“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.

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.