CBC Short Story Prize juror Kevin Hardcastle's 5 rules for writing

The Toronto-based writer discusses the importance of editing and why it's useful to join writing communities.
Kevin Hardcastle's debut novel is called In The Cage. (Biblioasis/Katrina Afonso)

Kevin Hardcastle's debut short story collection, Debris, won the Trillium Book Award in 2016 and the 2017 ReLit Award for short fiction. His first novel, In the Cage, came out earlier this year.

Hardcastle is currently serving as a jury member for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize, alongside Heather O'Neill and Eden Robinson. 

Hardcastle shares five rules to stick by to improve your writing.

1. Put in the work

Kevin says: "I find a lot of writers, emerging and established, tend to get caught up in fears that their work is not going well, even before they've laid down enough of it to know. This is understandable and common. But, it also can stop you from writing, or focusing on the things that you can control. A practiced writer with a robust voice got there because of the hours spent focusing on craft, line by line, and paragraph by paragraph, and by honing the tools that let them put one after another. If you get back to that focus on craft, and build a story that way, you are unlikely to build a bad one. It might be a little weird, or not what you expected, but a good carpenter never builds a bad table."

2. Follow your own compass

Kevin says: "One distraction from writing your own stories is wondering what everyone else is doing. It can also influence your writing goals and the approach to your work through inspiration, admiration or osmosis. Don't follow the market. Don't write everything in first person, present tense just because everyone else seems to be. Ask yourself why these approaches work when they do, but ask more about what works for you, regardless how traditional or weird it gets. Most good writing was misunderstood before it bent literature to a point where it could be appreciated."

3. Don't be precious about your characters

Kevin says: "Anything and everything that involves your characters is fluid in nature, and is there to serve the story. The story isn't there to serve them. You should be able to objectively look at your characters and have the story act upon them for good or bad when it's the right time. If you write good characters that you care about, and the reader cares about, there is all the more at stake when they win or lose, live or die. It will make those decisions more important, and impactful, when you determine their fate."

4. Edit until your eyes bleed

Kevin says: "I once heard somebody at an MA workshop say that they hate editing and revision, and they just like to write a draft and move on because it bores them. Please, do not do what they did. Part of this job is the deconstruction of the work you've done, taking a scalpel or hatchet to the parts that need it, and rereading and rewriting until you can't see a better way to get it done. You can get to a point of diminishing returns, but the hours spent editing closely are never hours you've wasted."

5. Get some friends

Kevin says: "I used to think that I'd somehow make it as a writer on my own, by circumventing CanLit communities and literature and having publishing success just based on the quality of the work. That was relatively dumb. While I didn't see a place for my kind of writing in CanLit at the time, I realize now that, to make a place for emerging writers like me, you have to participate in the country's literature from within. When I found a community of writers, emerging and otherwise, through things like the Journey Prize and local reading series in Toronto, that changed my views on the current and future weight and potential of writers working here today. It also meant that I had a support system when things looked grim, and I could ask very good writers, who I respect and trust, to read my manuscripts and give me feedback about how I might make them suck less. Without them, my recent novel would be very different. This is a crucial part of the writing process for many writers, and if you've found some folks to read and tolerate you, that road gets a lot easier to travel."

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