Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

All Is Revealed

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A note I received at writing camp. Kind of ominous don't you think?

This is my last blog as Writer in Residence for Open Book Toronto. That's kind of sad. So as I exit the stage I thought I'd give all of you a chance to get to know me better. So I ask for questions and I got them, some more coherent than others. I will do my utmost to answer them all. So here we go with a peek into the mind of Kim Firmston (hold on tight, it's going to be a bumpy ride). Oh, and don't mind the Do Not Push buttons. If you leave them alone all will be well. If you touch them - well, let's just say, you've been warned. . .

What do you do when you're stuck for writing inspiration?

I actually never get stuck for inspiration. I regularly carry around five complete novels in my head, along with some partial ones, and a few short stories, plays, comics, animation, and jokes. But when I am hit with the old Write a one act play in two hours thing, as I did recently for C4, I think of the craziest, most upside-down way I can think of a topic and write about that. I love to turn normal things on their heads and examine them in a way no one has ever done before.

How is the direction your writing is taking now different from what you thought it would be 5, 10, 15 years ago?

I remember when I was nineteen or twenty. I said to my friends, imagine how good I'll be when I'm forty. When I'm forty, I'm going to kick butt at this writing stuff. My first book was published in my fortieth year.

Fifteen years ago I had almost given up on writing. It was fun but I was completely focused on teaching young kids to read and write through a day home I ran. I had a book sitting in my closet, but it had been rejected loads of times and this publishing thing seemed too hard, so I didn't see much future in it. I thought my writing was in my past.

Ten years ago I hooked up with the Alexandra Writers' Centre Society. I had found my Boiled Cat manuscript and read it through. It was good and the fire was stoked once more. I started trying to get published. Again I was met with rejection after rejection - but I took classes and kept trying. I decided I wanted to be a famous writer.

Five years ago, I was worn out. I felt like I would never make it over the threshold of publishing. But I had gotten into teaching writing to kids by then though and was having a blast with that. At that point I was hungry to be published but at the same time I was really inspired to shake up the whole writing education thing. But yeah, at that point, all I thought about was getting my work into print and I kept coming so close - only to be rejected on the doorstep. I was pretty frustrated.

The thing that kept me going was thinking about numbers. If publishers generally only look at one to two per cent of the manuscripts they receive I had to be rejected about ninety-eight times to get in the door. And then I had to do that probably about another ninety-eight times to get accepted. So, in my thinking, every rejection got me closer to getting published. That thinking took the sting out of rejection. Mostly anyway. I still sulked a great deal.

Now, my free plays on my website have been produced in both America and Canada numerous times, I have five books published. I've tasted both traditional publishing and self-publishing. I've had three plays in the Calgary Fringe Festival. I run a kids' writing organization, teach a four writing camps (run two of them). And now I'm about to start some new projects as well as pick up on some projects I've had stored away. I'll be pitching to various publishers and agents. There will be loads of rejections I'm sure. And it will still sting. But if I want to be published then that's what I have to do. Just getting into the publishing industry is no guarantee of success, hard work is though, and I am very good at working hard.

What is something that was harder than you thought it would be, and something that was easier than you thought it would be?

Hmmm, harder would be all the stuff that happens after the publisher says, "We'll take your novel". There is so much work that happens after that stage. I remember getting my first major set of edits and thinking - how the heck do I do this. I felt sick, I had a sore stomach, I cried a few times. I was so worried the publisher would think I was some kind of rank amateur, which is what I felt like, and rip up my contract - so I didn't ask for help. I figured it out eventually, and my editor, Carrie Gleason, was super patient, but that was hard. It still is one of the hardest things for me, I dread those first set of edit notes.

Easier would have to be getting into teaching kids. As my child got older and started going to school I decided I wanted to do more than just write. I've always taught kids. First it was in day care, then I became a nanny, and later started a day home. When I was pregnant I volunteered as a docent at Fort Calgary to keep me occupied. So I decided I wanted to teach writing (or really anything). I put out a pamphlet and soon I had a home school kid to teach. Then another. Then I was asked to teach at the school in their new after school program where I taught a ton of different subjects from science, to crafts, to sports, to writing. That led to local summer camps and teaching the local girl guides play writing and production. Then I was asked to go to WordsWorth and things took off from there. It all neatly fell into place. That doesn't mean I haven't worked hard to get to where I am, it just means that no real barriers fell in my way. And that is so awesome.

How much time do you spend doing research when you write a novel? Your writing truly exemplifies expertise in the subject matter you are writing about. It is very impressive to the reader!

Thanks for the compliment! It depends on the novel but I usually devote about a month to research and plotting before I write a book. Then, as I write, I'll research on the fly if I run into something I don't know or don't understand. I also like to interview people if I am working on something I know nothing about. But usually I do books about things that I have either tried or I have watched. Like Touch, my daughter and I were trying to learn coding and robot building while I was writing that. It ended badly. She managed to burn her hair with the soldering iron and we accidentally wrote a code which filled the computer screen with kittens. So much for my master plan to be a video game designer. I ended up meeting a guy, Don Owen, in a sci-fi writing class I was taking who worked in the field and he helped out with the tech stuff. I couldn't have written the book with out him.

What is the meaning of life?

Other than the obvious answer I would have to say, the meaning of life is to have fun, try new things, and value your time on this planet. Become immortal by helping others so that your ideas and values get carried down the line. We don't know what comes after all this, if anything, so roll down the window, let your tongue hang out, and enjoy the ride.

Are cats actually plotting to destroy the world?

Cats might be plotting but they do it in their sleep and since they sleep twelve to sixteen hours a day and have hardly any thumbs, I think we are all safe.

Is a vague yet menacing government agency always watching us?

A vague yet possibly incompetent government is trying to watch us. Just wear your tinfoil hat and you'll be safe. You can even decorate it.

All hail the Glow Cloud?

All hail the Glow Cloud.

On a scale of one to ten, how insane are you?

I don't think a numerical scale could measure my type of insanity.

Do you write a lot of fan fictions?

I actually have never written fan fiction. I've always loved creating characters so I find using stuff which has already been created stifling. I can see why people love it though. I've often thought about what could happen in a series I follow, I just don't write it. I have too much of my own stuff to produce.

Where do you get the inspiration for your writing?

There's not too much that doesn't give me inspiration. I once wrote a book based on the crap in my basement. It was called The La-Z-Boy War. The premise was that Canada decides to go to war with countries who have pissed it off with petty things, (like banning a certain type of Canadian pen because the blue ink doesn't show up on computer scanners) but because of budget cuts, Canada has no weapons. So they resort to dropping basement crap and stuff from garages on the offending countries. For my latest book, Stupid, what inspired me was the way the shadows and light were playing off of the buildings at the old brewery down the road. Seriously, I get inspired by the weirdest things.

Would you forget your head if it weren't attached to your body?

I lose things a lot. I always find them again, but there is the daily hunt for the house keys and my wallet, my glasses, my satchel, etc. So I am very glad I don't also have to hunt for my head.

Do you know anyone from Jupiter or Mars?

I have often thought my character, Will, from Boiled Cat could possibly have come from Mars. But real people? Not at the moment. Perhaps we came from Mars in the distant past - or at least some of our biologic material.

Are YOU from Jupiter or Mars?

Maybe.

Do you have arguments with yourself regularly?

All the time. When I make big decisions I argue with myself until I'm sure I'm doing the right thing. I'm always kind of afraid I'm going to mess something up and I hate that. I also regularly argue with my characters - they never listen to my plotting.

Do keyboards hate you?

Either my fingers or my keyboard. I'm constantly off by a letter and happily typing away only to look up and find I've written in gibberish.

Approximately how long does it take you to write a book?

That depends on the book. My SideStreets novels take about six months to write from beginning to end. If I'm focused I can whip off a seventy thousand word book in three months, but then comes editing. Boiled Cat took about fifteen years of writing, sitting, editing, sitting, more editing, etc. before it was ready to meet the world.

When is your next book coming out?

Stupid is coming out March 1, 2014. You can pre-order it now though. It's going to be a really cool book. A bunch of people in the Calgary Parkour community helped me out with the research as well as Robin Bowering, who helped with the movie making stuff. Robin is just thirteen years old and really amazing.

When you write a book do you start with a character or an issue?

Again it depends on the book. With Boiled Cat I started with my character Thrash and the other characters in the band and built a story around them. With Hook Up I wanted to look at teen pregnancy from the boy's perspective, especially if the boy was the one not into abortion and the girl was. Stupid came from the character of Martin, a film maker with dyslexia and Stick, a parkour kid. I put the two characters together and watched them interact, what came out was an amazing story.

What projects are you working on now?

In the near future I'm going to re-write a sci-fi, action adventure, YA trilogy I've been working on for a number of years. I've learned so much about writing since being published I think I can now make the trilogy good enough to finally get an agent. Already the series has come close to scoring a deal, so now I just have to polish it enough to get it over that last hurdle. I'm also going to go back to trying to sell my beginner chapter book, How to Be a Super Villain. It's kind of like Franny K. Stein meets Despicable Me. I'm also helping plan a youth writing retreat called, Drink the Wild Air, working on a new animation, and planning some exciting new projects for my youth writing club.

How much publishing experience did you have when you published your first novel? That is: in order to publish your first novel through tradition publishing methods, did you have to get short stories published first?

I had two short stories published before I published my first novel. I also had some plays produced. Really I don't think that had a lot to do with Lorimer picking up Schizo. There are a lot of Canadian publishers who will pick up first time authors. You just have to be good and be able to work with them. The fact that I would say yes to nearly every edit just to see where it would lead not only made the editor's job easier but in turn made my novel better. I learned a lot by working with the editors at Lorimer. I think if your work is good enough and your not all ego, you have a good chance of getting in the door. And just by trying to get into the door, your work will become better. I don't think it has to be one before the other. Plus I'm not a stellar short story writer. I feel way more comfortable with novels. I don't think one necessarily equates to the other.

Would you rather be famous for your writing or your teaching?

Can I have both? That's a tough one but I think in the end I would be happy being known as a phenomenal writing teacher. I would love it if my methods ended up changing the way writing (or anything) is taught to kids. And it would be nice if those kids then read my writing. See - both!

THANK YOU OPEN BOOK TORONTO! As I said, this is my last post. After today you get to enjoy the insights of Elizabeth MacLeod.

Much thanks to all the people who let me pick their brains for your entertainment. Also a huge thank you to Clelia Scala for setting all this up and walking me through the process. And a big thanks to all you question askers and readers. With out you - well, I'd be talking to myself wouldn't I? And that would just be sad.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Kim Firmston

Kim Firmston is a writer and creative writing instructor in Calgary. Her teen novels Schizo and Hook Up were Canadian Children's Book Centre Best Bet Selections. Her short story "Life Before War" was shortlisted for the 2008 CBC Literary Awards. Her most recent novel for teens is Touch, about a teenage hacker with a troubled family life.

Go to Kim Firmston’s Author Page