10 Writing Tips From History's Greatest Authors To Help You Write Your First Novel

10 Writing Tips From History's Greatest Authors To Help You Write Your First Novel

One of the things I love about writing is that you’re in a constant state of growth and learning. I remember when I read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath—which is arguably the greatest American novel ever written, although I’m partial to East of Eden—there was a section at the beginning that gave insight into his state of mind as he was writing it. 

In his journals, he wrote, “If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time.” 

John Steinbeck understood, at 37, that he wasn’t yet at the pinnacle of his writing career. He believed he still had a long way to go, in terms of skills and growth. After reading Grapes of Wrath, that’s both surprising and refreshing (and true, if you don’t believe it to be his best work).  

And I think, as a writer, or as anyone interested in developing a skill, that’s the attitude you should take. You’re always learning and growing. That’s largely what being a human is being about—growth. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.

So here’s some growth-inspiring quotes and tips from history’s greatest authors (including Steinbeck), designed to help you write that first novel. 

William Faulkner:

“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 is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

Many writers have said it (and I’ve quoted Stephen King as saying it here), but writers read, because they love writing, because they’re trying to learn, because they’re trying to decipher the meaning and skill behind the words. 

If you don’t love to read, you’re not cut out to be a writer. Plain and simple. 

John Steinbeck:

“Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day. It helps.”

To me, this mentality is the only way to write. It also reminds me of Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. You take the novel one page at a time. 

Otherwise, the work ahead of you can be daunting. Keep it manageable and take it page by page, scene by scene, sentence by sentence, bird by bird. 

Also in this quote is contained another nugget of wisdom, which is to simply enjoy the process. Stop thinking about fame and a completed project. Just enjoy it. This is what you want to do and where you’re supposed to be, so savour it.

Margaret Atwood:

“The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.”

This is an interesting one, because I think this does two things: it releases you from the terror of a first draft. If no one is going to see it, just let loose. And it gives you the creative freedom to explore the “truth,” which is what writing is all about, anyway. 

Zadie Smith:

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”

Practical and smart. Personally, I use a program called “SelfControl” which blocks the websites of my choosing. I’ve been using it for about 4 years now. Big fan. There’s no way to reset it or stop it. You simply run a timer and it will block those websites until the timer runs out.  

John Gardner:

“The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs.”

John Gardner wrote one of my favourite all time books on fiction, called The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers and the main takeaway from that book, which has stuck with me over the years, is that what you’re trying to accomplish with writing is a dream-film in the reader’s mind. 

However, what he’s saying in the quote is a belief I’ve had about all art, in general—that there’s 3 levels of all art (in order of importance): emotion, intellect, and aesthetic. 

Emotion is your ability to move reader and is the most powerful form of art (but perhaps the easiest). It’s why music may be the most popular form of art. It moves the people who listen to it. 

Intellect is when you are conveying values, ideas, or beliefs, and is the second most important part of great art. 

Finally, there is the aesthetic, which is the least important aspect of great art (though it is still important.) Aesthetics are the camera angles, the word choice, and the brush strokes. It is the techniques and skill that goes into your art. 

All 3 together is makes transcendent art. It is also the reason why I (usually) don’t connect with electronic music. I find it missing the second aspect of great art: intellect. 

Stephen King:

"Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings."

Sometimes there’s a sentence, or character, or scene, or plot point, that you just absolutely adore. You love it so much, even though it doesn’t quite fit it whatever it is you’re trying to do quite right. Kill it. 

Or there’s a turn of phrase that you think is so brilliant, critics will be turning it over in their heads for years to come. You should probably kill it. 

Because those things you love often stick out like a sore thumb. You’re trying too hard and everybody can tell. Re-consider those purple prose of yours.

Mark Twain:

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

This is a very (lol) basic editing tip that will be useful for just (another word that can often be removed) about every writer. 

Take out your yellow highlighter or arm your command + f and look for every ‘very’ in your story. 

In fact, one of the best things you can do is make a list of every word like this, or an on-going list that you’re noticing you’re overusing or hate, and command + f them all. 

Raymond Carver:

“Every great or even every very good writer makes the world over according to his own specifications. It’s akin to style, what I’m talking about, but it isn’t style alone. It is the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes. It is his world and no other. This is one of the things that distinguishes one writer from another. Not talent. There’s plenty of that around. But a writer who has some special way of looking at things and who gives artistic expression to that way of looking: that writer may be around for a time.” 

What I believe Raymond is describing here is voice. A writer, over time, develops their voice, and you must work tirelessly at it, with no ‘voice’ in sight. Then, one day (and I don’t think I’ve personally hit that day), after hours and hours of work, you have it. 

Take, for example, the difference between the opening of Melville’s Omoo and Moby Dick:

“IT WAS the middle of a bright tropical afternoon that we made good our escape from the bay. The vessel we sought lay with her main-topsail aback about a league from the land, and was the only object that broke the broad expanse of the ocean.”

This is a good, but not exceptional, opening to a novel. It will do the trick, and shows that the writer has strong fundamentals and maybe some talent. 

But now compare it to the once-in-a-generation novel, Moby Dick:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago--never mind how long precisely --having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”

What we see here, ladies and gentleman, with 4 years between publications, is the development of voice. It’s strong, commanding, witty, and timeless. It will stick with generations of readers long after the writer is gone. It will inspire mimicry and cult quotations. 

E. B. White:

“Advice to young writers who want to get ahead without any annoying delays: don’t write about Man, write about a man.”

Stories are just vehicles for great characters. A poor, one-dimensional character trapped in a good story will not work. A fantastic, intriguing, interesting character in a poor story can still work. Remember that.  

If your characters stink, or you don’t understand who they are, what makes them tick, or what they would be like when they have dinner with their parents, spend more time exploring and developing them.

Write out scenes that characterize who they are, or write scenes that made them who they are. Ask yourself questions like, “where were they born and who was there?”

Remember that scene from Boardwalk Empire where Gyp Rosetti is having dinner with his wife and mom and he, as villainous as he is, looks like a complete coward? Now that’s character!

Kurt Vonnegut:

“Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. … All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

I included this intentionally stupid quote because I have a personal preference against semi-colons. I don’t like them. To me they come off as pretentious (or show you’ve been to college). 

What’s more dangerous is that people often don’t use them correctly. You shouldn’t ever be pretentious AND incorrect. That’s the worst kind of pretentious. 

But I also hate prescriptive advice. So that and every other tip on writing I’ve just given can be freely ignored when necessary.

What’s your favourite writerly quote? What’s your favourite writing advice? Let me know! 

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