Chuck Palahniuk (born in 1962) is the bestselling author of Fight Club, Choke, and Lullaby, among others.
Here are four wonderful quotes he’s shared about the writing life!
1. A good story should make you laugh, and a moment later break your heart.
This is a rule I’ve taken with me in my fiction writing since the beginning. It’s something I sort of learned instinctually throughout the years reading books and watching movies and TV shows, and I have found that the best stories I write have this effective model. It’s like how Alfred Hitchcock played the audience like a piano. And it’s also something Joss Whedon used often in my favorite TV show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
No matter what genre you’re writing in, you need conflicts and crises and a raising of the stakes, and one great way to do that is to swing your reader from one kind of emotion to another. When you get them feeling comfortable about your characters in one scene, making the reader smile or laugh and making them feel like everything will be fine, then you swing them into something else that will shock them or surprise them or even break their heart. You want your stories to be unpredictable, and you want to offer something every time that gives the reader a mix of emotions.
2. I try to forget about the expectation that’s out there and the audience listening for the next thing so that I’m not trying to please them. I’ve spent a huge amount of time not communicating with those folks and denying that they exist.
One of the few great things about being a new writer who hasn’t been published very much and doesn’t really have an audience expecting anything is that you’re able to do whatever the hell you want. If you don’t have an audience expecting something specific from you, you’re welcome to try a different genre or age market, something totally different than the last story or novel you wrote. There’s a freedom to keep taking chances and try new things because nobody knows who you are yet. And this time in your writing life is precious because it allows you to develop your voice.
Once you’re someone on the level of Chuck Palahniuk, however, there’s a certain expectation with the kind of book you’ll be getting each time out. He can tell different kinds of stories, but he can’t suddenly write a romance novel or a middle grade book without a few hundred eyebrows being raised. This is why you should write the kinds of things you love to write, not what you think might sell, not what you think will help get you a literary agent.
You might suddenly find yourself with a few successful books behind you and a large audience expecting more just like them. When that happens, as Palahniuk says, you sort of have to forget about those expectations and your potential audience and instead write the book your heart wants to write, while at the same time not completely alienating those readers that have been loyal to you for so long.
3. A short story is something that you can hold in your mind. You can really analyze how the entire thing works, like a machine.
I feel like there are pros to writing the short story and writing the novel, and for sure one of the big pros of writing the short story is to be able to hold the entire thing in your mind in the days leading up to you starting it. You can fully understand the characters, what their motivations are, and what the arc of the story is going to be from beginning to end. You can see all the scenes you want to write. A short story is like this beautiful self-contained unit where you can do most of the hard work in your head, unlike a novel where you need to write down your ideas and figure out at least a rough outline for what you want to do.
Another pro of writing a short story is that you have the freedom to do whatever the hell you want. You can experiment to your heart’s desire. You can tackle a genre you feel too scared to tackle in a novel. Because writing a short story doesn’t take as long as writing a novel. If you’re focused and have the time, you can write a fairly substantial short story in a single week’s time. You can write the first sentence on a Monday morning and have the first draft done by Friday. It’s great to be able to create something so quickly, as opposed to novels that often take months to get all the way down. My goal from now on is at least four new short stories a year, and I think that’s a goal you should try to make for yourself, too.
4. People say I make up wild stories. But all I have to do is write down stuff that really happens.
Whenever you’re stuck about what to write next, whenever you find your imagination not working to the extent you want it to, sometimes all you need to do is look at real life and write down the things that are already happening. Reality is often stranger than fiction, as many like to say, and I do think that’s mostly true, especially if you write contemporary literary fiction. If you prefer to write epic science fiction novels, then no, you’ll probably need to turn to your imagination for most of that, but even for a story set in a world unlike our own, you can still find things in your daily life that can work their way into the characters of the story. You can always use what’s around you.
The trick to being a good writer, and a successful writer, is to take the time every day to notice those things happening around you. It’s not enough to merely observe and then maybe remember a few specific details later. You don’t need to bring a journal with you everywhere you go, but I do think it’s important to really look and listen. Go on a hike and look at how the trees and bushes and trail appear under the dark clouds or the bright sun. Listen closely to an animated conversation happening in a nearby backyard and figure out what they’re talking about and how and why they’re saying what they are.
In the end you want to keep growing and succeeding in your fiction writing, and paying close attention to all the things happening around you is always a good place to start.
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