Books·Magic 8 Q&A

Sarah Selecky's advice to aspiring writers? 'Write what you want to read'

The author of Radiant Shimmering Light answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.
Radiant Shimmering Light is Sarah Selecky's first novel. (HarperCollins/Johnny CY Lam)

Radiant Shimmering Light follows two very different cousins — shy, underemployed Lilian Quick and enigmatic, internet-famous Eleven Novak (formerly known as Florence). Though the two haven't spoken in two decades due to a family rift, Eleven offers Lilian a spot in her exclusive Ascendency program, which promises its trainees spiritual awakening and empowerment. As Lilian achieves all that she envies about her cousin, she begins to question the program's true motives. Radiant Shimmering Light is Sarah Selecky's first novel. Her previous book, This Cake Is for the Partya short story collection, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2010.

Below, Selecky takes the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answers eight questions from eight fellow writers.

1. Sharon Butala asks, "What is the main question that you wish somebody would ask you, although nobody ever has?"

I've never been asked about the magical thinking/uncanny coincidences that happen when you're deep into your writing, although I know many writers experience this. I think it has to do with how receptive you are in the writing process. You're so tuned in, looking at every detail, laying down and picking up clues as you write. Eventually the real world begins to interact with your fictional world in strange ways. I'd love to hear other writers talk about their experiences with this sort of thing.

2. Lorna Crozier asks, "If you could come back as a musician, what area of music would you choose, and are you secretly a songwriter and if so, what is your song about?"

I would come back as a pianist. I've always wished that I could play the piano and sing my heart out at the same time. Ahh! I'd love to play a big, beautiful grand piano. Sigh.

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3. Susan Juby asks, "What do you tell new writers about the economics of being a writer? Are you a hope-giver or a hope-dasher?"

I'm a hope-giver. I do tell new writers the truth about the money I've made from publishing fiction, but without imbuing it with disappointment. It just is what it is. I never expected to make a living as a writer — I just wanted to live a life and be a writer. I've always taken different kinds of interesting jobs to pay the rent. I explain to new writers that I'm devoted to my work as a teacher and an ambassador for my online writing school now because that's how I can make a more reliable income, doing something I love. 

4. Jeff Latosik asks, "How can writers get better at accepting rejection and critical feedback?"

Give yourself to your writing. Love it. Find joy in the process. You can't ever know if your work is objectively good or not good. It can only be something you feel right about or don't feel right about, and that's subjective. When you love your writing, you feel right about it. Then rejection doesn't sting as much. It can feel more puzzling than hurtful. More like, "Huh? You don't want this? Why?"

If you allow other people's opinion to be the authority on your own work, you're setting yourself up for a creative crisis. So write what you want to read. Because then you can feel curious about what other people think, but you won't depend on their feedback for validation. 

When receiving critique, it's also good to remember that people are always projecting. We can't help it! So a person's opinion about your work, whether positive or negative, always says something about them. You can be curious about that, too. 

5. Esi Edugyan asks, "Some years ago I read a piece about discussions going in the world of chess as to whether chess playing could be called a sport, given the enormous physical stamina required to sit for so many hours in silent thought. Writing asks a similar physical discipline. What exercise (or otherwise) do you do to counteract the hours of stillness? Do you write standing up, or use a treadmill desk? What physical activity do you do?"

This is a great question. When I started having back trouble, I actually asked Katy Bowman, an author and biomechanist, how she writes her books. She answered with this post: Be a Writer Who Moves, a Mover Who Writes

You know how sitting became the new smoking? Well, apparently standing is the new sitting. The key is to move in a variety of different ways throughout the day. I try to write away from my desk whenever possible — I write on the floor lying on my belly, I write while kneeling up to a makeshift floor desk (a cardboard box). I also have a standing desk. I try my best to move around a lot through the day. I take dance breaks. I also do workout DVDs — I'm a big Jillian Michaels fan. In the warm months, I run outside. It's never enough. I wish I could move more and still be a writer. 

6. Nathan Ripley asks, "Do you read as much as you used to when you were 20? If not, why? If so, why?"

I probably read almost as much as I used to when I was 20. Maybe less, because now I have more life management tasks crowding my time. But I'll still go to the library, come out with an armful of books and race myself to finish them all by the due date. I have five or six books on the go at any time — that's always what it's been like for me.

If the amount of my reading hasn't changed significantly, what has changed is how far I'm willing to go if I don't love a book right away. I give books less time to grab me now: I want to feel totally engaged by page 30. I used to finish every book I started! I don't do that anymore. Life is too short to finish a book I don't love. Or maybe having a smartphone has eroded my attention span. 

7. Kevin Chong asks, "How have big life changes (marriage, divorce, kids, family deaths) changed your writing?"

I let those occasions into my writing. For example, I'll put a special date in a story or describe something about a character in memoriam. Life experiences like births and deaths mark my fiction the way other people mark life experiences on their bodies with tattoos. 

That's just how I honour an experience, though. Making meaning of those changes isn't an efficient (or linear!) process. Writing is how I understand change, and I'm always writing to find meaning. But it takes me a long time to digest an experience. I circle and circle around it. There are certain emotions that I still haven't faced in my writing because they're not ready to be written, yet. They're ripening. It takes as long as it takes. 

8. S.K. Ali asks, "What does your outlining process look like?"

I like to write toward the unknown; I've never outlined a short story. But when I was writing my novel, I would have lost myself in the unknown without an outline.

I used three pieces of card stock — one for the beginning, middle and end of my book — and I put little sticky notes on those pages with milestone scenes on them. Then I could keep track of where I was in the story, and always know what had just happened, and what I was writing towards. Sometimes those milestones moved, or changed entirely — that's why the sticky notes. They're disposable and moveable. But the rough outline helped me see the overview of the whole book at once, so I felt slightly more in control.