Quotes by Writers on Writing Fiction
We writers either think we know all there is to writing, and that we do it brilliantly, or we're terribly insecure and always looking for advice from other great writers on how to write well.
There, that's my personal opening quote on writing. I'm somewhere in the middle. It depends on what I'm writing whether I am confident or insecure. What I know for sure, is that for me, writing can be exhilarating, agonizing, emotional, poignant, or an audacious spilling of my guts. It's a sweet ride regardless.
Here is a sampling from writers of fame, infamy, and obscurity. I thought this collection of quotes on writing fascinating because of the variety and creativity of thought and experience and the many contradictory statements. I hope you will find something that helps or resonates with you, whether it's to laugh with the speaker, groan with them, or just agree - uh huh!
• If there are any quotes that really strike you, why not share them in the comments section, and why. Better yet, offer your own quote. Don't forget to take the quiz.
On Writing and Being a Writer
- "The first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone." ~ Martin Amis, Paris Review Interview
- If you find a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” ~ Toni Morrison, Ohio Arts Council, Speech, 1981
- Writing is hard work. It can be a glorious journey, but always on a road slick with blood sweat and tears. ~ Lori Colbo, Pen of a Ready Writer Blog, November 15, 2019
- "I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent, he would be wise to develop a thick hide.” ~ Harper Lee, Writer's Digest September 1961
- "And what, you ask, does writing teach us? First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is a gift and a privilege, not a right." ~ Ray Bradbury, The October country
- "There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt" ~ Erma Bombeck, Forever, Erma: Best-Loved Writing From America's Favorite Humorist
- "Being a writer means taking a leap from listening to saying, "'Listen to me.'" ~ Jhumpa Lahiri, Trading Stories, The New Yorker 2011
- "If nothing else, writing will remind you that it’s you, and no one else, who is author of your story, the master of your fate and the captain of your soul." ~ Mary Keary, The Power of Writing to Heal and Improve
Writing is hard work. It can be a glorious journey, but always on a road slick with blood sweat and tears."— ~ Lori Colbo, Pen of a Ready Writer Blog, November 15, 2019
Why We Write
"If you write for a living you make enormous compromises...If you write for life you'll work hard; you'll do what's honest, not what pays." ~ Toni Morrison, Conversations With Toni Morrison
"You are a writer if you write...If what you are seeking is to be acknowledged as a writer by other people, many of them strangers, you're in for a demoralizing journey." ~ Vincent Louis Carrella
"Writing isn't about making money, getting famous, getting dates...or making friends. It's about enriching the lives of those who will read your work and enriches your own life as well." ~ Stephen King, Writing; A Memoir of the Craft
"Who wants to become a writer? And why? Because it’s the answer to everything. … It’s the streaming reason for living. To note, to pin down, to build up, to create, to be astonished at nothing, to cherish the oddities, to let nothing go down the drain, to make something, to make a great flower out of life, even if it’s a cactus.”
The Challenges of Writing
- "Writing is easy. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." ~ Red Smith
- "Too many writers talk and act as if writing were slow and tortuous, a form of procreation without arousal or romance -- all dilation and contraction, grunting and pushing." ~ Roy Peter Clark, Writing Tools: Essential Strategies For Every Writer
- "Easy reading is damn hard writing." ~ Thomas Hood, The Athenaeum 1837
- "If I waited for perfection...I would never write a word." ~ Margaret Atwood
- "Writing is a delicious agony." ~ Gwendolyn Brooks
- "I really think that if there's any one enemy to human creativity, especially creative writing, it's self-consciousness." ~ Andre Dubus lll
- "The road to hell is paved with adverbs." ~ Stephen King
- "There are 2 typos of people in this world: Those who can edit and those who can't." ~ Jarod Kintz
- "Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere." ~ Anne Lamott
- "The secret to good writing is to tell the truth." ~ Gordon Lish
Writers Giving Advice on Writing
- "Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience solely of terminal patients...What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What would you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality." ~ Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
- "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” ~ Elmore Leonard.
- “Know your literary tradition, savor it, steal from it, but when you sit down to write, forget about worshiping greatness and fetishizing masterpieces.” ~ Allegra Goodman
- “When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” ~ Stephen King
- You do not have to explain every single drop of water contained in a rain barrel. You have to explain one drop—H2O. The reader will get it.” ~ George Singleton
- Don't tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass." ~ Anton Chekov
- "Write hard and clear about what hurts." ~ Ernest Hemingway
- "Be courageous and try to write in a way that scares you a little." ~ Holly Gerth
- "If I had to give writers advice, I would say don't listen to writers talking about writing or themselves." ~ Lillian Hellman
- "Be obscure clearly." ~ E B White
- "I've seen beginning writers pepper curse words through sentence after sentence...Two things happen when I read this junk: I get bored and I get angry. I didn't pick up your book to read garbage. If this is as clever as you can be, I don't want to read your prose." ~ David Morrell, The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons About Writing and Publishing
- “The main thing is not to be in a hurry to write, not to grudge correcting and revising the same thing 10 or 20 times, not to write a lot and not, for heaven’s sake, to make of writing a means of livelihood or of winning importance in people’s eyes.” ~ Leo Tolstoy
"There is no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write." ~ Terry Blanchard
"To unlock the writer's block is to keep writing until you can unknot the "not." If you cannot, then put a "can" in the plot and unwrap it a lot." ~ Ana Claudia Antunes
“If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient." ~ Hilary Mantel
“All writing problems are psychological problems. Blocks usually stem from the fear of being judged. If you imagine the world listening, you'll never write a line. That's why privacy is so important. You should write first drafts as if they will never be shown to anyone.” ~ Eric Jong, The New Writer's Handbook 2007: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft and Career
"Don’t waste time waiting for inspiration. Begin, and inspiration will find you.” ~ H. Jackson Brown Jr.
"I tell my students there is such a thing as 'writer's block,' and they should respect it. You shouldn't write through it. It's blocked because it ought to be blocked because you haven't got it right now." ~ Toni Morrison
"I start with a question. Then try to answer it." ~ Mary Lee Settle
Creating and Developing Characters
- "The test of any good fiction is that you should care for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail." ~ Mark Twain
- “I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn't exist.” ~ Berkeley Breathed
- "Even if you find the bad guy generally repulsive, you need to be able to put yourself so thoroughly into his shoes while you’re writing him that, just for those moments, you almost believe his slant yourself." ~ K.M. Weiland
- Think of your character as a jewel that has about a thousand different facets. If you keep turning them over and exploring new sides, you’ll keep discovering new information about their personality and motivations. And there’s always another way to turn things. There’s always another side to explore." ~ Lauren Sapala. Peel Back the Mask of Your Protagonist
- If you can create a key moment in the novel where something special or intense or important passes between the protagonist and this secondary character, it will do wonders for your story. So many moving, poignant scenes in movies are ones where the two friends have a moment like this. It feels sometimes like a beat or pause in the story, being more reflective and slower paced. But it adds heart, and that’s what this is all about. ~ CS Lakin, Create Key Moments with Secondary Characters
- "To make your protagonist more human, give her a flaw of your own, a fear, and/or a secret...a flawed character is more appealing to readers and moviegoers than a character who is perfect." ~ Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master
- "The writer's job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them." ~ Vladimir Nabokov
- I learned story by reading. I learned plot by living. I learned dialog by talking, by listening." ~ Vincent Louis Carella, Author Bio, Good Reads
- I learned story by reading. I learned plot by living. I learned dialog by talking, by listening.
- "My inspiration tends to come from two words: "What if?' ~ Beth Revis
- I like to be surprised. Fresh implications and plot twists erupt as a story unfolds. Characters develop backgrounds adding depth and feeling. Writing feels like exploring" ~ David Brin
- Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there's an explosion - that's plot. ~ Leigh Brackett
- “Story is honorable and trustworthy; plot is shifty, and best kept under house arrest.” ~ Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
- "There is only one plot - things are not what they seem." ~ Jim Thompson
- "Writing is always a process of discovery--I never know the end, or even the events on the next page, until they happen. There's a constant interplay between the imaging and shaping of the story." ~ Kim Edwards
- "Writers spend lots of time imagining and writing every detail of a character's past, from childhood to maturity. Rather than share everything right away and demonstrate how clever you are, consider instead how curiosity works. Curiosity draws the reader into the story world. Give away everything up front and you lose that." ~ Martha Alderson, The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master
Ending Chapters, Finishing the Story
- "End chapters with a cliffhanger as often as possible...if we end every chapter with a resolved scene, readers might leave for those Oreos and find something else to do. When it comes to holding reader interest, knowing when to end a chapter matters almost as much as knowing what content to include within the chapter." ~ Becca Puglisi
- "Great is the art of beginning, greater is the art of ending." ~ Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
- "Work on one thing at a time until finished." ~ Henry Miller, 111 Commandments of Writing
- “Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.” ~ John Steinbeck, 6 Tips on Writing and a Disclaimer
- “A man is like a novel: until the very last page you don't know how it will end. Otherwise it wouldn't even be worth reading.”
~ Yevgeny Zamyatin, We
- “Have you thought of an ending?"
"Yes, several, and all are dark and unpleasant."
"Oh, that won't do! Books ought to have good endings. How would this do: and they all settled down and lived together happily ever after?"
"It will do well, if it ever came to that."
"Ah! And where will they live? That's what I often wonder.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
- “In the planning stage of a book, don't plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.”
~ Rose Tremain
- “Endings to be useful must be inconclusive.”
~ Samuel R. Delaney
- “There's nothing on Earth like really nailing the last line of a big book. You have 200 pages to tickle their fancy, and seven words to break their heart.”
~ Alex de Campi
As a writer, what do you struggle with most?
The Best Book on Writing by a Writer
David Morrell is a prolific novelist, best known for his novel, First Blood, which was made into a movie starring Sylvester Stallone as the main character, John Rambo. Personally, I hated the movie and its sequels. The book was phenomenal. But Hollywood took so many liberties with the story (as they often do) and ruined it in my opinion. But Morrell's book, Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft, is one of the best books on writing by a writer I've ever read, and I've read several. He begins with the endearing story of how he became inspired to be a writer at age seventeen. His inspiration came from watching Route 66, the old 60s television show about two young men traveling through America in a Corvette convertible. Morrell was so taken by the storyline and coolness of the main characters that he wrote to one of the creators of the show, Stirling Silliphant, and told him his script writing and the storylines were an inspiration for him to become a writer too. He took Silliphant's advice - "If you want to be a writer, the secret is to write, write, write." Mr. Morrell took Silliphant's advice to heart and did write, write, write. He's been a very successful, published writer.
I think all writers, novice or well established and successfully published, can remember when the first stirrings of a love of writing began.
Another thing that caught my attention in this book was when he talked about the big question he asked his students at writing conferences - "Why in heavens name do you want to be writers?" He gets all kinds of answers that you might expect - fame, fortune, personal expression, to name a few - but asks them a few times more. The answer, he informs them is, "Because you have to be." I wholeheartedly agree, wouldn't you? It's just in us writers to write; we need to write like we need to breathe.
Morrell wends personal experiences throughout the book as he covers the topics of plot, character, the importance of research, structure, viewpoint, first person, the psychology of description, what not to do in dialogue, dealing with writer's block, getting published, and questions he's been asked. His insights are keen and come from decades of writing and publishing novels. For me, his personal experiences - successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses - make his advice more believable and helpful. You can give advice impersonally until the cows come home but it becomes real when a writer shares his own story. I've read this book a few times and refer to it from time to time. I highly recommend this book on writing above all others.
My Own Advice
Wasn't that rich? Ridiculous? Hilarious? Confusing? Amazing? Profound?
As I have recently been exploring fiction in my own writing, the quote that resonated with me most was by Berkley Breathed - “I will go to my grave in a state of abject endless fascination that we all have the capacity to become emotionally involved with a personality that doesn't exist.” This has surprised me a great deal in my recent attempts at fiction. Sometimes when writing a scene with a character, it feels like a cathartic bloodletting, which I think is what Hemingway referred to as opening a vein. Other times I have been stopped in my tracks because as I've unwittingly tapped into an emotion or some life struggle I was not aware of and it takes me by surprise - like getting the wind knocked out of me. But that's just me.
The other quote that fit for me was by Kim Edwards - "Writing is always a process of discovery--I never know the end, or even the events on the next page, until they happen. There's a constant interplay between the imaging and shaping of the story." Yep, that's how I write, by the seat of my pants.
Thanks for going on this journey with me. With all the different views and advice, I have come up with my own piece of advice - do your own thing, be true to yourself, and don't give up.
You may quote me on that!
© 2016 Lori Colbo