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Tips For Writers Vol. 2


Don’t know how to hone in on a specific topic? Baffled by research? Is your character lifeless? Are you afraid to share your work with others? Here are some helpful tips from Goose Lane Editions authors from across the country.

How do you decide on your topic? Getting stuck with writers block is always a problem. What helps you focus on exactly what you want to write?

I read a lot, watch a lot of TV and movies, talk to a lot of folks, listen to a lot of music, and let my mind go where it's gonna go. And I pay attention to everything I come across, even if just for a few seconds. You never know what's going to generate an interesting idea. After a while, something will stand out. Then I'll start making connections between that thing and other things. Some connections will stick, some won't. It's a little bit like an evolutionary process. Then I get down to business: I develop a research question, something I want to know, and a plan for figuring out how to answer that question. Then I focus on my research, starting with respected experts or folks with experience in the relevant field. Then I'll consider the loons for a bit, since you never know what they might be onto. I work the problem until it's focused. Then I write and re-write. And then, if everything goes well, I have something to publish. 

David Moscrop, author of Too Dumb for Democracy?

How important is research to your writing process? 

As a journalist, I have never written anything that didn't require a lot of research first. When I start a new project I don't know what I don't know, so for me, there has to be a level of immersion required before I know I'm on the right path and  know what questions need to be asked.  Before I started to write Conspiracy of Hope, I researched for three or four months just to shape a book proposal and get an outline down. Then I researched as I wrote, deep-diving into one chapter at a time, for two years.  I would have preferred to research much more before I started to write, but my book was initially an MFA project, which meant I had deadlines. Thank goodness — if not for deadlines I might still be researching! After getting a publishing deal, there was another year of research and refinement, and know what? The research never ends. Shouldn't end. If you are writing a book on a controversial subject where there are always new developments in knowledge, you have to keep up. I think that in some genres of non-fiction, memoir for example, the process in finite. You finish the story, and that's it. With expository, journalistic non-fiction involving a current topic, the story continues to evolve, and there's no way to let it go.

Renée Pellerin, author of Conspiracy of Hope

Do you have a sense of plot when you start a short story?

This is different for every writer. I have no plot, so not a worry for me, though I envy writers who are good with plot.  My title story “Knife Party at the Hotel Europa” started from travelling on a train in Italy; when the train was in a series of dark tunnels some juvies were very noisily kicking out windows to get more air.  People on the train thought we were crashing in the dark, some kind of trouble.  I thought that was an ok start for a story, then I read a tiny newspaper clipping about a fatal stabbing at a party in New Brunswick, so I combined them in my story, moving the party and stabbing to Naples.  So not a ton of plot, but enough trouble to hang a story on.  Triangles are good; my early story “Cowboys Inc.” used some travels I’d done in the west, and a triangle, 3 in the same car, was a way to add tension. I’m working on a piece now about some very unhealthy drug addicts I saw in a park; no plot at all! But I knew I wanted to write about the scene. Lorrie Moore has a funny story about starting out in a CW workshop and trying too hard to add plot, eg. landmines in a kitchen. Noir writer Raymond Chandler said when he was stuck he’d have a mysterious knock at the door, then he’d have to figure out who was there; very much like a stage. Munro has some great stories where little happens, but she has incredible observations and details; same for Joyce. Some writers depend more on plot, some on language and wit, some on good looks.

Mark Anthony Jarman, author of Knife Party at the Hotel Europa

How do you decide on your topic? What helps you focus on exactly what you want to write?

I didn’t and couldn’t rationally, logically “decide” on the topic. The story chose me, seized me, engulfed me, and we couldn’t let go of each other until the book came out. And even then, I wasn’t truly finished for a long while afterwards. I can’t imagine embarking on a major piece of writing without that kind of inner passion — all the more unnerving because it is so irrational and unconscious. Thank god for editors.

Anthony Anderson, author of The Diplomat

At what stage are you comfortable sharing drafts?

I'm basically a hermit who is on a tiny island in the middle of the sea, so my draft-sharing is quite limited. For the last few years, I've written almost exclusively novels, and I do think it's a bit of a mistake to show people uncompleted draft and put too much stock in what they have to say about something when they haven't seen the whole thing. Of course, you can't wait until you're all the way done an entire novel to get feedback, but I would caution all the novelists out there to only show people completed sections, and only show those sections to people whose opinion you really trust and who know your work. In workshops etc. there's pressure on everyone to have something to contribute, or changes to make, to a piece of writing you submit. People will give you advice sometimes without thinking through the full ramifications of what they're suggesting, and, obviously, without knowing the full context of your book. Short stories tend to benefit from being picked apart and put back together by a group, and good feedback is essential for writing, but novels benefit most of all from a unity of purpose and voice. So, make sure you're only sharing your work when you feel prepared to accept hard, honest feedback and that you're only soliciting that feedback from people whose writing opinions you trust.

Jan Wong, author of Apron Strings

What helps you focus on exactly what you want to write?

I have been fascinated by the history of the Ripples Internment Camp since the late 1990s, and I very much hope that this publication’s long gestation period will help inspire others to explore it. “Dangerous Enemy Sympathizers” presents an accessible, concise, and well-illustrated account of the history of the Ripples Camp from August 1940 until August 1945 and features a memorable series of events with a diverse cast of characters too extraordinary for fiction. The big question is: why did this happen? While there were huge points to cover in explaining the wider context of the internment camp, I chose to focus on the personal experiences of Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria, who were sent to Ripples as “dangerous enemy sympathizers” by the British government. These predominantly young men included a future Nobel Prize winner, five men who were later appointed to the Order of Canada, and hundreds more who helped secure Allied victory in the Second World War and who went on to enrich Canadian society. Following the departure of the Jewish refugees, the camp incarcerated German- and Italian-Canadian civilians, merchant mariners, Canadian fascist leader Adrien Arcand, and, incredibly, long-time Montreal Mayor Camillien Houde. I continued to emphasize these compelling individual stories, combining them throughout with those who worked as guards and labourers at the camp and the neighbours who lived in the vicinity to illuminate the Second World War’s substantial effect on Canada. These stories are both intensely local and nationally relevant, and I am honoured to help bring them to a wide audience.  

Andrew Theobald, author of “Dangerous Enemy Sympathizers”

How do you know a character is working out in your story?

My writing tends to be driven by voice, so I know a character is working when I can hear them in my head. When they yell, whisper, or mumble things at me in whatever particular tone they bring to the story. My job is to then pay close attention to that character’s voice: what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, and why. Through their voice, other details emerge about their physicality, their perceptions, how they relate to other characters, their backstories. All of that may not make it onto the page, but each character has this writhing heap of history — of complexities and inconsistencies — that makes them feel vivid, messy, and deeply human to me. Ultimately, I know a character is working when they start bossing me around as I write. Defying whatever plans I thought I had for the story by taking control of the scene I’ve plunked them in. It’s almost like improv in theatre, in that I’ve got to respond to whatever unfolds. I don’t abide characters who expect me to tell them who they are, or who let me call all the shots. I want them to claim their space and their voice within the framework of the story, even if they do that with silence, or sneakiness, or storming out mid-scene, leaving everyone else — including me — to deal with that. The best characters always find a way to surprise me, challenge me, and fling a little chaos my way throughout the writing process. If they don’t push for their place in the story or tell me who they really are and what they really want, I know they’re not going to work.  

Amy Spurway, author of Crow

How do you know you’ve written three-dimensional characters?

When they act in ways that surprise me. But how do I get to this point? It helps me to think of my characters not in isolation but in relation to each other. We can all be kind, generous, or complete jackasses depending on who we are dealing with under a given circumstance. So don’t just ask yourself what your character eats for breakfast or what sort of anxiety disorder they have, but ask yourself what are they like when they are stuck in a windstorm with their mother-in-law or when they bump into an ex at the coffee shop they are working at. And how does the mother-in-law or ex react? The answers are often surprising.

Philip Huynh, author of The Forbidden Purple City


Check in next month for another installment of Fresh Page where our authors will dazzle and surprise you with their wit, insight, and expertise in getting your writing where it needs to be.

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