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.
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 www.mahakjain.com and follow her @kveenly.
To share the story of my publishing journey, I want to describe for you the events of the morning of July 21, 2011 – and to do this, I need to begin by taking you back to 1986, back to when I was in grade 7 and when I first started submitting my work for publication.
I was lucky enough to have workshopped a middle-grade adventure novel that I’d written with the highly-acclaimed Canadian author Janet Lunn who had visited the students of Whitby Senior Public School to run a workshop for aspiring writers. At about the same time, my friends and I were heavily into the hysterically funny books of Gordon Korman. When I learned that Gordon’s first big publishing break had been with Scholastic when he was 13 years old, that was just the push I needed to set me off down my own road.
I begged my poor mum to type out my entire novel – which I was excited to then call a “manuscript” – and to photocopy it for me 3 times. (I may have been an optimistic 12-year-old but even then, I was going to do whatever it took to increase the odds in my favour.) I submitted a copy each to Scholastic Canada, Kids Can Press and Grolier (the only other publishing company I could think of.) None of them wanted to publish it – although they all sent very nice and encouraging rejection letters (which brought me a somewhat odd excitement, knowing they might be – and actually were – the first of hundreds of rejections I would accumulate over my career. It was a significant step for me to get those first few out of the way.)
Over 20 years later – also 2 degrees in English Literature/Creative Writing and 3 kids later – I found myself writing children’s picture books and beginning to tentatively submit again. At this point, I also sent some of my stories to writing competitions, hoping that if my work received recognition, that might help me when approaching a publisher. In April 2009, I sent 3 stories to the children’s writing competition of The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) – a large national competition in which the winners received a nice cash prize and their stories were submitted to 3 publishers. I didn’t win.
But in 2010, I received news that my story “Skink on the Brink” had placed second in the children’s writing category of the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick’s competition. This was my first real big break – not Gordon Korman with Scholastic big, but big enough for me to get on a plane and fly out to Fredericton for the awards. Feeling that I had now finally written something publishable, in April 2010, I submitted “Skink on the Brink” to the TWUC competition. Again, I didn’t win.
At the same time, I was getting my work out elsewhere. Using the feedback I received from several contest judges, I had revised my rhyming story about a little girl who asks for a polar bear for Christmas and it had caught the attention of Donna Francis at Tuckamore Books in Newfoundland. And I met Christie Harkin, editor at Fitzhenry and Whiteside at Word on the Street in Toronto. I asked Christie about the kinds of stories she was looking for and we agreed that “Skink on the Brink” might be a good fit. She invited me to submit it to her personally. I rushed home and spent a couple of weeks revising “Skink” before sending it to her. In April 2011, I decided it might be worth submitting the new revision to the TWUC competition yet again.
Which brings me to the morning of July 21, 2011. I was packing for an anniversary trip that Marc and I were taking to Peru when I received an email from Donna Francis saying that she really loved the revisions I had made to the polar bear story and – as I can quote directly because, of course, the email is still saved to my laptop – “I’m ready to send you a contract for review.”
I picked up the phone and called Marc at work and, not long after he managed to make sense of the dolphin noises I was making through the phone, my call waiting indicator beeped. I glanced at the caller ID and saw that it was the Writers’ Union calling. Why would the Writers’ Union be calling? Do they call every author who has just been offered a contract? How do they know? I left Marc while I took the call, the call in which Nancy McLeod informed me that “Skink on the Brink” had won first place in TWUC’s Writing for Children competition. However, I was not to tell anyone until the official press release on July 26.
As you might expect, Marc received a second call from his dolphin-sounding-wife and promised that we would go out to celebrate that evening. In the meantime, I tried to continue packing, avoided friends and neighbours (as I’m not very good at keeping secrets) and posted a cryptic message on Facebook about this being the fifth best day of my life. (You will remember I have 3 children and, of course, the fabulous dolphin-decoder man that I married.)
We went out for dinner and a drink (or three) and returned home that evening with me feeling absolutely euphoric. However, the day was not yet over and, when I checked my email, there was a message from Christie Harkin who had obviously seen my Facebook post. Her subject line was simply, “So you’re having a good day, huh?” Attached to the email was a contract for Skink on the Brink, the picture book.
Now 7 years and 10 published books later, my next book will be published by Scholastic Canada (just like Gordon Korman… well almost.) Fierce: Women who Shaped Canada will be available in January 2019 and will include wonderful art by Willow Dawson. (And I’m starting to wonder if I should be polishing off and revising something that I could maybe submit to Grolier.)
Writing is a solitary endeavour. Most writers find it helpful to be part of a writing community that can help them feel less alone, fine-tune their work, and later, find a place in the world for their writing.
We’ve brought together four writers to talk about how they built their communities and how that has helped them:
CAITLYN PAXSON, writer and reviewer – her work can be found at NPR Books and Quill & Quire. www.caitlynpaxson.com
DOMINIK PARISIEN co-editor, with Navah Wolfe, of The Starlit Wood: New Fairy Tales and Robots vs Fairies, and Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction with Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. Author of the forthcoming poetry chapbook We, Old Young Ones.
ANDREW WILMOT, author of The Death Scene Artist (Wolsak & Wynn, 2018); co-publisher, co-EIC of Anathema: Spec from the Margins. Freelance editor and reviewer for hire.
CP: I’m going to get started by talking about my writing community journey – if that’s not too cheesy to say – and how I found the ones that work for me and support my writing.
When I think back to my first writing communities, I have to go all the way back to the sixth grade, when I started writing my first novel (a work that remains unfinished and consists mostly of things I stole from the Princess Bride). I knew even then that I couldn’t do it alone, so I rounded up a couple of friends and made them write novels, too, so we could share our progress every day at school and encourage each other. I was the only one who wrote more than a page.
I’d say my next attempt was in college, when I joined a writing club that shared short works with each other. I hadn’t yet realized the impact that genre has on the cohesion of a writing community, so it didn’t really help me the way I hoped. But it planted a seed for me – a desire to find the folks who were writing the same kind of literary and folkloric fantasy that I was interested in.
I found that community though an online poetry magazine called Goblin Fruit. They accepted one of my poems, and then I became friends with one of the editors and was welcomed into the glorious coven of myth and language obsessed word alchemists who wrote for and edited the zine. I started going to fantasy conventions, specifically Readercon, which takes place outside of Boston, and meeting these folks and their friends in person. A decade later, and we’re still friends and, I think, each other’s strongest writing community. I don’t know how I’d write without their support.
Since moving to Toronto, I’ve also enjoyed finding community here – both through my fantasy writing network and also through the kidlit network that a friend was kind enough to introduce me to – there’s a facebook group of kidlit authors and illustrators, and we meet up once a month to chat and hang out. I’ve had some great friendships come out of that, and some creative collaborations as well.
JG: I’m not sure why writers are compelled to “find the others,” but we seem to be. Maybe because writing can be such a lonely business. But also for professional development … I mean, who reminds you when grants are due, or to apply to a conference? Other writers. They save you! I have one group I meet with on an ad hoc basis–we text each other to see who’s free to hang out and write. And another one that’s more structured–it meets every Tuesday to write. Three online groups I dip in and out of; we share contest dates and encourage each other. And a Toronto-based group that socializes at a restaurant every month. And of course, my writers’ critique group; we share our work with each other and make specific suggestions about work-in-progress. It may sound like a lot of groups, but each one has a purpose: support, advice, celebration, consolation, expertise. We each write alone, but we get support from our village as well.
AW: Community for me is a bit of an odd thing because, to be perfectly honest, it’s not something I’d ever experienced before moving to Toronto in 2012, at the age of 31. But then my writing career is also a slightly circuitous, non-linear path. I wrote here and there when I was younger, and always wanted to write, but was far more focused on Conservatory piano and painting as career options. The piano faded away by the time I got to university and art took over my life. I didn’t start writing again until a brief period in 12th grade, and then fully when in my final year of undergrad. Later, after becoming entirely disillusioned by the visual art world, I dipped my toes into writing and editing on a more full-time basis (this would have been around 2005-6). And now here we are.
I grew up in a small town in BC, and while I had a great time in university (visual arts for undergrad, publishing for grad school) and spent most of my waking hours in Vancouver itself, I never successfully found or worked my way into a community there, creative or otherwise. Growing up I never went to cons or anything like (what’s up, extreme social anxiety), so, really, it wasn’t until much later in life that I even found people with whom I had more than just one or two things in common. That’s a large part of why Toronto has so quickly become what I think of when I think of “home”—I’m not from here, but the publishing and arts communities here are so much more warm and welcoming than any I experienced out west, or during my years spent in Edmonton and Montreal (the latter being a mere five months, but still).
Because of all this, when I think of community I don’t necessarily think of a large group or organization that I meet up with from time to time, but a select few writers and editors with whom I’ve crafted a very special and open bond. I’m a private person by nature, and don’t freely give of my emotions or inner thoughts (save for anxious rants on FB). I came into this city from the other side of things, as a working editor and former in-house marketing and production coordinator for a small press, and have spent the bulk of my publishing career not as a writer but as a reviewer, editor, and/or publisher, so I actually have a larger community on the non-writing side of the industry. But for those select few I connect with as a writer, it’s a more intimate and less group-focused experience. Even then, we don’t necessarily pass work around like you would in a writing group; we spend most of our time just tossing ideas back and forth, and of course venting about the industry and what things are currently driving us up the wall.
All of this is a very round-about way of saying that my writing has largely been done with the absence of an actual community of writers. For the most part, I work and lead a solitary existence, not unlike The Littlest Hobo but without the excellent theme song. I do, however, have a very awesome and reliable circle of beta readers that I foist my work on from time to time, but only if and when I feel like a project is ready for public scrutiny. As I’m an editor myself, and my very small writing circle is also made up of writers who pull double duty as professional editors, I tend to workshop less and push forward on my own or with input from just one or two trusted sources before considering something “done.”
Would I like to experience more community as a writer? Some days yes, some days no. I know that’s not much of an answer, but it’s true. I do sometimes wish I had more writers to regularly bounce ideas off of, but I also know myself and my idiosyncrasies. I know how much I love silence and privacy when working, and how I recharge in solitude. And I know, sometimes all too well, of the predators and bad faith individuals that operate in our industry, especially on the spec side of things, and that knowledge does colour my interest in being part of certain writing groups and/or going to cons. Also, I know how much I doubt the quality of my first drafts, which, to be fair, read like cobbled together messes of ideas and bits of dialogue I desperately want to work into the narrative somehow. But I guess that’s part of writing as an editor: you understand that the first draft is just to get the ideas on the page. It’s after that, during the first self-editorial pass, where the clusterfuck of loose threads and concepts actually becomes a story.
Sorry. That was a mouthful. I tend to ramble.
DP: Gaining access to a writing community was one of the defining moments of my life, both personally and in terms of a career. Early on I found it difficult to think of myself as a writer. I wrote, certainly, but it was never something I pursued with any real drive. Conventions changed that. My first con was Worldcon in 2009, and while I was too shy to engage with just about anyone, I was deeply inspired by the passion I saw on display at panels. While there I somehow managed to approach an editor I admired, Ann VanderMeer, and we struck a friendship. Ann was my first real connection to the field, and her friendship and encouragement drove me to seriously pursue editing. My next convention wasn’t until 2012, but there I met a group of writers who would become some of my closest friends and some of the most positive influences on my writing. That was the first time I had a core group of people around me who wrote, and even though we were all separated by considerable distance, the sense of community was powerful.
Seeing the people around me succeed, drive themselves to push their writing, made me want to improve, want to generate more writing of my own. It also helped that many asked for feedback on their work, and offered feedback in return. Access to community forced me to put greater thought into my craft, and the type of work I wanted to generate. Up to that point I had always put great care in my editorial projects, but I tended to devalue my own writing, to play it a bit safe because I wasn’t submitting much of it. Being lazy, or safe, or uncritical, became increasingly difficult as I saw my friends develop. I didn’t want to waste their time, so it drove me to do better. It reinforced the idea that all writing is in dialogue with other work in one way or another, which can be easy to forget when you’re completely on your own. Essentially, finding my community turned one of my interests into a passion and a career.
CP: Now that we’ve described how we found them, I feel like it might be interesting to talk about the logistics of how we stay in touch with the communities who support our writing. For me, it’s a really wide range of interactions! For my local Toronto community, I tend to mostly use facebook – groups and private messages, and then in-person meet-ups. For my wider community, it’s a little more varied. In addition to the expected social media connections, I try to do regular skype dates with writer friends. With one friend, we actually do cheerleading sessions over skype – we read each other our work in progress and gush about all the things we like about it. It serves a very different purpose than a critique – it’s to help us get through the hard times! I also belong to a Slack chat of a small group of women writers, and try to occasionally meet up with people in real life for working visits. On a very practical side, the clients of the agency that represents me have a facebook chat group where we can talk about our experiences and cheer each other on. That’s a community I wasn’t even looking for and don’t participate in very much, but I get a lot of insight from belonging to it. It’s sort of funny to me writing all of this out, because it makes me sound like a real social butterfly, when in fact I am a socially anxious introvert! But I think that the key thing about all of these communities that support my writing is that there isn’t a lot of expectation or obligation involved. They are there when I feel like I can engage, but they don’t judge me if I need to step back, and there always seems to be someone there to help anyone who is in need.
JG: I agree with Caitlyn — I think most of us are introverts. But we’re so often called upon to do extroverted things, like speak in front of groups and push our work on social media. The rules have changed in the publishing industry. Publishers don’t do all of the publicity; most of the time it’s up to the author. And that’s precisely why “finding the others” is so important, I think. Doing something a bit scary is a lot easier together. I touch base with other writers on Facebook and email, mostly. Facebook Messenger is really good, because there are loads of times I want to ask another writer something, but don’t have their email address. If we’re friends on Facebook, then I think that kind of gives you permission to reach out to them about a writing issue–Messenger allows for that.
Does anyone here use any other social media to say in touch? LinkedIn?
AW: Honestly, most days I forget LinkedIn even exists, except to job hunt. But then I exist on that site more as an editor than a writer. For me, because it’s such a small group of just my nearest and dearest, we just use FB messenger and texting, and get together at this point almost every weekend, writing or not, just to hang out. We also email back and forth quite a bit as we work together on a magazine and have edited for one another, so basically it’s less like a writing community and more like a writing marriage (which is probably a weird way of putting it since the other two are actually a couple and I’m the permanent third wheel, but you get my drift).
I do have a community of writers I know through social media (and many in person), but I don’t write with them. We speak with one another and help promote each other’s work the way you do anyone you might follow on, say, Twitter, but I do not consider it a writing community in the sense that I write with them, in person. But I find, for myself, that I want the writing to be a mostly solitary thing, and that only when something is “ready” do I want to engage with a larger assortment of people, to garner feedback and/or support.
DP: Like most of you messenger/email have been hugely important to me in terms of remaining in regular contact with other writers, but, while it sounds archaic, actual letter writing has also been really powerful for me. Messenger and email have that instant gratification, which can be useful for immediate concerns, but I have a few penpals who are writers, and taking the time to engage with them in a thoughtful, slower method of communication has been really lovely. Because I work online so much, switching to a paper letter, and knowing the person won’t see it immediately, also seems to force my brain to think a little differently. It’s actually a nice writing exercise, in addition to being a valuable means of meaningful communication. In terms of community, I also love having physical tokens of my friendship with other writers — sometimes it makes it feel a little more tangible than something online, which feels like it’s there one moment and gone the next. It helps me feel physically connected to that community and to those people.
JG: Beyond writing, there have been tons of things my writing communities have helped me with. Freelance work, for instance. I have gotten jobs from other writers, and I’ve recommended people in my writing communities for jobs as well. Not just writing jobs, but things like invigilating (overseeing exams) and other work that helps fill in the gaps between books.
DP: Attending readings has also been key to the development of my community. I really enjoy listening to authors read their work, so for me it’s worth attending readings just for that, but the social engagement before and after the actual events have lead to some important friendships, as well as some professional opportunities. My health often makes it difficult for me to attend readings, but when I do I almost always encounter someone new and interesting. Some of my best conversations about the field have been with brand new folks at readings. People I’ve met at events have also introduced me to work I might not have encountered otherwise, and through casual conversations I’ve learned about great writing opportunities, new grants, and new festivals.
CP: I think for me, the most important thing I figured out about building a writing community was that it’s basically just making friends. I think I started going to conventions and meet-ups with this idea that I was “networking”, but ultimately, I just ended up getting to know folks and finding that I genuinely liked them. When we started helping each other in the way that communities do, it just felt like a natural progression of the relationships we developed.
I think we can all agree that there’s no one right way to build a writing community – it’s a matter of connecting with people on the same path as you by whatever means work for the level of engagement you’re looking for – whether it’s online, in person, or a combination of the two.
Thanks to everyone for sharing their experiences and thoughts – we hope it will be helpful for anyone thinking about seeking out a writing community!