Margaret Atwood’s 10 pointers for writers

back exercises, Canadian, editing, laptop, pencils, prayer, publication, Uncategorized, writing on a plane
Margaret Eleanor Atwood, (born November 18, 1939) is a Canadian poet, novelist, literary critic, essayist, and environmental activist. She is best known for her novels and short stories and has also written fifteen books of poetry. She has won many accolades throughout her writing career, including the Booker Prize. She has 10 pieces of advice for authors which she articulated to the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2010:
1.     Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.
Surely they haven’t banned pencil sharpeners on planes, have they? Nowadays, I reckon many writers would be using a laptop anyway. In any case, I’m not sure I would feel comfortable writing a work of fiction on a plane where everyone around you can see what you’re writing. Of course you could always use a very small font so that the guy next to you can’t quite make out the words on the screen. Then again you may have a problem if you can’t read the words on the screen either.
2.     If both pencils break, you can do a rough sharpening job with a nail file of the metal or glass type.
Still on about those pencils, Margaret?
3.     Take something to write on. Paper is good. In a pinch, pieces of wood or your arm will do.
Of course, when it comes time for you to submit your masterpiece to a publisher it might be difficult to send your arm through the mail. I’m pretty sure the postal service draws the line at handling body parts, no matter how many postage stamps you use. Same goes for lumps of wood, which, depending on their size, you may have to check in along with your bags anyway before you even get on the plane.
4.     If you’re using a computer, always safeguard new text with a memory stick.
She forgot to mention that you shouldn’t keep the memory stick in the same place as the computer. Otherwise, when a fire breaks out you may lose your computer and the memory stick, and then where will you be?
5.     Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
Now this I totally agree with. I threw my back out when I was eighteen and ever since then I have had more or less constant back pain of one kind or another. Back exercises definitely help. Of course, it’s difficult to do them on a plane. People might begin to complain if you start bobbing up and down in the aisle, touching your toes, sticking your feet all over the furniture and stretching ostentatiously.
6.     Hold the reader’s attention. (This is likely to work better if you can hold your own.) But you don’t know who the reader is, so it’s like shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark. What fascinates A will bore the pants off B.
This is somewhat disturbing. How does she know what shooting fish with a slingshot in the dark is like… unless she’s tried it? Apart from that it is certainly true that if you can’t hold your own attention and get excited over what you’re writing, the chances are that that you won’t endear yourself to the reader either. And if what you have written does bore the pants of B, then B should think about reading in private somewhere, in order to avoid embarrassment.
7.     You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
Who’s whining? I wasn’t whining. Were you whining? On the other hand, it’s true. Nobody is holding a gun to your head to make you write. Perhaps she comes across writers regularly who moan about having to write novels, short stories or poetry and wail about their lack of pension plans. Writing is hard work at times. But it is also very enjoyable to do. So stop all the whining, will you?
8.     You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up.
This, at last seems to be good advice. Getting somebody else to read your work is essential. And provided it’s someone who is skilled and experienced in reading the same kind of work that you have produced then you are onto a winner. But I agree; it is a delicate matter. When you have slaved over a chapter and put your all into it, it can be difficult to take criticism. I also find that if I leave a piece of writing for a while and then return to it later, I can usually view it much more objectively than I could just after having written it. Sometimes that’s a better option than punching your loved ones in the face.
9.     Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
Perhaps sitting down in the middle of the woods is where Margaret gets all those pieces of wood for taking on planes. I once wrote the entire first half of a novel before I realized something was drastically wrong. At that point, I decided to let one of my editors take a look at what I had done so far. She told me immediately that a whole plot strand was simply too outlandish to be believed. What I had done was include a character who, in an attempt to commit suicide by jumping off a building, had got himself tangled up in the mechanism of a crane (as you can see Buster Keaton had nothing on this guy). He stays up in the crane for days and I don’t really remember what happened afterwards. Anyway, the whole thing looked like a pile of garbage. Crestfallen, I abandoned the manuscript and moved on to other things.
Then a few months later I decided to have another look at it. As it turned out, most of the unworkable subplot was confined to a series of separate scenes. I decided to cut them out, just to see how the plot looked without them. Lo and behold, the whole thing looked much better. A few tweaks here and there, and I was back on track. I took my outline and edited it; then worked on rewriting the remaining sections that made reference to the weird crane scenes.
10.  Prayer might work. Or reading something else. Or a constant visualisation of the holy grail that is the finished, published version of your resplendent book.
Sometimes I have some of my best writing ideas while I’m trying to pray. It’s a distraction. But I’m not sure whether the idea is distracting me from prayer or the prayer is distracting me from writing. If I dwell on this problem for long it distracts me from what I’m really supposed to be doing, which is driving down the freeway at seventy miles an hour, dodging traffic and generally trying to stay alive until I reach my destination.
Reading something else, also works. The only disadvantage is that later, when I am writing, some of what I’ve read begins to leak into my text, but I put it in there because I think it’s original, only to discover that I have been plagiarizing like mad. I then have to carefully go through what I’ve written and excise all the stolen treasure from other authors. It’s demoralizing.
Or would be demoralizing if there wasn’t that Holy Grail of publication waiting for me at the end of the line. Ah yes, eagerly sending out a manuscript, waiting eagerly for months, eagerly ripping open the return envelope, eagerly reading the rejection letter and eagerly throwing it in the trash, then eagerly sending out another manuscript. Who says that writing isn’t the best profession in the world?