Winners

Congratulations: Shashi, Greg, Alicia, Liz, Philip, Jason, Aviva, Rowan, Sofia, Jess, Iryn, and Carly! Look at these stars, the long listed authors whose stories will appear in the Journey Prize 30.

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Congratulations to: The Dalhousie Review, Pulp Literature (x2), The New Quarterly (x2), Event, The Malahat Review, Prism International, PrairieFire, This Magazine (x2), and the CVC Anthology Series (x2).

JP Names.jpg

Zoey, Kerry, and I judged the stories blind meaning it was only after the decisions were made that we got to see the authors' names and the publications that had put their stories forward. After all our debates and nit picking over theme and character and form, all these particulars that were, at the time, divorced from our knowledge of the writers themselves, the big reveal was a joyous experience. There were many exclamations, especially when we learned that one writer and one publication had made the list twice (Greg if you are reading this, we all agreed that Pulp should give you a free subscription for life).

I've adjudicated a few short story competitions now but I've never been prouder to see a list of winners. Yeah. Winners. Listen. It was A FEAT for these writers to get on the long list. First, they had to write a story (difficult enough!). Then they had to find the story a home (you can imagine all the rejection along the way). Then the publications had to decide that out of all the stories published that year, their particular story was the one to put forward. And then the story came to us, the jury.

Zoey, Kerry, and I are tough customers and there were many wonderful stories that did not make the cut (some that I still recall with great admiration). So yes, once again, congrats to the winners:

Alicia, Aviva, Carly, Greg, Iryn, Jason, Jess, Liz, Philip, Rowan, Sashi, and Sofia.

Jury duty

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The Journey Prize - Canada's biggest and most lucrative annual short story award - turns 30 this year and I was fortunate enough to be on the jury along with authors (and all around wonderful human beings) Kerry Clare and Zoey Leigh Peterson. The long-listed authors and their stories will be announced on Tuesday, August 7th. Watch this space.

How the award works

In January/ February, magazines and publications choose up to three of the best stories by emerging authors that they published in the previous year. The stories are sent to McClelland & Stewart who administer the award (not to be confused with the Writer's Trust of Canada who give the award out and are responsible for the hoopla surrounding the ceremony). It's actually my Canadian editor Anita Chong and assistant editor Joe Lee who do much of the thankless, painstaking, administrative work. They are stars.

M&S hires the jury and we all read every single one of the stories. And then we the jury discuss and debate and re-read and re-consider and eventually we narrow it down to the long-list, all of which are published in the Journey Prize anthology. I'm so pleased for these authors because I know what it means to make the anthology. And it's a gold star for the publications that nominated them too. Let's take a moment to tip our hats to those magazines and literary journals - staffed mostly by volunteers working long hours on shoestring budgets. They are the corner stone of Canadian literature, the first rung on the ladder and their existence makes so many of our careers possible.

This year's jury

I lucked out with my fellow jurors. Kerry Clare (who has written about her Journey Prize experience here) and Zoey Leigh Peterson are careful readers and came to the job with a spirit of openness that made healthy and respectful discussion and debate possible. We listened to each other. We kept open minds. None of us assumed we knew better. We gave the job the respect and attention it deserved and were willing to re-read. Over and over and over. The things Kerry and Zoey taught me about reading, are lessons I carry with me today. They have made me a more thoughtful reader and probably a better writer. And I'm proud of the anthology we curated. Journey Prize 30. It's a stunner.

Mutton Curry

Maisonneuve, Summer 2018 issue

Maisonneuve, Summer 2018 issue

In the shadow of Signal Hill

In the shadow of Signal Hill

I have a very old story newly out in the summer issue of Maisonneuve Magazine, which is on stands now. Mutton Curry was written in the winter of 2011 when I was taking an evening class with Jessica Grant. That class was where I learned to write well and Mutton Curry was the first truly decent short story I ever wrote. It won the Arts & Letters Award the following year and later got an honourable mention in a Glimmer Train contest. Still, it took a very long time to find the story a home (7 years!) but here it is. And holy cats! Check out the photo! Photographer Jennie Williams shot it back in April (when it was still cold here; yes that is a winter coat) but I didn't expect it to be so...prominent!

Recently a fellow writer sent me Submittable's e-newsletter. At the very bottom, after all the links to articles and notices, there were two lists. The first was the names of writers who had had the most number of rejections that month. The second was the list of authors whose pieces had been accepted that month. Of the five successful authors, four were also on the "most rejected" list. That is not a coincidence.

I know I always harp on about this but I'm going to sing my song again: submit your work! Submit, submit, submit. Rejection is a (frequent) pit stop on the road to acceptance. But it's just that - a pit stop. It is not the final destination.

ps. Mutton Curry is linked to A Drawer Full of Guggums (published in Racket) and to another story I have coming out later this year. If you read Mutton Curry and are wondering what the secret ingredient is in Amma's curry, stay tuned. All will be revealed!

Riddle Fence 29

Riddle Fence 29

The newest issue of Riddle Fence is out and I've got a story inside. It's called When the end came and it's probably the most Townie piece I've ever written. I took as many quirky things as I could find in St. John's and shoved them into a story that is ostensibly about quantum computers but is really about anxiety. (Or is about cheeseburgers? YOU BE THE JUDGE)

Are all writers like this? I get preoccupied for short, intense bursts on very specific things and then I work my obsessions out by grappling with them in short stories. When I first started writing, it was around the time that everyone I knew was either pregnant or had very new babies. The anecdotes my friends told me about pregnancy, infertility, and new motherhood were absolutely riveting and of course I shamelessly took a lot of what they shared and funnelled it straight into my work. Butter Tea at Starbucks, Miloslav, Quickening, and Gliding, Weightless (along with a couple more that will never see the light of day) were drafted in these years.

And then I got obsessed with long dead artsy bohemians (the pre-Raphaelites and the Bloomsbury Group). A Drawer Full of Guggums was written during this period along with two other stories that I am personally really proud of but no one wants to publish. (Hello! Will someone please say yes to these stories?)

Riddle Fence is where art and literature meet

Right after that, I went through a crucial rite of passage and became obsessed with theoretical physics and wouldn't shut up about black holes and string theory and wave-particle duality. I harangued all Tom's colleagues at dinner parties and forced them to tell me about their research. And then I wrote a bunch of linked stories until I got the physics bug out of my system. When the End Came is the first of the set to make it to print. Hooray! Hopefully this means I can get the other three out there too.

Riddle Fence 29 is beautiful as always. Stand outs for me in this issue are the cover art, Karen Stentaford's three prints, and David Ferry's short story April's Fool. If you're not in St. John's, don't have a subscription, and can't find a copy at your local indie book shop, you can buy a back issues online. Issue 29 should be available to purchase there soon.

Quickening

The only thing better than short stories are linked short stories. I love to read them. And I love to write them. Back in 2012 I wrote a story about a character called Hen who goes on holiday to France with her sister Daphne. The story is called "Gliding, Weightless"  and was published in Riddle Fence, issue 21. And then I wrote another story set a couple of years earlier and told from the point of view of Hen's husband Neil. It's called "Quickening" and today it was published by Understorey Magazine's latest issue. You can read the story here.

Math and hockey

My blog post about the Canada Reads gender gap went a little bit viral, this week. (Hello, new readers!) And on Tuesday, I spoke with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning. It was a quick six minute interview but we got into both the math and the larger issue of voice. One thing Matt asked: couldn't something else be driving the results, like the quality of the book or debating style? This is a question that's been asked quite a bit all week so I'm glad he raised it.

Now, I have binged several seasons of Canada Reads. Remember, all this began with me dissecting old episodes looking for winning and losing patterns. And yes, there are alliances and horse trading, and people vote off books that are perceived as strong. Books are voted off because their defenders are disliked. Graphic and YA novels can't get a break. Ditto books by Indigenous authors. All of these dynamics are in play. BUT every panel is different. Different players around the table every year. They vary in age, ethnicity, region, vocation, debate style, and literary taste. Some vote strategically. Others vote with their hearts. And the books change too, varying widely in content and style. The only constant is that there are always men and women.

Imagine two hockey teams facing off in 16 consecutive games. Red Team wins 13. Blue Team wins 3. You'd conclude that Red Team has better players right? But what if I told you the players on both teams were always changing, different skaters and goalies lacing up for every game? According to the math, this is very unlikely to be a fluke.

Tom gave an in-depth answer to this question in the comments of the original post. You should read his reply, if only because he uses the bad-ass expression "null-hypothesis." But in short, the evidence does not support the theory that gender is irrelevant in predicting success.

Some people (cough, cough...men) have argued we can't use the past to predict the future. To which my friend Nadra scoffed: "said every person ever...as history repeats itself over and over." (Ironically, this is exactly what The Boat People is about - how the sins of the past, when forgotten, repeat themselves in the future).

In fact, we use statistics about the past to predict the future all the time. It's called actuarial science and the insurance industry has been making hay with it for decades.

You’ve gotta be that girl in the horror movie with the knife in her teeth who’s climbing back into danger.
— Emily McKibbon, The New Quarterly

Enough about math! Monday ended up being a big day for rejection. In addition to getting voted off Canada Reads (to the Isle of Misfit Books where Craig, Cherie, and I are currently sipping pina coladas under a palm tree), I got a grant rejection and also had a form letter "no thanks" to a short story. Ah, the glamorous writing life. So I really appreciated this piece in The New Quarterly about rejection and the importance of grit. My favourite line was from the writer Emily McKibbon: "You’ve gotta be that girl in the horror movie with the knife in her teeth who’s climbing back into danger because she’s burnt out on running away from her troubles."

But this week was not a total bust. I had an acceptance too! Riddle Fence will publish my story "When the end came" in their spring issue. It's a comedy about quantum computers. I had so much fun writing it (that's not something I can say about every story) and it's part of a series of four linked stories, three of which deal with theoretical physics. This is the first of the four that I've managed to place.

Back to Canada Reads. I've been avidly watching all week, scrutinizing all the plays, and I've been so impressed by how Mozhdah has handled herself. Being under those lights, made to speak off the cuff, with a live studio audience and everyone watching at home, knowing what you say will live on the internet for posterity, that is no easy feat. I would probably crumble. But Mozhdah has been cool and collected. She's never lost her temper or yelled over anyone else. She's taken care with her words and her critique. I'm proud and frankly, relieved. Part of the stress for all of us writers is wondering how our defenders will represent us and our books. Right after I lost on Monday, my friend Nadika - who is a Canada Reads junkie - messaged me to say: Having a defender who isn't going to embarrass you is worth more than winning.

The really nice thing about this whole experience (apart from the book sales and publicity) has been getting to know the other writers and I'm really, really excited for our future appearances together. Omar and Cherie are sharing the stage at the Ottawa Writers Festival, which I'm also reading at late next month. And then the three of us will reunite with Canada Reads host Ali Hassan at The FOLD in Brampton in early May. In August, Omar and I are on stage at Winterset and I'm excited about that because our novels have so much in common. Reading American War, and in particular the scenes at Camp Patience, I had a feeling of real familiarity. I knew the scenes he was painting because I'd sketched them out myself. Go check out my events page for more details about tickets and times.

 

 

 

Resolutions

Happy new year! It's January 1st and as good a time as any for resolutions. Every year my list of goals include a few that are work-related. For 2018 I plan to:

Sleep more
Sleep is important for health and sanity of course but it's also crucial to the creative process. If you don't believe me, just listen to this recent episode of Hidden Brain and pay attention to the anecdote about how Keith Richards wrote the song "Satisfaction."

Read one short story a week
Short stories are highly underrated which is really too bad because I think they have the power to teach us more about craft than any other form. I have a bad habit of reading collections I love fast, just gobbling them up, story after story without pause.

It wasn't always like this. When I was first learning to write, I'd read a story slowly then again and again. I'd think about all the different elements - character and plot and pace and ponder the ending, why it worked or didn't, and whether I would have written it differently. Slow, methodical reading can be so satisfying, like putting a single square of dark chocolate on the tongue and allowing it to dissolve. I want to do this more. And also, I want to read short stories more consistently. So I'm aiming for one a week and when I find one that really speaks to me, I plan to read it over and over and think about it slowly. Today I read Carmen Maria Machado's "The Husband Stitch," which is the first story in her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties. I've read the story before and it has that fantastic depth and texture that the very best stories contain. There's so much going on beneath the surface of the story. It demands re-reading. It demands slow and thoughtful consumption. This week, I plan to give it both.

Read more current books
As a reader, I'm always behind the times, getting round to books two or even three years after they are published. But being a professional writer means being asked to recommend and talk about new reads. Last year by total fluke I happened to read a bunch of the newest books (Son of a Trickster, The End of Music, Brother, All Is Beauty Now, Bellevue Square....to name just a handful) which came in handy. This year I plan to be more purposeful. So far my list includes: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Neel Mukherjee's latest A State of Freedom, Mary Beard's Women & Power, Machado's debut mentioned above, Zadie Smith's new essay collection, Feel Free, Kim Fu's The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, and That Time I Loved You by Carrieanne Leung. That's for starters.

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!

 

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"

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

Doppel

Mindy Kaling is my patronus.

Mindy Kaling is my patronus.

 

Doppel was one of those stories that came to me quickly. Partly because I was taking a class at the time and the muse works overtime when there are professors assigning deadlines. And partly because the story was salvaged from the cutting room floor.

The Boat People takes place partly in Vancouver and one of the main characters lives in the Downtown Eastside. I became obsessed with the ecology of that neighbourhood. Historically downtrodden and drug addled, Carrall and Hastings is undergoing some pretty serious gentrification. There is a movement of bodies as the long term residents are getting squeezed into a smaller space and increasingly pushed out.

It's an important and interesting story but it was too much of an aside for the novel so it got dropped. Fortunately, I delete NOTHING and was able to re-work much of what was lost into Doppel.

Bullet in the brain

Last month I taught a writing workshop for teenagers. I stuck to the basics: Aristotelean arc, point of view, character, plot. It was only a three hour workshop so we barely scratched the surface but I was thrilled with how much the students seemed to absorb and the quality of group discussion.

Much of the workshop was spent looking at excerpts of short stories, teasing sentences and paragraphs apart to see how all the different aspects of fiction (point of view, character, sensory detail) work together. We ended with Tobais Wolff's short story Bullet in the Brain. Find it at The New Yorker or allow Wolff to read it to you on this episode of This American Life.

Fair warning to anyone who doesn't know the story: HERE BE SPOILERS.

Wolff's story was the perfect end note, bringing together many of the things we had been discussing all afternoon. But the interesting thing about the story is how Wolff both follows and flaunts convention.

Bullet in the Brain goes like this: A man walks into a bank moments before two armed men hold the place up. The plot is compelling. Right away something dramatic happens and the tension climbs and climbs to a climax. And the pace is quick. The men with guns storm in on page two and by the top of page three one of those guns is shoved into the protagonist's midsection. So far, so conventional.

But then there's this: the protagonist is an ass. A book critic, Anders is known for the "weary elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed." He's arrogant. He's elitist. He can't keep his fool mouth shut, not even when there's a gun shoved into his gut. This is a risk. Because when I paused the reading to ask the fifteen young writers, not one was rooting for Anders. And neither was I.

Another thing Wolff does is he subverts the Aristotelean arc. In a conventional story the denouement and conclusion follow in short order after the climax. Some stories dispense with the resolution altogether and end on a cliffhanger. This makes sense of course; once the big blow up happens, there's little reason for the reader to hang around.

But in Bullet in the Brain, the climax happens at the bottom of page 4 and there are still three more pages left to go...nearly half the story! After the present tense action, the compelling narrative that has keep us glued to the page, ends, Wolff pulls us into flashback and character development.

What?! Character development is meant to happen in the first act, during the "introductions" stage. Flashback is used to develop character of course but also to pause the narrative and draw out the tension. It's not used at the end, after the gun has been fired and the main character is a goner.

Or is it? Wolff doesn't just make the unconventional work, the story works because he flips convention. The drama of the robbery - which we are tricked into thinking is what this piece is all about - is only there in service to the real story. The real story is a tale of character development, how this man Anders became the surly goat he is today. The real story is embedded in the flashback. And then the turn happens. Not in the action on the page (the outcome of which is foreshadowed by the title), but in the mind of the reader. At the end I asked the students how they felt about Anders. They were surprised to find they sympathized with him.

The spreadsheet

It's rejection season! Seven rejections so far this month. My friend Sonam asked me how I handle it - so many "no"s. I've written about rejection before but not about my spreadsheet. The spreadsheet is key to the whole "brush it off" process. (It's also key to staying sane and organized.)

The format doesn't matter too much. Submitted. Rejected. Accepted. That's all you need. Create the spreadsheet as soon as you start sending your work out. That way, when the replies come in, you'll have a place to tally them up and something concrete to do.

The act of filling in the boxes can be analgesic. You read the rejection. You fill in the spreadsheet. Decide if you need to revise the story. If not, because you can see at a glance which publications haven't seen the story yet, you can re-submit right away. The goal is to have as few stories in the rejected section as possible.

Recently, I began jotting down alternative publications beside each submitted story. I highly recommend this approach. It makes re-submitting even more automatic and leaves zero time for brooding.

Writers! If I can give you one piece of advice: stop feeling sorry for yourself. That is precious time when you could be writing, editing, submitting, reading or binge watching Orange is the New Black.

Eventually something will stick. A story will be accepted and then you can move it to the "published" section of the spreadsheet (keep it visible, close to the rejected list). This is important because you can see over time how stories graduate from rejected to accepted. And keeping track of which publications rejected the stories will also help you see the truth: that taste is subjective. Just because a story is rejected doesn't mean it's worthless. Sometimes, yes, the story needs work. And if a rejection comes with feedback, consider it a gift. But often a rejection from one publication is only that: a rejection from one publication.

The spreadsheet speaks the truth. Look at all those acceptances! Look at all those rejections! Being a writer means being rejected. So go send your work out, go court rejection.

 

 

 

 

Glimmer Train

Good news! I submitted a story to Glimmer Train's Very Short Fiction Contest and they gave me an Honourable Mention!

The notice of the mention was especially nice arriving as it did on the heels of a rejection from The Paris Review.* Actually, the email from Glimmer Train came as a relief. A few months ago, I began submitting stories internationally and so far it's been nothing but rejection (five to be precise). And while an honourable mention doesn't equal publication it does feel incredibly positive, like encouragement to keep going. Thanks for the virtual fist bump, Glimmer Train!

I first discovered Glimmer Train a few years ago when I read Bret Anthony Johnston's Soldier of Fortune, a story that was first published in their pages then went on to win the Pushcart Prize and be included in 2011's Best American Short Stories collection.

I really admire Glimmer Train. It is run by a tiny team of two: co-editors and sisters Susan and Linda. I love their mission of publishing unknown and emerging authors, their commitment to payment, and their work ethic. And bottom line: they publish fantastic fiction. Glimmer Train stories have a seriously impressive record of prizes including the Pushcart and O. Henry.

The perk of rejection is it frees stories up. Back into the deck they go to get re-shuffled and sent on, out once again into the world.

*It seems audacious to admit I'm submitting stories to The Paris Review. But there is it. I AM! Why the hell not?

Legs Dangling Out

Hey! ArtsNL just awarded me a grant!

I'm really pleased. The money is much appreciated of course but almost as important is what a grant represents. Someone is willing to invest in my work. And in a collection of short stories, no less. Novels get all the glory but a short story is no easy feat. Bless you, ArtsNL.

The name of the thing keeps changing but at the moment the collection is called "Legs Dangling Out." It's a line from an early short story that was cut long ago. I've been bashing away at these stories for a while now - since I started writing, really. I've got about twenty (some published, some still in early stages) and a complete first draft is coming into view. December is my goal and I'm toying with the idea of taking a class in the Fall to give me the final push across the finish line.

Watch this space.

 

It's LIT!

Have you heard of All Lit Up? It's a website and resource for discerning readers looking for quirky Canadian writing from Indie publishers. You can browse and buy books and trawl through their blog for recommendations and reviews and updates on literary festivals.

All Lit Up just featured Racket. The blog post is funny and spot on. Some choice excerpts:

"Racket is one of those books you can judge by its cover."

"And if a Newfoundlander in Fort Mac is waiting for a bucket of salt beef to come off the luggage carousel, there’s a good chance he’s also waiting for a bag of Purity’s hardtack."

"But there is also something saucy and self-aware about the cover of Racket, an anthology of short stories that claims to introduce new Newfoundland writing. Saucy, because the Purity brand stands for tradition while the stories here are contemporary. They are written in Newfoundland and they are fresh off the press, but they make no attempt to capture ‘Newfoundland’ as we have understood it in the past."

Read the full post here.

Sense of an ending II

Last Fall Tessa Hadley was interviewed by BBC Radio 4's James Naughtie about three stories in her collection Married Love. What interested me most - but wasn't discussed much - were her thoughts on endings. You can listen to the full podcast here but to summarize, she says: stories must take a turn and that you should leave something left over, a note of yearning at the end.

To me this means you begin with the characters at a certain point, then in the course of the story their circumstances change, and there is a turn so that they are left somewhere else. Or the reader begins at a point - perhaps with an assumption - and by the end the turn takes place in the reader's mind. The reader comes to a realization or their assumptions are proven wrong.

As for the yearning….there is always that unfinished note at the end of Hadley's stories. I don't think I had ever consciously realized that but it's true. The characters feel like they are left longing or I am. This is one of those characteristics that I love about her stories, that I want to emulate but can't because I can't even really articulate what it is that she does or how she does it.

And then this from Hadley on endings: "If ever you can take off the last paragraph and it still works then you didn't need that last paragraph."