Posted in Writing

A Dozen Quotes by Maya Angelou to Make You a Better Writer

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Maya Angelou (1928–2014) is one of the most celebrated writers of our time. She was a poet, a singer, a memoirist, a civil rights advocate. She even directed a feature film! If there’s anyone to turn to for inspiration for your writing, Maya Angelou is definitely the one.

Here are a dozen quotes she said over the years that will help your writing immensely!

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Probably her most famous quote about writing, and one of my all-time favorites. Because she’s absolutely right. If there’s a story inside you that needs to get out, don’t wait. Don’t ponder. Because it hurts so much to keep it inside of you. Once it’s on the page, even in a mediocre first draft, you simply feel so much better!

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

You can write the most beautifully written novel ever written, but if you don’t make your readers feel anything, you’re never going to be successful as a writer. Because readers young and old will forget the words you used. What they’ll never forget is how you made them feel, what you made them remember about their own lives as they read your novel. Find a way to your readers’ hearts, and amazing things can happen.

The idea is to write it so that people hear it and it slides through the brain and goes straight to the heart.”

When you do find your way to the readers’ hearts, they will thank you. To think on a story is one thing. It’s important for the story to work in the brain, too, of course. But when readers are only using their brains when they read through your work, you’ll never be able to make a significant impact on their lives. Go for the heart each and every time.

“I don’t know about lying for novelists. I look at some of the great novelists, and I think the reason they are great is that they’re telling the truth. The fact is they’re using made-up names, made-up people, made-up places, and made-up times, but they’re telling the truth about the human being — what we are capable of, what makes us lose, laugh, weep, fall down, and gnash our teeth and wring our hands and kill each other and love each other.”

That’s the beauty of great fiction, isn’t it? That even though the characters and situations are made-up, the whole story reads like truth. There’s not even the slightest whiff of lying anywhere. No whiff of artificiality. Make sure even in your most outlandish and weird and bizarre of fiction that you’re constantly telling the truth, and readers will always come along for the ride.

“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”

I feel sad for all the young people today who don’t read. Who get their information from the iPad and from their phones. Who would rather play games for two hours than pick up a classic children’s book. Because reading absolutely does give you a sense of yourself in the world. It shapes your life and opens up your life in ways nothing else can.

The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.”

Another quote about reaching for the hearts of readers, which was obviously important to Ms. Angelou. And of course it’s important because that’s really how you reach your readers, not through anything else. Your ambition in your latest novel to reach for the stars is noble, but never forget to tell a story that expresses emotion for the reader, too.

Each time I write a book, every time I face that yellow pad, the challenge is so great. I have written eleven books, but each time I think, ‘Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.

This is one thing nobody tells you about writing novels. It really doesn’t get easier. You learn a few tricks along the way, and when you write eleven novels, you know in your heart you can write a twelfth. But the process itself is always hard, both in drafting and in revising, and there’s always that tiny voice in your head that says that even if you’ve had some success in the past, you’re going to be discovered to be a fraud this time out. It’s just the way it is!

“I believe that the most important single thing, beyond discipline and creativity is daring to dare.”

You simply have to be daring in your fiction writing. Don’t give us the same old thing. Don’t just write a genre book that you think might sell. You need to have discipline and creativity in your writing life, but you absolutely need to be daring to dare, because that’s when the truly original projects come about, the projects that readers are clamoring for.

You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

She’s absolutely right about this. Creativity can’t be used up. Creativity doesn’t just go away. The more of it you use, the more of it you have, because it just builds and builds with the more ideas that come to you and the more you spend the day dreaming and working and contemplating and discovering. There’s not a limit to your creativity, remember that.

“I make writing as much a part of my life as I do eating or listening to music.”

Writing doesn’t have to be a small part of your day, even if your situation only allows for a few select minutes of actual writing. Try to keep writing a large part of your day by using methods like the following: daydream about your story, your world, or jot down ideas on notepads when they come. Think of writing as exercise, as eating food, as listening to music. Make it as big a part of your day, every day, as you can.

“Making a decision to write was a lot like deciding to jump into a frozen lake.”

I was so terrified to write my first novel. I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea, really, exactly what I was doing. It totally was like jumping into a frozen lake and trying to fight my way out. Making writing a big part of your life is not a decision to make lightly. You really do need passion for the discipline. You need to want to do it, or you’ll fade fast, I’m telling you.

“When I am writing, I am trying to find out who I am, who we are, what we’re capable of, how we feel, how we lose and stand up, and go on from darkness into darkness. I’m trying for that. But I’m also trying for the language. I’m trying to see how it can really sound. I really love language. I love it for what it does for us, how it allows us to explain the pain and the glory, the nuances and delicacies of our existence. And then it allows us to laugh, allows us to show wit. Real wit is shown in language. We need language.”

You should pay attention to the originality in your writing, the pacing, the characters, the genre, the themes. But don’t ever forget the power of language in your writing. The words you choose. The rhythm of your sentences. When you’re immersed in a first draft of a new novel, the language itself might not be at the top of your radar, but it should be. Language is where the writing begins, after all. Never forget that!

Posted in Writing

A Dozen (More) Quotes that Will Help You Write Your Novel

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“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” — Toni Morrison

This is one of my all-time favorite quotes about writing… because it’s so true. Your job as a novelist is not to just repeat what other people have done before. Your job is not to imitate. Your job is not to replicate. Your job is share yourself with the world in a way no other person can. Even if you’re writing in a genre that thousands of other people have written in, and even if you’re sticking to many genre expectations, there should be something about that story that’s entirely you and nobody else.

Writing and revising a novel takes a long time. Six months, a year, probably longer. Spend that time on something original, something exciting, something compelling that you yourself would love to read but nobody has ever written yet. If you can find that story, your passion and dedication will come through on each and every page.

“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” — Robert Frost

As you draft and revise your novel, you should feel what your protagonist feels. You should be scared for him or her. You should understand what he or she is going through and feel it in every part of your being. Laugh when your protagonist makes a funny joke to his or her friend. Let your eyes well up with tears when your protagonist is feeling sad or is suffering through an emotional episode.

Be in your fiction. Don’t be a neutral observer from somewhere above. Become a part of your world. Let the characters surprise you sometimes, don’t just follow a strict outline from the first chapter to the last. No surprises in you, no surprises in the reader. Feel your story. Pretend it’s real. Doing so will work wonders for your readers.

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

One of the best pieces of advice you can ever learn about writing is that it’s so much better to have a bad first draft than than no draft at all. A bad first draft you can edit, you can shape, you can spend months and months turning into something magical. If you don’t finish your first draft (or if you don’t ever start it in the first place), there’s nothing to work with. Nothing to make better.

The first draft is not about achieving perfection. The first draft is about telling yourself the story to the best of your ability, getting everything down you want, taking chances often, and finishing the damn story. The draft can be shit. The draft can be embarrassing. Don’t worry. The only one who sees the first draft is YOU.

Finish that draft, let it rest awhile, and then get to work. You’ll be shocked at how you can take a pretty dismal first draft and then, in time, turn it into something great.

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” — Stephen King

This is one of my all-time favorite Stephen King quotes. It seems so obvious, and yet when you’re in the midst of writing fiction every day, you might not take the time to think it or consider it. You might believe you don’t need to necessarily read every day. That spending two to three hours or more writing is enough to do good work.

But the thing is, writing is like exercising, and reading is like the stretching before the exercise. Reading gives you ideas, not just about stories and characters, but about pacing, theme, and structure. Reading is the best teacher because it shows what other people have done before, and while you don’t want to ever copy what other people are doing, you should feel free to let other writers inspire you in your own work.

Reading is fun, and you should never forget that. We all got into writing in the first place because of our love for reading.

“Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” — Franz Kafka

One of the hardest things to do as a writer is to write exactly the story you want to write and not water it down, not change it any way, to suit the needs or interests of other people. Don’t write a young adult novel a certain way because you think it might secure you a literary agent or a six-figure book deal. Don’t go against your own instincts to water down your subject matter or challenge the ambitious ideas you had for your story in the first place.

Instead, embrace the eccentricities of your novel. Embrace the originality. You might think your story is too weird or too offbeat, that no agent, no publisher, will ever fall in love with a book like yours.

In some ways I think the opposite is true actually. If your story is too ordinary, too similar to other books out there, it will actually be harder for you to get people interested in it. Lean into the weird and the unusual. You’ll be glad you did!

“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.” ― John Steinbeck

One of the other hardest things to do as a writer is to commit to one great idea and spend many months investigating it, thinking about it, developing it, and then writing and revising a novel about it. This is so hard because as soon as you get excited about one idea… another shiny idea appears in its place. This might happen to you before you start a new novel. Worse, this might happen to you when you’re halfway through writing a new novel. You’re supposed to be fixated on this current project, and all you want to do is focus on another one.

Because Steinbeck is right. Sometimes one simple idea will grow into a dozen. A dozen creative story-lines that each could make for a compelling novel. How in the hell do you pick from twelve stellar ideas? What I do is let the ideas simmer in my head for a long, long time, and after a year, maybe even two years, I go with the one that simply won’t go away. The idea that enters my head practically every day.

Go with the idea you have the most passion for, and pray that no better idea will come to you while you’re hard at work drafting and revising your newest project.

“Toss out the worst elements of genre and literary fiction — and merge the best. We might then create a new taxonomy, so that when you walk into a bookstore, the stock is divided into ‘Stories that suck’ and ‘Stories that will make your mind and heart explode with their goodness.’.” Benjamin Percy

This quote comes from Benjamin Percy’s mind-blowing craft book Thrill Me, which came out in 2017. Percy believes what I believe and what I have been telling people for years. That the best books mix the greatest elements of literary fiction and genre fiction. To me, the best books, the best films, the best stories, have a blend of genre fiction qualities — propulsive storytelling, big surprises, action and romance and humor and excitement — and literary fiction qualities — rich themes, dynamic characters, gorgeous prose.

When literary fiction and genre fiction come together, you have incredible books that push boundaries, that offer something unique and original. Novels like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. Books that enrich your soul and at the same time deliver a compelling, page-turning story.

“When you make music or write or create, it’s really your job to have mind-blowing, irresponsible, condomless sex with whatever idea it is you’re writing about at the time.” — Lady Gaga

It’s not enough as a writer, especially when you’re writing a novel, to devote one to three hours to your work every day and then leave the rest of your day to other endeavors, other interests, all the other life stuff you have to take on. Even when you’re not currently working on your latest story, it needs to stay within you. You need to stay thinking about it. You should be reflecting on the writing you did for the day, and obsessing over the writing you intend to do tomorrow.

Once you’ve decided on an idea, you need to keep it with you at all times, even in the back of your mind while you’re completing other tasks. You should jot down notes about a supporting character when they come to you. You should rush home a little faster to write a scene that simply cannot wait.

Be in love with your idea, not just while you’re writing, but throughout your whole day. Doing so will ensure that your latest project is the best it can be.

“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke

Here’s the deal — if you’re not thinking about your novel throughout the day, if you’re not particularly enthusiastic about the project, if you’re sort of bored while doing the actual writing, if the writing itself feels like work, you’re in trouble. Your reasons for writing have therefore escaped you. The idea of your latest novel, and possibly writing in and of itself, has not spread its roots to the depth of your heart.

Writing is hard. Really, really hard. And it doesn’t get easier. You have to love it. You have to get up every morning excited to put some words down. You have to be willing to fail, and fail often. You have to feel enthusiastic to go on a journey that might result in publishing success and prizes and adoring fans the world over, or a bunch of dead ends that result in no success whatsoever. Imagine your life if you couldn’t write. If your reaction to that reality is a shrug, then maybe you shouldn’t be a writer. If your reaction to that reality is sadness and total despair, then you should keep going and never give up!

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

It’s one of the most terrifying aspects of finishing a novel — having other people read it. You can believe in your story all you want. You can do everything you can in revision after revision to make it shine. But it’s not until the book goes to other readers that you receive some quality feedback to make your work better. It’s why so many authors use beta readers. It’s why literary agents and editors are so invaluable.

You can take your book only so far. You can revise it ten times in a row by yourself if you want, but it’s not until you get opinions from others that you truly see where your flaws lie. When three different beta readers find fault with a specific chapter in your novel that you love, you simply must listen to the criticism anyway. You can’t ignore it.

The first step, of course, is finishing your work in the first place. I know it’s scary to have other people read your work and judge you. It’s still scary to me to this day. But you’ll never get better, you’ll never get anywhere, if you don’t take that frightening step to finish your work and then send it out for feedback.

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” — William Faulkner

Not only should you read often if you want to be a writer, but you should also seek out all kinds of genres to read in, both the good and the bad. Although it might not sound like the most enticing prospect, reading really, really bad fiction can actually help your writing immensely because you can see what not to do in your own work. Reading bad fiction will also give you a sense of confidence because you can think to yourself, if that book got published, maybe you have a chance!

You should also read really, really great fiction, too, of course. Read wonderful literary novels. Read the classics. Read the last five novels that won the Pulitzer Prize. Read everything you can find, really. If you write young adult, don’t just read young adult. If you write adult horror, don’t just read adult horror. Read everything, read widely. And then see what happens.

“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” — Isaac Asimov

Writing is a life-long endeavor. It’s something you should be doing, and what you should want to be doing, for as long as you live. Stay creative until you die, that’s my motto. Don’t think of writing as a quick way to get rich. Don’t think of writing as a hobby to do on Sunday afternoons when you get bored. You should be totally immersed in storytelling every day. Read. Watch. Write. Repeat. Read books often. Watch films every day. Write for hours and hours until your fingers start to hurt. And then repeat.

I love writing so much that I do genuinely intend to do it for as long as I live. If a doctor ever tells me I have three months to live, one of my first thoughts is probably going to be, I need to type faster. Because writing brings me joy every day. Writing gives me calm, gives me comfort. Writing is my life.

And it should be yours, too. Enjoy yourself, and keep going. Never give up, okay? The world needs your stories. The world needs so much more of you.

Posted in Writing

Why Boredom is a Good Thing for Writers

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Boredom can be a very good thing for someone in a creative jam.

It’s so hard to be bored these days. I remember as a kid being bored here and there, but today there’s not really an excuse to ever be bored. All you need to do is turn on the TV and click on one of a thousand options to watch. All you need to do is take out your phone and scroll through Facebook or Twitter.

We do everything we can to avoid boredom, don’t we? Like, any moment where there’s silence, where there’s nothing expected of us, we feel awkward. We simply need to be doing something! We can’t just possibly sit there, can we?

The truth, though, is that boredom is really good for your writing.

There’s a reason I like to go for a run almost every day. It’s not that running is boring, necessarily. I find running lots of fun, a brief window of escape from my life to get my body moving and see all the sights of my neighborhood, including some cool hidden trails and gorgeous mountains nearby.

But what running really gets me to do is leave all the screens behind so I can have forty-five minutes to completely focus on the thoughts in my head. On the ideas that might rise to the surface and inspire a new novel.

On the ways I can improve the latest novel I’m currently working on!

I can’t tell you how many problems have been fixed in my work from merely going for a run or a walk and just being a little more bored than usual. Boredom allows for great ideas to come to the surface. As hard as it may be to do in 2019, even just ten minutes of total boredom might actually bring you the immense creativity you need for your day!

Stephen King used boredom to finish his magnum opus, The Stand.

There’s a story he tells in his craft book On Writing that is one of my favorites. He had been working for months on The Stand. He had more than 500 pages of writing, so there was no possibility of abandoning the novel. But he couldn’t figure out the third act. He had built up this epic of dozens of characters and didn’t have a clue how to reach his ending.

So he talks about how he would go on walks by himself every afternoon and try to figure out what to do. The first walk didn’t work, and neither did the second.

But one day, while walking, the idea suddenly came to him out of the clear, blue sky. Pow! There it was. All from letting his mind go blank.

All from immersing himself in total boredom.

And he was so scared the idea would slip from his mind that he ran all the way home, eventually out of breath and sweating as he jotted the idea down on a piece of paper.

Boredom in this case not only helped Stephen King with a story problem, but it helped him complete one of his three greatest novels, one of my all-time favorites.

So lean into boredom. It might actually improve your writing!

When you find yourself with a free half-hour during your afternoon, don’t necessarily use that half-hour to catch up on a sitcom on the TV. Don’t use it to scroll through your phone. Don’t use it to make a second lunch if you just ate two hours before.

Sure, you can use that half-hour to read — time dedicated to reading throughout your day is always important for writers — but something else you can do, especially if you’re struggling in the first draft of a new novel, or struggling to come up with ideas for the next one, is just sit in a room, in silence, and bore yourself silly.

Just look around the room and ponder. Close your eyes. Clear your mind.

Maybe something amazing will come to you, as it has for me in the past. I know of at least five of my novel ideas that came to me when I was bored and not doing much.

Don’t be afraid of boredom, I’m telling you! You have no idea the wonders it can bring to your fiction writing.

Posted in Writing

Why Theme is So Important in Your Fiction

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest. Not every book has to be loaded with symbolism, irony, or musical language, but it seems to me that every book — at least every one worth reading — is about something.

What I love so much about this quote is that Stephen King is in no way forcing you to beat your reader’s head over and over with the theme of your story.

He’s not even saying that you necessarily need a specific theme that rings true throughout every chapter of the book. Some books have and need a large theme that hovers over the narrative. And some books have little to no discernible theme at all.

That’s okay. That’s fine.

But King is absolutely right when he says that every book worth reading should be about something.

When I begin a new novel, theme is not at the top of my radar. I’m thinking about the protagonist — his or her want, his or her dream, and that thing that’s going to keep him or her from achieving it.

I’m thinking about the supporting characters, and the antagonist, and the central conflict, and specific scenes I want to write. I’m thinking about where the story begins and where the story ends.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t put much thought into theme when I begin a new writing project. And you want to know why?

Because the theme will appear eventually, after I’ve scanned each and every tree and finally taken a step back to look at the forest.

The theme appears eventually because any story that grabs me, that fascinates me, that lives inside my mind month after month desperate to come out on the page is always about something.

Sometimes the theme isn’t super clear to me right away. Sometimes it takes until the third revision for the theme to break through. But it’s always there.

If your book isn’t at all about a larger idea, you’re in trouble.

If the story’s not about something that goes beyond your characters and your premise, then you might have to think long and hard if this is the project you want to write.

If all you’re writing, for example, is a scary ghost story meant to freak the shit out of readers, and it’s about nothing else than that, your novel might not reach as many readers as it could.

Because what makes books great is theme.

What makes books great is something lingering under the surface of the narrative, of your characters’ arc, that come to light in a way that strikes each reader differently.

When a book is entertaining, thrilling, surprising, and meaningful in some beautiful way? That’s where great stories come from. Those are the stories you turn to again and again.

The stories that aren’t really about anything can be fun, can make the time pass fine for a few hours, but they won’t leave an impact on you. They won’t be books that stay with you long after you’ve closed the final page.

Again, don’t obsess over theme at the start of your project.

It absolutely doesn’t hurt to know your theme at the beginning, and keep it in the back of your mind as you draft your novel.

But don’t fixate on theme either. You don’t even have to know what your theme is as you start writing. Just make sure, always, that your book is about something.

Beyond your genre. Beyond your premise. Beyond your main character.

And even it takes you until the revision process to understand exactly what your book is truly about, you’ll be well on your way to crafting a compelling and memorable novel that no reader will want to miss.

Posted in Writing

Why Symbolism in Your Writing Doesn’t Need to be Difficult

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In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,

Symbolism doesn’t have to be difficult and relentlessly brainy. […] If it is there and if you notice is, I think you should bring it out as well as you can, polishing it until it shines and then cutting it the way a jeweler would cut a precious or semiprecious stone.

There’s so much to think about when you’re drafting a short story or a novel.

You’re thinking about making the narrative compelling and surprising, you’re thinking about making your main character interesting, you’re thinking about the quality of your prose, and if your themes are coming across. You’re thinking about your genre and the expectations that come with that.

I guarantee you that throughout the writing of my nineteen novels over the last ten years, I have spent little to no time thinking about symbolism.

Symbolism is something I was forced to look for in the books I read in high school. As part of AP papers I would have to write about Jane Eyre, and The Scarlett Letter, and A Tale of Two Cities.

Shit, I’m an adult now. I don’t have to think about symbolism in my writing!

And for the most part, you don’t.

When you’re drafting a story or a novel, please don’t fixate on how you’re going to integrate symbolism into the narrative. That should not be at the forefront of your mind. That should not be something that even enters your head much as you go about writing your many, many pages.

But should symbolism in your storytelling be forgotten about entirely?

I agree with King. Don’t actively try to force symbolism into your writing, but if it’s there, if there’s something working entirely as symbolism somewhere throughout your pages, then by all means, when you revise, polish that symbolism until it shines.

One of my favorite examples of symbolism in a story is the shirt within a shirt in Brokeback Mountain. Annie Proulx doesn’t beat you over the head with the symbol. It’s not all over every page. But it’s certainly there, and it’s polished enough that it lingers in the mind. And it’s what makes that incredible final scene so emotionally resonating, both in the story version and the film version.

Stephen King himself has used some effective symbolism in his work.

Think of REDRUM in The Shining, which is such a powerful symbol because in a sense it means murder, but also means to not murder.

And think of the symbol of blood in Carrie.

Blood when it comes to Carrie’s period at the beginning. Blood when it comes to the pig’s blood that’s dumped on her at the prom. Blood when it comes to all the lives she slaughters that night.

Blood is so clearly a symbol in King’s debut novel, but, again, he never beats you over the head with it. You don’t really think of it as a symbol until you begin to really analyze the story at a deeper level.

So don’t panic, okay?

Don’t think you need to have three amazing symbols in mind for your latest novel in the days before you start drafting.

If you do think of one early on, then great! Keep it at the back of your mind, and maybe try to work it in somewhere during the first draft, but feel free to leave that work for the revision instead.

And even if your symbolism is accidental, if there’s something there that strikes you, polish it throughout your revisions to bring it out in a way that makes sense and that enriches the story even more for your readers.

Anything that makes your story better is always something you should consider no matter what!

Posted in Books, Writing

5 Literary Novels to Read if You Want to be a Writer

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There are lots of great literary novels out there, but these are five I highly recommend you take a look at!

1. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch is one of the ten best books I’ve ever read. Sometimes literary novels have such a focus on the beauty of the prose that the story gets lost, but Tartt has a remarkable ability to blend strong writing with a consistently entertaining story. Her style of writing is as specific as it is highly approachable. Almost every page offered at least one sentence that wowed me. Every character is sharply drawn — from the protagonist Theo to his friend Boris to the thugs in Amsterdam. The way Tartt keeps the painting The Goldfinch an important element throughout the narrative is impressive, and I loved that the novel mixes various genres, like coming-of-age, literary fiction, thriller, and, I’d argue, young adult. Overall, The Goldfinch impressed me all the way through.

2. Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

I absolutely loved this literary book. A few elements separate this novel from a typical supermarket-selling adult murder mystery, and the stylish prose is certainly one of them. The second literary quality is the choice of omniscient point-of-view, which allows for these stylish prose as well as the ability to go into any character’s head whenever she wants. Author Ng is able to create a whole world with this point-of-view choice, giving us so much when something like first-person from one character never could have done the job. Another literary quality is the emphasis on backstory. Again, many authors would have been perfectly willing to have this entire narrative play out in the present, showing how this family reacts to Lydia’s death, and that would have made a strong novel to be sure. But about half of this book takes place in flashback, building up the backstory of all the characters, and this strategy not only adds terrific tension to the current events but also allows for worthwhile character development.

3. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is one of the most highly regarded works by Pulitzer Prize-winner Toni Morrison, and it’s easy to see why. This is a gorgeous, unusual, affecting novel, Morrison’s first to be published. I sat down expecting a book all told from the perspective of eleven-year-old Pecola, and the first big surprise I admired was Morrison’s ambitious and playful use of POV. The unusual POV structure is a central literary element of this book, but there are others. Early in this short novel, Morrison stops the narrative to deliver setting details of the city for three whole pages. And the style of her prose is always striking, using short, punchy sentences when writing in first person, and more stylized sentences when talking in third, I was also impressed by the frank and involving discussion about race throughout, Morrison never shying away from the truth. These issues make up so much of what the book is about — uncertain identity, fear of the other — and Morrison explores them in great depth and detail.

4. The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger is a fantastically spooky horror novel, and I love its many literary qualities. The first literary quality I admired was its attention to setting, which often relates to Hundreds Hall. A non-literary horror novel would make mention of a few of the house’s qualities, but not as many as Waters makes the time for early in the book, again, allowing the estate to become its own major character. A second literary quality in the book is its focus on character rather than plot. Unlike many horror novels that focus on a series of scary moments and increasingly tense actions made by the main characters, The Little Stranger is always more concerned with making the reader care about the characters before anything unfortunate happens to them. A third literary quality is the quality of the prose, which is often striking and memorable. It must be noted of course that Waters never goes overboard with stylish prose; even in her sections of big, block paragraphs, her sentences are imaginative but readable, a little wordy but clear, never outrageous in its pursuit of the truth.

5. Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen is a terrific literary thriller well worth a read. First, the novel is literary in its focus on character over plot, and I would argue it’s most literary in this regard. The book has a harrowing finale with a major twist, but Moshfegh is much more interested in the journey Eileen takes to get there. The book is literary for its stylish prose, as well, especially when it comes to description, and the historical time period — Christmas 1964 — makes for a literary element as well. One tremendous aspect of the book is Eileen herself, one of the most disturbed and compelling protagonists I’ve read in a work of fiction in a long time. Eileen is darkly funny, always smart, and sometimes vicious in the way she thinks, and I loved every minute spending time with her. This one’s definitely well worth a read!

Posted in Books, Writing

5 Quotes from Richard Adams to Make You a Better Writer

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Richard Adams (1920–2016) was a supremely gifted writer most famous for his acclaimed novel Watership Down, which has been read and shared all around the world. Here are five quotes he said over the years that will absolutely help you in your writing!

1. If I had known how frightfully well I could write, I’d have started earlier.

Some of us get started writing at an early age. The first short story I remember writing was called “The Haunted Library” during the third grade, so I would have been nine years old. Writing every word of that story was a total thrill… and I haven’t really stopped since. There was a period where I was only writing screenplays and not fiction, from the ages of fourteen to twenty-four, but I’ve always been writing.

It’s a good thing to recognize something you’re good at as early as possible. But if you never start writing? Whether you’re too scared, or too busy, or too unsure of yourself? That’s one of the worst sins of all. To not share your gifts with the world. To not go after the dream. I’m sure there are thousands of people in this world who could be amazing writers, but for one reason or another have just never gotten started.

You’ve heard someone say it before, I’m sure: “I might try to write a book one day.” Most of these people won’t write the book. But a few might, and what’s a shame is someone in their fifties or sixties or even older suddenly realizing how well they can write. They should have started decades earlier! Just you being here, reading these words, looking for inspiration in your own work, is definitely a good place to start.

2. We are all human and fall short of where we need to be. We must never stop trying to be the best we can be.

You can think of this quote in all aspects of your life, but I think it definitely relates to your writing because you should never stop trying to make it the best it can be. Writing is extremely competitive. There’s so much talent out there. So many manuscripts. So many people vying for readers’ attention. You can’t just be decent. You can’t get 70% of the way there on a manuscript, and say, ehh, good enough.

You’ll never be able to make your writing perfect. Please, don’t even strive for perfection. But you should always, always, always try to make your writing the very best it can be. Don’t settle for something less. Settling for less means all the hard work you put into this particular project might have been all for nothing. Why not put another month of work into it and get it to the place it needs to be? It’s the best thing you can do for your writing, and it’s the best thing you can do for yourself.

3. You know how you let yourself think everything will be all right if you can get to a certain place or do a certain thing. But when you get there you find it’s not that simple.

Another reason you should always try to write to the best of your ability is that you’ll find time and time just how hard writing is, and that reaching the end of a first draft is a mere stage in the process. You might get to the end of that first draft thinking, now I’ve done it, now everything will be simple. I have words on the page! I have my complete story down on paper! Everything from here on out is the easy part!

Not so fast. There’s difficulty in completing the first draft of a manuscript, particularly a novel, but there’s a different kind of difficulty in revising, and revising well. You get to the revising stage thinking it will be fairly simple, that all you’ll need to do is read your wonderful work through a few times and maybe fix some typos and cut a sentence here and there.

Such is the farthest thing from the truth. Revising is is no way simple. It takes a different side of your brain to do it well in a way, because while you’re still being creative, you’re using more of an intellectual thought process in terms of what you have to do to make your writing shine its brightest. Unless you’re super lucky, and your first draft is absolutely brilliant, you’re going to need to revise your work often, taking on one draft after another, until it’s finally ready to be seen by others.

4. I’ve always said that Watership Down is not a book for children. I say: it’s a book, and anyone who wants to read it can read it.

This is the truth of all books, isn’t it? Even though when you write a novel for children, you need to think about certain guidelines that will help sell your book, specific kinds of expectations you should have in the back of your mind at least when you’re revising. For example, don’t write a young adult novel that features a twenty-year-old protagonist. And don’t write a middle grade novel that’s 135,000 words.

But once you achieve success as a writer, and your book is finally out in the world, that book belongs to whichever readers find it. If you’ve written a young adult novel, don’t for a second think that only teenagers will ever read it. All kinds of people love to read books aimed at younger audiences. And many younger audiences love to read adult novels, too! I remember reading Stephen King books as early as age 10. And now that I’m an adult myself, I read middle grade and young adult books all the time.

Don’t look at your latest book as a book for children. It’s a book, plain and simple. And anyone who wants to read it will read it.

5. The thinker dies, but his thoughts are beyond the reach of destruction. Men are mortal; but ideas are immortal.

This is why books are so important. It’s why Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 still resonates to this day. The idea that you can destroy the thinker and thereby destroy the thoughts that come from that person is a falsehood. It’s why people die twice in a way — once when they die, and second when the last person on Earth dies who remembers him or her. The thoughts themselves? They never die, as long as people are still sharing those thoughts.

Books live forever in a way because people share the stories with others long after they’ve turned the last page. Decade after decade, century after century, books stay with us, become part of us. And to be an author means, in a way, that you get to be immortal, too. Because long after you’re gone, your ideas and stories remain. They still move people, still entertain people, still open up a world to a child or an adult in ways you can never even imagine.

We’re all mortal, and one day we’ll no longer be here. But our ideas? Our thoughts? Our stories? They’re forever.