Writers on Writing – My Favorite Quotes

I’m going to share some of my favorite quotes about writing. I know  it’s a little presumptuous on my part. I’m not a writer, unless you count this blog as writing.  But as an agent, I find myself doing a lot of editing. Publishers don’t have time to imagine how to make an imperfect manuscript perfect. So part of my job is to make sure it’s  pretty perfect before  it lands on their desk. That means I have to edit. And in order to edit, I have to think about writing that’s  good and writing that’s bad.  Telling the difference is pretty easy. I can usually do that on the first page. But  understanding why good writing is good and bad writing is bad, I  think that could take a lifetime.

I have a philosophy about editing. I like to come to  a manuscript with a “beginner’s mind.”  That’s a concept in Zen Buddhism that means  one should approach a subject with no preconceptions, techniques, or methods. In his book: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shuryu Suzuki describes it perfectly.  “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.”  So when I start to edit a manuscript, I try to put myself in the role of  the simple reader who is, after all, the only person that really matters. Writers aren’t always in the best position to understand the reader. I’d like to believe that I can help them out.

Now on to my favorite quotes:

  • “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
  • “I don’t understand anything about the ballet; all I know is that during the intervals the ballerinas stink like horses.”
  •  “Be sure not to discuss your hero’s state of mind. Make it clear from his actions.”
  • “One should not put a loaded rifle onto the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

– above quotes by Anton Chekhov

“Show, don’t tell” has become a cliché.  But it is also fundamental. Not quite a law of nature. Great writers can break the rules. I think these wise words by Chekhov say it better than all the articles you read  on this subject in Writer’s Digest. Actually the quote about the ballet doesn’t really address this concept, but I liked it so much I decided to include it. And it’s only a little bit of a stretch to say that the stink of the ballerinas tells – no, excuse me – shows you a lot about their art.

  • ” The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” –Stephen King
  • “As to the adjective, when in doubt, strike it out.” –Mark Twain
  • “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”  – Elmore Leonard
  • “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’…he admonished gravely.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.” –Elmore Leonard

When I was in New York last month for the book convention, I had dinner with Susan Sutliff Brown, freelance editor, Joyce scholar, and friend.  At some point in the evening, Susan stated pontifically that good writers of literary fiction don’t use adjectives and adverbs. I was astonished.  Of course, we all look down on  Tom Swifties, those ungainly adverbial tags used by the novice writer. (“Let’s get to the rocket ship, Tom said swiftly.”) But banishing adverbs and adjectives altogether? Unimaginable, even in an alternative  universe designed by Raymond Carver. Susan’s pronouncement ruined my reading for several weeks. Rather than getting lost in a good book, I poured over  texts counting modifiers.  But now I must admit that Susan was on the right track. Again, it’s all about “show, don’t tell.” Excessive use of adjectives and especially adverbs is a sign of lazy writing. Check it out yourself. (Now, I hope  this hasn’t ruined your experience of reading for the next few weeks.)

  • “Avoid prologues.” – Elmore Leonard

Editors believe  how you handle or mishandle “backstory” is a marker for your ability as a writer. Back in the 19th century when people had more time, you could get away with spending the first 50 pages, say, setting setting up the story. If you don’t believe me, check out Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. Jean Valjean doesn’t even come on stage until page 55. You can’t do that today. Backstory needs to be insinuated into the narrative, obliquely,  as it unfolds. And it’s devilishly hard to do. Prologues are the lazy man’s way of getting all the crap out and onto the page, so that the you can proceed to roll out the plot without any messy explanatory back tracking. Book editors call this an “info dump”.

You see prologues a lot in movies. And it makes sense.  Screenplays are much more compressed than novels.  A typical screenplay has about 20,000 words. A very short novel will have 70,000. A movie doesn’t have time to allow a backstory to subtly unfold and bore an audience. But you can’t do  that in fiction. Well, that’s not entirely true.  Looking for graceless, awkward, lazy, and inelegant management of backstory? I recommend The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown.

But on the other hand –

  • “Learn from cinema. Be economic with descriptions. Sort out the telling detail from the lifeless one. Write dialogue that people would actually speak.” –  Rose Tremain
  •  “Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.”

– Rose Tremain

Don’t laugh when I say that learning how to write  is a lot like learning how to play golf. There is a very profitable  industry out there of golf tip books, magazines,  and videos by the super stars. Millions of words written on how to execute the perfect swing or how to make your drive fade. But mastering this information won’t make you Tiger Woods. Similarly with writing, the great novelists are a practical group, always willing to give and receive tips. Here’s some quotes I like:

  • “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard
  • “The wastebasket is a writer’s best friend.” – Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • “A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.” –  Baltasar Gracián
  • “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.” – Agatha Christie
  • Try to be accurate about stuff. ” – Anne Enright

Ok. So the golf comparison is pretty sucky. And you might just perceive in these quotes a tone of  post-modern self-reflective irony that one would not likely hear at the British Open. But there is something about these sentiments that make me feel pretty good, like these writers are  experiencing the same struggles as we mortals. Compare this to:

  • “If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” –  Anais Nin
  • “To withdraw myself from myself has ever been my sole, my entire, my sincere motive in scribbling at all.”  – Lord Byron
  • “I am a man, and alive…. For this reason I am a novelist. And being a novelist, I consider myself superior to the saint, the scientist, the philosopher, and the poet, who are all great masters of different bits of man alive, but never get the whole hog.” – D.H. Lawrence

No offense to the great Lord Byron and these other fine writers, but their characterizations of themselves as writers strike me as gaseous nonsense.

To be continued……


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12 Responses to “Writers on Writing – My Favorite Quotes”

  1. Shelley Souza Says:

    Somehow, I had my doubts that Joyce never used an adjective or an adverb. Opening my “Portable James Joyce,” the first story “The Sisters” begins:

    “There was no hope for him this time: it was the third stroke. Night after night I had passed the house (it was vacation time) and studied the lighted square of window: and night after night I had found it lighted in the same way, faintly and evenly. If he was dead, I thought, I would see the reflection of candles on the darkened blind for I knew that two candles must be set at the head of the corpse. … Every night as I gazed up at the window I said softly to myself…. etc.

  2. andyrossagency Says:

    Shelley. I see an adverb or two popping in there. I think judicious use of adjectives and adverbs will pass my muster. But I see them used too frequently in bad writing. The other thing to watch out for are adj and adv that don’t really convey much. “His brown shoes”. “He considered this thoughtfully”.

  3. Shelley Souza Says:

    I was responding to your friend’s comment that “good writers of literary fiction don’t use adjectives and adverbs.” As a writer I would be wary of an editor who made a pronouncement like this. Good writers use anything that will bring the reader to their work, face to face, eye to eye.

    Stephen King may say the road to hell is paved with adverbs but he also says “Jo Rowling is a terrific writer” (King on Rowling and Meyer). Rowling has been criticized roundly–excoriated, even–for using “too many adverbs.” (Actually, she follows the English tradition of writing for children.)

    Joyce continues to sprinkle the short story I cited with adjectives and adverbs, and he uses (according to my count) a combination of eight adjectives and adverbs in the four opening sentences of Ulysses. I’m sure his liberal use of adjectives and adverbs will be found throughout his work.

    My intention is not try and prove your friend’s statement wrong but to say that if writers, especially new writers, focus on artificial rules such as: don’t use adverbs and adjectives; or use them judiciously (which, by the way, is subjective); instead of focusing on why they want to write and how best to write what inspires them; that spark of inspiration will be killed off before it ever has a chance to ignite a single tree, let alone an entire forest.

    My background is unusual. I don’t speak of it often in public but it explains why I feel as I do about so many of the “rules” I hear in today’s writing circles. My father is considered one of the great modern artists of the 20th century in India. He pioneered the post-Independence modern art movement in India with five other artists before emigrating to London, where he was considered an important British artist. My mother was a world class fashion designer. The only rule I grew up with was this. Know your craft so well you will find the way, or you will make one.

    • andyrossagency Says:

      Shelley, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Yes. I suppose it is true that making a blanket statement about adjectives and adverbs is dangerous. What I can say to writers (who aren’t James Joyce) is that they should look very carefully at them and make sure that they are carrying their weight and adding something important. Of course, that is true of every word in the text.

  4. Shelley Souza Says:

    I think that’s excellent advice. I do wish the craft of writing these days focused a great deal more reading widely (I call this the Ray Bradbury, Philip Pullman, and Toni Morrison School of Writing), especially, the classics than in learning rules. And that instead of avoiding difficult aspects of craft–omniscient POV, for example– someone who has mastered this perspective would teach writers how to work with it, even if the choice is made afterwards never to use it. My parents were highly skilled in every aspect of their respective craft; not merely the “bits that worked for them.” This gave them tremendous self-confidence. They had a certain natural talent, but it was mastery of craft that gave that talent wings. More and more I find myself reverting to the classics to find my way through the myriad challenges of writing well.

    Thank you for the opportunity to have this conversation.

  5. Shelley Souza Says:

    Oh! I just read (via Google) that you owned Cody’s. I loved your bookshop when I stayed Berkeley a couple of times in the mid-eighties. I had been invited to lead a couple of projects at the Mill Valley Playwrights Festival, and spent whatever little spare time I had visiting the bookstores on Telegraph. It was within walking distance of my friend’s house, which, as you can imagine, was dangerous!

  6. andyrossagency Says:

    Thanks Shelley and thanks for the nice words about Cody’s. I’m happy to be out of retail, but it is always nice to hear that it meant something to people.

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  9. schillingklaus Says:

    No, I will not succumb to the foul “show don’t tell” ideology”, and stick religiously and deliberately to `old-school telling. None of your propaganda will be able to deter me from telling, writing long digressions, and from using extreme amounts of adverbs.

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  11. MB Yunus Says:

    Good advice, but following any rule strictly is to stifle creativity (you can quote me!). I know the rules and am well-read. I value writings of award-winning novelists. I’m a new (not novice) writer, but repetitive “he said, she said” makes me scream, even when the speaker is not identified in every tag. Many well-known writers have occasionally used different tags that sounded natural and saved a sentence of description. But, in general, it’s a good rule to follow. Using adjectives and adverbs is rare in my writing; they don’t add much. Good, crisp description transports us to the world of a character. Examples: Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain, his award-winning first fiction), CRR Tolkien (The Hobbit), CS Lewis (several fictions) and may others. Description of a house is common among good writers. Why? Because that’s where the characters live (Usually!). But it should be relevant to the story and preferably spread out. To anyone, including a successful agent, my suggestion (not advice) is never to say never. –MB Yunus

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