I’ve known Tobin Elliott since 2000, when I first took a Creative Writing class at Durham College. He was teaching, and I was absorbing everything he had to say. I still remember and abide by the tips he gave his class 12 years ago. I’ll be writing along, and all of a sudden, I’ll hear Tobin say in my ear “Head hopping!” and I’ll have to go back and rewrite the line or paragraph. Every time I sit down to write, I can hear him in the background. “Suspense!” “What’s the story question here?” “Is this advancing this story?” “Kill your darlings!”
And that’s when he’s not in the room!
I can’t recall how many times we’ve had lunches together, or chatted by MSN, or over the phone, or whatever – and he’s magically unstuck a plot for me. He’ll ask me where I’m stuck, and why. I’ll muddle my way through the problem, and he’ll ask a question that attacks the plot from a new angle – and that forces me to think from a fresh perspective. Then he’ll ask another question from a more oblique angle, and again, I’m on my toes, bluffing my way through character motivations and backstory. And then he’ll ask that one magic question, and it’ll be like he’s pointed at a glimmer of light in the bottom of the plot hole, and for minutes on end, I won’t be able to say a word, because suddenly, I have it. From beginning to end, the whole plot is there, errors identified, solutions found. Idea after idea, corrections, subtleties of subplot – one question, and he doesn’t just trigger a brainstorm – he brings on a brain flood. And in the meantime, he’ll sit back, finish his lunch, and wait until I follow the rabbit hole all the way to the end.
In short, Tobin is my deus ex machina.
And he’s been more than just a writing coach for me. He’s the guy who found me in a very low place, twelve years ago, who picked me up by the collar, shook me around, dusted me off, and said, “You’re more than this.” It’s because of him, I am where I am now. He’s helped me out through a lot of stuff since then; he’s built me up when I needed it, made fun of me when I deserved it, and been there for me when I reached out to him. And when my Grandmother passed away, it was he and his wife Karen who took me in for a week, listened when I talked, and asked no questions until I was ready for them. There are a hundred reasons why he has my respect, loyalty and pride.
Tobin recently published his first story, Vanishing Hope, via Burning Effigy Press. Now, normally when a friend or acquaintance of mine breaks into the market for the first time (leaving yours truly behind), I feel an immediate sense of jealousy. But when Tobin called me up, completely out of breath and told me about his conversation with his future editor and publisher, Monica Kuebler, that jealousy was absent.
Here was a guy who had been teaching creative writing long before publication, whose style I’ve watched evolve over the last twelve years, and whose first book – his rookie card – I could finally hold in my hand. My friend and mentor, publically acknowledged as an author, at last.
PF: What was your earliest and favourite memory of writing or storytelling?
TE: I remember in Grade 8, I wrote a story about an alien invasion and a genetically modified man designed to survive in the post-apocalyptic world. I don’t remember much more than that, but I do remember it had a rather hopeful ending. I handed it in to my English teacher, Miss Roberts. I was proud of it, but I was quite used to my writing making no impression on my teachers beyond a scrawled mark and some circles around errors…the dreaded red pen marks.
This time turned out different, however. Miss Roberts asked if she could keep the story because, even though it was very late in the game, she thought it was good enough to warrant being published in that year’s Year Book. Turns out it was too late (I could have been a published author at thirteen, but noooooo!). Miss Roberts somehow never got around to giving me the story back.
And then, years later, when I was in my thirties, Miss Roberts happened to come into my place of employment. She recognized me immediately, even though she hadn’t seen me in two decades, and mentioned that story. And a week later, she came in one last time…story in hand.
PF: You’ve spent a lot of time following the publishing market and learning how to land a sale. What was the worst piece of advice you were given, in terms of writing, editing, publishing or marketing?
TE: To be honest, I haven’t really ever been given any advice. I’ve kind of gone about this the hard way, learning everything I know by making mistakes or learning from other’s mistakes. So maybe I could say, the worst piece of advice was what I gave myself: “Learn it all the hard way!”
PF: What was the best advice?
TE: The best advice, and it’s something that I hear repeated over and over again is, don’t give up. The ones that persevere ultimately succeed. I firmly believe that.
PF: Did you ever have a moment when you swore you were going to quit? If yes, what snapped you out of it?
TE: I don’t know if I ever swore I would quit, but there was a point around five or six years ago when absolutely nothing was happening. I’d been shopping my novel for years. I’d been trying to motivate myself to write other things, but my confidence was likely at it’s lowest point. I honestly figured I was one of those writers that was just going to be swallowed by the cracks. And then, I had a talk with Monica S. Kuebler, who, was (and still is) an editor at Rue Morgue magazine. The same novel I’d been shopping for years landed in her lap through a friend of a friend. And she told me how much she liked it. That was enough to give me some hope. Two years later, she offered to publish it herself through Burning Effigy Press (www.burningeffigy.com) and gave me some of the chapbooks she’d previously done. I agreed and, while that novel is on the road to publication, it’s not there yet…but it led to me publishing Vanishing Hope through her.
PF: Who has been your biggest support, and how did they encourage you?
TE: Up until recently, I didn’t even let my family read my stuff (they probably wish that was still the case), but they’ve been crazy supportive this last year. But if I had to single out one person who pushed me, cajoled me, bargained with me, threatened me, kicked my butt and listened to my whining and rants…that would be you, Pat. You encouraged me by being honest with feedback, telling me when my writing was crap, or when I could do better. You showed belief in my writing when I didn’t myself. You’d throw my own teachings back at me and demand I use them. But most of all, you were always there when I needed a friend.
PF: What’s the most memorable thing you’ve done when researching a story? (i.e. silliest, bravest, dumbest thing you’ve ever done in the process of researching a topic, for example)
TE: I’m so NOT going to talk about what I researched last night. It’s not for a family blog, I’ll tell ya that! I don’t know, most of the bizarre stuff just falls out of my head, and the rest I already know. As boring as it sounds, surviving my teen years was the most memorable thing I’ve done. Of course, that means observing a year-long dissolution of a marriage, alcoholism, crazy drug use, self-destructive behaviour, guns, mental cruelty, loneliness, and dealing with some of the biggest wastes of flesh this planet has to offer. And it allllllll went into the knowledge bank!
PF: If there was one thing you could change about the publication industry, what would it be?
TE: This is a pipe dream, but I’d make the industry less reliant on the bottom line. If they weren’t quite as worried about the profit and loss statements, they would have taken the budget for the last Dan Brown book (seriously, I remember the Da Vinci Code, but I can’t even remember the name of the book that followed it) and used that to break ten or twenty authors that actually had something to say. I remember Stephen King, back in the 80s, if I recall, took a $1 advance on a book instead of his customary $20M and asked that the money be earmarked to break some new authors. Wouldn’t that be nice if everyone did that?
PF: Why do you teach creative writing? What’s been the biggest draw for you?
TE: Wow, that’s a big question. I teach creative writing for a lot of reasons.
First, I absolutely love teaching and, if I had this life as a do-over, I would have chased a teaching career, with some writing on the side.
Second, I love that moment when you read something that one of your students has written and you get a chill from how good it is. It may only be a line, or a perfect word choice, but there’s no feeling like that.
Third, teaching this particular subject demands that I get better myself. How can I tell others to write daily if I’m not doing it? How can I tell them to use certain methods (figure out what your main story question is before you write!) or obey certain rules (don’t change point of view mid-scene!) if I don’t do them myself?
Finally, it’s a kick to see my students go on and win contests or publish books. I’ve had a few success stories. And there’s also the times (not many, but it’s happened) when I’ve thought about giving up the teaching. Every time that thought even crosses my mind, that’s the night a student will come up and tell me how much the course has helped them or made a difference. Makes it all worth it.
PF: You’ve just recently been published for the first time, but you’ve known a lot about the industry leading up to this point. What’s been the biggest eye-opener for you since becoming published?
TE: I don’t know if “opening doors” is the right term, but I think two incidents illustrate the difference between “pre-published” and “post-published”…
Just over a year ago, I attended an excellent event held at the Oshawa Public Library called the DarkLit Fest. There were horror authors and crime authors and agents and editors. It was great. And I knew one person. Last December, the second DarkLit came around and I was shocked at how many people I knew, but even cooler, I was shocked at how many knew me. I actually had authors—authors I admire—come and and introduce themselves to me, tell me they read my little story and they were fans. That was quite cool.
The second is that, on the strength of Vanishing Hope, I got approached completely out of the blue to contribute one of six stories in an upcoming collection.
So, I guess the biggest eye-opener for me is, while getting something published is some validation that it’s good, having others who do the same thing—write stories—provide even more validation that what you did is good. You always think it is yourself, but to have multiple others join in that choir…man, that’s something.
Tobin Elliott has been writing so long there may be graffiti inside his mother’s womb.
He’s taught Creative Writing at Durham College in Oshawa for more years than he’d care to admit and is a proud founding board member of the Writers’ Community of Simcoe County (simcoewriters.ca) and a regular attendee at its two sister organizations, the Writers’ Community of Durham Region (wcdr.ca) and York Region (wcyork.ca). He maintains a blog at tobinelliott.wordpress.com and he can also be found lurking on Facebook and Twitter (@tobinelliott). And he has a real job at a big Canadian company you’ve probably heard of as a Communications Specialist.
And somehow, in between all of those other things, he finds some spare moments to write ugly stories about bad people doing horrible things.
Vanishing Hope is his first published work. The next story in the saga of the Book, the novel-length No Hope, will be published by Burning Effigy Press (burningeffigy.com) in early 2013.
You can email Tobin at lefttowrite @ sympatico.ca (link deliberately broken to prevent spam from this site).
PF’s note: seriously, check out his blog. When he’s not writing horror, he’s writing funny. The only way it gets funnier is by listening to tell the story first hand.