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Becoming a Writer: Advice from Best-Selling Authors

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Becoming a WriterOne of the (ten) books I checked out from the library in preparation for this series is Bestsellers: Top Writers Tell How by Richard Joseph. I’m barely a quarter of the way into it, because I found once I picked it up and started flipping through it, hoping to cull some good quotes for this series, that I kept getting drawn into the interviews that he conducted with these authors. So I figured since we’re talking about how to become a writer, I’d share some of what some best-sellers have to say about their journey. (Quotes are from the book.)

Best-selling YA author, Meg Cabot (originally posted last July):

I’m a frustrated actress. I act all these characters. If I don’t cry about them, if I don’t laugh at their jokes, if I don’t lose my temper, and if I don’t swear, it doesn’t seem that I am writing them; someone else is. I act all these characters; I live these characters. … I was never ambitious to be published, that’s the odd thing. … I knew nothing about publishers and how they worked. I didn’t even know about agents. … I never wrote for the money. I had my husband, who was a grammar schoolmaster; the salary was not great, but I could make a sixpence go as far as somebody else could make a half dollar. … I just wanted to write. … I am a storyteller, and I still am a storyteller. I wrote my first sixteen books longhand, but I now use a tape recorder. I go over and over the dialogue, and I’m acting the parts of the characters I’m writing about. … Write the story you want, then leave it for a while, if you can. Look at it again, and if you are going to be a writer, this will be the test: all your mistakes will come out of the page and hit you.

~Catherine Cookson (More than 90 published books, more than 90 million copies sold worldwide)

Lake Woebegone’s favorite humorist, Garrison Keillor on the idea of changing up the format and/or genre of what we choose to write:


1. You should have a lively imagination.

2. You should be able to write well. By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift, and you either have it or you don’t.

3. You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and month after month.

4. You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.

5. You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No one is employing you. No one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or to tick you off if you start slacking.

6. It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humor. It is not essential when writing for grownups, but for children, it’s vital.

7. You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that his work is marvelous is heading for trouble.

~Roald Dahl (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, James & the Giant Peach, The Gremlins and more than 45 others)

Stephen King on the importance of reading:


I wrote my books because of a compulsion to make some record of a fascinating era in veterinary practice. I wanted to tell people what it was like to be an animal doctor in those days before penicillin, and about the things that made me laugh on my daily rounds, working in conditions which now seem primitive. I suppose I started out with the intention of just writing a funny book, but as I progressed, I found that there were so many other things that I wanted to say. I wanted to tell about the sad things too; about the splendid old characters among the animal owners of that time and about the magnificent Yorkshire countryside, which at all times was the backdrop to my work.

~James Herriot (More than 60 million copies sold worldwide)

Kurt Vonnegut gives tips for writing a good story (y’all have to listen to this one all the way through, because the last one is fabulous):

I have never written what I thought the public wanted to read, ever. I wrote what I wanted, and I never set out to write a bestseller and make lots of money. I just wanted to tell this story, and I think that’s why the books work. They come from the heart, not from the head. …

Basic writing ability is still not enough. A would-be novelist must also observe what I call the five ‘Ds’:
D for desire—the desire to want to write that novel more than do anything else.
D for drive—the drive to get started.
D for determination—the will to continue whatever the stumbling blocks and difficulties encountered on the way.
D for discipline—the discipline to write every day, whatever your mood.
D for dedication to the project until the very last page is finished.

Finally, there is a sixth D—to avoid! This is for distractions—perhaps the most important D of all, the enemy of all writers, whether would-be or proven.

~Barbara Taylor Bradford (More than 58 million copies sold worldwide)

Jeffrey Archer on how he writes and commitment to the process:


Nothing is as real as a dream. The world can change around you, but your dream will not. Your life may change, but your dream doesn’t have to. Responsibilities need not erase it. Duties need not obscure it. Your spouse and children need not get in its way, because the dream is within you. None can take your dream away.

~Tom Clancy (more than a hundred gazillion books sold worldwide ;-))

  1. Wednesday, February 4, 2009 4:38 pm

    That last note from Kurt Vonnegut surprised me!


  2. Thursday, February 5, 2009 12:02 am

    I *adored* Kurt Vonnegut’s last point.

    That bit about “to heck with suspense” was fabulous (though another part of my mind wants to hear the opposite argument).

    I gave my first dozen pages to a guy who swore both he was hooked from the first page — no we’re not related– and is convinced he knows how the story will end (I’m convinced this is impossible but he refuses to tell me his prediction, so I can’t check him).

    I never considered before that both possibilities could be true.


  3. Thursday, February 5, 2009 10:19 am


    I keep thinking on that last comment of KV’s. Half-agreeing, half-disagreeing! Most writing advice I’ve heard lately, regarding novel beginnings, flies in the face of it. Sure would like to hear him expound on that point.


  4. Thursday, February 5, 2009 10:27 am

    Well, he did say at the beginning it was how to write a short story (not a novel) s it makes complete sense to move things quickly.

    I just remember being really annoyed with (for example) Inkheart, which rubs your face in I know something you don’t know for *way* to long at the beginning. Nearly made me quit the book.


  5. Thursday, February 5, 2009 12:23 pm

    I was going to point out the same thing as Amy Jane—he was talking about short stories. But I think he was also being a little facetious with it, too, because, like Amy, he’d probably gotten frustrated by writers who dangle the “this story has a secret” carrot for way too long.


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