Friday, January 27, 2012

To the Finisher Go the Spoils

This week on the Lucky 13s, we've been sharing our favorite bits of writing advice. Write what you love, said Amy McCullogh. Give yourself permission to write badly, said Elizabeth May. It isn't difficult to get published; it's difficult to write a good book, Megan Shepherd reminded us. 

The advice I'm sharing today doesn't condense quite as easily, but I hope it's as helpful to you as it was to me.

Several years ago, I had a decent career as a freelance copyeditor, business writer, and proofreader, but I was secretly desperate to be writing something bigger and truly my own. In the midst of this quiet miasma, I went to a writers' conference. In an undistinguished multipurpose room, under fluorescent lights so gruesome they made conference attendees look like extras in a zombie movie, film critic and novelist Stephen Hunter delivered the opening speech. Hunter held forth at the microphone for 40 minutes or so, giving a no-nonsense pep talk that was by turns funny, helpful, and profound.

He made the case for a pragmatic approach to writing—a no-fuss, no-muss method. You had to get your butt in the chair, he said. If you weren’t in your chair (or in your bed, or on the exercise ball you use as a chair, to tone your glutes), you weren’t putting words on the page.

This was the Carhartt jacket school of writing. There was no waiting for the muse, no wondering whether you were good enough. You just had to do your time. You were a shipbuilder, building a vessel. You were a bricklayer, raising a wall.

(Pablo Picasso is said to have voiced a similar thought: “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.” Various sources phrase this quotation slightly differently, but Picasso’s basic point is much like Hunter’s: La chaise, s’il vous plait.)

But, Hunter continued, you couldn’t just sit in your chair, keying madly; you had to finish your projects. He said this, or something very similar to this: The world rewards people who finish things, out of all proportion to their talent.

The world rewards people who finish things, out of all proportion to their talent. He was so right! 

Did I have talent? Maybe. But if I didn’t finish something—specifically, a full-length fiction manuscript—it wouldn’t matter anyway, because no one would see it. It was time to get moving--all the way past the finish line. 


Elisabeth Dahl's first book, GENIE WISHES, an MG contemporary novel with line drawings, is due out from Amulet/Abrams Books, in spring 2013. She has just completed her second book, a novel for adults. Elisabeth lives in Baltimore, MD, with her family, two dogs, and a devoted office chair of the Aeron variety. Elisabeth has a fledgling website and a Twitter account, @ElisabethDahl. She is represented by the wonderful Marissa Walsh of FinePrint Literary Management. 


  1. Ah, very sensible - it is so easy to start - but so hard to see it all the way through to the end!

  2. Great post, Elisabeth! And so true. As Kate says, it's very easy to start things, but if you're going to get anywhere you have to learn how to persevere and finish those things too (whatever they may be!).

  3. “Inspiration exists, but it must find you working.” Love this. It should be posted above every writer's desk. Excellent post!

    1. Totally agree about the Picasso quote--it's a killer!

  4. So true about finishing projects. Not sure if it's half the battle, but it's certainly a big chunk of it.

  5. SO true! And the next piece of advice should be "and then you have to send it out into the world, since editors won't sneak into your house to read it off your computer." :)
    Great advice post!

  6. Great post. The YA Muses did an excellent series this week on this very subject. Lots of comments agreed that sticking through to the finish line is the hardest part of the whole process. I agree.