Friday, March 16, 2012

The Best Piece of Writing Advice

Rosemary McCracken, author of Safe Harbor

What was the best piece of writing advice you’ve heard?

I wrote several stories when I was a child. They were pretty awful, and at the age of nine or ten I had no idea how to make them better. So I stopped writing fiction.

If only I’d kept on! My writing and my storytelling abilities would have improved.

Instead, I became an avid reader and went on to study English literature in university. I wrote numerous academic papers, and I was told that I had a talent for putting words together. After university, I decided to become a journalist because that involved writing. And I’ve been writing and editing newspaper and magazine articles for the past thirty years.

            But deep down I wanted to write fiction rather than relate facts. I wanted to create my own stories.

            One day I overheard a conversation between a newspaper editor and a fellow reporter. This reporter was a terrific newshound. She could sniff out a good story and track down wonderful sources. But she had trouble writing a story, building an article out of her wealth of information. She’d get stuck on the first sentence and be unable to continue.

            “Just jump in and start writing,” the newspaper editor told her. “Don’t worry about the opening. You can come back and fix it. Turn off your internal editor, and write down the story as though you’re telling it to me.”

            Turn off your internal editor. The words resonated with me. As a journalist, I never had problems writing articles. I had to write to deadlines, and at daily newspapers, those were usually daily deadlines. I had no choice but to submit the article and move on to the next. I had no time to listen to internal editors when I had editors in the newsroom saying they wanted that article ASAP.

            But I remembered the internal editor I’d listened to as a child, and I realized that I was vulnerable to that voice when I was writing fiction. And that was because I was working completely on my own, without assignments, without feedback and without deadlines.

I decided to take another try at fiction writing.

            I tuned out my internal editor while I was writing. I focused on getting my stories out, sentence by sentence, page by page. Later, the following day or the following week, I revisited these pages with my editor’s voice turned on but firmly in check. I worked on tightening sentences and paragraphs, discarding entire pages if necessary.

I joined a writers’ group that meets once a month, which provides deadlines. I joined networking groups such as Crime Writers of Canada and Sisters in Crime. A few years ago, I left my full-time job at a Toronto newspaper and became a freelance journalist in order to free up more time for fiction writing. I submitted work to literary contests.

Slowly, I made progress. Two of my short stories were published. In 2007, a novel manuscript was shortlisted for Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Unpublished Novel. In 2010, another novel manuscript, Safe Harbor, was shortlisted for Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association’s Debut Dagger. And last summer, I signed a publishing contract with Imajin Books. Safe Harbor has just been released as an ebook, and the paperback will be available on April 15.

I’m still vulnerable to my internal editor who likes to compare my writing – unfavorably – with the works of others. I need to tune out these comments, and with practise, it becomes easier to do. The voice will always be there, and it can be useful when I need to edit my work. But it has to be kept under control.


Born and raised in Montreal, Rosemary McCracken has worked on newspapers across Canada as a reporter, arts reviewer, editorial writer and editor. She is now a Toronto-based freelance journalist who specializes in personal finance and the financial services industry.
Rosemary’s mystery novel, Safe Harbor, was shortlisted for Britain’s Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger in 2010. It was released as an ebook by Imajin Books earlier this month, and will be available in paperback on April 15.

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