Canadian writers relay their best tips and trick for novel writing

What do you see when you look in the mirror? Gritty teeth, disheveled hair, dark lines etched deep under bloodshot eyes – surely someone must have tampered with your bathroom mirror.

More likely to be true, you are one of the many intrepid writers this month facing the enervating challenge of writing a novel. Yet again, November – otherwise known as novel writing month – has arrived.

 Writing a novel is easy enough, right? Just Google, “how to write a novel” and you will get 264-million sites that tell you exactly how to do just that.

But if for some reason time cannot be found to leisurely sift through such a vastLawna Mackie’s most recent novel Enchanted came out March 2012. She is looking to make more of the adventures she has during her sleeps come to life in her next project.

Photo courtsey of Lawna Mackie aggregation of material, where does an aspiring writer start? How do “nobody’s” seem to turn into “published somebody’s” overnight?

Why write?

Celebrated journalist and writer Noah Richler once said during a CBC interview, “It’s better to listen, unless you have the best story to share.”

Ontario-based author Julie Wilson’s “reasons for writing” somewhat echo Richler’s sound bit of advice – she said you must always consider if it is “necessary to contribute if you are not really giving anything back.”

Wilson seemed almost the opposite of who you would expect to be a writer – the bright-eyed, enigmatic woman did not reek of stale cigarettes or have the telltale alcoholic shake the Hemingway type of writer might have had. Her handshake was firm, sure and energetic, just like the words that litter the pages of her first published novel, Seen Reading.

“There is an awful lot of unnecessary writing out there and that’s what I worry about,” Wilson said. “No writer needs to put out a book for every year they are alive. We are stuck in a fast-food diet when literature used to be about whole grains.”

Montrealer Alix Ohlin is the proud mother of four books, her two most recent novels, Signs and Wonders and Inside, were both published in June 2012. Ohlin, who recently migrated to Pennsylvania to teach writing, said it’s always a challenge finding time to cram extra writing in, but she manages because it’s something that she “can’t imagine not doing.”

“It’s the only way to be a writer,” Ohlin commented. “I don’t want to judge anyone else’s motives, but it shouldn’t have anything to do with money because trying to be a writer to make money is kind of foolish. If you don’t have some other desire for artistic fulfillment, then you’re just more likely to be disappointed.”

Waubgeshig Rice, a First Nations author and CBC broadcast journalist, grew up in Wasauksing – a reservation in rural Ontario – where storytelling is the heartbeat of tradition. Rice has just published his first novel, Midnight Sweatlodge, which is a compilation of fictional stories based on life as a young boy growing up on a reserve.

“My family lived on a pretty isolated corner of the reserve, so I would write to pass the time and to do something creative, but I never really saw writing as a viable career option,” Rice said. “Then I got into journalism and I realized I was doing just that – making a career out of storytelling.”

There seems to be any number of reasons to write, but as the infamous British playwright William Maugham once said, “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

Honing the craft

“You are always grappling with being the ‘creator’ of your mind’s theater and also being the ‘writer,’ who is the poor schmuck trying to translate it onto the page,”

– Julie Wilson.

So you are ready to write, but now you actually have to sit down and do it. But writing can be like getting in a rusty, old Chevy for the first time – how do you start without stalling? There must be a certain place, a certain time and a certain “way” to write, mustn’t there?

Tucked comfortably away on an acreage in Didsbury, Alta., romance author Lawna Mackie succeeded in getting her first three books published within a span of five months. Mackie’s passion for fairytales creates a strong chimerical storyline in each of her books, and she said “finding a vice” was a necessary means to consistently come up with “new, crazy characters.”

“My vice is milk and cookies before bed – preferably Chunks Ahoy!,” Mackie said. “I have these crazy dreams with crazy characters and there’s a story right there. That’s where my character Threeo came from – he has the body of a hippopotamus, the head of an owl and the tail of a dog. And no, I don’t do drugs!”

Don’t fret – there are other keys to creativity if you happen to have an aversion to late-night dairy products. But whether or not story ideas gush from you like a faulty water main, you are likely to face yet another issue – finding time to write. Mackie added that the best way to find time is by sticking to a rigid routine.

“There’s no formula to writing. Pick a time and scribble – even if it’s only a couple of words – otherwise the process will become stagnant,” Mackie said.

Because writing woes seem to have a domino effect on one another, of course when time is found so are multitudinous distractions. Seen Reading author Wilson commented that it’s not so much the actual distractions that bother her, but that they give her “permission to be bothered.”

“You are always grappling with being the ‘creator’ of your mind’s theater and also being the ‘writer,’ who is the poor schmuck trying to translate it onto the page,” Wilson said. “But I’ve taught myself to focus, and now if I’ve written even only one really good sentence or bit of wordplay, I feel I have contributed something.”

A more aggressive take on writing came from the shy lips of elusive author C.P. Boyko, who just published his second masterful compilation of short stories, Psychology and Other Stories. Cautiously sipping water from a wine glass, the University of Calgary graduate tried to unsuccessfully hide perspicacious eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses as he admitted he was tempted to say, “quit writing.”

“If you are hungry for advice, you will probably take bad advice as readily as good,” Boyko said. “But here is some good advice (I think) borrowed from Roy Fuller: ‘Work regularly; rewrite; keep a journal, a commonplace book; indulge yourself with pens, notebook, paper, typewriter, for they will inspire when life has failed.’”

The “novelty” of networking

CBC Ottawa is happy to have their broadcast journalist Waubgeshig Rice back after his stint in Calgary, Alta. for Wordfest 2012.

Photo courtsey of Waubgeshig RiceAlthough not every budding writer will also aspire to be an alcoholic or chain-smoker as per the stereotype, there is the potential for a laborious, lonely life up ahead. Romance author Mackie suggested the best way to assuage solitude is by joining a writing club or association.

“Share and edit each other’s work,” Mackie said. “Having a community of people with similar interests can really help the writing process.”

Even though more introspective authors such as Boyko “have a personal horror of them (writing clubs),” not all writers can thrive in absolute aloneness.

Author Ohlin added that networking is an essential part of the editing stage. Approaching an editor is daunting enough, and getting involved in the writing community “is a good way to get informed about the process,” she said.

“Talk to people. See what they’re doing and making it happen,” Ohlin advised. “Writing is a long process, so you need people to help you because you tend to lose your own perspective on it after awhile.”

If you are timid about being the new guy at a writer’s club, there’s always the option of gaining writing experience taking a specialized writing program. Creative writing, nonfiction, short story writing – there’s plenty of niches for an aspiring writer to nestle their pens in.

The end

Whether it has taken six months or 10 years, you’ve finally done it – you’ve written your first novel. But now what? Anyone who has surfaced gasping for air after the tumultuous tide of novel writing has brought them back into shore, must have some inclination to try publishing their book. Considering the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts flying haphazardly in and out the doors of publishing houses all over the world each day, it might not be as easy as one would hope.

So what then makes a “nobody” stand out to the tired eyes of a publisher?

Wilson was one of the lucky few who had a publisher approach her, looking to turn her remarkable blog about life as a “literary voyeur” (she investigated what people were reading what types of books on long Toronto transit commutes) into a book.

“Going from a blog to a book, I sort of compare it to Ryan Gosling before he got buff,” Wilson joked. “I was happy for the experience as a blogger, but maybe I would rather be remembered for my book – or being buff.”

Even if a publisher has snuggled into your lap faster than a shorthaired Chihuahua on a cold winter night, Wilson said getting to know the industry and becoming an active presence in the social media world can make all the difference in your manuscript receiving the glory of being inked, then comfortably covered.

“If you can’t stomach the idea of social media, you simply shouldn’t do it because it’s going to change your nature,” Wilson said. “If you are an introvert but you can be a practiced extrovert, then there’s no question whatsoever that publishers will pay attention to that.”

abrooks@cjournal.ca