Advice From Authors Far Better Than I

Packing and moving involves a lot of unexpected unearthing — at some point during the process I inevitably run into one of those boxes that contains a multitude of my past work. And we’re not talking works that are merely recent. Oh, no. We’re talking fiction and poetry that goes back to high school — no, junior high — no, elementary school. Seriously. Heaps and mounds of garbage.

Newsflash: I am proof positive that you can start out as an awful writer. You do not need to be born with any kind of talent. I am cobbled together only of learned skills, and now I can proudly say that I am no longer an awful writer — I am, in fact, a deliciously mediocre one. Break out the bubbly!

Anyway, I’m tempted to post some of my earlier work here, just so you can all fling lumps of feces at it and we can all share a mighty larf, but for now — given yesterday’s post and tomorrow’s as-yet-unannounced-surprise-secret-post — I think I have something better.

See, once upon a time I’d track down advice from authors and professors I respected, and when I found it I’d print it out and tape it to my wall. I don’t do that anymore (though part of me wonders if maybe it’s a practice worth renewing, though perhaps with less “ruin-the-wall-paint”), but in the box I did find a cache of advice from other writers. This one in particular is one I like:

“I did a tremendous amount of soul searching before I approached this topic in fantasy. In the end, I did so only because fantasy needs the rocky foundation of reality to support it. Suspension of disbelief is what makes magic or dragons work within a story. If the author suspends all that is ugly and dangerous in the world in the name of protecting the hero or heroine, then the hand of the writer becomes too obvious. Suspension of disbelief is replaced with, ‘This is all pretend and we have nothing to fear. Only the bad guys get killed, and the hero will be restored to full health right after the commercial.’ We then get too many incidents of Deus ex machina. The whole plot falters as the author artificially pushes the events along. In some fantasy books, all the really bad stuff never ever happens to the characters you care about. Only minor characters are ever really in danger. That doesn’t work for me.” — Robin Hobb (aka Megan Lindholm)

I don’t really know where that quote comes from. The attribution given on the print-out is “online mgsboard,” which could only be more ambiguous if I wrote “from the Internet.”

Even still, it’s a great quote from an author that knows how to put her protagonists through the wringer. (For this reason alone I must must must recommend her Farseer Assassin’s trilogy. I think most fantasy is pat, pap, and frankly, crap. Her work is elevated to something truly great.) What she says here speaks in part to what I said earlier about “punishing your characters,” but I also like that it speaks to the authenticity of fantasy. How we need to strive for reality amidst the make-believe to make the make-believe feel less like fantasy. (Jiminy Crisps, that’s a mouthful.)

Anyway. There you go.

If you have good quotes from authors on writing advice or “the process,” feel free to drop ‘em in a comment. If I find any more good ones as I unearth more madness from my archives, I’ll post ‘em.

Keep your grapes peeled for a secret mission, tomorrow.


  • I secretly hope tomorrow’s secret mission is a contest to unearth our terrible writings of the past, post them up, and see who was the worst of the worst tortured teenage wannabe writers. I’ve got more than a few composition books stashed away that teeter between “Tee hee, I’m ripping off anime!” and “I’m so tragically dark and depressed but I’m writing this in pink sparkle pen” stories that I think my parents should have put me on lithium. And that’s to say nothing of the poetry. Dear god, the poetry!


    • @Kate:

      Heh, horror of horrors, that is not yet the plan, no. I may do some further unearthing later in the week.

      Tomorrow, while related to this as a notion, is much more, erm, positive than that. :)

      — c.

  • I have oodles and bunches of quotes pinned to a cork board, but only one that I see every time I sit down at my computer: “There have been plenty of self-destructive rebel-angel novelists over the years, but writing is about getting your work done and getting your work done every day. If you want to write novels, they take a long time, and they’re big, and they have a lot of words in them…” –Michael Chabon

  • @Kate

    Oh, if we’re playing THAT game I’m gonna bust out the fanfic I wrote back in high school. The almost novel/novella length fanfic. With parts that I wrote while listening to very specific Linkin Park/ Evanessence songs.

    Because if I’m going to embarrass myself with old writing, I’m going to go all. The. Way.

  • When I first started to write, I was terrible. I couldn’t finish anything. Right about pg. 32, it’d all come tumbling down. I wrote an email to one of the authors that I was reading at the time: Heather Graham (aka Shannon Drake, not the actress). I asked for advice, and what she told me stuck:

    Paraphrased, she told me to shut up, sit down, and write it out. She told me to turn off the Word squiggly warnings so that I couldn’t see the typos or grammar finger-shakes, and to ignore the voice in my own head that said “Wait, that came out wrong…” Instead, just write it out, get it down on the page, and if a scene just was not coming, to insert a note that says [insert scene where dude gets killed by muppet wielding a ballpoint pen here] and move on.

    When it was done, when I’d written THE END, she told me, take a breather. Let it sit for a few hours, a day, whatever. Then go back in, turn on the Word warnings, and get to editing and polishing and filling in.

    Otherwise, especially as a new writer, I’d get caught up in the vicious cycle of editing and re-editing, tweaking the first 32 pages over and over. She was write… I mean right! The very next book I began, I finished. And then I finished one after that. (Neither of these sold, but this isn’t advice about making it good… Ahem!)

    However, Heather’s advice rang so true for me, stuck so much, that I still think of it when I sit down to write today. My latest endeavor will be published by Avon next year, and I attribute it all to “shut up, sit down, and write it all”.

    This segues nicely into another quote, this one by Cherry Adair—who does workshops at the ECWC in Seattle every year: “You can’t edit invisible ink.” It’s true. It doesn’t matter if I’ve had a bad day, if I’m tired, if I’m lazy, if I’d rather be teaching my four cats to scuba dive. I have a commitment, a need to write a certain amount of pages, and even if I feel like it’s all crap, I have to make that commitment.

    If it’s crap, I can polish it into a diamond. It’s impossible to make a diamond out of nothing, though.

    My absolute favorite quote of all time (at least about writing) is one that I use as my personal banner, a sort of mantra:

    “Too many people want to have written.” — Terry Pratchett

    When I think about how much work I’m getting into, when I think of deadlines, tours, commitments, PR, bad reviews, and all the work and stress that goes into a Career as an Author(tm), I remember what he said and think to myself, “Not me. I want to write.” I want the good bits, the bad bits, and the bits where valium starts to look like a pretty good deal.

    … Not that I’d recommend valium for dessert. Really.

  • -“in those days i’d try to write ten pages a day, these days i just try to move the cursor to the right of the page.”

    -“make the most of the time you’re wasting. Don’t sit there and stare at the cursor, wondering what it is you’re going to write next. After three years of doing that, i sat there one day and i was looking at the cursor blinking, and i realised for fifteen minutes i’d been tuning out the sound of my daughter laughing and i thought, what am i doing? I’m going to go play with my kid.”

    -“the night that i won the academy award -words that are still uncomfortable coming out of my mouth, i don’t feel i’ve earned it, i’m going to spend the rest of my life earning that thing- the night that i won that award was one of the worst nights of my life. I was in a relationship that was going nowhere, Brian and i weren’t speaking to each other. It was supposed to be the best night of my life, and i didn’t feel anything. The day that i was sitting in that copy room, and i looked at the bulletin board, and i saw the end of the Usual Suspects, i consider one of the greatest days of my life. Because i knew i’d come up with a really good, really unique idea, and i knew how to make that idea work.”

    All taken from a q&a with Chris McQuarrie. I find them pretty inspiring for my current take on the writing process. Which is to say, i’ve tried to fill my head with some theory and books and find that (right now at least) i’m more comfortable following my instincts. So i don’t keep quotes to hand on what goes where or how to do something. I keep quotes like this, which are about learning to go with it. Learning to trust my brain, and to not block out the sound of life whizzing by.

Speak Your Mind, Word-Nerds