CBC Writing Advice (October)

Here I will list out to the best of my ability all the writing advice I’ve received in October’s emails, via the CBC short story contest newsletter.


“I’m going to steal one from Kurt Vonnegut: ‘Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.’ The friction between character desire is, in essence, plot. Even secondary characters are motivated by something and the friction between these wants is what drives a story forward. Character is destiny, character is plot.” Maria Lioutaia was born in Moscow, lived for two decades in Toronto and is now based in New York, where she’s completing her MFA in creative writing at NYU. Her last name means “fierce” in Russian. She has made the CBC Short Story Prize longlist three times.

“Something I learned in graduate school: ‘And is truer than but,’ meaning don’t fear complication or try to solve contradiction. It’s more interesting for the reader and truer to life. That ‘and’ has the added advantage of keeping a story moving, whereas ‘but’ stalls and doubles-down.” Brendan Bowles holds an MA from the University of Toronto and an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He won the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada in 2016. He has been longlisted for the CBC Short Story Prizetwice.

“At the heart of all good storytelling is mystery. It is not lost on me that rule number one should make a writer suspicious of blanket claims and simplification through opposition. All the same, I have yet to be disabused of this particular dictum.” Brendan Bowles holds an MA from the University of Toronto and an MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He won the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada in 2016. He has been longlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize twice.

“I once met a novelist who told me he types with his screen off so that he wouldn’t be able to see his words and be tempted to change them. When I started writing, I used to edit every sentence as I wrote it and it took forever, until luckily, a great teacher challenged me to try and write without editing. I’ve never looked back.Editing as you write can be very satisfying, as it leads to polished first drafts. It appeals to the control freak inside of us. But employing both your creative self and the critical self simultaneously can be mentally challenging and difficult to keep up. It also isn’t time effective, since you might end up cutting that beautifully crafted sentence or paragraph, or page, or chapter which you’ve spent so long perfecting. More importantly, when you edit as you write, you’re not surrendering to the process. You’re not letting go. By allowing yourself to write more freely without letting the critic jump in until you’re finished a draft (some tweaking here and there is fine), you are introducing surprise and recklessness into your writing. Of course it is terrifying. But it is also an opportunity to take risks and go wild.” Ayelet Tsabari was born in Israel to a large family of Yemeni descent. Her first book, The Best Place on Earth, won the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award. She was shortlisted for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize for her story Green.

“Write only for yourself and your friends. Expect as a reward a kiss, a glass of wine and a good book. Be humble and grateful for the language(s) you hold. They are a collective inheritance you should enjoy and nurture. Never write for the commercial notion of the public, which can be a malleable and fickle consumer. You don’t want to spend your time chasing clouds.” Canadian-Bolivian Alejandro Saravia has lived in Quebec since 1986. His publications include the novel Red, Yellow, Green. His work has appeared in magazines and anthologies in Canada, Mexico and the United States. He was a reader for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize.

“Although Chester Boat Song by Old Man Luedecke is really about crafting wooden boats by hand, I think it contains some great writing advice: ‘There’s mystery in the grain / every board on my boat / the wood curled under my plane… / it’s not a life of fame / to see the lines on my wooden boat make way / brings pride to my name.’ I love that the boatmaker’s feeling of pride comes from the attention to craft and taking the time to get every detail right, and not from fame. The boatmaker also says: ‘I finished off the dory with the help of magazines / I bought the tools / I met the folk who were every bit as keen’ and that’s important, too, finding that writing community. Otherwise, writing can be so isolating. It can feel like throwing a message in a bottle into the ocean and not even hearing a plunk in response.” Amy Chernikowski lives in Regina with her husband and children. Amy writes under the name “Chernikowski,” a name from her family’s past generations, in order to write more honestly about difficult subjects. She was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize.

“Whatever you’re writing, write the first draft with the attitude that if you go back and edit anything, even the placement of a single coma, the draft will die and you’ll never get it back. When you’re done, you’ll love some of it and hate other parts. That’s OK, because nobody has to see it but you. Just get that first draft out — it’s where you find the story and your core message. Then you can go back and edit before you send it out.” Richard Upton was born and raised in London, Ont. He attended Western University before moving to Toronto. He’s currently working on his first novel. He was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize.

“Write or edit in longhand, saving previous drafts, rather than overwriting on a computer. Sometimes one line from an earlier draft is perfect and may be lost forever if you edit using word processing. Writing and editing in longhand also forces you to examine each word, striving for those muscular words and descriptions.” Anne Camozzi writes and creates art in Nova Scotia. An early passion for the arts led to a BFA from York University where she began writing in earnest. Her varied careers all involved writing. She was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize.

“A feeling of dissatisfaction with something you have written is the first step towards making it better.” Robert Everett-Green is currently the Globe and Mail’s cultural correspondent in Montreal. His debut novel was In a Wide Country. He was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize.

“After writing my first two or three stories, I assumed they were done after a handful of drafts. But I then heard George Saunders describe his writing process as iterative, that he returns to pieces frequently, sometimes for many years. The idea of returning to a piece over time and being patient with the process has helped me write stronger stories.” Benjamin Hertwig is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for personal journalism. His debut poetry collection, Slow War, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry. His short story November was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize.

“Get some writer friends for advice, support and feedback. They’re very helpful company when you feel like a struggling solo artist.” Born in a seaside town in Northern Ireland, Suzanne Carson moved to Montreal when she was 17 years old and hasn’t stopped moving, travelling and exploring the world ever since. She was longlisted for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize.

“Let other people read your work. Anything you can learn from other people is helpful, whether it gives you new ideas, fixes issues or just confirms that something is or isn’t working. Even if you’re not ready to take advice or make changes, talking to someone you trust about your writing can give you a better idea of your own feelings on the work — what you’re attached to and protective of, and what you’re not as confident about. And I think it goes the other way too. Helping other people work through writing issues has given me some light-bulb moments about my own work. Talking about writing (anyone’s writing) is an important part of being a writer.” Leah Mol has an MFA in creative writing from UBC and an undergraduate degree in journalism from Carleton University. She works as a proofreader, writer and piano teacher. Her short story Lipstick Day won the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize.

“Sharing your work does require a kind of nakedness. You’re putting your heart and soul out into the ether. I like to think of stories as messages in bottles. Write it down with everything you have and every moment of truth you can possibly capture — and then just stick it in a bottle and toss it out there! In this instance, I hope that the contest is the water that accepts that bottle and brings it back to shore.” Lisa Moore is a Newfoundland-based writer. Her books include February, which won Canada Reads 2013. Her latest book is the short story collection, Something for Everyone, which was longlisted for this year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize. She’s currently serving as a juror for the 2019 CBC Short Story Prize, alongside Esi Edugyan and Iain Reid.

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