Sunday, August 6, 2017

"A man possessed"/ "Stories don't come from apps, novels don't come from routines"

Mar. 4, 2017 "A man possessed": Today I found this article by Christopher Shulgan in the Globe and Mail:

Christopher Shulgan on his not-so-secret life as a ghostwriter

It was late at night on a dirt road in the Michigan wilderness. An auto industry executive and I were driving to his vacation home to hole up for a few days to work on a manuscript. Then the headlights illuminated a tree the snowstorm had blown onto the road. The two of us tramped out into the cold. On a count of three, we heaved at the trunk – and succeeded in moving the thing just a couple of inches.

My client looked at me and grinned.

“I don’t suppose this is in your job description?”

The thing about being a ghostwriter is that it doesn’t really have a job description. I began this line of work by accident. More than a decade ago, I called up the media relations manager for a company that I’d profiled for Toronto Life.

The company had posted the article on its website, a violation of copyright, and taken my name off the story. I’d prefer if they just posted a link to the original article, I said. Sure, the manager agreed. No problem. And by the way – the company sometimes needed a writer. Would I be interested?

Sure, I shrugged over the phone. Why not?

What started with essays and op-eds segued into speeches. I ran an e-mail newsletter that required collaborating with a half-dozen professionals per month. Then came an offer to ghostwrite a book.

Turns out ghostwriting fits well with my abilities. It helps to be impervious to criticism. And psychic when it comes to interpreting editorial feedback. I happened upon the key skill early in my career when I ran a magazine that relied on a handful of volunteer contributors. With more empty pages than writers to fill them, I would dash off articles myself and slap a pen name at the top. The practice helped me develop the ability to write comfortably in a variety of voices.

“A ghostwriter, huh?” an Uber driver asked me recently. “You must be a really good writer.”

And I suppose I am. But that’s not the service that I’m selling to my clients. A few years back, I judged one of CBC’s Canada Writes short story contests. I read hundreds of entries created by amateur writers, and time after time I was blown away by how good the contributions were.

The experience deflated my ego. A distinct voice, a fresh turn of phrase, a well-told anecdote – sure, I manage each one pretty well, but it turns out plenty of people have those abilities.

Once, at a party, somebody asked me why I do it. Didn’t I want my name to be the big one on the cover? “I do it for the cash,” I said. The line earned a guffaw, but like a lot of cheap laughs it wasn’t strictly true. I really enjoy the work.

Aside from therapists, whose job mine sometimes resembles, ghostwriters hear the stories that no one else gets to hear.

People have various ideas about the job. The name, ghostwriter, suggests some sort of subterfuge. Over the 12 or so years I’ve been doing it, I’ve worked with … Oh, hell. I don’t know. Fifty? Let’s say 50 clients. Only a handful have insisted on complete secrecy. Most of them are happy to admit that they’re working with me.

My latest book, The One-Minute Workout: Science Shows a Way to Get Fit That’s Smarter, Faster, Shorter, was written with the McMaster University time-efficient exercise expert, Dr. Martin Gibala. Working on that book was basically my ideal experience. It started when I was interviewing him for another client. Once I was done that job, I called up Marty and mentioned to him that I thought he should do his own book.

“Oh,” he said. “I’d never have time.”
“No,” I said. “I could write it with you.”

I explained the way I worked. We’d meet every week, for about an hour at a time, and just talk. Then I’d edit the transcript of our conversations. He’d read the result and offer feedback. I’d revise, and we’d repeat until both of us were happy.

Marty is a smart guy and, really, he could have written the book himself. Except it would have taken him a lot longer. Because, like most of my clients, he’s also a busy guy – a research scientist who runs a major physiology lab, and the chair of one of the most renowned kinesiology departments around.

Which brings us to the service that I’m actually providing to my clients.

Writing a good book requires big blocks of time. Scads of it. A certain kind that doesn’t exist for most people. The kind without interruptions. Long spans that aren’t punctuated by text messages or e-mail pings, Instagram notifications or Twitter DMs.

My career has confronted me with some remarkable experiences. I’ve suffered altitude sickness on a Himalayan mountaintop, sprinted across an active driving range in Aix-en-Provence and, for an upcoming project in Silicon Valley, ridden in the world’s most advanced self-driving car minutes after interviewing the men who designed it.

Then, I head to my office and I do something that’s not available to most of my clients. I stay off e-mail and avoid social media, and type away on my unnetworked computer for hours at a time.

Many of my clients can write well. Many of them are smarter than I am. And at least one of them can manage to work with his ghostwriter to heave a fallen birch tree off a remote Michigan road, inches at a time.

What they don’t have is the ability to disconnect from life.

Who does but a ghostwriter, these days?

Christopher Shulgan lives and writes in Kensington Market in Toronto.

Children's book: Today I found this blurb by by Anna Fitzpatrick in the Globe and Mail:

Walk With Me

By Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng, translated by Elisa Amado

Groundwood Books, 32 pages, $19

Writer-and-illustrator duo Jairo Buitrago and Rafael Yockteng are the modern masters of writing simple stories for young people with sophisticated subtext. Walk With Me is, on its surface, a lovely little tale about a girl and her imaginary pet lion.

The lion is a gentle but imposing figure, towering over the humans in the story. He provides companionship to the young girl as she walks home from school, strutting down the street while other people stare at the giant creature with looks of comical terror on their faces. The details in the picture tell a more troubling tale.

The young girl is walking through violent neighbourhoods, picking up her infant brother from daycare and cooking dinner while waiting for their mother to come home late from working at a factory. The lion is more than her security blanket – he is her key to functioning, surviving and thriving in a world where the circumstances are stacked against her and her family.

Apr. 6, 2017 "Stories don’t come from apps, novels don’t come from routines": Today I found this article by Russell Smith in the Globe and Mail:

There is a lot of talk about how to write books these days. Not about what is in them, but about how to write them, in the most literal sense: about how to sit in a chair at a table and type, as if this is a skill humankind seems to be forgetting.

Recently I saw a lot of online argument, among writers, over the merits of a “writing app,” a commercial program, which you would pay for, that apparently puts you on a schedule to write a novel in an astoundingly short time.

The app received free publicity last month in a widely circulated Guardian article about a successful author and how he used it. The article was about the British novelist Wyl Menmuir, whose debut novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize last year. The piece was titled How To Finish A Novel but it didn’t exactly deliver on the headline’s promise.

The app used by Menmuir, called Prolifiko, is essentially a productivity tracker: It aims to help you produce a certain number of words a day or month. It claims to be based on psychological research about productivity.

It produces graphs and charts for you to show how you have been meeting your daily word-count goals. Menmuir shared with the Guardian his peaks and troughs, why he faced procrastination and self-doubt in certain periods, and how he overcame them (long walks on the cliff).

It turns out he did write the novel in a short time (just over a year), but whether his word-counting computer software was a decisive factor in this speed remains unproven. He doesn’t talk at all about how he came up with his story in the first place.

The objections that then unfolded on social media focused on the thing that writers always obsess over: the unpublicized value of time. An app that tells you to devote a certain number of hours a day to writing is all very well, if you have those hours.

If you work full-time and have small children, no app in the world is going to provide those hours for you. A far more useful app for writers might be a babysitting exchange. Or a program that applies for grants.

For let’s be honest: Anyone with this amount of free time likely is in a place of financial security. If you are in this place, an app might be great. But this is like recommending a stereo for your Porsche. It’s gravy.

I teach novel-writing myself and have my own objections to productivity-focused systems.

It is odd to me that so many of these apps and guides stress process over product, as if merely writing a certain number of words a day is going to ensure that you invent a gripping story.

Coming up with the story is not some kind of preliminary step, like priming your canvas: It is the crux. Writers will agonize for weeks and months and even years about what exactly happens in their story, filling notebooks with questions to themselves

(“How does Z get the invisible letter back to D without exposing her robotic arm, and how does D read it if he died in the previous chapter?”). This is before they even start writing the chapters. Apps don’t invent characters for you, nor do they imagine their secrets.

My experience is that if you have a clear idea for a story, including a pretty clear idea of how it’s going to end, the daily writing is not the agony that is commonly imagined. There is no “blank page” to stare you down; there is a series of notes to follow. An outline is a far more powerful motivator than a timer.

Here’s a professional writing tip: It doesn’t matter when you write or how often. It’s not yoga.

You can write for nine hours a day three days straight and then do something else for a month. Your editor, and your public, only care what comes out at the end. It’s not prayer; it’s not therapy; it’s not a spiritual journey. The only thing that matters is the collection of pages you submit for your deadline.

Why, then, do so many writing courses and programs focus on daily routines instead of on ideas?

Possibly because, as the philosopher Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Pascal thought that was tough in 1669, and he didn’t have electric light, let alone Pornhub. Now concentration – a facility destroyed by computers – requires a computer program. Many of these helpful programs tell you to turn off all the things that computers do so well.

A more puzzling question might be: Why does there seem to be such a growth in writing apps and guides at all, at a time when the novel – its sales and readership – is by every measurable indicator declining? If no one wants to buy novels, why does everyone want to write them?

The answer to this is also related to technology. It may be hard to write a novel, but it is easier than ever to publish it.

It takes about a half-hour and a few dozen keystrokes to sign a contract with Amazon and post your novel as an e-book; you can start selling e-copies that same day. And this is a great thing. Why should we not all be novelists? This would be a sign of a civilized and peaceful society.

There is a myth that the age of the amateur is diluting the quality of global letters, that too much bad literature is being written and this swamps all else. This is not true.

Ask literary editors if they have too much to choose from these days and they will say nope, there is still not enough. They will say they would publish more books if they could find more excellent manuscripts.

Start telling your story, I say, if you are lucky enough to have the time. And for that, you don’t need an app, or a “writing practice” – you need money.

dwight steadman
2 days ago

Great piece! I think there so much emphasis on the 'industrial' aspects of writing, on production and time management because creativity is a scary thing, it's intangible and eludes the kind of control demanded by the business world. It's also frightening because ultimately (I know I'm going to be excoriated for this), writing a GOOD novel may not be within everyone's reach.

If you want eventually to write a true, moving piece of work (and not just fill 300 pages with ink), the principles of project management won't help you much . In fact, 'wasting' time you may get there a lot quicker. Try reading, daydreaming, taking long walks.
8 Reactions

1 day ago

On those (few) occasion where I have a flash of creativity, it always seems to be linked to downtime. I agree with you. Stop planning your life as a means to avoid "wasting" time. Get outside and let your mind play with your thoughts in the background. You'll likely come up with something. And it's good for the soul and psyche to be outside.
7 Reactions

G Rumble
19 hours ago

And write by hand at first in a small notebook constantly at hand.
4 Reactions

Matt Hughes
2 hours ago

"There is no “blank page” to stare you down; there is a series of notes to follow. An outline is a far more powerful motivator than a timer."

Established authors do a disservice to beginners when they tell them they must outline. I never could. If I'd believed what Mr Smith says, I might have quit before I really got started.

I start with a character in his/her normal situation then create an event that propels that character into a conflict. Then I see how it works out. I'm often halfway or even two-thirds the way through a novel before I know how it's going to end.

And it doesn't take me a year to write one. At a thousand words a day, working most days, I can produce a novel in four months -- and that includes revisions and polishing. I've sold nineteen novels, to publishers large and small, and ghosted three more for other people, to be published under their names.
I'm not rich and famous, but George R.R. Martin did call one of my books "a tremendous amount of fun."

1 day ago

Mr Smith is right on. When it comes to creating any kind of culture either through stories, objects or music we need time and money.
1 Reaction

G Rumble
22 hours ago

But machines will tend to stop you writing 40 word sentences.
Number of Words within Sentences: 1035
Number of Sentences: 55
Average Number of Words/Sentence: 17.542
0.0 0.5 1.0
|****|****| | | | | | | | |
1 Reaction

Rich Mole
1 day ago

Why stop at novels, I wondered?

It doesn't matter what it is you write--biography, self-help, annual report, historical comes down to the same thing that also occurs in other very different lines of endeavour: if you've got three months, that's likely what it'll take to do the job. If you've got a year...the writer will take a year--unless there's another compelling idea/concept/contract that intervenes. And then it's "get this done quick" to get to the "other stuff."

It's a human condition. The external "do-this-or-else" deadline is a great motivator. Self-set deadlines, though...hmm, not so much.
2 Reactions

Dickie Crickets
3 hours ago

If you are like Mishima you don't need an app to get up every day at the same time and write no matter what.
If you're like George R.R. Martin an app won't be able to force you to do so.

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