Give Yourself Permission to Write Badly

A candid, no-nonsense appraisal of the daily grind of the writer’s life, QUIT YOUR DAY JOB lays out a sound, strategic plan for building your career as a full-time writer. Author Jim Denney has been a full-time, self-employed writer since 1989.

“One thing that helps is to give myself permission to write badly. I tell myself that I’m going to do my five or ten pages no matter what, and that I can always tear them up the following morning if I want. I’ll have lost nothing—writing and tearing up five pages would leave me no further behind than if I took the day off.”
—Lawrence Block

The following is an excerpt from my book on writing for a living, Quit Your Day Job: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money as a Writer (Linden Publishing, 2003, and a Writer’s Digest Book Club Selection). The book is available in paperback and as an ebook at Amazon.com and in paperback at BarnesAndNoble.com.

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A young woman came up to me after a workshop where I spoke on writing for a living. “My problem,” she said, “is that I never finish anything. I’m so afraid someone will see a mistake in my story that I go over it and over it, trying to make everything perfect. I write a paragraph, and then I rewrite it and rewrite it before going on to the next paragraph. Sometimes, I can’t even get started on a story. I know what I want the story to be about, and I know my characters and my plot. But until I can think of the perfect opening sentence, I can’t write the rest of the story.”

Obsessive perfectionism is deadly to good writing. It not only keeps you from finishing a book or story—it can even keep you from starting. If you are obsessed with writing the perfect book, you’ll end up with no book at all. The solution: Give yourself permission to write a bad book.

I give myself that permission all the time. When you are okay with the idea of writing badly, you allow the words to flow. A lot of them will be lousy words, formed into wretched sentences. But some of them will be good. A few will be great. You simply keep the good words and delete the rest.

The beauty of writing on computers is that you are not writing on paper—you’re just shoving electrons around. Your words are not chiseled in stone or even typed on paper.  Until you actually print out your manuscript, your sentences exist only as invisible traces on the ferromagnetic coating of your hard drive. So what have you got to lose by writing a bad sentence?

In the old days, a writer used to sit at a typewriter, with crumpled paper overflowing from a wastebasket, with scores of paper balls littering the floor. Back then, if you wrote a bad sentence, you defiled a sheet of paper. Today, if you write a bad sentence, you just highlight it, tap one key, and make it disappear. So relax. Have fun. Write badly. Brainstorm. Experiment. Throw some really awful sentences on the screen, then read them and laugh. Then think about it. Some little notion of genius may lurk in one of those bad sentences. A horrible sentence may give you a clue to a classic line that will live forever. It happens all the time. . . .

You want to write the perfect book? Then put perfectionism to death. Snuff it. Terminate with extreme prejudice. Give yourself permission to write badly—and soon you’ll be writing brilliantly.

This excerpt is from Jim Denney’s Quit Your Day Job: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money as a Writer (Linden Publishing, 2003), 120-121.

Robert McKee’s Insights on Point of View and Your Protagonist

In his excellent book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting, Robert McKee (the highly regarded teacher of Hollywood screenwriting workshops) offers profound advice on Point of View and your Protagonist—advice that applies not only to screenplays but to stories and novels as well:

“If in the two hours of a feature film you can bring audience members to a complex and deeply satisfying relationship with just one character, an understanding and involvement they will carry for a lifetime, you have done far more than most films. Generally, therefore, it enhances the telling to style the whole story from the protagonist’s Point of View—to discipline yourself to the protagonist, make him the center of your imaginative universe, and bring the whole story, event by event, to the protagonist. The audience witnesses events only as the protagonist encounters them. This, clearly, is the far more difficult way to tell story.

“The easy way is to hopscotch through time and space, picking up bits and pieces to facilitate exposition, but this makes story sprawl and lose tension. . . . Shaping a story from the exclusive Point of View of the protagonist is a creative discipline. It taxes the imagination and demands your very best work. The result is a tight, smooth, memorable character and story.

“The more time spent with a character, the more opportunity to witness his choices. The result is more empathy and emotional involvement between audience and character” [emphasis in the original].

From Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), 364.  (Brought to my attention by my longtime friend and outstanding author Deborah Raney!)

Fifty Years of Wonder from ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

A Wrinkle in TimeIn September 1962—fifty years ago this month—my third-grade class filed into the school library in search of adventure. I found mine almost immediately—a book called A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. In my new opinion piece at FoxNews.com, I recall the profound impact this one book had on my life and career. I hope you’ll read it and let me know what you think. —Jim Denney

Robert Bloch’s Advice to Ray Bradbury: “The Danger Lies in Waiting Too Long”

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury in 1975

I’ve been reading Jonathan Eller’s Becoming Ray Bradbury. Like Sam Weller’s fascinating books on Bradbury, Eller’s book contains a wealth of insight into the depths of Ray Bradbury’s great soul, intellect, passions, and writing process. During the 1940s, Bradbury mastered the short story and developed a creative process that focused entirely on emotion and intuition. He did not outline his stories in advance. In fact, many of his most famous tales began with a simple process of word association, summoning characters, scenes, situations, themes, and symbols from his subconscious mind.

Bradbury was the master of the “narrative push” approach to writing—setting off in search of a story with no idea where you’re going. This is what he meant when he advised fellow writers, “Take risks! You’ve got to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.” Or, as he told Writer’s Digest interviewer Robert Jacobs in 1976, “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!'”

Ray Bradbury’s intuitive approach, which served him so well in short stories in the 3,000 to 6,000-word range, proved less helpful when he attempted novel-length work. During the 1940s, he began three novels. Two of them, Masks and Where Ignorant Armies Clash by Night (whose title comes from a line in Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”) led to dead ends. (Material from both unfinished novels later made its way into Fahrenheit 451). The third novel, which Bradbury called “the Illinois novel,” was stalled for many years, and was finally published in 1957 as Dandelion Wine.

Robert Bloch in 1976

In August 1947, as Bradbury was struggling to find a strategy for transitioning from a short story writer to a novelist, he received an encouraging kick-in-the-pants letter from his good friend and fellow writer, Robert Bloch (best known as the author of Psycho and “That Hell-Bound Train”). Bloch understood that Bradbury had a tendency, common to most writers, of approaching a novel-length work with sense of intimidation due to the importance and gravity of the undertaking. So Robert Bloch gave Bradbury a word of encouragement that we can all, as practitioners of the writing craft, take to heart. Bloch wrote:

“I urge you with all sincerity to get to work, write a book, write two—three—four books, just as a matter of course. Don’t worry about ‘wasting’ an idea or ‘spoiling’ a plot by going too fast. If you are capable of turning out a masterpiece, you’ll get other and even better ideas in the future. Right now your job is to write, and to write books so that by so doing you’ll gain the experience to write still better books later on. . . .

“Naturally, I have no right to preach at you, except the self-assumed one of interest in you and friendship for you. But I want you to do novels, and there is not the slightest doubt about your being able to do them successfully from both a commercial and an artistic standpoint. The danger—and I feel it is a real one—lies in waiting too long and developing an attitude about the importance or gravity of a novel-length work.”

The letter excerpt is from Jonathan Eller’s Becoming Ray Bradbury (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 183.

NOW is Your Time to Write!

A candid, no-nonsense appraisal of the daily grind of the writer’s life, QUIT YOUR DAY JOB lays out a sound, strategic plan for building your career as a full-time writer. Author Jim Denney has been a full-time, self-employed writer since 1989.

“What are the best things and the worst things in your life, and when are you going to get around to whispering or shouting them?”
—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

The following is an excerpt from my book on writing for a living, Quit Your Day Job: How to Sleep Late, Do What You Enjoy, and Make a Ton of Money as a Writer (Linden Publishing, 2003, and a Writer’s Digest Book Club Selection). The book is available in paperback and as an ebook at Amazon.com and in paperback at BarnesAndNoble.com.

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One thing I’ve noticed as a writer is that, when people find out what I do for a living, they often say, “I always wanted to be a writer,” or, “I bet I could write a book if I put my mind to it.” The people who tell you such things might be pizza delivery guys or doctors or astronauts, yet they all admire writers, they all have a secret wish that they could write. They all think they could do what you do if they had the time or the opportunity or if their lives were different somehow.

But you know what? I’ve never met a writer anywhere who wanted to be anything other than a writer. Take any person who says, “I am a writer,” and I don’t care how penniless he is, how long it has been since his last paycheck, how much he struggles with self-doubt, writer’s block, and unreasonable deadlines—he does not, even for a moment, consider changing jobs. Why? Because writing is not a job. It’s a mission. It’s a calling. It’s more essential to your soul than a career. It is not just your profession—it’s your identity.

A computer programmer can go to seminary and become a preacher. A school teacher can tender her resignation and become an exotic dancer. But can a writer give up writing and become something else? Unheard of! Writing is not what you do, it’s who you are! If you are a writer, there is nothing else to be.

If you know in your bones what I’m talking about, if you know that you have to be a writer, then you must write. You only get one life, and the life you’ve been given is made up of a finite number of heartbeats. Between your first heartbeat and your last is a brief span of time in which you are permitted to write your books and speak your piece. When your time is up, they will put you in a box and throw you in a hole to make room for the next writer waiting in line.

Now is your time, my friend. If you’re going to write your books, you’d better get at it.

“But,” you ask, “what about my age? Am I too young to be a full-time writer? Am I too old?” Whatever age you are, right now is the time to go for it. If you are young—say, in your twenties—you have the advantage of having fewer debts and responsibilities to tie you down and restrict your options. If you are in your forties or beyond, then you have a whole different set of advantages, including a wealth of experience and accumulated wisdom.

Science-fiction writer David Brin is the author of such books as Earth, Kiln People, and The Postman (which was made into a motion picture starring Kevin Costner). Brin earned a Ph.D. in Space Physics at UC San Diego and held positions with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and NASA’s Specialized Center of Research and Training (NSCORT-Exobiology) before he turned to writing science-fiction. He gained an enormous amount of life experience before turning to full-time writing.

“Writing is a worthy calling,” Brin told me, “but it was not my first choice as a profession. I wanted to be a scientist, foremost, and I became one through hard work. I also had this hobby—writing—that provided a lot of satisfaction. I always figured that I’d write a few stories a year, and a novel every few years, while mainly working to become the best scientist and teacher I could be. But it turned out that I’m much better at making up vivid stories than I ever was at discovering new truths as a scientist. At least, that’s what people say—and they sure pay me better to write novels than they ever did to do science!”

So there’s no such thing as being too old to turn to writing as a career? “Of course not,” Brin says. “The best writers I know did something else for many years first. They lived life and did useful things and interesting things, before presuming to preach and write about the human experience.”

The net-net: Whether you’re young or old, don’t let age hold you back. If you are young and unencumbered, you have little to lose by giving it a shot. And if you are older and more experienced, you have a lot to offer the world as a full-time writer. Either way, now is your time. What are you waiting for?

Ray Bradbury’s Writing Tips

“I came on the old and best ways of writing
through ignorance and experiment and was startled when truths
leaped out of brushes like quail before gunshot.”
—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

After Ray Bradbury passed away in June 2012, I collected some of his best writing advice, condensed it, and tweeted it on Twitter. Those “writing tips” became quite popular and were widely retweeted, so I’ve collected and categorized them here for your easy reference. (You’ll notice that several of these tweets are anecdotes rather than writing tips or quotes, but I’ve included them because they are instructive and motivational.) Enjoy—and be inspired!

Feed Your Muse

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Read intensely. Write every day. Then see what happens. Most writers who do that have very pleasant careers.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Stuff your head with stories, metaphors, poetry, Shakespeare, science, psychology, philosophy.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Stuff your eyes with wonder, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world.” #FeedYourMuse

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Fall in love with movies, especially old movies. #FeedYourMuse

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “I love all of the arts. I love motion pictures. I love stage. I love theater.” #FeedYourMuse

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Live in the library, not your computer. Ray didn’t go to college, but spent 3 days/wk at the library to age 28.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Read dreadful dumb books & glorious brilliant books, & let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head.”

Trust Your Muse (Feel, Intuit, Imagine—Don’t Think!)

Author Ray Bradbury failed 11th grade language proficiency test, had to take remedial grammar his senior year. Never give up on your dreams.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “I wish craziness & foolishness & madness upon you. May you live with hysteria & out of it make fine stories.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “The only good writing is intuitive writing. I have a sign by my typewriter that reads, DON’T THINK!”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “All of the good, weird stories I’ve written were dredged out of my subconscious.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Use word association to ignite creativity. “You don’t know what’s in you until you test it.” #TrustYourMuse

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Don’t worry, don’t push. Just do your work, be joyful, be loving, be explosive. Out of that comes everything.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “If you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “I wish you a wrestling match with your creative Muse that will last a lifetime.” #TrustYourMuse

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Take risks! You’ve got to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.”

Collect Metaphors

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “I am a metaphor machine.” Collect metaphors! This is the key to the emotional appeal of Bradbury’s writing.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “I think the reason my stories have been so successful is that I have a strong sense of metaphor.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember.”

Write Daily, Be Disciplined, Pay Your Dues, Learn Your Craft

Ray Bradbury: “Mon. a.m., I wrote a 1st draft story. Tues, 2nd draft. Wed, 3rd. Thurs, 4th. Fri, 5th. Sat. noon, I mailed 6th draft to NYC.”

In high school, Ray Bradbury owned no typewriter yet wrote daily, typing in classrm during lunch hour, then ran to cafeteria before closing.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Don’t start out writing novels. They take too long. Instead, “crank out a lot of short stories.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” #WriteEveryDay

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” #WriteEveryDay

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Don’t talk about writing. WRITE!”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “You must write every single day of your life.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Four pages a day is 300,000 or 400,000 words a year. Most will be bilge, but the rest will save your life.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: You can’t be your favorite writer. You’ll imitate in the beginning, but ultimately you must become yourself.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “You fail only if you stop writing.” #WriteEveryDay

Choose Your Friends and Mentors Wisely

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Find a mentor. “Leigh Brackett taught me pure story writing, how to pare my stories down, and how to plot.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Ray Bradbury credited his mentors (Heinlein, Kuttner, Jack Williamson) for much of his success and growth as a writer.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Young Ray Bradbury was mentored by such experienced writers as Jack Williamson, Robert Heinlein, Henry Kuttner, and Leigh Brackett.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: A young, unpublished Ray Bradbury used to stand behind Robert Heinlein and watch him type.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Young writers should go out and seek other writers in a similar situation—find an ad hoc church, you might say.”

During Ray Bradbury’s 1940s rise to fame, a jealous “friend” sabotaged him, stole his mail, threw typewriter in river. #ChooseFriendsWisely

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: If your friends don’t believe in you, if they ridicule your writing ambitions, fire them and get new friends.

Do What You Love (Don’t Worry About the Money)

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Don’t plan on making $$. He was 37 before he could afford a car. His wife “took a vow of poverty” to marry him.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Do what you love and love what you do. If you don’t love something, then don’t do it.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “Write for yourself. Don’t do it for money. Don’t let anyone pay you unless they believe in what you do.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Write with joy. If a story feels like work, scrap it. Start a new one. “Writing is not a serious business.”

In 1944 #RayBradbury made his first $1000 sale. For days, he carried it around in $100 bills to show to his friends.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “The answer to all writing, to any career for that matter, is love.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “If you don’t like what you’re doing, then don’t do it.”

Write About Your Loves, Hates, and Fears

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: List 10 things you love, 10 you hate, 10 you fear. Then write to celebrate loves and to destroy hates & fears.

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “May you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: Write for that one reader who will come up to you and say, “I love you for what you do.”

Ray Bradbury’s #WritingTips: “I have spent my life going from mania to mania. Somehow it has all paid off.”