Writing Advice from Roald Dahl

Ah, Tuesday, we meet again…


Before I dive into the real subject of today’s blog, I need to ask a favor.

I am working on some blog ideas for the rest of the year–trying to set up some things in advance and make a more coherent plan so that I don’t constantly get sidetracked by more pressing things. Since I don’t have an imminent book release or a list of ten rules I’m trying to follow, I am finding myself a little stuck on what to write about.

So… Can y’all help me out?

What do you want to see me write about?

More writing advice or philosophy? If so, do you have ideas about topics?

Book reviews?

Original fiction?

Personal ramblings? If so, on what topics?

If there’s something you’d like me to write about or something you’d like to see me do more of, drop a note in the comments!

Okay, on to today’s topic–writing advice from one of the masters of children’s literature.



How it Started

Back in October, I visited our local library and mentioned to our librarian that I try to read at least 50 books per year as my Goodreads challenge. She gave me a bookmark with our local library’s challenge on the back, and I figured, “what the heck? I’ll try to fill all the categories as I work through my Goodreads challenge.”

The library challenge is a list of 40 topics or categories–not necessarily genre or form, but categories such as “A Pulitzer Prize winner,” “A Book You Least Want to Read,” “A Book with Magic,” “A Book with a One-Word Title,” and “A Sad Story.” There are also some categories like a play, a book of short stories, a trilogy, and the like. So far, I’ve checked off 20 of the 40 boxes.


One of the categories is “A Book From Your Childhood.” I remembered that my well-used copy of The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More, by Roald Dahl, was sitting right there on my living room shelf, so I picked it up.

Immediately, I was back in my childhood living room, curled up on our dark green sofa, engrossed in this book.

I must have read this book 20 times when I was young. As an adult, I am not really a book re-reader, but there were some I read over and over again as a kid.

This was one of them.

My three favorite stories in this book are “The Boy Who Talked With Animals,” “The Mildenhall Treasure,” and “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar.” “The Mildenhall Treasure” is a non-fiction account of the discovery of a trove of 34 pieces of Roman silver in England in 1942; I think this story just hit the right buttons for me, a kid who loved treasure stories. And the other two have distinct overtones of magic or arcane powers or something–again, all the right buttons for this kid.


“Lucky Break”

As expected, I cruised through my re-read of this book, and I still absolutely love it. No one can write children’s stories quite like Roald Dahl did. I guess I feel like Neil Gaiman is a bit like Dahl, but Dahl had a unique voice and style. I know he’s become a problematic figure for a lot of folks, and from what I read, he was probably not a particularly nice person to hang out with, but his stories–his stories are in a category all their own.

But that’s not what this post is about.

It’s about a story in this collection that I completely forgot called “Lucky Break.”

“Lucky Break” is Dahl’s account of how he became a writer. I do not recall this story having any impact on my desire to become a writer, but it probably did on some level. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer, so maybe this story just sort of buttressed my budding interest in being a wordmonger.

Now, as an adult who writes for a living, I re-read this history with great interest.


It probably doesn’t surprise anyone that I have mixed feelings about some of his advice and perspectives.


The Good

Dahl starts right out in this story with some truth that is still mostly true. He tells aspiring writers that when they start out, they’ll have to write in their spare time. He says that when one is a grown-up, one must have a job and earn a living, and that going to a publisher to ask for a job as a writer will mostly get you laughed out of the room. “It is very common for a hopeful writer to spend two years of his spare time writing a book which no publisher will publish. For that, he gets nothing at all except a sense of frustration,” he writes.


He also shares some of the qualities of a successful fiction writer as he sees them. Some of these, like having a lively imagination, stamina, and self-discipline, are entirely true, I think. A lot of writers–possibly most writers–have the lively imagination, but not the stamina or self-discipline to see a project all the way through. And while I think it’s rarer, I suppose it’s possible to have the self-discipline and stamina, but simply never really tap into that mysterious thing we call imagination. Possibly a lot of non-fiction writers are wired this way? I’m not sure.

Dahl also recommends having a degree of humility. I think this is also a highly underrated quality of a good writer. “The writer who thinks that his work is marvelous is heading for trouble,” Dahl writes. While I have come around to believing that it’s okay to like your own writing, I also firmly believe in good editors and editing.


The Not-So-Good

Here’s are the two bits that I disagree with…

Dahl says that a wannabe fiction writer should be able to write well. “By that I mean you should be able to make a scene come alive in the reader’s mind,” he writes. “Not everybody has this ability.”

So far, so good.

But here’s the bit I disagree with: “It is a gift, and you either have it or you don’t.”

Um… no.


It is my absolute firm conviction that almost anyone can learn to write well. There’s nothing particularly mysterious about it. I think that most people just would rather not put in the effort. Or, in some cases, maybe they only need to write well enough for e-mails, reports, or whatever work-related writing activities they have to complete, so they meet the baseline and pursue other interests.

All of that is perfectly fine. I’m not learning to paint, and I gave up my brief visions of becoming a concert pianist a million years ago, largely because who had time for that? There were books to write!

Here’s the other bit I disagree with. Dahl says the fiction writer must be a perfectionist. He then says you have to rewrite as much as necessary to make it “as good as you possibly can.”

“As good as you possibly can” is not perfect.

There is no such thing as perfect.

As someone who has struggled mightily with perfectionism all of her life, I absolutely detest this advice. There is excellent, there is good enough, but there is no perfect. We can write, rewrite, edit, hire editors, hire proofreaders, hire more final readers, and there will still be imperfections in the writing.

Maybe the imperfections are what make the writing worth reading.



Alternate Advice

Listen, I can’t tell anyone to NOT listen to Roald Dahl’s writing advice. The man was pretty darn successful as a writer (if not as a human).

But what I can tell you is that, in addition to working on your craft and practicing self-discipline and writing down those crazy ideas and premises that you have, you can learn to write well, and you don’t need to be a perfectionist.

And also, I still recommend The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More.



See you all next week.


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