Helpful Advice from History’s Fastest, Most Prolific Authors

Joyce Carol Oates: Start with your characters

One of the most prolific authors of our time, Joyce Carol Oates has written upwards of 100 novels, dramas, novellas, children’s books, poetry collections, and more, and yet she never starts with a story in mind. Instead, she begins with her characters and their setting, which she conceptualizes as a character as well. Only after a writer gets to know her characters can they tell her what will happen next. How do you get to know those characters? Oates gives her students an assignment we recommend you try out as well: Start, simply, with a conversation between two people. Within the first five minutes, you may not know much about them, but after two hours, their personalities will begin to take form.

As a bonus, here’s one more rule of thumb she imparted to a group of students at a Stanford University colloquium: “The first sentence cannot be written until the last sentence has.”