Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writerly Advice (Part II)

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By Dennis McCloskey

English novelist Somerset Maugham said there are three rules for writing the novel. “Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

There is no shortage of people who are willing to “put a flea in your ear” about the best way to become a writer, or how to write a novel. But not everyone enjoys being on the receiving end of advice. Some writers balk at getting advice from other writers. U.S. playwright Lillian Hellman once said that writers are just “fancy talkers about themselves.” She added, rather dismissively: “If I had to give young writers advice I would say don’t listen to writers talking about writing or themselves.”

I wouldn’t take her advice if I were you, and I’m glad I didn’t when I sought the advice of writers for an article in Books in Canada, titled “Author’s Advice.” In my last blog, I published the advice of eight Canadian writers when I asked them, in 1991: “What advice would you give to a person who aspires to be a writer?” This is what eight more writers told me when I asked them to pass along some writerly advice to young writing bucks:

Timothy Findley:
“Stop threatening to do it and DO it. Once you’ve started, refrain from boring your family and friends with doubts about your ability to do it. Doing it means submitting it. Start the series of rejections early. Publishers are a bit like figure skating judges: They expect you to make a few embarrassing appearances before they’ll take you seriously. However, keep the rejected work; it may some day be turned into literary gold. Don’t set out to write a best-seller. Simply try your damndest to build, word-for-word, that marvellous book your imagination has let you glimpse. Try keeping a notebook. Use it as an artist uses a sketchbook. Try to capture someone or some place in words. It’s not only a good exercise; it may find a place in one of your stories. Ask yourself if you shouldn’t really stop trying to be a writer. If your answer is that you CAN’T stop trying, then you ARE a writer. And so, good luck!”

June Callwood:
“Read. Read. Read. Forgive your parents.”

Eric Wright:
“Take a course. All my life I have been very sceptical of courses in creative writing, journalism, and business, on the grounds that hardly any of the leading practitioners in these areas had any formal training. Now I think that there are good, other reasons to take a course in writing—at least fiction writing. You can begin to find out what you can do more quickly in a formal program than in an attic. Inside a program, you will be forced to produce and you will have to get used to exposing your work—the minimum requirement for the aspiring writer. A lot of people I respect claim to have learned something from teachers, and you may, too.”

Marie-Claire Blais:
“Be patient because it is a difficult career. Try not to lose confidence in yourself, in your work, and be constantly curious about human problems and human tragedy. To have a sensitive soul is important, too.”

Jean Little:
“Read prodigiously. Only by reading many fine books can you come to understand how books work. Your best teachers are always other writers. Start writing and keep writing. Always remember that you are not writing to please your family or friends or writers’ groups but for a weary editor and other total strangers. If this excites you, keep going.”

Matt Cohen:
“Many beginning writers have an abundance of talent but few have the energy, the concentration or the technical skills to transform a promising first draft into an accomplished final draft. Unless he or she is a born genius—in which case reading advice like this is a waste of time—the best thing an aspiring writer can do is to read good books—their contemporaries, the classics, and everything in between.”

Gordon Korman:
“Read a lot, write a lot, and always plan before you write a single word. Get an agent! I can’t stress this enough.”

Max Braithwaite:
“Read a lot. Write! Learn by trial and error. Don’t waste your time and money on writing classes. Study the specific market you want to write for and write to sell, not to show friends. They can’t give you an objective assessment and they aren’t the ones buying your manuscript.”

1 comment

I am a new writer, however, I can say with experience from being part of a writers' group with aspiring writers (all of them have taken writing courses), that every submission is better than the last. Our writing styles do not meld together into one. If submissions were sent anonymously, I would be able to easily determine the identity of the author.
Thanks for the great blog!


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Dennis McCloskey

Dennis McCloskey is a journalist and editor and the author of numerous books. Several hundred of his human interest and business articles have appeared in over sixty-five newspapers, magazines and corporate newsletters in Canada, the US and Europe. His latest book, My Favorite American, is published by General Store Publishing House.

Go to Dennis McCloskey ’s Author Page