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14 bullshit-free tips for writing & publishing books from people who do it

My brain is pleasantly saturated this evening after a weekend packed with anecdotes, missives and stats about writing books in Canada in 2014.

I spent two days at the Writers’ Guild of Alberta annual conference, where presenters were a mix of local authors, Canadian award-winners and bestsellers and published industry experts. It was an optimistic two days, but reality checks were not in short supply. There were a number of reminders that this writing game takes hard work and sacrifice, and that your day job is necessary. Nobody was there to paint an illusion (delusion?) about the romance of writing books, that’s for sure.

After two days of panels, workshops and Blue Pencil Cafés, I’ve come out the other side inspired and driven, a little scared, but plenty motivated.

Here are 14 unvarnished nuggets of hard-learned advice I heard this weekend on writing, becoming an author and getting published:

  1. “Take solace in the moments when it doesn’t go terribly wrong.”Steven Galloway (The Cellist of Sarajevo, The Confabulist) on the dejection and tough times and very occasional sunshine that comes with living the writer’s life. On the subject of book tours, he added later in the day: “You’re a writer, nothing is beneath you.” The room filled with dark laughter.
  2. Don’t be an entitled writer, you have to do work to acquire skill, Galloway advised us. A surgeon wouldn’t expect her handiwork to be impeccable if she only performed surgery a couple times a year and didn’t keep up with what people were getting sick with these days.
  3. No conflict? No story. Happy families make for boring fiction. (Theanna Bischoff, Cleavage, Swallow)

    The Alberta Room at the Fairmont Palliser Hotel, where I ate lunch next to Steven Galloway and tried to espouse to him the handiness of Twitter. He wasn't buying it.

    The Alberta Room at the Fairmont Palliser Hotel, where I ate lunch next to Steven Galloway and tried to espouse to him the handiness of Twitter. He wasn’t buying it.

  4. “Use your imagination!” Galloway reminded us, relating a story of hitting a wall in the midst of writing The Confabulist. If you think you’ve got “writer’s block”, beware that it may just be that you have been sitting at the computer too long and you’re forgetting how to use that imagination.
  5. “It’s a f—k of a book if you don’t write it your own way.” Tyler Trafford (Almost a Great Escape), applying his late mother’s advice when it came to writing a book about the wartime romance she kept secret her entire life. If you write that kind of book and hold back because you don’t want to offend a couple of family members, you won’t be writing the book your own way, he says.
  6. Bolt an old single-pane glass window to your wall and use it instead of a white board for brainstorming, mind-mapping, and other non-word ways of thinking about your book before you write it. It’s easier on the eyes and wipes off better too. (A Steven Galloway tip!) Galloway said he might spend a whole year creating charts relating to a book before he gets down to really writing it. Hard work I tell you.
  7. Getting published is hard, said literary agent Hilary McMahon (Westwood Creative Artists). Publishers are extremely bestseller and awards-focused and missing a long list can break an author who might have done well if not for all the obsession (by media and otherwise) on such lists. Meantime, publishers are also downloading a lot of promotional responsibilities onto authors. Don’t quit your day job. No, seriously. Don’t.

  8. Since you can’t quit your day job, try segmenting your time instead of multitasking, said Calgary author Leanne Shirtliffe (Don’t Lick the Minivan, The Change Your Name Store). That might mean dedicating an afternoon to writing 5 weeks of blog posts (not also checking social media and making dinner and and and…) or sacrificing a clean house or a Netflix addiction to make dedicated time for writing weekly.
  9. If you’re writing a book of essays, it should still have an arc throughout. (Shirtliffe).
  10. Critique groups can benefit greatly from having authors who write a diversity of genres. Just make sure everyone in the group is there with similar goals: they’re taking their writing equally as seriously, they’ll show up, and they genuinely want to help fellow group members improve. Lots of people join just to yap about how much they know about writing. (Brad Somers & Shirtliffe)
  11. The secret to getting a literary agent in Canada? Hilary McMahon revealed it: write an amazing book! Tell a compelling story in a way only you could tell it. She also said average advances books sold by an agent are around $21,000, while without and agent they average $2,800 (US stats). They are gatekeepers and you have a lot of gates to sneak past.
  12. Here’s a novel way to sell a few more books: Haul them to crafts sales and farmers markets and sell direct. One fellow attendee said that is his main sales strategy.
  13. Querying tips from Hilary McMahon: Make your query letters creative and interesting (you’re a writer, don’t you know), practice your pitch on friends and when you email it, include the first few pages in the body of the email (for agents’ ease of reading at the end of a busy week).
  14. The Alberta government might fund you if you want to take a few months off to write your damn book (or anthology, or screenplay). A well-written grant application, along with a reasoned and reasonable budget can earn a qualified applicant up to $15,000. Check out—and read carefully twice—the qualifications at the Alberta Foundation for the Arts.

Were you there and picked up something you’d like to share? Share your bounty in the comments!




  1. What an inspiring few days that conference sounds like. Thanks for sharing the tips too, maybe I should print them out and carry them with me as a motivator to get off my arse and write more!


    • I was lucky it was just a short bike ride away, too! I’m so glad you found the tips useful. I think I’ll be referencing them often (along my frankly surprisingly thick pile of notes from the conference). I am also learning that descriptions of conference sessions can rarely get across how excellent a session will be, so I’d recommend that if you see a conference opportunity, jump at it if it even remotely tweaks your interest!


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