Top Ten Quotes from Writers

Top Ten Quotes from Writers

I’ve lived in France for twenty years and when I tell people that I’m a writer, they often gasp in awe and say that I must be so terribly inspired to be able to write. The French greatly esteem writers and writing. Which brings me to my first quote:


Harlan Ellison: People on the outside think that there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.

This is how I answer my French acquaintances when they ask about inspiration. Their faces suddenly grow blank, pale, and I feel like I’ve crushed them some way. But it’s all about putting your rear end in an uncomfortable chair, making lots of notes, going on walks to sort out the problems in your story, and then writing and rewriting.


John Irving: Half my life is an act of revision.

One of the joys of writing (there are a few) is revising. Because for me, the hard part is sorting through the story, putting it down on paper, and getting to the end. Then, I actually have a good time with the revisions—some on my own, some with my husband, then more with my very capable editors at Penguin. I’ve even made some rather big changes during the revising process; characters have been switched (the bad one suddenly seems more interesting as good, for example). One of the joys of teaching writing, which I’ve been doing at NYU’s Paris campus for ten years, is round-table editing with the students. They are very keen, talented, generous editors with each other’s work.


Erica Jong: I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged by.

How true! My first book, Death at the Château Bremont, stayed in my desk drawer, incomplete, for years. I was terrified to show it to anyone, including my husband and daughter, for fear of the judgment that Erica Jong refers to. And then, when the book was released, I read every single review. Now, I rarely read them, unless my editors ask me to.


William Faulkner: Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.

This is advice I tell my writing students. Write as much as you can, even trying not to stop, then edit. Sometimes in all that gibberish you’ll have one line that you absolutely love, and that can take you forward.


  1. Scott Fitzgerald: Begin with an individual, and before you know it you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find you have created—nothing.

Before starting a novel, I buy cheap notebooks and fill them up with my characters: their sex, age, education, profession, physical attributes, dreams, and desires. But the most interesting characters are like those mentioned by Fitzgerald: ones who are charming but flawed. My favorite writer, Barbara Pym, fills her books with people like this. One of my favorites is Leonora from The Sweet Dove Died. She’s thoroughly snooty and priggish and yet you find yourself rooting for her; Pym gives Leonora just enough good qualities to make her sympathetic.


Henry David Thoreau: Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long time to make it short.

Again, this quote has something to do with revising but also getting rid of your dead wood, those things that don’t move the story along. I find that my recent books have more and more dialogue, as I find lengthy descriptions of settings, and especially the weather, not very interesting. Perhaps that’s why I love plays. I’ve never been impressed by a book that’s 700 pages long; I always think, “Why didn’t they edit it?” Also, I travel a lot by train, from Provence up to Paris, and so love thin books for practical reasons!


Elmore Leonard: All the information you need can be given in dialogue.

See above!


Jane Yolen: Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up.

This is my only consolation when having to do social media.


Edgar 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.

We read to be challenged, for sure, but we also read to be entertained, and it is the writer’s job to write a story, or an essay, or an article, that’s enjoyable to read.


Douglas Adams: I love deadlines; I like the whooshing noise they make as they fly by.

Douglas Adams died too young, at 49. But if he were still writing today, I’m pretty sure that he, too, would not be able to miss a deadline. The publishing world is now so competitive; there are almost half a million books published yearly in the United States. Writers come and go, and ensuring that you meet your deadline is one way of keeping that contract! I also meet my deadlines out of respect to my colleagues at Penguin who, when I’m writing, have set the machine in motion with regard to promotion and marketing. A late book throws all of their hard work into turmoil. Plus, as the date looms, I can’t wait to finish the book and take a short break, then begin thinking about the next one.

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