ABOUT THIS WEBSITE: I created WritingInOverdrive.com to help writers discover how to “write in overdrive” — that is, how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly. Here I will share with you the superpower I discovered by accident. I hope this revolutionary approach to writing will become your superpower as well.
“The scariest moment is always just before you start.” —Stephen King
I once taught a writer’s workshop and a young woman came to me after a session and said, “I just can’t get started. I know what I want to write about, and I know my characters — it all seems so perfect in my head. But when I try to write the perfect opening line, nothing comes to me — nothing that feels good enough. Without a brilliant first sentence, I can’t write the rest of the story. I’m afraid to start writing.”
This is a classic writer’s fear — the fear of the blank page (or blank screen). A surprising number of experienced writers are afflicted with this fear well into their careers.
Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, said that, even after publishing more than a dozen novels, “Blank pages inspire me with terror.”
Oscar- and Emmy-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) said, “I love writing, but hate starting. The page is awfully white and it says, ‘You may have fooled some of the people some of the time but those days are over.”1
Before Nobel-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez could sell 30 million copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude, he had to work up the courage to write the first line. “All my life,” he told an interviewer, “I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.”2
Another Nobel winner, John Steinbeck, wrote in his journal, “I suffer as always from the fear of putting down the first line. It is amazing the terrors, the magics, the prayers, the straightening shyness that assails one.”3
The fear of the blank page may be as old as literature itself. In 1295, the poet Dante Alighieri wrote in Vita Nuova (The New Life), “It seemed to me that I had undertaken a theme too lofty for myself, so that I did not dare to begin writing, and I remained for several days with the desire to write and the fear of beginning.”4
If you struggle with fear of the blank page or the blank screen, you’re in excellent company. But you don’t have to be paralyzed by this fear. Here are some practical tools I’ve discovered that enable me to start writing, keep writing, and finish.
Save the first for last.
A lot of well-meaning writing teachers do their students a disservice by saying, “You’ve got to rivet your reader’s attention with a knockout first sentence.” Yes, you need to grab the reader’s attention quickly, at the very beginning. But what writing teachers fail to tell their students is that a book does not need to be written in the order it will be read.
You can start writing in the middle, or near the end, or you can let the whole thing grow organically from a pile of tangled nouns and verbs. You don’t have to write the first sentence first.
Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 opens with one of the best first sentences in literary history: “It was a pleasure to burn.” The novel had its beginnings in a 1947 short story, “Bright Phoenix.” Bradbury expanded the story to a 25,000-word novella, “The Fireman,” in 1950. Only when Bradbury wrote the final 50,000-word novel in 1953 did that famous opening line occur to him — and it was one of the last sentences Bradbury wrote for the novel.
Sometimes it’s best to save the first for last. As you face the blank page, don’t focus on writing a perfect first sentence. Forget perfectionism altogether. Don’t listen to the voice of your Inner Critic. Find any old way into the story and start writing. You might even put this down as the first sentence of your novel: [BRILLIANT OPENING SENTENCE GOES HERE.] Then keep writing.
Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, advises, “Simply start working. If a good first sentence does not come, leave a space for it and write it in later. Write as rapidly as possible.”5
After your first draft is written, you’ll know your story inside and out, backward and forward. Knowing your story can be a huge advantage in crafting a brilliant opening line.
Don’t let fear control you.
Approach the blank page with a chip on your shoulder. Tell fear to get off your back and out of your way. Refuse to let fear have its way with you. Erica Jong says that refusing to be controlled by fear is one of the greatest lessons life has taught her:
All the good things that have happened to me in the last several years have come, without exception, from a willingness to change, to risk the unknown, to do the very things I feared most. Every poem, every page of fiction I have written, has been written with anxiety, occasionally panic, always uncertainty about its reception. . . . I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me.6
Get mad at fear. Snub it and spurn it. The greater your anger, the less your fear — and anger can be a great motivator to get you writing. Romance writer Jo Leigh (One Wicked Night, Relentless) has a simple, blunt maxim for dealing with fear of the blank page: “Screw the fear.”
Don’t let fear bully you, control your decisions, or frighten you away from the blank page. Take charge of your fear. Stare it down and show it who’s boss. As dystopian novelist Tahereh Mafi said, “The words get easier the moment you stop fearing them.”
If you can’t start writing, do writing-related tasks.
This is treacherous territory. Doing so-called “writing-related tasks” can become an excuse for procrastination. Getting on Google and doing “research” can become a way of putting off getting started, while telling ourselves it’s really “writing-related.” I hesitate to suggest a course that might actually keep you from writing.
At same time, I know you can often get unstuck by circling around your writing, probing and testing until you find a way in. To make sure you are truly approaching the blank page from a new angle, not simply avoiding it, set a time limit — no more than ten minutes — to do research, outlining, or note-making. Within those ten minutes, probably much sooner, a piece of information you turn up or a phrase you jot down will spark an idea — and you’ll be off and writing.
Ray Bradbury would wander the Los Angeles Main Library, take down a book, read a few lines of poetry or a paragraph from an astronomy book — and his brain would light up. He’d snatch some library scratch paper and a stubby little pencil, and he’d fill those slips of paper with notes and ideas. Then he’d hurry home and turn those ideas into stories.
Young adult fantasy author Laini Taylor (Daughter of Smoke and Bone) says:
Never sit staring at a blank page or screen. If you find yourself stuck, write. Write about the scene you’re trying to write. Writing about is easier than writing, and chances are, it will give you your way in. You could try listing ten things that might happen next, or do a timed free-write — fast, non-precious forward momentum; you don’t even have to read it afterward, but it might give you ideas. Try anything and everything. Never fall still, and don’t be lazy.7
That’s practical advice. Keep writing, keep moving, keep pushing forward until you find a way into your story.
Don’t try — do.
Good writing is not something we try to do. It’s something we do. Good writing flows naturally. The harder we try to write, the harder writing becomes.
Sometimes, we find it difficult to begin because we put too much pressure on ourselves. We’re trying too hard to be clever or artsy. Or we’re trying to impress. Or we’re putting pressure on ourselves to be productive because we’ve got a word-count goal to reach.
When we realize we’re trying too hard, the solution is to relax. That doesn’t mean we stop writing. It doesn’t mean we take the day off. It means we stop pressuring ourselves and simply write for fun. Great writing is relaxed writing. You can be serious and be relaxed. You can work hard, hour after hour, and still be emotionally and mentally relaxed.
If you need ideas, step away from your keyboard, take a walk, take a shower, lie down and daydream, fix yourself a hot drink, or listen to music. Create a little space between yourself and your work — and allow your unconscious mind to fill that space with images, scenes, characters, and dialogue.
Don’t stay away from the keyboard too long. Don’t read or turn on the news or talk on the phone. Don’t do anything that would fill that space with someone else’s words. Don’t play an addictive game on your computer or phone. Relax quietly. Ten or twenty minutes will do. When you come back to the keyboard, you’ll be renewed and refreshed — and you’ll probably have some powerful new ideas, ready to write.
Write what you love and love what you write.
Sometimes sit paralyzed before the blank screen because we’re trying to write something we don’t love or care about. That’s when our unconscious mind rebels. That’s when the Muse stamps off in a huff.
To write freely, write what you love. Ray Bradbury said, “Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live for.”
When you write what you love and love what you write, the blank page doesn’t represent fear — it represents freedom, the freedom to dream, the freedom to invent entire worlds out of sheer imagination. As the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard wrote in The Poetics of Reverie, “How can one not dream while writing? It is the pen which dreams. The blank page gives the right to dream. If only one could write for himself alone.”8
When you’re in love with your characters, your idea, your story, the grand vision of the tale in your imagination, you’ll sit down to the blank page and write brilliantly. Revel in the freedom of the blank page. Love is the key. “There is no fear in love,” wrote St. John, “but perfect love drives out fear.”9
Be afraid and write anyway.
“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish,” said Samwise Gamgee (quoting his Old Gaffer) in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. So accept your fear and get started. Go ahead and be afraid — but write anyway.
So you’re afraid of the blank page. So what? What can the blank page do to you? How can it hurt you? What do you have to lose by throwing some words — any words — onto that glowing screen, that blank page?
You can rearrange those words, play with them, do some word association, let one word lead to another, and before you know it, you’ll be writing. Your worst day of writing beats your best day of procrastinating, so you might as well write. As science fiction writer A. Lee Martinez observed, “Those who write are writers. Those who wait are waiters.”
It takes courage to be a writer. Not a lot of courage, not the kind of physical courage it takes to be a cop or a firefighter or a soldier. But it does take a certain kind of courage that is uncommon in the general population.
Anthony J. W. Benson, founder of Injoi Creative and Deeper Well Publishing, said, “Writers are a courageous lot. Often embattled by confusion, distraction and persistent dissatisfaction, they fight through pain, sweat and tears, as well as the unforgiving blinding glare of the blank page, to bring their thoughts forth.”10
Courage, of course, is not the absence of fear. Rather, it’s a determined, deliberate response to fear that says, “I’m afraid, but I won’t let my fear stop me or control me. By the force of my will, I will do the thing I fear.”
There are more than fourteen million copies of Jodi Picoult’s twenty novels in print. And here’s a fun fact: Did you know that Picoult also scripted five issues of DC Comics Wonder Woman in 2007? She has accomplished so much as a writer because she does not let fear of the blank page stop her from writing. “You might not write well every day,” she once said, “but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
Writing is fun, but it’s also serious business. It’s important. It’s enduring. It’s art. Let’s not get pretentious about it, but writing is a creative endeavor. As Stephen King said, “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair . . . [but] you must not come lightly to the blank page.”11
I don’t come lightly to this blog post. I come to it in an attitude of prayer. I come to it believing that the One who created the universe is also the One who ignites the spark of creativity within us all. I believe prayer is how we connect our creative human souls with the soul of the Creator.
Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, says she makes prayer her writing ritual as well as her spiritual discipline. Prayer gives her the courage to confront the blank page. “I sit for a moment,” she said, “and then say a small prayer — ‘please help me get out of the way so I can write what wants to be written.’ Sometimes ritual quiets the racket. Try it.”12
What should you pray for? Pray for courage, inspiration, and ideas. Pray for wisdom. Pray for an opening line. Pray for the determination and imagination to continue writing, even if a brilliant opening line doesn’t come to you.
Pray over your words — then get down to business. Relax — then get to work. Face your fear — then write from your courage.
Melissa Crawley, Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s The West Wing (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2006), 61.
Gene H. Bell-Villada, ed., Conversations With Gabriel García Márquez (Jackson MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), 147.
John Steinbeck, Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters (New York: Penguin, 1990), Kindle edition, Entry for February 13, 1951.
Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova (1295), in The Portable Dante (New York: Penguin, 2003), 610.
Dorothea Brande, Becoming a Writer (New York: Tarcher, 1981), 142.
Erica Jong, What Do Women Want? Essays by Erica Jong (New York: Tarcher, 2007), 62.
Tara Randel is an award-winning, USA Today bestselling author. Family values, a bit of mystery and of course, love and romance, are her favorite themes. Look for her next Harlequin Heartwarming romance, available in August.
One of the first things people ask me when I tell them I’m an author is, “What do you write?” And since I love my job, I’m happy to tell them.
But before I continue, I need to go back in time.
I’ve always loved to read. My favorite memories are coming home with a stack of books from the public library. The love continued through high school. Once I got to college, fiction went to the wayside while I studied. Then, when I entered the work force (in the totally non-creative writing field of dentistry), I resumed my lifelong passion of reading.
Somewhere along the line a friend I worked with introduced me to romance novels. I fell in love. With the characters. The stories. The idea that love was bigger and stronger than anything I could imagine.
And then one day that same friend said, “We should write a book.” My immediate response was, “Sure.” What did I know? Nothing, I soon learned. But I studied craft and the business of writing in the hopes that my new dream might come true.
Fast forward twenty-some years. Not only do I write romance novels, but the world of writing has opened up so much, I write in other genres as well.
Romance will always be my first love. I’m a hopeless romantic and can’t fathom a world without love stories. I’ve been fortunate to write for Harlequin Heartwarming, their wholesome fiction line — stories that celebrate the greatest gift of all: Love.
I’ve also been able to write my second favorite genre, mystery. Who doesn’t love a story where you have to figure out “Who done it?” I love the layers, the red herrings and the logic behind piecing together a good story you hope a reader won’t put down until they get to the very last page.
This year, I’ll be starting work on books for a Women’s Fiction line. Another step into a different genre and I can’t wait to get started. Real life issues tackled in a way to connect women, to bond over stories of family, heartache and life changes.
As a writer, I want to move readers with the journey of my characters, the growth and lessons learned along the way. No matter what genre you read or write, we can always close the book after the last page having made new friends and making new discoveries. It’s the magic of books that will never go away, and that’s why I love sitting at my keyboard every day, creating stories I can’t wait to share.
When I first started writing and had trouble getting published, my husband suggested that I not limit myself to one genre. Best advice ever. Now I get to work with different publishers. I’ve made new friends as my career has grown. Best of all, the ideas in my head eventually get a home.
If you’ve ever thought about writing, I encourage you to start by writing those first words. You never know what can happen. All those years ago, I never imagined being an author.
If you love to read, keep supporting the authors whose books you enjoy. I may never meet you face to face, but trust me, I appreciate the time you take out of your schedule to get lost in one of my books. It’s a privilege and an honor, and one I never take for granted.
by Jim Denney, author of Walt’s Disneyland and Writing in Overdrive “Walt Disney was more important than all the politicians we’ve ever had. They pretended optimism. He was optimism. He has done more to change the world for the good than almost any politician who … Continue reading Walt Disney Made Me A Better Writer
“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.”4Wendell 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.