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.)

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.

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.

All We Shall Know: an emotional roller coaster you’ll want to ride

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What I read

All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan

What it’s about

Melody Shee, a 33-year-old woman, is pregnant, but the father isn’t her husband, whom she’s been with since high school. The father is Martin Toppy, the 17-year-old boy Melody has been teaching to read inside her home.

Melody’s husband has left her, and she can’t find Martin. In her search for Martin, Melody befriends a young woman named Mary Crothery, who is dealing with her own troubles. The two women develop a bond while they deal with family feuds and town gossip.

Most of this story is introspective, where the reader gets much more information from Melody than the characters do. Melody tells of the mistakes she has made leading up to the pregnancy and some of the secrets she has kept from others in her life. But Mary might be able to help Melody right some of her wrongs.

Why I picked it up

I heard about this book back in the summer, marked it on my TBR list, and then forgot about it. Browsing in the bookstore earlier this month, the spine jumped out at me. The title was familiar. I read the back cover copy and was reminded of my desire to read this one. So, of course, I bought it.

What I liked about it

At first, I was drawn in by the idea of the affair. I wanted to know what led to Melody taking advantage of her student, and I wanted to find out what would happen with her marriage. But I quickly realized there is a lot more going on in this book. I thought I had a handle on things only to discover there was more to it, reinforcing the idea that things aren’t always as they seem.

Melody isn’t exactly a likeable character. She’s made some terrible life choices and her decisions weren’t always ones I had empathy for. But she did feel believable, and I was hooked on trying to understand her decisions. At times I was shocked by the things she did, but I wanted to see her somehow redeem herself.

You’ll want to read it if…

If you like emotional roller coasters, this one’s for you. At only 180 pages, you’ll wonder how you could experience a wide range of emotions so quickly, how you could go up and down so much in such a short span of time.

This is also a great choice for readers who like to get into the psyche of characters, even if those characters aren’t necessarily people you’d like in real life.

Recommended refreshments

A cappuccino, like the ones Melody and Mary order at a cafe in town (Mary, who has never had one before, endearingly calls it a “coffacheeno”) and/or the KitKats that the two women share sitting in Melody’s kitchen one day.

6 books to read during the heart of winter

We’re in the thick of it now. It’s the end of January, and it’s dark and we’re cold. But it’s a great time of year to stay in and read. Here are a few book recommendations according to the type of reading experience you’re looking for.

If you want to get hooked by a gripping gothic novel…

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The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is a perfect winter read. Set in 1940s England, a doctor is called to an estate to tend to a patient. After befriending the family living there, the doctor returns to the property on numerous occasions, only to notice increasingly strange activity in the home. This book is a classic ghost story that includes a psychological element that will leave you thinking about the novel for some time.

If you want to curl up with a delicious mystery…

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You should read The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This dark campus novel centres around a clique of university students. Unlike a lot of murder mysteries, this is not a whodunnit–from the beginning, we learn about the murder, know who victim is and are told that the protagonist was involved. Instead, you will be turning the pages wanting find out what exactly happened and why it happened.

If you want to wallow in the bleakness of winter with an equally bleak book…

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It doesn’t get much more depressing than Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. This certainly isn’t a book for the faint of heart. The story is basically one horrible thing happening to protagonist Jude followed by the next. If you’re already in a dark mindset, it’s best to leave this one alone. But if your mood can handle it, it is a masterful depiction of Victorian society.

If you want to travel to another place, in another time…

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That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan will transport you to 1920s Paris. This memoir about Callaghan’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald et al will not only have you dreaming about the writer’s life in the City of Light, but it will also have you ruminating about how even the briefest of friendships can affect us.

If you want to hide away from people…

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You should read The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel. This book tells the true story of Christopher Knight, a man who disappeared in his 20s to live in the woods. No one knew what happened to Knight until he was caught, more than two decades later, breaking in to nearby cottages where he’d steal food and other supplies. If winter makes you want to hibernate and avoid society, The Stranger in the Woods might just make you realize you’re more social than you thought.

If you just want to laugh and laugh and laugh…

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You must pick up a copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. Have you ever told a friend a story about something funny that happened to you, only to be met with a blank stare? “You had to be there,” you might say. Well, I don’t think that’s ever happened to Sedaris. He somehow manages to perfectly illustrate those hilarious moments of his everyday life in the stories published here. And, when it’s dark and cold outside, the best thing to do might just be to laugh our heads off.