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What Margaret Atwood Taught Me as a Writer


Some of her famous books or known for:

  • Handmaid’s Tale –Dystopian
  • Alias Grace –Historical Fiction
  • Onyx and Crake (Maddaodam trilogy) –Sci-Fi and Postmodernist criticism
  • The Blind Assassin –Historical fiction
  • The Edible Woman –Psychological fiction

Best quotes (paraphrased)

--All writers have some grand dreams of who they ought to be and how they would live so.

--What are novels if not stories?


How to begin writing:

The main thing is getting past the fear!

  • The fear to start
  • The fear to end
  • The fear of judgement

Identify it, stare at it, and then beat it! Image you, and only you and the page—no outside presence or pressures. Once you deal with these feelings, you can overcome the writer’s block and finally start your story.

If you are still struggling, writing prompts are a good starter for both an amateur or advanced writer. For example, start by reading a famous or even local fairytale or legend, then rewrite it but from a different POV, angle, character, even a different setting of time. Like putting Cinderella and Prince Charming on the moon 1,000 years from now. What would the story look like? What character would you as the writer focus on writing the POV from?

When you have a story idea, immense yourself, work at it, and it will come. Always expand from a span of reference, in order to fully understand something, you must first start at the beginning. A story should start by a break in the pattern, an event that makes life not perfect, their daily routine ruined by a single moment. This moves the story forward; it sets the hero on its journey.



Atwood doesn’t think about structure until 50-60 pages in. She goes back to revise and add in the format to support the story structure.

There are patterns of stories; stories are what happens—the plot; structure is how you tell the story. If you are beginning to write, always try to start in chronological order, then moving into more complex variations.

Some starting points for structure on how to start your story could be:

  • Starting in the middle
  • Starting with a flashback
  • Using a detective novel structure (problem, ask questions, find solution)
  • Using time jumps

Point of View (POV):

Ask yourself these questions when determining the POV:

  • Who is telling the story?
  • To whom are they telling it to, and why?
  • What is the best way, angle, close or far away telling, best aids the reader to understand the story?

Types of POV
1. First person

  • Using “I”

2. Second person

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  • Using “You”

3. Third person limited

  • Narrator isn’t a character, but is close to each one, usually follows only one character

3. Third person omniscient

  • Narrator isn’t a character, but is far away, can switch from character to character

Drama, building character:

Actions are what reveals characters, everything builds it. Characters are there to interact with the events of the story.

Is age important? Think about in relation to each other, to specific events—how old were they? Assign your character a birthday, and maybe an astrology sign. Each sign gives a list of traits that a person will most likely have, positive and negative attributes. This can help generate traits for you as a writer.

Clothing: outfits and the way the characters dresses, it can show a part of rounding them out. Think about it, the first unconscious thing a person sees about an outfit is the shoes. Make them wear clean or dirty clothes, brand new, right off the press vs. generic and old shoes will say a lot of how the character cares about looks. There are different kinds of clothing placed in categories like grunge, hippie, trendy, sporty, business attire, homeless, comfortable, hipster, heritage, costumes, tactical gear and so on. You can create an allure by using clothes.

Other features: don’t bombard your readers with a lot of features at once, spread them out. You can also change the features when you go back to revise.

They are real people—with real hobbies, pets, backgrounds/histories, ruminations, obsessions, reactions unique to them. Take each character and write how they react each to one specific event. Make a character chart, their birthday, and what world events are relevant, how do they draw their own conclusions, include relationships between the characters.


In writing, dialogue is incisive, selective, it reveals character, dramatizing power struggles, trying to get something from another character, dialogue is a transaction, stay alert to subtext (what people don’t say—reading in between the lines), and each character has social markers, idioms, tone, word choice, and may have an accent. Shakespeare was excellent at assigning social markers to each character, this layer of speech allowed the audience to interact with the play from another level.


Writing the middle and end:

Writing the middle is the most difficult. Once you have the beginning, you have the workings for the ending. One tactic to keep the reader engaged is by using tiny cliffhangers, what is about to happen. Atwood believes writing is one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration.

The ending doesn’t have to be tidy like real life, but when deciding to end, it should be to contend with the readers’ expectations. A good way to learn about endings is from TV shows, movies, and other books. What was the ending? Did it strike you as finished? Was there a twist? Did it leave an open ending by raising more questions? What can you learn by the ending and apply it to your own work?

Publishing your story:

Start small first in publishing, submit to literary journals, contests, writing groups, universities, school programs, etc.

With a polished novel, move to small publishing houses (they are usually watched by the larger ones), and pitch to literary agents in the genre of the book, with a strong query letter. If you get it, meet the literary agent, sit down for coffee, form a relationship. Then take what they say about your writing with a grain of salt and improve your story from there.


mactavers on July 12, 2021:

I really liked this Hub. It's great advice. I once had a writing teacher who passed out a sheet at the beginning of the semester with advice like, "Always begin with one of these beginnings, always..." I argued about starting anywhere in the story, and a good story may not have a "pat" ending. She gave me my only C in college for not writing like she taught. I wouldn't change my stand, if I had that class again.

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