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Home » Blogs » Jack Whyte's blog

This Writing Life

I'm heading off to BC's Sunshine Coast next weekend (August 12-15) to attend the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts, in Sechelt, and to me that means High Summer and the opening of the annual LitFest and Conference season.

I realized that while sitting at my computer early this morning, going through old files, prior to my semi-annual purge of extraneous bumff, and the catalyst that prompted the insight was the discovery of an article (it was actually a Q&A interview, done by email) that I did seven years ago for a small newspaper in the Okanagan Valley. The reporter asked me only two questions, but they were meaty ones and they elicited answers that struck me this morning, in retrospect, as being every bit as relevant and true today as they were then, in 2003. And so I offer them here in the hope that they might resonate with some of my readers...

Question 1) I am curious about what makes writers want to help each other and share "tips" at conferences like the one planned for Salmon Arm. Why do you take part? Does your own writing benefit from the interaction?

Answer: I suspect it has rather a lot to do with the fact that, as a writer of fiction (I can’t speak for non-fiction writers) you spend months, and frequently years, in the basement, hammering away at a word processor as you try to write a book that tells an entire story—in my case an entire Tale—in your own words, and to do it so successfully and so personally that you will find yourself recognized by your peers and others as having a unique and distinctive style.

Then, once the book is finished and done, you emerge into the light again; they let you out of the basement and you immediately want to go looking for someone with whom you can share the joy and exhilaration of your achievement. Unfortunately, there are not many of those around. Because they are all writers of one stripe or another. No other person, be it spouse, colleague, friend or neighbour, can share your glee at that time unless they themselves are writers and have experienced the highs and lows of struggling to write something worthwhile … The degree of success achieved by the person with whom you share your experience is utterly irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether or not he or she has been published or is successful in the sales arena. The only relevance lies within the fact that he or she understands, as no non-writer ever can, the euphoria that is sometimes born of the never-ending struggle to find words that express, adequately, what you were trying to say when you wrote that phrase, sentence or paragraph that had frustrated you for such a length of time. Of course, there are never enough of such qualified people around when you need them, so we tend to go overboard in encouraging potential colleagues to join the fold, and we find ourselves becoming willing and happy to spend time at writers’ conferences and gatherings, encouraging emerging writers to continue the struggle and to persevere in the face of what can sometimes seem like an endless flood of rejections.

A cynic might say we do those things because misery loves company, but I think there’s a lot of truth to the other explanation I heard recently: that most writers are so astonished and overwhelmed by the satisfaction and enjoyment they glean from what they do, that they genuinely want to share the joy with others. And of course, there’s the additional consideration that, with every newcomer you can encourage to join the trade and drop all the so-called ‘normal’ things in life in favour of wrestling with the ever changing rules of language, you’ve successfully decreased the number of people out there who say, “Yeah, I know you’re a writer, but what do you do for a living?”

Question 2) How much of a writer do you need to be in order to take part in a "writers' conference? Over the years, as a reporter and observer, I have heard several people wondering aloud if they are good enough to take part in one festival or another. Should you already be published? Should your goal be to become a professional? Tell me your thoughts.

Answer: You don’t have to be much of a writer to participate in a writers’ conference. You don't have to be a writer at all. All you need is a modicum of curiosity about what goes on at these things, and perhaps the tiniest, most remote of proddings, no matter how deeply buried at the back of your mind, pushing you towards maybe writing something of your own, some day. It doesn’t matter what you think you might want to write about, either. You might simply want to write a diary of your own. Or you might want to turn an old diary written by someone else into a fictional story, or even a straightforward narrative of factual history, family or otherwise. Whatever it is, you can be part of the 99.9% of people who spend their lives saying, “Some day I’m going to write a book,” or you can do it. You can spend your entire life talking about writing that book some day, but the only way to do it, irrespective of who or what you are, is to plant your backside in a chair and physically write it, and it doesn’t matter whether you start at the beginning or in the middle. The most important thing is that you start. And sometimes, attending something as off-the-wall as a writers’ conference can be the kick-start you need to get going.

You certainly don’t need to have grand ambitions about writing dozens of books. If anyone had told me, back in the Seventies when I set out to tell the story that had popped into my mind, that I would write five big, fat novels before I even reached the point I had wanted to make at the outset, I never would have started in the first place.

Even as it was, I began by writing for myself, for my own eyes only, because I knew there was a story in me trying to get out, and I wasn’t sure that I could write it. And so for a long time I showed it to no one . . . I just kept punching it out, and doing a bit more research every time I got stuck for the answer to a question, such as, “How do you do that? How do you smelt iron? What’s smelting, anyway?” I kept digging, a little at a time and purely for my own pleasure, and the story kept getting bigger and bigger. I did that for ten years before I showed my work to anyone, and then I kept churning for three years after that before I grew brave enough to submit it to a publisher—by then it had been thirteen years, and there was a very real danger that someone could come back and say, “Sorry, Chum, you just wasted thirteen years of your life, because this is really bad.” Fortunately, that didn’t happen, but it could have.

Writing has to be one of the loneliest occupations in the world, because a writer is always alone during the creative process. People who attend these festivals—and most particularly the conference-style gatherings—can find out about what that kind of loneliness is like, and they'll soon discover that they are nowhere near being as strange and antisocial and reclusive as they thought they were. They will quickly find out, too, that one of the most wonderful things about being a writer is that you can see yourself improving all the time. So to those people who might be tempted to whisper to themselves that they’re not good enough to attend a writers’ conference, I would like to say this:

“It’s simply not true that you are not good enough. But if you stay away because you really don’t think you are good enough, then you’re never going to know whether you were right or not, and that means you never will be good enough… The other side of the coin is that, even if you are severely impaired in terms of grammatical skills and vocabulary range, you can learn to overcome those problems. They’re only minor. What really matters…and the only thing you really need to have…is a desire to write, and a belief that everyone learns to write by simply writing, and by writing simply. There are no other, deeper secrets, so go to your festival, or your conference, dig in, and enjoy yourself.”

Comments

Greetings, Jack, from the Surrey International Writers' Conference,

Excellent answers! Question number two is one that comes up often when people are thinking about registering for SiWC, and I think your answer is dead on. I was a brand new writer when I attended my first SiWC, with only the beginnings of a novel in hand to justify my attendance. It was a revelation. There's nothing like a weekend spent in the company of others who spend way more time than any non-writer can understand living in their own heads to inspire a new writer to keep at it. The energy I get from the conference, and all I learn every year, no matter how much I may think I already know, keeps my writing going for months afterwards. I'm so glad I made the leap that first year to attend. I didn't feel close to being able to call myself a writer when I signed up, but when I left at the end of the weekend, I knew I was. That alone would have made it a worthwhile experience, but that was only the start of what I took away from it and still do, every year.

Kathy

Kathy Chung
Conference Coordinator
Surrey International Writers' Conference

This is a blog post that hits close to home, Jack.

As one of those you have inspired, I now have a complete novel. It may never see the light of day, and my name might never be forced to elbow the likes of Bernard Cornwell and Simon Scarrow and C.C. Humphries out of the way for space on an endcap at the Big Book Store, but before I go back into the basement I can go outside into the sunlight for just a bit, take a deep breath, and tell myself with the utmost honesty that I Have Written A Book.

Would I have taken it this far if I hadn't heard you speak at the First North American Historical Novel Society Conference? I honestly don't know. I know I laughed when, during your speech, you said that the writing wouldn't kill you but the re-write would. That laugh has come back to haunt me more than just a few times, that's for sure. It still does as I plow through the final edit before I send the first of my queries out to agents.

Since that first HNS conference, though, I have learned so much and gathered so many connections with other basement dwellers that I feel that I have at least a chance. It was at that first conference that I met my talented critique partner and to this day we exchange email several times a month even if we don't have a new chapter to share. By attending subsequent HNS conferences I have gained more confidence and a better understanding of the writing processes and the screening processes used in the publishing industry.

This year I will attend the Surrey Conference for the first time. I've wanted to do so since I first learned of it and it will be a bit of a departure from a conference that focuses on historical novels. That is probably a good thing for me. Getting a weekend away from my regular routine to spend with others that labor alone to produce stories that can transport a reader to ancient Rome or the rim of our galaxy, I know I will come away from it energized and inspired for weeks.

For anyone lurking out there and reading this, listen to what Jack and Kathy and I are saying. If you are writing, make the investment in yourself and attend a writer's conference, even for a day. It can be a lonely hobby (or for the talented few, an avocation) but you will be amazed at how it can inspire you.

Hi There,That is really nice post.I like it very much.It is full of information.I'm curious if the author has ever commented on the magical and supernatural aspects of the legends and myths about King Arthur? Or said why he left them out? And did he aim for historical accuracy with his work? Was there really a Roman-Celtic alliance? These books have made me realise how little I know about history.Thanks for sharing.Keep it up.

MichaeL
testking ccnp Trainer

Surrey Writers

The International Surrey Writers Conference is coming up October 24-26, 2014 in Surrey, BC, Canada. Last year, members of the Forum here lead by user andersm presented to Jack the items pictured including a leather bound collection of stories from readers about Jack and his work.

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