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For the thrill of it

June 19, 2023

Woman standing in front of a tree.

Bestselling author and Writing alumna Gail Anderson-Dargatz delivers some need-to-know tips to start up a literary novel or a fast-paced thriller

Name: Gail Anderson-Dargatz

Expert in: Anderson-Dargatz is the bestselling author of seven novels, including the acclaimed literary novels A Cure for Death by Lightning, A Recipe for Bees and, more recently, two thrillers, The Almost Wife and The Almost Widow—which was recently released. Her books are national and international bestsellers, and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize and other awards. She’s also written 14 literary-learner novellas (“hi-lo” books) for young readers and adult learners.

Current job: Author, mentor and editor. Anderson-Dargatz teaches courses, edits manuscripts for clients and works one-on-one with writers as a mentor. Find out more on her website. 

UVic degrees: BA in Writing, 1999. She is also a Distinguished Alumni Award recipient.

What do you think makes a satisfying thriller?

The twists! Those surprises that send the story in unexpected and shocking directions. And, of course, non-stop suspense and heart-pounding pacing. A good thriller should have you paging through the story, breathless, dying to know what will happen next.

Writing a novel might feel like an overwhelming task. What are some ways to get started?

Oh, I know! Writing a novel can seem huge, even for an experienced writer. But really it’s a matter of working on one small portion at a time. Write 250 words a day, and you’ll have a novel in a year. But the big thing is learning about structure, the backbone of a novel. Here the heavy-lifting has been done by storytellers of the past. We can use existing narrative structures as road maps to finding our own plots. These structures might include the hero’s journey, the virgin or female hero’s journey, a thriller or romance structure, or Save the Cat! A couple of great guides on that are The Virgin’s Promise by Kim Hudson and Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody. Once we figure out structure, we can see our way forward and writing goes so much more smoothly and quickly. Ultimately it’s about learning to outline using those structures.

Side by side book covers.
After a string of critically-acclaimed literary novels, author Gail Anderson-Dargatz has shifted her focus to writing thrillers, The Almost Wife and The Almost Widow—which was recently released.

What are common mistakes you observe in writers starting out?

All of us avoid our protagonists’ conflicts on the page, for the same reasons we avoid our own. We keep those conflicts at arm’s length, in the past, by offering them in unnecessary flashback or in letters and journals, or we allow our protagonist to run away from their conflicts, by taking trips or leaving the room. In other words, we create passive protagonists. Too often the protagonist is ruminating alone, thinking about their conflict rather than engaging in it (like we do!). The key to writing engaging fiction is to keep the protagonist firmly in the center of their conflict in scenes of action and dialogue. It’s the old “show, don’t tell.”

Should those new to the craft “write what they know"?

If it was “write what we know,” there would be a lot of stories about middle-aged writers talking to their cats. (Come to think of it, there are!) Writing is all about knowing what you’re writing about. So writing engaging fiction means doing a whole lot of research, and that includes interviewing others.

What is your writing life like? What kind of routine do you recommend?

I mentor and edit as well as write, so my work life is a constant juggle, as it is for most people. To keep myself sane, I designate specific days for writing, and do my editing, mentoring and admin work on other days. It also helps to have one desk for writing, another for teaching and another for admin work, so as I sit down I slip into the head space for that specific task. I get most of my writing done in the morning when I’m still fresh as it’s mentally demanding work. To get myself going, I’ll read from a stack of very different books. Once I’m in the mindset, I sit to write for an uninterrupted amount of time. It takes a good half hour or more to get into the flow. But once I’m there, I don’t want to do anything else.

What should writers do to keep improving their craft?         

Teaching others has honed my craft like nothing else. I learn from the writers I work with every day. Getting involved with writing groups and continuing to attend workshops is crucial. Besides learning craft, we need the support of other writers, to know we’re not alone with the issues we face. And having alpha and beta readers and mentors is key. We need that feedback on our work on order to continue learning.

—Jenny Manzer, BA '97