Words to Live By: Best Writing Advice from Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, and Alan Watts
A couple years ago, I bought a big cork board to hang over my writing desk. Since then, I’ve been pinning quotes to it to keep me from forgetting the things that inspire me. Here are some of my favorites from authors, fantasy or otherwise.
1. Terry Pratchett’s Advice on Writing Fantasy
“There is a term that readers have been known to apply to fantasy that is sometimes an unquestioning echo of better work gone before…It’s EFP, or Extruded Fantasy Product. Do not write it, and try not to read it. Read widely outside the genre. Read about the Old West (a fantasy in itself) or Georgian London or how Nelson’s navy was victualled or the history of alchemy or clock making or the mail coach system. Read with the mind-set of a carpenter looking at trees.”—Terry Pratchett, Notes from a Successful Fantasy Author: Keep it Real
Despite the saying that the best writers are the best readers, I stopped reading fantasy in earnest years ago. It was always a stressful, frustrating experience, because my inner writer was either going “I wouldn’t have written it that way” or “Goddamn, I’ve got to steal that.” Over time, though, I realized that most of the fantasy I was reading wasn’t the kind of fantasy I wanted to write: I hated The Eye of the World and Sword of Shannara, and books like Wizard’s First Rule didn’t hold my interest. Instead, I read things like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which is a great non-fiction account of a doomed ascent of Mt. Everest, and Takehiko Inoue’s Vagabond manga, which is one of the most intense and thorough character studies I’ve ever read.
Apart from storytelling, I’m a strong believer that a good worldbuilder should always be learning something new, because the world is filled with small, interesting details everywhere you look. Frank Herbert’s Dune, for example, was initially inspired by the US Department of Agriculture’s attempt to stop the uncontrolled spread of the Oregon Dunes. It fascinated Herbert that the dunes moved and flowed like living things, and that germ of an idea grew into Arrakis. In the same way, reading a Rolling Stone interview with the electronic music duo Daft Punk ended up inspiring the narcomancy in my story Hypnotica. There’s so much raw material out there if you open your mind to it.
2. Alan Watts’ Advice on Writing with Passion
“Advice? I don’t have advice. Stop aspiring and start writing. If you’re writing, you’re a writer. Write like you’re a goddamn death row inmate and the governor is out of the country and there’s no chance for a pardon. Write like you’re clinging to the edge of a cliff, white knuckles, on your last breath, and you’ve got just one last thing to say, like you’re a bird flying over us and you can see everything, and please, for God’s sake, tell us something that will save us from ourselves. Take a deep breath and tell us your deepest, darkest secret, so we can wipe our brow and know that we’re not alone. Write like you have a message from the king. Or don’t. Who knows, maybe you’re one of the lucky ones who doesn’t have to.”—Alan Watts
This seems like a recipe for a heart attack, but I think it’s less about frantically scribbling at every possible moment and more about writing with passion and purpose. Almost every writer, I think, has stopped mid-way through a revision, scrolled down to the bottom of the piece, seen that there’s still days or weeks-worth of work left, and thought “Who’s really going to care?” And this quote reminds me that I care, that there was something that made me sit down and start writing this in the first place. There was something I was trying to express, something that mattered.
Whenever I get jaded or bogged down in the craft of writing, this quote also reminds me that I can walk away at any time, because there is no cliff to cling to, no execution date coming up (unless I have a deadline). There’s nothing chaining me to my writing desk, but I keep coming back, because I’m not finished yet.
3. Neil Gaiman’s Reflections on Fame
“Stephen King…he showed up at a book signing of mine in Boston in 1992 and afterwards we went to his hotel. He gave me the best bit of advice. He said, you know, you’ve got to enjoy this. This is magic. You do a signing and hundreds come. You’re one of the most beloved comics writers in the world. Enjoy it. But I never did. I just worried. I worried it would all go away. I worried I’d break it.”—Neil Gaiman, interview with The Big Issue
Like a lot of aspiring writers, I used to be obsessed with planning my rise to literary fame and fortune. I thought about how I wanted my name to appear in print, what I’d say in interviews, and how I’d deal with fan mail. There was always the sense that once I’d published my inevitable blockbuster series, that’d be it: I’d finally be happy with my life.
After working in book publishing for a while, though, I found that most published authors are plagued by a slew of anxieties: whether they can come out with a new book every year, whether reviewers will pick it up, whether anyone is actually reading their books, whether the next book will be the one that finally tanks and reveals that they were never as good as people thought they were, and on and on. Even chilling with Stephen King after a big, successful signing, Neil Gaiman was still worried that it was just a passing thing, and I think that says something about what it’s like at the top. Imposter syndrome is the name of the game, and it seems you never really “arrive.”
So why write, if not for the fame and fortune? For me, it’s about someone writing to me and saying a story really meant something to them. I’ve written those kinds of letters to people (Dave Barry and Dan Salvato are two), and I hope they meant as much to them as they did to me.
Cover image: Kyle Cassidy