manuscript and notebook She Who Comes Forth work in progress

Twenty Years a Writer, Part 1: “Think Of It As An Exercise”

In November, it will be twenty years since I became a Writer with a capital W. That’s a different being from one who just happens to write things like term papers, memos, reports, email messages, and journal entries for work or personal reasons. I did that kind of writing all my life. A Writer, on the other hand, writes novels. A Writer writes books.

Writers, I always thought, are special. They are the anointed few, like members of a religious order or secret society. They are interviewed by serious-minded journalists on national radio. Their names are uttered in tones of hushed reverence by readers.

If one hasn’t become a Writer by age thirty, I thought, it’s too late. But in my forties, I actually did it. And have kept doing it. Okay, I haven’t been interviewed on national radio. No one utters my name reverently (as far as I know). But it’s on five novels and a collection of short stories.

Because 2020 is a milestone in my writing career, it’s an excuse opportunity for a series of posts about my approach to writing and publishing.

There will be no advice in these posts, just my experiences and thoughts about them. I’ve given up dispensing advice to fellow writers, at least in the form of “You should do this” and “You should never do that.” Okay, maybe the odd “You may wish to” sneaks in there at times. As do my opinions on advice from others.


November 7th, 2000 was suddenly the right time for me to start writing a novel I had been thinking about for a couple of years. I had an idea I found compelling, and the dark evenings were perfect for the solitary and closeted activity of novel writing. I had recently read Stephen King’s book On Writing. I was all fired up.

I set up a writing space in a spare room in the basement, furnished myself with a 2-inch-thick pile of good-one-side (i.e., scrap) paper and a pen, and started writing what eventually became The Friendship of Mortals.

But writing a novel is a daunting project, especially if you haven’t done it before. Sitting in front of that stack of paper with pen in hand, I had reservations. Who did I think I was? What if I ran out of words, ideas, and images? What if the thing was a dud? What if I never finished it at all?

Then I had an idea: Think of it as an exercise. That cut the project down to size. “Come on,” I told myself, “let’s try it; if it doesn’t work out, no one will know.”

“Exercise” is a good word here, because it’s sort of like adding a few more “reps” when one is doing push-ups or squats. Or running just one more kilometer. “Come on–just one more.” One more paragraph, one more page, one more book.

And of course, it was 100% up to me whether I continued. No one was checking up on me or suggesting I speed things up. No one asked me how many words I had written that day. I was utterly free to write or not. (Twenty years later, I look back on that time with envy.)

The approach worked, or maybe I was just lucky. The project took off and became an obsession. I spent three or four hours on it every evening (after a full day at work) and finished the first draft in six months. In the next five years, I followed it up with two sequels, which ultimately became three when I chopped one of them into two, to form the Herbert West Series.

To keep things in perspective, none of these books was published until 2010. Unlike writing, attracting a publisher was more than an exercise.

What about you, fellow scribes? How did you start your first piece of serious writing? Did you read writing craft books first? Do research? Make an outline? Scribble a bunch of ideas that eventually coalesced?

Next time–the Proto-draft.

65 comments

    1. Thanks, Denzil. Writing with pen on paper made the project less intimidating. Once I finished the first draft, I typed the whole thing out in Word, making changes as I went. I suppose that was the second draft. I still write all my first drafts on paper, even though they’re more like detailed outlines now.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Blog drafts to finish, Vol I & II to re-edit and finally get around to ‘MM’ (Modest Marketing)….There’s always something Audrey
            I’d like to think it will be as the final lines out of the film Shapes of Things To Come (Based on H G Wells):
            “But for Man no rest and no ending. He must go on conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet with its winds and waves. And then all laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him. And at last out throughout cosmos beyond the stars And when he has conquered all the depths of space and the mysteries of time he will still only just be beginning.”……. in a modest way of course.

            Liked by 1 person

  1. Congratulations Audrey on a wonderful achievement(s). I like your idea of making it an exercise. I have self published one book, had a lot of fun writing it. Friends encouraged me to write ,maybe because I had plenty to say. I have started a second book, having a break because it is about my life and it became a tad stressful. I have managed the first 20 years. I am now 70 , if I don’t get it written soon I may not remember .

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  2. It’s cool that you remember THE DAY you decided to become a Writer. I wanted to be a writer since I was in elementary school, but I didn’t start writing until I was middle-aged, and I don’t remember the exact date.

    To answer your question, I do outline, but does it really help me? because I still don’t have a published novel.

    Last night I finished Tales from the Annexe. Alma is my new favorite Driscoll character. The story kinda acts like there will be a sequel to She Who Comes Forth. Yes?! My favorite story is “A Howling in the Woods.” I was scared for both the son and the terrible father.

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    1. That’s why Nov. 7th is Herbert West’s birthday. It took me a long time to figure out I didn’t need a license (in the form of specific life experiences) to be a writer. I don’t do detailed outlines before I start writing something, but I absolutely need to know the ending. I have a bunch of ideas about a sequel to She Who Comes Forth, but as yet no unifying theme or ending. Glad you liked Alma and the howling story. You can still find the recording of the real howling sound on the internet by searching howling sioux lookout. It’s a harrowing sound.

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    1. Thanks, Chuck. I have to admit, I’ve occasionally squinted at some word in one of my manuscripts and even resorted to a magnifying glass once or twice. Once I’ve transcribed that first draft into the word processor, I almost never look at it again. But I still find it a good way to start a new piece.

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  3. Audrey, congratulations on your twenty year anniversary as a writer – very productive writing (and gardening) years, I might add. Like any other major undertaking – like renovating a house or re-building an old truck, both of which I’ve done, in writing, I find the first step the most daunting – committing to taking the seed of an idea and crafting it into a novel. I find that by taking it one scene at a time, I feel a sense of satisfaction with each completed scene. Of course, re-writes will surely follow.

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    1. Many of us do need to use some sort of psychological trick to get over our own mental barriers. Then there’s the whole question of whether/when to tell family and friends that you’re writing a novel. It all depends on one’s own situation. You’re right–it is really satisfying to build the book as a series of scenes. Once it’s complete, the editing and rewriting is a different sort of project.

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  4. Hello Audrey. I enjoyed the post very much. 20 years is a milestone all right. I don’t think I ever decided to be a writer, I just sort of drifted into it and it took a few years for me to take it seriously myself. Yes, I read the “how to” books, and yes, I always write an outline – it’s a safety net for me. I have found, and I’m sure we all have, that I improve as I go; editing is much easier now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An outline is sort of like a map. I don’t outline the whole work methodically, although I make a lot of notes as I’m working up to a novel or story, and use notes to figure out details as I go along. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  5. I started writing seventeen years ago, at the ripe old age of 39. I always wanted to write a novel, and one day I outlined a story in my head and started writing. It took me a year to write the first draft, another year to rewrite it, and during that whole process I started writing short stories and filling my head with ideas for more novels.

    As with you, I look back at what I did then with envy. It was far easier then. Now I struggle much more with writing. Something about doing it more rises the bar of expectations.

    Congrats on 20 years!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mark. I guess it is expectations that make every book a bit harder. With the first one, there’s nothing to compare to and the whole thing is a lark. I’ve thought maybe getting older is another reason; somehow making the jump from ideas to words is harder. On the other hand, I find once I have something drafted, it doesn’t take as much work to whip it into shape as it used to.

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  6. A book in six months is amazing, Audrey. I took a year to write and edit While the Bombs Fell and even longer with Through the Nethergate. A Ghost and His Gold, which is coming out in Jan 2021, took me over 18 months to write and edit. You are very driven.

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    1. I was driven and obsessed with the Herbert West Series books. I wrote them all (about 500K words) in five years while working full time. Then I took a shot at getting published for another 5 years until I discovered self-publishing in 2010. I spent the next 5 years editing those books and publishing them in both ebook and print form. Since 2015, I’ve written only one more novel and the story collection, and I’ve been retired since 2016. The initial creative effort is tougher now. If I manage to write another two or three novels, I’ll be doing well. Thanks for your comment, Robbie.

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      1. After spending all of 2019 trying and failing to come up with my next novel, in desperation, I decided to just write modest stories, and not worry about word count. I found it liberating. On that smaller scale, I could write a first draft in two months or less, making the process much less daunting. Just a thought.

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        1. That’s sort of what I did, and have just published a bunch of those stories as a collection. Some writers find flash fiction a good form, especially for improving their prose-tightening techniques. Moreover, I understand there are venues for getting short pieces published, if that’s what one wants.

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  7. I’ve been writing since 1969, including a 17-year hiatus after my mother had a stroke. I was a librarian with a graduate degree in English literature, plus an English-teacher mother who taught me everything anybody needs to know about grammar, but I never planned to become a writer. It was strictly the inspiration of reading Tolkien that got me started. Here’s a blog post I wrote awhile back that tells you more than you really need to know on this subject. https://termitewriter.blogspot.com/2016/02/journey-of-writer.html

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    1. I think I read Tolkien a couple of years after you, maybe 1972. I reread LOTR many times after that, and I’m sure it helped form my ideas on how to write. Like you, I’ve never taken creative writing courses and often question writing rules (apart from grammar, which is the fundamental structure). Readers of the present day should be grateful for the incredible wealth of writing that is available now, thanks to the internet and all of us writers who discovered ourselves and didn’t give up.

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  8. TFoM is a top notch first effort. Way higher quality than nearly every other debut novel I’ve read.

    SWCF was written, what 3-4 years ago? I’d have thought you’d get more prolific as they years and experience mounted.

    What’s next? Short stories of the Apocalypse?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Strangely, I find it’s harder to be productive now. Maybe it’s old age creeping up, or just laziness. If I can manage a book every two years, I’ll be doing well. Next might be a sequel to SWCF. There are a lot of good plot elements lying around, and some characters I wouldn’t mind spending time with, but I haven’t found a mainspring for the thing as yet. Some sort of Apocalypse seems to be looming, so maybe readers will need a diversion from it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is very respectable. Well done you. It took me 5 years to find my publisher, a small independent traditional publisher and I’m very happy with her. But had I not found her, I may have gone the self-publishing route as well.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I love stories such as yours, Audrey. I admire anyone who commits to a goal and sticks with it. The fact that you were working fulltime speaks to your commitment.

    Part of the reason I think I like your story is that I am older and getting serious about writing. We need to have the belief that we can accomplish our goals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A bit of obsession helped me to stick to the writing goal, and in 2010 I was also inspired to publish my first novel myself, in ebook form. Over the next few years, added more books and undertook print versions as well. It was quite an effort, but worth it.
      Writing is one thing a person can do without being athletic, great looking, or glamorous. It’s a true creative activity and probably good for the brain. I certainly wish you well on your writing projects, Pete. Your blog shows you have an engaging style and lots to say.

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        1. Actually, there’s a “resurgence” in typewriter use right now. A typewriter repair guy in Saskatoon got a letter from Tom Hanks (who is a typewriter enthusiast) recently. But I doubt if many writers use them seriously anymore. Computers can do way more things.

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  10. Great story. I look forward to reading more in this vein. I particularly like the comment of being a Writer with Capital W. I’ve had that luxury for many years because I was employed as a technical writer. I used to say “Dozens of people read my work regularly because they’re forced to” ha ha – but it counted. And then I became I became a poet and I have long said, “There are poets, and there are Poets, and I am poet.” You see what I did there. 🙂

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