YOU ARE HERE: H. P. OLIVER HOME > WRITER'S NOTEBOOK > THOUGHTS

I have yet to meet a serious writer who doesn't occasionally pause mid-manuscript to ponder the vagaries of our craft. This is especially true of new writers who have yet to learn that what answers there may be are found within--not from books or "experts" who charge for their advice.

To make matters even more complex, there are almost as many points of view on writing as there are writers. This is because we each chart our own course around the rocky shoals and through the occasionally heavy seas of our craft, reaching our objectives by unique routes that color our perspectives along the way.

Still, there is some wisdom to be found in ideas shared by authors who have succeeded at our craft. For this reason, I offer here a collection of thoughts about writing from those who have gone before us. In addition, I have taken the liberty of including a few of my own observations made during the thirty-plus years I've spent earning my daily bread as a writer.

H. P.



THE WISDOM OF AUTHORS

Kingsley Amis

- If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing.

Poul Anderson

- I think the first duty of all art, including fiction of any kind, is to entertain. That is to say, to hold interest. No matter how worthy the message of something, if it's dull, you're just not communicating.

Isaac Asimov

- If the doctor told me I had six minutes to live, I'd type a little faster.

C. N. Bovee

- There is probably no hell for authors in the next world--they suffer so much from critics and publishers in this.

Ray Bradbury

- Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you're doomed.

- First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him.

- You can't try to do things; you simply must do them.

Edger Rice Burroughs

- I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.

- If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.

Orson Scott Card

- Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don't see any.

Raymond Chandler

- The faster I write the better my output. If I'm going slow, I'm in trouble. It means I'm pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.

- When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.

- Love interest nearly always weakens a mystery because it introduces a type of suspense that is antagonistic to the detective's struggle to solve a problem.

G. K. Chesterton

- I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.

- A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.

Tom Clancy

- The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.

Arthur C. Clarke

- I don't pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.

Michael Crichton

- Books aren't written, they're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it.

Leonardo da Vinci

- God sells us all things at the price of the labor.

Albert Einstein

- Curiosity has its own reason for existence. The important thing is not to stop questioning.

- When I examine myself and my methods of thought I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing knowledge.

- Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.

- Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.

T. S. Eliot

- Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.

- Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.

- Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

- Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.

- In good writing, words become one with things.

William Faulkner

- When my horse is running good, I don't stop to give him sugar.

- The writer's only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.

- It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.

Edna Ferber

- The ideal view for daily writing, hour for hour, is the blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse. Failing this, a stretch of sky will do, cloudless if possible.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

- The reason one writes isn't the fact he wants to say something. He writes because he has something to say.

- Find the key emotion; this may be all you need know to find your short story.

Gene Fowler

- An editor should have a pimp for a brother so he'd have someone to look up to.

Benjamin Franklin

- If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.

Robert Frost

- No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.

John Gardner

- In nearly all good fiction, the basic--all but inescapable--plot form is this: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition, perhaps including his own doubts, and so arrives at a win, lose, or draw.

- The writer who cares more about words than about story--characters, action, setting, atmosphere--is unlikely to create a vivid and continuous dream; he gets in his own way too much; in his poetic drunkenness, he can't tell the cart – and its cargo – from the horse.

- We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page; we begin to see images.

William Gibson

- You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.

Christopher Hampton

- Asking a working writer what he thinks about critics is like asking a lamppost what he thinks about dogs.

Ernest Hemingway

- The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector.

- It's none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.

- We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.

Alfred Hitchcock

- Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

- Give them pleasure. The same pleasure they have when they wake up from a nightmare.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

- What a blessed thing it is that nature, when she invented, manufactured and patented her authors, contrived to make critics out of the chips that were left!

Stephen King

- Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do--not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad.

- Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.

Louis L'Amour

- If you’re going to be a writer, the first essential is just to write. Do not wait for an idea. Start writing something and the ideas will come. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow.

Elmore Leonard

- My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: when you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

- Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.

Jack London

- You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.

- I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than it be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.

H. P. Lovecraft

- At night, when the objective world has slunk back into its cavern and left dreamers to their own, there come inspirations and capabilities impossible at any less magical and quiet hour. No one knows whether or not he is a writer unless he has tried writing at night.

James Russell Lowell

- Nature fits all her children with something to do. He who would write and can't write, can surely review.

John D. MacDonald

- I want story, wit, music, wryness, color, and a sense of reality in what I read, and I try to get it in what I write.

Melina Martin

- Opportunity never knocks on an open door--it simply walks right in.

Somerset Maugham

- All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary--it's just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.

- If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn't matter a damn how you write.

Anne McCaffrey

- Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences.

Herman Melville

- To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.

H. L. Mencken

- There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers.

James A. Michener

- I have never thought of myself as a good writer. Anyone who wants reassurance of that should read one of my first drafts. But I'm one of the world's great rewriters.

A. A. Milne

- Almost anyone can be an author; the business is to collect money and fame from this state of being.

Larry Niven

- The reader has certain rights. He bought your story. Think of this as an implicit contract. He's entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down feeling his time has been wasted, you're in violation.

George Orwell

- All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

Jules Renard

- Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to those who have none.

William Shakespeare

- Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.

George Bernard Shaw

- The only way to avoid being miserable is not to have enough leisure to wonder whether you are happy or not.

- Some men see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not.

- The road to ignorance is paved with good editors.

- People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don't believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find them, make them.

Sidney Sheldon

- Usually, when people get to the end of a chapter, they close the book and go to sleep. I deliberately write my books so when the reader gets to the end of a chapter, he or she must turn one more page. When people tell me I've kept them up all night, I feel like I've succeeded!

Will Shetterly

- There are no rules in writing. There are useful principles. Throw them away when they're not useful. But always know what you're throwing away.

- Moving around is good for creativity: the next line of dialogue that you desperately need may well be waiting in the back of the refrigerator or half a mile along your favorite walk.

- It is better to write a bad first draft than to write no first draft at all.

Mickey Spillane

- The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book

Rex Stout

- The only two kinds of books that could earn an American writer a living are cookbooks and detective novels.

- Measure your mind's height by the shadow it casts.

Peggy Teeters

- The only way to learn to write is to write.

Henry David Thoreau

- How vain it is to sit down to write if you have not stood up to live.

Mark Twain

- You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.

- Get your facts first, and then you can distort 'em as much as you please.

Kenneth Tynan

- A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.

Gore Vidal

- Each writer is born with a repertory company in his head and as you get older, you become more skillful casting them.

W. D. Wetherell

- A story isn't about a moment in time, a story is about THE moment in time.

Oscar Wilde

- Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

- Books are never finished, They are merely abandoned.

- An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all.

- Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.

P. G. Wodehouse

- Success comes to a writer, as a rule, so gradually that it is always something of a shock to him to look back and realize the heights to which he has climbed.


H. P. OLIVER OBSERVATIONS

On success as a writer

- I don't care what the lousy dictionary says; you are not an "author" until your books are selling like hotcakes...ten years after you're dead and buried. Until then, you are a writer.

- I don't strive to be the best writer in the annals of literature; I strive to the best writer in the annals of me.

On the craft of writing

- Real writing is a craft, not therapy or a hobby.

- Writers of fiction are story tellers in as much and as little as that entails.

- As writers we are the torch bearers of the English language. It is, therefore, our responsibility to protect and preserve English through its correct usage.

- Never trust a writer. We lie for a living.

On learning the craft

- In most things quality is preferable to quantity, but in writing, quantity leads to quality--the more I write the better I become.

- A writer doesn't have to be brilliant to start, but to be brilliant, a writer must start.

- Writing may not be rocket science, but it takes longer to learn.

- When considering whose advice to follow, remember the immortal words of George Bernard Shaw, "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."

- The three keys to success in writing are write, write, and write.

- Learn to communicate and learn to spin a good yarn. Then you are a writer.

- I believe it was Robert Heinlein who said, "Writing can be learned, but not taught." No truer words were ever spoken.

On writing

- The writing craft is a way of life. To be good at it you have to live it.

- For writers, excess contemplation leads to complication.

- In the English language many words seem to mean the same thing, but only one of those words precisely conveys your meaning. Finding that word is what makes you a writer.

- When writing, I drive everything else from my mind because the story is the thing.

- Connotations are the palette of the accomplished wordsmith.

- How in heaven's name can writers expect to write stories about life if they have not lived?

- Stuck for a story idea? Go for a drive. If you don't see at least one story idea, you should be arrested for driving with your eyes closed.

- Writing about life doesn't require that you understand it, but you must know it.

- For me, stories tell themselves. All I have to do is type fast enough to keep up with them.

- I never write from an outline; they are much too confining. However, I do create a summary of chapters based on the first draft as an aid to finding the rough spots that must be sanded smooth in subsequent drafts.

On the business of writing

- In writing, as in any other craft, the goal is to earn a living. To achieve that goal, writers must be responsible to their readers.

- Agents are great at helping you make money...for them.

- Like most writers, I dislike promoting myself. That's where an honest agent is useful. The trick is finding an honest agent.

- I don't want to set the world on fire, but I would like to make enough at my writing to heat up a can of beans from time to time.

- Like sewage, agents follow the path of least resistance. They would much rather represent a writer with an established track record than go to all the effort of making an unknown become known.