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“You fail only if you stop writing.” —Ray Bradbury
In 1983, Margaret Atwood rented a fisherman’s cottage in the English seacoast village of Blakeney, Norfolk. She planned to spend the next six months writing her most ambitious novel yet — a complex and richly detailed dystopian tale.
Atwood soon realized she was unable to write. The sheer scope of her novel intimidated her. She spent her days bird-watching and her nights reading bad historical novels and nursing chilblains caused by the cold damp weather. She later referred to that time as “six months of futile striving.”
What was wrong? Why didn’t she write? Answer: She was blocked by fear of failure. Her vision of the novel loomed so large in her mind that she felt overwhelmed and paralyzed. She didn’t know where to begin.
Frustrated with herself for wasting months of valuable writing time, Atwood finally did what every successful writer must do in order to overcome the fear of failure: She wrote. She began producing bits and pieces of the story. She sketched in characters and wrote patches of dialogue. It didn’t all hang together at first, but that didn’t matter. After six months, she was finally writing again.
“I grasped the nettle I had been avoiding,” she later said, “and began to write The Handmaid’s Tale.” That novel later became her most successful and acclaimed work. Her advice to anyone who is paralyzed by the fear of failure: “Get back on the horse that threw you, as they used to say. They also used to say: you learn as much from failure as you learn from success.”1
This was hardly Margaret Atwood’s first novel. She had already enjoyed a fifteen-year, five-novel career when she found herself blocked during The Handmaid’s Tale. So the fear of failure is not restricted to beginning and aspiring writers. Successful novelists often experience this fear as well. Like Margaret Atwood, you can conquer your fear of failure and go on to achieve your greatest work.
Embrace the Sense of Failure
The conquest of this fear begins with acceptance of the inevitability of failure. To write is to know failure. Most writers experience more failure than success, and we all strive to achieve a level of perfection that is probably unattainable.
Irish novelist Anne Enright describes a frustration most writers have felt — that of always aspiring to an artistic goal that is just beyond our reach: “I still have this big, stupid idea that if you are good enough and lucky enough, you can make an object that insists on its own subjective truth, a personal thing, a book that shifts between its covers and will not stay easy on the page, a real novel, one that lives, talks, breathes, and refuses to die. And in this, I am doomed to fail.”2
And English novelist Will Self said, “To attempt to write seriously is always, I feel, to fail. The disjunction between my beautifully sonorous, accurate and painfully affecting mental content and the leaden, halting sentences on the page always seems a dreadful falling short. . . . I prize this sense of failure — embrace it even. . . . To continue writing is to accept failure as simply a part of the experience.”3 As writers, we accept the inevitability of commercial failure, artistic failure, and even failed relationships.
One True Sentence
The fear of failure afflicts many writers soon after the publication of their first book. The writer thinks, “I fooled ’em once, but can I fool ’em again? What if I only have one book in me? What if I have no encore?”
Suspense writer James L. Rubart, author of Rooms and Book of Days, recalls that after his first book was well-received by critics and readers, he worried that it was a fluke — and that his second novel might not measure up. “The response to Rooms was so strong that I was definitely nervous when Book of Days came out. That whole ‘I only have one book in me’ thing. But a lot of people liked Book of Days better.”
In fact, Rubart says, his mastery of the writing craft increased in demonstrable ways with each new novel. “It took me six years to write Rooms,” he recalls, “two years to write Book of Days, five months to write The Chair, ten weeks to write Soul’s Gate . . . and I’m on pace to finish the novel I’m working on right now in six weeks.”4
Wendell Berry is a farmer, antiwar activist, novelist, and poet. He remembers the sense of unease he felt after his first book was published. He has learned to embrace that uneasy feeling and to anticipate the unknown adventures ahead. “I am discomforted,” he says, “by the knowledge that I don’t know how to write the books that I have not yet written. But that discomfort has an excitement about it, and it is the necessary antecedent of one of the best kinds of happiness.”5
In A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway recalled the twinge of self-doubt he felt as he contemplated a new story:
I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that you knew or had seen or had heard someone say.6
Don’t fear that you have no more stories or books in you. You have barely scratched the surface of all the stories your soul contains. Over time, you have learned and grown as a writer. Relax in the confidence and mastery you have gained from that achievement — and prepare to conquer even greater challenges in the future. Trust your unconscious mind, your talent, your training, and your experience. Then sit down in front of your screen or your blank page and write the truest sentence you know.
Fail Early, Fail Often
Web writer Diogenes Brito says that he wrestles with a number of fears every time he sets out to write — fear of the blank page, fear of the unknown, fear of being judged, and fear of losing control. But one fear that no longer troubles him is the fear of failure. Brito says he overcame that fear thanks to one of his university professors:
When I was in Stanford’s design program, a professor named Dave Beach had everyone raise jazz hands to the sky. He then instructed us to jump and cheer, “I failed!” I have never forgotten that moment. “Fail early, fail often” was the mantra. The goal was to build up an immunity to failure, so that fear of it would never hold you back. Like [computer scientist] Dick Karpinski says, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly — at first.” I remember that, and it keeps me from freezing up. The enemy of creativity is fear, so I keep going, no matter what.7
If you live by the maxim, “Fail early, fail often,” you can write without fear of failure. Train yourself to view failure not as an objective reality but as a false label people impose on a learning experience. Instead of telling yourself, “How horrible — I’ve failed,” simply shrug and say, “Well, that didn’t work. Lesson learned. What should I try next?” Make up your mind to learn from your failures and you’ll stop being afraid.
A conversation with romance novelist Robin Lee Hatcher
by Jim Denney
Robin Lee Hatcher is the best-selling author of more than seventy-five novels and novellas featuring emotionally charged stories of love, faith, and courage. She has won a shelf full of awards, including the prestigious Romance Writers of America’s RITA® Award for excellence in romance fiction. She has been an eleven-time RITA finalist and has won the award twice. She has also won the RWA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. the American Christian Fiction Writers’ Lifetime Achievement Award, the Christy Award, and ACFW’s Carol Award.
I’ve known Robin for a number of years, and when I learned how she approached the writing process, I asked if she would let me share her creative approach with my readers at Writing in Overdrive. I always like to find out how writers are drawn to a life of storytelling.
Some people divide writers into two camps — (1) those who plot out an outline of their story before they begin writing (usually called “outliners” or “plotters”), and (2) those who “write by the seat of their pants.” Non-outliners are often referred to as “pantsers” — an inelegant term, in my view. I prefer the term “cliff-jumper,” derived from Ray Bradbury’s advice to writers, “You’ve got to jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” In other words, don’t outline — just leap off the cliff and into your story and you’ll discover your characters and your plot along the way.
Now, I’m not saying that cliff-jumping is the only way to write. Outlining (sometimes called “pre-writing”) is a perfectly legitimate approach the creative process. J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, William Faulkner, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, John Grisham, Jennifer Egan, Norman Mailer, and James Scott Bell are some well-known outliners.
Everybody is wired differently, so do whatever works for you. The problem is that a lot of cliff-jumpers have been told they are “doing it wrong” if they don’t outline. If you’re a natural-born cliff-jumper, you’re in excellent company. Madeleine L’Engle, Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Colleen Coble, Stephen King and Robin Lee Hatcher are all cliff-jumpers. Some writers — Piers Anthony, for example — are a hybrid, doing a lot of cliff-jumping within a loosely structured outline. So if you either can’t outline or you don’t want to outline, you’re in good company.
How did Robin Lee Hatcher become a writer? She didn’t always dream of becoming a writer, even though she was a avid reader. In fact, she says she went to her first day of first grade with a single goal: learn to read. She completed her first day of school and still didn’t know how to read, so she told her mother there was no point in going back the next day. But her mother sent her back to school, and she eventually learned to read — and write.
She loved drama and storytelling, and she dreamed of being a movie star. When she was in the fifth grade, she made up a story about her mother, claiming her mom had moved west in a covered wagon along the Oregon Trail. As a consequence, her mother instructed her in the difference between fiction and fibbing.
In her twenties, inspired by Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, Robin got an idea for an epic romance story. She talked about the story with friends, and finally realized that books only get written by writing them down, not by talking about them. She wrote her first novel in longhand on yellow legal pads, then typed it up during lunch breaks on an IBM Selectric typewriter at work. It took her nine months to write it, then another two-plus years to get it published.
More than seventy-five books later, Robin Lee Hatcher is still making up intriguing stories and selling them to an eager public. She recently told me about her creative process.
Q: As a writer, you are what some would call a “pantser” — or what I would call, borrowing Ray Bradbury’s term, a “cliff-jumper.”
Robin Lee Hatcher: That’s right. I really like that term “cliff-jumper.” It’s a good description of my writing process. I do not outline. I do not use a storyboard or sticky notes or Scrivener’s cork board. Rarely do I go back and rework anything I’ve written while I’m in first draft. I keep writing forward. If I need to find an answer to a question, I stop and research, then keep going.
Q: How much planning goes into your characters before you begin? Do you know your characters well before you start writing, or do you get to know them as the story develops?
Robin Lee Hatcher: I write first-person autobiographies of my major characters from birth to when the novel opens. This enables me to understand their backgrounds and motivations. I know where they hurt. I know what they want. I have a good idea which characters will come into conflict with each other, and why. Then I write them in a stream-of-consciousness style. I just let my imagination take wing. My stories are totally character-driven, not plot-driven. The plot is simply what emerges from the interaction of the characters.
Q: Your approach is a great illustration of what Bradbury meant when he said, “Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.” What about your setting? Certainly you need to know where your story takes place before you begin to write.
Robin Lee Hatcher: To an extent. I usually have an idea of my setting, but it’s rarely very concrete. The setting tends to come to life as I write. Almost all of my settings are fictional towns. I know the reality of where they are set but the towns are laid out in ways that best serve my stories. When I begin a novel, I know my main characters, the opening scene, and I have a vague idea of where I am headed. That’s all I need to begin writing.
Q: Have you ever tried outlining?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes. I learned that it just doesn’t work for me.
Q: Why not?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Writing for me is all about discovering the story. When I tried to outline the story in advance, I realized that I no longer wanted to write the book because I already knew how it was going to end. Why write it once I know that? Knowing everything about my story in advance only dampened my enthusiasm for writing it down. It made me anxious to set it aside and move on to a new idea.
Writing without an outline, I get up and go to my computer every morning so that I can discover what happens next. I’m just like my readers in that regard. They read my books to find out what happens next, and that’s why I write them. The deeper I write into the story, the better I understand the story, and the more I know what will happen next.
Q: E. L. Doctorow said about writing, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Is that an apt description of how your creative process feels? And isn’t it a bit scary?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes, writing for me is a lot like driving at night on a deserted highway. My imagination serves as a set of headlights, providing enough light each day to keep me on the road. Are there twists and turns ahead? Is it scary not knowing what’s out there in the dark? Yes, a bit. But it’s also exciting. All the answers to my story are out there, beyond the range of the headlights.
Q: Have you ever wished you could be an outliner instead of a cliff-jumper?
Robin Lee Hatcher: Yes, there was a time when I thought it would make the writing process much easier if I could pre-write the novel, then breeze through the actual writing. One time, years ago, I was at a conference. As I talked to different writers about the workshops they were attending, it occurred to me that all the character-driven novelists were attending the plotting workshops and all of the plot-driven novelists were attending workshops on characterization. Why were they doing that? Were they trying to improve their craft and sharpen their writing skills? Yes. But more than that, I think that, whether they realized it or not, they were also looking for an easier way to write a novel.
When I came to that realization, I quit feeling guilty about not being a plotter. I decided to embrace the way God made me to write. This how my brain works, and I’m good with that. I don’t need to change. Cliff-jumping works for me. There is such freedom in getting to the point where you accept that this is who you are as a writer. If you can only write a novel by driving in the dark without a roadmap, that’s fine. If you need to outline your plot before you begin, that’s fine, too.
The truth is, there’s no easy way to write a novel. It’s hard work, whether you’re a cliff-jumper or an outliner. With study and practice, some aspects of writing become easier and more natural, but it’s still hard work. In some ways it becomes even harder, because as we increase our confidence and our skill-level, we want to challenge ourselves more and stretch ourselves in new directions.
Of course, I had to try everything early on in my writing career. I tried the plot-motivation-whatever chart. I tried outlining a novel from start to finish. I’ve read tons of how-to books with all kinds of tips and tricks and I’ve tried most of the suggestions I came across. And in all of that reading and experimenting, I’ve discovered what works for me and what doesn’t.
Q: You said that you don’t use Scrivener—
Robin Lee Hatcher: Well, I don’t use Scrivener’s cork board feature, but Scrivener is a very powerful and useful tool for writers. I do use it. I love the character pages in Scrivener. I love the way you can add photos and details and insights about your characters as you go along. So I enjoy using Scrivener, but I don’t use it for outlining. I use it to make my creative process flow more freely.
Q: One thing I talk about a lot on the Writing in Overdrive website is the power of the unconscious mind to enable us to write faster and to be more creative and uninhibited. What role does the unconscious mind play in your creative process?
Robin Lee Hatcher: I’m convinced that much of my writing happens in my unconscious before I’m ever aware of it. Sometimes the writing even happens while I sleep. I don’t mean that I get plot ideas from dreams — although I have actually dreamt some scenes. I mean that, somewhere below the surface of my awareness, my brain is working on the story. So while it sounds like I just wing it, there’s an unconscious creative process going on that I’m not aware of. That process is working out interactions between characters, exploring plot possibilities, and making intuitive leaps that my conscious mind would never think of.
Q: This is a phenomenon many writers observe during the writing process. Ursula Le Guin said, “I allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.” And Anne Lamott talked about the need to align ourselves with “the river of the story, the river of the unconscious.”
Robin Lee Hatcher: Exactly! During every writing session, there are probably two or three things that emerge — ideas, insights, connections, entire scenes — that I wasn’t consciously aware of at the start, but at some unconscious level my brain was working on the story. When I’m writing, these ideas come to the surface. We think it comes out of nowhere and we call it “inspiration,” but I think it often comes from our God-given unconscious self. And, of course, God works through us and inspires us when we are open to him and listening to him.
That’s why it’s so important to show up for work every day. We won’t receive our daily allotment of inspiration until we sit down, place our fingers on the keyboard, and discover what our unconscious creativity has been working on.
Q: Robin, the words rewriting and revising are sometimes used interchangeably, but technically they are not the same thing. Rewriting is more drastic, and usually involves major restructuring, such as adding or deleting an entire subplot or character arc, inserting new scenes, or removing scenes that detract from the storyline. Revising is essentially buffing and polishing and perfecting a novel that is structurally sound. Do you find that writing without an outline is an advantage or a disadvantage when it comes to rewriting or revising your first draft?
Robin Lee Hatcher: I don’t think my creative process gives me an advantage or a disadvantage. Both outliners and cliff-jumpers need to revise. I don’t generally have to do major rewrites, but they have happened on occasion. Most of the time, however, when I finish a first draft, I do a proof and polish, then turn it in. I’ve been tweaking and polishing throughout the first draft, so it is usually in good shape.
Because most of my books are romances, I begin with a hero and heroine and I know their history, their lives leading up to the story. For instance, with my latest novel, I know that Jessica is a pregnant widow whose husband cheated on her and he died in a car wreck just after telling her he was leaving her for another woman. And I know that Ridley is a tech guy who got involved in a political scandal for which he was blamed. Both are trying to hide from life and keep people from knowing who they really are. Ridley goes to Jessica’s small town and becomes her neighbor. Their romance begins.
Now, because it’s a romance, we know that the two of them will get together at the end. So I just start writing toward that moment when they get their Happily Ever After. Sometimes I have a glimmer of an idea as to how they will get there, but I usually don’t. I’m driving in the dark.
My first drafts tend to be pithy and concise, so my revisions usually involve fleshing out the scenes I’ve written to make them longer, more emotionally involving. As a romance writer, revisions usually involve going deeper into my characters’ emotions.
Q: I think many outliners have a more adventurous, cliff-jumping spirit than they realize. I’ve known many writers, myself included, who started out with an outline, then wrote and wrote without even looking at the outline. By the time the book was written, it was a very different story than the one in the outline. Along the way, outliners generally discover depths to their story they never imagined at the outset. They discover new characters, new plot twists, and often come up with a completely new ending.
Robin Lee Hatcher: I agree. I don’t think plotters are slaves to their outlines. I’m sure they are constantly tweaking and refining their ideas as they write, whether in broad ways or subtle ways. The book they planned and the book they wrote are often very different from each other. An outline doesn’t have to be a straight-jacket. If you’re a plotter, then your outline is your roadmap. But if, along your journey, you stumble onto a road that isn’t on the map, you’re perfectly free to explore it.
No outlining writer should ever tell a cliff-jumping writer, “You’re doing it wrong.” Or vice versa. A plotter feels more freedom with an outline to follow. A cliff-jumper feels more freedom without an outline. That’s great! Whatever works for you, do that. Enjoy your freedom to create.
Q: That’s great advice for any writer. Thank you, Robin, for sharing your experiences and insights.
With apologies, it’s been a while since I’ve posted to the Writing in Overdrive blog. I promise to be more faithful in posting new content that you can use to be a more productive and creatively inspired writer. I’ve got some exciting content lined up for this site, especially for this special time of year, National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo).
I want to kick off this new series of inspiring and motivational posts with an interview with my friend Kerry Nietz, award-winning science fiction author. He has more than a half dozen speculative novels in print, along with a novella, a couple short stories, and a non-fiction book, FoxTales.
I’ve read and I highly recommend Kerry’s novel A Star Curiously Singing, which won the Readers Favorite Gold Medal Award for Christian Science Fiction. It’s a dystopian thriller with a strong cyberpunk flavor. It has more than a hundred five-star reviews on Amazon and is often mentioned on “Best of” lists.
You’ve probably heard of Kerry’s most talked-about novel (which I’ve also read and recommend), the genre-bending Amish Vampires in Space. The title might lead you to assume it’s a campy satire on the vampire and Amish genres, but Kerry wrote a credible, enthralling Amish-themed science-fantasy tale with believable characters and an absorbing plot. Amish Vampires in Space attracted attention on NBC’s Tonight Show and in The Washington Post, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly. Newsweek called it “a welcome departure from the typical Amish fare.”
Kerry describes himself as “a refugee from the software industry” who “spent more than a decade of his life flipping bits, first as one of the principal developers of the database product FoxPro for the now mythical Fox Software, and then as one of Bill Gates’s minions at Microsoft.” Kerry is a husband, a father, a technophile, and a movie buff. I wanted to know more about Kerry’s roots as a writer and his creative process. Here’s the interview:
Q: Why do you write, Kerry? Who or what inspired you or influenced you to become a novelist?
Kerry Nietz: The simple answer is: It’s something I always wanted to do. I grew up reading. I was the kid who would badger his parents for “just one more book” when the Scholastic catalog arrived every month. And they often bought all those “more books” for me, despite being a rural family where money always seemed tight. I dabbled in writing back then too. Writing little scraps of stories. Fun ideas that never really turned into anything.
Anyone who knows me knows I communicate in stories. I love a fun anecdote. Life is a collection of stories to me.
Q: It’s said that there are two kinds of fiction writers — those who outline and those who “write by the seat of their pants.” Accordingly, the non-outliners are often called “pantsers,” but I’ve never liked that term. I prefer the term Ray Bradbury coined when he told writers, “You’ve got to jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down.” He was urging writers not to outline, but to simply leap off the cliff and into the story and discover the plot and characters as they write their way down through the story. So my preferred term for writing without outline is “cliff-jumping.” Kerry, I know that you’re a cliff-jumper. Does cliff-jumping enable you to be a faster writer? Or does it slow you down?
Kerry Nietz: It probably doesn’t make me faster. I’m sure that, if I were able to outline, the actual writing would be quick. But the outlining might take a long time, and I’m averse to that. Sitting for weeks or even months without putting actual words to the story would kill me.
Q: From page 1 to “The End,” how long does it usually take you to write a novel?
Kerry Nietz: The average time to write a novel, from start to final draft, is around nine months. Depends on the story and the number of viewpoints I need to service. First person stories are quicker.
Q: Are you meticulous about buffing and polishing your first draft as you go? Or do you write quickly and spontaneously in first draft, never looking back?
Kerry Nietz: There is a level of polishing that occurs as I go, because I like to lightly edit yesterday’s work in preparation for today’s. I usually stop for the day in the middle of scene. That gives me something to read and edit the next day and makes it easy to get into the flow of writing again.
Q: Have you ever written a section, then wondered “Why did I write that?” and later discovered that it became an important subplot or storyline?
Kerry Nietz: Yes, often. Same goes for characters and situations. They sometimes seem, initially, to be superfluous or simply window-dressing to help paint the tone or setting. But later they become pivotal. The “serendipity-ness” of it becomes even more amazing when it occurs over the course of a series. For instance, in one of my series, I had no idea who the final “big bad” was until my protagonist walked into the room with him. Then it became blindingly obvious — and it was someone I’d created two books previous.
Q: How much of the story do you know before you start? Do you know how you want it to end? Does a better ending usually occur to you than the one you originally had in mind?
Kerry Nietz: It has happened both ways. Sometimes I have a concrete idea of the finale and it ends that way. Other times it is vague and becomes clearer as I close in on it. All my Amish science fiction novels have been like that. I have no idea how they end, other than “something big,” but when I get there, the “big” becomes obvious.
Q: Ray Bradbury claimed he almost never experienced writer’s block because he trusted his unconscious mind to supply what he needed when he needed it. Theodore Sturgeon, who also advocated cliff jumping (he called it “the narrative push” approach), was chronically afflicted with writer’s block. Do you ever get stuck or blocked?
Kerry Nietz: I rarely get blocked. I mean, there have been times when I’ve set for a few minutes not knowing what part of the story to tell next, but eventually I just pick a path and start writing. Usually turns out fine.
Habit helps with that too. If you’re used to writing at the same time each day then your mind is ready to write when it’s that time. A writer can’t wait until they are “feeling it.” Some of the best writing was during those times when I felt I was grudgingly pushing through, simply committed to getting my word count in for the day.
Q: Do you see writing fiction as primarily a conscious process or an unconscious process? In your experience, where do ideas and inspiration come from? Is writing related to dreaming, in your view?
Kerry Nietz: Writing is a faith walk for me. I start the journey with the expectation that it will go somewhere. I pray about it. I keep the habits, putting in my daily time, during my usual writing window, committed to at least a couple pages. Before you know it, you’re at dozens of pages, then hundreds. So, I guess it is a mixture of conscious and unconscious. Conscious in the habit. Unconscious to where the ideas are all going to come from. All I need is enough for today, and that’s what I get, thankfully.
My profound thanks to Kerry Nietz for giving us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into his imaginative and highly productive writing world. Follow or message Kerry on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/1wYR9NU. Follow him on Twitter at http://bit.ly/1DQKzLM. Visit his website at www.KerryNietz.com. Most important of all, read his work:
Fraught (DarkTrench Shadow Number 2) — Paperback
The DarkTrench Saga Complete Collection: A Star Curiously Singing, The Superlative Stream, Freeheads — Kindle Edition:
Amish Vampires in Space (Peril in Plain Space Book 1) Paperback
I was as shocked as anyone when I heard that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on October 13, 2016:
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a Bob Dylan fan. Have been since I first heard his music. For more than fifty years, he’s had more influence on American music and culture than anyone else I can think of. Songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” and “When the Ship Comes In” — that’s the soundtrack of my adolescence, when I first began thinking seriously about the Bomb and Vietnam.
But the Nobel Prize for Literature? Come on!
The Swedish Academy claimed to have given Dylan the award “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” There are already enough awards for music, and Dylan has won them all. But again I ask — Literature?
There’s an unambiguous definition of “literature” — “a body of written works.” Literature is work that is written to be read. Music is work that is written to be listened to. One of the most essential truths of literature is that words have meaning, words are important. And the word literature shouldn’t be misused.
Music ain’t literature. The Nobel Prize has jumped the shark.
Yet there are parallels between the creative process that produces literature and the creative process that produces music. We can learn some useful principles for writing stories and novels by listening to this Nobel-winning folk-blues troubadour, Bob Dylan.
It turns out that Dylan wrote songs in very much the same way writers like John Steinbeck and Stephen King wrote novels, and the same way Ray Bradbury and Anton Chekhov wrote short stories. He silenced his inner critic, wrote from the unconscious mind, and wrote quickly, without thinking or critiquing what he wrote. When Dylan wrote songs, he was writing in overdrive. As a songwriter, he compared himself to story writer Edgar Allan Poe and poet John Keats.
He once told an interviewer, “It’s nice to be able to put yourself in an environment where you can completely accept all the unconscious stuff that comes to you from your inner workings of your mind. And block yourself off to where you can control it all, take it down. . . . Edgar Allan Poe must have done that. People who are dedicated writers.”
How did Dylan tap into those unconscious inner workings? He says our unconscious mind contains both thoughts and memories, some good, some evil, and both the good and the evil bubble up from the unconscious as grist for the creative process. As we create, we sort through out all this unconscious raw material, and we sift out the evil thoughts (which he calls “baggage”) and we distill the good memories and ideas into the creative process. “You must get rid of all that baggage,” he said. “It’s important to get rid of all them thoughts.” [Source: Jonathan Cott, editor, Bob Dylan: The Essential Interviews (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2017), 393.]
Once the unconscious creative mind has given up its random contents, the conscious and rational critic-editor within us conducts “some kind of surveillance” of the good thoughts that remain. The rational mind sorts through the chaos and disorder that the unconscious mind has produced, imposing an orderly structure on ideas, words, images, and symbols thrown off by the creative explosion of the unconscious mind. In Dylan’s songwriting, it all happens very quickly, just as a story is written quickly when the author is writing in overdrive.
Dylan told an interviewer, “The best songs to me — my best songs — are songs which were written very quickly. Yeah, very, very quickly. Just about as much time as it takes to write it down is about as long as it takes to write it. . . . You can still stay in the unconscious frame of mind to pull it off, which is the state of mind you have to be in anyway.” [Source: Benjamin Hedin, Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), 213, 215.]
He recalled that he wrote the song “Every Grain of Sand” while in a transcendent state — not a drug-induced state, but a state of being in touch with his unconscious mind, the state I call “writing in overdrive.” Dylan added, “Yeah. In that area where Keats is. Yeah. That’s a good poem set to music.”
Dylan’s reference to the English Romantic poet John Keats (1795-1821) is significant. Keats created from the unconscious. He summoned powerful word-pictures from his unconscious mind while in a state of overdrive. In a letter to his friend Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817, he wrote, “O for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!” And in a letter to his younger brothers George and Thomas Keats, December 22, 1817, he describe a quality “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
This “negative capability” Keats wrote of, the ability to immerse oneself in sensations and uncertainties and mysteries, was the same creative process Bob Dylan practiced. It’s a process Ray Bradbury reminded himself of when he hung a sign next to his typewriter that read, “Don’t think!” The unconscious mind doesn’t think. The writer-in-overdrive doesn’t think. Our creative unconscious mind dreams, feels, imagines, free-associates, and throws off a brilliant shower of sparks composed of ideas and sensory impressions.
That’s what Bob Dylan is saying to you and me as writers: Stop thinking. Write unconsciously. Turn off your mind, listen to your unconscious, and write a song, a story, a novel, a play. And who knows? Maybe the next time your phone rings, it will be the Swedish Academy inviting you to Sweden to accept your Nobel Prize for Literature.
Hey, it happened to Dylan. It could happen to you.
“Every day I try to be in communication with the universe in an unconscious way.” —Paulo Coelho
Writing faster and writing better is not a matter of techniques or shortcuts or writing secrets. Sure, there are a few tricks you can learn that will increase your writing speed at the margins: You can eliminate time-wasting habits, use voice dictation software instead of typing, and so forth. I talk about these tricks in my books, and they can help you become a faster writer. But these tricks won’t make you more a more brilliant writer.
There’s only one writing insight you can learn that will make you a faster and more brilliant writer: You must learn to write unconsciously.
In other words, you must learn to write in flow or in the zone. Great writing does not involve thinking. Great writing comes from a deeper part of us than the conscious intellect. It comes from the unconscious mind.
John Steinbeck, in a 1962 letter to an aspiring writer, 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.” Steinbeck warned the young writer not to stop and edit or rewrite while in the creative process. “Rewrite in process,” he said, “is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.”
When you are first drafting (or “fast drafting,” as I prefer to call it), always move forward, never look back. By writing freely and quickly and without inhibitions, you tap into the writer’s most powerful engine of imagination, the unconscious mind.
Ursula K. Le Guin has described her writing process as “a pure trance state. … All I seek when writing is to allow my unconscious mind to control the course of the story, using rational thought only to reality check when revising.”
In Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande talks about a creative faculty we all possess, though few of us are aware of it — ”The higher imagination, you may call it; your own endowment of genius, great or small; the creative aspect of your mind, which is lodged almost entirely in the unconscious.”
Brande underscores the fact that this faculty is the UN-conscious mind, not the SUB-conscious mind, because “sub-” suggests that which is low and inferior. Far from being inferior to the conscious mind, Brande says, the unconscious “has a reach as far above our average intellect as it has depths below. . . . The unconscious must be trusted to bring you aid from a higher level than that on which you ordinarily function.” In fact, she says, “the root of genius is in the unconscious, not the conscious, mind.”
One of Dorothea Brande’s most famous disciples, Ray Bradbury, often said that conscious thought is poisonous to the creative process, and that true creativity springs from the unconscious mind. In a 1975 speech, he said, “I have had a sign by my typewriter for the better part of twenty years, now, which says, ‘Don’t think.’ I hate all those signs that say ‘Think.’ That’s the enemy of creativity. . . . Intellect can help correct. But emotion, first, surprises creativity out in the open where it can be pinned down!”
What is the unconscious mind? Where in the brain is it located? Is it in the right brain or the murky region of the limbic system? Is the unconscious, creative mind the result of the synergistic functioning of many regions of the brain working together? Or does the function of the unconscious mind extend beyond the boundaries of the brain? Is it a creative activity of the immortal human spirit — a human reflection of the creativity of God?
I don’t know. No one knows. The term unconscious mind is a convenient label for a phenomenon we can’t explain. We don’t need to know where the unconscious mind is located or how it works, but I can tell you this from my own personal experience:
The unconscious mind is the key to unlocking our incredible creative powers.
“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” —Ernest Hemingway
Many writers obsess about the so-called “rules” of writing. They ask: “What are the rules? What if I’m breaking the rules and don’t know it? What does ‘Show, don’t tell’ mean? What does ‘Write what you know’ mean? How can I get published if I don’t know the rules?”
In my humble opinion, there are only a few “rules of writing” that are so fundamental and universal they truly deserve to be called “rules.” These are the commonsense commandments you must obey or you’re not a writer: “Read every day.” “Maintain a consistent writing schedule.” “Write whether you feel ‘inspired’ or not.” “Finish what you start.” “Never give up.” “Never be boring.”
Any other so-called “rules” are not rules at all. They should be called “principles.” A principle is a general guide to behavior that has proven useful in most situations. There have probably been times when you’ve said, “That’s a good principle, but it doesn’t apply to this situation.” Many people feel anxious at the thought of “breaking” rules. But if we would think of the “general principles of writing” instead of the “rules of writing,” we could relax and be more creative and uninhibited.
Screenwriter Robert McKee put it this way: “Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works . . . and has through all remembered time.’ The difference is crucial. . . . Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.”
Science fiction writer Will Shetterly (Dogland), agrees: “There are no rules in writing. There are useful principles. Throw them away when they’re not useful. But always know what you’re throwing away.”
Leonard Bishop, in Dare to Be a Great Writer, suggests that, instead of feeling anxious or hesitant about breaking rules, we should sin boldly. He writes:
If you break a “writing rule,” make it noticeable. Exploit your infraction until your personal technique becomes another rule. . . .
A popular rule is “Don’t tell it, show it!” Yet, if you have a scene with ten people who are important and you cannot devise a way to bring them all into action, then tell [about] them — and keep on telling. . . . Offer them, one at a time, as though introducing the cast of a play. Narrate them, describe them, document them, use exposition to reveal their relationships to one another — until the information is down. Tell it all — interestingly. A writer should be bold, versatile, inventive, imaginative, rebellious.
Do not break any rules at the beginning of a novel. It is advisable to allow the reader to get used to your manner of writing before you astonish them with your daring attitudes. (This is not a rule: it is a suggestion.)
E. B. White (The Elements of Style and Charlotte’s Web) observed, “There is . . . no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”
Novelist Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) said, “Rules such as ‘Write what you know,’ and ‘Show, don’t tell,’ while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works.”
Ralph Keyes, in The Courage to Write, makes the case that a writer’s success depends far more on passion and conviction than on following any set of writing “rules”:
The more I read and write, the more convinced I am that writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction. The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill. Those writers who hold their readers’ attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, “You’ve got to listen to what I am about to tell you.” It’s hard to be passionate. It means you must put your whole poke on the table. Yet this very go-for-broke quality grabs and holds a reader far more surely than any mastery of technique.
Fantasy master Neil Gaiman offers his own eight rules of writing. His first rule is so basic he expressed it in a single word: “Write.” Most of his other rules are less concise but equally basic: “Finish what you’re writing” and “Fix it.” His eighth and final rule is my favorite, because it repeals all other so-called “rules”—
The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
Forget “rules.” Master the principles and follow them when they help you, abandon them when they hold you back. Relax and enjoy the creative process. Write with joy!
For more insight into how to write freely, powerfully, confidently, without inhibition, read my books for writers. Learn to tap into the incredibly powerful source of creative inspiration, “the Muse” or unconscious mind.
“You don’t want to think when you’re writing. You want to stop thinking and just go on inspiration.” —Garth Stein
Gregory Benford is an astrophysicist and a science fiction writer. He is best known for his Galactic Center Saga, beginning with In the Ocean of Night (1977). Benford says that, though he is a rational scientist, he relies heavily on unconscious intuition when writing fiction. When he began writing In the Ocean of Night in the summer of 1975, he followed an unconscious, unplanned process that, he said, unfolded as “a series of revelations.”
Benford had written his way to the midpoint of the novel when a stunning plot twist came to him out of the blue — a shocking surprise that was exactly what he needed at that point in the story. It was brilliant — and completely unforeseen. As Benford pondered the plot twist, he realized he had unknowingly planted clues throughout the first half of the book. The plot twist would be absolutely fitting and would play fair with the reader by being set up beforehand — yet the reader would not see it coming any more than Benford had.
How had he managed to plant those clues when he wasn’t even conscious of where the clues were leading him? Answer: Benford’s unconscious mind knew all along. But he had to write half the novel in order for his conscious mind to catch up to what his unconscious mind already knew.
“It was that kind of assembly work,” he later said, “in which you slowly understand what is going on. . . . This seems to be the way that I have to write books. It takes a long time to put together the ideas and figure out what it means.”
As we learn to rely on the power of the unconscious mind, we discover a completely new way of imagining, creating, and writing. Our stories, scenes, dialogue, and emotions spill forth with compelling energy from the depths of the uninhibited, unconscious mind.
This doesn’t mean the conscious mind — the intellect — is unimportant. The conscious mind is the critical and analytical part of us, not the creative part. Creativity springs from the Muse. To write truthful and compelling fiction, we must understand the role of the unconscious mind — and allow the unconscious to drive the process.
Don’t try to analyze what the unconscious mind is doing. “The unconscious more than anything hates being dragged into public,” observed science-fantasy writer C. L. Moore, adding that the unconscious “can’t work under the inspection of the conscious mind.”
Great writers understand that art (as filmmaker Jean Cocteau observed) “is a marriage of the conscious and the unconscious.” Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, explains how the conscious and unconscious work together. “The trick with writing,” he said, “is that there’s an art to it and there’s a craft to it. The craft of writing is all the stuff that you can learn through school, [going] to workshops and [reading] books. Learn characterization, plot and dialogue and pacing and word choice and point of view. Then there’s also the art of it which is sort of the unknown, the inspiration, the stuff that is noncerebral.”
As you write, don’t think. Fantasize. Daydream. Play with ideas. Let your unconscious mind take control of your story. Let it give life to your characters. Let it plan the hidden twists and turns of your plot.
“The best thing to do is to loosen my grip on my pen and let it go wandering about.” —Machado de Assis
For more insight on how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly, read my other books for writers: