10 Solid Writing Quotes From the Past 10 Years: Margaret Atwood, Tom Clancy, Chuck Palahniuk and more

WD just released a compilation DVD featuring 100 complete issues of the magazine from the past decade. After snagging one and browsing the disc on this WD Mag Wednesday, here are 10 of my favorite quotable bits of writing wisdom from 10 cover stories. (To find out more about the CD, click here.)

A prompt follows. Happy Wednesday!

“If I’m known forever as a children’s writer, I will never consider that ‘second best’—I don’t feel I need to write for adults before I’m a ‘serious’ writer. For me, the idea always comes before I consider an audience. In truth, I never consider the audience for whom I’m writing. I just write what I want to write.”
—J.K. Rowling, February 2000

“The way I tell my stories largely results from a 90-minute show I once saw on PBS about Hitchcock and his films. Suspense is achieved by information control: What you know. What the reader knows. What the characters know.”
—Tom Clancy, January 2001

“I like to say there are three things that are required for success as a writer: talent, luck, discipline. It can be in any combination, but there’s nothing you do to influence the first two. Discipline is the one element of those three things that you can control, and so that is the one that you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two.”
—Michael Chabon, April 2002

“I never have [suffered writer’s block], although I’ve had books that didn’t work out. I had to stop writing them. I just abandoned them. It was depressing, but it wasn’t the end of the world. When it really isn’t working, and you’ve been bashing yourself against the wall, it’s kind of a relief. I mean, sometimes you bash yourself against the wall and you get through it. But sometimes the wall is just a wall. There’s nothing to be done but go somewhere else.”
—Margaret Atwood, April 2004

“When I’m working on a deadline, I put in eight or nine hours at a time. But I don’t get writer’s block. I think writer’s block is really just an excuse. It’s anxiety. The best way to get through this is to sit down and write about your writer’s block. This works like Drano. It will unclog you immediately.”
—Augusten Burroughs, April 2005

“It’s just as hard, if not harder, to write a really brilliant short story as it is to write a really brilliant novel, but the fact of the matter is, because it’s short, you have something quicker and feel like you’ve accomplished something. You’re in it, and you can stay in it.”
—Alice Hoffman, March 2006

“I often need physical gesture to balance dialogue. If I write in public, every time I need to know what a character is doing with his hand or foot, I can look up and study people and find compelling gestures that I can harvest. Writing in public gives you that access to a junkyard of details all around you.”
—Chuck Palahniuk, October 2007

“The one thing I’ve developed over these years is a pretty finely tuned sense for when something is working and when it’s not. And when it’s not, something has to be changed. Often I’ll just jump ahead. As Elmore Leonard says, ‘skip the boring parts.’ I don’t try and write through if it feels dead on the page.”
—Tom Perrotta, December 2007

“There’s basically an element of fiction in everything you remember. Imagination and memory are almost the same brain processes. When I write fiction, I know that I’m using a bunch of lies that I’ve made up to create some form of truth. When I write a memoir, I’m using true elements to create something that will always be somehow fictionalized.”
—Isabel Allende, October 2008

“I’ve learned that it is best not to think about readers while I’m writing. I just try to sink into the world I’m describing. But at the very end, of course, I have to think about readers. I read my final draft pretending I’m someone else, just to make sure that what I’ve written makes sense from outside. At that point, I seem to picture my readers as brand-new to me. They have the neuter, faceless quality of people in dreams.”
—Anne Tyler, July/August 2009

And, as a bonus kicker, here’s Clancy again:

“I do not over-intellectualize the production process. I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”

* * *


free to take the following prompt home or post your
response (500
words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional
around-the-office swag drawings. If you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your story to me at
writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.

You arrive at work to find all the items in your office packed up in a box. There’s no note and you have no idea what’s going on. Write this scene.

(Courtesy of WD Online Community Editor Brian A. Klems)

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6 thoughts on “10 Solid Writing Quotes From the Past 10 Years: Margaret Atwood, Tom Clancy, Chuck Palahniuk and more

  1. Zac

    Thanks for the stories and the unexpected twists, everyone.

    And glad you liked the quotes!

    My top picks were Clancy’s (which was odd because I’ve never gotten too absorbed into his books — but the interview was damn great), and the relief and honest insight found in Atwood’s. (It’s a bit mind-blowing to think of someone like Atwood abandoning a book, isn’t it?)

  2. K. M. Pitts

    Penny James arrived at work, just any ordinary day she thought, but when she got to her cubicle she saw that all her belongings had been crammed into a cardboard box.

    As she sawed at the box, she tried to recall every conversation she had with her boss, looking for anything inappropriate she might have said to her but she couldn’t recall.

    At that moment George from accounting stuck his head over her cubicle and said, "The boss wants to see you in her office. Take your belongings."

    Penny proceeded to do as directed. She picked up the box with her hand shaking from nerves.

    She made her way to Priscilla’s office, who was sitting behind her desk talking on the phone. Priscilla held up her index finger, as she walked in, and directed her hand to one of the two seats in front of her.

    Penny did not sit down. She remained standing due to her nerves.

    As the boss finished her phone call, she placed the phone on the receiver and looked at her. "How long have you been with us?"

    "Ummm…"replied Penny.

    "15 years," Priscilla continued. "But until last month, you didn’t show any initiative towards your job." Priscilla took a small sip of coffee. "I was impressed with your work but…"

    Penny braced herself. A ‘but’ only meant one thing in life, and it always bad news.

    "You are employed as a secretary," Priscilla carried on. "but you show high potential as an editor."

    Now she was confused. "Am I being let go?"

    "No," replied Priscilla. "You’re being promoted!"

  3. Dorraine

    All great quotes Zac. But my favorite is Clancy’s take. Write what you know. What the reader knows. What the characters know. Just tell the damn story. Excellent!

  4. Mark James

    Zac, these are great words to write by. If I had to pick what spoke to me the most, it would be Michael Chabon’s, "Discipline is the one element of those three things that you can control, and so that is the one that you have to focus on controlling, and you just have to hope and trust in the other two." That’s so true . . .

    Martha, Father Time in the workplace? There must be a clause somewhere about that . . .

    Nobody looked at me when I ripped the tape off, opened the box, and unpacked it. They all acted like nothing was wrong.

    I let them sit there with their heads bent over their keyboards like they were praying to some data God. After everything was on my desk the way I liked, I crushed the empty cardboard under my feet and said, “Did anyone see what they did with my gun?”

    No one answered. I sat at my desk, turned on my computer.

    Pete was the office idiot. I figured that’s why he was standing at my desk. “I heard you got the big guy real hot under the collar,” he said.

    I gave him the first real smile he’d ever seen from me. “I heard you’re a forty three year old bald virgin,” I said. “Funny how word gets around isn’t it?”

    Before I walked in this morning and saw my old desk packed into a box, I avoided Pete because I liked being locked in an office better than being locked up. But today, he was the bonus round.

    He backed up, scratched one of his fat red cheeks, pointed a sausage-like finger at me. “You can’t say that.”

    I got to my feet, looked down at him. “Why not?”

    From behind me Marianne said, “Pete, I think Lawrence might be having a difficult day.”

    She always called me Lawrence, never Larry like everyone else. She was the only one I’d miss. Over in his cubicle, Pete was already on the phone.

    I yelled across two rows. “Tell Oliver to come down and pack the box himself.”

    Nobody in the rows between me and Pete even twitched when they heard me yelling.


    I turned around. “What?”

    Marianne’s head stopped right where my shoulders started, but she didn’t back down. “Would you like to go to the break room with me and get some coffee? Decaf might do you good this morning,” she said.

    Two cubicles down, a small voice I’d grown up with most of my life said, “I could use some decaf too.”

    So Oliver wasn’t that dumb, but he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was either. “Marianne, why don’t you take my little sister and get some coffee? I don’t want you two in the way.”

    Lizzie was on her feet and in my face like she knew how to fly. “Stop acting like some tough guy and let’s go,” she said.

    I put my hands on her shoulders, looked into her eyes. “Wait for me downstairs, Elizabeth.”

    “So you can go on another shooting spree?” She pushed me into my desk. The paperclip holder fell over and showered metal all over the floor. “It’s just a stupid job. Let’s go.”

    From the corners of my eyes, I saw people slide out of their chairs and under their desks. Oliver, who had come halfway down the row, sidled into the closest cubicle. His head sank as if the floor had opened and swallowed him.

    I pulled out my bottom drawer, and got out the gun I’d hidden behind it. Lizzie snatched it and slid it in her purse. “I dare you to get it out,” she said.

    Maybe Marianne was right. It was a good day for decaf.

  5. Martha W

    Zac, you nabbed my favorite one at the very end. "Tell the damn story." Pure truth. Great prompt.


    Billy stood at the entrance to his cubical, lost. What was he supposed to do now? All of his belongings fit into a two-by-two cardboard box. Thirty-five years he’d been with this company.

    He swung around and headed for the elevator that would take him to the second floor and his boss’s office. Two steps from the button he thought he heard the deep rumble of his supervisor coming from the break room. One last thing, to say goodbye.

    His palm slapped the swinging door, sending it into the room. He stopped, caught off guard. Where his boss should have been, relaxed as can be at the small table in the corner, sat a man who looked to be older than dirt. White hair cascaded down his shoulders, blending with the white beard seamlessly. He wore a smart, brown leisure suit with dark brown loafers. A pale green shirt peeked out from under the suit jacket, setting off the sparkle in his eyes.

    "Hello, William."

    His strong voice relaxed Billy, beckoned him closer. "Hello."

    "It’s been a long time since we met. Do you remember me?" The gentleman smiled.

    Billy shook his head, tried to think. "I’m sorry."

    "It’s okay. You were but a young man, just starting out in life, really." The man leaned forward, patted Billy’s hand. "You couldn’t know the man you helped was me."

    Billy searched his face, a memory teased at the edges of his mind. Then, the realization struck. "You’re the man I stopped and helped with a flat tire, the one who needed a shower and a place to stay. God, that’s been – what? Forty years ago?"

    Chuckling, appearing quite pleased that Billy remembered at last, the older man sat back. "And you offered your home to a stranger." He smiled, his eyes taking that far off look of someone thinking of the past. "It only took me one night to know."

    "Know what?"

    "That you were my replacement. I just had to bide my time, as they say." He nodded. "Your wife has been gone for ten years, your kids all have grown kids. It’s time."

    "Time for what?" Billy felt dense, but this wasn’t adding up.

    "There is a legend of a man who controls time, who guides the fates of others." Sparkling green eyes sharpened, stared into the deep blue of Billy’s eyes. "It is no myth."

    Billy knew the man was off his rocker. "Who do you think you are, old man?"

    "You don’t believe me?" Bushy eyebrows knit together, wrinkled fingers clenched tight. He sighed. "I knew it wouldn’t be as easy as that." He waved one hand and the clock stopped.

    Not just the one on the wall.

    Billy’s watch. His cell phone, too, when he checked it.

    Billy went to the door and peeked out at co-workers frozen in whatever activity they had been doing. He turned to the man again. "Who are you?"

    "The same as you will be. Father Time."

  6. Kristan

    Whew those are some great quotes! Thank you. I think Allende’s took the cake for me today, although it is not the most relevant to me right now. That award would have to go to Perrotta’s.


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