Jocelyne Stone Shares

A good friend and emerging author here in Peterborough has agreed to share some of the challenges and small triumphs that she has experienced in her nascent work. More specifically, I asked her to offer us what she has gained from a current critiquing course. She was a first reader for an International Writing Competition, Whispering Words. She writes both junior and Young Adult fiction. She has had her work reviewed by Canadian publishers, but nothing has come to print, yet; that will soon change. I am certain you will find this piece as thoughtful and revealing as I have.

On Being a Writer

By: Jocelyne Stone

Anybody can write, but it takes hard work and a whole lot of patience to write well. Sure you need to add some imagination and maybe even some talent, but if you don’t put the effort into making your craft better, honing your writing skills, the chances of you making a career out of writing is almost impossible.

I’ve been writing, seriously writing, now for four years. During that time I’ve taken many writing courses, been to many seminars and belong to a wonderful writing critique group, Critical Ms, created from a mix of extremely talented writers—both published and not.

Aside from whatever I’d learned through high school or University English classes, when I took my first writing course I knew nothing. Over the first few courses I began to get an understanding of the concept of a story—setting, plots, characters, point of view (POV), and narrative style. Then I started to learn the importance of scenes, and how to write dialogue.

As my knowledge grew, so did my writing—I started to get better at it.

Currently I am taking a critiquing course offered by Sam Hiyate—the co-founder and literary agent for The Rights Factory. Had I started out taking this course in the beginning of my writing career, I think I would have gone home crying and packed it in. It’s not that Sam or the others in the class are mean, but it’s definitely not a course for the faint-of-heart. In fact, I don’t think any critiquing class is.

For those who may not be familiar with a critiquing course, the process is fairly simple. You bring in a piece of a certain size, share it with the class by reading it aloud and then sit back while the class picks your work apart. The critiquing at times can be gruelling; being told your favourite scene is actually flat and does nothing to move the story along—well that sometimes hurts.

On the flip side you can also be told there was one phrase or sentence that really stuck with them, or that one of your scenes was gripping from start to finish. Those are the moments that make your heart sing, or at least that’s the case with me.

My goals or what I hope to gain from my writing courses now are completely different then what they were when I first started writing. My goals in the beginning were simple and truth be told very vain. I wanted to be told I was a good writer and that what I was writing was brilliant. Now whenever I want this to happen I ask my mom for her opinion! She is by far my biggest cheerleader and in the writing world it’s important to have cheerleaders!

I like to think I’ve matured, if only just a little! So my goals have shifted a bit. Now I want to know if my characters are likeable.  Does their story arc follow them from beginning to end? Is my voice, or rather the voice of my character clear? What is my pacing like? Is it too fast, too slow? Is my POV consistent? Am I showing and not telling?

Sam’s class is probably the fifth critiquing course I’ve taken over my career thus far. At the end of this course I hope to have a finished piece that is publishing-worthy. In most other critiquing courses this would be a lofty goal, but Sam’s class is different and I write for children. (This comment is only made in regards to children’s books generally having less words. The argument about which genre is more challenging to write is a whole article in itself.)

In other critiquing courses I’ve taken you share your work twice, perhaps three times, over a twelve week period, depending how many people are in the class. In Sam’s class there are only six of us and each week we are required to bring up to twenty new pages. This is a fast pace but it helps keep me on track. The other benefit is the other members in the class get to know my story and characters more intimately resulting in a better overall critique.

What is extremely important to remember is what others say about your work is their opinion and an opinion doesn’t make it right. In most cases if the critique pertains to the character arc, the flow or change in POV, then the advice is worth listening to, but even then not all the time.

There is a fine balance to knowing what to listen to and what to shut out. This process is much easier to do when you have a strong idea of the story itself. The less sure you are about the outline of your story the more difficult it is to distinguish helpful from harmful.

The critiquing classes I’ve taken have far out-weighed the monetary costs. I’ve learned, stretched and grown as a writer. Rules of thumb I’ve gathered over time; be honest but show respect, critiques should be constructive not cruel, and most importantly, if ever there’s a disagreement tie goes to the writer.

A Forest That Merits Much Visiting

Revisiting “Our Forest Home”: The Immigrant Letters of Frances Stewart

By: Jodi Aoki  (Editor)

Dundurn Press, Jun 2011, 288 pp. $35.00 CDN

Reviewed by: James Onusko

 If you seek new vistas into the nineteenth century, and in particular, how some immigrant women in Canada coped with the vicissitudes of everyday life, then Jodi Aoki’s edited collection of Frances Stewart’s letters will not disappoint. With skill, profound thoughtfulness and empathy, Aoki allows readers to come to know Stewart as a complex woman with very real flaws and many strengths.

Jodi Aoki has been an integral part of the Trent University’s Archives for more than 20 years. She holds an M.A. in Canadian Studies and lives in Bethany, just outside of Peterborough. She has written articles and presented conference papers on nineteenth-century social history with an emphasis on the immigrant writings of women in Ontario.

Frances Stewart is part of a larger group of women, from nineteenth and early twentieth century Canada, who have left a lasting imprint on Canadian literature. The works of Susanna Moodie, Catharine Parr Traill, and E. Pauline Johnson continue to allow us to view this critical time in Canadian history through lenses not often offered. Stewart’s letters, certainly seeming to have an eye to a broader readership than just family and friends, are a link to a time that becomes increasingly distant, in many ways, from contemporary Canada. The letters are often filled with tenderness, longing, and profound sadness. However, Aoki provides us with letters that display Stewart’s keen wit, humour, pure joy and an ability to persevere through some very challenging life experiences. Despite her ‘alien’ status in the Canadian bush, Stewart’s spirit seems unwavering at most turns. It is inspiring to me that it was ongoing female friendships with family members and friends, that seemed to sustain Stewart the most through her most trying times. Make no mistake, this is a gendered story, and one that remains woefully under-represented in the ‘our’ Canadian historical record.

In this poignant excerpt, an aged Stewart, within weeks of her death, writes to her granddaughter:

Dear Birdie, do you know I am very apt to go to sleep when I am writing or reading and I am always vexed at being so lazy. And so my letter has been neglected but I can’t help it. My eye was sore but it is nearly well today and now it is so near dinnertime that I must pull all my papers and pens away as I am rather more inclined to eat than to write just at present but I hope you will write to me soon again. I have not had a letter from Illinois for a long time. I think Fannie Hay had one from Mama. And now dear Goodbye.

Believe me your very fond

Grandma F. Stewart

I did not find much fault in Aoki’s collection, although an overarching criticism is that I would have liked to read more from her own hand. The author’s introductory pages, to the different phases of Stewart’s life, range from three or four pages to a dozen. This context is wonderful, and twelve to fifteen pages of this, linking Stewart to broader Ontario and national narratives, may have helped many younger readers, and others not familiar with the histories of this period, to fit Stewart into these wider streams. There is a larger discussion of class that Aoki broaches, but does not delve into with great depth. Granted, Stewart did not seem to give this much thought in her writings, but more of Aoki’s analysis of class as an analytic category would have been welcomed. The visual images of the Stewart family, artifacts, and so forth were also relatively scarce. A lengthier section of these representations, higher image resolution, larger in size, and on glossy paper would have been an improvement. The book’s imagery did bring added texture and fullness to the words of both Aoki and Stewart. Finally, I would have liked added discussion within an international context from Aoki. Linking Stewart’s experiences to a possible transnational experience of American, Australian, and other colonial ‘settlers’ of this period, even briefly, would have added nuance and even more substance to an already excellent collection.

In the final analysis, there is so much more to like about this edited collection than dislike. Aoki’s book will be of interest to a wide range of readers. Students of early Ontario history will find a rich collection of social history focusing on women, families, and immigrant settler lives. General readers will find it accessible and compelling. It is a wonderful antidote for those who have grown tired of vanilla-filled political histories, and the re-tellings of ‘great’ men in nineteenth-century history. While this collection does not focus on the experiences of immigrant men in Ontario, I welcome this. As other feminist historians have argued for more than a generation now, that story has been told more than enough, and can be found in myriad publications. I will be filled with dismay with the next announcement of the upcoming publication of a ‘new’ look at the ‘extraordinary’ Sir John A. Macdonald volume that is likely sitting on the keyboard of some aging anglophile. Scholars and the curious general reader alike, will find much to relish in this edited collection that provides a wonderful opportunity to connect to a past that will speak to those among us who leave our homes, at times with much to risk, yet so much to gain.