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Author Stuart McLean shares his secret to telling a riveting story

The voice behind CBC's Vinyl Cafe shares tips on how to write well.

Stuart McLean, The Vinyl Cafe, CBC

Stuart McLean

Before you begin, spend time with your characters. Put the plot away. Forget the storyline. Visit the people you think you are going to write about and get to know them. That girl on the bike, what year was she born? What was happening in the world that year? Dig around in her life. Who did she sit beside in grade 1? How does she do her hair? Why does she do it that way, anyway? Dream up 101 questions and write down the answers. Do it for all the characters. Even the peripheral ones. Sometimes peripheral characters will surprise you. Sometimes they will elbow their way to the front of the stage. Spend days and days and days on this. Fill up pages and pages with notes. See where it leads you. It will lead you somewhere.

Now you can start. You will find there are bits and pieces you have written that you can use. You will find, even though you thought you hadn’t started, that you are well under way.

Write your story down the way you would tell it to someone. Pretend you are telling a story to friends who are sitting across the table. Start talking to them. Out loud. Write down what you say. If you get stuck, let them ask you questions. A good question for them to ask you is, “What happened next?”

Write every day. Set a word count and try to hit it. I try to hit 500 good words. Five hundred words a day adds up. Stop when you hit your limit. Even if you want to keep going. You want to be anxious to get back to it tomorrow.

Read the words out loud as you write. Speak the words and listen for the rhythms. Writers mutter a lot when they are at work. Make your writing rhythmic.

Have you come to the end yet? Congratulations. That’s your first draft.

Rewrite it. This is what separates the pros from the amateurs. Your first draft and Alice Munro’s might be surprisingly similar. The difference between you and Alice Munro is that she has been known to rewrite a story dozens of times.

Read some books on writing well. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White is a good one. On Writing Well by William Zinsser is another. There are rules. “Omit needless words” is a good one. So is “Don’t use qualifiers.” Decide which rules are your favourites. Go through your story and apply them.

I bet you don’t need as many adjectives and adverbs as you have used. Pay attention to the verbs. Let the verbs do the heavy lifting.

Did you rewrite it? Good. Time to rewrite it again. You can probably make it shorter. Make it shorter.

Have you made it as good as you can? Congratulations. Put it away for a while and let it mature. After you have forgotten exactly how it goes, take it out again and reread it. Can you improve it further? Good, rewrite it.

Okay, now you can show it to someone. If you feel insecure about it, show it to someone who loves you. They will tell you it is terrific. Feeling more confident? Good. Find someone who will feel comfortable telling you the unvarnished truth as they see it. Maybe a teacher, a fellow writer, someone from your book club whose opinion you value. You might even engage a professional freelance editor. Listen to what these readers have to say. Now it is time to roll up your sleeves. Time to rewrite again.

Have faith. The other difference between you and Alice Munro is she believes in herself. She believes she is a writer. She believes if she rewrites it enough times she might get close to what she was hoping for.