The Writers’ Way

Jennifer Kierans Graphics Alex Manley
Nick McArthur. Graphics Alex Manley
Gillian Sze Graphics Alex Manley

Someone once said that the first job of a writer is to give their work away—which sounds like a pretty bad business model, now that I think about it.

It’s a poorly written cliché that writers struggle with their art, and when they’re not jamming their heads against the keyboard in frustration, they’re having just as pleasant a time at finding a steady source of income.

Challenging those misconceptions is Concordia’s Writers Read series, which on Oct. 21 will hold it’s annual Alumni Writers Read and Reflect panel, featuring authors who’ve made it in the writing biz.

The price is right

Nick McArthur, whose first book of short stories entitled Short Accounts of Tragic Occurrences was published in 2008 by DC Press, has found most of his post-graduate work in a somewhat less literary field: video games.

“You take whatever job’s available to you a lot of the time because you need to pay bills,” said McArthur—even if that job is cataloguing synonyms and antonyms forty hours a week for months at a time, as he once found himself doing.

“Ultimately, any job of that kind I think is going to be better than flipping burgers or mopping up someone else’s urine.”
Crafting dialogue for a The Price is Right video game may sound a lot like selling out, but if it means being able to work from home and spend more time on your own writing, it can be a gift.

Most jobs for new writers tend to be short-term and full-time, he said. Almost immediately following graduation, McArthur got a job at a Montreal-based Internet start-up called Xtranormal. The concept behind the company’s software was that users could generate their own animated videos simply by writing dialogue and choosing their avatars. To sell the concept, they hired McArthur and other post-graduates to write comedy scripts.

Writing five scripts a week helped teach him discipline as a writer, while also giving him time to work on his first book.
“I would say if you’re trying to find freelance work as a writer, don’t even bother going to Craigslist,” said McArthur, who prefers placesforwriters .com, or more dedicated job search sites like

“You’re going to find a large pool of available jobs, but none of them are going to be worth your while. I think anything where you’re not getting paid immediately for your work, anything where someone is promising you a share of profits or anything like that, I would not bother with. You can Google whoever your prospective employer is and make sure that they’re reputable and you’re actually going to get paid.”

Ms. En Scène

Although Jennifer Kierans finds the most fulfilling part of being a filmmaker to be writing, she’s had to add director and producer to her credits to see most of her screenplays to fruition, jobs she’d still rather leave to someone else.

But if it’s taught her anything about her craft, it’s the challenges of adapting the work of a screenwriter.

“Even though it seems like you’re visualizing everything as you’re writing, when you’re actually faced with the practical reality of shooting a scene, it’s quite different, and often not what you visualized at all,” said Kierans, who received her Masters in 2008. “And sometimes you regret that, and sometimes it’s actually better than you visualized when you were writing.”

Having her first short film entered into the Cannes film festival helped get her in the door with financiers for her ongoing film
projects. But in an industry that’s constantly pressing forward, she couldn’t rest on her laurels for long.

“Almost in every project, I had to endure several rejections before anyone said yes to giving me money to make a film,” she said. “I guess that’s when you know that it’s a story that you need to tell, to endure all the rejection and continue to believe in the project, sometimes over a period of years.”

While pursuing her feature film project The Bend, which will be released later this year, Kierans made a living writing for children’s television by researching which shows were filmed in Montreal, cold-calling their producers and making contacts through friends who already had a foot in the door.

“I don’t think there’s anything like coming up with your own idea and seeing it through to a finished product that someone can see and enjoy,” said Kierans. “But doing commercial work has its own rewards: there’s often less pressure, because it’s really someone else’s baby and you’re just trying to do your part in the whole.”

Career, schmareer

“Career is a funny word to go with poetry,” said Gillian Sze, who, since graduating in 2008, has already authored one book of poetry, Fish Bones, with DC Press, and already has one more on the way from ECW Press, The Anatomy of Clay.

“‘Career’—I think of lawyers, and something my parents would approve of,” she continued. “But I don’t think it’s ever just solely poetry. You’re always doing other things, too.”

While currently pursuing her PhD at Université de Montréal, Sze finds time to edit her online fiction and poetry magazine, Branch, while also taking time out to teach creative writing to at-risk youth.

While teaching a writing workshop at Blue Metropolis this year, one of her students raised their hand and asked, “Miss, how much money do you make?”

It was no more patronizing a question, said Sze, than the frequent inquiries from people as to when she’s going to write her first novel, or sell out and write a Harlequin Romance.

Success can be measured by a lot of things, said Sze, but it’s important to take things one at a time.

“I feel like I’m still working on my voice and my poetry. I’d rather get that right before I start wishing for the Nobel prize, and I think that process of finding my voice will take the rest of my life,” said Sze.

“I’m very satisfied at moving one individual per book. I’m just lucky that it’s more than one person per book. I’d like [my work] to be huge and momentous, but it’s often not, so when I affect even one person, that’s rewarding enough for me.”

Writers Read at Concordia will take place in H-767 on Oct. 21. From 10:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. there will be a panel discussion, followed by readings from 1:15 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
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This article originally appeared in Volume 31, Issue 10, published October 19, 2010.