- You don’t always have to go so far as to murder your darlings – those turns of phrase or images of which you felt extra proud when they appeared on the page – but go back and look at them with a very beady eye. Almost always it turns out that they’d be better dead. (Not every little twinge of satisfaction is suspect – it’s the ones which amount to a sort of smug glee you must watch out for.)
- Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.
- Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you’re on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.
- Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.
- Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph
- Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.
- Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones.
- Learn poems by heart.
- A problem with a piece of writing often clarifies itself if you go for a long walk.
- If you fear that taking care of your children and household will damage your writing, think of JG Ballard.
- Don’t worry about posterity – as Larkin (no sentimentalist) observed “What will survive of us is love”.
- The way to write a book is to actually write a book. A pen is useful, typing is also good. Keep putting words on the page.
- Only bad writers think that their work is really good.
- Description is hard. Remember that all description is an opinion about the world. Find a place to stand.
- Marry somebody you love and who thinks you being a writer’s a good idea.
- Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself.
- The reader is a friend, not an adversary, not a spectator.
- When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.
- Trust your reader. Not everything needs to be explained. If you really know something, and breathe life into it, they’ll know it too.
- Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
- Never take advice from anyone with no investment in the outcome.
- Write what you need to write, not what is currently popular or what you think will sell.
- Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.
- Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself.
- Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else?
- Find an author you admire and copy their plots and characters in order to tell your own story, just as people learn to draw and paint by copying the masters.
- Introduce your main characters and themes in the first third of your novel.
- For a good melodrama study the famous “Lester Dent master plot formula” which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre.
- Carrot and stick – have protagonists pursued (by an obsession or a villain) and pursuing (idea, object, person, mystery).
- The prerequisite for me is to keep my well of ideas full. This means living as full and varied a life as possible, to have my antennae out all the time.
- Ted Hughes gave me this advice and it works wonders: record moments, fleeting impressions, overheard dialogue, your own sadnesses and bewilderments and joys.
- A notion for a story is for me a confluence of real events, historical perhaps, or from my own memory to create an exciting fusion.
- It is the gestation time which counts.
Joyce Carol Oates
- Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!
- Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst.
- 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.
- Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already (assuming, that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven’t you have no business whatsoever being a writer of fiction).
- You know that sickening feeling of inadequacy and over-exposure you feel when you look upon your own empurpled prose? Relax into the awareness that this ghastly sensation will never, ever leave you, no matter how successful and publicly lauded you become. It is intrinsic to the real business of writing and should be cherished.
- Live life and write about life. Of the making of many books there is indeed no end, but there are more than enough books about books.
- The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.
- The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying “Faire et se taire” (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as “Shut up and get on with it.”
- When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.
- When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.
- Don’t romanticize your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page.
- Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can’t do aren’t worth doing. Don’t mask self-doubt with contempt.
- Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.
- Don’t confuse honours with achievement.
- Forget the boring old dictum “write about what you know”. Instead, seek out an unknown yet knowable area of experience that’s going to enhance your understanding of the world and write about that.
- Nevertheless, remember that in the particularity of your own life lies the seedcorn that will feed your imaginative work. So don’t throw it all away on autobiography. (There are quite enough writers’ memoirs out there already.)
- Never be satisfied with a first draft. In fact, never be satisfied with your own stuff at all, until you’re certain it’s as good as your finite powers can enable it to be.
- When an idea comes, spend silent time with it. Remember Keats’s idea of Negative Capability and Kipling’s advice to “drift, wait and obey”. Along with your gathering of hard data, allow yourself also to dream your idea into being.
- In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.
- Respect the way characters may change once they’ve got 50 pages of life in them. Revisit your plan at this stage and see whether certain things have to be altered to take account of these changes.
- Read like mad. But try to do it analytically – which can be hard, because the better and more compelling a novel is, the less conscious you will be of its devices. It’s worth trying to figure those devices out, however: they might come in useful in your own work.
- The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories. Be business-like about it.
- Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.
- Love what you do.
- Take no notice of anyone you don’t respect.
- Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.
- Trust your creativity.
- Enjoy this work!