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russell smith

Many people ask me how to get a novel published in Canada. With the fall publishing season coming up, and a lot of new books and authors about to be released, it's time to reveal some tips.

First, remember that it is always 1955 in Canlit. That is not to say that every prizewinning novel must be set exactly in that year, but that it helps to imagine that you are writing in that year. Imagine that you are writing by hand or at the very least on a manual typewriter (even if you are writing on a cellphone and playing Call of Duty and checking your ex-lover's hacked Facebook messages and the updates from Comic-Con every 30 seconds). Imagine that you have never heard the words Gawker, Skrillex, Instagram, Cipralex or Cosplay. Pretend you have never sat in a boardroom and heard anyone talk about leveraging core competencies and ROI-driven scalable verticals. You have not been following the Asian derivatives market on your wristwatch. You are not in any way conscious of genre fiction or flash fiction or fan fiction or fiction written specifically for any platform other than paper.

Close your eyes: You are a monk in a cell now. Your inner eyes are on the past, a purer and more noble time. You can set your novel in any period you want as long as it isn't, well, around now. Exception: You may set your novel in the now as long as your narrator is quite old and remembering the past. The key is that the book must be backward-looking.

I actually thought the publishing industry magazine Quill & Quire was joking about these tenets when they listed summaries of two upcoming books by very successful Canadian authors: "Scotiabank Giller Prize winner David Bergen returns to the small-town Manitoba setting of his earliest novels in The Age of Hope (HarperCollins Canada), which follows 50 years in the life of Hope Koop, a seemingly ordinary woman who must deal with the demands of being a wife and mother." That would sound like a rather broad parody on its own, but funnier when followed by this: "Viking Canada has described Newfoundland-born author Donna Morrissey's fifth novel as The Stone Angel of the East Coast. The Deception of Livvy Higgs is about an ailing woman forced to pick apart the lies and secrets buried in her past." I first thought they'd made a mistake, describing the plot of the same book twice.

Then later in the article there was this: "Cape Breton-based author Lesley Crewe's sixth novel, Kin (Nimbus Publishing), is a multigenerational family saga that begins in 1930s Glace Bay." Again, I thought they were being mocking – so obviously describing the plot of Ann-Marie MacDonald's blockbuster Fall on Your Knees. But no, of course, that was Sydney, not Glace Bay.

Hey, I'm just kidding. All these books could possibly be absolutely fantastic. (Sadly, I will never know.) There are also all kinds of new books promised that are set in the present and deal with urban life and many that are innovative in theme and treatment: There are allegories and experiments and at least one zombie story. I am very much looking forward to new works by the wise Annabel Lyon and the experimental Stephen Marche and the funny Todd Babiak, and several others.

There's so much interesting new stuff around, actually – and so few novels are being published, since times are so tough – you'd think the more famously turgid tropes of Canlit might start to die off. You'd think publishers might start to behave as if it's no longer 1981. But quite the opposite is true: Publishers are more cautious than they have ever been. Now is not, they feel, the time to take risks. They must absolutely win the attention of the prize juries, and of the bizarrely unadulterated social media competition that is Canada Reads, and of the women's book clubs. Everyone knows that publishing a book of literary fiction without being nominated for the Giller or Canada Reads, these days, is like putting up a poster in your basement. Your mother might be proud of you.

The big publishers invest more in each book and so have more to lose than the small ones, and so they are the most risk-averse of all. Why the family sagas are still the ones expected to please book clubs and prize juries is a question I can't easily answer. I do know that being risk-averse is generally not healthy for literary culture.

I can, however, help you to create a book-club-friendly book. It's all in the titles. You make a book-club title using a simple algorithm. Choose a word from the following list (we'll call it Table A): Secret, Grief, Birth, Marriage, Good, Patience. Then take a random word from Table B: Daughter, Garden, House, Room, Boy, Wife, Reckoning. Add a definite article. (You'd better hurry: I'm already writing outlines for The Grief House and The Patience Garden.) If it works, I want a cut of royalties. But I don't promise to read it. I'm still too young, I think, for the best books.