Writing advice from Caoilinn Hughes

In July 2019, Irish writer Caoilinn Hughes gave a special master class with our instructor Karen Kao. Caoilinn is the author of the novel Orchid & the Wasp and the award-winning poetry collection Gathering Evidence. Her short stories have been published in magazines such as Granta and Tin House and have won a Moth Fiction Prize and an O. Henry Prize

The class focussed primarily on Caoilinn’s novel and dipped briefly into her poetry, as well as addressing general issues of craft, process and publishing. Some of the topics we covered: figuring out form, why short stories are a good way to learn, crafting a complex female protagonist, writing in the past tense versus writing in the present, how publishing can kind of mess with your head and how to protect yourself, and how to write even when you don’t feel like it or you have limited time.

You can now listen to the audio recording of the class online.

Below a few of our favourite takeaways from the class.

Allow yourself to fail – “Give yourself the opportunity to fail a bit, and to not be afraid of that, and to fail in the right way: in the ambitious way, in the working-toward-truth way as opposed to working toward market.”

Write a practice novel – “I believe very much in writing a book you don’t try to publish. I believe in that really strongly as a kind of self-protection mechanism… As soon as you start putting manuscripts out into the world, to try and get an agent, to try to get a publisher, all of these voices will come back—none of them is your voice and they all are very persuasive-sounding. Most of them are bullshit or not in your best interests or not in the book’s best interests… so you need to create some sort of history of trust with yourself as a writer.”

Don’t judge your characters & leave plenty of room for your reader – “As a writer, I don’t want to judge my characters. I try not to make judgments about any of them… Readers will jump in and make their own judgments—but some readers enjoy the fact that that’s not been made for them, and I’m writing for those readers.”

Let the content determine the form – “I don’t know when I’m beginning anything what form it will finally take—if I’m at the point of writing words down, I know that it will be a story or a novel or a poem, but beyond that, I still don’t know. [By form here, I mean everything from point-of-view, to structure, tone, length, etc.] For me, the goal is to get to the point where you allow yourself that lack of certainty, and you don’t try to impose a form on the content—or to force the content a certain way. I think that’s the place you need to get to as a writer.”

Build a support network – “It’s great to have support networks, other writers and friends who get it. It may be that you need to be told to keep writing and to keep believing in your work, and that doesn’t come from the publishing world very much.”

Trust the singularity of your voice – “There will be times when the Doubt will be overwhelming, doubt about the book you’re working on, if it’s working, if you have the talent and tenacity to see it through, and even if it does work, if you do manage to complete it, if it will then be publishable … and if it’s published, if it will be reviewed … the doubts extrapolate. There is a good kind of doubt that will help you do your best work, but that it isn’t the same as the wobbly self-doubt about your book being worthwhile. No other person is capable of writing the book you can write; your voice and perspective are your own, they’re inimitable and singular, and therefore worthy.”


Orchid & the Wasp was published by Penguin Random House in the US and Oneworld in the UK. Gathering Evidence was published in 2014 by Carcanet Press. You can get your copy from most major book retailers or direct from the publisher. Caoilinn’s next novel is due out in the spring of 2020.

22 August 2019

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