Roald Dahl’s 7 Qualities of a Fiction Writer

In his collection, the Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, Roald Dahl lays down the seven qualities “you should posses or try to acquire if you wish to become a fiction writer.” They are as follows:
  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 give you the sack if you don’t turn up for work, or to tick  you off if you start slacking. 
  6. It helps a lot if you have a keen sense of humour. 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 marvellous is heading for trouble. 
Dahl also recommends keeping a day job, emphasizing that most great writing through the centuries has been the work of amateurs and hobbyists. He sites Dickens as a rare exception. 
Not one to suffer fools, he shared some tough love in response to a fan who sent him a short story “expecting to be introduced to his publisher.” 

Hear the fantastic Mr. Dahl paraphrase these tips, and add a few more, in recordings from the Roald Dahl museum.

Lessons from Independent Ed

Making movies isn’t what you do, it’s who you are. 

Ed Burns offers up some of tough love and hard won wisdom in Independent Ed, a memoir detailing how he mastered the micro-budget. 

Embrace rejection… 

I made eleven movies in twenty years, and half were considered failures. They either didn’t find an audience or they got terrible reviews or both. 

Go into each project knowing it might not work and that’s okay. See those failures through and learn from them. Then do like Burns and make the next one. 

By the time they passed on the project, I had already finished the first draft of my next script. 

Remember why you do it.

Through triumphs, setbacks and the glittering temptation to sell-out, Burns grounded himself by returning to the films that got him into filmmaking. 

Sometimes you’ve got to ignore the money and get back to why you got into this business to begin with. In most cases you got bit after seeing something like Nicholson in Chinatown or Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. I’ve yet to meet an actor, writer, or director who decided to get into the movie business after hearing how much Schwarzenager got paid to do Kindergarten Cop.

You can’t do the arts alone, you need your friends and mentors. The most reliable ones are to be found at your local library or on Netflix. 

Make your own rules (and live by them.)

Burns found his place in American cinema making films on micro-budgets. As success and green lights came his way, he chose to keep his movies small rather than cede control to the suits and studios. He details how to self-finance a feature film for $25,000 in a manifesto he calls the “McMullen 2.0 rules” 

We would shoot no more than 12 days.  

We would use a three to five-man crew. 

All locations had to be secured for free. 

We would hire unknown actors who would be willing to wear their own clothes and do their own hair and makeup.

What are your rules? How can you turn your limitations into strengths? How can you turn your limitations into your style?

Have the 12 greatest days of your life

Following a crushing series of rejections of his first film, including his hometown Long Island Film Festival, Burns was, in his words, “a pissed off angry young man.” His father took him out for a beer and a talking-to that would become his mantra. 

“After you finished shooting your film, do you remember what you said to me? You told me, ‘shooting Brothers McMullen was the twelve greatest days of my life.'” 

“and they were,” I said.

“Well, did you make the film because you wanted to become rich and famous?” 

I shook my head. 

“Did you make the film because you wanted to go out to Hollywood, chase girls, and be an asshole?” 


“Then stop complaining, sit down, and write another screenplay.” He said. “We’ll figure out a way to get you another twenty-five thousand dollars and get you another twelve days. We’ll keep grabbing those twelve days every couple of years until this thing does happen for you.”

Get your twelve days, or thirty days, whatever you need. Do what you gotta do. For some of us that’s teaching English in a country where you can live large on a part-time salary, for others that’s  seasonal labor, like fishing 18 hour shifts for a few weeks, or simply waking up a little earlier to work before your day job. Make the time, earn the time, steal the time to make it happen. 

“The Only Easy Day Was Yesterday”

If procrastination has a poet laureate, it’s Steven Pressfield.  In learning to overcome a block so severe that he vowed to kill himself if he didn’t finish his novel, Pressfield became an authority on resistance and wrote about how others can overcome it in the War of Art, Turning Pro, the Warrior Ethos, and Do the Work. I would recommend all of these titles to anyone working on any kind of project, from writing to opening a restaurant. My own blog began as an exercise to overcome resistance in my own work, inspired by the War of Art. 

In his latest, Do the Work, Steven Pressfield compares a writers’ temptation to give up to the bell that hangs at the Navy SEALS’ BUDS school  (as a U.S Marine, whose books are required reading at Marine OCS, he’s allowed make that sort of comparison.)

“In SEAL training, they have a bell. When a candidate can’t take the agony any longer–the 6 mile ocean swims or the 15 mile full-load runs or the physical and mental ordeals on no sleep and no food… when he’s had enough and he’s ready to quit, he walks up and rings the bell. That’s it. It’s over. You and I (as creators) have a bell hanging over us too…Will we ring it?”



Pressfield writes about more than not writing, his fiction includes the Legend of Bagger Vance and Gates of Fire which earned him honorary citizenship in the city which was once Sparta.