I was looking at some of my older writing, I keep an idea book and found some old writing samples in the back. The first thing I noticed is how different the writing is, almost like someone else had written it. Which is a good thing because, frankly, the story was terrible! The writing appalling, all of the mistakes you’re told as a writer were there in full bloom. It got me thinking about my progress, and where, exactly, it ‘clicked’, where I finally got it right.
My mother has a folder of my work from childhood, inside is a story about a man named Homer who works in a doughnut factory. I wrote it in grade two and you’ll have to trust me when I tell you it was written WELL before the Simpsons was ever created. (Yes, I’m that old, I remember a time when I would rush home from school to watch Gilligan’s Island). So I started writing early. More short stories followed, including a set of seasonal stories involving a killer snow drift, killer leaf pile, killer mud puddle – you get the idea. All done in that wonderful hacking graphic detail only a middle school kid can come up with. (I wrote them for a friend, our science teacher found them and questioned her at length, believing she had written them, worried about her mental health. Awesome. I also wrote a short story for English class that ended with a creepy old ‘witch’ woman cutting off the legs of a snooping school kid who had followed her home and leaving said kid to die. Strangely, I never got that story returned to me.) In high school I wrote a series of stories about the Lone Peach and Tonto Apricot, fighting the evil Figmalion (guess which book we were studying in English that year). I would write them during class and leave them in my friend’s locker to read to her homeroom class the next day. I learned the value of being entertaining, that my writing could amuse people, possibly make me friends, pure gold in the perilous halls Sherwood Secondary School.
I gave up writing, except for short silly stories for friends, while in university. Too much going on, too much of life blowing my little mind. I worked a few years afterwards then moved to England, where I eventually joined a wonderful writing group run by the amazing John Petherbridge (BBC Radio 4 writer). Most people were writing novels, I however was stuck on short stories. I love shorts, lots of bang for your buck. But an entirely different way of relaying information. More tell, less show, given the restraints of the short. It was in John’s group that I made the jump from short to novel. I wrote my first book. And, frankly, it was a disaster. A one joke book, with the idea of that joke carrying the entire story. NOT good. Plus the story was pushing the characters, rather than the characters pushing the story. Still, I had written a book! A terrible terrible book. Go me!
I was still writing short stories and was introduced to the author Hector Hugh Munro (aka Saki) and his wonderful wonderful stories. His characters are so well written that they just stuck with me. I read them many times, and eventually came to write my own series of stories inspired by Saki. It was through his easy style of showing and not telling, via his strong character voices, that I was able to finally understand my own characters and how to allow them guide the story, rather than the story dragging them along. (If you’re familiar with Saki’s work and would like to eyeball a few of my own stories, click HERE. If you’d like to read Saki but don’t know where to start, I’d highly highly recommend his story ‘The Unrest Cure’ as a good starting point!).
I moved back to Canada after 20 years in London and did a Masters in creative writing. To this day I’m still unsure of exactly how much I gained from this course, but it was during this time that I made the mental leap from short story craft to novel craft. Coincidence? Probably not. My teacher wasn’t very nice, but she DID yell over and over ‘Show, don’t tell!’ I guess it finally stuck because when I wrote my novel about Elizabeth I, it was better. MUCH better. I had finally found my character’s voice in a novel. I had written my first book thinking like a reader, not a writer. This time was different. The characters were pushing the story, their voices clamouring in my head night and day (something that tends not to happen with a short story, or not for very long as it’s easier to appease them in a shorter period of time than with a full-length novel). I think my writing brain clicked with this novel because I had already read so many books about the virgin queen, her voice was already IN my head when I started writing. So a short-cut of sorts, a small cheat that helped me enormously.
I’ve since written a historical horror novel, again very much character-driven, and am now working on another historical fiction story about two very strong tenth century women. I still switch between novels and short stories (I had another accepted for publication just last week) but the difference between what I’m doing now and what I did only a few short years ago is pretty astonishing.
Not that I’m done learning or shaping the craft, that never ends. But thank goodness it’s gotten easier!