The Journal: On the Perceived Threat of Writing Off Into the Dark

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* On Amazon Prime
* Topic: On the Perceived Threat of Writing Off Into the Dark
* Today
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quotes of the Day

“It is not merely enough to love literature if one wishes to spend one’s life as a writer. It is a dangerous undertaking on the most primitive level. For, it seems to me, the act of writing with serious intent involves enormous personal risk. It entails the ongoing courage for self-discovery. It means one will walk forever on the tightrope, with each new step presenting the possiblity of learning a truth about oneself that is too terrible to bear.” Harlan Ellison

A seeming addendum—”Don’t be afraid to go there.” Harlan Ellison

“I hate when a director says to me ‘Here’s how I envision this scene’…. Excuse me? It’s right here in the script. I ‘envisioned’ it FOR you. Do what I wrote. If you want to ‘envision,’ you should become a writer. Where the fuck were you when the page was blank?” Harlan Ellison

“NO ONE GETS OUT OF CHILDHOOD ALIVE. It’s not the first time I’ve said that. But among the few worthy bon mots I’ve gotten off in sixty-seven years, that and possibly one other may be the only considerations eligible for carving on my tombstone. (The other one is the one entrepreneurs have misappropriated to emboss on buttons and bumper stickers: ‘The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.’ I don’t so much mind that they pirated it, but what does honk me off is that they never get it right. They render it dull and imbecile by phrasing it thus: ‘The two most common things in the universe are….’ Not things, you insensate gobbets of ambulatory giraffe dung, elements! Elements is funny, things is imprecise and semi-guttural. Things! Geezus, when will the goyim learn they don’t know how to tell a joke?” Harlan Ellison

“I don’t mind you thinking I’m stupid, but don’t talk to me like I’m stupid.” Harlan Ellison

Via Dan Baldwin, If you have access to Amazon Prime on TV, search for Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth. This is a must-see for every serious writer.

And by “serious writer” I mean one who is not afraid to bare his soul and his faults and his dreams and nightmares and insanity and splay them across the page. I watched Dreams With Sharp Teeth last night, and I’ll watch it at least one more time. When the price drops, I’ll probably buy it and watch it several more times.

It is absolutely excellent and should be mandatory viewing for all writers once or twice a year, or whenever they start thinking they need to be careful, they need to outline or rewrite, or anytime they start to believe that anyone else knows more about their story than they do.

As you’re watching it and soaking-in all of Ellison’s accomplishments, try to remember that he wrote off into the dark.

Topic: On the Perceived Threat of Writing Off Into the Dark

Recently two of our regular contributors to Pro Writers Writing fled the website because it was becoming, in their view, too much about writing into the dark, even “a WITD site.” As the site’s founder, I can assure you it wasn’t planned that way. The writers on PWW simply express their own thoughts on writing and publishing. I (a major advocate of WITD) didn’t and don’t control what contributors write there.

Nor did I censor or control what proponents of outlining, rewriting, etc. wrote there, though I did occasionally take exception in the comments section when one of them misrepresented WITD, something of which proponents of outlining, etc. know nothing about. (“Write what you know” springs to mind for some reason.)

Here’s the thing—We were all taught the same techniques: we must outline, revise, run our work through critique groups, and rewrite (often a specific number of times—one now-defunct magazine I know of required in their guidelines that a story must be rewritten a minimum of six times and professionally edited at least twice before it would be considered for publication). We were taught that our work can’t possibly have value if we enjoy it, and that it can’t have value unless we labor over it.

And we were all taught those things, at least initially, by nonwriters: by English teachers and Literature professors and (of all things) even professional critics.

We were taught to limit ourselves, to mistrust our own creative subconscious and to trust our inner critic.

And yet, writers universally believe “Writers are the worst judges of their own work.” But those who “labor” at writing believe it much more strongly when they think what they’ve written is “good.” Somehow the notion disappears when they think what they’ve written is “bad.” (Then, into the drawer it goes, never to see the light of day.)

It’s all silliness. Writing isn’t some elevated calling. It’s a job of work. It’s what some people do, like plumbing or working on cars or carpentry or being a cop or a lawyer or a doctor. But that’s a realization that doesn’t come, generally, until the person who would be a writer gets out of his own way and, you know, actually writes, day-in and day-out.

Though I’m far from famous, I’m one of many, many accomplished, successful professional writers who write off into the dark. But I’m also one of very few (only two that I know of) who talk and share regularly about the joy and freedom of that ability to trust the creative subconscious.

Yet there are literally millions of places where would-be writers can (re)learn that they “should” fit the mold: outline, revise, run the critique gamut, rewrite, etc. We who write off into the dark are vastly outnumbered by those who believe they know the story better than their characters do.

Maybe that’s why it amuses me so (in a very Harlan Ellison kind of way) that those of us who write off into the dark are somehow perceived as a threat by those who work their way word-by-word, sentence-by-carefully-crafted-sentence, cautiously, and above all thoughtfully, through their stories.

Trust me, those of us who write off into the dark are not a threat. We honestly don’t care how others write. We’re too busy writing our own stories. Some of us will pay it forward and help others if they ask, but we don’t pressure anyone. After all, how do I benefit if someone else writes 4 or 6 or 12 novels in a year instead of only 1 or 2?

I’ve been writing for 50 years. I’ve now written 48 novels (I’ll start my 49th today), 8 novellas, over 200 short stories and hundreds of poems and articles. I wrote the first-ever book-length poetry collection published as an ebook (Lessons for a Barren Population, Hard Shell Word Factory, around 1998). Some of my poetry collections have been nominated for major awards, including the National Book Award. One of my nonfiction books on writing took 5th place in the Book Expo America (BEA New York) Book of the Year Awards. I think that was in 2006.

Yet recently, when I offered a week of free mentoring on Heinlein’s Rules and Writing Into the Dark (at least a $50 value) to around 100 writers, I had only 4 takers. (The offer is closed now.)

But I wasn’t surprised. It’s difficult to “dare to be bad” (as Nina Kiriki Hoffman put it), to risk that some reader you’ll never meet will not like your work. I get that. But it’s also exciting. And it’s exciting to be confident enough in yourself and your abilities not to worry about what others think.

If I lie and tell readers I wrote all those novels over the past 50 years, they would consider me accomplished and seek out my work. But if I tell them (truthfully) I’ve written those novels and novellas and most of those short stories over the past 6 years, they would think I’m either lying or a hack.

So I don’t tell readers anything. I just write, and let them do the math on their own. (They won’t.) And as to whether the work is “good” or “bad,” I leave that judgement to the readers too, where it belongs.

I do tell other writers, those who seem interested, about Heinlein’s Rules and writing off into the dark, but frankly I get very few takers. And most of even the takers eventually succumb to the fear of working without a net and revert to at least some version of “knowing what’s going to happen next” in their stories.

Again, I understand. It’s safer that way.

But I prefer to live life on the razor’s edge, always a little frightened, always a little crazy, and always interested. I always look forward to writing the next scene or the next short story or the next novel to find out what happens next.

I hope you eventually find your way to this exciting technique, whether through me, Dean Wesley Smith or through your own determination. Once you do, you’ll find that risking it all is endlessly more rewarding than being timid and cautious.

And if you happen to be interested, I’m still offering mentoring sessions. You can see the various levels and prices in the topic at

I’m 67 years old. If you want to learn from me and take a leap forward in your work, don’t delay too long. (grin)

Today I’ll write because that’s what I do. Probably I’ll begin my March novel, but I’ll report numbers tomorrow so I can get this out early.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “A Great Writing Article” at Note that your job as a writer is to cause what psychiatrists call an “adjustment reaction.”

See “Writers Ought to be Better Than This” at

See “What’s the Best Way to Discover Your Story?” at For those who need to do it this way. This also provided the impetus for my topic above.

The Numbers

Fiction words today…………………… XXXX
Nonfiction words today…………… 1670 (Journal)

Writing of (novel)

Day 1…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX

Total fiction words for the month……… XXXX
Total fiction words for the year………… 136695
Total nonfiction words for the month… 1670
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 56150
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 192845

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 3
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 6
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 48
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 202
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

2 thoughts on “The Journal: On the Perceived Threat of Writing Off Into the Dark”

  1. Thanks Harvey!
    The Harlan Ellison quotes are fabulous. A Boy and His Dog is well worth watching & I can’t wait to watch Dreams with Sharp Teeth.
    I was so glad to find WITD and realize that how I naturally write is a real thing! And very glad to keep learning from you & others of the same ilk.

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