Since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to tell stories.
I wasn’t a popular kid growing up. I dealt with bullying from a young age, so I spent a lot of time in my own head. I created fantastical inner worlds as well as characters to live in them. When I wasn’t satisfied with what was happening in the world outside, I’d retreat inside. I later learned this is called maladaptive daydreaming, a common coping mechanism for kids who experience trauma.
When I was little, I wrote and illustrated children’s books for my younger siblings. I’d draw them by hand using printer paper, and my mom would bind them together with staples and duct tape. As I got older I graduated to short stories and eventually, you guessed it, fanfiction. I won the English Award when I graduated the 8th Grade and was invited to attend a writing workshop at Carleton University that year. That was when I began to consider writing as a career.
When high school rolled around, I decided I someday wanted to write a novel. I had two English teachers in particular who I will never forget, because they were the first people outside my own family who saw something in my writing. They helped me nurture and sharpen my skills and become confident in my own capability. At the end of the year in the 10th grade, Mr. Campbell gifted me his copy of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. I still read it every so often. I’m thankful for teachers like Mr. Campbell and Mrs. Lucas, because thanks to them I’m now doing what I love for a living.
Anyway, having been raised in the throes of capitalism, it was hammered into my brain that if I was good at something, I should find a way to monetize it. So, I decided to put my creative writing dream on the shelf for a while… and then I promptly forgot all about it. Instead, I did what I thought was logical and decided to try my hand at telling a different kind of story.
That was when I found journalism. Don’t get me wrong, my passion for journalism grows stronger every day. But when I graduated from j-school and my three part-time jobs became one full-time job in magazine publishing, I realized I now have time to explore my other passions outside of work. One of these is photography, which I picked up as a side effect of journalism. The other was to stretch my long neglected creative writing muscles and re-learn how to write fiction.
It turned out to be a lot more difficult than expected.
Journalistic writing and fiction writing are vastly different beasts. They have a few things in common, like the importance of grammar, flow and readability, but that’s where the similarities end.
I first noticed how rusty I really was when every bit of dialogue I wrote ended with “they said.” In journalism, ending quotations with descriptors like “he gasped indignantly,” or “she muttered,” or “they spat” is bad form, because they imply that the subject is feeling or behaving a certain way, which is inherently biased – a big no-no in journalism. It’s usually safest to simply go with “they said” unless the descriptor you’re using is indisputably neutral.
For obvious reasons, this doesn’t fly in fiction. In fact, it gets very boring, very quickly. But it seems to be an irritatingly impossible habit to break, so I do a lot of editing in that department. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that writing dialogue is currently the bane of my existence. A friend suggested that I read the scene out loud to myself to see how it flows, and that has helped significantly.
Another habit I can’t seem to break is the urge to write absolutely everything in the Canadian Press Style. The CP Style Guide was drilled into our minds in j-school, and breaking those sacred commandments feels so wrong. On one hand, by writing everything in CP Style at least I know the grammar is sound. On the other hand, in fiction, breaking the rules is sometimes necessary for the sake of voice and flair.
Speaking of voice and flair, that’s another area where I’ve been struggling to find my sea legs. As much as I love journalism, it can feel a little clinical. This is for a few completely valid reasons:
Journalistic writing requires accessible language and sentence structure that the general public can easily follow. Ideally, it should also be as impartial as possible, which means you can’t use words that have certain connotations or could imply an unfair bias. This is all for the sake of credibility, which is totally fair, but when you’re used to writing this way it can be difficult to slip comfortably back into the world of flowery adjectives and adverbs.
That’s not to say conciseness isn’t important in fiction, because it absolutely is. Especially when marketing to today’s readers. There is such a thing as too much description – I’m looking at you, Dostoevsky – but it’s been nice to have a little more leeway.
These are only three examples of why becoming reacquainted with fiction writing has been a challenging transition for me, but I could name at least a dozen more. Good thing I love a challenge.
After plenty of blood, sweat and (literal) tears, I can finally say I’ve finished writing my first novella. The benefit of working in this industry (and having the amazing bookworm pals that I do) is that my life comes equipped with built-in beta readers, professional editors and enthusiastic cheerleaders. So, I had a ton of help and support along the way. Because of this, the process from first draft to revised first draft to second draft to revised second draft to third draft (and so on) has been relatively smooth sailing.
Then I started querying.
Querying is to a writer what the minotaur was for Theseus. Or at least it feels that way, considering the way we all shudder at the mere thought of it. From sweating over your query letters to constantly refreshing your email waiting for a response, to the sting of that first rejection.
It’s a battlefield out there, folks, but that’s a story for another time. To be continued!
© Victoria St. Michael 2021