Authors Say the Darnedest Things

“They’re fancy talkers about themselves, writers. If I had to give young writers advice, I would say don’t listen to writers talk about writing or themselves.”
— Lillian Hellman

“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
— George Orwell

“They live over-strained lives in which far too much humanity is sacrificed to far too little art.”
— Raymond Chandler

“Writing is a hard game. No one asked you to start. No one will notice if you stop.”
—  George V. Higgins

“I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don’t know what I did before that. Just loafed I suppose.”
— P. G. Wodehouse

ON DETECTIVE AND CRIME FICTION

  • “The first essential value of the detective story lies in this, that it is the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.”
    — G.K. Chesterton, creator of Father Brown
  • “Crime is but a left-handed form of human endeavour.”
    — W.R. Burnett
  • “The woods are full of detective stories, and most of them are bad. In fact, any serious detective story is of necessity bad. It appeals to the most primitive cravings within us.”
    S.S. Van Dine, fifteen years before creating Philo Vance. I guess he changed his mind.
  • “There is no significant difference between literature and genre fiction beyond topic. There’s meaningful work and meaningless shit to be found on every side of the aisle. If you think crime fiction is more beholden to cliché or formula than literary fiction, you haven’t read enough of either.”
    — Sara Gran, from My Best Friends Are Books (September 2018)

ON OTHER GENRES

  • “They pay brisk money for this crap?”
    — Raymond Chandler on science fiction, in a 1953 letter, from Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler

ON FICTION

  • “The difference between reality and fiction? Fiction has to make sense.”
    — Tom Clancy

ON BEING A WRITER

  • “… as writers, our best friends aren’t people; they’re books. If we got along with people so well, we’d be out there among them, instead of home alone, writing.”
    — Sara Gran, from My Best Friends Are Books (September 2018)

ON OTHER PEOPLE’S BOOKS

  • “I can’t take narcissistic stories that are not only cross-eyed boring but make me feel I’m being given a tour of an infected gland.”
    — James Lee Burke (New York Times, December 29, 2018)

ON DISCIPLINE

  • “It’s always a question of discipline. You know, talent is God given and you can learn every trick in the book, but if you don’t have the discipline to sit down and hone your craft and do it every God damn day, then you’re not going to get anywhere.”
    — Greg Rucka, from Inside the Comic Book Writers’ Studio
  • “There isn’t any secret. You sit down and you start and that’s it.”
    Elmore Leonard, from Sara Rosett’s FAQs
  • “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”
    — Lawrence Kasdan
  • “I’m a slow writer… I envy writers who can just dash right through. I agonize, I whine, I back up, I delete. Eventually, something comes out that seems to be a book, but you can’t prove it by me. I’m still waiting for it to get easy.”
    — Sue Grafton
  • “Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day.”
    — Norman Mailer

ON LITERATURE

  • “When a book, any sort of book, reaches a certain intensity of artistic performance it becomes literature. That intensity may be a matter of style, situation, character, emotional tone, or idea, or half a dozen other things. It may also be a perfection of control over the movement of a story similiar to the control a great pitcher has over a ball.”
    — Raymond Chandler
  • “I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper.”
    — Steve Martin, star and co-writer of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

ON DEVELOPING AS A WRITER

  • “The first draft of anything is shit.”
    — Ernest Hemingway
  • ” ‘Stages of development’ are for people who write one book a year.”
    — Robert Randisi, in 2011 Barnes & Noble interview. Bob would’ve discuss this further, but he had three more books to write.

ON GOING FOR IT

  • “Anyone can type up a few hundred pages. The real work of writing is this: reveal yourself, at the cost of pride and sanity and safety, so others can feel less alone.”
    — Sara Gran, from My Best Friends Are Books (September 2018)
  • “You have to put it all on the line every time. If you ever set out to write less than the best you can produce, you’ll sink without a ripple.”
    — John D. MacDonald

ON KEEPING IT REAL

  • “The shoe leather of crime fiction keeps you grounded on the street… Even as a writer, you cannot get too lofty or polemical about the things you want to say, because fundamentally the story has to solve a crime. It keeps me grounded as a writer.”
    — Attica Locke (July 2019, The Bitter Southerner)

ON READING

  • “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
    — Stephen King, from On Writing

ON SHORT STORIES

  • “A good story cannot be devised; it has to be distilled.”
    — Raymond Chandler

ON THE PULPS

  • “Yes, I am a hack. A hack writer banging at deadlines. Slapping words into place. Finding errors in judgment 100 pages back that it’s too fucking late to do anything about so I better figure out a way to force the plot to make up for it in the next 50 pages. This is how pulp is made….Pulp isn’t a .45 and a fedora and a monster lurking and a dame in a short skirt and a low cut blouse and a 36-24-36 figure, it’s a story cranked out for love or money when there’s no time to sweat about the last word you wrote or the one after the one you’re writing right fucking now.”
    — Charlie Huston
  • “Pulp tip #1: Omit unnecessary words? Not in pulp. Any word that gets you closer to your daily word count goal is absolutely necessary.”
    — Christa Faust, Writer. Fetishist. Pulp Enthusiast
  • Pulp tip #2: Don’t look back. Just keep writing.”
    — Christa Faust, Writer. Fetishist. Pulp Enthusiast

ON EDITORS

  • “When I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so that it will stay split.”
    — Raymond Chandler
  • “To entrust to an editor a story over which you have labored and to which your name and reputation are attached can be like sending your daughter off for an evening with Ted Bundy.”
    — Edna Buchanan

ON THE PUBLIC

  • “The only two kinds of books could earn an American writer a living are cookbooks and detective novels. ”
    — Rex Stout
  • “My purpose is to entertain myself first and other people secondly.”
    — John D. MacDonald
  • “I want story, wit, music, wryness, color, and a sense of reality in what I read, and I try to get it in what I write.”
    — John D. MacDonald
  • “Those big shot writers… could never dig the fact that there are more peanuts consumed than caviar.”
    — Mickey Spillane
  • “My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.”
    — David Simon, from an interview with Nick Hornby
  • “I think every author who takes this business seriously should work for a while as a bookseller. It’s strange to see how many authors don’t understand how books are sold.”
    — Ace Atkins, who worked as a Barnes & Noble shelver, in Publisher’s Weekly (April 16, 2012)

ON CRITICS AND REVIEWS

  • “I have learned things from reviews, ways to improve my writing.”
    Elmore Leonard, in interview in The New Black Mask (1985)

ON LOVE AND SEX IN MYSTERIES

  • “Love interest nearly always weakens a mystery because it introduces a type of suspense that is antagonistic to the detective’s struggle to solve a problem.”
    — Raymond Chandler
  • “Writing sex scenes is by far, the hardest and most ridiculous thing a writer can ever do. It’s virtually impossible to get it done with any plausibility.”
    — Lee Child

ON CHARACTERS

  • “Don’t waste your time and ours creating personified plot points to move around a chessboard: create real, rich, complicated characters. If you don’t know how to do this, you have bigger problems on your hands than learning to write: you likely aren’t listening to your fellow humans, or observing them very closely, and you are missing the heart of life on earth. Learn how to listen and learn how to see: if you can generate the patience to do so, you will be rewarded a thousandfold, as a person and as a writer.”
    — Sara Gran, from My Best Friends Are Books (September 2018)

ON FAIR PLAY IN MYSTERIES

  • “At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must appear inevitable.”
    — Raymond Chandler

ON CYNICISM

  • “If there is a trace of cynicism in my books, it’s only based on reality. People are always saying, ‘Things can’t be as bad as you make them,’ and I say, ‘No, they’re worse.’”
    — Ross Thomas

ON WRAPPING IT UP

  • “… the surprise with which a detective novel concludes should set up tragic vibrations which run backward through the entire structure”.
    — Ross Macdonald

ON MOVING THE PLOT ALONG

  • “”When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.”
    — Raymond Chandler, from the introduction to Trouble Is My Business

ON DEADLINES

  • “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
    — Douglas Adams

ON BEING PUBLISHED

  • “The difference between being in print and out of print is the same as the difference between being alive and being dead.”
    — Donald Westlake
  • “Master your craft… Don’t self-publish. That’s as good as admitting you’re too lazy to do the hard work.”
    — Sue Grafton in The Passive Voice(2012)

ON BOOKS BY CROOKS

  • “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”
    — Professor Humbert Humbert in Lolita (1955) by Vladimir Nabokov

ON THE BUSINESS OF WRITING

  • “I’m a small businessman in a highly competitive field, fabricating a product for sale in a buyer’s market, and required to establish my own merchandising and marketing procedures.”
  • — John D. MacDonald, from “Professionally Yours” (1950, Writers’ Yearbook)

ON THE ACTUAL WRITING

  • “The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”
    — Raymond Chandler
  • “Through joy and through sorrow, I — wrote. Through hunger and through thirst, I–wrote. Through good report and through ill report, I — wrote. Through sunshine and through moonshine, I–wrote. What I wrote it is unnecessary to say.”
    — Edgar Allan Poe
  • “That’s what you do, man, you put down one word after the other as it comes in your head. It isn’t like having to learn how to play the piano, like you have to learn notes. you already learned in school how to write, didn’t you? I hope so. You have the idea and you put down what you want to say. Then you get somebody to add in the commas… where they belong, if you aren’t positive yourself. Maybe fix up the spelling where you have some tricky words. There people do that for you. Some, I’ve even seen scripts where I know words weren’t spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it. So I don’t think it’s too important.”
    from Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard (By the way, notice that ALL Leonard’s commas are in the RIGHT place?)
  • “Words are great foes of reality.”
    — Joseph Conrad
  • “Don’t you wish you had a job like mine? All you have to do is think up a certain number of words! Plus, you can repeat words! And they don’t even have to be true!”
    — Dave Barry
  • “A writer doesn’t write with his mind, he writes with his hands.”
    — Henry Seidel Canby of the Saturday Review. Pulpster Frederick C. Davis called this “The most valuable and penetrating comment I have ever seen on writing–any kind,” in The Mystery Writer’s Handbook.
  • “What’s the use of kicking?”
    — Jim Thompson
  • “I’m smart one day out of thirty, but I never know which day it will be so I have to sit here patiently, feeling liker an ignortamus most of the time.”
    — Sue Grafton
  • “In my hotel room in Paris I only needed cigarettes, a bottle of scotch, and occasionally a good dish of meat and vegetables cooking on the burner behind me. Writingís always whetted my appetite.”
    — Chester Himes
  • “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
    — Elmore Leonard

TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE

  • “The only thing an artist has to remember is to never lose faith in his vision.”
    — James Lee Burke
  • “Advance your art. Be brave. Get ready to be misunderstood: it’s better than being useless. Say something true.”
    — Sara Gran, from My Best Friends Are Books (September 2018)

ON THE RULES OF WRITING

  • “There are no rules. You can write a story, if you wish, with no conflict, no suspense, no beginning, middle or end. Of course, you have to be regarded as a genius to get away with it, and that’s the hardest part — convincing everybody you’re a genius.”
    — Frederic Brown
List respectfully compiled by Kevin Burton Smith. Thanks to Scott Wolven for his contributions.

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