Mini-Workshops & Writing Tips
The Eden Mills Writers' Festival strives to nurture the next generation of writers by supporting aspiring writers through workshops, literary and poetry writing contests, and reading sets for yet-to-be published writers and poets. As part of our "In Your Own Backyard" online series, we are pleased to offer aspiring writers these mini-workshops and writing tips.
with andrea bennett
andrea bennett is the author of Like a Boy But Not a Boy: Navigating Life, Mental Health, and Parenthood Outside the Gender Binary (Arsenal Pulp Press), a revelatory book about gender, mental illness, parenting, mortality, bike mechanics, work, class, and the task of living in a body.
Advice for writers
with Kate Sutherland
Find new inspiration in old books
Research is a central part of my poetry writing practice. But that research doesn’t necessarily proceed in conventional ways. Rather than beginning with a subject and searching out sources on it, sources that I stumble across may lead me to my subject and/or to the language that ultimately generates poems. So, if in need of inspiration, I suggest heading to the library. Old natural history texts often prove particularly rich sources for me, and if you share my ecological preoccupations, I can direct you to a wondrous digital repository of such tomes called the Biodiversity Heritage Library (https://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/). There, you can browse such books as the fabulously titled Recreations in natural history, or, Popular British quadrupeds: describing their nature, habits or dispositions, and interspersed with original anecdotes, embellished with numerous engravings and woodcuts, from portraits of living animals, painted by the first masters (1815). Or, Essay on the physiognomy of serpents (1843). Or, A curious herbal: containing five hundred cuts, of the most useful plants, which are now used in the practice of physick (1737). The information found within may spark poems but, it may be the language used rather than the information conveyed that is most generative. To tap into that, you can print out a few pages and make erasure poems from them. Or, alternatively, you can borrow the author’s vocabulary and mimic their rhythms of speech, and see where that leads you. New poems from old tomes.
Kate Sutherland was born in Scotland, immigrated to Canada as a child, and grew up in Saskatoon. She studied first at the University of Saskatchewan, then at Harvard Law School. She is the author of two collections of short stories, Summer Reading (winner, Saskatchewan Book Award for Best First Book) and All in Together Girls, and the poetry collection, How to Draw a Rhinoceros (shortlisted for a Creative Writing Book Award by the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment).
Kate Sutherland is the author of The Bones Are There, published by Book*Hug Press.
How to Approach Character, Plot and the Relationship Between the Two
with David A. Robertson
David A. Robertson is the author of numerous books for young readers including When We Were Alone, which won the 2017 Governor General’s Literary Award and was nominated for the TD Canadian Children’s Literature Award. A sought-after speaker and educator, David is a member of the Norway House Cree Nation and currently lives in Winnipeg. His latest books are a middle-grade fantasy novel, The Barren Grounds (Tundra Books), and the memoir, Black Water (HarperCollins Canada).
He joins us on September 17 for the panel discussion “Art & Healing”.
Five Tips for New Writers
with Hana Shafi
Hana Shafi (a.k.a. Frizz Kid) is a writer and artist. Her visual art and writing frequently explores themes such as feminism, body politics, racism, and pop culture. Her first book, It Begins with the Body, was listed by CBC as one of the Best Poetry Books of 2018. Her latest book is Small, Broke, and Kind of Dirty: Affirmations for the Real World (Book*hug). A graduate of Ryerson University’s Journalism Program, she has published articles in The Walrus, Hazlitt, THIS Magazine, and Torontoist, and has been featured on Buzzfeed, CBC, and in Flare, Shameless, and The New York Times. Known on Instagram for her weekly affirmation series, Shafi is the recipient of the 2017 Women Who Inspire Award, from the Canadian Council for Muslim Women. Born in Dubai, Shafi immigrated with her family to Mississauga, Ontario, in 1996. She lives and works in Toronto.
Advice for Writers
with Eva Crocker
For me, in order for a piece of fiction to work, it has to 'be about something'. It doesn't necessarily have to provide answers but it has to ask at least one question about society or the human condition. I think of those questions burbling beneath the action of a story as themes.
Often, I start writing a piece of fiction with an image or a moment of tension I want to describe and I continue to build on that image or moment until I have a complete world and a story arc. The themes of a story might not become clear to me until the story is complete. However, an important part of my editing process is identifying the themes in a piece of writing and making sure that those ideas are permeating every scene and image in the piece. Developing the themes helps to create both coherence and depth.
EVA CROCKER is the author of the critically acclaimed debut short story collection Barrelling Forward, which won the Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction and the CAA Emerging Writer Award, was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers and the NLCU Fresh Fish Award for Emerging Writers, and was a National Post Best Book.
Eva Crocker is the author of All I Ask, published by House of Anansi Press. This title was recently longlisted for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Advice for Writers
with Andrew Unger
Write about the people and places you know. Writers are often told to “write about what you know” and this is true, but I think it can be narrowed down even further. Observe the people and places around you. Record details and use them in your fiction. Draw on your experiences in Meadow Lake or Bathurst or Owen Sound. We’re led to believe (and Hollywood is largely to blame for this) that a story isn’t worth telling unless it’s set in New York or Los Angeles. This is false. If you have a good story to tell, and it’s well written, people will relate, even if your setting is some fictionalized version of the smallest town in the most remote part of Canada. Your stories are valid and people will want to read them.
Andrew Unger is a writer and educator from Steinbach, Manitoba, best known as the author and founder of the Mennonite satire website The Daily Bonnet. His work has also appeared in Geez, Rhubarb, Ballast, CBC.ca, the Winnipeg Free Press, and many others. If you go back far enough, he's probably related to you.
Andrew Unger is the author of Once Removed, published by Turnstone Press.
Advice for Writers
with Natalie Zina Walschots
Do Whatever It Takes To Write
Look, maybe you have it easier than me. Maybe you approach your desk with joy each day, well-rested and productive, eager to dive in. But I, you see, have the anxiety. This means that every time I need to sit down and get some work done, my brain puts up a terrible fight. There is resistance to the work and a terrible sense of friction, and the certainty that somehow, this time, I am sure to fail. It feels terrible every time. It's very easy to go for the easy dopamine hit and check twitter or play video games for several hours.
But, whenever I do get to work, once I get through the screaming static something wonderful is on the other side. Sinking into writing work, which my partner calls "deep hack mode," is a concentration so deep it is meditative. It's strange and serene, and comes with the very deep pleasure of making something. Plus, when you come out the other side, you've made something new. Sometimes, it's even good.
My advice is this: do whatever it takes to get you writing. Any trick you need to do to get you past that initial wall is worth it. Bribe yourself with rewards large and small, use whatever combination of carrot and stick is most effective for you. Maybe this means tracking your progress using an elaborately colour-coded spreadsheet, watching your word count rise; maybe this means public accountability where you share your progress in one form or another. Whatever you need to do to trick or convince or cajole or threaten or beg yourself into getting work done, do it.
Because it will feel good. I promise. And no one is going to do this work but you.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a freelance writer, community manager and bailed academic based in Toronto. She writes everything from reviews of science fiction novels and interviews with heavy metal musicians to to in-depth feminist games criticism and pieces of long-form journalism. She is the author of two books of poetry. In her free time she has been exploring the poetic potential of the notes engine in the video game Bloodborne, writing a collection of polyamorous fairytales, developing interactive narrative classes and composing short text-based body horror games. She also plays a lot of D&D, participates in a lot of Nordic LARPs, watches a lot of horror movies and reads a lot of speculative fiction.
Natalie Zina Walschots is the author of Hench, published by HarperCollins Canada.
with Andrew Pyper
Andrew Pyper is the internationally bestselling author of nine previous novels, including The Demonologist, which won the International Thriller Writers award for Best Hardcover Novel, and The Killing Circle, which was selected a New York Times Best Crime Novel of the Year. He lives in Toronto. Visit AndrewPyper.com and follow him on Twitter @AndrewPyper.
with Kate Pullinger
In this mini-workshop, Kate Pullinger shares tips for writing fiction based on true stories through the prism of the work that went into her new novel Forest Green, published by Penguin Random House in August 2020.
Kate Pullinger grew up in British Columbia. In 2009, her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction. Her prize-winning digital fiction projects include the ground-breaking title for children Inanimate Alice and, most recently, a ghost story for smartphones, Breathe. Flight Paths: A Networked Novel was the inspiration for her 2014 novel, Landing Gear. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University, England. Forest Green is her tenth novel.
Advice for Writers
with Catherine Bush
Where and when does your writing feel most alive? Write to discover this. Read your own work, read the work of others. Identify where the aliveness lives. Where does your attention quicken, swivel into most acute focus? Where do your words find their pulse?
The best piece of writing advice I’ve ever encountered comes from the wondrous Canadian short story writer, Mavis Gallant. In her brief essay “What is Style?” she says: "The only question worth asking about a story ... is, 'Is it dead or alive?’ ” I imagine one of those posters pinned up in saloons amid desperate searches for fugitives, only this one says simply, “Wanted … Alive.” That’s it: All alive, all the time. Where your writing is most alive may not be where you expect or want it to be. Prepare to be surprised. Listen, listen. Attend with your whole mind and body, open yourself to the wide world, inner, outer, sensuous, kinetic, contradictory, its deranging, re-arranging possibilities. Aliveness may not be something you can control but you can learn, like a seeking wanderer, to write towards it at every moment – attuned, attentive, vulnerable, tender, joyful, terrified.
Catherine Bush joins us on September 3 for the panel discussion "The Creative Response".
Catherine Bush is the author of five novels, including the Canada Reads long-listed Accusation, the Trillium Award short-listed Claire’s Head, and the bestselling The Rules of Engagement, which was also a New York Times Notable Book and a Globe & Mail Book of the Year. Her essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including the Globe and Mail and New York Times Magazine.
Catherine Bush’s climate change novel, Blaze Island, published by Goose Lane Editions, is written with the authority of science and the complexity of fiction. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Guelph and Coordinator of the Guelph Creative Writing MFA. She lives in Toronto.
Advice for Writers
with Clifford Jackman
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
The most common mistake is to be an aspiring writer in the first place. The second most common mistake is giving up.
Read our full Q&A with Clifford Jackman. He joins us on September 10 for the Vocamus Writers Community Showcase.
Clifford Jackman's debut novel, The Winter Family, published in Canada, the US, France and Germany, was a finalist for the Governor-General's Literary Award for Fiction and longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. He lives in Guelph, with his wife, Cathy, and two children.
His new novel The Braver Thing is published by Penguin Random House.
Advice for Writers
with Eddy Boudel Tan
What advice would you give to writers looking to publish their first novel?
Perfect the art of pitching. You’ll have a handful of seconds to pique the interest of literary agents, editors, reviewers, and readers, so you must make every word count. Understand what makes your book distinct or compelling—the hook—then learn how to express it. Once you’ve caught their attention, you’ll have to sustain it. Learn how to distill the plot and spirit of the book into its most fundamental parts—what the protagonist wants (their motivations), what gets in their way (the conflict), and what they stand to lose (the stakes). It’s harder than it might seem, and it takes practice. This will also test the soundness of your novel’s structure. If you can’t identify the hook or describe the story succinctly, there might be problems with the novel itself.
What advice would you give to writers who aspire to complete their first novel?
Share your work with readers, and be open to their feedback. Remember that everyone’s opinion will be subject to their own biases, as with any art form, but listen to what they have to say with the intent of improving your work. Find beta readers whose opinions you respect. Be selective with the feedback you take to heart, but keep an open mind.
Advice for Writers
with Marlowe Granados
-Try not to be too precious...I used to get particular about my workspace or set up. This was obviously just another way of putting off the actual writing.
-I like to set word count goals. I know that I can only work for about three to four hours at a time before I start getting restless. If I can get even 1500 words down during that period...that's a success!
-When I first think of a vague idea I like to write some major parts or dialogue in a notebook or on paper. It's part of the process to quickly jot down where the characters need to go, or end up—or even a saucy zinger one of them might say. I hate sitting in front of a blank document without having made notes, it feels so aimless. It's tempting to edit yourself prematurely when what you need at that moment is to get it out!
-Talk your ideas out. I am lucky to be surrounded by a lot of non-writer friends who are open to meandering conversation. I love talking on the phone or over dinner. I'm a fairly social person and so many ideas come from the rhythm of conversation. It helps me craft dialogue that feels true to life.
Advice for writers
with Leona Theis
Dealing with Doubts and Fears
When in doubt, trust the process. In almost any major writing project I take on, there comes a time I’m convinced I’m attempting the impossible. Just when my editor and I were about to sign off on my latest novel, I sent her a note to say I was haunted by an image I was sure belonged in the book. To deal with it in the way it deserved I would need to take a deep dive back into the manuscript. A successful revision would give the story more depth, resonance, unity; it would make it more true. But I was afraid — not of the work, but that I lacked the wisdom and skill to pull it off. I would ruin my shiny new idea and be left, disheartened, to dispose of its battered remains. My generous editor said, “Go ahead. Try.” When I reached the point halfway through the revision where I knew for certain it couldn’t be done, I wished she’d been less encouraging. I poured a coffee and gave myself permission to quit. The relief was immediate, intense, and . . . short-lived. Half a cup later I braced myself to dive back in. Time after time, I reminded myself, I’d survived this impossible stage by giving the process room to work its wonders. I wouldn’t call it magic, though sometimes feels that way. I’d call it a back-and-forth between concentrated focus and walking away from the work awhile. When you walk away, you give your conscious mind a chance to relax, and your subconscious, which all along has been doing its own version of thinking, can make its contribution. It takes time and faith. The uncertainty will set you wobbling. It works.
Leona Theis’s first book, Sightlines, linked stories that form a portrait of a town, won two Saskatchewan Book Awards. Excerpts from her novel The Art of Salvage were shortlisted for novella awards on both the east and west coasts of Canada. Her personal essays have been published in literary magazines in Canada and the United States, won creative nonfiction awards from the CBC and Prairie Fire Magazine, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Journey Prize Stories, and American Short Fiction, where her work won the story prize. She lives in Saskatoon.
Leona Theis is the author of If Sylvie Had Nine Lives, published by Freehand Books.
Advice for Writers
with Jack Wang
Before my debut collection, I wrote two unpublished novels. Both were set in Vancouver, my hometown, and both had a main character who was not unlike me. In hindsight, both novels suffered from what Frederick Reiken calls “the author-narrator-character merge.” He argues that many first-time novelists create flat, uninteresting characters because there isn’t enough separation between the author, the narrator, and the character, which are three distinct things, even in first-person narratives. The merge often occurs in autobiographical or semi-autobiographical fiction.
For me, one way out of the merge was to set stories in very different times and/or places. For example, one story in my collection is still set in Vancouver but in the 1920’s. Other stories are set in Shanghai, Vienna, Port Elizabeth, London, and New York City from the 1930’s onward. All of these stories still make use of my own experience, but refracting that experience through the lens of different settings made the characters more distinct—and more compelling as a result. These days, autofiction is trending, but if you find yourself mired in the “ANC merge,” consider setting stories in places and times distant from your own.
Jack Wang received a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto, an M.F.A. from the University of Arizona, and a Ph.D. in English with an emphasis in creative writing from Florida State University. In 2014–15, he held the David T. K. Wong Creative Writing Fellowship at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Stories in his debut collection, We Two Alone, have been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and longlisted for the Journey Prize, and have appeared in PRISM International, the Malahat Review, the New Quarterly, the Humber Literary Review, and Joyland.
Jack Wang is the author of We Two Alone, published by House of Anansi Press
Five Tips for Writing Through a Tough Time with Nadia L. Hohn
Nadia L. Hohn’s award-winning first picture book, Malaika's Costume was published in 2016, Malaika's Winter Carnival in 2017, and Malaika’s Surprise in 2021 by Groundwood Books. Nadia is also the author of Harriet Tubman: Freedom Fighter, an early reader by Harper Collins. Nadia was named one of six Black Canadian Writers to Watch in 2018 by CBC Books. In summer 2019, Nadia was the writer in residence at Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver, British Columbia, and for Open Book. Nadia is currently working on middle and young adult novels, a play, and more picture books.
She joins us on September 10 for the showcase "Emerge!"
Telling Someone Else's Story: How to Build Trust and Maintain Balance
with Dakshana Bascaramurty
Dakshana Bascaramurty is a national news reporter for the Globe and Mail. She won a 2013 National Newspaper Award in beat reporting for her coverage of changing demographics in Toronto's 905 region, and in 2018 a silver medal for Best Arts and Culture Story, at the Digital Publishing Awards for "Kent Monkman: the modern touch of an old master." Before joining the Globe and Mail in 2009, her work appeared in the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen and on CBC.
Her first book, This is Not the End of Me, (Penguin Random House Canada), is the moving, inspiring story of a young husband and father who, when diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of thirty-three, sets out to build a legacy for his infant son.
She joins us on August 13 for the panel discussion "On Being Alive".
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
It’s crucial that you let yourself be a beginner. This is easier for an aspiring sax player, I suspect – you know you’re going to make an awful racket for a while, and that the first months and years will be about craft. By the time you aspire to be a writer (in the sense that we mean here), you’ve actually been putting words together for some time, so it’s harder to recognize that you don’t yet have any serious chops.
The upside is that the reward for working on the craft of writing is beyond anything you can anticipate. When I started out – and I think this applies to many new writers – I had the sense that the point of writing was to get the ideas out of my head and onto the page. What a dull practice that would be. Once you start to develop some command, you discover that your engagement with the text takes you far beyond your initial notions. That’s the payoff, and it’s a thrill.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Enjoy this. Angst and self-doubt notwithstanding, this is priceless.
Advice for Writers
with Ray Robertson
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Show, show, show. Art is essentially experiential.
“No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel . . . is going to believe anything the . . . writer merely tells him,” Flannery O’Connor counselled in her seminal book Mystery and Manners. “The first and most obvious characteristic of [good writing] is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.”
Ray Robertson joins us on August 13 for the panel discussion "On Being Alive".
Ray Robertson is the author of eight novels and three works of non-fiction. His work has been translated into several languages. Born and raised in Chatham, Ontario, he lives in Toronto.
How to Die: A Book About Being Alive, is published by Biblioasis.
Three Things to Consider When Writing Memoir
with Alison Wearing
Alison Wearing is the bestselling author of Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter, an Indigo Top 50 pick shortlisted for the Edna Staebler Prize and longlisted for the RBC Taylor Prize, and Honeymoon in Purdah: An Iranian Journey. She teaches, performs solo multimedia plays, and leads writing workshops internationally.
Moments of Glad Grace, a moving and witty memoir of aging, familial love, and the hunt for roots and belonging, was published in April 2020 by ECW Press.
Visit www.alisonwearing.com for information about her twelve week online memoir writing class (Memoir Writing, ink.).