For the second year in a row, local author Sharon Frayne has won the annual Muskoka Novel Marathon in Huntsville, in what was held this year as an international virtual writers’ competition.
The 19th annual writing marathon, which gives participants 72 hours to produce a 40,000-word novel, raises awareness for adult literacy in the area and funds Muskoka YMCA literary programs. It also attracts writers by submitting the winning novel to a Canadian publishing house, shortcutting the challenging process of having a book accepted for publication, says Frayne.
“Getting that foot in the door is so difficult. Once you get it in, I think it’s a different ballgame — without it, the doors are pretty tightly closed.”
The winning novel she wrote this year, The Sound of a Rainbow, is for young adults, an audience Frayne, as a retired educator, knows well.
Last year’s novel was also aimed at young adults, and received very positive feedback from Guernica Publishers, which was chosen for the 2019 competition. It doesn’t print the young adult genre, says Frayne, but the publisher’s comments will help move the novel forward with another publisher.
In addition to winning best novel this year, Frayne also won the award for the longest — hers was submitted at 44,000 words — and the peer-voted ‘bum in seat’ award for the hours logged writing the story.
Once the marathon was finished, she began polishing her entry and has now submitted it, at almost 60,000 words, to this year’s contest publisher, Latitude 46, for consideration.
She’s hoping to hear some positive news by Christmas, and says the same publishing house has also offered to review her winning novel from last year’s competition, A Chain of Broken Hearts.
This year’s event came close to being cancelled, but a decision was made to hold it as a virtual Zoom competition. That allowed for it to be opened to writers from across North America, and to more people, rather than limiting the numbers who could participate due to the physical logistics. Having 76 international participants, says Frayne, instead of the 40 writers who took part last year, “added an extra element to the competition.”
The 2019 Muskoka competition, Frayne’s first entry in it, took a physical toll, she says, with 72 hours spent at a computer in a large room of people, taking short breaks for food, and catnaps on a cot she had set up in the hallway of the Huntsville conference centre where it was held.
This year’s event was different, with the ability to sleep in her own bed at home. Her husband, Bill French, looked after most meals so she could eat while she worked. The final day, he was away and Frayne was on her own, feverishly concentrating on writing. She realized, as the contest closed, she hadn’t taken a break to eat, and was dehydrated.
There were Zoom conversations with other authors during the time of the competition that she could have joined, but chose instead to stay on her keyboard, logging on to submit every 100 pages, as the rules dictated.
Every single one of the 44,000 words Frayne’s submitted had to be written “on the spot,” during the competition, but she was well-prepared, having developed much of what she planned to write ahead of time.
“I had the plot and conflict worked out. I had planned the characters, what they would look like, and what they’d say or do.”
The characters, she explains, are young people with special needs, attending an inclusive, diverse summer camp in northern Ontario that’s accessible for kids with intellectual and physical disabilities.
Frayne, a retired high school teacher and a principal with a specialist in special education, was the head of a school with five classrooms for special needs kids. She also has family members with significant special needs, she says.
When the novel coronavirus shut down schools, and camps were cancelled, she understood the devastation that would cause for special needs kids, for whom school is a “lifeline” that was suddenly withdrawn, and who were struggling, unable to go to school, to be with professionals who know how to work with them and bring out the best in them, even have equipment to work with them that parents don’t have at home. “That’s what moved me to want to write about kids going to a camp where they would have an opportunity to grow and succeed, and really reach their potential,” says Frayne.
Her lead protagonist in The Sound of a Rainbow is a troubled 16-year-old girl, a failed child singing star, who has “imploded” on TV, and is attacked on social media.
Her parents are divorcing, and have sent her to camp, where, having led a privileged life, she has a hard time adjusting to being around special needs kids, including a paraplegic in a wheelchair, another with autism, and a girl with anorexia.
“I tried to be really sensitive and caring in the way I dealt with them. They’re all struggling when they come to camp, but it ends up making a difference for all of them,” she says.
Camp Rainbow is set on an island, and half of the island is an abandoned wildlife sanctuary, she adds, “which provides a little mystery, with what’s going on in the life of someone who lives in this sanctuary, right next to the camp.”
In October, when she found out she’d won this year’s competition, she also had a short story accepted by Agnes and True, a Canadian literary journal that provides an outlet for emerging and established Canadian writers. Her story, published online, is called Moonlight with Tom Thomson, and has her leading character sitting on a dock in Muskoka, sharing conversation and a bottle of wine with the famous Group of Seven artist.
She is no stranger to writing competitions, enjoys entering them and has won some significant contests, in addition to the Muskoka Novel Marathon. Her Tom Thomson story won the South Simcoe Arts Festival contest in 2019.
And with the second Muskoka win behind her, she has other work to get to, with four novels on the go, including the winner from the 2019 Muskoka competition which she is preparing to send to Latitude 46.
A Chain of Broken Hearts, historical fiction for young adults, is about a present-day school field trip for a group of Huntsville Grade 8 students, who travel to NOTL. But because of a situation that befalls one of the girls, she ends up living in the past, in the group home that was established for orphans by Maria Rye in 1869. Life for the main character becomes very different from anything she has experienced up to that point, until she is able to return to Huntsville in the present, says Frayne.
Just as The Sound of a Rainbow teaches kids about diversity and inclusivity, last year’s novel was an opportunity to show young adults that life for immigrants to Canada is nothing new, “that immigrants have been coming to Canada for a long time, and conditions have been hard for them for a long time. People have come here from different situations, but everyone has come from somewhere.”
Frayne is also working on an adult fantasy for the annual NaNoWriMo contest (National Novel Writing Month). Set in a town very much like Niagara-on-the-Lake, she says, she hopes to have it finished by the end of November, expecting it to come in around 100,000 words.
A young adult collection of short stories, based on local history, which she self-published about two years ago, will be sent out to Canadian publishers of children’s books, says Frayne, hoping to get it into schools.
All of the novels she’s written have been planned to leave open the possibility of sequels, she says, which is important in the young adult genre. “When young kids find a book they enjoy, they often want a series, with characters who grow a little older as the readers grow. The characters start to explore situations and experiences that kids who are just a little bit younger really identify with. It’s like having a big brother or sister, which is helpful for them, especially if the lead characters are good role models.”
Kids today also appreciate diverse characters, she says. “I’m writing to make sure there’s LGBTQ characters, multiracial kids, kids with disabilities, kids who seem to be coping all right, but who may be struggling in one way or another. These are the situations the kids today can identify with.”
Frayne says she has known she wanted to be a writer from the time she was “a little kid,” but after marrying young and having children, “I had to put bread and butter on the table, and teaching offered some security.”
Frayne, a member and now co-chair of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Writing Circle, has been spending more time writing since retirement, honing her craft, and last year began to feel more confident about her writing ability. It didn’t come easily at first, but as she approached the 2019 festival, she says, “I felt I had hit my stride.”
COVID, and the cancellation of so many events, has given her even more time to write, “and to think about what I wanted to write. I know some people have found it hard to work, because we’re so distracted by the news. I try to keep it turned off except for a couple of times a day to find out what’s happening. I’ve deliberately tried to limit the amount of news I take in, and I’ve done more writing than ever before. That was my way of dealing with stress.”