I wrote Writing In Overdrive to help writers like YOU discover how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly. In my book, and on this website, I’ll introduce you to a writer’s greatest superpower—the ability to tap into the creative unconscious mind and unleash the ability to write with amazing speed and uninhibited imagination.
I have written or co-written more than 150 books for many publishers—fiction and nonfiction, books for adults and for children—and I’m a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA).
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was about nine years old. How about you? Do you have stories to tell? Would you like to spend your days thinking up adventures and writing them down, like I do? Excellent! Writing is a lot of fun. If you’d like to be a writer, too, then I have some ideas that may help you reach your goals.
Tip #1: Write About What You Really Care About
I’ve heard people say, “Write what you know.” Well, I say, “Write what you really care about.”
The problem with “Write what you know” is that there are a lot of things that are fun to write about that nobody has ever done. For example, my Timebenders books are about time travel—but I’ve never traveled in time. I’ve never been scared out of my socks by a Tyrannosaurus rex. I’ve never been to an old English castle. I’ve never gone to the future and been chased by robots. If I could only write what I know from my own experience, I couldn’t have written Timebenders.
If you write a story about a different time or place, you may need to do some research. For example, if you want to write a story about the American Civil War, you’ll need to read books on American history in the 1860s. One of the most famous novels ever written about the Civil War is The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane. Yet Stephen Crane was never a soldier and was never in the Civil War. He didn’t write what he knew; he did research. And he did his research so well that his book convinced many people that he had actually been a soldier in the war.
So write whatever you really want to write about, whatever you think would make an interesting story, whatever you really care and feel intensely about. Write about the things you love, the things that make you angry, or the things that make you afraid.
Tip #2: Read.
A writer is a reader first of all, so read every day. And when you read, don’t just read your favorite kind of book. Read all kinds of books. Whether you like scary books or fantasy or adventure stories or romance, you should read other kinds of books as well. Read fiction and nonfiction. Read books about the lives of famous people. Read books about science, history, literature, and art. Read poetry. Read the Bible. If you want to be a good writer, become a well-rounded reader.
Tip #3: Write All the Time.
Some people only like to write when they feel “inspired.” But I’ve found that the best way to be inspired is to sit down and start writing—even when I don’t feel like writing. I write every day, and I don’t always feel “inspired” when I begin. But soon after I start writing, ideas and sentences start to flow. I start having fun. And I keep writing for an hour, two hours, or three hours at a stretch.
Keep a journal or diary. Write down observations about interesting events and interesting people. Write down things that happen to you. Write about things that make you feel happy, angry, scared, sad, or embarrassed. Someday, you may use those observations as bits and pieces of a story or book.
When you write, remember it’s okay to imitate writers you admire. I don’t mean you should “steal” story ideas or actual sentences from other writers. But study your favorite writers and see how they create characters, how they write believable dialogue, how they create realistic settings and descriptions, and how they use metaphors to create word pictures in the reader’s mind. It’s okay to study and imitate other writers—that’s how we learn. Over time, you’ll develop your own style and a writing “voice” that is uniquely your own.
Tip #4: Relax and Daydream
My best ideas come when I am relaxed, not when I’m super-concentrating. If you concentrate real hard and tell yourself, “Think. Think. Come up with an idea.,” your imagination will freeze up. But when you relax, you loosen up your mind, you let your thoughts drift, and ideas start to flow.
Here are some relaxation ideas: Step away from your desk or computer for a moment, lie down on the couch or your bed, and just daydream about your story. You can listen to music, but keep the TV, phone, and video games turned off. Take a walk, get some exercise, or do some yardwork—sweeping the patio or raking the leaves in the yard.
As you let your thoughts drift, daydream about the characters in your story. What do they look like? What are their personalities like? How are your characters different from each other? Why do they like or dislike each other? What makes them get mad at each other? What common goals do they have to unite them? Are your characters messy or neat? Are they lazy or hard-working? Are they kind or are they mean? How do they talk? How can you give each character a unique-sounding voice?
Daydream about your setting. How can you describe the setting of your story and make it feel real? Let’s say your story takes place in a garden. As you daydream, ask yourself: What grows in this garden? What plants and flowers do you see? What are the unique smells and sounds in this garden? What kinds of insects and birds do you see and hear in this garden? Help your reader see, smell, and hear the garden. Get inside the skin of your characters and feel what they feel. Let the reader feel it, too: The warm, golden sunshine on a character’s face, or the fragrance of orange blossoms on the breeze. Help your reader to be there, right alongside your characters.
Daydream about your plot. Ask yourself: How can I start the story in an exciting way? What unexpected thing can I do to surprise the reader? What can I do at the end of the chapter to make the reader want to turn the page and keep reading? How can I keep the reader asking, “What happens next?”
Tip #5: Don’t Try to be Perfect.
Don’t try to be perfect when you write. Tell yourself, “It’s okay to write badly. The important thing is to just write.” Get the words down, even if you’re not sure of the spelling, even if you think it’s the worst piece of writing anyone has ever done. That’s okay. Just write. Jodi Picoult, who has written bestselling novels and Wonder Woman comic books, said, “You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.”
I make my living writing books—yet I write badly all the time. And that’s okay. It doesn’t bother me one bit to write badly. You know why? Because it’s just a first draft. First drafts are supposed to be bad. That’s why they call them “first drafts.” I don’t worry about a bad first draft, because I know I’m going to do a second draft, and a third draft, and by the time my third draft is done, it’s going to be a very good piece of writing.
When you write your first draft, write it as fast as you can. Don’t criticize it. Don’t go back over the sentence you just wrote and keep fiddling with it. Write one sentence and move quickly to the next sentence, and keep going, going, going, without looking back. The faster you write, the better you write. When you write quickly, you write with the creative side of your brain; when you write slowly and try to make it perfect, you write with the critical side of your brain.
The best writing is done by the creative side of your brain, because that is writing that flows, that soars, that inspires. Then, after you create your first draft, you let the critical side of your brain go over it, tidy it up, and make it sparkle. Both sides of your brain are important, but when you do your first draft, write it quickly, write it creatively. Don’t let the critical side of your brain interrupt your creative flow.
Tip #6: Welcome Criticism
Never fear criticism. I always have people criticize my books before they’re published, because I want my books to be as good as they can be. If there are mistakes or boring places or dumb ideas in my books, I hope someone helps me catch them before the book is printed.
Remember that writing is a matter of taste—and what one person finds interesting, another person will find dull. So don’t expect to please everybody, and don’t be surprised if you get conflicting advice from different people. That’s okay. Listen to the criticism and see if it makes sense to you. If the advice makes sense, follow it. If the advice doesn’t ring true, ignore it and write it the way it seems best to you.
Show your writing to your friends and teachers. Start a writing club and share your stories with each other. Criticize each other’s stories—not in a mean or hurtful way, but in a helpful way: “I think this dialogue could be improved if you did such and such,” or, “What if your character decided to do this instead of that?” Encourage each other and help each other to do your finest work.
“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 ever lived.” —Ray Bradbury
Most people think of Walt Disney as a businessman who founded a company and hired other people to do all the creative work. Not true.
I have written three books on Walt Disney — How to Be like Waltand Lead Like Walt, both co-written with Orlando Magic exec Pat Williams, and my own book Walt’s Disneyland. While researching these books, I discovered that the most creative person in the Disney organization was Walt himself. He was a fountain of ideas and imagination — yet he rarely gets the credit he deserves for his creativity.
The reason Walt is thought of as a businessman rather than a creative genius is that he expressed his creativity through the medium of people — writers, artists, songwriters, directors, and Imagineers. Most of the cartoons and feature films produced by the Disney studio began in the mind and soul of Walt himself — then he communicated his creative vision to his artists, and they carried it out.
The same is true of Disneyland. All the original attractions, as well as the hub-and-spoke layout of Disneyland, were fully formed in Walt’s imagination long before he told anyone about his dream.
During the weekend of September 26 and 27, 1953, Walt huddled with artist Herb Ryman at the Burbank studio. The two men worked for forty-eight hours without sleep. Walt described his vision of Disneyland, and Ryman translated Walt’s words into a map, three feet tall and five feet wide, that the Disney Company used to pitch the Disneyland TV show to the networks. (To learn more about the history of that map, read “Walt, a Man Named Grenade, and the First Map of Disneyland.”)
The map Herb Ryman drew under Walt’s direction was amazingly close to the actual design of Disneyland when it opened on July 17, 1955. The only major difference was that the map showed Adventureland to the east of Main Street instead of the west. Disneyland was a fully-formed kingdom in Walt’s imagination long before Herb Ryman inked a single pen-stroke.
The most popular attractions in the Park were all conceived by Walt —the Disneyland Railroad, the Mark Twain riverboat, the Jungle Cruise, Sleeping Beauty Castle, all of Fantasyland, the Monorail, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, Pirates of the Caribbean, and so much more. Walt was a creative genius — and as I studied his creative process, I uncovered insights that have made me a better writer. I think they’ll change the way you write as well:
Insight No. 1: Mine Your Life Experiences
Walt owed much of his creativity to his warm childhood memories — and his bitter memories as well. Walt had two very different childhoods, one idyllic and happy, the other painful and harsh. He spent his first childhood — his happy childhood — on a farm outside of Marceline, Missouri, from ages four through nine.
He once told The Marceline News, “More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since — or are likely to in the future. Things, I mean, like seeing my first circus parade, attending my first school, seeing my first motion picture.”
As a filmmaker and theme park creator, Walt drew upon his Marceline years for inspiration. His early cartoons, his feature films, and Disneyland itself are rich in idealized images of life in rural and small-town America. Many scenes from Walt’s early life appear in his films. For example, the enraged bull that chases Bobby Driscoll in Song of the South reenacts the time young Walt and his sister Ruth were chased across a field by a bull.
Walt’s happy childhood ended when his father, Elias Disney, became ill and was forced to sell the Marceline farm. Walt thought of the farm animals as his friends, and he wept as they were auctioned off. That’s when his unhappy childhood began.
The Disneys moved to Kansas City, where Elias bought a newspaper distributorship. He put Walt and his brother Roy to work delivering papers without pay. Walt and Roy arose at 3:30 in the morning, and sometimes waded through waist-high snowdrifts to make their deliveries. Walt arrived at school completely exhausted, and often slept in class. After school, he worked at a candy store.
You won’t find references in Walt’s movies to his unhappy Kansas City boyhood — yet Disneyland represents one of the few bright spots in Walt’s Kansas City years. He grew up fifteen minutes away (by streetcar) from Electric Park, a huge amusement park that featured band concerts, a carousel, boat rides on a lagoon, a wooden roller coaster and other thrill rides. A steam train ran around the park, and a fireworks show lit up the nights.
If that sounds a lot like Disneyland, there’s good reason for that. Walt later said that Disneyland “has that thing — the imagination and the feeling of happy excitement — I knew when I was a kid.”
Walt couldn’t afford the price of admission (ten cents), but he and his sister Ruth often sneaked into the park. Walt also visited Electric Park in the early 1920s (this time as a paying customer), when he owned the Laugh-O-gram animation studio in Kansas City. His studio was just two miles from Electric Park, and he and his animators often went there to unwind.
Disneyland not only re-creates the world of Walt’s nostalgic memories. It captures Walt’s boyhood obsessions. Fantasyland transforms the fairy tales of Walt’s childhood into a fully immersive fantasy experience. Tom Sawyer Island and the riverboat bring to life the fondly-remembered Mark Twain tales he loved. Tomorrowland is the realization of Walt’s boyhood fascination with the futuristic novels of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.
Walt teaches us that our lives are a gold mine to be dredged for memories, emotions, and ideas. The lesson of his life is that we, as writers, should regularly ask ourselves:
What were the turning points in my life?
What are the most important lessons my life has taught me?
What am I nostalgic about? What are the experiences that hurt me? Frightened me? Thrilled me? Comforted me?
What were the stories, ideas, and places that captured my young imagination?
These are the things we must write about.
These experiences make us unique and creative: joys and sorrows, fears and fascinations, hard realities and flights of imagination. Walt didn’t merely tap into his memories and experiences. He plunged into his youthful obsessions: the Peter Pan stage show he saw as a boy, and the books he loved, from Alice in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island.
So peer deeply into the gold mine of your life. Pick up and examine every shiny nugget of your past. Remember all the stories you read and objects you collected and places you explored in childhood. Remember the joys — and the pain. Seize the inspiration that’s there for the taking — then start building your own Disneyland out of words and memories.
Insight No. 2: Become an Actor
Walt Disney had the soul of an actor.
As a boy, he amused his classmates with impressions of Charlie Chaplin. He once came to school in a shawl, stovepipe hat, and fake beard, and delivered the Gettysburg Address as President Lincoln. He also donned his mother’s dress, hat, and wig, then rang the doorbell and carried on a conversation with his mother, pretending to be a neighbor lady. They talked for several minutes before his mother realized the “lady” was her own prankster son.
Walt loved to perform. One night in early 1934, Walt assembled his artists in a darkened soundstage at the Burbank studio. He stepped into the spotlight and told them they were going to make a fully animated feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Then he proceeded to act out the entire film. He performed each character, from Snow White to the evil Queen to each of the seven dwarfs. He became the characters, speaking in their voices, gesturing with their mannerisms. It was a three-hour bravura performance.
As Walt finished, his animators broke out in applause. Years later, one of the animators who was there that night told interviewer Robert De Roos, “That one performance lasted us three years. Whenever we’d get stuck, we’d remember how Walt did it on that night.”
To be creative like Walt, become an actor. When you write, act out your character’s voice and gestures. This works best, of course, when you write using voice dictation instead of a keyboard. But if you write by typing, then simply act out your scene before you type.
Get out of your chair, walk around the room, and become your characters. Act out the scene and experience the emotions of your characters. Then sit down and immediately write the scene. You’ll find added power and energy in your writing, and it will transform your creative process.
Insight No. 3: Write Your Obsessions
In Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket sings that when we wish upon a star, our dreams come true. That’s a pretty sentiment — but wishing on a star didn’t build the Disney studio in Burbank or Disneyland in Anaheim. Walt Disney’s legacy of success was built on a foundation of courageous vision, bold risk-taking, intense focus, and an unwavering obsession with his goals. And, of course, it was built on hard work.
Walt was never content with the status quo. He was determined to keep challenging himself and leading his studio in new directions. He was always eager to attempt what had never been done before. He followed Snow White with Pinocchio, then Fantasia, then Dumbo, then Bambi — each film a radical departure from anything he had ever done before. That’s why Salvador Dali declared him one of the great Surrealist artists of the time.
When Pat Williams and I were writing How to Be like Walt, director Ken Annakin (Swiss Family Robinson) told us that the key to Walt’s creativity was his obsession with his dreams. Annakin said, “I doubt whether one person in fifty million is capable of the obsessive focus with which Walt lived each day of his life. His grand obsession was simply to bring happiness to others. It made him who he was.”
And media critic Neal Gabler told us, “Walt Disney was an obsessive man. That obsessive quality made him passionate and kept him focused on his dreams. Of all the successful people I have ever studied, Walt was the most intensely focused on his goals. His ideas possessed him.”
One of Walt’s obsessions was a magically eccentric governess named Mary Poppins. But Walt had a problem: The creator of the Mary Poppins, P. L. Travers, refused to sell him the movie rights. In fact, Walt spent more than two decades, from 1938 to 1961, trying to convince her to part with the rights. He made overtures, sent her gifts, and engaged in on-again-off-again negotiations —but she was convinced that no film studio could do justice to Mary Poppins.
Finally, persistence paid off and Walt persuaded Ms. Travers to grant him the rights. But once the film went into production, she battled Walt over every detail. She fought him over the script, the music, the dialogue, the casting, the animation, and on and on. She was tough — but Walt was determined. Ultimately, he got the film made his way.
Walt once explained the importance of maintaining an obsessive focus on your goals in order to achieve success: “A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.”
Writing is challenging work. It takes time and focus — and you’ll face opposition and even ridicule from the very people who ought to be in your corner. Learn from Walt. Never give up. Write your obsessions, and be obsessed with your dreams — and one day, your books and stories will bring happiness to the world.
Insight No. 4: Synergize with Fellow Writers
I define synergy as a process by which people work creatively together so that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Synergy is a way to get more energy out of a system than you put into it. I think Walt Disney must have invented synergy. He assembled teams of talented people to turn his dreams into reality, and the result was always greater than the sum of the parts. Walt carefully selected the best people for every project. He’d mix skills, talents, and personalities like paints on an artist’s palette.
When I co-wrote How to Be like Walt with Pat Williams, artist and songwriter X Atencio told us, “Walt had an uncanny knack for discovering talent. He’d see talent in people that they didn’t even see in themselves. I had been an animator all those years. One day Walt said, ‘I want you to write the script for Pirates of the Caribbean. There’ll be scenes with pirates and townspeople and so forth, and I want you to write all the dialogue.’”
Walt even assigned X to write the Pirates theme song — and the result was the unforgettable tune, “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life for Me.” It’s hard to believe X had never written a song before.
The essence of synergy is valuing the differences of other people. You and I don’t think alike, and we don’t have the same interests, talents, or experiences. This means you can supply what I lack, and I can supply what you lack, and together we can be far more creative than we could ever be alone. This means setting aside our own egos. It means opening ourselves to new ideas and different perspectives. It means accepting criticism and advice from editors and fellow writers.
A friend of mine is part of a group of professional novelists who regularly gather for a weekend of mutual encouragement and inspiration. They write in different genres — romance, thriller, mystery, fantasy — yet they always find that their differences turn out to be strengths. They critique each other’s work, they provide solutions for each other’s writing problems, and they motivate each other to keep reaching for their goals.
How do you find a writers group? Here are some suggestions:
Google your city and the search term “writers group” (in quotes) and some groups or meetings in your area should pop up.
Professional writers’ associations often have local chapters where you can meet fellow writers: Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Horror Writers Association, Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, and so forth. Some of these associations have member directories so that you can find fellow writers in your area.
“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.
“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.
I recently discovered that Ray Bradbury made an appearance with Groucho Marx on the 1950s quiz show You Bet Your Life. At age thirty-five, Ray had two novels and a short story collection to his credit (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and The Golden Apples of the Sun), as well as the screenplay for John Huston’s motion picture Moby Dick. It’s an entertaining TV appearance from May 24, 1956. Among other things, we learn how Ray Bradbury met his wife. Ray is on-screen during the first eight minutes of the program. Enjoy.
In 1989, I quit my day job, took a leap of faith, and became a full-time, self-employed writer. That same year, I contracted to write a nonfiction book for Multnomah Press, then an independent publishing house in Oregon (now an imprint of Random House).
The advance would cover three months of living expenses, so I scheduled three months to write the 80,000-word manuscript. Unfortunately, it took me four months to write the book. I was writing slowly and losing money.
But it gets worse.
In those early days of my writing career, cash flow was an acute problem. I desperately needed the second half of my advance. I sent the manuscript to my editor, hoping he would accept it quickly and cut me a check.
No such luck. Instead, the editor called me and said, “Jim, we’ve got a problem.”
My heart plummeted. “How big a problem?”
“I’m flying out to meet with you in person. I’m afraid this book needs a major overhaul.”
Not only would my check be held up, but I’d be spending additional weeks getting the manuscript into publishable shape.
The editor arrived for our all-day meeting. He had prepared flip-charts showing the existing chapter flow, the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript, and a proposed restructuring plan. As we talked, I had to agree: His version was much better.
It was a painful learning experience. I trashed about a third of the original manuscript, rearranged the rest, and wrote two new chapters. The rewrite took a full month to complete, but when I turned in the revised manuscript, the editor told me I’d nailed it. As a personal favor, he made sure my check was issued promptly.
In the end, I had spent five months of my life on that book. I couldn’t afford to let that happen again. In fact, I seriously considered hanging up my word processor and finding honest work.
Over the next few years, I gradually improved my writing skills. I never turned in another manuscript that needed a complete tear-down and restructuring, but I was still writing far too slowly and I struggled to make ends meet.
Then, in 2001, I had an experience that transformed me as a writer: I discovered my superpower as a writer.
I contracted with a publisher to write a series of adventure novels for young readers. The contract specified an insanely short deadline plus a $100-per-day penalty for late delivery. In the process of writing those books — and delivering them on-time — I discovered a brand-new approach to writing that has served me well ever since.
Later, I discovered that the writers I admire most — Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Ursula Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Greg Benford, Orson Scott Card — were already using this approach. They had discovered their own superpower. They had learned the secret of writing quickly, writing freely, and writing brilliantly. Let me tell you how my own writing life has been transformed by this discovery.
A few years ago, I wrote a nonfiction book for an independent publishing house. I started work on Friday, September 2, 2016. I completed the first draft on Monday, October 3, thirty-one days later (averaging more than 2,500 words per day). I spent less than a week on my second draft, and sent the final manuscript to my editor on Monday, October 10. The final manuscript was about 73,000 words long, and was completed in thirty-eight days.
My editor read it, and said it was the best of three recent books I had written for her. She was sending it straight to copy-editing — no revisions needed. You see? By writing faster, I learned to write better.
A number of years ago, I taught a couple of writer’s workshops at the William Saroyan Writer’s Conference, and Harlan Ellison was Guest of Honor. Harlan is one of the three writers I point to as the reason I’m a writer today (the other two are Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L’Engle). I was glad for the opportunity to tell him how much his work has meant to me over the years. Here’s a photo of Harlan and me (I’m the shoulder for Harlan to lean on):
I was recently rereading Dangerous Visions, the ground-breaking science fiction story collection Harlan edited. I first read the book in 1967, when I was fourteen. The book came out just months after one of Harlan’s most powerful stories appeared on newsstands in the March 1967 issue of Worlds of IF. That story was called “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” and it detonated in my brain like a nuclear warhead (and that’s a good thing).
While reading through Dangerous Visions again, I came across Harlan’s introduction to a short story by Howard Rodman (page 171). Embedded in that intro is some excellent advice to writers. The advice didn’t mean much to me when I was fourteen. Today, I know it is wisdom for the ages for all who write—especially in these times of upheaval in the publishing industry. So I scanned the page and highlighted the advice, and I present it to you here:
If you write, heed those words. Whatever the obstacles in your path, keep writing. A writer always writes. That’s what you and I are here for—to write fearlessly. That’s our holy chore.
Conquer your fears! Here’s to all your dangerous visions!
In his early career, Michael Moorcock eked out a living writing adventure novels in the low-paying pulp fiction field. To boost his productivity and income, he devised a plan for writing sword-and-sorcery potboilers very quickly, usually in a matter of three to ten days. Every novel he wrote this way adhered to a series of simple formulas:
• Length formula: 60,000 words, divided into four sections of 15,000 words, six chapters in each section, no chapter longer than 2,500 words. Each chapter is required to contain elements that advance the action.
• Plot formula: the familiar tale of a lot of people competing in a quest to gain a much-sought-after object (examples of such objects: the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon, the gold of El Dorado, Alfred Hitchcock’s notion of “the MacGuffin,” or the Rambaldi artifacts in TV’s Alias).
• Character formula: a fallible and reluctant hero who tries to avoid responsibility, but ends up being pitted against vastly superior, even superhuman, forces.
• Structural formula: a dire event occurs every four pages to advance the action and keep the reader hooked.
• Fantastic images formula: the story must contain a series of wild, vivid, fantasy images, such as Moorcock’s “City of Screaming Statues.”
• Time formula: the hero is in a race against time. Moorcock explained: “It’s a classic formula: ‘We’ve only got six days to save the world!’ Immediately you’ve set the reader up with a structure: there are only six days, then five, then four, and finally … there’s only 26 seconds to save the world! Will they make it in time?”1
Even though the actual writing of a novel may take as little as three days (a phenomenal 20,000 words per day!), Moorcock would always spend at least a couple of days preparing and organizing the story structure, characters, and lists of images and events he wanted to include, so he’d have everything he needed once the writing began. “The whole reason you plan everything beforehand,” he explained, “is so that when you hit a snag, a desperate moment, you’ve actually got something there on your desk that tells you what to do.”2
This may sound like a recipe for churning out the most dreary and unreadable fiction imaginable—and in the hands of a lesser talent, it undoubtedly would be. But Moorcock actually wrote some of his highly acclaimed Hawkmoon and Elric tales on this formula. Though the plots were formulaic, his characters were strongly delineated and memorable, and his writing was clean and well-crafted. About the same time he perfected this recipe for writing novels in three days, he began earning better money. Growing tired of the formula, he moved on to more challenging genres and projects.
Yet he continued to write quickly. One of his most celebrated novels is Gloriana, or The Unfulfill’d Queen, a literary fantasy novel that won the World Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Published in 1978, Gloriana has remained continuously in print to this day. Moorcock wrote it in a mere six weeks.
For Michael Moorcock, preparing to write quickly is a matter of quality as well as speed. He organized and disciplined himself to write quickly, and in the process he wrote very well, and acquired a reputation for literary excellence.
1. Michael Moorcock and Colin Greenland, Death Is No Obstacle (Manchester, UK: Savoy, 1992), 8.
2. Ibid., 9.
Update — Tuesday, August 23, 2016:
I received this from a friend on Twitter today: “I’ll go so far as to say it can be done, but I don’t think even attempting this speed is good for most writers.”
I wouldn’t claim to know what’s best for most writers — there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to writing. In my books and blogs about writing, I try to present ideas that my fellow writers are free to adopt, adapt, or ignore, depending on their preferences and predilections.
Yet I absolutely believe that most writers could benefit from “writing in overdrive” — that is, writing quickly in a state of creative flow. When you are “in flow” or “in the zone,” you are tapping into the creative power of the unconscious Muse. You are not thinking critically and analytically about your work. You are simply letting the work flow straight from your imagination onto the page. Your writing is free and uninhibited. Because the work is flowing quickly, you can easily remember everything that happened before, and you don’t get lost in the thicket of your plot. You stay excited and energized, and you experience one inspired insight after another.
Michael Moorcock’s peak results — 20,000 words per day — are an extreme case. But any writer could adapt Moorcock’s formula by lowering the daily word goals to a less daunting level — say, 5,000 words per day. At that rate, you could first-draft a 60,000-word novel in twelve days. At 2,000 words per day (which, by the way, is the daily word quota set by Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and John Steinbeck), you could first-draft a 60,000-word novel in thirty days.
I’ve never had a 20,000-word day myself — but I’ve had quite a few 10,000-word days over my writing career. That kind of speed may not be for everybody, but it’s exhilarating to experience. Over the next few weeks I plan to post more “writing in overdrive” insights that I hope my fellow writers will find helpful and empowering. God bless and inspire you!
— Jim Denney
Jim Denney has written more than 100 books for a variety of publishers including Simon & Schuster, St. Martin’s Press, McGraw-Hill, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Baker Books, Humanix, and many more. He is the author of the four-book Timebenders science fantasy series for young readers, and is a member of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). For more writing insight and inspiration, read:
“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their own validity no matter what.” — Madeleine L’Engle
Edna Staebler was born two blocks from the public library in what is now Kitchener, Ontario. As soon as she could read, she’d go to the library two or three times a week and return with an armload of books. As a teenager, she wrote daily in her diary — though, as she later lamented, “nothing exciting happened to me; Kitchener and my dates seemed very dull.”
Attending college at the University of Toronto, Staebler told all her friends she was going to be a writer. But during the year she spent on the campus newspaper, she only wrote one story — “about girls drinking buttermilk in the Women’s Union.”
After college, Staebler took a job with Kitchener’s daily newspaper. She wanted a job writing news stories, but her boss assigned her to collect money from the newsboys instead. Her poor math skills resulted in swift termination. She desperately wanted to write, but didn’t know how to go about it.
She recalled, “I read hundreds of books: novels, plays, biographies, and books about writing: Virginia Woolf, Mary Webb, Arthur Koestler, T. S. Eliot. Some of them expressed thoughts I’d had and I wondered, Why didn’t I write that? And all the time I felt guilty as hell because I wasn’t trying. … I just woozled around, not knowing what to write about.”
Staebler married a man who at first seemed talented and fun-loving — but after a few years, his personality underwent a change. He became a moody alcoholic and was diagnosed with mental disorder.
One summer, to escape the unhappy atmosphere at home, she went to visit her sister in Nova Scotia. She’d only planned to stay a few days, but ended up staying for two weeks in the little fishing village of Neil’s Harbour. Each day she told herself, “Tomorrow, I’ll leave.” She went out on the sea with the fishermen, square-danced at the Orange Lodge Hall, and got to know the men, women, and children of the village.
She awoke one morning and said, “That’s it! I’ll write a book about Neil’s Harbour.”
She went back to Kitchener and wrote about everything she could remember — the sound of the ocean, the voices of the people, the colors, the emotions. Her mother came to visit and found her on the sofa, writing in a notebook. “Why waste your time?” said her mom. “You can’t be a writer — you have to have talent.”
Just when Edna had finally begun to write, her own mother sabotaged her. Staebler’s confidence wilted. She felt the chilling onset of writer’s block.
A few days later, an author came to town and spoke to the women’s club. Staebler talked to him afterwards and showed him her work. He told her it was good. He left town, but sent her notes of encouragement. “Keep writing,” he’d say. “Believe in yourself.”
She accumulated hundreds of manuscript pages — but never dared submit them to an editor, fearing rejection. During a lucid moment, her husband said, “You’re not a writer until you’ve had something published.” His words stung — but she knew he was right. She selected a story about Neil’s Harbour and submitted it to Maclean’s — her first-ever submission. It sold.
She was in her fifties when she made that first sale — it had taken her that long to summon her confidence. When her alcoholic husband ran off with her best friend, she decided to support herself by writing. She worked regular office hours, producing scores of articles. She sold them to Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Saturday Night, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications.
At age sixty, she published her first book. At age sixty-two, she produced a cookbook — recipes from Canada’s Mennonite region, enriched by Staebler’s personal stories. At sixty-six, she published Cape Breton Harbour, based on her two weeks in a Nova Scotia fishing village.
Edna Staebler died in 2006 at the age of one hundred after a memorable writing career that began at the precise mid-point of her life. The moment she summoned the confidence to do the work she was born to do, she became a writer.
More than talent, more than skill, more than a keyboard to pound on, a writer needs confidence. You have to decide to write, and you must act on that decision even if you don’t feel an ounce of confidence within your soul.
Diane Ackerman (A Natural History of the Senses) said, “The best advice on writing I ever received was: Invent your confidence. When you’re trying something new, insecurity and stage fright come with the territory. … How could it be otherwise? By its nature, art involves risk.”
American novelist and writing teacher John Gardner empathized with the insecurities of a writer. “In my own experience,” he said, “nothing is harder for the developing writer than overcoming his anxiety that he is fooling himself and cheating or embarrassing his family and friends. To most people, even those who don’t read much, there is something special and vaguely magical about writing, and it is not easy for them to believe that someone they know, someone quite ordinary in many respects, can really do it.”
Romance novelist Jayne Ann Krentz has more than 35 million copies of her novels in print under her own name and six pseudonyms. Her advice: “Believe in yourself and in your own voice, because there will be times in this business when you will be the only one who does. . . . An author with a strong voice will often have trouble at the start of his or her career because strong, distinctive voices sometimes make editors nervous. But in the end, only the strong survive. Readers return time and again to the unique, the distinctive storytelling voice. They may love it or they may hate it, but they do not forget it.”
When did Edna Staebler find success? She found it when she stopped listening to her mother, her alcoholic husband, and her self-doubt — and she made the choice to invent her own confidence.
Be yourself and believe in yourself. Tell your stories and live your dreams.
“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.”
— Neil Gaiman