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.

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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.

“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.

Quick to Learn, Slow to Judge

I have a longtime friend who has followed my writing career for more than twenty years. Today, he asked me about the writing projects I’m working on. I told him I have a book due in six weeks, but it’s a short book and that should be plenty of time to get it done.

In reply, he said something he’s said to me at least half a dozen times over the years, something that irritates me to pieces whenever he says it:

“Well, you always work best under pressure.”

Every single time he’s said that to me, I’ve explained, “No, I hate pressure. Deadline pressure is corrosive and destructive to my creativity. I don’t work best under pressure. I’m self-motivated, self-disciplined, and extremely productive without pressure. I don’t need deadline pressure to help me write quickly or write well. Your impression of me is 100 percent wrong.”

I’ve told him this many times in the past, but he never remembers. I know it’s not that big a deal, and that my friend means no insult. But it tells me that he thinks that, unless I have a deadline bearing down on me, I’m lazy, unmotivated, and undisciplined as a writer. It’s a slur on my character and an insult to my professionalism that he thinks I “always work best under pressure.”

It’s a minor issue, but by sheer repetition it has become like fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. Though I’ve corrected him many times in the past, this time I just let it slide. I’m sick of trying to acquaint him with the reality of who I am as a writer and a human being.

It frustrates me that people tend to form judgments and opinions about others, and no matter what you say and how many times you say it, you can’t shake them out of their views. People judge each other based on the scantiest slivers of experience and information. Once they think they’ve got somebody pegged, their opinion hardens like concrete—and they filter out any new information that doesn’t support their prejudice.

I think we owe it to each other to really try to understand each other instead of forming snap judgments and closing our minds. We should always be open to new insights and open to revising our impressions of each other.

As motivational psychologist Steve Maraboli explains, “Judging prevents us from understanding a new truth. Free yourself from the rules of old judgments and create the space for new understanding.” Especially as writers, we have to continually be observant and open-minded, always willing to look at other people with new eyes and see truths we’ve never seen before.

Be quicker to learn than to judge. Keep all opinions subject to revision. Observe. Question. Understand.

Then write.

“It is well, when judging a friend, to remember that he is
judging you with the same godlike and superior impartiality.”
—Arnold Bennett

Writers on Reading: Interview with Timebenders author Jim Denney

Battle Before Time by Jim Denney

Battle Before Time by Jim Denney

Over a thirty-year career, Jim Denney has written more than a hundred books for various publishers—fiction and nonfiction, for young readers and adult readers, as both a sole author and a co-writer. He has worked with leaders and celebrities in many fields, including Orlando Magic cofounder Pat Williams, political communicator Michael Reagan, Super Bowl champion Reggie White, supermodel Kim Alexis, actress Grace Lee Whitney, and many others.

Jim is the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers. The Timebenders books were first published in 2002, and Jim has recently revised and updated the Timebenders series for reissue by Greenbrier Books.

Here, Jim talks about his reading choices and what inspires him to write. Read the entire interview at Writers on Reading.

“The Trouble with Quotes on the Internet…”

A couple of months ago, my friend James Scott Bell posted a fascinating entry at The Kill Zone blog site. Jim is the author of thrillers like Try Dying and One More Lie. He’s also a great writing teacher (Plot & Structure). Here’s a snippet from his blog:

“Recently, I’ve seen another bastardized quotation zapping around the internet. It’s a quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway. As a Hemingway-phile, I was quite interested. The quote goes like this: ‘There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’

“I was immediately suspicious. Something was rotten in the state of Bartlett, for it was the great sports writer Red Smith who said, ‘There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and just open a vein.’”

I’ve cited the Red Smith quote for years. So, like Jim Bell, I find the alleged Hemingway version annoying—especially since this fake quote is currently the fourth most-liked quote on the Goodreads quote page on writing. After all, the Red Smith wording (“open a vein”) is far superior to the faux-Hemingway wording (“bleed”).

It just goes to show that the timeless wisdom of our 16th president still holds true:

“The trouble with quotes on the Internet is that you never know if they are genuine.” —Abraham Lincoln.

Read the rest of James Scott Bell’s “The Perils of Internet Information” at The Kill Zone.

Do You Have the Fire?

In Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Lawrence Block retells an old story.

A young musician approached a world-renowned violinist. “Master,” the young man said, “I want to pursue a life in music. I know I play well, but I don’t know if I have the talent to become great. If you give me encouragement, I’ll devote my life to music.”

This article is an excerpt from QUIT YOUR DAY JOB, 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.

“Play,” said the master.

The young man poured his heart out through his violin and played every note flawlessly. Then he waited for the verdict from the lips of the master.

The master violinist shook his head. “No,” he said. “You lack the fire.”

The young violinist was shattered. He walked away, depressed and despondent. He set aside his violin and studied for a career in business.

Years passed. One day, he heard that the old violinist was in town to give a concert, so he went to the master’s hotel room to call on him. When the master answered the door, the businessman said, “Years ago, I played for you and asked if you thought I had talent.”

“I think I recall you,” the master said uncertainly.

“You said, ‘You lack the fire.’ I was bitterly disappointed, but I had to be realistic and accept your judgment. So I chose a career in the business world, and I’ve become very successful. But one question nags at me: How could you tell that I lacked the fire?”

“Oh, I can’t tell anything from hearing you play one time,” said the master. “Whenever a young musician plays for me, I say, ‘You lack the fire.’”

The businessman gasped with outrage. “How dare you!” he sputtered. “I played my heart out for you! I looked to you for encouragement, and you shattered my dreams! How could you do that to me?”

The master was unmoved. “I said you lacked the fire and I was right. No one could have kept you from your dreams—if you had the fire.”

Do you have the fire to be writer? If you lack the fire, nothing can help you. If the fire burns in you, nothing can stop you.

If you are a writer, you will write.

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