Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Referred to as “one of the greatest storytellers for children of the 20th century,” Roald Dahl still doesn’t get the credit he’s owed. Not only a prolific author of children’s literature – with books including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, The BFG, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Witches, and The Gremlins – Dahl also wrote more than sixty adult short stories (including the often-homaged ‘Man from the South,’) as well as the screenplays for You Only Live Twice and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. His work is still being adapted for TV, film, and stage, and if none of that tickles your fancy, there are still his volumes of poetry or the cookbook based on his work.
Happily, when he wasn’t busy (and sometimes when he was,) Dahl was happy to talk about his writing process and offer advice to budding authors. Let’s see what he had to say.
1–7. The seven qualities of a writer
Dahl’s ‘Lucky Break’ includes seven qualities that he thought were essential for anyone who wants to make a living from writing fiction. They’re a great place to begin our exploration of Dahl’s advice because they allow up-and-coming authors to identify those qualities they already possess and those they need to cultivate to find success.
1. You should have a lively imagination.
2. You should be able to write well. By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader’s mind. Not everybody has this ability. It is a gift and you either have it or you don’t.
3. You must have stamina. In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week and month after month.
4. You must be a perfectionist. That means you must never be satisfied with what you have written until you have rewritten it again and again, making it as good as you possibly can.
5. You must have strong self-discipline. You are working alone. No-one is employing you. No-one is around to give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or to tick you off if you start slacking.
6. It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humor. This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it’s vital.
7. You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that his work is marvelous is heading for trouble.
Here, Dahl hits on a few pieces of our favorite writing advice.
First and foremost, that self-discipline is essential to successful writing, especially for self-publishing authors. In 8 Steps That Will Help You Start (And Finish) Your Book, we talked about how difficult it is to be your own boss, especially when your job is to create a work of art that has no absolute deadline. If this isn’t a quality you possess, it’ll be your main obstacle to a successful writing career, and it’s something you need to start addressing right now.
Dahl also picks up on humility and the deadliness of the writer’s ego. This can take many forms, from deciding that no more work is needed on an early draft to turning engaging fiction into a lecture on how you see the world. If this is your cardinal sin (or, given the nature of the problem, if people keep telling you it’s your cardinal sin,) you can begin looking for solutions with How Loving To Write May Stop You Getting Published.
8. Write because you can’t stop
Despite providing such a glowing assessment of successful writers, Dahl doesn’t necessarily recommend joining their ranks, saying, “A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it.”
It’s a sweet sentiment, but it’s absolutely true in today’s market. There’s no guarantee that your writing will find its audience and, even if it does, that audience still may not be large enough to earn you a significant amount of money. As Dahl says, there may be no compensation but the absolute freedom to create what your soul demands. If that’s what you’re chasing, writing is for you, but if you’re looking for profit, you need to start thinking about the type of content people will pay you to write, not how to sell what you already want to produce.
9. Cultivate passion
If, on reflection, “absolute freedom” is enough, then make that fact the core of your writing. Don’t lose track of the fact that you’re writing because you want to write, and turn that passion into your sword and your armor. As Dahl writes in My Uncle Oswald:
I began to realize how important it was to be an enthusiast in life. He taught me that if you are interested in something, no matter what it is, go at it at full speed ahead. Embrace it with both arms, hug it, love it and above all become passionate about it. Lukewarm is no good. Hot is no good either. White hot and passionate is the only thing to be.
If you’re not feeling your passion, go looking for it, because it’s the number-one ingredient of your best work. Of course, retaining your passion is helped by planning ahead…
10. Learn the difference between an idea you like and one that will last
We’ve talked before about how beneficial it can be to learn the difference between an idea that charms you and one that you’re still going to love once you’ve spent months of blood, sweat, and tears bringing it to life.
While there’s an element of learning from experience to this process, Dahl describes it as part of his initial planning, even delaying beginning a story to ensure it’s going to go the distance.
It starts always with a tiny little seed of an idea. A little germ. And that, even, doesn’t come very easily. You can be mooching around for a year or so before you get a good one. When I do get a good one, mind you, I quickly write it down so that I won’t forget it, because it disappears otherwise, rather like a dream. But when I get it, I don’t dash up here and start to write it. I’m very careful. I walk around it and look at it and sniff it, and then see if I think it will go. Because once you start, you’re embarked on a year’s work. And so it’s a big decision.– Roald Dahl, ‘Roald Dahl on writing’, RoaldDahl.com
Writers have a habit of getting swept along by the thrill of a new idea, but Dahl’s observation is right on the money: it’s a big decision to begin a project, and if you make that decision too quickly, you’re delaying your ability to embark on something that will actually see you through to publication. Instead, prod a new idea a little, give it a “sniff.” If you still love it after a thorough inspection, then you can buckle down to work.
11. Don’t exhaust your creativity
When it comes to a productive working routine, Dahl is against ceaseless work. Two hours, he argues, is enough to leave you good and tired, because, “Two hours of writing fiction leaves this writer completely drained. For those two hours he has been in a different place with totally different people.”
Here, again, Dahl arrives at a piece of advice that many great writers swear by: stop working when you could still write more.
I never come back to a blank page, I always finish about halfway through. To be confronted with a blank page is not very nice. But Hemingway, the great American writer, taught me the finest trick, when you’re doing a long book, which is, he simply said, in his own words, ‘when you’re going good, stop writing.’ And that means that if everything’s going well, and you know exactly where the end of the chapter’s going to go and you know just what the people are going to do, you don’t go on writing and writing and writing until you come to the end of it, because when you do, then you say, ‘well, where am I going to go next?’ And you get up, and you walk away, and you don’t want to come back because you don’t know where you’re going to go. But if you stop when you’re going good… you can’t wait to get back, because you know what you’re going to say next. And that’s lovely. And you have to try and do that every time, every day, all the way through the year.– Roald Dahl, ‘Roald Dahl on writing’, RoaldDahl.com
This advice is incredibly difficult to put into practice,
but it’s also one of the most effective things you can do to keep your writing
behavior consistent. Why does it work so well? Well, if you read How To Stop
Decision Fatigue And Burnout Hurting Your Writing, you’ll notice this
advice just so happens to reduce the decision-making necessary for you to start
writing, making it far less tiring to put pen to paper (or fingers to
12. Don’t walk away from frustration
Interestingly, Dahl couples his advice about when to stop writing with an exhortation to work to a schedule.
Well, my work routine is very simple, and it’s always been the same, for the last forty-five years. The great thing, of course, is never to work for too long at a stretch. Because after about two hours, you are not at your highest peak of concentration, so you have to stop. Some writers choose certain times to work, others other times. It suits me to start rather late, I start at ten o’clock in the morning and I stop at twelve, always, however well I’m going, but I always stay there until twelve, even if I’m a bit stuck. You have to keep your bottom on the chair and stick it out. Otherwise, if you start getting in the habit of walking away when you’re stuck, you’ll never get it done.– Roald Dahl, ‘Roald Dahl on writing’, RoaldDahl.com
This sort of organized writing behavior is the kind of thing that creates great writing habits, and while Dahl is 100% right that it’s productive to stop while you still have gas in the tank, he’s also correct that cutting a session short when things aren’t coming easily is just a way to teach yourself to quit more and more easily each time you struggle.
13. Cut the adjectives
We’ll end our tour of Dahl’s advice with something specific and practical – and, again, something many great writers swear by. The following comes from Roald Dahl’s reply to Jay Williams, an English Literature student who had written to him on the subject of short stories, enclosing an example of his own work and asking for feedback.
I have read your story. I don’t think it’s bad, but you must stop using too many adjectives. Study Hemingway, particularly his early work and learn how to write short sentences and how to eschew all those beastly adjectives. Surely it is better to say “She was a tall girl with a bosom” than “She was a tall girl with a shapely, prominent bosom”, or some such rubbish. The first one says it all.– Roald Dahl, ‘Jay Williams’ letter from Roald Dahl’, RoaldDahl.com
As Dahl notes, only the cream of the adjective crop deserves to actually make it into your finished manuscript, so drop words like “shapely” and “prominent” that don’t alter meaning, if only to make more room to enjoy words like “beastly,” which do.
The wisdom of Roald Dahl
Those were thirteen pieces of advice from Roald Dahl, but assessed as a whole, it seems reasonable to add a fourteenth: study Hemingway. Happily, we can help you with that, and you can check out 5 Ways Ernest Hemingway Can Help You Improve Your Writing for more great advice from a literary great. Which pieces of Dahl’s advice resonate with you, and how do you apply them in your own writing? Let me know in the comments and, if you’re here specifically for advice on Roald Dahl’s specialist area of children’s fiction, try The Three Golden Rules Of Writing Children’s Literature.