Valerie Compton is a writer and editor whose first novel, Tide Road (Goose Lane Editions, 2011), was a finalist for the 2012 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award. Her fiction and non-fiction pieces have appeared in publications across Canada. Originally from PEI, she lives and writes in Halifax, where she also works as an editor and writing instructor through Narrative Agency. In the following post, she talks to us about writing fiction, her work as an editor, getting paid as a writer, and more.
How long have you been writing? What drew you to writing in general, and fiction in particular?
I started writing fiction seriously around 1997, and published my first short story in 2001. It took me ten more years to figure out how to write a novel, but I was playing around with fragments of short fiction long before that. One of my earliest memories is of desperately wanting to learn how to read and write so I could somehow save the stories I “wrote” in my imagination. I was that strange, solitary kid chatting to herself in the apple tree, but I think most people have a deep need to tell stories. Writing fiction is a way to turn that natural impulse into an art form.
In addition to writing novels and short fiction, you have a background in journalism. Did you find the shift to writing fiction challenging? Did your background in journalism help you in this experience?
I was publishing articles on books and food in newspapers and magazines long before I started writing fiction, but I am trained as a fiction writer, not a journalist. My desire was always to write and edit fiction. For most writers, I think, the process of writing journalism and other kinds of pragmatic nonfiction is very different from the process of writing fiction and narrative nonfiction. Book reviewing can be a way to begin to think about some aspects of the craft of fiction, but I prefer to immerse myself in a story—which to me means writing and editing the story itself.
You also work as a freelance mentor to emerging writers. How do you approach teaching the craft of writing?
I work as an editor with both emerging and established writers, and my goal is the same with both: to support the writer’s own revision process. I try to attend carefully to my experience of the story as I read, then work to understand how the machinery of the story creates its effects. When something pulls me out of the story, or particularly engages me, I want to know why. I focus on places where the story is especially compelling, or not, aspects of the story that are underdeveloped or excessive, sentences and paragraphs that are awkward or unclear. I love the work. Every writer and manuscript is different, and they all seem thrillingly wild and full of potential.
In addition to editing manuscripts and mentoring new writers, I also lead workshops for writers with stories or novels in progress. Every spring and fall, six or seven of us will gather around a table once a week to do as a group what I do in my editing practice: reflect back to the writer what they have set down on the page. Over the past ten years or so I’ve developed workshop guidelines and processes designed to give the writer as much creative freedom and support as possible. It’s hugely inspiring to see how carefully workshop participants read each other’s work, and how beautifully a writer’s own work develops as a result of the close attention they pay to their fellow writers’ stories. I feel lucky to have been present at every workshop, and I’m sure my own writing has improved as a result.
What do you love about living in Nova Scotia?
I love Nova Scotia’s wilderness and protected areas, especially its granite coastal barrens and the glorious, scrappy creatures that thrive there. Moving through nature helps me write.
What’s the biggest misconception about being a writer?
I sometimes worry that people feel they need permission to write, that they are waiting for some form of validation to transform them into a writer, or that they believe recognition—in the form of a book on a store shelf, or a public reading, or a prize nomination—is necessary to affirm to the world that they are a real writer.
Everyone who writes is real. A writer is, by definition, a person who writes. External validation will never make writing more satisfying: the greatest satisfactions are the ones you find on your own scrawled over, scratched out and rewritten pages—and in the attention you pay to the world.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Read, revise, and wait. Read for pleasure, and to see how other writers do what they do well. Revise more than you think you need to. And try really hard to wait until you’re sure you no longer have even the tiniest niggling doubt about your work before sending it out.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
I don’t have one! Pleasure is necessary and healthy, right? It shouldn’t provoke guilt.
What do you do when you have writer’s block?
There are lots of ways to deal with a story that won’t progress. The first thing to do is to try to figure out why you feel stuck. Usually this feeling is a symptom of something awkward, undeveloped, or unresolved in the story. Since stories are complex, with many interdependent moving parts, often the easiest way to figure out what’s wrong is to let your subconscious do the work of solving—or at least identifying—the problem(s). Go for a walk, take a shower, do some physically distracting task.
Practice helps. I think writer’s block becomes less frequent as the writer gains more skill and experience, and more patience with the revision process. A change of perspective can help. Refresh your view of the story by revising it: recast a sentence, or look at the opening instead of the vexing ending. A lot of writing problems will resolve themselves if you shift your focus.
Do you remember the first time you were paid as a writer? How did it feel?
I remember going on a little rollercoaster ride when I received my first short fiction contract in the mail. I was thrilled because a contract meant they wanted the story—I was shocked by how low the pay was for this thing I’d slaved over for so many weekends and evenings—I was thrilled by the nice things they said about my writing—I was surprised (and a little concerned) to learn that my story might be edited before it was published—and I was delighted to hear that this editor who’d said such lovely things about my work might want to have further conversations about it.
The publishing experience was wonderful, but the eventual cheque (which was for something like $30) mystified me. How could a story be simultaneously admirable and almost worthless?
What are you working on right now?
I’m working on two novels and a collection of stories. One of the stories will appear in The New Quarterly this fall or winter.