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7 Tips for Writers from Margaret Atwood

Seven timeless pieces of advice for fiction writers from bestselling author Margaret Atwood.

Seven timeless pieces of advice for fiction writers from bestselling author Margaret Atwood.

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Starting today, Hulu began airing an adaptation of one of Margaret Atwood’s most notable works, her 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. The first three episodes are available now, with subsequent episodes being added on a weekly basis.

Set in a near-future New England, The Handmaid’s Tale is a work of speculative fiction that explores the subjugation of women and the means by which they gain independence and maintain individual identities in the wake of a totalitarian government that has overthrown the Untied States.

In 1990, Roya Fahmy Swartz sat down with Margaret Atwood to interview her for that year’s edition of Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. Below are seven tips for writers from Atwood:

Don’t listen to the critics:

I started writing seriously at 16 in grade 12. I had no journals, no interest in writing until that time. My eleventh-grade teacher was interviewed some years ago in a “This-Is-Your-Life” type project. She was quite honest and said that she saw no particular talent in me at all.

Start writing any way you can:

It was easier to get poetry published [in Canada in the 1960s], and I started with poetry. There were good things and bad things about being in Canada in the ‘60s. The bad thing was that it was hard to get published and the audience was small. It was not until the middle of the ‘60s when things started to happen. The good thing was that there weren’t very many people writing, so if you were any good at all, you did get noticed. Now that there are more people writing, it is proportionately harder to make an impact. But there is a lot more publication.

Getting published as a beginning writer:

It’s different for poetry and prose. There are a lot of little magazines, literary magazines, and other magazines that are publishing short stories and poetry. They’re still a way in. That you can do without an agent. It is almost impossible these days to have a manuscript read by a publisher without having an agent, because they don’t have time to read that many manuscripts.

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.

[New Agent Alerts: Click here to find agents who are currently seeking writers]

Read what you want to write:

What you read is as important as what you write.

On finding ideas for stories:

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.

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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?”

Writing pitfalls:

I think the thing to emphasize is that 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.

Rely on your resources:

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.

But I used to pore over those Writer’s Markets and writers’ magazines. For example, one thing I learned from them was to always send a self-addressed, stamped envelope. I didn’t have anybody to tell me that, because we didn’t have any creative writing courses at school. They taught me the nuts and bolts.

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