Startle and Illuminate | Penguin Random House Canada
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Startle and Illuminate

Carol Shields on Writing

Publisher: Vintage Canada
Shimmering with her unique style, sense, humour, vision and wit, Startle and Illuminate is a book of advice and reflections on writing by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carol Shields that is destined to become as valued and essential as Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

An essential work from one of Canada's finest writers, Startle and Illuminate stands as a reflection of Carol Shields' devotion to the writer's craft. Drawn together by her daughter and grandson from decades of correspondence with other writers, essays, notes, comments, criticism and lectures, Startle and Illuminate helps answer some of the most fundamental questions about the craft: Why do we write at all? Can writing be taught? What keeps a reader turning the pages? How is a writer to know when a work is done? In her own words, Shields reveals her thoughts on why we read, and more importantly, why we write: for the joy of the making, to reimagine our world, to discover patterns and uncover forms that echo our realities as well as interrogate them.


“Whether you’re a reader or an aspiring writer . . . this book has a lot to say about how to write and read. It also . . . has something bigger to say about how to live.” —Toronto Star

“In the same vein as Stephen King’s or William Zinsser’s ruminations on writing, this new collection of letters, essays and teaching notes by CanLit treasure Carol Shields breaks down the building blocks of good storytelling for any writer who doesn’t know where to begin. It will make you long to pen passages worthy of Shields herself: illuminating, rich with detail and conveying the extraordinary in the ordinary.” —Canadian Living

“What is valuable . . . is the glimpse this slim volume affords into the creative mind of an author whose work continues to exert an influence on the development of literature in Canada more than a decade after her untimely death.” —Steven W. Beattie, Quill & Quire (Editor’s Choice)

“For anyone missing the Shieldsean way with words, [Startle and Illuminate] is not merely instruction—but a gift. . . . [Startle and Illuminate is a] highly readable collection. . . . Beyond the advice, the book is also, yes, illuminating in terms of Shields’s process and even her life. . . . There are also some sharp observations about how women have been marginalized in literature. . . . Perhaps you are not a writer, but a reader who misses the mastery of Shields’s prose, the excitement of reading new (‘new’) words of hers. This book is for you too.” —Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail 

“Shields, a dedicated stylist, polished her prose until it gleamed like the family silverware. . . . Ardent and curious students of writing must read Startle and Illuminate.” —Toronto Star

“Shields’s collected thoughts on writing provide insight and guidance. . . . Shields was well-known for certain views on literature and these are included, along with fascinating details on how a few of her novels came about. . . . [Shields] makes some excellent points on pace—on how to speed the narrative up and slow it down. She emphasizes scene-building and the importance of good dialogue. And she lists the characteristics of what constitutes a good novel. . . . Startle and Illuminate is a good handbook for any writer to keep close by, and will also be of interest to the general reader who wants to know how in blazes writers turn ordinary words into spellbinding stories.” —Winnipeg Free Press 

“Shields was a craftswoman of words—one of Canada’s finest—and in Startle and Illuminate her own daughter and grandson invite us into an apprenticeship. The timbre and frame are language and perception, the geometry and physics of our interior lives, and Shields was a master, a saint, of the discipline. Editors Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini introduce us to their mother and grandmother and it is like wandering into their own holy living room among friends from the schoolyard. . . . To be near such a person, so comfortably—that’s the joy of reading Startle and Illuminate. How to write, why, for whom; answers to these questions cannot be explained, they must be absorbed, and this collection of excerpts from Shields’s writing, lectures and personal letters is deeply that—absorbing. And when we do finally lift our head from these pages, it’s a coming up from a reverent bow, a return from an apprenticeship equipped and awake to a world newly illuminated. Reading Shields with the Giardinis is hardly to realize we’ve been given lessons in writing because all that seems minor beneath the startling discovery we’ve just been invited into a life fully lived.” —Pique

“[W]hat struck me most [about Carol Shields] was her warmth, the humane quality of her wisdom, and the generosity of her presence. Those qualities come to the fore in the new book Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing. . . . There is . . . much wisdom concerning the craft here. . . . This guidance, this insight, is a treasure, and one which will be of interest to both writers and readers. . . . Shields writes with a disarming casualness, and with a sly wit. Given this approach, and the skilled compiling by the Giardinis, Startle and Illuminate reads with the force and impact of a singular work, rather than an assemblage.” —Robert J. Wiersema, author of Black Feathers, Vancouver Sun 

[M]arvelous. . . . It provides wisdom on writing, publishing, fiction, reading, and generally life itself. . . . [Shields] leaves a tremendous legacy with this book.” —

“[W]hat Carol Shields has done with her strongly opinionated Startle and Illuminate is something more than just create a guide for aspiring authors; she has created a guide to our senses. . . . She has shown us that ‘to write is also to read,’ but infinitely more importantly, to do both is to experience. . . . [I]t is her witty and humorous style, use of easy to understand diction and subtle anecdotal approaches to advice that make this book a stellar guide not to authors solely, but to people and their senses. . . . It is a work of brilliance and a reward for your senses, most importantly—your sense of creativity.” —The Ubyssey (University of British Columbia)