Blast from the Past: Writing Takes More than Inspiration

This month I’m replaying some of my favorite posts about the art and craft of writing. Here’s one from June 2018. The events that inspired (no pun intended) the post still make me alternately laugh and shake my head.


Reminder: Writing takes more than inspiration


Once, at a book event, a man asked me how long a novel takes to write.

I told him that for most of my career I’ve written one novel a year.

He stepped back like I’d hit him in the forehead with a spitball. “No way. A book every year? That’s impossible.”

I assured him it was extremely possible. “Deadlines are fantastically motivating.”

He frowned and shook his head. “You can’t write to a schedule.”

“Professional writers do it all the time.”

His expression shifted toward disdain. “But you can’t schedule inspiration.”

As I started to reply, he went on. Writing regularly? Ridiculous. “That’s not how inspiration works,” he said. The idea that I would deliberately sit down to write, when inspiration hadn’t driven me to the keyboard… His lips pursed.

I realized: He thinks I’m a hack.

He thought that to have imaginative value, every word an author writes must originate in an ineffable bolt of creative lightning. Unplanned. Uncontrollable. That crafting a piece of writing renders it crass and somehow inauthentic. He was a businessman, not a novelist; he admitted that the writing process was entirely foreign to him. But no matter how I explained it, he couldn’t abandon the idea that I was doing writing wrong.

I’d been invited to this event to give a speech. I’d been flown across half a continent, actually, to tell an audience of 500 people how I came to be an author with more than a dozen published novels to my credit. By pure coincidence my talk, which I gave shortly after this conversation, discussed the interplay between inspiration and craft. Inspiration is wonderful, I said. But when you’re in the trenches writing a novel, constant inspiration is neither necessary nor sufficient. Grab it when it strikes. But when it doesn’t? That’s when experience, and discipline, and a knowledge of dramatic structure, along with an understanding of plot and character and suspense — in other words, craft — will carry you across the finish line. Then you can recharge. And revise.

Inspiration, I said, looks a lot like work.

I don’t know if the man who challenged me heard the speech. Our conversation had wrapped up when he commented that he guessed publishing is a business, so he supposed that writers need to supply it with material. Then he shrugged.

“What do I know about it? I don’t read.”

4 responses to “Blast from the Past: Writing Takes More than Inspiration

  1. I think I would have wanted to smack him upside the head. Of course you are more civilized and kind than I am!

  2. Ha — I think I was holding a plate and a fork during the conversation, thankfully keeping my hands engaged.

  3. What I couldn’t believe here was the fact it takes you a year. Your writing feels so effortless, just so natural and easy. I would have guessed a few months and that’s figuring in family life and other activities.

    I just started UNSUB — I am behind in my reading — but it isn’t going to take me long to catch up. You keep me engaged from minute one. I hate having to walk away to do all those pesky human chores.

    And one of the things you do that is strategically brilliant? You keep your chapters short. I have always said, I don’t care if a book is a thousand pages, if you keep those chapters short, I will be a hundred deep in no time and then you’ve got me. A hundred pages seems to be my magic number. I will be reading and get to the end of a chapter. I count how many pages the next one is. If it’s short I think, one more. I can read one more. And I get to the end of that one and do it again. One a.m. rolls around and I am an active participant in the story. Part of the team trying to figure it out. Does any of this make sense? Terrific writer.

    All the best

    • It makes me so happy to hear that I keep you up at night.

      And it takes a lot of time to make a book read like I just tossed it off in a few months. 😃

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