Previously, on 5writers’ Theater… (channelling my inner Alistair Cooke)


Paula’s Post #19 — Don’t you hate walking into a theater after the movie has started? If you’re like me, you need to be in your seat, extra large buttered popcorn in one hand, Strawberry Twizzlers in the other, well before the ‘Previews of Coming Attractions‘ flicker across the screen.

But sometimes you can’t help it. Sometimes you’re stuck with walking in on the middle of a film or a play or a television show. Sometimes you’re left scrambling to try to figure out who all the characters are and what the heck the show is about, not to mention what has happened thus far.

Those of you of a certain age may recall Alistair Cooke, the original host of Masterpiece Theater. In the days before DVR‘s and PVR’s, Mr. Cooke helped those who missed a few episodes to pick up the threads of plot heavy dramas like Upstairs, Downstairs and The Forsyte Saga, deftly recapping what had transpired in previous episodes while hinting at what was to come. If you’re watching Downton Abbey, Laura Linney does the same thing now.

29_cooke_lglAlistair Cooke understood how hard it is to walk in on the middle of things.

When I tried to decide what to write for this week’s blog post, I realized a lot of water had flowed under the proverbial bridge since September 5th, 2012, when our 5writers challenge began. Some of you have been with us from the very beginning. To you I say Bravo! and Thank You! You can go get another popcorn. Bring back some Junior Mints, too.

Some of you, I realize, discovered us along the way. You missed a few episodes and are a little fuzzy on what is really going on here.

So I thought I’d channel Alistair Cooke for a moment and recap the history of the 5writers challenge. Previously, on 5writers Theater:

In early September 2012, five members of the same critique group, (Joe, Helga, Karalee, Paula and Silk) decided it was time to shake up their writing lives. They knew they needed a new challenge, knew they needed to bring a new level of intensity to their writing.

In our old critique group, our standard requirement was pretty straight-forward. You may be in a critique group that operates more or less the same way: produce 25 or 30 manuscript pages, every four or five weeks. Send the pages off to the other members of the group to critique, at least 7 days before a face-to-face, marathon meeting. Meet for six hours, take turns critiquing everyone’s submission, leave exhausted, start all over again.

For most of us, this target proved a fairly easy one to hit, even during the most hectic periods of our lives, we rarely missed a deadline.

But come on, was that really the best we could do?

When we looked at our productivity, we realized that with an average of 10 meetings a year, we’d only be on target to produce about 250 pages per annum. At that rate, it was taking us a full 18 months to pen the first draft of a 400 page novel.

And therein lay the difficulty.

I don’t know about the others, but by the second year, so much time had passed I could barely remember my own plot and characters. I found it almost impossible to remember the plot twists, characters and storylines in my colleagues’ books.

We knew we needed to do better.

But that wasn’t the only problem. Once we compared notes, we realized that most of us had fallen into the same lazy bad habit: we’d procrastinate like crazy for three weeks, then write like bats-out-of-hell for three days straight to make the submission deadline.

On reflection, we realized some of our favourite published authors managed to bring out a book a year, some more than one, notwithstanding speaking engagements, book tours, writers’ conferences, revisions and research for upcoming projects. Not to mention time reserved for friends and family.

Why couldn’t we do that?

And so the gauntlet was thrown. On September 5th, 2012 the 5writers challenge officially began, the rules simple:

1) Write a full length novel in 5 months. Period.

2) Write it from scratch. No recycled short stories, half-assed outlines or dusty manuscripts pulled from under the bed. No re-working of scenes, no borrowing of characters from previous projects. All original material from inception.

3) Blog about your progress, (or writing in general), once a week. One post, each week, from each of the 5writers.

4)  Push ‘send’ at 11:59 pm on February 5th, 2013 and email your manuscript to the other four writers in the group. Even if it isn’t done. Even if it isn’t perfect. Even if you hate it. No excuses. Just hit send. No matter what.

Once we’d decided on the bare bones rules for the challenge, Silk bravely offered to take on the task of getting this blog up and running and, yippee, our first post went up a few days later on September 9th, under the title:

Let us tell you a story…



The picture above was taken on September 5th, 2012, the day we decided to embark on this crazy challenge (note how we’re each holding up 5 fingers).

Look how relaxed we look!

Look how happy we look!

I don’t know about the others, but I hardly recognize myself in that photo. (For the record, that’s me in the front row. The one with the poodle in my lap and the nice pedicure, something I don’t have time for now.

If you missed a few episodes along the way, you can read all our previous posts here, starting with September 9th’s: Let Us Tell You A Story. Who knows? You might find it fun to read as our frustration mounts. As reality dawns. As panic sets in.

Since September 5th, I’ve posted 19 blog posts, each on average at least 1,000 words. So have each of my 5writers colleagues: Joe and Karalee to my right, Silk and Helga in the back row.

As of 5 pm Monday evening, January 21st, 2013, I’d also penned 71,063 words or approximately 255 manuscript pages, about two thirds of the way to my target of 400 pages.

Time for a reality check.

Yesterday, Silk posted from Aloha land, hinting– no, pretty much warning the rest of us she wasn’t going to be finished by February 5th. I’ll be honest, I doubt I’ll finish either. My target is 100,000 words, give or take, which leaves me only 14 days to slap down another 29,000 words. Maybe, I can make the book shorter if I try for a page turning race-to-the-finish that leaves my readers breathless.

Who knows?

What I do know is that I have a houseguest arriving tomorrow and staying until Sunday.  Just a guess on my part, but I doubt she’ll find it very entertaining, watching me desperately tapping away at my laptop, trying to spew out 3000 words a day.

So I won’t be doing that.

If we’ve discovered anything along this journey, it’s that life is what happens when you planned on writing.

And that’s okay. As long as you get right back to writing, the moment you get the chance.

But I think we’ve also learned a few other things along the way. Some important things. As far as I know, we 5writers have all remained friends. No one has cried. No one has attacked a neighbour with a butcher knife, or kicked a dog, or gone ‘postal’.  No one’s suffered a nervous breakdown or threatened to slit their wrists.

As far as I know, no one wishes we’d never started down this road in the first place.

That’s pretty remarkable.

Why is that?

I think it’s because we’ve all learned something about ourselves. About writing. And perversely, even though we 5writers have not met face-to-face since September 5th, 2012, I know many of my colleagues feel that this challenge has brought us closer than ever. We’ve shared our thoughts, our insights, our fears, our insecurities, our joy our frustrations and even our sorrow, both in this blog and in a private group we’ve set up on Facebook.

If we don’t all finish our novels by 11:59 pm on February 5th, 2013, I, for one, will still count this ‘challenge’ a great success. I’ll share more of my thoughts on this after February 5th.

Until then, I’ll be writing.

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