Helpful writing quotes: An A to Z of authors’ advice

Helpful writing quotes - A to Z

This week we’ve put together an A to Z of our favourite authors’ helpful writing quotes, categorised by subject from ‘anti-hero’ to ‘YA’. Use the links below to jump to your favourite section. Share on social media and let us know in the comments section which are your favourites:

Jump to Section: A;   B;   C;   D;   E;   F;   G;   H;   L;   M;   N;   O;   P;   Q;   R;   S;   T;   W;   Y

A

Allegory

Allegory is ‘a story… with a second distinct meaning partially hidden behind its literal or visible meaning’ (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary terms, 7). For example, each character in a story can be a symbol representing an idea. An example of this would be the lion in C.S. Lewis who is resurrected in C.S. Lewis’ Christian, creationist allegory. Writing allegory is complex because you have to manage multiple layers of meaning in your story and make sure that each is coherent. Here are some authors’ views on allegory:

Into an allegory a man can put only what he already knows; in a myth he puts what he does not yet know and could not come by in any other way.’ – C.S. Lewis (Lewis in Schakel, 36)

‘I dislike Allegory – the conscious and intentional allegory – yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language.’ – J. R. R. Tolkien (Tolkien, 145)

Antagonist

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an antagonist broadly as ‘A person who actively opposes or is hostile to someone or something’ (OED). In fiction, the antagonist is the character who opposes or brings conflict to a main character or protagonist. In genres such as fantasy, the antagonist is often the villain opposing the heroic main character, but many novels (especially ‘literary’ ones) make the distinction between the ‘good guys’ and the villains less straightforward.

Kafka on  the nature of antagonists:

‘From the true antagonist, illimitable courage is transmitted to you.’ Franz Kafka (Kafka trans. Max Brod, 23)

Anti-heroes

The anti-hero, not to be confused with the villain or antagonist, is ‘A central character…who lacks the nobility and magnanimity expected of traditional heroes and heroines’ (Baldick, 17). They are often characters whose ethical scruples (or lack thereof) make us uncomfortable.

Some writers’ thoughts on anti-heroes:

‘I’ve made a career writing about fictitious anti-heroes. To create these worlds, I’ve spent a lot of time with active members on both sides of the law. And if I had to pick the most interesting of the two, the choice is obvious…It’s not so much about justifying bad behavior, but to hear it from the inside out instead of from a distant law enforcement social judgement call.’ Kurt Sutter (Sutter, Entertainment Weekly)

‘An antihero is not simply a rebel who cannot follow the rules. The reasons for why he acts as he does, along with his self-concept, are important to the story.’ Jessica Page Morrell (Morrell, Bullies, Bastards and Bitches)

‘Writing a story that had an antihero for a protagonist could be refreshingly different. It could be surprising and interesting, and both those things are the opposite of boring.’ Karen Woodward (Woodward, ‘3 ways to create a hero your readers identify with’)

B

Bad writing

Authors are perhaps most vocal when it comes to bad writing – whether it’s cracking wise about the shortcomings of other writers’ work or simply detailing what they dislike in writing. Here are some of the more useful insights on bad writing from published authors:

‘Bad writing is more than a matter of shit syntax and faulty observation; bad writing usually arises from a stubborn refusal to tell stories about what people actually do― to face the fact, let us say, that murderers sometimes help old ladies cross the street.’ Stephen King (King, On Writing)

‘You start realizing that good prose is crunchy. There’s texture in your mouth as you say it. You realize bad writing, bland writing, has no texture, no taste, no corners in your mouth. I’m a great believer in reading aloud.’ Janet Fitch (Fitch, Los Angeles Times

Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.’ Helen Dunmore (Dunmore, 78)

Beginnings

The beginning of a story needs to tantalize readers and give them a strong sense of character and setting. Here are some writers’ views on story openings:

‘Every thing must have a beginning … and that beginning must be linked to something that went before.’ Mary Shelley (Shelley, Introduction to Frakenstein)

‘I begin a book with imagery, more than I do with an idea or a character. Some kind of poetic image.’ Rachel Kushner (Kushner, ‘Insurrection: An Interview with Rachel Kushner’, The Paris Review)

‘The last thing we discover in writing a book is to know what to put at the beginning.’ Blaise Pascal (Pascal,  263)

Biography

You might mostly associate the word biography – the writing of a person’s life – with non-fiction. Yet besides describing characters’ lives (and often their histories of personal development), many novels have also been published as though they were non-fiction biography.

The most obvious example from recent years is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, which he passed off as factual before being found out. When Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Ayre was first published in 1847, it was printed with the subtitle ‘An autobiography’. Here are some writers’ thoughts on writing biography:

‘Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of a man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written.’ Mark Twain (Twain, 221)

‘Whereas fiction is a continual discovery of what one wants to say, what one feels, what one means, and is, in that sense, a performance art, biography requires different skills – research and organization.’ Edmund White (White, The Review of Contemporary Fiction)

‘A typical biography relying upon individuals’ notorious memories and the anecdotes they’ve invented contains a high degree of fiction, yet is considered ‘nonfiction.’ Joyce Carol Oates (Oates in Paul, 65)

C

Catharsis

From the Greek word kathairein meaning to ‘cleanse’, catharsis is the term for the way a dramatic or tragic story can ‘purge’ emotions, leaving the reader feel better despite heaviness of subject matter. A novel that produces this effect is referred to as ‘cathartic’. Some writers’ views on writing cathartic fiction:

‘It is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things.’ Maurice Sendak (Sendak in Silvey, 403)

‘The thing should have plot and character, beginning, middle and end. Arouse pity and then have a catharsis. Those were the best principles I was ever taught.’ Anne Rice (Rice in Munier, 147)

Characters

Writing believable, rich characters is one of the surest ways to hook readers’ attention and keep them enthralled as you spin your story. Here are some choice quotes on writing characters and how to create characters that make your fictional world vivid:

Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.’ Anton Chekhov (Chekhov in Gioia and Gwynn, 151)

‘The writer’s characters must stand before us with a wonderful clarity, such continuous clarity that nothing they do strikes us as improbable behavior for just that character, even when the character’s action is, as sometimes happens, something that came as a surprise to the writer himself.’ John Gardner (Gardner, The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers)

‘The fact is that the characters are obliged to act according to the laws of the world in which they live. In other words, the narrator is the prisoner of his own premises.’ Umberto Eco (Eco, trans. Weaver, 553)

‘‘The thing that makes vivid writing is when the reader is in the body of the story, the body of the character. Things smell like something; there’s weather, there’s texture, there’s light.’ Janet Fitch (Fitch, LA Times)

Comedy

Some writers are particularly skilled at making us laugh – the zany characters of Charles Dickens or the sly, witty essays of David Sedaris are two examples. Comedy has been described as a form of writing designed ‘chiefly to amuse its audience, by appealing to a sense of superiority over the characters’ (CODLT). Do you agree with this definition? Some writers’ thoughts on the nature of comedy:

‘Comedy is tragedy that happens to other people.’ Angela Carter (Carter in Ratcliffe, 90)

‘When humor can be made to alternate with melancholy, one has a success, but when the same things are funny and melancholic at the same time, it’s just wonderful.’ Francois Truffaut (Truffaut in Andrews)

‘Concise use of language is a joke writers’ secret power. “Someone came to my door last night and indicated I should answer it”, is far less efficient than “Knock, Knock”.’ Susan Calman (Calman, The Independent)

Clichés

A cliché is ‘a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought’ (OED). Using clichés is widely seen as one of the cardinal sins of writing. Character gestures such as wringing hands to show distress or clichéd metaphors and similes indicate to readers that a writer is amateurish. Here are some thoughts on clichés and how not to write them:

‘We read so that we can be moved by a new way of looking at things. A cliche is like a coin that has been handled too much. Once language has been overly handled, it no longer leaves a clear imprint.’ Janet Fitch (Fitch in Melander, 208)

‘The reason that clichés become clichés is that they are hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.’ Terry Pratchett (Pratchett in Cresswell, The Cat’s Pyjamas: The Penguin Book of Clichés)

Creative writing courses 

Many successful writers have taught and continue to teach college courses in writing, but not all writers have been in favour of learning to write at a university:

‘You can’t learn to write in college. It’s a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do—and they don’t. They have prejudices. They may like Henry James, but what if you don’t want to write like Henry James?’ Ray Bradbury (Ray Bradbury and Sam Weller, Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews)

Crime writing

Crime writing requires mystery and suspense. Executed well, it will keep readers gripped and returning book after book for your series.Writers thoughts on crime stories:

‘Crime fiction is an objective, realistic genre because it’s about the real world, real bodies really being killed by somebody. And this involves the investigator in trying to understand the society that the person lived in.’ Michael Dibdin (Dibdin, The Telegraph)

‘The crime novel should have a compelling and credible plot, characters who are more than stereotypes, good writing and the creative integration of setting, narrative, characterisation and theme. To put it simply, a good detective story should be a good novel.’ PD James (James in Sanderson, The Telegraph)

Crisis

The crisis in a story is the decisive plot point or event that demands that there will be a resolution or decisive outcome. Putting crises in your novel creates dramatic tension and can help build restless, page-turning suspense. Some well-known writers’ perspectives:

‘Life always waits for some crisis to occur before revealing itself at its most brilliant’ Paulo Coelho (Coelho, trans. Costa, 50)

‘The greater the crisis, it seems, the swifter the evolution.’ Elizabeth Gilbert (Gilbert, 447)

Criticism

It’s not unusual to feel each critique of your work as though it is a personal attack. Here are some writers’ thoughts on the value of critique:

‘To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.’ Aristotle (Aristotle in Katz, 299)

‘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.’ Neil Gaiman (Gaiman, ‘Neil Gaiman’s Advice for Writers’)

‘A creative life cannot be sustained by approval any more than it can be destroyed by criticism.’ Will Self (Self, ‘Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure’)

D

Detective novels

Private eyes and perplexing crimes have long been staples of fiction. What are the defining elements of a great detective story?

‘What the detective story is about is not murder but the restoration of order.’ P. D. James (James, Face Magazine)

‘I know what kind of things I myself have been irritated by in detective stories. They are often about one or two persons, but they don’t describe anything in the society outside.’ Stieg Larsson (Larsson, ‘Interview with Stieg Larsson)

Deus ex machina
Meaning ‘God from the machine’, deux ex machina is used to refer to an improbably ending that uses a highly contrived scenario to resolve plot complications. For example, every character miraculously gets amnesia.

On the untruth of Deus ex machina:

‘Deus ex machina not only erases all meaning and emotion, it’s an insult to the audience. Each of us knows we must choose and act, for better or worse, to determine the meaning of our lives … Deus ex machina is an insult because it is a lie.’ Robert McKee (McKee, Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting)

Dialogue

Besides an engaging story idea, a novel needs dialogue to create a true sense of your fictional world as inhabited and host to multiple voices. Great dialogue sounds natural if you say it out loud. Here are some writers’ ideas on dialogue:

‘Dialogue is not just quotation. It is grimaces, pauses, adjustments of blouse buttons, doodles on a napkin, and crossings of legs.’ Jerome Stern (Stern, Making Shapely Fiction)

‘The poor novelist constructs his characters; he controls them and makes them speak. The true novelist listens to them and watches them function; he eavesdrops on them even before he knows them.’ André Gide (Gide, trans. Dorothy Bussy, 444)

‘I write plays because writing dialogue is the only respectable way of contradicting yourself. I put a position, rebut it, refute the rebuttal, and rebut the refutation.’ Tom Stoppard (Stoppard in Kelly, 61)

‘Always get to the dialogue as soon as possible. I always feel the thing to go for is speed. Nothing puts the reader off more than a big slab of prose at the start.’ P.G. Wodehouse (Wodehouse, The Paris Review)

‘Nothing teaches you as much about writing dialogue as listening to it.’ Judy Blume (Blume, ‘Rewriting’)

E

Editing and editors

Cutting out parts of your novel is disheartening at times, but it is essential to get your book into the best possible shape, preferably using a professional editor if you hope to publish and find an active readership. Writers have been particularly vocal and lucid about editing:

‘The writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.’ Dr. Seuss (Dr. Seuss in McDonald and Salomone).

‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’ Stephen King (King, On Writing)

Let the reader find that he cannot afford to omit any line of your writing because you have omitted every word that he can spare.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson (Emerson in Mary Embree, The Author’s Toolkit: A Step-by-step Guide to Writing and Publishing your Book)

Endings

A beginning might be crucial for luring readers into your story’s world, but your endings need to be equally good if they are to read your subsequent novels. Writers share some thoughts on writing endings:

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 (Tremain, The Guardian)

‘My own way of writing is very meditated and, despite my reputation, rather slow-moving. So I do spend a good deal of time contemplating endings. The final ending is usually arrived at simply by intuition.’ Joyce Carol Oates (Oates, The Washington Post)

‘If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph first, and then I go back and work towards it. I know where I’m going. I know what my goal is.’ Katherine Anne Porter (Porter, 88).

F

Fanfiction

Fanfiction has grown over the last few decades to become an indie writer phenomenon. Its critics notwithstanding, E L James’ bestselling 50 Shades of Grey started out its life as Twilight fan fiction. A perspective on this growing genre:

‘The writers write it and put it up online just for the satisfaction. They’re fans, but they’re not silent, couchbound consumers of media. The culture talks to them, and they talk back to the culture in its own language.’ Lev Grossman (Grossman, Time)

Fantasy

Fantasy novels are popular with readers of all ages, as they provide rich characters as well as flights of imagination and immersive worldbuilding among other pleasures. Here are some writers’s ideas about writing fantasy:

‘The best fantasy is written in the language of dreams. It is alive as dreams are alive, more real than real … for a moment at least … that long magic moment before we wake.’ George R.R. Martin (Martin, ‘On Fantasy’)

‘We read fantasy to find the colors again, I think … There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us…’ George R.R. Martin (‘On Fantasy’)

‘At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence.’ Ursula K. Le Guin (Le Guin in Freedman, 38)

First drafts

Writing the first draft is challenging but can also be a joyful process of discovery. What are some big-name authors’ views on writing first drafts?

‘The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.’ Terry Pratchett (Pratchett in Hertz, Write Choices: Elements of Nonfiction Storytelling)

‘I would advise any beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them – without a thought about publication – and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.’ Anne Tyler (Tyler, ‘Author Q&A’)

‘In the first draft, I’m inventing people and place with a broad schematic idea of what’s going to happen. In the process, of course, I discover all sorts of bigger and more substantial things.’ Peter Carey (Carey, The Paris Review)

G

Genre

Genre is many things – the means by which we identify what type of stories and writing styles we like, categories for booksellers, different sets of established themes or ‘tropes’ that form a tradition and more. Read some writers’ thoughts on genre and writing:

‘I never think about genre when i work. I’ve written fantasy, science fiction, supernatural fiction, and am now working on a suspense novel. Genres are mostly useful as a marketing tool…’ Elizabeth Hand (Hand, i’nterview on Mortal Love at HarperCollins online’)

‘All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one’ Walter Benjamin (Benjamin in Singer and Walker, 6)

Good writing

There are countless opinions on what makes good writing: Engaging plot, skilled use of language, vivid character and countless other criteria. Here are some viewpoints:

‘Good writing is supposed to evoke sensations in the reader, not the fact that it’s raining but the feeling of being rained upon.’ E.L. Doctorow (Doctorow in Wolff, Your Creative Writing Masterclass: featuring Austen, Chekhov, Dickens, Hemginway, Nabokov, Vonnegut and more than 100 contemporary classic authors)

‘All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath.’ F Scott Fitzgerald (Fitzgerald in Ratcliffe, 150)

‘Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.’ Malcolm Gladwell (Gladwell, What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures)

H

Historical fiction
The best historical fiction makes characters living in another time and place seem real flesh and blood in the reader’s mind’s eye. Some authors’ views on historical fiction below:

‘The thing that most attracts me to historical fiction is taking the factual record as far as it is known, using that as scaffolding, and then letting imagination build the structure that fills in those things we can never find out for sure.’ Geraldine Brooks (Brooks in Munier, 261)

‘Writers of historical fiction are not under the same obligation as historians to find evidence for the statements they make. For us it is sufficient if what we say can’t be disproved or shown to be false.’ Barry Unsworth (Unsworth, The Independent)

Heroes and heroines

Genres such as fantasy and epic romance rely on the symbol of the hero – that character whose courage, intelligence or other positive characteristics sees them triumph over adversity. What have famous writers said on the subject?

‘Heroes, whatever high ideas we may have of them, are mortal and not divine. we are all as good as God made us and many of us much worse.’ John Osborne (Osborne, 82)

‘A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.’ Joseph Campbell (Campbell in Campbell, 6)

L

Literary fiction

There have long been debates between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ fiction, even though these two categories are not necessarily independent. There are many books considered literary that incorporate drama tropes, and vice versa. Some authors’ thoughts on literary writing:

‘One of the things that I really love about literary fiction is that it’s one of the few kinds of writing that doesn’t tell us what to think or what to buy or what to wear. We’re surrounded by advertising.’ Barbara Kingsolver (Kingsolver in Lipman, The Amazon Book Review)

‘Authors of so-called ‘literary’ fiction insist that action, like plot, is vulgar and unworthy of a true artist. Don’t pay any attention to advice of that sort. If you do, you will very likely starve trying to live on your writing income.’ Dean R. Koontz (Koontz, ‘Fiction Writer’s Market 1982/83’).

M

Mystery

A mystery novel requires the reader to do some detective work of her own. Writing mystery relies extensively on having a great command of plot. Some writers’ thoughts on the nature of mystery writing:

‘Good books don’t give up all their secrets at once.’ Stephen King (King in Miner and Rawson, 89).

‘The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observers.’ Arthur Conan Doyle (Conan Doyle, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’)

‘Understand this, I mean to arrive at the truth. The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.’ Agatha Christie (Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

N

Names

Character names can convey much about your characters – their temperaments, social positions, characteristic qualities (through name meanings) and more. Writers offer some pointers on choosing character names:

‘I love inventing names, but I also collect unusual names, so that I can look through my notebook and choose one that suits a new character.’ J.K. Rowling (Rowling, ‘J.K. Rowling interview’)

‘The choice of name tends to affect the development of the character, even the plot. This may be so in real life also.’ Margaret Drabble (Drabble, The Paris Review)

Narration

Narration is ‘the process of relating a sequence of events’ and ‘is often distinguished from other kinds of writing (dialogue, description, commentary) which may be included in a narrative’ (CODLT). The art of narration is complex, involving Point of View (whose perspective events are told through), story and scene structure and time considerations or chronology. A well narrated story is smoother to read and immerses the reader more fully. Some thoughts on narration:

‘Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that a single book is not. A book is not an isolated entity: it is a narration, an axis of innumerable narrations.’ Jorge Luis Borges (Borges in Genette, 400)

‘Narration … isn’t just a literary function. It represents the human capacity to tell stories in such a manner that they yield meaning.’ Steve Almond (Almond, New York Times Magazine)

Narrators

Narrators – the point of view characters who tell us the story in a novel – may be unreliable or reliable (in that their information can be true to their fictional world’s facts or false). Some advice on writing narrators:

‘The third person narrator, instead of being omniscient, is like a constantly running surveillance tape.’ Andrew Vachss (Vachss in Moore, ‘The Truth Hurts: Andrew Vachss takes a Stab at History’)

‘We are all unreliable narrators, not just in the way we tell our stories to others, but how we tell them to ourselves.’ Deb Caletti (Caletti, 332)

O

Outlining

As the saying goes, ‘a goal without a plan is just a wish’. Outlining your novel makes it easier for the first draft to flow smoothly. Some writers’ tips on outlining:

‘I always have a basic plot outline, but I like to leave some things to be decided while I write.’ J.K. Rowling (Rowling in Meinberg, 242)

‘Plot is a map and I begin with it. It is what made me admire the novels of the 19th century; that the stories are foreshadowed. They’re going someplace.’ John Irving (Irving in Benaroia, National Post)

P

Page-turners

A gripping book that readers will stay up all night to finish reading needs to be paced expertly and hold the reader’s desire to find out what happens next. Some writers’ thoughts on what makes a page-turner:

‘The definition of a page-turner really ought to be that this page is so good, you can’t bear to leave it behind, but then the next page is there and it might be just as amazing as this one.’ John Burnside (Burnside, Glister)

‘Even if your book isn’t a thriller, you’re trying to achieve what would be considered thriller pacing. A thriller isn’t ponderous — it moves like a starving shark.’ Chuck Wendig (Wendig, ‘25 Ways to write a Real “Page-turner” of a book’)

Perfectionism

Of the many things that cause writer’s block, perfectionism is one of the largest culprits. Writers’ thoughts on holding your work to impossibly high standards:

‘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.’ Anne Lamott (Lamott, 28)

‘Perfectionism is very dangerous. Because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in…it’s actually kind of tragic because you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.’ David Foster Wallace (Foster Wallace, Brainpickings)

Plot and plotting

Plot – the sequence of events in your story and how they come together to form a narrative whole – is important because it gives readers the chance to imagine an intriguing set of scenarios and how they might unfold through cause and effect. Numerous writers have shared their best advice on plotting a novel:

‘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 (Brin, ‘Questions frequently asked’)

‘Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.’ Ray Bradbury (Bradbury in James, 107)

‘My philosophy is that plot advancement is not what the experience of reading fiction is about. If all we care about is advancing the plot, why read novels? We can just read Cliffs Notes.’ George R. R. Martin (Martin in Brown, The Atlantic)

Point of View

Point of View or POV as it is often abbreviated gives readers an insight into the viewpoint character’s unique psychology or interpretation of events. It can also be a useful device for presenting a neutral observer’s broad overview of events. Here are some writers’ thoughts on how to write POV well:

‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.’ Harper Lee (Joyce Milton and Harper Lee, 36)

‘You could tell ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ from a male point of view. People have mistakenly felt that the women are oppressed, but power tends to organise itself in a pyramid. I could pick a male narrator from somewhere in that pyramid. It would be interesting.’ Margaret Atwood (Atwood, interviewed by Arifa Akbar, The Independent)

Q

Querying publishers and agents

Once you have finished writing your book, the querying cycle begins. Query Shark has many useful examples of query letters. Read these writers’ tips for concise advice on how to query:

‘Hook your editor with a strong opening sentence to bring attention to your writing.’ W. Terry Whalin (Whalin, 52).

‘Be professional. It’s a business letter – not a personal letter. Regarding salutation and tone, err on the side of caution because formality is never out of place.’ Janet Reid (Reid in Schultz, ‘20 Tips on Query Letters,’ as Told by Agent Janet Reid’)

‘Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It’s the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It’s that important, so don’t mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write.’ Nicholas Sparks (Sparks, ‘The Business, Part 3: Finding an Agent’)

R

Romance

There are many genres and subgenres of romance writing, from bodice rippers to historical, erotic, and LGBT romance novels. Here are some perspectives on writing good love stories:

‘What do your heroine and hero do for a living? What gifts do they give? What things do they prize? What objects or actions characterize their relationship with each other? Find those concrete things, figure out their deeper meaning, and enhance them in your final draft to add power and depth to your lovers’ relationship.’ Jenny Crusie (Crusie, ‘The Five Things I’ve Learned About Writing Romance from TV’)

‘Do create ordinary characters that do extraordinary things: I try to create characters who are familiar enough to be relatable – but who are moved by the power of love to do extraordinary things.’ Nicholas Sparks (Sparks, Glamour)

‘Emotional, character-driven conflict is the foundation of a satisfying romance. Conflict spawns tension and excitement.’ (No Author, ‘How to Write the Perfect Romance!’)

‘Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war, love is a growing up.’ James Baldwin (Baldwin in Maria Popova, ‘What is Love? Famous Definitions from 400 Years of Literary History’)

S

Science Fiction

Science Fiction is an enormous genre in itself, ranging from subtle social critique to pure escapist, action-packed space operas. Here are some sci fi writers’ opinions on what makes great science fiction:

‘Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.’ Ray Bradbury (Bradbury interviewed by Sam Weller, The Paris Review)

‘Change is the principal feature of our age and literature should explore how people deal with it. The best science fiction does that, head-on.’ David Brin (Brin, ‘Quotes from the worlds of David Brin’)

‘I draw on the social sciences a great deal. I get a lot of ideas from them, particularly from anthropology. When I create another planet, another world, with a society on it, I try to hint at the complexity of the society I’m creating, instead of just referring to an empire or something like that.’ Ursula K. Le Guin (Le Guin interview with John Wray, The Paris Review)

Setting

Setting – the location and time where your story takes place – greatly contributes to the mood and overall emotional and psychological effect of your novel in the reader. Here are writers’ thoughts on crafting setting:

‘Remember in your story that setting is the other character. It is as important to your story as the people in it because it gives them context and can ideally be used to heighten drama and tension, depending on where it is.’ Rob Parnell (Parnell, The Easy Way to Write Short Stories that Sell)

‘When I’m writing a book, generally I start with the mood and setting, along with a couple of specific images, things that have come into my head, totally abstracted from any narrative, that I’ve fixated on. After that, I construct a world, or an area, into which that general setting, that atmosphere, and the specific images I’ve focused on can fit.’ China Mieville (Mieville interviewed by Joan Gordon, Science Fiction Studies)

Structure

The structure of your story can give it a satisfying or frustrating overall effect. But having structure also helps you avoid blocks. On why you should structure your novel carefully:

‘Structure is important. Know your ending before you start writing. You wouldn’t just get into a car and drive without knowing where you’re going. Know your most important plot points. This does not mean that things won’t change, but you will never get stuck.’ Peter James (James interviewed by Amanda Patterson, ‘The Writers Write Interview – Peter James’)

Suspense

The build up of questions and anticipation of their being answered is effective for keeping readers gripped and turning pages. Writers’ share helpful ideas on writing suspense:

‘As for suspense, I like to write books that draw you into the hero’s plight from the opening pages, where people put their lives on the line for something – a belief, a family member, the truth.’ Andrew Gross (Gross interviewed by Lisa Gardner, ‘Lisa Gardner with Andrew Gross on Eyes Wide Open’)

‘How do you create suspense? As novelists, we should ask or imply a question at the beginning of the story, and then we should delay the answer.’ Lee Child (Child, The New York Times)

‘Real suspense comes from moral dilemma and the courage to make and act upon choices. False suspense comes from the accidental and meaningless occurrence of one damn thing after another.’ John Gardner (Gardner in Darcy Pattinson, ‘5 Quotes to Plot your Novel By’)

T

Telling vs showing

‘Show, don’t tell’ is possibly one of the most often repeated piece of advice told to writers in creative writing courses and workshops. Yet although sometimes showing is better for allowing the reader to imagine your story fully, at other times telling is equally important. Here are some writers’ thoughts on the subject:

‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ Anton Chekhov (Chekhov in Cowan, 51)

‘Don’t say ‘the old lady screamed’. Bring her on and let her scream.’ Mark Twain (Twain in Ephron,120)

W

Writing routine

Establishing a consistent writing routine is key to becoming a published author, along with perseverance and the desire to improve. Here are some thoughts on creating a productive writing routine:

‘Be ruthless about protecting writing days, I.E. do not cave in to endless requests to have ‘essent ial’ and ‘long overdue’ meetings on those days.’ J.K. Rowling (Rowling, ‘Writers on Writing’, Wagner College Writing Center)

‘The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.’ Haruki Murakami (Murakami interviewed by John Wray, The Paris Review).

‘You have to write every day, and you have to write whether you feel like it or not.’ Khaled Housseni (Housseni, interview with Noah Charney, The Daily Beast)

Worldbuilding

Worldbuilding – the gathering and presentation of all the details of a fictional world – is essential for making a novel immersive. Writers share top tips for building incredible worlds:

‘In brief, worldbuilding is different than setting in my opinion. Setting is a room. A backdrop. It’s scenery. But without good worldbuilding, you can’t have realistic feeling scenery. You can’t have cool, unique backdrops for your story.’ Patrick Rothfuss (Rothfuss, ‘Interview with Patrick Rothfuss, Part I’ )

‘Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real.’ J.R.R. Tolkien (Tolkien in Madsen, 37)

‘It all occurs at the same time with me. I don’t build the world first, then write in it. I just write the story, and then put it together. Drawing a map took me, I don’t know, a half-hour. You fill in a few things, then as you write more it becomes more and more alive.’ George R. R. Martin (Martin, interview with Mikal Gilmore, ‘George R. R. Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview’)

Y

Young Adult/YA

Although YA is more a marketing category than a genre, writing to an age-specific audience means that some themes and tropes come up repeatedly. Some author’s thoughts on this category-masquerading-as-genre:

‘Read books in your chosen genre. A lot of books. Read large press books and small. Read Indie. Make a list of the commonalities to determine what expectations a reader may have of the genre.’ Natalie Wright (Wright, ‘5 Tips for Writing and Marketing Young Adult/ Teen Books’)

‘Even if YA books aren’t tackling issues of life and death, the best among them still capture the gravity of the teenage and pre-teen experience, whether it’s the sparks of a first crush or lunchroom gossip and bullying.’ Nolan Feeney (Feeney, The Atlantic)

What are your favourite writing quotes? What categories would you like to see in this A to Z? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Sources]

Aristotle in Katz, Christina. The Writer’s Workout: 366 tips, tasks and techniques from your Writing Career Coach. Fraser Direct: Georgetown, ON. 2011.

Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK. 2001.
Chekhov, Anton in The Art of the Short Story. Edited by Dana Gioia and R.S. Gwynn. Pearson Longman: 2006.

Dunmore, Helen in Cremin, Teresa and Myhill, Debra. Writing Voices: Creating Communities of Writers. Routledge, New York: NY.

Fitch, Janet in ‘Authors Janet Fitch, Cynthia Bond share admiration for each other’s work’ The Los Angeles Times.

Kafka, Franz and Max Brod. The Blue Octavo Notebooks. Exact Change: 1991.

King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Simon and Schuster: 2000.

Kushner, Rachel. ‘Insurrection: An interview with Rachel Kushner’. In The Paris Review. Available at http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/04/03/insurrection-an-interview-with-rachel-kushner/

Lewis, C.S. in Schakel, Peter J. The Way into Narnia: A Reader’s Guide. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Cambridge, UK.

Morrell, Jessica Page. ‘How to create an anti-hero that readers love’. Bullies, Bastards & Bitches. 2008. Found at http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/how-to-create-an-antihero-that-readers-love.

Oates, Joyce Carol in By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary life from the New York Times Books Review. Edited by Pamela Paul. Henry Holt and Company. New York, NY. 2014.

Pascal, Blaise. Translated by Craig, Edward. ‘Thoughts on Philosophical and Literary Subjects’. Thoughts on Religion, and other subjects. H.S. Baynes: London, UK. 1825.

Rice, Anne in Munier, Paula. Plot Perfect: How to Build Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene. Writer’s Digest Books: Blue Ash, OH. 2014.

Sendak, Maurice in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators. Edited by Anita Silvey. Houghton Mifflin: New York, NY.

Shelley, Mary. Introduction to Frankenstein. 1831. Available at https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/frankenstein/1831v1/intro.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York, NY.
Twain, Mark. Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1: The Complete and Authoritative Edition. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA. 2010.

White, Edmund. ‘A Conversation with Edmund White’. The Review of Contemporary Fiction. Fall 1996. 16: 3.

Woodward, Karen. ‘3 Ways to Create a Hero your Readers identify with’. Available at http://blog.karenwoodward.org/2013/04/3-ways-to-create-antihero-your-readers-identify-with.html

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  • Scarlet

    It’s nice to see that plenty of authors contradict one another’s
    approaches…you really have to find what works for you. Some invaluable
    advice, thanks for sharing!

    • My pleasure, Scarlet! Glad you found some of the quotes helpful. It truly is fascinating how writers’ views and ideas, metaphors and analogies differ so much.

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