Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

What I Learned

A Very Quick List of the Main Thing I Learned from Different Writers…

Just the main thing I learned from each of them that sticks with me… I learned much more from each one, of course, but this is the main thing from each that shaped me into the writer I am today.

Why I remember each of these lessons is because I learned them deep. Very deep.

Ray Bradbury… I learned from Ray that writing stories one-a-day or one-a-week does not lower the quality of the story or its value.

Harlan Ellison… As I said last night, I learned it is possible to write clean, one-draft award-winning fiction.

Algis Budrys… I learned to not let my critical voice and all the knowledge I have about the craft of writing ever stop me or my writing (as his knowledge did to him).

Jack Williamson… I learned that never stopping (decade after decade) is the real success in being a writer.

Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm… I learned that it is important to pay forward what you have learned.

John D. MacDonald… That is is possible to write very complex fiction that feels simple to the readers and yet holds a ton of entertainment and meaning.

Fred Pohl… Taught me that no matter what you do in this business, failure or success, you will make enemies and have friends that stick with you.

Robert (Bob) Sheckley… He taught me the real meaning of the word prolific and that just spending time behind a keyboard was the real key to everything.

Julius (Julie) Schwartz… He taught me that kindness and having fun and laughing won most battles and the ones that it didn’t win flat didn’t matter.

Those are my main mentors in this crazy writing life. All are now gone.

I never got a chance to meet MacDonald, and only had drinks with Bradbury three times. The rest I was lucky enough to consider friends and mentors.

You take all of those one sentence lessons from each, put them all together, and you can understand where I am coming from in my writing and the teaching I do.


  • Harvey


    Of the many profound, life-changing lessons I learned from you and Kris, the top six (counted down) are

    6. Heinlein’s Rules,

    5. The importance of grounding the reader,

    4. Use all five of the POV character’s physical senses and his/her opinion of the setting,

    3. Put time in the chair, and

    2. Keep Coming Back, and (drum roll, please)

    1. Write the Next Sentence.

    And the most important, overriding thing I learned from you and Bradbury is to let the characters tell the story. I’m only the recorder, down in the trenches with them, attempting to keep up.

    • Céline Malgen

      Great list, Harvey. I would add another really important lesson I’ve learnt from Dean and Kris:

      Have fun with your writing.

  • ed ryan

    You do realize you just said “I only had drinks with Ray Bradbury 3 times”, right? 🙂

    Amazing group of people you were able to “rub elbows” with to varying degrees….

  • Phillip McCollum

    Dean, I just want to say that a story I wrote in 5 hours, one clean draft, just placed semi-finalist in the most recent Writers of the Future contest. You, Ray, and Harlan made me believe it was possible. A deep lesson, indeed.

    • dwsmith

      The story I have in Volume #1 of WOTF was one draft, on an electric typewriter sitting on a box because I was in the middle of moving and needed to hit the deadline. So yup, it works. (grin)

  • JM

    Thank you for sharing those. I’m going to put them someplace I’ll see them every day.

    I’d add one from Roger Zelazny, from the introduction to one of his short story collections (paraphrased):
    No matter what you have planned in the story, when your creative voice delivers a mad idea for doing something in the story, follow it. Or, in Zelazny’s words, “Trust your demon.”

    I do find it interesting that he referred to his creative voice as his personal demon.

    (You can google “Trust your demon” and Zelazny if you want to see the whole paragraph about that.)

  • Jessica Baverstock

    Thank you so much for putting this list together. It pretty much sums up everything I’m learning from you and Kris and I’m extremely grateful for all that you’ve shared.

  • Raymund Eich

    Great post, Dean.

    I read somewhere that Bradbury spent $9.80 for time in the UCLA typewriter lab to write Fahrenheit 451. The lab charged a dime for a half hour. In other words, Bradbury wrote an acclaimed novel in 49 hours.

  • Kenny

    A bit late to the party but it’s interesting to note that of all the things you learnt only one of them was about plot and writing details. The rest seemed to be about processes, mindset, and companionship.

    As for the lesson(s) I’ve learnt from you are: write clean, cycle, and have fun.

  • Janine

    These lessons are very important and a must if you want to last long as a published writer. Of course, the myth believers will think these lessons are bunk and still flock to the blogs and advice of unpublished or those that haven’t been publishing for very long. Rewrite over and over, your inner editor knows best, complex fiction can’t be fun, writing is hard work, it takes years to write something meaningful. And many of these writers that believe all of this I haven’t heard anything from publishing wise, or they are waiting years to get their books published since they got an agent.

    On a side note, I’ve been reading a bunch of rewriting advice from a bunch of unpublished authors (yeah, bad idea), and it’s basically exactly what not to do. Letting it sit, rewriting with perfect grammar, change everything about the story, write the first draft sloppy, don’t edit as you write, polish the story to make it perfect (or agent ready), all of that. Though they call it “revision” to dodge calling it rewriting. I said my piece about getting it right the first time and starting over from scratch if it doesn’t work, and hardly got a response compared to the bad advice, and if I did, it was all negative. Whatever. People are liking my stories and nobody has to know they were done in one draft.

    • dwsmith

      Janine, and don’t tell them. Let them think you suffered instead of enjoyed the writing process. Those types will think more of you. (grin) And extreme caution folks on the beta readers, meaning more than one first reader. That way also lies death for your writing and a huge waste of time.

  • S

    1. Heinlein’s Rules of Business, from Kris and you
    2. Same as above, less directly
    3. From George Lucas and Marvel sales to Disney: write and build what you love, and hold on to your creator rights.
    4. From JK Rowling: write and build what you love, and hold on to your rights…and stay up to date on business and IP dev so you can make more on your work. JK Rowling’s success is also cautionary: she held on to her ebook and audio rights, and despite having one of the most iconic IPs in recent history, failed to make money/profit on her ebooks/Pottermore venture until at least 2017. If she’d sold her ebooks from 2012 or earlier via ebook distros, at even half of her current total estimated world sales (say, 200M), she would have another billion…or two, by now.
    5. When life hits your hard, take care of yourself, then find your way back to the writing, in whatever way you can. Because that’s what writers do: pick themselves back up and write.

    Tremendous thanks to you and Kris.

    (PS currently out of touch, but I had to honor what I’ve learned from you guys in this thread at least.)