Words to Write By

Words to Write By


Ask the Author: Therese Moore — which comes first, the plot idea or the character? (March 29th)

Aaron: Another fine question. This one really depends on who you ask. For me, I like the idea of starting with a character (like Monk or Sean from Psych). From there, pretty much any situation will be interesting. However, most “commercial” fiction starts with a plot. Most of my “literary” short stories started with character, but my novels all started with plot. And maybe that’s the difference. Long story short, I’m not sure I can really answer this effectively. Very much the chicken and the egg.

Al: For many writers (maybe most writers) the answer is, “Eh, depends.” The question brings up an important point: does every idea come to the writer in the same way? The answer is no. Sometimes we try to reduce the nebulous, difficult to define process of creativity and make it conform to a set of rules. There are no set of rules for ideas. So embrace your idea no matter how it comes to you. If a character shows up uninvited, then start with the character; if the plot idea shows up first, ask who is going to populate it. A lesson from architecture: Flexible things bend; ridged things break.

MJ: Yup. It depends. With NOLA, the plot came to me very subtly and the more I wrote it, the more the characters influenced it and vice-versa. I also have a notebook of characters for future use. Some days when I’m people watching I get character ideas and other times I get inspired by locations. Many times I just dream a scene snippet and when I wake up, I have both character and plot. True story.

Words to Write By: Our Favorite Writing Quotes


  • “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” —Ernest Hemingway
    • We need to continue to study the craft. We can always get better.
  • “Making people believe the unbelievable is no trick; it’s work. … Belief and reader absorption come in the details: An overturned tricycle in the gutter of an abandoned neighborhood can stand for everything.” —Stephen King
    • I love the power of ordinary objects and the emotion they can impart. But it takes work to empower these objects to give us what we want.
  • “The writing of a novel is taking life as it already exists, not to report it but to make an object, toward the end that the finished work might contain this life inside it and offer it to the reader. The essence will not be, of course, the same thing as the raw material; it is not even of the same family of things. The novel is something that never was before and will not be again.” —Eudora Welty
    • Writing a novel is, in many ways, the creation of an object that contains a life, or several lives. It preserves them in a way no other medium can in such a way that it has no expiration date. The contents will always be fresh and familiar.
  • “Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion—that’s Plot.” —Leigh Brackett, WD
    • I included this because of Terese’s question. This seems to favor the idea that plot is born out of people.
  • “Let the world burn through you. Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.” —Ray Bradbury
    • Another fantastic way of demonstrating that stories exist outside of us as writers. We are merely the conduits they choose to tell themselves.


  • “A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As he becomes proficient in the use of the language, his style will emerge, because he himself will emerge, and when this happens he will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate him from other minds, other hearts–which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.” — E.B. White, Elements of Style, p. 70.
  • Writing is a process. Every work we undertake is a different jungle to explore; a higher mountain to climb. Writers are self-made not born.
  • “Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds–the writer is always slightly behind.” p. 14
    • “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” p. 7  –Both quotes from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well
      • The single most difficult thing for a new writer to learn, more difficult than mastering the semicolon or learning the ins and outs of publishing labyrinth, is learning that it is possible and imperative to take words off the page.
      • Al’s Axiom #6: Clutter is a prose killer.
  • “What is The Subconscious to every other man, in its creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse.” –Ray Bradbury, Zen and the Art of Writing, p. 35.
    • Sometimes writing isn’t logical. Sometimes creativity grows in soil of intuition and subconscious thought. Solutions, new ideas, plot turns, pop up from subconscious.
    • Stephen King talks about the boys in the basement who help him when his writing bogs down. He’s speaking of the subconscious.
  • “Writing is life… Writers need their writing; they need their imaginary worlds in order to find peace in, or makes sense of, the real world.” … “There is never a moment when I am not thinking about writing. I can’t put it out of my mind entirely, even in the most trying of circumstances. You might as well ask me to stop breathing; thinking about my writing is as much a function of my life.” –Terry Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works, p. 6
    • Terry Brooks does what most writers would keep to themselves: he admits he is addicted to writing. It is just something he chooses to do; it is something he is compelled to do. If the first of his quotes isn’t clear enough, he lays bare the rest of it:
  • He also wrote this honest self-appraisal: “If I don’t write, I become restless and ill-tempered. I become dissatisfied. My reaction to not writing is both physical and emotional. I am incomplete without my work. I am so closely bound to it, so much identified by it, that without it I think I would crumble into dust and drift away,” p. 28.


  • “I write for the same reason I breathe. Because if I didn’t, I would die.” Isaac Asimov.
    • This is particularly true for me. I’m reminded of a time when I went through a very hard depression and hadn’t written for probably a year or more. One afternoon I picked up an old notebook and read some notes I’d jotted down. I allowed myself to write for just a few paragraphs, but something triggered. I saw a friend later that day and he asked what was different? When I told him “I wrote today” he said “Don’t ever stop.” And ever since then, especially when I’m sad or overwhelmed or anxious, or happy and excited and joyous, I write. I can’t always write every day, but I at least keep it in my head. I’m never not working on my writing.
  • “Write every day.” Stephen J. Cannell.
    • So this is particularly special to me. SJC, before he was a novelist, created, produced and wrote many of TV’s greatest hits. He’s responsible for the A-Team (which coincidentally I just started watching on Netflix), Riptide, the Rockford Files, 21 Jump Street, Wiseguy, The Greatest American Hero, to name a few. In the ‘90s he sold his production company and turned to writing. The Shane Scully series is the first of his I read. In 2007 I emailed him, asking for advice on starting a long term writing career. I basically said I was sure he’d never see this email, let alone respond. I received the generic response but a few months later, his office contacted me again. He would post a video response to reader questions every now and then, and they chose to answer my question! I was so thrilled when the video posted, and he started by calling me “Molly Jo.” (Everyone except family and church called me “Molly”). That video, to this day, is still in his top five all-time most popular videos. There’s more to this story. That email exchange led to an online friendship and three years later I met him at a book signing. Six months later he passed away. Two months after that, my “smart phone” started doing weird things and one night after a particularly difficult day, I’d not written for a few weeks, my phone woke me up every hour alerting me to the original email from SJC, as if he’d just sent it. The next day I wrote. The phone stopped sending the email.
  • “Just take it bird by bird.” Anne Lamott.
    • Well, actually her father to her brother, but she wrote about it. It reminds me to stop being overwhelmed. Take one scene, one tiny scene, and write one piece of that scene. Then write the next part. It doesn’t – and realistically, can’t – be done all at once.
  • “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Ernest Hemingway.
    • No explanation necessary.

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