Quotes for writers: 35 international authors’ writing advice

World Book Day - quotes for writers | Now Novel

Respected authors from around the world often share useful advice and ideas on writing. World Book Day is all about celebrating ‘the power of books to promote open and inclusive knowledge societies’, as UNESCO says. With that in mind, here are valuable insights from authors from the USA to Peru, Nigeria to Russia:

1.   Write sentences that lead from one to the next to create a strong scene

Acclaimed sci-fi and fantasy author and essayist Ursula K. Le Guin has this to say in her excellent writing manual, Steering the Craft:

‘In a story it’s the scene – the setting/characters/action/interaction/dialogue/feelings – that makes us hold our breath, and cry .. and turn the page to find out what happens next. And so, until the scene ends, each sentence should lead to the next sentence.’

Read further tips for writing cohesive scenes here.

2. Dispel stereotypes by making your characters real and complex

Here, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes a great argument for dispelling stereotypes by creating fully-realized, truthful characters:

I don’t start out writing to challenge stereotypes. I think that can be as dangerous as starting out to ‘prove’ stereotypes. And I say ‘dangerous’ because fiction that starts off that way often ends up being contrived, burdened by its mission. I do think that simply writing in an emotionally truthful way automatically challenges the single story because it humanizes and complicates. And my constant reminder to myself is to be truthful.’

Learn more about writing believable characters here.

3. Find ways to identify with characters unlike you

Nobel-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk has this to say about the power (and importance) of empathy and imagination in writing:

‘Novels are political because in them, we try to identify with people who are not like us. And, in that sense, I like the first-person singular because I have to imitate accurately the voice of someone who is not like me.’

Read tips for writing a story in first person here.

4. Let yourself make mistakes, then learn from them

Even accomplished authors like the German writer Günter Grass made mistakes in their paths to becoming skilled authors:

‘I made a mistake in writing my first novel: all the characters I had introduced were dead at the end of the first chapter. I couldn’t go on! This was my first lesson in writing: be careful with your characters.’

5. Think about things like tone

The Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez described how he found inspiration for the tone of one of his best-loved books in his grandmother’s storytelling:

‘I had an idea of what I always wanted to do, but there was something missing and I was not sure what it was until one day I discovered the right tone—the tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness.’

Read examples of tone and mood and how to make yours more conscious and deliberate.

Quotes for writers - Gabriel Garcia Marquez on Tone | Now Novel

6. Be generous in giving to the reader

In an interview, Indian author and activist Arundahti Roy offered these wise words on focusing on what you’re giving the reader more than your own ego:

‘I’ve always said that amongst great writers there are selfish writers and generous writers; selfish writers leave you with the memory of their brilliance whereas generous writers leave you with the memory of the world that they have evoked. And to me, writing must be an act of generosity.’

7. Learn from reading criticism

South African writer and anti-apartheid activist Lewis Nkosi offered this perspective on the value of reading critiques of other authors’ work:

‘How I learn from criticism and how I apply it to my work is when I read about the kinds of writing that I am interested in, the people who are impressive to me, and then their weaknesses are sometimes pinpointed. And then I say to myself, ‘Ah, Lewis, you too must try and avoid those pitfalls’.’

Read more about the value of constructive criticism here.

8. Don’t let narrow views on genre or taste constrain you

Debates between ‘popular’ or ‘genre’ fiction and literary fiction are common, but Danish author Peter Høeg offers these sage words:

‘It’s a mistake that we divide art into popular art and fine, highbrow, high-quality art…It has no basis in reality. And it is a way to keep other people and other people’s taste at a distance. It is a way of closing oneself towards some kinds of reality. So I like to play with genres and to experience the thriller and the love story and to play with reality.’

9. Cultivate discipline and focus

Australian author and creative writing lecturer Peter Carey had this advice for NaNoWriMo participants:

‘Perhaps you know what I’m going to tell you—you have to write regularly, every day. You have to treat this as the single most important part of your life. You do not need anything as fancy as inspiration, just this steady habit of writing regularly even when you’re sick or sad or dull. Nothing must stop you, not even your beloved children. If you have kids you do what Toni Morrison did—write in the hours before they wake.’

10. Read everything – the classic, your contemporaries

Irish author Colum McCann offers some great advice in his book Letters to a Young Writer:

‘A young writer must also read her contemporaries. Fiercely and jealously. She must go into the bookshop and spend hours in awe and contemplation. She must flip to the biographies at the back … [and] get her blood boiling. Shit, that author comes from my hometown. How dare they say what I want to say? Yes, rage, but a temporary rage. Not in competition, but in desire. (After all, they are not taking your job: your job is entirely your own, nobody else can have it, who else is going to finish your piece of literary carpentry, unless it’s an Ikea chair?)’

11. Be open to the power of memory and use your own

The Portuguese author José Saramago has this to say on the power and creative utility of memory:

‘There cannot be any writing without memory. Writers are constantly nourished by what they remember–in fact, everyone is. Memory is our deepest actual language. It’s our storehouse of riches, our gold mine or diamond mine, and we need to keep it open, to keep in mind the importance of childhood events that will somehow condition our life and character as adults.’

On that note, here are some tips on incorporating flashbacks in a story believably.

12. Know yourself and your views

Italian author Italo Calvino has these choice words on the value of knowing where you stand and what you want to say:

‘To write well about the elegant world you have to know it and experience it to the depths of your being just as Proust, Radiguet and Fitzgerald did: what matters is not whether you love it or hate it, but only to be quite clear about your position regarding it.’

13. Revise and accept the mundane side of writing

Nobel laureate and Polish poet Wisława Szymborska had this advice on the importance of revision and accepting the tiresome parts of writing:

‘It’s pleasant and rewarding to tell our acquaintances that the bardic spirit seized us on Friday at 2:45 p.m. and began whispering mysterious secrets in our ear with such ardor that we scarcely had time to take them down. But at home, behind closed doors, [great authors] assiduously corrected, crossed out, and revised those otherworldly utterances. Spirits are fine and dandy, but even poetry has its prosaic side.’

14. Prepare yourself for the scrutiny of public reception

Acclaimed Canadian author Margaret Atwood has this humorous advice to authors on her website:

‘It’s tough out there in Bookworld. Tread carefully. Don’t speak so softly that you can’t be heard, nor so loudly that you’re deafening. Carry a medium-sized shtick. And avoid wearing mini-skirts up on stage unless you have very good legs. Zip your lower front apertures. What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas. People have cameras.’

Quotes for Writers - Margaret Atwood | Now Novel

15. Find your own, original and truthful voice

English author Julian Barnes, in an interview with The Paris Review, had this to say on originality and ‘truth’ in fiction:

‘I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on—is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television.’

16. Balance ornate writing with clarity and simplicity

The great Russian playwright and short story author Anton Chekhov offered this advice in a letter to the younger Maxim Gorki:

‘The use of the device of personification […] when you have the sea breathe, the heavens gaze down, the steppe caress, nature whisper, speak or mourn — such descriptions render your descriptions somewhat monotonous, occasionally oversweet and sometimes indistinct; picturesque and expressive descriptions of nature are attained only through simplicity, by the use of such plain phrases and ‘the sun came out,’ ‘it rained,’ etc.’

17. Avoid oversimplifying every doubt or grey area

Czech-born French emigre Milan Kundera, in his book The Art of the Novel, has this to say about the danger of ‘black and white’ or oversimplified thinking:

‘Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an innate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands. This “either-or” encapsulates an inability to tolerate the essential relativity of things human, an inability to look squarely at the absence of the Supreme Judge. This inability makes the novel’s wisdom (the wisdom of uncertainty) hard to accept and understand.’

In other words, to a villain, they’re the ‘good guy’ and their value system, if they’re the protagonist, is the ‘correct’ one.

18. Avoid making your authorly presence distracting in your writing

One of the reasons why the phrase ‘Show, don’t tell’ is so abused is that beginning authors often make their own presence too obvious in the text. Immersing your reader in the scene and allowing your characters to do the showing and telling is often more dramatically effective than breaking the fourth wall. As French author Gustave Flaubert put it:

 ‘An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.’

19. Trust your reader to join the dots

The desire to over-explain situations and scenes to readers is common in many authors starting out. Brazillian author Paulo Coelho advocates trusting your reader’s intelligence instead:

‘Trust your reader, don’t try to describe things. Give a hint and they will fulfill this hint with their own imagination.’

Sometimes, you can leave breadcrumb trails for your readers to follow without their getting lost in the woods.

20. Build your store of ideas and experiences to draw on

Japanese author Haruki Murakami, in a piece for Japanese magazine Monkey Business, offered this great analogy between having source material for ideas and Spielberg’s film classic E.T.:

Remember that scene in Steven Spielberg’s film E.T. where E.T. assembles a transmitting device from the junk he pulls out of his garage? There’s an umbrella, a floor lamp, pots and pans, a record player─ […] he manages to throw all those household items together in such a way that the contraption works well enough to communicate with his home planet thousands of light years away. […] It strikes me now that putting together a good novel is much the same thing. The key component is not the quality of the materials─what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication. First and foremost, though, is what’s packed away in your garage. Magic can’t work if your garage is empty. You’ve got to stash away a lot of junk to use if and when E.T. comes calling!’

21. Don’t be afraid to borrow from other authors

Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø has this to say about the virtue of recombining snippets and ideas from other authors’ work (in moderation):

‘Do I steal from other books? Definitely. And if I’m a thief, I can tell you I’m stealing but I can’t tell you who I have robbed. Well, OK, Mark Twain. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn — those were great books. For me, writing is a reaction to reading. It’s the same reflex you have around a table of friends. Somebody will tell a story, then the next person will tell a story, then the next. Then you have to bring something new to the table. I grew up in a home where I had so many great experiences being the listener or the reader. Now it’s my turn.’

22. Leave out unnecessary or irrelevant details

Robert Louis Stevenson, famed Scottish author of Treasure Island and other young readers’ classics, had this to say about leaving out boring detail:

Suppose you were to be asked to write a complete account of a day at school. You would probably begin by saying you rose at a certain hour, dressed and came down to morning school. You would not think of telling how many buttons you had to fasten, nor how long you took to make a parting, nor how many steps you descended […] Such a quantity of twaddling detail would simply bore the reader’s head off.’

23. Be true to your own passions and interests

Peruvian author and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has this to say about being true to the subjects and passions you hold dear:

‘The novelist who does not write about what stimulates and excites him deep inside, and coldly selects issues and topics in a rational manner thinking that this is the easiest way to achieve success, is inauthentic, and probably, because of it, is a poor novelist (even though he may achieve success: best seller lists are full of very bad novelists).’

24. Work smart and have a plan

Israeli author Amos Oz offered these distinctions between the challenges of shorter forms and writing a novel:

‘Writing novels is a very disciplined business. Writing a poem is like having an affair, a one-night stand; a short story is a romance, a relationship; a novel is a marriage—one has to be cunning, devise compromises, and make sacrifices.’

25. Enjoy the benefits of rewriting and collaboration

Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges had this to say regarding why many folk and fairy tales are so effective and well structured:

‘I think fairy tales, legends, even the off-color jokes one hears, are usually good because having been passed from mouth to mouth, they’ve been stripped of everything that might be useless or bothersome.’

26. Try to get daily practice

In an interview published on her website, Chilean author Isabel Allende had this to say on the importance of regular writing:

The writer needs to write every day, just as the athlete needs to train. Much of the writing will never be used, but it is essential to do it. I always tell my young students to write at least one good page a day. At the end of the year they will have at least 360 good pages. That is a book.’

27. Ensure your writing is easy enough to follow

Welsh author Ken Follett reminds us that if the reader can’t follow, they’ll likely turf your book:

‘My aim in constructing sentences is to make the sentence utterly easy to understand, writing what I call transparent prose. I’ve failed dreadfully if you have to read a sentence twice to figure out what I meant.’

Read more about style and clarity here.

Quotes for Writers - Jamaica Kincaid on Living to Write | Now Novel

28. Remember the social nature of writing

Whether or not you believe there should be a political element in fiction, these words by Kenyan author and theorist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o are worth remembering:

‘A writer’s primary responsibility is to the dictates of their imagination. But no writer does so in a social vacuum. Their work is impacted by their own belief systems, their world outlook. But in the end, art has a magic all its own. At its best and most potent, it embodies and celebrates change and allies with the liberation and enhancement of the human spirit.’

29. Find real-world models for characters

Somalian author Nuruddin Farah had the following to say regarding where he found models for his female characters:

I’ve modeled my characters after women like my mother, who was strong. I am happily married to a strong woman. I love it when my wife holds her ground and says, “You are out of line.” One must be able to say that to one’s parents, one’s spouse, the president of one’s country. For me that is democracy.’

30. Find what matters to you and write

Greek author of Zorba the GreekNikos Kazantzakis, had this to say on how how your focus may shift as you develop your writing:

I wanted to make my novels the extension of my own father’s struggle for liberty. But gradually, as I kept deepening my responsibility as a writer, the human problem came to overshadow political and social questions.’

31. Draw on multiple sources to write about experiences you don’t know first-hand

Chinese author Gao Xingjian has these wise words on writing experiences unfamiliar to your own:

‘As a male writer, women are always what men pursue, and their world is always a mystery. So I always tried to present as many views as possible on women’s worlds.’

32. Incorporate autobiographical elements where relevant for authenticity

Zimbabwean author NoViolet Bulawayo had this to say regarding ‘writing from the bone’ and incorporating her own life in her fiction;

‘I like to write from the bone. Even if it’s just a small part I feel like it gives my work the certain charge. The first half of the novel does not have much of me. Darling, the narrator and main protagonist in Zimbabwe, does not have a strong connection with me. My childhood was very normal and beautiful. Zimbabwe in the 80s was this land of promise.’

33. Pursue life and experience so you have something to write about

Antiguan-American writer and literature academic Jamaica Kincaid has this to say about the importance of lived experience:

‘I’m always telling my students go to law school or become a doctor, do something, and then write. First of all you should have something to write about, and you only have something to write about if you do something.’

34. Remember to include intriguing conflict

Cuban author Pedro Juan Gutiérrez reminds us that there’s intrigue in contrast and conflict:

‘For me, literature is antagonism and conflict. If these two elements aren’t there, it doesn’t interest me–it seems boring to me, something that is for boring people with uneventful lives, people who live in boring, gray places. In Cuba, it’s different. In Cuba, it’s relatively easy to find people living in extreme situations.’

Read tips here for incorporating effective conflicts in your story.

35. Have realistic expectations of the writing process

New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh, one of the authors of the 1920s’ ‘Golden Age’ of crime-writing, cautions against unrealistic expectations:

‘Please don’t entertain for a moment the utterly mistaken idea that there is no drudgery in writing. There is a great deal of drudgery in even the most inspired, the most noble, the most distinguished writing. Read what the great ones have said about their jobs; how they never sit down to their work without a sigh of distress and never get up from it without a sigh of relief … if you wait for inspiration in our set-up, you’ll wait for ever.’

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