writing

Who Does Stuart Connelly Think He Is?

Any writer who is not bullshitting himself knows that his best work comes at the intersection of talent and dread. 

I’m scaring myself. I’m making myself uncomfortable. I’m going to screw this up. 

If you’re constantly telling yourself such things as you write, congratulations. You’re a writer. And if you’re lucky, you forge on in spite of those fears, and some of the unease seeps into your writing, where it can actually be useful.

Author Director Stuart Connelly

No one makes me uneasy like Stuart Connelly.

He’s a journalist, a screenwriter, filmmaker, columnist, and a coauthor of historical nonfiction. He is also a handsome, nervous man who’s really good at scaring the shit out of people.

I first got a taste of his writing more than 25 years ago, when I heard him read one of his short stories aloud in a writing class. You’re supposed to be quiet during those things but our instructor, the elegantly mustachioed Tobias Wolff, couldn’t contain himself and guffawed with delight at a critical point. That was the cue for the rest of us. We were, all of us, having a blast—until Connelly got to that damned flesh cauterization scene.

That’s Connelly. He writes so well, so precisely, so humorously, and yet so creepily that he makes PEN/Faulkner Awardees laugh, cry, and wish they’d stayed home under the covers that day.

About eight years ago, Connelly and I chatted about one of his recently released novels. You can get a sense of his love for language in the way he answers my questions. The interview was just too good to let languish on my old blog, so I’m rescuing it and giving it new life here.

Since then, Connelly has directed two films—The Suspect and American Gothic—and produced another (Natural Selection). He’s also authored several novels and co-authored nonfiction books. 

The interview first appeared shortly after the release of one of his horror novels. Enjoy our talk, then get the book.

The new novel is called HAVEN HOUSE. What, in 10 words or less, is all this nonsense about?*

Haven House by Stuart Connelly

I can do it in three: boy meets ghoul. No, actually, it’s about Amy Armstrong, a pregnant New York City architect who inherits the ultimate restoration project, a 300-year-old farmhouse. She views the project and the rural town as a chance to start anew after a terrible assault. But there is some information about this inheritance, this property, and even the baby she’s carrying that the townspeople don’t want her to know. Something evil, and on a very grand scale. I may be over ten there. Can I borrow against 10-word descriptions of my future books?

In your promo copy, you tell people that if they like “The Lottery,” Rosemary’s BabyThe Shining, they’ll like your book. Who the hell are you to lump yourself in with literary giants such as Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, and Uncle Stevie?

I didn’t do it; that was my publicist. I can’t compare my literary skills with those folks or anyone, that’s up to readers to see whatever connective tissue is apparent to them. Comparing types of story is something different, however, so I will say this about those comparisons, without giving too much away: Haven House puts a new twist on the moldy haunted house genre (à la The Shining), features a woman whose pregnancy sets horrible events in motion (à la Rosemary’s Baby), and has at its center the dark secret pact that binds together the people in an isolated town as well as the dreadful randomness of who that darkness impacts (à la “The Lottery”). So all I’m really saying is: if you dig chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla ice cream, I have a half-gallon of Neapolitan for you.

Hey—is it not a fact that you are like one degree of separation away from Ira Levin, and didn’t you go to his house for some holiday?

Yeah. The first professional novelist I ever met, so of course it’s not going to be some midlist-er I can wrap my mind around. It’s Ira freakin’ Levin. I had Thanksgiving with him, and after dinner he broke out those little explosive champagne bottle party favors. We shot them at the dining room chandelier. The thing was covered with streamers from years of previous holiday dinners and we added to it. Indoor fireworks! He made being a writer look fun, which I later realized was attributable to the fact that I saw him when he wasn’t writing. We used to drive to New York City to see Deathtrap on Broadway and then go backstage, walk around on the set. In fact, now that I think about it, the film I wrote and am producing this fall, The Suspect, owes some artistic debt to Deathtrap. Thanks, Ira.

In your novel, one poor wretch is quartered—his body literally torn apart into four pieces—and another is bisected. What have you got against whole people, or are you trying to teach some kind of sick lesson in fractions?

A haunted house novel where the house is in scattered ruins for the first half of the book could conceivably have the scares too delayed. I wanted to start by showing how high the stakes are in the town of Covenant Parish, and some of the horror is of the non-supernatural kind. Man’s cruelty. 

You and your family live on a farm much like the demonic estate described in your novel. Does the countryside spook you for real? Are you, as Woody Allen says, “two with nature”?

When I first met my future wife, I had this little original Mac and I had taped a cancelled U.S. stamp right above the screen. It showed the state of Wyoming, a vast prairie. She asked me why and I told her it was my dream to be a full-time writer in a small town with a big rambling property. Be careful what you wish for.

In other horror novels, when someone buys or inherits a house, the house is already possessed. But in yours, the unwitting couple actually assembles the evil. Why’d you do it that way? What have you got against freestanding, wholly existing evil?

There’s always the-house-was-built-on-a-burial ground trope which has been, forgive me, done to death. And what I found so interesting about our place—Modoc Spring—is that they dug up the stones from the field, where they are worse than useless, and built a house out of them. Nothing goes to waste. The house and the ground beneath it are inseparable, and if the grounds are haunted, stacking these stones into some kind of order felt to me like a focusing effect. So my novel grew out of the observation that in every haunted house story, the house is already de facto in existence—and evil—long before the story starts. I thought, what if we came at it as a dismantled evil force that needed human hands to restore its power. You put in an architect with the dream of restoring a completely destroyed structure, and you’ve put the lightning rod in your protagonist’s hand.

You are a hybrid author in the sense that you are traditionally published and self-published. What do you think about self-publishing?

The short answer is that there were always two barriers to publishing: literary talent and printing. Traditional publishers said, “You get over the first hurdle and we’ll take care of the second.” The reason self-publishing traditionally had a bad reputation is that they said, “We’ll get you over the second hurdle for a price, and we don’t care about the first.” Mistake, because readers care about the first. Today the second hurdle doesn’t exist. There’s no barrier to entry. Anyone can and does publish. But that first hurdle is very real. Most self-publishing is terribly written. If a wannabe writer and a bookbinder don’t add up to a good book, neither does a wannabe writer and an internet connection. The publishers were right. Only by practicing and studying the craft can you become good enough to succeed in the market beyond friends and family. In my own case, at least having made it through the gauntlet of the New York publishing world in one piece tells me my writing is publishable. Now, how I get it to market is a matter of my own calculus. Is the publicity a publishing house can bring to a project worth more than, say, putting up free versions of some of my projects to attract those readers? I did just that with two stories from my shorts collection, "The Allnighter" and "Red Coyote Weekend," tons of them were downloaded, and from that number, a small but noticeable percentage took the leap of faith to buy the whole book, Confessions of a Velour-Shirted Man. The biggest problem I see in this market is that there is no New York Review of Books for self-pubbed book. Yet. That’ll put that first hurdle back where it belongs.

You were trained as a journalist and one of your more serious, nonfiction efforts was co-authoring a memoir of the “I Have a Dream” speech with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s attorney, Clarence B. Jones. How did you, a white guy, get inside the mind of a black, civil rights attorney?

I didn’t set out to be a historian, but it certainly is easier to move from that to fiction than to go in the other direction. Soledad O’Brien and Michael Bloomberg don’t tend to take the horror writer’s phone calls. To tell you the truth, the key to Clarence’s story wasn’t getting in the mindset of his racial background, it was understanding the underlying thematic of what he’s been through. He lived his life day-to-day and views it in that context. I saw the overarching picture and wrote to that. I picture him as the mythical ferryman, Charon. Or consider the weariness vampires have, outliving everyone around them (to bring it back to horror). That’s Clarence, and it’s not a race thing. We’re working together on another project called Uprising about his time as a negotiator at Attica during the prison takeover. Even though Dr. King has nothing to do with the story, many of the emotional elements to Behind The Dream are present in Uprising because Clarence is the same person in each circumstance.

I asked my father—who knows you well—if he had a question he’d like me to ask. His question inspired the title and indeed the tone of this post: “What the hell are you doing, scaring people?” How do you respond? 

High-brow answer or low-brow? First of all, your father is fearless, as is anyone who can handle forty years of ridicule over his protective-plastic-covered living room furniture without breaking down. Forget confronting our fears as an essential part of coming to grips with our own mortality. Mankind is cursed with that, but it isn’t why I write horror. Rehearse your death on your own time. For me, the key is, they’re just words on a page. Nothing about it is real. But if you can make a grown-up disturbed enough, just by rearranging these same letters over and over again, then you are some kind of alchemist. If you can draw the chemicals of fear right into their bloodstream with words, make them leave the hall light on with your words, then you’ve gotten at the power of story. It is intoxicating.


* This article first appeared in slightly different form on my old blog, dated August 13, 2011. The phrase “what, in ten words or less, is all this nonsense about?” was a line frequently used by a journalism professor, John C. Keats, who taught Connelly and me in college. The phrase was later used as the title of a book of Keats's previously unpublished work.

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How I Wrote a Book in 14 Days, Part IV

This is the final installment of this four-part series.

Quoting from my old blog, 2012:

Tired of showing pictures of my notebook, so here’s one of my 2012 desk window.

Tired of showing pictures of my notebook, so here’s one of my 2012 desk window.

70,083 words on Day 14!

I’m done. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself. I delivered the second half of the manuscript today to the jet-setting El Jefe. I hit 70,000 easily this AM, did a spell-check and packed the sucker off for a read.

Are we done? Far from it. The contract asks for 80,000, and I’ve written 70,000. Experience has taught me that when the titular authors read what you’ve given them, it sparks their creatvitiy and you will always hit your numbers. They are adders, not subtracters.

To think of another way: I supplied 7/8 of the book; our man in the sky will supply the other other 1/8, whether in the form of actual copy or by suggestions. He’s already written given me 4,000 words to be sprinkled here and there throughout the book. (I’m not counting those yet, preferring to quote you just the words I created during this marathon.)

I’ve got a week before he gets back into town. Time to turn to some personal projects. A magazine article that needs changes. Some edits to short stories I’ve been dying to submit. And after that, I may just be helping my wife ghost a project she needs to get done.

The weather has warmed up here and I’d really enjoy going out for bit.

2019 Commentary:

Well, younger me seems very pleased with himself, and who can blame him? He did all this work in a short period of time. He came close to ruining his health by sitting in a chair for 18 hours a day. But he got the book written. Yay him. But he’s still down 10,000 words from the contracted figure.

But here's the thing. I just went back and looked at the final manuscript. It stands at 78,393 words, which means that El Jefe and I managed to come up with another 8,400 words before the book went to the copy editor. That’s awesome. Great comeback, and a great illustration of how these collaborations work.

I will say that though he fought us during the process, he was ultimately blown away by the response of readers who were fascinated by the emotional power of the book. They saw a side of him that they didn’t think existed. From that moment on, he was more comfortable openly discussing those aspects of his earlier life in interviews. That wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t done a book.

He just didn’t know that the lion’s share of the writing came together over 14 days.



If you missed any part of these posts, you can follow the progress here.

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part I

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part II: 55,000 and Counting...

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part III: 66,000 words and One Day Left

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part IV: 70,083 words on Day 14

This post first appeared on my old blog in slightly different form on Feb. 21, 2012.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here.

How I Wrote a Book in 14 Days, Part III

This is the third of a four-part series.

Quoting from my old blog, Feb. 2012:

IMG_0444.jpg

66,000 words and one day left!

I stopped calculating my per-day average because I’m actually in the home stretch, though it may not look like it. End of business today I cleared 66,649 words total on this ghostwriting project, and I only have one more chapter to go. That chapter will bring me to 70,000 or darn close to it.

Close enough to 70,000 to relax, that is.

Our author, El Jefe, is dashing to Asia for a week, and I’d like to present him with the second half of the book before he leaves Thursday. That’s easily doable.

The reason I’m not worried about hitting 80,000 is that said author has already answered some of my queries on the first half of the MS, supplying extra 4,000 words I can quite reasonably use. 

We are so there.

On February 6, we had zero words. Now we have a definite 74,000. Maybe. If El Jefe’s additions to the whole MS are as copious as the first batch, we’ll probably have to cut words. See how that happens?

And do you see, James Patterson, why you should hire me? See contact page for further instructions.

2019 Commentary:

I’m actually kind of surprised seeing this come together so well. I had forgotten that El Jefe got back to me with so many workable additions. Usually I have to wait until the first draft is completely done and the editor has given us his or her notes before receiving that kind of helpful feedback into the extra. So…great! Younger me was actually doing better than 2019 me thought he was.

Patterson never called. I don’t blame him. Novels are a different animal entirely.


If you missed one of these posts, you can catch up here:

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part I

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part II: 55,000 and Counting...

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part III: 66,000 words and One Day Left!

How I Wrote a Book in 14 Days, Part IV: 70,083 words on Day 14


This post first appeared on my old blog in slightly different form on Feb. 20, 2012.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here.

How I Wrote a Book in 14 Days, Part II

This is the second of a four-part series appearing this week.

Quoting from my old blog, circa 2012:

IMG_0432.jpg

55,000 words and counting!

My writing marathon is now in its 11th day and I really have to crank if I want to improve my per-day average. Last week, the per-day average was running about 5,700 words a day.

I took two days off to proof the first half of the MS in order to send what I’d written to the titular author—a dude am I calling El Jefe—and get him thinking about edits, or additions he’d like to make. I only wrote on three weekdays this week; ramping up again was slow. That brought my overall average down to 5,500 a day. But I have this weekend to beetle away. I hope to make some serious progress.

Technically, I only have to make it to 70,000 words, which is a mere 15,000 words away, or the length of a novella I read recently. Why only 70,000 words when the contract calls for an 80,000-word book?

Because I’ve learned from past experience on these ghostwriting projects that the act of reading the first draft typically stimulates the bylined authors to start tossing out ideas and anecdotes they never thought to mention before. Invariably, we end up running long once we add the new material in.

Over the years I’ve learned to leave a good “roominess margin.” It’s less painful to add 10,000 last-minute words than to cut 10,000 words we already love. That’s my logic, anyway.

Of course it would have to be a sunny, 60-degree day on this North Carolina mountain. But I am not going to step outside to enjoy it. Not one bit.

2019 Commentary:

IMG_0441.jpg

Reading this again today, I’m struck by how quickly I reached for “oh-I-don’t-really-have-to-write-the-full-80,000 words” argument. Most of the publishers I’ve worked with specify a word count in their contract, but will theoretically accept anything within 10 percent of the contracted figure. That means they would have been fine with a 72,000-word book, and wouldn’t start to freak out until they were presented with a 88,000-word manuscript.

The real reason I was starting to look for an easy out is partially explained in the second graf above. I was slow ramping up in the second week of writing because I was just so tired and wiped out. The writing-all-day, researching-all-night routine was catching up to me. There was second reason as well, one that I never got into in the original post because it probably made me too uncomfortable to mention.

The truth is, on some of these chapters I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. The author had promised a tell-all type of book about his industry, but when the time came to spill the beans, he got coy. I’ve seen it happen a million times, and I was prepared for it. During our interviews together, we tried hard to get him to reveal his secrets and his vulnerable side, but he fought us on it for months.

It’s hard to write about a famous person’s interior life when they haven’t let you see that part of them. Bit by bit, he started to crack, and we were able to stick a crowbar in those parts of his stories, and get him to tell us more. But until you sit down to write those scenes, you have no idea if a particularly juicy anecdote is going to be 4,000 words or a mere 400. As I was writing, it surprised me that many of the scenes I thought would make great chapters ended up being nothing but a small passage.

The Joe I see in this post is a nervous guy who’s looking at his notes and wondering if he has enough to fill a book. Let’s see if he does.

 

You can follow my progress in these four posts:

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part I

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part II: 55,000 and Counting...

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part III: 66,649 and One Day Left

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part IV: 70,083 words on Day 14

 

This post first appeared on my old blog in slightly different form on Feb. 18, 2012.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here.

How I Wrote a Book in 14 Days, Part I

IMG_0431.jpg

In February of 2012, I embarked on a bizarre experiment: to write what would ultimately be a 78,000-word, nonfiction book in 14 days. It was a cool accomplishment—a first for me—but not one I’d attempt again unless I worked smarter.

I do a lot of ghostwriting, and this particular book was for one of my clients. He was extremely pleased with the results, and the book went on to get great reviews and help solidify his brand.

That said, let me say up front that while it’s possible to write a book this quickly, this is NOT the ideal way to handle such a project. Please don’t think I’m bragging about it. I was delighted to know that I could write a book this fast, but I don’t ever want to write a book that way ever again.

It’s the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter to write a college term paper you should have been writing over the course of the semester. I learned my lesson, and have since managed to work smarter on subsequent projects.

I wrote about the project on my old blog, so what I’ll do this week is share my old posts on the topic, followed by my 2019 commentary on the project. Here’s what I said back then:

This isn’t some wishful thinking project. The book has been contracted, and due to a publisher (one of the Big Five) ridiculously soon. I have to get it done quickly, ergo the experiment. Since it’s a ghost project, I can’t discuss the topic but I can tell you that it’s a nonfiction business memoir—not a how-to, not a diet or exercise book—but dense nonfiction for a sports celebrity client, which adds to its complexity.

Specifically, I’m finding I can’t write a sentence without either first checking facts or checking them after, which lowers my daily word count. Unlike fiction, I don’t have the luxury of making it up, then going back to smooth out implausibilities.

How am I doing? Fine, considering. The output’s been an average of 5,700 words a day, some days more, some days less.

But I am concerned how tired it’s making me. I’ve been getting up early at 5 or 6 a.m. and working till after midnight, using the time in the evening hours to plan or research what I’m going to do the next day.

At the end of the first week, I stopped writing when I hit 40,000 words to carefully proof what I’d written. That took a day and a morning. Then I sent the first half in PDF form to the “author” so he could read it on his iPad while on the road. Now I’ll restart the clock and finish the rest of this sucker.

2019 Commentary: 

Looking back, I realize that this post didn’t really give a lot of context. I’m going to try to add that back now. In the year I wrote this book, my wife and I wrote four different books. I was co-authoring a nonfiction science title that became Blind Spot. Denise was writing and researching The Girls of Atomic City

On top of these two, we were offered contracts to write two memoirs—one for an actor, another for the sports business dude whose book I discuss here. At the end of January 2012, Denise had finished and submitted her manuscript for The Girls of Atomic City to her editor. And I had finished the secondary round of edits to Blind Spot.

We had cleared our respective decks. We decided that Denise would write the actor’s book, and I’d take the lead on the business memoir. On February 5, she flew to Los Angeles to begin five weeks of interviews with the actor. The next day, I starting writing the business memoir. Seven days later, I had the 40,000 words I mentioned here.

Here’s what I didn’t mention in the old blog post: We sold the biz memoir about a year earlier in February or March 2011. And over the course of the next ten months, my wife and I did hour-long, once-a-week phone interviews with the author. We missed some weeks here and there if he was traveling. But the one “hard” date that never wavered was our deadline. The first draft was due to the editor on March 1, 2012.

So by the time I sat down to write in February 2012, I had a ton of interview notes, and about 20 to 25 hours of audio interviews. The trouble was, I had never taken the time to transcribe or re-listen to that audio. Not smart. I have no excuse other than that fact that I was busy writing other books.

So in February 2012, that’s what I was doing most nights after sucking down a hasty dinner. I’d sit on the couch with a notebook, listen to the audio, and make cheat sheets to help me through the next day’s writing sessions. I’d note the topic we were discussing in a particular piece of audio, and the timestamp so I could find the discussion easily. That’s how I managed to get through each day’s writing, hammering out a chunk of text from memory, and then going back to the audio to confirm that what I’d written was correct. At the same time, when I got a chance, I’d research small factoids online. 


You can follow my progress in these follow-up posts:

How I Wrote a Book in 14 Days, Part I

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part II: 55,000 and Counting...

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part III: 66,649 words and One Day Left

How I Wrote a Book in 14 days, Part IV: 70,083 words on Day 14

Please note: This post first appeared on my old blog in slightly different form on Feb. 15, 2012. (I waited until the book was nearly done to start posting my notes on the process.)


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here.




It's All About the About Page

Greatest author photo ever.*

Greatest author photo ever.*

Once upon a time a graphic design firm asked us to revise the copy on their website, paying particular attention to the personal profiles on their “About” page. As it was, their website lacked an About page. Nowhere on their site could you find thumbnail bios and photos of the two principals and two employees who made the place hum. Nowhere on the site could you learn anything about the people who designed the stunning images in the portfolio section of the website.

 “What we’re hearing from people is that they want to know a little about us before they hire us,” the boss said. “It’s funny.”

Is it? Is it really so strange that a potential client would like to get to know you first, even before sending you an e-mail inquiring about your rates? Is it so odd that human beings still behave like the social creatures they are, even when they have such powerful communication tools at their fingerprints? 

I don’t think so.

Technology is a tool, not the solution. Human beings provide solutions. If I’m contemplating shelling out money for a service, I want to feel good about spending that cash. That means being comfortable with the people I’ll be paying. That’s why there’s always small talk before a business meeting. That’s why people look for excuses to take the new client out to lunch. That’s why, in American culture, even long-distance phone calls with a new business contact are always prefaced with idle chit-chat. The first-time contact who cuts right to the chase—on the phone or in the office—comes off as dour, brusque, even weird.

Like it or not, your website is your surrogate in the virtual world. If you can’t be there to personally meet your potential client, you are forced to let your website do the idle chit-chat for you. The About page, the Bios page—whatever you want to call it—is your virtual calling card. If it’s going to work, it must reveal to the world engaging personal details about yourself. Not having a nice one may be costing you money in the long run.

Now the painful truth: Anyone who tells you there is a right way to write your bio is lying to you. All anyone can offer is personal preference guided by years of experience.


In general, the About pages /bios I like tend to…

• Succinctly summarize a person’s work and credentials.

• Drop a few personal factoids.

• Employ a casual, light or even humorous tone.

• Include a clear, professional photo of the person.


The ones that turn me off…

• Bore readers with lengthy recitations of everything the person’s ever done.

• Share nothing interesting or personal about the person.

• Lack humor or seem afraid of it.

• Include no photos, or use crappy, low-res images.


Because I’m a writer, a lot of the examples I’m studying are drawn from the bios of other writers. Here are two Amazon bios I think are pretty hilarious, by writers I love—Lee Goldberg and Chris Fox.

I know. They’re probably too outrageous for the line of work you’re in. If you can’t go the funny route, the only solid, professional, writerly advice we can offer is this: Good writing emphasizes universality.

The more I see myself in you, the more human you seem to me, the more I want to connect with you. Because we have these powerful communication tools at our disposal—or maybe in spite of them—human beings still want to connect with each other in ways that feel meaningful. I see it on Twitter and Instagram every Thanksgiving when people start posting photos of the food they’re cooking. When a major snowstorm whips through a swatch of the country, everyone’s out there posting images of their backyards. And watch—you’ll see a lot of photos of those same backyards when spring comes again. Does the internet really need more photos of food or snow or crocuses? No, but they help us feel connected to others in a weird way. The not-so-funny thing is, we don’t need very much to feel kindly disposed towards other humans.

This is the great irony that I keep playing around with in my head. In the end, a great About page or bio isn’t about you. It’s about us. Discuss.


* These are my Dad’s old glasses. I bet he paid $9.99 for them. He wore them for decades until we forced him to get something a little more stylish. We called them his Swifty Lazar glasses.

Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here.

Picasso's Bull—or, Does Writing Fast Mean Your Work Will Suck?

No bull. Just expertise. I love how he does the horns.

My late journalism professor John C. Keats came from the school of hard-hitting newspapermen of the 1940s and 50s. Later in life he switched to magazine work, which was more lucrative. In one story he told, a publication paid his way from Philadelphia to New York so that he could be on the premises while they edited his work. They were in a rush to get the article edited so those pages could be shipped to the printer. They put him in a nice office with a typewriter, where he worked on other projects while waiting to be summoned. He enjoyed fine lunches and a lovely hotel room at their expense. Finally, after a week, an anxious editor brought in some sheets of paper with some redline comments. "Here it is! We're going to need this right away. When do you think you could get it to us?"

"You can have it in fifteen minutes if you get out and shut the door," Keats said. He was always a little cantankerous. (Read more about him here.)

His editors were under the impression that their edits would require a lot of time to work through. So much time that they imported the writer and installed him close to their offices for one expensive week.

Nothing has changed in 50 years. One thing that hasn't changed is that the person who actually does the work—let’s call that person the freelancer—must adhere to the deadlines, while deadlines for the freelancer’s clients are infinitely more elastic. But that’s another story.

What I really want to talk about is how people equate time with quality. If a book takes a long time to produce, people reason that it must be better than a book that took a short time to produce. A fast writer is judged harshly under this paradigm.

I do a lot of ghostwriting. I wrote a memoir for one client that changed the way people saw him. He gained new fans. His diehard fans loved him even more. All because the book showed his human side. It showed how he came up in the business world by guts and brains alone. Prior to this, the prevailing internet narrative held that he’d inherited a ton of money, or had been handed his career by successful relatives, which wasn’t true at all. Yet the whole time I was researching the book, he fought me on this, afraid to reveal his real story and his vulnerability. But I finally managed to wrench it out of him. The book’s emotionality is what people praise about it to this day.

Our interviews took several months to complete. But in the end, that book took me 14 days to write. (I have a couple of posts coming that talk about this project.)

My wife went through something similar on another ghost project. By the time the editors hired my wife, the book was already in danger of becoming a “problem” in the minds of the editors and the publishing house. The previous writer had walked, nothing had been written, and the deadline was looming fast. On a conference call, my wife announced that meeting a deadline only two months away was reasonable and achievable. The “author” expressed concern: “That’s too soon. This needs to be good.”

The implication: Shouldn't this process take years?

Another book, one of our own that I wrote with Denise, went on to sell 100,000 copies. It was our first big book. People began inviting us to come speak to their groups because of it. At those events, someone would inevitably ask how long it took us to write that book. It’s the sort of thing people always ask writers.

“Five years,” I’d say, telling them what they wanted to hear.

Actually, it took us a month. Not that we wanted it to; it just happened that way. We were really organized, and devoted to the process.

So we’ve been through this a lot. People don’t want to accept that a good first draft of a book can be written in such a short amount of time. If it can, goes the thinking, it can't possibly be any good.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t love to write a book that fast. I actually think it’s nice to have a generous amount of time to write a project, take a break from it, then revise it carefully, digitally and on paper. But I don’t always have the luxury of time, because of deadlines and other commitments.

But it is possible to write fast and well. I have one friend who for a while adhered to an insane production schedule, writing a novel a month. He didn’t love doing it, but he could do it. And he did it because that’s what he had to do—at that moment in time—to pay his bills.

I’m sure that there are musicians who’ve written hit songs in days, hours, or even minutes. Stallone wrote the first Rocky script in three and a half days. I know local artists who crank out great examples of their work in days so they’ll have a good inventory to sell at arts festivals at the end of the month. I know designers who do the same thing. They just keep churning the work out, and you can’t tell that they did it in such a short amount of time. All these people do what they do because they’ve attained a certain level of mastery. In the words of another co-writing client of mine, they’re experts.

I took a lot of art classes when I was a kid. I remember one instructor telling me to stop making sloppy circles on my page as a way of warming up, and learn how to put down one correct line instead.

Watch Picasso draw that bull in thirty seconds. Look at how he knows just how to move his hand to create the slope of the bull’s back. When he flicks the brush at the bull’s head, he knows from years of experience that the bristles will leave a stroke suggestive of the bull’s horn. And he knows just how little paint to apply to hint at the bull’s legs.

It's not the time but the talent of the artist that matters. Experts do a lot with the time handed them.


* This post appeared in slightly different form on my old blog, dated March 3, 2012.


Yes, I am trying to post here more often. Thank you for noticing. If you want to sign up for my newsletter and claim your free ebook, go here. Thanks! — Joseph D’Agnese


Just When I Thought I was Out...They Pull Me Back In

I thought I’d be able to skate through 2014 with only one ghostwriting gig. The current ghost book is consuming a lot of my time, and I haven’t had much time for my own writing.

But just this week another interesting ghosting book popped up. I want to say no, but I shouldn’t. Who the hell am I to say no to paying work? To make it worse, it’s a fascinating nonfiction topic. The journalist in me is too easily captivated by a good story.

So right now I feel like Michael Corleone.