Lauren Carter is the author of Swarm, described as “a somberly melodic, literary foray” by Booklist and named one of CBC’s Top 40 books that could change Canada, as well as Lichen Bright, a poetry collection. Her prose and poetry have won and been short-listed for several awards, including the CBC Literary Prizes, and anthologized15: Best Canadian Stories (edited by John Metcalf). Her next collection of poetry, Following Sea, will be published with Turnstone Press, and her second novel is currently being considered by publishers. She’s currently working on another novel and a collection of short fiction from her home in St. Andrews, Manitoba, where she also coaches writers and teaches writing workshops. Visit her at www.laurencarter.ca.
Lori Twining: I’m extremely impressed you began publishing poetry in Canadian literary journals at the age of 18. Plus, you published your first collection of poetry, Lichen Bright in 2005, but when did you get your first big break with short fiction? What literary magazine were you first published in? Did they change anything in your piece? How many rejections (if any) did you get for this piece before it was accepted?
Lauren Carter: That is a good question because, yes, it took me longer to break into the lit mags with short fiction than with poetry. I had lots and lots of rejections (have a stack of those tiny notes from The Fiddlehead with hand-scrawled editorial suggestions stuffed into my filing cabinet). Finally, something like twelve years after I first started sending stories out, “Ghost Story” was accepted by Descant in 2010, a fantastic Toronto literary journal that ran from 1970 to 2015. The piece had been rejected a few times before that, along with all the others, and every time it came back to me in the post, I’d rework it, based on any jot notes I got from the editors who had looked at it and my own instincts. I love that process of revision—send it out into the world, get it back, look at it with fresh eyes and reassess. Often there are new understandings that have developed in the absence and sometimes there’s that cringing, I can’t believe I sent this out…
Lori Twining: In general, how many revisions or rounds of edits do you make to one piece of short fiction before submitting to a literary magazine? How many pieces would you submit to a journal in one year? Is it easier to get published now that editors know who you are? Or do you still get rejections even though you have been in the business for over twenty years?
Lauren Carter: There’s no “in general” because every story is different. Some take a lot of work, others just fly out and are done or pretty much done in two or three drafts. The story that won the Prairie Fire fiction contest in 2014 started as an idea in 2008 or so that I then revisited and completely reshaped in the winter of 2013 (and, interestingly, those characters returned in a few other short stories and then, when I started another one, it kept going and became my new novel which is currently out on submission). In my early days of writing, I submitted more than I do now, largely because most of my writing these days is taken up with work on books (I’ve got four on the go right now). The last few stories I’ve had published were either solicited or came about through connections so in that way it is easier but, yes, sure, I still get rejections when I send stuff out. Mostly, these days, though, when I do submit work it’s to contests (like the CBC and Room literary prizes).
Lori Twining: I’ve read and loved your debut novel, Swarm, published in 2013 by Brindle and Glass. Congratulations to all the great reviews and the fact that it was voted one of the Top 40 novels that could change Canada during the run-up to Canada Reads 2014. Can you tell us about your forthcoming novel or book of short stories you are compiling?
Lauren Carter: Thank you so much! Right now I’ve got a collection of poetry slated for publication with Turnstone Press in 2019, a novel out on submission through my agent, a short story collection that I’m tweaking and another novel that I’m working on. The novel currently out on submission is a story about siblings (a brother and sister), who are coming to terms with the murder of their father by their mother. It’s about trauma, the echoing effects of dysfunctional families, compassion, and the sometimes difficult obligations we have for one another.
Lori Twining: After publishing many poetry and short fiction pieces in literary magazines, what is the one thing you found surprising about your first time having a novel published?
Lauren Carter: Well, a novel is a different animal because it’s yours alone whereas you share the stage with other writers in literary journals. So, the process of sharing the thing—launching it, talking about the story you’ve created after years of living alone with it, dealing with “imposter syndrome”, settling into the public writer persona, etc.—is different (although I wasn’t unfamiliar with all of that since I’d done it after the release of Lichen Bright). When sharing novels versus short stories though, determining what bits to read that will give people a sense of the world of the story is a lot harder than with short fiction!
Lori Twining: How would you describe your daily writing process? I know you blog every week and that you used to interview other Can Lit authors in your Firelight Interview Series, but do you do any other “writerly” activities? I heard you are teaching and coaching writers, could you tell me about that?
Lauren Carter: My process varies depending on where I’m at in a project. I tend to work towards deadlines—either set by myself (and scheduled on the four-month calendar I have on my office wall) or externally by my agent or editors or publishers—so I’ll enter into intense periods of work and am usually exhausted when I come out of the other side. I try to blog every week, yes, although sometimes I might skip some weeks if life’s too overwhelming (which it has been now and then over the past few years). Now that I live close to Winnipeg I’m trying to get out to readings when I can and I have a writing group that I’ve just joined. I also work as a creativity coach, which means that I coach, support, and help people who want to write or who are struggling to write. We work together to set goals, assess problems with resistances, integrate tools to overcome them, and get them writing on a regular basis, despite hurdles of anxiety, perfectionism, fear and other impediments. I adore this work, and it fuelled me to create an online course called Nine Simple Steps to a Solid Writing Practice which you can sample at learn.laurencarter.ca (hint: subscribers to my blog get a discount code). Right now, I’m also working on creating another online course that I think will really help writers who’ve been trying and struggling to finish bigger works finally get to the end of that first rough draft. I’m really excited about it!
Lori Twining: Do you have any favourite resources you could share with new writers (books they should read, podcasts they should listen to, courses they should take)?
Lauren Carter: When I was doing my MFA, I pretty much almost had a breakdown. Looking back, I think this had something to do with my less-than-ideal thyroid function but the creative work was also really testing. Digging that deeply, writing every day, pushing towards deadlines, thinking about eventually “defending” this story in front of academics and pushing past all my comfort zones to become a better writer, very quickly. I’m sure other people have also experienced this but what I found was that there wasn’t a lot of conversation about how hard creative work can be. One day I Googled “writing and anxiety,” kind of like I thought I had a condition, like looking for “sleep patterns and hair loss” or something. This led me to the work of Eric Maisel, a psychologist, writer and creativity coach who lives in California. I purchased his book Fearless Creating and began studying with him online and once during one of his Deep Writing workshops in San Francisco (highly recommended and also affordable). I base a lot of my coaching work and the courses I’m creating on what I’ve learned in the studies I’ve done with him and other mentors and my own practice. Before I found his work I always thought I had a love-hate relationship with writing but by addressing my own resistances and propensities to perfectionism, negativity, self-doubt, I’ve grown so much. Now, I mostly just love the work that I know I’ve been put on this earth to do and I know how to more easily get to it and finish things.
Lori Twining: Do you use beta readers for your poetry and prose submissions? Any thoughts for new writers on whether they should or shouldn’t use them? Or should they just use critique partners instead?
Lauren Carter: I don’t use any other readers or critique partners until I’m a few drafts in. My process is such that I need to live with the work in a very private space until I’m ready to share it. I’m not sure if this is good, maybe it’s not, maybe I’d get further if I shared at an earlier date, but that’s the way I’ve always worked and I think it allows the thing to gain muscle in its dreamy incubation stage. After that, the first person to read it is my mother, who’s an artist, and has a keen, precise, intelligent and unsentimental eye and will tell me directly what she thinks. Then, after a few more drafts, my husband might read it, changes will happen, and then it goes to my agent. For the novel currently on submission, I did something a bit different, though, and hired an editor who used to work for Harper Collins and who gave me some fantastic notes for Swarm back when it was making the rounds, and her insights and observations have helped improve the book immensely. I do believe that over-sharing a first draft can be extremely detrimental towards the process of finishing it and that in order to get it all out on the page, it’s better not to muddy the waters with a whole bunch of opinions but rather to stay true to whatever your story is in your heart of hearts. But after that, both writing groups and critique partners can be great in terms of improving the work, as long as the writer isn’t relying on them to figure out what revision is necessary but is also studying their own work and other novels and areas of craft where they might be getting stuck and—most important—trusting their instincts.
Lori Twining: How do you feel about rejection, now that you have been published in poetry, prose and in novel format? Do you ever experience self-doubt about the stories you write, now that you have had success in your writing?
Lauren Carter: Ha! You’re joking, right? I have coffee with my self-doubt every morning. What creative person doesn’t? Success, such as it is—one book or two books or twelve books (it’s very much a personal definition)—doesn’t change the fact that you’re always having to come at the task anew. The blank page is still the blank page. What changes, I think, is one’s level of self-confidence, the ability to trust your instincts, and the ability to keep going despite those feelings of self-doubt. And that’s what a steady, sturdy writing practice also gives you, even if you’ve never been published.
Lori Twining: Do you feel publishing poetry and short fiction in literary magazines would be considered a stepping-stone to publishing literary novels? Will you continue to publish pieces in journals or are you content to write novels and be a creativity coach to other writers instead?
Lauren Carter: Yes, it is definitely a stepping stone. Lots of publishers still want to see that you have a track record of getting work published in the literary mags before they’ll even consider you. I’ll hopefully continue to publish work in literary journals but I find that sending out submissions also eats into my strapped time. There are only so many hours in the day and these, lately, are largely taken up with working on books, coaching, building online courses, doing whatever else I need to do to bring in a large enough pay-cheque, not to mention walking the dog, knitting and making sure I get enough Netflix binge-watching (kidding-not-kidding).
Lori Twining: Lastly, do you have one important piece of advice for an emerging writer trying to publish their work in literary magazines or trying to win a literary writing contest?
Lauren Carter: Use rejection. It hurts, yes, and that needs to be accepted. But once you’ve felt it, and eaten the ice cream or the bag of salt and vinegar chips and given yourself a bit of extra TLC because of it, get back to the work. Take a look with fresh eyes. Revisit it, tweak it, explore the areas where you need to learn more about craft, dig in, make it better, turn the poem upside down or cut the story into pieces and spread it across your living room floor. Take on the challenge. Keep working, and find a way to manage any anxiety you’re feeling so that you can go back to your desk regularly enough that writing is your practice. Then, you’ll be nurturing the enjoyment of the task rather than letting the rejection and the anxiety win, and if you do this enough, your fear of the work will eventually be weaker than your love of the process and the meaning that writing brings to your life.
Lori Twining writes both fiction and nonfiction, with her stories winning awards in literary competition and appearing in Blank Spaces Canadian Literary Arts Magazine, as well as several anthologies. She’s a lover of books, sports and bird watching, and a hater of slithering reptiles and beady-eyed rodents. Visit her at www.lvtwriter.com.