Last month I had the opportunity to ask author/dynamo Genni Gunn a question I’ve long been pondering: How does she do it?  She’s a writer of literary fiction, a teacher, singer, musician and translator. I think you get the picture.

Genni has just published her latest novel, Solitaria, with Signature Editions. As “Author of the Month” she was available for an on-line dialogue—so I pounced. I found what she had to say both inspiring and enlightening.

How do you balance writing, teaching and all the other things you do? In short: how DO you do it?

First of all, for context, let me say that I am the type of person who could never do one thing only. No matter how much I protest (weakly) that I have too much to do, the fact is that I thrive on activity and challenge. So I am constantly taking on new ventures, thinking up new projects, saying yes to everything, and then figuring out how to do it all.

So, that said, how do I balance it all?

My main activities are writing (and this entails a variety of projects and genres), teaching creative writing, manuscript evaluation and editing, and various other interests and pursuits which include lectures, readings, consulting, and promotional tours. I tend to think of these activities as falling into three categories: 1) the writing; 2) the teaching; and 3) everything else. Two of these categories are linked to time slots, which themselves create a good balance: September to December, I teach creative writing half-time at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, and January to September, I consider my writing months. Of course, there’s a whole life and a lot of travel to fit into those same twelve months.

In practical terms: during my four-month semester, I devote all my energy to teaching. I have a full load – four courses – and that pretty well takes up all my head space. However, I usually find time to do peripheral activities while I’m teaching. For example, I might evaluate a couple of manuscripts, give readings, or help fundraise for a writerly cause. I don’t try to write, because I want to have all my energies fresh for students who I very much enjoy teaching and mentoring.

During the rest of the year, which I consider my writing time, I have to really discipline myself to remain sitting at my desk.  When working on a novel, I give myself a three-page a day minimum, and this works very well for me. Once I’m done my three pages, I can go do something else. Meantime, three pages a day, five days a week for, say, six months (notice I’ve realistically reduced the writing period by two months) would produce three-hundred and sixty pages of something that might approximate a draft. I consider reading and research part of my writing day, and if I have nothing to write, I still sit at my desk and read and research and make notes (at least three pages of them).

Of course, I rarely focus only on one writing project (unless I’m at the editing stage). I might be writing a novel, but I’m also fitting in a story here, a couple of poems there, a travel piece, and a lot of research about everything.

The main thing I DO, I think, is to prioritize everything – often with lists that I take great pleasure ripping up when complete. That way, everything gets done when it’s due. What works for me is to focus on something for many hours at a stretch. I can easily work from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. if I’m engaged in something. I don’t like to leave things unfinished. I have an intuitive sense about how long a project will take – and this is simply experience, I’m sure – so I complete projects to deadlines.

(Don’t you love that word “deadline”? It’s either ‘a guideline on the bed of a printing press, beyond which text will not print’; or a line drawn around a military prison during the Civil War, beyond which soldiers were authorized to shoot escaping prisoners.)

When I think of deadlines, I prefer the implied threat of the latter, though text that will not print is almost as intimidating. And if I don’t have a deadline, I draw one, so that nothing will escape.

I’ve always wondered about the origin of the word deadline. How perfectly apt.

I find setting so many words-per-day forward works well for a first draft, for me, but I flounder, a bit, on the many revisions. Do you have a way to measure (and check off) revised pages?

Also, do you aim to have a draft in a put-aside state before your teaching break? I imagine that that break works well in terms of getting perspective on the draft. 

I wish I could tell you that I have an organized method to get to the revisions, but I don’t. Generally, though, I find the first draft is the hardest to get through from beginning to end. Once I have that, I tend to work systematically for the next draft. I will do a variety of passes for different things. So, for example, in the early stages, I might concentrate only on structure. In Solitaria, at one point, I deconstructed the entire novel into scenes, then reassembled them in a new order, with a new focus in mind. Once structure is in place, I will do a re-read, and mark as I go where I need to add scenes, expand on scenes, or deepen character, etc. Then I go about doing each of those things until I have a new draft. Then I re-read again, looking for something else, perhaps to thicken the setting, keeping in mind the metaphoric properties of it, etc. So it really is a process that evolves as I go. I do find, however, that once I’ve got that first draft, the real work begins, and the real play too. This is the part I love.

Re the second question: I do aim to have a draft in a put-aside state, because you’re quite right, reading that draft four months later really does give me a clean perspective.

I imagine you must have an interesting process too, given all the impeccable historical research in your work.

I love the idea of going through a draft with one thing in mind, Genni.

I reread with pencil in hand, make the revisions on computer, reread/edit again, make the revisions again, over and over (and over!) again. It’s like clearing rocks from a field: with every two rocks I take away, another one comes up. Eventually, I’m not making so many edits when I read it through.

I’m amazed by your deconstruction/reconstruction of your last novel.

What do you start with? Do you outline? For the novel I’m writing now, I was determined not to take 8 years, so I started with a scene by scene “outline” (@ From Where you Dream, by Robert Olen Butler). It was a big help getting through the first draft, but it’s still taking me years. I don’t think there’s any way around it.

What a great metaphor, about clearing the rocks from a field, especially given that in Solitaria, that’s what the father does day in and day out. It’s that part of Italy where rocks are constantly surfacing in fields, and need to be cleared (I thought I’d read somewhere that these rocks floated to the surface – an image I really love – but now I can’t find any documentation to back this). Nevertheless, yes, that’s exactly what we do in revisions!

As to the actual process – outline or not? – what I’ve found is that despite the fact that I think it will be easier with each novel, it actually isn’t. My sense is that each story requires a different method. So what worked in one, won’t necessarily work in another.

I tend to begin with an idea – so I know what the point of the novel is when I begin writing. I also know the ending of the novel, not the particulars of plot, but the general large, what-am-I-trying-to-say kind of ending. So, for example, in choosing the theme of abandonment (as I did in Tracing Iris), I wanted to explore the effects of abandonment on memory and our perception of ourselves. That wasn’t going to make a story, obviously, because it was an abstract idea. However, I thought about it for a long time, then I did a lot of research around the topic of not only abandonment, but extinction and survival – which seemed very related to me. Eventually, a story emerged that could carry my exploration.

At a certain point in the process, I do make a very broad outline – I think of it as a map of the novel’s journey. This map has a final destination marked on it, and whatever stops-of-interest (scenes) I have already conceived along the way. And once I begin writing, this map grows and changes, though the final destination remains the same – and by this, I only mean in the idea of it, not in the way it arrives at the ending.

Sometimes I even draw my map on graph paper, to give me a visual sense. I might assign each character a different coloured pen, and see how the character orchestration is working. This was a trick I learned while writing the opera libretto, because you can’t bring someone onstage and have them just stand there without doing anything; as well, you can’t hire a singer for a huge sum of money, and then have that singer offstage for half the opera. So character orchestration is a very vivid, vibrant thing in live theatre, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be in novels too.

Ah, that rocky realm. We actually live in such a place. I adore the image of the rocks floating to the surface.

I know it’s often said that writing never gets easier, but something in me refuses to give up hope. I’m now at that familiar point: “This Is Too Hard, It Will Never Work, I Should Give Up Writing Novels.” You know? (Perseverance!)

I think you’re right, each story requires a different approach. If only the story would tell us.

I like your map concept, and especially the coloured pen graphs. I just took a character out, and doing so brought another into vivid focus. My current cast is far, far too big—a problem with historically-based fiction.

How do you guide your students to revise?

I know those moments too well, yet I also know that they’re necessary to keep me revising and re-envisioning until everything feels just right.

Regarding revisions for students: this is tougher to do with the first-and second-year students, who are madly in love with their own words. But we do workshop in class, and they’re required to revise, although some do only a light edit. The third-and fourth-year students, however, are very keen to revise. I bring in lots of material on revision to help them re-envision their work. One of the things I’ve been doing with the upper grades is an interesting exercise in focus. We take one page of each of their stories (I make copies for everyone), then we go sentence by sentence, or paragraph by paragraph to see what we can remove and still keep the sense, mood, style, etc. In other words, what can we remove that is unnecessary? This produces hilarious results – sometimes a whole page is distilled into one sentence. Other times, the writing suddenly intensifies. At best, what this exercise does is to make young writers aware of the actual language, the sentence construction, the unnecessary words we use in speech, etc. In the end, students revise at their own rate. I often think about how we have writing courses that span three or four months, yet the absorption rate for this kind of learning is much much longer. It’s one thing to understand something intellectually, and another to actually be able to apply it.

This has been a great conversation. Thank you so much!

Be sure to read Solitaria—I’m reading it now and enjoying it very much. Here’s the wonderful book trailer to tempt you: