Patrick O’Brian (1914–2000) was the celebrated author of the Aubrey-Maturin series of sea novels, which began with Master and Commander.
Here are four of his wonderful quotes about writing to inspire you!
1. I have never written for an audience. On the other hand I do not write merely to please myself.
We all write for different reasons. Some of us write specifically for our potential readers. Some of us write mainly to please ourselves, because we enjoy the act of writing. It soothes us, calms us. It allows us to take a break from our everyday lives and go somewhere different. When you’re having a really good writing day, the characters at some point usually take over and you have a truly out-of-body experience, which is always fun. So yes, there’s the act of pleasing yourself, too.
I would argue, however, that most of us write because of a reason somewhere in between these two. We don’t just write for an audience and we don’t just write for ourselves. We find a middle ground where we can have fun, take risks, write for the pleasure of it, and also have a genre and age market and potential audience in mind as we go about putting our latest project down on paper.
You have to have on your creative hat and your business hat, in a sense. You can’t erase either if you want to be successful, especially as a fiction writer.
2. In my case, I write in the past because I’m not really part of the present. I have nothing valid to say about anything current, though I have something to say about what existed then.
This is such an interesting perspective on the writing life from someone who focused completely on historical fiction. O’Brian felt he wasn’t really part of the present, that he didn’t have enough to say about contemporary life and didn’t really feel the urge to, so he focused on historical stories, which of course allowed him to be so wildly successful. I do think it might be strange if you write mostly historical novels, and then out of the blue attempt a book that’s of the here and now. That might confuse your readers.
I’m the opposite of O’Brian in this case. I prefer to write contemporary novels, or books set a few short years in the future. I have always been interested in attempting an historical novel — for about five years now I’ve wanted to write a young adult novel about a teenager trying to make his filmmaking dreams come true in the days of classic Hollywood — but it’s the research element of an historical novel that always pushes it to the side.
You can’t just make it all up in a book set in the past, whether it’s the 1990s or the 1930s or the 1860s or whatever. You have to know what you’re talking about when it comes to setting details, time period description, the way people talk, etc. Never forget that.
3. I’ve never set out to seduce my reader. I don’t see him at all clearly.
One of the classic quotes about director Alfred Hitchcock was how he liked to play his audience like a piano. That man always had his audience at the forefront of his mind in every film he directed. Some writers are the same way, many wanting to seduce their readers with surprise twists and tantalizing chapter cliffhangers. You want to draw in your reader from that first page and never let them go.
O’Brian clearly didn’t really think about his reader much and just focused on telling the most compelling stories he could. He let his stories speak for themselves. If they appealed to a wide readership, great. If not, I’m not sure he would have cared. Because for the kinds of books he wrote, he was never able to see his reader clearly. His reader could have been anyone, really, of any gender or age or social background or whatever.
I, on the other hand, see many of my readers clearly in that I write young adult novels. When I’m working on a new yarn I’m always picturing that fourteen-to-sixteen-year-old girl or boy looking for an escape into something suspenseful. But you might not picture your reader, and that’s okay, too.
4. The function of the novel is the exploration of the human condition. Really, that’s what it’s all about.
When you first start writing fiction, especially when you’re younger, you tend to focus more on plot than on characters. You come up with a cool idea and then you find your characters and setting to fit around that cool idea. You have your characters serve the plot of your story, which, in the beginning, is an okay mistake to make. I made that mistake all the time, even in many of my early novels.
You get better as a writer in many ways. Practicing your craft every day helps. Reading lots and lots of novels — both the good and the bad — help you improve. Taking workshops and going to conferences give you lots of insight.
But the day you learn that your novel should be an exploration of the human condition rather than a plot-driven exercise is the day things will click for you. Once you learn that it’s the characters that will drive your story and get the reader invested, you discover how powerful your words can be. A great plot doesn’t hurt. An awesome hook and high concept will get you far.
But you’ll never get far enough if you don’t concentrate enough on your characters, particularly your protagonist. You have to make the story about them and not have the characters serve your story. Once you put your characters in the forefront of your mind for each new novel you write, there’s no telling how much better of a writer you’ll become!
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