Struggling with story structure

When everything shut down back in March because of Covid, one positive thought I had was, “Well, at least I will get lots of writing done.”

Reader, I did not get lots of writing done. I struggled for some time to get any writing done.

But recently I’ve returned to the draft I put aside all those months ago, and I am slowly making progress.

All this time away has allowed me to view my work-in-progress with fresh eyes. And, happily, I’m still enthusiastic about it. These characters are calling to me. They want me to tell their story. And I want to tell it. But I’m trying to figure out the best way to do that.

My work-in-progress is a family drama with multiple perspectives. I have a strong handle on the characters–what they want and need, what’s standing in their way, what they fear. The problem is the structure.

When I wrote my young adult novel (which I am currently seeking a publisher for), the story was very linear, and I wrote it that way. I started at the beginning and went from event A to B to C until the story got to the climax and then to the end. (Of course I had to go in and add and delete scenes in subsequent drafts, but you get the idea.)

My work-in-progress, however, is a bit different. Its focus is on ideas and character, and I want to show how things in the past have affected the family and led them to the present. I need to go back to reveal certain secrets. I need to make sure these are revealed at the right time, both to the characters in the book, as well as to the reader.

It probably doesn’t help that I didn’t write this book in a chronological way either. I started with one scene (that is currently placed somewhere in the middle of the book) and then I moved on to write a scene taking place at another point in time, etc. I don’t regret writing it that way. It’s how the story came to me, and how the story and characters developed in my mind. And now I can truly say I know my characters–and where they are coming from–extremely well.

But now I have some thinking to do. What’s the best way to tell this family’s story? Is this a book of linked short stories? Is it framed by the present and the middle is the past? Or do I alternate between the present and past? Should I divide the book into sections? And then is it divided by time or by character? Both?

There are a lot of options, and I imagine there might be some trial and error as I try to figure this out. I keep telling myself that all the work will be worth it. (Let’s hope I’m right.)

A new chapter for Ben McNally Books

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Around this time last year, I learned my favourite bookstore, Ben McNally Books, would have to move. They didn’t know where they were going, and they didn’t know exactly when it would happen, but they’d have to be out by the end of August 2020. Today they announced they are heading to 317 Adelaide Street East on a short-term lease.

Ever since I heard the store would be leaving 366 Bay Street, I’ve felt a bit sad when I stopped in, knowing my visits there were coming to a close. The December 2019 edition of 45 Books in 45 Minutes–a twice yearly event that I always look forward to–would be the last in the space. And my dream of holding my own book launch there one day was clearly not going to come true.

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standing in the middle of my favourite bookstore

Ben McNally Books has been a home away from home for me. I feel like I know every nook and cranny of that store. And while I don’t work there, and never have, I often refer to it as “my bookstore.”

I can’t remember my first visit to the shop. I don’t know if it was after I moved downtown in 2009, or if it was during the first two years of the store’s existence before then, when I lived in the suburbs and travelled downtown to visit friends, shop, or attend events.

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readers browsing on a Saturday afternoon

But I do remember one Christmas season, several years ago, when I asked Ben for his help selecting a good mystery for my grandmother. As we walked through the shop, he paused and looked at me, “I know you, don’t I?” he asked. I was a little taken aback. I’d known who Ben was for at least a couple of years at this point, but not in a personal sense. “Only from me shopping here,” I said, “or from events,” as I’d often see Ben selling books at the Toronto International Festival of Authors, The Word on the Street, or at author events in other venues in the city.

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Ben McNally and me at the December 2019 edition of 45 Books in 45 Minutes

I don’t know if he recognized me from his store or from the events, or whether he had mistaken me for someone else, but, after that, Ben always remembered me. And the more I came in, the more we would talk and get to know each other.

Nowadays, it is almost unheard of for me to leave the bookstore without at least one book in hand. But there was a time when I had to be a bit tighter with my cash, and I would sometimes go into Ben’s knowing I’d have to come back later to pick up what had caught my eye. If I left empty-handed, I still felt appreciated for coming in.

In most recent years, I’d gotten into a habit of going into the store on Saturday afternoons. Ben was usually the only one working. I’d stay for a couple of hours, taking my time, narrowing down which books I wanted to purchase into something manageable. I always felt welcome. I always felt like it was my place, too–that it wasn’t at all strange to spend so much time browsing, often going back to look through sections and tables I’d already combed through once or twice that same afternoon.

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the fiction nook

The paperback fiction nook at the back of the store has always been my favourite spot. Part of the reason is because paperback fiction is what I buy the most of, so it was often where I’d be pulling my purchases from. But more-so I loved it because I could tuck myself away, far from the noise of Bay Street, and relish in the quiet, save for the places in the floorboards that would creak when I shifted my weight, the sound of the occasional opening and closing of the door as other customers came and went, the tapping of Ben typing, or the phone ringing, and Ben’s soft voice answering, “Ben McNally.”

Those afternoons browsing meant a lot to me. It was my way to unwind and recharge after the workweek, and, of course, gave me great reading material to take home.

I especially loved the Saturdays in December, when I would do my Christmas shopping. I have no idea if the people I bought books for really liked what I picked out for them. But every year I enjoy looking for something I think they would appreciate (and picking something up for myself, too).

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readers mingling at an in-store event

There were also so many wonderful events I attended in this store: the aforementioned 45 Books in 45 Minutes, the shop’s In Her Voice series, and various book launches and readings. At some of these events, I felt more social than others. Sometimes I’d try to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to me, or with someone across the refreshments table who was also checking out the selection of cookies. Other times, I simply wanted to listen and be around other readers and writers.

But I always felt like I was exactly where I belonged. The store wasn’t simply a place to buy and sell books. It was a community centre.

While I haven’t been able to browse the shelves at Ben’s or attend an in-store event since COVID-19 infiltrated our lives, I’ve still been ordering books and picking them up. Each time I’ve stopped by, I’ve had such wonderful conversations with Ben, Rupert, and Danielle–from a distance and through a mask–that have uplifted me when I’ve needed it most.

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admiring the fiction titles

But this is not how I was hoping to say goodbye to 366 Bay Street.

I know it’s not how Ben, Rupert, Danielle, Olivia, Patti, and everyone who has worked there over the years, shopped there, or attended events there, had hoped to say goodbye.

But Ben McNally Books is more than that physical location. It’s more than the beautiful shelving, the gorgeous high ceilings and chandelier, the wooden floorboards. The store is bigger than that space.

This is not the end of the store. They are moving. That’s different from closing. They are changing, but they are not done.

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window signage at the new bookstore location

Ben built something that goes beyond those walls. He built something that Rupert and Danielle continue to expand upon and move forward.

So it’s not the end. It’s just a change–a twist in the plot. We had good times in the old place, and I can’t wait to see what memories we will create in the new one–and in whichever space Ben McNally Books may call home in the future.

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Reading in the midst of a global pandemic

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As I write this, it seems like everyone is either social distancing or self-isolating because of COVID-19. At least we have books.

Stories connect us. They show us other perspectives, introduce us to new ideas, make us feel things on a deep level. Books can provide us with a lot of joy. But while all of this is true, reading during a global pandemic can be tricky. How can you get your mind to focus on the words on the page when there is so much going on?

So here’s how I’m approaching reading these days.

Turning to stories that offer escape

Earlier this week, I finished The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern, which was a perfect book for me to read right now. I was able to immerse myself in this other world–one that was magical and enchanting, that talks about stories and books in such a beautiful way. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, so I can’t compare this to other novels in the genre, but this book gave me the escape I needed.

Finding books that make me LOL

My current read is Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, and I’ve found myself chuckling at socially awkward Eleanor more than once. I’m about a third of the way into it, and I feel that something is coming that’s going to pull at my heartstrings, too. So maybe it will be one of those books that makes you laugh and makes you cry, too.

Skipping the dystopian fiction

A lot of people are reading or recommending Emily St. John Mandel’s wonderful novel Station Eleven lately. While I did enjoy that book, I definitely don’t want to read about civilization collapsing at this moment. The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker is another book I really liked but it seems to be hitting too close to home at the moment. I don’t want to read about a virus right now, TYVM. Maybe later.

Re-visiting favourites

I may re-read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca or The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters–two gothic novels that I love and can really sink into. The familiarity of re-reading a favourite book can be comforting, but also it’s great because, if you get distracted, it’s not like you’ll be completely lost. You already know what happens! I find myself craving childhood favourites, too, like Judy Blume YA novels. Alas, I don’t have those books on hand.

Doing other stuff

No matter what the state of the world is, I will always love to read. But when I find it too difficult to focus, I do other things. I exercise, bake, cook, connect with friends and family online, sketch…maybe even write a blog post. Reading will always be there, so don’t feel bad if you have to take a break from it.

The books I read in 2019

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The 2019 best-of book lists are out, and, if you’re like me, you’ve added a few (or many) titles to your to-read list. While I get excited thinking of all the books I want to read, I also like to reflect on what I’ve read in the past year (as I’ve done in 2018, 2017 and 2016). So I’m putting down my mug of tea and plate of shortbread cookies to break it down. Maybe you’ll find another book or few to add to your to-read list?

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (592 pages):

The shortest book I read

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (97 pages)

The book I didn’t expect to like but ended up loving

Salt Slow by Julia Armfield. I had heard good things, so I was intrigued, but I didn’t think this book sounded up my alley. I’ve often been dismissive of magic realism, and, while I’ve been really into linked short stories in the past few years, other short story collections haven’t appealed to me as much. But I loved this collection. Armfield does an amazing job of using fantastical elements to illustrate real and universal female experiences. I borrowed a copy from the library, but I may buy one, too (I already want to reread some of these stories).

The book I expected to love but didn’t

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada. This is a case where formatting really affected my enjoyment of the writing. This book is filled with long paragraphs. I think the only places there were paragraph breaks were when there were time breaks. I found it especially difficult with dialogue, as I’d lose track of who was speaking or even if it was dialogue or narration. It’s too bad because the story was a wonderfully weird take on modern life–about three unrelated characters who work in different areas of a factory–but I had so much trouble following that I couldn’t really get into it.

The book that I loved to hate

Dead Heat by Benedek Totth. I was attracted to this book because I’d heard it compared to Trainspotting (which I am a big fan of) and because I love coming-of-age stories (this one about a group of teenagers on a swim team in Hungary). But I didn’t expect it to be quite so raw and violent and gritty. I didn’t expect so much of the book to make me feel physically ill or for it to make me angry in so many places. I’m impressed by any writer who can evoke those kinds of feelings in a reader. It certainly is well-written. I can’t call this book “enjoyable,” but reading it was quite an experience.

The book I knew I wanted to read from the title alone

The Grammarians by Cathleen Schine. I read my share of non-fiction books about language, as many word nerds do. But a work of fiction called The Grammarians? This novel had my heart before I knew the premise. I fell in love with this one because of its playfulness with language and its humour. But I liked it even more because Schine tied these aspects with a more poignant story of two sisters who are inseparable and how they come apart.

The book that taught me a lesson I didn’t know I needed

Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark by Cecelia Watson. I’ve thought about privilege in many ways in the past few years. What I hadn’t given much thought to was my privilege as a native English speaker as someone who lives in Canada. This book made me think about that a lot. And it has me thinking about how I can use my passion for language in ways that are more beneficial to others.

The book I wouldn’t have read if I hadn’t taken part in the Toronto Public Library’s reading challenge

Was She Pretty? by Leanne Shapton. To be honest, there were several books I wouldn’t have read this year if I hadn’t participated in the library’s reading challenge. But some of these were books that had been on my to-read list for years, or ones that I could see myself stumbling across eventually. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have picked up this one in any other circumstance. I read the library’s blog post about non-prose books and saw this one as a suggestion. The book consists of mostly drawings with minimal text, and explores jealousy in relationships.

The books that had me saying “Just one more chapter”

  • The Body in Question by Jill Ciment: The story centres on two sequestered jurors on a murder trial who have an affair…but there’s so much more going on in this one, too.
  • The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides: An excellent psychological, twisty and unputdownable thriller about a woman who kills her husband, then refuses to talk, and the therapist who is determined to get her to speak.
  • Educated by Tara Westover: An incredible memoir that tells the story of a woman who is born into a family of survivalists.

My 5 favourite books read in 2019

  • An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma: A heartbreaking story about a Nigerian poultry farmer who will do anything to be with the woman he loves.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: A fun and dark thriller (love this combo!) about a woman who is constantly having to clean up her sister’s messes–the murders of her sister’s boyfriends.
  • How to Behave in a Crowd by Camille Bordas: A story about adolescence, sibling relationships and tragedy. This book was sweet, sad and very funny, too. I adored the narration of protagonist Isidore Mazal–the youngest of six siblings–who is 11 years old when the book opens and 13 when it ends.
  • Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: A woman begins looking after her former roommate’s stepchildren: twins who have the ability to spontaneously combust. It’s so weird and funny and touching all at the same time.
  • Salt Slow by Julia Armfield: A collection of short stories that blend realistic depictions of female experiences with beautiful fantastical elements.

By the numbers

Books bought: 47% (bought new: 44%, bought used: 3%)

Books borrowed from the library: 39%

Books received as gifts: 7%

Books borrowed from friends: 7%

Books written by Canadian writers: 27%

Books written by women: 70%

Books published in 2019: 49%

Fiction: 78%

Non-fiction: 22%

So it looks like I did increase my non-fiction books and have read some genres and writing styles I have avoided in the past. For one thing, I think I have to stop saying I’m not into magic realism. Not sure when it happened, but I think I actually really am into it…like, maybe even a lot?

I said I wanted to read bigger books in 2019…but that didn’t really happen. I’d like to take that goal into 2020. But, even more, I’d like to not put too much pressure on myself. I’m continuing to grow as a reader, and that’s good enough for me.

What I learned about writing while writing a novel

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For the past few years, I’ve been working on a manuscript–a coming-of-age novel that I’m quite proud of. This novel isn’t published (yet), but even if it never graces the shelves of the local bookshop, getting the manuscript into its current form has taught me a lot. If you’re in the process of writing a book, or if you’re considering starting, maybe this post will help.

Find what works for you and stick to it

It’s good to remind yourself that there’s no rush, that the manuscript will take as long as it takes. But don’t use that as an excuse to procrastinate. If, like me, you work full-time and/or have other commitments, writing every single day might not be possible. What worked best for me was setting a weekly word count goal of 5,000 words. This way, I didn’t beat myself up if I was too busy to write one day; I could get the words in later in the week. Yes, there were weeks when I didn’t meet my goal, but most of the time I met or even surpassed it.

I’ve heard of other writers who swear by writing 1,000 words every day–some who even wake up at 5 a.m. to ensure it’s done before they do anything else. I’ve heard of others who write on their lunch hour, writers who “binge write” on weekends, or others who write on their commute. The point is, you just have to find what works for you. That might take some trial and error. But when you find it, hold yourself accountable to meet your own goals.

It can be painful, but it can also feel incredible

I didn’t always feel like sitting down to write. Sometimes it took a while to get going, and I’d spend the first while staring at a blank screen. It could be extremely frustrating and discouraging. But that didn’t always happen. Some writing sessions were productive from the moment I opened my Word doc. And when that happened, I felt amazing for the rest of the day.

Maybe even better than that was when a session started off terribly, when I was convinced I was going to sit there for an hour doing nothing before I could give myself permission to call it day. And then, somehow, I’d get going and the story would take off. Remembering that feeling, reminding yourself of how good things can be–well, that can be very motivating when things aren’t going as well.

It’s not all about you

Yes, writing is a solitary act. And if you’re writing just to get something that’s inside you out onto a page, then, sure, it can be all about you. But if you’re hoping to publish, writing is where the solitude ends.

I was lucky enough to have a mentor throughout my writing process–a writer who had been through everything I was going through, who I could turn to with questions. I also had a great group of early readers who provided excellent feedback. The manuscript has become stronger because of them. All of this is before you start to build relationships with editors, publishers, agents, booksellers, and–eventually–your readers.

Writing isn’t for everyone. And for those of us who do write, it doesn’t mean you have to be published (or even want to be published). But whether you want to see your book on the shelves of bookstores or want to write for your eyes only, if you have any desire to write, I encourage you to do so. It’s a very rewarding experience. And when you do, I’d be interested to hear what you learned from the experience.