Ten Things You Love, Ten Things You Hate

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury in 1975

It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing advice from Ray Bradbury, and it’s blindingly brilliant in its utter simplicity. If you want to identify the ideas you should write about, the themes you can write passionately and believably about, follow this advice:

Make a list of ten things you love, ten things you hate, and ten things you fear. Write to celebrate the things you love, and write to destroy the things you hate and fear.

Bradbury put it this way in an interview with his biographer, Sam Weller:

“You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.”

[Interview with Sam Weller, “Ray Bradbury, The Art of Fiction No. 203,” The Paris Review, Spring 2010, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6012/the-art-of-fiction-no-203-ray-bradbury.%5D

Bradbury expressed his advice this way in a 2001 keynote address at the Point Loma Writer’s Symposium By the Sea:

“Make a list of ten things you love—madly!—and write about them. Make a list of ten things you hate—and kill them! And make a list of the things you fear, your own personal nightmares, and write about them. And then the accumulation of other things that you’re not sure actually happened to you, but intuitively you write about them, as in my book Dandelion Wine.”

Bradbury also had a potent little nugget of advice for those who wrestle with writer’s block: “If you have writer’s block, you can cure it right now by stopping what you’re writing and doing something else.”

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Excerpt: How to Punch Your Way Through Writer’s Block

“Books have bad patches. . . . The important thing is to get through
them,
to get the words down however ill-chosen they may seem. . . . 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, and I’ll have avoided guilt and at least kept my fingers limber.”
—Lawrence Block

This thing we call “writer’s block” is a different experience for different writers. For some, it is an inability to generate ideas—imagination at an impasse. For others, it’s a lack of inspiration and motivation, an inability to get started, a sense of terminal procrastination and ennui. Sometimes writer’s block is that sense of malignant self-doubt we feel after having our work rejected, ignored, or savagely criticized.

In essence, writer’s block is simply not knowing what to write next. The ideas, scenes, and words you need are just not there. Fortunately, writer’s block is quite treatable. You just have to know a few techniques to become re-inspired and re-ignited as a writer. Let me share with you a few “block-busting” techniques I use to punch through writer’s block. I’m sure they’ll work for you.

Writer’s Block-Buster Number 1: Withdraw briefly. Sometimes pushing too hard can block your imagination. To write, you need to be relaxed, free, and uninhibited. So take 20 minutes away from your keyboard to adjust your focus. Lie down and put your feet up, close your eyes, clear your mind, pray, meditate, or daydream. Or get some exercise. Or take a hot shower. Or listen to music.

As you relax, your subconscious mind will keep working on the story. You’ll find that inspiration and ideas will seem to pop up in your mind out of nowhere. Suddenly, you’ll know exactly what you need to do—and you’ll have to hurry to your keyboard to set it all down. When your conscious mind withdraws, you give your subconscious mind freedom to play. Try it. You’ll be amazed at how creative you become when you simply take a short mental break from your writing.

For the rest of this article, go to Writer’s Block—What Is It and How Can You Avoid It.

And read Jim Denney’s first two articles in this three-part series:

The Need for Speed: How Does Writing Faster Make You A Better Writer?

How to Write Faster in Seven Easy Steps

Excerpt: The Need for Speed—Learn to Write Better by Writing Faster

From my article “The Need for Speed: How Does Writing Faster Make You a Better Writer?” Part 1:

“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.”
—Mystery writer Raymond Chandler

Some years back, I submitted a novel proposal to a publisher. The publisher replied, “We’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is we want to publish your book. In fact, we’d like to sign you to a four-book series.”

Well, that wasn’t just good news, that was incredible news. So how bad could the bad news be?

Pretty bad, as it turned out. For starters, the advance they offered was (to put it politely) modest. The deadline they offered was humanly impossible—they wanted me to write four books in four months. Oh, and one more thing—the contract contained a $100 per day fine for late delivery.

Read the rest of the story and learn how you can write more brilliantly by learning to write faster at Random Writing Rants.

Can Writing Make You Immortal?

Why do you write? Do you plan to become immortal through your writing?

It all depends on what “immortality” means to you. Some years ago, science fiction writer Michael P. Kube-McDowell posted the following observation on an Internet forum:

“I have serious doubts that there’s anything more to my personality and ‘selfness’ than a synergy between genetics, neurochemistry, and the environments and experiences to which I’ve been exposed. And my expectation concerning death is that it will be both corporeal- and ego-death—which is part of the reason I write, to be honest. Like everyone who finds existence interesting and occasionally enjoyable, I want to live forever. And I’m pretty sure that ‘I’ won’t. The best I can do is to see that my genes live on through my children, and that my thoughts live on through my writing.”
[Michael P. Kube-McDowell, reply to Brian Marasca, CompuServe Science Fiction & Fantasy Forum, May 31, 1991.]

To Kube-McDowell, “immortality” (or the closest he can come to immortality) consists of (1) creation and (2) procreation—that is, writing and having children. I can empathize with him—but I can’t agree with him.

I love my children and I wouldn’t trade being a father for anything in the world. I hope I have helped to shape the values and character of my children. I have tried to launch them bravely and confidently into the world.

But from the time they were born, they have been living their own individual lives. To my mind, there is no meaningful sense in which I will “live on” through my children.

Well, what about books? Can writing make us immortal? It’s true that you can extend the shelf-life of your thoughts for decades, or even centuries, through books. Today, we can read the 2,700-year-old thoughts of Homer and the 400-year old thoughts of Shakespeare. But what are a few centuries compared to the timespan of the universe? Paper deteriorates, bindings rot, and even ebooks cannot outlive the medium in which they are stored.

No, I don’t believe you can achieve immortality by writing books. That is certainly not the motivation that compels me to write.

Before this day is over, a nuclear war or an asteroid from space could wipe away every recorded thought of Homer and Shakespeare and Jim Denney. In the natural course of things, a few billion years hence, our Sun will expand, engulfing and destroying our Earth. Even if the human race escapes to a new and younger world, the universe itself will eventually die. Where will our genes and our thoughts be then?

Immortality, to me, does not consist of “making my mark on the world.” Achievements and fame, my name in the history books—what kind of immortality is that?

The only kind of immortality that interests me is the kind where I don’t have to die. Anything less, anything else, is not immortality at all.

I write because I have been given something to say, and I have to get it said before I die, that’s all.

And that’s enough.

Writing is DISCIPLINE

Ray Bradbury on his self-imposed, highly disciplined writing schedule, which he began in the early 1940s and carried on throughout his career:

“On Monday morning, I wrote the first draft of a new story. Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday, at noon, I mailed the sixth and final draft to New York.”

Sam Weller, The Bradbury Chronicles (New York: Morrow, 2005), 110.

Ray Bradbury’s Advice: Seek Mentors and Find a “Church” of Fellow Writers

The Bradbury Chronicles

In my current re-reading of The Bradbury Chronicles by Sam Weller, I came across an amusing little anecdote that makes a serious point that all writers (especially beginning writers) should remember. One of the reasons Ray Bradbury achieved so much at a relatively young age was that he was bold and gregarious, and he eagerly sought out mentors. One of those mentors was Robert A. Heinlein. In an anecdote that is only two sentences long, Sam Weller writes:

“Once, Ray visited Heinlein at his home and stood behind him and watched him type. Ray knew that just standing there as a witness he was privileged.”1

I love that mental image! Robert Heinlein pounding away at a new story, with young Bradbury breathing down his neck, reading over his shoulder as each new word appeared on the page. Ninety-nine out of a hundred writers would have told Bradbury to beat it.2 But Heinlein saw something in Bradbury, and he was willing to let the wannabe writer observe him in the act of creating a story.

At that time, Ray Bradbury was about nineteen years old and an unpublished fanzine editor. He had met Heinlein and his wife Leslyn at a meeting of the local Science Fiction Society, which met at Clifton’s Cafeteria in Los Angeles. Leslyn found the exuberant young Bradbury to be rather annoying, but Bob Heinlein liked him and took him under his wing. Heinlein even helped Bradbury make his first semi-professional sale, submitting Ray’s story “It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Hu . . .” to the Hollywood literary magazine Script, with his personal recommendation. Ray was “paid” three gratis copies of the magazine, and couldn’t have been happier.

The young Bradbury also sought out the friendship and mentorship of such experienced writers as Jack Williamson, Robert Bloch, Henry Hasse, Henry Kuttner, and Leigh Brackett. These seasoned, multi-published professionals read his work, gave him advice, introduced him to editors, and put in a good word for him now and then.

Of Leigh Brackett, Bradbury once said, “Leigh taught me pure story writing. Her stories were very simple, and well plotted, and very beautiful. I learned from her how to pare my stories down and how to plot.”3

One of Bradbury’s mentors, Henry Hasse, even collaborated with Bradbury on a few stories. Bradbury’s first true professional sale was “Pendulum,” a story he co-wrote  with Hasse. Bradbury split the $27.50 check with Hasse and their agent, Julius Schwartz.

Looking back, Bradbury credited his mentors for much of his success and growth as a writer. Sam Weller quotes Bradbury: “If I were to give advice to young writers, I would say, number one, they should start out writing every day of their lives. Number two, they should go out and seek other people in a similar situation—find an ad hoc church, you might say.”4

Ray Bradbury instinctively understood the importance of his mentors and his community of fellow writers, his literary “church.” Bradbury’s eagerness to learn from his mentors is one of the reasons he went so far, wrote so well, and lasted so long.

______________________

Notes

1. Sam Weller, The Bradbury Chronicles (New York: Morrow, 2005), 102.

2. In fact, somewhere in my files, I have a letter Heinlein wrote me in the 1970s, rejecting my request for an interview and asking me to not to write to him again.

3. Weller, 108.

4. Weller, 104.

The Last Published Words of Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury is one of the principal reasons I’m a writer today. Before his death in June 2012, Bradbury dictated an essay to his biographer, Sam Weller, for publication as the introduction to The Best American NonRequired Reading of 2012. That essay, an encomium to libraries, books, and reading, will stand as Bradbury’s last words for publication. Here’s an excerpt:

When I was seven years old, I started going to the library and I took out ten books a week. The librarian looked at me and asked, “What are you doing?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

And she said, “You can’t possibly read all of those before they are due back.”

I said, “Yes, I can.”

And I came back the next week for ten more books.

In doing so, I told that librarian, politely, to get out of my way and let me happen. That’s what books do. They are the building blocks, the DNA, if you will, of you.

Read the complete essay at Huffington Post Books, “The Book and the Butterfly.”

God bless Ray Bradbury, and God bless his friend and biographer, Sam Weller.

Persistence in the Face of Rejection

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘To the editor who can appreciate my work,’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address.’ Just keep looking for the right address.”
Novelist and humorist Barbara Kingsolver, author of The Bean Trees

_____________________________

I recently received a letter from a writer who is battling his way through rejection after rejection. He quoted the words of Thomas Edison, who said in 1877, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” My friend refuses to give up, and he believes he’s going to find the right publisher in the end.

I like this writer’s confidence and persistence in the face of rejection. I’ve been writing full-time since 1989, and I can tell you that you never get used to the rejection. All you can do is learn not to take it personally.

A lot of people give up after a few rejections and go the self-publishing route. It’s hard to blame them, and in some cases that’s undoubtedly the best course. But I still think that, in most cases, it’s worth it to make a good sustained effort at finding a traditional publisher.

Madeleine L’Engle once said, “Anyone who has received as many rejection slips as I have is not going to complain about signing autographs.”

At the height of his career, Ray Bradbury said, “I get rejection slips every week of my life. I’ve published thirty-five stories in Playboy magazine, but in recent years they’ve rejected eight short stories. And The New Yorker rejects every time I submit.”

J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected innumerable times before she finally sold it—for a paltry $4,000 advance. Dr. Seuss’s first book was rejected 23 times before it sold. Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H, 21 times. Frank Herbert’s Dune, 13 times. Mystery writer Donald Westlake collected more than 200 rejection slips before his first sale; he actually papered the walls of his apartment with rejection letters.

William Saroyan, at the start of his writing career, wrote dozens of short stories and sent them to every paying fiction market in the country. Ultimately, every one of his stories had been rejected by every one of those magazines—he collected nothing but rejection slips. So, after that first round, he simply sent the same stories to the same publications—and the second time around, they started selling. Why? Because there was a high turnover rate among the junior editors who sifted the slush piles at those magazines. The second time Saroyan sent out those stories, they went to a whole new round of editors—and he began selling his stories.

Science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov observed, “Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil—but there is no way around them.”

I hope you find it reassuring to know that rejection is just a normal part of the writing trade, and that rejection is not a reflection on the quality of your work, anymore than it was a reflection on the quality of L’Engle’s, Bradbury’s, or Rowling’s work. While there’s no guarantee of success, it’s important to know that a key ingredient of success is perseverance.