15 Writing Tips From Ann Patchett

Writing tips by Ann Patchett

“I just read this brilliant book called State of Wonder!”

So I raved down the phone to my literary luvvie friend Lisa.

“You have to read it!”

She seemed a bit cool about the idea.

“I don’t have time for reading right now. Who’s it by?”

“Oh, I can’t remember – Ann Pritchard? She’s the one that wrote Bel Canto. ”

“You mean Ann Patchett?”

“Yeah, that’s it.”

“She’s one of my favorite authors. Her book The Patron Saint of Liars is brilliant and I love Truth and Beauty.”

“Really? Well you have to read State of Wonder then.”

Two days after this conversation I discovered that Ann Patchett, the world-renowned and award-winning author from Nashville Tennessee, was coming to speak an hour’s drive from my home in Australia.

It was meant to be.

So Lisa and I hopped in the car and made a little odyssey to the small hinterland town of Maleny where about 100 word lovers were milling in eager expectation of cheese, wine and inspiring words.

Suffice to say we got all three.

First up we tucked into the cheese and crackers then grabbed a chilled glass of chardonnay. Or it could have been the other way round.

Then we bought some books – it’s always good to support authors – so I picked up a copy of Run and Lisa grabbed Run and State of Wonder.

Ann was milling round looking serene so we grabbed her to say hi and get our books signed because we needed to make a fast getaway when the talk ended. It was a dark night and we had children to get home to and babysitters or husbands to relieve.

What a lovely lady Ann Patchett is.

My first impression was someone totally confident, relaxed and incredibly intelligent. Yes, I’m jealous.

So I took notes during Ann’s talk so you could be inspired by her thoughts too. Please note the words in quotes are as exact as I could get them. Ann has a dry sense of humor which I love so I hope that comes across here.

The Writing Tips

1. Don’t have children

Ann knew from an early age that she wanted to be a writer and her mother supported her in that. Logically, because children are noisy and expensive Ann decided not to have children. Very wise. Now she has nine published books while I have three children, who eat their own body weight in food each week, and a permanent headache.

“I streamlined and simplified life so I could have the maximum amount of time for writing and that has made my life incredibly happy.”

Please note, I’m also happy with my life, just interested in Ann’s total focus on writing as compared to my focus which has been divided between family, travel and writing.

2. Choose a simple plot

Ann says there are only four or five plot structures in literature – State of Wonder’s plot can be summed up as character b goes missing, character a goes to look for them.

3. Start writing

“Research is fun and writing is a drag” says Anne. So start the writing first. Do not procrastinate. Write the scene then do the research and correct yourself later. Otherwise you’ll get too distracted to ever do any writing.

4. The relationships between the key characters come first. Setting takes second place.

In State of Wonder Ann wanted to write a book about an adult student reunited with the most important teacher of her life. The setting, the Amazon comes second to the relationship

5. Practice

Ann’s novels shifts perspective fast from paragraph to paragraph and she says that comes from work and practice. It took her four books to master it and she still sets herself a goal of getting better.

6. Hang out with inspiring people

Ann wrote Truth and Beauty about her dear friend the writer Lucy Grealy.

“She was crazy smart, more fun than anyone else, a cultural spokesperson, needy, demanding, totally great.”

7. It’s okay to have emotions

When Lucy died Ann started writing a book about her.

Ann says that 10 days after a person you loved most died people start phoning and saying you sound better today.

After Lucy’s death Ann gave herself “permission to opt out and write about Lucy” then everyone accepted her grief was now her work. Ann “took to bed and stayed with her grief for five months. I got through my grief at the pace I needed to and was left with the joy that was her life.”

8. Have a laugh

Ann has a wry sense of humor. I liked it when she quoted the Dalai Lama:

“If you ever think you’ve achieved enlightenment go home and spend a weekend with your parents.”

9. Be confident in your writing

Ann writes a book and the first draft is it. She says she writes the entire book in her head. She “finishes a chapter, buffs it up then starts the next chapter”. That’s her writing process.

10. Follow the money

Ann wrote for Seventeen Magazine for six years then Bridal Guide. Ann says she knows how to write and “can write crap well”. She says:

“Being smart is a waste of time.”

For example, she can earn $6000 for an article about shoes for Vogue that takes an hour to write or an article about global warming for National Geographic that pays $4000 and takes six months to write.

She opts for the fun stuff that pays well.

Now that is really smart.

11. Be present

“I love repression. I cannot bear to look back. I am not interested in looking ahead. I am a like a good Buddhist who lives in the present.”

Ann thinks talk therapy is bad, as you dwell on the past

12. Be inspired

Ann claims all her writing is:

“My attempt to plagiarize The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann.”

She’s being funny but I know what she means and it give us permission to be inspired by other people’s writing, then go on to create our own unique works as Ann has done.

“What imprints on us is what happened when we were young. Now its too late to be swayed we are hard shelled, things don’t stick. You can’t go home again.”

13. Know when to stop

“Everything I know about how to write a novel I learned in art class. Perfection is knowing when to stop. If you screw around with the vital life force too long you screw it up.

My writing gets to a point where its 96% there in one day. In four weeks it will get to 98% there but it’s not going to be a good use of my time.

Overworking is a kiss of death.”

14. Keep writing

Asked which is her favorite book, Ann says she’s never read any of them.

“By the time I’m  done with the copy editing I hate them and never think about them again. It’s a complete psychological break. Reviews don’t help good or bad. I don’t connect with them. The book I love best is the book in my head that I will write one day.”

15. On making fiction seem real

“I have a friend who’s a caterer. She says no matter what you ruin you serve it as if that’s the way it’s meant to be.
Ann Patchett Writing Tips
It’s the force of your authority. The word author and authority come from the same place.

Write as if you know what you’re talking about. It’s about domination. Confidence.

If you make something up you have to be consistent and never blink.”

Many thanks to Outspoken Maleny for organizing the talk, not to mention the cheese and wine, and to Ann Patchett for entertaining and inspiring us all.

Find out more about Ann Patchett’s Books

I totally recommend State of Wonder. Bel Canto’s great and I can’t wait to read Run and Truth and Beauty.

Find out more about State of Wonder and Ann Patchett’s other books on Amazon.

Who inspires you to write better and write more?


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  1. Carolyn Cordon October 3, 2011 at 10:59 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing these words. I’m thinking if my son ever leaves home I’ll become the writer I was meant to be. Then I’m thinking, oh don’t be stupid, pretend he’s gone and just bloody write!

    Keeping a sense of humour is important in life, writing, parenting, everything. If you can’t laugh at your life, you’re living it wrong, and I bet you have fun laughing at your life! It comes through in your writing.

    • Annabel Candy October 3, 2011 at 11:04 am - Reply

      Hi Carolyn,

      Good luck getting the son moving on;) My youngest is six so I have a way to go before I hit the empty nest and they never seem to leave home these days!

      I agree, we just have to write what we can with the rug rats around:)

      Thanks for the lovely feedback. I do have fun and love it when I have something funny to write about. Surely having a laugh is the meaning of life?!

  2. Sandra / Always Well Within October 3, 2011 at 4:38 pm - Reply

    What a spirited summary, Annabel! A real delight.

    I always have my doubts when I hear the Dalai Lama quoted, but whether he said it or not, I love this….

    “If you ever think you’ve achieved enlightenment go home and spend a weekend with your parents.”

    I also love the idea of being confident and dominating your world…in a good way.

    Great stuff, Annabel.

    • Annabel Candy October 3, 2011 at 9:17 pm - Reply

      Hi Sandra, lol, the DL quote is excellent. He’s so funny I bet he said that;)

  3. rob white October 3, 2011 at 10:33 pm - Reply

    These are great, Annabel. I love the clarity and pragmatism of these lessons. Clearly Ann has given her life over to her art. She simply does what ever it takes to live and breathe being a writer. There is no romantic story about trekking off to the mountains for a higher, spiritual existence… but rather real art is as much about the zen of “doing the dishes”… or visiting our parents for that matter!

    • Annabel Candy October 4, 2011 at 9:14 am - Reply

      Hi Rob, you’re right:) On one hand we can take heart that it’s not wholly inborn talent which made her such a good writer, on the other had we have to listen up and learn that we have to do the work if we want to get good too:)

      Maybe the best writing tip would be don’t have kids or parents;)

  4. barbara October 4, 2011 at 12:44 am - Reply

    Loved this Annabel! She sounds so very real, like you, and you can sense her no b.s. approach to life. Lessons to be taken here for sure. I will definitely check out her books.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Annabel Candy October 4, 2011 at 9:15 am - Reply

      Hi Barbara,

      You’ll be in for a treat. Yep, she’s a straight shooter all right. Very funny and worth the hour’s drive;)

  5. Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living October 4, 2011 at 1:10 am - Reply


    I’d love to read a similar summary from a non-fiction author, specifically travel and family memoirs.
    I am unfortunately guilty of #13, and I think this is because as first time authors, we listen too much to people’s opinions and want it to be “perfect.” Now I find my journal, (much more me) than what I’ve polished since then. There’s a balance to find, and it’s not always easy. What do you think?

    • Annabel Candy October 4, 2011 at 9:18 am - Reply

      Hi Sonia,

      I agree but who from? I interviewed a few travel writers in this section: https://www.getinthehotspot.com/travel-writers/

      But there’s no one really massive and I like getting my tips from women:) They know what it’s like to really juggle things.

      #13 is about perfectionism. It’s a terrible disease which I’m trying to cure myself of and definitely making progress. We just have to keep finishing stuff so we can right more and accept our first book/blog post/article will never be perfect….. none of them will but each will be better than the last:)

  6. Nilvia Feipe October 4, 2011 at 1:49 am - Reply


    Thank you for sharing this excellent post! It so inspired me to “get on with it”… to just do it. It gave me confidence and strengthened my resolve. It came at a perfect time. I love the lines “Write as if you know what you’re talking about. It’s about domination. Confidence.” Confidence in every area of our lives would make things a lot easier :-) Thank you!!



    • Annabel Candy October 4, 2011 at 9:21 am - Reply

      Hi Nivilia, great to see you here. Ah confidence, that’s the key. It’s always been a problem for me but I’m improving and blogging has certainly helped!

  7. Harriet Cabelly October 4, 2011 at 1:58 am - Reply

    Love this!! Thanks for sharing this most unique blog post. Great tips and cutely amusing. Absolutely love Dalai Lama’s quote. Now I don’t feel so bad!!
    I’ve got Bel Canto sitting on my shelf for so long; now maybe I’ll finally open it.

    • Annabel Candy October 4, 2011 at 9:22 am - Reply

      Hi Harriet, yes, I think we can all relate to that quote:) State of Wonders really won me over but you’ll enjoy Bel Canto too. Let me know what you think!

  8. Elle B October 4, 2011 at 4:48 am - Reply

    #3 is my weakness. She’s so right…I love research and often use it as an excuse to put off writing. Thanks for sharing these, Annabel — they’re definitely off the beaten path of writing tips and so much more useful for it!

    • Annabel Candy October 4, 2011 at 9:24 am - Reply

      Hi Elle, now you and Sonia have shared your weaknesses I realise I wrote it because they are all mine. We can overcome them though:) Hope this has inspired you to start writing and stick with it:)

  9. Kama October 4, 2011 at 9:54 am - Reply

    Annabel thank you for the fun read. I totally understand the thrill of writing the next book and having enough of the one that is finished. That is exactly how I felt after completing “The Happy Migrant – Your Relocation Survival Guide” it took months to realise that I had published because I was already on to the next project. I feel inspired to know that other authors also feel that way, so thank you for sharing.

    • Annabel Candy October 4, 2011 at 10:02 am - Reply

      Hi Kama, love that you found it a joy to actually finish something and move on to the next exciting project!

      Congrats on finishing and publishing the book. It sounds really useful, can’t wait to read it:)

  10. Adele Dubois October 4, 2011 at 11:25 pm - Reply

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this inspiring post. Thanks so much for sharing!


  11. Angela Foster October 5, 2011 at 3:12 am - Reply

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Love the tips.

  12. J.D. Meier October 6, 2011 at 1:08 am - Reply

    > “Being smart is a waste of time.”
    The irony is she shows her smarts by focusing on what’s effective ;)

  13. Galen Pearl October 6, 2011 at 2:42 am - Reply

    #3 is just what I needed to read today. I keep thinking I have to know everything before I start writing. This way makes much more sense and I’ll actually get something done! Thanks for this entertaining and informative article.

  14. Cate October 6, 2011 at 7:30 am - Reply

    Hi Annabel
    it’s always interesting to hear what a successful writer does to make writing a priority – because that is what it is all about really. The best (and published) writing I have done was while I was a stay at home Mum – and don’t get me wrong, my littlest is not an easy gig – but now that I am back teaching (to feed the mortgage) there is hardly any time for writing. Although I love to write – and I now have my “room of one’s own” to write in – I have only fiddled around the edges lately. There are other, more urgent (though arguably less important) things to fit into my day.
    I particularly like what Ann Patchett says about “don’t blink” and I agree about what she has to say about overworking a manuscript – I suspect that I blink too much, and I definitely keep trying to squeeze a little more out of everything I write :)

  15. Vonna Carter October 8, 2011 at 1:15 am - Reply

    So much excellent advice (although, like you, it’s too late for #1, but I love my little monkey). Thanks for this great post.

  16. Chris Richards October 8, 2011 at 1:21 am - Reply

    Great insights into a writers mind. I love the Dalai Lama quote

    “If you ever think you’ve achieved enlightenment go home and spend a weekend with your parents.”

  17. Extreme John October 13, 2011 at 5:22 pm - Reply

    She’s one of the unique authors in today’s generation. I love her style and the way she deals with writing. I love it that her favorite book is the one on her mind that she will write one day. That’s just awesome. Thanks for sharing such an exciting experience Annabel.

  18. Julie Ackerman October 22, 2011 at 6:41 am - Reply

    Julia Glass inspires me to be a better writer. Her book Three Junes is one of the best books I’ve read in a long long time. I know writing is good when I want to read it outloud to someone else, and I did that constantly with that book.

  19. Penelope J. November 2, 2011 at 3:27 am - Reply

    Thanks, Annabel, for sharing these writing tips from Ann Patchett.

    Years ago, I read Bel Canto and loved it. Then never read another book by Ann Patchett. After reading this, I will definitely do so.

    Found this fascinating. As a book writer, I can relate to several things she said such as writing the book first in my head. I also liked her advice about writing it first and then doing the research as the latter often tends to get in the way of a really good story. #14 is important as well – I have a penchant to overwork my writing and books – sometimes to death. Unfortunately, she is right on with what she says about children and, I’d add, even close family. I have to give up writing – and an amazing opportunity from a top agent – when my kids were small. Even now, I find anything that is family related – and I’m surrounded by them – completely distracts from writing. Family always believe they have priority and have no compunction about invading your writing space.

  20. Barbara Beyer-Albright November 9, 2011 at 11:41 pm - Reply

    I LOVE this post. #1 Advice – don’t have children. Too funny. I have four of them – grown now – and I’ve recently started writing again – hmmmmm – I know what she’s saying. And I just finished my first novel – a YA manuscript – so I about spit my coffee out when Ann said she hates her finished manusripts and never looks at them again. How honest is that? And that’s EXACTLY how I feel about my finished piece. Well – it’s a love/hate. But I’m so sick of it. Great reading. Love your site here – I’m adding it to my favorites. Barbara

  21. Johanna December 16, 2011 at 9:29 am - Reply

    This post made me giggle and think. Great combo to keep me reading :) Loved Ann’s words of wisdom and humour, but also loved the way you presented it all too. Too late for me too with the children thing, but I’m running for my life and out of the box now!
    Going to put Bel Canto on my Chrissie list :)

  22. Jt Clough | Big Island Dog December 16, 2011 at 4:16 pm - Reply

    Absolutely awesome. Since I was a kid I would write my “papers” by sitting down and hammering them out usually at the last moment. I would always get A’s when others had spent months researching, writing outlines etc and still get B’s and C’s. It somehow made me feel like I needed to do something more… like I was cheating or something.

    Now that I write and get paid for it, I still feel like it. Yet I have people tell me they love my first draft style.

    HUGE mahalo (thank you in Hawaiian) for the validation here.

    LOVE this blog. So glad I found it!
    Aloha wags!

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