Episode 12: How to Write A Novel like Ray Bradbury, Stephen King & JK Rowling


Greetings and salutations everyone.
Thanks so much for tuning in to Mike’s Always Right. I’m your host Mike Eiman. In
today’s episode we’re gonna be talking about how to write your first novel. Or,
better yet, how NOT to write your first novel. This is something I have a little
bit of experience in and I have a lot of thoughts on it. So don’t touch that dial,
stay tuned, sit back, relax and just enjoy the show. For the past six months or so I
have been on a journey of sorts to write my first novel. And I knew it was gonna
be hard. Nobody says that it’s gonna be easy. Well some people say it’s easy, but
we’ll get to that. But I think the really difficult part has been sorting
through all the different tactics that different writers say, “Oh you should do
this. You shouldn’t do that.” And trying to figure out what what is the correct way.
I’m a big fan of Ray Bradbury, who wrote books like Fahrenheit 451, The Martian
Chronicles, The Illustrated Man. Brilliant writer. And if you listen or watch old
lectures that he gave, what he always recommended to young and upcoming
writers was write a heck of a lot of short stories. – (Ray Bradbury) The problem with novels is you could spend a whole year writing one and it might not turn out well.
Because you haven’t learned to write yet. But the best hygiene for beginning
writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories.
If you could write it one short story a week, it doesn’t matter what the
quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing. And at the end of a year
you have 52 short stories and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. – (Mike) So I tried this.
This was actually one of the first tactics that I tried when I decided that I really wanted to give this fiction
writing a, you know, an honest try here. So I actually, probably about six or
eight months ago, I was writing a short story one a day. Which is a lot of work.
But it kind of got me in the habit of writing. But what ended up happening was
they were just all dreadful. I might have a good idea, but there was no story to it.
There was no character. There’s nothing that made it special in any way.
Anybody could have written these terrible short stories. But then you get
to thinking: Why did Ray Bradbury advocate for short stories? Well, when he
was coming up, there were pulp magazines. There were things like Astounding
Science Fiction or even something like Galaxy Science Fiction, which I happen to
have a copy of. And that was how, if you were a writer at that time, you were
gonna get paid for your work. They paid anywhere from like half a cent to a
penny, two cents a word. Because they needed content for their their magazines.
So writers that I admire like Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov, they cut their
teeth writing short stories because that’s where the money was back in the
1930s, ’40s and even into the the ’50s. But then around the 1950s, after the war and
paper was more plentiful…and I would have to do some research…but yeah things
like that…you started to see this shift from short stories and kind of
digest-style magazines and moving more toward novels. Standalone novels. And so
Ray Bradbury learned his craft from short stories. But if he was
coming up today I guarantee you he would be writing books and self-publishing
them on Amazon. Because that’s where the money is right now if
you’re an up-and-coming writer. Granted it’s a lot easier to write five thousand
or ten thousand words for a short story than it is to write fifty thousand, or a
hundred thousand words of a novel. But I think just taking his advice at face
value is kind of a disservice. And then you hear other famous authors basically
recommend something completely opposite. Where like Stephen King, if you’ve read
his book “On Writing,” which I highly recommend. It gives you a good insight
into his process. He recommends just sitting down every day having a set word
count I think he recommends about 2,000 to 2,500 words. So like writing about ten
pages of manuscript per day and just kind of, it’s it’s like an archaeological
dig where you’re just you’re pulling new information out every day and you’re
building your story. Well that works really well if you already have a very
deep internal sense of what makes a great story.
And obviously Stephen King has that. There’s no doubt about it. But I tried that. I’m sure you’ve tried that. Oh,
I’m just gonna sit down and start writing and I’m not and I’m not gonna
give up until I have myself a novel gosh darn it. And then my experience, and
maybe you’ve had the same problem, you get 5,000. 10,000. 15,000 words in. I
actually recently got 20,000 words into a project before I realized, “No, this
isn’t gonna happen. There’s no story here. There’s nothing. All the
characters are the same person with a different name. They’re just names on a
page with dialog attached to them. The action is just happening because I need
a plot for my story. Clearly something here is not working.” So then let’s move
on to another famous author you might have heard of: JK Rowling. Now a few
years ago she or some someone tied to her released this page of one of her
outlines. And it’s this big like grid thing that explains what’s supposed to
happen and certain chapters of one of the Harry Potter books. And it’s
this very elaborate, detailed, handwritten spreadsheet-type thing where she
plotted out everything that was gonna happen before she actually wrote it. It’s like okay well JK Rowling knows what she’s
talking about. But she’s saying that she does the exact opposite of what Stephen
King says. And these are both two wildly successful authors. So where is the truth?
Where does the truth lie in all of this? And I… I don’t know if there’s really a correct
answer here. So you’ve got Ray Bradbury saying, all right, write short stories.
Because if you try to write a novel you’re gonna get lost. You’re gonna get
the end of the week. You’re not gonna know where you are or what you’re doing.
It’s gonna be very frustrating and you’re gonna give up. There’s some truth
to that. Then you have Stephen King saying just
write every day. Don’t use an outline and eventually you’ll end up with this
amazing book. Or you’ll have a great story to tell.
You’ll excavate it like dinosaur bones. I think that’s the
metaphor he uses in “On Writing.” And then you have JK Rowling who says who says
you need then know where you’re going before you start. So there’s three wildly
different approaches. Be a master of your craft. To just keep writing until
something good comes out. Three know where you’re going and have… and have your plot all ready to go
from the from the start. And basically what I can tell you from my
experience, is that you need to try all these different methods. But just be
aware that they’re probably not going to work for you. They haven’t worked for me.
And the big issue is that I’m not Ray Bradbury.
I’m not Stephen King. I’m not JK Rowling. I don’t have the same life experiences
that they had when they started writing novels. So to just try to take their
process and duplicate that and think, “Oh well now I can automatically have an
amazing novel,” it doesn’t work that way. The the truth is that learning how to
write a novel, or fiction in general, is really hard. You’re gonna get it wrong a
lot. You’re going to screw up time and time again until you finally start to
put the pieces together. So with every false start and failed project that I’ve
had so far, I’ve learned something. I’ve learned that characters are not just a
group of traits and a name on the page. I’ve learned that plot is not just a
series of exciting events. Because when you approach a story from those
perspectives ,what you end up with is just this incoherent mess. But what
really angers me is the number of people who have not written a novel or, in many
cases even attempted to write a novel, who are trying to sell me expensive
courses on how to write a novel. Here’s the five easy steps to write your
best-selling novel. How to write a novel that makes you
$100,000. It’s all complete BS. It’s not easy. It will never be easy. You
literally have to be crazy to even attempt to write a novel. You have to be even crazier to be someone who says, “Gosh darn it, I’m
gonna finish this thing even if it kills me.” The only reason I’ve stuck with it is because I honestly don’t know what else I
would do if I wasn’t pursuing this. But I’ve wanted to write a novel since I was
a little kid. And I spent so much of my life with authority figures trying to
convince me that it wasn’t a good idea. That your best bet is to go to school,
get a job, keep your head low and do what you’re told. and maybe one day
you’ll retire and you can finally write that book. And some people have done that.
And good for them. But I don’t want to spend my entire life doing something
that I don’t enjoy so that I can retire and, when I’m old, then start trying to
figure out how to do what I wanted to be doing all along. So does that mean that
you shouldn’t pay money for courses and books about the craft of writing? No.
Absolutely you should. You should get whatever tools you think you
need to make this work. But just know that they are not going to
make it any easier. You’re still gonna have to put in the work. You’re still
gonna have to put in the time, the hours, and effort. And if anybody tells you
otherwise, they are just trying to get your money. A couple of months ago I had
this idea about storytelling and, kind of, comparing it to building a birdhouse. That I was trying to think, “I wonder if
there’s just a simple way to tell a story that’s as simple as building a
birdhouse.” Where you have four walls, a bottom, and a
roof, and a little hole for the bird to go inside. Even if the craftsmanship
isn’t good, even if you’re not a master builder, you’re not good at gluing
popsicle sticks together or whatever materials you’re using, you can still end
up with a functional birdhouse. And I wondered: can you do that with a story?
And more and more I’m coming to the conclusion that: No, if it was that simple
everyone would be writing novels and they would all be readable. They wouldn’t
be timeless classics, but they would be good enough you would be
able to say, “Oh look at this novel I wrote.” And I think what we’re seeing a
lot on Amazon is that because anyone CAN write and self publish a novel, that
anyone DOES write and self publish a novel. So there’s a line of these
birdhouse type stories that are…a lot of these birdhouse type stories that are
out there but they’re not good. And they’re not selling. Or they’re not good
and they ARE selling only because the author has spent hundreds or thousands
of dollars on Facebook ads and Amazon Marketing Service ads and so on. I’ve
actually seen plenty of books on Amazon where I’m fairly certain that their
marketing spending far outweighs what they could possibly make on the book.
Which is not an approach that I want to take because. That doesn’t really help me
to gauge whether people are really interested in what I’m writing. If I
have to pay a whole bunch of money to get people to read it—and that’s one
thing as long as it’s just an initial expense, and then once people are aware
of it it gets some word-of-mouth going, that’s great—but if you’re just having
to keep spending, keep spending, keep spending and you’re spending a hundred
dollars to make ten, well your book probably isn’t very good.
Another thing I commonly hear writers talk about is: How much should I spend on
having my cover designed? Well I’ve heard some people say that you
should save all of your money for your cover or ads. And that’s
like whoa whoa. So you’ve never written a book before? You don’t have a lot of
money to spend? You don’t even know if your book is going to sell? But you’re
gonna spend two hundred, three hundred, five hundred dollars on a cover? That’s
ridiculous. I’ve seen plenty of terrible books that have the most beautiful cover you’ve
ever seen. Now do you think that that really helps their sales? It’s garbage
from page 1 until page 250, to 300. However long the thing is. But it’s got this
beautiful original artwork on the cover. So I’m gonna buy that, of course. Right? No.
No I’m not. Because I buy what’s inside of the book. The cover is just to get
my attention in the first place. But attention is worth nothing if you can’t
hold somebody’s attention. And the same is true for advertising. So you can get
people’s attention. But can you hold their attention? And that comes down to.
What’s inside of your book? And if that’s terrible, then no amount of money is
going to make it a best-seller. But that’s enough of my yakkin’. And I could
probably go on about this stuff for hours and hours. And those of you who are
already convinced by my argument that you just have to keep working at it and
there is no easy solution, I’m probably preaching to the choir.
And those of you who think, “No. There is an easy way and I just haven’t found it
yet,” well you probably stopped watching this or listening quite some time ago. Anyway thanks so much for tuning in to
Mike’s Always Right. Please, if you enjoyed this please leave
a comment, like, subscribe all that good stuff.
Be sure to check me out on the web at www.MikeEiman.com. Check me out on Instagram
@MikeEiman. Until next time, thanks so much for tuning in and remember Mike’s
Always Right.

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