Here is the third in my series of quotes about writing by writers. For the others, see Write wit and Write wit 2
A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.
My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this.
I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again.
Tips for a short story writer:
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me.
All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.
There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.
If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.
Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.
You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.
Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open.
Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.
Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.
The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction.
Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.
There’s nothing wrong with well-made, strongly constructed, purposeful long sentences.
But long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness.
They’re pasted together with false syntax.
And rely on words like ‘with’ and ‘as’ to lengthen the sentence.
They’re short on verbs, weak in syntactic vigor,
Full of floating, unattached phrases, often out of position.
And worse — the end of the sentence commonly forgets its beginning,
As if the sentence were a long, weary road to the wrong place.
Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.
All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.
Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices.
A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy.
A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.
There are very few thoughts or concepts that can’t be put into plain English, provided anyone truly wants to do it. But for everyone who strives for clarity and simplicity, there are three who for one reason or another prefer to draw the clouds across the sky.
Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal. If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.
The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart.
Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry.
Writing is only a substitute for living.