All Is Never Lost

Jenn and Bodhiby Jennifer Cowan

Many moons ago when I was living in Whistler I decided to write a book. I gave myself a 1000 word a day minimum and, despite the distractions of skiing, hiking, mountain biking, skinny dipping and happily, paid writing gigs, I managed to complete Lost Summer.

It was the story of teenaged Franny, who in love with her older brother’s best friend Theo, had her life and perceptions shattered when her seemingly responsible sibling kills Theo in a drunken boating accident. I thought it was a great book. The publishers who read it didn’t so Lost Summer sits in a drawer and rots on a drive.

Then one day I was walking the trails at Lost Lake and a voice spoke to me. There was a lot of mad chicken disease happening on the lower mainland and suddenly I heard an outraged young activist. I had been researching Tre Arrow, the Portland-area environmentalist turned destructionist for a possible TV movie project so the idea of stepping over the lines was on my mind. So was being a confused teenager and first love and that’s how earthgirl was born. Sabine was a 16-year-old fledgling activist and blogger who met a compelling teenage boy with an environmental bent, worldly friends and the potential for lust and danger.

Again adhering to my word count, I hammered away. By this point I was back in Toronto so I submitted a grant proposal and was stunned and thrilled that the Ontario Arts Council jury liked it enough to share their generosity. And one day a few months later, I had a book. Yes once again it was a great book. So yet again I sent it around (as did my agent in New York) and got some really nice rejection letters from the Americans saying they weren’t interested but hey, I could write.

Fortunately I also got a phone call from an editor in Toronto to say she liked it but thought it stopped being funny halfway through. Another Canadian editor wrote me a note telling me how irritated she was by the Sabine’s love interest in the novel. I was incredibly encouraged! I started at page one and began rewriting it. Another six months of writing passed and I sent it out again to the two editors who had offered critiques, which I boldly considered championing my work! Groundwood Books, one of the original supporters of my writing bought it. It went on to get good reviews including an Editors’ Choice mention in the New York Times Book Review and sell over 6000 copies, which in Canada is a bestseller!

One of the interesting things that happened between the first round of rejections and the rewrite was mobile phone cameras improved exponentially and YouTube appeared (I know hard to imagine the world without it!). Citizen journalism burgeoned and wannabe teens began posting videos. When I was reworking it, I wondered what would happen if you posted a video and no one watched it or cared about what you thought and my story was transformed. Because the lag time between selling a book and seeing it on the shelves is about two years, it was beyond fortuitous that it was rejected on the first go round. I was able to make it better and more relevant. If it had been accepted at first draft, it would have been dated when it came out. And it’s hard enough to get a book noticed.

As for the next novel, there were fits and starts though mainly stops. These days I’ve been distracted teaching young, keen writers to tell their stories. But maybe now that it’s the fall, it might be time to go back into the drawer and take another look at Lost Summer. Who knows what I might find?

Jennifer has created stories for television, radio, print, interactive game apps and corporate websites. Her television work has garnered multiple awards and her first novel, earthgirl, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice. When she’s not wrestling with words and ideas, she’s walking the dog, kayaking, singing with Good Enough Live Karaoke, making things or relishing her status as Jeopardy champion of her living room.