I want to introduce you all to award winning author and writing coach Jennifer Manuel who’s debut novel, The Heaviness of Things That Float, won the 2017 Ethel Wilson Prize and was optioned for a television series.
Her second literary novel The Morning Bell Brings the Brokenhearted is due for release in Fall 2021.
She has been a Western Magazine Finalist and CBC named her a Writer to Watch. She is the author of two children’s novels, Dressed to Play and Head to Head. Her first YA novel, Open Secrets is coming out in February 2021.
I first met Jennifer Manuel at a writer’s group meeting. She did a presentation on story revision. The class and information were invaluable for me as it propelled me forward in my writing. The one take away that I’ll never forget is this advice from Jennifer:
“When you’re in a place in your story where the action is moving at a fast and furious pace, it is at that moment you must slow down and pay attention.”
It’s something I’ve never forgotten. Great advice.
A year later, I met Jennifer again at a small writer’s festival where she gave readings and taught some workshops. Her work is brilliant and her advice, stellar.
Here is Jennifer Manuel’s journey…so far.
Who is Jennifer Manuel?
I published my first short story when I was 39, and my first novel when I was 45. I would never have been able to write what I wrote without the life experiences that forty-five years had given me.
My mother, Lynn Manuel, was a children’s author of several novels and picture books, as well as a ghostwriter of thirteen Boxcar Children Mysteries.
I was taught growing up that writing is synonymous with living.
I wrote often but sporadically when adulting seemed to get in the way. When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, I feverishly worked to publish something to show her that I would follow in her footsteps.
I was able to bring my first short story published in Room Magazine to my mom in the hospice. When she passed away, my sense of personal mission to write became even stronger.
Mind you, that’s not to suggest this happened overnight: it was still the result of years of practicing and years of being really bad at what I was doing on the page.
Besides writing, I make music. I play drums, guitar, piano, and the cello. I am also a tech junkie who makes really bad electronic music with synthesizers and samplers. I draw and paint regularly, which I find meditative, and I’d love to someday combine drawing and writing in some type of undefined project.
For years now I’ve played goal in a men’s hockey league, as well as women’s soccer, surfing, snowboarding, and recently I’ve taken up skateboarding. Sports are my greatest passion, and I’ve tried to apply many of the same principles of deliberate practice to my writing. Also, I love riding my motorcycle, on-road and off.
What is your education level?
I’ve done two Bachelor degrees and two Masters degrees (one not yet complete), none of which had anything to do with writing.
I did get accepted back in 2015, I believe it was, to UBC’s MFA for Creative Writing, but I turned it down last minute.
Sidebar: for those who don’t know…UBC is the University of British Columbia. and MFA is a Master’s in Fine Arts.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about having to pump out writing with quick turnaround times. I had just come to embrace patience in my creative process (too many writers stop working on a piece far too soon, sending it out into the world before it’s truly ready) and I didn’t believe I would create anything of lasting value under the pressures of a school program.
One afternoon I stood in my living room in front of a massive wall of fiction and thought,
I don’t need an MFA. Here are my teachers. Why am I not intensely studying what they do on the page?Jennifer Manuel
I started doing just that, and it was the single greatest thing to improve my writing.
What challenges did you face in those early days of wanting to write?
I was a single mom of three kids when I was putting a lot into my writing, plus I was a full-time elementary teacher.
I would get up at 5am each morning to write before anybody else was up.
In these early days, I didn’t understand narrative structures enough. So much advice nowadays tells writers to find their voice, but that seems self-indulgent (voice is important, but voice without first understanding the anatomy of story is simply making it all about you).
Writers need a strong understanding of narrative structures before anything else. In the early days, I had no bones to hold up my stories.
What was your first book?
My first book was The Heaviness of Things That Float.
It was received very positively. The Vancouver Sun called it “a remarkable novel,” and the Sun also picked it as one of the best books of the year. It stayed on the BC Bestseller list for months.
My novel won the Ethel Wilson Prize for best work of fiction at the BC Book Prizes.
How did you find and secure your first agent? publisher?
Securing a publisher was a bit trickier.
Several editors were interested, but some of the marketing departments were concerned about the politics of my novel. Still, I was fortunate. When it was sold to Douglas & McIntyre, it hadn’t been all that lengthy of a process. Four months, I think.
Are you familiar with Imposter Syndrome?
Sidebar: Imposter syndrome is the persistent inability to believe one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s efforts and skills. Jennifer was asked: Have you ever felt this doubt within you? does it affect you at all? Any tricks to get past it?
Sure, I definitely have.
I felt it profoundly at the BC Book Prize Gala and my trick to get past it was about five glasses of free wine. This worked until, to my shock, I won and had to climb stairs to the stage and deliver an impromptu speech.
One of the ways I usually get past it is to focus on making connections with other people present.
I’m an extrovert, and I find that asking people what they’re about and having genuine conversations with individuals when I’m feeling like an imposter grounds me in what’s most important: connecting with other people.
Do you ever compare yourself to other writers? What are your thoughts on this?
No, I don’t.
They say comparisons are the surefire path to unhappiness, and I really think that holds true.
I also think it’s why many emerging writers rush their work; they panic that they’re not getting stuff out there when others are. Or maybe panic is the wrong word, but I do think in some cases, the root of it is comparison.
I certainly do admire other writers, to the point that I’ll practice writing in their style, but I don’t compare myself to them in that case.
What is your advice to writers who’re just starting out? how about the ones who are still at it after lots of rejection etc?
Ask yourself how willing you are to work at it.
Many people want to be an author, but when things get difficult, they don’t actually want to put the work in.
I’ve worked with a lot of writers over the past few years now and I have been unpleasantly surprised by how many of them have said things like, “Look, I’ve revised this whole thing twice now, I’m NOT doing it again.”
That’s fine, but if you aren’t willing to put in the deep work, you will wind up frustrated and discouraged.
If you are willing to build your stamina, and you stick with it, you will improve your craft and outlast all those other writers tossing their manuscripts into the same slush piles.
If you’ve faced a lot of rejections, ask yourself if you are perhaps sending work before it was ready. And consider investing in a critique or a writing mentor to help build your skills (plus it’s great networking).
Do you have a tricks that keep you centered on your writing work and to keep going?
The only thing that stops you or distracts you is Resistance (all writers should read The War of Art ).
Sidebar: In the War of Art, author Pressfield identifies “Resistance” as the main block to creative success. For those who haven’t read the book, this idea of “Resistance” is all about our own insecurities, doubt, “self-drama”, fears of success, and excuses. I have this book on Audio and listen to it every couple of months. It’s very good and is a good swift kick in the butt to get your creative self going and over the hump of Resistance.
My very first weapon against Resistance is to
1.) recognize that many things constitute writing beyond banging out sentences; and
2.) make use of the fact that there are many different ways to enter a story in order to work on it.
I can trick Resistance if it’s preventing me from banging out sentences by writing in different ways.
Walking, driving, doing the dishes, having a shower—activities that enable me to fool Resistance by not only occupying and distracting that intrusive part of my brain but also by allowing me to meditatively incubate my writing work.
Sometimes this mental activity is just a general reflection, undirected for the most part, which lets my subconscious work its way in.
I have also, as an aside, gone to bed sometimes and asked myself to work on a particular part of the story I’m struggling with, which I believe gets your brain working on it during dreaming.
Sometimes this mental activity is very specific: I will go for a walk with no other purpose than to structure a single sentence. This completely tricks my Resistance because it thinks I’m not writing.
I will also regularly shuffle between ways to build the story: freewriting, regular-old banging out sentences, outlining (either on paper or Scrivener), drawing something related to the story (doesn’t matter if you can draw or not), and taking inventory (a big one for me).
This last one is notable because nine times out of ten, if I am stuck, the answer is somewhere in what I’ve already written, which in turn makes a story feel more cohesive (it may something for the plot development or for building a pattern of images as you look back and inventory what’s already there).
Do you have any tips you’d like to offer up to writers of all levels?
One thing writers don’t spend a lot of time learning is revision.
Substantive, deep revisions.
When I was trying to learn how to revise my own work I could find hardly any books on the subject.
After a long time studying revision, I came up with four main tools that allow you to see the bigger picture:
- narrative space
- narrative distance
- narrative energy
- and emotional terrain.
Use the Story Revision Kit
SideBar: Jennifer Manuel is offering you a FREE PDF explanation of this approach: Get you free copy here: Story Revision Starter Kit
Jennifer is also part of the Sarah Selecky’s online writing program where she teaches The Story Intensive.
AND…She also operates her own innovative online course on deep revisions called Reimagine the Page Check it out by clicking the link.
What are you working on now and when does it hit the shelves?
I’m just finishing the edits for my YA novel, Open Secrets, out in February 2021.
My second literary novel, The Morning Bell Brings the Brokenhearted, will be released in the Fall of 2021.
And to wrap up…
This children’s book Head to Head is currently available directly through Lorimer or the links below.
Thank you so much to Jennifer Manuel for sharing her writing and her story. Make sure you check out Jennifer’s work and get the free PDF of the Story Revision Starter Kit. This could really benefit you in your own work.