May 26, 2005

salamander girls and some advice of my own

A Good Night for Salamander Girls

Last night I attended a reading in Canning, Nova Scotia. Harrison Wright launched his first book, a memoir called Probing Minds, Salamander Girls and a Dog Named Sally. (Although a little late, I managed to sneak in and get a seat right in front of the author.)Local artist, Ron Hayes' gallery, The Art Can, was packed with people waiting to hear the newest voice from Gaspereau Press.

What a voice it is! Harrison's images are clear, his storytelling engaging and humourous. Most wonderful of all is that for every bit of laughter he conjured up, there were equal parts of head noddding and thoughtful silence...all of us caught in moments where the author had touched on the truth. His truth became ours.

I've been a long-time fan of Gaspereau Press and everything they stand for. Congratulations Harrison and GP!

It was a lovely evening all around, a chance to reconnect with old friends and to make some new ones. Ron is always a gracious host (and always with a tray of delicious food nearby). He's doing great things there at the Art Can...Canning and the surrounding communities are lucky he's decided to call this place home.

I'll Add My Two Cents

Now that I've had a few months as a reader for TAR under my belt,I wanted to add my voice to Richard Cumyn's entry and give a few lit mag sumbission tips of my own.

1. Cover letters DO matter. They set the tone for what's to come. A simple letter, free of typos, stating relevant experience (I don't want to know that you wrote the user manual for Widgets Inc. ten years ago) is a good start. If it's your first stab, that's fine...but don't tell me you haven't had luck getting the thing accepted anywhere else and that we're your last hope. (Honest to Pete, I don't make this stuff up.)

2. Make certain there's a story there. I know it sounds like common sense, but you'd be surprised how many submissions I've read where I can't find a solid story. It goes along with Richard's 'hook'. The narrative has to pull the reader through to the end. No sagging, no extra baggage or tangents that might cause the reader to pause or put the thing down. An atmospheric description of your Uncle Willie looking out the window for five hours at a fire plug that's no longer there, isn't a story. (Unless you make it one... unless you give the fire plug a history with Uncle Willie, you remeber the day the fire plug burst open and killed his wife, you wrap it all up with an ending that brings it home for all readers.)

3. Along those same lines...don't sacrifice the story for what you consider 'good writing'. I find that a lot of writers are trying too hard write lyric, (bordering on purple) prose. Trust me, I can spot this a mile a way. I've been known to be guilty of it myself. (My dear partner, and first reader politely calls this my way of 'warming up'. What he's really trying to say is, "if you have to write this gooey crap to get yourself started, be sure to throw it out before I read it.") Put the thesaurus away and get to the point. Once you've got the bones of your piece laid out, then you can go back and find ways to enrich it. If you go for the florid descriptions from the start, you'll often find yourself lost in it and your readers will just find themselves lost.

4. Read your work out loud. Again, a simple solution, but one that works. It's a little awkward at first to listen to yourself read, but I promise you, you'll find a whole new level to your writing if you do. The ear can catch things that your eye cannot. We're built to listen for beauty, for rhythm, for what sounds right.
Lock yourself in the bathroom and read to yourself. You'll thank me for it later.

May 19, 2005

TAR Stop in Blogville: Tips from a litmag fiction editor

I'm just home from a wonderful week in Toronto. (Will share the details - I met Michael Ondaatje, how's that for a teaser? - soon.) In the meantime, I'm pleased as punch to let my wise, wonderful writing mentor and friend, Richard Cumyn, take the wheel at Incidental Pieces. Not only is he a kick-ass writer, but Rich is also the fiction editor at The Antigonish Review. (Canada's Eclectic Review since 1970)
I asked him to pass along some helpful hints for writers looking to submit to literary journals. As always, he came up with wit, wisdom and more.

TAR Stop in Blogville: Tips from a litmag fiction editor

By Richard Cumyn

My friend Alec Ross paddled a canoe solo across Canada and wrote a fascinating book about the experience, Coke Stop in Emo. He’s a good writer and his arms still look like Popeye’s! This week Alec is giving a course to gifted high-school students on the basics of freelance writing. It’s through an exciting outreach program called E=MC2 at Queen’s University here in Kingston, Ontario. He asked me to sit in on the class and talk about writing fiction and about what I do as fiction editor of The Antigonish Review.

One of the first things I told them was that my acceptance rate at TAR is about 1%. We publish between 16 and 20 short stories a year. I could see them doing the math in their heads. Then I told them what we pay for a piece of short fiction: $50 Canadian. I heard one boy, bless him, say above the sounds of snickering and derisive laughter, “That’s $50 more than I make all year.” I imagine most of them burn through that much a week on entertainment alone. It’s pathetic to pay writers so little. I apologize in particular to our American and British contributors, who, after the exchange rate is applied, are left with a paltry sum. We’re working on the problem. We depend on government grants and our readership to stay afloat. With more subscribers we could pay our contributors that much more. If every writer who submitted stories to literary journals subscribed to just one of them…. Did I mention that litmag subscriptions make wonderful birthday gifts? In our case, except for Bonnie McIsaac, our tireless office manager, the other nineteen people involved in the production of the review are volunteers. Ami McKay is a recent and welcome addition to the TAR masthead.

I told Alec’s group that the first few sentences of their story are the most important. They should spend as much time agonizing over their opening paragraph as they do on the rest of the piece. My approach to reading submissions is pretty brutal. If the first couple of sentences don’t provoke, entice, seduce, dare me to read on, the story joins a growing pile, one I revisit reluctantly, given the encroaching walls of my paper bunker. Is it a reason to stop submitting? Heck, no. But do approach the process with open eyes. It’s a gamble. The odds are still better than those of a lottery ticket. I have to send back many—too many—competent, well-formed, intelligent, entertaining, hard working stories for the simple reason that we don’t have room to publish them. The story may be too much like one we recently published. It might have a weak point in the structure or a character who does or says something that makes the reader look up from the page. It might be too long. It might depend overly much on cliché or its dialogue might sound like something from a TV sitcom. It’s often a matter of taste. A look at the fiction we’ve published in the last four or five years reveals our literary interests. We tend not to publish genre fiction. There are fine markets elsewhere for stories of vampire immortals, sorcerers and witches, monsters and ghouls, decapitators and other dogged serial killers.

Here are the opening lines of the stories published in our latest issue, #139:

Heave 'er up," said Pippy, whose back was never right, and Jasper threw his own back into the lift, grunting with the effort….

—Valerie Compton, “Pippy’s Bitter”

I have been asked to offer this recollection of Artemus Alford, whose reputation, impossible though it seems to me, grows still greater even after his death.

—Reese Warner, “The Painting of Artemus Alford”

I see Stuart and transform into fate's receiver.

—Kevin McPherson, “On Stilts”

No matter what anyone says, it's the wives who run this town.

—Kerry Langan, “The Dean’s Wife”

On a Wednesday morning in April the sign appeared…WARNING DON'T HIRE YATES CONSTRUCTION COME SEE MY DOOR in black paint on a sheet of plywood propped up in the yard.

—Larry Brown, “Mister Job”

Laxton stood on the muddy bank and gazed down at the reedy shoreline of the lake. The water was low even for August with a bloom of green algae. He'd have green stuff plastered all over his legs and up inside his bathing suit by the time he'd waded out to his boat.

—Gillian Campbell, “The Man Who Couldn’t Swim”

Intrigued? I was. You can read the stories in their entirety online at the TAR site: I think each fulfils the promise of its well-baited hook. Whether or not you agree with me, it’s still the best way to see whether or not your work and TAR are potentially a good fit.

Note from Ami:

Richard’s latest book is The View from Tamischeira

Submission Guidelines for The Antigonish Review can be found Here:
TAR Submissions

May 05, 2005

you are the 5th of May

I'm always amazed when a given date ends up being significant in my life for more than one reason. I know, statistically speaking, the older I get the greater the likelihood of this happening...but it's still a beautiful thing. For instance, my sister had her first child on her birthday. My grandmother was born on the 4th of July and her husband (my grandfather) was born on St. Patrick's Day. Perahps their being holiday babies had something to do with their courtship...I'll never know.

My first apartment in Chicago was on West Farwell in Rogers Park. It was a brilliant, eclectic neighbourhood with an East Indian video store at the end of the block (yay Bollywood!), a wonderfully nosey Greek woman across the alleyway who used to feed me spanikopitas becasue she thought I looked hungry, and Ned, the super, a tall Croatian who was always up for a good conversation about basketball (this was the golden age of the Bulls and Michael Jordan, afterall). But by and large, the neighbourhood was Mexican-American. When I first moved there, I knew how to speak enough Spanish to get myself into some interesting the time my car battery died and I asked a neighbour to 'jump me' (he had a very big smile on his face over that one), or the first time I ordered at the mexican cafe down the street and wound up with an enormous burrito filled only with guacamole rather than a burrito with guacamole on the side. On Cinco de Mayo the streets came alive with dancing, singing, and cars driving by with large Mexican flags trailing behind. We feasted on food from push carts and listened to guitars and trumpets well into the night. ¡Viva México! ¡Viva Juárez! Viva el 5 de mayo!

May 5th is also the birthday of one of my first boyfriends. (how I remember this, I don't know) He's just one in a long line of geeks I have adored. (To all the geeks I've loved before...) I recently heard he's gone on to even greater geekiness as the V.P. of I.T. at Jet Blue in New York. That's what'll happen when you start programming at the age of 12.

And that brings me to today, May 5, 2005. (ooooh, 5-5-05 nifty. numerologists must be dancing in the streets)
It's International Midwives Day.
What wonderful beings they are, what struggles they've had, what stories they have to tell. It's only fitting that the Premiere of Nova Scotia, Dr. John Hamm will stand in front of the legislature today and make this proclamation (for the first time).
"Whereas midwives have been providing care to birthing women in every corner
of the globe for at least a century;
whereas this is an opportunity to pay tribute to the dedicated and
compassionate work of midwives, as well as the many Nova Scotians who are
recipients of their care;
Be it resolved that I, John Hamm, Premier of NS, do hereby proclaim May 5,
2005, as International day of the midwive and acknowledge their role in
providing quality health care to Nova Scotians."


And, if you're in Halifax tonight, please attend:

Thursday, May 5, 2005
7:00 - 9 p.m.
Dalhousie University Student Union Building Room 224
6136 University Avenue, Halifax, NS

Panelists include: Dr. Christine Saulnier, Senior Research Officer and
Coordinator, Midwifery and Women's Reproductive Health, the Atlantic Centre
of Excellence for Women's Health; Kerstin Martin, Vice-President of the
Canadian Association of Midwives (also employed by the Reproductive Care
Program of NS); Octavia James, Co-Chair of the Midwifery Coalition of Nova
Scotia (and a consumer of midwifery); and Bernice Martin, Policy Analyst,
Nova Scotia Department of Health.

May 01, 2005

quit picking on him, you bullies!

In a recent interview with LA Weekly, Jonathan Safran Foer was quoted as saying,
“I am probably the most hated writer in America.”

I worry about the guy.
I'm not kidding. But then I tend to fret over people, worrying about their well-being, if they're happy in their lives...maybe it's genetic. My mother does this too- in a wonderfully sweet way...she worries over people...whether she knows them, or not.

It seems Jonathan has been getting his share of flack since the launch of his latest, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Critics have called the work, 'gimmicky', and many of his fellow writers...well...let's just say I've read an awful lot of commentary about how they 'feel' about him...and it's not very nice.

The thing is, I like his stuff. But even if I didn't, I wouldn't be jumping on the 'let's bash Safran Foer band wagon.'

"I'm sick of him. Sick sick sick."

"You just kind of want to pick on someone with a moniker like Safran. The Foer part is also a little irritating."

"JSF annoys the SHIT out of me."

Those are comments from writers...people who share the same passion in life. Ditch the jealousy, folks.
Can't we all just get along?

A couple of weeks ago, I saw an excellent episode of Hot Type where host, Evan Solomon interviewed Safran Foer. He sure didn't seem neurotic, self-absorbed or snotty to me. He spoke quite humbly and honestly about his work, mentioning his feeling that he has to 'justify' sitting down and writing every day. (What writer worth his or her salt hasn't felt that?) He spoke about the way the internet has changed the way people read and how he knows he's had a good day when his work has made him 'feel'. For the first time, in a long time, I felt that another writer had said what I had been feeling all along...that writing isn't some magical conjuring of words, but rather that it's hard work, (the sit your bum in the chair every day variety) and that the world is 'exceptionally complicated.'

The other day I got a phone call from another writer, an established author I had given my card to some time ago. I admire her work and was glad to get to know better. We had a delightful conversation. We talked about where we were with our current WIPs, chatted about the places we've lived, shared thoughts on the writing process. Good stuff.

When we were through, she said (sounding a little surprised) "You're really nice."
I laughed and said, "I guess I try to be 'the nice writer'. I don't get what's to be gained from being so damned snarky."

So, hey - Jonathan...You've got a friend way up here on the edge of Canada.
Boldly go.

Here's his extremely, incredibly cool web site:
The Project Museum