Category: Muse of Fire

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.

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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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Dip Up the Fire!

“The writer of originality, unless dead, is always shocking, scandalous; novelty disturbs and repels.”
— Simone de Beauvoir

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Why did you become a writer?

My own reasons for writing have evolved over the years. I knew I wanted to write stories from the time I was nine years old. A writer, it is said, is a reader moved to emulation. That was me. I wanted to write the kinds of stories I liked to read, and to entertain others the way those stories entertained me.

There’s nothing wrong with writing purely to entertain. But somewhere along the way to adulthood, I discovered that stories do so much more than merely entertain. As Harlan Ellison observed in Slippage:

“Entertain, yes! That goes without saying. But a good writer does that automatically, it’s built into the machine. Telling a thumpingly good, mesmerizing story is what one does without question. But beyond that, any writer worth his/her hire knows that all writing, one way or another, is subversive. It is guerrilla warfare against the status quo.”

Ellison expanded on the idea of writing as guerilla warfare in his story collection Shatterday,

“I don’t know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyeballs water. I spend my life and of miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. It is my lot to wake up with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier.”

When you write, do you inconvenience anyone? Is your writing an act of guerrilla warfare? I’m not saying you should intentionally preach sermons through your fiction. A story should be a story, not propaganda. If you pollute your fiction with heavy-handed preaching, you obliterate its artistic and moral integrity. “The theme must be deeply submerged in the story,” novelist Elizabeth Bowen warned. “If a theme or idea is too near the surface, the novel becomes simply a tract illustrating an idea.”

The unconscious mind does not lie. If you draw upon the power of your unconscious mind to write your story, if you dig deep within yourself and write about characters and situations that engage your emotions and passions, your story will be honest — and it will possess layers of meaning that you may not even realize. Your story will come alive as literature, verging on myth.

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The writer’s unconscious mind always reveals more truth than the writer suspects. As Madeleine L’Engle reflected in Walking on Water, “It is a humbling and exciting thing to know that my work knows more than I do. … Sometimes it is years after a book is published that I discover what some of it meant.”

When you write from the unconscious mind, you write stories that entertain — and that resonate deep within the reader. You write honestly. You write about things that matter. You write about universal truths — deep truths you share with your readers. Again, Harlan Ellison:

“I talk about the things people have always talked about in stories: pain, hate, truth, courage, destiny, friendship, responsibility, growing old, growing up, falling in love, all of these things. What I try to write about are the darkest things in the soul, the mortal dreads. I try to go into those places in me that contain the cauldrous. I want to dip up the fire, and I want to put it on paper. The closer I get to the burning core of my being, the things which are most painful to me, the better is my work.”

Write to entertain. Tell a story, don’t preach. But summon your stories from the volcanic core of your being. Reach down into the cauldrous unconscious, dip up the fire, and put it on paper. You’ll find that the truth within you burns brighter than the sun.

“It’s not worth doing something unless you are doing something that someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing.”
— Terry Pratchett

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.

Invent Your Confidence

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

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“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 mother — 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

Copyright 2015 by Jim Denney. For more writing insight and inspiration, read Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

 

The Unconscious Writer

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

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John Steinbeck (pictured above), 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.” He added that halting one’s forward progress to edit and polish during the first draft phase is usually just “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 my friend Michelle Weidenbenner says), always move forward, never look back. By writing freely, quickly, and without inhibitions, you tap into the engine of imagination — the unconscious mind.

Ursula Le Guin describes 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 fully 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 says we should call this the UN-conscious mind, not the SUB-conscious mind, because “sub-” suggests that which is lower and inferior. Far from being inferior to the conscious mind, she 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 disrupts the creative process, and true creativity springs from the Muse, 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.’ … Emotion, emotion wins the day. Intellect can help correct. But emotion, first, surprises creativity out in the open where it can be pinned down.”

Novelist Marcia Golub calls unconscious creativity the “daydreaming-on-paper state” — and she says it’s the true “high” of writing. “I daydream very intensely,” she says, admitting she didn’t realize how intensely she daydreams until she noticed her husband watching her and asking, “Who are you talking to?” She wasn’t aware that she was acting out her daydreams, because she was in a state of unconscious creativity. She was “in the zone.”

Golub recalls, “Soon after my husband and I started living together, he learned to make noise before coming into my writing space. He learned to do this because if he didn’t, I would get startled and scream. That would startle him and he would scream. It was Night of the Living Dead meets Edvard Munch till we worked things out.”

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 cannot explain. We don’t need to know where it is located or how it works. We only need to know that the unconscious is the key to unlocking our creative powers.

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Condensed from “Reading No. 22: The Unconscious Writer”
in Muse of Fire: 90 Days of Inspiration for Writers by Jim Denney.

Muse of Fire consists of 90 readings, plus three bonus readings and an epilogue — three solid months and 90,000 words of pure, distilled motivation and inspiration for just $3.99. Each reading is from three to five pages long — just the right length to help you feel empowered to begin your next writing session with energy and enthusiasm.