Sunday, January 30, 2011

Sunday Salon: Advice to writers...

Coming as we are, nearer to the February 14th deadline of our Short Story Challenge, (Hopefully you all haven't forgotten about it!) I thought a bit of useful writing advice might be welcomed for those of us stumped on a sentence or blinded by the glaring white of a blank page. (Figuratively speaking.) For more on the Short Story Challenge.

ADVICE TO WRITERS A Compendium of Quotes, Anecdotes, and Writerly Wisdom From a Dazzling Array of Literary Lights Compiled and Edited by Jon Winokur seems just the thing to snap us out of our possible literary doldrums on this cold winter day.

(The book was published in 1999.) From the editor's Introduction: This book will not teach you how to write. Whether you use a fountain pen or a word processor, writing is finally sitting alone in a room and wrenching it out of yourself, and nobody can teach you that.

But here's some good advice anyway, since Jon Winokur maintains that can still learn, because writing is self-generating...

On Characters:

Begin with an individual and you find that you have created a type; begin with a type and you find that you have created - nothing.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.
Ethan Canin

The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities.
Raymond Chandler

The characters have their own lives and their own logic, and you have to act accordingly.
Isaac Bashevis Singer

A character, to be acceptable as more than a chess piece, has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure of what he's supposed to be doing.
Anthony Burgess

On Critics and Criticism:

The artists who want to be writers, read the reviews; the artists who want to write, don't.
William Faulkner

Listen carefully to first criticisms of your work. Note just what it is about your work that critics don't like - then cultivate it. That's the part of your work that's individual and worth keeping.
Jean Cocteau

On Dialogue:

Dialogue has to show not only something about the speaker that is its own revelation, but also maybe something about the speaker that he doesn't know but the other character does know.
Eudora Welty

A man or woman who does not write good dialogue is not a first-rate writer.
George V. Higgins

Remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you.
Annie Lamott

On Discouragement:

It's easy, after all, not to be a writer. Most people aren't writers, and very little harm comes to them.
Julian Barnes

On Encouragement:

Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Proceed with confidence, generating it, if necessary, by pure willpower. Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.
William Zinsser

Writing a book is like driving a car at night. You only see as far as your headlights go, but you can make the whole trip that way.
E.L. Doctorow

Be in love with yr life
Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
Blow as deep as you want to blow
Write what you want bottomless from the bottom of the mind
Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
Jack Kerouac

As a writer you are free. You are about the freest person that ever was. Your freedom is what you have bought with your solitude.
Ursula K. LeGuin

Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Butler

On Genres:

A short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.
Edgar Allan Poe

Reporting the extreme things as if they were the average things will start you on the art of fiction.
F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.
Stephen King

The mystery's very much the modern morality play. You have an almost ritual killing and a victim, you have a murderer who in some sense represents the forces of evil, you have your detective coming in - very likely to avenge the death - who represents justice, retribution. And in the end you restore order out of disorder.
P.D. James

Anybody who shifts gears when he writes for children is likely to wind up stripping his gears.
E.B. White

On Material:

Write what makes you happy.
O. Henry

There are only two things to write about: life and death.
Edward Albee

Examine nature accurately, but write from recollection, and trust more to your imagination than your memory.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

On Qualifications and Requirements:

I know everything. One has to, to write decently.
Henry James

An essential element for good writing is a good ear: One must listen to the sound of one's prose.
Barbara Tuchman

Real seriousness is regard to writing is one of the two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent.
Ernest Hemingway

You have to be a little patient if you're an artist: people don't always get you the first time.
Kate Millett

If you have enough talent. you can get by after a fashion without guts, you can also get by after a fashion again, without talent. But you certainly can't get by without either.
Raymond Chandler

On Rules and Commandments:

Either it sounds right or it doesn't sound right.
Isaac Asimov

Resist much, obey little.
Walt Whitman

Do not pay any attention to the rules other people make...They make them for their own protection, and to hell with them.
William Saroyan

On Style:

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
Samuel Johnson

A good style should show no sign of effort. what is written should seem a happy accident.
Somerset Maugham

Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.
Gore Vidal

On Technique:

Technique alone is never enough. You have to have passion. Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.
Raymond Chandler

On Tricks of the Trade:

Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.
Samuel Johnson

I don't know anything about fingerprinting or ballistics or any of that stuff, and if you're any good you can fake most of that.
Robert B. Parker

When the plot flags, bring in a man with a gun.
Raymond Chandler

The trick is leaving out everything but the essential.
David Mamet

Don't say the old lady screamed - bring her on and let her scream.
Mark Twain

On Words:

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a the lightning bug.
Mark Twain

Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.
C.S. Lewis

On The Secret:

The secret of good writing is to say an old thing in a new way or to say a new thing in an old way.
Richard Harding Davis

When you sit down to write, tell the truth from one moment to the next and see where it takes you.
David Mamet

Learn to write by doing it. Read widely and wisely. Increase your word power. Find your own individual voice through practicing constantly. Go through the world with your eyes and ears open and learn to express that experience in words.
P. D. James

Make it new.
Ezra Pound

The shorter and the plainer the better.
Beatrix Potter

There isn't any secret. You sit down and you start and that's it.
Elmore Leonard


  1. I enjoyed reading all the quotes, Yvette! You find the most interesting compendiums. I wish it was as easy as Elmore Leonard states. I would not know how to begin to write a short story!

  2. Pat: I love these sorts of books. I have a bunch of 'em. I've just picked them up over the years. I used to work part time in a bookstore and over the years stored up a lot of inconsequentials. Seems like nobody else wanted them. My paycheck used to go back into the store's coffers more often than not. :)

    I'm going to attempt to write a short story for my own challenge. You notice I haven't done mine yet and I'm the one who instigated the thing. There's no hope for me. :)

  3. Very interesting things said here.

    I so agree on dialogue, passion and effort.

    Two things: Take a look at JensBookThoughts, where you will find her report on a day spent with Robert Crais at a book signing in Milwaukee.

    Also, I am reading "The Poisoned Chocolates Case," so I am reading a bit of vintage, whether I planned it or not. I bought this for a friend who likes vintage books; she liked it so she loaned it back to me.

    Good luck on the short story. I'll read it.
    Am too swamped to try my hand, but I look forwarding to reading them.

  4. Kathy: Yes, I like theses sorts of books. Love looking at quotes about subjects that interest me. I will take a look at JensBookThoughts. Thanks for letting me know. I met Robert years ago at a book signing myself. What a dreamboat!

    I love vintage mysteries too. You should join the challenge, Kathy! You only have to read a couple of books if that's all you want to.

    I haven't written word one, yet. YIKES!!

  5. I am joining so many challenges in my mind--Irish, Global, Vintage, Australian, others. I don't want to feel like I've got assignments and a curriculum, but I'm got my antenna out for good books, and I'll read them as I go.

  6. Kathy: Sounds like a good plan. :)


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