The Journal: Writer Fear

In today’s Journal

* Quote of the Day
* Topic: Writer Fear
* Today
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Quote of the Day

“A good story is a good story no matter how you classify it.” Claire Langley-Hawthorne

Topic: Writer Fear

By now, anyone who follows this blog regularly or even irregularly knows I advocate Heinlein’s Rules and a technique called Writing Into the Dark (WITD). This is not original to me, nor is it original to Dean Wesley Smith, from whom I learned it. Nor was it original to whomever taught it to him.

WITD is all about overcoming unreasoning fear. I’ll explain that statement after a little history and an explanation of the WITD technique. What follows are facts, not theory.

Back in the day, pulp writers (many of whom are still read today) banged out stories and novels on manual typewriters and sold them for a penny per word. And many of them made a very good living at it. To do so, they had to type fast (which means “spend time in the chair”) and turn out clean copy.

They knew the secret that Robert A. Heinlein later abbreviated in Rule 3 of his Business Habits for Writers (You must not rewrite except to editorial order). The secret?

You’re paid per word for what you write. You aren’t paid anything for what you REwrite.

1. If you rewrite, your story WILL get farther from your unique, original voice with every pass.
2. The time spent on rewriting could better be used writing the next story.

And yes, there are still pulp writers turning out a million words per year today. And being paid very well for it. Ever heard of Stephen King? How about Lee Child? How about Ray Bradbury? JA Konrath? Dean Wesley Smith? Kristine Kathryn Rusch? The list goes on.

WITD is nothing more than trusting what you’ve already learned about writing over 12 or 12+ years of school and however many years of reading fiction and watching TV sitcoms and movies.

And when you trust what you know, what you’ve absorbed, you can eventually let go of all the “You Can’t” fears that were drummed into you and me and everybody else in school:

* “You Can’t” write without outlining first. You have to know where the story’s going.
* If you try to write without outlining, you still need to know where the story’s going so you must at least erect “signposts” along the way, and
* “You Can’t” possibly write a “good” story in only one clean draft. To that end

** “You Can’t” send out a work without revising.
** “You Can’t” send out a work before you run it past a critique group or critique partner or “at least a second set of eyes,” and then
** “You Absolutely Can’t” send out a work without rewriting it X number of times. If you do, it can’t possibly be any good. Some proponents of this nonsense, all of whom are steeped in that unreasoning fear I mentioned above, actually say with a sage, knowing look, “You know, only REwriting is really writing.”

* And if you don’t do all of that, “You Can’t” ever be a successful professional writer.

Yet almost every successful professional long-term writer does NOT outline, revise, run their work through critique groups, or rewrite. Because they’ve let go of all the “You Can’ts.” They’ve let go of the fear.

What’s the worst that will happen if you write a story or novel but don’t do any of the things above? Some reader somewhere whom you’ll never meet won’t like your story. So what? It isn’t lilke he’s going to come to your house and pull a gun on you.

So most long-term pro writers have released that fear. And it isn’t because they’ve written a lot or published a lot. ALL of us used to cling to these “You Can’t” myths.

New York Times and USA Today bestseller Dean Wesley Smith, in particular, has said repeatedly that he was never able to sell a short story until he stopped listening to all the “You Can’t” stuff (he calls them “myths”) and started writing into the dark.

But he thought that sale was a fluke, so he went back to rewriting. And he stopped selling again. So he returned to WITD and started selling again. And he’s never looked back.

Admittedly, there are some long-term professional fiction writers who DO outline, rewrite, etc. Or at least they SAY they do. But most of them don’t. Most who say that are lying. They lie for a living, remember?

For just one example, Harlan Ellison used to tell people he wrote several drafts of even his short stories. He said that because it added a perceived value to his stories for readers. “Oh, well, if he worked that much on it, it must be good.”

Yet at one point, Ellison blew his own cover. He actually set up a typewriter in a storefront window and literally “wrote in public,” creating page after page of stories while people stood on the sidewalk and watched him type. And to prove what he was doing was valid, he took each sheet from the typewriter as he finished it and taped it to the window, face-out, so the people could read it. How’s that for writing into the dark?

As you sit in English and Literature classes, and as you read, and as you watch sitcoms and movies, your subconscious absorbs sentence structure, where to place periods and commas and question marks, where to break paragraphs. And most importantly, it absorbs story structure.

Think about it. You’ve been telling stories since you were a tiny kid. Even before you knew there was an alphabet, when you were two or three years old, you were telling stories to your parents to explain how that lamp got smashed or how the cat wound up with no hair on her left ear. You couldn’t tell the truth, so you Made Up A Story.

Then you went to school and all of those “You Can’ts” were drummed into you.

So here’s the deal. If you want to have FUN telling stories again, you have to forget all those stupid “You Can’ts.” Set them aside and just write. Refuse to let even your own critical mind into your stories, much less the critical minds of anyone else. If fact, refuse to let anyone else into your work in progress, even your significant other. And refuse to rewrite.

What you need is already in your head.

Do you know everything? No, of course not. But you DO already know how to tell a story. What do you do when you get home from a harried day during which some jerk cut you off in traffic? You tell your significant other the story.

All you need is practice. And you don’t get practice by going over and over and over and over the same short story or novel to revise and rewrite until you’ve revised and rewritten your original voice off of it. I call this “hovering.” If you hover, you only get practice hovering, and your work gets worse the longer you hover.

You practice by sitting down down, putting your fingers on the keyboard, and writing.

You take a character, give him a problem (any little problem will do, like an untied shoelace or mucus draining onto his upper lip while he’s holding a coffee cup in one hand and a briefcase in the other), and drop him into a setting. Then you let your fingers move over the keyboard. You write what the character says, and you write what he does, and you write what happens as a result.

And when you get to the end of the story (the character will lead you through to the end), you take a 5- or 10-minute break, and then you sit down and write another story. And another. And another.

You don’t worry about individual words and sentences. You don’t worry about structure. Story is flowing out of you. You write the story your characters give you, and then you write the next one and the next one.

And what if a story doesn’t stop? What if it runs long and the characters do unexpected things? What if they keep getting into and out of different situations, each situation tied to the next and the next? Then when you finally reach the end you will have written your first novel.

Know the difference between a short story and a novel? A short story is about One Event. That’s it. And a novel is about several related events. That’s the only difference, other than word count.

Now (let me take a breath)… Writing into the dark isn’t for everybody. If you’re unreasonably frightened—if you flat can’t let go of outlining, the desire for your critique partners’ approval, and rewriting—then writing into the dark is not for you.

I once taught WITD to a room of 12 students. Of those 12, one was all but hyperventilating. She kept repeating, “I can’t. I just can’t,” and she finally left the class early at all but a dead run. Of the other 11, I know for a fact 7 or 8 are still writing into the dark and loving it. (The other 3 or 4, I don’t know.)

If you can start to push aside those stupid “You Can’t” myths—all of which you and I and we all were taught BY PEOPLE WHO DO NOT WRITE FICTION—then a wonderful, exciting new world awaits you.

Now, just to clarify, do I really care whether you WITD? No. What difference does it make to me? I get zero benefit if you try WITD and nothing bad will happen to me if you don’t. I share WITD with others only to pay it forward because I know how freeing it is and how much fun writing is now that I’m doing it that way.

My short stories are still going out week after week, my novels month after month. People are buying them, and the money’s flowing into my account. That would still be true even if every other writer in the world was outlining, asking for critiques and rewriting. So no, I don’t care.

It’s just a wonderful thing—a wonderful, freeing technique—and I want to share it. That’s all.

In the past five years, I’ve written over 200 short stories and almost 60 novels and novellas. All of them were written into the dark, and all of them are Good Stories (at least my readers say so).

I didn’t outline even one of them. I didn’t rewrite even one of them. I didn’t run even one of them through the critique-group gauntlet. Why? Because it’s MY story, not THEIR story. How the hell can they possibly know what it needs?

So if you’re ready, if you can dare to be bad, if you can risk some reader somewhere not liking your work (while 8 out of 10 DO like it), then I invite you to climb on board.

I’ve outlined above what WITD is. I hope you’ll try it. If you do, I doubt you’ll ever go back to outlining, critique groups, rewriting, etc. Writing won’t be “work” anymore. It will be fun.

You’ll be free to write as fast as your little fingers can move, your characters will surprise you at every turn (and therefore surprise the reader too) and you’ll absolutely have the most fun you can have with your clothes on. (grin)

Now, to reward you for having hung around this long and to put my money where my mouth is, here’s a special offer just for you:

I’ll mentor ANYONE who’s reading this absolutely free via email for one week on how to set aside the myths and write into the dark. All you have to do is give me your word that you’ll give it an honest try.

(But note: If you’re already comfortable writing into the dark, please don’t sign up. Leave room for others. However, if you have questions, email me and I’ll answer them.)

You read that right. No strings. I won’t even ask whether you want to continue the mentoring on a paid basis when we’re through.

At the worst, I will have lost the few hours I spend mentoring you, and you will have lost nothing but the time it takes to exchange a few emails with a crazy professional fiction writer.

So what do you and I stand to gain?

If you come out of our little experiment writing into the dark, a whole new fun world will open up to you. That’s your reward. And I get to feel good about breaking the chains off one more writer. No strings. No catch. I’m an honest guy. I don’t live in that other world.

If you’re interested, email me at If I get too many students (I seriously doubt it) I’ll simply put them in different weeks. You and I will work that out as we go.

But please don’t wait. There’s very little chance I’ll offer this again. If you’re interested, email me today and I’ll start building my list and arranging my schedule.

Oh, and if you’re a “conventional” writer who absolutely knows WITD won’t work although you’ve never tried it, don’t email me. I’m through responding. Instead, go eat your spinach or do something else you know you won’t like though you haven’t tried it. (grin)

Today I rolled out early, wrote the stuff above, then went to the novel. By 7 I had around 1500 new words on my novel and took a break for a shower and breakfast.

Then I came back to the Hovel and fine-tuned the stuff above, answered some email, and turned back to the novel at 9:30.

Nope. We went to the grocery. When we got back, I checked email and dealt with more fallout from the PWW fiasco yesterday. No more writing today. I’ll return to the novel tomorrow morning. Have a great evening!

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “10 New Publishing Scams to Watch Out for in 2020” at This is an extremely important post.

See “8 Ways to Make Your Book’s Press Release Work Harder” at I don’t recommend press releases at all, but if you use them this is a good post.

See “Subscription Marketing for Authors: A Primer” at

See “Are the 1980s ‘history’ yet?” at

For any poets out there, see “29 Poetry Markets Seeking Submissions” at PLEASE be sure to read the fine print on any submissions, especially to contests.

More for poets, see The Raintown Review at My old home. (grin)

The Numbers

Fiction words today…………………… 1809
Nonfiction words today…………… 2440 (Journal)

Writing of The Three-Year Turn (novel)

Day 1…… 3570 words. Total words to date…… 3570
Day 2…… 4026 words. Total words to date…… 7596
Day 3…… 4251 words. Total words to date…… 11847
Day 4…… 2117 words. Total words to date…… 13964
Day 5…… 3139 words. Total words to date…… 17103
Day 6…… 3191 words. Total words to date…… 20294
Day 7…… 3220 words. Total words to date…… 23514
Day 8…… 4866 words. Total words to date…… 28380
Day 9…… 1809 words. Total words to date…… 30189

Total fiction words for the month……… 39778
Total fiction words for the year………… 105322
Total nonfiction words for the month… 13160
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 44420
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 149742

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 2
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 5
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 47
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 201
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

6 thoughts on “The Journal: Writer Fear”

  1. That’s a fantastic offer, Harvey!

    I’m not gonna sign up because I already write into the dark (I’ve never been able to outline anything – way to boring for me – so I didn’t write any fiction at all until I found WITD).

    But I would strongly advise anyone who’s hesitating to take Harvey up on his word. You really have nothing to lose (he genuinely wants to help others).

    There’s also just one other technique I would mention that goes hand in hand with WITD – cycling. Even if you’re writing into the dark, you don’t have to start from word one and write all the way to the last word. You can go back and forth as you please, as long as you stay in creative voice.

    While I’m sure Harvey will talk about it in his week long mentoring, I figured it was still worth mentioning here (it has been a really freeing technique for me).

  2. Yes, heck of a deal! Jump on it. You’ve got nothing to lose and so much to gain (locking your critical mind in a closet and actually writing for starters). Harvey knows his stuff, is a great teacher, encourages or kicks butt as needed (he is a marine…). As a mentoring student I would highly recommend it! I wrote a novel in 5 months and am about halfway through (won’t know until I’m done) with the next. Do. It.

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