Top writers tell all

Old typewriter
Photo: Florian Klauer http://www.unsplash.com

I was poking about in the ‘library’ at work last week. It’s a creaky room in the eaves of the publishing company where they store all the titles they’ve released.

As I glanced about me, my eyes were drawn upwards to a title I hadn’t noticed before. Sitting on a shelf right above the door were the words BESTSELLERS: TOP WRITERS TELL HOW emblazoned in gold.

I couldn’t resist.

I reached up and took down a hardback book with a deep red jacket. It looked like the kind of book that had gone out of print. (I checked when I got back to my desk; I was right.)

The author Richard Joseph had chosen twenty-three of the world’s bestselling authors and then visited them in turn to discover their secrets. Authors like Roald Dahl, Jeffrey Archer, Catherine Cookson and Barbara Cartland. Between them, the jacket blurb said, these authors had sold over 1,000 million books.

Right then.

I took the book home and scanned it for nuggets of wisdom. Hidden among the pages there were some gems, which I thought you might like to see:

BARBARA TAYLOR BRADFORD, author of A woman of Substance, on writers needing to possess the five ‘Ds’…

“Basic writing ability is still not enough. A would-be novelist must also observe what I call the five ‘Ds’.

D for desire – the desire to want to write that novel more than do anything else.

D for drive – the drive to get started.

D for determination – the will to continue whatever the stumbling blocks and difficulties encountered on the way.

D for discipline – the discipline to write every day, whatever your mood.

D for dedication to the project until the very last page is finished.

Finally, there is a sixth D – to avoid! This is for distractions – perhaps the most important enemy of all writers, whether would-be or proven.”

ROALD DAHL on writing a page a day…

“I had read almost every classic by the age of fifteen and had become a lover of books. I used to wonder how anyone could write a 300-page book when it took me all day to write a two-page essay at school. What one forgets, of course, is that if you write a page a day for a year, you have your book. But it does mean that you have to keep your bum on the seat of the chair and get on with it.”


“It is very odd, but I never wrote for the money. I had my husband who was a grammar schoolmaster; the salary was not great but I could make sixpence go as far as somebody else could make half a dollar… I just wanted to write.”

SARAH HARRISON, author of The Flowers of the Field, on getting into the flow…

“You have got to keep driving yourself to put words on paper. It’s the point I’m making to these would-be writers I’m talking to at the moment. Writers say they often find it difficult to achieve ‘flow’ so I genuinely think covering the paper is the most important thing, because if you make yourself write a page, then suddenly, half way down the second page, you find that you’ve written a couple of paragraphs that do flow, and you did not notice it happen.”

TOM CLANCY, author of The Hunt for Red October, on discipline….

You can always come up with a reason not to work today. I mean, no matter what you do, whether you drive a truck, or you’re an accountant, or a cop, you can always come up with a perfectly good reason why you should stay at home and do something else. It’s the same thing for a writer. I suppose the principle requirement is determination.”

And finally, one of my favourite nuggets:

JAMES A. MICHENER, author of Tales of the South Pacific and The Source, on choosing what topic to write about…

“I write about just what I want to write about. Supposing, some years ago, you had gathered together all the bright people in publishing and said to them that you wanted to bring out a book that will knock them dead; that will stay at the top of the bestseller list for over a year; and that everybody will want to get a copy of?

Do you think that group would have said, what the world really yearns for is a book about an archaeological dig in the Holy Land? Going back 5000 years? No way. No way.

No, books are written by writers. And writers are people with insights and imagination. With courage and crazy ideas, and some of them pay off.”

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