In preparation for WordsThaw 2014, Malahat volunteer Melissa Hiebert spoke with WordsThaw participant Aaron Shepard on the craft of writing, the benefits of symposiums, and his upcoming novel.
Aaron is one of eight writers offering 15-minute critiques as part of Brief Encounters on Saturday, February 22.
Can you describe what it was like to write your upcoming book, When is a Man (published with Brindle and Glass in April 2014), and some of the good moments and bad moments you experienced throughout the process?
I had a lot of fun moments writing the first third of the book, which I did during my MFA program, just because I had weeks and weeks to write and think, and I knew I’d likely never have that much free time to write again (I’ve been proven correct so far).
Some of the worst moments occurred the year after I graduated, when I finished the entire book and started revising. I could see all the mistakes in the novel, all the wrong turns, and I felt like I’d mostly squandered all that free time university had given me. But the more I revised, the more that anxiety faded. I find most of the deeper satisfactions come during the revision process when the logic of the story really starts to cohere and characters come to life.
Was there a single moment you can remember before starting to write that made you decide, "yes, this is the story I want to tell”?
Honestly, there’s never one image or idea that gets me writing. I often feel stuck until enough things pile up―certain details, characters, a few scenes―and only then am I ready to start. It makes me a pretty slow writer, I’m afraid.
If you had to describe your writing in one word to someone else, what would it be?
I’ll go with what Mark Anthony Jarman said about my novel: “stubborn.”
What made you decide to go through the MFA program at the University of Victoria?
The timing made sense―if I hadn’t done the program, I would have continued tinkering with the short stories I’d written during my BFA, because a collection seemed like the most logical career move. Also, I didn’t want to waste four years’ worth of writing. But I’d really hit the wall with those stories: I needed to leave them behind and start my novel, and the MFA program gave me the motivation and the means to do that.
Do you think it is important for writers to share their work for critiquing with fellow writers?
I think there’s a danger in being too reliant on other people’s opinions, especially during the early stages when so much is likely to change anyway. On the other hand, there’s always a point at which you’re too close to your own story to see what is unclear or what could be improved. You need some objective distance between you and the story, and other people’s eyes can provide that fresh perspective. It’s wonderful when you find a fellow writer whose opinion you trust, especially if you feel stuck or you’re not sure where you want the story to go.
What sort of things do you tend to focus on when conducting a critique of someone else's writing?
Generally I focus on what’s working in the story. Instead of trying to direct the narrative, I’d rather the writer be the one to consider the things he or she is doing well―elements like a strong voice or compelling characters. Also, I consider how effectively the story is drawing in the reader, and why. That’s something that can always be improved, because a good hook is usually a question of sharpening the language and creating a sense of anticipation, using hints and half-spoken things, more so than just finding a surprising or shocking image to bait the reader.
In your opinion, what is the best part of events like WordsThaw?
Soaking up new ideas from good writers and people in the publishing business, hearing a turn of phrase I’ve never heard before, just generally being inspired. With work and real life being so busy, the opportunity to talk about books and writing with my peers is a real luxury, and I often come away from these types of events feeling rejuvenated and ready to write.
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