Dear Shaun and the rest of the crew,
I’ve been a fan of your show ever since I started listening over a year ago. I’m writing in response to your latest discussion on Heinlein’s Rules for Writing. It seems like what you guys are actually talking about isn’t how many drafts a writer should do before proffering a project, but what is the best way for an aspiring writer can learn to write.
I would like to suggest a couple books that totally changed the way I think learning to write:
Daniel Coyle’s book helped me think about the learning process from a neurological perspective. His advice for how to practice effectively is both ingenious and head-slappingly obvious (things like immitating your idols, getting quality feedback, and figuring out what keeps you motivated). Because of him, I’ve changed how I structure my writing time and, I must admit, I’ve been getting more out of my writing.
Coyle talks about a chemical in the brain called meylin, which basically acts like insulation for your brain circuits, allowing them to transfer information faster. Meylin grows when you are practicing something just on the edge of your ability, where it’s too hard for you to get it right on the first try, but not so hard that you get frustrated and give up. It takes 10,000 hours of this intense, deep practice to become world-class at any skill, whether it’s soccer playing or science fiction writing. (Malcom Gladwell also writes about the 10,000-hour rule in his book Outliers).
Writers on your show have talked about having to get through “a million words of shit,” or taking “ten years to learn to write.” (By the way, it takes about ten years to practice something for 10,000 hours). Having just reached my million-word mark, I can say that both statements are true: My first million words were shit…and it’s probably going to take me ten years to learn the skills involved in writing a knockout story.
According to Coyle, what most world-class talents know how to do is “chunk” a skill, or being able to break down an activity into its building blocks (chunks), focus on perfecting one chunk at a time, and then zooming out again to look at how that chunk fits in the big picture. Stephen King uses the toolbox metaphor, Anne Lamott calls it writing in “small assignments,” and John Gardner offers exercises to help develop this ability in writing.
Coyle says the most common way talented people master a skill is by shooting for a goal, evaluating where they fell short, and trying again. This meshes well with some of the best writing advice I ever received from an editor; he said that after I write a story I should take a moment to write what I learned and what I wanted to do better next time. Needless to say, that has helped me a lot.
Alice Flaherty is a neurologist who has studied writing, creativity and some quirky ailments that afflict writers. (One particular affliction called hypergraphia, or the unrelenting compulsion to write, is a disease I wouldn’t mind catching.) The biggest lesson I got from her book was that the DESIRE to write and the ABILITY to write well come from two different parts of the brain. The trick is to get those two parts of the brain to cooperate. The drive to write comes from the emotional part of your brain; this is why making a to-do list, which uses the abstract-thinking part of the brain, isn’t going to make you FEEL like writing. Now I start my writing day by doing something that will get me “in the mood,” like closing my eyes and thinking about the best writing day I’ve ever had.
From a neurological perspective, creativity is a two-step process: step one, come up with a lot of ideas; step two, throw out any ideas that aren’t excellent, then start over from what you have left. A skilled writer has to be good at both writing new material (step one), and editing (step two). It turns out that this also involves two different parts of the brain, left and right. When a writer writes there is a lot of flashing between the two parts of the brain. Some people are better at editing the crud as they write (I expect Heinlein falls into this camp), other people need to physically separate their creative and editing phases (these are people who end up doing multiple drafts). The point is, both skills have to be developed, and sometimes that means developing them separately.
Alice Flaherty points out that being prolific doesn’t always mean writing twenty stories, but it can also mean writing twenty drafts of one story.
Finally, I’d like to point you to a few YouTube videos that you’ve probably already seen, but if you haven’t they are worth watching.