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.

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.

On the Brink of a New Year: Meditations for the Writer’s Soul

You say grace before meals.
All right.
But I say grace before the concert and the opera,
And grace before the play and pantomime,
And grace before I open a book,
And grace before sketching, painting,
Swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing
And grace before I dip the pen in the ink.
—G. K. CHESTERTON

Let the words of my mouth,
And the meditations of my heart,
Be acceptable in Thy sight,
O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.
—PSALM 19:14

The soul of Man must quicken to creation.
Out of the formless stone, when the artist united himself with stone,
Spring always new forms of life, from the soul of man that is joined to the soul of stone;
Out of the meaningless practical shapes of all that is living or lifeless
Joined with the artist’s eye, new life, new form, new color.
Out of the sea of sound the life of music,
Out of the slimy mud of words, out of the sleet and hail of verbal imprecisions,
Approximate thoughts and feelings, words that have taken the place of thoughts and feelings,
There spring the perfect order of speech, and the beauty of incantation.
—T. S. ELIOT

The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up,
And he let none of his words fall to the ground.
—1 SAMUEL 3:19

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heav’nly Muse . . .
—JOHN MILTON, Paradise Lost

In a lifetime we stuff ourselves with sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and textures of people, animals, landscapes, events, large and small. We stuff ourselves with these impressions and experiences and our reaction to them. These are the stuffs, the foods, on which The Muse grows.
—RAY BRADBURY

We thank Thee, Lord, for the glory of the late days and the excellent face of thy sun. We thank Thee for good news received. We thank Thee for the pleasures we have enjoyed and for those we have been able to confer. And now, when the clouds gather and the rain impends over the forest and our house, permit us not to be cast down; let us not lose the savor of past mercies and past pleasures; but, like the voice of a bird singing in the rain, let grateful memory survive in the hour of darkness. If there be in front of us any painful duty, strengthen us with the grace of courage; if any act of mercy, teach us tenderness and patience.
—ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON, “In Time of Rain,” Prayers Written At Vailima

Once Thou didst say to me, “Thomas, thou hast written well of Me. What reward desirest thou?” My reply then is my reply now. “None, save Thyself, Lord.”
—ST. THOMAS AQUINAS

Take a scroll and write on it all the words
That I have spoken to you. . . .
—JEREMIAH 36:2

On Writing for Children

Here are a few of my favorite quotations about reading and writing literature for children:

“You must write the book that wants to be written. If the book will be too difficult for grownups, you write it for children.”
—Madeleine L’Engle

“When I was young I longed to write a great novel that should win me fame. Now that I am getting old my first book is written to amuse children. For aside from my evident inability to do anything ‘great,’ I have learned to regard fame as a will-o-the-wisp which, when caught, is not worth the possession; but to please a child is a sweet and lovely thing that warms one’s heart and brings its own reward.”
—L. Frank Baum

“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”
Walt Disney

“It is usual to speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one’s adult enjoyment of what are called ‘children’s books.’ I think the convention a silly one. No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty—except, of course, books of information. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all. A mature palate will probably not much care for crème de menthe: but it ought still to enjoy bread and butter and honey.”
—C. S. Lewis

“I love letters from little kids. Adults never proclaim themselves ‘your number one fan!'”
Lauren Baratz-Logsted

“The only lastingly important form of writing is writing for children. It is writing that is carried in the reader’s heart for a lifetime; it is writing that speaks to the future.”
Sonya Hartnett

“Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
G. K. Chesterton

“The tale is often wiser than the teller.”
Susan Fletcher

“We must meet children as equals in that area of our nature where we are their equals. . . . The child as reader is neither to be patronized nor idolized: we talk to him as man to man.”
C. S. Lewis

“You must write for children the same way you write for adults, only better.”
Maxim Gorky

“I believe that good questions are more important than answers, and the best children’s books ask questions, and make the readers ask questions. And every new question is going to disturb someone’s universe.”
Madeleine L’Engle

“It is not enough to simply teach children to read; we have to give them something worth reading. Something that will stretch their imaginations-something that will help them make sense of their own lives and encourage them to reach out toward people whose lives are quite different from their own.”
Katherine Patterson

“In our time, when the literature for adults is deteriorating, good books for children are the only hope, the only refuge.”
Isaac Bashevis Singer

“Children’s literature must build a bridge between the colorful dream world full of fantasy and illusion, and a tougher real world full of twists and turns. The child armed with the torch of knowledge, awareness and guidance must cross this bridge and set foot to the intense harshness of the bigger world.”
Samad Behrangi

“Most children won’t remember an author’s name, but they remember a good story.”
Amy Timberlake

“There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories.”
Ursula K. LeGuin

“First rule of writing: When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.”
Zadie Smith

“Imagination has brought mankind through the Dark Ages to its present state of civilization. . . . Imagination has given us the steam engine, the telephone, the talking-machine, and the automobile, for these things had to be dreamed of before they became realities. So I believe that dreams—daydreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain machinery whizzing—are likely to lead to the betterment of the world. The imaginative child will become the imaginative man or woman most apt to invent, and therefore to foster, civilization.”
L. Frank Baum

“There are many little ways to enlarge your child’s world. Love of books is the best of all.”
Jacqueline Kennedy

“Good writing is difficult no matter what the reader’s age—and children deserve the best.”
Aaron Shepard

“Some people argue that life is not always pleasant and that children’s books should reflect reality. Others feel that young people should be protected from the disagreeable side of life, and have their innocence left unsullied for as long as possible. Both of these views are to some degree didactic and neither takes into account young readers’ right to make their own decisions about what they read, to make choices about what interests them, and to seek out books that will help them make sense of their worlds.”
Prue Goodwin

“Don’t you think it’s rather nice to think that we’re in a book that God’s writing? If I were writing the book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right—in the way that’s best for us.”
E. Nesbit

“Edgar Rice Burroughs never would have looked upon himself as a social mover and shaker with social obligations. But as it turns out—and I love to say it because it upsets everyone terribly—Burroughs is probably the most influential writer in the entire history of the world. By giving romance and adventure to a whole generation of boys, Burroughs caused them to go out and decide to become special. That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, ‘Hey, life is fun! Grow tall!’ I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. Burroughs put us on the moon. . . . The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance.”
Ray Bradbury

“I’ve never written for kids. I’m just trying to tap into the kid in myself and just go with my taste.”
Andrew Stanton, screenwriter, Finding Nemo and WALL-E

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.”

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.

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.