“A word after a word after a word is power.” Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood’s chilling classic fantasy, Handmaid’s Tale, is making its TV debut. This inspired me to share a print interview published in 1990 in which the best-selling author offered some timeless writing tips:
Start small: One route for beginning writers: submit to literary presses and small magazines that publish short stories and poetry. “I would recommend someone doing their first writing get to know that literary magazine world. Figure out what literary magazines publish what you want to write. Submit there first. When you have some of those publications to your credit, other people are more likely to get to see your work and an agent might look for you.”
Let ideas come to you: “One never knows where writers get ideas. They just come and there is always more information that you can deal with. Getting the ideas is not the problem, getting the time to sit and work out the ideas is the problem….”
Begin with a question: “I think a lot of novels begin as questions. For example, Handmaid’s Tale began as a question. Really, a couple of questions: “If you were going to take over the United States, how would you do it?” “If women’s place isn’t the home, how are you going to get them back into the home now that they are not there?” “How are you going to make them go back when they don’t want to?”
Expect to make mistakes: “When I was 16, and wanted to be a writer, one of the first things I did was go out and buy one of those Writer’s Market books. But the result was quite funny because I was quite naïve. I thought, “Well, if I am going to be a writer, I have to support myself with some kind of writing.” So I looked to see what (kind of writing) paid money. And what paid the most money was True Confessions. So I went out and bought some True Confessions magazines.
I thought, “Well these plots are pretty easy, I can write this.” But, in fact, it was a lot harder than I thought. The vocabulary was very specialized.”
Be prepared to gamble: “… writing is a gambler’s profession. There is no guarantee of anything. You can put in a lot of time, a lot of effort, invest a great deal of emotional energy, and nothing may come out of it. There are no guarantees. So, unless one is fairly committed and willing to make that investment, don’t do it.”
Keep reading: “Read what you want to write: What you read is as important as what you write.”
Great advice from a fabled author. Write on!
All true. Especially “Read what you want to write.” Thanks for posting.
Thanks so much for your note — yes, “Read what you want to write” is
great advice. I’ve certainly found it so helpful and inspiring in writing
my children’s novel!
I adore Margaret Atwood. Oryx and Crake is one of my favorite novels ever. However, I struggle with comments like “So, unless one is fairly committed and willing to make that investment, don’t do it.” This is advice I was given when I was 18 years old and trying to decide if I wanted to be an actress when I grew up or a scientist. (Except it was phrased as “only 5% of actors ever make it, so don’t act unless there is nothing else you can imagine yourself doing.”) So I quit. I never stepped foot on a stage again. Now MANY years later, when writing has called to me, I see that there are so many smaller ways to participate in the arts and encouraging people to quit before they even start may keep them from a hobby, or avocation, that may feed their soul. I wish she didn’t draw such a strong line in the sand.
I totally agree with you! I shared Atwood’s comments as they were
given in her interview, but there’s certainly plenty of room for other
points of view. We should never let anyone else steal our dreams,
but when we’re younger, so often we listen to those voices outside
ourselves instead of to the still, small voice within. I am so glad you
are seeing the many rich and enlivening ways we all have open to us
to pursue a writing life that’s satisfying and nourishing.