’d like a quote. I’m restarting my MS evaluation service in the new year.)

EVENTS

Festivals, panels, public readings, etc. The going rate ranges between $125-$300/hour. Sometimes non-writers get huge eyes when they hear this number but let’s get real: these events aren’t lucrative. There’s usually so much travel involved that it works out to pennies on the hour. You do events to sell books, get your name out, and meet readers and other writers. The pay cheque is appreciated and necessary, don’t get me wrong, but events aren’t money spinners.

WORKSHOPS

If it’s part of a festival you’ll probably get the per hour rate (say $200) but if you’re teaching a workshop in some other context (say at home for your Writer’s Guild) you can set whatever rate you like. You’re the boss. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’m planning to teach a workshop in the new year. Stay turned.

TEACHING

Some writers work as professors or instructors in MFA programs. Some teach out of their homes or lead one-off classes and workshops. Some act as mentors to emerging authors. Teaching can be a key part of an author’s income but again, income varies greatly depending on whether you are a tenured professor or sessional slave labour.

JURY DUTY

Grants and prizes all need juries. In my experience the going rate varies a lot but no matter what, the hourly rate is never going to be great. Some proportion of jury duty is just unpaid labour. You do it for good karma or to help get your name/ the name of your book out into the world. Or you do it because you admire the prize and are honoured to be involved. Or you do it because you respect the other jurors and think you’ll enjoy working with them. Weigh the pros and cons and factor all of it against the time commitment and what else you could be doing in that time (ie. writing).

GRANTS & PRIZES

Grants count as taxable income but most prizes are tax-free! Shortlisted authors sometimes get a cheque too. In both cases it’s a bit like the lottery and while I think everyone should apply to grants, it’s a mistake to count on the money.

LIBRARY LOANS

Libraries that carry your book are paying a different price to the publishing house than you or I pay at the book shop. So you’re making money on those royalties. But every time someone takes out the book, you could potentially be getting a bit of money for each of those loans too. You have to sign up here.

BOOK CLUBS & CLASS VISITS

Some schools are already set up with a budget for visiting authors and all you have to do is invoice. And some book clubs volunteer a payment. But often this is a case of “we have no money but will you come see us anyway?” You can choose to do this work for free or you can ask to be paid. And if the latter, you can set whatever rate you like. For an hour with a class $200-$250 is what you could expect.

Caveat: If you’re being invited to any event that charges people to attend then you should absolutely be paid.

ARTICLES/ ESSAYS/ WEB CONTENT/ STORIES

Rates vary so, so, so widely. And often I end up writing content for free (if the request comes through my publicist/ I think it’s worth the publicity). Over time, I’ve been doing fewer of these freebies though. It’s demoralizing and unfair to be a professional writer who writes for free.

Writing articles can be a decent side hustle and some authors turn their essays into collections (smart). Some writers have regular columns in print or online publications. Some have an editorial or managerial role. I have no idea what this kind of work pays but it seems like it could be rewarding and fun.

And then there are short stories which we write and try to sell to magazines. It’s never a ton of money. I think the most I ever got for a short story was $350 (for a story that I spent years working on and a whole lot of money submitting to various places that rejected me). Note that you can make more if a story wins a contest but contests usually cost $$$ to enter. (If you’re in NL, the Arts & Letters is free to enter and lucrative if you win)

RESIDENCIES

Writer-in-residence programs are usually run out of libraries or schools. You commit to a length of time (say a semester) and in that time you read and comment on the work of emerging authors in the community, meet them individually, maybe give a public talk and teach a couple of workshops and in exchange you get a pay cheque. The idea that is you also have time to work on your own project. But you usually have to pay for your own flight and accommodations so unless the residency is in the place where you already live, it’s worth scrutinizing the economics.

SUMMATION

This might seem like a long list but the fact is that most of these items don’t come with a big pay cheque. It’s almost always a case of cobbling things together and crossing your fingers for a windfall (grant/ prize). Some months are feast and others are famine and literally I never know from one year to the next what my total income will be. It really helps to have a sponsor or a trust fund or a life partner with a secure 9-5 or be comfortable living like an undergraduate (this is my theory for why all Canadian writers own the same rug). It also helps to be frugal and diligent about money.

In addition, we all perform a metric ton of unpaid labour. Blurbs, reference letters, interviews, book shop readings, travel, writing articles that never see the light of day, having your brain picked over coffee…. And that’s on top of the administrivia that comes with running your own business: emails, chasing down cheques, tracking finances, publicity and self promotion, writing grant applications and job proposals, submitting stories to publications and contests, waiting on hold with CRA….

So it also helps to be comfortable with the word no. You have to say no a lot. Because in addition to making enough money, you have to also set aside time to do the thing we are really here to do: WRITE BOOKS. Oh yeah…that.

Gripes

Rebecca wrote this dark comedy of a blog post recently and I was all “SING IT, SISTER.” It’s about the indignities she has endured in her years as a writer. Rebecca has been writing and publishing longer than I have so she’s had to grin and bear more, but I share indignity #4 on her list.

Anyway, like Rebecca, I’ve mostly had wonderful experiences and I know I’m incredibly lucky to even be a writer and have work published but there are also moments that make me want to shake my fist. Please enjoy some dark humour…

In March I adjudicated a short story competition. Reading stories and choosing the winner was a pleasure but then the organization tried to scam me out of my payment with the old “the cheque is in the mail” routine. It was not in the mail. Not even after I sent several emails. And then there was radio silence and I started to get seriously concerned. Fortunately, the organization was the PEI Writers’ Guild and I have an acquaintance from PEI. She intervened and then the cheque really was in the mail.

In April I took part in the book club at my local museum (The Rooms in St. John’s). People paid $15 each to attend. The evening was a delight. We had a really big and wonderful audience and the interviewer was fantastic. But the payment took months and several emails on my part. If I don’t pay the plumber within 30 days he charges interest. But some organizations seem to think writers don’t deserve to get paid on time. Anyway, good thing we have Status of the Artist legislation, huh?

Speaking of the Status of the Artist blah-blah-blah, remember this?

An organization asked me to give a key note speech at their event. Key note speeches take time, effort, and stress. I wrote back a very polite email (which I put a lot of thought into) where I laid out why I couldn’t work for free, how to get in touch with my agent and negotiate a rate, and then listed a couple of other much cheaper options for how I could help them out. Think I got the courtesy of a reply? Nope.

A group of writers asked me to teach them a private workshop for free. LOL.

FOR REAL THOUGH…WHY THE HELL DO PEOPLE THINK I WANT TO WORK FOR FREE? FOR THE RECORD: I DO NOT.

Once I was on a panel where all the authors were asked to prepare a 10 minute reading. One of the authors yammered on for about 25 minutes while the other author and I stared dolefully at each other. Finally the moderator cut him off (he hadn’t even gotten to his reading yet!). Then we did a Q&A and he kept trying to hog all the air time. Who am I kidding? Of course this happened more than once. And to paraphrase Rebecca, it’s not all male authors of a certain age but it is ALWAYS male authors of a certain age.

Writers are forever being picked up at airports and driven places by strangers. Sometimes it’s innocuous and you make pleasant small talk. Just as often it’s a bloody nightmare. Once, I got into a fight with a driver about “Hilary’s emails.” I hope he wasn’t expecting a tip. In New York, a driver with a Spanish accent complained about “Muslim foreigners.” He didn’t get a tip either. Once, soon after the miscarriage of justice that was the Coulton Bushie trial, a driver talked about why “Indian boys” deserve to get shot.

Hello older man I’ve just met. Please remove your hand from my upper back. Please stop taking every opportunity to randomly touch me as we stand at this registration table making awkward small talk while we wait for our name tags. I’m going to stand waaaaaay over here now and go out of my way to avoid you for the rest of this literary festival.

At a big event, in a room of 500 people where everyone had a copy of my book but most of them hadn’t read it yet, a woman stood to ask a question and shamelessly gave away the ending while the rest of the audience shouted her down. (Not the first time it’s happened either.)

Nasty emails from readers. Yes, really.

I agreed to take part in an event with another author. After the arrangements were made and plane tickets were bought, I found out it was an unmoderated conversation. For an hour. With an author I had previously met once for five minutes in an elevator. I happen to like this author very much and I think the feeling is mutual but it’s really unfair to make authors act as their own moderators. Promoting your own work and moderating a conversation are two very different skills and it’s impossible to move back and forth seamlessly. Fortunately, there were only 7 people in the audience.

Once after I’d given a 45 minute speech that I’d spent a very long time researching and preparing, a man in the audience said: “I haven’t read your book but let me tell you why everything you’ve just said is problematic.” LOL. When it was my turn to reply, I very politely eviscerated him to audience applause. Come at me, bro. But you best not miss.

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%.

The glass is 22% full

So far this year I'm 0 for 14. Acceptances to submissions, that is.

As a coping mechanism, I've been gravitating toward articles about rejection (misery, meet company, etc.). Writer Weike Wang has a hilarious - well, I don't know if it's meant to be funny but I found it so - essay on rejection which I highly recommend. In it she talks about powering through and overcoming her 100% rejection rate.

Inspired by her essay (and her PhD in biostatistics!), I decided to crunch the numbers on my own spreadsheet. Twenty two per cent, that's my to-date acceptance rate. Another way to phrase it: In five years, I've been rejected 45 times and accepted 10 times, a 78% rejection rate. I'm not being sarcastic when I say...that's not too shabby! Better than I'd have guessed, even.

So look, I don't know if these quirky mathemagical mind games work for everyone. But they give me solace. If you're going to be a writer AND maintain some semblance of mental health, then you must find ways to shake off self doubt.

Because it always bears repeating, here's Cheryl Strayed on how to cope: “You do not let yourself think about it. There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart.”

 

Vampires

I spent two months in India this year, at a DIY writing retreat in Mumbai. I spent most days at a library where I didn't have internet access. Really and truly. There wasn't even a library computer I could use. If I wanted to check email, I had to leave the library, walk down a flight of stairs, exit the building, walk out of the compound, cross the street and enter a completely different compound, walk five minutes to where I was staying and take three flights of stairs to my room. If I had things I needed to legitimately look up for work, I'd make a list and do a bunch of google searches at the end of the day. Also: this research facility was dedicated to the hard sciences. Everyone at the library was a total stranger, none of them writers. So I had no social distractions either. If I wanted a break, there were two options: have a biscuit in the canteen or take a walk by the sea. Sometimes I put my head on the desk and napped. It was simultaneously frustrating and freeing. I was itchy for the internet but also felt immensely free. And productive! My American editor was so impressed by the speed and quality of my edits that she joked she was going to send all her writers to India.

Deep work - concentrating your mind and creative energy for a sustained length of time without distraction - is a non-negotiable of good writing. It is THE ONLY work any of us needs to do. And yet - barring trips to Indian research institutes - it is near impossible. We come at our work in fits and starts, eager for interruption, one ear always primed for the doorbell, the buzz of a text. Now that I'm back in Canada, back in range of my high speed internet connection, I'm the slow, laggardly schmoe who can't get a damn word written.

Last week's episode of Hidden Brain is a gem for writers. Host Shankar Vedantam tackles the concept of deep work, why it's so difficult to ignore the siren song of our to-do lists and email and social media, and what we can do to overcome these mental energy vampires.

This moment

On Saturday night, as I was about to embark on the evening's festivities, I saw a pithy cartoon that summed my year up. But dumpster fire or not, 2016 is over and the page has freshly turned on this new year.

In 2017 my resolution is to live in the moment. This moment. This one right now. We have a joke in my family that the main topic of conversation at every meal is the next one (what will we eat next? and when? and how?). As a natural planner, my brain is always fast forwarding to the next event, the next item on the to-do-list, the next book, the next deadline, and while this is a useful way to manage one's life and career, it is a bad way to actually write.

This year I will stay in the moment of every scene and write from within that moment without skipping ahead. This year I will stop and experience the moment - this very one - and pause to notice all the fine details. Because a good writer is by necessity a noticer.

 

Voice

The New Quarterly invited me to take part in their annual Wild Writers Festival this past weekend.  What fun to meet and hobnob with Southern Ontario writers. As the newbie among a group of more established authors, I took the opportunity to pick everyone's brains and pocketed a few golden nuggets about the publicity cycle, self-promotion, publishing houses, awards, reviews, and...quotation marks (of all things!). Now you know the burning question on every writer's mind: to quote or not to quote?

I was there to participate in a panel on "Finding your voice" with Kirsteen MacLeod, Kerry-Lee Powell, and Brent van Staalduinen. (You can see a few photos on Brent's site) Moderater Carrie Snyder did an admirable job of keeping us on track and asking thought-provoking questions. One remains with me because I still don't know the answer: is there anything you won't write about?

A couple of us were chatting before the panel began and admitted that we could not in fact define the subject in question: voice. We knew what it was not. It was not the character's voice or the narrator's voice. Nor was it style. So what was it then, this mysterious thing we called voice?

Despite a wide-ranging and spirited discussion during our session, I don't think we came to any conclusions. But now, after some time for reflection, I believe I have an answer. So if you were at Wild Writers on Saturday and came away disappointed, I offer this post script.

So much of a writer’s voice is... nature - an unconscious, uncontrolled manifestation of our literary DNA.

The author's voice on the page is very much like a person's voice. In the sense that it is something we both can and cannot control. We can, to a certain extent, moderate the way we speak. We can train ourselves not to upspeak, we can stamp out the ums and uhs, we can, at least while sober, hide an accent and while drunk affect one. But all of this, only to a point. A tenor will never be a baritone. A person's spoken voice is particular, specific, and mostly out of their control. Partly because we never actually know what we sound like. You know when you hear your voice in a recording? Is that how I sound? Yeah, that.

Like our spoken voices, our written voices can be partly controlled. It probably changes over time as our work matures, as we try out new genres and adopt new styles. So much of a writer's voice is nurture - a mixture of the books we read and love, our teachers and mentors, the people in our lives, the stuff we consciously adopt. But so much else is nature - an unconscious, uncontrolled manifestation of our literary DNA.

An astute audience member asked this question: is voice  something that is imposed from above or bubbles up from below? To me it is the thing that seeps in, unconsciously, from below, and infuses our writing in ways we don't even realize. It's the thing only readers can intuit the way only others know what we sound like when we speak.

Wild Writers

Next month I'll be taking part in the Wild Writers Literary Festival in Waterloo, hosted by The New Quarterly. Now in its fifth year, the festival is a laid back weekend (November 4-6th) of panel discussions, workshops, and social events. I'm scheduled to be on a Saturday afternoon panel (1:30-2:50pm) moderated by Carrie Snyder, discussing voice with fellow writers Kirsteen MacLeod, Kerry-Lee Powell, and Brent van Staalduinen. If you're in Waterloo on November 5th, come check it out. We'll be on the campus of the University of Waterloo at the Balsillie School of International Affairs 67 Erb Street.

 

Sabbatical

My husband Tom is a mathemagician and they have this antiquated - but fantastic - tradition in academia called sabbatical. Antiquated because it literally comes from the Old Testament (Leviticus 25:1-7). And fantastic because a year off from teaching and administrative responsibilities means more time for intensive research. So we're in Toronto for the Fall. And Toronto in the Fall is magical. The weather is perfect and the city's calendar is stuffed to the gills with cultural events, particularly literary ones.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Word on the Street and, among other sessions, had a chance to hear Zoe Whittall read from her Giller short-listed novel The Best Kind of People. What a pleasure! This book is on my must-read list. And here's a piece of editorial advice she shared from her experience as a TV writer: get in and out of the scene fast. Yes! I forget this too often.

So we're in Toronto. Tom has an office on campus and I alternate between a reading room at Robart's Library and a bright and airy cafe-cum-study space called Grad Room. I've taken to saying we are on sabbatical because it feels that way. A sabbatical from St. John's and life as usual. I'm revising The Boat People, of course, but also working on a couple of other projects (stay tuned) including my first grant application to Canada Council for the Arts. And these are all things I'd be doing if I was home but the vibe here is different. I'm more productive, for one thing, and procrastination - my #1 daily battle at home - doesn't hold the same lure here. I don't know why. I had expected it to be more difficult to write here, that it would take time to settle in to a new work environment and get started. But it's been the opposite. There's something to be said for breaking free of regular routines and shaking things up.

Don't mind the gap

This video of Ira Glass talking about storytelling was making the rounds two or three years ago when I was struggling (who are we kidding? I'm often still struggling) with my writing, with the disconnect between what I wanted it to be and what it actually was, flat and boring and so sorely lacking on the page. The difference between the platonic ideal of my story and my actual craptastic story. Zadie Smith talks about this difference in a fantastic essay called Fail Better. You should go check that out too. Preferably a hard copy version with a pen and a highlighter. But, before that, watch this video, or just close your eyes and listen. Really listen. Because Ira is right. You have to trust your good taste, give it time, and WRITE. Do A LOT of work. Do ALL the work.

WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.WRITE.

In praise of editors

It's been radio silence here for the past several weeks for two reasons. First, my husband and I packed up our lives and moved temporarily to Toronto (more on that later) and second, I'm deep in the throes of editing The Boat People.

Editing on this level, with the guidance and wisdom of actual professionals, is a completely new experience. For one thing it is DEMANDING. You know, I thought the manuscript was pretty good, nearly ready for publication, to be honest. But dear Reader, it was not. Not even close.

Here is the best analogy I've come up with: Writing a novel by yourself is like furnishing a house with the lights off. You feel around a bit, blindly, trying to get a sense of each room, how they fit together, their size. You throw paint on the walls, lay the carpets down. You can't see what colour anything is but it's dark so you don't know the difference. Then your writing group comes over. They help you move the furniture around. Still no one knows how the electrical works so you're fumbling in the dark. It seems pretty good though. You've even hung the art. It's nearly ready for the open house.

Then the editor arrives and flips a switch. Light floods in. Surprise! There's a hammock in the bathroom and a bed in the kitchen. Also, your editor is an interior designer. Now the novel looks completely different. You understand its real potential. You see which chapters must be added, the storylines that should be cut, the themes that need to be brought forward. Good editors call out your lazy writing (in a nice way, lazy writing is my phrase, not theirs), point out the scenes that are begging for catharsis, ask thought-provoking questions.

See what I mean about demanding? Basically you must re-paint all the walls, toss out some carpets and re-arrange half the furniture. And then you have to clean it all up. But it's also worth it. I'm nearly two thirds of the way through the first round (the toughest round, I'm assured) of professionally-aided revisions and already I can see how much stronger and richer The Boat People will be.

The next time you finish a good book, spare a thought for the editor(s) involved. They are the magicians behind the curtain.

A juggernaut of writers

A parliament of rooks. A pride of lions. A murder of crows. But what do you call a group of local women writers? According to The Overcast, we're a juggernaut! A juggernaut of writers.

On Friday, August 26th (7pm at The Space, 72 Harbour Drive), I'll be sitting on a panel with Lisa Moore, Megan Coles, and Andreae Callanan. We'll each do short readings and then organizer Elisabeth de Mariaffi will lead us in a conversation about literature, activism, and writing while feminist. The Event - Women's Rights: Readings and Discussion on Feminist Literature - is part of FemFest NL. Tickets are pay what you can at the door or you can purchase a full festival pass for $60 here.

For more on FemFest, check out Tara Bradbury's rundown in The Telegram and Emily Deming's piece in The Overcast.

 

Bullet in the brain

Last month I taught a writing workshop for teenagers. I stuck to the basics: Aristotelean arc, point of view, character, plot. It was only a three hour workshop so we barely scratched the surface but I was thrilled with how much the students seemed to absorb and the quality of group discussion.

Much of the workshop was spent looking at excerpts of short stories, teasing sentences and paragraphs apart to see how all the different aspects of fiction (point of view, character, sensory detail) work together. We ended with Tobais Wolff's short story Bullet in the Brain. Find it at The New Yorker or allow Wolff to read it to you on this episode of This American Life.

Fair warning to anyone who doesn't know the story: HERE BE SPOILERS.

Wolff's story was the perfect end note, bringing together many of the things we had been discussing all afternoon. But the interesting thing about the story is how Wolff both follows and flaunts convention.

Bullet in the Brain goes like this: A man walks into a bank moments before two armed men hold the place up. The plot is compelling. Right away something dramatic happens and the tension climbs and climbs to a climax. And the pace is quick. The men with guns storm in on page two and by the top of page three one of those guns is shoved into the protagonist's midsection. So far, so conventional.

But then there's this: the protagonist is an ass. A book critic, Anders is known for the "weary elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed." He's arrogant. He's elitist. He can't keep his fool mouth shut, not even when there's a gun shoved into his gut. This is a risk. Because when I paused the reading to ask the fifteen young writers, not one was rooting for Anders. And neither was I.

Another thing Wolff does is he subverts the Aristotelean arc. In a conventional story the denouement and conclusion follow in short order after the climax. Some stories dispense with the resolution altogether and end on a cliffhanger. This makes sense of course; once the big blow up happens, there's little reason for the reader to hang around.

But in Bullet in the Brain, the climax happens at the bottom of page 4 and there are still three more pages left to go...nearly half the story! After the present tense action, the compelling narrative that has keep us glued to the page, ends, Wolff pulls us into flashback and character development.

What?! Character development is meant to happen in the first act, during the "introductions" stage. Flashback is used to develop character of course but also to pause the narrative and draw out the tension. It's not used at the end, after the gun has been fired and the main character is a goner.

Or is it? Wolff doesn't just make the unconventional work, the story works because he flips convention. The drama of the robbery - which we are tricked into thinking is what this piece is all about - is only there in service to the real story. The real story is a tale of character development, how this man Anders became the surly goat he is today. The real story is embedded in the flashback. And then the turn happens. Not in the action on the page (the outcome of which is foreshadowed by the title), but in the mind of the reader. At the end I asked the students how they felt about Anders. They were surprised to find they sympathized with him.

The spreadsheet

It's rejection season! Seven rejections so far this month. My friend Sonam asked me how I handle it - so many "no"s. I've written about rejection before but not about my spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is key to the whole "brush it off" process. (It's also key to staying sane and organized.)

The format doesn't matter too much. Submitted. Rejected. Accepted. That's all you need. Create the spreadsheet as soon as you start sending your work out. That way, when the replies come in, you'll have a place to tally them up and something concrete to do.

The act of filling in the boxes can be analgesic. You read the rejection. You fill in the spreadsheet. Decide if you need to revise the story. If not, because you can see at a glance which publications haven't seen the story yet, you can re-submit right away. The goal is to have as few stories in the rejected section as possible.

Recently, I began jotting down alternative publications beside each submitted story. I highly recommend this approach. It makes re-submitting even more automatic and leaves zero time for brooding.

Writers! If I can give you one piece of advice: stop feeling sorry for yourself. That is precious time when you could be writing, editing, submitting, reading or binge watching Orange is the New Black.

Eventually something will stick. A story will be accepted and then you can move it to the "published" section of the spreadsheet (keep it visible, close to the rejected list). This is important because you can see over time how stories graduate from rejected to accepted. And keeping track of which publications rejected the stories will also help you see the truth: that taste is subjective. Just because a story is rejected doesn't mean it's worthless. Sometimes, yes, the story needs work. And if a rejection comes with feedback, consider it a gift. But often a rejection from one publication is only that: a rejection from one publication.

The spreadsheet speaks the truth. Look at all those acceptances! Look at all those rejections! Being a writer means being rejected. So go send your work out, go court rejection.

 

 

 

 

THE BOAT PEOPLE

BEAUTIFUL NEWS! My debut novel, The Boat People, will be published by McClelland & Stewart (in Canada) and Doubleday (in the US).

Editors Anita Chong and Melissa Danaczko made a joint offer for the US/Canadian rights and I was overjoyed to accept.  As my friend Nancy says, M&S and Doubleday US = the SERIOUS, BIG TIME! But the other truth is I had spoken with both Melissa and Anita at great length before they made the offer. (Funny story: the calls were arranged one after the other and I'd promised my agent Stephanie I'd give her a ring when I was done. And I was on the phone, first with Melissa, then with Anita, for so long (2.5 hours to be exact) that Stephanie thought I'd forgotten all about her!) So by the time the offer came, I was confident that Melissa and Anita shared my vision for the book and that the manuscript would be in safe hands with them.

I'm more grateful than I can say (and possibly also a bit teary) - to Anita and Melissa and their respective houses for seeing possibility in my novel, to Stephanie and the team at Transatlantic for making this whole process so seamless and stress-free, to every single friend, family, and Port Authority member who read my craptastic early drafts, to my husband Tom who never doubted this would happen. BIGGEST DREAM COME TRUE.

Full details are on the press release here.

Sense of an ending II

Last Fall Tessa Hadley was interviewed by BBC Radio 4's James Naughtie about three stories in her collection Married Love. What interested me most - but wasn't discussed much - were her thoughts on endings. You can listen to the full podcast here but to summarize, she says: stories must take a turn and that you should leave something left over, a note of yearning at the end.

To me this means you begin with the characters at a certain point, then in the course of the story their circumstances change, and there is a turn so that they are left somewhere else. Or the reader begins at a point - perhaps with an assumption - and by the end the turn takes place in the reader's mind. The reader comes to a realization or their assumptions are proven wrong.

As for the yearning….there is always that unfinished note at the end of Hadley's stories. I don't think I had ever consciously realized that but it's true. The characters feel like they are left longing or I am. This is one of those characteristics that I love about her stories, that I want to emulate but can't because I can't even really articulate what it is that she does or how she does it.

And then this from Hadley on endings: "If ever you can take off the last paragraph and it still works then you didn't need that last paragraph."

 

 

 

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."

Sense of an ending

In my writing group we have a running joke that no matter what or whose piece I'm critiquing, my advice will always be to cut the last paragraph. I could have sworn it was something Hemingway said but now I can't seem to find the reference. So let's leave it at this: a wise writer once said we should all cut our last paragraphs.

There is a tendency, often, to wax on for too long. Or, worse, to be anxious that the reader will not get it, will fail to properly understand the story. And then the writer, in a moment of weakness, crams a horrible summary at the end to explain the whole thing. No. Just erase all that stuff. The real ending is three sentences up.

Red herring

The novelist Anne Simpson once gave me some good editing advice. Often the beginning (the first sentence, paragraph, chapter) is not really the beginning.

When we sit down to tell a story, it takes a while to warm up, to ease in. So then, in the edits, we must wade through and find the true beginning, the place where the story really starts, and lop off the rest.

I remember having this experience with an early draft of A Drawer Full of Guggums. Originally the story had an extra 500 words at the top. My main character got on a plane, flew half way around the world. Jet-lagged, she listened to her uncle snore in the next room. Bumbling around London, she struggled to find housing. And that was all great fun to write. It was quality time she and I spent together. But all along, I knew the story was about the main character and her quirky landlady. Which meant everything before their first meeting - all those hundreds of words - had to go.

Preludes and prologues, sometimes they are a red herring. Be brave.