You become a writer by writing. There is no other way.
Margaret Atwood is the author of more than 40 books of fiction, poetry, and critical essays. Her latest book of short stories is Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales (2014). Her MaddAddam trilogy— the Giller and Booker prize-nominated Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013)—is currently being adapted for HBO. The Door (2007)is her latest volume of poetry. Her most recent nonfiction books are Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth (2007) and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination (2011).
Her novels include The Blind Assassin (2000), winner of the Booker Prize; Alias Grace (1996), which won the Giller Prize in Canada and the Premio Mondello in Italy; The Robber Bride (1993): Cat’s Eye (1988): The Handmaid’s Tale (1985),now a TV series with MGM and Hulu: and The Penelopiad (2005).
Atwood’s works encompass a variety of themes including gender and identity, religion and myth, the power of language, climate change, and “power politics”. Atwood is a founder of the Griffin Poetry Prize and Writers’ Trust of Canada. She is also a Senior Fellow of Massey College, Toronto.
Atwood is also the inventor of the LongPen device and associated technologies that facilitate remote robotic writing of documents. Margaret lives in Toronto with writer Graeme Gibson.
If you really do want to write, and you’re struggling to get started, you’re afraid of something. What is that fear?
Margaret became a writer because she was an avid and early reader. As a child she wrote comics and little stories, and founded a puppet troupe in junior high. She began writing seriously when she was 16 years old.
Atwood’s Writing Process
Margaret starts by handwriting because she finds it generates a flow from her brain to her hand to the page. Then she transcribes these pages to typed ones, editing as she goes in a “rolling barrage” method that allows her keep what she’s just written fresh in her mind. She waits until she has about 50 or 60 pages before she begins to think about structure. Margaret describes her own process as “downhill skiing”: she writes as fast as she can, and then goes back later to revise (to literally re-“vision”) what she’s got down.
The wastepaper basket is your friend
Don’t be afraid to try out different techniques, voices, and styles. Keep what works for you and discard the rest. Your material and process will guide you to your own set of rules.
A story needs a break in a pattern to get it going.
Every story is made up of both events and characters. A story happens because a pattern is interrupted. If you are writing about a day that is like any other day, it is most likely a routine, not a story.
- The structure is how you choose to order the story. You might tell a story in a straight chronological manner, from beginning to end. Or you might begin from a moment in the future and jump back in time to fill a reader in.
- These are different structural choices, but underneath them, the plot—that is, what happens—remains the same. A structure that cloaks the plot itself in mystery is the “Rashomon” approach, in which a narrative that toggles among multiple viewpoints leads the reader to question what really happened.
- Your story will teach you what structure it requires, so be open to trying out multiple structures before finding the right one.
Writing is a way of recording the human voice.
Who Tells the Story: Narrative Point of View
One way to determine what point of view strategy to use in your novel is to ask: Whose voice is telling the story? To whom are they telling it, and why?
- Common point of view strategies include first person, third person limited, third-person omniscient (in which a narrator who is not a character and who knows more than the characters relays the events to the reader), and second person (which is structured around the “you” pronoun, and is less common in novel-length work).
- You don’t have to be tied to one point of view throughout your novel; some novels move from first to third or first to second. Let your material guide your decision.
- Character and event are inseparable, because a person is what happens to them. You might think of this as a distinction from films, where actors are cast into preexisting roles. But a novel is a character interacting with events over time.
- Your job as a writer is to learn about your character by observing how they interact with the world around them. Characters—like real people—have hobbies, pets, histories, ruminations, and obsessions. It’s essential to your novel that you understand these aspects of your character so that you are equipped to understand how they may react under the pressures of events they encounter.
If you are writing from the point of view of a character who is unlike you in some way— identifies as a different gender, for instance— Margaret recommends you run your story by someone who shares your character’s traits for accuracy
- Your ability to fit writing into the spaces between—and to be flexible about what that looks like—is key to building a sustainable writing practice.
- Writing fiction is a form of problem-solving. You are writing toward what you don’t know, and in this way, working to answer a series of questions your story poses to you.
- Keeping your hand in the writing process, no matter how the work feels like it’s going, is really important. Even if the words or pages you generate don’t make it into a final draft, they will teach you, and generate the momentum that will help you complete each project and start new ones.
You become a writer by writing. There is no other way.
If you’re going to have your characters talking to one another, it should be for some reason, not just to have them chattering away.
- When your characters are speaking, they should be trying to get something from one another, or make a power play.
- There are often wide gaps between what people say and what they are thinking, between what one understands and what one refuses to hear. These gaps can collectively be referred to as subtext, and they are valuable territory for the fiction writer. Stay alert to them, and let them generate drama in the scenes you write.
- Observe the particular qualities of the things around you. The rest of the world deals in abstractions, but for fiction writers, truth is found in the particular, in the telling detail. In fiction, meaning accrues in the layering of sensory texture, so you want to infuse your narrative not just with visual detail, but smell, sound, taste, and touch.
It is concrete if it appeals to one of the five senses, and it is significant if it carries an idea or judgment, or reveals something about a character. – Janet Burroway
Prose Styles: Baroque vs Plainsong Writing
- Margaret believes most writing falls along a spectrum between two prose styles: “plainsong,” in which the writing is fairly blunt and straightforward, and “baroque” writing, which is more ornamented, containing lots of adjectives and adverbs, subordinate clauses, and details that pile up.
- Examples of plainsong writers Margaret mentions are Ernest Hemingway and Jonathan Swift. Examples of writers with a baroque style include Angela Carter and Charles Dickens.
If you’re a writer interested in writing a book that finds a public readership, you’re always contending with readers’ expectations, and deciding at each turn how much your book will fulfill or frustrate those expectations.
Forget Genre, Make Me Believe It
- Genre is a concept created by publishers and literary critics, but it’s not always a valuable one for the working writer. In fact, Margaret says not knowing or thinking about what genre your book belongs to can be valuable, because it offers you greater freedom to stray from genre expectations, and to play with form and subject.
Forget Genre, Make Me Believe It
- Your job is to make your book the best, most compelling version of itself, plausible within its own imagined realm and set of rules. Let others worry about what genre it is (or isn’t).
- In her first drafts, Margaret doesn’t conduct research but rather goes with the best memory she has. Once she has a draft, she begins research. She uses this method because she believes that conducting research too early in the drafting process can “clog things up,” sometimes sidetracking or slowing down the plot. You want your details to be accurate and convincing, but you don’t want them to feel like research to your reader.
There are no guarantees in the world of art.
Your Ideal Reader
- Remember: you’re only ever writing to a single reader at a time. Your reader is someone who will get your jokes, understand your characters, someone who will be intrigued by the turns of fate and circumstance you have chronicled.
- 750words.com: tracks your daily writing, distraction, and other metrics.
- The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
- Kurt Vonnegut Video on the shapes of stories
- Shakespeare Original Pronunciation Video
- On Writers and Writing by Margaret Atwood
- The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot by Charles Baxter
- Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft by Janet Burroway
- The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long as It Takes by Joan Silber
- How Fiction Works by John Woods
- Margaret Atwood on Creating Worlds Video
- Arizona State University’s dedicated research portal for historical fiction.
- Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame by Robin Robertson
All the best in your quest to get better. Don’t Settle: Live with Passion.