The Next Chapter

Six Canadian writers on some of the best and worst advice they've received

Carleigh Baker, David Bergen, M.G. Vassanji, Emma Donoghue, Anosh Irani and André Alexis chime in.
Award-winning authors sift through the advice they've been given. (Callan Field/McClelland & Stewart/Derek Shapton/Punch Photographic/Glen D'Mello/Hanna Zoe Davison)

The end of the year is a time to look back and tally up the advice we took or discarded. With that in mind, six authors pass on some writing advice they've been given over the years. 

Good advice

Carleigh Baker is the author of Bad Endings, a collection of short stories. (Callan Field/Anvil Press)

Carleigh Baker says: "I feel that the best advice I ever got was to pay attention, learn the rules and then get ready to break them — but you've got to learn the rules first!"

The Time In Between by David Bergen won the Giller Prize in 2005. (McClelland & Stewart)

David Bergen says: "Read. Read the best that's out there and then imitate. Eventually you'll move beyond imitation into your own voice."

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, by M.G. Vassanji, won the Giller Prize in 2003. (Derek Shapton/Anchor Canada)

M.G. Vassanji says: "One person told me to be precise. Other than that, the advice I would give is don't listen to anybody. Just keep quiet and write."

Bad advice

Emma Donoghue's novel Room was a finalist for the 2010 Man Booker Prize and earned her a 2016 Academy Award nomination for best adapted screenplay. (Punch Photographic/HarperCollins)

Emma Donoghue says: "'Write what you know.' I mean, yes — if you happened to spend the summer you were sixteen working in a funeral parlour — then great, use that material. But you're likely to run out of that stuff fast. I think that advice cramps the ambition of writers. In the days of the internet, there is no excuse for not plunging into and researching any subject you want to write about. So I'm all for writing what you have no idea about until you start."

Anosh irani was finalist for the Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and for the Governor General's Literary Award in 2016 for the Parcel. (Glen D'Mello/Knopf Canada)

Anosh Irani says: "I haven't really been given bad advice. But sometimes people say 'I have an idea for a book! Why don't you do this?' The ideas can be great, but when they try to structure's not the greatest."

André Alexis' novel Fifteen Dogs won Canada Reads 2017, where it was defended by Humble The Poet. (Hanna Zoe Davison/Coach House Books)

André Alexis says: "'Write what you know' — everybody tells you that! Actually, I know very little! But, I'm in love with the imagination; I'm in love with what the imagination does with the world. Yes, your writing is inevitably based in where you come from and who you are, but those are things that you can take for granted. Get beyond yourself! You don't have to write what you know — what you have to do is write well, and that's a different matter."

Carleigh Baker, David Bergen, M.G. Vassanji, Emma Donoghue, Anosh Irani and André Alexis's comments have been edited and condensed.