24 Fiction Writing Tips from Famous Authors
Where tips for writing better fiction are concerned, the world really is our oyster.
With thousands of famous authors and publications to choose from, where do you draw your personal inspiration and insight? The good news is, writers and critics have been researching these questions for years and have put together comprehensive lists so you don’t need to start from scratch.
Trickling down from generation to generation and author to author, we gain collective knowledge through reading and listening, and the trials and experiences of others, to which each of us adds our own. Some tips are unique, some repeated or complementary, competing and conflicting. We can all decide what resonates and works for us, and what doesn’t. Some you can’t ignore.
Here are 24 kernels of inspiration, gleaned from writers of many kinds; they are entirely free, for you to use as you will.
“Only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers.” — Steven Spielberg
"My first rule was given to me by TH White, author of The Sword in the Stone and other Arthurian fantasies and was: Read. Read everything you can lay hands on. I always advise people who want to write a fantasy or science fiction or romance to stop reading everything in those genres and start reading everything else from Bunyan to Byatt." — Michael Moorcock
“To read a novel is a difficult and complex art. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist — the great artist — gives you. – Virginia Woolf
“Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody,” said Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet more than a century ago. “There is only one way. Go into yourself.” Rilke, of course, was right – nobody but yourself can help. In the end it all comes down to the strike of the word on the page, not to mention the strike thereafter, and the strike after that.” – Colum McCann
“Quantity produces quality. If you only write a few things, you’re doomed.” – Ray Bradbury
"You have to resign yourself to the fact that you waste a lot of trees before you write anything you really like, and that’s just the way it is. It’s like learning an instrument, you’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot, cause I wrote an awful lot before I wrote anything I was really happy with." – J K Rowling
“It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.” - Ernest Hemingway
“Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.” – Cheryl Strayed
“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” – Toni Morrison
“If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that make a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.” – John Steinbeck
“Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.” – Roddy Doyle
“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” – Mark Twain
When to write
“Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself.” – Hilary Mantel
“Decide when in the day (or night) it best suits you to write, and organise your life accordingly.” – Andrew Motion
“Finish the day's writing when you still want to continue.” – Helen Dunmore
“The nearest I have to a rule is a Post-it on the wall in front of my desk saying "Faire et se taire" (Flaubert), which I translate for myself as "Shut up and get on with it." – Helen Simpson
“When an idea comes, spend silent time with it. Remember Keats's idea of Negative Capability and Kipling's advice to "drift, wait and obey". Along with your gathering of hard data, allow yourself also to dream your idea into being.” – Rose Tremain
“Never stop when you are stuck. You may not be able to solve the problem, but turn aside and write something else. Do not stop altogether.” – Jeanette Winterson
"Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." – Anton Chekhov
“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.” – William Faulkner
“No matter how extreme the world, the peoples or the culture, the reader needs to be able to identify with the characters…Yes, it is fantasy, but it is the concerns at the heart of the human condition such as love, loss, hope, jealousy, fear of mortality, anger and even hate that make fantasy characters real to the reader.” – Caroline Dunford
"Some writers start from the beginning of the story, some from the end, some from a random point in the middle. What matters is that they start somewhere. I think one of Jack London's quotes is relevant here: "You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club." – Samantha Shannon
“What makes a story is — you want to 'find out what happens next' — this bit of the story leads you to the next one. Like running, when you have to put the left foot down ahead of the right foot, because you are actually not balanced on the right foot that touches the ground but are leaning forward into the run, … like walking, steady, and you fall into the flow of the gait and cover ground while seeing everything around you, … like dancing, where the next movement keeps growing out of the last movement…I use bodily similes not mechanical ones, walking, running, dancing, not driving fast or slow in a car or flying in a plane, because I think art depends on rhythms, and body rhythms are what writers use.” – Ursula Le Guin
by Clare Heath