Sunday, June 3, 2012

Quotations on Writing

By Bonnie Stanard
I was skimming though Kim Byer’s website ( and read about her fascination with quotes. I love quotes too. Two often quoted writers I admire are Winston Churchill and Will Rogers. Who do you think is the most quoted writer of English? (Hint, Ralph Fiennes just made a movie based on one of his plays.) What is the most quoted book? (Hint, it was originally written in Hebrew and Greek.)

My favorite quote about writing is “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” (Nathaniel Hawthorne) It has taken a while, but I now understand what professional writers have been telling me for years. Getting a story written is the first step, a beginning. And if you’re like me, the first draft is less than a fourth of the effort you’ll make to get to what you think is a finished product.

I love this quote from Mark Twain, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” In other words, as a first step, get to know your story’s background backward and forward. This goes to authenticity, or securing the reader’s trust. If we get the foundation right, we can convince the reader to believe in us as tellers of the truth. Then we can lie and they will suspend disbelief.

“In this art form, in any art form, generalities are useless.” (Zubin Mehta). This brings to mind a comment you’ve probably heard, and maybe it’s in some book of quotes: a million deaths is a statistic but the death of one person is a tragedy. This may be one reason it’s often said that historians don’t make good writers of historical fiction. Most of them know and are interested in the big picture, the grand designs of history that impact the past and the present. But the heart responds to the individual, regardless of the movements sweeping them along in history.

I get a kick out of this quote by W Somerset Maugham: “There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” Agents, editors, and publishers enhance their livelihoods telling writers and prospective writers the rules of the business. In the end, books are published every day that defy all the rules. I’m reading Pulitzer Prize winning author Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, and I can report that it conforms to almost none of the rules of writing…weak character development, scattershot plot, unconventional punctuation.

This often quoted advice by E.L. Doctorow to writers is worth repeating: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Some writers prepare an outline of the entire story before beginning, but that’s something I can’t or won’t do. There’s another quote that says that we write to find out what we think. In fiction, I write to find out what my characters think. I write to find out what they will do next.

Finally, from an anonymous writer—“If you wait for inspiration, you’re not a writer, you’re a waiter.” This may be true, but some of us have periods when we’re “waiters.” I like to think I’m gathering energy for the next writing storm.


Kim Byer said...

Bonnie, I do love a good quote and these are wonderful. I especially love the E.L. Doctorow quip.

And...speaking of writing a novel-- I was in Beaufort on Friday and saw Kedzie staring at me from the bookstore window. (Great cover, BTW.) On Sunday night I picked it up and ran straight through fifty pages. I LOVE IT! Your characters are so real and your story is pulling me in deeper with every new paragraph. It's just terrific.

It's so good that as the author, you are invisible. I am impressed and proud, but mostly thrilled to be in the throes of such a great story.

Shaun said...

Lovely irony in the generalization quote. Very true, and the generalization about generalizations is priceless!

Leigh said...

Bonnie, I love quotes, too. Sometimes they come as inspiration at just the right time. One of my favorites is also Mark Twain:

"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."