Favorite Advice

Probably like most writers, I often read through my favorite quotes on writing when I’m stalled on a scene or plot point, and very often it really is a great cure for whatever the trouble is.  But sometimes, even when the writing is going well and I’m nowhere near stalled, I still like to just flip through my favorite words of advice on writing.  Writing can be such a solitary profession, and I love the feeling of connection that quotes from other writers about writing give me.  The feeling that I’m not alone in any of the issues I may face in crafting a book.  The feeling that others besides myself have felt the same joy, discovered the same truths when they’ve embarked on the journey of being an author.

So here are my favorite kernels of writing advice, the ones I constantly come back to, whether I’m at a sticky point in my WIP or just needing to pause for a minute, take a breath and remind myself of the most important building blocks of my craft and tools in my writer’s toolbox.

First–and this for me, is the most important thing I’ve ever learned about writing and the advice I need to remember most often–is summed up in a quote from  Jacques Barzun:  Convince yourself that you are working in clay, not marble, on paper, not eternal bronze: let that first sentence be as stupid as it wishes. No one will rush out and print it as it stands.  What I take from that is that I need to give myself permission to make mistakes.  Mistakes can always be cut, edited, revised or improved.  What can’t be made better, though, is a piece of writing that’s been internally censored before it ever makes it onto the page.  Nothing will crush the life and passion out of my writing faster than worrying about getting a book or a scene or even just a sentence perfect on the first try.

Second is a piece of advice my dad gave me when I was first starting to write.  (I think some Hemingway guy may have said something similar <grin>, but I’m going to credit my dad since he’s the one who first told me): Stop when you still have something to say.  Don’t write until you’ve completely run out of steam and have no idea what comes next in a scene or a plot.  Always stop when you can see exactly what comes next–and you can’t wait to write it–because that excitement will make it so much easier for you to sit down and write the next day.   You won’t procrastinate or waste time checking e-mail or staring at the blank screen.  And often I’ve found that the simple trick of stopping mid-scene–mid sentence, even, if the end of the sentence is all I can actually see forward in the plot–will give me enough momentum when I sit down again that suddenly I’m over a writing hump and on to something I hadn’t planned before at all.

Third is something that Dr. Seuss once wrote:  Virtually every page is a cliff-hanger—you’ve got to force them to turn it.  WU’s own Donald Maass has written some great posts about the art of creating tension on every page of your story, and this is the same idea.  You always want to give the reader a reason–a need, even–to turn the page and keep reading, find out what happens next.   For me, this boils down to a general rule: never end a scene or a chapter on a note of complete resolution.  If every scene and every chapter is built around a particular one of your protagonists’ needs or desires, you never want to let them completely achieve that need or goal until you reach the end of your book.  End scenes or chapters on a no, and even worse–i.e., no, the protagonist didn’t find the cure to his daughter’s disease, and even worse, he now finds out she has only two weeks to live.  At best, you could end on a yes, butYes, the protagonist manages to steal the submarine plans.  But now he’s on the run with the villain’s henchman in hot pursuit–and furthermore, the bridge he needs to cross in order to reach safety has just been bombed.  Of course, yes, these are really corny examples, but you get the idea.  I try to think of the lines of tension in my plot as arrow points stretching all the way from my first page to my final one, carrying the reader constantly forward until they reach the end of the story.

So what about you?  What quotes on writing do you revisit time and time again?  What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?

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About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.

Comments

  1. says

    Those are great! I really like your interpretation of the Dr. Seuss rule, with your “no, and even worse” or “yes, but” chapter endings. That’s a great way to think about it.

    Following the lead of Elmore Leonard’s brilliant 10 Rules of Writing (which you can read here: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940CE3DD103BF935A25754C0A9679C8B63), I’ve condensed the advice and insights that I’ve found helpful over the years into this David Letterman-like Top Ten list:

    10. Never say verdant.
    9. Just because it’s true doesn’t make it compelling – or even interesting.
    8. Adverbs are just words. They don’t damage sentences; writers do.
    7. Three words: Strunk and White.
    6. Don’t fall in love with your words. Makes it hard to kill them.
    ‎5. It’s hard to grow if you only write what you know. Crap, that rhymes. Wasn’t meant to.
    4. When writing sex scenes, leave out the thing with the turkey baster. Trust me on this.
    3. Stop bitching. You have cut-and-paste, and the Undo key. Most literary greats did not.
    2. You’re not wrong: Clive Cussler really does suck.
    1. It’s fiction. Make stuff up.

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  2. says

    These are great quotes! And a very good post.

    One of my favorites:

    If writing seems hard, it’s because it is hard. – WM. ZINSSER

    Somehow that gives me the sympathy I need. I say, “Yeah! No Wonder I feel like this!” I make myself a cup of coffee and pat myself on the back and feel heroic about going back to writing a lousy page or two. It gets me going.

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  3. says

    Here’s my favorite advice: Learn first, write second. in my freelance editing, I see writers all the time who have written an entire novel—taking a year or two or more—who didn’t bother to learn anything about writing novels before they began. They confused typing with writing. We don’t do our own dentistry because we understand that a body of knowledge exists called dental science, and we know we don’t know dental science. A body of knowledge also exists about writing fiction. Good writing uses proven techniques, and many new writers simply don’t know that these techniques exists. Here’s an example: most writing books will tell you to go light on backstory, especially in the first pages of a novel. But I see manuscripts where lengthy backstory begins on page 2. These writing techniques aren’t secrets. Many excellent books about writing can be found in bookstores and libraries and online, but many new writers don’t bother to search them out and study them, and I think the reason is that they are unaware that writing—like law and medicine and carpentry and pottery—has techniques. And so I will find prospect-killing mistakes in the first three or four pages of a manuscript, mistakes so profound that an agent or publisher won’t read one more page because the mistake indicates the writer doesn’t know how to write.

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    • says

      hmmmm…I think I would amend that to: Write, Learn, Rewrite. Not that learning isn’t good at any time, but I drowned in learning last year and had to win my way back to voice and passion.

      I needed voice and passion to get my story down, then I needed all the learning I could get to turn that story into something readable.

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  4. Sara Ravel says

    My favorite is: “I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter,” by James Michener.

    I love this quote because it says to me that it’s okay to make mistakes and to keep working at your manuscript. It really is clay. Nothing is set in stone. Darlings are never killed, they are just parked in an Undiscovered Gems file. And crap never has to continue, but it can be used to fertilize a stronger story.

    Rewriting is harder than drafting for me, personally. It is one of the most discouraging parts of the process. So I cling to another quote by Michael Chrichton:

    “Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”

    So I know it’s okay if I’m banging my head on the second or seventh draft. There is still work I can do. No one is going to run out and publish it yet.

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  5. says

    I’m not sure where I heard it, but I’ve been trying to remind myself of putting one dominant emotion in a scene… trying to think of what I want the reader to feel rather than simply “what happens.”

    And the best piece of advice I’ve gotten is from my best friend, who isn’t even a writer. I call her every time I lose complete perspective (hits usually around chapter 25), and she repeats the same mantra: “All does not suck.” :)

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  6. says

    Keith, that has to be the funniest, truest list I’ve read. I especially love #3!

    Laura, that’ really is excellent advice, and it’s similar to something I always remind myself of, too, which is not to simply describe the weather, the scenery, etc., but rather describe how your character FEELS about the weather, scenery, etc.

    Cassandra–I love that! And it’s really true: Writing IS hard!

    James, you’re absolutely right–writing is like any other skill, it takes learning and practice to master.

    Sara, those are two of my all time favorites, too–I actually have them on my web page!

    Cathy, that is such a good way of thinking about a scene–what emotion you’re trying to evoke. I’m going to remember that one for sure! And yes, always good to remember that all does not suck! :)

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  7. Vaughn Roycroft says

    Okay, I’m still chuckling over Keith’s list. Great job, Keith!

    Also, great job Anna! All three are great reminders. Stepping back and reviewing has been helpful today. Particularly leaving myself in a position to maintain momentum. It is Friday ;)

    Great comments today too! Just what I needed. Thanks Anna, and everyone!

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  8. says

    I love quotes on the long and short of writing. They give me patience with the page. There are many variations but the idea is still the same…good writing takes time.

    “I have only made this letter longer because I have not had the time to make it shorter.”
    Blaise Pascal, (1623-1662) Lettres provinciales.

    Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short.
    Henry David Thoreau

    If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.
    (This one is well known though I seen many authors (Twain, Hemingway, Cicero) attributed to it. Not sure who it rightfully belongs to??)

    If you want me to give you a two-hour presentation, I am ready today. If you want only a five-minute speech, it will take me two weeks to prepare.”
    Mark Twain

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  9. says

    I love your second piece of advice. That’s true, having something to write the next day does help. One piece of advice that’s stuck with me through the years sounds like it’s the exact opposite of your advice, but now that I think about it, it’s really not.

    Natalie Goldberg wrote in Writing down the Bones, that you should write further than you think you need to. Sometimes we end a scene where it sounds good, but there’s possibly more there. And I’ve been tempted to say, “The end!” But then I pause, and I think, “What if?” And I give it a try and keep going. A lot of the time the most important parts sneak up on me!

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  10. says

    Thanks, Anna, for another great post!

    “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” Raymond Chandler

    No guns in medieval Wales, I’m afraid, but I get the point.

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  11. says

    Learning to let myself make mistakes on my first draft is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s so much less stressful to let something stand for the moment and go back and figure out how to perfect it later than to worry about getting every word down on the first try.

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  12. says

    What’s wrong with “verdant”? ;)

    Some of my favorite quotes, all of which have to do with the truth that how I feel about my own work does not necessarily reflect the end product:

    A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.
    – Thomas Mann

    Writing a novel is like making love, but it’s also like having a tooth pulled. Pleasure and pain. Sometimes it’s like making love while having a tooth pulled.
    – Dean Koontz

    I am irritated by my own writing. I am like a violinist whose ear is true, but whose fingers refuse to reproduce precisely the sound he hears within.
    – Gustave Flaubert

    When writing a novel that’s pretty much entirely what life turns into: ‘House burned down. Car stolen. Cat exploded. Did 1500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.’
    – Neil Gaiman

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  13. says

    Ooh, Jan – I love this!
    “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

    But please – friends don’t let friends say “verdant.” :)

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  14. says

    Vaughn, this is turning into excellent motivation for me, too! I’m loving reading everyone’s favorite quotes that they’re reading.

    Nancy, I love that last Mark Twain quote–and it’s so true! Most of my revision process is cutting and condensing, it’s much harder to be tight and focused than loose and sprawling.

    Sarah, that is absolutely such good advice, whenever and wherever you’re writing about.

    Kristin, that’s exactly my feeling–I have to give myself permission to not know exactly how to fix a problem spot, just move forward and trust that if I keep writing, the solution will eventually come.

    Jan, I’ve never heard those quotes and they are wonderful ones! LOL at the Neil Gaiman one, because that is SO exactly how I am.

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  15. says

    That Barzun quote is brilliant, and a great way to silence an overactive internal editor. Writing isn’t just about the words — as I write I discover more about the characters and the plot, so there is a LOT of rewriting to go back and a) correct and b) smooth out earlier drafts.

    What a helpful way — both the original post and the excellent responses — to start the weekend!

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  16. says

    My favorite writing advice comes from Stephen King’s On Writing (the entire book) and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, especially her concept of writing a sh*tty first draft. Very liberating. I can’t remember who said this but there’s a quote that goes something like “You can’t edit what you didn’t write”. The important thing for me is just to get the darn story out and down on paper (or screen). Then I can worry about fixing it up.

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  17. says

    Don’t know who said it – “Writers are just ego-maniacs with self-esteem issues.”

    Nora said (paraphrase) “Forget the Muse, and all that woo-woo crap. Write the damn book.”

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  18. says

    Great post Anna!

    My favorite advice is the same as your second tidbit, and that is to stop when I’m “on a roll”. No one in my writing group understands this, they argue the point every time I bring it up.

    Though their arguments appear sound on the surface, they often later bemoan staring at a blank screen when they return to their stories.

    Of course, I still have that nasty fear of having nothing good to say when I sit down, so it’s time to print out your first piece of advice and read it aloud five or six times while the computer is booting up!

    Happy writing!

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  19. says

    I love this post. Thanks, Anna! And I love the gems here in comments as well. Great list, Keith!

    Here are a few of my favorites:

    “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” Kurt Vonnegut

    “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” Louis L’Amour

    “Don’t think and then write it down. Think on paper.” Harry Kemelman

    “The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time unlike, say, brain surgery.” Robert Cormier

    “You have to surrender to the act of writing, give up to it, and trust that if you have anything, It will discover it for you.” E.L. Doctorow

    And this from one of our own:

    “Any scene which occurs to you to write has hidden in the heart of it something important…” Donald Maass

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  20. says

    The one I have taped to my monitor:

    A writer is frustrated, not because things come together slowly, but because she imagines that they will move quickly.

    I wish I could remember where I got that quote.

    Jan, I love your collection. Thanks for sharing.

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  21. says

    One of my favorites is from Mark Twain:

    “The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.”

    And I love this one from Agatha Christie:

    “The best time to plot a novel is while you’re washing the dishes.”

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  22. says

    ‘The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.’
    John Steinbeck

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  23. Adrienne says

    I love the advice to stop when you’re ahead, then it’s easier to pick it up the next day.

    I admit I read it yesterday and thought ‘no way’, but I tried it, stopped writing yesterday at a key point, and found it incredibly easy to jump back into the writing mindset this morning. Thank you for that and all the advice.

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  24. says

    Adrienne, that is so great to hear that you tried it and it worked for you! Awesome. It in many ways is counter-intuitive, and sometimes it’s hard to make yourself stop when you’re on a roll. Often I’ll jot down notes if there are lines of dialogue or description in my head that I don’t want to forget–that, too, can make it easier to jump back in.

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  25. says

    My favourite advice is from J.G Ballard “We must follow our obsessions like a sleepwalker.”. Writers have to possess curiosity and intensity.

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  26. says

    Love this post. I also have a ton of books on writing and I think you’ve articulated perfectly why I collect them: to feel like I’m not alone!

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  27. Anonymous says

    The rule about ending everything in a cliffhanger clearly shows a key problem of our times: the erroneous belief that absolutely everything must be a thriller. That there is now no room for a volume of human life and human experience, of characters who, like ourselves, are going through a journey… life’s journey… day by day, incident by incident. It is to ignore that in real life… the most relevant part of any work, being the part of the work we can take with us into our own lives… things simply do not work that way. It denies that every human life has, necessarily, something of truth, something poignant to notice and consider, whether this or that incident comes to the close by the end of the chapter or not. It denies that every life, you might say every incident, has something that is worth pausing to see, to grasp, to understand, and indeed to take with us when we close the book for the night, long before we close the last cover.

    To say that all endings must be cliffhangers is to say all stories must first and foremost be cheap thrillers rather than wise teachers, and it is to admit, in the same breath, that we as writers have failed to give the reader anything so profound to consider in those pages, as to be worthy of the grand silence that the end of every great sermon or wise parable deserves. It is to admit that the words on those pages were so empty of content in themselves that the reader actually can loose interest if mere action cannot carry them along. It is to say every book is only as good as every roller coaster, and every life or incident only relevant insofar as it is exciting. It is to dismiss an entire world of relevant and human things, of which the artists have become blind to, because of one thing only, and that, perhaps the least relevant and least important thing in all of human life: the thrill.

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