Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale and other phenomenal books, has a MasterClass on the topic of creative writing. I completed the MasterClass in May and loved every session. It truly felt as if I were sitting right in front of her while she talked to me as a friend, as someone who was striving to be a good writer. Margaret is witty and intelligent and beyond creative, so each class was something I looked forward to. I took copious notes in my journal and want to share the 30 best things Margaret Atwood taught me about novel writing.
[Disclaimer: I have used affiliate links with MasterClass through Share A Sale. That means that if you click this link and decide to buy the Master Class, I’ll get some money to feed my three dogs.]
1. The reader defines the book’s message.
What message are you trying to convey in your novel? You might have one idea, but the reader could come away with something completely different. I think this also falls in line with publishing: it’s up to the reader to decide if you’re any good. When it comes to traditional publishing, I’m often told, “Once I get a yes from an agent, then I’ll know my writing is worthy.” But that’s not true. It’s the readers who decide that.
2. Writers don’t start with ideas. They start with characters, scenes, objects.
Basically, Margaret is saying that a writer sees a person or an object or thinks up a scene and then it blossoms into an idea. For my next novel, which is a sci-fi thriller, I didn’t actually have an idea yet. I read something and thought, “That’s odd. That’s really odd.” I couldn’t shake it. I took a screenshot of the article and saved it for months before I went back to it. Suddenly, a scene started to evolve in my mind from this article. Then a character. Then another scene. Then a chapter.
3. What is your fear as a writer? Identify the fear, look it in the face, and deal with it.
My fear has always been that if my books suck, then the person won’t want to hire me as an editor, marketer, or writing coach. But I’m not perfect, and neither are you. Your book isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. What’s your biggest fear as a writer? Have you ever identified it?
4. As soon as you say, “There’s nothing new under the sun,” suddenly there is.
I’m teeming with ideas. Sometimes I think, Did someone already write this, though? But so what if they did? No one can tell the story like I can. As long as I’m not plagiarizing, then it’s free game. How many books have been written about vampires? About detectives? About space?
5. The waste-paper basket is your friend.
Whether it’s a physical trash can or that cute little digital one at the bottom of your laptop screen, you can toss out ideas that aren’t working. Some writers advise against this; they recommend saving every scene rather than throwing them out. Decide what works for you. But the point is this: Don’t be afraid to start over when a story isn’t working.
6. Don’t be afraid to switch POV.
Have you ever written a story and thought, “This protagonist ain’t doing it for me”? Switch the point of view. Take another character and tell the story from his perspective. This method could fix the issue you’re having with your story.
7. Character or story first? No such thing. A person is what happens to them.
I’ve often said (because I’ve so learned) that the character is the story; the story is the character. They are one and the same.
8. Clothing matters.
From historical fiction pieces to dystopian worlds, a character’s clothing makes a difference and you better get it right. But what about those of us who aren’t writing in genres like these? Clothing still matters. A protagonist wearing patent leather high heels, a pencil skirt, and a tucked-in blouse is a different character than one who wears skinny jeans, Converse high tops, and a leather jacket.
9. Not all characters have to be likable, but they do need to be compelling.
Margaret gives the example of Hannibal Lecter, a character I’ve used when teaching workshops on villains. He is a bad, bad man. He isn’t supposed to be likable. But he is compelling. He’s someone you can’t shake off, someone you never forget. How can you take a bad guy and make him compelling in your novel?
10. Dangerous and unstable characters hold our attention.
Not every genre will require a dangerous character, but I’d argue every novel has at least an unstable one—a character who is prone to fail or change.
11. You have to be prepared to be interrupted.
Life gets in the way. All the time. The A/C goes out. Your kid has the stomach flu. You get a flat tire. The internet goes out. Prepare for these interruptions, and you won’t feel so distraught when you can’t fit in time to write. Have a backup plan. And always give yourself grace.
12. The suffering of writing is greater than the reward.
This can be interpreted in several ways, but here’s my interpretation: I am a stronger writer when I suffer through writing about grief, when I suffer through those never-ending plot holes, when I suffer through weeks at a time stuck on the same chapter. The reward of a finished novel far surpassed anything I could’ve dreamed of, but Margaret is right: the suffering is greater.
13. It’s always better to do something, such as holding the pen. Do it no matter how crummy the result may be. At least you’re moving.
One is always greater than zero. If you’re doing one minute thing, that’s so much better than nothing at all. When you’re stuck or can’t find the motivation to write, set a timer for 10 minutes and write just for those 10 minutes alone. Make a promise that you’ll stick to the timer and write, even if it’s crap. Usually, when you practice this method, you’ll keep writing.
14. What is it like going into writing? Darkness, but illuminated.
You can’t always see what’s in front of you when you begin a story. But if you’ll stick with it, the story will be illuminated.
15. Engage your mind with writing, even if it’s spinning the wheels. Stay with the process.
Staying engaged with writing doesn’t always mean you’re elbows deep into the story. Sometimes it means spending the day researching online or in the library. Other times it means watching a course on writing and taking notes.
16. Be kind to yourself and to your body. Practice good posture and take a walk. Have a break and do some stretching.
Get a good chair already. Your spine will thank you. Also, I’m a big advocate of taking walks to get past writer’s block or plot holes.
17. Dialogue is subjective. What the person hears versus what they understand are two different things.
When writing dialogue, remember reality: Do you always understand what another person is saying when she’s talking to you? You heard her words, but how did you translate them? Characters are the same way.
18. Touch the things around you. Notice how the world feels.
I’m the organizer for the Yukon Writers’ Society in Yukon, Oklahoma. For every third class, we do writing exercises. That’s it. That’s all we do. I love to bring the bag of props and hand one item to each writer. Most recently, I asked the members to close their eyes, stick out their hands, and let me plop an item in their palms. They had to spend a couple of minutes touching that item and really thinking through what it was. What does it feel like? Once they used the sense of touch, they could more accurately incorporate that object into the writing exercise. Margaret used the example of touch in The Handmaid’s Tale when Offred touches a Scrabble piece.
19. Texture: How does it sound? Read your text out loud to avoid rhymes and hisses and popping.
It drives me nuts when a sentence in a novel rhymes with the next sentence. You can usually catch these accidental rhymes when reading it in your head, but you’re more apt to catch them (and other things) when reading aloud.
20. What sort of spell or illusion are you trying to cast?
I’m still registering this. When I think about each story I take on, just what exactly am I trying to accomplish? What kind of spell will I cast on the reader when my book’s pages grace her fingertips? I still don’t know the answer to this.
21. Try writing in plainsong and in baroque to push your comfort zone.
Margaret used the examples of a Charles Dickens novel and Gulliver’s Travels to show the differences between baroque and plainsong, respectively.
Plainsong = short, no adjectives, blunt
Baroque = ornament, lots of adjectives, detailed
If you’re about to begin a story but aren’t sure what your style is as a writer, try writing the same scene twice: once in plainsong, once in baroque.
22. The novel is about time. There’s going to be a clock ticking.
What is the protagonist racing against? The moment when the love of his life flies away to Europe? The moment when he dies of a disease? The moment when the antagonist finally captures him? Figure out what the clock is ticking toward, and you can keep the reader engaged.
23. The first page is a gateway. It’s a door.
That first page must be a strong entryway into the story. How are you going to grip the reader within a few paragraphs? What is it about that first page that sets everything into motion? If you’re not sure, then start with action. Throw the protagonist right into the middle of a big ole problem.
24. Sometimes you have the wrong beginning. It might really be page ten, and that’s okay.
I see this often when critiquing first chapters for Yukon Writers’ Society members. “The real page one is actually on page five,” a member might say to another member. That’s okay! It’s not the end of the world. Cut and paste. Boom. (Okay, it’s not that easy, but you get what I’m saying.)
25. There’s no shame in backtracking or revision.
I beat myself up an awful lot when rewriting The Suicide Tree. I spent hours and hours and hours on backtracking alone. I had made a mess of the novel with all my plot holes. But there’s no shame in that. I revised it until I got it right and I published my novel. That’s a victory!
25. Don’t get too speedy at the end. You’ll rush the reader.
“Great novel, but the ending was rushed.” Have you ever seen that on an Amazon or Goodreads review? Turtles All the Way Down by John Green was an excellent novel, but he rushed the ending. So much so, that it didn’t feel like an ending at all. Readers shouldn’t experience whiplash when closing your book. Don’t write a great book only to leave the reader with furrowed brows at the end.
26. Completion fear: “I’m afraid to finish this because what if it’s bad?”
This one spoke to me. I didn’t feel this way with The 10 Commandments of Author Branding (releasing in September 2019), but I absolutely felt this way with The Suicide Tree. Are you nearing the end of your novel or the end of your rewrites with an overwhelming fear that it’s going to suck? Snap out of it! What if it’s good? Seriously meditate on that: What. If. It’s. Good?
27. Revision = Re vision (seeing it anew)
After you finish your novel, put it away. Don’t look at it. Work on something else. Then when you come back to it for revising, you can see it with fresh eyes.
28. Edit on the page with a ruler.
This was a fantastic idea! Print your book, grab a ruler, and move the ruler underneath each line while reading it out loud. I would save this for the final editing stage, but it’s a sure-fire way to spot more errors.
29. The main rule of a novel is to hold my attention.
Think of a novel that kept you glued to the page. The type of novel that left you without any sleep because you stayed up way past your bedtime to finish it. Now analyze it, dissect it, annotate it. Why did that novel grip you unlike any other? Take what you’ve learned and apply it to your own writing.
30. Read the newspaper, especially from other towns.
Many writers, Margaret included, have come up with story ideas from newspapers alone. John Grisham did so with The Innocent Man. He read the true story of Ron Williamson in Ada, Oklahoma, who was headed to prison for murdering a woman named Debra Sue Carter. Or did he? If you’re feeling blocked, grab the paper.
An expert editor, seasoned writer, and author-centric marketer, Shayla Raquel works one-on-one with authors and business owners every day. A lifelong lover of books, she has edited over 300 books and has launched several Amazon bestsellers for her clients. Her award-winning blog teaches new and established authors how to write, publish, and market their books. She is the author of the Pre-Publishing Checklist, The Rotting (in Shivers in the Night), and The Suicide Tree. In her not-so-free time, she acts as organizer for the Yukon Writers’ Society, volunteers at the Oklahoma County Jail, and obsesses over squirrels. She lives in Oklahoma with her two dogs, Chanel, Wednesday, and Baker.