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.

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.

4 reasons to write in cafés

20160809_190939If you’re a writer, chances are you can write anywhere. You probably have memos saved on your phone and handwritten notes scribbled on the backs of receipts. But we all have our preferred writing locations, the places where we are most productive. Here are some reasons why my favourite place to write is in a café.

There is background noise

I am a quiet person, and I am a person who likes quiet. But if it’s too quiet when I’m trying to write, I get distracted. Noises from the fridge or from the neighbours seem louder than they actually are, and I get stuck trying to figure out exactly what it is I’m hearing. And I can’t write while listening to music that I enjoy. If I do, I become immersed in the music instead of in my writing.

Background noise allows me to focus. A loud conversation occurring next to me in a café will annoy me, and if a song by The Smiths comes on, I’ll probably stop writing for a few minutes while the song is playing. But, more often than not, when it comes to noise, the café atmosphere gets the balance just right.

Distractions are limited

Writing at home means easy access to the internet. That can be a good thing–perhaps when a writing project requires a fair amount of research. But most of the time it’s just another distraction. Yes, most cafés offer free WiFi, but the trick is not to log in. Of course it’s easy enough to check your phone from time to time, and I am guilty of that, but it definitely limits those internet distractions.

Writing in a café also means I don’t have to look at my messy apartment and think about how I should be vacuuming  or washing dishes instead of writing.

There are strangers to observe (and write about)

Sometimes I finish writing a scene and I’m not sure where to go next. Instead of staring at a blank page, I find it helps to look around the café. I’ll do a writing exercise where I’ll find a person at another table (or a barista, if the place is empty) and I’ll make up a bit of a story about them. If there’s a group of people or a couple, I might write about the dynamic I imagine them having. This kind of exercise allows me to turn back to my main project with fresh eyes, and it could be inspiration for another project.

All of the refreshments!

When I write (or read, for that matter), I almost always have a cup of tea on hand. To be honest, the tea I have at home is usually better than what I get in cafés. But sometimes I like to switch things up with a hot chocolate or cappuccino, which I never make at home and don’t have the supplies to make. And I haven’t yet mastered how to make an almond croissant or pain au chocolat. Writing in a café keeps the hunger at bay and ensures a variety of snacks and beverages to choose from.

It doesn’t matter where you write; all that matters is that you do keep writing. And while writing in a café might not be the best thing for your bank account, if you’re like me, the payoff is worth it.

7 myths about working with words

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Words, punctuation, grammar—these are a few of my favourite things. I’ve worked as a proofreader, writer, transcriber and editor, and, throughout my career, I’ve come across some misconceptions about what it takes to do this type of work. Here are seven myths about what it takes to be a professional word nerd.

Myth 1: You work best on your own.

This is true for a lot of word nerds for at least some of the time. But editors, writers and proofreaders really thrive when they have a network to turn to. We don’t always know the best way handle a situation, or maybe we’ve spent so much time on something and could use a fresh set of eyes on it. It can be helpful to get another opinion (or a few).

Myth 2: You feel strongly about the serial comma.

When you work with words, people often assume you feel passionately about the serial comma. But the value of this tiny mark has been blown out of proportion. What’s important is being consistent and clear with your communications, and this is possible whether or not you use the serial comma.

Working as an editor or writer means you will likely work with style guides maintained by someone other than yourself. You need to be flexible. You’ll probably use the serial comma for some work and you won’t for other work, and you’ll realize that either way is fine.

Myth 3: You are (or could be) a spelling bee champion.

You don’t need to know how to spell every word in the English language, but you definitely need to know to look them up. Yes, having a large vocabulary is helpful, but no matter how much you know, you should continue to consult your trusty dictionary. With this type of work, paranoia can be a good thing, because it’s when you get too confident that you start to miss stuff.

Myth 4: You won’t stand for people breaking language “rules.”

You might hate seeing “they” used as a singular pronoun, or maybe you can’t stand comma splices, but you understand that how we use language evolves. Maybe you’re proud of knowing how to use “whom” properly, but you also realize the word is rarely used now. Keeping the reader in mind is more important than showing off.

Myth 5: You love detail.

It’s not necessary to love detail, but it’s necessary to notice detail. It’s something hardwired in our brains, and it doesn’t mean we actually like it. It can be a bit of a curse sometimes. We can pore over a small detail that maybe no one else will notice, but we do it because we can’t rely on “maybe” and because we strive to create the clearest writing possible.

Myth 6: You enjoy correcting people’s grammar, spelling, etc.

A good editor or proofreader isn’t going to correct friends during a casual conversation. Corrections are saved for written work and only when that’s what we’ve been asked to do professionally. Even then, we don’t like pointing out inconsistencies or errors. Our goal is to make the piece the best it can be.

Myth 7: You don’t make mistakes.

I’ve had co-workers, friends and relatives tell me they get nervous emailing me because they think I’ll judge them if the message contains errors. And, yes, if there are so many errors that I can’t understand what the email means, I am likely to notice. But we all make mistakes sometimes—even the best copy editors. So try to make the best written communications possible, but it doesn’t mean you have to be perfect yourself.

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma shows us English is a beautiful mess

What I read

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

What it’s about

This book examines how the English-speaking world has arrived at an idea of what “correct” English looks like. Lynch demonstrates that we shouldn’t be so concerned about using English correctly but rather we should be concerned about using English appropriately. And what’s appropriate can change depending on circumstances.

As Lynch takes us through the history of modern English, he provides lots of fascinating information on key figures (Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Peter Mark Roget, to name a few). Central to the book is the question of whether dictionaries should be prescriptive or descriptive, and Lynch explains the different views some of these key figures had regarding this.

How I got my hands on it

This Christmas I received some nice books and bookish gifts. This book was one of those gifts, and it was tucked neatly into my stocking. I can’t say for sure who it put it there, but I have a strong suspicion (Santa, of course).

A bit that I really liked

As much as I enjoyed reading about Johnson and the story of how this unlikely character created one of the most famous English dictionaries—I mean, I visited the house in London where he worked on A Dictionary of the English Language, so I’m a bit of a fan—the section on John Dryden stands out just a bit more for me. I’ve finally figured out who I can blame for this nonsense about not ending a sentence with a preposition and this BS about it being wrong to split an infinitive! Dryden was trying to make English follow the rules of Latin, but English isn’t Latin, guys.

Bonus bit: I got a real kick out of Lynch talking about people having issues with abbreviations in texts or social media. Don’t like it when people use “IMHO” or “obvs”? Well, then surely you must never say “AKA” or “fridge” or “exam” or “phone,” right? Thank you, Mr. Lynch, for pointing out this hypocrisy. It made me smile.

You’ll want to read it if…

You’ll probably like this book if you are any kind of word nerd. Proofreaders, editors, writers, people who read the dictionary for fun—you will love this book. But if you’re looking for a book that’s going to back up your rigid views on how the English language should work, you might not enjoy reading this. It will probably show you how silly you are being. I mean, I think it would be good for you to read it, but you might not want to.

Recommended refreshments

Any reading session is more enjoyable with snacks and drinks. For The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, I recommend consuming copious amounts of tea, and not just because tea and books always go well together. Rather, I suggest you drink this tea in honour of Samuel Johnson, as he was known to consume several cups a day. Imagine how many pots he must have gone through working on that dictionary! So, yes, tea is appropriate. And also maybe a bowl of alphabet soup?