Letters to A Young Writer

PageLines-colum-mccann-ico.png

Google Isn’t Deep Enough

Research is the bedrock of nearly all good writing, even poetry. We have to know the world beyond our own world. We have to be able to make a shotgun leap into a life, or a time, or a geography that is not immediately ours. Often we will want to write out of gender, race,…

Punctuation: It’s Not A Throwaway Thing (Comma)

It’s not a throwaway thing to tell you the truth. It’s not a throwaway thing, to tell you the truth. You see? Punctuation matters. In fact, sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence. Hyphens. Umlauts. Full stops. Colons. Semi-colons. Ellipsis. Parentheses. They’re the containers of a sentence. They scaffold your words. Should a…

Writing Dialogue

Fugheddaboudit. Dialogue on the page is never real. Never. You could go out this moment and tape a story being told on the street and then transcribe it, but even then it will probably never seem absolutely true. But there’s a difference between truth and honesty. A dialogue might not be true, but it must…

How Do You Bring Fresh Eyes to Your Stories?

Stories can exhaust us. Sometimes we just can’t see them anymore. We have become so close that we forget what it might be like to read it for the first time. Often we need a bit of breathing space between us and our work. When you’ve finished a story or a poem try putting it…

Plot

Plot matters, but plot is juvenile: it is subservient to character and language. Writing teachers make a mistake by concentrating too much on plot. It is not the be-all and end-all in a piece of literature. Plot takes the backseat in a good story because what happens is never as interesting as how it happens.…

Violently Embracing the Violent

How has the passion of our calling been robbed from us? The crisis of our age is that people are living in stunned submission to the political circumstance of the times. We are being bought off by our comforts. At the same time social outrages are unfolding at our feet. But never forget that writing…

The Problem of Sincerity

Happy families are all alike, said Tolstoy, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. So ask yourself these questions: Are you making your characters too nice? Are they too sincere? Have you given them enough rough edges? Have you “flawed” them up? Our characters have to have fingerprints. Don’t be afraid to…

Who What Where When How and Why

This sounds inane, but do you really know who is telling your story? And do you know why they want to tell it? And do you know where they’re telling it from? And do you know when, in terms of time, they are telling the story? And do you know exactly what happened? And do…

No Rust on Your Sentences Please

Now that you have rushed back, you should write your work as if you are sending it to your reader one careful sentence at a time. Prose should be as well-written as poetry. Every word matters. You must test for the rhythm and precision. Look for assonance, alliteration, rhyme. Look for internal echoes. Vary your…

Take a Break

Every now and then, take a break. Go on holiday. Learn how to like writing again. Miss it for a week. And then rush back to it.  

Seeking Structure

Every work of fiction is organised somehow – and the best of them are more profoundly organised than they let on. Chapter, book, verse. There is method in the story-telling madness. Our stories rely on the human instinct for architecture. Structure is, essentially, a container for content.  Think of it as a shape into which your…

Write Yourself a Credo

Sit down and write yourself a credo. What is it that you believe in? What is that you want to do with your writing? Who is it that you want to speak to? What is your relationship with language? Try this at different times of your career. Maybe even try for a credo every year,…