How The Great Writers Write

Because smoking and looking thoughtful doesn't quite get the job done

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Few of the great professions the rest of us aspire to are as unfathomable as being a writer.

Sportsmen, we understand, pair natural talent with constant, painful training. Musicians? You learn the notes, and you practise until your fingers bleed. Great scientists apply their brilliant brains to study. Singers, well, singers sing.

But novelists? Poets? Where do their ideas come from? And how do they turn a blank page and a pencil – or to be less romantic, a blank page and a keyboard – into a full time job that results, at the other end, in a world made up entirely in their own heads?

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Here, we've rounded up our favourite attempts from literary giants to explain the methodology of what they do, and suggest how others can follow in their path. Absorb, take heed, and maybe, just maybe, you can become one of the great unfathomables too.


"The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck. That is the most valuable thing I can tell you so try to remember it."
– Ernest Hemingway

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"No music + Bad TV = Bad mood & no pages."
– Hunter S. Thompson

"Try to develop actual work habits, and even though you have a busy life, try to reserve an hour, say – or more – a day to write. Some very good things have been written on an hour a day."
– John Updike

"You can only write in a celebratory spirit… the novel is a celebratory form, and it took a complete wrong turning with Samuel Beckett, et al, who thought that they had to make it gloomy because the first half of the 20th century was so disgraceful… those who have or pretend to have a remorselessly nihilistic view of human life are just ridiculously unobservant. The world is jumping up and down like a dog longing to romp with you. That’s the spirit that I follow."
– Martin Amis

"And with the novel we have happened to devise this form, this very elastic, mutable form that can allow us moments of real human investigation. It’s an open-ended way of looking at our own image, in ways that science can’t do, religion’s not credible, metaphysics is too intellectually repellent on its surface – this is our best machine, as it were."
– Ian McEwan

"Always carry a notebook. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever."
– Will Self

"If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don't just stick there scowling at the problem. But don't make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people's words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient."
– Hilary Mantel

"Being a writer means you have to spend an awful lot of time alone. It’s not all about sitting in bars talking about the books you want to write. You have to spend a lot of time staring at a desk, feeling pretty fucked up, pretty lonely, and getting to know all these people that don’t actually exist – which is madness, of course, but it’s the name of the game."
– Irvine Welsh

"To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make."
– Truman Capote

"Don’t just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style."
– P D James

"When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong."
– Neil Gaiman

"There's a difference between writing for a living and writing for life. If you write for a living, you make enormous compromises... If you write for life, you'll work hard; you'll do what's honest, not what pays."
– Toni Morrison

"No man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."
– CS Lewis

"Writing a book is like telling a joke and having to wait 2 years to know whether or not it was funny."
– Alain de Botton

"Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us get up and go to work."
– Stephen King

Any you'd add?


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