Margaret Atwood’s Top 5 Writing Tips


Okay, so my first question would
probably be when did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? When I was sixteen. So a little bit younger than you are now. And that was in what we
call high school which is what basically you are in and what made me decide to
do that because I wasn’t thinking about it and the the year before when they
went back to do a documentary on me they interviewed my year before a teacher and
usually your teachers going to say “Oh yes, I know she was brilliant etc”
but this one told the truth and said “She showed no particular ability in my class” which was true but then I had a different teacher the next year and
apparently I don’t think it was she who put the idea into my head because in
1956 in Canada nobody was going to be a writer so there were no creative writing
classes we didn’t learn it when we wrote things in school it was essays. But I
think I just I just started doing it and it was more fun than anything so I
changed career paths I switched from science to writing and everybody thought
I was mad. Well…you’re laughing at them now! Well, I don’t know. Most of them are dead. What book of yours are you most proud of and why? Wwhat am I most proud of that I’ve
written? Oh. I never answer that question.
And the reason I don’t is that if I choose one of my books the others will
know about it and they’ll be very annoyed. “We spent all this time with you
and you’re just dismissing us?” I don’t choose amongst them. I put in the
time on them I must have been interested in them at the time. How do you create such in-depth storylines and plots? Like how does it come to your head? Well
you can get the idea for a novel in quite a short period of time but then
you have to sit down and work at it. so what they say is 10% inspiration and
90% perspiration so the rest of it is working it out and while you’re working
it out you often get more and different and new ideas because the idea that you
may have originally started with isn’t working out quite the way you thought it
might so your biggest friend as a novelist is your waste paper basket. You
throw the things that aren’t working unless you think there’s something you
might use later in which case you save it and that could be a long process it
can take you know a year two years to work out an idea that you might have had
in five minutes so we don’t know where ideas come from they – can come from
anywhere really but it’s the working out of it that
makes it involved and when you’re working you know you’re looking at
you’re looking at structure and you’re looking at pacing. So here is a tip if
you’re writing a murder mystery put one dead body quite close to the front. Worth remembering otherwise people are gonna be going like : “where’s the murder??” Many of your books
contain emotionally draining scenes. How do you deal with this as a writer? Emotionally draining scenes? Let me tell you a story. When my kids were about 5
they said we’re putting on a play and they sold tickets to the play – $0.25 so we bought a ticket to the plyn we went to the play there were two
of them and the play started they were having breakfast it’s the breakfast
motif and they were saying things like “Could I have some more orange juice?”
“Yes here it is.” “I would like some milk please.” Here’s the milk . “Could I please have
some cereal?” There’s the cereal. This went on for a while and I said,
“is anything else going to happen?” And they said no, and I said “well in that
case we’re leaving! “And when you think of something else that’s going to happen we’ll come back to see the rest of it.” a story isn’t just this and that and
this and that and this and that something has to happen and the
something that has to happen should be a surprise to the person reading the book
and often to you the person writing the book and of course some of those things
are going to be emotionally draining scenes because if it was just one happy
event after another people are going to be going “is anything else going to
happen?” so I think we we have emotionally draining things in books because it
allows us in a way to wonder how we the reader would deal with that. So how is the
character in the book dealing with it? Do you think they’re dealing with it well,
or do you think they’re not dealing with it well? And if it were you how might you
deal with it so you’re when you’re reading the book they’re right there
with the character. So…”Don’t open that door!” …they open the door “Don’t go in!” …they go in. so you are wandering all the time what would I do if I were that person
you know if I were Harry Potter how would I deal with the dragon that is
about to be executed? Like that. So, while I’m unsure of what the
equivalent is in Canada many of my friends in sixth form that are taking
English literature are currently studying The Handmaid’s Tale in their
A-level studies. How do you feel that some of the current maybe future writers
of tomorrow are studying your work? Well, they’ve been doing it for a while and I
think we’ve seen some books and things coming along that you might call
relatives of The Handmaid’s Tale because remember it was published first in 1985
which is quite a long time ago and at the time quite a few people
said “this will never happen! This will never happen in the United States.” Jump cut to 32 years later. What can I tell you? It’s happening. Not quite the same
way and not with the outfits but there’s been a rollback of women’s rights and a
push back and we’re seeing that happening before our very eyes which is
why people apart from the fact that it’s a very good TV series that’s why people
got so involved in it. It didn’t seem like a fantasy anymore. So how do I feel
about it? if there are no young writers there will
be no future readers so every group of young writers that’s coming along is
continuing the tradition of reading and writing so they’re part of a very long
history but if all of a sudden there weren’t any young writers that tradition
would would stop. So that’s why it’s a good idea to encourage young writers if
you were keen on the idea of books and and reading. More young readers and
writers need to come along or else it will all come to an end. And wouldn’t that be sad? lots of your novels are based in a
dystopian society. We as humans take comfort in believing that the future
will be brighter than the present or the past. Post-Trump do you believe this? Having seen the pushback I actually am quite hopeful because although there is
this desire to roll time back you also see a lot of people saying “no, that is
not going to happen.” but it is a struggle you know right now
there are two opposing forces and of course you’re optimistic because
the mere act of writing is an act of optimism. Tthink of all the ways in which
it is hopeful: First of all you have set out to write a book; you believe you’re
going to finish it. That’s pretty hopeful. Then you believe
that once you finish it it’s going to be good – that’s hopeful too. Then you believe
someone will want to publish it: even more hopefulness. And then you believe if
it’s published somebody will want to read it which is very hopeful indeed so
just writing something down presumes a future reader. You don’t write things
down if you think nobody will ever read them. It might be you at a future time, it
might be you reading your own diary that you wrote five years ago but just
recording it means you believe that in the future somebody will be reading it
and that’s a pretty hopeful thing. I’d like to ask what would be
your top five tips for young aspiring writers. How young? So, 11 to 18 specifically. I noticed that each of you have a notebook. So tip number one: get a
notebook! Write down things that come into your head that you think you might
find useful later. So that’s number one. Number two: read a lot and read
critically. That is, decide ‘I like this, don’t like that, why do I like this, what
qualities do I like about it?’ and notice how the writer is putting the story
together and how they are handling the language of the story. So writers have
all been begun by being readers and you will be selecting out from all
the writers that you come across your patch as it were; your your special writers that you really like and you
will be learning from them because we have all learned from other writers.
Number three: pay attention to your posture because writing is very hard…
keyboarding is hard on the neck and the back and you don’t notice
it so much when you’re young but you it will catch up to you and it’s hard to
write when you’re in agonizing pain so the back exercises, getting enough exercise, walking around. If you come to a block and you don’t know where to take your
story next there’s two good things to do one of them is go for a walk and the
other one is go to sleep because during the walk when you’re thinking about
something else the answer may very well come to you and if you give your
unconscious mind… you know, “I have a problem”… go to sleep
you wake up you may often find the answer. But the other, the fifth one, is
don’t be afraid to throw things out and by the way when you’re writing nobody’s
seeing it except you so so don’t worry about what other people might think of
it while you’re writing it if you then decide that this isn’t where
you want to go, that this isn’t what you want to put out there, there’s the waste
paper basket. You have complete freedom while you are writing. I love The Handmaid’s Tale and I also watched the Hulu series and I’m extremely eager to
find out what’s happening in season two what was it like having to continue the
story after finishing the book? Well, luckily it’s not me doing it. There’s a
writing room which has about ten people in it and the head of it is a person
called Bruce And then there’s then there’s a
number of other people most of whom are female. Bruce said that he thought that
he hired all these female writers and thought they would agree with one
another but that wasn’t the case since women are people. So they thrash it
out they have a general story arc and then they break it down into scenes and
they each go off and they write a scene and then they bring it back and they all
discuss it. So as a group activity I get to read the script but I
don’t have any control so I have no veto. No writer ever of a novel ever
does when it’s a matter of a film or television because it’s classic
that writers don’t like the product and imagine if they had a veto – they could
say “well I don’t know, I don’t approve of this and we’re cancelling this
multi-million dollar project.” So that’s why they never do but I’m pretty close
to Bruce Miller and we talked on the phone quite a bit so I have input but I
don’t have final say and when you’re making a series like that there is no
one person…there’s no one person who has total control because when you think of
all the people involved in it for instance Elisabeth Moss is a producer on
it, so she gets a say. And the producers get a say, the
directors, the people doing the editing. You sit in the editing room and they
may have shot a scene maybe five times and you have to look at each of those
five times and decide which one you like best and then they choose that one
and then there’s there’s somebody who works with color. They’re enhancing the
color. So, yeah, it is a multi person enterprise and any one of
those links might be weak and I think we’ve been very lucky we’ve had an
excellent team and I’ll mention here the designer, whose
name is Anne Crabtree. So the costumes that you see, the look of
things, that’s that’s her work and very painstaking it was for instance she
looked at 50 different shades of red before choosing that particular red.
Again she looked at all of the shades of blue and ended up with that sort of
blue-greeny thing. They thought of every detail for instance in the
commander’s house you’ll see some paintings. Each one of those paintings is
in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. So if you know that, you know that these
people have stolen the paintings and put them up in their own house.
And the signatures of the artists on the paintings are the only things you could
read in that house that isn’t in the commander’s study so of course I asked the obvious question. I said, “are they the real paintings?” And they said “no no we
got this nice man in China to paint them for us.” They did a very good job so they
thought of every every detail like what sort of silverware what sort of…the
amazing scene in series one where she’s given this little pastel meringue
cookie so they would have thought of “okay, what are they having
for tea? Would you like a cookie?” It was a particularly poisonous looking thing so every every detail they’ve been very mindful of. They didn’t want there to be any
discrepancies so something that wouldn’t be there and in season two they’ve been very faithful to the main idea which is
nothing goes in and doesn’t have a precedent in real life, somewhere,
sometime, so they have a research team justify those to me.
They will say, “okay so here’s where it happened.” All of those things they’re
careful about. Thank you so much. Thank you, and very good luck with your writing and everything that you’re doing

35 thoughts on “Margaret Atwood’s Top 5 Writing Tips

  1. so calm and soft.I read your poems and about you only in the book dear Margaret.I see you so inspirtion to the rest of the world bounded by the outside laws and order suffering under someone who is more powerful. You are an independent being.

  2. My fifth grade teacher was the one who started me on the road. Should I hug him or kill him? HUG. Margaret, I LOVE you! Taking a personal interest in the stories you wrote, even years later! Bless you!

  3. That advice about the health of one's body is so so soooooo important. Body pains will keep you from the activities you love, no matter how passive or sedentary.

  4. Very good, well thought out questions. Of course, great answers by Margret Atwood. Shared this one.

  5. Thank you, National Writing Center and Margaret Atwood! This is the best writing advice! It's especially good what she says about reading critically and keeping a notebook to write down what you like when you hear it/ see it. 1 point I'd like to add – if you're writing an emotional scene and don't feel it yourself, whether it's love or sorrow or comedy, then your reader probably won't feel it either. I think it was Ray Bradbury who said he knew he had written something truly great when he had tears on his face

  6. Having seen Margaret Atwood years ago at an L3 writers conference at a local high school, I can say that she is also very self deprecating and witty. I just started reading a newish novel by her called The Heart Goes Last. It is gritty and grim and an enjoyable read so far. Has anyone taken her Master Class on writing that is available online. Im considering and want to know how it's going…Love you Margaret 🤩

  7. I wish she was my relative… 😭go to her house for the summer and just listen to her…and write , draw with her. Imagine that😂
    Every word she spits out is so interesting and priceless 😍

  8. Emily and Grace conducted this interview better than many so-called 'professionals' that I have viewed. Thank you!

  9. Writers write. Each has their own path. If you need advice, surrender. You're not a writer. Atwood can offer only trite hackneyed platitudes and fluff. She knows how it works.

  10. DEAR MARGARET…HOPE YOU GET THIS..And you ALL read this…I just got a notice abt one of your videos or something.. don't know ya etc BUT you using the DEROGATORY term " mansplaing" cought my eye…and p angered me, off..
    I'm going to say this to ALL.. IF your fortunate enough to have a guy who takes the time to explain stuff to you, feel good. MOST DONT.
    2 Again, IF you do, LISTEN. In REALITY, contraire to recent opinion, women don't know much about alot, they are good with alot about a little. Face FACTS.. You haven't been 'controling the world' long enough to have alot of experience at alot. (ie; girls were asked "what things are women better at than men"..All three echoed "everything"…then one asks "anyone know where the directions for these lightbulbs are…"
    Repete ;;; IF you have a guy willing to explaing 'stuff' to you..LISTEN…
    ( HILLARY Didnt, Her ' I'm so wonderful, ' All knowing fantastic behind was Sooo smart she Ignored campaign advice NO money could buy, from a Former President, the very MAN whos shirt tail she's been riding on for over 40 years, Her husband President Bill Clinton. We all know how that turned out…
    Listen, learn, show apprecation. Because you all are blindly pushing away the ONLY other people on earth who care about you…

  11. I've never read anything from Margaret Atwood, but she seems a very interesting and intelligent woman. Thanks for this interview. If you'd allow me to chime in with some feedback – pay more attention to your sound quality next time. I could barely understand what the girls were saying because the sound was so muffled and dull, especially for the girl on the left. Thanks, cheers!

  12. Let's cut all the bullshit, because I know people will reply to this "Well, they're just young" or "Thy were nervous". Fuck that. They seem uninterested while Margaret is speaking, as if only wanting to go to the next question and only thinking about when is she done so they can ask the next one. Dude, listen to what she is saying. Fuck the next question, you can ask it when she is done.

  13. Beg to differ … the work you are proudest of is The Blind Assassin. Why? Because the Pope Dr. Harold Bloom said so.

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