20 great writing ideas from the Art of Fiction

20 great writing ideas from the Art of Fiction

Woman noting writing ideas from a book | Now Novel

Interviews with authors give interesting writing ideas, about the craft, process, pleasures and challenges of writing. Read 20 insights about writing gleaned from The Paris Review’s ‘The Art of Fiction’ series:

1. Just make the reader believe

Authors are often asked questions about the ‘role’ or ‘responsibility’ of the writer. Questions about the ethical side of ‘making things up’. Gabriel Garcia Marquez gives this perspective on our duties as writers:

In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, interviewed by Peter H. Stone in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 69’, The Paris Review

This speaks to the great freedom of writing. You can take your writing wherever your imagination takes you. Just make the reader believe.

2. Create your process to your rules

When and where authors write is another common interview question. Cormac McCarthy’s distinctive response to the question ‘What time of day do you write?’ (his highly personal take) reminds us to create your own writing process to our own needs:

I rise at six and work through the morning, every morning, seven days a week. I find the sun has a forlorn truth before noon. The words come unbidden. By early afternoon I have to quit.

Cormac McCarthy, interviewed by Bunny Truman in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 223’, The Paris Review

3. Write when you can

The writing process McCarthy describes above is one he was eventually able to afford as a professional writer.

Yet many writers have had to work in stolen moments to develop writing ideas. Raymond Carver speaks about finding time to write as a young parent while finding oneself ‘in a role one doesn’t know how to play’:

I worked nights and went to school days. We were always working.

Raymond Carver, interviewed by Mona Simpson, Lewis Buzbee in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 76’, The Paris Review

4. Stretch your abilities by picking challenges

The surreal quest novels by Haruki Murakami are by turns mesmerizing and teasingly cryptic. He shared this insight into giving your writing the experiences you need, when asked about whether he sees a difference between writing in ‘realist’ or surreal styles:

My style, what I think of as my style, is very close to Hard-Boiled Wonderland. I don’t like the realistic style, myself. I prefer a more surrealistic style. But with Norwegian Wood, I made up my mind to write a hundred percent realistic novel. I needed that experience.

Haruki Murakami, interviewed by John Wray in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 182’, The Paris Review

5. Learn when you’re at your best creatively

The late, great Toni Morrison shared the following advice she gave her writing students:

I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?

Toni Morrison, interviewed by Elissa Schappell in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 134’, The Paris Review
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6. Practice letting go

In an interesting discussion about revising stories after they’ve been published, Alice Munro shares these thoughts about tinkering with completed stories:

I see a little bit of writing that doesn’t seem to be doing as much work as it should be doing, and right at the end I will sort of rev it up. But when I finally read the story again it seems a bit obtrusive. So I’m not too sure about this sort of thing. The answer may be that one should stop this behavior. There should be a point where you say, the way you would with a child, this isn’t mine anymore.

Alice Munro, interviewed by Jeanne McCulloch and Mona Simpson in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 137, The Paris Review

An important part of the revision process, as Munro describes, is being able to accept there are parts of your story where your execution may fall short of what you first imagined.

7. Create your own apprenticeship

Many writers would say ‘you either can write, or you can’t’. Yet a great many others have interesting anecdotes about the ways they taught themselves, made exercises for themselves. Joan Didion shares the value of copying out writing you love:

I always say Hemingway [influenced me more than others], because he taught me how sentences worked. When I was fifteen or sixteen I would type out his stories to learn how the sentences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time.

Joan Didion, interviewed by Linda Kuehl in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 71’, The Paris Review

8. Make the sacrifices you can for writing

There’s a myth of the surprise-hit writer who churns out a book in a few months and becomes an overnight publishing phenomenon.

Although this might happen in rare instances, writing is hard work and often requires sacrifices and choices. Yet these may be motivating in themselves, as Nicholson Baker describes:

I had a mental deadline that I would finish a book by the time I turned thirty. I blew the deadline. I had a job doing technical writing, which was really consuming me. I wasn’t sleeping. So my wife and I figured out that we could live for six months, mostly with the money she had saved up. I quit the job and wrote as hard as I’ve ever written. I would get up at eight in the morning and write until seven at night.

Nicholson Baker, interviewed by Sam Anderson in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 212’, The Paris Review

Not every writer has the luxury of a dual income or an extremely generous spouse, of course. But small sacrifices – writing several pages of draft instead of watching binge-watching a series, for example – help.

9. Be true to your point of view

Often writers describe early publishers’ rejections stemming from writing what they thought they should be writing. Pat Barker describes the moment of choosing to be authentic instead:

I think in the end what continual rejection did for me was drive me back into the basics of who I was, which was a woman, Northern, working class. And of course there was this business of the missing father and my parents not really having known each other. That is very much at the core of my personality, I think.

Pat Barker, interviewed by Valerie Stivers in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 243’, The Paris Review

10. Have courage to do the impossible

The brilliant James Baldwin shares the struggle of writing in a society from a marginalized position, where writing is a greater act of rebellion:

Given the conditions in this country to be a black writer was impossible. When I was young, people thought you were not so much wicked as sick, they gave up on you. My father didn’t think it was possible—he thought I’d get killed, get murdered. He said I was contesting the white man’s definitions, which was quite right.

James Baldwin, interviewed by Jordan Elgrably in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 78’, The Paris Review

11. Take the time you need

It’s one thing when you’re writing to a publishing deadline and have to produce fast. Yet if you’re writing on your own clock, don’t put undue pressure on yourself to finish in a month or three. E.L. Doctorow puts the time thoughtful writing often takes in perspective:

I don’t think anything I’ve written has been done in under six or eight drafts. Usually it takes me a few years to write a book. World’s Fair was an exception. It seemed to be a particularly fluent book as it came. I did it in seven months. I think what happened in that case is that God gave me a bonus book.

E.L. Doctorow, interviewed by George Plimpton in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 94’, The Paris Review

12. Find practical ways to get out of feeling stuck

Although some say writer’s block isn’t real – that writers just write – many creative people experience getting stuck at one point or another.

Aldous Huxley shares how reading certain kinds of writing helped him return to develop his writing ideas further:

Sometimes, when I bog down, I start reading—fiction or psychology or history, it doesn’t much matter what—not to borrow ideas or materials, but simply to get started again. Almost anything will do the trick.

Aldous Huxley, interviewed by Raymond Fraser and George Wickes in The Art of Fiction No. 24, The Paris Review

13. Read voraciously

Reading as much as you can, preferably in diverse genres and styles, is a great apprenticeship as a writer.

You may find, for example, great thriller authors have an economy with words you can apply to a romance novel, or a romantic story has a depth of character that helps you write more intriguing thriller characters.

Author Penelope Lively describes the value of a reading education:

If I hadn’t read history, I would have been writing novels differently—I’m quite sure of that. So yes, this was something of an education, but it was also just what I did. I gobbled fiction. My gratitude to the public library in Swansea is enormous. I read my way through twentieth-century Anglophone fiction.

Penelope Lively, interviewed by Lucy Scholes in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 241’, The Paris Review

14. Tell the story you’re missing

Historical fiction author Hilary Mantel echoes a sentiment Toni Morrison shared when she said ‘If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it’. She describes her dissatisfaction with reading about the French Revolution:

‘I’d read all the history books and novels I could lay my hands on, and I wasn’t satisfied with what I found. All the novels were about the aristocracy and their sufferings. And I thought those writers were missing a far more interesting group—the idealistic revolutionaries, whose stories are amazing.’

Hilary Mantel, interviewed by Mona Simpson in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 226’, The Paris Review

15. Don’t make financial gain the main focus

Many aspiring authors are attracted to the idea of overnight success and riches, yet writing for most authors is not a lucrative prospect.

Many authors publish a lot before they start to gain financially at all. Naguib Mahfouz says this when asked if he depended on writing for a living:

I was always a government employee. On the contrary, I spent on literature—on books and paper. I didn’t make any money from my writing until much later. I published about eighty stories for nothing.

Naguib Mahfouz, interviewed by Charlotte El Shabrawy in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 129’, The Paris Review
Writing ideas from Bradley Whitford on being a writer vs wanting to write | Now Novel

16. Use writing for helpful self-examination

Jonathan Franzen shares interesting thoughts about the ways writing forces us to confront emotions like fear and shame, or our own feelings of inadequacy:

I spend vastly more time nowadays trying to figure out what’s stopping me from doing the work, trying to figure out how I can become the person who can do the work, investigating the shame and fear: the shame of self-exposure, the fear of ridicule or condemnation, the fear of causing pain or harm.

Jonathan Franzen, interviewed by Stephen J. Burn in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 207’, The Paris Review

17. Attain the attainable goal, today

The Nobel-winning Portuguese author José Saramago shares the benefits of getting your story on paper in small, attainable increments:

This morning I wrote two pages of a new novel, and tomorrow I shall write another two. You might think two pages per day is not very much, but there are other things I must do—writing other texts, responding to letters; on the other hand, two pages per day adds up to almost eight hundred per year.

José Saramago, interviewed by Donzelina Barroso in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 155’, The Paris Review

18. Use sentences as springboards

Inspiring writing ideas may emerge from a single opening sentence.

Enjoy the play of writing. Try letting free associations and ideas come together in a sentence you could use as a starting image or idea for a story, as Joseph Heller describes:

I was lying in bed in my four-room apartment on the West Side when suddenly this line came to me: “It was love at first sight. The first time he saw the chaplain, Someone fell madly in love with him.” I didn’t have the name Yossarian. The chaplain wasn’t necessarily an army chaplain—he could have been a prison chaplain. But as soon as the opening sentence was available, the book began to evolve clearly in my mind.

Joseph Heller, interviewed by George Plimpton in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 51’, The Paris Review

19. Remember to play and communicate

Often beginning writers focus on style over substance, trying to sound literary or like a great thriller author would. When asked ‘What is literature?’ Julian Barnes reminds us of the importance of play and communication:

The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet.

Julian Barnes, interviewed by Shusha Guppy in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 165’, The Paris Review

20. Do the best you can do, and keep at it

The acclaimed poet Maya Angelou draws interesting parallels between the art of ‘keeping faith’ and writing. She describes reading her Bible for both inspiration and to sustain her faith’s practice:

I’m working at trying to be a Christian and that’s serious business. It’s like trying to be a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist, a good Shintoist, a good Zoroastrian, a good friend, a good lover, a good mother, a good buddy—it’s serious business. It’s not something where you think, Oh, I’ve got it done. I did it all day, hotdiggety. The truth is, all day long you try to do it, try to be it, and then in the evening if you’re honest and have a little courage you look at yourself and say, Hmm. I only blew it eighty-six times.

Maya Angelou, interviewed by George Plimpton in ‘The Art of Fiction No. 119’, The Paris Review

Great words on accepting your mistakes or falling short and persevering regardless.

Which of the inspiring writing ideas above speaks to you most and why? Find your next story idea and develop it with thoughtful support.

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