25 Apr

Writing 100 Novels Without an Outline – Interview with Dean Wesley Smith

Writing 100 Novels Without an Outline

Writing 100 Novels Without an OutlineLooking at Dean Wesley Smith’s resume, you can’t help but go “wow”. Dean’s written far in excess of 100 original novels (Amazon lists 211), a couple dozen Star Trek novels, the only two Men In Black novels ever published, and scores of novels for licensed properties such as Smallville, the X-Men, Aliens, Roswell and Quantum Leap.

In addition to this Dean Wesley Smith has published several hundred short stories. Since October 2013 he’s been publishing his writing in an original magazine, “Smith’s Monthly”, containing one new, original novel and several short stories in each issue.

Calling Dean prolific is a bit like saying that the Niagara River is a large stream – it just doesn’t capture his output. He does it in a way that a lot of writing teachers say you shouldn’t: edits as he writes, writes one draft and sends it out, and doesn’t use an outline. Dean’s an unapologetic one-draft discovery writer.

Hated Writing

Dean Wesley Smith started writing at 24 years of age. Not because he wanted to – he hated writing – but he needed an easy credit for his degree in architecture. So he took a poetry class for non-majors.

“My poems were pretty much hated and the professor called them commercial,” says Dean[note]The interview is a compilation of an email-interview and Dean’s previously published history – but using “says” just sounds better.[/note] “At that point, I had no idea what she was talking about, but it sounded insulting and I was getting a C in the class.”

One of the class assignments was to submit a poem to a major poetry competition, and Dean sent in one of his “commercial” poems. He won second place, and a $100 prize.

“The professor had never had a student even get into the book, let alone win, before,” says Dean. “And I had just made more money than she had total with all of her poetry sales.”

During the following year, Dean sold over 50 poems to a host of markets. On a lark he decided to write a short story.

Selling and Going Wrong

“On my trusty electric typewriter, I banged out a 1,000 word story, and didn’t rewrite it, just sent it to a horror semi-pro magazine.”

Which bought it. Dean wrote another, and that, too, sold on the first try. Then things started going wrong.

“I figured since I was having fun with writing stories,” says Dean, “I should learn more about how to write stories, even though I had sold my first two. So down I went into the myths of writing.”

Dean started polishing his works. Rewriting them. Creating a masterpiece with each story. None of them sold. For about seven years, Dean wrote an average of two stories a year, polishing them to perfection, and failing to sell them.

“I was convinced the editors were too stupid to see my brilliance,” says Dean.

Rescued by Heinlein’s Rules

So could I, Dean Wesley Smith quoteFor seven years he believe the myths of writing. Then he came across Heinlein’s Rules: You must write, you must not rewrite, and you must send out what you write[note]There’s more to it than that, read Dean’s book, or check Robert J. Sawyers summary of Heinlein’s rules[/note]. The idea of writing fast took hold.

And on January 1, 1982, he decided to follow the advice with a writing challenge to a friend: they would each write one story a week, and send it out. No editing. No polishing. No rewriting. Just a quick spell check[note]At that time it was accepted that a writer could add up to 10 changes on a page before needing to re-type it. Thus the large line distance and wide margins of the Standard Manuscript Format.[/note] and put the manuscript in the mail.

“Ray Bradbury, in one of his books, talked about how he did that, and sometimes wrote a story per day”, says Dean. “So it was the combination of Heinlein’s Rules and the Bradbury book and knowing that Harlan Ellison could write an award-winning story in an afternoon on a manual typewriter in a store window. I figure if they could do that, so could I. And I did it for a lot longer than one year. Kept that challenge up for years and years.”

No Story is Important

Writing fast, and sending the stories out, created a different mindset for Dean.

“It made me realize that no single story was important, no single novel was important, and so on,” says Dean. “Careers are built and all the work, not just one or two stories and writing so many stories every year made that very clear to me.”

At first, Dean accumulated rejection letters. But over time, towards the end of the first year, his stories started getting personal rejections, and then selling. By the end of the second year, having written some 90 short stories at a pace of about a story a week, he was selling reliably.

“I sold a lot of them, but I have no idea how many,” says Dean. “Over half would be my guess, but in 1985 I had a house fire and I lost all the stories and two novels I had written on my typewriter as well. So no records, just a bad memory. But a lot of them sold over time, getting copies back when they were rejected during the fire time.”

Becoming a Professional Writer

Before, Dean had no aspirations of becoming a professional writer.

“I just didn’t think it was possible,” says Dean. “I never really thought about being a professional writer, doing it for a living, until years after I started writing a story per week and started selling.”

As with any intense effort, finding the time to write that much was problematic.

“My biggest problem was carving out the time to find a few hours to write between the three jobs I was working” say Dean. “And then I started getting personal rejections and wonderful letters and then started selling, and that kept me going.”

Writing fast, writing a lot, and keeping on submitting changed the way Dean looked on his writing.

“It trained me that I could write and finish and mail,” says Dean.

Never Outline

This was also where Dean learned to trust his instincts and discovery writer, or as Dean calls it “Write into the Dark”.

“I have never, beyond media books, done anything but write in to the dark,” says Dean. “I get bored easily and if I know where a story is going, what is the point of writing it?”

One critical aspect of writing fast and not rewriting, was learning to trust his voice.

“I left my voice in my stories because I didn’t rewrite everything into dullness,” says Dean. “My voice comes through in my work and as I discovered later as an editor[note]Dean Wesley Smith has also worked as an editor, run his own magazine, and his own publishing house.[/note], editors look for original voices. Rewriting kills your voice and your natural ability to tell a story.”

Writing Clean First Drafts

Another was learning to write clean first drafts

“I always wrote clean first drafts because I went back while writing and fixed anything that needed to be fixed, so when I was done, I was done,” says Dean. “I hated the idea of writing sloppy, so when I realized something needed to be fixed, I went back to fix it. And would see other typos and such and fix those, so I just developed the habit of regularly going back a few hundred words every so often.”

He also learned to leave a story be once it was finished, something he credits with his writing career.

Advice to New Writers

“The most important lesson that looking to the next story is always the key,” says Dean Wesley Smith. “When a story was finished, it was done and I focused ahead. That has kept me going for a very long time.”

As for advice: write, learn and have fun.

“Write more, stop rewriting, and keep learning,” says Dean Wesley Smith. “If you aren’t selling, you don’t really understand storytelling. Keep learning and write more. And have fun with your writing, stop making it so serious. This is entertainment, so entertain yourself first and have fun.”

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2 thoughts on “Writing 100 Novels Without an Outline – Interview with Dean Wesley Smith

  1. Another great article.

    Just finished reading How to Write a Novel in Ten Days and even though Dean would likely say otherwise, I still think him writing 7000 words a day for a week is a damn impressive feat…
    Still trying to do that one myself.

    • Yeah, Dean’s a skilled and consistent writer. 7k/day IS impressive, no matter how you look at it. My own best is half of that, and that’s on ONE day…

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