Helpful Advice from History’s Fastest, Most Prolific Authors


Yesterday marked the kickoff of National Novel-Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo), the online project that challenges participants to write a 50,000-word book in the 30 days of November. To those scribbling hurriedly to meet its deadline, we wish you a book deal by December. And to cheer you on, we’ve rounded up a treasure trove of advice and encouragement from the great writers who best embody, in their own work, NaNoWriMo’s goals of writing much and writing fast. Below the jump, read through our favorite words from the wise, speedy, and prolific.

Jack Kerouac: “You’re a Genius all the time”

One of the central aims of NaNoWriMo is to encourage writers to trust their abilities — not to look back and scrutinize every detail of their prose but to look forward and trust their pens (or laptops) to spit out rapid gold. This is what Kerouac did, no doubt, when he jotted down the Beat bible On the Road in a mere three weeks on a 120-foot scroll of paper, and why we chose to highlight the 29th axiom of the 30 writing tips in his strangely spelled, hardly punctuated, partially coherent “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose,” below. “You’re a Genius all the time,” he instructs (and with a capital G, no less!); you’ve got to believe it if your publisher will.

Joyce Carol Oates: Start with your characters

One of the most prolific authors of our time, Joyce Carol Oates has written upwards of 100 novels, dramas, novellas, children’s books, poetry collections, and more, and yet she never starts with a story in mind. Instead, she begins with her characters and their setting, which she conceptualizes as a character as well. Only after a writer gets to know her characters can they tell her what will happen next. How do you get to know those characters? Oates gives her students an assignment we recommend you try out as well: Start, simply, with a conversation between two people. Within the first five minutes, you may not know much about them, but after two hours, their personalities will begin to take form.

As a bonus, here’s one more rule of thumb she imparted to a group of students at a Stanford University colloquium: “The first sentence cannot be written until the last sentence has.”

Muriel Spark: Get a cat

Having troubles concentrating? Get a cat, advises Agnes Hawkins, a character from Muriel Spark’s novel A Far Cry From Kensington. We trust Spark’s advice; a natural-born NaNoWriMo-er, she wrote one of her most lauded books, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, in under a month. Says Spark:

If you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquility of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.

(Of course, take heed that this advice pertains to concentrating on writing, not to writing well. Agnes warns parenthetically that she later read her advisee’s book, which “itself was exceedingly dull. But I advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.” Zing.)

John Updike: Make a career out of writing

What pisses off John Updike the most about contemporary writers, he said in a 2004 interview, is that they do it as a hobby. A writer ought to be a writer by trade, according to Updike, which must be easy to say for someone who’s continually listed as the most prolific current writer and has churned out an average of a book a year, and good ones at that. But he’s stuck to his guns in telling writers to find an audience and sell your book:

Don’t be content just to call yourself a writer and then bitch about the crass publishing world that won’t run your stuff. We’re still a capitalist country, and writing to some degree is a capitalist enterprise, when it’s not a total sin to try to make a living and court an audience… I think that maybe what young writers have lost is the sense of writing as a trade. When I was young it was still a trade. There were enough magazines — middlebrow magazines, so-called general interest magazines — they ran articles but also fiction, and you felt that there was an appetite out there for this sort of fiction. The academic publications run fiction, but I don’t think they have quite replaced them in this sense. Fiction is in danger of becoming a kind of poetry. Only other poets read it. Only other fiction writers care about it. So I don’t sneer at writers like Stephen King who have managed to capture the interest of a large audience. Any way that you can break through. I figure if you don’t have any audience you shouldn’t be doing this. Tom Wolfe, the journalist, has spouted off very eloquently about the failure of the American writers to galvanize readership the way he thinks Zola and Dreiser and some others did. I think you can force this. We can’t do Zola now exactly. Somehow it just doesn’t sing. So you’re sort of stuck with being a — whatever — post-modern…

On the other hand, he says, don’t expect to get rich. It won’t happen.

Georges Simenon: Kill your darlings

Among the most prolific writers not only in our time but ever, Georges Simenon, like Joyce Carol Oates, advised writers to start with a character, not a plot. Because his novels — of which there are nearly 200 in his own name and more under pseudonyms — tend to revolve around a single major character, Simenon developed the quirky, method-actor habit of embodying that protagonist for the first 11 days of the novel-writing process. As he told The Paris Review in 1955, he would spend that period as a shut-in, not socializing, not answering calls, stepping out of his own life and into his character’s.

But Simenon didn’t recommend that every writer undergo a schizophrenic makeover every time an idea strikes. His main instruction, instead, applies to the aftermath of the crazy that leads to the novel: cut, and then cut again.

Just one piece of general advice from a writer has been very useful to me. It was from Colette. I was writing short stories for Le Matin, and Colette was literary editor at that time. I remember I gave her two short stories and she returned them and I tried again and tried again. Finally she said, ‘Look, it is too literary, always too literary.’ So I followed her advice. It’s what I do when I write, the main job when I rewrite… Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence — cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.

Christopher Hitchens: “Write more the way you talk”

The famous contrarian writer most celebrated in recent years for his antitheist rhetoric dropped a considerable number of jaws last year when he composed a Slate column in 20 minutes the day after undergoing a chemotherapy session. When it comes to the written word, we could all take a page out of his (very quickly drafted) book — and after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer and slowly losing his ability to speak last year, he gave us one in the form of a Vanity Fair column. In it, he discusses the importance of mastering the spoken word before the written one, and the importance of hearing your work read out loud. Find a brilliant speaking voice; then write in it, he says:

I owe a vast debt to Simon Hoggart of The Guardian (son of the author of The Uses of Literacy), who about 35 years ago informed me that an article of mine was well argued but dull, and advised me briskly to write ‘more like the way that you talk.’ At the time, I was near speechless at the charge of being boring and never thanked him properly, but in time I appreciated that my fear of self-indulgence and the personal pronoun was its own form of indulgence. To my writing classes I used later to open by saying that anybody who could talk could also write. Having cheered them up with this easy-to-grasp ladder, I then replaced it with a huge and loathsome snake: ‘How many people in this class, would you say, can talk? I mean really talk?’ That had its duly woeful effect. I told them to read every composition aloud, preferably to a trusted friend. The rules are much the same: Avoid stock expressions (like the plague, as William Safire used to say) and repetitions. Don’t say that as a boy your grandmother used to read to you, unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy, in which case you have probably thrown away a better intro. If something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading. So, this above all: Find your own voice.

Stephen King: “You’ve got to read just about anything”

Bad things, too. King, one of the most prolific writers of our time, says he has no patience for people who call themselves writers but make no time to read. Reading — indiscriminately — will help you develop a style and voice, and reading something god-awful just may give you the confidence to write something better.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Build a web

He wrote Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in six days, but he wasn’t in too big a hurry to mind the web of “sound patterns” essential to the delicate art of constructing sentences, which he elucidates in the first chapter of his 1919 essay collection, The Art of Writing :

Music and literature, the two temporal arts, contrive their pattern of sounds in time; or, in other words, of sounds and pauses. Communication may be made in broken words, the business of life be carried on with substantives alone; but that is not what we call literature; and the true business of the literary artist is to plait or weave his meaning, involving it around itself; so that each sentence, by successive phrases, shall first come into a kind of knot, and then, after a moment of suspended meaning, solve and clear itself. In every properly constructed sentence there should be observed this knot or hitch; so that (however delicately) we are led to foresee, to expect, and then to welcome the successive phrases. The pleasure may be heightened by an element of surprise, as, very grossly, in the common figure of the antithesis, or, with much greater subtlety, where an antithesis is first suggested and then deftly evaded. Each phrase, besides, is to be comely in itself; and between the implication and the evolution of the sentence there should be a satisfying equipoise of sound; for nothing more often disappoints the ear than a sentence solemnly and sonorously prepared, and hastily and weakly finished. Nor should the balance be too striking and exact, for the one rule is to be infinitely various; to interest, to disappoint, to surprise, and yet still to gratify; to be ever changing, as it were, the stitch, and yet still to give the effect of an ingenious neatness.

John Boyne: Don’t let fiction get bogged down by fact

John Boyne penned his well-written, well-received, Hollywood-adapted novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas in just over two days, he says. His genre, historical fiction, is a tricky one, but his work has been applauded for both its imaginative characterization and its historical verisimilitude. His trick? Doing the research but not getting stuck to it.

Last year, he told the Toronto-based blog The Excerpt:

We have to allow writers the freedom to write about the past, it keeps the past alive after all, but having written seven historical novels, I’m aware of the importance of research, of making decisions regarding what is and isn’t important to keep absolutely accurate. You’re writing a novel, after all, a work of fiction. There’s a degree of freedom in how you present events. It’s a difficult topic in a way as there are many critics who believe that you should change nothing at all, but to me that is non-fiction, and after all, once you have introduced a fictional character into a real life situation, you have corrupted that world anyway.