Writers, words and time

Words and time are something every writer wrestles with. Two truths sum up the dilemma:

  1. There is never enough time to write.
  2.  When you do write, you never produce as many words as you’d like.

Professional writers and those who are serious about writing, even if they have other obligations, such as day jobs and or young families, learn to set aside time every day – or at least every week – to practise their craft. And it’s called practise because, just like playing the piano, the more you do it, the better you get.

But what constitutes a reasonable writing practise? Many professionals set themselves a minimum word count each day. According to “The Daily Word Counts of 39 Famous Authors,” Ernest Hemingway aimed for 500 words a day while Sophie Kinsella manages 1,000 and Stephen King averages 2,000.

Once, I conducted a 30 minute phone interview and completed a 1,000 word article within two hours. But most nonfiction projects – especially a book – rarely move that quickly. What seems like a simple sentence can lead to hours of fact-checking or tracking down elusive sources.

So, instead of setting daily word counts, I don’t consider my work day over until I’ve put in a minimum of five intensely focused hours on my book. That can include interviews and research, as well as writing. In fact, research can make up as much as 75% of the time I spend on a nonfiction book.

At the end of five hours, I may have written five pages, five paragraphs or five sentences. I put in the time but the words – and research – set their own pace. In an interview by Alan Twigg posted on BC Booklook, the late Al Purdy, poet extraordinaire, noted that he wrote the title poem to Caribou Horses in 30 minutes while another poem, “Postscript,” took seven years.

When you write can make a difference too. In “Famous Authors Routines: Rise Early, Work Early, and Count The Words,” David Paul Kirkpatrick observes that many famous authors get up early – even before first light – to write.

I must confess, the solitary silence of early morning is my favourite – and most productive – time to write. The house and neighbourhood are quiet, it’s highly unlikely the phone will ring and my brain is unsullied by the chatter and occurrences of the day. That’s when it’s easiest to lose myself in my work.

A computer generated collage by artist Bev Byerley. www.bevbyerley.com

A computer generated collage by artist Bev Byerley. www.bevbyerley.com

Occasionally, I even flip the angst of insomnia into creative energy by getting up to write. Tiptoeing to the computer with mug of tea in hand feels slightly naughty and I know I’ll surrender to sleep at some point in the day. But in the meantime, I’m distracted from whatever was keeping me awake…and, strangely, the words seem to fill the page faster than usual.

I never take my work (or self) too seriously at 2 am so that may explain the tsunami of sentences. But part of the magic, I’m sure, comes from being somewhere between consciousness and sleep, that dreamy, half-awake state that shuts off the inner censor and allows the muse to creep in.

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Four writers, four questions #4 Rick James

The last installment of Four writers, four questions.

What are you working on right now?

For the past five or so years, I’ve been immersed in researching and writing about West Coast rum running, a fascinating topic which soon became an obsession. In January 1920, the National Prohibition or Volstead Act was officially declared in the U.S. of A. Meanwhile, voters in British Columbia decided, that after three years, they’d had enough of their government’s own failed attempt to curtail the consumption of alcohol and brought it to an end in a plebiscite that year. As a result, with liquor legal on one side of the border and outright illegal just over the line, rum running into the United States from British Columbia soon proved an extremely lucrative enterprise.

My primary focus has been to explore how rum running was operated out of British Columbia and down along the U.S. coast and even into Mexican waters. Basically, my goal is to provide not only a comprehensive history of the various vessels and characters involved in the maritime liquor trade, but also to explore the major economic and political consequences of what quickly proved a very rewarding enterprise for all involved. 

Why is this meaningful to you?

018Maritime history has always been of particular interest to me especially having been born and raised on Canada’s West Coast and spending a lot of time out on the water ever since I was a boy sports fishing with dad on southern Vancouver Island. For most of my life, I’ve lived, worked and continue to explore this unique coastal environment. In the late 1980s, I delved deeper into these waters by researching our coast’s maritime history and attempting to identify the fascinating collection of fifteen old ships that made up Royston’s hulk breakwater. (Up until the time, nobody had kept a record of what was buried there were.) This soon led to various research and writing endeavours first appearing in the Victoria Times Colonist and Western Mariner magazine.

What is your process?

A good portion of my research time is spent in various archives thumbing through old newspaper microfilms attempting to unravel coastal tales and mysteries. I think the key to my success is that I’m somewhat of an obsessive compulsive individual when it comes to research. God only knows how many hundreds upon hundreds of hours I’ve spent ferreting out original, primary source material or flipping through reels upon reels of old newspaper microfilm chasing down a first-hand account of ship’s sinking. I’ve also spent one heck of a lot of time searching through libraries and archives all the way from the readily accessible B.C. Archives in Victoria, the Vancouver Maritime Museum and right down to the J. Porter Shaw Maritime Research Centre in San Francisco.

Then there’s the actual process of sitting down in front of my keyboard and monitor and sorting through the mess of photocopied records and newspaper stories all stacked on my desk and trying to bring some semblance of order to it all. (This part of the process has always been a problem for me since I’m somewhat of a hyper personality and find it hard to remain seated for any length of time.) But once immersed in a tale that grabs my interest, I’ve learned over time that I can really pound out text; especially when I’m onto a real good story line.

 Why do you write?

I still think of myself as a student rather than as a ‘historian’ and my greatest reward is learning about different events, many of which are fast disappearing from local memory. But when comes right down to it, being able to piece a story together and then share your sleuthing research with others via publication really keeps me inspired. And many a time, following a stories publication, I’ve received a phone call or a letter in the mail from an old salt to say he really enjoyed the story, but just wants to set me straight regarding a fact or two. I find that particularly rewarding. But still, as all writers know, seeing one’s creative endeavours out there on newsstands or in bookstores to be read by all, is perhaps a better reward than the cheque received from a publisher.

Rick James’ work has appeared in numerous periodicals including British Columbia Magazine, The Beaver: Canadas History Magazine, The Sea Chest: Journal of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society and Western Mariner. He is also the author of Raincoast Chronicles 21: West Coast Wrecks & Other Maritime Tales and the Underwater Archaeological Society of B.C. publication: Ghost Ships of Royston, as well as co-author of  its Historic Shipwrecks of the Sunshine Coast, and Historic Shipwrecks of B.C.s Central Coast reports.

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Four writers, four questions #3 Deborah Griffiths

Here’s the third installment of Four Writers, Four Questions. Installment #4 will be posted next week.

What are you working on right now?

I have a combination of light and intense work on the daily writing menu right now. I’ve just finished co-authoring Watershed Moments-A Pictorial History of Courtenay and District. It was a great experience working with my co-authors  and the editors at Harbour Publishing.

This process inspired me to go back to my second novel, Snow on the Monashee and clean it up. This is light work and gives me a view of how my approach to writing- and the world- has changed since I wrote it in 2014.

My more intense work is creating an outline for a new historic non-fiction book. I love research and discovery so this is exciting and I enjoy putting pieces of a puzzle together and creating an outline. The nice thing about outlines is that they’re so fluid. The basic bones remain the same as I move along; but the flow around them changes as I progress.

Why is this meaningful to you?

Right now, being able to move back and forth between fiction and non-fiction is meaningful to me. Until recently, I’ve put them into two categories, as though I had to choose between one friend and another. Non-fiction has always been my “work” as a curator and contractor. It’s enjoyable, but I use different processes for it than I do for fiction. I’m learning that creating both improves my writing.

DebWhen working on Watershed and talking to Paula about it, she gave me some great advice about presenting history in a pleasurable reading style. Seeing the response to the book and working with the other authors’ styles has been an eye-opener. I’ve begun to worry less about what readers think about my writing and to focus more on what I bring to life and the readers’ enjoyment.

I’ve also recently been reading books like In Fact: The Best of Creative Non-Fiction by Lee Gutkind. This has helped me remove my self-imposed style boundaries between fiction and non-fiction.

What is your process?

My process involves taking my curiosity and wrapping that up with a love of work, daily routine and focus. Pair this with intermittent procrastination, insecurity and second-guessing and it’s a typical week.

For ongoing learning, I read a lot. I also subscribe to a couple of blogs that delve into the nitty-gritty of writing and push me. One is Daphne Grey Grant’s Publication Coach (Vancouver) blog. Her take is that writing is open to the public and it’s not a higher mystery. It requires organization, work, strategy and inspiration from reading, listening and all aspects of life.

Finally, I have wonderful friends and family who are patient with my rough drafts and projects. My family tends to see plain-old-everyday writing as a fine means of expression. The more humour the better. Growing up, my father wrote poems and put them into our brown-bag lunches. My mother was a crossword aficionado and more. My uncle is 97 and just published a book of 97 poems. The list goes on. How lucky could I be?

Why do you write?

I write because it’s a creative state of constant improvement, learning and discovery. It’s a world of acknowledging and following connections and possibilities. I’m able to take my pick of subjects: people, nature, animals, landscapes, seascapes and skyscapes, past, present, future-and run with it. A free-range writer.

Deborah Griffiths is the author of two fiction books (written under the pen name Deborah Greene) and three non-fiction books including Heather’s Amazing Discovery (finalist, children’s non-fiction, Vancouver Children’s Literature Roundtable) and Watershed Moments—A Pictorial History of Courtenay and District (with Christine Dickinson, Judy Hagen and Catherine Siba).



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Four writers, four questions #2 Susan Ketchen

Here’s the second installment of Four Writers, Four Questions. Installment #3 will be posted next week.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a new novel. There seem to be a lot of dogs in it. A dead body is found and lost and found again but in the wrong place. People try to be helpful but make everything more complicated. The dogs behave badly, just as they often do in real life, and their owners are always in denial. Still, it is fiction. I’m about halfway in and don’t know what it’s about, though sometimes when I’ve completed a novel I still don’t know what it’s about. I prefer to leave that matter to readers anyway.

Why is this meaningful to you?

Relationships are perplexing. Whether they are between people, or between people and other animals, relationships are complicated, many-layered and in some ways unknowable. I like to explore this perplexity by writing about it.

What is your process?

I start each day with the usual eating/brushing/dressing routines, and before I park my butt in a chair for the no-longer-recommended period of sitting, I get a little exercise by tending to the horses. Then I have a coffee and reacquaint myself with my brain and my husband before heading to my office.

P1020091_2_2I re-read what I wrote the day before, do minimal editing, then plunge ahead. 1,000 words is the minimum satisfying amount. If I do 2,000 I am ecstatic. Usually I have only a vague sense of where I am going; this is where the magic happens.

I write until I have 35,000 words and some sort of ending, then I go back and edit. Some people edit down, but I edit up. I aim for 50,000 words, which is short for a novel, but my brain has trouble holding onto a larger universe.

When I have 50,000 and (hopefully) a great ending, I edit again, print each chapter and read it aloud to my guardedly critical husband.

I make a few changes, and send the manuscript to one or two trusted readers. I make more changes based on their comments. That’s the end of my writing process and the beginning of the “What am I going to do with this manuscript?” process.

Why do you write?

Brene Brown says that unused creativity is not benign. It’s something like a border collie that lives in an apartment: if you don’t give it a job, it will find one. Furniture may suffer.

Sometimes I use my creativity for tasks other than writing novels. I may need to deal with the medical system, or neighbours with dogs, or conflicting opinions about the longevity of my car.

At other times, when life is being agreeable, I use my creativity on imaginary worlds, because if I don’t I will create drama and difficulty where in fact there is none. Or probably there is none. Or there is none if I ignore it for long enough.

Outside of the potential malignancy problem, I write because I like to make people laugh. I like to explore things I don’t really understand by writing about them. And I like it when I can transmit my thoughts or explorations out into the world.

Susan Ketchen is the author of the Born That Way series, featuring a fourteen-year old girl born with Turner Syndrome. The fourth in the series, Rides That Way, will be published by Oolichan Books in the fall of 2016



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