Margaret Atwood (born 1939) is the acclaimed author of such novels as The Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace, and The Blind Assassin. She has given amazing insight about writing over the years, and here are five nuggets of her wisdom…
1. All writers learn from the dead. As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writers who have preceded you; you also feel judged and held to account by them.
One of the best ways to learn how to write is read a lot of books. And not just brand new books. Old books as well. Books written long before you were born. Books written by authors who are now dead. Look at what they did well, and what they did wrong. Study how they develop their characters and pace their sentences.
There will be books you read that are so goddamn amazing you might consider quitting, because there’s no way you could ever write anything that good. Resist this impulse, and get started on your writing anyway. Learn from the best, and see what happens.
2. Possibly, then, writing has to do with darkness, and a desire or perhaps a compulsion to enter it, and, with luck, to illuminate it, and to bring something back out to the light.
I’ve been drawn to dark stories in my writing. I blame my dad, honestly — he introduced me to horror films at a very young age, and they definitely rubbed off on me in terms of my fiction. It’s a rare day that I write something about the lighter side of life.
Still, even when you’re writing something extremely dark or disturbing or scary, or whatever, you need to remember that your reader will only go on the journey so far until you bring something back out to the light. Your stories can’t be nihilistic to the point where it becomes a chore to read all the way to the end. Illuminate the darkness, take your characters to Hell if you want, but you need to bring them back at some point. You need to match the darkness with the light.
3. All writers are double, for the simple reason that you can never actually meet the author of the book you have just read. Too much time has elapsed between composition and publication, and the person who wrote the book is now a different person.
This is something readers never realize when it comes to the authors of books. So many readers think that a book happens so much faster, that the writer is essentially still working on the book until release day. Such is not the case. Often a book will take 1 1/2 to 2 years before released, and during that time, the writer is working on something else entirely.
Enough time passes between the finishing of a book and the release of it that the author in most cases is a different person once that book is in the world. That author has often moved on from that story, that author is in another world or doing something completely different. And you know what? That’s okay. Because the author’s not the star of the show. The star is the work itself.
4. If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.
Aiming for perfection is the kiss of death for fiction writers. Aiming for perfection is basically the equivalent of not writing anything… because trust me, you never will.
There’s something about writing a novel especially that you should learn early, not later. It’s the reason I’ve been able to write nineteen novels in nine years. The point of a first draft of a novel is not perfection. It’s to get the story down as best you can… and finish it. Just finish the book. It can be on the shorter end if you want. It can be absurdly long, that’s fine, too.
But don’t fixate on being perfect, or even on being great. Just finish the first draft. And then to get to work on making your manuscript better.
5. Any novel is hopeful in that it presupposes a reader. It is, actually, a hopeful act just to write anything, really, because you’re assuming that someone will be around to [read] it.
When I’m writing the first draft of a novel, I’m mostly writing it for me. I’m telling myself a story that has been haunting me for months, maybe years. It’s getting a story down on paper that simply no one else in the world could ever write. I genuinely try not to think about other readers when I’m writing that first draft. I try not to imagine what my close friends will think of the new book, or young readers out there I don’t know, or critics, or librarians, or whatever.
But I will start thinking about my potential readers as I continue on with my revisions, especially when the manuscript is coming together at a later date. When there’s been interest from literary agents or publishers. When there’s actually a possibility that the book might be published.
Whether you’re on chapter three of your first draft, or you’re almost done with your seventh draft, allow yourself, even for just a few seconds, to imagine people reading your work. Imagine that perfect reader out there somewhere who is desperately searching for a book like yours.
Thinking this way won’t hurt your writing. Thinking this way will motivate you even more. Because we’re all ultimately writing for that ideal reader out there. We don’t know who that reader is, might never know at all, but he or she is out there.
And he or she is waiting.