Can the Working Writer Be an Artist?

Every four seconds, someone buys a novel by Lee Child, author of the popular Jack Reacher series. That’s 15 books every minute; 900 every hour; 21,600 every day.

University of Cambridge lecturer Andy Martin’s new book, Reacher Said Nothingfollows Child throughout the writing of Make Methe 20th of Child’s Jack Reacher blockbuster novels, providing Child’s fans and anyone with an interest in the creative process with unprecedented access to the writer at work.

The part of Martin’s book that most interested me was the copy of Child’s schedule for one writing day:

7:45 Up, straight to work
Coffee 3 (mugs)
Camels 3

9:28 Breakfast. Sugar Smacks

9:35 Back to work
Coffee 3
Camels 5

1:29 Lunch
Toast and marmalade and cheese (Swiss)
Coffee 2
New Yorkers 1

1:55 Back to work
Coffee 5
Camels 7

7:01 Dinner
Alpen cereal
Coffee 2
Camels 4

7:35 Evening shift
Coffee 4
Camels 7

10:20 Shut down

Total number of words in the day: 2,173

Total mugs of coffee: 19

Total Camels: 26

I was fascinated not just because of the daunting amount of coffee and tobacco Child takes in every day, but because this rigorous accounting of his writing day reminded me of a similar account given by Anthony Trollope in his autobiography in 1883. Trollope reported that he sat down to write every morning at 5:30. (He paid a servant an extra £5 annually to be sure that he was awakened on time.) He then wrote for three hours, after which he left to go to his job at the post office. Trollope records that it was his practice “to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went.”

Writing at this rate, he found, “allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year… which must at any rate be felt to be quite as much as the novel-readers of the world can want from the hands of one man.”

The autobiography closes with the Victorian equivalent of a spreadsheet recording the titles of Trollope’s novels, their publication dates, and the amount he was paid for each one.

Trollope’s autobiography came close to killing his literary legacy.

Unlike Child’s readers — cheerful purchasers of genre fiction who are thrilled to have new novels produced as rapidly as they can be consumed — Trollope’s readers, and the critics who weigh his fitness as a “real writer,” were not content to think of writing as a job and novels as a product of work. They had been trained by the Romantic movement to think of writing as a mysterious, spiritual experience where one is overtaken by inspiration.

The English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley gives probably the best example of that Romantic theory of creativity in his 1821 Defense of Poetry. While he writes specifically about poetry in that book, this same theory would have been applied to novels, paintings, drama, and nearly any creative endeavor of the time.

A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal, which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure.… I appeal to the greatest poets of the present day, whether it is not an error to assert that the finest passages of poetry are produced by labor and study.

Writing, for the Romantics, was not a matter of sitting down at a writing desk at a particular time and not getting up until the day’s work was complete. The Romantics waited for inspiration.

And so when Anthony Trollope listed his daily schedule, the Romantics and the critics who loved them dismissed him completely.

It did not help that Trollope noted,

I do lay claim to whatever merit should be accorded to me for persevering diligence in my profession. And I make the claim, not with a view to my own glory, but for the benefit of those who may read these pages, and when young may intend to follow the same career. Nulla dies sine lineâ [Not a day without a line]. Let that be their motto. And let their work be to them as is his common work to the common labourer. 

Now, a little more than 130 years later, Lee Child is joining Trollope in sharing his less-than-romantic writing process with the world. I strongly suspect that he will respond to any critique of his productivity with, “Millionaire, don’t care,” but I suspect nearly as strongly that there won’t be such a critique.

Child is already firmly fixed in the minds of critics as a genre novelist — which means he is less subject to critical snark. But also, we are no longer shocked to hear that writers follow 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson’s advice: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Indeed, lately readers are far more likely to excoriate their favorite writers for not producing new works fast enough. I think Trollope might have enjoyed that.

I know he would have been at his desk at 5:30 tomorrow morning, writing. I suspect Lee Child will be as well. After all, there’s work to do.

Note:

This is Trollope’s accounting of his novels and what each one earned:


(Written by Sarah Skwire) Published under Creative Commons. Attributed to Foundation for Economic Freedom.

5 Common Blog Writing Mistakes

Catching a person’s attention with the written word is becoming increasingly difficult in a world filled with visual, easy to access content. The competitive world of vlogging has flooded the space where writers once dominated in their preferred format.

But fear not. Craft your articles carefully and audiences will engage. Just be sure to avoid these five pesky mistakes that turn readers off and apply some of these rules.

EASILY CONFUSed WORDS

This is perhaps somewhat obvious to most, and seasoned writers wonder why those who mix the “Its” with the “It’s” continue to write—but you have to start somewhere.

Even for those who have written and published near on a decade or two, the occasional slip up occurs late at night.

The solution? Proofread and edit – after you’ve walked away from the piece. Give yourself a breather, go for lunch, take a nap, or indulge in some exercise before returning to the laptop to look for the obvious ones:

Its is the possessive of “it.”

It’s means it is.

There refers to location.

Their refers to possession.

They’re means they are.

Your is the possessive of “you.”

You’re means you are.

Effect (noun) means the effect experienced by an action.

Affect (verb) means the action that caused the effect experienced.

MISPLACING THE COMMA

To comma or not to comma, that is the question. When do we use it? Do we overuse it? Do we forget to use it? Do we ignore it?

Here are a few basic rules to keep your commas in place:

Rule 1: Use commas before “and”, “but”, “yet”, “so” and “or.”

The interior of a modern car is relatively quiet, but it is not soundproof.
Human existence depends on food and companionship, and these two factors are closely inter-related.

Rule 2: Always use a comma after an introductory phrase.

By 1803, Sydney had a regular produce market.

Rule 3: Use commas to set off phrases without changing the meaning.

Being a fast reader, she completed the test in the allotted time.

Rule 4: Use the comma between 2 or more coordinate adjectives.

The helicopter, with its spotlight, circled above.

Rule 5: Use the Oxford comma before the coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more items where there is a relation between words or groups of words.

Gerry is a handsome, brave, and kind man.

Mixing Tenses

Check the tense used in your work and ensure it’s consistent throughout. Using passive voice contributes to these problems.

Past tense: Lost, stole, threw, worn, won, written.  

Present tense: Losing, stealing, throwing, wear, win, write.

LACK OF ORGANIZATION

Writing is about pinning ideas down in a logical and well-connected format. The audience shouldn’t require a degree to unravel your thoughts, no matter the subject. Make it concise by using these basic rules while keeping word economy in mind:

Have you:

Introduced the topic?

Clarified the paragraph’s intention?

Checked for transitions?

Employed word economy?

Create an Outline: List, question, and map out the chosen topic. Have a firm introduction, body and conclusion.

List each paragraph’s intention: Map out where you want to take the paragraph. Stick to one topic per paragraph and treat it as its own story.

Check for transitions: Does each paragraph flow logically to the next one? Check for topic sentences at the beginning of paragraphs, construct your thesis, and employ an overall ease of transition.

Word economy: Cluttered, lengthy sentences tend to lose the reader and engage in passive voice. Try a minimal approach. Use one word where you’ve used three, and keep it simple. No one likes a showoff.

PASSIVE VOICE

Every writer has an Achilles heel and the passive voice used to be mine.

Active voice: A passing yacht rescued the survivors.

Passive voice: The survivors were rescued by a passing yacht.

Past and present tense plays a huge role in how passive voice plays out, but it can be sneaky too.  Worthy of an entire book, here are a few rules to avoid passive voice.

Eliminate “to be” and avoid lengthy, inflated sentences.

Use active verbs like must deliver verses the passive must be delivered, or he writes versus he had written.

The active voice does something, while the passive voice indicates the subject undergoing an action.

Chances are, if you’ve blundered on these mistakes more than once in an article, a savvy reader will unlikely return.


This article is a free and open source. You have permission to republish (5 Common Blog Writing Mistakes) under a Creative Commons license with attribution to TS Books

Diary of a Dystopian Writer

Dear Diary,

We’re strange creatures. We lock ourselves away, isolated from the real world, yet go a million miles per hour, delving into the pretend one. Rarely does the wordsmith receive understanding from the outside; only acceptance, tolerance . . . and the obligatory: but they’re a writer, as though it explains the obvious.

Writers, I think, are inherently hyperactive. Hyperactive with a splash of the neurotics. Those who aren’t writers will disagree. We resemble that of a sloth in the mornings, hunting out our first caffeine hit with the grace of a moss-covered creature. We then retreat to our cave, slowly experiencing the ritual metamorphosis, until we resemble something closer to a primate. By nightfall, the writer is a standoffish human form – a sight to behold; it’s a remarkable transformation—or so I’ve been told.

Let’s face it: writing, as a career, is one of the more mentally dystopian, draining, contemptuous acts a single person will ever embark on. It isn’t an easy career, and by all means not an easy choice. Much like our fellow tortured artists—painters, musicians, photographers—we’re outsiders looking into a world, desperate to understand the cogs and wheels turning beneath the madness. We clutch at what we know, with it sometimes slipping through our fingers. (Notebook, anyone?)

From this desperation we search every corner and every nook of our mind, trying to determine what it is to be human. Facial expressions, traits, environmental settings, secrets, how one speaks, mannerisms, stressors and reactions, suffering, misery, pain, excruciating death . . . to write is to be human. To create is divine.

And then the lone writer will constantly haggle with their inner being, nag at, doubt, accuse, and often hold such ridicule for oneself: Are we good enough? Are our thoughts worthy? Do we matter? The furball-so-called-writing companion on the desk is staring at me again . . . Am I talking out loud?! Am I paranoid? You examine the pros and cons, ins and outs of the world and then you doubt yourself even more.

And then there are those writers who routinely sit for 8 hours, produce their word count and sip iced water . . . really? [enter crickets chirping]

Then you edit, you censor, you rewrite—only to decide the original is more fitting—you pace your study, you publish, you retract, you publish again; you drink more coffee, pat the cat, and go to bed.

But you don’t sleep. Your mind wanders to your characters, your writing, your words, your day, and whether Good Charlotte will break up when they’re in their 70s? What moisturiser does Gerard Butler use and can I have some? Incessant randoms continue to haunt your Z’s until the alarm clock yells ‘Wake Up!’ only for the writer to start their day again. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

A lot of writers are divorced, are hermits or have married other writers (or musicians—a strange co-existence in itself). Their children usually go on to other artistic ventures, only because they were forced in childhood to befriend their make believe worlds out of loneliness; rejected for the wordcount. That, or they practice accounting.

It is what it is, folks. But before you poke fun at the writer next time, spare a thought for their poor soul. The writer didn’t choose this wretched path. It chose them.

Now, do I hit publish or pat the cat instead?

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