Aspiring writers would do well to heed worthy pointers
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Anyone who likes to write but is mystified by the world of publishing will welcome The Canadian Guide to Creative Writing & Publishing, a new book by Toronto author and teacher Patricia Westerhof. It’s a comprehensive source of all the information that the would-be book-writer needs before taking the next steps.
Westerhof opens with an essential demand: Read. Believe it or not, many people who take writing courses do not read. Not only will reading show what has been done already, it will present ways of expressing yourself that the would-be book-writer didn’t know before.
It’s important to read critically, with pencil in hand.
Two other essentials for the person hoping to create something meaningful and extensive: One, decide when to write — create a regular schedule and stick to it — and two, decide where to write. (When popular novelist Miriam Toews lived in Winnipeg and was just starting out, she wrote in her suburban basement, with no distracting view of the outside.)
Westerhof suggests that any serious writer must avoid “the common pool of ideas,” which are “safe, predictable and conventional.” “Strong writing,” she says, “is quirky, idiosyncratic, innovative. It might consider an unusual subject, or examine a familiar subject using an uncommon point of view.”
After making these pronouncements, Westerhof offers writing exercises that help the writer better understand and apply the points she is making.
Soon after settling the would-be book-writer into the realm of actually working on a book, Westerhof moves right into observations and facts about publishing. The placement of these early on makes it clear that the writer should know, right from the beginning of writing the book, what kind of publisher the writer hopes to attract. She points out that the query letter, whether meant for an agent or a publisher, should be well-written in the same voice as the book. She also offers advice for those considering self-publishing.
Westerhof moves into a discussion about revising. She expresses the importance of the writer’s knowing that revisions will be necessary; some established authors take much longer to revise than they do to write the first draft. It is a question of getting your story or essay down on paper and then going back to “say it better.”
Novelist Carol Shields claimed that she tried to perfect a page at a time and she’d aim for two finished pages a day. Most writers, though, write a whole first draft and then move into the revision stage, which might involve fellow writers or other friends reading the draft and making suggestions.
“Creative writers strive to give readers an opulent aesthetic experience,” says Westerhof. “From the wording of the first sentence of a well-written book, readers know they are in good hands; they have climbed into a stretch limo, not a school bus, and they anticipate the pleasures that come with a luxury ride.”
Westerhof goes on to explain the importance of developing a strong writing voice, and she offers good practical exercises to help with this.
She deals with what is essential to different kinds of writing — the personal essay, the fictional story based on real life, the suspense story, flash fiction, podcast, editorial, prose poem — and winds up with lengthy lists of Canadian literary magazines, independent presses, literary agencies, writers’ grants and writers’ development programs.
The book does not get into details of plot, character, setting, point of view, style and structure; it is assumed the reader has been exposed to these elements in creative writing classes and is now moving into the more sophisticated stage of writing to publish. An understanding of those details, however, is tested and refreshed by the many “Take Action” and “Try It” sections Westerhof provides.
Author of a collection of short stories (Catch Me When I Fall) and a novel (The Dove in Bathurst Station) as well as a creative writing teacher for many years, Patricia Westerhof has succeeded in providing aspiring writers with a lively, insightful and easy-to-follow guide to how to prepare for publication.
Winnipeg author Dave Williamson is founder of the Creative Communications program at Red River College.
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