25th Trillium Award


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Secondhand Advice

With Annie Barrows, Joan Boswell, Libba Bray, Jill Downie, Joy Fielding, Jennifer Hillier and Roy MacGregor.

This is a column about getting advice on writing fiction from people who write fiction. So this month I asked a handful of writers what the best advice was that someone else had ever given them about writing fiction. I?ve struggled to answer this question myself. I?ve received a lot of good advice over the years, but no one thing stands out as best. So instead, I?ve zeroed in on some of the most practical advice I?ve ever been given. Back in the mid-1990s I was working in a bookstore in Toronto and the author Shyam Selvadurai came into the store to sign some copies of his latest novel. I was struggling to write a first novel at the time and I asked him how he had managed to find the time to write his first novel. Interestingly, he told me he did it by working nights at a bookstore and by spending his days writing. To me, that translated to: Give your best energy to your writing, not to something else (especially not in exchange for the lousy wages paid at bookstores). If you want to write, you have to make time to do it. That will likely mean sacrifices. I followed Selvadurai?s advice and changed jobs, moving to a bookstore where I could work nights. During the day I wrote. As a result, I eventually produced my novel Snakes & Ladders. I?ll leave it up to the reader to imagine what sort of social life that arrangement afforded me. Did I say sacrifices?

Now, let?s see what advice some other authors have been handed over the years.


Annie Barrows is the author of the Ivy & Bean series. She lives in Berkeley, CA.

I am horribly contrarian, and this question causes me to veer instantly to the worst piece of advice I?ve ever been given about writing fiction, which is: Show, don?t tell. This is utter rot. Of course, the writer must show?no showing, no stor?but to think that it?s possible to craft a piece of fiction without telling, without authorial interpolation, without inflection and a certain amount of custodial direction-pointing, well, that way lies madness and, even worse, readerly indifference. Look at this: The girl entered the room, coughing. He offered her a lozenge, and she turned away. Right. Nice showing. But it doesn?t mean anything. We don?t know anything about the events that have taken place. Try this: The girl entered the room, announcing her presence with a profoundly moist, hacking cough. He recognized it; he had done it himself. It was the strategic cough of the socially awkward, a ruse of a cough, designed to inspire pity and circumvent introductions. After a pause, finely calibrated to reveal his scorn for such machinations, he offered her a lozenge in an acid tone. She flushed and turned away. Plentiful telling here. The narrator is not just omniscient, but loud and bossy. The reader is getting a leg up in a couple of ways: he?s being given a lot of information about the characters, which we can hope he will find interesting, but even more important, he?s being taught how to read this story. He?s being told that he?s reading a story in which the manner of entering a room is critical, in which character is prioritized, in which the narrator will reliably offer him secret information that is unknown to the parties within the text. The reader might not like that kind of story at all, but at least he?ll know what he?s in for. Unless you are writing only for yourself, it is necessary to show and tell.


We returned to our regularly scheduled broadcast.

The best piece of advice someone has ever given me about writing fiction is this: Being smart is beside the point. As in, you can be the smartest person in the room, and it won?t make you the best writer in the room. This is both upsetting and a relief. The conflation of the two properties is the bane of writing groups and MFA programs the world over.


Joan Boswell is the author of numerous books of fiction including the novels Cut to the Bone, Cut to the Chase and Cut to the Quick. She lives in Toronto, ON.

To understand the significance of the most important advice I received I must explain that I came to short story and novel writing from the academic background of an historian. Things may have changed, but years ago my thesis supervisor warned me that inserting personal opinions or using personal pronouns would compromise my work.

So, being an obedient student, I learned to use waffling, wimpy statements: ?it would seem,? ?given the circumstances it would appear? and other equally flaccid phrases. This was true when I wrote my PhD thesis and even more applicable when I worked for the Federal Government.

Later, when I confessed to a friend that I was attempting to write a short story, she invited me to join her critiquing group. Incidentally, our critiquing group later morphed into the Ladies? Killing Circle. Over the years we edited seven anthologies of Canadian women mystery writers.

However, that was years away. The group sent my first short story back with masses of comments. Some related to logical inconsistencies, grammatical lapses, repetitious sentence structure, limping dialogue. The one thing all five agreed on and the comment they sprinkled liberally over my stories was ?hdsf? or ?hdhf? which mean, how does she or he feel.

This comment turned out to be the best advice and the hardest to follow that I ever received.

To know how characters feel you have to know them well. Not only their physical appearance, their place in the story but their back stories. The where, when, why and how of their lives and their relationships. Without that knowledge your readers will see the characters as cardboard figures you move through the story to achieve your end goal.

Without being as familiar with your character as you are with yourself, your family, your friend or your pets your gut instinct will not tell you how characters will react. Guessing is not the answer. You have to feel confident that their reactions will be in keeping with their characters. If you don?t communicate that information your readers will desert you.

I think the best story I every wrote involved the disappeared in Argentina. I wrote it after I visited Argentina, saw the mothers of the disappeared marching in the Place de Mayo and asked myself how a decent, loving military man trapped into working in a prison where women were executed and their babies taken might react? What could he do? This is the question we ask ourselves when we read about those who say they only obeyed orders when accused of some terrible crime. We wonder what we would have done in similar circumstances.

Making sure I deal effectively with my characters? feelings still challenges me. My best advice was to always ask and answer the question, ?how does she feel??


Libba Bray is the author of the novels The Diviners, Beauty Queens, Going Bovine and the Gemma Doyle Trilogy. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Besides, ?Are you sure you don?t want to go into the rewarding world of automobile insurance?? Hmmm, well, just like Captain Kirk with the Kobayashi Maru test, I?m going to cheat here. (With that one sentence, I have outed my nerd self. Live long and prosper, folks.) I?m going to cheat because I?ve been fortunate enough to receive more than one piece of excellent writing advice?words of wisdom that still punch their tiny fists of righteousness against the ?lumbering idiot? walls of my brain pan?and it would be impossible for me to label any of them, ?best.? The first comes from my friend, Maureen Leary. Many years ago, we were at a party where people werediscussing a much-admired bestseller. Maureen was the dissenting opinion. She said, ?I had the feeling it didn?t cost the author anything to write it.? That really stuck with me. It taught me that writing should have stakes for the writer, that it should make the writer feel vulnerable and exposed on some level. There has to be a little marrow left on the page. The second piece of advice comes from YA writer, Jennifer Jacobson, who says that when she writes, she asks herself at each juncture, ?Is it true yet?? I still ask myself that. I don?t know that I ever get there, but asking the question during each revision gets me a smidge closer. Last, there?s this beauty from the late, great Ray Bradbury: ?First you jump off the cliff, and you build your wings on the way down.? If a person on the train told me that, I?d probably smile and nod and move to another car. But it?s Ray ?Smell My Genius? Bradbury, people. And if he says the only way for it is to leave caution behind and leap wholly, unapologetically into the void of story, the wind rushing past your ears as you eye the possible splatty-point far below, well, who am I to argue? Otherwise, there?s always the car insurance route.


Jill Downie is the author of several novels including A Grave Waiting and Daggers and Men?s Smiles. She lives in Ancaster, ON.
Once upon a time, on a small island called Guernsey, off the coast of France, there lived a teenage girl who had the good fortune to have a gifted English teacher. Her name was Mrs. Rose and, like her floral namesake, she came complete with thorns. Critical, analytical thorns. She inspired the girl, broadened her knowledge of the world?s great literature, introduced her to new and challenging books and writers, encouraged her to develop her own writing skills and, because the girl so admired this wonderful woman, her words of praise were treasured and stored away for a lifetime.
I am not sure Mrs. Rose would have approved of my fanciful approach to the question I have been asked, but that teenage girl (of course) was me, and this account is not fiction. However, I know she would be smiling if she knew it was a criticism that has been of immeasurable value to me over my writing years, and not a verbal pat on the back.
I cannot even remember what it was I had written that brought about the criticism, but I know I handed in the composition feeling as confident of praise as I usually did. When it was returned there, on the bottom, was the kind of mark I rarely, if ever, received. I was devastated, close to tears, not just because of my hurt feelings, but because I valued Mrs. Rose?s good opinion. After the class she took me to one side and explained, going through the piece in detail, why she had given it that low mark. Then she said the words that have stayed with me.
?The French have a saying I have always found very useful, Jill.?Il faut reculer pour mieux sauter.? One has to take a step back to make the best jump.?
Over the years, when sitting in front of a piece of paper, or a typewriter, or a word processor, I have said that French bon mot out loud. I say it when I am stuck, looking at the blank page or screen, when I have lost my fictional way exploring a character or a plot twist. It may not give me an immediate answer to my quandary, but it reminds me that what may look like an impasse or a dead end is often part of the creative process ? that it?s not just gigantic leaps forward that help man and womankind but, sometimes, a giant step in the opposite direction.

Joy Fielding is the author of numerous books of fiction, including Shadow Creek, Now You See Her, The Wild Zone, and Still Life: A Novel. She lives in Toronto, ON.

I've had a lot of advice as a writer, some good, some bad. Everyone thinks they have a book in them and no one has any compunction about offering their two cents worth. When I was fairly new to novel writing, my then-agent told me to do three things: to decide what and whose story I'm telling, to keep that story moving from point A to B to C, and to "thread", meaning to keep the action moving up till a particularly interesting point and then drop it and pick up another, only to drop that one when the reader's interest is sufficiently peaked, and so on. This advice was great because it is clear, to the point, and very effective. But perhaps the best advice I ever got was from a friend of mine, a writer/producer, who got this particular piece of advice from an agent he knew, and that is "If you're telling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, BRING ON THE THREE BEARS!? In other words, get to the interesting stuff as quickly as you can. What are you waiting for?


Jennifer Hillier is the author of the novels Freak and Creep. She lives in Toronto, ON.

In tenth grade, I had an English teacher named Mr. Rogers. He was a quirky fellow, probably in his early thirties, with a British accent and a mop of curly brown hair. He wasn't married, did not own a TV, and he loved books. I developed a rapport with him early in the year, when he caught me reading a Stephen King novel while I was supposed to be working on a writing assignment. I remember him pausing by my desk, eyebrows arched as he picked up my well-worn copy of Pet Sematary.

"You're supposed to be working on your Shakespeare essay," he said, frowning. Around me, thirty other students were doing just that. "It's due tomorrow."

I reached into my binder and pulled out my assignment, already completed. "Can I hand it in now?"

He took the paper from me and put the book back on my desk with a small smile.

The next day, he motioned me over as I was leaving class.

"Not that there's anything wrong with reading Stephen King," he said, "but I thought you might like this one. It's my personal copy." He handed me a well-worn paperback. I looked at the cover. Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

"What's it about?" I said, turning it over. It was my turn to frown. The book looked like something I'd have to read in next year's English class. In other words, it didn't look like fun at all.

"Don't read the blurb," he said. "Just read it. And let me know what you think."

"Do I have to write a report?"

"No," he said with a sigh. "You want to be a writer, don't you?"

I nodded. How did he know that? I'd never actually told him. I'd never actually told anyone.

"Then if you want to be writer, you need to read a lot. Of everything. Always keep an open mind. You might be surprised at what you enjoy."

Over the rest of the school year, Mr. Rogers would recommend more books. Some he lent me, others I borrowed from the library. Among them was The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, The Great Gatsby, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, even Stephen King's The Stand. And over the course of the year, my writing did improve, so much so that I won a spot in that year's school anthology with a short story I had written, a place normally reserved for those in twelfth grade.

I never forgot Mr. Roger's advice, and now, when an aspiring author asks me what my best tip is, I offer the same advice. Read a lot. Read everything. Read both inside and outside your genre. There will be books you learn from and books that are pure entertainment, but in the end, every single thing you read can potentially help you become a better writer.

I know it helped me.


Roy MacGregor is the author numerous books of fiction including The Last Season, Canoe Lake and the popular Screech Owls series. He lives in Ottawa, ON.

The best advice ever was "write what you know." When I set out to write The Last Season, I knew I wanted to write about the polish immigrant experience in rural Ontario, which I knew because of family connections and the area of the country (Ottawa Valley) where I was born. I had a name for the character, Felix Batterinski, which I borrowed from a friend of my father's, Felix, and a local lacrosse player, Stan Batterinski. I made Felix an executive assistant to a politician in Ottawa, another setting I thought I knew. But I didn't, not well enough. After 50 hand-written pages I knew it was going no where. So, "what did I know?" Aha, hockey! I had played against Bobby Orr and was still playing. So I went to Finland with a team and played some games there. And when I returned, I had my book. I set it in the Ottawa Valley for the Polish experience. I had Felix go off to play junior in Huntsville, which I knew, and Sudbury, where I had gone to university. I had him play in the NHL, which I had covered, and then finish out his career in Finland, where I now had first-hand experience. I never again thought of Felix as a political aide, but as a rock hard, tough hockey policeman. And, funnily, some reviewers said I was pushing it a tad by calling a hockey enforcer "Batter-rink-ski." If only they knew the truth!


Shaun Smith is the author of the YA novel Snakes & Ladders and the non-fiction collection Magical Narcissism: Selected Writings on Books, Writers, Food & Chefs. He has published journalism with CBC.ca, Quill & Quire, Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail and numerous other outlets. His book blog "Shaun Smith's Sunday Sundries" appears on Open Book Toronto.

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