Michael Christie's top tips for debut authors
Our February Book of the Month If I Fall, If I Die is a remarkable debut novel full of dazzling prose and unforgettable characters, as well as a poignant and heartfelt depiction of coming of age. Here, author Michael Christie offers budding novelists his advice on writing and how to get started.
Ten tips for writers
1. Write what scares you
I don't mean try your hand at horror fiction or confess all your darkest, most embarrassing secrets. But you know that lingering idea for a story that has long preoccupied your imagination - the one that you've convinced yourself is not possible because it seems beyond your writing powers? Think that other, easier, less emotionally risky idea is the one you ought to try? Well forget it. Do what matters to you. Now. If your emotions aren't on the line, the reader's certainly won't be either.
2. Type out the work of writers that you love - word for word
This may seem like a really strange suggestion, but I believe the practice is hugely beneficial. Writing is very much about getting a sense of whether there is excitement and tension on the page (or not) and it's so easy to forget that all that magic you experience while reading is constructed entirely of one material: ingeniously arranged language. See how your favourite passage of literature looks on your computer screen? Well, that's what yours needs to look like!
3. Find idols; read obsessively; admire them accordingly
Nothing worries me more than when a writing student informs me, as though declaring some great artistic manifesto, that they have no favourite writers or literary heroes. If you can't find somebody to admire among the thousands of utterly brilliant human beings who have performed this art throughout history, then you're definitely deluded. There are people a hundred times smarter and more talented than you or I will ever be, and they are to be admired, not envied and dismissed. These are the people that will guide you through.
4. Don't self-publish literary fiction
Sorry if this is contentious, and there are probably many examples that prove me wrong, but the chances of releasing a hugely successful work of literary fiction are already quite slim, so if you try that without publicity or marketing or anyone trusted in the industry championing your work and putting it into the hands of booksellers - it's pretty much impossible.
5. Get an agent - the best one who will take you
If you're like me, and not quite up on how to negotiate a deal for foreign rights at the Frankfurt Book Fair with a non-English speaking editor that you know well, all while blasting out 5,000 emails per day from your Blackberry and staying current on international digital copyright law - you're going to need an agent. Trust me. Not having an agent is like trying to defend yourself in court. You can do it, but the stakes are too high to mess it up.
6. Don't think too much about trends in publishing
We all know what the hot book of the year is going to be pretty early on, and there can be a tendency in writers to imitate what has worked. (Just watch all the literary thrillers coming down the pipe with Girl in their title, after Gone Girl's success.) But remember, by the time your novel comes out in a few years (at the soonest), tastes will have morphed, and another book will be on top. All you can do is write the best book you're capable of now.
7. Keep it moving
Writing is hard on your body. More and more studies are turning up that indicate some serious negative health effects born of sitting for long periods of time. I used to be embarrassed by how much I get up from my desk and pace around the room while I'm writing, but no longer. Movement is good for both you and your work. As long as your walk doesn't take you too far from your desk…
8. Be light-hearted
When your book comes out, someone is going to take time out of their day to thoroughly trash your work on Goodreads or on Amazon or a million other places. There is just no escaping it. And you could expend hours of your life crafting pithy replies and retorts (believe me on this one…) but please, please, just don't do it. There are people whose tastes are utterly indecipherable. You can comfort yourself by checking the person's other reviews, which probably include such brilliantly intelligent criticisms as "I just don't like books written about women" or "No clue if this fiction book was true or not."
9. Get out of range
I'm lucky to have a little cabin that I write in, which has zero internet access. For me this is absolutely critical, especially when I'm writing fiction in particular. I know many writers who say that the ability to conjure images of anything you'd like, or to check a fact you're unsure of, severely limits the imaginative process.
10. Enjoy yourself
With all this thinking about the strategic nature of writing, it's very easy to forget that what we're talking about here is the creation of art that is intended to deepen the experience of our lives: both the writer's and the reader's. There are so many better, easier, more sure-fire ways to get money or prestige than writing. But for me, there is nothing more enjoyable than spending a day mucking around with words and telling a story that interests me. Writing isn't torture. It's an incredible luxury. A gift. Just remember to accept it.
More about Michael Christie
Michael Christie received an MFA from the University of British Columbia and is a former professional skateboarder. His story collection, The Beggar's Garden, was a finalist for a number of major Canadian prizes and the winner of the City of Vancouver Book Award. He lives with his family on Galiano Island, British Columbia. If I Fall, If I Die is his debut novel.
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Last updated: about 3 years ago