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Terry Fallis on how his best laid plans turned out better than planned

The Best Laid Plans original cover

My best laid plans for my first novel did not unfold as... umm... planned. The idea had been to write a hilarious yet tender side-splitter of a manuscript, send it out to a raft of agents, then sit back and preside over a feeding frenzy as combatants bludgeoned each other with ever-bigger bags of advance cash, till only one was left standing. Then my two sons would help me hoist the heavy loot-case into the back of our minivan so we could then laugh all the way to the bank.

Yeah, right. I just made all of that up. After all, I do write fiction.

The fact of the matter is, I never really had any expectation of ever being published. That is the truth.

Don't believe me? Would any sane wannabe writer who longed to see his novel on bookstore shelves have chosen to write about, wait for it, Canadian politics? Really? Imagine that line of thinking for just a moment.

Let's see. I want to be published and sell millions of books around the world, so I should write about something that transcends our national borders, that readers young and old can embrace, that is universally and unstintingly fascinating and exciting. You know, love, or war, or maybe the eternal struggle between good and evil, or that old chestnut, the meaning of life. Yes, any of those could work. Wait a minute! I've got it! Eureka! I'll write about Canadian politics! That's it!

See what I mean? Not bloody likely.

For me, writing a novel started out as a personal challenge to see whether I could actually string 100,000 words together in a way that somehow approached coherence. At that stage, when I'd not yet written a single word, suiting up for the Toronto Maple Leafs seemed more likely than ever being published. I confess I had no real idea how to go about writing a novel.

So I simply fell back on what I'd learned at university and laid out a "blueprint" for my novel, the way you might expect a lapsed engineer like me to tackle the task. It almost felt as if I were building a novel, not writing it. I mapped out the entire story, developed personality sketches and back stories for each of my characters, and wrote two or three pages of bullet points for each of the 20 chapters I'd planned.

My outline for The Best Laid Plans (TBLP) was 65 pages long. When I finished it, it almost felt as if I'd completed the novel itself, though still not one word of the manuscript was written.

Why this approach? It all had to do with efficiency. You see, I have a day job, and likely will for the foreseeable future. I'm co-founder of the PR and social media firm Thornley Fallis. So my time for writing novels tends to be limited to weekends. I figured if I didn't know exactly where I was going in the story, courtesy of my extensive outline, I'd end up meandering and rewriting endlessly. Knowing precisely how my story and characters would unfold allowed me to write quickly, sometimes even confidently.

When I finished the manuscript, I was so immersed in it that my sense of perspective deserted me. I had no idea whether the novel was worthy of anyone's time. Did the story hang together? Were the characters believable? Was it funny? Did it drag in places? I really didn't know.

Despite this, I barrelled ahead and sent out dozens and dozens of query letters, plot synopses and sample chapters to literary agents and publishers in Canada and the U.S. I followed up diligently, even aggressively.

The outcome? Rejection letters? I wish. I was greeted with a deafening silence. Undaunted (I was too naive to be deterred), I decided to build an audience for it on my own by podcasting the novel, and then self-publish it (gasp). So I did. Since then, it's been a publishing fairy-tale. My left arm is perpetually bruised from pinching myself every morning.

Winning the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, finally landing an agent (Beverley Slopen) and signing a publishing deal with McClelland & Stewart with Douglas Gibson as my editor all happened in a four-week span. I was reeling from it all and felt as if I'd exhausted my lifetime allocation of good fortune. But Canada Reads proved me wrong.

The Canada Reads journey so far has been simply unbelievable. This novel seems to have horseshoes...somewhere between the covers. It has been wonderful to meet and spend time with my fellow finalists and their devoted defenders. They are all amazing writers who deserve to be read. I've thoroughly enjoyed their books and know that we'll all be seeing more from them. Of course the late Carol Shields has left such a rich literary legacy that her works will be enthralling readers for generations.

So what does it all mean? Well, as far as I'm concerned, being one of the finalists is such an honour and privilege that it really doesn't matter what happens in February. Of course, something tells me my very focused and talented defender, CNN's Ali Velshi, doesn't quite see it that way. After spending time with Ali, I recognize that he's clearly in it to win. So I'll be getting out of his way as he prepares for battle.

In the meantime, thousands of new readers are getting to know my characters, learning a bit about democracy in Canada and, I hope, having a laugh or two along the way. I know my fellow Top 5 authors are thrilled to be part of this odyssey, but Canada Reads may never have had a more grateful finalist than I.

Did you miss Terry on The Next Chapter? Listen to his conversation with Shelagh Rogers here.

Join us for a live chat with Terry on Thursday, January 13, at 2 p.m. ET.

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