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Learning how to write Giller-worthy fiction with Heather O’Neill

Heather O'Neill (photo: George Pimentel)

Heather O’Neill (photo: George Pimentel)

The idea behind Summer Literary Seminars is to take emerging writers out of their regular environments and immerse them in the culture of beautiful settings in places like Kenya and Lithuania. The reality, as I experienced last weekend at a SLS workshop in Montreal, is that emerging writers are filled with wine, put in front of writers they admire, and left stammering and trying to act remotely like human beings with thoughts and ideas about literature.

After attending a life-shifting poetry workshop with Eileen Myles as part of SLS Montreal last spring, I returned for the weekend fiction workshop with Heather O’Neill. While her 12 students were all trying to play it cool, we were also hyper-aware of the likelihood that O’Neill’s second novel, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, would be shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize on Monday morning (it was). As such, we were all taking her advice very, very seriously.

Here are some (paraphrased) writing tips I took away from O’Neill’s workshop:

1. Feed the evil genius: You have an evil genius inside of you. Sometimes we don’t intend to write what we do, but that evil genius puts those plot points in, so go with it.

2. Balance awful with lovable: Speaking of evil, put all the awful shit into a character but still have them be lovable. For example, if you have a terrible father, and a daughter who still loves him, then you have the beginnings of an extraordinary tale.

3. We are not always eating: Therapists say not to say “always.” Same goes for stories. For example, don’t write, “We were always eating.” Describe a breakfast scene instead.

4. You can never go back: With most novels – particularly coming-of-age stories – something needs to happen in the first few pages that means your protagonist can’t go back to who they were before the novel started.

5. Our past catches up: You don’t have to write the entire history of a region or area (or set it in history) to make those things part of a character living there.

6. Remember that experimental writing is an experiment: When you’re trying out something interesting with language you will get one good line for every three bad ones.

7. Your first reader is not your entire audience: When you’re an emerging writer be cautious of investing too much in your first reader. You may start writing to charm them instead of developing your own voice.

8. Let’s be real: Literary fiction is obsessed with authenticity – ask yourself what fucked up thing has happened to you that you can speak of with authority. Whenever we write, we write for a group, and we have to think about what group we come from. Knowing who you are, who you are writing for, and who you are in the world will make you a stronger writer.