Writers’ Rule No 1: no writer will agree about the rules
For the past few months, I have avoided revealing anything about myself on the gossip-central platform known as Twitter by posting quotes from writers about writing.
Some are wise, a few are funny, some are quite frankly bonkers. The views can be from the classic (Flaubert) or the populist (Lee Child), the great (Philip Roth) to the small (Martin Amis). All are posted without commet.
There is no hint of a consensus here. Writers will always disagreee with one another, particularly about writing.
Here, in no particular order are some of the Writers’ Rules that now inhabit the Twittersphere:
John Fowles: ‘I no more want to see myself in print now than a monk wants to do a vaudeville act.â€™
Â EM Forster: ‘We all like to pretend we don’t use real people, but one does actually.’
Â Don DeLillo: ‘Being called a “bad citizen” is a compliment to a novelist. ..If we’re bad citizens, we’re doing our job.’
Â VS Naipaul: ‘The novel form has done its work. The true novelists today are people like Edwina Currie, Jeffrey Archer.’
Â Harold Brodkey: ‘I’m not famous. My image is famous. It’s a shadow I don’t even cast.’
Maxwell Perkins on writing a novel: ‘If you think you are not doing it well, you are thinking the way real novelists do.’
Eugene O’Neill: ‘Writing is my vacation from living.â€™
Arthur Miller: â€˜I get up in the morning and write. Then I tear it up. Thatâ€™s the routine.â€™
Redmond O’Hanlon: ‘The point of heterosexual male literature, art, music, science and rugby is to win the love of women.’
Toni Morrison: â€˜If youâ€™re blocked, you probably ought to be.â€™
Iris Murdoch: â€˜Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at oneâ€™s luck.â€™
AN Wilson on literary parties: ‘The duds you see all around you,with hate in their faces, had started out hoping to be Keats.â€™
Gustave Flaubert: â€˜Once our work is printed – farewell! It belongs to everyone..It is the height of prostitution, and the vilest kind.’ Â
Hanif Kureishi: ‘How do I like to write? With a soft pencil and a hard dick – not the other way round.â€™
Christopher Hitchens: â€˜Write as if itâ€™s your last words.’
Russell Hoban: â€˜Children are in contact with the deep things which people tend to close off as they get older.’
Russell Hoban: â€˜I never have a plan when I start a novel. If I did, it would be half dead before it started.’
William Hazlitt: ‘All who have to live by their labours have their potboilers.’
Elizabeth Smart: â€˜Writers have to construct an importance, a sacred vocation, not to feel fiddling.â€™
Adam Mars-Jones: ‘There is no such thing as a political laugh or a moral laugh. A laugh is a very pure thing.’Â
Charles Dickens on literary journalists: ‘the lice of literature’.
Simone Weill: ‘Fictional good is boring…fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound, and full of charm.’
Carol Shields: â€˜When you write happy endings, you are not taken seriously.â€™
Â Janet Hobhouse: The purposeful deprivation that allows you to work,the cultivation of dullness so that writing can be an escape.
Â Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘You write best about yourself. It may even be that it’s impossible to write well about anything else.’
Â Ted Hughes: ‘It is fatally easy to acquire, through other people, a view of oneâ€™s work from the outside.’
Â Anton Chekov: ‘A man of letters should be as objective as a chemist; he has to renounce ordinary subjectivity.’
Â Jonathan Carroll: ‘Writers nowadays don’t have any courage. They have cleverness but they are clevering themselves to death.’
Â John Banville: ‘I’ve always likened writing a novel to a very powerful dream that you know is going to haunt you for days.’
Â Paul Theroux: ‘Sometimes you see two people walking along holding hands. You think – that man’s not writing a book.’
Â Jack London: ‘You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.â€™
Mark Lawson: ‘If a critic wants to put down a serious novel, he will call it unputdownable.’
Ford Madox Ford on agents: â€˜…a sort of bar loafer who hangs around, finding what publisher, magazine or paper wants what.’
PG Wodehouse: â€˜It isnâ€™t a bad sort of life if you have a novel to write.â€™
Richard Price: ‘As soon as you start a second book, you’re in competition with yourself.’
Cole Porter: â€˜The moment the curtain rises on the opening night,I say to myself â€œThere she goesâ€ and Iâ€™ve bid goodbye to my baby.â€™
Rudyard Kipling: ‘Few lips would be moved to song if they would find a sufficiency of kissing.’
Ernest Hemingway: ‘The better the writers, the less they will speak about what they have written themselves.’
Somerset Maugham: ‘The novelist is dead in the man who has become aware of the triviality of human affairs.’
Norman Mailer: Plot is equal to a drug..Sooner or later, plot presents its bill, and dire exigencies come down upon the writer.
Albert Camus: ‘It is in order to shine sooner that authors refuse to re-write. Despicable. Begin again.’
Arnold Bennett: ‘The single motive that should govern the choice of a principal figure is the motive of love for that figure.’
Paul Auster: ‘I donâ€™t know how to explain the work I do. I canâ€™t defend it. I canâ€™t do anything but do it.
Salma Rushdie: â€˜A writerâ€™s injuries are his strengths, and from his wounds will flow his sweetest, most startling dreams.â€™
Milan Kundera: â€˜We write books because our children arenâ€™t interested in us.’
George Gissing: ‘What an insane thing it is to make literature one’s only means of support!…To make a trade of art!’
Philip Roth: ‘Let the book take care of itself. Someone smarter than I am will have to tell me what itâ€™s all about.â€™
Julian Evans: ‘Evil is a reality. Evil happens….If evil happens, then evil is a story that needs to be told.â€™
Martin Amis: ‘I would certainly sacrifice any psychological or realistic truth for a phrase.’
Robert Macfarlane: ‘All good writing either works against the grain of its genre, or transcends it altogether.â€™
Elmore Leonard: ‘If I have to stop and think about a word as if it was holy, I am interrupting my character.’
Sir Francis Bacon: â€˜The Noblest workes and Foundations have proceeded from chilldlesse men.â€™
Franz Kafka: ‘Conversation takes the importance, the seriousness, the truth, out of everything I think.â€™
Frederick Forsyth: ‘I don’t like writing, I have never liked it. It’s extremely solitary, very boring and just a job.
Alan Garner: ‘I can’t think my work. I have to feel it, hear it, find it…I wait for the word, the hard-edged word.’
Eric Ambler: ‘The words don’t come fluently – if it comes readily I get very suspicious.’
AN Wilson on literary gatherings: ‘Faustian experiences, in which lost souls are adrift among the cheap wine and peanuts.’
Zadie Smith: ‘Fail better… It is literature in its imperfect aspect that I find most beautiful and most human.
Charles Baudelaire: â€˜Travail immÃ©diat, meme mauvais, vaut mieux que la rÃ©verie.
Kingsley Amis: ‘If you can’t annoy somebody with what you write, I think there’s little point in writing.’
Paul Theroux: ‘Sometimes you see two people walking along holding hands. You think – that man’s not writing a book.’
Anthony Trollope: ‘As for conceit, what man will do any good who is not conceited?’
John Cheever: ‘The rivalry among novelists is quite as intense as that among sopranos.’
Martin Amis: â€˜The sexual act is a very weird thing in that it is indescribable. Literature has got nowhere with it in centuries.
Albert Camus: â€˜The moment when I am no more than a writer I shall cease to be a writer.â€™
Virginia Woolf: ‘We are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print.’
Arthur Ransome: ‘Unless I am writing that is good fun FOR ME, not for somebody else, I cannot write at all.
Redmond O’Hanlon: ‘The point of heterosexual male literature, art, music, science and rugby is to win the love of women.â€™
Hilary Mantel: ‘I often comfort myself that the worse life gets the better it gets, because suffering can feed writing.’
Norman Mailer: ‘I would say I’m wasting my substance completely when I’m not writing.’
John Updike: â€˜A fiction writerâ€™s life is his treasure, his ore, his savings account, his jungle gym.â€™
Georges Simenon: â€˜A novelist is a man who does not like his mother, or who never received mother-love.â€™
Stephen King: â€˜I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.â€™
F Scott Fitzgerald: ‘You never cut anything out of a book you regret later.’
Marguerite Duras: ‘A happy book is indecent, unseemly. We ought to wear mourning as a sign of civilisation.â€™
Neil Gaiman: ‘When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong or how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.â€™
Neil Gaiman: â€˜When people tell you somethingâ€™s wrong or doesnâ€™t work for them, they are almost always right.’
Â Lorrie Moore: â€˜I think that all the best writing, like the best music, has a sadness to it.
VS Naipaul on teaching creative writing: â€˜I would take poison rather than do this for a living.â€™
WB Yeats: â€˜All that is personal soon rots.â€™
Gustave Flaubert: â€˜I have always tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it. â€˜
Cyril Connolly: ‘It is the novelist who finds it hard to create character who indulges in fine writing.’Â
GK Chesterton: ‘I have a wife, a piece of string, a pencil and a knife; what more can a man want on a honeymoon?’
Martin Amis: â€˜Cynics donâ€™t write novels.â€™
Jules Renard: â€˜You will not have made real progress until you have lost the desire to prove your talent.â€™
Zadie Smith: â€˜Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd wonâ€™t make your writing any better.â€™
Lionel Shriver: ‘Complacency kills a lot of writers. They end up imitating themselves.â€™
Â Peter Ackroyd: ‘It can hardly be stressed too often that the good writer is rarely, if ever, a good man.’
John Fowles: â€˜All writers are difficult to live with. It is an inexorable law of mankind.’
Anthony Burgess: ‘Plot is only a bone you throw at the dog that feeds on narrative while the real work of literature proceeds.’
Vera Brittain: ‘I would not sacrifice one successful article to a night of physical relationship.’
Rose Tremain: ‘Never begin a book when you feel you want to begin it, but hold off a while longer.â€™
Auberon Waugh: ‘All you’ve got to do is tickle things up a bit. I think that’s your only role as a writer.’
Irvine Welsh: â€˜Thereâ€™s fuck all to say about my books other than whatâ€™s written in them.
Simon Gray: ‘Writer’s block is an obscenity invented by 20th century writers who want an excuse for not working.â€™
Max Beerbohm: ‘An author with a grievance is of all God’s creatures the most tedious.
My Twitter username is @TerenceBlacker