5 Questions with an Established and Emerging Writer
By Chelene Knight
Authors Chelene Knight and Sophie Jai explore novel writing, community, and social media in the respective stages of their differing careers.
Chelene Knight is the author of Junie (2022), Dear Current Occupant (2018), and Braided Skin (2015).
Sophie Jai is the author of Wild Fires (2022)
Similarities, differences, commonalities. The writing and publishing process will always be an individual experience and here in this short interview, Chelene Knight and Sophie Jai lay it all out on the table!
How did you navigate plotting the book? Has it changed from your earlier methods?
Chelene: Plotting the book was likely the hardest part for me. I knew my characters, I could see them, hear them, smell them but I wasn’t sure what was meant to happen between them. It wasn’t until the relationship between my main character Junie and her mother Maddie started to explode on the page that I knew this was meant to be a journey of self, and exploration of self-defined love, all taking place in a world that unbeknownst to them would soon be swept away.
Sophie: I am a plotter, so not a “pantser”. I had the events of each chapter planned out and the reason for the events, so I didn’t stray too off course from how I wanted Wild Fires to play out. But straying off course is where the magic happens. Even in my diligent planning, I made U-turns and sharp left-and-rights. Things happened that weren't supposed to. I genuinely ended up surprising myself, and hopefully, the reader, too.
What was the editing process like?
Chelene: Editing is a beast of its own. I wrote at least 17 drafts of Junie with the help of my editor and my trusted first readers.I wanted to get the shape of the book right. I had all these ideas in my head in terms of the movement, flow, and evolution of the book and the reader experience was a huge part of this. It took a really long time. While editing, I was super nervous that this book would only appeal to those who could appreciate the shape and my intention behind trying to build a world shown through an introvert’s eyes, but it was the reassurance of my writerly community that helped me push through. Community is huge here because self doubt is something all writers face and friends, it never really goes away. So as writers we need to learn how to quiet the doubt and tell it to buzz off for a while, and my people helped me do that.
Sophie: In total, there were 4 or 5 drafts of Wild Fires. The book’s release date was delayed because of the pandemic, so I had an extra year of editing. It is certainly true that your story needs time to stew to taste. Imagine writers published the very first draft of their novel. Or, if there were some industry rule that you needed to let your book steep for a decade before publishing it. We would all be very bad or very good writers. Anyway, that one extra year I was given of constantly stepping away and back from the book matured it. The editing process is a collision of consciousnesses. It drove me crazy. It was almost enough to make me give up writing. But after editing came the feeling of surety and shape, and that is a very complete feeling.
What kind of community or support did you have around you while writing this book?
Chelene: I started the Forever Writers Club in 2021 and it’s part community space, part writing school, part wellness center. It’s in this space that I not only offer support and resources to writers but I also receive them. Although the space didn’t exist when I was deep into drafting the novel, I could probably sense it coming! It’s so important to know what you need as a writer because we are all so different. Sometimes we don’t even really know what we need until it shows itself and we need to be OK with that.
Sophie: Very little. Actually, I only had Chelene’s Breathing Space Creative (BSC). Family and friends supported me, but they didn’t know my inner turmoil. Only other writers could know. I came upon BSC by chance at exactly the time I needed it (and I do mean needed it). Chelene changed my approach to self-care during novel-writing. Writers, and artists in general, have a tendency to believe that to make great art is to suffer. I think that, too, to a degree. But that need not be the permanent state of novel writing. It could be that creative suffering is a way of holding on as a means of creative control - that, if you take your eye off the ball and relax a little bit, the whole work will fall apart. Not true. Step away. Walk. Go out. It’ll still be there when you get back, just as raw as you left it. Easier said than done, though.
How did you manage the pressures, stress, and “downsides” of writing?
Chelene: Oh the mindset work!! As the founder of Breathing Space Creative, managing these pressures and downsides .. that is the core of what we do which starts with building healthy, sustainable creative practices. So it takes a lot of planning in advance and focusing on the things that we have control over vs the things we don’t for creatives to prevent the stress and burnout. How we show up to events is a huge consideration. We HAVE control over this. To be honest, a lot of this work has to do with unlearning the stuff we see on TV and ditching old belief systems to make space for realistic goals and dreams. We as writers are emotional beings whether folks want to admit it or not. It takes strong emotion to create something. So knowing this, it can be hard to let go and to admit that maybe we need more help and support than we thought. I think publishers owe it to their authors to provide this kind of support and this is why I started Breathing Space Creative. It took a global pandemic for the industry to look at itself and see the burnout. Now that they’ve seen it, let’s see if they take action.
Sophie: I walked plenty. I had weekly calls with Chelene. I protected my writing space with orchids, eucalyptus, and a little heater to toast my toes. I positioned my desk to face Lake Ontario. Scalding showers proved fruitful. I took a vow to finish this thing. I took myself very seriously and did not let anyone mock or joke about something that wasn’t actually a thing yet. When those didn’t work, I slept a lot and ate terribly. I watched and re-watched RuPaul’s Drag Race and cried at only slightly emotional scenes. The days fluctuated between very good, good, neutral, bad, very bad.
In hindsight, now that your novel is done, what did you learn about yourself in the process?
Chelene: I learned that I can literally do whatever I want and that all it really takes is self trust, and the right mindset. I look back at the Chelene of 10 years ago and shake my head at her. Oh if only she could see herself now!! We can all grow if we choose to. Getting our minds healthy is the biggest factor here.
Sophie: Like Chelene says, I learned that I can do something if I put my mind to it, and that I am much stronger than I thought I was.
Do you think being active on social media helps you as an author?
Chelene: Social media can be a great way to promote your events and writerly happenings, but it can be a sore spot for many writers. It can contribute to burnout if you are not mindful. I personally pick one platform and work on a strategy of showing up inside of my best self, in other words, I use my personality as a through line. It makes showing up easier. We are already so visible as authors so it’s important to be strategic and also create a mandate or mission for how we want to create a social media balance. I legit made a video on this very thing. Ha! But I think it’s also important to start to build a healthy relationship with social media now. I look at following folks and brands that bring me joy. The Algorithm is a thing and this will help what shows up in my timeline. I unfollow folks who no longer align. No hard feelings either because I want to to feel like scrolling on Instagram is an act of relaxation and joy. It’s actually feeling like this now because of how curated my feed is.
Sophie: In terms of sales, social media doesn’t help with direct purchases (think about the amount of times you’ve bought a book from a social link because someone posts ‘Buy this’). Unless you’re a very established author with a loyal fan base, or you have a large following, depending on social media for sales is not realistic. But posting reminds people that your book is out there for when they’re thinking of their next read or in a bookstore.
In terms of actual social networking, Instagram and Twitter have introduced me to authors that become friends in real life. After events, it’s a good way to stay in touch without actually talking, ha. It’s also how organizations shout out their opportunities into the world. I found most of the life-changing opportunities on Twitter, shockingly.
It’s utterly cringy posting about your book and writing successes, especially if your book isn’t receiving a lot of marketing money. When I post, people sometimes reach out for events, talks, and media. So, I say to myself, suck it up, buttercup.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Chelene Knight is the author of the poetry collection Braided Skin and the memoir Dear Current Occupant, winner of the 2018 Vancouver Book Award. Her essays have appeared in multiple Canadian and American literary journals, plus the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Her work is anthologized in Making Room, Love Me True, Sustenance, The Summer Book, and Black Writers Matter.
The Toronto Star called Knight, “one of the storytellers we need most right now.” In addition to her work as a writer, Knight is managing editor at Room, programming director for the Growing Room Festival, and CEO of #LearnWritingEssentials. She often gives talks about home, belonging and belief, inclusivity, and community building through authentic storytelling.
Knight is currently working on Junie, a novel set in Vancouver’s Hogan’s Alley, forthcoming in 2020.