At the SCBWI Canada East conference in Ottawa this weekend, I received my shiny Crystal Kite Award in the Canada division for Bog, published by Fitzhenry & Whiteside and edited by the fabulous Christie Harkin and Cheryl Chen. This award is particularly meaningful to me because it’s peer-given. I’m honoured and thrilled that my own people would recognize Bog in this way. He’s a character who is near and dear to my heart, but I must admit that his creation was fraught with rejections and roadblocks.
At the ceremony, I shared an anecdotal journey of my creation of Bog, including my inspiration, struggles, and what I learned. This blog post is an excerpt from that talk.
At times when I was writing Bog, self-doubt slowed my process. Why was an adult woman spending her time squirreled away alone and writing about a cave troll? Would anyone want to read my story? Was I mad?
I learned that, when doubt creeps into my writing process, I need to rekindle my joy in writing. Yes, writing is a way I earn money, but it’s also a passion. With Bog, I rekindled my joy by playing. Exploring who Bog was in his world. Allowing myself the time and space to imagine him fully. I also learned that if I’ve lost the joy, I may need to switch to another project until I can rekindle my passion.
Finding Characters with Personal Meaning
Picture me in grade nine: Less than five feet tall. Weighing less than a hundred pounds. Painfully shy. With an overactive imagination.
When I hit five feet tall, I banned short jokes in my family. But at school, I got called small and cute a lot. Too much. My rebellious streak took over. I began to hate being called small and cute. I began to tell everyone that I was very large and hairy – at least on the inside. And so, my inner troll was born.
Since then, it’s become been a running joke in my family: Karen – big and hairy. In fact, this theme shows up years later in a hand-drawn birthday card from my eldest daughter. My daughter knows what it’s like to have a troll for a mother.
And so, I learned to write characters who carry personal meaning for me. When I connect with them, write them deeply, readers can connect to them too.
Gathering Inspiration from Other Creators and Their Work
Inspiration for Bog’s character continued when I saw the trolls in the Lord of the Rings movies. Maybe you remember the cave troll in the Mines of Moria, chain by the orc and dragged around by his neck collar to do their bidding. Everyone else watching the movie was probably worried about Frodo at that point, but I was wondering why the troll was chained and whether he was coerced into being a warrior for the orcs. Did he want to fight against Frodo? Was he treated fairly by the orcs?
So the idea of writing a novel featuring trolls was born. And I learned that I could build on the ideas of other creators, explore them from new angles, and gain new insights.
Finding Story Sparks Even in Dark Moments
Another influence for Bog came on 9/11 and the days and months afterward. In a way, this novel is my reaction to the terrible destruction of the World Trade Center towers, and the ensuing war on terror. But it’s also a reaction to ethnic conflicts and violent extremism the world over – anywhere where there is learned hatred against another culture instead of acceptance and understanding of differences.
On 9/11 and in the days that followed, I learned that even dark moments can hide story sparks. I also learned that I could show the dark side of life to kids and help us all make sense of it.
No Holidays from Inspiration
By this point in my writing process, I was researching things like phases of the moon, the forest and its creatures at night, how far a troll can walk per night, troll lore from both Norse mythology and ingenious stories, and what drives people to terrorism. But it wasn’t until I went on a camping trip in northern Ontario that I finalized my setting.
The novel creates a mythology around the landscape north of Lake Superior in Ontario. The setting is based on real places, including the wilderness north of Thunder Bay, the Sleeping Giant peninsula in Lake Superior, and the ruins of a flooded silver mine on Silver Islet.
From my camping trip, I learned to be open to inspiration from daily life. To pay attention. There are no holidays from inspiration.
Managing Roadblocks and Rejections
At this point, I was ready to start writing. I knew my story. I could write this book.
This book was the hardest one I’ve written so far. It took more rewrites than I expected – a total of ten years from conceptualization to printed book. First, I got stuck while writing first draft. I had to learn more about plotting. So I got hooked on screenwriting seminars by John Truby, Robert McKee, and Christopher Vogler. Then I had to learn more about how to express character and meticulously craft a sentence. I sought out conferences, writing books, mentors, and critique partners. When I did get a readable draft written, I submitted it to a lot of agents, sure that this would be my breakout book. This book mattered. It would find its home.
But it found a lot of rejections. And I found my way tangled.
This taught me that my writing journey is not steady or consistent. It’s full of detours, roadblocks, and surprising discoveries. I also learned something about the way I react to rejection. I mourn. Then I get fierce. I think, “I can so write a great book.” I pull out the manuscript again, and I go at it once more, getting feedback, envisioning a new draft, and writing to prove to myself that I can succeed.
No Shortcuts in Writing
If I could talk to my pre-published self, I’d say have a little faith in yourself and your writing instincts but don’t think you can master the craft without putting in a lot of writing hours.
I’ve also learned that I can recover from a rejection, or a lot of rejections, if I keep writing and revising. And I can find an innovative way around any roadblock, if I stay steady on my creative journey.