Roald Dahl on Writing Fiction

by Cameron Schaefer on January 11, 2010

As a young boy, few authors captured my imagine, horror and delight like Roald Dahl, creator of such scrumdiddlyumptious stories as, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach and Danny the Champion of the World.

I found Mr. Dahl to be somewhat of an odd, mischievous old man.  In my imagination he was tall with knobby knees and bad teeth which he used to offer both large, gracious smiles and terrifying growls as the mood struck him.  He had a wicked sense of humor that made me giggle nervously as I hid under my covers with a flashlight, reading his stories into the wee hours with a box of Oreos as both companion and fuel.

Recently, I have begun going back through some of his short stories. In doing so I have found myself devouring his writing, just like old times, and more curious than ever about what made this man tick.

He, like myself, was a military pilot. He flew fighters for the RAF in WWII and was shot down over enemy lines in the Libyan desert, sustaining injuries that eventually led to his reassignment as an attache. It was this dramatic story, which he told to famous author, C.S. Forester, a short time later while stationed in Washington D.C.  Forester was writing for The Saturday Evening Post at the time and had stopped by Dahl’s office (much to Dahl’s surprise) to see if he could get the pilot to recount his tale so he could write a nice article about it.  Dahl offered instead to write it all down and send it to Forester who could revise as needed and make it his own.  A few weeks later Dahl received the following correspondence from Forester:

Dear RD, You were meant to give me notes, not a finished story.  I’m bowled over.  Your piece is marvellous.  It is the word of a gifted writer.  I didn’t touch a word of it.  I sent it at once under your name to my agent, Harold Matson, asking him to offer it to the Saturday Evening Post with my personal recommendation.  You will be happy to hear that the Post accepted it immediately and have paid one thousand dollars.  Mr. Matson’s commission is ten percent.  I enclose his check for nine hundred dollars.  It’s all yours.  As you will see from Mr. Matson’s letter, which I also enclose, the Post is asking if you will write more stories for them.  I do hope you will.  Did you know you were a writer?  With my very best wishes and congratulations, C.S. Forester.

His career took off from there.

In The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More Dahl looks back at his writing career and lists a few requirements for anyone hoping to become a fiction writer:

1.  You should have a lively imagination

2. You 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.  Not everybody has this ability.  It is a gift, and you either have it or you don’t.

3.  You must have stamina.  In other words, you must be able to stick to what you are doing and never give up, for hour after hour, day after day, week after week, and month after month.

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 fire you if you don’t turn up for work, or to tick you off is you start slacking.

6.  It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humor.  This is not essential when writing for grown-ups, but for children, it’s vital.

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

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonathan January 12, 2010 at 8:55 am

Great post! Thanks for sharing. I had no idea of Dahl’s beginnings as a writer. What a great story. What a gift.

JP January 16, 2010 at 8:31 am

Cam, Thanks for sharing about Dahl, he’s one of my heroes. “The BFG” was another one of his great stories that I will always treasure.

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