Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My Favorite Quotes on Writing by Jess Riley

I’m barely into the new project and I’m ready to throw up, throw a tantrum, throw in the towel. My attention span is shorter than --

Hey look, a squirrel!

How did I do this before?

Anytime I’ve found myself in the weeds, taking the story in a rambling directions, I think of some of my favorite bits of advice from three talented writers. First, a quote by Stephen King, from his invaluable On Writing: “Story, dammit, story!”

Give me characters I empathize with. BUT, make horrible things happen to them, complicate their lives in colorful, progressively interesting and dangerous ways. Plot, with a logical and structured arc, please. That’s the story. The trick is this: don’t get too sidelined by subplots, or all the loose ends will make your story a confusing mess, bursting from the seams like so many out of control bikini spiders.

Story is King.

Don’t become too enamored by your own prose, either. It was said best by William Faulkner: “Kill your darlings.” Be ruthless when cutting your superfluous language, even entire paragraphs that contain gorgeous writing but distract from or smother the story. Cull them, but save them in a separate file in case you can resurrect them in another project one day. I do this, but I usually don’t recycle them, preferring to come up with new metaphors and similes for new projects.

And when it comes to productivity, I return again and again to this advice from Anne Lamott: “Bird by Bird.” Which rhymes with “word by word,” which is the whole point.

I have to continually remind myself that I don’t have to pound out fifty pages a day, but I do have to set a more reasonable page goal and hit it, every single day. Novels are comprised of smaller chapters, which are comprised of smaller scenes. Two scenes a day seem reasonable, depending on what’s going on in my life at the time. Some days are more productive than others.

Today I wrote four pages, but I spent three hours editing what I wrote last week. I’ve developed a habit of revising yesterday’s work and needing it to feel “right” before I can move on to the fresh material, and I’m not sure if this is good or bad.

Do you have any favorite writing quotes? What are your good and/or bad writing habits?


Jess Riley, author of Driving Sideways


  1. Love this, Jess! So inspirational.

    When I'm really in the thick of it, I like to keep a list of my page count each day. That way I know exactly how many words/ pages I've written, and that helps to keep me going!

  2. All great quotes, Jess! I don't think writers can ever get enough of them! Inspirational post!

  3. I love this! I'm a quote-junkie and the advice here is priceless. I, too, go back to the previous day's work with fresh eyes. I think it catches anything you may have missed and propels you onto the next page. I don't know which one of you brilliant ladies came up with this concept, but keep it up. This, with Saralee's post yesterday is reaffirming my process. Thanks!

  4. Wonderful blog, Jess!

    Here's a great quote from Toni Morrison, similarly said by J.D. Salinger:
    "If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."

    And of course the exquisite Dorothy Parker:
    "If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy."

  5. Thanks for the reminder, Jess. It's the small stuff that adds up and makes bigger stuff. Sometimes I get so overwhelmed with a writing project (added to the other stuff in my life) that it seems like too much. However, just one page turns into another and before you know it, you have a scene. I strive for one scene a day. And I ALWAYS revise what I write previously. Otherwise, I'd go crazy!

  6. Loved these, Jess. I'm a collector of quotes, too. One of my faves is from Wally Lamb: "If you write your book for yourself, instead of with a readership in mind, then the book will be true. And if the book is true, it will find an audience that is meant to read it."

    Also, on a similar theme: "To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

  7. Love the quotes! My mother, Nancy Thayer, whose 21st ! novel comes out this June, always said to me, whenever life felt difficult: "Put it in your work." I think of that all the time.

  8. One of my favorites is "Don't get it right, get it written." A good reminder to forget about trying to make it perfect and just get the story down on paper. First drafts are messy and that's okay. Once I know how the story unfolds I can go back and polish all I want.

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