I am bad at saying no. As part of a better-late-in-life-than-never self-improvement exercise, I try to turn down extra work—especially the non-paying variety.
So last summer, when Michelle Sylvestre of the Make A Wish Foundation phoned to tell me about a volunteer opportunity—Raphaëlla Vaillancourt, a young survivor of a life-threatening illness, wished to publish a book and needed mentoring—I referred Michelle to Lori Schubert at the Quebec Writers’ Federation.
A few days later, Lori contacted me. If the QWF could fund a mentorship for Raphaëlla, would I take the job?
I still tried to get out of it. I explained I was on sabbatical from my teaching job at Marianopolis College and that I needed a break from editing young people’s writing. But in the end, I agreed to take a look at the project.
“If the QWF could fund a mentorship for Raphaëlla, would I take the job?”
I only had to read a paragraph of Raphaëlla’s story (a novel in progress tentatively entitled Keep Breathing) to know that she is really talented—and that I’d save my No for another time.
Over the summer and fall, Raphaëlla and I met several times—at my house, and at coffee shops in NDG and Laval, where Raphaëlla lives. Besides responding to Raphaëlla’s work, I explained a little about my own process. I saw right away that Raphaëlla had a great attitude. Not only is she open to suggestions and criticism, she is grateful for editorial feedback.
We discussed all kinds of interesting things: how to integrate deeply-felt lived experience into a work of fiction (Raphaëlla includes a character in her story who is battling the same illness Raphaëlla battled, but Raphaëlla opted to use another character as her narrator); how to develop both major and minor characters; how to use language that suits a story’s setting; and how research helps deepen a story.
Because one of her main characters is a songwriter, Raphaëlla decided to learn more about songwriting. Luckily, one of Raphaëlla’s cousins is a songwriter. So she came up with a list of questions for him.
Perhaps the most important lesson Raphaëlla learned is about the need to revise. Together, we went over her chapters about five times. With each revision, the story got stronger, the characters became more real, and Raphaëlla’s language became crisper.
“Perhaps the most important lesson Raphaëlla learned is about the need to revise.”
I also explained to Raphaëlla that networking is another useful tool in this business. It seemed fitting that our last official meeting took place at the 2015 Atwater Writers’ Exhibition Holiday Pop-Up Book Fair. There, Raphaëlla met and chatted with Laurence Miall, co-editor of carte blanche. (Miall has since acquired a chapter from Raphaëlla’s work-in-progress for the spring edition of carte blanche.) Raphaëlla also met publishers Linda Leith, Simon Dardick, and Nancy Morelli. Dardick gave her his card and his catalogue and encouraged Raphaëlla to get in touch when her manuscript is complete.
Though our QWF mentorship is over, Raphaëlla and I have decided to continue working together. Last week, I emailed her a few chapters from my own work-in-progress, and she sent me her newest work. Yesterday, we had our first non-QWF meeting. Turns out I was right about my hunch that Raphaëlla would be a great reader and editor.
I have to admit that sometimes I get a little tired of being edited. All those revisions! So much more work! But to see and feel Raphaëlla’s appreciation for the process— well, it’s rubbed off on me too.
Yesterday, when I was packing up my laptop, I asked Raphaëlla how she was going to spend the rest of the day. “I’m going to buy a birthday present for my sister—and then I’m going home to write,” she said.
Sometimes, not saying no turns out to be a wonderful thing.
Monique Polak is the author of seventeen novels for young adults. She has two new YA novels coming out this spring, as well as her first non-fiction book for young people. Monique is the inaugural CBC/QWF Writer-in-Residence. She teaches at Marianopolis College. www.moniquepolak.com
You can hear Raphaëlla read from her novel along with this year’s crop of QWF Mentorship Program writers at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday, June 5 at the Comedy Nest (in the Forum: 2313 Ste-Catherine St. West in Montreal).
Photos: Monique Polak (Raphaëlla); Studio Iris (headshot)