Hey! Welcome back. In this post I’m going to breakdown some writing advice from one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th and 21st centuries, American author Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was most well-known for pioneering the modern science-fiction genre and for his expertly crafted short stories. His best known works, all of which have been adapted into movies, include:
- Something Wicked This Way Comes, the fourth book in his Green Town series, which tells the story of two boys who discover the secrets of a sinister carnival
- Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel where firemen are responsible for burning books (an illegal commodity) and the homes of those who harbour them, and
- The Illustrated Man, a collection of short stories about a man whose body is covered in live tattoos that tell their own tales.
Bradbury’s work is a blend of science-fiction, horror and fantasy, and encompasses dark and disturbing stories now labelled as ‘classics’, that have influenced pop culture over the decades since their publications. His non-fiction work Zen in the Art of Writing was published in 1994 and is a collection of Bradbury’s essays spanning almost three decades, from 1961 to 1990. The book covers Bradbury’s own writing routines as well as his advice on discovering who you are as a writer, telling the truth through your work, the writing process as a whole, developing a writing routine, a writer’s responsibilities, and an approach for rewriting. Let’s take a look!
- Discovering Who You Are As A Writer
In your journey to discovering who you are as a writer and why it is you wish to make a career as one, Bradbury emphasises that in order to write well, you must be excited by your writing. Not just by the thought of the end product, and most certainly not by the thought of money or fame, but by the process itself. By the practice of sitting down and letting your thoughts and characters run free on paper. You should write with ‘zest’ and with ‘gusto’ and you shouldn’t find writing a chore (more on that last part later under The Writing Process).
“… If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer. It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-garde coterie, that you are not being yourself. You don’t even know yourself. For the first thing a writer should be is – excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasms.”
During his years as a writer, Bradbury made lists of titles and nouns. The lists were things that came to his mind that he jotted down and that would in turn allow better things to surface. Bradbury encourages writers to make lists as they will come to show you patterns and you can return to them as time goes on, eventually realising that you are ready to use a certain title or line. Within these lists and their patterns, you will find who you are, what you like and where you lean towards in your writing. You will discover things not only about yourself but also about your characters, which is pivotal to your writing as it is their stories you are tasked with telling after all. Bradbury’s lists contained words relating to carnivals, circuses, mirrors, and such things that reflected his attraction to the strange and obscure, to his love of those things as a child and his continued interest in them as he grew. So write those lists and find out what they say about you!
“If you are a writer, or would hope to be one, similar lists, dredged out of the lopside of your brain, might well help you discover you, even as I flopped around and finally found me…. It began to be obvious that I was learning from my lists of nouns, and that I was further learning that my characters would do my work for me, if I let them alone, if I gave them their heads, which is to say, their fantasies, their frights.”
Bradbury also addresses imitation of other writer’s voices on your journey to find your own. While some authors advise to not read the genre you want to write in in order to avoid the risk of imitation, Bradbury states that ‘imitation is natural and necessary to the beginning writer’. He also emphasises that it is important to learn how not to do things. In order to do this you must read a lot (which is in line with the advice of many other authors including Stephen King and Neil Gaiman) so that you can discover what works and what doesn’t, and that is how you will learn what not to do.
“Imitation is natural and necessary to the beginning writer. In the preparatory years, a writer must select that field where he thinks his ideas will develop comfortably. Work and imitation go together in the process of learning. It is only when imitation outruns its natural function that a man prevents his becoming truly creative.”
2. Telling The Truth
A writer must always aim to tell the truth in his work, whatever that may be, and they must believe in their truth, for only then will their reader also believe in it. For the truth to be revealed naturally, Bradbury states that a writer must write what first comes to mind and let the words flow quickly and freely. If you think too long about how to say something, your focus will veer away from the truth.
“In quickness is truth. The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are. In hesitation is thought. In delay comes the effort for a style, instead of leaping upon truth which is the only style worth deadfalling or tiger-trapping.”
In terms of plotting, Bradbury is of the school of writers who let their characters lead the way. By developing your characters they will rush through their stories and you will follow them as they go. Try to keep up!
“Remember: Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations. Plot is observed after the fact rather than before. It cannot precede action. It is the chart that remains when an action is through. That is all Plot ever should be.”
3. The Writing Process
Bradbury’s writing process is this:
“Work – Relaxation – Don’t Think! For if one works, one finally relaxes and stops thinking. True creation occurs then and only then.”
Bradbury implores the reader not to view work as a chore, but to become its partner. In order to do this you shouldn’t work with the end goal being money or fame, for not only does this block you from telling the truth and discovering who you are, but it is the reason why the word ‘work’ has such repelling connotations.
“It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by money in the commercial market. It is a lie to write in such a way as to be rewarded by fame offered you by some snobbish quasi-literary group in the intellectual gazettes… Work itself, after a while, takes on a rhythm. The mechanical begins to fall away. The body begins to take over. The guard goes down. What happens then? Relaxation. Don’t Think.”
Bradbury also addresses failure, something which all writers struggle with particularly at the start of their careers. He states that writers should view failure as a learning experience and should not let it stop them from going after their dreams. Only by continuing to write and by producing work of a not-so-great quality will you be able to reach the point of writing great work. Whatever you do, don’t stop writing. If you stop, that is when you really fail.
“To fail is to give up. But you are in the midst of a moving process. Nothing fails then. All goes on. Work is done. If good, you learn from it. If bad, you learn even more. Work done and behind you is a lesson to be studied. There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous and therefore destructive of the creative process.”
4. Developing A Writing Routine
Bradbury developed his writing routine in 1932 at the age of 12, when he first saw Mr. Electrico, a magician at a carnival. Following this he began to write a thousand words a day. He did this for ten years, finishing one short story a week, and in 1942, he wrote and sold his first short story The Lake. He would not become a full-time writer until two years later, by which time he had been writing a thousand words a day for twelve years!
“Ten years of doing everything wrong suddenly became the right idea, the right characters, the right day, the right creative time.”
Then during his twenties his schedule was as follows:
“On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York. Sunday? I thought about all the wild ideas scrambling for my attention, waiting under the attic lid, confident at last that, because of ‘The Lake’, I would soon let them out.”
It is so important to not only have but to stick to a writing routine, and while Bradbury suggests one-thousand or two-thousand words every day, or one short story a week, think about your lifestyle and what will work for you. Maybe it’s not possible for you to write every day of the week and that’s ok, though try not to skip more than one day or else you may become nervous and your work will stall. Find a routine that is achievable and stick to it. If you’re looking for a place to set up a schedule and track your work you can download my free Writer’s Planner at nathaliesaleeba.ck.page.
“Eventually quantity will make for quality. Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come.”
5. The Writer’s Responsibilities
Every writer has responsibilities to their readers and no matter what genre you are writing in there are expectations that must be met for the reader to be satisfied with the story. Bradbury stresses the importance of building tension yet always ensuring that the reader finds their release, for if they don’t it’s a safe bet they will go elsewhere. Note that this doesn’t mean you have to have a happy ending to your story, that’s not realistic nor is it the truth. But your ending should be in line with the expectations you have set up and the energy contained in your tale. Set the readers expectations correctly and always give them a proper ending.
“We writers are up to the following:
We build tensions towards laughter, then give permission, and laughter comes
We build tensions towards sorrow, and at last say cry, and hope to see our audience in tears
We build tensions towards violence, light the fuse and run
We build the strange tensions of love, where so many of the other tensions mix to be modified and transcended, and allow that fruition in the mind of the audience
We build tensions, especially today, towards sickness and then, if we are good enough, talented enough, observant enough, allow our audiences to be sick.”
When your first draft is finished and it’s time for rewriting, Bradbury places the emphasis on ‘learning how to cut it so you don’t kill it or hurt it in any way.’ Rewriting can be a difficult task; you’ve finished your draft and you think there isn’t anything you could possibly cut. But there is, and you must. When you’re rewriting, consider what can be expressed more succinctly and compress it.
“The main thing is compression. If you can find the right metaphor, the right image, and put it in a scene, it can replace four pages of dialogue.”
I found Zen in the Art of Writing both interesting and helpful. Bradbury’s admirable work ethic was inspiring and his views aligned with the growth mindset which you will see me come back to again and again this year! Have you read any of Bradbury’s works? How do you think his early works compare to his later works? Can you see his progression? Please comment below, I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time,