What You Should Know about Agents:
Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog:
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 http://www.mcsweeneys.net
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. http://www.publishersmarketplace.com/lunch/free/
A blog called the Shatzkin Files also has up-to-date news and opinions on trends in publishing. http://www.idealog.com/blog/
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 www.writersunion.ca 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 than 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
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.)
How Present is Your Present Tense?
Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog
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.
The ‘God is in the Details’ Thing
Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog
I’ve promised my writing students that every Sunday morning I would talk about an aspect of the writing craft. So here’s my offering for February 19: the God of Story lies in the details. That means kicking the slothful habit of using vague, general language. For instance, something, somewhere, somehow are vague and general. So is the adjective little, which Graham Greene considered sentimental.
Here’s another example: a novice might think that “big” is the best word to describe the insides of the whale that swallowed Jonah for three days. But big is vague and general. In fact, big is one of the most general words in the English language. Relatively speaking, mostly everything is big compared to everything else that’s smaller. So if a writer uses the word big to describe the whale in the Biblical story of a man being swallowed by a fish, that writer isn’t doing their job. But if the writer describes how the whale’s intestines smelled to Jonah, there’s no need to use the adjective big. The concrete, specific detail about the intestines powerfully conjures up Jonah’s predicament. Namely, the whale is so big the stink of its intestines make it hard for Jonah to breathe.
In his novel, A Widow for One Year, John Irving calls this kind of detail, “the chosen detail, not a remembered one.” Irving argues through the voice of one of his characters, that the best fictional detail was the detail that should have defined the character or the episode or the atmosphere. “Novels were not arguments; a story worked, or it didn’t on its own merits,” Irving writes in his book. “What does it matter if a detail was real or imagined? What mattered was that the detail seemed real, and that it was absolutely the best detail for the circumstances.”
Flaubert called it using “le mot juste.” In the writing workshops I give, students sometimes respond to the need for details by providing a laundry list of adjectives that describe a person or situation in their story. Laundry lists of descriptive adjectives are better than pages of vague, general language. But they’re still not what is needed. Choosing the most characteristic detail is always better, and that can take more time, but it’s worth it, for both you and your reader.
Truth is Not Autobiography
Making Things Up
Some years ago, an American novelist gave me a piece of advice: Always pick a narrator that is like you and not like you so you have room to invent. Her advice was invaluable. And now that I am revising a novel set in my hometown, Midland, Ontario, I am even more struck by the wisdom in her words. Why? Looking back over my revisions for The Western Light, I see that I was more intent on reproducing certain things that happened to me. Not because those things were what the story needed (always the first rule of thumb in fiction) but because they happened to me and I wanted them to be literally true on the page.
Mouse Bradford, my narrator in The Western Light has a neglectful country doctor father. And I too, was a child of a country doctor in the fifties. So my first drafts for this book had “a poor me” quality because I felt neglected by my father as a girl. After all, how does a doctor spend time with his family if there is no medicare and doctors had to work around the clock? And how does a child find a space for their feelings about their father, who, like many doctors in small towns, was a revered figure? It was a problem. A problem that got me writing a novel. And that’s good because writing novels is my business.
As I’ve written my way through these drafts, something has shifted. I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself, for one. For another, I’ve remembered that my character Mouse is not me. She has some experiences in common with me, and certain patterns of thinking, but she is a different person than the author, me, who created her on the page. That’s really no surprise because novels distill and dramatize.
Memoirs distill and dramatize too, but the basic facts in a memoir need to be true. The author of a memoir is held accountable in a way that novelists aren’t. Lucky us. Lucky me for having so much creative freedom. I really didn’t need to work so hard at reproducing my childhood. Yes, I want the atmosphere and setting in the novel to have an authentic 1950’s feel. So I got in touch with my hometown’s facebook page and our group has been talking over all sorts of things about Midland, Ontario in the fifties. Things like where the old Georgian Hotel used to be on main street. And how did taxi drivers run a bootlegging business on the side. I’ve also heard wonderful new stories about my father that I am grateful for knowing. My novel will be richer as a result of these fb conversations and I am grateful there too.
Geographical and biographical facts help create the setting in a more or less realistic novel. But fictional characters are an invention even if you write in the first person. Henry Miller who wrote in the first person was not quite the same person as his brazen, bohemian narrator. And Mouse Bradford is not me either.
This is what really happened, we tell ourselves. So this is how it must be on the page. Not so. Truth is not autobiography. And staying true to what happened is the best way to take a story down the wrong road.
The Uselessness of Drone Writing
I solved the problem of killing off an old boyfriend in my revision of my next novel, The Western Light. He is only half-dead. By that I mean I haven’t changed Little Louie’s ex-lover as dramatically as I was thinking about doing. He just has some new traits, an interest in socialism and a job running a trade union in Windsor, and these characteristics will be a good foil for Little Louie’s mother, Big Louie, a matriarch who runs an oil patch in Petrolia, Ontario. So you see, instead of a full-fledged revolutionary, my minor but still important character ends up being a Canadian new democrat, of all things.
Enriching characters instead of killing them often happens when I’m revising a novel. At first, I think I must do something drastic to the character so they are unrecognizable and then I realize that I’m dealing with shades, not black and white brush strokes. After all, I’m a Gemini and I tend to swing to two extremes before I settle on the right solution. But this morning I’m thinking of another problem that goes with rewriting a novel: going on automatic pilot. Or, let me put it this way, getting lulled into the uselessness of drone writing.
To go back to a piece of writing it’s imperative that you, the writer, see it in a fresh way. If you’re lucky, like me and you have a good editor (or mentor) they will say things that open up the scene you are writing instead of closing you down. They will ask you questions like … can you tell me more about character X, or what does the mother’s boyfriend think about the mother’s daughter? But if you’re not lucky, you may tend to do what I do when I’m feeling insecure–polish the first twenty (substitute any number here) pages relentlessly and feel like I’ve been working hard. Polishing, or putting on the gloss, as Jonathon Franzen puts it, is a good thing to do at the very end of a book but not before.
In fact, drone writing, or ceaseless re-writing of the same passages is usually about the writer trying to control the creative process that can feel open-ended and scary. One of Albert Camus’ characters, the man who continuously rewrote the first sentence of a novel, probably rewrote the sentence out of fear. He was nervous, in other words, of plunging in without trying to control the anxiety involved in creating a book.
Surrendering to the process of writing a novel and letting it take you somewhere new is unnerving, especially if you have a Presbyterian background like I do, and you’re determined to more or less write what you set out to write. So before I know it I can gallop off and revise something I’ve revised twenty times before without really looking closely at the emotional sub-text of my scene. At this stage I can no longer see hear or feel what I’m writing about and I don’t know that I’ve lost my emotional connection to the material either. And maybe I don’t want to know it because I’m more interested in satisfying my anxiety than writing at a deeper emotional level. But the truth is I’m wasting my time. I should sit back and re-examine thoughtfully what is happening with my characters in the passage I’m revising.
If I’m smart, I might ask Joyce Carol Oates’ important question, is this passage as good as it can be? If not, why? If I sit and listen long enough, the answer will come, and then I will put aside my drone writing, and get to work.