Learning from Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl

Roald Dahl is probably most famous for his children’s books. However you may not be aware that he has written over seventy short stories for adults. Last week I raided my parent’s book shelf and read two collections of Dahl’s short stories, Over to you and The wonderful story of Henry Sugar. In the past I’ve also read Kiss Kiss and Switch Bitch. I adore Dahl’s short stories. They are as easy to read as his children’s books and evoke the same fantastic imagery. Therefore I was pleased to discover Dahl had included some of his thoughts about short-story writing within the pages of The wonderful story of Henry Sugar.

In a note about before The Mildenhall Treasure Dahl tells us that an average story would take him four months to complete. For a story that takes about half an hour to read this is an epic amount of time. It goes to show that working a piece of writing into a final version is a long process even for a genius like Roald Dahl. This reminded me of an interview with Colin Marshall, on Ben Casnocha’s blog, in which it is stated that the first attempt at anything creative is almost always going to “suck”. It is the long process of refining that shapes writing into something amazing. Unfortunately people only see the final product which discourages them from pursuing their own creative projects.

Later in the book Dahl has includes the brief memoir, Lucky Break, describing how he became a writer. He includes some of the qualities he thinks fiction writers should strive to posses. Here are three of my favorites:

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 tick you off if you start slacking.

7 You must have a degree of humility. The writer who thinks that his work is marvellous is heading for trouble.

He also describes an encounter with C.S. Forester, in which he learns the importance of tiny details:

‘So long as the facts are there, I can write a story. But please,’ he added, ‘let me have plenty of detail. That’s what counts in our business, tiny details, like you had a broken shoelace on your left shoe, or a fly settled on the rim of your glass at lunch, or the man you were talking to had a broken front tooth. Try to think back and remember everything.’

Dahl devised the plots for his stories by jotting down ideas as soon as they occurred to him before he forgets them (similar to the method I described in a previous post).

So when an idea for a story comes popping into my mind, I rush for a pencil, a crayon, a lipstick, anything that will write, and scribble a few words that will later remind me of the idea. Often one word is enough. I was once driving alone on a country road and an idea came for a story about someone getting stuck in an elevator between floors in an empty house. I had nothing to write with in the car. So I stopped and got out. The back of the car was covered in dust. With one finger I wrote in the dust a single word ELEVATOR. That was enough.

As I advance through my toastmasters career I have learned that writing is 99% of the effort. Speech delivery, memorisation and rehearsals are nothing compared to the effort of developing an idea and committing it to paper. It is fascinating to read about the writing process from the perspective of an established author, especially one whose stories I have been reading since childhood.

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One Comment

  1. Glenn
    Posted July 19, 2009 at 12:26 am | Permalink

    Nice post Andrew. Dahl’s autobiographies Boy and Going Solo are good reads too. Like what you are doing on this blog

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