Category: Books on Writing

Conquer Your Fear of Failure

“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.”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

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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.

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  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.

Trade paperback edition $7.75.

Kindle edition $3.99.

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.”

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.

Trade paperback edition $7.75.

Kindle edition $3.99.

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.

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.

WritingOverdrive-Medium350x550The ability to write in overdrive can be your superpowerTo learn more about how you can write faster, write freely, and write more brilliantly than ever before, I invite you to read Writing in Overdrive, a thorough exploration of the skills and insights you need to write more brilliantly than ever before. Read Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney.

Trade paperback edition $7.75.

Kindle edition $3.99.

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).

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! Here’s to all your dangerous visions!

Writing in Overdrive

WritingOverdrive-Medium350x550WELCOME!

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).

See what other writers are saying about Writing In Overdrive: Here’s the Goodreads page for Writing in Overdrive. And here are the customer reviews for Writing in Overdrive at Amazon.com.

Follow me on Twitter:
@WriterJimDenney.

Explore the articles linked below, leave a comment, ask a question, and come back often. Thanks for stopping by—and keep writing every day!

—Jim Denney

ARTICLES ON THIS SITE:

Jim Denney’s Advice to Young Writers

Walt Disney Made Me a Better Writer

Conquer Your Fear of Failure

Write Better. Write Faster. Be Unconscious

Ray Bradbury and Groucho Marx

To Write Better, Write Faster

Dangerous Visions, Excellent Advice

How to Write a Novel in Three Days

Invent Your Confidence

(Photo at the top of the page by Fabio Santaniello Bruun on Unsplash.)

How to Write a Novel in Three Days

By Jim Denney

From Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney [Kindle Edition available at Amazon.com for $3.99] [Print edition available at Amazon.com for $7.75]

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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.

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Notes
1. Michael Moorcock and Colin Greenland, Death Is No Obstacle (Manchester, UK: Savoy, 1992), 8.
2. Ibid., 9.

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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

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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:

Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney

Writing in Overdrive: Write Faster, Write Freely, Write Brilliantly by Jim Denney

Write Fearlessly! Conquer Fear, Eliminate Self-Doubt, Write with Confidence by Jim Denney 

Copyright 2016 by Jim Denney.