Great Advice From 25 Writing Manuals by Famous Authors
Q: What’s the key to suspense? A: I’ll tell you later.
There are countless books that purport to teach you how to write. Many of them are good. Some of them are not quite as good. This is the usual way of things. However, I am always most excited to come across a book about writing by an author whose work I already admire. That is, it’s one thing to get advice from a professor or a critic or an editor, but quite another to hear it from someone who has been in the mines and come up with gold—those who can teach and do. To that end, I’ve put together a list of 25 writing manuals and book-length musings on craft from famous authors, along with a bit of advice drawn from each book. An amuse-bouche, you might say. NB that I have excluded anthologies of essays from multiple authors, even if one or more of them (and/or the book’s editor) are famous writers, as well as how-to books by famous authors who are primarily known for their how-to books, like Natalie Goldberg and John Gardner. This list, of course, is ever expanding and incomplete (I see that Dean Koontz published a book on how to write best-sellers, but it’s out of print!), so add on as you see fit below.
Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction, Patricia Highsmith
To have the necessary momentum, that steady flow that is going to finish the book, you should wait until you feel the story welling up. This comes slowly during the development and plotting period, and you cannot rush it, because it is an emotional process, a sense of emotional completion, as if you felt like saying to yourself one day, “This is really a great story, and I can’t wait to tell it!” Then you start writing.
Writing, Marguerite Duras
The person who writes books must always be enveloped by a separation from others. That is one kind of solitude. It is the solitude of the author, of writing. To begin with, one must ask oneself what the silence surrounding one is—with practically every step one takes in a house, at every moment of the day, in every kind of light, whether light from outside or from lamps lit in daytime. This real, coporeal solitude becomes the inviolable silence of writing. I’ve never spoken of this to anyone. By the time of my first solitude, I had already discovered that what I had to do was write. I’d already gotten confirmation of this from Raymond Queneau. The only judgement Raymond Queneau every pronounced was this sentence: “Do nothing but write.”
About Writing, Samuel R. Delany
The rules for good writing are largely a set of things not to do. Basically good writing is a matter of avoiding unnecessary clutter. (Again, this is not the same as avoiding complexity.)
You can program many of these rules into a computer. Applied to pretty much any first draft, these rules will point out where you’re slipping. If you revise accordingly, clarity, readability, and liveliness will improve.
. . .
Either in content or in style, in subject matter or in rhetorical approach, fiction that is too much like other fiction is bad by definition. However paradoxical it sounds, good writing as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction. On one level or another, the realization of this is finally what turns most writers away from writing.
Talented writing is, however, something else. You need talent to write fiction.
Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic.
Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind—vividly, forcefully—that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.
The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr
Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice. It’s the delivery system for the author’s experience—the big bandwidth cable that carries in lustrous clarity every pixel of someone’s inner and outer experiences. Each voice is cleverly fashioned to highlight a writer’s individual talent or way of viewing the world. A memoirist starts off fumbling—jotting down facts, recounting anecdotes. It may take a writer hundreds of rough trial pages for a way of speaking to start to emerge unique to himself and his experience, but when he does, both carnal and interior experiences come back with clarity, and the work gains an electrical charge. For the reader, the voice has to exist from the first sentence.
Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury
You have been working, haven’t you?
Or do you plan some sort of schedule for yourself starting as soon as you put down this article?
What kind of schedule?
Something like this. One-thousand or two-thousand words every day for the next twenty years. At the start, you might shoot for one short story a week, fifty-two stories a year, for five years. You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in the medium. You might as well start now and get the necessary work done.
For I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality.
Michelangelo’s, da Vinci’s, Tintoretto’s billion sketches, the quantitative, prepared them for the qualitative, single sketches further down the line, single portraits, single landscapes of incredible control and beauty.
A great surgeon dissects and re-dissects a thousand, ten thousand bodies, tissues, organs, preparing thus by quantity the time when quality will count—with a living creature under his knife.
An athlete may run ten thousand miles in order to prepare for one hundred yards.
Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.
From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, Robert Olen Butler
Please get out of the habit of saying that you’ve got an idea for a short story. Art does not come from ideas. Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you.
Does this make sense? Do you understand what I’m saying? If you want to think your way into your fiction, if you think you can analyze your way into a work of art, we’re going to be totally at odds philosophically about what art is and where it comes from. But if you have this aspiration and an open sensibility, and if what I’m saying makes sense, then you have to tell your mind to back the hell off. It’s another place in yourself entirely where you must look to create a work of art.
Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster
Memory and intelligence are closely connected, for unless we remember we cannot understand. if by the time the queen dies we have forgotten the existence of the king we shall never make out what killed her. The plot-maker expects us to remember, we expect him to leave no loose ends. Every action or word ought to count; it ought to be economical and spare; even when complicated it should be organic and free from dead matter. It may be difficult or easy, it may and should contain mysteries, but it ought not to mislead. And over it, as it unfolds, will hover the memory of the reader (that dull glow of the mind of which intelligence is the bright advancing edge) and will constantly rearrange and reconsider, seeing new clues, new chains of cause and effect, and the final sense (if the plot has been a fine one) will not be of clues or chains, but of something aesthetically compact, something which might have been shown by the novelist straight away, only if he had shown it straight away it would never have become beautiful.
Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin
The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right? The basic elements of language are physical: the noise words make, the sounds and silences that make the rhythms marking their relationships. Both the meaning and the beauty of the writing depend on these sounds and rhythms. This is just as true of prose as it is of poetry, though the sound effects of prose are usually subtle and always irregular.
Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia; they fall in love with the musical or impressive words and use them in all the wrong places. Some writers keep this primal interest in and love for the sounds of language. Others “outgrow” their oral/aural sense of what they’re reading or writing. That’s a dead loss. An awareness of what your own writing sounds like is an essential skill for a writer. Fortunately it’s quite easy to cultivate, to learn or reawaken.
The Writing of Fiction, Edith Wharton
True originality consists not in a new manner but in a new vision. That new, that personal, vision is attained only by looking long enough at the object represented to make it the writers own; and the mind which would bring this secret germ to fruition must be able to nourish it with an accumulated wealth of knowledge and experience. To know any one thing one must not only know something of a great many others, but also, as Matthew Arnold long since pointed out, a great deal more of one’s immediate subject than any partial presentation of it visibly includes; and Mr. Kipling’s “What should they know of England who only England know?” might be taken as the symbolic watchword of the creative artist.
This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley
The first thing you have to know about writing is that it is something you must do every day—every morning or every night, whatever time it is that you have. Ideally, the time you decide on is also the time when you do your best work.
There are two reasons for this rule: getting the work done and connecting with your unconscious mind.
If you want to finish this novel of yours within a year, you have to get to work! There’s not a moment to lose. There’s no time to wait for inspiration. getting your words down on the page takes time. how much? I write three hours every morning. It’s the first thing I do, Monday through Sunday, fifty-two weeks a year. Some days I miss but rarely does this happen more than once a month. Writing is a serious enterprise that takes a certain amount of constancy and rigor.
But will and regularity are only the beginnings of the discipline and rewards that daily writing will mean for you.
The most important thing I’ve found about writing is that it is primarily an unconscious activity. What do I mean by this? I mean that a novel is larger than your head (or conscious mind). The connections, moods, metaphors, and experiences that you call up while writing will come from a place deep inside you. Sometimes you will wonder who wrote those words. Sometimes you will be swept up by a fevered passion relating a convoluted journey through your protagonist’s ragged heart. These moments are when you have connected to some deep place within you, a place that harbors the zeal that made you want to write to begin with.
The way you get to this unconscious place is by writing every day.
Letters to a Young Writer, Colum McCann
Don’t write what you know, write toward what you want to know.
Step out of your skin. Risk yourself. This opens up the world. Go to another place. Investigate what lies beyond your curtains, beyond the wall, beyond the corner, beyond your town, beyond the edges of your own known country.
A writer is an explorer. She knows she wants to get somewhere, but she doesn’t know if the somewhere even exists yet. It is still to be created. A Galápagos of the imagination. A whole new theory of who we are.
Don’t sit around looking inward. That’s boring. In the end, your navel contains only lint. You have to propel yourself outward, young wrier. Think about others, think about elsewhere, think about a distance that will bring you, eventually, back home.
What It Is, Lynda Barry
It’s a good place to start, memory, because once you know what real images feel like, it’s easier to recognize that sensation when writing fiction. It will work for anyone who has any kind of curiosity about writing or remembering, especially people who always wanted to write but were too confused about how to even start.
What is it? The ordinary is extraordinary. The ordinary is extraordinary. The ordinary is the thing we want back when someone we love dies. When someone dies or leaves or falls out of love with us. We call it “little things”. We say, “it’s the little things I miss most.” The ordinary things. It’s the little thing that brings them back to us unexpectedly. We say “reminds us” but it is more than reminding-it’s a conflagration-it’s an inundation-Both fire and flood is memory. It’s spark and breach so ordinary we do not question it. The atom split. The little thing.
The Faith of a Writer: Life, Craft, Art, Joyce Carol Oates
What advice can an older writer presume to offer to a younger? Only what he or she might wish to have been told years ago. Don’t be discouraged! Don’t cast sidelong glances, and compare yourself to others among your peers! (Writing is not a race. No one really “wins.” The satisfaction is in the effort, and rarely in the consequent rewards, if there are any.) And again, write your heart out.
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro
Ann Sexton once remarked in an interview, when asked why she wrote such dark and painful poems, that pain engraves a deeper memory. Pain engraves a deeper memory. Think of a time in your own life when you have experienced a sudden shock, a betrayal, terrible news. Perhaps you remember the weather, the quality of the breeze, a half-full ashtray, a scratch on the wooden floor, the moth-eaten sweater you were wearing, the siren in the distance. Pain carves details into us, yes. I would wager, though, that great joy does as well. Strong emotion, Virginia Woolf said, must leave its trace. Start writing, grow still and quiet, press toward that strong emotion and you will discover it anew.
Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, Mary Oliver
Revision is absolutely necessary. If something is easily too good to alter, thank the gods, but don’t expect it to happen again. Expect, rather, that you will need to improve upon the given, to continue the imperfect formation that your initial work has produced. Which is, after all, what making the poem is all about—to take the passion and, without cooling it, to put it into a form. For such work all the usual assets will help: energy, honesty, patience. But nothing is so helpful as an interest in language that amounts almost to a mania. Indeed, it is essential. For emotion does not elicit feeling. Style elicits feeling.
Ron Carlson Writes a Story, Ron Carlson
Writers are told to write what they know, which on the surface is good advice. It’s good in that teachers started saying it to warn their students off rehashed, paper-thin science fiction (the time warp on Planet Dwindgore had us all confused) and television stories (Come on out, Rocky, we’ve got the place surrounded!), from which no one learned anything. They wanted their students to come closer to home, to begin to use language to grapple with challenging stories from their lives. And I’ll stand with Write what you know, but I’ll add: How can you know what you know until you write it? What can the process of the story teach you? Do you know everything at the moment before commencing a story? “Writing what you know” too often becomes controlling the elements of your story, and that prevents the writer from reaching beyond the facts, and those things closely related to the facts, to a place closer to the truth of her story. I want to put the advice this way: write toward what you know, building an inventory, and carefully using the imagination as the powerful sensing instrument it can be.
Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction, Jeff VanderMeer
As noted, your imagination feeds on almost anything, like the most greedy of omnivores, and anything can become narrative. The act of becoming a writer—of committing to learning the craft or art of writing—is largely about providing structure to what your imagination creates and is an ongoing process of attaining an elusive mastery (there is always another door). But generating these initial sparks is one of the few parts of writing that becomes easier as you gain more experience—as long as you don’t suppress the impulse. Which is to say, if you reward your imagination by writing down your ideas and exploring them, even the slightest little fragment, your imagination will reward you with a more or less continuous stream of ideas. If you turn off or blunt the enthusiasm of your subconscious for engaging in creative play, the stream can dry up.
On Writing, Stephen King
Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.
On Writing, Eudora Welty
To me as a story writer, generalizations about writing come tardily and uneasily, and I would limit them, if I were wise, by saying that any conclusions I feel confidence in are stuck to the particular story, part of the animal. The most trustworthy lesson I’ve learned from work so far is the simple one that the writing of each story is sure to open up a different prospect and pose a new prblem; and that no past story bears recognizably on a new one or gives any promise of help, even if the writing mind had room for help and the wish that it would come. Help offered from outside the frame of the story would be itself an intrusion.
Thrill Me: Essays on Fiction, Benjamin Percy
Q: What’s the key to suspense? A: I’ll tell you later.
Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, Francine Prose
For any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and, especially, cut, is essential. It’s satisfying to see that sentence shrink, snap into place, and ultimately emerge in a more polished form: clear, economical, sharp.
The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
It is the beginning of a work that the writer throws away.
A painting covers its tracks. Painters work from the ground up. The latest version of a painting overlays earlier versions, and obliterates them. Writers, on the other hand, work from left to right. The discardable chapters are on the left. The latest version of a literary work begins somewhere in the work’s middle, and hardens toward the end. The earlier version remains lumpishly on the left; the work’s beginning greets the reader with the wrong hand. In those early pages and chapters anyone may find bold leaps to nowhere, read the brave beginnings of dropped themes, hear a tone since abandoned, discover blind alleys, track red herrings, and laboriously learn a setting now false.
Several delusions weaken the writer’s resolve to throw away work. If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms. He will retain them. He may retain those pages if they possess some virtues, such as power in themselves, though they lack the cardinal virtue, which is pertinence to, and unity with, the book’s thrust. Sometimes the writer leaves his early chapters in place from gratitude; he cannot contemplate them or read them without feeling again the blessed relief that exalted him when the words first appeared—relief that he was writing anything at all. That beginning served to get him where he was going, after all; surely the reader needs it, too, as groundwork. But no.
The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling, Charles R. Johnson
If I don’t control myself, my sentences in literary fiction naturally tend to run long, with image and idea building upon image and idea, rolling and ribboning out, sometimes twisting and torquing dialectically, from thesis to antithesis, and spiced with colons and semi-colons and parenthetical asides (such as this) until I simply can’t pack any more into them. I’ve always seen the sentence and paragraph as units of energy to be released. So yes, I use long sentences for rhythm and music. I most certainly would always follow one with a short sentence. As I used to teach my students, the technique here is take the simple sentence, then “complicate” (i.e., extend) the subject, the verb, then the object.
To be frank, I think the elegant, long sentence is a thing of beauty. A self-contained entity worthy of study all by itself.
Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott
Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.
Draft No.4: On the Writing Process, John McPhee
In the search for words, thesauruses are useful things, but they don’t talk about the words they list. They are also dangerous. They can lead you to choose a polysyllabic and fuzzy word when a simple and clear one is better. The value of a thesaurus is not to make a writer seem to have a vast vocabulary of recondite words. The value of a thesaurus is in the assistance it can give you in finding the best possible word for the mission that the word is supposed to fulfill. Writing teachers and journalism courses have been known to compare them to crutches and to imply that no writer of any character or competence would use them. At best, thesauruses are mere rest stops in the search for the mot juste. Your destination is the dictionary. Suppose you sense an opportunity beyond the word “intention.” You read the dictionary’s thesaurian list of synonyms: “intention, intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, goal.” But the dictionary doesn’t let it go at that. It goes on to tell you the differences all the way down the line—how each listed word differs from all the others. Some dictionaries keep themselves trim by just listing synonyms and not going on to make distinctions. You want the first kind, in which you are not just getting a list of words; you are being told the differences in their hues, as if you were looking at the stripes in an awning, each of a subtly different green. Look up “vertical.” It tells you—believe it or not—that “vertical,” “perpendicular,” and “plumb” differ each from the two others. Ditto “plastic, pliable, pliant, ductile, malleable, adaptable.” Ditto “fidelity, allegiance, fealty, loyalty, devotion, piety.”