Instructive quotations (about writing)

Kurt Vonnegut's 8 rules for writing fiction

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things - reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck 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.

Susan Sontag in With William Burroughs

I was inspired. When you're really full of a subject and you're thinking about it all the time, that's when the writingcomes, also when you're angry. The best emotions to write out of are anger and fear or dread. If you have emotions like that you just sail.

Joss Whedon on his process

I spend an enormous amount of time breaking stories with the writers. Trying to find the heart of the story. That is the most important part. —Joss Whedon

My writing process for comics is similar to my writing process for movies, although I tend to write comics chronologically, which I don't with movies or TV. I'll circle for a long time, for as long as I can without being late. Despite my reputation, I do care about that. [Laughs] And when it's time and I feel it, I'll start to free associate. I know the basic arc and I know where I'm heading, so I'll free associate. I have a dry erase board I'll write on a note pad, just to get ideas and then eventually, I'll number out the pages and start trying to place all the ideas I have and when it starts to really take shape, only then do I start writing. —Joss Whedon

Susanna Clarke on Joss Whedon

Apparently Joss Whedon starts from emotion. He asks what emotion does the viewer need to feel? and what emotion does the character need to feel? These are very good questions for any writer in writing any fiction. Get that right and your readers/viewers will want to keep reading/watching. —Susanna Clarke

From Joyce Carol Oates' The Faith of a Writer

[...] Through childhood I hiked, roamed, tirelessly "explored" the countryside; neighboring farms, a treasure trove of old barns, abandoned houses and forbidden properties of all kinds, some of them presumably dangerous, like cisterms and wells coverd with loose boards. Thise activities are tintimately bound up with storytelling, for always there's a ghost-self, a "fictitious" self, in such settings. For this reason I belive that any form of art is a species of exploration and transgression. [...]

[...] Stories come to us as wraiths requiring precise embodiments. Running seems to allow me ideally, and expanded consciousness in which I can envision what I'm writing as a film or a dream; I rarely invent at the typewriter, but recall what I've experienced; I don't use a word processor, but write in longhand, at considerable length. (again, I know: Writers are crazy.) By the time I come to type out my writing formally I've envisioned it repeatedly. I've never thought of writing as the mere arrangement of words on the page but the attempted embodiment of a vision; a complex of emotions; raw experience. The effort of memorable art is to evoke in the rader or spectator emotions appropriate to that effort. Ruinnning is a meditation; more practicably, it allows me to scroll through, in my mind's eye, th apges I've just written, proofreading for errors and improvements. [...]

[Quoting Proust:] In fashioning a work of art we are by no means free, we do not choose how we shall make it but ... it pre-exists us and therefore we are obliged, since it is both necessary and hidden, to do what we should have tot do if it were a law of nature—that is to say, to discover it.

[...] Assuming that all art is metaphor, or metaphorical, what really is the motive for metaphor? Is there a motive? Or, in face, metaphor? Can one say anything finally, with unqualified confidence, about any work of art—why it strikes a profound, irresistible, and occasionally life-altering response in some individuals, yet means very little to others? In this, the art of reading hardly differes from the art of writing, in that its most intense pleasures and pains must remain private, and cannot be communicated to others. Our secret affinities remain secret even to ourselves.... We fall in love with certain owrks of art, as we fall in love with certain individuals, for no very clear motive. [...]

[...] the artist's private system of customs, habits, and superstitious routines that constitutes his "working life." (A study should rally be done of artists' private systems, that cluster of stratagems, both voluntary and involuntary, that make daily life navigable. Here we would find, I think, a vizarre and ingenious assortment of Great Religions in embryo—a system of checks and balances, rewards, and taboos, fastidious as a work of art. What is your work schedule, one writer asks another, never What are the great themes of your books?— for the question is, of course, in code, and really implies Are you perhaps crazier than I?—and will you elaborate?) [...]

[...] This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness and feverishness of life, make me cling ... to my one anchor—so Virginia Woolf, in her diary, speaks for us all. [...]

[...] And here we arrive at a very different truth: that the writer, even the writer who will seem to readers and reviewers strikingly original, has probably based his or her prose style and "prose vision" upon significant predecessors. Consider the no-longer-young, unpublished poet Robert Frost studying with excruciating care the poems of Th9omas Hardy to the point at which the cadences of Hardy's language, if not the noble bleakness of Hardy's vision, would be so absorbed into Frost's soul as to become indistinguishable from it [...]

[...] In general, fiction of a high quality possesses depth because it involves absorbing narratives and meritorious characters and is at the same time a kind of commentary upon itself. In Chekhov, among other writers of distinction, "fiction" is counterpointed by "commentary" in a delicate equilibrium. The commentary can be extricated from the fiction, as Ray Carver chose a succinct epiphany from Chekhov to affix to his wall: "...and suddenly everything became clear tohim." But the fiction can't be extricated from the commentary, except at the risk of reducing it to a mere concatenation of events lacking a spiritual core. [...]

[...] The young writer can instructively contract "Hills Like White Elephants with the more complex, more leisurely "The Lady with the Dog" and other more developed Hemingway stories[....] It's possible to imagine alternative, fuller versions of this story [...] in which the past relations of the young woman and her callow companion have been explored with thematic reference to the present situation; these characters would have names, histories, personalities, and their experience might merge with our own. For longer fiction has teh distinct advantage of involving the reader emotionally, while minimalist fiction has the advantage of short, sharp declarative art: surprise and revelation. [...]

[...] James Joyce believed, or wished to believe, that Finnegans Wake, on which he had labored for sixteen years was not one of the most difficult, abstruse, and demanding novels in the English language, but a "simple" novel: "If anyone doesn't understand a passage, all he need to is read it aloud." (Then again, in less inflated mood, Joyce once confessed: "Perhaps it is insanity. One will be able to judge in a century." Joyce offered no rejoinder to his brother Stanislaus's judgement that Finnegans Wake is "unspeakably wearisome ... the witless wandering of literature before its final extinction. I would not read a paragraph of it if I did not know you.") [...]

[...] Rarely do I invent at the typewriter (a Japanese-made Swintec 1000 with an approximate ten-page memory, printing capacity, storage for disks), and virtually never do I try to force anything into prose in this way. I need to imagine first, purely without language; and then remember. I spend much of my time away from the study, in fact. I spend much of my time in motion. Running (my favorite activity, in which my metabolism seems somehow "normal"), walking, bicycling. Driving a car (cruise control recommended) or being driving in one. In airports, on airplanes. So often airports and airplanes! And in that twilight state between sleep and waking in the very early morning, before the rudely steep climb of the day's foothills and mountains. These are interludes whin I try to think through what I am going to write at a later time; I try to envision scenes, to "hear" speech. At my desk I remember, though not merely. I am one of those writers who needs to know the ending of a work before she can begin with much confidence and energy. Of course the work will evolve, all imaginative work evolves in time, once its roots are stablished. But the ending must be there, in the unconscious at least, before there can be a strong beginning. [...]

[...] In movies, as in art, it isn't what goes in, but comes out, that matters. Your process of, for instance, acting, or writing, is not important; only what it leads you to matters. And the process, mysteriously, would seem to have little to do with that final product. [...]

[...] "JCO" is not a person, nor even a personality, but a process that has resulted in a sequence of texts. Some of the texts are retained in my (our) memory, but some have bleached out, like pages of print left too long in the sun. [...]

Neil Gaiman on trying to write a perfect first draft

The biggest problem I can see with the way you're doing it is that it doesn't seem to give you anything finished. (If it was working for you I'd have no suggestions. There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays and every single one of them is right, after all.) The second biggest problem is that if you're writing a novel scene by scene, trying to get each scene perfect, you don't get to see how anything works when you put it all together, and that's important. A novel is more than just a sequence of scenes put side by side. It has its own rhythms, and you have to bow to them; a novel, or any long story, is something that has to work when you put the whole thing together.

If you're being forced by the nature of what you're doing (episodic comics or serial television, or even writing a novel at 200 words a day online or in a newspaper) to just write and hope it all works out, that's one thing. But if you're writing a novel determined to make each scene perfect before you go on to the next, and you're writing the scenes out of order, then you're making something that's either going to work or not work when you put it all together. (That's still "write the first draft any which way".)

But it won't excuse you from doing a second draft, because you'll get to the end, and put all the scenes together, and then you'll still have to do a second draft, if only because when you read it you notice that you've got two Wednesdays coming together, and someone's name or eye-colour changes between scenes. Or your heroine seems like a bitch, although that wasn't your intention, because you don't have a scene there that shows her humanity. Or a great scene you wrote and rewrote and honed and rewrote and polished till it shone just doesn't fit anywhere because the thing that's happening at the same time loses all vitality if you cut away from it.

I guess that's one reason I like things like NaNoWriMo -- it makes people write and finish things, helter-skelter and however. And once something's finished, you can always fix it. (The first draft of Good Omens took about 9 weeks. The second draft took MONTHS. And it wasn't until we came to rework it a little after that for the US edition that we realised that we had indeed, without noticing, created a week with two Wednesdays in it.)

Incidentally, I'm in awe of anyone who would even attempt to try to write fiction in a language not her own.

As for thinking time versus writing time, well, that's up to you. But -- and I wish it were otherwise -- books don't get written by thinking about them, they get written by writing them. And that's when you make discoveries about what you're writing. That's when you get the happy accidents.

So think all you like, but don't mistake the thinking for the writing.

Neil Gaiman

Alan Moore on story

What things should a story have? It should have a plot, although this doesn't have to be the most important thing. The plot is the skeleton. Sometimes a beautiful and elegant plot is what a whole story's about, and that's great, but sometimes a plot need only be a string of events that takes you from point A to point B or D or whatever.

Now, there should also be what the story is about, which is not the same thing as the plot. What the story is about - what are you trying to say? What kind of shape or impression are you hoping to leave upon the reader? In a sense, the story, or poem or verse or whatever it is you're writing, you can kind of think of it as a kind of projectile. Imagine it is a kind of projectile which has been specially shaped to be aerodynamic, and that your target is the soft grey putty of the reader's brain. What kind of shape, what kind of indentation, what kind of lasting scar do you want to leave upon your reader? You design the missile accordingly. What are you trying to convey to them? It's going to be some kind of information. Now that can be factual information, emotional information, psychological information . . . it's gonna be some sort of information . . . it might be non-linear, it might be more like noise than information . . . sort of like James Joyce, because actually it's the noise that holds the most information.

Pure signal is like Janet and John—yes, you can understand everything on the page, but there's nothing much there worth understanding. Noise—or something approaching noise—is like a page of James Joyce, a page of Ian Sinclair—where there is such a density of information that it almost becomes incoherent, but it is full of information. So, it's the ways of getting that information across—plot, the story has to be about something, it has to have a purpose, it has to have a shape. It has to have a structure. If you're going to be really clever, you can maybe get the structure the plot and the theme all to reflect each other in some way—but that's just being clever.

Alan Moore.