So you want to write a book

“You should write a book!” How often have you said or heard that? Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone seems to know a master storyteller, especially on the East Coast. But spinning a yarn is more akin to threading a needle, compared to the long, dedicated work of weaving an intricate tapestry that is an actual book. Getting published is another mystery to navigate and daunting enough that most don’t dare even try.
MFA students hard at work.

Halifax’s University of King’s College is home to a unique program designed to guide professional and novice writers through the process of becoming a bona fide book author. Since its inception in 2013, King’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction has focused the artistic vision of roughly 100 students, many of whom hail from Atlantic Canada. Of the students and graduates to date, 30% have published or secured book contracts with regional or national publishers, evidence of the broad appeal of East Coast nonfiction to national and international audiences, and a testament to the deep well of creative talent in our region.  

RC Shaw, Cow Bay-based teacher and author of Louisbourg or Bust (Pottersfield Press), and Jennifer Thornhill Verma, originally from Newfoundland and author of Cod Collapse: The Rise and Fall of Newfoundland’s Saltwater Cowboys (Nimbus), are two graduates whose work reflects Atlantic Canadian themes that resonate with readers well beyond our region. Shaw says those themes often reflect a reverence of place, but they are also as diverse as the genre of nonfiction itself, and include memoir, history, biography, true crime, journalistic investigation or business treatise. 

Over the program’s two years of intensive writing, feedback and revising, the stories that unfold are often not the same as the students’ original project ideas. A year into the program, Shaw’s book evolved from an historical look at the Nova Scotia surfing scene to a Bill Bryson-esque travel quest, relatable to Canadian adventurers from coast to coast. Thornhill Verma’s project morphed from a National Magazine Award-winning journalistic piece in Maisonneuve to a book-length account of the causes and effects of Newfoundland’s cod collapse, incorporating extensive research as well as memoir.

The MFA program focuses on refining ideas and strengthening writing and storytelling skills, but it also concentrates on the business of authorship, demystifying the book industry by exposing students to agents, editors and publishers. 

Dr. Gillian Turnbull, a 2017 graduate and author of Sonic Booms: Making Music in an Oil Town (Eternal Cavalier Press), says that a combination of craft and business is key to success, though she and her classmates were initially resistant to the latter. “We all wanted to become better writers, and we were getting a lot of information about all this stuff that at the time we felt was detracting from craft.” However, Turnbull says, students quickly realized becoming an author is not just about being a good writer; it’s about navigating the publishing world, including how to market a book, how to pitch to publishers and how to create a social media platform. 

Kim Pittaway, Executive Director of the program, emphasizes that even if students are uninterested in the business end of authorship, such as contracts and marketing, “they at least need to be equipped to not get taken advantage of.”  

The program cultivates partnerships with the Atlantic region’s publishing community, and students’ industry savvy from participation in the local publishing ecosystem is complemented by highly polished book proposals, a requirement for graduation and magnets for publishing houses that don’t have the resources to devote to editorial input.

The critical input comes from the MFA program mentors—professional writers from across Canada and beyond—recruited not just for their impressive publishing credits, but also their ability to teach. Each mentor is a teaching superstar, Pittaway proudly attests, and brings out the best in students’ writing. 

Halifax-based journalist Pauline Dakin, MFA alum and award-winning author of Run, Hide, Repeat (Viking), found the mentorship offered a safe space to explore difficult subject matter while honing her veteran writing skills. Verma and Shaw also note the invaluable support and expert critique of their mentors. Extending beyond the program, instructors, mentors and alumni have created a nation-wide community of supportive writing colleagues. Such bonds keep the writing energy flowing long after graduation. 

Everyone has a story to tell, and with the direction of the King’s MFA program, the daunting task of putting ideas to paper—or keyboard—is more achievable. The fusion of writing ability, expert tutelage and industry savvy is the alchemy of success for Atlantic authors-to-be to transform their passion projects into published works. Maybe you should write a book! 

Refining Ideas from Ore to Pure Gold

One of the most valuable aspects of the King’s MFA nonfiction program is the team of award-winning professional writers who guide students through the creation of their manuscripts. Students are matched with one mentor in their first year, a second one in the first semester of their second year, and in their final winter term, they can request either of their previous mentors or opt for a third. Executive Director Kim Pittaway, says, “We are deeply committed to the strength of the teaching and encourage students to work with as many mentors as possible. The more approaches they are exposed to, the better to help shape their work.”

Students create an individual contract of deliverables with their assigned mentor and receive detailed feedback on their writing, but they also have access to the entire teaching team throughout their coursework, and during residency workshops. Discussion and revisions generally occur over Skype or email as mentors are scattered geographically. Each mentor has both broad and specific skillsets they share with students. “I felt really lucky in my trajectory of mentors,” says Ryan Shaw. “Ken McGoogan is a master of structure, and Lori May is amazing for crafting dialogue, and both are industry pros. Lorri Nielsen Glenn encouraged me to write more lyrically.” Pauline Dakin had the same mentors in different years and echoed that evaluation. “Ken was brilliant on structure. He simplified things for me so it wasn’t so overwhelming. Lori May gave me incredibly detailed line-by-line feedback, and I chose Lorri Neilsen Glenn because I wanted the story to be literate and lyrical.”

Mentors themselves find their job more than rewarding. Harry Thurston, poet and award-winning author of more than two dozen books, who mentors from Portugal during the winter months, says, “What is most gratifying to me, and I think the largest part of the job, is to help people find their own voice or write in a way that feels natural to them. We try to teach elements of the craft and that’s important, but for me, it’s shepherding that writer, guiding them to a point where they’re writing in a voice that’s closest to them and what they can bring to the page.” He also learns much from his students. “Mentoring is a two-way street. Many of the writers in the program are accomplished before they enter the program, so I am learning from them. I see it as a peer relationship.” Dr. Gillian Turnbull, an adjunct professor at Ryerson who began mentoring this summer agrees. “I approach mentorship always as a student myself. I can teach them something about writing, but they’re going to teach me so much about the worlds that they’ve occupied. I expect feedback and to refine my techniques constantly, which is important as a teacher.”

In recognition that it can be challenging for writers from marginalized backgrounds to gain teaching experience, a Mentor Apprentice position was created in 2018. Kim Pittaway says the position is “helping us expand the conversations, and consider issues from broader angles in ways that are hugely valuable to other mentors and students alike.”  Wanda Taylor, author of It’s Our Time: A History of the Preston Township(Nimbus 2019) and acquisitions editor for Formac, was the first Mentor Apprentice. She shadowed a senior mentor, provided feedback on students’ work, and presented a lecture about writing across cultures during the New York residency. Taylor, who will be a full-time mentor this year, says, “People automatically assume when you say the word ‘culture’ that you’re talking about someone’s race, but it goes so much further than that. Just creating awareness when you are writing, what you are leaving out, who you are including, they are all elements of culture. So, as a mentor, my job will be to help new writers push beyond those boundaries of what we’ve been enculturated and look at them in relation to their writing.”

From the lode of talent entering the King’s MFA, mentors are instrumental in the production of 24 carat writing, and Taylor says the quality keeps getting higher. “Every year the MFA program keeps getting stronger; they’re always improving, always looking at diversity and how they can make a better experience for students.”

Written By

Kimberley Hicks is a teacher, editor and writer. Her work has appeared in Today’s Parent, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail and Saltscapes Magazine. She works as a communications course editor at Saint Mary’s University.

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