Posts Tagged ‘writing’

12 Book Event Marketing Tips from Novelist Elinor Florence


Elinor Florence speaks with a reader at Peachland Gallery, Peachland, B.C.

Elinor Florence speaks with a reader at Peachland Gallery, Peachland, B.C.

Canadian journalist ELINOR FLORENCE, who lives in the Canadian mountain resort town of Invermere, British Columbia, has written for daily newspapers and magazines including Reader’s Digest. Her first historical novel, Bird’s Eye View, was published by Dundurn Press of Toronto (October 2014).

Back in April 2015, Elinor wrote a blog post HERE explaining what she learned in the first six months after her book was released, about the business of selling books. The following year, in June 2016, Bird’s Eye View achieved Canadian fiction bestseller status in both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail newspapers. Her second novel, Wildwood, will be released in February 2018.

Elinor attributes much of her success to book events. She has visited dozens and dozens of book clubs, public libraries, bookstores, and other venues to make that all-important face-to-face connection with readers. Now she’s back with twelve more tips picked up while on tour.

Elinor wearing a vintage wartime outfit at a book signing in West Vancouver, with Air Force veteran Ruth Nesbitt.

Elinor wearing a vintage wartime outfit at a book signing in West Vancouver, with Air Force veteran Ruth Nesbitt.


I love independent bookstores and will continue to support them, but it is Chapters where I’ve made the most sales. I’ve noticed a ratio of about 20 people walking past my book table per book sale, so in order to sell 30 books, I need at least 600 potential customers. I’ve also done well at Christmas craft fairs and farmers’ markets, where there are crowds looking for gifts or one-of-a-kind items, such as a personalized book.


This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times after chatting with people for a few minutes, they’ll say in surprise: “Are you the author?” Now I also have a sandwich chalkboard that says Author Signing Today, plus a nametag that reads Elinor Florence, Author. It’s heartwarming to see how many people will buy your book just because they like the idea of supporting a real live Canadian author.


If you’re selling your own books, it’s important to be able to accept credit cards. I lost many sales in the first couple of years, before I finally got smart and purchased a Square. Don’t worry — this little gadget that plugs into your Smartphone is simple to use, and many customers are already familiar with it. Please note that a Square will only accept credit cards, not debit cards. I also take personal cheques, and have never had one bounce yet.


When doing book signings, I urge people to visit my website and sign up for my blog. But few people will actually go to the trouble, so I’ve become more proactive. I have a signup sheet on my table and ask everyone who comes by if they would like ME to sign them up for my blog. About one-third of people who stop to chat give me their names and email addresses, and I subscribe them to my blog later. I don’t ask for any other personal information.


Whenever anyone buys a book, I make sure to point out my email address on the bookmark and ask the reader to contact me. People are flattered to have their opinion sought, and they often do email me (especially if they enjoyed the book!). I’m thrilled to hear from readers, I always answer immediately, and some of those people have become friends and supporters.


I ask every acquaintance, book club participant, and audience member to post a review on Amazon or Goodreads, but very few follow through. Some people don’t have an Amazon account; others don’t want an online presence; for others, it’s a tedious chore that reminds them of writing book reviews in school. When making my request, I always tell them that one sentence, or even a star rating, is welcome. If I have their email addresses, I send a simple list of instructions for those who don’t know how.


If you have a traditional publisher, it’s fairly typical that your returns are subtracted from sales. I wasn’t clear how this worked until I received my first royalty statement. If a bookstore orders 40 books for a book signing, and you sell 20 of them, the other 20 are returned to the publisher and subtracted from gross sales. Your royalties: zero. Even though you sold 20 books! So when bookstores ask how many books to order, be conservative.


If you’re doing a book event lasting four or five hours, make sure you have lunch beforehand. You may think you’ll have time to eat, but chances are you either can’t leave your table unattended, or you just won’t want to miss out on any potential sales. Also, your energy level will flag without sustenance — talking to people for five hours is hard work! Keep a water bottle on hand. (My coffee often gets cold long before I finish it.)


I’ve done events with and without someone to help, and I can assure you that it’s far easier when my long-suffering husband comes along to carry the books, mind the table when I’m taking a bathroom break, count the cash, and even help me sell the book by chatting to people waiting in line. I’ve schlepped boxes of books across slushy parking lots more times than I like to count. Also, while you are finishing up with the last chatty customer, your helper can be packing up and loading the car. If you don’t have a helper, start lifting weights — books are heavy!


When I was first published and started visiting book clubs and service clubs to chat about my research, I soon realized how much easier it would be to show photographs of the people and places who inspired my novel. Fortunately I had a lot of interesting old photos from my Wartime Wednesdays blog, so with the help of a friend who showed me how to create a PowerPoint slide show (I promise it is simple: just drag and drop the photos into a template), I created a visual backdrop for my talk. I bring my laptop with me, along with a cable that will connect into anybody’s projector or smart TV. People love looking at photos, and visuals make the occasion  more memorable.

Elinor with Lancaster bomber in Nanton, Alberta.

Elinor with Lancaster bomber in Nanton, Alberta.


When I heard that the Bomber Command Museum in Nanton, Alberta, was hosting a special event to highlight their Lancaster bomber, I asked if I could do a book presentation. They were happy to have me, and at the event I had access to hundreds of people who love vintage aircraft — a perfect fit for Bird’s Eye View. I’ll be seeking those kinds of special annual events at pioneer museums when promoting my forthcoming novel, Wildwood.


Obviously this won’t work for every book, but I always wear my wartime vintage outfit when signing copies of Bird’s Eye View. People LOVE my seamed stockings, and it’s a great conversation starter ( in case you’re wondering, I found them at Nordstrom’s). My second novel has a pioneer theme, so right now I’m planning my next outfit. It may include a sunbonnet!


Wildwood, a contemporary novel with a historical background, will be published by Dundurn Press in February 2018. It’s now available for pre-order from Amazon HERE.

Broke and desperate, Molly Bannister accepts the ironclad condition laid down in her great-aunt’s will: to receive her inheritance, Molly must spend one year in an abandoned off-the-grid farmhouse buried in the remote backwoods of northern Alberta. If she does, Molly can sell the farm and fund her four-year-old daughter’s badly needed medical treatments.

With grim determination, Molly teaches herself basic pioneer skills. But her greatest perils are presented by the brutal wilderness itself, from blizzards to grizzly bears. Only the journal written in 1924 by her courageous great-aunt, the land’s original homesteader, inspires Molly to persevere against all the odds.

To read more about Elinor and her books, visit:

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

Seek an Agent Who Takes the Long View: Advice for writers from literary agent Marie Campbell

Marie Campbell photoMARIE CAMPBELL is a senior agent and partner with the Transatlantic Agency, based in Toronto, Canada. She joined Transatlantic in 2003 and represents writers of children’s fiction for ages 8+.




AL: At what stage should a writer think about looking for an agent?

MC: There is no hard and fast rule here, as requirements differ by individual agents even within the same agency. In general, I’d say that agents look at a writer’s background even before they look at the specific pitch for an individual project. We’re not looking only for previous publications — I’ve been known to be hooked by a quirky resumé. One recent client I took on, for example, is previously unpublished, but she’s just completed a master’s of fine arts in creative writing and, of particular interest to me as I represent children’s writers, also works with a community children’s organization. I scanned her c.v. with interest before I even read the summary of her current work.

But to address your specific question, I always tell my clients that we have exactly one shot at hooking the interest of a publisher’s acquiring editor — so I suggest their manuscript be in its best possible shape before we submit. I think the same is true of agents. For a first-time writer, I really do need to see a full, completed manuscript before I’m able to make a confident decision whether I can take it on for representation. It may or may not need to be have been professionally edited by the time it reaches my desk. That’s an assessment best made by individual writers when they consider the state of their manuscript.

AL: In the Canadian market, how essential is an agent? That is, are there publishers out there that accept submissions directly from authors, and if so, do they tend to be smaller publishers, or publishers of certain genres?

MC: Some publishers do accept direct submissions. It’s wise for new writers to familiarize themselves with particular publishers’ submission guidelines before beginning on their own — it can save postage, time, and frustration. Is a writer more likely to have their manuscript land in an acquiring editor’s to-read pile in Canada with an agented submission? Yes. Is it essential in every case? No. It’s not just the smaller publishers who will accept unsolicited, unagented submissions — sometimes the largest companies have staff capable of handling new material.

AL: What services does a good agent provide? And on the flip side, what would one not provide?

MC: This is a big question, but I’ll try to sketch out the basic services an agent provides. In general, we are responsible for marketing a writer’s work. We do this in various ways, from meeting with editors at book fairs and in their offices as well as keeping in regular contact in different ways, to maintaining a detailed website, which editors and commissioning art directors are invited to browse at any time. Most obviously, we submit writers’ work to publishers for their consideration for publication. If an offer is made by one or more publishers, we handle that negotiation, then review the details of the final contract on behalf of the writer. We also provide career management in various ways, including reporting to writers on the information we receive from editors and our sub-agents around the world. We are also responsible for ongoing issues that arise as a result of any contracts we’ve negotiated.

AL: How would a first-time author begin looking for an agent?

MC: The route to finding an agent can be as circuitous and happenstance-filled as looking for a publisher. In general, I think it’s important for writers to familiarize themselves with the industry in which they are hoping to publish their work. Word of mouth is an important part of many industries — perhaps all the more true in the book-publishing world. Several agents with my agency, for example, accept new queries only from writers who have been recommended by one of the agency’s current clients. So how to look for an agent? Meet people, talk to people, ask questions of anyone you can find involved in the book business. Ask writers whether they would recommend their own agent — the response to that question will say volumes. There is, of course, always the Internet, and sources such as the Writers’ Union of Canada.

AL: What should the writer look for in an agent?

MC: As I often explain to new and prospective clients, the author–agent relationship is, in an ideal world, a long-term one. For that reason among many, “fit” is important. Does the agent “see” your work as you’d like? It’s my view, too, that an author should be looking for an agent who does take a long view. It’s certainly common enough practice for an agent to take on a single contract negotiation on behalf of a client, but I prefer to look beyond a single contract — I’m really quite determined to develop a client’s career. Publishers will often (well, not as often as they used to) tell us earnestly that they “publish authors, not books” — I think a good agent should represent an author, not a single book.

AL: How important is it that the agent specialize in certain genres? Are there generalists out there who will take on any kind of manuscript?

MC: The answer, curiously, is yes to both questions. It can be extremely important for an agent to specialize, as any agent is only as good as her contacts — and it’s hard to maintain contacts in every publishing field. (I, of course, say this as someone who specializes in children’s fiction, bear in mind!) And yes, there are generalists who represent a very broad range of types of material. Both models can and do work very well, often within a single agency.

AL: Is there greater safety in going with an agent who is part of an agency than with one who works independently?

MC: That’s a good question, though I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer to it, in large part because I believe much of any relationship — especially, perhaps, those involved in creative cultural industries — is about “fit.” Some writers like to be published by large, multinational companies; others prefer the more intimate fit of a smaller publisher. Neither is better or worse, and the same is true, I think, of agencies. The one question I’d encourage writers to ask of prospective agents, whether they work with an agency or not, is whether writers’ payments are held in separate trust accounts. When they are, it means that writers’ income is separate and protected if the agent or agency were to file for bankruptcy protection.

AL: Is there a way to check out an agent’s experience, reputation, or credentials? Is it appropriate to ask an agent about these things before sending in a submission?

MC: Because I do believe these are long-term relationships, I think it wholly important for an author to do their own due diligence when approaching an agent. After all, if successful, they will be signing a contract with an agent and an agency — and it’s never to be taken lightly, putting your signature on a legally binding document. While agents need to “interview” their authors, that process is as much for the authors to interview us.

AL: How does payment generally work? Should writers be wary of agents who ask for money up front?

MC: Absolutely! Standard industry practice is that agents earn a commission from sales of their clients’ work. It’s one of the reasons I think there’s a successful alignment of interests with agents and their clients: I only make money when I actually sell something for them. I’ve certainly not encountered an instance in which we would ask anyone for up-front money.

Payment is made from the acquiring publisher to the agency, on the writer’s behalf. The agent’s commission and any other expenses/charges are then taken from the gross amount, and the net amount due is paid to the writer by the agency.

AL: What form should an author’s initial query/submission to an agent take?

MC: It’s very important for authors to do as much research as possible about an agent’s interests, specialties, and preferred form of inquiries before sending off an approach. Nothing irritates me more than being pitched a project that is wildly off my stated interests, which are clearly listed on my agency’s website. I represent children’s writers only, for example — so an author who pitches adult gardening books is wasting their own time, and mine.

AL: How long might an author expect to wait to hear back regarding a submission? What’s an appropriate amount of time to wait before following up?

MC: This is an awkward one for me — I have only recently come to the end of a long-overdue to-read pile! Some authors there had been waiting six months, I’m embarrassed to admit. I’ll leave that to individual writers to judge when nudging becomes counter-productive. As a general rule, I’d say 6 to 8 weeks is an acceptable period of time to wait for an agent to get to your submission. That said, a hot property can be read in an afternoon — I recently signed up an author after having her manuscript only two days.

AL: Is it acceptable for an author to make simultaneous submissions to more than one agent?

MC: If an author is approaching more than one agent at a time, they should let each agent know that from the first correspondence. That might put some off, though it can be part of our competitive world. Within my own agency, for example, we do require writers to query only a single agent within the agency at a time.

AL: When you turn down an author, do you provide a reason, or suggestions for improvement?

MC: Unfortunately, time and volume of submitted material doesn’t generally allow for that kind of correspondence, particularly if I’m passing on the opportunity to represent a particular writer. I do have several different versions of the way I communicate a pass, though. Oftentimes I might not think I can place a particular project but am intrigued by a writer’s voice — so I’ll ask to see what they have ready next for submission, or I’ll ask if they’re working on something else. If I’ve not offered to leave the door open for future correspondence, though, it’s probably not open.

AL: Once an agent has agreed to take on an author as a client, the two sign a contract. Briefly, what would this contract set out?

MC: It sets out our responsibilities to each other, includes a warranty from the author that this is indeed original work to which the author has copyright, sets out the agent’s commissions and how expenses are to be handled, and often, and among other details, a process by which the contract can be cancelled.

AL: And how would a contract be terminated by either agent or author?

MC: There should be a process set forth in the contract for how the relationship might be dissolved — it’s usually possible with written notice, from either party, in a prescribed period. It’s perhaps worth noting that even after an agent/author has ended the relationship, any previous and existing contracts between them continue to flow through the agency and are subject to its commissions.

AL: Is there anything the author should watch out for in the contract? And should an author have a lawyer look it over before signing?

MC: Again, I’d look for details of how the accounts are to be managed. It’s entirely up to an individual’s confidence in their understanding of the contract and its language whether they want to seek professional advice on it.

Very helpful, Marie. Thank you!

Note from Allyson: This is an updated version of Marie’s  interview, one of the most-accessed posts on my website to date.

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016

Ethan Canin on Story Endings

At the end of a story or novel, you do not want the reader thinking. Endings are about emotion, and logic is emotion’s enemy. It’s the writer’s job to disarm the reader of his logic, to just make the reader feel. You’ll often see this in the final moments of a film: The camera tilts up, and the movie ends with a non-distinct image of the sky, or the sea, or the coast. Something the eye can’t quite focus on, which allows you to focus on everything that’s come before. That’s how “that was how he was” [“A Silver Dish,” Saul Bellow] works, too. It brings nothing else to mind. This sentence would be a non-sentence if it began the story—but, placed at the end, it’s packed with the charge of everything that precedes it. Each of those non-words is nitroglycerin, and the story that precedes it is the fuse.”

— “Can Writing Be Both True and Beautiful?” by Ethan Canin (The Atlantic, March 1, 2016)

Wednesday, March 30th, 2016

Join Me for “Spit and Polish: Self-Editing Workshop,” Bracebridge, October 17, 2015

Wednesday, October 7th, 2015

Congratulations, Carin Makuz, finalist in the 2015 Toronto Star Short Story Contest

Carin Makuz
If you subscribe to my website, or even check in frequently, you’ll be familiar with Carin Makuz and her photography at Matilda Magtree (where she writes as well, and beautifully). She’s one of my small Wordless Wednesday group, each member of which once a week publishes a photo-to-inspire. Once upon a time, she took part in one of my annual North York Central Library workshop series on memoir writing, which is how we met.

Carin is in fact far from wordless, as her recent news proves. She was a finalist in the highly competitive Toronto Star Short Story contest, coming in third with her entry “Quality Goods.” (You can click that title link to read her story online.)

Carmelinda Scian took home first prize in the contest, and Andrew Bryant second prize. Read more about the contest and all the prize-winners.


In the wake of today’s announcement, I managed to coax a few more words out of the very-private Carin …

… on the award ceremony:

“Such a loveliness, this whole thing. Still feeling delightfully stunned at hearing the news. The awards ceremony was last night, in a downtown library, an old Carnegie one (on Yorkville). A lovely spread. Wine, excellent nibbles. (You’ll always find me hovering over the cheese!) I’m not one to enjoy being fussed over but this was so wonderfully done; it was, is, a pleasure to celebrate!”

… on the genesis of the story:

“It’s from a WIP, a novel ms that I’ve been working on for several years about family dynamics, with the focus on a broken relationship between sisters. For the longest time I couldn’t get the structure right, kept fighting against each chapter that wanted to be born as an individual story. Then I realized I was writing a novel in stories. I have no idea how to write a novel. (My favourite writing quote is from Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”)

… on writing and submitting to contests:

“Something I heard yonks ago that stayed with me was that rejections are how you know you’re in the game. And if you keep doing the work, keep improving it, even those become more and more helpful in that you occasionally get a word or two of advice on the piece. And THAT is invaluable.”

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

“And then one good sentence”: Interview with novelist Rebecca Silver Slayter


Rebecca Silver Slayter

Rebecca Silver Slayter


“Now I watch it go by like a passing train, each car in sequence: hesitation, uncertainty, self-doubt, total panic, questioning of self-worth, and regretting of every act I’ve undertaken during my time on earth … and then one good sentence. And then a scene that has my fingers hurrying on the keys, struggling to keep up with the unfolding action, following it as closely and eagerly as if I were in it, excited to see what will happen next, and what will happen after that.” — Rebecca Silver Slayter, author of In the Land of Birdfishes

Rebecca, as a writer, do you plan and outline, or do you write to find your story?

Birdfishes cover2I am still determining what process works best for me in this regard. With In the Land of Birdfishes, I was told by many people that the best process was to plan very little, leaving me free to follow the story wherever it should take me. But that strategy terrified me. I was sure without a map of some kind, I’d get lost somewhere in the novel and find myself with no way out or back. And so in many ways, my planning of Birdfishes was motivated by fear, which is not typically a good basis for decision making. But in this case, I think it was a good strategy. My inner critic is a noisy and nasty one; I found she was best silenced by the reminder that I knew where I was going, even if I’d momentarily lost my way, and I found that the excitement of getting to an ending I looked forward to writing kept me progressing forward even during chapters where I lost my footing. The chapters I had planned most thoroughly were always the best ones and the ones I enjoyed writing most.

With the novel I’m finishing now, I am a little braver, so I began with very little of a plan, only a relationship and situation I wanted to explore. As I went along I defined more details, the chapters ahead becoming increasingly clear as I approached them. And I’ve enjoyed this increased freedom, though I suspect it will mean a broader and more intensive edit lies ahead before I will be ready to show my novel to anyone else. I suspect that’s the typical trade-off: planning speeds and steadies the process, while freeing yourself to explore may result in a longer journey but offers wonderful discoveries along the way.

Ultimately, I suspect what I will find is that I like the same balance in writing a novel that I like in life (where I balance the predictability of freelance editing work with the liberty of fiction writing): a reliable but flexible structure within which I can wander very freely.


What inspirations for your writing, if any, have come from unlikely sources?

You know, I think my inspirations tend to come from rather likely sources … That is to say, I tend to draw from the things I see and hear around me — like my mother, an ophthalmologist, telling me about a young patient who forever lost her ability to see due to neglected cataracts, or the story of my father spending all his savings in silver coins on his first date with my mother. (See excerpt from an essay below for more on the latter. Both of these memories contributed to the story that unfolds in the first chapter of Birdfishes.) But typically I try to work against using that material so directly — which has certain advantages: I have been surprised, upon being published, to learn how many people look to your own biography and life for the source of what you’ve written. My parents are, I think, rather relieved that when friends or colleagues have asked them, on multiple occasions, which characters they are in my novel, they could answer that none of the characters were modelled after anyone I know.

Of course I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing from life, but for whatever reason, I find I like to digest personal experience fairly well before it surfaces in some new, less recognizable form in my writing. The most common source of inspiration for me is experiencing, reading about, or hearing of an event and then imagining what would have happened if it had turned out some other way. I’m a hopeless daydreamer, and my daydreams often begin with some real happening, vanish down a long path of “what if,” and then emerge, occasionally, as a story I want to tell.


Which aspect or aspects of writing do you enjoy most?

Before writing Birdfishes, I always enjoyed the editing stage the most. There’s something very powerful about sitting down with something rough, and making it beautiful. In this case, however, to my surprise, I found editing very challenging. I had the most wonderful editors in the world (yourself emphatically included), and so it certainly had nothing to do with the process. But trying to maintain perspective on something so big, which you’ve worked on for so long, was difficult. And I made a few major changes — cutting one of the most prominent characters, for instance — that were unexpectedly painful. You have to have a certain ruthlessness to edit your own work well, to be willing to part with characters who seem real to you without feeling like you’ve committed some sort of murder, to make the difficult decisions to cut whole chapters you love or worked hard on. It’s like performing surgery on yourself (which is why having talented and clear-eyed editors to guide you through it all is so critical).

And so, to my surprise, what I loved most were the beginning and end stages of writing/publishing Birdfishes. I loved the research, the places I went, the books I read, the stage when I was learning so much and believed that every new fact or perspective I encountered might find a home in the book. I loved the nights at my desk, writing it, page by page. I LOVED the moment of beginning to work with my editors at HarperCollins Canada, suddenly having a partner in telling this story, in making the hard choices. But maybe my favourite thing of all is the very last stage of writing a book: when I come across readers to whom my book really meant something. It is truly a gift to be able to have that relationship with a stranger — I know what it’s like to be at the other end of that gift, how certain books have affected me and my life. To think of having even the possibility of offering that to another reader is almost overwhelming. I feel very lucky.


Your husband believed in you as a writer and helped restore your faith in yourself. What advice would you give to writers who face a crisis of confidence?

First, from my experience of my husband’s support, I learned that there is nothing more valuable than having people around you whose faith in your writing is solid as steel, and will steady your own when it quakes. If you don’t happen to have such people among your immediate friends and family, seek them out in writing groups or classes. I also think it’s valuable to take your time — accept that it may take more years to begin than you’d hoped, and more days to finish than you’d expected. But nothing is wasted. The years you aren’t writing, or aren’t writing what you want, or aren’t finishing what you start are all productive. You’re gathering ideas, noticing the world, growing confidence and resolve, and readying yourself.

A writer I respect once warned a class of young writing students not to publish too early. I know many talented writers who wrote wonderful books at young ages. But I know I personally would regret forever whatever book I could have written at twenty. It took me time to decide the story I wanted to tell and to develop the experience and ability to tell it. I wish now I’d been more patient with myself then, because everything I did and saw in those years is valuable to the writer I am now. As a writer, there’s a lot of work that’s productive besides sitting at your computer, typing letters. The hours lost to staring out a window, reading, daydreaming, living, are the ore you’re mining once you’re at your desk again. I didn’t know that at the time.

Seemingly at odds with that last advice, I also think it’s important to keep writing, in whatever way you can, at whatever rate, even when you feel stuck or struggling. This will mean different things for different people — maybe writing for an hour, or ten minutes every day, however many pages result. Maybe writing a certain number of words a day, even if only a single sentence. Maybe keeping a journal, while putting aside the novel or poem that is giving you trouble. Keeping the writing energy vital and engaged, even when it’s being redirected to other purposes, is useful.

And last, if you find it difficult to begin or complete projects, install some sort of structure in your life that will demand work of you. This might be a writing class, or a writing group, or a friend who agrees to berate you if you don’t send her a new piece of work every month. Once I had made the decision to write Birdfishes, taking workshops in Montreal and meeting with a monthly writing group helped reinforce my own motivation when it faltered.


Was there anything about being a full-time writer, part of the learning curve, that came as a surprise to you?

There are three things I’ve learned that I value most. The first is about writing as a profession, and it’s just this: that it’s possible.

I had extraordinary support all my life in my desire to write: from a very young age, I was encouraged by my parents and my teachers. However, I had no real model of what it would mean to write as a career. The grown-ups I knew were doctors or farmers or librarians or babysitters. When I was about eleven, I met a writer for the first time. The wonderful children’s writer Sheree Fitch came to visit my grade five class and taught us, among other things, that each time she sold a book she made less than $2. Even at that age, when I had no idea what a house cost, or a car, and was not responsible for any bills of any kind, I understood that $2 would not go very far toward paying them. I also heard from the world at large, over and over again, about how hopeless a living writing was, how naive it would be to pursue it as more than a hobby.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and working in publishing that I came to know other, much more experienced writers. And then I began to understand. It’s not easy, and you must make immediate peace with the unlikelihood of becoming a millionaire, but with hard work and talent, it is possible, in this country, to make a very modest living as a writer. I learned about grants, and teaching gigs, and freelance writing and editing opportunities. I discovered all the bits and pieces that you can stitch together until you arrive at the startlingly lovely situation of being a writer with a roof over your head.

The second  thing — actually two things — I discovered are more about the craft and process of writing, and they’re directly at odds with each other.

(1) You can’t rush or force writing (at least I can’t). Many people will tell you to write a certain amount every day and push ahead no matter what. I remember very clearly the points in my book where I felt I had taken a wrong turn, but I was committed to a schedule of 500 words/day, and so I stumbled on until I’d found my way. But I cursed those memories for several years afterwards: in every case, the parts of the book I struggled most with fixing in editing were the parts I’d written in those moments. I realized, in retrospect, that pushing forward with something you’re unhappy with and thinking you’ll just resolve it later is like deciding you’ll fix the foundation of a skyscraper after you’ve put the roof on. Now if I feel real doubt about something I’m writing, I try to trust those instincts. Sometimes I need to take a few days off writing, or work on something else, or think more deeply about what I’m trying to do, or consider other possibilities. The answer to the problem, when it comes, is worth waiting for.

But …

(2) I’ve also learned that I come to doubt what I am writing — and the entire project, for extra fun — on a fixed routine as predictable and perpetual as the circling of the moon. The first times it happened with Birdfishes, I froze, certain I’d lost my way for good. But now, with the reassurance of experience, taught by habit and repetition, I know to expect and wait out that feeling. Now I watch it go by like a passing train, each car in sequence: hesitation, uncertainty, self-doubt, total panic, questioning of self-worth and regretting of every act I’ve undertaken during my time on earth … and then one good sentence. And then a scene that has my fingers hurrying on the keys, struggling to keep up with the unfolding action, following it as closely and eagerly as if I were in it, excited to see what will happen next, and what will happen after that. So there’s a time to trust your instincts and pause to reconsider the choices you’ve made before cementing them with every plot event that follows. But there’s also a time to hush those doubts and proceed, trusting that you will get to the place you need to be and can erase any missteps along the way. With experience comes the ability to tell the difference. (At least I hope so!)


In Rebecca’s essay “Storytelling and the Eloquent Error,” she wrote (and I share with her permission here):

“When I was a little girl, my parents told me the story of their courtship. How the night they first went out together, my father spent his life’s savings: a jar of silver dollars that his godmother had sent him every birthday and Christmas since he was born. How when my mother opened her door that evening, he stood in the lamplight with a jar of silver in his arms. I imagined he’d wanted this truth to be visible: how precious that first evening with her was, so precious it required a more extraordinary currency. Or maybe he’d hoped there might be some sympathetic magic in purchasing an evening with a woman named Margaret Silver with silver coins.

This is a truth from my life that I wrote into In the Land of Birdfishes, and it wasn’t until my parents heard me read those pages that I learned it wasn’t a truth at all. My father had indeed spent his silver savings that night, but not in the flamboyant way I imagined. Earlier that day, he’d carried the jar to the bank and cashed it all in. The gesture was real, but not that figure of my father’s earnest sacrifice, waiting for my mother at the door, full of hope, clutching those coins. Somehow, in my imagination, that embellishment had sprung out of the truth, the weeds of myth overtaking the family garden, to borrow a metaphor from Bruno Schulz.

Story is a powerful tool, central to our sense of identity, as individuals, families, cultures, and nations. Story is how we summarize the complexity of life and what we value in it, and it’s how we communicate those perspectives to others. But story is often filled with a kind of eloquent error: I better understood how my father felt about my mother, what he gave her and what he gave up for her, when I imagined him at her door with everything he had in his hands. This type of error, whether intentional or not, can perform an important service in storytelling. In Birdfishes, Jason distorts events to express his experience of them, or to conceal what he prefers to hide. He can better explain the devastation of losing Angel with the image of his house burned to the ground, just as the jar of coins better expressed my father’s sacrifice. And so there’s insight in these lies — while stories often fail to reveal the world the story tells of, they always, in some way, expose the storyteller.”

♦     ♦     ♦

REBECCA SILVER SLAYTER grew up in New Glasgow, an old industrial town in northern Nova Scotia. The daughter of a psychiatrist and an ophthalmologist, she was the eldest of three sisters. As a child and adolescent, Rebecca studied music, art, dance, and theatre, read and wrote feverishly, and dreamed of escaping to the kinds of places she’d read about in books. Rebecca studied drama and English at the University of Toronto, and during a summer study-abroad program, met her husband, Conrad Taves, a student of architecture.

Upon graduation, she pursued work in publishing, interning at Quill & Quire and The Walrus before taking a position as Managing Editor at Brick literary journal. After leaving Brick to return to grad school, she travelled to Dawson City, researching the novel that would become In the Land of Birdfishes. She left Dawson for Montreal, where she studied English and creative writing at Concordia University. By the time she finished her M.A., she had a draft of In the Land of Birdfishes, for which she received the David McKeen Award for Best Creative Writing Thesis. That spring, she drove with Conrad to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where they had bought an old farmhouse on a tiny lake between the highlands and the sea. There, he runs an architectural design and planning practice, while she works as a freelance writer and editor, and is currently completing a second novel.


Monday, March 23rd, 2015