ORIGINS: Steven Barnes

I wrote my first story in maybe second grade, a piece about an abominable snowman in a Canadian lumber camp, called “The Yeti.”  I wrote steadily after that time, even though I thought I wanted to be a scientist (turned out my math wasn’t strong enough.)  Shyness was a chronic problem in those days, and Junior High school was particularly bad…got beaten up regularly, and one of the weapons I used was storytelling.  I would pull the Shaharazad technique—entertaining guys on the football team with horror, science

fiction, or adventure tales, but would use cliffhanger endings so they’d come back “tomorrow.”

The neat thing about this is that guys would try to bully me, and the football players would defend me—because they wanted their stories.  In high school, I finally began coming out of my shell when I wrote assemblies promoting clean campuses or paper drives, and performed onstage.

It was wonderful being recognized and liked.  A complete 180-degree shift from my previous existence.  By college I loved writing, but out of respect for my Mom, who was terrified I would starve as an artist, I tried to stop. But in my second year of college, I responded to a writing contest on campus, won, and ended up reading the story to a group of alumni. Watching their faces as I read, I realized that this, writing,  was what I wanted in my life.  That in fact, I would rather fail as a writer than succeed at anything else.  I dropped out of college, got a job, and started writing.

The next years were slow and sometimes painful, filled with rejections and disappointments.  In about 1979, I met science fiction wizard Larry Niven and managed to impress him with a couple of my stories.  He gave me a chance to re-write an unpublished story of his, “The Locusts,”  which was published and nominated for a Hugo Award, and my career was off and running.

Since that time, in teaching, lecturing and studying, I’ve identified a finite number of things it is vital for writers to remember if they want to be successful.

1)   Write short stories.  Your skill will increase far faster than if you concentrate on novels. Write a short story a week, or every other week. Finish what you write, submit it for publication.  When it is rejected, send it back out.

2)   Collect rejection slips.  A real writer is willing to collect thousands of them to get what he wants.

3)   Everything you want in life is on the other side of discipline and fear.

4)   Mine your own emotions and life for ideas and material.

5)   Forget being “clever.”  You can run out of clever, but you can never run out of the truth.

6)   Perfectionism is procrastination masquerading as quality control.

7)   Learn to go into flow.  Study meditation, yoga, whatever…but learn and refine this critical psychological skill.

8)   Keep well-defined written goals, and plans for their accomplishment.

9)   Study the lives of writers and artists who have earned your respect.  Study the lives of successful people in general.  If they are more successful than you, they almost certainly have different attitudes and take different actions.  Do more of what they do.

10)  Write a thousand words a day.  Read ten thousand words a day.  Read a MINIMUM of 10X what you write.

And believe in yourself.  Believe that you have something precious and powerful within you, if you can just get out of the way.  It takes about a million words of crap to learn to get out of your way.  Get to work!

Steven Barnes has been a lecturer, coach, novelist and television writer for more than twenty five years. After publishing about two million words of science fiction (including the New York Times bestsellers The Legacy of Heorot and The Cestus Deception) and having about twenty hours of produced television shows (including The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Andromeda, and Stargate, as well as four episodes of the immortal Baywatch), he’s certainly got a lifetime’s worth of opinions on the writing life.

Visit him at


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