‘Just Do It’ for Writers—by Carolyne Van Der Meer

The thing about writing fiction is you need to know what kind of writer you are. The kind who needs a plan, or the kind who doesn’t. I was convinced I needed a plan. Lori Weber taught me I didn’t.

Earlier this year, I was chosen as one of the mentees in the QWF’s annual mentorship program. The goal was to work on my young adult fiction novel with Lori, a prolific children’s writer and YA fiction novelist. I’ve been at this novel—my first—for a few years. I’ve worked with other mentors, attended workshops, and been part of writing groups. But I was stuck. And Lori, using wisdom gleaned from writing ten books, unstuck me. It has been euphoric.

Prior to beginning the mentorship in February, I handed more than 100 pages over to Lori, written over the last three years. Chapters, scenes, flashbacks, character sketches—and a plan. A plan that outlined my novel in thirty-three chapters. This novel was planned to the hilt. Every move was carved out. So why couldn’t I write it?

“I’ve been at this novel—my first—for a few years. I’ve worked with other mentors, attended workshops, and been part of writing groups. But I was stuck.”

At our first mentorship session—a two-hour foray into scones, homemade jam, and Earl Grey—Lori asked me to tell her my goals for the four-month mentorship. Of course I wanted to advance my novel. But I wanted to talk about craft. I wanted to pick her brain. Hey, here I had, right in front of me, a very fine YA novelist, a successful one with some ten books to her credit—one, Yellow Mini, even written in verse. I’m a poet first—so Lori became my hero pretty fast. I wanted to understand how she does it. How does she hammer out all those words and weave them into a believable story, one that young people will not be able to put down? I wanted to know her secret.

“This novel was planned to the hilt. Every move was carved out. So why couldn’t I write it?”

It was simple: drop the plan.

What? Yes, I had heard right. Get rid of that bloody plan.

So as much as our mentorship together was about writing, it was also about teaching me something I didn’t at first believe I needed to learn—and something I doubted I was capable of learning. How?

Well, she asked me, why did this novel need to be mapped out so tightly? I had a general idea, didn’t I, of where I wanted to go, so why not run with that? It didn’t seem to me to be enough. But Lori had plenty of examples, the most significant one being that she was hard at work on her eleventh book, one that she was mapping out—as it got written—on the wall in multi-coloured post-it notes. The plan didn’t come beforehand: it was being developed as she wrote.

This was a completely foreign notion to me. I was used to writing poetry, where the idea could be banged out in a few minutes. I knew from minute one what my storyline would be and I could get it out in one sitting. Of course, then I would spend hours reworking and reworking—until I had something that I was convinced was jolting. Something that would move the reader in some way. And then Lori asked me the question that changed everything: why was writing my novel any different?

Of course I had lots of reasons for her: because I didn’t know what the outcome would be; because I didn’t know how to deal with the passing of time; because I need to describe what happens in every second of every minute; because I need a plan to get from A to B.

You just believe, she said. And you write. It was like the Nike slogan. Just Do It.

Over the next few months—over many cups of Earl Grey and too many scones, Lori taught me how to “let go” and believe that I don’t need a prescription. If I had a strong general notion of the plot and of the various climaxes on the plotline, I could simply start writing and gently push myself towards the outcome. Her mantra of “just write it” became my own. Simple but true. Lori kept telling me that if I didn’t write it, there would be nothing to work with, nothing to fix. Just like the poem I could write in a few minutes and rework and rework.

“Her mantra of ‘just write it’ became my own. Simple but true.”

So apart from some very concrete accomplishments, such as a general plot overview, a complete character tree, the necessary historical research—and five completed chapters—I have come away from this mentorship with a new skill: being able to let go and just believe. Lori showed me how to work with intuition, energy, even faith. She claims she doesn’t know what will come out until she writes. So writing is the key. I believe her now. And I got rid of the plan. Really.

If you are a Quebec-based English-language writer and you’d like to apply for mentor, or to be a mentor, visit the call for applications for the 2018 program.

Carolyne Van Der Meer-4308

Carolyne Van Der Meer is the author of Motherlode: A Mosaic of Dutch Wartime Experience. Her second book, a collection of poetry called Journeywoman, will be published by Inanna this fall.

Photo credit: Bassam Sabbagh (headshot)

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