For the last few Novembers, I have gotten excited about a project called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. It’s a globe-spanning initiative that connects writers of all abilities and gives them the tools, processes, and – most important – encouragement and support to help write a draft novel in one month.
While I get excited about it each year, I still haven’t put pen to paper, but this year will be different. In addition to the support from the NaNoWriMo community, I’ve also talked to a few of our awesome local writers to get some tips and tricks on how they got started, how they get over writer’s block and their favourite spots for writing around our community.
Local author Paul Alex Gray has found success publishing short stories. This November, he’s hoping to work on his first draft novel. “Short stories, I feel, are easier to write, simply due to the length,” said Gray. “They're not easy to write, and to write well is tough – no matter the length.”
Gray says one of the best ways to write short stories or novels is to read as much as possible. He’s read thousands of fantasy and science fiction short stories and groups them by things they did well. For Gray, writing is a mix of art and science. “I’m trying to understand what makes a good story. There’s plot, character and exposition built up with exposition and emotion. You have to care about the characters to care about the story.”
Gray’s advice for getting started goes against what many of us were told in school. “People say you should ‘write what you know.’ I don't necessarily agree with that. I think you should write what you want to write – but make sure it's a considered approach. If it's a science fiction story, then read a little bit about the science before you start. You don't have to be a theoretical physicist to write a good space story.”
Whether it’s short stories, novels or poetry, the appetite for local authors in Waterloo Region has continued to build. Local playwright Ciarán Myers started with poetry before starting to write plays. “...I’ve oddly had more success in publishing poetry than plays. Perhaps that speaks to the strength and vibrancy of our literary scene,” said Myers.
Writing plays was a natural progression for Myers, who earned a bachelor of arts in drama from the University of Waterloo. “My whole family are artists. I wanted to be an actor, but had already been maintaining a literary practice long before that,” added Myers. “I later doubled down with an immensely privileged MFA in script writing. I'm tremendously grateful.”
Myers’ advice for writing echoes Gray’s. “Read and write and write and read and write, repeat. Develop your own particular tastes.”
You can often find Myers writing at the Seven Shores Cafe in Uptown Waterloo. “I often get interrupted from my work when I'm at Seven Shores but it helps me feel part of something bigger than myself. And it keeps the loneliness of writing gently hedged aside.” When Myers needs more isolation for writing, he’ll often go to the Waterloo or Kitchener Public Library. “Sometimes I use the common space at Catalyst 137. But don't tell anybody about that, it's a secret.” You can find Myers’ poetry collections at Words Worth Books, Open Sesame's online shop and at the main branch of the Waterloo Public Library.
Writing is a great outlet for many writers, including poet Michaela Angemeer. “I think my official first poem was written about my cat's passing when I was eight. Since then, I've always written in some form to cope with sadness, from my parents' separation as a teen, relationships ending as an adult, to my grandma's passing.”
In her childhood, Angemeer was obsessed with writing down quotes from books and song lyrics, which evolved into writing short pieces. Her focus on writing poetry started when she discovered a poetry community on Instagram. “I never really had friends who enjoyed writing or were “internet people” growing up, so it was a blessing to be able to find other writers that thrived online.”
When she’s not writing, Angemeer spends her time reading as much as possible. “I think a lot of people get worried they're going to end up taking too much inspiration from what they read, but I like to think of it as a way to figure out what works, what you like, and what you don't.” You can find Angemeer writing at Smile Tiger Coffee or Arabella Park.
We’ve talked about poets and playwrights – but Waterloo Region is also home to some of Canada’s most-read novelists, too. Tasneem Jamal is the author of “Where The Air is Sweet,” which tells the story of a family forced to flee Uganda during the reign of dictator Idi Amin. Jamal got her start in journalism before moving on to writing a novel which she says helped her hone the mechanics of writing. “Ultimately I learned to write a novel by writing a novel.” said Jamal. “I just did it.”
When it comes to favourite places to write, Jamal is particular to our local libraries, especially now that libraries have outlets everywhere for laptops. Cafes are an option for Jamal, but not often. “Unless I’m continuously ordering drinks or food over a period of hours, I feel guilty taking up a table.”
“Don’t wait for someone to give you permission to write,” advised Jamal. “Don’t look for external validation. If you feel the impulse to write, then write.”
For author Jennifer Mook-Sang, being a writer wasn’t something she considered growing up. It was while reading picture books with her two young sons that she found her passion. “I fell in love with the tiny stories that had so much heart and humour. I felt since they were so little, they'd be pretty easy to write, right? Wrong!” Mook-Sang read books on writing, attended conferences and started writing regularly. “My writing improved and I began trying to find endings for my not-so-horrible stories. Many years and a few writing contests later, I got my first contract with Scholastic Canada.”
Mook-Sang meets with her writer friends at Williams Fresh Cafe. “The buzz of conversation in the background fades to a comforting hum,” said Mook-Sang, “The buzz of coffee in my veins fuels my brain, and I can zone out and let my old-school pen applied to paper do its thing.”
Her tip for writing: “Write down immediately any amazing idea, dream, or piece of funny/crazy dialogue you hear. Trust me, you won't remember it later.”
This week happens to be good timing for talking with local writers as one of our local novelists just made national news. Erin Bow was awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award in the category of young people’s literature.
“I was one of those kids who always had their nose in a book whose parents told them to get outside,” said Bow. “They’d find me under the covers with a flashlight and a book.”
Like Mook-Sang, being a writer wasn’t a profession that Bow consider to be possible. Bow is a Senior Writer at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics here in Waterloo. “I was always attracted to physics. I saved up to buy my own telescope.” While Bow enjoyed physics and writing, she decided to pursue physics at university. “Writing was something I could teach myself,” added Bow.
Bow got started with writing by working to fill in an entire notebook every month, specifically, the Mead Five Star One Subject notebook. “I’d fill them with poetry, graphs, descriptions of people and places.” Her first published work was a book of poetry which won the CBC Literary Award in 2001. Today, Bow takes her notes in Moleskine notebooks and uses Scrivener to write her drafts. “It’s the best software for writing,” added Bow.
According to Bow, there’s no bad writing process. “There’s no process that works fine for everyone; it has to be what works for you. There’s no good process. If your writing process doesn’t work right for you, then your writing will avoid you.”
Finding issues in the pacing of novels can be difficult. Bow uses index cards and sticky notes to map out plot points and reveal where things can be tightened up or moved around to make the story work better. Bow also recommends changing your environment when writing. “You can’t change a lot, but you can change where you’re working and also the medium you’re working in,” added Bow.
Coffee is a must for Bow when writing. “Red Circle and Smile Tiger have great coffee,” she said. The majority of her writing is done in her winterized garden shed, but the heat in the summer moves her to the Kitchener Public Library with a view of their garden from the children’s book area.
If NaNoWriMo is on your bucket list, I hope these tips and writing spot ideas give you the inspiration you need to tackle your first draft!
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While I’m opening my laptop in a coffee shop to start my novel, I see and hear that...THEMUSEUM invites you to experience the Eve of St. George with "Masquerade" on Thursday, Oct. 31 with an immersive theatrical dance performance by Transcen|Dance Project. On Friday, Nov. 1, experience “An Evening of Stories, Songs and Science" – a showcase of special guests sharing their stories of how music helped them during difficult times in their lives. On Saturday, Nov.\ 2, Strut It! with Brett is back in Waterloo at Hustl+Flow. Grab your heels, grab your crew and come dance your heart out with the one and only Brett.