Category: Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog

A Letter to my Younger Self

Here I am at eleven and three quarters on an Anglican Church picnic excursion, the tallest girl in the photograph

Community Voices: Susan Swan

Fiction brings the past into focus

Published in the Vancouver Sun October 16, 2012


Dear 12-Year-Old Me,

As you know, I’ve written about a character like you who appears in my new novel, The Western Light. Of course, its narrator, Mouse Bradford, isn’t identical to you.

It’s always better for novelists to create characters who are like us and not like us so we have the freedom to invent.

Mouse Bradford shares some things with you, though, and I guess it’s fair to talk about what the two of you have in common. Like Mouse, you had problems with your physical appearance growing up in the 1950s. You were tall and your body didn’t conform to female standards of beauty at the time. When you were 12 you spent the worst night of your life sitting on a chair at a sock hop, waiting for boys to ask you to dance. No boys did.

Mouse, too, feels unfeminine. Actually, she calls herself “ugly and twisted-looking” because polio left her with a withered leg she calls Hindrance. She has to wear a built up Oxford and she walks with a limp although she is determined not to be self-pitying.

And like you, Mouse’s father was a country doctor in the days before health care. So he has no time to spend with her because he is busy delivering babies, pulling people out of car wrecks and performing surgery on the spot.

And like you, Mouse develops a crush on a father substitute, an ex-NHL hockey player who has been sent to the local asylum in Mouse’s town after murdering his wife and child.

The name of Mouse’s crush is John Pilkie and he is emotionally present for Mouse in a way her father is not.

Your father substitute wasn’t potentially dangerous, the way John Pilkie might be for Mouse. Your crush went to the University of Western and he wrote you long, philosophical letters about what it meant to grow up. You searched hard in those letters for any signs of romantic interest, and you were over the moon if he signed “Affectionately” before his name.

You longed for him to fall in love with you even though he was 13 years older, and there was no way your parents would let you go out with somebody that age.

Oh, you were desperate for male affection and approval.

You needed it even more than other girls, it seemed, because your father was one of those paradoxes: the community hero who has no time for his family. And it was hard for you to know what to do with your longing for him when his patients needed him so much it could be a matter of life and death.

Anyway, I have a few things to say to you in case you don’t read my new book. First of all, accepting our fathers is one of the big struggles everybody faces in their lives. In his non-fiction book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell calls reconciling with the father “the atoning moment,” and he says this encounter is the event that lets the hero’s new self emerge.

So you are not alone here, dear younger self. Both men and women face the struggle of seeing their fathers as they are. It is hard, though, very hard to accept that your father behaves in a way you might not like. But fathers are people too, and they all have their problems. So don’t put your worth in how they love you, or place your power to act for yourself in your father’s hands. You have your own agency. Use it.

And you know what? That feels good. There is nothing sexier than self-reliance, which is what your struggles have been helping you develop even though you might not realize that right now.

And here’s some advice about feeling physically inadequate. You will probably grow out of those feelings. But in the meantime, keep some ammunition in reserve. If somebody asks you about your appearance in a genuinely interested way, by all means have a conversation.

But if they make a disparaging remark, shoot them down with a joke. Make a list of wisecracks you can use in these circumstances. I assure you they will never try to put you down again.

So that’s about it for now. Except I do hope you read my book. You may find some things I missed.

Full article:

What You Should Know about Agents:

Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog:


First Draft of a Manuscript

First of all, most agents are too busy to regularly submit short stories and poetry to magazines on your behalf. They will likely place a piece of fiction or non-fiction for you at the time of your book’s publication, but for the most part, your shorter submissions are your responsibility. And the easiest way to find out who you should submit your work to is to read American and Canadian literary magazines as well as Harpers, the New Yorker and the Atlantic. McSweeneys takes edgier writing at

Secondly, you must check out the submission guidelines on the website of a literary agent before submitting a cover letter with a sample portion of your manuscript. Each agent has slightly different guidelines. Some like email submissions; some don’t and so on.  And some agencies, like the Anne McDermid and Associates in Toronto and Amanda Urban in New York, now don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. This means you would have to get a veteran author to introduce you to their staff.

McDermid’s agency is also one of the first Canadian agencies to publish their authors’ work in an e-book format. Other agencies as well as Amazon and Kobo do some digital publishing too, and there is likely going to be a lot more online publishing by agents and big box book sellers as time goes on. So keep your eye out for who is doing what. Publishers’ Lunch in the US is a good place to keep track of this sort of news.

A blog called the Shatzkin Files also has up-to-date news and opinions on trends in publishing.

Unless you have a non-fiction scoop like the secret sex life of Stephen Harper, your manuscript should be finished and very polished before you try to find an agent. AN AGENT WHO HAS REJECTED YOUR UNPOLISHED DRAFT WON’T LOOK AT A MORE POLISHED DRAFT.  Keep in mind that most agents get between 20 to 30 submissions a day from new clients, and eighty percent of published Canadian writers don’t have agents because competition for agents is tough.

Here are some of the reputable Canadian agents I know personally and can recommend:

Denise Bukowski (The Bukowski Agency); Dean Cooke, (The Cooke Agency); Jackie Kaiser, Linda McKnight, Hilary McMahon, Natasha Haines (Foreign Rights Director at Westwood Creative Artists),* John Pearce (who lives in Victoria, B.C.) and Bruce Westwood (Westwood Creative Artists.) Michael Levine handles film and TV rights at Westwood (Westwood Creative Artists) Samantha Haywood,* Meghan Macdonald,* Shaun Bradley, David and Lynn Bennett (Transatlantic Agency.) Sam Hiyate,* (The Rights Factory); Helen Heller (Helen Heller Agency); Anne McDermid (Anne McDermid and Associates Ltd.); Rick Broadhead* and Associates; Bella Pomer (The Pomer Agency); and Beverly Slopen (Beverly Slopen Agency). Daneman, Haywood, Macdonald, Hiyate, and McMahon, are all relatively young and more receptive to younger writers, but if your work is really good most agents will still want you.

Canada has more agents than those listed above. And there is more information about agents available on the Writers’ Union of Canada Preditors & Editors (P &E Literary Agents) has information about American agents who are willing to take on Canadians if the work is good. Some of the top American agents include: Virginia Barber of Virginia Barber Associates; Kim Witherspoon and Alexis Hurley at Inkwell Associates: Amanda Urban at ICM (who is not currently accepting submissions), Ellen Levine at the Levine Agency, and Andrew Wylie at the Wylie Agency.

If you want to get your manuscript evaluated before you try to find an agent or a publisher, you can pay for a workshop like the excellent July workshop put on by Humber College. Humber also has a correspondence course where unpublished writers mail professional writers like myself installments of their manuscript and get the writer’s feedback returned to them by mail. AGAIN: DO NOT SUBMIT UNPOLISHED WORK TO AN AGENT. YOU WON’T GET A SECOND CHANCE.

The Writers’ Union of Canada also has a fee based manuscript evaluation service. And some professional writers will edit work for other writers. Lorna Owen, an American freelance editor, looks at unpublished drafts for a fee. Average fees for this kind of service are between $35 to $75 an hour.

How to Write a Cover Letter to an Agent or a Publisher

Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog

Cover letters should be short (one page or a page and a half) and to the point. They should shake the agent or publisher awake and make them want to read your book. In other words, write “tight and bright.” Avoid over-writing (flowery or elevated diction, too many adjectives and adverbs) and vague generalizations as in… “it’s a book about love.” If you fall into those traps,  your letter will alert the agent or editor to poor language skills, and chances are they won’t bother looking at your  sample chapter.

The first paragraph should introduce you as a writer. It should briefly summarize your writing experience, publications and awards (if you have any). The same first paragraph should mention the name of a writer like myself whom you have studied under and quote what that person said about your work as in: “Jane Smith shows extraordinary promise…”

The second paragraph should describe your book. You should start off with the title and why you wrote your book and then say what you think is unique about it. A well-known publisher once told me she was looking for: (1) Illumination: does the book illuminate its subject? (2) Edge: does the writing have an energy that conveys a narrative excitement that will make the reader turn the page? (3) Craft: story-telling skills, interesting voice and a writerly use of language.

The third paragraph should give a brief summary of the plot of the novel or the subject of your non-fiction book. These are hard to write so try to describe what happens simply and clearly. And again––no overwriting. And no sloppy use of language. Be specific and concrete.

The fourth paragraph should say if you are enclosing a sample chapter or excerpt, and possibly a more detailed plot summary. (You must check an agent’s website. Their submissions category will tell you the format they want you to use. Some ask just for a cover letter; others ask for sample chapters. it varies so make sure you follow their guidelines.) A sample chapter should be very polished. Too many emerging writers send out work before it is finished. Remember: agents and publishers are looking for an excuse not to take your work because these days they are flooded with query letters and submissions. So you need to overcome that resistance by writing a cover letter they can’t ignore.

In closing, thank the editor or publisher for considering your work. Agents don’t like multiple submissions but all publishing companies understand that you or your agent may be shopping your novel around. With publishers, multiple submissions are standard.

In Canada, it is harder to find an agent than a publisher. Eighty percent of Canadian writers are un-agented, perhaps because we have more writers per capita then the U.S. Our government has supported writers through grants and cultural programs as a way of promoting the Canadian identity. It makes the field very competitive for you; at the same time, you live in a culture that has made encouraging the growth of a national literature part of its policies and Canadian writers have been very successful internationally, winning Booker nominations and other foreign awards like the Dublin’s Impac prize.

And last but not least, keep going. All writers get rejected. It’s a hazard of the trade, and learning how to roll with rejections is just part of a day’s work.

Heroines of the Sexual Gothic and Where Do Writers Get their Ideas?

Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog

Readers and journalists are forever asking writers, where do you get your ideas from? This is a hard question for writers to answer. Sometimes ideas arrive like the ping of an email dropping into your computer. Other times they develop gradually, like an obsession that gets bigger and bigger the way a snowball grows as it rolls down hill.

An easier question for me is, where do my characters come from? Looking back at a lifetime of writing fiction, I have to admit that my main characters are usually parts of me that broke off and then were repressed because dealing with them felt too dangerous during the time when this aspect of myself surfaced.

The best example of this is the novel I wrote about a distant ancestor, the giantess Anna Swan, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World. Anna (1846- 188) stood seven foot six in her stocking feet and weighed 413 lbs. when short, dainty and demure women were the Victorian ideal. When I was twelve in the late 1950’s, I was six foot two during an era when girls were supposed to be five foot two with eyes of blue. One summer I grew six inches so I worried that the march of my head to the ceiling was unstoppable. I was secretly convinced that I was going to have to exhibit myself for a living, the way Anna did.

Anna was my bogey woman, the self I didn’t want to become so I quickly shoved her out of mind until I was in my late twenties and starting to write fiction. I came across her name in a magazine article and soon I began to dream about writing the story of a giant woman living in Toronto’s Casa Loma. Then I decided it was a performance piece about giants and midgets. I put on that performance piece with Toronto choreographer Louise Garfield in Toronto’s Dance Lab in 1979. In 1983, I published a novel about Anna’s life, sticking to the basic facts (which were extraordinary, like Anna.) But I put in my own interpretation about how Anna felt about growing up in Nova Scotia, exhibiting with P.T. Barnum, meeting Queen Victoria and marrying the Kentucky giant, and giving birth to two giant babies, both of whom died.

See what I mean? Anna was a living, breathing myth. And finally, I could investigate her when I was mature enough to imagine how she felt about living her short, spectacular life.

I’m still interested in Anna’s story and what it means for me and other women so I’m staging a performance reading called Heroines of the Sexual Gothic to celebrate Anna and my other fictional characters. Sexual Gothic is a term that describes fiction written exclusively, extremely and even grotesquely about the body. That is, the body is a metaphor for trauma and that’s true of most of my female characters because I was traumatized by my own female body when I was young. I suspect complexes or traumas about their bodies is still true for most girls and now even for many boys because physical perfection is expected of both genders in this age of electronic media and the Internet.

The first staging of Heroines of the Sexual Gothic will be a fundraiser for the Toronto Women’s Bookstore June 7. The Billie Hollies, an all girl folk-Noir quartet, is part of the performance reading. I was knocked out by their music last year at a Random House event called Torn From the Pages. Louise Fagan is the producer and Mariel Marshal, assistant dramaturge.  After our work-in-progress is over, we intend to put on a finished version of Heroines of the Sexual Gothic in Toronto and New York next year. The above image is of Anna with her husband Martin Van Buren Bates, who was four inches shorter. I’ll write about agents in my next Sunday morning blog.


James Wood and the Breezy, Free, Indirect Style

Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog

I’m still recovering from the news that the publication date for The Western Light has been moved up to August 2012 because my publishers are enthusiastic about the novel. It’s what one hopes for and I’m superstitious enough not to want to talk about it. In the meantime, let’s look at James Wood and his discovery of a fiction technique called “the free, indirect style.” He writes about it in his book of non-fiction, How Fiction Works, which also has interesting things to say about specific concrete detail, for those of you learning how to describe the world of your characters. What Wood calls “free, indirect style” isn’t really new. Novelists have been doing it for a while without realizing it. Here are three examples that demonstrate what Wood says. The examples are in single quotes:

Example One: ‘He looked over at his wife. “She looks so unhappy,” he thought, “almost sick.” He wondered what to say.’ Wood calls this straight reporting, the old-fashioned notion of the character’s thought as a speech made to himself, a kind of internal address.

Example Two: ‘He looked over at his wife. She looked so unhappy, he thought, almost sick. He wondered what to say.’ This is reported or indirect speech, the internal speech of the husband reported by the author as such. It is the style writers of realism traditionally use.

Example Three: ‘He looked at his wife. Yes, she was tiresomely unhappy again, almost sick. What the hell should he say?’ The third example is what Wood calls the free, indirect style because the husband’s internal speech has been freed of its authorial flagging, no “he said to himself”or “he wondered” or “he thought.” There is a huge gain in flexibility, Wood claims, because the narrative seems to float away from the novelist, and take on the properties of the character, who now seems to “own” the words.

Here’s something else about it that Wood doesn’t mention: free, indirect style closes the psychic distance between the reader and the character. The psychic distance in fiction is like a camera.It can move in for a close up or do a sweeping panoramic shot of what’s going on. So in a sense, you are always writing a close up when you use free indirect style because the psychic distance between the reader and the character becomes more intimate. It also feels breezier, and that makes your writing look like effortless story telling. And that’s important. So get to recognize the technique and learn to use it to your advantage. As a veteran novelist, I’m still finding out how to make the best use of it too.




In the Voice of the Non-Bleeders

Some Moments of Clarity in the Final Stages:

I said I would report back on how I decided to use the present and past tense in the revisions of my new novel, The Western Light, which shares a heroine with The Wives of Bath. The story in my new book is mostly told from the past tense in the point of view of twelve-year-old girl, Mouse Bradford. Occasionally, Mouse’s voice shifts to that of an older woman looking back. (A much older woman, one in her Sixties.)

In fact,  both points of view are the views of an N.B. or Non-Bleeder (as Mouse puts it) because Mouse hasn’t entered puberty yet in The Western Light and the older narrator is well past her child-bearing years. Just to make things more confusing, when the older Mouse talks, she usually talks in the present tense since she is the one who is in “the immediate now” of the story, as opposed to “the past now” in twelve-year Mouse’s voice. And what’s more, the twelve-year-old sometimes talks in the present when she is describing a fantasy or a particularly powerful experience.

Ultimately, to be even more confusing, all fiction by any writer is in present tense even if it is written in the past tense because the story is unfolding before the reader’s eyes as they read.

But my hunch is that tense issues don’t matter much to readers if the writing is vivid. However, novelists have to believe they are following some kind of intuitive system, just the way they have to be able to see and believe in their characters on a deep level. We writers have to convince ourselves, in other words, before we can convince you. In the end, the reader gets the benefit of those convictions in the confident way the story is told without understanding all the mental footwork the novelist is doing with him or herself behind the scenes. And that’s the way it should be unless you happen to write literary criticism.

All this tweaking is part of “putting on the gloss,” as Jonathon Franzen calls the final stages where writers refine their earlier drafts of their book. My novel will be published in August of 2012, and I have already been working on catalogue copy and choosing its cover. I’ve included here a draft of the cover with its catalogue copy. In 2007 I was taken with an image in Joyner’s art catalogue. I had a Eureka moment when I saw the image of this painting by Canadian artist Charles Fraser Comfort called “Related to the Octopus Tree.” It was painted in 1979 and Fraser died in 1994. See what you think.

Publication Date for The Western Light has been moved to August 2012

Susan Swan Pickets with the Toronto Library Workers

There is no Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog today because the author is out picketing with the Toronto library workers. The librarians’ contract is being renegotiated unfairly by Mayor Rob Ford and his allies. A blog will appear later in the week.

Getting Rid of the Fish Head

Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog

I said I would write about the fish head this week so here goes. The fish head is the writing you do when you sit down at your desk and don’t know where to begin. Except that you know you have to start somewhere so you write the fish head. It’s main function is to get you to start writing.

I am a big believer in fish heads. Without them, I suspect many major works of literature would never have happened. And often the fish head is entertaining, or has some interest to you, the author, or you wouldn’t have written it. And in the early stages of a draft, it is often impossible to recognize that your opening pages are a fish head. And that’s OK. Keep the fish head in the first draft if it is too painful to get rid of it.

But once you start revising your novel or magazine article, the fish head usually needs to be lopped off. Why? Because it doesn’t add anything. It just sits there, and likely isn’t your best possible opening. An easy way to excise the fish head is to save it in another file. That way you won’t feel too much pain about chopping it off. The nice old fish head is still waiting around to help you the next time. Another way to get rid of the fish head is to make it a prologue. But be wary. If it’s a prologue, it needs to be an exceptionally well-written prologue, and not just the usual sloppy old fish head that writers write to get going.

I have a prologue in my Gothic novel The Wives of Bath that my editor said was a fish head. She felt it didn’t add anything to my novel about a murder in a girls’ boarding school. I disagreed. My prologue started with the sentence: “The ghostly woman on the giant tricycle stared down at me like an old friend.” My editor wanted my book to start with the first two sentences of the first page: “My name is Mouse––Mouse Bradford. Mary Beatrice Bradford, if I want to be long-winded about it.”

Comparing the sentences, I have no doubts now that, “My name is Mouse” is the stronger opening sentence. It’s more idiosyncratic and could only have been written by the narrator.

The first sentence of my prologue doesn’t smack of the narrator’s personality. It’s a description of a Gothic dream that could easily have been written by a number of other writers. Still, it was only four paragraphs long. So it wasn’t a long, long boring fish head. And it was based on a creepy dream about a buried body. Its atmospheric aspect was why my editor gave eventually in and let me keep it.

But I don’t think it was the right decision. I’m telling you all this to demonstrate how hard it is for even an older veteran like myself to get rid of the fish head. But that’s the kind of expert chopping we have to do to strengthen our work. We need to kill our darlings, as G.K. Chesterton once said. (Well, maybe not all our darlings, but definitely the ones that don’t give the story what it needs.)


Gender Crossing and Casanova

Here’s a visual clip for my Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog. It’s from a conversation I had with producer Louise Fagan. Next week, I’ll talk about fish heads.

How Present is Your Present Tense?

Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog

(image from

I’ve been thinking a lot about tense lately because I’m writing a novel in the voice of an older woman talking about herself as a twelve-year-old girl. So sometimes the narrator talks like the twelve-year- old and sometimes she sounds much older. And sometimes she talks in the present tense too, but mostly she talks in the past tense, and I’ve been wondering how often a novelist can change tenses without confusing or irritating readers. Maximum freedom is what I’m after when I write but unless I’ve laid down some kind of intuitive system in how I tell my story I may end up with a babbling that makes sense only to me.

Of course, there is good literary babbling like the sort that James Joyce writes. But as the critic Hugh Kenner once said, Joyce took stream of consciousness as far as the printed page could go. And I am not writing a stream of consciousness novel. So it wasn’t Joyce but the current short story by Alice Munro in The New Yorker (March 5 2012)  that gave me some clues about how present the present tense can be. In her story, Maven, Munro changes tense six or seven times. She starts off in the past, but in a time period that’s more less like ours and she writes, “All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it the seventies were not as we picture them now…”

Then she goes into the situation in the seventies which is where her story is set. As a girl, the narrator stayed with her aunt and her aunt’s husband, a small town doctor, and observed her aunt’s subservient relationship to her domineering mate. Every so often, Munro reflects back on the seventies situation with her aunt and uncle, and then she plunges on again with their story in the past tense.

But here’s the amazing thing: some of the narrator’s reflections on her aunt and uncle are told in the past tense and some of her reflections are told in the present tense. And then, displaying her virtuoso abilities, Munro even enters the present tense of the 1970’s stories when she wants to be fully dramatic … “The storm door is opening now, then the door into the front hall and, without the usual pause there to remove boots and winter coat or scarf, my uncle strides into the living room …

None of these switches in tense feel unnatural. All happen with seemingly effortless ease, perhaps because Munro is one of those writers who is as interested in how the narrator sees things as she is in her story.

In Helpless by Barbara Gowdy, she solved the choice of present or past tense in her novel about the kidnapping of a small girl by writing the background of her story in the past tense and writing about the kidnapping in the present tense. A neat solution but not every narrative can be divided up so precisely into narrative present and narrative past. And where does all this leave me, as a writer writing my own stories? Taking the cue from Munro, I’m going to try shifting whenever I want from past to present to present past and see where it leads me. I’ll let you know how it goes next week.