Category: Books on Writing

Conquer Your Fear of Failure

Adapted from Write Fearlessly!: Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write With Confidence by Jim Denney

“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.”

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Margaret Atwood at Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, Ontario, Canada, September 2006. Photo: Vanwaffle, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

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

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Will Self at the Humber Mouth literary festival in Hull, England, 2007. Photo: Walnut Whippet, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

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.”4Free Ebook Button SmallWendell 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

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Ernest Hemingway, 1939

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.

_________________

  1. Margaret Atwood, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
  2. Anne Enright, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
  3. Will Self, “Falling Short: Seven Writers Reflect on Failure,” The Guardian, June 22, 2013, http://m.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/22/falling-short-writers-reflect-failure.
  4. James Rubert, “Focus On Freedom: Q&A with Author James Rubert,” SimplyFaithful.com, July 30, 2012, http://simplyfaithful.com/2012/07/30/focus-on-freedom-qa-with-author-james-rubart/.
  5. Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1985), 3.
  6. Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition (New York: Scribner, 2009), 22.
  7. Diogenes Brito, “Fear of the Blank Page,” Uxdiogenes.com, March 10, 2013, http://uxdiogenes.com/blog/fear-of-the-blank-page.

 

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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

 

 

Write Better. Write Faster. Be Unconscious

“Every day I try to be in communication with the universe in an unconscious way.” 
—Paulo Coelho

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John Steinbeck, 1963

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.

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Ursula LeGuin, 2008. Photo: Gorthian

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.”

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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!”

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Ray Bradbury receiving the Commander of Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, 2009. Photo: Caleb Sconosciuto.

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.

 

WritingOverdrive-Medium350x550

     

Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

 

Writing Without Rules

 

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Hemingway in 1939

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” 
—Ernest Hemingway

Many writers obsess about the so-called “rules” of writing. They ask: “What are the rules? What if I’m breaking the rules and don’t know it? What does ‘Show, don’t tell’ mean? What does ‘Write what you know’ mean? How can I get published if I don’t know the rules?”

In my humble opinion, there are only a few “rules of writing” that are so fundamental and universal they truly deserve to be called “rules.” These are the commonsense commandments you must obey or you’re not a writer: “Read every day.” “Maintain a consistent writing schedule.” “Write whether you feel ‘inspired’ or not.” “Finish what you start.” “Never give up.” “Never be boring.”

Any other so-called “rules” are not rules at all. They should be called “principles.” A principle is a general guide to behavior that has proven useful in most situations. There have probably been times when you’ve said, “That’s a good principle, but it doesn’t apply to this situation.” Many people feel anxious at the thought of “breaking” rules. But if we would think of the “general principles of writing” instead of the “rules of writing,” we could relax and be more creative and uninhibited.

Screenwriter Robert McKee put it this way: “Story is about principles, not rules. A rule says, ‘You must do it this way.’ A principle says, ‘This works . . . and has through all remembered time.’ The difference is crucial. . . . Anxious, inexperienced writers obey rules. Rebellious, unschooled writers break rules. Artists master the form.”

Science fiction writer Will Shetterly (Dogland), agrees: “There are no rules in writing. There are useful principles. Throw them away when they’re not useful. But always know what you’re throwing away.”

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Leonard Bishop, in Dare to Be a Great Writer, suggests that, instead of feeling anxious or hesitant about breaking rules, we should sin boldly. He writes:

If you break a “writing rule,” make it noticeable. Exploit your infraction until your personal technique becomes another rule. . . .

A popular rule is “Don’t tell it, show it!” Yet, if you have a scene with ten people who are important and you cannot devise a way to bring them all into action, then tell [about] them — and keep on telling. . . . Offer them, one at a time, as though introducing the cast of a play. Narrate them, describe them, document them, use exposition to reveal their relationships to one another — until the information is down. Tell it all — interestingly. A writer should be bold, versatile, inventive, imaginative, rebellious.

Do not break any rules at the beginning of a novel. It is advisable to allow the reader to get used to your manner of writing before you astonish them with your daring attitudes. (This is not a rule: it is a suggestion.)

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E.B. White with his dog Minnie

E. B. White (The Elements of Style and Charlotte’s Web) observed, “There is . . . no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rules by which the young writer may steer his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion.”

Novelist Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) said, “Rules such as ‘Write what you know,’ and ‘Show, don’t tell,’ while doubtlessly grounded in good sense, can be ignored with impunity by any novelist nimble enough to get away with it. There is, in fact, only one rule in writing fiction: Whatever works, works.”

Ralph Keyes, in The Courage to Write, makes the case that a writer’s success depends far more on passion and conviction than on following any set of writing “rules”:

The more I read and write, the more convinced I am that writing has less to do with acquired technique than with inner conviction. The assurance that you have something to say that the world needs to hear counts for more than literary skill. Those writers who hold their readers’ attention are the ones who grab them by the lapel and say, “You’ve got to listen to what I am about to tell you.” It’s hard to be passionate. It means you must put your whole poke on the table. Yet this very go-for-broke quality grabs and holds a reader far more surely than any mastery of technique.

Fantasy master Neil Gaiman offers his own eight rules of writing. His first rule is so basic he expressed it in a single word: “Write.” Most of his other rules are less concise but equally basic: “Finish what you’re writing” and “Fix it.” His eighth and final rule is my favorite, because it repeals all other so-called “rules”—

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

Forget “rules.” Master the principles and follow them when they help you, abandon them when they hold you back. Relax and enjoy the creative process. Write with joy!

For more insight into how to write freely, powerfully, confidently, without inhibition, read my books for writers. Learn to tap into the incredibly powerful source of creative inspiration, “the Muse” or unconscious mind.

WritingOverdrive-Medium350x550

     

Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

Your Time to Write, Part 2

Continued from “Your Time to Write, Part 1”

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“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”
Shakespeare, Richard II, Act V, Scene V

Legendary Alabama football coach Bear Bryant kept a plaque on his office wall that read, “What have you traded for what God has given you today?”

I think of that question at the end of every day. I remind myself that God has given me the gift of 86,400 seconds that day. Once I’ve spent that portion of my life, it’s gone. What did I get in return? Did I spend those seconds wisely?

With these questions in mind, here are four more time management principles to launch you toward your writing goals:

Third, make time and space to write even if you don’t have the time or space. There’s no “later.” There’s no “when I get around to it.” There’s no “when I have more time.” There’s only now. If you don’t write now, as busy as you are, you won’t ever write. Writers don’t “get time” to write or “find time” to write. They make time to write.

Heed the wisdom of Stephen Koch, author of the Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: “You don’t have time? Make that time. This is essential. Only you can make and defend the time you need for your work. Nobody is going to give it to you. …  You must make time or you will not write at all. Simple as that. And be warned: For every writer, at every level of fame and productivity, making and defending writing time is a lifelong battle. It’s not just hard now. It will always be hard.”

Every writer needs a creative space. It doesn’t need to be a plush office overlooking the seashore. In fact, you’re better off without such distractions. As a writer, your job is not to look out the window, but to look within. A desk, a chair, a computer, and you’re set.

Your creative space does not have to be in your home. I have a successful writer friend who writes his novels in a coffee shop. But that’s not for me. I do most of my writing by speaking into a microphone attached to my computer. I don’t like people overhearing me while I write, so I work at home, in my modest-yet-comfortable office, with the doors closed. Works for me. Do whatever works for you.

Make an appointment with yourself. Be on time and be prepared to work. Even if you only have fifteen minutes a day to write, make sure you’re there promptly, and make each of those minutes count. Photographer Chuck Close said, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

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Fourth, put an end to excuses. People have all kinds of excuses for not writing. I’ve found that most people become successful around the same time they stop making excuses. Screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski believes many writers spend too much time and energy “finding excuses for not being what they are capable of being, and not enough energy putting themselves on the line, growing out of the past, and getting on with their lives.”

No one’s standing over you to make you write. Your motivation must come entirely from within. You’ve got to want to write more than you want all the things that keep you from writing. If you procrastinate, you’ll have nothing to show for all your years on earth but a list of excuses.

Life is made up of choices, and every choice we make has consequences. Make the right choices, and you can have a successful and enjoyable writing career. But you have to be deliberate in the choices you make. If you don’t make careful, thoughtful choices about how you spend your time, other people will make those choices for you. To have a successful and rewarding writing career, you must spend your life pursuing your own goals, not doing what other people expect of you. 

As motivational speaker Michael Altshuler once said, “The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.”

Fifth, beware of “displacement activities.” A displacement activity is behavior that takes the place of writing. We engage in displacement activity when we feel anxious and conflicted — for example, when we want to write at the same time we feel we can’t write because we are blocked or we simply lack the energy to write.

The state of wanting to write while feeling unable to write is unresolvable — so we displace our anxiety through a different activity. Instead of writing, we raid the fridge, surf the Internet, update our Facebook status, tidy up the desk, answer emails, play computer games, and on and on. If our displacement activity is more-or-less writing-related (such as “research”), our anxiety level goes down. We know we’re not writing, but hey, it’s kinda like writing, so we don’t feel so bad about it.

Some writers, unfortunately, use drinking or drug abuse as their displacement activity. Writers who medicate their anxiety with mind-altering substances usually end up wasting their talent.

If you are aware of the things you do to displace your anxiety, you’ll be empowered to control your displacement behavior. Instead of compulsive eating or web surfing, get up, move and stretch, and grab a cup of tea or coffee. Give your Muse a chance to catch her breath — then get right back to your writing.

Sixth, write in overdrive. To write brilliantly, write quickly. I call the process of writing quickly, under the control of the unconscious Muse, “writing in overdrive.” When writing in overdrive, you don’t think. You don’t analyze or criticize or second-guess your work. You simply create. You maintain a state of passion and enthusiasm for your story, and you are carried along by a process of unconscious inspiration. This state is called being “in flow” or “in the zone.”

Most great writers have experienced writing in overdrive. John Steinbeck spoke of writing “freely and as rapidly as possible” in a “flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.” And Charles Baxter, author of First Light and The Soul Thief, told an interviewer, “The spell comes upon me, I’m in its grip. The book develops with my collaboration or unconscious help, and sometimes it proceeds even in the face of my refusal to work on it.”

To make the most of your writing time, discover the power of writing in overdrive. Learn to write freely, quickly, and without inhibition, tapping into that incredibly powerful source of inspiration, the Muse or unconscious mind.


For more insight on how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly, read my other books for writers:

WritingOverdrive-Medium350x550     

Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

Your Time to Write, Part 1

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
Doris Lessing

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The year 2014 was one of the most difficult years of my writing career.

That was the year we moved for the first time in more than twenty years. The sale of the house and the moving process occupied at least eight weeks of my life. Also that year, my father — a good and great man who was always a hero to me — died unexpectedly. So it was an emotionally wrenching year as well.

I had a number of books lined up for several different publishers, plus an assortment of short-term projects. After the move in March and the death of my father in May, I found myself falling behind on deadlines. After I delivered one book late, every other book on my schedule became a race against time.

I wasn’t used to being so far behind schedule. I wasn’t used to asking editors for deadline extensions. I wrote quickly and worked productively, producing more than half a million words for publication that year, averaging almost 1,500 words per day — and those averages included the two months during the house sale and move, when I got almost no writing done at all.

How did I get so much writing done during that year of adversity? I adopted a schedule that was insane and almost suicidal. I don’t recommend it. In fact, I offer this account not as a brag, but as a confession. I think I scheduled my writing year very stupidly, and I have vowed never to do that to myself again. More on that in a moment.

Let me share some time management principles that I knew, but lost sight of during that difficult year. Here are some ways to be a productive writer while maintaining your sanity, your relationships, and a balanced perspective on life:

First, change the way you think about time. People have strange ideas about time. We tend to think (especially when we’re young) that we have all the time in the world, that time is an inexhaustible resource. But time is a finite and precious resource. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. None of us knows how much time we have. As Joan Didion reflected after the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne, “Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant.”

You cannot buy time. You cannot save time. You cannot stretch time. You cannot make up for lost time. You must use each moment to the fullest; there’s no guarantee you will ever have another. Whatever you want to accomplish, do it now.

Wise King Solomon offers this insight into the true nature of time: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2 KJV). This is your season. Writing is your purpose. Now is your time.

Second, commit yourself to living a balanced life. I paid a heavy price to re-learn this lesson. During 2014, I stacked my writing projects and deadlines too close together, and I didn’t leave enough cushion in my schedule to allow for the unexpected. And it turned out to be a year of unexpected events. There was a period of about six months when I averaged four or five hours of sleep per night, seven days a week.

It was a nightmarish existence, in which I sometimes found myself dreaming (perhaps even hallucinating) at my computer. I found it hard to stay awake during the day, hard to get to sleep at night. I soon realized that my overtaxed brain was acclimating itself to this ungodly schedule, because I was regularly waking up a minute or two before my alarm went off, after only four hours of sleep.

I consumed the elixir of more than a pound of coffee beans per week. My judgment suffered. My friendships suffered. I was so immersed in sleeplessness and stress that, following the death of my father, I delayed the full onset of the grieving process. When my deadline stress finally subsided in the summer of 2015, grief over my father’s death began to hit me harder than ever, more than a year after his death.

Throughout 2014, I produced a lot of words, a lot of books, but I mistreated my brain and neglected my family. That’s no way to live. And that’s no way to write.

So, from now on, I’m committed to living a balanced life.

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Clearly, I have accumulated regrets from that difficult year. But here’s something I don’t regret: No matter how many mistakes and poor choices I made in 2014 (and they were legion), I made sure I left nothing unsaid, no unfinished business with my family. I made sure I said “I love you” to the people I love.

The night before my father died, I called my Mom and Dad on the phone and we talked for about forty minutes. My dad had no major health problems, and I had no reason to suspect that this would be my last conversation with him. We laughed and shared memories. It was a good talk, as so many of our talks have been.

At the end of that conversation, I said, “I love you both.” And they said, “We love you, son.” That wasn’t unusual. We often said those words to each other.

None of us knew that those were my father’s last few hours on earth. None of us expected that he would be gone the next morning. I’m glad we spent that last conversation laughing and remembering and saying “I love you.”

This life is all too short, and time is a nonrenewable resource. Invest each day wisely.

“Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
King Solomon, Ecclesiastes 12:12 KJV

Next: “Your Time to Write, Part 2”


For more insight on how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly, read my other books for writers:

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Discover the uninhibited creative power to write faster and more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.75]

MuseOfFire-Medium350x550And for a 90-day supply of inspirational and motivational writing insight, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $2.99. [Trade paperback edition $14.95]

Discover how to conquer the eight most common writing fears. Read cover-1writefearlesslyjdWrite Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney, Kindle edition $3.99. [Trade paperback edition $7.99.]

These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

To Write Better, Write Faster

by Jim Denney

I used to write slowly. And badly.

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.

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I talk about this experience in detail in my books Writing in Overdrive and A Writer’s Superpower, but for now I’ll briefly say that 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 writer’s 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.

Just prior to writing A Writer’s Superpower, 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.

The ability to write in overdrive is a real-life, honest-to-gosh superpower.

To learn more about how you can write faster, write freely, and write more brilliantly than ever before, I invite you to subscribe to my FREE monthly email newsletter and get a FREE ebook copy (PDF format) of A Writer’s Superpower (also available in trade paperback for $6.99). Just click the yellow box at the bottom of this page.

I think you’ll also want to read my other books on writing in overdrive. First, of course, there’s Writing in Overdrive, my most complete examination of all the skills and insights you need to write faster and write freely. Then there’s Write Fearlessly!, which examines the eight most common writers’ fears that hinder our success — and the practical strategies for conquering each fear. And there’s Muse of Fire, consisting of more than 90 motivational readings — more than 90 days of high-octane inspiration for writers. These books are designed to motivate you, get you writing with confidence and enthusiasm, and propel you toward your goals and dreams.

God speed you on your journey to success!

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Dangerous Visions, Excellent Advice

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):

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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).

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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:

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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! Read:cover-1writefearlesslyjd

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney (Kindle edition)

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney (trade paperback)

Here’s to all your dangerous visions!