The Publishing Journey Perspective #3: Mahak Jain

A part of me never believed I could be a writer.

That’s why, I think, I decided to explore the second best thing to being a writer—the business of publishing other writers.

I wanted to know everything there was to know, and I started early. At sixteen, I started researching the world of literary agents and editors on the good ole internet. This was around 2004, during the heyday of Blogspot (remember that?). A few literary agents and editors were revealing the inner workings of the publishing business in highly useful weekly entries.

I didn’t know any writers, editors, agents, or anyone involved in that world, so it was like having access to a crystal ball.

The best blog was and still is Miss Snark’s. Her blog is so good she left it up on cyberspace for posterity:

From Miss Snark, I learned about query letters and foreign rights and how getting published was more involved than writing a manuscript, editing it to perfection, and then sending it off.

Instead of making me more confident—now I knew how the world of publishing worked!—my poor creative spirit just quaked and retreated. There were so many hurdles, it seemed, to getting published. The writer in me was disheartened and gave up, before she even had a chance to get started properly. Ignorance is better, I think, in the beginning.

Fast-forward to university, when I decided to intern at a children’s publishing house. I was hired as the marketing intern, but I asked the editorial director if I could read manuscripts for her in the evenings. I wasn’t paid a dime for my work, as a marketing intern or a slushpile reader, but I didn’t know how else to get a foothold in the world of publishing.

I figured that I already read in my spare time for leisure. Now I would read with a purpose.

I enjoyed wading through the slushpile, getting my hands and heart messy with an endless supply of stories. The slushpile is where the unsolicited manuscripts authors send go. Most of the writing is easily turned away. Aside from glaring mistakes, the submissions just lacked that certain…something. A talent, a spark. Hard to articulate, but as the saying goes, you know it when you see it.

Sometimes it wasn’t so easy. I remember I brought a novel to the editor that I thought had potential. It could be so good, once it was substantially revised. She agreed. She was as excited as I was. She read the book and deliberated and thought about it and I was over the roof—had I found my first book?

The editor decided, in the end, to turn it down. The manuscript raised too many questions that were difficult to answer. Was the writer up to the task of heavy revisions? Did the writer have the skills or vision to make the book what it needed to be? The only way to know was by looking at the writing itself. So I learned something new, something I didn’t learn from those blog entries all those years ago: All writing asks a question about its own potential, and only the writing itself has the answer.

Eventually, I levelled up from intern to managing editor and started acquiring and editing my own manuscripts. I worked mostly on young adult and middle grade novels. The first book I edited was nominated for the Silver Birch Award, by the Ontario Library Association. It was a dream come true—one of them, anyway.

Afterwards, I moved on to a different publishing house. Owlkids also published books for children, but for a much younger set than I was used to. I didn’t really know all that much about picture books, but suddenly, I was surrounded by them and a new kind of immersive learning began.

By then, I had been working on the books of other writers for a few years. I liked working on stories, even if I hadn’t written them. Stories, I was starting to understand, were sacred. It didn’t matter where they came from, it mattered that they existed.

But, at the same time, a sort of panic began to overcome me. It wasn’t that I minded working on other people’s stories. It was that I couldn’t handle anymore that I wasn’t telling my own stories.

There is a poem that I love, by Gwendolyn Macewen, “Dark Pines Under Water.” The last line of the poem is what I think of when I think of writing: “There is something down there and you want it told.”

Though in this case, it wasn’t so much that I wanted it told, as much as it wanted to be told. It’s like the stories were flooding my insides and bubbling up—they had to come out, one way or another. So I decided, after years of running away from writing, to leave publishing. I applied to Creative Writing MFA programs, and I finally submitted a manuscript I had been hiding away in my drawer to the publisher I had just left.

That manuscript ended up being my first published book, a picture book about a girl afraid of the dark who must dig deep to find the light inside, which comes to her in the form of the power of imagination and storytelling. It’s both funny and fitting that my first book ended up being a story about story itself.


The journey to publishing Maya was made more difficult by my own insecurities and uncertainties. I hid it away for so long, by the time the book published in 2016, five years had passed since I penned the words

The send it out to publishers part of the journey was made a little easier for me because I was familiar with the process of submitting, both thanks to Miss Snark and because I had experience working in-house and contacts in publishing. But I think that’s what made it harder, too—I didn’t want to embarrass myself so visibly. As a writer, sending out work to be considered by people who don’t know you is hard enough… but to people who do know you? Yikes.

But I did it. I finally worked up the courage to submit the manuscript, but the response… well, remember how I mentioned that all writing raises questions that only it can answer?

Well, mine apparently raised a lot. That is to say, the manuscript I submitted needed work. Like I used to, during my years of slushpile reading, my editor sent me some notes for revision—before I signed a publishing agreement. If I could get the manuscript up to snuff, then I could resubmit, and if the revision was acceptable, my editor would then recommend the manuscript for publication to the larger publishing team in-house (anonymously, since the others knew me as colleagues). There was still a chance the manuscript would get rejected, even after all that. There’s so many opportunities for failure. No wonder writers are full of nerves.

The journey to publication, I think, is more like a gauntlet. And it’s not about the difficulty of getting published. The real challenge is keeping such close company with all your fears and insecurities, putting your pride and self-worth at constant risk. It’s hard not to take rejection personally; writers (all artists, I think) overidentify with the work they produce, for obvious reasons. For me, the journey to publication has been about facing dark fears and thoughts I have about myself and the world. That’s a journey that never ends, but one that is also humbling and uplifting.

MAHAK JAIN is the author of the picture book Maya, which was a CBC Best Book of the Year, a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, and the winner of the 2017 South Asia Book Award. Her short fiction has been selected for the Journey Prize Stories and published in literary magazines across Canada. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph and has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. She hosts and organizes the Emerging Writers Reading Series in Toronto and teaches creative writing at University of Guelph and Inkwell Workshops. Born in Delhi, she has also lived in Dubai, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Montreal. She currently resides in Toronto. You can learn more about Mahak at and follow her @kveenly.

The Creative Process Perspective #4: Joanne Levy

A rambling train-of-thought approach to describing how I do what I do.

So. Hi. Welcome to the inside of my head. It’s a messy place most of the time. But the cool thing is, somehow I manage to wrangle my thoughts and output stuff that is, while not perfect by any means, still coherent and, hopefully, enjoyable to read.

How does that happen? Short answer? Most days I have no idea.

Longer answer follows. You know, as I drink coffee and figure out what leashes my muse so I can fill pages that will entertain and delight.

Okay. *cracks knuckles*

The truth is, I am not a plotter by nature. This should become obvious as you read this post. I enjoy discovering the story as I write, which means I don’t like being constrained by things like outlines. Actually, I find that if I draft an outline, I then feel like I’ve already written the book. That completely sucks the fun out of the process for me. So yes, I’m a pantser who finds great joy in drafting.

I’m sure some of you reading this don’t get it and maybe even shook your head just then, and that’s okay. We’re all different, and that’s what makes it interesting when writers get together and talk about their processes. There are as many approaches to writing as there are writers.

But I digress. Time to get back to my process.

When I sit down to write a book, I generally have three to five plot points in my head that I will write to. That leaves a lot of room to flesh out the characters and story without having to do a lot of pre-work (I’m not a fan of research—I love going down internet rabbit-holes [read the reviews, you will not be disappointed] as much as the next person, but I’m not talking about getting sucked into silly and pointless YouTube videos, I’m talking Serious Research that is 100% accurate. Not my jam.).

The bad news is that often pantsers who do no pre-work can easily get stuck.

Like, I’ll sit there and ask my blank page, “Where does the story go from here?” Sometimes I don’t know. Like, really don’t know. How does Character A get from plot point Two to plot point Three? No freaking clue.

That’s when I get seriously stuck and can’t get words on a page. I’ll try and try but nope. Nothing’s coming. Some people call it writer’s block, but I’m not so formal, I just call it being stuck because it’s just a matter of not knowing what comes next.


After writing for years, I have finally come to learn that getting stuck is nothing to fear or get upset about. That no matter how hard I try to grab that muse and force her to look at the blank page, that is not the way to get unstuck.

To get unstuck, I need to walk away. My muse needs to frolic in a meadow or go for drinks at the pub—I don’t really know what she does when she needs time away from the project. I just know that I need to set her free for a bit.

I have come to trust that my brain will whirr along in the background while I give it space. Go on a walk, enjoy a Paint Nite (I can’t recommend this enough for writers—it is a wonderful way to get out of the house and turn your brain completely off for an evening. Plus, at the end of it you have a piece of art that you can hang in your home—or not) or in very hard cases, take a few days and refill the well on a mini holiday where writing is NOT on the agenda. Go to the beach, take in some movies, visit with friends. Talk about stuff other than your current WIP.

In other words, get away from the keyboard. Once the muse has had her little vaca and is ready to work again, she’ll come back. She’ll poke you in the face at three a.m.. Or will pinch your butt while you’re in the shower with no way to write down her epiphanies. Probably, it’ll be at the most inconvenient time, like in the middle of a colonoscopy.

Point is, she will come back. Trust that. Trust yourself. That just might be the hardest part of writing.

Another common problem with being a pantser is that moment when I realize, “Oh *#@$ I’ve written myself into a corner.”

That’s when my writing turns into every knitting project I’ve ever attempted: inevitably, I’ll have to unravel rows and rows of work to fix that mistake that would otherwise always be a mark on what could have been a good project.

Every time I have to do this, I think that next time I’m going to outline.

And then I don’t.

No, really, I don’t. Even though I know it would make the writing easier and go more quickly.

But hey, what are you going to do? This is how I roll, and even though it’s more work in the end, writing from scratch is my joy.

And I totally need that. Because the business side of things isn’t always a joy. In fact, publishing can be the antithesis of joy. Sometimes publishing kills joy. Slaughters it and leaves it for dead on the side of the road.

I’ve had long stretches where I found no joy in my work. Before my debut finally sold in late 2010 (it was something like the fifteenth book I’d written and—I think—the fifth or sixth manuscript that had gone on submission), I hadn’t written for over a year. I was done with trying to get published. DONE. My heart had been broken so many times that I was over it and couldn’t bring myself to continue trying. I still had a few subs out there but was just going to let them shrivel up and die on the vine.

And then I got the call. SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE was going to get published.

Bam. I got sucked back in. I found the joy again. Only to have my heart broken again. And again. It still gets broken and then sucks me back in somehow.

So yeah, I need to give myself permission to write in a way that may create more work and is backward, if it gives me joy.

Because why else bother? If there is no joy, I may as well do something else. Seriously, anything else.

“But Joanne,” you may be thinking, “what about write-for-hire projects where someone asks you to write to their outline? You’ve done those, haven’t you?”

Yes, I have. I’ve done a few write-for-hire projects, but that doesn’t mean there was no joy in writing them. They can be really fun, actually. Working to someone else’s outline allows me to fill in spaces with my own creativity without the pressure of writing the outline myself. It’s a different kind of creative process and on a smaller scale, where the plot points are set out, and I work to give the plot voice and add humour.

Since I didn’t write those outlines, my brain didn’t feel like the book had been written already. Hence, I could still find joy in that drafting even though it’s slightly different.

But left to my own devices and writing my own stories from the ground up, I’m still a total pantser.

Hey, remember where I said this was going to be a rambly train-of-thought post? I was not kidding.

But you know what? It was fun to write, so there you go. Hopefully, you got something out of it too.

If not, my bio’s below—feel free to complain directly.

p.s. If you haven’t checked out the rest of this blog, DO. There are amazing perspectives on not only the creative process, but also rejection, and art and fear, with more to come. In a world where being a writer can be lonely and isolating, it’s nice to be reminded there are other like-minded folks. I also find they’re often hanging out on Facebook when they say they are writing. Myself included, but I blame the muse who was probably in the pub at the time.

A survivor of the corporate world, JOANNE LEVY now works from home, doing administrative work for other authors and creating the friends she wishes she had when she was a kid. She lives in rural-ish Ontario with her husband, Labrador Retriever, African Grey Parrot, and two cats, one of whom vomited during the writing of this bio. Joanne’s books include the forthcoming UNTITLED(not the actual title) from Orca books, CRUSHING IT, SMALL MEDIUM AT LARGE, and  a couple written by her not-so-secret alter-ego, Tamsin Lane: YAEL AND THE PARTY OF THE YEAR and TARA TAKES THE STAGE .

Visit Joanne online at 

The Creative Process Perspective #3: Kari Maaren

Writing on the creative process requires use of the creative process, and if there’s one thing that’s true about the creative process, it’s that it’s never there when you want it to be. Creativity is like a cat: when you’re sitting around with oodles of time, it hides under the couch, whereas when you have ten things to do and no time for creativity, it’s suddenly everywhere, sitting on your keyboard and looking at you accusingly. If you’re very, very lucky, it won’t throw up in your shoes.

The creative process is a simile taken slightly too far in an essay about the creative process. Is that creativity or desperation? How do you know if you’re being creative enough? If you ask yourself several questions in a row without answering them, will readers accept your creativity and go away without disparaging you on Twitter?

No! Shut up! The creative process can and must be quantified! It is logical. It is a locked box that is accessed with a single key, and the key is a logical key and not made of magic at all! Try This One Weird Tip, and you too can master the creative process! Stop thinking mystically. There’s nothing mystical about any of this. Similes are useless. Questions are open-ended. Write 500 words a day, and you’ll produce a 95,000-word novel in exactly 190 days. What are you waiting for? Write!

 I…I’m not sure that’s right. I mean…yesterday I wrote 2,694 words, and I don’t know why. And the day before, I wrote three words, and I still don’t know why. And the day before the day before, I looked out my window and saw the peach tree in my backyard, and I spent the next five hours standing there imagining out this entire epic fantasy series in which the peach tree was a pocket universe that had sealed itself into its own reality and now hosted a thriving population of supernatural beings, one of whom was a young wood nymph who felt too ordinary and just wanted to be loved. Is that invalid? Am I going to fail? Has this been done before? What if I’m not good enough? What if wood nymphs aren’t trendy right now? What am I going to do?

Everybody stop panicking. I just pantsed the hell out of a 140,000-word novel about time-travelling space monkeys. If I can do it, so can you. The trick is to start with a great idea, then surrender yourself to the story. Don’t get hung up on outlining or worry about research until the story has formed itself. You can always rewrite sections that don’t work.

Outlining is the only way to go. Without my outline, I am nothing. The story must be perfect and perfectly contained, with every element mattering and profoundly affecting every other element. I’ve read books by pantsers, and they tend to be loose and chaotic. A good story is taut, economical, beautifully structured. Writing by the seat of your pants will never give you that.

What is creativity? Is it a candle in the wind? A breath of fresh air in an inferno made of despair? Why is creativity? If we are not creative, how are we human? If we do not do art, are we really alive? When my soul does not soar on the wings of creation, shot through with metaphorical fire and stretched on the rack of hope, how am I not nothing at all?

Your questions are meaningless. Your imagery is hackneyed. You will never be a writer. You will never be an artist. There is no creative process. I read your heartfelt essay, and I know for a fact that I will someday be a millionaire, since if you can get published, anyone can get published. I could write a bestseller tomorrow because it’s all about figuring out the formula, and I’ve already done that. The only reason I haven’t published anything yet is that I am profoundly cynical about the whole process. It’s a rigged game. That book you love is garbage. Everything is garbage.

Guys? We’re getting off track here. Guys? I think I can do this, but how do I know? What if I write my story down and it’s no good? Maybe I shouldn’t write it down. Maybe I should eat chocolate while I’m brainstorming. I’ve heard that helps. Also wine. And carrots. Guys? Are you listening? Are you—


Don’t be postmodern. Everything is postmodern now.

Do be postmodern. Everything else is too restricted.

What even is postmodernism? Is it a creativity-killing crutch?

Yesterday, I saw a flower growing through a sidewalk crack, and I ended up in tears. What if I die tomorrow, with all my stories still untold? What if no one ever hears the things I have to say? I feel as if the stories are there, right there, but I just don’t have time to get them all out. There are so many that they choke each other off before they even get started. I need to write everything today because there may be no tomorrow.


 The ice creeps

into my brain

into the depths

of everything I am

and the sea of stories

freezes solid


from everything

to nothing

as I gasp


on the shore

Today, children, we are going to write a story. Does everybody have a pencil? No, Nigel, that is a glue stick, not a pencil. Okay! I want you to imagine you live in a castle with a magic bee! What happens to you and the bee? You have one whole page to answer this question! No, Nigel, that’s still a glue stick. Please put the glue stick away.

We are all creators. We must all create. Children know this; adults forget.

Creativity doesn’t pay the bills. Stop being so childish. Grow up and get a real job.

 My creativity is better than yours.

 My creativity is weirder than yours.

 My creativity is a more useful cat simile than yours.


 Guys? Guys? Guys?

 I think I have an idea.


Kari Maaren is a writer, cartoonist, musician, and academic who has no spare time. Her first novel, the Andre Norton-nominated Weave a Circle Round, was published by Tor Books in 2017. She has a completed webcomic, West of Bathurst, and an active one, It Never Rains, and she has produced two CDs, Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off and Everybody Hates Elves. She is fond of time travel and titles that begin with “W.”

The Creative Process Perspective #1: Brian McLachlan


I’m not going to tell you the process I use to write a book, but the holistic approach I have to the creative lifestyle. I like to think of the process of writing a book like a recipe, and what I’m sharing here is more than that. It’s how I plan meals, cook, clean, and deal with what’s left. And head’s up, since I’m an illustrator as well as artist, my process involves sketching and doodling, which I hope will be illuminating for you as well.


Before you make up your own recipes, you have to prepare some that other people have made. That’s when you learn about story structure, giving characters distinct voices, etc.  The stuff that becomes second nature so you know how to preheat the oven to the right temperature, at the right time, because you know how that food is going to cook, whether you add saffron, dill, or fantasy-adventure for flavour.

When you know the basics, you start researching the specifics of your story. I do that with drawing. I look up pictures, or go to places where I can draw things I don’t know how to draw. This is a useful thing to do, even when I don’t have a project in mind. I sketch people at the cafe. Bone up on architecture for half an hour a day until I’ve added flying buttresses to my visual vocabulary.

Do writers do this? When you sit on the subway do you try to capture someone with a phrase “She huddled over her book like gargoyle trying to scare the main character away from danger”? Artists often start with quick gestures, move to 5-10 minute poses, and then have a three hour sitting to see all the details from a model’s pose or still life. I wonder if writing classes do the same, trying to catch those thousand words a picture is worth. Does describing a diner help you write a space ship’s mess hall? Maybe it’s worth a shot?

So that’s the first type of prep drawing I do: sketching. The second kind of prep drawing is doodling. That’s where I draw things I already know how to draw. I’m either refining them to where I like the shapes and lines I’m using, or combining images in new ways. Is it funny to draw a centaur that doesn’t have a human torso, but another horse torso on top? What could is mean? Would it fit in to any of the dishes I’m working on? My sketchbook is full of these weird experiments, which help me find my voice.

I do this with words too. When I’m trying to crack a punchline, or build a plot for one of my shorter comics, I write down a topic, and then brainstorm related words (or images) in different categories (living things, things, places, phrases and actions). Then I look for opposites (as that’s where the humour often lies, like a gorgon with Mongooses for hair). I have a doc file full of lists of things that might help me if I need a list of sports, monsters, or character motivations. These are great when I’m hitting a mental roadblock and there’s a deadline. I’ve written the same characters for Owl Magazine, every month for over a decade. This method gives me the power to come up with a new take on spring break, Halloween, or whatever.

I doodle with words in quiet moments, like when I’m waking up, or walking to pick up my kids from school. When I was lying quietly with my toddlers, trying to get them to settle into a nap. When I’m riding public transit. I doodle with pictures while watching TV without compelling visuals, like Daily Show or Jeopardy! These are the moments to daydream or rework loose ends. That way, when I get back to the computer, or the drawing tablet, I’m ready to go.

The exception to that rule, for me, is at bedtime. I don’t want to think about my life, or my work, because it will keep me up. I won’t get to sleep, and my writing and drawing will be off the next day. When I’m going to sleep I try to visualize things that are far removed from my daily routine. I think about video games I played 20 years ago. I think about walking through a forest I visited once every year in my twenties. Thinking about my work is a recipe for disaster.

Right before bed is actually a great time to read. It helps settle the mind before bed, in a way that screen time doesn’t. It’s good to be reading for fun, or to be low-stress researching for your next possible book (assuming your book isn’t about grizzly unsolved murders or something unsettling). It’s a great time to catch up with my peers’ efforts and know why I want to recommend their books.

Into the Kitchen

Because I’m thinking about my work while I’m doing other things, when I sit down to work, I know where to start, without procrastinating. The new recipe is coming together. It might be revisiting a tough chapter that I had an epiphany about. Or starting off from the last sentence/brush stroke. Or it might be a whole new project I’m getting down on screen, to get it recorded. Like food, I have to keep deadlines in mind. I can be working on baking a cake for the big party on the weekend, but I still need to make dinner tonight. Sure I want to work on my book, but I need to hit my monthly magazine deadline first. You have to keep yourself fed.

I work from home, and am basically a stay-at-home dad and husband. So I have nice breaks throughout the day. I have my moments of flow, but when the writing hits a wall, I can take that time to sweep, or throw on a load of laundry. Taking a few moments away from my work gives my brain a chance to regrapple the problem, while I get something else done. Then I come back to flow. Later, when the laundry goes off, it reminds me it’s been an hour, and I should at least be getting out of the chair. Then right back to where my mind left off.

To the Table

Once a story is done, like a good meal, it’s good to let it digest. So I let it sit for a while, before I think about sharing it with someone. There’s an artist’s trick where you hold a mirror up to your drawing to see with new eyes, to see where your proportions are off. It’s the same way writers read sentences backwards to catch mistakes. Time preforms the same function for me with stories. While that meal is digesting, I’m already working on the next meal though. It might be a light breakfast, like a short story, blog post, series of one-panel gags, etc, or it might be an ambitious 6-course dinner. I think each person has their own metabolism. Some people will do a new webcomic every day. Some will hole up and write an epic novel over years. And then do it again. Some mix it up. I don’t think there’s a writing diet that’s healthy for everyone to follow. Personally, I find I need to mix it up a bit.

In fact I’m usually working on several pieces at the same time. I’m writing my monthly comic. I’m sketching out some submissions for The New Yorker or the Nib. I’m working on my book project for my agent or publisher. I’m tweaking my power point after my last school presentation. Having my fingers in lots of pots helps keep the money coming in, the brain active, my name out there, and allows me to leave a momentary writer’s block to do something else worthwhile.

Speaking of school visits, they’re a great way to try your recipes out on some eager eaters. Tease a story idea, or a drawing and see if people salivate. Find out what books others are reading so you know how to compare your meal when its ready. Get out and meet your potential fans and cheerleaders, while you are giving them the tools to become the next generation of creators. It’s wonderful to pass your knowledge along to the hungry.


When I don’t have a deadline anymore, sometimes I take a day just for myself. Get a massage. Play a video game. It feels a bit like cheating to me, but I can enjoy it when I know there’s nothing super important on my plate anymore.

Sometimes when a story is done, either published, or definitively passed on, I can reuse the scraps for the start of the next meal. Or maybe not the start, but as a flavour, like using the duck fat for some fries.  Some of these ideas need to be like stock, boiled down to what’s the key element that you want to work with. I think about why an idea struck me, and why I want to reuse it, and how I can. What about it is good? What was problematic? Is there a kernel of a story in there? It’s easier to reuse if you’re writing in the same genre, but you might be able to fit a French bread into a Mexican dish.

In our home, I get breakfast and lunch ready for the kids. I make most of our dinners. But some meals I eat are just for me. And the same is true with my writing. Sometimes it’s because I plan it that way. Sometimes it’s because it got burnt and we have to order in pizza. Not all the stories you’ve put your heart into will be shared with others. Their sales may flop. They may never be published. That’s okay. Some endeavours are just for you, and keep you healthy, sustain you. I try not to worry about rejections from agents, publishers, or the public. Famous and fantastic authors have had their books in the bargain bin, or their desk drawer, and so will you. The real end result of cooking is making poop, and you have to be ready for that outcome as well.

BRIAN MCLACHLAN is a cartoonist who writes the “Alex and Charlie” strip for Owl Magazine. He’s also done cartoons for Nickelodeon, The Nib, Dragon, and The New Yorker Magazine. His book Draw Out The Story: 10 Secrets to Creating Your Own Comics, received an ILA Nonfiction Award, a JLG Gold Medal, and was a Silver Birch finalist.


Twitter: @mclachlanbrian