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.

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Q&A with author Brian Francis

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Brian Francis (photo credit: Samuel Engelking)

Brian Francis is a Toronto-based writer whose third book–a YA novel entitled Break in Case of Emergency–will be released in September 2019. I recently asked Brian about his upcoming novel, his motivation for helping other writers, and how he ended up writing a play. I also didn’t miss the chance to find out which refreshment Brian recommends you enjoy when you crack open his newest book this fall.

Can you describe what Break in Case of Emergency is about in five sentences or fewer?

The book is about a teenage girl named Toby growing up on her grandparents’ dairy farm. Her mom died by suicide and Toby is convinced she’s destined to follow in her mom’s footsteps. Those plans go astray when she receives the news that her father, someone she’s never met, is returning home. And that he’s a female impersonator.

How did you come up with the title?

I didn’t. My editor, Suzanne Sutherland, did. We were struggling to find the right title for the book and she offered up this gem. It stuck. Thank god for editors is all I have to say. Otherwise, this book would be called Book.

What was different about the experience of writing Break in Case of Emergency from writing your other novels, Fruit and Natural Order?

Given that Break is a YA book, I had a stronger sense of the intended audience. Not so with the other two books. I think Break is my tightest book in terms of storytelling. But I guess readers will be ultimate judge of that.

In the book reviews I’ve posted on my blog, I suggest some recommended refreshments. What refreshment(s) would you recommend readers enjoy while reading Break in Case of Emergency?

Hmm. Well, if you’re Arthur (Toby’s father), I’d recommend a stiff martini or two. But if you’re underage, then I’d recommend milk, since Toby lives on a dairy farm.

How does having a day job at the Toronto Public Library inform or affect your writing?

It’s nice to be in an environment that celebrates and recognizes the value of books and reading (as opposed to, say, working in an accounting firm.) So my work isn’t at odds with my writing in that respect.

I met you when I took a class you taught called “Kick-Start Your Creative Writing.” What or who helped you to kick-start your creative writing?

I took a class at Ryerson, which really helped. It gave me the focus and structure I needed. It can be hard to keep yourself motivated when you’re the only holding yourself accountable. Paying out money for a course changes the dynamic. Writing becomes work. And you start taking it seriously. Which you should.

In addition to your experience teaching, you also write an advice column for Quill and Quire. Why is helping other writers important to you?

I just remember feeling really shitty and alone when I was first starting out. I wasn’t friends with other writers, so I had to figure a lot of stuff out on my own. When I help other writers, I help the writer I used to be. I want writers to understand that there is no secret formula and that all of us are struggling in our own ways. But none of us are alone.

Are you still teaching, or do you have any future plans to teach?

No, none at the present time. It was a nice run, and I enjoyed doing it, but it’s a lot of work. I might go back to it at some point.

What are some of your favourite books, or who are some of your favourite writers?

I love me some Alice Munro. David Sedaris, too. Margaret Laurence. Some great books I’ve read in the past year include Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight, Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese and Little Fish by Casey Plett.

Is there a book or a writer you love to read that you think deserves more attention and readers should know about?

Honestly, I think most writers deserve more attention.

You used to run a blog called Caker Cooking, and you write a food column for Taddle Creek called “The Kitch.” What got you interested in food writing?

I don’t think I got interested in food writing, per se. It was more about the recipes, if that makes sense. I’m not one of those “mouth feel” people. And I generally don’t like food blogs because they make you wade through 25 variations of the same damn shot before you get to the recipe. But I’m interested in the history of recipes. They’re like snapshots to me, little souvenirs, not only of my life, but also of the world I grew up in.

You also wrote a play based on your real life experience called Box 4901, and you’ve starred in the production as well. What made you want to try this different art form and type of writing?

Initially, I thought it might be a website or a podcast or a book. But certainly not a play. But when I approached director Rob Kempson with the material and asked him what he thought, he basically said, “This is a performance piece. And you’re in it.” So it wasn’t deliberate on my part at all. But it’s been a great experience so far. And I’m glad I did it. It’s taken me out of my comfort zone.

You always seem to have some creative project on the go. What are you currently working on?

I bought a paper mache book a few weeks back for a dollar and I’m going to try making a pencil holder. Wish me luck.

Brian’s Francis’ new novel, Break in Case of Emergency, will be available in Canada in September 2019 from HarperCollins and in the U.S. in February 2020 from Inkyard Press. You can find out more about Brian’s writing and his other projects by visiting his website at www.brian-francis.com.

On the desire to be better at gifting books

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books on display at The Paper Hound in Vancouver, BC

Surprise, surprise: I love books. I love buying books, browsing books, borrowing books, looking at books, learning about books and, of course, reading books. But, as much as I love gifting books, I’ve been doubting how good I am at it.

I’ve written about why books make the best gifts, and I truly enjoy going into bookstores, thinking about the recipient and choosing something I think they will like based on their interests/life/other books they’ve read and liked. But, as much as I like doing this, I don’t know if I’ve really done a good job of getting it right.

When I think about it some more, it’s not even just gifting books. It’s also giving book recommendations, or lending books to people when they ask for “whatever you think I’ll like.” I like it when people do that, but how many times have people come back and said they loved the book? (Well, it’s happened for sure. I don’t always get it wrong. But I guess I’m saying I wish it happened more.) Thankfully, booksellers and librarians are there to help.

Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on myself. After all, I don’t always love the books people give or recommend to me, but I do always, always appreciate it when I can see the thought that was put into that selection, when I can see how the person had my interests/life/books I’ve read and liked in mind.

I’ll continue giving books to people (sorry if you’re a person in my life who hasn’t liked what I’ve picked out for you in the past). I can’t help it; I love sharing the book love way too much to stop now.

Are you good at gifting books or offering personalized recommendations? What do you think about when deciding which book to gift or lend someone?

5 Canadian books to look for this spring

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In just a few more days, it will officially–finally–be spring. That means I’m starting to picture myself getting out from under these blankets and taking my books to a patio or to the park. Here are a few CanLit titles coming out this spring that I can’t wait to take with me.

Coconut Dreams by Derek Mascarenhas (April 15)

I am not the biggest fan of short-story collections, but I’ve developed a particular fondness for collections where the stories are interconnected. Coconut Dreams is a collection of linked stories following a family and focusing on two siblings. The siblings are first-generation Canadians, and the stories explore their South Asian roots and the family’s experiences as new immigrants.

26 Knots by Bindu Suresh (May 1)

Bindu Suresh’s debut novel, 26 Knots, begins when two journalists meet while covering a fire in Montreal. One journalist falls in love with the other, while the other is in love with someone else…and that person is married to another. Described as being about love, betrayal and obsession, it sounds messy and complicated and very, very good.

Worst Case, We Get Married by Sophie Bienvenu, Translated by JC Sutcliffe (May 8)

Originally published in French, Worst Case, We Get Married is a novel in translation that follows a precocious 13-year-old girl in Montreal. The book is a confessional novel, written as the protagonist’s statement to her social worker, and it sounds like it is quite gritty. The novel was made into a film, but I haven’t seen it yet…and I won’t (at least not until I’ve read the book).

Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta (June 4)

Frying Plantain is about a Jamaican-Canadian girl struggling to find her identity as she grows up in Toronto’s Little Jamaica. These linked short stories follow the girl from elementary school to high school graduation and explore themes of discrimination, peer pressure, and family relationships. I am a sucker for a good coming-of-age story, and this debut sounds stunning.

Bunny by Mona Awad (June 11)

I seem to have a thing for dark humour in fiction…or at I least I do lately. Bunny–described as a darkly funny book–is a story about a grad student who abandons her only friend and gets in with a clique of popular girls. I eat up stories about outsiders, and I loved Mona Awad’s first book, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, so I am super excited about this one.

Which CanLit titles are you looking forward to reading this spring? Any of these? Something else? I’d love to know.

The books I read in 2018

20181229_135440I’m taking a break from all of the holiday festivities to reflect on the books I read this year. While the amount of non-fiction books has gone up from the books I read in 2017 (and in 2016), I’m clearly still primarily a fiction reader…and probably always will be.

Stand-out books

The longest book I read

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray (661 pages)

The shortest book I read

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (96 pages)

The book I expected to hate but didn’t

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg. Why did I think I would hate it? I think it might have partly been the cover. It’s not that it’s an unattractive cover, but when I paired it with the title, I thought this was going to be a quirky story about a young woman who moves to the big city and learns to make it on her own. And I just didn’t feel like that was a story I wanted to read. But then I kept hearing how great this book was, so I decided to give it a chance. I’m so glad I did! I loved the character of Andrea and felt very connected to her.

The book I expected to love but didn’t

Census by Jesse Ball. I’d only read one book by Ball before this one (How to Set a Fire and Why). But I wanted to read this one mostly because there was a lot of buzz around it and the aspect of the father-son relationship and road trip sounded interesting. But I just couldn’t get into it. I partly blame myself for this, though, as I don’t know if I gave the book the concentration it deserved.

The book that had been on my TBR list for too long

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I bought this more than a decade ago, when I was in university, but I never got around to it. I finally read it this year when it was selected for one of my book clubs. And, of course, I loved it and couldn’t believe I’d waited this long to read it.

The book that surprised me the most

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. The only other Ondaatje book I’ve read is In the Skin of a Lion, which I picked up years ago. All I remember of it now is feeling confused and not enjoying it. So when I found out that Warlight was selected for book club, I wasn’t too keen to crack it open. But when I did, I was pleasantly surprised. I was immediately drawn by 14-year-old narrator Nathaniel and the mystery of his parents abandoning him and his sister, leaving them under the watch of a strange man they call “The Moth.” This wasn’t one of my favourite books that I read this year, but I did look forward to getting back to it–and it has made me more willing to pick up other Ondaatje titles.

The books with the most interesting structure

The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey and Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys. (I can’t choose just one.)

The Western Wind is a mystery told in reverse. The novel takes place in the 1400s in an English village after a man has drowned in the river. The story is told from the perspective of a priest as he tries to uncover whether the man has died by accident, suicide, or murder,

Machine Without Horses is a book in two parts. The first half is non-fiction, with Humphreys explaining her process of writing as she researches the life of salmon-fly dresser Megan Boyd. The second portion is the fictionalized account of Boyd’s life that Humphreys has based on her research.

The book I read at just the right time

For the Love of Mary by Christopher Meades. I bought this book last year, when the publisher, ECW Press, was having a sale. I hadn’t heard of the book before, but the marketing copy described it as a coming-of-age story that included family secrets, and that sounded like my kind of book. I didn’t read it until this summer, when I was in a bit of a reading slump and also feeling a bit down in general, and this book was hilarious and heartwarming and exactly what I needed to read at that time.

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

  • Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (a girl returns to civilization after living in the woods for nearly a decade after being kidnapped by her survivalist father)
  • You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann (a creepy novella about a screenwriter and his family renting a house for a week that may be haunted)
  • The Beloveds by Maureen Lindley (a thriller about sibling rivalry, delving into the mind of a woman whose envy of her sister is terrifying)

My 5 favourite books read in 2018

  • I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (a memoir exploring 17 of the author’s near-death experiences)
  • Machine Without Horses by Helen Humphreys (an exploration of the life of a salmon-fly dresser and the author’s process of writing the story)
  • That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung (a collection of linked stories following the lives of suburban neighbours)
  • Rainbirds by Clarissa Goenawan (a man takes over his sister’s life as he tries to find out what happened to her after she was mysteriously stabbed to death)
  • The Library Book by Susan Orlean (part true crime, part memoir, and part meditation of the author’s love of libraries as she researches the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Public Library)

By the numbers

Books bought: 53% (bought new: 48%, bought used: 5%)

Books borrowed from the library: 41%

Books received as gifts: 3%

Books won as prizes: 1.5%

Books borrowed from friends: 1.5%

Books written by Canadian writers: 30%

Books written by women: 65%

Books published in 2018: 47%

Fiction: 85%

Non-fiction: 15%

For 2019, I’d like to read some longer novels–ones I can really sink into–and I continue to want to get more into non-fiction. But, to be honest, more than anything I just want to keep reading whatever piques my interest.