Tag: Jim Denney

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.

How to Put More Time in Your Life, Part 1

Not a Moment to Waste

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Adapted from Answers to Satisfy the Soul: Clear, Straight Answers to 20 of Life’s Most Important Questions by Jim Denney

People say time is money. I say time is life.

When you pick up a paycheck, you are making a life-and-death transaction. You are trading a chunk of your life, your finite mortal existence, for a medium of exchange called “money.” Over the span of your lifetime, you will have only a certain number of heartbeats, a certain number of seconds, a certain number of years. When they’re gone, they’re gone.

Ever hear someone say, “I’m just killing time”? What are they really saying? “I’m killing myself.” Because time is all you have, and when it’s gone, you’re dead. When you kill time, you kill yourself, moment by moment, second by second, a little bit at a time.

“People with a keen sense of the preciousness of time are a valuable resource,” my friend Pat Williams once told me. “They are the leaders, the go-getters, the entrepreneurial spirits. They’re the people you can count on to get the job done. People who understand the value of one tick of the clock are the ones who make the world a better place.”

Pat, the co-founder of the Orlando Magic NBA franchise, offers this basketball analogy. “In our game,” he said, “time is everything. You’ve got four twelve-minute quarters to get the job done — forty-eight minutes to shoot more baskets than the other guy. As soon as the ball is inbounded, the shot clock starts ticking. You’ve got just twenty-four seconds to shoot, or the ball turns over. And you don’t have the luxury of taking a nice, leisurely shot. Usually, you’re double-teamed, and you’ve got to find some way to force the shot while that clock is ticking down. It’s not easy — but there’s no finer feeling in the world than beating the buzzer and making the pressure shot. It’s the same way in life.”

Time is irreplaceable, life is precious. We don’t have a moment to waste.

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The myth of “when I have more time”

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say, “Someday, when I have more time . . .” I used to say that myself. Now I know better. I’m never going to have more time than I have right now.

People always think there’s a magical “someday” out there when they will be less busy, when there will be fewer responsibilities and demands on their time, when the pace of life will slow down to a leisurely crawl. But if you truly want to make your dreams come true, you can’t wait until “someday.” You have to do it now.

My friend Phil Brewer, a counselor and leadership trainer, told me about a trip he took to Europe in 1977. “I went to Switzerland and interviewed several writers and thinkers, including Paul Tournier, the great Swiss psychiatrist,” he told me. “And there is one statement Dr. Tournier made that had a profound impact on my life.

“He said, ‘People are always looking for the right time and the perfect place to write, to paint, to accomplish some goal. They say, “I have to be in the mountains, I have to be on the coast, everything must be just so.” But if you look at all the great achievements of history, you’ll see that they have largely been done in cold, cramped, unpicturesque conditions.’

“Those words hit me right between the eyes. It took me years to fully absorb the great truth that Dr. Tournier had given to me. I’m still absorbing it. I think he saw in me a perfectionist streak that so often keeps me from starting a project until ‘just the right moment.’ I want a cup of coffee, but I want to drink it on the beach in Maui.

“The point is this: If you’re going to write the Great American Novel, then write it. Don’t put it off until everything’s just so. Do it, and do it now.”

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Practical tips for putting more time in your day

Effective time management begins with personal responsibility. You and I are each responsible for the way we invest our time. We can’t expect anyone else to organize our schedules or remind us of our goals. You own your own day, and I own mine. You and you alone are responsible for how you invest your time — or how you squander it.

In this two-part blog post, I’ll offer some tips for magically putting more time in your day. Here’s the first one:

First: Organize and prioritize. In order to achieve your most important goals, you must prioritize your time. First order of business: Make a list. Call it a “Things To Do” list or a “Priorities” list. I keep mine on a clipboard that hangs on the wall next to my computer. Every time I think of a new priority, I add it to the list.

I break my list into three categories:

  • Priority 1. Long-range dreams and goals.
  • Priority 2. Urgencies and emergencies.
  • Priority 3. Nonessentials.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these priorities and how to manage them:

Priority 1: Long-range dreams and goals. This is the category where you list such things as that dream house you want to build or the novel you want to write — whatever it is that will take you where you want to be in life. Priority 1 items are essential, but not necessarily urgent. It’s where you put your grand dreams, your hopes for the future, the projects you want to accomplish, but which tend to get crowded out by urgencies and emergencies.

Priority 2: Urgencies and emergencies. This is the category where you list the things that need to get done right away, like preparing for that presentation at the office next week. Or renewing your driver’s license. Or filing your 1040. Or scheduling that root canal. Or cleaning out the garage so you can put your car away at night.

Priority 2 stuff doesn’t really enrich your life or move you toward your dreams and goals — but not getting your Priority 2 stuff done can really make a mess of your life. These chores may not enhance your life, but they are always urgent and necessary.

Priority 3: Nonessentials. This is where you list things that need to get done, but which are medium to low priority. Often these tasks are the smallest and most easily accomplished, like “Email Joe and Mandy” or “Take down Xmas lights” or “Call Congressman Fogbottom, give him a piece of my mind.”

Once you have your list of priorities, allocate time accordingly. If you know you have nine hours to spend today, then allocate the appropriate amount of time to each priority. You can allocate it in any way that makes sense to you. Personally, if I had nine hours to divvy up, I’d probably do it this way: Five hours to Priority 1 tasks; three hours to Priority 2 tasks; and one hour to Priority 3 tasks.

Break down big, intimidating projects into bite-size, non-threatening chunks. For example, instead of putting “Write the Great American Novel” on your list, break it down into smaller component tasks: “Outline plot,” “Write character sketches,” “Research background and setting,” “Write Chapter 1,” and so forth.

Group together activities that are logically related, and do them in batches for maximum efficiency. If you have a half dozen letters to write, write ’em in a row. Maximize effectiveness by minimizing transition time, decision time, and down time.

Don’t procrastinate. Start now. Do one thing at a time, finish it completely, then move to the next item.

Organizing your priorities is essential to putting more time in your day. A surgeon was once asked what he would do if he only had five minutes to perform an operation to save a patient’s life. His reply: “I’d spend the first two minutes planning the operation.” Time spent planning and organizing your priorities is time well invested.

Continue Reading:
Part 2: Boost Your Productivity with the Grab 15 Principle

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!

Welcome to WritingInOverdrive.com!

ABOUT THIS WEBSITE: I created WritingInOverdrive.com to help writers discover how to “write in overdrive” — that is, how to write faster, write freely, and write brilliantly. Here I will share with you the superpower I discovered by accident. I hope this revolutionary approach to writing will become your superpower as well.

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LET’S KEEP IN TOUCH

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

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@WriterJimDenney.

Leave a comment below.

Tell me about your writing struggles and perhaps I’ll post the solution to your problem.

Come back often. Let’s get acquainted.

—Jim Denney

Remembering Dr. King

cover-21greatleaderspwjd-contrastExcerpted and condensed from 21 Great Leaders: Learn Their Lessons, Improve Your Influence by Pat Williams with Jim Denney (hardcover). Also available in Kindle edition.


Martin Luther King, Jr., was born in Atlanta on January 15, 1929. His father, “Daddy King,” was a Baptist minister who taught young Martin to resist segregation.

Once, Rev. King, Sr., took young Martin to a shoe store. They sat down in the front of the store. The young white shoe clerk said, “I’ll be happy to wait on you if you’ll just move to those seats in the rear.”

“There’s nothing wrong with these seats,” Daddy King said. “We’re comfortable here.”

“I’m sorry,” the clerk said, “but you’ll have to move.”

Daddy King took Martin by the hand and they walked out.

“This was the first time I had seen Dad so furious,” Martin later recalled. “I still remember walking down the street beside him as he muttered, ‘I don’t care how long I have to live with this system, I will never accept it.’”

An exceptional student, Martin skipped the ninth grade, and went straight from the eleventh grade to Morehouse College without formally graduating from high school. He was a college freshman at age fifteen. He graduated from Morehouse in 1948 and went on to Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. He earned a Ph.D.in systematic theology at Boston University and became pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, at age twenty-five.

Dr. King was inspired by The Kingdom of God Is Within You, a treatise on nonviolent resistance by Leo Tolstoy, Henry David Thoreau’s essay “On Civil Disobedience,” theologians Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, and the life of Gandhi, who employed nonviolent resistance to achieve India’s independence. He played a key role in the 385-day-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, December 1955 through December 1956. The boycott began when Rosa Parks, a secretary of the Montgomery NAACP, refused to obey a bus driver’s order that she give her seat to a white passenger. During the boycott, Dr. King was arrested and his house was fire-bombed.

His leadership during the boycott elevated him to national prominence.

mlk-marchonwashington1963Communicating the dream

There is much we can learn by studying the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. You can hear the rhythms and the inflection of his rich voice echoing in the words on the page. In “Paul’s Letter to American Christians,” November 4, 1956, Dr. King imagined a letter the apostle Paul might write to the church in America. He delivered this message at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama. Here’s an excerpt:

America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. . . . You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but . . . you have failed to make of it a brotherhood.

Notice the counterpoint of ideas in this passage. The rhythms of these contrasts make Dr. King’s message even more powerful and convicting.

In “Loving Your Enemies,” November 17, 1957, Dr. King expresses his views on nonviolence. He delivered this message at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, Alabama:

This morning, as I look into your eyes, and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” And I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love, somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed. And then we will be in God’s kingdom. We will be able to matriculate into the University of Eternal Life because we had the power to love our enemies, to bless those persons that cursed us, to even decide to be good to those persons who hated us, and we even prayed for those persons who despitefully used us.

Loving our enemies is a constant theme in Dr. King’s sermons. He weaves the timeless teachings of the Sermon on the Mount together with eye-opening original phrases such as “matriculate into the University of Eternal Life.” The combination of old and new, familiar and startling, forces us to think deeply about what it means to love our enemies.

“Eulogy for the Martyred Children,” September 18, 1963, is the message of comfort Dr. King delivered at the memorial service for three girls — Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley — who were killed in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. A fourth girl, Carole Robertson, was memorialized in a separate service. The church was bombed on Sunday, September 15, 1963 — less than three weeks after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King’s eulogy helped accelerate passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Here’s an excerpt:

God still has a way of wringing good out of evil. And history has proven over and over again that unmerited suffering is redemptive. The innocent blood of these little girls may well serve as a redemptive force that will bring new light to this dark city. . . .

Death is not the end. Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal. Let this daring faith, this great invincible surmise, be your sustaining power during these trying days.

In “How Long, Not Long,” March 25, 1965, Dr. King again shares a vision from his heart. Standing on the steps of the State Capitol in Montgomery, immediately after the Selma-to-Montgomery March, he says:

However difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.”

How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.” . . .

How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

How long? Not long, because “His truth is marching on.”

The rhythm of the words lifts our hearts and makes us feel empowered and emboldened. In our public speaking, we need to choose not only our words but the cadence of our words. How our words sound is almost as important as what they mean.

In “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” April 3, 1968, Dr. King delivered his last speech. He spoke at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee, the headquarters of the Church of God in Christ. He closed with these prophetic words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

The following evening at about six p.m., Dr. King was on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel, along with other members of his entourage. He turned to music director, Ben Branch. “Ben,” he said, “make sure you play ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’ in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”

Then a gunshot shattered the calm evening. Dr. King fell, mortally wounded.

But his dream lived on.

Martin Luther King, Jr., changed the world with the sound of his voice and the force of his convictions. He changed the world through the power of his unconditional love.

Learn from Dr. King. Lead like Dr. King. Tell the world about your dream of a better future. Change the world through the relentless power of love.

“And so I say to you today, my friends, that you may be able to speak with the tongues of men and angels; you may have the eloquence of articulate speech; but if you have not love, it means nothing.” —Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

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.