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.

Fifteen Things Writers Should Never Do

This title caught my eye on a recent email from Writer’s Digest. It was written by Zachary Petit on 26 October 2020; he is a freelance journalist and editor, and a lifelong literary and design nerd. He’s also a former senior managing editor of Writer’s Digest magazine.

Zachary Petit

Excerpts from Mr Petit’s article are as follows: “Based on interviews with authors over the years, conferences, editing dozens of issues of Writer’s Digest, and my own occasional literary forays and flails, here are some points of consensus and observations: 15 of them, things anyone who lives by the pen (or seeks to) might consider. 

1. Don’t assume there is any single path or playbook writers need to follow. Simply put: You have to do what works best for you. Listen to the voices in your head, and learn to train and trust them.

2. Don’t try to write like your idols. Be yourself. The one thing you’ve got that no one else does is your own voice, your own style, your own approach. Use it. 

3. Don’t get too swept up in debates about outlining/not outlining, whether or not you should write what you know, whether or not you should edit as you go along or at the end—again, just experiment and do what works best for you. The freedom that comes with embracing this approach is downright cathartic.

4. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket when it comes to pitching something—always be working on your next book or idea while you’re querying. Keeping your creative side in gear while focusing on the business of selling your work prevents bigger stalls in your writing life down the road.

5. Don’t be unnecessarily dishonest, rude, hostile—people in the publishing industry talk, and word spreads about who’s great to work with, and who’s not.

6. Don’t ever hate someone for the feedback they give you. No piece of writing is universally beloved. Accept what nuggets you believe are valid and toss the edits your gut tells to toss. Be open to criticism—it will make you a better writer.

7. But, don’t be susceptible to the barbs of online trolls—you know, those people who post sociopathic comments for the sake of posting sociopathic comments. Ignore them heartily.

8. Don’t ever lower you guard when it comes to the basics: Good spelling, healthy mechanics, sound grammar. They are the foundations that keep our writing houses from imploding.

9. Don’t ever write something in an attempt to satisfy a market trend and make a quick buck. By the time such a book is ready to go, the trend will likely have passed.

10. Don’t be spiteful about another writer’s success. Celebrate it. As author Amy Sue Nathan recalled, “I learned that another author’s success doesn’t infringe on mine.”

11. Don’t ever assume it’s easy. Success is one of those things that’s often damn near impossible to accurately predict unless you already have it in spades.

12. Don’t forget to get out once in a while. Writing is a reflection of real life. It’s all too easy to sit too long at that desk and forget to live it.

13. Don’t ever discount the sheer teaching power (and therapeutic goodness) of a great read. The makeshift MFA program of countless writers has been a well-stocked bookshelf.

14. Don’t be afraid to give up … on a particular piece. Sometimes, a story just doesn’t work, and you shouldn’t spend years languishing on something you just can’t fix. (After all, you can always come back to it later, right?

15. But, don’t ever really give up. Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s what we have to do. Sure, we can all say over a half-empty bottle of wine that we’re going to throw the towel in this time, but let’s be honest: Very few of us ever do.”

I agree with all fifteen to these points.

Review: Just So Stories

I found a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories in a book shop in Sicily, and I decided to buy it because of memories of my mother reading to me from The Jungle Book when I was a child. I had a particular fascination for the exploits of Rikki-tikki-tavi, the mongoose, who fought the cobras, Nag and Nagaina.

Kipling was born in India in 1865. From the age of seven until he was twelve, he and his younger sister were placed in the care of a couple who boarded English children whose parents lived overseas. In 1877 he went to United Services College, Devon, but since he had no prospect of admission to Oxford, he returned to India where he became assistant editor of a local newspaper in Lahore. He live subsequently in England and America. He took an outspoken role in politics, being anti-German and anti-communist; his son, John, eighteen, was killed at the battle of Loos in 1915. Kipling wrote novels, many short stories and poetry, and was the most popular English writer for several decades. He was the first English-language writer to win the Nobel prize for literature in 1907. He died in 1936 at the age of 70.

Rudyard Kipling

The copy of Just So Stories I bought, while a paperback, appears to be a unique edition as it includes a lengthy introduction by Lisa Lewis, a chronology of Kipling’s life, and in addition to the Just So Stories themselves, there are pen and ink illustrations and related poems by the author himself, as well as explanatory notes on unfamiliar words or phrases appearing in the text.

The title of the book is derived from Kipling’s instruction that the book should be read to children ‘just so’, meaning that a particular emphasis and tone of voice should be used to best present each story. The stories are intended to be personalised as the reader addresses their audience as ‘Best Beloved’.

Some of the stories are familiar: How the Camel Got His Humps, How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin, How the Leopard Got His Spots, but there are less well-known tales as well. All of the stories are intended to appeal to children. There is a contrariness and a secretiveness about them that is intended to appeal to children. The illustrations with their explanatory notes would certainly capture the childish imagination.

As remarkable and captivating as these stories are, I find it difficult to imagine that they would generally be popular with today’s children, as the vocabulary (which is not childish) and the settings would seem somewhat obscure.

It seems to me that The Jungle Book is an excellent (and better) choice for children.

Manuscript Theft

This post includes the article which appeared on the Daily Telegraph on 23 December 2020 with the title ‘Scammers Using Every Trick in the Book to Steal Writers’ Work’. It was written by Nick Allen who is the Washington, DC editor of The Telegraph.

Nick Allen

“The publishing world has been bamboozled by an email scam in which a mysterious thief is stealing unpublished manuscripts. Famous and aspiring authors have been targeted with fake emails in an attempt to trick them into sending their work.

“Victims said the perpetrator appears to be an expert, using terms commonly used only in publishing. But the motive remained unclear as there did not appear to be any attempt to profit from the manuscripts.

“The mysterious scam artist has impersonated agents, publishers and editors over the last three years.

“So-called ‘phishing’ emails to authors have been reported in the US, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Those targeted include Margaret Atwood and the Hollywood star and writer Ethan Hawke. Author James Hannahan this month send his unpublished novel about a transgender woman to someone pretending to be his publisher.

“The New York Times explored the black market and the ‘dark web’ but found no evidence that manuscripts were being published or offered for sale there. It appeared that there had also been no attempts to extort money from authors or publishers.

“Catherine Eccles, who owns a literary scouting agency in London, told the newspaper: ‘They know who our clients are, they know how we interact with our clients, where sub-agents fit in and where primary agents fit in.’ She added: ‘They’re very, very good.’

“Last year, Margaret Atwood revealed that there had been a ‘phishing’ effort to steal her manuscript for The Testaments’, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. At the time, she described it as an attempted robbery. She said: ‘People are trying to steal it. Really, they’re trying to steal it and we had to use a lot of code words and passwords.'”

I can tell you that no one has tried to steal any of my manuscripts (although the publicity might be quite helpful).

Can AI Replace Authors?

An article in the Daily Telegraph two days ago written by Charles Cumming caught my eye. It is titles “The Idea of AI Stitching Together a Book is Still Novel”.

This article is part of a series by Harry de Quetteville, the Telegraph’s Special Correspondent, Technology on the Future of Work. During the series he asks holders of representative jobs what they do and then he gives an assessment of the risk of the job being performed by AI.

The chart below, prepared by ONS is a scatter blot of nine groups of jobs against the risk that they well be automated. (Sorry, the text didn’t copy with the chart. The far left vertical line is 15% and the far right vertical line is 75%. The top group 1 includes managers, group 2 is professionals, group 3 is technicians, group 4 is administrators, 5 is skilled trades, 6 is caring and service, 7 is sales & customer service, 8 is machine & plant operators, 9 is elementary operations.)

Amazon’s page on the author says, “Charles Cumming is a British writer of spy fiction. He was educated at Eton College (1985-1989) and the University of Edinburgh (1990-1994), where he graduated with 1st Class Honours in English Literature. The Observer has described him as ‘the best of the new generation of British spy writers who are taking over where John le Carré and Len Deighton left off’.”

Charles Cumming

The article says, “What does your job involve?

I write spy thrillers. I am a procrastinator but I try to write at least 1000 words a day. Of course then I delete 900. It’s hard to seize full control of characters and the suspense of the plot; there are perhaps one in seven great days. When I’m starting a new book, I feel my way into it, sketching out a general idea of what’s going to happen and where it will take place. Then I plot it out, make research visits, and read about the politics and espionage on the subject. That leads to three or more ideas, at which stage there could be a lot of plates spinning: I have to remember my characters and be true to them. And I sit with those components for the year or two the book takes to write.

Has Covid affected life?

Writing is solitary anyway. But contemporary writers do now have to make the decision to ignore Covid or incorporate it. For my latest, I’m incorporating.

How long have you been doing it?

25 years.

What training did you get?

None. Just reading other books, and a sense of self-confidence that I could write decent sentences.

How much does it pay?

They say there are 50 writers in the UK who make a living solely from writing books. Everyone else has to have another job – screenwriting or teaching or whatever. I’ve had years where I’ve made 30k and one Hollywood year where I made 350k. Income is so variable it’s hard to plan, to know how much you’re going to have at any point.

What took longest to learn?

Understanding that it’s a business, that you’re only as good as your last book and will be jettisoned if your books are not making money. I certainly began with an artistic hat on, but I realised that books will be read as entertainments, as stories and escapism. To imagine they are anything else is a pipe dream. As long as people appreciate them, though, I’m happy.

What is the most boring bit?

Correcting proofs.

Will you always do this?

If you gave me a vineyard with no frosts, I would certainly consider a sabbatical. I’m not one of those writers who must write.

Do you think your job will be the same when you retire?

There is already screenplay software that will fill in a lot of structure, and similar for fiction. But the idea of AI being able to tie it all together feels some distance off.

Analysis (at this point Harry de Quetteville takes over)

Computer writing – or at least manipulating words – became one of 2020’s hottest technological topics. In May, the American lab OpenAI announced GPT-3 software which produces almost eerily good text. GPT (which stands for Generative PreTrained Transformer) is itself an extension of Natural Language Processing (NLP) which uses a brain-like computing process known as deep learning to extract information in documents and which itself has come on in leaps and bonds. The big question is, do computers ‘understand’ what they are ‘reading’ and ‘writing’? The answer is no, at least for the moment. But does that matter, given that their appearance of understanding is increasingly perfect?

Would machines actually do better?

The dramatic improvement of AI’s handling of language suggests it’s not impossible.

Bottom line: Risky

We could well see a GPT-3 bestseller within three years. Implications for this job group: Group 3 includes many creative types, and whatever instincts may tell you, they are far from immune. The ONS for example, thinks artists (35pc at risk) are more vulnerable than paramedics (28pc). Most vulnerable of all? Sports players – half of whom are expected to lose their jobs.

ONS jobs risk estimate: 35c.”

For those of us who write, this sobering bit of information is unlikely to be welcome in the midst of a pandemic.

6 Misconceptions About Writing – No. 6

This is the sixth and the last in the series of essays by Rebecca McClanahan about the vocation of writing.

Ms McClanahan is an author, educator, and public speaker specializing in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.

Rebecca McClanahan

Misconception # 6: Writers are smarter, more sensitive, and more creative
than other people.

Ms McClanahan says: “Hm. This is a tricky one. Since, for the moment at least, I am the writer and you are the reader, I would very much like for you to believe this. But I have to admit that it just isn’t so—in my case, or in the case of most of the writers I’ve
“Let’s start with the intelligence issue. When you judge intelligence solely by
academic criteria, writers don’t always fare well. Most writers, so research
studies show, were B , not A students; my educational experience bears this
out. Maybe this is because writers tend to be more interested in questions than
in answers. Granted, it takes a keen mind to ask interesting questions, but this
doesn’t mean that writers are necessarily more brainy or intellectual than other
people. Perhaps they are simply more curious, less afraid of venturing into
unknown areas, and more willing, as Proust said, to ‘become stupid before the
“As for the claim that writers are more sensitive than the rest of us, while it’s
true that some writers are sensitive people, the same can be said for nonwriters. Sensitivity is a human trait, not necessarily a writerly one, and it manifests itself in any number of ways that have nothing to do with writing.
“Perhaps the only area is which writers are more sensitive than other people is in
the area of language. Just as musicians are sensitive to sound, painters to colour
and sculptors to form, writers are sensitive to words.
“When people tell me they’re just not creative enough to write, I usually
answer, ‘There is no such thing as a creative person. There is only the created
act.’ This is not my original idea; it comes from Rollo May’s The Courage to
Create. ‘Creativity,’ May writes, ‘is basically the process of making, or bringing
into being.’ As such, ‘creativity can be seen only in the act.’
“This theory may get your hackles up. You might argue that this just isn’t so,
that creative people do indeed exist. You might cite your nephew, who, in your
opinion, is one of the most creative people on the planet. ‘Okay,’ I’d say, ‘I’ll go
along with that. But first tell me how you know he’s creative. What evidence do
you have?’ For without evidence of something made, something brought into
being, there can be no creation. Even the God of Genesis wasn’t creative until
he created the heavens and the earth. Your nephew, or mine, isn’t creative
simply because he daydreams a lot, likes weird movies, or has fluorescent
tricolored hair. Unless, of course, his hair is a created act, a work of art.
“Those of us who aspire to art—writers, painters, sculptors, designers—like to
think of ourselves as creative individuals. The truth is, we are creative only
because we create. Even if our creation never comes into the public eye, even if
it never reaches completion in terms of what the world considers complete,
nevertheless it is the process of its making that makes us creative. And only
that process.
“How does one become creative? One creates. What freedom exists in that
thought, what possibility! Yet, as our parents warned us as they handed over the
car keys, along with freedom comes responsibility. If creativity resides only
within the process of making, we must toss aside the excuse that we aren’t
creative enough; we’ll have to find a new excuse not to create. But if, on the
other hand, we’re still basking in the haloed memory of some grandfather or
teacher telling us how creative we are, we must ask ourselves what we’re
waiting for. The playing field’s been levelled; we’re all chosen for the team.”

As I listen to Ms McClanahan’s arguments, it seems to me that what she says is correct. But I think there is one characteristic that distinguishes ‘creative people’ generally, and that it imagination. The thing which is created is, if it is on any interest, will tend to be different that other things that already exist, and it is imagination which accounts for that difference. What is it that accounts for imagination in a person? Is it ‘lateral thinking’, or the product of the right hemisphere, or is it a rebellious nature, or just frivolousness? Or is it some of all of that?

Winning the Booker in the ‘Woke’ Climate

Anita Singh had an article in the Daily Telegraph on 30 November 2020 under the title “I wouldn’t win the Booker in ‘woke’ climate says Banville”.

Anita Singh is the Arts and Entertainment Editor of the Daily Telegraph.

Anita Singh

In the article, Ms Singh writes: “John Banville, winner of the 2005 Booker Prize, has suggested that he wold not be given it now because he is a straight, white male, and he likened the ‘woke movement’ to a religious cult.

“The Irish author, whose winning novel The Sea told the story of a retired art historian who returns to the village where he spent a childhood holiday, was asked in an interview for the winter edition of the Hay Festival if it would be possible for someone like him to win the prize at a time of ‘woke suspicion of white, straight men’.

“He replied, ‘I would not like to be starting out now. It’s very difficult. I despise this woke movement. Why were they asleep for so long? The same injustices were going on. It’s become a religious cult. You see people kneeling in the street, holding up their fists. That’s not going to do anything for black people.’

Banville also writes crime novels under a pen name, Benjamin Black, but he said he was appalled by the increasingly graphic nature of violence in other writers’ crime books. ‘I don’t want to go back to the Agatha Christie thing where somebody gets shot but there’s no blood, but the glory in slaughter – I’m speechless,’ he said.

“Last year, the Booker prize was split between two women, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo. This year’s winner, Shuggie Bain, was written by Douglas Stuart, a white Scot, about his childhood in Eighties Glasgow, where he grew up with his alcoholic mother.

“The author, now resident in New York, told the Telegraph after his win: ‘People sometimes want to know if I’m a Scottish writer or an American writer, or a working class writer or a gay writer, but the truth is I’m all of those things and hopefully a few other things, too.’

“When Banville took the prize, he said in his speech. ‘It’s nice to see a work of art winning the Booker Prize.’ John Sutherland, the chairman of the judges, called it ‘a masterly study of grief, memory and love recollected.'”

I’m not convinced that the woke movement has such a great effect on the Booker, but I think Banville has a point when he suggests that the movement is more focused in achieving attention rather than change.

6 Misconceptions about Writing – No. 5

Rebecca Mclanahan wrote an enlightening essay on writing of which this is the fifth of six instalments.

I think this is probably the best of the six instalments, and it resonates a lot with me.

Rebecca McClanahan

Misconception # 5: Writers publish their work and get famous or rich or
When people ask me what I do for a living, I try to change the subject. If they
persist, I tell them that I teach writing, judge writing contests, edit manuscripts,
and give lectures and readings. These are not lies; I do all these things. They
are, in fact, what I do for a living—that is, to pay the rent and health insurance.
What I do for a life is write, and that’s the part that’s hard to explain. I feel the
way Louis Armstrong must have felt when he was asked to define jazz. “If you
have to ask,” he answered, “nothing I say’s gonna help.”
One of the problems with admitting that you’re a writer is that people
invariably want to know what you write. Or maybe they don’t want to know, but
at least they ask. It doesn’t work to answer “words.” Sometimes, if we’re lucky
and if we keep putting words on the page, poems or stories or novels or essays
eventually emerge, but we don’t really write them. What we write is one word,
then the next, and the next. Seen this way, writing is a very democratic pursuit.
It’s like the old line about how the president puts on his pants: one leg at a time,
just like you, just like me. Seen this way, a Nobel laureate writes the same way
a first grader does: one word at a time.
But as I said earlier, this answer doesn’t go over well at cocktail parties. So
you mumble something like “poems,” hoping to put an end to it.
“Oh really,” they say. “What kind?”

Now you’ve done it. What are you supposed to answer? Long poems? Short?
Serious? Free verse? Poems about wilted lettuce, dying dogs, rivers? “Very bad
poems,” I might answer right now, thinking of the draft I’m currently struggling
The conversation can go anywhere from here, but usually it moves in one of
these directions:
“My wife (or daughter or son or second cousin) writes poems too. It’s a great
hobby, don’t you think?”
“Doesn’t anyone believe in rhyme anymore?”
“I have this great idea for a poem. All I have to do is write it.”
Or my personal favourite, “Would I know your work?” Another Louis Armstrong
question: If they have to ask, nothing you say’s gonna help. At this point in the
conversation, it’s probably best just to shake your head No and try once again to
change the subject. At this point, it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve
published five well-reviewed books, one recipe in your church newsletter, or
nothing at all. Though the questioner probably means well and is only trying to
make polite gestures, it’s hard after one of these conversations not to feel
devalued. A man at a dinner party once suggested that, since no one really
reads the kind of things I write, maybe I should write a novel instead. I didn’t tell
him that I had done just that—that in fact I’d written three and that I’d had a
great time writing them and one of them was pretty good if I do say so myself,
though the other two, well…
I didn’t tell him, because what he seemed to be saying wasn’t that I should
write a novel, but that I should publish the kind of novel that lots of people would
read, a book that would make oodles of money and/or make me famous. The
man was a nice guy, probably a good husband and father, maybe even someone
with a passion for painting or gardening or woodworking or sculpting, who
pursued his passion privately, intensely, the way I pursue writing.

Even so, I felt it best not to tell him about the novels. When we stand outside
a process, when we’re on the outside looking in, it’s impossible to imagine what
goes on inside. The man was on the outside looking in, and, corny as this might
sound, my memory of writing the unpublished novels was just too precious to
share with him. Only I knew what those years had meant to me. What if he
brushed those years aside as if they were so much lint? I wanted to keep the
memory of each writing day inside me, the way I keep each unpublished essay
and poem, even the most flawed, warm and safe within its folder or box. To
those standing outside the process, only writing that gets published and makes
the writer famous and/or rich, matters. To writers living within the process, every
word matters, even if no eyes but our own ever read those words.