"He lost his shirt playing Solitaire"

Good friends know that I am evangelical about podcasts. Truly, there is very little I love more in this world. So when Trudy Morgan-Cole invited me to come on her podcast, Shelf Esteem (isn't that a great name?) and chat about books with fellow author Bridget Canning, I was chuffed.

We spent an hour in the recording studio chatting about the books on our nightstands, formative reads, eavesdropping on strangers, and the strange lists we keep in on our phones. Here's the episode on Sound Cloud; you can also download it from iTunes.

Required reading

Recently, while chatting with a couple of fellow writers, I was reminded once again about a gaping hole in my education: Bird by Bird by Anne Lammot, which every self respecting creative swears by.  (Note to self: read that book!)

In my study, a corner of shelf space is devoted to these types of how-to manuals, books I read with a red pen and highlighter in hand. These are my life savers, the guides I return to whenever I'm floundering.

Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway - the closest thing to a creative writing text book you can get and fully worth the price tag.

From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler - immensely helpful when I was first starting to work on The Boat People. Butler advocates a system of imagining individual scenes, jotting them down on cue cards, then once you have sufficient cards, organizing them into an outline. And then putting pen to paper to write a first draft. I fell down on the outline part but being able to take each scene as they came, one at a time, really made the prospect of writing a first draft less overwhelming.

Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster - short and sweet, illuminating for readers as well as writers.

How Fiction Works by James Wood - teaches you how to take apart literature as you would a clock so you can understand what works, what doesn't, and most importantly why. Wood taught me how to read like a writer, critically and carefully.

 

Toast is never toast

I've written about dialogue but what about the stage business? Action in a scene - a character moving through a space, physically interacting with other characters - serves several functions. It enlivens the narrative while grounding it in a fictional reality. And it paints a picture, allowing the reader to visualize the story. I'm a fan of interweaving stage business with dialogue, sometimes even using it to replace dialogue tags (he said/ she said). For example, consider:

I don't know, John said. It was there this morning.
vs.
I don't know. John buttered his toast. It was there this morning.

This example came from fellow Port Authority writer, Jamie, who smartly pointed out that the toast only deserves to be in the scene if it serves a greater purpose. It's not enough for the toast to highlight the speakers.

Now consider this:

Where's the cheque book? Nora asked, searching the junk drawer.
Dunno. John buttered his toast. It was there this morning.

Better right?

I'd probably take it a little further, show John swiping a pat of butter off the block, describe the dry scrape of knife on toast. Nora, meanwhile, pulls out scissors and rubber bands and junk mail and pens. John dips his knife into the jam and spreads a thick glob of strawberry over the greasy toast. Nora slams the junk drawer shut, yanks another one open.

This is a lot of unnecessary detail and most of it would be cut back in revisions but do you smell what I'm cooking? The toast now tells us who is speaking, suggests something about motivation, and gives insight into character. It furthers the action. The toast provides subtext - something unsaid to read between the lines. The toast is multi-tasking.

 

The glass is 22% full

So far this year I'm 0 for 14. Acceptances to submissions, that is.

As a coping mechanism, I've been gravitating toward articles about rejection (misery, meet company, etc.). Writer Weike Wang has a hilarious - well, I don't know if it's meant to be funny but I found it so - essay on rejection which I highly recommend. In it she talks about powering through and overcoming her 100% rejection rate.

Inspired by her essay (and her PhD in biostatistics!), I decided to crunch the numbers on my own spreadsheet. Twenty two per cent, that's my to-date acceptance rate. Another way to phrase it: In five years, I've been rejected 45 times and accepted 10 times, a 78% rejection rate. I'm not being sarcastic when I say...that's not too shabby! Better than I'd have guessed, even.

So look, I don't know if these quirky mathemagical mind games work for everyone. But they give me solace. If you're going to be a writer AND maintain some semblance of mental health, then you must find ways to shake off self doubt.

Because it always bears repeating, here's Cheryl Strayed on how to cope: “You do not let yourself think about it. There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart.”

 

Advice from other writers

Glimmer Train - long time home of incredible, award-winning short fiction...have you all submitted work to them? you really should - has a couple of instructive essays on their website at the moment.

First up, British author Rowena Macdonald's tips for writing dialogue. My favourites are: 2. Don't dump too much information in dialogue. In real life, we don't always helpfully explain what's going on AND 7. Don't be afraid to let conversations hang unresolved in mid-air and move onto another scene.

MFA director Josh Henkin explores the link between plot and character. Plot, he argues, is discovered by interrogating character: "My graduate students often tell me they have trouble with plot, but what they're really telling me is they have trouble with character. I remind my students to ask themselves a hundred questions about their characters. Better yet, they should ask themselves a thousand questions, because in the answers to those questions lie the seeds of a narrative." This is a truth I know and yet somehow often forget. When you're stuck on something, go back to character.

 

 

Vampires

I spent two months in India this year, at a DIY writing retreat in Mumbai. I spent most days at a library where I didn't have internet access. Really and truly. There wasn't even a library computer I could use. If I wanted to check email, I had to leave the library, walk down a flight of stairs, exit the building, walk out of the compound, cross the street and enter a completely different compound, walk five minutes to where I was staying and take three flights of stairs to my room. If I had things I needed to legitimately look up for work, I'd make a list and do a bunch of google searches at the end of the day. Also: this research facility was dedicated to the hard sciences. Everyone at the library was a total stranger, none of them writers. So I had no social distractions either. If I wanted a break, there were two options: have a biscuit in the canteen or take a walk by the sea. Sometimes I put my head on the desk and napped. It was simultaneously frustrating and freeing. I was itchy for the internet but also felt immensely free. And productive! My American editor was so impressed by the speed and quality of my edits that she joked she was going to send all her writers to India.

Deep work - concentrating your mind and creative energy for a sustained length of time without distraction - is a non-negotiable of good writing. It is THE ONLY work any of us needs to do. And yet - barring trips to Indian research institutes - it is near impossible. We come at our work in fits and starts, eager for interruption, one ear always primed for the doorbell, the buzz of a text. Now that I'm back in Canada, back in range of my high speed internet connection, I'm the slow, laggardly schmoe who can't get a damn word written.

Last week's episode of Hidden Brain is a gem for writers. Host Shankar Vedantam tackles the concept of deep work, why it's so difficult to ignore the siren song of our to-do lists and email and social media, and what we can do to overcome these mental energy vampires.

Butter Tea at Starbucks

I'm something of a method writer. In the sense that I will do all kinds of weird things to get into a character's head as I'm writing. Like act out movements to block a scene. Or spend the weekend drinking mojitos in order to get the description of the taste just right. When I was writing the story Butter Tea at Starbucks, I thought about drinking butter tea. I even looked up a recipe but then wimped out at the last minute.

There's no real point to this anecdote, to be honest. The only reason I'm writing this post is to say that The New Quarterly has posted the story on their site and you can read it now for free.

Journey Prize

Two of my stories have been long-listed for this year's JOURNEY PRIZE. TWO! They are: Butter Tea at Starbucks (originally published in The New Quarterly) and Reading Week (originally published in PRISM international).

The Journey Prize has been on my writer's bucket list for a while so I was pretty happy back in January when both publications said they were putting my stories forward. My live-in mathemagician (every writer should have one) crunched some numbers and told me I had a 60% chance of getting one story on the long list and a 20% chance of getting them both on there. Take that, slim odds!

The long-listed stories get published in a collection - Journey Prize 29. You can pre-order it here. Finalists are announced in the Fall and the winner is named in November. HOORAY FOR CANLIT!

 

Kill your darlings

Late last summer the Newfoundland Quarterly approached my writing group, The Port Authority, with a challenge. Take an old headline "When Newfoundland Saved Canada" (found in an old issue of the magazine from 1949) and make it new. Could this curious statement prompt 500 fictional words? We were given free reign and five of us sharpened our pencils.

The NQ online has been publishing each of our pieces this Spring and this week my story went live. Flash fiction is not my forte but this piece was a total joy to research and write. I'm pleased to share it and the fabulous accompanying illustration by the very talented Kevin Kendall.

The voices in your head

Characters come into their own when I first hear them speak. And that's how I primarily write dialogue - it bubbles up from the unconscious part of my brain that is always at work. I may be crap at finding endings but putting words in characters' mouths has always felt natural.

But like any other part of the craft, there is some element of science here too. Here are some technical suggestions:

1. Don't rely too heavily on dialogue to carry plot or develop character.

2. Less is more. Three lines of dialogue? Odds are you need only one. Remember: what is left unsaid is often more powerful than what is said.

3. Dialogue gets good when it isn't straight forward. When characters lie or hold back or speak at cross purposes. This is how you bake in irony, double meanings, and conflict, thereby making the scene more layered and interesting.

Fiction has to seem realistic without actually being realistic.

4. Don't underestimate the power of indirect speech. It proceeds at a swifter pace - helpful if your characters have a lot of talking to do - and is easier to nail than direct dialogue.

5. Dialogue should multi-task. If dialogue reveals character and ratchets up tension, if it propels the plot forward and makes you laugh, then it's all much more interesting.

6. Read the work of other writers and see how they go about it.

7. Listen closely to how real people speak. Listen to rhythm and cadence, how thoughts are phrased, the way people of different ages and backgrounds sound. Pay enough attention and you'll develop an ear for dialogue and an instinct for crafting it. Also, you can straight up just steal things you overheard friends and strangers saying.

8. Which is not to say that your characters should speak the way real people do. For one thing, we talk way too much in real life. Fiction has to seem realistic without actually being realistic. Allow a sentence to stand in for a monologue. Sure, in the first draft, write all the pauses and ums and uhs and verbal ticks and quirks of accent into a character's speech. But then later, when you're revising, delete, delete, delete and just leave a few things behind, a little bit of seasoning to give the reader a taste.

 

 

 

Sense of an ending IV

On the subject of endings once again, here is some wisdom from writer Ethan Canin who believes our job, as writers, through the course of the story, is to engage the reader so fully and deeply that emotion overwhelms intellect and the reader is carried along: "At the end of a story or novel, you do not want the reader thinking. Endings are about emotion, and logic is emotion's enemy." The idea is the ending should make the reader think about all that has come before and he draws a parallel with films that end with a camera tilt up to the sky. Canin is musing here, more than providing concrete advice perhaps but his thoughts are illuminating, nonetheless. Read the whole exchange with him over at The Atlantic.

 

 

 

Mavis Gallant

I've been taking a break from my novel (and novels in general) to tool away at short fiction this month. And on the side I've been immersing myself in the work of Mavis Gallant. But Gallant is one of those writers whose stories are better read aloud. So here are three, originally published in The New Yorker, and read by three of her admirers:

Margaret Atwood reading "Voices lost in Snow", one of Gallant's linked Linnet Muir stories

Karen Russell reading "From the 15th District", a comic ghost story

Antonya Nelson reading "When we were nearly young"

 

 

How to make sausage

Over the holidays an acquaintance wrote to ask how I bagged my publishing deal. A cousin had a book he was hoping to sell; did I have any advice? As it happens, I do.

There are two ways to get your book published. You can find an agent who does all the dirty work or cut out the middle person and negotiate directly with the publishing house. Barring a personal contact or some other "in" big houses only work with agents. And some small houses won't work with agents.

Regardless of the route you take, you must have a query letter and a writing sample (typically 5-10 pages of the book you're trying to sell). The writing sample need not be the opening scene but it should be the strongest bit of writing in the whole book. I chose a flashback I was proud of and didn't introduce it with any explanation of plot or character. This is only my personal opinion but I think long prefaces are tedious and unnecessary. Editors and agents are looking for the quality of the writing and the sample should speak for itself.

The query letter requires a little time and copious tears. First, you'll need a synopsis (there are guides to writing synopses and sample synopses all over the internet). And when I say "first" what I really mean is a synopsis should be the very first thing you write, before a single word of the book. Because a synopsis brings plot holes to light. This is a much more efficient method for crafting a narrative than the one I used which was to write two drafts of the book, pen the synopsis, then slap myself on the forehead.

Launch into the synopsis right after the salutation. My synopsis ran three paragraphs ending with a summation of themes. You could name two comparative titles or authors or if you're pitching to a specific publishing house reference books or authors from their catalogue that are like yours or concern similar themes. This is tricky because you don't want to give the impression you're covering already-trod ground. But you could frame it as: "picking up where Pride and Prejudice left off" or "in the epic style of Tolkein."

Next comes the bio. In a single paragraph list your awards, publications, and your MFA, if you have one. Unless it's related to writing or your book, don't mention your day job.

The final paragraph is the sign off. Make reference to the sample (i.e.: "the first five pages are attached" or "a scene from the middle of the novel is attached"), state the total word count, and say thank you. Make sure your contact info is somewhere on the cover letter. And I can't stress this enough: ONE PAGE ONLY. Here's the format:

  • Dear Publisher/ Agent:
  • Paragraph 1 - 3: Synopsis
  • Paragraph 4: Bio
  • Paragraph 5: Sign off

Unless you have a specific house you're keen on (that also accepts unsolicited queries) my advice is to start with agents. There are only a handful literary agencies, not every agent will be accepting new clients, and agents tend to specialize in specific genres. So research won't take long. Choose agents who look like they earn their keep. Who are their authors and where are they being published? Is the agent going to the big book fairs (London, Frankfurt)?

I'm a fan of simultaneous submissions. Submit to all your potential agents and then wait. If the query attracts interest, you'll be asked for the full MS. You should hear a yea or nay in fairly short order but if the agent doesn't specify feel free to ask for a timeline. A month is reasonable. If the agent passes on the book but they provide specific feedback (ie. the the pace is too slow or the ending fell flat), say thank you and politely ask if they might consider a revised version. Don't be shy about asking. You have nothing to lose and an agent to gain.

If you decide to go the non-agented route the process is more or less the same. The list will take longer to create because there are so many publishing houses and many of them specialize in some kind of niche. But again, I'd advise researching each house's catalogue, get a feel for what they publish, see how their authors have done, and try to find one that would be a good fit for your book. Everything else being equal, I would start at the top with the most established/ most well respected houses (perhaps the ones whose authors have won awards) and work through the list.

TL;DR: Do your homework and do it well. Aim high because you have nothing to lose. Practice patience and start writing the synopsis for the next book while you wait.

 

A dream of men

People are always saying they have no time to read. So here's the solution: The New Yorker Fiction podcast. Writers are invited to read a story - written by someone else - from the magazine's archives and afterward, the reader joins Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman to discuss the story. The conversation is always on point but the stories themselves can be hit or miss (everyone has different tastes, right?). But a recent episode in which Ben Marcus reads Mary Gaitskill is a definite hit and worth a listen. It's one of those stories that will make you want to stop what you're doing and really pay attention.

Sense of an ending III

I'm always, always, looking for writing advice. Is this because I haven't got an MFA? Or because I'm a master procrastinator? Both? Either way, I recently found these gems from an old interview with Lorrie Moore.

...the ending of a short story spins and looks back over the short story and so it’s more retrospective in a way.
— Lorrie Moore

Have a look at her thoughts on endings. I'm obsessed with endings which, in my experience, are either instinctive and automatic or impossible roadblocks that stall everything. I always knew how my novel would end; I even had an epilogue in mind which I decided not to write because it would be superfluous. But short stories are hit/ miss and lately I've taken to not committing a word to the page until I have a sense of the ending. (Though this might be a habit I need to break this year)

So I'm always on the look out for easy tricks and here's one from Lorrie Moore: take something from the middle of the story and move it, out of order, to the end.

 

This moment

On Saturday night, as I was about to embark on the evening's festivities, I saw a pithy cartoon that summed my year up. But dumpster fire or not, 2016 is over and the page has freshly turned on this new year.

In 2017 my resolution is to live in the moment. This moment. This one right now. We have a joke in my family that the main topic of conversation at every meal is the next one (what will we eat next? and when? and how?). As a natural planner, my brain is always fast forwarding to the next event, the next item on the to-do-list, the next book, the next deadline, and while this is a useful way to manage one's life and career, it is a bad way to actually write.

This year I will stay in the moment of every scene and write from within that moment without skipping ahead. This year I will stop and experience the moment - this very one - and pause to notice all the fine details. Because a good writer is by necessity a noticer.

 

Underwater writing

Three years ago I took a master class with Sarah Selecky, a writer whose short fiction I've admired for years. The class was tiny. Five of us students plus Sarah around her kitchen table every Monday night for five weeks. I learned a lot in that month - how to critique other people's work, for example, and by extension how to think critically about my own. But the most important skill Sarah taught me was underwater writing.

Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Submerge yourself fully in the scene. Smell, taste, hear, see, and feel every detail. Are you there? Are you squirming? Is it hard work? Good. Now write from that place; write from within the scene. Don't write about the scene. Don't write in circles around the scene. Don't hover above. Write from inside. 

Don’t be deceived by well crafted sentences that write around an experience. Write the experience. Don’t write about it. Write from within it.
— Sarah Selecky

How do you know if you're doing it properly? Watch for the red flags. Abstractions are red flags. Don't say Romeo and Juliet are in love. What does love mean? How does it manifest for these characters? Show us the specific emotions and actions.

Efficient language is another red flag (ditto: cliches). Words like happy, angry, and impatient have become a kind of short hand, so shopworn as to be skimmable. Don't tell us a character is sad. Show us the rapid blinking of the watery eyes. Let us feel the slump of the shoulders. Conjure melancholy without using that word.

The word "something" is another flag. Like efficient language and abstractions it is a first draft placeholder. But in the revisions, you must articulate what the something is.

Don't trust the word suddenly. Cross it out. Make the action feel sudden.

Once you get the hang of it, cliched and lazy writing are easy to spot. A more pernicious problem is beautiful language. "Don't be deceived by well crafted sentences that write AROUND an experience," Sarah told us. "Write the experience. Don't write ABOUT it. Write from WITHIN it."

This is the toughest part of writing. Articulating every emotion and action, that's slow going, gruelling work. It's the real reason writers are tortured and turn to hard liquor. Writing is drowning.

 

 

Butter tea at Starbucks

My story, Butter Tea at Starbucks, is out in the most recently issue of The New Quarterly (issue 140).

The story is set in 2008 in the lead up to the  Summer Olympics in Beijing. It's about sisters and postpartum depression, the politics of Tibet, and the excruciating uncertainty of quarter life. But it's also about fire and water, circles and balance.

Butter Tea took a long time to write and rewrite (and write and rewrite and write and rewrite and write and rewrite) but I'm really proud of how it turned out.