Gradey Alexander is one the most respected - and feared - literary critics in Canada. After publishing his first novel, Kensington Market, at the age of twenty-three, Alexander has worked steadily, writing nine books and countless essays, articles, and short stories. For almost a decade he was the Managing Editor of LWOT Magazine, one of the most renowned fiction magazines in the world, and has earned a place in the Canadian literary canon as one of the toughest critics around. Famous for not sparing his opinions, even when it comes to icons like Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler, he shares some invaluable advice for beginning writers (in his typical acerbic style).
"When it comes to giving aspiring writers advice," Alexander told me from his home in Whitehorse, "I don't think you can tell them directly what to do. You either have it, or you don't. What's most important for beginners is to know what not to do."
The Biggest Mistakes Writers Make
5. They don't know their audience.
"Having worked as an editor at one of the world's most respected fiction magazines, I can tell you that there's nothing an editor hates more than having to sort through a slushpile of completely unsuitable writing. You wouldn't submit a detective story to science-fiction magazine, and you wouldn't submit a piece of erotica to the Christian Science Journal. I'm constantly amazed by the number of writers who submit to magazines without ever having read them. It's ridiculous."
4. They don't understand their own limits.
"There's nothing worse," Alexander says, "than a writer attempting, and failing, to be profound. Profundity is often achieved by reining in one's desire to be profound. During my time at LWOT, we collected some of the more laughable manuscripts in a binder, and they were all stories that aspired for deep meaning and failed completely. Just tell the story. Don't moralize. Don't try to make a point. Darren O'Groussny once said, 'It's the story, stupid,' and I believe that to be true."
3. They aren't willing to cut the limbs off their baby.
"I can't remember where I heard that term for the first time, but for a writer - particular a fiction writer - it's particularly apt. You write something, you essentially give birth to it, and the first thing you must do after this painful and emotional experience is to hack your baby to pieces. It's necessary. You must be willing to remove your favorite sentences and paragraphs in order to make the story, as a whole, work. A good writer is a gruesome surgeon."
2. They spend all their time talking about writing, thinking about writing...but they don't actually write!
"How many truly successful writers do you think emerge from these small weekend writer's groups where people get together to share their first chapters and drink coffee and eat brownies? I would say somewhere in the neighborhood of zero. Talk all you want. Attend readings and book signings, network until your head spins around. But unless you're sitting at a desk for several hours every day, you will never amount to anything. Period. You are nothing unless you write."
1. They don't understand that a story or manuscript is NEVER finished!
"There's always another draft. By the time you reach your fourth or fifth draft, the story should in no way resemble the one you started with. If there's a single sentence that remains, it should be the finest sentence ever composed in the history of the English language. Otherwise, hack it to pieces. The first draft is where you spill out all the pollution, all the ridiculous emotion and aspiration that is clogging up your brain. Subsequent drafts are where your skills, if you have any, will shine through. I doubt there is an author alive who doesn't pick up his finished books and wish he could change a word or two here or there. Writing is a continuous act. There is no such thing as a final draft."