Maggie Giles is full of surprises.
Her books take readers down a path of twists and turns.
Her bright, cheery personality stands in stark contrast to her dark story lines.
She was never strong in English as a student, but always loved telling and writing stories.
And Giles, BA’11 (Media, Theory and Production), has aphantasia – a condition characterized by the inability to visualize a mental image – yet she can dream up award-winning women’s fiction and suspense novels.
Writing with aphantasia
“For the longest time, I didn’t know it was ‘abnormal,’ to not be able to picture things in my mind,” Giles said from her home in Collingwood, Ont. “I never really understood why people would get upset when a character from a book, transferred to the screen, wasn’t how they ‘pictured them.’”
Aphantasia, named by Dr. Adam Zeman, professor of cognitive and behavioral neurology at the University of Exeter in the U.K., in 2015, is a spectrum.
“There are people like me who can’t visualize images at all, but on the opposite end, there are people with hyperphantasia, who have an incredibly vivid imagination,” Giles said.
“As a writer, it was a bit of an eye-opener for me, because my early readers were always asking what my characters looked like. I realized because I didn’t need to see it myself, as a reader, I didn’t always remember, as a writer, to include the descriptions. To me, it’s just filler.”
Giles still relies on her beta readers to point out any areas where more detail is required or any awkward descriptions. She also uses visual aids to help her focus on imagery.
“I will sometimes celebrity cast, or if I know I want a character to have red hair and blue eyes, I’ll google those features to find an aesthetic I really like and use that as a starting point to describe them. I’m getting better at doing it without the aids, but it’s required a bit of training,” she said.
Giles’ condition has not hampered how readers have received her books. Her debut novel, The Things We Lost, was named a 2023 distinguished favourite in women’s fiction by the Independent Press Awards, and compared to the New York Times Bestseller Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.
Her second novel, Twisted, was released in September, with its sequel, Wicked, set for release next fall.
While she may not have a ‘mind’s eye,’ Giles says she has a well-honed ‘mind’s ear.’
“My visual imagination may be blank, but when it comes to hearing things in my mind – sounds, music – I can hear the tune, I remember the words. Creating dialogue is one of my biggest strengths.”
“I often have people commenting that my dialogue in my writing seems very natural – probably because I love talking.”
Giles’ friends remark that her positive, upbeat personality doesn’t align with the darker, grittier themes of her books.
“I always tell people, in my fiction writing, I find it easier to kill people than to make them fall in love. Maybe it’s my therapy, a way to get heavy things out of my head.”
In Twisted, the characters include a detective, who discovers an unknown drug that may be tied to a string of seemingly unconnected murders, an heiress and an unscrupulous leader of an escort service.
Those themes violated TikTok community guidelines, but Giles, whose day job is in marketing, still found ways to promote her book and engage her readers.
Writing and defining ‘women’s fiction’
For nearly a decade, Giles has also volunteered her services, managing the social media accounts for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association (WFWA), where she’s found community and support for her craft, since joining in 2014.
“It’s a group I fell into, and it helped me realize I do write more in this broad genre of women’s fiction, a genre that’s been part of the industry for a very long time but is still hard to pinpoint. WFWA classifies women’s fiction as a work that follows the emotional journey of the protagonist, where your character really grows from ‘point A to point B,’ toward a more fulfilled self.
For Giles, having her work identified as “women’s fiction,” is “not something that bothers me,” she said. “Twisted, to me, doesn’t fall under women’s fiction. It’s straight thriller. But The Things We Lost did, and I’m proud of that. I don’t think it’s deterred men from reading it. I’ve got lots of male readers too. I tell people it’s more of a suspense mystery with a little bit of romance.”
Above all, Giles said, “You cater to your audience. That’s marketing. I really enjoy crafting my characters and giving them somewhat of a pleasant ending.”