Octavia Butler (1947–2006) is one of the most acclaimed science fiction authors of all time. Her iconic work includes Parable of the Sower, Kindred, and countless others. She shared insightful wisdom about writing over many years, and here are a dozen quotes we should all take with us on our writing journeys!
1. You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.
Success in writing is persistence. It’s one of the biggest truths about writing I firmly believe in. Whether you have a lot of talent or not. Whether you write mystery fiction or middle grade fiction or romance fiction, or all three. If you believe in yourself, and you keep writing, letting the rejections fall off your back along the way, you will find success. It might take three years or seven years or ten years or longer, but if you don’t give up, trust me, you’re already ahead of the game.
2. I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.
One thing that’s always attracted me to genre fiction is the ability to examine elements of the human condition that you might not be able to do as explicitly in, say, a contemporary literary novel. It’s why science fictions films and television shows of the last fifty years are so rich in thematic material. I haven’t attempted a science fiction novel yet, but I have written a lot in the horror genre, and two novels in the fantasy genre, and I love exploring issues that I might not touch upon in a realistic story.
3. I don’t write about good and evil with this enormous dichotomy. I write about people. I write about people doing the kinds of things that people do.
This is the truth of writing compelling characters in your fiction: you can’t think of some as good and others as bad. Sure, in the back of your mind, you recognize who’s the protagonist and who’s the antagonist, who’s actively pursuing the good and who’s pursuing evil. But always remember you’re writing people. People who have their own histories and dreams and motivations that makes sense to them.
4. Every story I write adds to me a little, changes me a little, forces me to reexamine an attitude or belief, causes me to research and learn, helps me to understand people and grow.
It’s one of the great joys of being a writer. Whether you’re writing a short story or a novel, every narrative you tell changes you in a way. Every narrative you spend a few weeks or a few months or a few years with absolutely forces you to reexamine your beliefs, causes you to learn, and helps you understand other people. Writing fiction truly is a gift because you open yourself up in a way few other people ever get the chance to.
5. Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.
This is something that’s drawn me to writing from the beginning. You can explore the dark side of your soul in writing, you can vent about your frustrations about everything in life… in your writing. You’re not allowed to do and say certain things in life, and sometimes you need to get your emotions out in some way that people can see. When to do it? In your writing. Explore a story in a way that helps you psychoanalyze yourself. Explore two characters that helps get your hostilities out about an encounter you recently had. Do what you need to do, and if you get paid for it, even better!
6. A novel is a long business. I’m a slow writer, even when I’m doing very well I write slowly.
You might feel like you’re lesser than if you’re a slow writer, not a fast writer. If you start writing a novel and you can only get down 300 words a day, 400 words a day, not 2,000 or more like you’ve been told to write. It might take you a year to write your novel and do a first revision. It might not take you so much longer than everyone else. This is all perfectly fine. Don’t criticize yourself for it. Slow writing… is still writing. And as long as you take a little time every single day to work on your latest story, call yourself a writer. Because it’s what you are.
7. Well, writing was what I wanted to do, it was always what I wanted to do. I had novels to write so I wrote them.
There are some people who decide at some point that they want to try writing a novel. Who think it might be fun, or it might be challenging, or it might be a way to reinvent themselves or make some money. But for most of us, I think, writing was something we felt we needed to do, not that we wanted to do. People ask me all the time how I’ve written nineteen novels. It’s because my head is always filled with ideas each and every day, and writing novels allows me to get those ideas down on paper. I’ve had so many novels to write over the years, so you know what I did? I wrote them!
8. A workshop is a way of renting an audience, and making sure you’re communicating what you think you’re communicating. It’s so easy as a young writer to think you’re been very clear when in fact you haven’t.
Writing is often a lonely and isolating life, but to be a good writer, at some point you need to step away from that isolation and let others look at your work. Whether that’s in a workshop setting at a college university, or a workshop setting with a few writer friends at a coffeehouse, or a handful of beta readers looking at your work on their own, eventually your story needs to leave your own laptop… and go to the laptops of others. You need to get feedback from others eventually. It can be scary, and you might be frightened to hear negative feedback, but at some point you need to find out what’s working in your story and what isn’t.
9. I was very much interested in the way people behaved, the human dance, how they seemed to move around each other. I wanted to play around with that.
One of the great joys of writing is coming up with your cast of characters and then seeing how they move around each other in your story. You want to try to avoid the stereotypes: the best friend, the bully, the pretty girl, the outsider. It’s easy to just draw on characters we’ve seen in a hundred other stories. What’s exciting is when you come up with a small cast of truly unique individuals and then see how they behave, by themselves and with each other.
10. No one was going to stop me from writing and no one had to really guide me towards science fiction. It was natural, really, that I would take that interest.
You might start writing in a genre you think you’re supposed to be writing in, but if you write for the long haul, eventually you’ll turn to the genre you truly love and want to spend the rest of your life exploring. For awhile I thought I should write literary fiction, and LGBTQ fiction, but in 2015 I decided for at least the next three years to explore horror and thriller writing in all its forms… and I’ve loved every second of it. What I love writing about horror, in particular, is that I can still make my horror stories literary, and I can still explore LGBTQ characters in that genre! I just also get to scare the shit out of readers at the same time. Write what you want to write, not what you think you’re supposed to write.
11. The lovely thing about writing is, well, two things. One, writing fiction allows us to bring an order to our lives that doesn’t exist in real life. And two, it allows us to create human characters that we know better than we will ever know anyone in real life.
It’s so true, isn’t it? Often we like to think there is some kind of order to our lives, but there really isn’t. Life can change for you dramatically tomorrow, and there’s no way you’re able to stop it from happening. But in fiction, you have total control. You are the God of your universe. You get to choose what happens and when. You get to pluck a character of your book if you have to. You get to cut that long-winded scene in Chapter 9 if you have to. You get to bring order to your world in ways you can’t in real life… and you get to know your human characters better than anyone you’ll ever meet in real life. Why? Because you’re in their heads so damn often. You’re with them every single day for months… sometimes years. After awhile your characters start to feel like real people, and that’s the best thing that can happen for you as a writer.
12. And I have this little litany of things they can do. And the first one, of course, is to write — every day, no excuses. It’s so easy to make excuses. Even professional writers have days when they’d rather clean the toilet than do the writing.
If you want to be a better writer, the best thing you can do is find a little time every day to sit down and write. Unless you’re a literary genius who can write once a month and produce incredible work (and even then, it’s still doubtful), you should be taking time to write, at minimum, five days a week. I’ve written a few novels five days a week, and then I’d take the weekend off to rest and regroup. I still believe you can write a short story or a novel in that way. But aim for a minimum of five days a week, and preferably you should write at least a little bit every single day. I know writing is hard. And yes, sometimes, you really would rather clean the toilet than look at another blank page. But do the work anyway. Make no excuses for yourself. Write, write, write. Write your heart out! And you’ll eventually get better, I guarantee it.