I’ve decided I’d keep a diary about the ups and downs I go through writing my novel. Years ago, I did an investigation with art curator Peggy Gale into the relationship of anxiety to creativity. We discovered that some anxiety is necessary; it inspires us to write or make art but if there’s too much anxiety, the anxiety will shut down your creative powers.
I’m thinking about our insight into anxiety this morning. I’m half-way through a novel about a white collar criminal who runs a dead pool in prison where the prisoners bet on which of the list of aging or frail celebrities is going to die first. My character also goes through a spiritual change in prison. Or mimes going through a spiritual change. I keep changing my mind about this. It seems to me that people become their environments to a large extent so it’s possible he’s in a place that leads him to spiritual reflection and emotional change. But once he gets out, he goes back to his old ways.
But to begin. My main job right now is to keep writing. And that means keeping anxiety and self-doubt dialed down. I have a tendency to question what I’m doing, and ask–is this working? Those questions are like a meal of anxiety pancakes because I end up feeling stuffed with heavy, leaden feelings that lead me nowhere. Anyway, anxiety pancakes are my subject in this blog. I’ll try to post a few paragraphs every day. That’s a promise.
The phenomenon of online books means that writers can control their publishing fate. But is it worth it? American authors like Allison Win Scotch say it is. She is self-publishing her novel THE THEORY OF OPPOSITES. “After a terribly discouraging experience with my fourth book, based not on the book (which I loved) or the reviews (which were the strongest of my career) but things totally outside of my control, I knew I had to change something,” Scotch says in her blog. http://writerunboxed.com/2013//11/24962
Through her agent Elizabeth Weed, Scotch has sold a film option to Jennifer Garner’s Vandalia Film; audio rights to Brilliance; and large print rights to Thorndike in advance of publication.
Like Scotch, Canadian author Robert MacBain did it himself and he loved the experience. Unlike Scotch, he hasn’t yet published with traditional publishing houses. (Scotch published with Random House and Penguin in the US.) Here’s Robert talking about what it’s like to go out on your own in the digital marketplace.
Q: Why did you decide to self-publish your novel online? I know many writers are doing it these days but what was it about going indie that most appealed to you?
A: Actually, it wasn’t my choice. More than 30 agents turned me down. Without an agent, you can’t get a publisher. So, I decided to go it alone. If it works out the way I hope that it does, I’ll do much better financially than I would with a publisher – 70% on the eBook sales and 47% on the paperback.
Q: Can you briefly describe the story in Two Lives Crossing?
A:Two University of Toronto professors in their mid-thirties find out in 1974 that, not only are they adopted, but that they are brothers. One was raised as a Blackfoot at an Indian reserve near Calgary and has a PhD from Berkeley. The other was raised white in a middle-class home in Toronto and is going to be the Conservative candidate in an upcoming federal election. When they discover the secret of their births, their lives are changed dramatically.
Q: What is the most surprising thing you discovered about doing it yourself?
A:The scope of the distribution. The eBook is available through Kobo in 70 countries and the paperback is available in North America, the U.K, Italy, India, you name it. While the book is not on the shelves at Indigo, Chapters or Coles, customers can order it at their counters and pick it up a week later. The paperback is also available online at Amazon and ChaptersIndigo.
Q: Can you walk us through your process with the eBook?
A: When I decided to start with an eBook, I asked Pieter Swinkels of Kobo for the names of people who could convert the Microsoft Word manuscript into an ePub. Among the five names recommended was Lynda Kanelakos of Wild Element – www.wildelement.ca in Perth, Ontario, a very creative shop that specializes in digital design and service.
After we got the novel on Kobo, we started on the print edition. Lynda and her people got the manuscript ready to be uploaded to Lightning Source, the company that prints the books on demand and arranges for them to be available through Amazon, ChaptersIndigo et al.
I designed the cover – showing Highland dancers and fancy shawl dancers in a circle – and Lynda gave it the final touch. It was Lynda who suggested that we go with a velvet-like matte cover rather than glossy. She’s been fabulous from beginning to end and will start on my next book in February.
Q: What is the hardest thing an author encounters in this kind of publishing format?
A: Really haven’t run into anything that I would describe as hard. The cover is beautiful and the printing quality is first-rate. My designer/distributor in Perth, Ontario handles all of the administration. It’s all really quite simple. One thing discourages me, though: Going to the magazine/book section at Loblaw’s or Shoppers and not seeing any Canadian titles. When I do find one, that’s the exception that proves the rule. And, more often than not, the Canadian author’s book is set in the U.S. My new novel, Two Lives Crossing, like your novel, The Western Light, is 100% Canadian. You don’t find American authors saying; “Gee, I think I’ll set my book in Moose Jaw.”
Q: And what is the best thing about going indie?
A: Relatively speaking, the fact that I’m in complete control. Don’t have to rely on anyone else to come through for me. It’s my show – all the way. On top of that, I’m going to make significantly more money than I would with a publisher.
Q: Publishers say that we can all put a book out there but it’s like sticking it in a vast online parking lot. Without them, it’s hard to get attention for a book. Is this true?
A: If you’re a successful author, a publisher can do a lot for you – and take a big chunk of the net profit for having done so. If you’re a first-time author, they’re unlikely to invest a significant amount on marketing etc. Might as well be in that vast online parking lot that you referred to.
Q: How are you getting attention for your book?
A: It’s slow going but I’m generating a lot of word-of-mouth. Seeds I’ve planted will bear fruit between now and next spring. I’m in this for the long haul. No “overnight success” expected or required. I’ve been at the top of the class in everything else that I’ve done – journalism, politics and public relations – and I don’t see any reason why it should be different this time. I’ll get there.
Robert MacBain’s website is www.robertmacbainbooks.ca
This year Wayne Grady’s new novel, Emancipation Day was long-listed for the Giller. In my view, it should have been on the short lists for all our Canadian prizes. It’s the first time Grady has published a novel. He’s a former chair of The Writers’ Union of Canada and a highly respected non-fiction author.
Q: You said your new novel began as a non-fiction book. Can you tell me how this book started out and why you switched to fiction?
A: In 1995, I found out that my father, whom I had always thought of as a white person, was actually a very light-skinned black man who had been passing for white. I knew immediately that I would write about this, and since all my writing to date had been non-fiction, I naturally began thinking of this as a creative non-fiction memoir of my parents before I was born. I was excited by the idea of writing in that fuzzy, grey area between fiction and non-fiction, where I think a lot of very good writing has taken place. Something along the lines of Tobias Wolff’s The Duke of Deception, which is about his father’s denial of his Jewish heritage
Q: In a few words, can you describe its story?
A: In Emancipation Day, Jack Lewis, an 18-year-old light-skinned black man from Windsor, Ontario, decides that he rightly belongs in the white world; in 1943, he joins the Canadian Navy, which at the time was not accepting blacks, as a kind of test, is accepted and transferred to St. John’s Nfld, where he meets Vivian Fanshawe, a young, white girl of 19. They marry, and at her insistence he takes her back to Windsor to meet his parents. She realizes right away that Jack hasn’t been honest with her, confronts him on the question of his race, and the rest of the novel deals with the way they handle their relationship. And also with the way Jack and his father, William Henry, work out their similarly troubled dynamic.
Q: Your novel is set circa World War II, and its major theme is the pressure exerted on people of mixed race by both white and black family members. Has this changed since you wrote your novel?
A: Recent statistics say that 80% of the population of the US is at least 5% black; that’s about 15 million people who are like Jack, who denies his black ancestry, or like me, who didn’t know about it. Yes, the consequences of being black has changed in some areas, but during a recent trip to Alabama and Georgia, I clearly saw that racism is alive and kicking in the American South. And it is clear that most of the opposition to Obama is coming from a group of Southern Republicans whose motivation is frankly racist. Has much changed? The surface has changed, but there is still a long way to go.
Q: How do you feel about being of mixed race? What do you call yourself now that you know you are?
A: I am very comfortable thinking of myself as having an African heritage. Although on census forms I tick off “Mixed,” I do not say that I belong to a visible minority, since I don’t think my ethnic background is visible, and I do not want to pretend to know what it is like to have grown up and lived as a black man. I believe that would be disrespectful to people who have suffered as a result of the colour of their skin.
Q: How has your life changed since you found out about your background?
A: I don’t know how or if the knowledge of my black ancestry has changed me, as a person, but it has changed the way I see the world. I am more aware of racial issues. And I am curious about how other people view me. When I was in Selma, Alabama, I couldn’t tell whether the black congregation in the Baptist Church I went to (for a reenactment of the 1963 walk to Montgomery, Alabama, for voting rights for black Americans) were seeing me as a white guy or as a fellow black, but I think the latter, and I was extremely moved. I wanted to be accepted by them, and that’s how I know that somewhere I have been profoundly changed by my knowledge.
Q: How hard was it to turn your parents into fiction? Can you give me an example of something that felt difficult or challenging to render?
A: That was the major stumbling block in the novel: I was very angry with my father — not for passing, but for not admitting it to me when I showed him proof of what I had found out, and for not telling my mother, making her think she was crazy for even asking. I had to get over that in order to portray Jack Lewis as a sympathetic character, someone Vivian could fall in love with and stay in love with despite his denial of his family. I had to forgive my father in order to make the novel work.
Q: What has the reaction been like from your family?
A: I haven’t heard from my family in Windsor, whom I have now met and who are proud members of Windsor’s black community, but I think they’re okay with it. After all, I outed my father, which is not encouraged even among those who have been rejected by the person who passes. My brother and daughters have been very supportive, and of course Merilyn has helped me get through all 22 drafts of the book.
Q: There’s a surprise ending. I went back and reread it several times and concluded it was the natural way for your novel to end. Without giving away the powerful conclusion, can you tell me why you chose to finish your story this way?
A: That final short chapter was, at one point, the opening chapter, but of course it gives too much away and would remove some of the tension that holds the novel together. As the final chapter, I wanted it to show how the deep conflicts that run through the novel were eventually resolved, or if not resolved at least how they played out in the characters’ lives. It’s not a happy ending, but it’s not a tragic ending, either: it’s real life. I wanted to suggest to the reader that there is a strong current of nonfiction in the novel, as I think there is in most novels. And I wanted the reader to experience the same “shock of recognition” that I experienced when I first discovered my father’s secret history.
About two weeks ago, I spoke about my new novel, The Western Light, at Wine and Words in Niagara-on-the Lake. The event was sponsored by the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library and held at the glamorous Tasting Bar in the Konzelmann Estate Winery, which is known for its ice wines. After I talked, everyone there drank a Pinot Gris from the Konzelman grapes and sampled four different elegant hors’ d’oeuvres. Many of the large audience had already read my book, a true plus for authors. I also loved the relaxing eat drink and be literary atmosphere. Today my blog features Beth Ann Labelle who started the series and Bruno Reis, a spokesman for Konzelmann who hosted my event.
Q: Beth Ann, you’ve created a popular reading series that rivals anything that other Canadian libraries put on–how did you do this?
A: We wanted to stand apart from other series and offer people a distinct experience. We are fortunate in Niagara-on-the-Lake to be surrounded by so many wineries because of the lush agricultural land. Partnering with the Wineries of Niagara-on-the-Lake gave us a variety of unique venues to host our events. (The series goes to a different local winery for each author.) Not only can people hear acclaimed Canadian writers discuss their work, they can also discover the many wines our region has to offer. As a library we have the advantage of knowing what the public is reading and which authors would be most appealing to our community.
Q: What is your mandate?
A: Our mandate is to connect readers with authors. Libraries are all about promoting ideas, whatever form that takes. If we can introduce a reader to new ideas or experiences through the written word then we have done our jobs.
Q: Your library claims to have been expanding minds since the 1800’s. Why did it decide to link up with the wineries?
A: Founded in 1800, Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library was Upper Canada’s first circulating library. In 1805 the library began to house the specialized works of the Niagara Agricultural Society. So the partnership between the library and the agricultural sector has been long established. But it wasn’t until the creation of Wine & Words that we stepped out of the library and took advantage of the beautiful venues and gracious hospitality of the town’s wineries.
Q: Bruno, you work for Konzelmann Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Haven’t the Konzelmanns been making European wine growers for centuries?
A: That’s true. The Konzelmann family came over from Stuttgart, Germany and bought this forty-acre property in 1987. The soil here is perfect for growing Burgundy or Alsatian wine. It’s fresher and has more minerals than the soil for this kind of grape in Europe. Then too, we are near Lake Ontario and it’s always warmer by the lake. The temperature can be minus 12 or 13 but we never get minus 18 or 20. The warmer temperatures are ideal for making ice wine.
Q: And for making Gewurtztraminer. I’m sipping some of your wine as we speak. Are your wines available at the LCBO?
A: Twelve of our wines are available in liquor stores. The bigger stores always carry our brand.
Q: Bruno, what is it about wine and books? Why are they such a good combination?
A: To make wine is odd or unusual. It’s the same thing with writing books. Or maybe a better way of saying this is that you have to be a unique person to do either. And then there’s nothing better, when you sit by your fireplace and read a good book drinking a glass of good wine.
On Monday, Oct. 21 at 7 pm Susan Swan is discussing her novel The Western Light at the Annette Library.
Please note the date of Swan’s talk has been changed to the 21 of October after a death in Swan’s family.
The Western Light was nominated for the Evergreen Award as one of the best 2012 books of fiction and non-fiction by the Ontario Library Association.
Pam Mountain at the Annette Library has been running an Evergreen Summer Reading Club for adults at her branch of the Toronto Public Library in order to discuss the Evergreen nominations. Two other branches in Pam’s area are also running a book club about the award – Runnymede and Mimico. Swan will talk for 40 – 45 minutes, leaving time for questions and book sales/signing. The branch closes at 8:30 pm.
The Western Light
Susan Swan’s newest classic, The Western Light, is a prequel to The Wives of Bath. The story pulls us into the life of young Mouse Bradford, torn between love for her father and the charismatic asylum inmate John Pilkie, an ex Red Wings hockey player, serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife and baby girl.
Set in Madoc’s Landing, a fictional Ontario town on Georgian Bay, The Western Light “weaves in details of the history of the Ontario oil boomtown Petrolia, hockey mania, bootlegging taxi drivers, and debates over psychiatry and universal health care. [Swan’s] poetic descriptions of Ontario’s harsh winter weather and adept use of colloquial speech are particularly vivid, and help bring the world of the novel to vibrant life.”
Directions: Annette St. Library
145 Annette Street, Toronto
Closest major intersection: Keele and Annette Streets. Branch is located on the southwest corner of Annette Street and Medland Street.
TTC #26 Dupont bus from Jane subway station; the bus stops right in front of the library.
TTC #26 Dupont bus from St. George subway station; the bus stops directly across the street from the library.
TTC #30 Lambton bus from High Park subway, north to Annette Street. Walk east to the library.
TTC #40 Junction bus from Dundas West subway, get off at Pacific. Walk south to Annette, then walk east to the library.
TTC #89 Weston Road bus or #41 Keele bus from Keele subway station, north on Keele Street to Annette Street. Walk west 2 blocks to Annette Street and Medland Street.
Dave Bidini has written an enthralling memoir about his hero worship of Leafs’ star from the 1970’s called Keon and Me.
It interests me not only because it’s good writing but because one of the main characters in my last novel The Western Light (set in 1959) was based on the former Detroit Red Wings player John Gallagher who was sent to a psychiatric hospital after he suffered a hockey concussion. The time in the Ontario psychiatric hospital ruined John Gallagher’s career because it meant US border guards wouldn’t let him back into the states to play NHL hockey.
Dave Bidini has set his memoir in two time periods, during the 1970’s when he was a boy, and contemporary times. Here’s what Dave has to say about his new book published by Viking.
Q: Dave Keon was a hero to a lot of young Canadian boys. What was it that made him special?
A: He was tough and fierce but he walked a line, and never fought. He played with a ton of cinematic honour, a 50’s film hero throwback. For instance, I was bullied/terrorized/ by a big kid in Grade 6 at my new school. I was 11. It was awful. I was beat up after school for six months. I was thrown to the ground, punched in the back of my head or neck, slapped, elbowed, and sat on until the bully got bored.
Sometimes my attacker would grind my face into the ground and spit in my face, too. Sometimes he’d just sit on me and do nothing. But I was determined not to fight back because one of the hallmarks of Keon’s play was that he never fought (only once, actually, at end of his career).
It wasn’t until Keon fought Greg Shepperd of Boston that I fought back against my bully. Keon’s code had made life hard for me but it was a determination not to behave like my aggressor that taught me the virtue of a belief in honour and non-violence.
Q: Keon was the Leafs’ top scorer but an old contract with Harold Ballard stalled his career. How did Keon’s hockey career end? And what impact did that have on you as a boy?
A: He was basically run out of town by Harold Ballard, owner of the Maple Leafs and humiliated in the press; his leadership was also questioned. It was sad and awful, and, as a kid, it taught me a lesson about fatality, mortality and to never take anything for granted.
Q: And how do you feel about Keon as a man?
A: My naivite seems sweet, but sad; but there’s also something beautiful in my unconditional devotion to someone I really knew nothing about.
Q: Your book includes two parts: one set in the 1970’s when you were young and admired Keon, and one written when you are an adult looking back. What section was the most difficult to write and why?
A: The kid stuff was difficult because I wanted to clearly recreate that time, but the adult stuff was difficult because I needed to be honest about my achievements, my shortcomings, and misplaced ideas about sport and life, my disappointments, and my struggles to preserve the enthusiasm and buoyancy of my youth. I didn’t want it to come across as too nostalgic either, although to deny some nostalgia would be disingenuous.
Q: Are there any parallels between our current time period and the seventies?
A: In sport, it’s completely different. in music, there’s a connection, and, in books, too. But in the 70s, school was a wholly different beast. There was no such thing as bullying, and parents were never seen at school. If you saw someone’s parents, something terrible had happened. And when you were bullied, it was just ‘boys being boys’ and if my parents had spent time at school–as I do with my kids’ schools– the bullying that happened to me never would have happened.
Q. You could say hockey is Canada’s prime popular culture. Why are hockey and players like Keon so important to us?
A: They do amazingly dramatic things on a grand stage in full view of our country in mostly winter months when we are mostly inside.
Join celebrated Canadian author Susan Swan paired with execptional Canadian wines as part of the Wine & Words Author Series in Niagara on the Lake. Swan will be featured at Konzelmann Estate Winery on October 2nd. The evening begins at 7pm when Swan will discuss her latest novel, The Western Light, which has been paired with a local VQA wine from the host winery, available for sale by the glass. The author’s will discuss her work, give the audience an opportunity to ask questions and purchase a signed book.
Date: Wednesday Octobber 2, 2013
Tickets are $25/person or $125 for the series.
Niagara’s Exclusive Lakefront Winery
Konzelmann Estate Winery is situated on the south shore of Lake Ontario in one of Canada’s premier wine regions, Niagara-on-the-Lake. It is owned and operated by Herbert and Gudrun Konzelmann, who made Canada their home in 1984. For over a century there has been a winery in the Konzelmann family. Expertise, techniques and most importantly, the passion to ensure that the job is done well has been handed down through six generations.
In conversation with Canadian author Susan Swan:
This week I interviewed author Catherine Bush about her new novel, Accusation. It’s theme is the dilemma of being falsely accused. Recently, I was falsely accused of something and Catherine’s q and a below helped me understand just why I was so upset:
1. Your novel is about the trauma of being falsely accused. Can you tell us its story (in a few sentences)?
While in Copenhagen, Sara Wheeler, a journalist from Toronto, stumbles almost magically upon an Ethiopian children’s circus and its charismatic director, a fellow Canadian named Raymond Renaud. When teenagers from the circus flee and make an asylum claim, citing abuse at Renaud’s hands as their reason, Sara decides to investigate, only to encounter a maze of conflicting versions of what has happened. Her interest in the case is driven in part by her own experience of being falsely accused of a small crime in the past.
2. Why does a false accusation live on so powerfully inside us?
Once you have been accused of something, even if the accusation is retracted or proved to be false, it continues to have a life. We can all think of instances of this. Someone who has been falsely accused of sexual abuse can never eradicate that stigma. People have killed themselves in such circumstances. Even much smaller accusations can have great power. At a reading recently, a woman told me a story of being accused by her mother as a seven-year-old of stealing money from her mother’s purse. The idea of stealing from her mother had never occurred to her. She found herself wondering what could possibly make her mother think this. She still wonders. So long ago, and the mother retracted her words, yet the accusation lives. And a rift forms because of it.
In the novel, Sara is pulled back into an old vertigo of helplessness. As a university student, she once found herself alone in a gym locker room with a woman whose wallet goes missing. The woman accuses her of stealing it. There are no witnesses. She is charged with theft and using the woman’s stolen credit card. Store clerks come forward and swear they saw her using the credit card. All Sara can really say in her own defence is, I did not do it. And it’s so hard to argue in the negative. Someone else recently wrote to me with these words: “Being falsely accused is a uniquely painful loneliness. Your innocence is so fundamentally obvious to you and completely unknowable to anyone else.”
3. Was a similar experience the trigger for your novel? Can you tell us what happened and when you started writing this book?
In the mid-90s, I went to Ethiopia with my then-partner who shot a low-budget documentary about an actual children’s circus. A few years later, allegations of abuse were made against its founder by performers fleeing the circus and seeking asylum in Australia. The director, when found (he’d left the circus), denied the allegations and said his accusers were simply trying to make a strong asylum claim.
In my shock, I kept wondering if we had missed something during the time we’d spent with the circus. Yet I did not want to leap to conclusions. And so I turned my lens upon my own responses, to the thorny problem of trying to figure out what to believe. I was also struck by the predicament of a journalist writing about the case. In trying to give someone a chance to defend himself, you’re broadcasting the allegations further and making them more indelible. With potentially disastrous results.
I was haunted by these experiences in the way one is haunted as a novelist. The journalist’s problem became my problem: how do I write about these matters? How to render them in fiction? The novel is full of other people’s stolen stories. How do I steal them responsibly? I started writing eight years ago. I wanted to create a situation in which guilt and innocence are not clear, one in which people confound our desires, vanish when we want to confront them, don’t speak when we want them to elucidate a terrible mystery.
4. You said there is no return to the state of being unaccused once the accusation is made. Why?
The accusation cannot be un-done or un-said or un-thought. I’m deeply struck by the way an accusation forces me to imagine it — you stole my wallet, you slept with my wife — even if I don’t believe it. It exists as a possibility, or at least as something that can be imagined. When I was researching the novel, a criminal lawyer said to me — and these words have also stayed with me, and I put them in Accusation — the court is there to get you off, not declare you innocent. In so many ways, you can never get innocence back.
5. Does a bond grow up between the accuser and the accused once the accusation is made?
I suppose it is a bond, a kind of awful intimacy. In some instances, only accused and accuser will actually know what has happened. Sometimes accused and accuser will have utterly irreconcilable versions and each be unwavering in their belief and their beliefs keep colliding. Their views annihilate each other. In Accusation, Sara can’t help internalizing this other woman’s version of her if only to wonder why the woman is so convinced that she’s the thief, and that’s a strange and horrible intimacy. She doesn’t want to think about this woman or this woman’s version of her but how can she help it? She is forced to consider herself as a thief if only to deny that she is.
6. In many ways, racism and sexism are based on false accusations. Comment?
A false accusation radically eradicates or violates another person’s selfhood and the way in which they see themselves. Any racist or sexist remark or judgment denies another’s truth, the wholeness of another’s humanity.
Catherine Bush is the author of four novels, including Accusation (GLE, 2013). Her second novel, The Rules of Engagement, was a national bestseller and chosen as a New York Times Notable Book and one of the Globe and Mail’s Best Books of the Year. Her third novel, Claire’s Head, was shortlisted for Ontario’s Trillium Award. Her nonfiction has been published in publications including The Globe & Mail, The New York Times Magazine, and the anthology The Heart Does Break. She lives in Toronto and is Coordinator of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA. More information can be found on her website: www.catherinebush.com
Susan Swan will discuss and read from her Evergreen Award nominated book “The Western Light” at the Annette Street Library. It is the prequel to the international bestselling “The Wives of Bath”, Susan Swan’s long-awaited return to the life of the beloved narrator, Mary ‘Mouse’ Bradford.
No registration required. All are welcome!
Please note: this event has been moved to Monday Oct 21, 2013
7:00 p.m. – 8:00 p.m.
145 Annette Street, Toronto, ON
PREPARE, ORGANIZE, DICTATE!
OK, I’m going to share some of my novel writing secrets with you. I’ve promised the Huffington Post I would. So here are three fool-proof ways to face the blank page if you are a novelist, and believe me, my methods will work for other types of writing too, but you need to follow my instructions carefully:
First, pull out a large piece of drafting paper. You’re going to use it as a map of your novel, or your non-fiction book, or your article or your essay. If you’re a novelist, write down the names of your four main characters and their three favourite words. Write down any images that come to mind, images that may convey something your characters do or who they are. Next write down what you think your story is about — obsessive love, fraud, emotional loss. (It doesn’t matter if you guess wrong. Writing is rewriting, as a wise writer once said, and you will have lots of chances to revise your thinking here.) Then start listing the scenes you see in your mind’s eye. Now go to one of the scenes that seems most interesting to you, and write down where it is and what happens. I call this stage of facing the blank page “courting a novel.”
If you are writing an essay, write down your three most important points on the drafting paper. Write down what you think your main point, or thesis statement, is (even if you aren’t sure what it is yet.) Then start listing specific examples that prove each of your three points on the paper. The three points will support your thesis, and the more specific your evidence is, the more convincing it will be. You will be amazed at how much more easily your ideas will coalesce if you see them visually. Virginia Woolf once compared this process to fishing. You throw a line in the river and wait to see what comes. And there is a certain patience involved in storytelling or making an argument. I call it trusting the process.
Second, you need to write the scene from the novel that interests you. It may be your opening. It may be your ending, or it may be a scene somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t matter where you start a novel because all the scenes and passages can be re-organized into the right sequence later. Many novices believe writers write a novel from A to Z. Not true. John Irving writes his ending first, and he says he hears the rest of his novel as a kind of music moving towards his final sentence. That’s how John Irving does it. But all writers have their own process, and if you’re like me, you go to the scenes that spark with the most heat or obsessive energy, and then you write those scenes first.
Why? Because those scenes are the most fun to write, and they’re also likely to be the key scenes in your story. There is nothing wrong with going straight to the heart of things. It will save you time with your essay because you will need to find your thesis statement, which could be something like, “Rob Ford is the most controversial mayor Torontonians have ever elected.” (Now there’s an argument that won’t be hard to prove!) Often the hardest part of writing an essay is figuring out just what that statement is. And often one of your three main points is your thesis.
Lastly, if you are still daunted by the blank page, dictate your most interesting scene into a tape recorder. You can do the same thing with your three main points. Using a tape recorder will feel shamefully easy at first, as if you are playing hokey and not sweating enough from your labours. Ignore pangs of guilt or self-consciousness. The beauty of the tape recorder is that it skips over the inner critic and lets you blurt out what you’re interested in writing. Yes, you will need the inner critic later when you are organizing what you have written. But you don’t want he or she showing up too early. It’s like inviting the food critic to a feast when you are still chopping onions.
Susan Swan’s new novel The Western Light was recently nominated as one of the top ten 2012 fiction and nonfiction books by the Ontario Library Association.