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Tuesday Motivation: Is This Your Year to Write Your First Book?

Happy Tuesday, friends—and Happy October 1st! I hope you had a wonderful weekend and a great start to your week.

We’re officially in my favorite month of the year. Fall is in full swing, both of my kids are having birthdays, and there is also Halloween! Seriously, the best season of them all.

The other tremendous news for all writers out there is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), which begins one month from today.

NaNoWriMo originated as a challenge for fiction writers to complete one novel in the month of November, but I’ve seen non-fiction writers use it as an opportunity to work on non-fiction projects, as well, and poets converting it to a daily poem challenge. It’s a great platform for everyone!

So the question I have for you is this—Are you ready to write your first book? Is this your year?

Technically, any year, any month, any day could be your time. You just have to make the decision to sit down and start (and eventually, finish!).

But I want to challenge you to make NOW your time.

Just like having children, starting an exercise routine, or moving to a new place, there is never a “good time” to do it. If you look hard enough, there will always be obstacles standing in the way of your success. But if you look hard enough in the other direction, you’ll be able to find the time, energy, and inspiration you need to start working on your book.

Just imagine: You start working on this new, scary project in November, and by the end of the month or the beginning of the New Year, you have a draft in your hands. Think of that. You composed an entire book, and now it’s time to revise it and decide how you want to put it out into the world.

I want you to experience that great feeling of accomplishment now, not next year or ten years from now.

I am a testament to this. I’ve drafted out several books, but they didn’t turned out to be books that I wanted to share with the world. Maybe my feelings about them will change with time, and I’ll go back, significantly revise them, and then seek out a publisher. But the feelings I have about the two books I’m working on right now? These are going to be my first and second novels that the world gets to see. I’ve decided that, and I’m fighting for them. I’m finishing at least one of them during NaNoWriMo, and I’m aiming to finish both of them by the entrance of the New Year.

I want you to fight for your work, too!

I hope that you’ll join me for this NaNoWriMo, whether you use the NaNo platform or work in Google Docs or wherever else you work best.

So much so—I have a few opportunities to share with you.

First of all, I’ve enjoyed the experiences I’ve had as a writing coach, and I’m always open to working with new writers. You could have a few books under your belt like I do, and this is the first one that you’re taking seriously. You could be brand new to this, and you’re not entirely sure what all this “novel-writing business” entails. You could even be a seasoned author who likes a second pair of eyes on their work. I’ve worked with all these different author “character types,” and I’ve loved working with them all.

That’s the first opportunity. If you’re worried about approaching your first novel, staying on-task, being able to fit all this writing into your schedule, fully fleshing out a plot, etc., I’m here for you.

I’m also giving out a few writing resources, closer to the end of the month, as part of my celebration of Halloween. There are going to be three resources, and there’s going to be a “trick-or-treat” option.

I don’t want to give away all the fun yet, but these resources are going to help you plan for your novel, even last-minute, so that you have a sense of what you’ll be writing about going into the month of November. There will be useful information contained in these resources, as well as writing prompts and outlining models that will carry through the Fall to the final lines of your novel draft.

I’m so excited for this month! I’ll be sharing stories of birthdays and apple-picking and poetry reading, for sure. I hope to hear from some of you about working together this NaNoWriMo, too—and I can’t wait to share these resources with you when they go live.

Happy Fall, everyone! Happy October 1st!


Chapter One

Minutes turned into days, not hours, as we awaited the arrival. After lying in the dark with labor pains for more than 72 hours, my cervix was ready to open and release my son into the world.

I panted as my muscles pushed and shuddered to do one of the very things they were designed for. Hours passed as the heat in the room rose and rested against the ceiling. Sounds came from me that were more mule and otherworldly than woman.

“I can see the head now,” the doctor’s voice encouraged from the end of the bed.

But as I continued my efforts, there were gasps. Encouraged as I was to continue pushing, to push harder, there now appeared to be a reluctance in the room to see what was coming.

Then I saw a child’s hand point to the ceiling. The blink of a knee before dropping back down.

Another gasp, perhaps from me, and I heard a heavy splat against the cold, gray, linoleum of the delivery room. I realized the doctor had dropped my son to the floor. I watched as the doctor peered from child to vagina as if questioning how one had come from another.

With little use yet of my legs, I leaned and peered around my knee. I braced myself on the cold, metal rail as I first saw him, and I realized it was not a matter of how one had come from another, but how one had fit inside the other. Because he was, in fact, a small child. A frail, thin body with pale, translucent skin—I could practically see his spinal column through the shuddering back that was facing me. A full head of darkest brown hair, wet and spiked and smeared across his head. One of the hands I had seen lift into the air earlier upon arrival was wrapped around his pale side.

Then he began to cry. Not the high wail of babies entering the world, but a soft, shuddering cry that chilled the room.

The doctor rolled the child onto his back, whispered apologies, touched his hair. I saw his face for the first time—perfectly red, pouting lips under a cute button of a nose and large, soulful, brownest of brown eyes.

He was beautiful.

Later, the nurses wouldn’t be able to remember what happened and could not properly fill out the delivery papers. The doctor, too, could not remember the child’s delivery and how his frame had appeared to expand from the narrow channel of my uterus as he entered the atmosphere. He would only remember a child on the floor, crying and covered in what appeared to be blood and cervical mucus—though that certainly couldn’t be right.

It only makes sense to me now that perhaps we were not meant to see something as fantastic as his birth head-on. I, too, can only recall the hand lifting into the air, the quick flash of a knee, despite anything else I may have seen—but what I remember most are the faces in that room as they witnessed the arrival of my son. The curiosity. The fear.

One nurse in a baby blue uniform approached me with a chart and asked, “Have you thought of a name for him yet?”

I looked to the far side of the room where a nurse was running water in the sink and soaping a sponge and towel. My son was on a doctor’s stool, wobbly at first, but steady once he cupped his hands over his knees. The nurse began to lather his hair and massage his neck. A million possibilities had come into the room with me. But now, as I watched his eyelids droop toward sleep on the high stool, I thought of his father who was gone.

“His name is Sam,” I whispered.


March 2019: My First Attempt at #PitMad

Years ago, I read Stephen Markley’s Publish This Book, pictured, cropped, as the featured image of this post (and that image borrowed from StrategicPoints, FYI). The front and back cover dynamics of this particular work aren’t an example of what I would usually call “stunning,” but they really are in their own way certainly eye-catching, and an illumination of what is contained in the text, which is so often missed by book covers.

Anyway—book cover design is a whole other subject I won’t be diving into tonight (but know that I could easily spend multiple posts on it: colors, fonts, consistencies, how I approach designing them, etc. etc. etc.). No, the real reason I used that image tonight, and why I took a moment to even talk about it, is the time in which I came across the book and what it meant for me as a writer, retrospectively, and what that did for me today, during my first—if entirely improvisational—round of #PitMad on Twitter.

Some of you may have been a fan of the Borders Group bookstore chain, prior to its close in 2011. I was admittedly very fond of the chain, particularly the location set not too far away from my high school, university, and where I went to church back then. Every Sunday, for approximately two years, I would buy myself lunch on Sunday and then go to Borders, browse books for a while, and then sit writing in their cafe for who-knows-how-long over a drink or a treat or both. It’s sobering to me that I launched this blog the very same year that the Group folded, not even a full three years into what I own as the true beginning of my writing life in 2008 (even though I’ve technically been writing since I was a child, with dozens of half-used diaries and notebooks, and an old refurbished Roland typewriter). It was the time when I was beginning to take my passion seriously, as something I should be pursuing, rather than something to be placed on the back-burner in sight of other endeavors, like I unfortunately did with my love for drawing and piano. It was the time when I began to revise my works in the hopes of publication. It was the time when I began networking with others, not just out of friendship but out of kinship in our shared writing life. And it was the time when I began to learn more about publishing and rejection, through my position as a Managing Editor of an important literary press, and through my discovery of this book by Stephen Markley.

Admittedly, I didn’t know about this book and came across it entirely by accident (which I believe can be the best kind of encounter with books at times—plus I didn’t have nearly so much access to knowledge of new publications as I do now—so I feel little regret in this). For those of you who were fans of Borders like I was, you may also remember the huge wave of sales tags that swept across their stores as they cleared out inventory. It was horrible seeing so much yellow and orange in one place, but I tried to make the best of it, continuing to visit my favorite store every Sunday until the end, bringing as much money with me as I could afford each time to give some of their books a good home. This is when I happened across Publish This Book.

The cover, subtitle, and use of footnotes—so many footnotes—had me laughing in the aisle where I previewed the book, and this younger me took solace in another writer’s journey to publication. I wasn’t even 22 yet, so dreams of having a New York Times best-selling agent, offering a five-book deal and poetry publication options to go with it, were still reigning large, ridiculous, and impossible in the back of my mind. (I still carry with my great ambitions, but they are much quieter, tamer, now.) But all-in-all, this book offered to me a voice of humor in the process, and I believe brought me to the world of accepting rejection as a necessity much sooner than I might have discovered it myself.

I discussed this concept of rejection-as-necessity at length over on my Facebook page yesterday. In short, I explained how I had been rejected for two positions in the last two weeks that would have been life-changing for me: they aligned with my beliefs and how I want to give back, they fulfilled what I wanted to do with my career, I had efficiently performed all of the tasks of the positions in the past, and performing these positions simply would have been something I would have loved. In short, these rejections struck me in a very deep place, because of their importance, but I decided to give myself the day to clean and move past the disappointment, and then to write until I either wrote something I loved, or until I was too tired to write anymore. I did as I required: I cleaned, I wrote, I found something I loved, and I wrote until I was mentally exhausted. And I was able to look back over those pages this morning with pride, agreeing with my last night’s self that what I had written was of quality and something I could spend time revising at a later date.

And it was this feeling of acceptance and calm that I carried with me into my first #PitMad today. I came to it late, around 1:00 PM – CST, and I came to it unprepared; I had heard of #PitMad in the past, but I didn’t know when it occurred (in March and June, if you’re wondering!). Only because a fellow writer posted about it did I discover it and then hop on over into the Twitter-verse. In minutes, I composed my first pitch and sent it out—and then composed three more. With only 280 characters to work with, I didn’t see the reason to spend days, or even hours, drafting my pitch, when there were only seven hours left in the trending marathon. Rather, I trusted my instincts to minimize the synopses I had already written for these works; I trusted myself to know what was the most important to share, and to ship them off in search of consideration.

I’m sure someone will judge me for the lack of preparation, or for having the gall to send out four pitches. But I think there is little, if anything, to be ashamed of when you are excited about what you’re working on. When you’re excited, you should share. Heck, if you’re struggling or unsure of what you’re working on, you should share that with someone, too, in an effort to get back on-track. But I went into this today to be a part of the writing community I’ve come to admire so much, and I wanted to check myself and see if there was any interest (outside of my own) in what I’ve been working on.

And there was. Plenty more re-tweets than I was expecting, a handful of very respectful direct messages I didn’t expect to receive, and one favorite from a small press. Anyone can hope that all of their pitches are going to be picked up, and maybe even by multiple presses so they have some options, but there is something humbling, and even more satisfying, in receiving positive feedback from fellow writers. Too often we are pitted against each other; too often we view each other as competition. So when a group of writers reaches out to me with glowing remarks, I come away glowing, too, with or without a publishing lead.

So, my very simple advice to you tonight? Keep writing, and keep seeking out the work you love—by writers you admire, by writers you don’t know, and by yourself. Involve yourself in the writing community in any way you feel comfortable, big or small, assuming or not. And maybe come to #PitMad a little more prepared, or at least a little earlier in the day, than I did; but even if you’re not 100% prepared, consider pitching anyway. You never know who will have your back, writers or agents alike, and you never know what to-be books you’ll discover and want to read, if you never join in on the conversation.

Until Tomorrow ~ All the Writing Love, from me.


Interested in Publish This Book? You can find it here:

Hello Fall! Here’s What’s Coming in October.

Hi everyone and Happy Tuesday! And HAPPY FALL! This is my favorite-favorite time of year: the weather is just how I like it, I love all the colors and smells, pumpkins and costumes, creepy things, and the impending doom that is winter and all that I always pile on myself around this time of year.

No, actually, I’m not a big fan of winter; the cold is killer. But I DO tend to overdo it with the to-do’s and goals around this time of year, and 2018 is no different. Here are the big things on my horizon, which you might want to know if you’re following my work!

My daughter is fabulous and turning four this year; that’s our first big event of October. Then, her little brother is due to come into the world, in mid-to-late October: two October babies! And then Halloween.

That’s more than enough to fill up someone’s month, right? Without planning too many writing goals?

But I tend to go big or go home, and this lady has already set up camp. Here are the writing-related things for October:

I’ll be participating in this year’s THE POEMING over on Tumblr. Every year, the wonderful E.K. Anderson hosts THE POEMING on Tumblr, which focuses on one author throughout the month of October, typically in erasure-fashion. This year, the author is Seanan McGuire, and I’ve been assigned the book, Late Eclipses. You can find me on Tumblr here, where I’m currently very quiet, but the poems will be walking their little erased selves in shortly.

I’ll be recapping and theorizing all over the new show, Legacies. Legacies (which is a spin-off of The Originals… which was also a spin-off of The Vampire Diaries) will be premiering on The CW on October 25. I haven’t been able to find an outlet to host me—if you know of any, feel free to send them my way!—so I’ll be writing recaps, theories, and other fangirly things here. I’ve wanted to more firmly branch out into film and television for a while now, and I think the launch of this show is the time to do it.

I will NOT be “pantsing” for NaNoWriMo this year. That’s the goal—I’m sticking to it—which means all the prep needs to happen in October. In July and August, I started freewriting daily for a horror-suspense novel that I’m loving that’s based on Mackinac Island (another love of mine). I love what I’ve done with it so far, but I’ve reached the point where I’m either going to drop it, or I need to start researching and planning to follow this thing through, so that’s what I’ll be doing. If you see the occasional creepy poem, or Michigan-based poem, or some-other-poem, that might be why!

And finally there are all the usual suspects: new poems! book reviews! freelance pieces! Obviously you’ll see these new erasure poems, but I’m interested to see if they push me in another direction… And I have several books lined up to review, specifically while the Halloween-vibe is going strong. And, as always, there are the pieces I write for various publications. If you see anything in entertainment, books, parenting, yoga, health, mental wellness, social media, or some other topic area you feel like I should be writing for, feel free to let me know! I’ll say it louder for the folks in the back: I am all ears.

And… that’s it from me for now! I know, it’s a lot to take in. I’m really interested to see where all of these unique projects take me as a writer, though. If you would like to connect with me about what you’re working on, or reading, or watching, I would love to hear! Happy Falloween, all; it’s here!


The Surrealist and Bodily Nature of Grief: Reading Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s The Art of Floating


Kristin Bair OKeeffe_The Art of Floating Even when you read regularly, it takes time to find something truly great; but every once in a while, there will be a book, a poem, a story, that truly turns you on your heel, holds you in place, and keeps you loving, recommending and discussing that piece for months. Though first described to me as “a great summer read” and “something good to take to the beach,” Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s The Art of Floating was precisely that piece I needed to improve my summer—and not just by giving me a book to read under an umbrella next to the waves.

Sia Dane’s personal story, at first glance, may appear to be a simple one: a woman well-defined and independent in her writing life and her marriage to her husband, Jack, and then grief-stricken and unable to write upon his disappearance one year before the opening of the novel. This, in and of itself, may suggest a straight-forward story of grief, whether or not beautifully-written. Even with the addition of a strange man on the beach, who Sia discovers early in the morning, would support this story-arch, perhaps with the inclusion of a romantic turn (which would fulfill that “take it to the beach” mantra). However, even if this is how Sia Dane’s story begins, it is hardly conclusive or summative, and we end in a very different place than we might have guessed.

What is so beautiful, haunting, and even bewildering, about this novel is the way in which Bair O’Keeffe can first introduce us to a story we think we know, and twist it into something symbolic, surreal and highly-bodily, which immediately removes The Art of Floating from the common “beach read” section and propels it to the realm of literary fiction—and presents it as a gorgeous example of literary fiction, at that.

When I was first introduced to this title, I did the unthinkable thing—something that I am very guilty of doing on a regular basis, despite my extreme dislike for spoilers: I read the back cover. And I knew, deep in my gut (perhaps in the same place where Sia finds her flopping fish), that this book was different. In the first line of the synopsis, it summarizes, “When her beloved husband, Jackson, disappeared without a trace, popular novelist Sia Dane stopped writing, closed down her house, stuffed her heart into a cage, and started floating.” I read that line over and over, gushing with excitement, at the sheer potential of the novel being refreshing and different. When the book arrived at my home, I wanted so badly to break the reading order of books I had “scheduled” before this one, but I held my ground, clenched my teeth, and waited until it was Bair O’Keeffe’s turn—and, boy, was it worth the wait.

It was more than I could have bargained for, expected, or dreamed of. The events detailed on the back cover do indeed happen, for real, within the context of this novel. This reality is created and made acceptable—made beautiful and strange and heart-felt—within the first several pages of the book, when Sia discovers the man on the beach (who she names “Toad”) and feels a literal wave of his sadness enter her body—as well as a large, flopping fish in her stomach, which she feels move whenever she feels empathy for another person. Obviously, this is outside the operational realm of our bodies and the abilities of them; but that, in the end, is what makes these surreal moves so beautiful and true, when we are given that image that is, at once, strange and capable of retelling those emotions that we otherwise feel are beyond the reach of description. In their surreal nature, they apply truth.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s novel, The Art of Floating, is too entirely beautiful to reduce to “a great summer read” or “something good to take to the beach.” Though I did read this over the summer, and while the book did make an appearance at a water park, it was not read in that time or place out of simplicity or lack of expectation. Rather, reading that back cover pushed my expectations to a higher level, where I wanted strangeness and originality and literary-ness to thrive. And it did. This is one of the most gorgeous and emotionally-demanding novels that I have read in years, and it tackles the duality of the lost and found with renewed fervor and poignancy I haven’t seen in fiction—“women’s” or not—for quite some time. Not only does this novel require that you open yourself to a wide range of emotions, but it demands you to open your mind to the unusual physicality of these emotions, their shift in physics, even; and it even projects into you those emotions you’re seeing and feeling on the page—the frustration and need for patience with the Dogcatcher and the therapist, the split between being happy and appalled by Jilly, the love and pain felt for Jackson and Toad . . . and the possibilities, the range of emotions and reactions, continue.

When it really comes down to it, this is such a deep and well-thought-out examination of how we grieve and love and relate to one another. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect this much from one novel, to want a book to meet so many demands, effectively, between a pair of covers—but I feel it’s all been done here; and I know when I read it again, I’ll feel the same way . . . and the surprises will keep coming.


KRISTIN BAIR O’KEEFFE is the author of the novels The Art of Floating (Penguin/Berkley, April 2014) and Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009). Her work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Poets & Writers Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, The Baltimore Review, The Christian Science Monitor,HYPERtext, and Bluestem. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for the past twenty years. In late 2010, after nearly five years in Shanghai, China, she repatriated to the United States and now lives north of Boston with her husband and daughter.




A Unique Design of Women and Culture: Reading Desiree Zamorano’s The Amado Women


Desiree Zamorano_The Amado WomenAfter reading Désirée Zamorano’s The Amado Women, many readers have claimed to have found a new story with women who are more properly, culturally portrayed, an interesting story which offers new commentary on the larger themes of love and loss, family and finding strength in numbers and learning from our past. As I begin to write this review, I find that I must agree with my fellow readers. This story emphasizes beauty and strength; and Zamorano’s portrayal of these women represents, both, innovation and new-thinking in the way of more accurately using cultural references as potential characteristics, rather than as wholly-defining attributes.

This is an emotionally-difficult novel in many ways, stemming from its strong emphasis on past events. Arguably, more time is spent reliving these events, and coming to terms with them, than in the actual present. Perhaps this will be a problematic trait for some, those who hold a greater desire in their reading to be constantly moving forward, but I found this imbalance to be somewhat endearing, if not a constant reminder of how our past decisions and involvements continue to inform us, and even plague and harm us, in our current affairs. This emphasis on the past also opens up this small world of characters in a way we may not otherwise observe; by exploring their past lives, which function like wounds that are constantly being reopened, we gain a greater understanding and appreciation for these women. Without this focus on the past, we would care for these characters in the same way.

Not to mention Zamorano’s achievement in developing unique, culturally-diverse characters, riding on a line between their heritage and cultural surroundings. Placed against the backdrop of American hustle-and-bustle, and with constantly-changing religious influences, these women operate somewhere between involvement with this background (their selected jobs, the raising of children, etc.) and embracing their culture (primarily through cuisine, prioritization of values and defining success, and family ties). While many novels emphasize cultural stereotypes in their Hispanic characters, this novel minimizes the importance of those stereotypes and focuses more so on the importance of their diaspora. This shift, too, allows us to care more so for these characters, because they are more realistic, wholesome and complete.

This may be Zamorano’s first trade-published novel, but I highly doubt it will be her last. With its lovely focus on family and working through the past to gain a new present, the novel represents both hardships and beauty, harm and hope, and it is through its emotionally-trying edges that we arrive at an ending that is pleasing and long-awaited and well-earned.


DÉSIRÉE ZAMORANO is a playwright, Pushcart Prize nominee, and novelist. She is the director of the Community Literacy Center at Occidental College; she also collaborates with InsideOut Writers, a program that works with formerly incarcerated youth. She lives in Pasadena, California. The Amado Women is her first trade-published novel.




Joseph Conrad’s “Advice on Writing a Novel”


“I have not read this author’s books, and if I have read them I have forgotten what they were about.”

These words are reported as having been uttered in our midst not a hundred years ago, publicly, from the seat of justice, by a civic magistrate. The words of our municipal rulers have a solemnity and importance far above the words of other mortals, because our municipal rulers more than any other variety of our governors and masters represent the average wisdom, temperament, sense and virtue of the community. This generalisation, it ought to be promptly said in the interests of eternal justice (and recent friendship), does not apply to the United States of America. There, if one may believe the long and helpless indignations of their daily and weekly Press, the majority of municipal rulers appear to be thieves of a particularly irrepressible sort. But this by the way. My concern is with a statement issuing from the average temperament and the average wisdom of a great and wealthy community, and uttered by a civic magistrate obviously without fear and without reproach.

I confess I am pleased with his temper, which is that of prudence. “I have not read the books,” he says, and immediately he adds, “and if I have read them I have forgotten.” This is excellent caution. And I like his style: it is unartificial and bears the stamp of manly sincerity. As a reported piece of prose this declaration is easy to read and not difficult to believe. Many books have not been read; still more have been forgotten. As a piece of civic oratory this declaration is strikingly effective. Calculated to fall in with the bent of the popular mind, so familiar with all forms of forgetfulness, it has also the power to stir up a subtle emotion while it starts a train of thought—and what greater force can be expected from human speech? But it is in naturalness that this declaration is perfectly delightful, for there is nothing more natural than for a grave City Father to forget what the books he has read once—long ago—in his giddy youth maybe—were about.

And the books in question are novels, or, at any rate, were written as novels. I proceed thus cautiously (following my illustrious example) because being without fear and desiring to remain as far as possible without reproach, I confess at once that I have not read them.

I have not; and of the million persons or more who are said to have read them, I never met one yet with the talent of lucid exposition sufficiently developed to give me a connected account of what they are about. But they are books, part and parcel of humanity, and as such, in their ever increasing, jostling multitude, they are worthy of regard, admiration, and compassion.

Especially of compassion. It has been said a long time ago that books have their fate. They have, and it is very much like the destiny of man. They share with us the great incertitude of ignominy or glory—of severe justice and senseless persecution—of calumny and misunderstanding—the shame of undeserved success. Of all the inanimate objects, of all men’s creations, books are the nearest to us, for they contain our very thought, our ambitions, our indignations, our illusions, our fidelity to truth, and our persistent leaning towards error. But most of all they resemble us in their precarious hold on life. A bridge constructed according to the rules of the art of bridge-building is certain of a long, honourable and useful career. But a book as good in its way as the bridge may perish obscurely on the very day of its birth. The art of their creators is not sufficient to give them more than a moment of life. Of the books born from the restlessness, the inspiration, and the vanity of human minds, those that the Muses would love best lie more than all others under the menace of an early death. Sometimes their defects will save them. Sometimes a book fair to see may—to use a lofty expression—have no individual soul. Obviously a book of that sort cannot die. It can only crumble into dust. But the best of books drawing sustenance from the sympathy and memory of men have lived on the brink of destruction, for men’s memories are short, and their sympathy is, we must admit, a very fluctuating, unprincipled emotion.

No secret of eternal life for our books can be found amongst the formulas of art, any more than for our bodies in a prescribed combination of drugs. This is not because some books are not worthy of enduring life, but because the formulas of art are dependent on things variable, unstable and untrustworthy; on human sympathies, on prejudices, on likes and dislikes, on the sense of virtue and the sense of propriety, on beliefs and theories that, indestructible in themselves, always change their form—often in the lifetime of one fleeting generation.


Of all books, novels, which the Muses should love, make a serious claim on our compassion. The art of the novelist is simple. At the same time it is the most elusive of all creative arts, the most liable to be obscured by the scruples of its servants and votaries, the one pre-eminently destined to bring trouble to the mind and the heart of the artist. After all, the creation of a world is not a small undertaking except perhaps to the divinely gifted. In truth every novelist must begin by creating for himself a world, great or little, in which he can honestly believe. This world cannot be made otherwise than in his own image: it is fated to remain individual and a little mysterious, and yet it must resemble something already familiar to the experience, the thoughts and the sensations of his readers. At the heart of fiction, even the least worthy of the name, some sort of truth can be found—if only the truth of a childish theatrical ardour in the game of life, as in the novels of Dumas the father. But the fair truth of human delicacy can be found in Mr. Henry James’s novels; and the comical, appalling truth of human rapacity let loose amongst the spoils of existence lives in the monstrous world created by Balzac. The pursuit of happiness by means lawful and unlawful, through resignation or revolt, by the clever manipulation of conventions or by solemn hanging on to the skirts of the latest scientific theory, is the only theme that can be legitimately developed by the novelist who is the chronicler of the adventures of mankind amongst the dangers of the kingdom of the earth. And the kingdom of this earth itself, the ground upon which his individualities stand, stumble, or die, must enter into his scheme of faithful record. To encompass all this in one harmonious conception is a great feat; and even to attempt it deliberately with serious intention, not from the senseless prompting of an ignorant heart, is an honourable ambition. For it requires some courage to step in calmly where fools may be eager to rush. As a distinguished and successful French novelist once observed of fiction, “C’est un art trop difficile.”

It is natural that the novelist should doubt his ability to cope with his task. He imagines it more gigantic than it is. And yet literary creation being only one of the legitimate forms of human activity has no value but on the condition of not excluding the fullest recognition of all the more distinct forms of action. This condition is sometimes forgotten by the man of letters, who often, especially in his youth, is inclined to lay a claim of exclusive superiority for his own amongst all the other tasks of the human mind. The mass of verse and prose may glimmer here and there with the glow of a divine spark, but in the sum of human effort it has no special importance. There is no justificative formula for its existence any more than for any other artistic achievement. With the rest of them it is destined to be forgotten, without, perhaps, leaving the faintest trace. Where a novelist has an advantage over the workers in other fields of thought is in his privilege of freedom—the freedom of expression and the freedom of confessing his innermost beliefs—which should console him for the hard slavery of the pen.


Liberty of imagination should be the most precious possession of a novelist. To try voluntarily to discover the fettering dogmas of some romantic, realistic, or naturalistic creed in the free work of its own inspiration, is a trick worthy of human perverseness which, after inventing an absurdity, endeavours to find for it a pedigree of distinguished ancestors. It is a weakness of inferior minds when it is not the cunning device of those who, uncertain of their talent, would seek to add lustre to it by the authority of a school. Such, for instance, are the high priests who have proclaimed Stendhal for a prophet of Naturalism. But Stendhal himself would have accepted no limitation of his freedom. Stendhal’s mind was of the first order. His spirit above must be raging with a peculiarly Stendhalesque scorn and indignation. For the truth is that more than one kind of intellectual cowardice hides behind the literary formulas. And Stendhal was pre-eminently courageous. He wrote his two great novels, which so few people have read, in a spirit of fearless liberty.

It must not be supposed that I claim for the artist in fiction the freedom of moral Nihilism. I would require from him many acts of faith of which the first would be the cherishing of an undying hope; and hope, it will not be contested, implies all the piety of effort and renunciation. It is the God-sent form of trust in the magic force and inspiration belonging to the life of this earth. We are inclined to forget that the way of excellence is in the intellectual, as distinguished from emotional, humility. What one feels so hopelessly barren in declared pessimism is just its arrogance. It seems as if the discovery made by many men at various times that there is much evil in the world were a source of proud and unholy joy unto some of the modern writers. That frame of mind is not the proper one in which to approach seriously the art of fiction. It gives an author—goodness only knows why—an elated sense of his own superiority. And there is nothing more dangerous than such an elation to that absolute loyalty towards his feelings and sensations an author should keep hold of in his most exalted moments of creation.

To be hopeful in an artistic sense it is not necessary to think that the world is good. It is enough to believe that there is no impossibility of its being made so. If the flight of imaginative thought may be allowed to rise superior to many moralities current amongst mankind, a novelist who would think himself of a superior essence to other men would miss the first condition of his calling. To have the gift of words is no such great matter. A man furnished with a long-range weapon does not become a hunter or a warrior by the mere possession of a fire-arm; many other qualities of character and temperament are necessary to make him either one or the other. Of him from whose armoury of phrases one in a hundred thousand may perhaps hit the far-distant and elusive mark of art I would ask that in his dealings with mankind he should be capable of giving a tender recognition to their obscure virtues. I would not have him impatient with their small failings and scornful of their errors. I would not have him expect too much gratitude from that humanity whose fate, as illustrated in individuals, it is open to him to depict as ridiculous or terrible. I would wish him to look with a large forgiveness at men’s ideas and prejudices, which are by no means the outcome of malevolence, but depend on their education, their social status, even their professions. The good artist should expect no recognition of his toil and no admiration of his genius, because his toil can with difficulty be appraised and his genius cannot possibly mean anything to the illiterate who, even from the dreadful wisdom of their evoked dead, have, so far, culled nothing but inanities and platitudes. I would wish him to enlarge his sympathies by patient and loving observation while he grows in mental power. It is in the impartial practice of life, if anywhere, that the promise of perfection for his art can be found, rather than in the absurd formulas trying to prescribe this or that particular method of technique or conception. Let him mature the strength of his imagination amongst the things of this earth, which it is his business to cherish and know, and refrain from calling down his inspiration ready-made from some heaven of perfections of which he knows nothing. And I would not grudge him the proud illusion that will come sometimes to a writer: the illusion that his achievement has almost equalled the greatness of his dream. For what else could give him the serenity and the force to hug to his breast as a thing delightful and human, the virtue, the rectitude and sagacity of his own City, declaring with simple eloquence through the mouth of a Conscript Father: “I have not read this author’s books, and if I have read them I have forgotten . . .”


Conrad, Joseph. “Advice on Writing a Novel.” Writing Sense. Writing Sense admin, 16 May 2010. Web. 17 Aug 2012.