Canadian author Margaret Atwood has written more than 40 books of fiction, poetry, short stories, and critical essays. The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Cat’s Eye (1988), The Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), and The Blind Assassin (2000), are just a few notable novels Margaret has authored, along with the more recently published The Heart Goes Last (2015), and Hag-Seed (2016). Margaret is also known for her themes that combine dystopia with science fiction, seen not just in The Handmaid’s Tale, but in her trilogy, Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and Maddaddam (2013).
In her MasterClass, Margaret delves into novel structure, character development, and how to write compelling stories.
Margaret Atwood Quotes
Margaret Atwood has been working in the literary world and having her works published since the 1960s. Margaret’s MasterClass focuses on the novel: what it can do, aspects and possibilities in its form, and lessons she’s learned through writing her own novels.
On finding your own process: “The right way of doing things is whatever happens to be working for you. Some people have to start at the beginning and go through in order until they get to the end. Other people are making pieces and then arranging them. Some people like to work on, at the page level, at the sentence level, and get that perfect before they move on. There is no set of surefire rules that are going to work for everyone. So you can try these suggestions. If they don't work for you, the wastepaper basket is your friend.”
“There are no guarantees in the world of art. You can do all the work, make a wonderful book or painting or piece of music, and sometimes, it disappears into the void.”
On open endings: “The Handmaid’s Tale is an example of an open end. So reader’s choice. Does she get any further away than Bangor, Maine, or not? Does she manage to escape over the border to Canada, or not? Does she make it as far as England, or not? We don’t know, and people have been after me for 33 years to tell them, and I have not been able to tell them, because it is one of those instances where we just don’t know. People want things to be tidy, it drives them crazy when they’re not, which is I think why there are policemen dedicated to solving cold cases. It just drives them crazy that they have not got the answer.”
On change: “There’s no shame in backtracking. There’s no shame in revision. There’s no shame in realizing that you got it wrong, or that there’s a better thing you can do that’s better than what you have done.”
On interruptions: “You become a writer by writing. There is no other way. So do it. Do it more. Do it again. Do it better. Fail. Fail better. I think it’s a good idea, especially when you’re younger, you keep your hand in by writing something everyday. So I recommend it, but it’s another one of those recommendations that I myself have been unable to follow.”
On showing your work: “Once you feel there’s nothing else that you can do to your manuscript to improve it, that’s when you need to hand it to an outside observer. What I’d like to have is people who are dedicated readers but who are not in the publishing business. You want somebody who can give you a true opinion and it’s better if it isn’t your spouse. You don’t want to have any of those frosty silences over the breakfast table, and you also don’t want to have put them in that position.”
On getting past fear: “If you really do want to write, and you're struggling to get started, you're afraid of something. What is that fear? Are you afraid that people will laugh at you? Are you afraid that it won't be any good? Are you afraid that your mother will find out? You know, what is the fear? Identify the fear, look that fear in the face. There are ways of dealing with all of these fears. People have used many ways of dealing with them. Some of them have written under pseudonyms. So if you're afraid your mother will find out, make up another name. Write under that name. If you're afraid that people will laugh at you, just remember, you don't have to show them anything until you're ready. It's only you and the page.”
On what makes a good plot: “A good plot has to have something happening in it that is of interest to the reader, and we hope to the characters. Or maybe I’ll put that the other way around—that is of interest to the characters, and we hope to the reader.”
On actions revealing character: “Which comes first, character or story? There is no such thing as first, because a person is what happens to them. So a novel is characters interacting with events. Characters don’t just exist in isolation. You’re finding out who they are through how they interact, through the decisions they make, through how other people treat them, through how they react to how other people treat them. All of these interactions that change us, that reveal us to ourselves, that reveal us to other people, and therefore to the reader.”
On the writer’s life: “I don't think the writing life is like deciding you're going to be a lawyer or a dentist, it's not that kind of decision. I think it's something that you already—you're already on that path before you know it—and you discover it, but I think that if you have to stand back and say, "should I be a writer or should I not be a writer?" If you're doing that, then the answer is probably, "I should not be."
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