25th Trillium Award


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Big Ideas

This month, for the final installment of Fiction Craft, we asked a group of writers: How do you know if there is a novel in a story idea?

With Mark Blagrave, Katie Crouch, Ann Eriksson, Darren Greer, Cristina Henriquez, Linda Holeman, David Homel and Andrew Kaufman.

I do not know where the ideas for novels come from. I believe they are the intersection of a number of lines of thought and awareness that organize the world in a particular way. I often get story ideas, or partial story ideas -- usually the product of day dreaming -- but I know there is a novel in an idea because these are the ones that descend on me whole in massive form and refuse to die. Iwill receive the arc of an entire story in one flash, like it has been suddenly ?downloaded? to me, to employ a popular modern metaphor. In such instances, it is always clear from the sheer mass of the thing that it is much bigger than a short story. (I have precious little time to write, so I do not write short stories.) Then I typically have to wait a long period before I can find the time to begin the work. This serves as an incubation period, a test period, if you will, to see if the idea is sound, if the story is true. Sometimes story ideas wither and die during this period. Other times, they remain as robust and insistent as when they originally appeared to me. The latter are the ones that ?must? be written, and for me they are rare. I am not one of those writers who works on something to find out if it is viable, who incubates the work through writing. If I had more time, perhaps I would be that kind of writer, but I doubt it and I am glad that I am not. Working to a dead end is just about the least satisfying endeavour a writer can engage in. So, I know there is a novel in a story idea by the scope of the thing, and when it lives inside me and refuses to fade or be ignored.

And with these words about beginnings, we come to an end. Below, a group of other writers tell us how they know when there is a novel in a story idea. Theirs will be the last contributions to Fiction Craft. For the past three years I have been asking authors questions about the ?nuts and bolts? of writing fiction and posting their replies, along with my own, on Open Book Ontario. There have been some 26 questions and many dozens of authors who have contributed. I am grateful to all of those scribes for their insights and for letting us look under the hood, so to speak, of their processes. I am also grateful to the readers of this column who fairly consistently made Fiction Craft one of the most popular segments on Open Book Ontario. Despite this popularity, the column has been canceled due to budget cuts. Such is the nature of the Internet, which always eventually realizes it cannot dine on itself forever. The Internet, I am sorry to say, is showing itself more each day to be an enemy to creativity. Thirty years ago, before the Internet, if Fiction Craft existed at all, it would have existed in a magazine, which the reader would have purchased from a store or by subscription. The test of its endurance would have been the attraction it had for readers. Would readers be motivate, at least in part, to buy the magazine to read the column? We no longer have that yardstick, so we do not know the value of work such as this any longer. Or perhaps a better way of saying it is, we no longer have a way of assigning a valuation to the work. And by valuation, please make no mistake, I am not being metaphorical, I mean money. I?ve seen first-hand what the Internet has done to the viability of writing as a career, and it fills me with dismay. I am of the Updike school, which holds that a writer?s responsibility is to his audience, but if actually having an audience no longer creates value, one is left wondering where the path forward is.

Anyway, sorry for the pessimism. It has been nice doing this. I will miss it. I hope you enjoyed it, whoever you are.

Shaun Smith


Mark Blagrave is the author of Salt in the Wounds

I think a good story relies on there being a gap of some kind. The gap might be between is and ought, or was and is, or it might be between two people (girl loses boy), or the way a person sees herself and the way she manifestly is. To sustain a novel, the gap must be the kind that can be nearly closed and then reopened, and nearly closed and reopened, several times. And there needs to be some pattern and variety in the openings and closings to keep the reader's (and my) attention. The ways the gaps are closed need to be capable of surprising the reader from time to time, to get the dopamine flowing, but also need, on occasion, to flatter the reader that she 'saw it coming.' The subject or theme put into action by the story needs to sustain the reader's interest over a longish haul, and mine over an even longer haul. At the same time, it can't be too arcane. The reader needs to see herself, to experience some kind of recognition (of an event, a name, a situation.) A successful novel idea will be in part a working out of a species of problem that actual people might have, even if at a different magnification. Finally, the story idea needs to present me with some interesting challenges in the telling of it.

As soon as I discovered (quite by accident) accounts of a now-vanished silent movie made in Saint John New Brunswick, starring screen legend Norma Shearer, I knew there was a novel in it, especially if I could tell it from the perspective of one of the erased performers; and Silver Salts began to take shape. The novel I am working on now is getting its juice from the gaps inherent in the staging of the Bermuda Conference of 1943 to 'consider the plight of the European refugees,' and all of the denials and self-deceptions that must have surrounded that public relations event in that remote idyllic setting.

So, in general terms, from where I sit, the story, narrated by the protagonist, of a day in the life of a happily married fully self-aware paper-clip manufacturer whose only problem is that he can't figure out how to spend all his money would be unlikely to sustain a novel. But if somebody else tells it, or he is evidently less self-aware, or his wife leaves him for a staple-maker, or he is tricked into using his wealth to found a charity that actually serves to launder drug money, then there might be a novel in it. (Or a short story; you just wouldn't need to open and close the gaps so many times.)


Katie Crouch is the author of Abroad

A couple of years ago, I found a painting at a yard sale of a pig jumping into a murky lake. I found out later it was a copy of a piece by the German artist Michael Sowa. Look how happy that guy looks. But wait! Pigs can't swim. I keep it in my office to remind me of what novel writing is to me, which is a long period of disorientation and faith.

I don't really know if a novel has legs until about fifty pages in, which means I have I lot of discarded work. I start with a character, who begins to talk. I always start books in first person, though I had to re-write one novel in third at the end because it was better for the story. (Unfortunately, there's no app to turn every "I" into "he"?) The first bit of the novel always has momentum; by chapter eight things get tough. Are situations unfolding that can sustain a novel-long arc? Is my narrator still breathing, or am I just pushing her along? I don't outline, so I just have to swim in the lake for a while. And I've drowned before. Actually, I'm drowning right now, in my current work-in-progress. I'll probably put it in the "NOPE" file tomorrow and go for a walk. Walking helps. I don't know for certain that I can finish another novel again, but I have fa blind, stubborn belief that I can. I learned a few years ago that this profession, for me, is not about finishing things. My favorite part is the jump.


Ann Eriksson is the author of High Clear Bell of Morning.

I believe that a novel can emerge from any idea. Perhaps it?s the reductionist scientist part of me that understands the William Blake quote ?a world in a grain of sand? in this way. So far, ideas seem to emerge from my brain like the silvery threads of memory that Albus Dumbledore pulls out of his Pensieve in the Harry Potter books. I started writing relatively late in life and have a personal goal of publishing at least ten novels before I pop off, so I?m especially receptive to those threads, and they are piling up (hopefully not getting tangled in one another). I?m working at the moment well behind my idea bank, with four novels published and three novels-in-waiting in folders and computer files.

The ideas are not the problem. The question for me is whether I want to spend several years in the world of that grain of sand or that silvery memory thread. Robert Service wrote, ?it isn?t the mountain ahead that wears you out; it?s the grain of sand in your shoe.? To sit at a computer for hundreds of hours when I could be out kayaking or walking in the forest or reading someone else?s work more brilliant than my own, I have to feel passionate and interested about the core of the material I?m working with. As a biologist, I?m passionate about ecology, in the way the minutia of the world interconnects. As a human being living in a society and on this planet, I?m caught up in the social and environmental issues that confront me in my life and in the news every day: injustice, poverty, climate change, species extinction, toxic pollution to name a few. These are the topics that I am drawn to write my novels about. The key in deciding whether the story idea will be a novel is whether the idea has staying power. During the course of a day or a month or a year, ideas come and go. But sometimes, one emerges and sticks around, popping up again and again, drawing my attention to it, which feeds it and makes it grow into a topic or a character I want to know more about. Then the scenes start to play out in my head, visually at first, the characters start to take on three dimensions, and before I know it I?m in for the long haul.

My four novels were all inspired by a kernel of personal experience or passion. My newest, High Clear Bell of Morning, published in April by Douglas & McIntyre, came out of two past experiences; one working with killer whale toxicology data when I was studying biology in university; the other, the mental illness of the daughter of a good friend. These two ideas, at first appearing disconnected, swirled around together in my head for months before they developed into a short story, then, because the characters and events were bursting the seams of that form, into a novel where the two underlying health topics became intimately entwined with the lives of the characters.


Darren Greer is the author of Just Beneath My Skin.

I often don't at first. I've had some terrific ideas fall flat on their faces after a few dozen pages, and I've written entire novels where I had no clue when I sat down at my desk for the first time what I was going to write. The relationship between initial story idea (or lack of it) and the energy and commitment required to sustain a narrative over hundreds of pages is organic, complex, and I?ve yet to understand it. At some point, if I'm lucky, the idea transmogrifies: the germ of the story expands into a plot, and the characters feed off it and start walking and talking independently of me pushing them around like a bully in the schoolyard. I?ve often thought that more important than the idea itself is the sense of mystery that clings to it, nameless and elusive, constantly trying to marshal itself onto the page and reveal what the novel is truly about. When I get all bound up in this mystery, and I have begun writing only to discover what significance the original idea had even to me, I usually have my book.


Cristina Henriquez is the author of The Book of Unknown Americans.

This novel started with a short story, one told from Mayor?s perspective, starting with him seeing his new neighbors moving in one night and ending with him feeling that he?d fallen in love with the girl, Maribel. I sat on the story for a long time after I had finished it and started others in the meantime. But something about Mayor and Maribel wouldn?t let go of me. I kept thinking about their families and about the other neighbors in the apartment building where they live, and I felt that they had something more to say, something that I hadn?t yet honored on the page. So much of writing, at least for me, comes down to that in the end: a gut feeling. I had an instinct that the story could be something longer, something bigger, and I followed it. I?m so glad now that I did.


Linda Holeman is the author of The Devil on Her Tongue.

Tricky question. We can all surely name one successful thing we?ve done that was born of a great idea, but we have also probably had a lot of interesting ideas that never got beyond the planning stage. And so it is in the novel-writing business: a good idea may come easily, but a great novel doesn?t.

You?re going to have to take that idea, a sound-bite that encompasses maybe 50 words, and shape it into a comprehensive story of over 100,000 words. And you really won?t know, at the very beginning, if you can sustain this idea. You will have to be prepared to let it grow, sending out many shoots and tendrils, and go through many, many changes as you start to uncover your story.

Before starting my latest novel, The Devil on Her Tongue, I was fascinated with the lives of sailors during the 18th century. While visiting Portugal, which had sent out so many sailors to discover new worlds, I started imaging the life of one sailor, accused of a crime at sea. And this idea for a novel came to me: a young sailor washes up on a remote beach on a tiny island in the Madeira archipelago, and stays there, trying to hide his past. I took that idea and played with it, imagining his back story - where he?d come from and how he came to be in the ocean, and the new life he would create on the island. But unexpectedly, a woman walked into the story, one I wasn?t expecting, and I then had to find out who she was. From there the initial idea changed shape, and, almost against my wishes, became the story of the daughter of a disgraced Dutch sailor and a woman condemned for witchery in her North African home. Born to these heathen parents on the very religious, isolated Portuguese island, the girl?s only possibilities were wife or nun, and she could be neither because of the circumstances of her birth. She had to make a new set of choices for herself.

I believe that writing is also about making choices. The genesis of my original idea evolved into a story after I gave up my main character. If you find yourself trying to force your idea into place, hammering and hammering that square peg into a round pole, your novel will reflect that. Be open and instinctive, and willing to follow a new path. You never know what you?ll find!


David Homel is the author of The Fledglings.

I had long known that I had a gangster, a bootlegger in the family, and that he operated on the far South Side of Chicago during that misguided American experiment called Prohibition. Now, everyone wants to have a gangster in their family, even a small-time one like this distant cousin of mine. But at first he was just a curio, a knickknack, something you could take down from the shelf, but inert.

He got going as workable plot material only when I figured out how he mattered to me as a writer. That?s when my novel The Fledglings got its start.

For that, I received a lot of help from my mother. She often told me about her best girlfriend when she was growing up, who was her cousin. In a way, these were her golden years: she was a young, relatively unfettered girl, an immigrant in a big American city exploring her new society. She loved her best friend, her cousin. But her cousin?s life, back then and even now, was vastly different from hers because of the trouble with her cousin?s father.

He was the small-time gangster who operated a speakeasy out of his house. So a novel that told the tale of these two girls would have to contain all their differences that arose from their very different family lives.

I located an emotional connection between those girls and myself: that teenage friendship that?s so achingly intense, with a person of your own sex, that great dependence and love when everything depends on your best friend?s approval. I had friendships like that ? they typically occur in early adolescence ? and sometimes I wonder if there has been anything so all-consuming since. I began to write this friendship between the two girls (named Bella and Bluma), set against the family backgrounds I described. Immediately the dramatic question pushed forward: when will these girls break up? Exactly how will their love sour? And what will the rest of their lives be like after that point?

Meanwhile, everywhere I looked, girls the age of Bella and Bluma were playing with each other?s hair, holding each other by the shoulders or waist, engaging in grooming behavior? The world was pushing me in that direction.

I didn?t want to write a historical novel; I?ve done a few of those already. So I found a way to bring this story up to today by using an old question of mine: what happens to writers when they fall in love with their material? I created Joey, Bluma?s son who, as a tribute to his mother, wants to record her story for all posterity. He?s not a writer, he?s in the tank removal and soil decontamination business. And he?s a modern man, questing, melancholy, not too self-assured. And definitely in love with his material, like me.


Andrew Kaufman is the author of The Tiny Wife.

It's when I just can't stop thinking about it. The idea and the characters, plot points and events, will just keep coming into my head while I'm in the shower or watching TV. If this happens for long enough, maybe two or three days, I'll start making notes. And if they keep coming for two or three months, I'll start on page one. The thing is, for me, when an idea good enough to become a novel gets into my head I approach it with extreme reluctance. A novel is a three, maybe four year commitment that brings with it an awful lot of work and very little money. So I try to starve it and ignore it and only after that doesn't work do I accept it's a story idea worth writing a novel about.



Shaun Smith is a novelist and an award-winning journalist. His work has appeared in numerous national publications including The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, CBC.ca and Quill & Quire. In 2013, his book Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food, and Chefs was published by Tightrope Books. In 2009, his novel Snakes & Ladders was published by Dundurn. He lives in Toronto, Canada.

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