Due to the length of this post, it’s being presented in 2 parts. Part 2 (numbers 21-40) is presented here.
For longer than I have been writing, I have been reading quotes from writers on writing. Some are clever, some schmaltzy, a few invaluable, and quite a few utter bollocks. I’ve decided to spend part of my evening weeding through some of my favorites (and some loathed ones) and share them with you. After having written a half-dozen novels and two short fiction collections, I’ve seen my writing improve enough that I feel qualified to at least comment on the advice given below. Take a look and then decide which ones you can use and which ones you can discard.
01. “As Kandinsky says, ‘Everything starts with a dot.’ Sometimes the hardest thing in writing a story is where to start. You don’t need to have a great idea, you just have to put pen to paper. Start with a bad idea, start with the wrong direction, start with a character you don’t like, something positive will come out of it.”
– Marion Deuchars, illustrator and author of Let’s Make Some Great Art
One of the great fallacies is that there is such thing as a writer’s block. This isn’t just excuse-making; it’s more a mistaken belief that you have to have a good idea to start. You don’t. You only need a start. As an example, I had four rough ideas for novels I want to write, but no decent plots that would allow me to start. Rather than continue to mire in inactivity, I decided to sit down and just start writing whatever popped into my head. Within two hours, I had turned four vague ideas into plot outlines and actually wrote the first chapter of a fifth book I’d not even considered. The point is that creativity starts when you remove self-doubt and allow it to start.
02. “Ignore every current trend and movement; pay no attention to what is presently most admired or most mocked; beware fervent admiration of any writer, however lauded, or any style, however praised. Think only of how you can make your writing most perfect, and most perfectly your own.”
– Sarah Perry, author of The Essex Serpent
We writers are sheep. Sadly, however, there are no longer any good shepherds to herd us in the right direction, toward literary fame, and in truth, there never were. Around nine of ten books published via traditional publishing never turned sufficient profit to even cover their writers’ advances. The idea that there are great agents, publishers, critics, or even public trends that will accurately foretell which book will be next great success is ludicrous. Writing trends are about as rare as truly viral videos, and have about the same shelf life. Don’t waste time trying to master Toni Morrison’s poetry or JK Rowling’s magic. We’ve read those books and want something new to read. Try writing that.
03. “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
—Stephen King – author of All The Books
“To use adverbs [to modify the verb ‘said’] (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”
—Elmore Leonard, author of Fifty-Two Pickup
The road to bad writing is thinking one guy who can’t adequately use a portion of the language means that you can’t. Dear Mr. King, hush. Mr. Leonard comes closer, by stating that adding adverbs to “said,” as in “’Go quickly,’ she said, emphatically,” should be avoided at all costs. In truth, he’s right. It’s just lazy writing, and most of the time, readers won’t even know what the hell you mean. Saying someone “answered obsequiously” isn’t nearly as powerful and describing what the speaker was doing.
In other situations, adverbs can be used effectively, particularly in passages where you’re purposely choosing efficiency over detail. We don’t need four words to understand an unimportant part of your story if a single adverb conveys the thought. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ADVERBS. Okay?
04. “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”
—George Orwell, author of 1984, party pooper
Oh, boo fricking hoo. If writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, take up photography or knitting, for Chrissakes. It’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not, you’re doing it wrong. (Or, you’re a pretentious git who’s trying to make himself sound like a martyr.) Plus, personally, when I sit down to write a book, I am attempting to tell a truth (or a lie) but damn if I don’t at least hope to make some art. Here’s a hint: art isn’t always Rembrandt and Swan Lake. Sometimes, it’s Banksy and Footloose (or Shabba-doo, if you’re my age).
05. “If your characters decide to play up by going silent on you, take them for a walk. Mostly, by the time you get home they’ll be chattering away to you again. Walking refreshes everything and chances are you’ll be running to get back to the manuscript to continue with their story!”
–Kate Hamer, author of The Doll Funeral
Yes! A thousand times yes. My favorite book to date, a mystery starring my lead Eddie Daley, I wrote almost entirely during my daily two-mile walks around the neighborhood. Now, it’s almost impossible to walk without starting writing in my head. Thank goodness my wife wants us to walk 3-4 miles daily.
06. “Set a goal each week for your writing and work to reach it. Wake up every morning and treat it like a job. It’s all about regularity. Read back what you’ve written and ask yourself, ‘Do I enjoy this? Does it work?’ If you’re stumbling over something as you read it, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite!”
– Sharon Grenham-Thompson, author of Jail Bird
Here’s the secret to success in life: Success is not determined by what you do best. Success (or failure) is determined by what you do most often.
07. “First drafts are always horrible and ugly. Don’t worry about that – it’s the same for everyone. Just remember that the first draft is as bad as the book is ever going to be, and if you keep redrafting, one day you will look at your horrible book and realise that you’ve turned it into something actually quite beautiful.”
– Robin Stevens, author of the Murder Most Unladylike series
There is a general consensus among authors that first drafts suck. They kind of do, and they’re supposed to. However, adjacent with statements in that regard are often statements that claim one shouldn’t attempt to edit during a first draft due to risk of impeding your ability to get the story out. I disagree. I’ve had the most success by tweaking whatever passage I wrote the previous day before I begin the next day’s writing. It tunes the work and ensures that I am in the same rhythm and flow throughout.
Additionally, I don’t start writing Chapter 2 if Chapter 1 stinks. I keep at the first chapter until it’s right and can set the tone for the rest of the book. A bad start gives you permission to suck all the way through. Just remember, you aren’t looking for perfection; you’re looking for “This is what I was trying to say.” Those are two different things.
08. “Read! Read! Read! It’s vital to fill that well of creativity within you. Otherwise you’ll simply run out of words and ideas. By reading other authors’ books, you’ll learn what works, what doesn’t, absorb new words, trigger new ideas, and above all immerse yourself in the world of writing. A writer who doesn’t read can never be an author!”
– Chris Bradford, author of the Bodyguard series and Young Samurai series
“Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.”
—P.D. James, author, queen of crime novels
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
― Stephen King
Okay, here’s where I lose some of you. In my opinion, this is bullshite. The idea that you can learn to write by reading someone else is absurd. My reading Toni Morrison didn’t make me poetic anymore than reading John Milton made me blind. The reason to read is that you like books. The reason writers tell you to read is so that you buy books. Theirs. True story.
Instead of “just read” I would partly agree with Ms. James. Read, but read good writing, if only so you know it when you see it. Don’t read to learn how to write. There are too many kinds of good writing for that to work, and good writing is situational. What works in one place is wrong for another. Besides, the person whose writing you should read the most is yours. Put it down for a month or six. Read and re-read. See if you’re getting better. Don’t compare your style to anyone else’s; instead, compare the reading experience. Did you laugh with your work? Cry? Were you in suspense? If not, revise and WRITE. You get good at writing by writing. Reading makes you good at reading.
09. “I think writing is a lot like acting, or role-playing. You need to create an environment that lets you get into that headspace. That might be about sitting in a comfy chair, or listening to the right music, or burning a scented candle, or whatever, but you can only do your best work in surroundings that support it.
“The most important thing you can do while writing is to spend time absolutely and completely NOT writing. The cliché is taking long country walks, which definitely helps, but so does playing a video game or watching a really stupid movie. Your unconscious brain needs time to process what you’re thinking about. I’m pretty sure my unconscious wrote most of the best bits of Boy Made of Blocks.”
– Keith Stuart, author of A Boy Made of Blocks
You can’t write effectively if you’re not alive. Go live. And for the record, the subconscious does most writing, full stop. That doesn’t mean your active mind is disconnected. It means that your brain handles multiple levels of activity simultaneously. It’ll still be writing while you’re out there doing stuff, so sitting there staring at your desk is self-defeating. Just remember to come back in and write down what you’ve come up with (or at least take notes) before you forget it.
10. “Write down everything that comes to you in an adrenalin rush in the small hours, and on waking up. About one-half – truly – will turn out to be useful and it sets you up for the morning’s work.”
– Laura Cumming, Observer art critic and author of The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velazquez
“Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.”
— Will Self, author, journalist
“Always keep a notebook and pen by your bedside. No matter how much you convince yourself you’ll remember that brilliant idea in the morning, you really won’t. Write it down because sleep has a way of giving you ideas and then stealing them right back.”
– Swapna Haddow, author of the Dave Pigeon series
These are at least partly true. If you awaken with an idea, write it down right away. In fact, anytime you get a good idea, write it down. You will forget it later. It’s how the brain works, and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get it back. Don’t believe me? Well, have you ever written anything and then later wondered who the hell wrote that? Same process.
11. “When you know your characters inside out, when you know what makes them really ‘comfortable,’ throw the exact opposite at them and observe how they cope. It’s only when we are met with challenges that our true self comes to the fore, and this is the really interesting stuff, for it’s simple and honest warts-and-all reality.”
– Tracey Corderoy, children’s author
I hate this kind of writing, but if you’re in the Game of Thrones School of Torturing Characters, go for it. I won’t read your book, but a lot of people will. Yes, characters should be challenged and they must grow. But no, that doesn’t mean your whole plot needs to be torture. Show how they deal with success too. Nobody loves a loser, and success is harder than people think.
12. “Do listen to songs. Some poems need to sing.”
– Alison Brackenbury, poet – latest collection Skies
Write to them too. Your lyricism may surprise you.
13. “Fill your life with love and joy and pain. Then fill your books with each of them. All creative acts are acts of love, and vice-versa. Fill your books with love and the act of creation comes easily.”
– Christopher Jory, author of The Art of Waiting
See? Joy and pain. Both. Not just pain.
14. “I don’t care if a reader hates one of my stories, just as long as he finishes the book.”
—Roald Dahl, author with more than 250,000,000 copies sold
“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.”
—William Zinsser author and journalist
The first quote is almost certainly not true, unless he meant “just as long as he buys the book”. We want to be read, and then we want them to fall in love. Mr. Zinsser is right. We care what readers think, because we’re human. Just don’t go arguing down reviewers on Amazon. It’s bad form and will backfire.
15. “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.” — Zadie Smith
This will take some negotiation. Isolating yourself on your private island is cool, if you have one. (Can my wife and I borrow it?) But if not, talk to your people about your job, writing, and set up some realistic time allotments. Also be prepared to come out of your cocoon to interact with the HooMons from time to time too.
Dying alone sucks.
16. “Think of your book in layers. The first layer will by its nature be rough – it’s just a sketch – so don’t get frustrated if it feels too light or is badly drawn. You’ll add to your story as you go, layering more character, deeper plot, better description, and twists and turns; and painting in light and shade.”
– Abie Longstaff, children’s author of How to Catch a Witch and others
Yes! Writing is best likened to painting. The first draft should be good, but mostly focused on setting the tone of the book and getting the story in place. You can do wordsmithing, filling holes, and adding detail layers later.
17. “Don’t give up. Take rejection on the chin. My first picture book [was] almost 21 years old by the time it [saw] publication. And two of the poems in my collection, Dinosaurs & Dinner-Ladies, are pieces I wrote over 30 years ago, when I was still at school. One of them was rejected by the teacher in charge of the school magazine for having, apparently, ‘no literary merit.’”
– John Dougherty, author and poet
Don’t know what to tell you. I’m still working on this one.
18. Growing up I believed only certain people were allowed to write books – namely, fancy literary heirs who had gone to the right school and university. Not people like me. But of course, anyone can write a book. And anyone should, so that we have more diversity of voices in publishing.
– Julie Mayhew, author of Mother Tongue and others
I’m not an elitist, but NO. Some people shouldn’t write books, mainly those who don’t know how to write. If you don’t, learn, get good at it, and venture to books once you’ve developed skill. Talent is imaginary. Real people have skills. Skills take time and work. And rework.
19. “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” —Jonathan Franzen, author of Purity and other novels
“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” —Zadie Smith author of Swing Time and others
Um, no, and don’t use a typewriter either. Instead, develop self-discipline. The internet is great for looking up needed references. If you don’t want to be distracted, don’t be distracted. I have ADHD. If I can do it, I promise you that you can.
20. “Don’t share too much of what you are writing with anyone else – until it’s finished. Every comment or remark potentially derails you and who is to say that anyone else is right? Keep writing, keep focused (without constantly going back to the beginning). Once you have reached the end of your story, then re-read it yourself and be self-critical. After that invite other people’s comments, and listen hard!”
– Victoria Hislop, author of Cartes Postales From Greece and others
Everyone should have a first (or prime) reader, the one person they really write for. But don’t invite anyone to give you criticism while you’re still in creation mode. Hell, even after that, but certainly not during. Get it out, get it right, and then get critiques.
Part Two Mañana!