Sunday, December 05, 2010

One Writer’s Process: Tim Wynne-Jones

A master of craft and winner of numerous awards, including the Vicky Metcalf Award for a body of work that is considered inspirational to Canadian Youth, Tim Wynne-Jones has written dozens of picture books, novels, and short stories, as well as essays and book reviews. But, oddly, enough he didn’t start out intending to write anything.

“I was so bored with school that I wrote my first novel, Odd’s End,” he recalls. “It was just something to do – like going on a summer holiday when you don’t have any money.”

That novel won the Seal First Novel Award and a $50,000 prize, and it gave Wynne-Jones the idea “that this writing thing might be fun.”

Born in England, Wynne-Jones grew up in Ottawa, and attended university in Waterloo, then went on to receive a master's degree in visual arts from York University. Unsurprisingly, visual images continue to play a role in the way he creates a story. “When you imagine something, the word ‘imagine’ has the word ‘image’ in it,” says Wynne-Jones, “and what you want to give readers is an image in their heads.”

He says that one of the keys to finding a story is asking “what-if” questions. “You go through life applying the what-if function to everything you see. Making up stories is all about wanting more – taking the ordinary, turning it upside down and shaking out whatever it’s got in its pockets.”

When he starts to write, he says, he usually has “a scene or an image that intrigues me and a character I like.” He is reluctant to devise plots or construct outlines, preferring the story to unfold as he writes. The job of writing, he says, “has been amusingly defined as chasing one’s protagonist up a tree and then throwing rocks at him.”

Wynne-Jones loves cooking, crossword puzzles, NFL football, Masterpiece Theater, soccer, and reading books– thrillers, romances, picture books, and poetry. If he ever found himself stranded on a desert island, though, he says he’d choose the complete works of William Shakespeare.

“When kids ask me who my hero is, I say William Shakespeare. In fact Shakespeare is about as close as I come to having a religion, anymore; that’s called Bardolatry, by the way. I probably understand about sixty percent of what I read or hear when I see a play by Shakespeare, but just the hearing itself is so good for the ear. And sixty percent is up by about forty percent from what I understood when I studied him in high school. There’s just so much to learn, I’ll be reading him for the rest of my life. Desert island or not.”

He lives near Perth, Ontario with his wife, and was kind enough to take time away from his current project to share some thoughts on writing with Wordswimmer:

Wordswimmer: If writing is like swimming, how do you get into the water each day?

Wynne-Jones: Quickly. Run in and dive before your brain has time to register how cold and uninviting the water is. And how much the water is going to shrink you!!!

Wordswimmer: What keeps you afloat for short work? For longer work?

Wynne-Jones: I try to remember that I don't have to write the whole book today. I have to write this scene -- this chapter. That's all. To keep with this aquatic metaphor, a book is just going to weight you down, potentially drown you.

Wordswimmer: How do you keep swimming through dry spells?

Wynne-Jones: I try to remember that the well sometimes runs dry. I know, I know -- who wants to swim in a well? But my point is that that a dry well will fill in time and you have to let it. Believe me, you can swim all you want in the brackish water at the bottom of your own little pond but you won't get far. There are times when it's all about input, all about aquifers.

Wordswimmer: What's the hardest part of swimming?

Wynne-Jones: For me, the first draft. I don't sleep very well, my mind is basically taken over by this malignant thing that wants to become an elegant story and seems, on the surface of things, to have about as much chance as a frog does of becoming a prince. It's ugly. It's ungainly. There's just too much of it. It's like you're swimming through a swamp, clogged up with bullrushes and purple loosestrife and water lilies and algae. Yuck!

Wordswimmer: How do you overcome obstacles, problems, when swimming alone?

Wynne-Jones: I've got a pretty good sidestroke and I can float on my back for hours, just thinking, and feeling the pulse of the lake throbbing inside me. But I don't actually understand the question because one is always swimming alone. I've never had a buddy writer or a writing group or an editor willing to look at a chapter at a time or what have you. I can't bear to show my work to anyone until I really believe it's finished, knowing of course that there will still be more drafts to go, but still firmly believing that it's all fundamentally there. So there's no use waiting for someone to hold you up. You flip over and float and look for the answer in the sky.

Wordswimmer: What's the part of swimming that you love the most?

Wynne-Jones: The second draft. Ah, the glorious second draft. Once you've gotten to the end, once you know you can do it again. And knowing the end, you can begin to weave into the existing narrative the strands of sub-plot and theme you didn't know you were going to get into when you dove in the first time. I guess it's like swimming across a body of water not knowing how far the other shore really is, because, frankly, distance across water (or a novel) is deceptive. The second time you dive in to this particular body of water, you know how far it is; you know the currents; you know where it gets cold, suddenly, and where there are rocks.

For some of the best writing advice on the web, take a look at the list of “Eleven Things You Need to Know” compiled by Wynne Jones:

For more information about Wynne-Jones, visit his website:

And for more interviews, take a look at:

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