In this episode, Danielle shares the writing advice of Ray Bradbury, a writer who has influenced her own writing process. She introduces Bradbury and his book ‘Zen and the Art of Writing’, highlighting his practical and joyful approach to writing. Danielle discusses two main practices recommended by Bradbury: the 52 Short Story Challenge and the Thousand Nights Challenge. She shares her own experiences with these challenges and offers tips for making them doable and enjoyable.
00:00 Introduction to Ray Bradbury
02:08 The 52 Short Story Challenge
15:38 The Thousand Nights Challenge
23:12 Committing to Challenges
Zen and the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity: https://www.amazon.com/Zen-Art-Writing-Essays-Creativity/dp/1877741094
An Evening with Ray Bradbury 2001: https://youtu.be/_W-r7ABrMYU?si=kGDIee3oMGC51wTY
CLICK HERE FOR TRANSCRIPT
Well, hello there, you lovely listeners, and viewers if you are over on YouTube. Different kind of episode today. It’s you, me and the spirit of Ray Bradbury, who is one of the writers who’s really informed my writing process. And so I wanted to share some of his advice with you today, coming through in his spirit, as seen in his books, Zen and the Art of Writing. And also there’s a fabulous video online with him called An Evening with Ray Bradbury, both of which I will include in the show notes. So what I’m going to do in this episode is introduce the lovely Ray, who I 100% would have tried to get on the show if he was still with us. I’m going to share two of his main suggestions for developing a fabulous writing process and also just talk briefly about how I’ve used it and things I’ve learned from it in case it’s helpful to you too.
So. Ray Bradbury, you may well know from his short story collections, October Country, The Martian Chronicles, and many more. Or perhaps from his novel, Fahrenheit 451 or Fahrenheit 451, depending on what country you’re in. I did Google this before I started recording and there’s quite a war about how you should say it online. It seems to depend on where you live. So I’ll say Fahrenheit 451.
And in a way, he’s kind of best known really for fantasy and science fiction writing, but I use him all the time as a mentor and someone who inspires me because he has this really practical, but also joyful approach in his writing. In Zen and the Art of Writing he talks about writing with zest, writing with gusto, loving things madly. And particularly for someone who can be quite the serious structure geek like myself, it’s such a good reminder that I often need to also play into that side too, using the subconscious, using things that are really fun, bringing that energy as well as the analysis and separating them out into different stages.
So to introduce you to the two practices, the first one that he talks about in Zen and the Art of Writing, but also in the first few minutes of the video I will share in the show notes. His recommendation is to write 52 short stories in a year. So as with any of Ray Bradbury’s advice, I think the spirit of it may be more important than being a stickler for the rules. So for you that actually might be sketches.
For me, I was like, short stories, okay, yes, I want to do that because I’m currently working on writing novels, so it’s a great matchup. But I will backtrack just a tiny bit and say that in the way that lots of us writers kind of inspire and share tips and inform each other, I started doing the 52 Short Story Challenge before I even really knew it was the 52 Short Story Challenge. What actually happened in real life was that I went on a writing retreat in a Scottish castle led by the fabulous writer, Maggie Stiefvater, along with Anna Bright and Sarah Batista-Pareira. And in the course of that week, Maggie mentioned that she had a short story practice of writing a short story every week. And she’d done it with two of her friend writers, Tessa Gratton and Brenna Yovanoff. And they’d done it for like a year without fail. And listening to this, I was kind of like, hmmmm….It sounds like it could be a good idea, but I’ve never written a short story. At the time, I wasn’t even really reading short stories.I tend to read novels and series and watch TV series. I’m interested in that really long form. But it also sounded like a really fun creative challenge.
So at the end of the week, I found myself saying, right, okay, yeah, I’m going to write 24 just because there was 24 weeks up till Christmas. I was like…I’m going to do this every week up until Christmas.
And I think I got it from Maggie that you’re supposed to do it in two hours or under. I don’t know if I invented that bit myself or if that was a Maggie inspiration, but that’s what I set for myself. And I set off and began to commit to that, doing it every Saturday in under two hours, or sometimes I’d have to plan ahead a bit because of commitments and do it on a Friday night or catch up on a Sunday, but that was what I vowed to do.
And actually before I hit my 24 Christmas, I came back to Ray Bradbury’s work. I had read it in the past, but it hadn’t quite landed with me in the same way as it did when I found it this time. And this time when I read it, I was really inspired by reading Ray’s thesis. That makes it sound more serious than it really is… his suggestions, that it’s really good to write 52 stories in a year.
And why he was really kind of proclaiming that that’s a great start for beginners and intermediate writers, you know, who are coming to a particular form is because he was sort of saying that… if you start off and you’re just committing to writing a novel over a course of the year, there’s so much benefit to writing short stories instead, or as well as if you can manage both, but because then you’re really developing your craft, you’re looking for ideas, you’re learning metaphors.
So on a really practical level, it’s useful. And you get that quality that comes through great quantity. And also he was saying psychologically, it’s really helpful because at the end of a week, you know, you’ll have done something. And I certainly felt that benefit at the end of the two hours. The first few weeks, honestly, I was quite frustrated because I was like… this is a mess. I wasn’t able to do what I wanted. Uggggh, it’s a shoddy story. I was quite frustrated. But very soon I was like…this is not sustainable and I want to have much more fun.
And so I kind of flipped my mindset to it being an experiment that I was going to do. It was going to be a really imperfect story, but I was going to call it done at the end of two hours in that first form. And actually then there came this great satisfaction with starting with a blank page and then having made something, realized some kind of idea, something story-shaped at the end of the two hours. So I think Ray really was right on both the practical level and the psychological level for me.
And I finished that 52-story challenge last July and I one hundred percent recommend it. I’ve actually talked about it with lots of different writers and even some guests who said that they’re going to do it too. And what I want to share before I move on to raise the second point, what he calls a kind of writing hygiene is a few things I think made it really doable for me. They’ll be different for everyone, but if they help you, great.
And a few kinds of ways that I thought about just getting started. Again, there’s no right way. I was totally fangling around in the dark in the beginning, but Ray’s got some suggestions, which I will thread in as well.
So at the end of the 52 short stories, I did actually immediately sit down and write a short capture, 10 things I’ve learned from doing it, which I will also put in the show notes because I knew that I would forget like what it actually felt like and what helped me.
And some of the things were things that I’ve already mentioned. Like it did help me committing to 24 to start with, and then extending to 52. It did help me having that two-hour container because it made it super doable. Might be different for you, but for me, that was the difference between being able to do it every week and feeling like…oh my gosh, you know, if it’s this big, like six hours commitment and I have to write a perfect story, there were many weeks where I just wouldn’t have been able to achieve that with all my other life priorities and what I needed to do. It to be doable. It needed to be contained.
Other things that really helped, and you can read these in more detail in the post if you want to, is just constantly trying to make it as doable as possible. So some weeks I didn’t even have two hours. I had 45 minutes and I’d be like, I’m going to write a hundred-word micro story. I’m going to do this. Whatever kept me moving forward had to be good enough. Even though I used to be incredibly perfectionistic about different things, I’ve worked on that tons. I wouldn’t say that I am so much anymore, but certainly with a challenge like this, like there was just no space for that. It was just going to be really imperfect. There were going to be loads of things that didn’t work. But actually it was super comforting to know that there was always going to be, or nearly always going to be another week. I’d be like… okay, that didn’t work this week, but there’s another week. I’ll try something different next week.
The other thing that really helped me was seeing it as an experiment. And it was incredibly fun to just think I could try anything for a week. I could try writing in second person. I could try writing from the point of view of a building. I could take inspiration from what was happening around me, whether that was Valentine’s Day or Christmas. And Ray Bradbury definitely in the book talks about dredging your subconscious. And it’s really fun. When you’re having to write that fast and in that contained a time, how much the subconscious comes and helps you out.
Because when I think about that, for example, the Christmas story. I was like…oh, it’s Christmas coming up. Maybe I’ll write a Christmas story. I set off, at the beginning of my two hours, I had an image that came into my mind and I just started following it. And as I was following it, I was trying to think of making, you know, Christmas associations. By the end, I was like, hmm, that’s a kind of odd story, not very Christmassy. But when I come back and read it, oh my goodness, my subconscious has completely filled in many things that I think and feel about Christmas. So it probably doesn’t look like it on the surface. It’s not your usual Christmas story, but it totally makes sense to me and my subconscious. And that was not something that I’d written and planned out and thought. That was just like my subconscious helping me out on the fly to make something that had threads of Christmas from my point of view.
Other weeks, I would pick something that I’d heard or had happened. Like one week, really late one night, my husband said to me, it seemed kind of out of the blue, I don’t know why…. He said, would you still love me if I had snakes for hair? And I’m really terrified of snakes. On that really visceral level, I would never harm a snake unless I really had to, like do battle with one. I just…they make my blood run cold. I’m really frightened of them. And no matter what anyone says, like, oh, you know, they’re really warm. It’s like, yeah, no, it’s nothing to do with sliminess. It’s like the eyes, the way they move, don’t like them.
So when he said it, I thought about it for a second and then I was like… yeah, totally, we just cut them off. No problem. And he was really horrified that I just said that I would just cut these snakes off, I think in terms of….I think he was hoping he was going to get to keep them? I don’t know. But when it came to writing the story that week, I was just really stuck on this image of someone who had snakes for hair. And the whole story just came from thinking of this character, who had snakes for hair.
Some of the weeks it was things that I’d seen, I would see a sign while I was out, or a really saggy star balloon. And I would combine that with some kind of fun creative constraint around point of view. Or the the saggy balloon I think I did three linked 100 word stories, so they had to be 100 words exactly. So it’s just a really fun constraint matched with something that snagged my interest.
Other weeks I was like, oh, I want to write about Cerberus, the three-headed dog, I want to write about zombies. And what’s really interesting is that I would get different questions and sometimes people would be like… aren’t you going to take one of those and spread it over multiple weeks now though, so you can send it off to an anthology.
And I was like, no, actually this challenge for me is writing 52 different ones. And I know then that I can come back and mine them for the things that have really snagged my attention and that I remain interested in. Some of them I’m like, nah. Heist story, did that one week, don’t want to write another heist story, good to know. Body switch story, no, I think that week was enough for me. But others, like zombies…that cropped up a few times. Definitely wanted to come back to.
And the Cerberus one again, it’s almost like, because it was so intense that two hours I was writing it…. It is like this little time machine back where I can just see the title…. It Was For Cerberus and I remember exactly what it felt like to write it. I remember that feeling of really wanting to write about the three-headed dog. I remember starting to type and getting myself in a knot straight away with trying to do the point of view of all three heads and then being like….Oh, once again, Danielle, you’ve bitten off more than you can chew in two hours… and having to zoom the camera out and write it from Hades’ perspective. So I could see a bit more of the world and what was happening and what might have happened with Cerberus. But I absolutely know if I went back to that story now, I’d be so excited to investigate the dog point of view more
So, It’s a lovely little time machine when I now look at them to be like, oh, that one, that one. Oh yes, I really want to go back to the zombies on the minibus and write what that was like and have them break down. Or, oh, I want to go back to those two zombie girls and include a hair-washing scene that’s like a really gross makeover. I still remember all those feelings and those sparks of interest. And it does really feel like they’d be great to mine with more time. So super fun.
To bring back to the lovely Ray Bradbury, who will spur you on if you watch his video or read his book, Zen and the Art of Writing, he has a suggestion of writing down lists of things and doing word associations. So writing down 10 things you love madly, or 10 things that you fear, or 10 things that you hate and then killing them. Or writing down different nouns and then using those as a springboard. So absolutely no wrong answer. And I’m sure you would all be full of your own ways to make it fun for yourself.
And I said, I did write a blog post with things that I learned. I won’t share all of them. A couple of other things that I’ll share is… one, I would say it really helps with decision-making because if you’re someone like me that loves to play with different possibilities and spin things out… amazing, but it can also just lead you down lots of rabbit holes and you can end up working on something for quite a long time exploring all the different possibilities. And there was just no space for this. It’s like decision, even if it was like… not time, move on from Cerberus’ perspective. Or one time I started it and was trying to do it as a transcript. And I was like, it’s super boring. We need to move on quickly. Let’s move it over to first person for the AI character. So decisions, decisions. There’s just no time to spin and consider. And obviously in a creative process, you might want to put some of that back in, but it was a really good, discipline in a good way to have to make decisions.
Other things I would say…if you do have a brain like mine as well, you might have to reign in your plot monkeys a little bit because mine would be like, this could happen, this could happen. It’d be so cool if this happened and this and this and this. And before you knew it, I had a totally unrealistic sense of what I could possibly fit into the story shape that was available to me in the two hours. I mean, in the first week or so I was literally putting in quizzes and any way to kind of condense what I wanted to happen to move, keep the action moving forward. So you’ll find your own interesting flaws and challenges and fun things to explore. And then the next week you get to go again.
So I hope that’s kind of helpful to you think about. And the second part of Ray’s writing hygiene that he recommends is the Thousand Nights challenge. He talks about, for a thousand nights, reading a poem, a short story and an essay. So when I started the 52 short story challenge, I hadn’t yet started this challenge. Again, I was sort of catching up with myself. And as I got back into reading the books and thinking how I wanted to apply Ray Bradbury’s advice..II think I started the short story challenge in the July and then I started the Thousand Nights challenge in the October. What was great though, is that by that point then it was getting me reading short stories, plus an essay, and a poem. And the kind of reasons Ray Bradbury gives for why this can be fabulous for writers is… he’s got this lovely description of how it’s almost like pomegranate seeds that you’re putting into your brain or that like you’re feeding yourself with that can then all mix and shake together in interesting ways. And then you can use in your own writing along with obviously your own life experiences. And I think that’s a really fun way of thinking of taking in inspiration.
Again, I always do things in the spirit of it rather than as an absolute stickler to the rules. So for poems, I will also include song lyrics. But for you, you might be like, oh, for me, it’s not a poem, a short story and an essay actually makes sense for me for it to be…you know, a micro sketch or this or that. But what would you want to be putting into your brain, on a really regular basis that’s going to give you ideas that you can start to shake together.
And for fiction writers, Ray has put, that kind of nice cocktail or recipe together, particularly because then you’re also putting metaphors into your brain, particularly with the poetry. And also I have to admit, I was not someone who was also reading much poetry at the time. My thoughts of poetry, quite outdated I know, sort of linked back to school and how miserable I’d found the experience. And also as someone who really loves story, struggling with some of the more abstract conceptual poetry that I’d read. And probably also like massive flaw of my own of not slowing down enough to read it, just sort of racing through it and being like… ah, I don’t get it, it’s kind of boring.
So I think I had some quite bad thoughts about poetry. But having engaged with this challenge and I’m currently almost halfway through. I’m on night 469, I think it is as I record this. So getting on for halfway through. It means I’ve read 469 poems and essays and short stories. And when I originally set out to do the challenge, I think I figured it was going to take me 2.7 years to do if my maths was right.
And what I do is I’ve got a little calendar on my website, daniellekrage.com where I share what I’m reading as a record for myself. And other people have also asked me when doing it, how to find the material. And I can talk a little bit about that too. I’ve also, I didn’t mention, I’ve shared my short stories there as well. That was one of the things I put in my things that I’ve learned is just that I wish we got to see more first drafts of work where it’s appropriate to see, where it is these kind of sketches. Because right back in the castle in Scotland, both Maggie Stiefvater and Sarah Batista-Pereira, showed me on their laptop scenes things that were more like first draft forms. And it was so comforting to me, honestly, because we see the finished books, we see the finished products. It looks so marvellous. And it was very comforting to see that their first draft does not look like the finished book either. Which might sound obvious, but sometimes you might think… oh God, my first draft is such a mess, I bet everyone else knows what they’re doing. But no, maybe we’re all kind of figuring it out. Or most of us, at least me.
So, what was I going to say? I was talking about the Thousand Nights and then I veered off. And so what I’m coming back to is, yeah, ways to kind of keep that Thousand Nights going for yourself. So that’s uploaded on the website. The short stories are also put on the website with a little bit of what the inspiration was. So again, you can find those there as resources if you want to, because I think it’s really good to be transparent about our processes and helpful to other writers if we can, because I know it would have helped me when I was fumbling around in the dark with no writer friends and trying to figure out what books to read and trying to figure out how to improve my prose.
So in terms of the poems, the short stories and the essays. No right ways to do it. And probably some of you on your bookshelves already might have access to all of those things. So you may already be doing this kind of practice, but I wasn’t. So I did go online and buy myself a couple of big, cheap essays and short stories compendiums, just to get myself going. And then as I went, I started to sort of follow my nose and see what I was interested in and who I might want to read.
And in Ray Bradbury’s book, he does give lots of suggestions of writers that he recommends for checking out their work, both for essays and short stories. And of course, Ray Bradbury himself wrote loads of wonderful short stories. So you could do worse than start with the lovely Ray. Other things I’ll mention that were helpful is the poetry one…. I did sign up to a website as well that sends you a poem a day. And I’ll put that link in the show notes.
I don’t read totally in sync with that. I put them in a folder and go to them when I want, because I’m also… I don’t always like to read things like poetry in my inbox, because often, you know, I’m working and I’m working at a pace. I still quite like to like to do it separately away from my laptop, potentially on paper or in a different form, but it’s really helpful to have that folder there. So that if I want to on some days I’ll go back and I’ll be like… Oh, I will pull out one of these and I’ll just slow down and take my time and enjoy reading it.
The essays, again, there was a really good online resource, The Electric Typewriter that I will put in the show notes. And that was great when I started… again for just being able to search by theme and by writer. And again, if you are wanting to read online tons there, and as it is now, I kind of do a bit of a mix of that and also reading particular essays that I want to elsewhere.
And as with the short stories, I will say to me the thing that’s made it really fun and doable is just to literally focus on that. So I like having it as a commitment that I’m totally going to do. I’m going to do the thousand nights. But if I want to listen to something on audio while I’m driving and I’ve got like a super busy week and I’m just going to listen to two or three in a go. And that spans over, you know, that section for me for three nights, because I’ve got lots of other work commitments. Amazing. I still get to include that. And then other times, I’m doing it, literally sitting at home reading the book. So do whatever is going to work for you in the spirit of Ray to feed your brain with lovely pomegranate seeds and ideas and metaphors.
So that’s both of the challenges. And in the show notes, I’ll put the links to the proper source material from Ray, his Zen and the Art of Writing and his An Evening with Ray Bradbury.
And last thing I will say is that…maybe not for everyone to set a 52 week challenge or a Thousand Nights challenge. But for me, for things that I know I’m really interested in… like, for example, I wouldn’t do it with tango. I might love tango, but I don’t know. So I’m probably going to sign up for a class or two or three classes, but I’m massively committed to writing. I’m massively committed to developing my skills in that area and obviously also to comedy. So I don’t have any qualms about signing up for a longer challenge. And to me, it’s actually a great comfort as long as I keep the mindset of it being doable.
Because then… like with this podcast, I started it back in March of 2023, in a similar vein, I said 52 episodes, that’s what I’m committing to 52 episodes and that’s actually super helpful….When you get six weeks in and the tech curve has been steeper than you expected when you watch the nice videos online that make it look like you just press the button and then it all magically happens. When that learning curve is bigger or…we get sick life happens, there are different work priorities…. actually having that bigger commitment to 52, but making it work in like a fun, doable way. So that I’m still there. Not giving myself a hard time about how to do it, just committing to doing it. That’s been great, I think, in terms of the bigger perspective of it being about learning and growth and meeting other writers and learning from other writers and sharing and having a really fun creative life.
And I would say as I record this, I’m about episode 40, I think, of the podcast. And I’m doing this slightly different episode, still showing up in a doable way, making it happen because it’s that time of year in the UK where there’s been sickness, there’s been storms, there’s been travel changes. And even though I record a few episodes ahead still with all those things, there’s been a few different shenanigans, which means that this week was like, I’m going to have to go and find myself a dead guest because…I’ve got lots of lovely live guests lined up. I’m really excited about my guest for next week. And also I’ve got next season, I know four of the guests already super excited, but just with sickness, travel scheduling, storms, wife going down, I was like… I want to still send something to you this week and I’m going to call on my lovely mentor and friend Ray Bradman to help me out. So that’s what I’ve done.
And as I sign off here today, I would just love to say, if you have found this episode or previous episodes useful, it would be fabulous if you could do that, like share, subscribe, leave a comment, leave a review type thing. Because it does really help the algorithm. I know everyone says it, but it’s kind of is the way that other newer writers, writers I don’t know are going to continue to be able to find the show.
And I try to make this content as useful as possible for other people. So I do want it to be able to get out in the world and help other writers like me who are looking for those bits of inspiration and advice and conversations to keep them company on their writing journey as we all progress forward, exploring comedy and living our lives. So that would be awesome. I would massively appreciate it. And I appreciate all you listening and watching. Happy writing everyone.