Salman Rushdie is often referred to as the most controversial novelist of the 20th century. The renowned British Indian novelist and essayist is well known for his off-the-beaten-track comments and opinions. His thoughts on writing are not as radical but are thought-provoking nonetheless.

This man whose first novel, Grimus (1975), received almost no attention from the public and literary critics went on to write a second novel, Midnight’s Children (1981), which whipped him into the front row of literary celebrity.

Midnight’s Children won the 1981 Booker Prize. In 1993 and 2008 it was awarded the Best of the Bookers, honoring it as the best novel to have received the prize during its first 25 and 40-year history respectively.

Rusdhie, as we all know, went on to become a prolific writer of short fiction, novels, and essays. His writing advice is therefore well worth some of our attention…


On what it takes to be a writer

  • “One of the things I think you really need to be if you’re going to be a writer is to have a real determination to be a writer. Put it like this. I left university in 1968. Midnight’s Children was published in 1981. That’s very close to 13 years of learning how to become a writer that was- and writing something that people want to read. So for me, it took me more than a decade of stumbling around in the dark in order to finally find my way.”
  • “The only commitment a writer needs is the commitment of the seat of his pants to the seat of his chair. In other words, just sit down and do your work. I know one or two writers who write standing up. But actually sitting down is really important. Sit down and don’t get up until you’ve written something.”
  • “And there are other writers who kind of wing it more. And you have to find out which one you are because the only rule, really, is whatever works. That’s the rule.”


On producing great work

  • “There’s all this stuff about three-act structure and exactly how you must allow a story to unfold. My view is it’s all nonsense. Many of the very greatest films I’ve seen have nothing to do with three-act structure.”
  • “When a writer is deeply rooted in one place, they can write about that place with complete ownership.”
  • “Perhaps the story you finish is never the one you begin.”
  • “The plot and structure are like the skeleton. And the characters and events are the flesh you put on that skeleton.”


On qualities of a writer

  • “I would say that every writer that is any good, is that they have sharp observational powers. And those can be developed. If you set yourself the task of noticing, it’s amazing how much you will begin to notice.”
  • “Style is the manner in which you choose to adhere to or choose to break the rules of classical form. Voice is your touch as an author. It is what makes a piece of writing your own. These are imprecise terms.”


On the doubts that writers face

  • “I think it’s quite normal when you are starting out… as a writer that you should be filled with uncertainty and doubt. And it’s worst at the beginning. It actually never completely goes away. You always worry that what you’re doing is rubbish.”
  • “To be frank, the hardest thing of all is to make something out of nothing. You know, that the terror of the blank page. What do you put down on it? And very often, your first attempt to put something down on the blank page we’ll be imperfect. And my view is, you should go with that. It’s important to get something down. Because once you have something down, however rough it is, then another part of your mind kicks in, which is not just your creative imagination but your critical imagination. Because then you’re looking at a thing that’s actually there.”


On finding a great first sentence

  • “I once went to a book reading by the author Joseph Heller, the author of “Catch-22″ and other books. And he said that most of the books he had written had grown out of a single sentence– that he had written a sentence and he immediately saw that that sentence gave him another couple of hundred of sentences”


On writing great characters

  • “The heart of the novel, traditionally, was- you could say it’s a line from thousands of years ago from Heraclitus, where he says, essentially, the character is destiny…. a person’s character is their fate… But now we live in a world in which character is often not destiny.”
  • “…and so this idea of being in conversation with your characters is a way of helping you to create characters which don’t look… feel like your puppets… Which feel like they have an independent reality. And that’s very pleasing to readers to feel that.
  • “You need to come up with some aspect of your character that is idiosyncratic, that not everybody would share, that is special to that character. And start there. Then you can broaden it into all sorts of things. If there’s a character with green hair, tell us that first.”


On being a poet

  • “A poet’s work . . . to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”


On reviews

  • “You always remember the bad reviews… but then there’s also a moment in your life when you get over that. One of the great things about doing this job for a while is that you begin to be clear about It’s much nicer if people like your books… you want that to happen, but then at a certain point you realize that you are never going to please everybody.”


On courage and free speech

  • “Language is courage: the ability to conceive a thought, to speak it, and by doing so to make it true.”
  • “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”


On doing your best

  • “It’s often been said, and I think it’s true, all writing is rewriting. It’s very rare that when you put something down for the first time that you don’t need to look at it again. What’s more characteristic is that it needs work, needs work, and rework.”
  • “Go for broke. Always try and do too much. Dispense with safety nets. Take a deep breath before you begin talking. Aim for the stars. Keep grinning. Be bloody-minded. Argue with the world. And never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things–childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves–that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.”


And on the writer’s relationship with the reader…

  • “The worst thing you can do as a writer is to make the reader a kind of promise about the sort of story you’re going to tell them and then not tell them that kind of story- break the contract with the reader. That’s very, very annoying as a reader.”
  • “You don’t want your readers to feel, yeah… I could do that. So the more personal and idiosyncratic it [your writing] is, the more it will feel authentically yours.”
  • “When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that, there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced.”
Team VoW
Author: Team VoW

Valley of Writers provides resources, tools, ideas and training for new writers. We work with a writers and contributors based around the world. Our primary focus is to equip new writers with skills to help them reach new audiences and achieve their goals.

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