“One Page a Day . . .”

Writing in Overdrive by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive
by Jim Denney

The following is an excerpt from my new book for serious writers, Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly.

One of the most acclaimed novelists of the 20th century is Sir V.S. (Vidiadhar Surajprasad) Naipaul. A Trinidad-born Briton of East Indian descent, V.S. Naipaul is the author of such acclaimed works as A Bend in the River and The Enigma of Arrival. He was knighted in 1990 and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001.

In his early life, he received a great deal of encouragement and writing instruction from his father, journalist Seepersad Naipaul. In fact, the father dreamed of becoming a novelist himself. But the senior Naipaul never completed the manuscript he worked on for many years, and he died never knowing his son would one day achieve the success that eluded him.

V.S. Naipaul succeeded because he was intensely committed to his craft. He would arise while it was still dark and write thousands of words before sun-up. Writing was his unbreakable daily habit.

Naipaul’s father, by contrast, lacked the all-important qualities that every successful writer must have: serious commitment, serious focus, and serious self-discipline. A chronic procrastinator, the father promised himself that “someday” he would get his novel written. He made many excuses for not writing.

Father and son often exchanged letters about the writing profession, and V.S. encouraged his father to become more disciplined as a writer. “Your experience is wide,” V.S. wrote, “and if you write merely one page a day, you will shortly find that you have a novel on your hands. … Stop making excuses. Once you start writing you will find ideas flooding upon you.”

But Seepersad Naipaul wouldn’t take his son’s advice. He’d write a few short stories, submit them to magazines — and sink into a deep depression when the stories came back rejected. Sometimes he became so discouraged that he’d stop writing for weeks at a time. Meanwhile, V.S. wrote dozens of short stories, submitted them again and again, received rejection after rejection — but refused to give up. As he explained in a letter to his sister, “This is my apprenticeship, and one expects rejections.”10

V.S. Naipaul became a Nobel laureate. His father died without achieving his dreams and fulfilling his potential. What separated these two writers? The son was serious and focused on his goals, the father was not. If you want to write brilliantly by writing in overdrive, then approach your craft with a serious concentration on your goals.

Is Writing in Overdrive for Everybody?

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck: “Write freely and as rapidly as possible.”

On Twitter today, I tweeted a quote from my new book Writing in Overdrive: “It’s a paradox but it’s true: The faster you write, the better you write.” One of my friends on Twitter replied, “Not true for everybody.”

You know what? She’s right. There are exceptions to this rule. While I am convinced that most people actually write better when they write faster, I do acknowledge that this principle won’t work for everyone. Here’s what I wrote in Chapter 1 of Writing in Overdrive:

“To be sure, there are some truly great writers who write with painstaking slowness, polishing each sentence to perfection before proceeding to the next. Kurt Vonnegut, Dean Koontz, and George R. R. Martin are exemplars of this approach. If writing slowly works for you, who am I to tell you to change? I’m not saying this is the only way to write. Every writer must decide which techniques and approaches work best for him or her.”

Why do I believe that writing faster (in first draft) produces better writing for the vast majority of writers? Several reasons: When you write quickly, you write freely, shedding your inhibitions. Writing quickly, you silence the inner critic—that nagging voice within you that causes you to doubt yourself, the voice that says, “What will people think if you write that?” When you write slowly, you write from the intellect, you write from your inhibitions, you write from your fear of being rejected and criticized.  But when you write quickly, shedding your conscious inhibitions, you tap into the power of your unconscious mind, the source of your creativity, imagination, and dreams.

My study and experience confirm that fast writing is powerful writing. The writers I have admired most—Madeleine L’Engle, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler—always wrote their first drafts with remarkable speed.

As Ray Bradbury observed in a 1987 essay, “In quickness is truth. . . . The more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.” And John Steinbeck said, “Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. . . . [Writing slowly] interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”

The faster you write, the better you write. I admit this principle doesn’t hold true for everybody—but it is such a powerful writing principle that I hope every serious writer at least explores the possibilities of writing in overdrive.

Let Your Words Pull You

Writing in Overdrive by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive
by Jim Denney

Stephen King, in his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, talked about his need for speed as a writer. He set a daily goal of ten pages per day, or about 2,000 words. This would add up to about 180,000 words over three months — and three months, he said, was the maximum anyone should take to write the first draft of a novel. Any longer than that and the story begins to go stale in the writer’s imagination. “Only under dire circumstances,” he observed, “do I allow myself to shut down before I get my 2,000 words.” He wrote one dystopian science fiction novel, The Running Man, in a single week.

King described the euphoric sensation of being in a creative flow and writing quickly: “With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job. It’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There is plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.”

Stephen King knows. The faster you write, the more confidently you write. You must write fast enough to stay ahead of the doubts. When you write quickly, when you enter that inspired state of creative flow, you’ll find you write brilliantly.

Detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler put it this way: “The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.” So let your words pull you. Let your creativity and confidence flow through you. Write brilliantly. Write fast. In Writing in Overdrive, I’ll show you how.

How to Write a Novel in Three Days

From my new ebook, Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly [Kindle Edition, estimated length 173 pages, available at Amazon.com for $2.99]

Is it possible to write a highly-acclaimed novel in just three days?

Science fiction and fantasy writer Michael Moorcock proved it can be done. He has earned a reputation as one of the field’s most celebrated authors. As both a writer and longtime editor of the British magazine New Worlds, Moorcock has been a major figure in the “new wave” science fiction movement. His existentialist time travel novel Behold the Man won the prestigious Nebula award, and he is justly famed for creating the unforgettable fantasy anti-hero Elric of Melniboné.

Writing in Overdrive by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive
by Jim Denney

In his early career, Moorcock eked out a living writing adventure novels in the low-paying pulp fiction field. To boost his productivity and his income, he devised a plan for writing sword-and-sorcery potboilers very quickly, usually in a matter of three to ten days. Every novel he wrote this way adhered to a series of simple formulas:

• Length formula: 60,000 words, divided into four sections of 15,000 words, six chapters in each section, no chapter longer than 2,500 words. Each chapter is required to contain elements that advance the action.

• Plot formula: the familiar tale of a lot of people competing in a quest to gain a much-sought-after object (familiar examples of such objects: the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon, the gold of El Dorado, Alfred Hitchcock’s notion of “the MacGuffin,” or the Rambaldi artifacts in TV’s Alias).

• Character formula: a fallible and reluctant hero who tries to avoid responsibility, but ends up being pitted against vastly superior, even superhuman, forces.

• Structural formula: a dire event occurs every four pages to advance the action and keep the reader hooked.

• Fantastic images formula: the story must contain a series of wild, vivid, fantasy images, such as Moorcock’s “City of Screaming Statues.”

• Time formula: the hero is in a race against time. Moorcock explained: “It’s a classic formula: ‘We’ve only got six days to save the world!’ Immediately you’ve set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four, and finally … there’s only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?”1

Even though the actual writing of a novel may take as little as three days (a phenomenal 20,000 words per day!), Moorcock would always spend at least a couple of days preparing and organizing the story structure, characters, and lists of images and events he wanted to include, so he’d have everything he needed once the writing began. “The whole reason you plan everything beforehand,” he explained, “is so that when you hit a snag, a desperate moment, you’ve actually got something there on your desk that tells you what to do.”2

This may sound like a recipe for churning out the most dreary and unreadable fiction imaginable—and in the hands of a lesser talent, it undoubtedly would be. But Moorcock actually wrote some of his highly acclaimed Hawkmoon and Elric tales on this formula. Though the plots were formulaic, his characters were strongly delineated and memorable, and his writing was clean and well-crafted. About the same time he had perfected this recipe for writing novels in three days, he began earning better money. Growing tired of the formula, he moved on to more challenging genres and projects.

Yet he continued to write quickly. One of his most celebrated novels is Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen, a literary fantasy novel that won the World Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Published in 1978, Gloriana has remained continuously in print to this day. Moorcock wrote it in a mere six weeks.

For Michael Moorcock, preparing to write quickly is a matter of quality as well as speed. He organized and disciplined himself to write quickly, and in the process he wrote very well, and acquired a reputation for literary excellence.

Notes
1. Michael Moorcock and Colin Greenland, Death Is No Obstacle (Manchester, UK: Savoy, 1992), 8.
2. Ibid., 9.

Jim Denney’s WRITING IN OVERDRIVE: The Secrets to Writing Faster, Writing Freely, Writing Brilliantly, Now Revealed

From the Introduction to my new ebook, Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly [Kindle Edition, estimated length 173 pages, available at Amazon.com for $2.99]

“If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”  —Isaac Asimov. “In quickness is truth. … The more swiftly you write, the more honest you are.” —Ray Bradbury.

Writing in Overdrive by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive
by Jim Denney

Looking over my writing schedule, I see I’ve written one book per month for the past seven months. Those seven books were contracted with three different publishers, and all were delivered on deadline. Here’s the list:

• A 62,000-word book, November 2012.
• A 66,000-word book, December 2012.
• A 54,000-word book, January 2013.
• A 50,000-word book, February 2013.
• A 70,000-word book, March 2013.
• A 50,000-word book, April 2013.
• A 50,000-word book, May 2013.

I also wrote about half of this 40,000-word book in May, so add another 20,000 words, and you get a total of 422,000 words in seven months, an average of more than 60,000 words per month.

Full disclosure: These are all nonfiction books (which, for me, write faster than fiction), and they are all a bit on the slim side (I consider a full-sized book to be 80,000 words or longer). Even so, I think this output establishes my bona fides as a writer who can speak with authority on the subject of “writing in overdrive.”

Have I always been a fast writer? Absolutely not! I’ve been writing fulltime since 1989, and for much of my career my annual writing output was probably less than a third of what I produce today.

The turning point came in 2001, when I submitted a fiction proposal to a major publishing house. After considering my proposal for several months, the acquisition editor reported back. “We’ve got good news and bad news,” she said. “The good news is we want to publish your book. In fact, we’re offering you a four-book deal.”

That wasn’t just good news, that was four times more good news than I dared hope for. How bad could the bad news be?

Well, pretty bad, as it turned out. For starters, the advance the publisher offered was modest, to put it charitably. And the deadline was simply insane — they wanted me to write four books in four months. Worst of all, the contract contained a $100-per-day penalty for late delivery.

I didn’t have an agent at the time. I did my own negotiating — something I do not recommend and would never do again. But I can be a tough negotiator when I need to be.

The publisher wouldn’t budge on money, but did agree to move the deadline out an additional two months. I tried to remove the $100-a-day late delivery penalty. “It’s hard to be creative,” I said, “with a gun pointed at my wallet.” When the publishing house insisted on keeping the penalty in the contract, I asked for a 30-day grace period before the penalty kicked in — and the publisher agreed.

I had negotiated a contract I could live with — just barely. But even with the deadline extensions and concessions I had gotten, it was going to be tight. In the end, I delivered Book 1 ahead of deadline, Book 2 right on deadline, Book 3 two weeks late, and Book 4 almost a month late. But I stayed within the grace period, and I didn’t incur the $100-a-day penalty.

In the process I learned I could write much faster than I ever dreamed possible — and I could do so without sacrificing quality. In fact, writing under intense deadline pressure was actually liberating, because it forced me to free up my imagination and intuition and write faster than I had ever written before. Those four books seemed to pour out onto the page in a burst of uninhibited creativity. I believe the books are actually better than they might have been if I’d had more time to analyze what I was writing.

It’s a paradox but it’s true: The faster you write, the better you write.

Since that time, I’ve made an intense study of the creative process. I’ve explored every technique and technology for writing faster, writing freely, shedding inhibitions, stifling the inner critic, and writing “in the zone.” My study has confirmed what my own experience suggested: writing in overdrive produces more powerful writing. I discovered that the writers I admire most — Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, John Steinbeck, Raymond Chandler — always wrote their first drafts with remarkable speed.

If you want to write more quickly, freely, and creatively, this book will show you how. It will transform the way you write almost immediately. My goal is to give you the tools to improve your writing skills right now.

I call this book Writing in Overdrive for a very good reason. In automotive terms, an overdrive is a mechanism of the transmission that allows a car to sustain a high rate of speed at a reduced engine RPM. The ability to cruise in overdrive enables a car to go farther on a gallon of gasoline, and to work less hard, causing less engine wear.

In the same way, a writer cruising in overdrive is able write faster, write longer, and be more productive while working less hard. In this book, I’ll give you the steps and principles you need to write in overdrive every day. I will show you:

• How to write so fast you’ll have no time for self-doubt.
• How to organize your time and workspace to be more productive.
• How to set ambitious yet attainable goals.
• How writing badly enables you to write brilliantly.
• How to overcome your inner resistance to writing daily.
• How to finish what you start.
• How to prepare yourself to write “in the zone.”
• How to tap into the power of your unconscious mind.
• How to write freely and fearlessly.
• How to use “writing rituals” to prepare yourself to write.
• How to be aware and focused yet relaxed as you write.
• How to be undistractible when surrounded by distractions.
• How to use technology to be more creative and productive.
• How to get the most out of NaNoWriMo.
• How to overcome writer’s block.

Chapter by chapter, as you go through this book, you’ll acquire skills you can instantly road-test on your current work-in-progress — and I’ll share stories from my own experience and from the lives of other successful writers to show you how these principles apply in real-life writing situations. The tools and insights in this book will enable you to write with greater speed, confidence, and mastery, whether in traditional publishing or the indie publishing world.

I wish you joy, success, and astounding speed on your writing journey.

— JIM DENNEY

Work Hard at Your Writing—But No Harder Than You Have To

[NOTE: The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly. —J.D.]

Some years ago, a publisher offered me a two-book contract to write the text for a pair of lavishly illustrated books. The acquisition editor gave me a stack of similar books his company had already published. Looking through the stack, I gauged each book to be about 15,000 words in length. Yet he told me he needed about 35,000 words per book. “Are you sure?” I said. “That seems long.” He assured me that was the number.

I wrote the first book and sent the manuscript in to the managing editor (the acquisition editor had moved on to another publishing house). I had hit the assigned word count practically on the nose — 34,800 words. The managing editor read the manuscript, then emailed me: “The book looks great, Jim. Only problem is it’s way too long. We need you to cut the book down to about 18,000 words.”

I groaned. Relying on the assurances from the acquisition editor, I had written twice as much text as I should have. I spent additional days cutting text I never should have written in the first place, first cutting entire chapters, then sculpting the text paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and word by word. I left half the book on the cutting room floor — but it was a learning experience.

When I began the second book, I slashed the amount of research I did, I wrote 18,000 words, and stopped — done. Most important of all, the second book was better written than the first because it didn’t need to be trimmed with a chainsaw.

The moral of the story: Work hard at your writing, but don’t work harder than you have to. Improve the quality of your writing by eliminating unnecessary work.

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Work Hard at Your Writing—But No Harder Than You Have To

[NOTE: The following is an excerpt from my forthcoming book Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly. —J.D.]

Some years ago, a publisher offered me a two-book contract to write the text for a pair of lavishly illustrated books. The acquisition editor gave me a stack of similar books his company had already published. Looking through the stack, I gauged each book to be about 15,000 words in length. Yet he told me he needed about 35,000 words per book. “Are you sure?” I said. “That seems long.” He assured me that was the number.

I wrote the first book and sent the manuscript in to the managing editor (the acquisition editor had moved on to another publishing house). I had hit the assigned word count practically on the nose — 34,800 words. The managing editor read the manuscript, then emailed me: “The book looks great, Jim. Only problem is it’s way too long. We need you to cut the book down to about 18,000 words.”

I groaned. Relying on the assurances from the acquisition editor, I had written twice as much text as I should have. I spent additional days cutting text I never should have written in the first place, first cutting entire chapters, then sculpting the text paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence, and word by word. I left half the book on the cutting room floor — but it was a learning experience.

When I began the second book, I slashed the amount of research I did, I wrote 18,000 words, and stopped — done. Most important of all, the second book was better written than the first because it didn’t need to be trimmed with a chainsaw.

The moral of the story: Work hard at your writing, but don’t work harder than you have to. Improve the quality of your writing by eliminating unnecessary work.

“There’s Nothing Crass or Ignoble about Trading Your Writing for Money”

This article is an excerpt from QUIT YOUR DAY JOB by Jim Denney.

There is only one way you will ever be able to write for a living: You must write words that people will pay money to read. If you do that, you’ll make a living as a writer. If you don’t, you won’t—simple as that. The money you make as a writer represents more than just the ability to pay the mortgage and buy groceries. It is the writer’s strongest and finest affirmation. It is tangible proof that someone thinks your words are worth purchasing and paying attention to.

There’s nothing crass or ignoble about trading your writing for money. Your words are your stock in trade. Doctors sell their medical knowledge for money, lawyers sell their legal knowledge for money, and you sell words. If they are good words—well-chosen, skillfully crafted, filled with ideas and energy—the world will buy them. You prove your own craftsmanship by writing saleable words. It’s a great feeling to receive a check for a publisher’s advance; but it’s an even greater feeling to receive a royalty check, because that means that it’s not just the publisher who likes your words; the public is willing to pay money to read them.

It is that feeling that enables you to say, boldly and unabashedly, “I am a writer.”

From QUIT YOUR DAY JOB!: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money as a Writer by Jim Denney (Sanger CA: Quill Driver Books, 2004), 6.

Write Fast Enough to Stay Ahead of the Doubts

In his Hollywood noir novel A Graveyard for Lunatics, Ray Bradbury writes a scene in which the unnamed narrator-protagonist (a fictionalized version of Bradbury himself) hands a movie script to Fritz the movie director (a composite character based on Bradbury’s friend, director Fritz Lang, and Bradbury’s Moby Dick nemesis, director John Huston). The shocked director gulps his glass of wine and can’t believe the writer has produced this script in less than a day.

“Cut the comedy!” Fritz says. “You couldn’t have written that in a few hours!”

“Sorry,” the narrator replies. “Only the fast stuff is good. Slow down, you think what you’re doing and it gets bad.”

This is not just a scene in a Bradbury novel. This is the essence of Bradbury’s philosophy of writing, and it’s the way he approached every story, novel, and screenplay he ever wrote. As he told Writer’s Digest in a February 1976 interview, “The only good writing is intuitive writing. It would be a big bore if you knew where it was going. It has to be exciting, instantaneous and it has to be a surprise. Then it all comes blurting out and it’s beautiful. I’ve had a sign by my typewriter for 25 years now which reads, ‘Don’t Think!'”

And Stephen King, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, also wrote about the need for speed: “With the door shut, downloading what’s in my head directly to the page, I write as fast as I can and still remain comfortable. Writing fiction, especially a long work of fiction, can be a difficult, lonely job. It’s like crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub. There is plenty of opportunity for self-doubt. If I write rapidly, putting down my story exactly as it comes into my mind, only looking back to check the names of my characters and the relevant parts of their back stories, I find that I can keep up with my original enthusiasm and at the same time outrun the self-doubt that’s always waiting to settle in.”

It’s true. The faster you write, the more confidently you write. You must write fast enough to stay ahead of the doubts. When you write quickly, you’ll find you write brilliantly.

Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler

Detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler put it this way: “The faster I write the better my output. If I’m going slow, I’m in trouble. It means I’m pushing the words instead of being pulled by them.”

Let your words pull you. Let your creativity and confidence flow through you. Write brilliantly. Write fast.

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