What's the rush?

Back in May 2011 Publishing Perspectives reported that an estimated 200 million Americans said they’d like to write a book. Back then, that represented 64% of the population of the United States. I bet that number was just as high in other countries.

Word count: 478 Reading time: 1-2 minutes

Likewise I’m certain that every single person on the planet could tell a good story based on his or her share of life’s sorrows and joys.

  • Question: who is prepared to sit down and transcribe their vision into a book?
  • Answer: quite a few people if Twitter is any indication.

I searched ‘free e-book’ just now and got eighteen immediate hits. Six new results arrived in the time it took me to count those. I usually read 50-60 books a year so if I wanted to, I could fill my reading list with nothing but free e-books picked up on Twitter.

  • Next question: who is prepared to work and hone that original draft? To sit down and mould their experiences into a quality book?
  • Answer: not so many people if my experience with free e-books is an indication.

“We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the internet, we know this is not true.” Robert Wilensky

The simple fact is it takes time, lots and lots of it, to learn to write well and to develop a strong voice. It takes stamina, both physical and psychological, to slog through the 20, 30, or 40 drafts that may be necessary to produce a single good scene. I didn’t realize this when I wrote the first book that was dying to get out of me. In fact my first three novels were more like monkeys typing than quality art.

Good writing isn’t something that’s tossed off in a few minutes whenever it’s convenient. It’s the culmination of training, effort, and setting ego aside, again and again. Of listening to how tension hasn’t been sustained in a scene or how the characters simply aren’t convincing. It’s about having the patience to hear all that and still tackle the next revision with heart and soul.

Speed and quantity do not trump craftsmanship and quality.

Then there is the final – brutal – fact of life that even if a person does invest a huge effort into being the very best writer they can be, it doesn’t ensure success. But, as Steven Pressfield suggests in his Writing Wednesdays column about the 10,000 hour rule, maybe mastering the craft is its own reward.

What started you writing? Was it a single idea? How has your commitment to your first (or second or third) book stood the test of time? Do you push out work at a great rate of knots? Or are you patiently crafting a good story, told as well you can tell it?


 Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Dogge mit Würsten by Wilhelm Trübner


What are you talking about?

Recently I went to see Neil Gaiman at the Vogue. It was festival seating so we arrived almost an hour ahead of time and stood patiently amidst the cigarette butts, blobs of gum, and other detritus that are now a permanent part of the Vancouver cityscape.

Word count: 452  Reading time: 1-2 minutes

The woman in front of me talked, at a high decibel level, about her writing. She spoke in great detail about her characters and plot. Given her volume and side glances, I was sure she wanted to be listened to so, of course, I obliged. All the while I kept thinking about William Baldwin’s adage: empty vessels make the most noise. I wondered if she had actually written a word or if she just loved to contemplate the novel she might one day complete.

The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club. That’s the way I feel about writing. If I talk about what I’m doing with more than a very few people, it seems to dissipate before my very eyes, like a breath on a cold winter’s day. It’s as if I’m showing people how the smoke and mirrors work when I don’t actually know yet because I haven’t choreographed the entire magic show.

Years ago, a friend of mine wouldn’t buy a single thing for her first baby’s nursery before the birth because she thought it was bad luck. Somehow preparing for the baby would jinx its healthy arrival. I hold a similar belief about my novels and short stories. If too many people know about them, the spell will be broken and the spark that keeps them alive will be extinguished by the constant breeze of my voice talking about them.

In Gaiman’s The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, the protagonist (who is either unnamed or called George – read and decide for yourself) as an adult artist (unspecified discipline) says his work is doing fine thank you. [I] never know how to talk about what I do. If I could talk about it, I would not have to do it.

That’s the way I feel every time someone says, ‘So. How is your writing going?’ I mumble a vague comment and then redirect the conversation to something about them. That usually silences any further questions.

Howard Ogden said writing is like sex: you should do it, not talk about it. Did he say that because he is as superstitious as I am? Or does he just want to be spared long-winded descriptions of stories that may never be fully realized?

What about you? Can you talk about your writing at length without harming it? Or do you need to be near completion before you share the treasure?


Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Shhhh by Norrie Adamson

Did you hear right?

Writers’ events usually feature many uniquely-dressed people whose quirky styles leave me envious and almost regretting my own pedestrian fashion sense. Almost. If I could have one super-hero power, I’d choose invisibility.

Word count: 465            Reading time: 2 minutes

The problem with wearing a smart or unique outfit is that people notice you. When they notice you they tend to stop talking and that ruins the very best part of being in a public place: the delicious opportunity to eavesdrop. Fortunately I possess well-honed secret agent skills. Because I dress plainly and I’m a woman past middle age, being unobserved is part of everyday life. So much so that in my desk drawer sits a fat file of conversations earjacked in public and transcribed at the first available opportunity, sometimes right as the conversation is going on.

In 2010 The Guardian encouraged writers to create new poems, stories and plays based on overheard conversations. The winners were honoured on a website and in an anthology, called Bugged. I call that basic writer training.

My favourite places to eavesdrop are these:

  • Public transportation: You can’t beat the bus and its equivalents for picking up really interesting conversations. Sometimes it’s only half the story as someone blathers away on their cell phone. Imagining the other side of the conversation can be great fun
  • Coffee shops, restaurants, fast food joints. Coffee shops are particularly good because they usually host short stays. If one conversation isn’t interesting, wait until the people at the table beside you change. It won’t be long.
  • Parks and public trails. Walk slowly. Let other hikers pass you. You may only get a nugget of what they are talking about but sometimes it will be pure gold.
  • Any line up anywhere. Sure there’s may be grumbling but some people can’t resist filling in the waiting time with personal stories and anecdotes.
  • Supermarkets. People have unbelievably candid cell conversations while picking out their frozen dinners.
  • On planes and trains, in airports and ship terminals: listen to fellow travellers as they exchange stories and life histories. Listen for the gentle lies, the slight exaggerations, the improbable victories, and the wistful memories. People give freely when they never expect to see strangers again.

I’m about to go out now. Before I leave the house, I’ll get my sunglasses and my notepad and pen. With luck no one will notice me slip into the back booth of the coffee shop. If someone I know comes and joins me, you can be sure I will keep my conversation quiet. I’m not about to give away some of my best lines.

Where do you go to find inspiration for fresh dialogue and story ideas? Have you ever based a character on someone you’ve heard or seen in public?


Picture from Wikimedia Commons: Secret Agent by Ben Crowther

Do you love it?

The Tired Seamstress by Angelo Trezzini

In the past, in an effort to explore the world around me, I’ve taken courses in sewing, bicycle maintenance, and basic automotives. I’m a certified scuba diver. I’ve done years of martial arts, and I’ve gone to beauty classes to learn the best way to do my own home waxing.

Word count: 323                  Reading time: 1 minute

For all that I admired the work of my friend who patiently helped me make a pair of trousers I had neither the perseverance nor passion to build that skill. Home waxing was messy and not immediately successful so I abandoned that within a few months. I skipped out of the automotive class at the first coffee break.

Writing is one of the few exceptions to my fickle dabbling. Since I started it seriously, my interest hasn’t waned or flagged. It’s not something I pick up and put down. It’s part of breathing, even on the worst days.

In the end I guess I’ve adopted Thoreau’s approach: Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.

From there, unknowingly, I followed the lead of Tracy Chevalier: Don't write about what you know—write about what you're interested in.

I shape worlds around subjects that I love which makes sculpting characters within them much easier. In doing so, I find resolutions to questions I didn’t even know I wanted answers to.

Through all of this, I ignore the phantom voice that sometimes sings out that I can’t do it, that my words aren’t worth reading. Determination trumps self sabotage and I get back to the job at hand. Doing what I love can sometimes be stressful but not going where my heart takes me, would condemn me to life of tinkering in one long automotives course.

How do you pick the subjects for your novels? Does love of the craft bring you back to the story even when you are half-paralyzed with self doubt?


Picture from Wikimedia Commons