In June, in a post entitled “Read, Think, Write, Repeat,” I once again urged y’all to read and allow your own writing to be informed by what you’ve read. I also shared my habit of scribbling notes in the margins of (some) books and dropping that wisdom back here or in one of my online courses, or… into a file like the one in my computer called Random Writing Quotes and Examples.docx.

What I said in June for books goes for the Internet as well. I don’t really know how to scribble in the margins of the Internet but I do know how to copy and paste, and in my regular travels around cyberspace words of wisdom and interesting examples and some authority backing up something I’ve said myself or mean to say at some point get dumped in that file if I don’t have an immediate use in mind. I’d like to share the contents of this file with you now, even if I might still filter some or even all of these little snippets into other things, at least in part.

Without further ado, I give you, in no particular order and with no further explanation except the little notes I made to myself at the beginning of each quote…

add to writing as play, having fun with it:

My best writing advice is also the most simple—just have fun with it. Take the pressure off and allow yourself the freedom to stretch creatively. The external goals—agent, book deals—are all attainable, but what lovely landscape opens up artistically if they aren’t the core reason for your art? Write the thing that’s fizzing and bubbling inside you. Stay true to yourself and explore your passions (even personality-disordered horses!), and remember that you will always be the utmost authority on your writing.

—Kira Jane Buxton author of Hollow Kingdom interviewed at

re: idiom

Idioms, by contrast, lend themselves to a variety of tones. The verbal melodies they express may appear in unpredictable form. They are perpetually ready to shift shape. By uniting a physical image with an abstract thought, idioms can take their place in many different patterns. When you utter an expression that has startling idiomatic force, it can make your listeners or readers hear or see the world in a novel way.

—Mark Abley “Clichés As a Political Tool

re: cliché

Sometimes the line between idiom and cliché gets blurred. On lists of clichés, I’ve found expressions like “cut off your nose to spite your face,” “a leopard cannot change its spots,” “wear your heart on your sleeve,” and “a few sandwiches short of a picnic.” But are these really clichés?

I don’t think so. If all those expressions were clichés, we could come under fire for speaking in any kind of figurative terms. The distinction between an idiom and a cliché is partly subjective, but it also depends on the rate and type of usage. For an idiom to be broadly understood, it needs to be occasionally heard or read. All four of those expressions would bemuse a newcomer to English. They make sense to us only because we’ve met them before.

—Mark Abley “Clichés As a Political Tool

re: theme? Why we write in the first place (and not for money)

Lord only knows that there are enough problems yet to be solved, books to be written, and music to be composed! Yet for all but a very few, the path to these lies through the performance of perfunctory tasks which in nine cases out of ten have no compelling reason to be performed. Heaven save us from the first novels which are written because a young man desires the prestige of being a novelist rather than because he has something to say! Heaven save us likewise from the mathematical papers which are correct and elegant but without body or spirit. Heaven save us above all from the snobbery which not only admits the possibility of this thin and perfunctory work, but which cries out in a spirit of shrinking arrogance against the competition of vigor and ideas, wherever these may be found!

—Norbert Wiener from The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society

in support of fantasy

At all ages, if [fantasy] is used well by the author and meets the right reader, it has the same power: to generalize while remaining concrete, to present in palpable form not concepts or even experiences but whole classes of experience, and to throw off irrelevancies. But at its best it can do more; it can give us experiences we have never had and thus, instead of ‘commenting on life,’ can add to it.

C.S. Lewis (1956)

maybe add to “intellectual curiosity”

“On the one hand, to function well, you have to believe in yourself and your abilities and summon enormous confidence from somewhere. On the other hand, to write well, or just to be a good person, you need to be able to doubt yourself—to entertain the possibility that you’re wrong about everything, that you don’t know everything, and to have sympathy with people whose lives and beliefs and perspectives are very different from yours.”

—Jonathan Franzen from a New York Times interview

your voice

“I bring everything I know to whatever I write, and I believe the same of other writers. A person’s complete life experience forms the basis of authorial voice, in my opinion. To hold back any part makes a narrative feel contrived.”

—Tade Thompson, author of The Murders of Molly Southbourne

I just like this…

There’s always a moment of transformation in the process of making. Suddenly, you understand what your novel is about or what a short story hinges on or what you’re trying to say in a poem. I love talking to people about that moment, the moment where they knew. It’s like when lightning strikes—another gesture beloved of the gods—and all the trees in a field jump out in stark relief, their leaves hot-white and glowing. But the trees weren’t created in that moment: they were there all along. There are objects in a dark room. A light bulb just allows us to see them.

—Larissa Pham, Paris Review article: “Marlene Dumas’s Metamorphoses

Philip K. Dick defending science fiction

‘If SF becomes annexed to the academic world it will buy into its own death… Professor Warrick’s pound-and-a-half book with its expensive binding, paper, and dust jacket staggers you with its physical impression, but it has no soul and it will take our soul in what really seems to me to be brutal greed. Let us alone, Dr. Warrick; let us read our paperback novels with their peeled eyeball covers. Don’t dignify us. Our power to stimulate human imagination and to delight is intrinsic to us already. Quite frankly, we were doing fine before you came along.’

—Christian De Cock “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society

breaks down the overall goal of Philip K. Dick’s SF:

Dick fully accepts that the late modern condition attendant on the ever-expanding proliferation of realities cannot be undone or overcome (i.e. going back to one reality which replaces values with facts) but has to be faced, tolerated, and worked through. In book after book, Dick portrays an elemental estrangement of reality. Dickian characters find themselves trapped in hallucinations or fake worlds of various kinds, often without knowing it or, if knowing it, without being able to do anything about it. And it is not only worlds that are fake. Objects, animals, people may also be unreal in various ways (Aldiss, 1979). There can be no longer any talk of returning to nature or of turning away from the ‘artificial’, since the fusion of the natural with the artificial has long since become an accomplished fact (Lem, 1984).

—Christian De Cock “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society

pulp fiction moving past its limitations—or limitations being pulled down around it? When does “trash fiction” become “literature”?

[Philip K.] Dick employs glaring clichés of trash (e.g. the usual SF props of precognition, time travel, androids…) to tackle exceedingly complex philosophical problems. This trashy surface allows his novels to survive in different ways in the reader’s environment, either semiotically (awareness of the resurrection of metaphysical values) or semantically (very entertaining, if a bit disjointed) understood. Thus the novels contain some sort of double encoding which Lem (1984, p.85-86) explained as follows:

‘If many coloured flags are put upon the masts of a ship in the harbour, a child on the shore will think that this is a merry game and perhaps will have a lot of fun watching, although at the same time an adult will recognize the flags as a language of signals, and know that it stands for a report on a plague that has broken out on board the ship.’

—Christian De Cock “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organising (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society

re: setting/atmosphere

In terms of the landscape, a landscape is always alive. It always has something going on beyond the characters. Sometimes I literally put myself in the place of the particular setting and think about how it might impact the story in some way. That comes to fruition in terms of me thinking in the Southern Reach books about how Area X would have agency and how it would impress itself upon the characters.

—Jeff Vandermeer interview for

personal vs. procedural

No one ever conceived of a more sophisticated and dynamic philosophical history than Hegel. His system is built around three fundamental ideas. First, the key to human agency is self-consciousness. For people to be doing anything in any real human sense is to know what we are doing as we do it. This applies even when we are not explicitly thinking about what we are doing. Here’s a simple example: as you are reading this, suppose you get a text message from a friend: ‘What are you doing?’ You immediately reply: ‘I’m reading a piece on Hegel.’ You knew what you were doing without having to have a separate act of thinking about it or drawing conclusions. Without any further thought, you knew that you were not skydiving, taking a bath, gardening or doing the crossword. You didn’t look around and infer from the evidence. You didn’t need any particular introspection. In fact, in Hegelian terms, when you are doing something and you do not know at all what you are doing, you’re not really doing anything at all. Instead, stuff is just happening. To be sure, sometimes we are only vaguely aware of what we are doing. However, even our often more distanced reflective self-consciousness is itself only a further realisation of the deeper and distinctly Hegelian self-relation: all consciousness is self-consciousness.

—Ted Pinkard from “The Spirit of History


If you don’t already have a file like this, what are you waiting for?


—Philip Athans


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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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