Writers’ Olympics

stadiumSilk’s Post #160 — It’s the middle of the summer, the silly season. All eyes are glued to the Olympics, a welcome relief from political campaigns. The days are hot (at least here on the left coast), the beer is cold, the burgers are on the barbie, and a bit of light-hearted blogging is in order.

Every four years the Summer Olympics reminds the world what dreams, discipline and dedication can get you. Oh, and dollars – did I forget to mention dollars?

As the spectacle of the Games gets ever more entertainingly (even gaudily) ambitious, as the athletic clothing and gear gets slicker (thanks to sponsors), and as the monumental task of hosting this behemoth of a show gets more daunting (thanks Brazil, and good luck with your post-games hangover), the soul of the Olympics endures at the very simplest level, the level where all the rah-rah and glitz doesn’t count.

At its heart, what counts is the stories of the hopeful young competitors. They rock.

Maybe others tune in to indulge their fan patriotism, or to vicariously party on. For me, the draw is the inspiring – sometimes unnervingly perfectionistic – display of physical, mental and emotional grit played out at every sports venue. People putting themselves on the line, holding nothing back, totally exposed to an audience of millions.

The degree of dedication in Olympic athletes is absolutely stunning. There are few other human endeavours, if any, that demand so much, and reward the majority of participants with nothing but personal satisfaction. These may be called games, but they are not play.

At the same time, the Olympics are at the pinnacle of a worldwide sports development system that produces the most superb athletes in history, and they keep getting better. Every Games sees new records set and a higher level of performance achieved.

Ask yourself: in what other fields are human beings progressively getting better at what they do, eclipsing the achievements of their progenitors? Go ahead. Take your time. Dah da dum de dum. No rush. I’m sure you’ll think of something people do better now than they ever have before. People, mind you. Individuals. No ideas yet?

Okay, time’s up. If you did think of something, I’ll bet you the Brooklyn Bridge that it’s some form of technological (or maybe social) progress rather than individual human achievement.

Oh, sure, there are constant advances in technology, and it’s easy to confuse an improvement in the performance of things with an improvement in the performance of people. After all, it’s people who invent these newfangled things. But, sorry, no. The people who invented computers and air conditioning and charter schools and AR-15 rifles and Facebook were very clever, but they weren’t smarter than Aristotle or Galileo or Newton or Tesla or Einstein.

But imagine applying the whole Olympic idea to other kinds of endeavour … writing for instance. Could writers, through lifelong training and obsessive striving, reach literary achievements never before imagined? God knows most of us don’t do nearly enough obsessive striving or disciplined training on our own. No wonder many writers find themselves stumbling over everyday hurdles.

(Oh, I can’t commit to writing 2,000 words a day, I … have a job, have a family, have a vacation coming up, have a headache. So do Olympic athletes. See what I mean?)

Yes, I think this is just what we all need. An Olympic system for developing awesome writers. We need to get into training, people. No more butts on the couch. Get up and put those butts to work, uh, in a chair. Build those vocabulary muscles. Work on your plot spins and twists. And stick those landings at the end.

My modest proposal is to develop an Olympic style system to measure writing performance, because, well you know, what gets measured gets done or something like that. Just for starters, here are some top-of-my-head suggestions for events in the Writers’ Olympics. Please feel free to add your own!

Speedwriting Events
This is a series of sprint and long-distance race events in which writers must sit in a room full of desks and produce a fixed number of words – for example, a 100 word sprint, a 5,000 word marathon, and so on. Points for speed are then adjusted by making deductions for grammatical and syntax errors, as judged by editors. Further deductions are also made for quality deficits, as judged by critics. Note: the writing might be fast, but the judging will be slow, just as in real life.

Vocabulary Weightlifting Events
Giving new meaning to “weighing your words,” these events challenge writers to lift the efficiency and creativity of their work through the power of language. Various exercises, such as short fiction, poetry and essay, are judged on technical points and artistic merit. Originality earns extra credits, but competitors who push too far will receive gibberish deductions.

Storynastics
Writers perform plotting routines in a variety of fiction genres, such as mystery/suspense, thriller, romance, action and sci-fi/fantasy, meeting strict requirements for inclusion of a beginning, a middle and an ending. Technical points are awarded for story structure, plot twists, pacing, reversals and climax. Points for artistic merit are given for originality; story flow; balance of description, action and dialogue; and characters. Deductions are made for awkward transitions, intrusive backstory and unresolved subplots.

Rewrite Hurdles
First draft short fiction manuscripts are submitted in time trials, then edited by an eliminations judging team, with each minor edit deducting one point off a perfect score of 100, and each major edit deducting 5 points. The 10 top-scoring writers continue on to the finals, where they do a time-limited, blind rewrite, and are ranked by their ability to anticipate and clear the original editorial hurdles assessed by the judges, earning points for every correction of an identified fault. This is not only a deadline competition, but also a mind-reading contest.

Unpublished (and even published) writers often bemoan the difficulty of getting published, getting recognized, breaking through, dealing with the emotional trauma of rejection slips. Yes, it’s daunting. And it does sometimes seem like a lottery. I’m as guilty as the next person of thinking this way.

But, seriously, it’s a highly competitive field, just like sports. How many of us can truly say we put the time into training and learning, do the grinding work of writing and rewriting and re-rewriting, build up our strengths and relentlessly work on our flaws the way Olympians do? How much do we sacrifice in anonymity for our craft? What mental toughness do we cultivate to give ourselves the resilience needed to face inevitable failures and rejections – and then carry on anyway?

So, friends and writers, the next time you find yourself struggling with this ambitious goal of writing – a goal you chose for yourself – try thinking a bit more like an Olympic hopeful.

The part-timers, the short-cutters and the half-hearted are – let’s face it – probably not going to get to the big show. They can still enjoy writing recreationally, kind of like the way I enjoy the odd sailboat race. It’s all good. Even if an expectations adjustment may be required.

But really big success – like becoming a bestseller in a highly competitive marketplace – takes really big effort. “Overnight success” is mythical. Yet hard work does pay off: we’re watching it on our screens in Rio right now. Even for the also-rans, pride in the achievement of getting to the elite level of Olympic sports is the reward of a lifetime.

And here’s the good news for writers: in Olympic competitions, there are no do-overs. But in writing, there are. And there’s no age limit.

What would Stephen King do?

King-on-writingSilk’s Post #159 — If you want to learn to be a good writer, you could do worse than read Stephen King. The guy is a legend, but let’s check his credentials anyway:

  • Published 54 novels, 6 non-fiction books, nearly 200 short stories. Yes, he’s been busy.
  • Sold more than 350 million copies of his novels. That’s certainly impressive.
  • Won too many awards to list, including Hugo Award, Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the National Book Foundation, National Medal of Arts … Oh, you get the idea.
  • Written 39 stories that have been turned into movies, including 5 Oscar nominees. Nice sideline, eh?
  • Is reported to be worth 400 million dollars. That should impress anyone who likes to measure success in dollars and cents.

If you’re a writer, though, one particular book nestled in this vast body of work was written just for you: Stephen King On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. As the huge horde of hungry, not-yet-published writers like me know very well, there’s no shortage of books on writing and publishing written “just for us.” Your shelves, like mine, may be groaning with them. In fact, there’s a whole industry built around selling advice and support to “emerging” writers.

A lot of the books on writing are useful (although prescriptions ought not necessarily be taken as directed), but you probably never heard of most of their authors before you aspired to become a published writer yourself. You can count on your fingers the books “for writers” penned by that super elite level of authors, the bestselling superstars.

Besides King, the ones that immediately come to mind are Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity), Elmore Leonard (10 Rules of Writing), Janet Evanovich (How I Write), Elizabeth George (Write Away), P. D. James (Talking About Detective Fiction), Walter Mosley (This Year You Write Your Novel), Annie Dillard (The Writing Life), and the prolific Margaret Atwood, who has written three books on writing, writers and the writing life (Negotiating with the Dead – a Writer on Writing; Moving Targets – Writing with Intent 1982-2004; and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination). A few of these books are in the “how to” or coaching category, while others lean toward memoir, but they’re all valuable and often quoted.

Yet the one that stands out most for me is Stephen King’s On Writing. I must admit that King had me at the epigraph, where he set the tone with a pair of quotes:

Honesty’s the best policy.
— Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.
— Anonymous

And the book only gets more circular and thought-provoking from there on, as it spirals deep into the organic heart of King’s writing life. It begins with 100 pages of memoir, called “C.V.” I call it confessions of a congenital writer. This section is larded with gut-wrenching real-life moments. Life is messy and mysterious, it tells us.

We then get to a tiny section titled “What Writing Is,” only to discover that it, too, is messy and mysterious. He opens this section with an answer to its title: “Telepathy, of course.”

Then King proceeds to demonstrate by drawing us into an imaginary scene where writer and reader experience a “meeting of the minds.” That’s the telepathy part, styled as a magic act. It’s a story about storytelling that reminded me of the famous scene in the 1976 movie The Last Tycoon, brilliantly acted by Robert De Niro, with the punchline “the nickel was for the movies.” (You can see it here on You Tube)

King then completely shifts gears, diving into a short how-to section called “Toolbox,” in which he reads us the usual creative writing teacher’s riot act in an entertaining story form. (King was, in fact, a high school English teacher at one time.) He begins with the holy trinity: vocabulary, grammar, style. These are not optional. He steers us to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as our bible. He warns that hell awaits writers who use adverbs.

Then, happily, class is dismissed and he launches into the section we were waiting for: “On Writing.” Surely this is where the magic is revealed, where King will give up his secrets and teach us how we, too, can become bestselling authors in X number of steps.

At this point, if you’re reading the book, I recommend you go back to the second of King’s three forewords, which begins, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” This is a good reality check.

I won’t elaborate on what’s in this section of the book. You should read it yourself. But I will tell you some things I learned from it. There’s nothing pedantic or even very structured in this book because King is, first and foremost, a storyteller, not a how-to list maker. What I took from On Writing are more like illuminations – ideas that lit up in some brain cell for me as a result of going along for the ride, of reading a non-fiction book written by a great fiction writer.

These are my own interpretations, not a literal list from Stephen King:

The joy of writing: Writing should be a joy. If you love it, you do it. You build your life around it, not the other way around. And that includes omnivorous reading.

The fear factor: Writing is emotionally and intellectually challenging as well as demanding of your time, and taking criticism can be bruising. So you need to have lots of that joy on tap, lose your fear of failure, and just keep writing.

Nature + nurture: Writing your head off is bound to make you a better writer, but you also have to have some native talent to become a really, really good one. Conversely, native talent will not make you a really, really good writer unless you write your head off.

Writing and storytelling: Good writing is a commandment, but storytelling is the holy grail. Writing = the craft; storytelling = the magic. You can learn a craft; magic rises intuitively from the inside out. Craft has rules; magic does not. Writing is a skill; storytelling is a talent.

Storytelling and plotting: These are not, not, NOT the same thing. A story is a tale with a life of its own. A plot is a plan, a map of how to sequence and structure the telling of the story.

OPs vs. NOPs: Forget the binary debate between outlining vs. organic styles of writing (outline people vs. non-outline people, or plotters vs. pantsers). There is no “right way.” Do what feels right. Your first draft will fall somewhere on the spectrum of imperfection no matter how you approach it. At best it will need cosmetic surgery, at worst it will be a Frankenstein that needs errant body parts re-attached in the right place. The story rules. Serve the story, not the process.

Characters drive story: Without characters, there is no story. Without characters who are real, dimensional and engaging – characters worth caring about – there are no readers.

Use your imagination: “Write what you know” isn’t a restriction, it’s an invitation. What you know – or can find out – are the answers to a constant stream of “what if?” questions you must pose. Those answers can come from your own experience, your probing imagination, or your research. Push your intuition and logic. Truth isn’t an average of likelihoods.

Use your senses: All of them. See, feel, hear, smell settings. Listen to dialogue. Pay attention to body language, micro-expressions, conflicts hidden under the surface. Taste foods, air, water, sweat from effort, sweat from fear. Do it every day, wherever you are. Recreate it in writing so that readers sense it too.

Making it matter: Some stories arise from a theme. Some themes emerge organically from a story. Either way works and can be enhanced in rewrite. Themes are a way to give a story more layers, deepen readers’ connection, make it matter to them, make it memorable. You can write a good novel with no theme, but why would you leave out this dimension?

Does all this seem familiar? Probably. Pick up any book on writing and you’ll find these topics covered somewhere, often prescriptively. Funny how you can “know” something – read about it, understand it intellectually – and yet not really experience that “aha!” moment at a deep, intuitive level until someone or something causes you to look at it through different eyes.

That’s what Stephen King’s On Writing did for me. I think it was because of his ability to create a story about story, to personalize it through the memoir material woven through the book. It was a hard book for him to write, every word “a kind of torture,” he admits. He began it in 1997, got half way through it, and put it in the drawer. Eighteen months later, in June of 1999, he “decided to spend the summer finishing the damn writing book.”

Two days later, he was fighting for his life after a horrendous accident in which he was hit by a van while walking down a country lane in Maine. It shattered his leg and hip, broke his ribs, chipped his spine. His story of this personal trauma in a section titled “On Living: A Postscript,” is a dramatic denouement to On Writing. The shock of it lit up the entire text of the book for me, like a bolt of fork lightning.

Five weeks after his accident, King picked up his half-finished manuscript of “the damn writing book” and began to write again:

That first writing session lasted an hour and forty minutes, by far the longest period I’d spent sitting upright since being struck by Smith’s van. When it was over, I was dripping with sweat and almost too exhausted to sit up straight in my wheelchair. The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic. And the first 500 words were uniquely terrifying – it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me. I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones. There was no inspiration that first afternoon, only a kind of stubborn determination and the hope that things would get better if I kept at it.

And, of course, things did get better. Exponentially better.

If the story of this book does not touch you as a writer, it’s time to take up something else. It certainly touched me. While I’ve always acknowledged his great talent and loved a number of his novels – which are mostly outside my genre comfort zone – I’ve never aspired to write like Stephen King. I still don’t.

But what On Writing has inspired me to do is to be more like him. Hence, my new compass point: What would Stephen King do? I’m pretty sure I know what the answer will be nine times out of ten: just keep writing. 


This is the first in an occasional series I’m planning to do on the 5Writers blog of reviews/discussions of books on writing. Stephen King seemed a good place to start. After all he is, well, the King.

Who are we writing for?

who-are-we-writing-for-Silk’s Post #158 — The 5Writers are rolling again. Fingers flying over the keyboards. Chunks of time swiped from Normal Life to commune in solitary confinement with the muse. Free moments in between Other Important Things given over to imagining snips of dialogue or the delicate placement of plot points or the exact shade of a protagonist’s eyes.

Our own eyes scan public places for characters and their stories: travelers fidgeting tensely with their passports in the airport; mid-summer sidewalk cafe patrons sitting alone together with their iPhones; boaters walking the docks with burnt noses and three leashed dogs. Maybe we’ll see someone to add colour, or maybe we’ll find the inspiration for a whole new subplot.

Our families and friends may notice our blank stares from time to time, moments when we’re checked out of reality and are looking inward to a story twist no one else can see. Yet.

The miracle is that even one of us escaped from our writing desert, where we’ve been mostly trudging through a lengthy dry spell punctuated by the occasional sip of creativity at rare oases. Attempted re-starts at a sustained and serious writing life over the past year or so have been mostly mirages.

I can’t overemphasize how difficult this kind of drought is to overcome, even for professional, previously published writers. Which we are not.

So the fact that we have managed to re-boot our 5Writers critique schedule and our individual writing efforts as a group is pretty miraculous. Some will achieve momentum more quickly than others, that’s natural. Just as some may hit another hurdle to overcome, while others may find a clear path ahead.

But the statistics tell us that many, many more writers start a book than finish a book, and we’re determined to buck that trend. (I’d love to quote some stats here, but since I’m writing this offline while floating on a boat in a small bay in the San Juan Islands with sketchy cell service and zero wifi precludes it. However, I’ve gawked at the numbers before, and I know there is a shocking, planet-sized gulf between the large number of writers who give up and the smaller number of writers who follow through to “the end”. And an equally gigantic gap between the number of finished books and the number of books that actually get published.)

One of the key differences between giving up and following through may be the answer to the perennial question a writer must eventually answer: who are you writing for?

I just read a stinging observation in a favourite novel, in which a jaded inspector describes people at a demonstration in Moscow as “… a middle-aged intellectual crowd. Publishers who abandoned their writers, writers who wrote for the drawer … romantics who lamented a rendezvous with history that never took place.”

I think I can say with confidence that none of the 5Writers are writing for the drawer, at least not on purpose.

Rather, at the opposite end of the wide spectrum of possible goals for writers, our critique group actually began under a different banner: The Future Bestsellers Group. A moonshot goal.

Given our trials, our achievements, our learning, our disappointments, our experience, our growth, and now our resurrection, I think the 5Writers have a better handle on who we are really writing for – and for each of us, individually, that falls somewhere between the drawer and the bestseller lists.

Here, I speak for myself. I’ve come to embrace the idea that I write, first, for myself, and second for the kind of people I like to talk to.

I write for people who are interesting and interested, who have ideas and like to discuss them, who have empathetic hearts and curious minds. I write for people who love a puzzle, a mystery, a challenge, who seek truth whether or not they expect to find it in any absolute, unchanging form. People with open minds. Smart people. People who know they don’t have all the answers, and that no one else does either. People who care about others. People who cherish their values. People who feel deeply. People with a sense of humour. People who love words. People who love story. People I could stay up all night conversing with, perhaps over a few bottles of wine. And, of course, the most important item on their resumes: people who love to read.

When I’m feeling high and hopeful about my writing (and, thus about my chances of getting published), I think of this group of people as a crowd big enough to support a bestseller. When I’m in a trough of writing angst, sure that no one outside my 5Writers group will ever read my manuscript, I try to think of something else I’d rather do with my creativity, my mind, my words, and I remember that I write because it’s what I love to do most. I write for the experience, not the drawer.

But here’s some good news!

Ever since the whole Brexit tantrum, when the the Brits collectively decided to pull up the drawbridge and pretend globalization has not already occurred, I’ve been thinking about the global marketplace for writers.

This is especially interesting from the perspective of the sentimental vestige of Rule Brittania called The Commonwealth (where I now live, in Canada), and also that other former British colony where I was born (the US). The irony of Brexit is that it’s a reminder of the global power England once wielded.

The legacy of English dominance in the colonial era is still incredibly significant — in fact, it’s such a big a part of our global landscape that I think people don’t even notice it anymore, like the fact that the sky is blue.

That legacy is the English language.

Happily for us, it’s the language we write in — which is the most widely spoken language in the world by far. Wikipedia tells me there are 2,400 million English speakers in the world today. The next closest language is Mandarin Chinese at 1,090 million. Now, even though English has under 400 million native speakers, compared to about 950 million for Mandarin, it has become dominant as the world’s second language of choice. This virtually assures its continued spread in today’s era of globalization – which will continue, Brexit notwithstanding.

In fact, the new prime mover of world order – namely business/commerce – which has enthusiastically adapted to globalism even as political, cultural and religious institutions have resisted it, has adoped English as its own Esperanto.

I therefore dare to declare that English-speaking writers are in one of the most advantageous positions in the world today to practice our profession in a growing, rather than shrinking, marketplace.

Yes, worthy books get translated and can succeed (sometimes spectacularly) in places where people don’t normally read the language they were originally written in. But doesn’t it make sense that the more English speakers (and readers) there are in the world, the better the market odds get for writers of books in English?

There — doesn’t that make you feel good? And hopeful? And enthusiastic about pounding out some wordage today?