Do you collect writer quotes? You should. They can be inspirational and instructive. It’s great to turn to them in times when you feel in the writing doldrums. Here are seven of my favorite writer quotes, and why I like them.
You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.
–Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Bradbury spent the first part of almost every day in “the zone.” For him, getting up in the morning was like stepping on a “landmine,” and the “landmine is me.” He’d explode on the page with what came bubbling up from his subconscious, and only later try to figure out what it all meant. And when he was in that delightful, creative space he wasn’t thinking about the absurdities, inanities, and barbarities that are so much a part of the “real world.” Bradbury once remarked about his stories that he wasn’t trying to predict the future; he was trying to prevent it.
Do not look toward writing as a profession. Work at something else. Dig ditches if you have to, but keep writing in the status of a hobby that you can work at in your spare time. Writing, to me, is a hobby—by trade I’m a farmer.
– William Faulkner (On Being a Writer, 1989)
The practical wisdom here is that writing, if it’s going to be any good, should be something you simply must do, even if you don’t get paid for it. If you don’t have a love of writing first, but think, Hey, I can make some big bucks here, you’re most likely to follow trends in the market, which is almost always a failed strategy.
When I was younger and first beginning to write, I’d think I was going to get the Pulitzer and the Booker and the Nobel Prize. Now I don’t give a damn. I’m content to know that I write . . . good. I’m a good writer and that’s all I care about.
– Evan Hunter, aka Ed McBain (Writer’s Digest, Sept. 1996)
Yes, it’s fun to win an award. But as Rick Nelson put it in his hit song from the 1970s, “You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” It’s a great feeling to get to the point where you know your craft, and know that you know it. If you win the fandom of a number of readers, that’s an “award” in and of itself. I’ve read most of Even Hunter’s books (literary) but I and the majority of his readers prefer the Ed McBain police procedurals and legal thrillers.
Don’t quit. It’s very easy to quit during the first ten years.
– Andre Dubus (The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, 2016)
George Bernau wrote Promises to Keep and other novels. He was a practicing attorney when he got into a car accident and almost died. In the hospital he took stock of his life and work to date. “I decided that I would continue to write as long as I lived, even if I never sold one thing, because that was what I wanted out of my life.”
If you have the desire to write, then make the decision now that you’ll write – strongly, fiercely, with a commitment to your craft – no matter what. Why quit? You have an imagination and a keyboard. Keep them always working together. If nothing else, it’s good for your brain.
You must avoid giving hostages to fortune, like getting an expensive wife, an expensive house, and a style of living that never lets you afford the time to take the chance to write what you wish.
– Irwin Shaw (Writers on Writing, 1990)
There’s a simple principle here that applies to anyone doing anything. Don’t live above your means! And don’t overestimate the means coming your way. Many a young writer received a huge advance, quit their day job, bought a big house…then were back-burnered or even dropped by the publisher when their book didn’t sell through. A certain panic sets in then, and perhaps the writer desperately tries to claw back with a book they think will sell, rather than the book they really want to write.
Dickens put the words in Mr. Micawber’s mouth: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass. If the feeling persists, you probably ought to write a novel.
– Lawrence Block (Writing the Novel, 1979)
Don’t think that writing a novel is easy. A good one, that is. And don’t think it’s a way to make some easy money, either. Yes, there are some who have used publishing platforms to gimmick their way into some lettuce, but they aren’t really writers. They’re hustlers. Write fiction because you feel, in some way, compelled to. Stories swirl in your head and you want—need—to get them out.
I write to entertain. In a world that encompasses so much pain and fear and cruelty, it is noble to provide a few hours of escape, moments of delight and forgetfulness.
– Dean Koontz (How to Write Best Selling Fiction, 1981)
This is one of my favorite all-time writing quotes. For so many years, like most of the 20th century, there was a stigma attached to unapologetically commercial fiction. Like pulp stories and paperback originals. The only “real” writers were those who produced high-brow or middle-brow hardcover novels that got reviewed by the New York Times. Yet for every “important” book there were a thousand commercial novels gobbled up by an appreciative public. I can think of a few “name authors” of the 1950s (e.g., James Jones, Norman Mailer) who hit it big early with a first novel, but wrote dreadful stuff afterward. Why? Because they had never been put through the grinder of learning to spin a tale that grabbed readers, that entertained. Don’t let that be you.
If you learn to tell a ripping good story with unforgettable characters, and strive to do it over and over, readers will find you and give you their dough and their thanks for givng them a good read.
How about you? Have a favorite writing quote you’d like to share?
Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him on