Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Grit and the writing life

You know when you read something that just makes you laugh out loud?


In an interview between The Globe & Mail’s Simon Houpt and Sarah MacLachlan, the departing president of House of Anansi Press and Groundwood Books, MacLachlan (not to be confused with the musician who shares her name) was asked:


Do you have a novel in you? Maybe a roman a clef about a scrappy independent publisher?


Her reply:


God no! Being a writer is a really, really tough job, and I am deeply admiring of people who write, because it’s you and the computer and that’s it, you know? And I don’t have that kind of grit.


I laughed out loud because, people, it’s the truth, and it’s wonderful to hear someone – someone who isn’t a writer – acknowledge it.

Oh sure, everyone knows it’s hard to sit down every day, open the computer (or notebook) and just get at it, when so many other distractions are pulling you away. (You do know that, right?)


But it’s the recognition of required “grit” part I like. That’s the part so many people outside of the writing life don’t understand.


You know what takes grit?


Tolerating rejection. Rejection over and over. Years of rejection. And still sitting down with your manuscript and working to make it better, not giving up, believing in yourself, seeking help. And submitting again, knowing that you’re probably going to be rejected. Again.


Flying under the radar. For every publicity-engorged, widely reviewed, list-promoted, award-nominated, “You have to read this!” next-best-seller thrust in front of the reading public, there are many, many more quiet, small-press, deserving books languishing in the shadows with no fireworks to launch them into the world. And still these writers write.


So thank you, Sarah MacLachlan. It’s refreshing to hear someone recognize, publicly, with respect and complete self-awareness, that, yes, writing is a tough job and – cue the “grit” – not everyone can do it. You made me laugh, because it’s so true.

Monday, July 6, 2020

The ripple effect, for worse or for better…

These are strange and difficult times. Pandemic. Protest. Fear. Violence. Death. Stupid people… wait, sorry.

I should be kinder.

In fact, everyone should be kinder.

The ripple effect of fear and – let’s face it – stupidity means people act in ways that make life worse for the people around them.

Harassing people for wearing/not wearing a mask. Keying cars with out-of-province license plates. Buying all the toilet paper (surely we’re done with that one, right?)

Ignoring the images of heartbreaking violence and racism seen in the media and seen with our own eyes because “I’m not racist.”

Closer to home, the woman walking on our beach who refused to acknowledge my greeting. The anonymous “tip” that brought an RCMP officer to our house to confirm we were self-isolating. (We are.)

Were these people afraid? Stupid? Or just unkind?

All I know is that I feel beleaguered – by these strange and difficult times, and by people who are making it worse. I haven’t hugged my kids for four months. I can’t cuddle my first grandchild, can’t kiss his face, rock him to sleep. I had a book published just before the pandemic shut down our country, and it’s going nowhere.

Not big or important losses in a shifting, frightened, transforming world, but huge in MY world.

We all have our own little worlds. What’s happening in the larger, global world is important and needs our attention (we’ll just sidestep the risks of indulging too deeply in the sometimes festering bog known as social media here, if you don’t mind…).

But we need to pay attention to the little worlds around us, too. We are the tiny atoms that work together to make up our universe.

We need to support each other with kindness and understanding.

Kindness. It’s worth repeating, and repeating, and repeating.

These are strange and difficult times, but the ripple effect is in our hands. For worse, or for better.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

This is what writing looks like

I was writing today, working on my next YA novel. It's been taking shape in my head, piece by creative piece, over the past few months.

So today I did some serious writing and this is what it looked like.

My Workspace:

This place was crowded, let me tell you. Voices everywhere, all telling me their stories. Scenes unfolding. Conversations between characters. Stuff happening. I walked from from one end of the beach to the other, over and over. Writing, writing, listening, thinking. Writing.

There Were Distractions:

Deer prints in the office, and mysterious noises coming from just beyond, over the bank. Was I about to be interrupted by a visitor? (As it turned out, I wasn't).

Treasures and Rewards

Every now and then the scenes stopped rolling, the voices were silent, and I found treasures. That happens sometimes when you're writing - something unexpected arrives and you just have to stop and absorb it: not a distraction, not an interruption. More like a treasure, or a reward.

Sea glass haul

Driftwood and tide lines

Life and death. Ave atque vale, Crab

Once a fisherman's homemade buoy

Not a single word on paper or typed into a document on my computer.

But still a successful day of writing. Feels good.

Good night!

Sunday, July 14, 2019

"Comparison is the thief of joy," said Teddy Roosevelt. He was right.

The writing life is hard in all sorts of ways. And sometimes we make it even harder on ourselves.

2019 Forest of Reading Red Maple Fiction Nominees on stage at Harbourfront.

Confession: I am a very competitive person. And not always in a good way.

Ask my high school basketball coach, who watched me foul out of more games than anyone should. ("But Coach, she pushed me, so I pushed back..."). Ask my relatives about family card games and my outbursts of frustration (which I will not quote here). Ask my curling buddies about why I moved myself from the competitive to the recreational league (answer: for the benefit of all involved).

So when I scroll through my social media feeds or media outlets and see book lists (that don't include me) or festival line-ups (that don't include me) or review sites (that don't include me) or bookstores (that don't include me) or testimonials from readers, librarians, teachers, other writers (that don't include me), I become that teary kid, nose pressed up against the glass, whispering: "Hey guys? Pick me! Can I play too?"

It's a bad thing for a writer to be that competitive, because it's toxic, at least it is for someone programmed to compete, as I am. Comparing the success of others to my own goals and accomplishments poisons not only my creative process, but also the joy of achieving something that I battled for (yes, it took me 35 years to break in... and here's a small selection of my rejections to demonstrate):

**WARNING** Shameless Self-Promotion follows...

In fact, I've had some successes and I've made some lists: Skating Over Thin Ice was nominated for the Forest of Reading 2019 Red Maple Fiction Award and named to the USBBY 2019 Outstanding International Books List. My new book, Larkin on the Shore, popped up on a "coming this fall" blog. All thrilling! But when I look around, my inner competitive voice kicks in: "Yes, okay, but...".

So I'm working hard to embrace the words of Teddy Roosevelt: "Comparison is the thief of joy."

I'm happy for you all, writing colleagues out there filling my socials with your success. I really am. We're in this writing life together and I'm happy to be on this journey with you.

Keep up the good work, writing/books/media sites, who celebrate and promote our creative efforts and successes.

But now I need to turn away from that window, dry my silly tears, and be joyful about my own writing. Because in the end, that's why I've embraced the writing life: it brings me joy.

And I'm not going to let any thief - especially one that my own competitive spirit has allowed to creep in - steal that from me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Reviews: Love them, hate them, let the kids write them

I once received a review for a novel of mine called Wild Dog Summer, published by an educational publisher for a classroom novel study package.

“Flow-charted fiction.” That’s what the reviewer said, along with some other highly uncomplimentary thoughts on my writing ability, character development and general world view. (The words “earnest” and “contrived” float to the surface of my memory…)

It hurt to read this review. It hurt for all sorts of reasons:

I had been thinking of myself as a good – or at least a decent – writer. So, ouch. 

This review was published in a journal dedicated to children’s literature. It would be read by teachers and librarians – in other words, the gatekeepers responsible for choosing books to use with kids in their middle school Language Arts programs. I heard the sound of a door slamming shut.

I was horrified that someone saw my work – saw me – in this way. For weeks I couldn’t write. I doubted myself as a writer, which is a terrible thing for someone who has defined herself by being a writer her whole life. (Yes, that’s me, writing about myself in third person…)

Two things helped me recover my confidence.

First, my husband noticed that something was up, read the review when I finally confessed my distress about it, and said: “So? She didn’t like your book.”

In other words, so what? One person didn’t like it. Whatever.

And second, I had already received messages from teachers and students who had read the book and were enjoying it as part of their school Language Arts program. Those messages continued to arrive – enthusiastic and positive responses to my story and characters.

(I also did a bit of research on the reviewer and discovered that her children’s literature cred was lacking. This wasn’t a teacher, librarian or parent reviewing the book. This was a recent university grad who worked in media and produced a short audio comedy series making fun of “mini-van people.” Enough said.)

So, reviews.

When they’re good, we love them. When they’re bad, it’s a bit more complicated.

Reviews help to sell books, so publishers (and writers) need them. Publishers will rely on curated sources, with reviewers who have been vetted, who have some expertise, whose views are edited (hopefully) for accuracy and relevance.

That doesn’t mean the reviews are always going to be positive. My self-published YA novel The Toymaker’s Son was “recommended with reservations” by CM: Canadian Review of Materials, which is a bit like receiving a pat on the head from someone who won’t make eye contact with you.

But the online universe means anyone can be a reviewer (cough, Goodreads, cough). Bloggers, vloggers, personal websites. Reviews are everywhere.

So, I’m trying to keep it all in perspective and appreciate the reality that not everyone is going to like my book, my writing style or my characters (and let’s face it: to writers, our characters are like our children to us! Beloved!).

My job is to write, listen to my editor and, after publication, to my readers.

Which brings me to my final point.

As a writer of YA fiction, my favourite reviews (sometimes in the form of personal messages, classroom feedback activities, online comments) have come from the kids reading my books. Kids are honest, which means the feedback is not always positive, but I’m absolutely okay with that, because…

Who better to tell you if your story resonates with the book’s intended audience than the book’s intended audience?

(Related thought: Throughout my trying-to-get-published journey, I’ve wondered more than once whether publishers are publishing what the adults want the kids to read, or what kids want to read. Who drives the children’s publishing machine? Adult readers/buyers/sellers or kid readers?)

So here’s a call-out to the world of curated, edited review sites and publications: 

If you’re reviewing books for kids, why not ask kids to contribute?

How can writers, booksellers, teachers, librarians, parents and the young readers themselves find out if a book – a book aimed at young readers – actually appeals to kids? Let the kids tell us.

To conclude: Here's my favourite review of Skating Over Thin Ice, from Kids’ BookBuzz, written by Tatiana, age 15.

Thanks, Tatiana!

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Do you have a publishing dream? Here's how mine went... (yes, it has a happy ending)

When I was preparing for the Breaking In Panel at CANSCAIP’s annual Packaging Your Imagination conference, I knew there was no way I’d be able to share my entire how-I-became-a-published-author story. 

Because, you know, it’s a long story.

So, I’m writing this a few days before the conference takes place. Here’s a look at what I hope turns up during the panel discussion but might not: the stuff that I’d really like to share with you writers out there who are trying to get through the door to publication.

I had a dream.

Yes, I was that kid who read voraciously. Yes, I was that kid who wrote all the time. Yes, Language Arts and English teachers loved me. Yes, I studied English Literature at university. Yes, I have a BA and an MA. But the most important thing about my youthful literary education is that my dream was always to be a published author, to see my book on the shelf of a bookstore. I bet this is a dream I share with all of you.

That folder in the front? PYI 1998. Yup. I've been
coming to this conference for 20 years, and this year,
I'm finally a presenter. What a thrill!

First submission

In 1983, I was out of grad school, in my first job, and knew it was time to get serious about completing and querying some of my writing projects (poetry, a contemporary novel, a children’s middle-grade novel).

The kids’ book, about a girl who wanted to play goal for her brother’s hockey team, was complete and, I felt, polished. So I researched publishers accepting manuscripts and sent it off.

A month later I got a reply: “We really like this story and are considering it for publication. We would like to have more readers on our editorial board look at it and we’ll be in touch.”

Wow! I thought. That was easy!

Two-and-a-half years later (after much back-and-forth to see if they were still interested; they were) the story was turned down.

In those two-and-a-half years, a young girl named Justine Blainey took the Toronto Minor Hockey Association to the Ontario Supreme Court to win the legal right for girls to play on boys’ hockey teams. She won. She took her case to the Supreme Court of Canada and won there, too. So now it was the law that girls could play on boys’ hockey teams.

In other words, my story was no longer timely, and it was rejected for publication.

What did I take from this experience?

1. Publishers are slow.

2. Timing is everything. And sometimes it’s out of your control. (Justine Blainey hadn’t hit the news when I wrote and submitted my story).

3. I must be doing something right, because they liked it and considered it for publication. So I should keep doing what I’m doing.

And that’s what I did.

It’s a long journey.

I kept writing my stories and sending them off.

To address the issue of slow publishers, I made sure I had lots of projects on the go, lots of queries out at different publishers, so I wasn’t sitting there waiting for one publisher, one project. I still got lots of rejections, but I felt productive and in charge of the querying process – which was nice, because so much of it is out of your control.

To address that lack of control – and the “timing is everything” issue – I made sure I was aware of publishers’ submission guidelines. I did lots of research, made phone calls and sent letters (yes, some of this was pre-email). I knew who was accepting YA fantasy and who wasn’t; who wanted middle-grade or early chapter books; whose submission period was January to June. And I followed those guidelines to the letter. I perfected my cover letter. I kept a log of my queries and submissions.

A few pages from my submission log. A lot of rejection there. Also a
lot of blank spaces where publishers never got back to me.
It's hard, just saying.

And I got lots of rejections. Lots.

Sometimes I got close: “These first three chapters are interesting and we would like to see the entire manuscript.”

Sometimes I got so close it was crushing: “We feel your manuscript has potential for publication, but I’m sorry, we just accepted another story about a girl and a dog.” Or, “This is a strong novel, but we are moving towards more urban settings in our YA fiction.”

Or my personal favourite: “This novel deserves to be published, just not by us right now.”

I have a folder full of rejections. An email archive, too. It’s pretty sad.

I was sad. Discouraged. But dammit – I had this dream…

Yeah. Okay. Thanks.

Not all bad – building on the successes

There were some successes in among all that rejection.

An educational publisher, Nelson Canada, accepted a couple of my manuscripts and turned them into novels for a school novel study program (CANSCAIP’s Sylvia McNicoll had some novels in this program, too).

I turned to freelancing and had reviews, articles and stories for kids published in magazines and newspapers. I did a lot of corporate writing and built up my editing skills. I became a college teacher and taught writing skills and business communications for 15 years at three difference colleges.

I did some self-publishing – one of the Nelson novels (when it went out of print, because teachers were still asking for it), a sequel, and a sports novel for a niche market.

I thought of myself as a writer – but, there was still this dream. A real book on a shelf in a bookstore…

What’s the point?

But the dream wasn’t coming true. I wrote the stories that just kept welling up out of me. Publishers kept saying “This is good, but…” “We really like this, but…” “This is a well-written novel, but…”

I mean, really, what’s the point any more? And add to that other things like job stresses, raising a family, Life.

I nearly gave up, so many times.

And then…

Fast forward to the spring of 2017. I’m querying a YA novel about a girl, a musical prodigy, named Imogen St. Pierre. It took me three years to write. I don’t have high hopes for it because, well, why would I? Rejections have already started to arrive.

But I love this story, this character. Writing her was the most satisfying, exciting, positive creative writing experience I’ve ever had. So even if Weird Girl (the working title) never sees the light of day, I consider it a win. Possibly the best writing I’ve ever done.

And then one day I get an email from Peter Carver at Red Deer Press: “I will be recommending to my publisher that we include it in our list as soon as possible. Thank you, again, for thinking of Red Deer for this remarkable story.”

Skating Over Thin Ice was published in June 2018.

Do the math. Yup. It took me 35 years – 1983 to 2018 – to “break in” and see my book on a shelf in a bookstore.

So if you learn anything from my story, let it be this:

Rejection is part of the process. Accept, learn from it, and move on.

Publishing is a business, and there’s only so much you can control.

Write the best story, your story, and keep working on your writing.

And most important of all, do not give up. Believe in yourself and your dream, and keep trying.

(I really, really hope it doesn’t take you 35 years, though…)

My rejections. Some of them, anyway...

Because if I had given up, my dream would never have come true: seeing my book on a shelf in a bookstore.

The Bookshelf, Guelph

Resources, suggestions, tips for breaking in:

1. Being a writer is a professional undertaking. So be a professional. Join a professional writing organization (such as CANSCAIP, Canadian Children’s Book Centre, Professional Writers Association of Canada…). Attend professional development sessions and conferences such as Packaging Your Imagination. Libraries and community groups, literary festivals all offer workshops. Be informed.

2. Enter contests. An internet search will bring you tons of suggestions – literary festivals, the CBC Literary Prizes, libraries, organizations. (And here’s a great story from author Lisa Dalrymple about how contests helped her break into publication). 

3. Connect with other writers on social media or in person. There’s probably a critique group on your area – or start one, if that’s your thing (it isn’t mine, but that’s just me). Make writerly friends in person or through social media. Don’t let it be a distraction, but be encouraged by being part of a community of writers. (I don’t know how I would have kept going if not for my writerly friends! You know who you are!)

4. All writing is grist to the mill. Find opportunities to build your writing cred. For example, does your local independent bookstore or library want book reviews for their newsletter or website? Explore freelance opportunities (PWAC is s great place to start for tips). 

4. Write your stories. Not stories to fit some market, or check a box on a publisher’s checklist. Write the stories that are in you. Published or not, you are a writer, and those are the stories that matter.

5. And finally, the most important thing to remember: don’t give up. 

Woozles Books in Halifax, N.S.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Book birthday looming: Is it normal to be terrified?

As I write this, my book’s birthday (aka publication date) is less than two months away. On May 15, my YA novel, Skating Over Thin Ice, will make its appearance. It’s my first novel published by a mainstream, trade publisher (Red Deer Press, a kidlit imprint of Fitzhenry & Whiteside).

This book birthday comes after years and years of knocking on the door, being rejected, trying again, more rejection. Hours and days and months and years of work that just couldn’t get that final acceptance. But now educational publishing and self-publishing are behind me. I feel as if I’ve finally been called up to the big leagues.

Yay! I should be filled with excited anticipation, right?

Excited, yes. But it’s excitement tinged with a strong element of (let’s face it) terror.

So, why am I terrified?

 1. I’m terrified my book will fail.

All this work, all the efforts of my wonderful editor, Peter Carver, and the team at Red Deer Press, all this time and effort invested – what if no one buys it, checks it out of the library, reads it? Fail.

2. I’m terrified people will trash it on social media.

Social media is great for spreading the word, building some buzz, sharing the news – but it’s not exactly a curated space. If the buzz is bad and the news is nasty, well, enough said.

3. I’m terrified that people will be mean to my “kid”

Creating a work of fiction is a lot like raising a child. You invest so much time and energy – so much of your own heart – in creating something/someone meaningful and important and whole and beautiful. But once that book, or child, goes out into the world, it has to fend for itself. And if people are mean… not gonna lie: I’ll probably cry.

My book is going to be published, so I have to face it: stuff is going to happen – good and bad.

So this is what I tell myself:

I loved writing this book. I love these characters. I think I have something to say, something to share, with readers, especially Young Adult readers. Other people – people who know the publishing industry and have worked on my book and whom I trust – think it has a place in the world of YA fiction, too. That’s good enough for me.

Bring on the book birthday. I’m ready.


Here's the book's blurb from the Fitzhenry & Whiteside Spring 2018 catalogue:

Skating Over Thin Ice by Jean Mills

Imogen St. Pierre is a musical prodigy, a classical pianist touring Canada and abroad in a trio with her father and grandfather. Though clearly accomplished she is also painfully awkward socially, getting lost in the music even after it’s over. Imogen’s in the final year in a private boarding school where she meets a boy of the same age, Nathan McCormick, who turns out to be the next great hockey player. Nathan however has recently been penalized for a vicious fight in an international tournament. Imogen and Nathan don’t exactly become an item, but there’s an elusive special quality to their connection. Jean Mills has given us a thoughtful, moving, powerful story about what it’s like to be gifted and exceptional – and still young.