Success Story with Gail Anderson-Dargatz
Gail Anderson-Dargatz is the author of The Cure for Death by Lightning and A Recipe for Bees, both of which were short-listed for the Giller Prize, among many other novels. She also writes hi-lo novels for both adults and teens working to improve literacy skills. Gail offers developmental edits and mentors writers from around the world on her online teaching forums. For more, please visit her website at www.gailanderson-dargatz.ca or follow her @AndersonDargatz.
When I was a young writer, thirty years ago now, my focus was on getting published. I wanted to see my work in print and made a habit of sending it out to competitions and literary magazines before the story was fully cooked. Most of the time, thankfully, the story didn’t find a home, or I would have a lot more embarrassing work out there than I do now. (Cringe!)
But then I did start to win regional and provincial competitions, with somewhat more worked projects. One of them was judged by the legendary writer and creative writing teacher Jack Hodgins. He saw something in my writing and took me under his wing. I enrolled in the University of Victoria’s creative writing program because he taught there.
The best piece of advice I received from him (from anyone) was this: Don’t publish too soon, before your work is ready. He was so right. At a time when we can easily throw our work online, or self-publish, it’s more important than ever to fully develop our stories, our craft.
Jack worked with me, as my mentor, in a directed study on the early drafts of The Cure for Death by Lightning, helping me to find my story, and to hone it. More than that, he taught me patience, to understand that writing is a process, one of layering, that simply takes time (sometimes a frustratingly long time). And, of course, he taught me valuable approaches to mentoring that I would later use as I became a teacher myself, first in the UBC Creative Writing MFA optional-residency program, and now privately through my own teaching forums.
So, I learned to wait, to work and work my writing until it was truly ready to send out. Still, as writers we need to find ways to keep the faith as we complete book length projects. One of the ways I kept my spirits up as I wrote that first novel all those years ago was to continue to send work out there, to competitions and literary magazines, taken from the novel in progress. I pulled a given thread from the project and worked it into a short story. The exercise allowed me to refine specific conflicts and develop characters, to polish the prose. I later reworked the story back into the novel. But in the meantime, I had a few stories to send out there.
I started to place in national competitions, and then—cue angels singing—I won the CBC short story competition. That was the turning point in my career. At the awards ceremony I met my future agent and because I already had a polished portfolio of work, she took me on. My agent went on to sell The Cure for Death by Lightning both nationally and internationally. It became an international bestseller. But it wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t listened to Jack, if I had thrown the project out there too soon.
Now, thirty years on, I would like to tell my young writer self this one thing: learn what structure really means, and outline. Write a synopsis ahead of time, before you start writing, knowing that the outline and synopsis will change and change as surprises turn up in the writing. Think of outlining not as a planning tool, but as a brainstorming tool, something you do daily, as you write. This one thing will save you time and grief and speed up the process. Now that I am a mature writer, I know that I can, in fact, write a novel in a year (not seven, as was the case with my first novel).
And, young self, don’t be snooty. Us literary writers have a hell of a lot to learn from our commercial brethren about structure, and about telling a good story. In fact, I now study commercial fiction to write my literacy learner (hi-lo) books for both adults and teens working to improve literacy skills. Want your audience to read your work? Engage them with a good, exciting, well-structured story. Our task as storytellers has always been to lay down our mat in the marketplace, draw the crowd around us with a good yarn, and then keep them there.