Curated by Jon Winokur, this site collects quotes from past and present writers, in the form of a Quote of the Day post and daily email. If you’re in need of inspiration, motivation or new ideas, these daily bursts of creativity can give you just that.
A character is never a whole person, but just those parts of him that fit the story or the piece of writing. So the act of selection is the writer's first step in delineating character. From what does he select? From a whole mass of what Bernard DeVoto used to call, somewhat clinically, "placental material." He must know an enormous amount more about each of his characters than he will ever use directly--childhood, family background, religion, schooling, health, wealth, sexuality, reading, tastes, hobbies--an endless questionnaire for the writer to fill out. For example, the writer knows that people speak, and therefore his characters will describe themselves indirectly when they talk. Clothing is a means of characterization. In short, each character has a style of his own in everything he does. These need not all be listed, but the writer should have a sure grasp of them. If he has, his characters will, within the book, read like people.
We love hearing stories of other people's misfortunes - not terrible misfortunes, we don't like that, but if somebody has taken a really expensive holiday, we don't mind hearing that their flight was canceled and they had to sleep on the airport floor, and that there was no snow on the slopes when they finally arrived, and that the heating crashed in their hotel and that they had to wear several layers of clothing to bed every night. We live by stories. It's the principle by which we organize our experience and thus derive our sense of who we are. We're in an unceasing flow of time and events and people, and to make sense of what goes past, we put a beginning and an end to a certain thing, and we leave things out and we heighten other things, and in that way we break the unbroken flow into stories, because that's the only way we can give it significance.
You have the right to not change anything, but don’t be a fool. Change things if somebody else is right. But if you do change something because somebody else is right, you must instantly take credit for it yourself. That’s very important.
A writer’s life is half ambition and half anxiety, and there has to be both. It is no good writing a novel and feeling fine, and it is no good writing a whole novel feeling miserable. It has to be both, that mixture of anxiety and ambition, and you get that with every novel, but more so when you write about these epics of human suffering. I felt that just as much when I wrote about the Gulag. Every writer knows what that is. The process goes…you have to think: “This novel I am writing is no good.” Then you have to think: “All my novels are no good.” And then, when you reach that point, you can begin.
I take a very pragmatic approach to backstory. I want to know what moment defined the character’s relationship to their parents, what moment defined their greatest desire, and what moment defined their greatest fear. Those three moments are most of what I need, because those three tell me where the character comes from, what they want, and what holds them back.
There are no rules. It’s amazing how willing people are to tell you that you aren’t a real writer unless you conform to their clichés and their rules. My advice? Reject rules and critics out of hand. Define yourself. Do it your way. Make yourself the writer of your dreams.
The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming
For many writers, research is a big yawn. The past is a foreign country, and who cares how they do things differently there? Research is reading disintegrating papers in dusty libraries; sifting through shoe boxes in ancient attics; interviewing people who don’t know when to stop talking. But for biographers, research is thrilling. Reconstructing history is delicious. Research is where the story comes from; it’s the bits and pieces of the past we are trying to bring to life.
Rejection has value. It teaches us when our work or our skillset is not good enough and must be made better. This is a powerful revelation, like the burning UFO wheel seen by the prophet Ezekiel, or like the McRib sandwich shaped like the Virgin Mary seen by the prophet Steve Jenkins. Rejection refines us. Those who fall prey to its enervating soul-sucking tentacles are doomed. Those who persist past it are survivors. Best ask yourself the question: what kind of writer are you? The kind who survives? Or the kind who gets asphyxiated by the tentacles of woe?
There are no rules. If everyone jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too? No. There are no rules except the ones you learned during your Show and Tell days. Have fun. If they don’t want to be friends with you, they’re not worth being friends with. Most of all, just be yourself.
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