Is Writing Inspiration or Perspiration?

An article with this title was written by May E. Demuth on February 9, 2010 for Writer’s Digest and was re-published by WD last month. Unfortunately, I can’t find a May E Demuth. There are plenty of references to a Mary E Demuth, writer, speaker and literary agent, but I can’t find any evidence she’s also known as ‘May’.

So, sorry. No picture or bio of May, who wrote: “At the keyboard, we’ve all experienced those moments of divine creative intervention when our muse bursts forth—ideas flow into inspired sentences, paragraphs, and chapters. Likewise, no writer is exempt from those times when each word we type feels like agony. So which is it: Is our best writing purely the product of inspiration, when we hurl beautiful phrases to the page or does our real brilliance come only through sheer perspiration? It’s the writer’s paradox—and it’s far more complicated than Thomas Edison’s oft-quoted figure that genius is 1 percent of the former, and 99 percent of the latter. Understanding the dynamics of each and how they relate to our finished written work can help us capitalize on our most inspired times and push through our most difficult moments.

Here are four ways to do just that.

I recently came across an interesting study of baseball clutch hitters. It turns out that players who seem to have a knack for coming through when the game is on the line actually have similar statistics whether it’s the bottom of the ninth or the top of the first. As author Dan Fox detailed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “What they’ve found is that while there may be a small clutch ability … that ability is dwarfed by the normal differences in overall performance. In other words, in the bigger scheme of things, it’s the best players who do best in the clutch.”

Taking that analogy from the diamond to the keyboard, it’s the writer’s patient, consistent dedication to the craft in the mundane (perspiration) that fosters moments of brilliance (inspiration) at bat. Freelance editor Andrew Meisenheimer puts it this way: “Perspiration leads to inspiration, even though that seems counterintuitive.”

Many of us, whether we realize it or not, dream of being “clutch writers.” When I speak at writing conferences around the nation, I always tell the story of my long journey to publication, including my 10 years of writing in obscurity, perspiring over hundreds of thousands of words before anyone ever expressed interest. But I find most people latch on to the latter half—in which I wrote a book, met an agent, and signed several contracts in the course of one year. My “clutch” story stands on the shoulders of miles of typed words.

Many writers I surveyed for this article had found that their best, least-edited work came from hard-won, perspiration-filled words. They might’ve felt each sentence lacked luster, but that feeling didn’t jibe with the reality of the final product.

When I wrote my first published novel, the story unfolded like magic. Detail upon detail came to me like a gift. But once I hit my third novel, each storyline felt like labor. The characters wouldn’t speak to me, wouldn’t tell me their plans in sweeping statements—just one terrible word at a time. And yet today, looking back at my body of work, I’m most satisfied with that book, and critical reviews confirm its merit.

Novelist Rene Gutteridge experienced something similar. “I wrote one book that was nearly all sweat. I kept thinking I’d made a horrible mistake—that this wasn’t ‘inspired.’ I turned it in, terrified. This is going to be the book that cancels my entire contract, I thought. When my editors read it, they loved it. I only had a half of a page of notes—the least rewriting I ever had to do. But each and every page in that book made me work for it. And about four times I was left bawling at my computer, believing I was, indeed, a hack.”

Initially, when we first get the urge to write, we do it for the sheer joy of penning stories, articles … whatever we feel driven toward. We’re happy to keep our derrieres there in the chair because inspiration looms. But as time goes by, that initial spark gives way to simple, plain work. Award-winning novelist Susan Meissner elaborates: “It’s like running uphill now. With a headwind. And rocks in my shoes. And a monkey on my back. And hecklers on the sidelines. And the top, if there is one, is shrouded in mist.”

What do you do when penning each phrase is like hauling water with a bucket full of holes? “I would say that most writing days for me are heavy on the perspiration side, far more than the inspiration,” RITA award-winning novelist Robin Lee Hatcher says. “But I believe, once you start writing, getting out the dross if you have to, that inspiration will follow.”

Sometimes the words do flow. Sometimes they don’t. Write them either way.

Seasons of inspiration come, weaving in and through long stretches of perspiration. As writers, we must embrace this paradox to go forward in our careers. One moment, we feel like we’re merely channeling words onto the page. The next, we might find ourselves wrangling each sentence to the ground, trying to tame it into submission. Don’t despise the perspiration needed to write your story. And welcome the inspiration when it comes.

Both will transform your writing.”

I think this is a very good commentary.


One might think that research isn’t necessary when you’re writing a novel – after all, it’s fictional. But my novel, Seeking Father Khaliq, is set in the Middle East, and while have been to a number of places in the region, I had never been to Mecca, Medina, (in Saudi Arabia) or Karbala (Iraq), where some of the greatest religious pilgrimages, including Arba’een, the Shia Muslim pilgrimage with about twenty million people take place. To make the novel come to life I spent as much time on research as I did on writing.

The February 10, 2021 issue of Writer’s Digest has an article by by Devon Daniels with the title, “How To Do Shadow Research for Your Novel” which i enjoyed and which I have included excerpts below.

Writer’s Digest says: “Devon Daniels is a born-and-bred California girl whose own love story found her transplanted to the Maryland shores of the Chesapeake Bay. She’s a graduate of the University of Southern California and in her past life worked in marketing, product design, and music. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her clinging to her sanity as mom, chef, chauffeur, and referee to four children, or sneaking off with her husband for date nights in Washington, DC. Meet You in the Middle is her first novel.”

Devon Daniels Author-web_edited.jpg
Devon Daniels

Me Daniels says: “When I first decided to write an enemies-to-lovers romance between rival Senate staffers, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I’d never worked on Capitol Hill before—or in politics at all—so I needed to research everything about the job, roles, and work environment from the ground up. It was important to me that the world I portrayed be as accurate as possible. In addition to an entertaining love story, I wanted to give the reader a peek behind the curtain of Washington politics in a way that felt both relatable and authentic. So, where do you start with this type of deep research?

First Stop: Hit the Internet

Research and read everything you can get your hands on about the industry or setting you’ve chosen for your novel. For me, that meant everything from articles detailing the day-to-day activities of Senate staffers to congressional calendars to “inside D.C.” gossip blogs to Yelp reviews of popular Capitol Hill hangouts. I watched a mind-numbing amount of C-SPAN. I even read Congress for Dummies, a joke that ended up in the novel. Once I felt comfortable with the basic rules and responsibilities governing legislative staffers, I moved on to the next step of my research: site visits.

Road Trip

Sure, you can “visit” anywhere in the world by watching YouTube videos, but it stands to reason that if you’re going to write about Ireland, you should probably have been to Ireland. Whenever possible, you should try to experience the sights, smells, and feel of a place firsthand. I live just outside Washington, D.C., so I was fortunate to have the benefit of proximity to my setting. I headed downtown to the Hart Senate building, one of three Senate buildings and the site of the political and professional power struggle between my main characters, Ben and Kate.

Now, here’s where introverted writers may have to step outside their comfort zones a bit: you’ll need to be confident, assertive, and outgoing—think “intrepid reporter”—to get the most out of your research trip. Armed with a list of interview questions, I strolled into a handful of senators’ offices, announced I was writing a romance novel, then began rattling off questions to the bemused staff assistants manning the front desks. While I got a few puzzled looks, I found most people were intrigued by my enthusiasm, happy to help, and flattered to be considered an “expert.”

I lingered on benches, watching and listening. I chatted up security guards. I ate lunch in the building’s popular coffee shop, Cups, then added the spot right into my draft. I snapped photos and video of the ornate gold elevators and elegant marble bathrooms—seemingly inconsequential details I ended up layering into pivotal scenes. Studying the Hart Building’s unique architecture and office layout inspired a critical plot twist I never would have dreamed up otherwise. Once I felt I’d learned all I could by eavesdropping observing, I moved on to stage three: shadowing.

Call in an Expert

It might sound simple, but if you don’t personally know someone in the industry you’re writing about, this can take some creativity. I began with family and friends, asking around to see if anyone had any Capitol Hill contacts, but came up short. I ended up finding someone in the most roundabout of ways: via a thread in a Facebook group, where members introduced themselves and (conveniently for me) listed their occupations. When one woman mentioned she was a staffer, I slid right into her DM’s. This staffer was kind enough to take me on a tour of her office, explain the duties of her job and career trajectory in finer detail, and answer my questions about how staffers from opposing parties work together. She read over my early chapters, providing feedback and suggestions. If I hit a snag while writing, she was just an email away.

I was also able to arrange a behind-the-scenes tour of the Capitol Building, an invaluable experience that literally allowed me to walk in my characters’ shoes and see the world through their eyes. Strolling the Senate floor, standing in the room where the President signs the legislation, and gripping the dais where the majority leaders hold their press conferences was not only awe-inspiring for this history buff but helped me visualize and bring my characters to life in a completely different way.

I’m tickled when I hear Washington insiders call out how “authentically D.C.” the book feels, or assume I must have been a congressional staffer myself. Details matter, whether it’s the color of the carpet in a committee room or the type of music that plays in a well-known bar. One of the best compliments I’ve received is that the reader felt they were truly “in the room” with my characters.”

A Word on Grammar Between You and I

I received an entertaining email today from Harry Bingham at Jericho Writers, and I thought I should share it with you.

In case you didn’t know, Jericho Writers offer anything a writer might need to improve their craft: courses, events, mentoring editing and lots more. Check them out at

Harry Bingham
Harry Bingham, the Jericho Writer founder and an acclaimed author of fiction and non-fiction, is especially known for his Fiona Griffiths crime series.

In the email, Harry says: “. . . The second group of inboxes belongs to a ferocious tribe who noticed, and were instantly enraged by, the grammatical mistake contained in the phrase Between you and I.

What is the mistake? Ah well, though English doesn’t have a host of grammatical cases – unlike German with 4, Russian with 6, and a surely unnecessary 7 in Polish – there is still a difference between the nominative case (“he” or “I”) and the accusative case (“him” or “me”.) And prepositions like their complement to be in the accusative. So I shouldn’t have written between you and I. I should have written between you and me.

Although plenty of English-speakers don’t bristle at errors like that, you lot are different. You’re a bunch of writers. You’re attuned to these issues and mostly don’t make them in your own writing. I’m not sure I get enraged by such errors any more, but I do certainly notice them. Every time.

And, look, I think it’s still safe to say that using a nominative pronoun after a preposition is an error. But let’s just remember what that means. All we’re really saying is that most language users still use the preposition + accusative structure. Not to do so, places us – somewhat – as a non-standard user.

But for how much longer? The who / whom distinction (another nominative / accusative issue) has largely vanished from our language. Or, to be more accurate, it’s just started to get awkward. Take a look at these examples:

The agent, to whom the manuscript was sent …

The agent, to who the manuscript was sent …

The agent who the manuscript was sent to

Do you like any of them? The first is technically correct, if we’re being old-school about it, but it does have a somewhat fussy flavour today. The second option just sounds wrong. The third just sounds clumsy. So mostly, today, we’d rewrite any of those options as The agent who received the manuscript. By making the agent the subject again, we can get rid of that correct-but-fusty to whom construction.

So in the end? Well, I suppose I still adhere to the kind of grammar rules which remain largely unbroken, by most people, even in informal contexts. So I wouldn’t say “between you and I” because that strikes my ear as wrong. But I’m more than happy to shatter other rules (the sentence fragment one, say) and bend others (the which/that distinction, for example.)

And you don’t have to do as I do. Your job is to find your own writing voice and tune that in a way that suits you best. If that involves technically excellent grammar, then great. If it doesn’t, that’s really fine too.”

Obituary: Christopher Little

Christopher Little, the literary agent, who spotted the appeal of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter story and led it to global success, has died on January 7, 2021. His obituary appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 16 January, and excerpts appear below.

Christopher Little

Christopher Little, who has died aged 79, was the literary agent who was instrumental in turning JK Rowling from a penniless divorced mother into the world’s richest author; one of his rivals, Ed Victor, described him as “the luckiest agent ever”.

In 1995, the 29-year-old Joanne Rowling – then living on benefits in a one-bedroom flat in Edinburgh with her infant daughter, Jessica – went to her local library to pick a new literary agent out of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. She had already tried one agent, who rejected her (and kept her ringbinder, which she could barely afford to replace). She settled on “Christopher Little” because, she said, it sounded like a name from a children’s book, and posted him the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

When it reached Little’s office – near-Dickensian premises in the vicinity of Victoria Station, cramped, dirty, filled with tottering piles of paper, and reached by what one associate described as “the smallest lift in London” – the manuscript went straight into the rejection basket because Little thought that “children’s books did not make money”.

But the office manager, Bryony Evens, liked the look of its distinctive binding, rescued it from the bin, read the synopsis and took it to Little for a second chance. “I thought there was something really special there,” he decided. Within four days, he wrote back to Rowling, asking to see the rest of the manuscript on an exclusive basis. “It was the best letter of my life, including love letters,” she said. “I read it eight times.”

Tall and imposing, with a shock of white hair and monumental eyebrows, Little was unusual among London literary agents in that he came to the business late, without a background in publishing, or a university degree. He had left school at 16, and spent the first decade of his working life all over the world, selling carpets, carbon paper and worsted suiting – a schooling in steely negotiation, which he coupled with the warmth of the bon viveur.

When Rowling sent in her manuscript, Little had only been running his agency full-time for three years. It was a small outfit, its finances pinched. One of his clients had been advised by a lawyer to have his royalties paid straight into his own account, bypassing the company, to be sure he actually got the money. “Rightly or wrongly you used to get the impression that the business was about to go under at any time.”

When Little came to submitting Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to publishers, he had to do it as cheaply as possible. Instead of making 10 copies, as was usual, he asked Bryony Evens to make three. When one publisher, due to illness, could not look at the book immediately, she was embarrassed to have to ask for it back so that she could send the precious manuscript out to someone else.

Notoriously, the book was turned down by every major publisher in Britain – 12 in all. Little eventually pulled a string by asking Barry Cunningham, at the young firm Bloomsbury, to read the manuscript as a favour to him. “It wasn’t the freshest pile of papers so I knew it had been turned down a few times,” recalled Cunningham. But Bloomsbury did buy the UK Commonwealth rights, for an advance of just £2,500, with a minute first run of just 500 hardback copies, but with very high royalties – double the norm – if it went on to sell in volume.

Little considered this deal his masterstroke. He spent the next two years refusing to discuss any further rights – overseas or film – until the book came out in 1997. By that point, thanks to word of mouth, he was sitting on the hottest property in publishing. “We just sat back and waited for the offers to come in,” he recalled.

In 1998, he sold the US rights to scholastic for $105,000 and the film rights to Warner Brothers for $1.8 million. He went on to mastermind her career, carefully protecting the Harry Potter brand. (He once blocked a 10-minute charity ballet based on Harry Potter, informing the dismayed ballet teacher that the rights “are reserved to the author”.)

“Remember, Joanne, this is all very well, but it’s not going to make you a fortune,” he had warned her at the start. JK Rowling is estimated to be worth £795 million; Little’s own wealth is thought to have exceeded £50 million. “Christopher Little was the first person in the publishing industry to believe in me,” Rowling said this week. “He changed my life.”

Christopher John Little was born in York on October 10 1941, the son of Nancy Pickersgill, a former secretary, and her husband Bernard Little OBE, an RAF pilot who flew Spitfires in the Battle of Britain with 609 (West Riding) Squadron, and then became a coroner, notably at the inquest of Lesley Ann Downey, one of the Moors murder victims. Little and his brother David were brought up in Liversedge, West Yorkshire, and attended Queen Elizabeth Grammar School in Wakefield.

It was an old friend from Hong Kong, Philip Nicholson, who persuaded him to try his hand at selling books for a change. Nicholson had written a thriller, Man on Fire, under the pseudonym AJ Quinnell, and Little found him an American publisher. It sold 7.5 million copies and became a Hollywood film. Pleased, Little founded the Christopher Little Literary Agency. “It was really a hobby which started through an accident,” he said. Only in 1992 did he sell his consulting firm and devote himself to the agency, which by then represented 20 authors.

When the Harry Potter juggernaut took off, Little could have been forgiven for streamlining his client list down to one, but he did not. In 1996, he took on 23-year-old Darren Shan, another children’s author, whose books, including Cirque du Freak (which was turned down by 20 publishers), have gone on to sell 30 million copies.

Even when Harry Potter turned into a multi-million-pound franchise, Shan said: “I never had the feeling that I was in any way secondary.” In the final weeks before his death, Little was negotiating a television deal for Cirque du Freak. “If Chris believed in you, he remained loyal,” said Shan. Among his other authors were Kate McCann, with her book Madeleine: Our daughter’s disappearance and the continuing search for her, and General Sir Mike Jackson.

In 2011, however, just before the premiere of the final Harry Potter film, Rowling broke off relations with Little, appointing as her new agent Neil Blair, the lawyer who had been her copyright “Rottweiler” at Little’s firm. There was widespread shock.

Rowling called it a “painful decision”, saying she had “actively sought a different outcome for weeks” but that it was finally “unavoidable”. Little’s spokesman retorted that it “came out of the blue. He was surprised to say the least.” Friends reported him to be “extremely angry” but that the previous weeks had been “a nightmare”. There was a subsequent settlement; Little, a very private man, would never be drawn on what had gone wrong. When asked, he only “twinkled”.

Enormous wealth did not seem to change Little. He liked sailing but never bought a yacht, preferring to “rent the boats when I want them – it does save a lot of hassle”. Although he did give a party for his 60th birthday in the Chelsea Physic Garden that cost £250,000, and once wrote a friend in need a cheque for £1 million, the loan guaranteed only by a handshake, he was content to remain in the Fulham town house he had bought in the early 1990s.

He loved rugby and went to many games, and was always in particularly fine form after an England victory. His voice, which retained a touch of Yorkshire, was deep and warm. He was always impeccably turned out, rarely seen outside a suit and tie, and he embodied an old-world courtesy, which prompted him to stand up whenever anyone new walked into the room.

After his first marriage, to Linda Frewen in 1975, ended in divorce in 1987, he brought up their two sons, Kim and Nicholas, as a single parent. He is survived by his children, and by his widow Gilly, whom he married in 2012.