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Sunday, 16 December 2018


I used to have a friend who had a tour operators' agency here in Spain - his company was the local representative for various British tour operators, a great number to have in the boom years of the 70s and 8os. Anyway, at one stage his son evinced the desire to become a photographer. Dad took him back to London for a consultation with a similar company to the one you describe.

During the conversation, the cat in London advised that maybe a dozen guys in the metropolis were making really big money out of photographs. The son listened, they returned to Spain and the son soon landed a slot in public relations at Sun City away in South Africa.

Some bright kids heed good advice. Either that, or he didn't have the desire strongly enough, for he wouldn't have cared about the money too much, just like the rest of us who can't resist.

I sometimes wonder what, given the chance to be anything, I'd choose the next time around. I conclude that it would either be my own take on the Jerry Lee Lewis skills, or the Chuck Berry ones instead. I'm quite modest in my wishings.


The person who took that test was a teenager. You may have grown since then. Could be self-limiting to assume the results still apply.

Ah foresight , but how did you do on hindsight? ;-)

There is a program called "Scrivener" that may help with the overall planning of the book and keep you on track. It's very reasonably priced.

Try imagining that you've already finished the book but now just need to go back to do some re-writes and touch-ups before submission.

(I am not poking fun, I am in the same boat, but in my case it's a long-term photo project that I keep putting off because I just can't drag my butt out the door. At least you don't have to travel as far.)

Books do not have to be linear...have you read Michael Ondaatjie's Running in the Family? Or any of his work? You can write and edit later.......don't edit as you go...see what happens?

I was told I should be either a photographer or a military officer. I'm a magazine writer -- but I shoot some pix for publication now and then, so maybe that counts.

Write the book: Make sure it sells well. They'll cut down trees to make the paper to print the book - and then you will be a director of foresters.

Thomas Wolfe showed at Scribners and gave Max Perkins boxes of copy and Perkins gave him back a great novel. Maybe you just need an editor to look at what you have so far.You may be closer than you think.

"I have trouble staying on track over tens of thousands of words."

I'm about a quarter of the way through a 1,200+ page (on my small tablet, anyway) John Steinbeck novel. Every few chapters or so, it occurs to me that what he really did was write a great short story. Then, he'd take a character out of that short story and write another short story in which he then created the details about that character. It's not like he had it all figured out to begin with; it's more like he just wrote one good chapter at a time and didn't really have it all figured out in the beginning. Whether that's the reality or not, I couldn't say, but it seems like it might be a methodology worth trying.

Or maybe it's too simplistic to say that that's how a book gets written - one chapter at a time.

"In that way I could build a book chapter by chapter . . ."

Kinda the way life builds her stories, no?

It's funny. I have the opposite problem. The easiest part for me is the outlining and planning. After that, I start filling in the blanks and rapidly run out of steam because the details are boring.

Who's your intended audience Mike? Are you wanting to write for you, or just to prove to an imagined audience that you can actually do it? We're already impressed by your writing. You have nothing to prove.

At days end, if it's not a joy, you won't be able to sustain the effort, regardless of how fond you are of the nostalgia of retrospection. Find something that brings you joy. Nobody ever starved doing what they love.

I used to think that we do what we can get away with. As I've gotten older I now believe that we are defined, in part, by the s&*t we can put up with.

My wife has been trying to write her first academic paper. She never really planned on being a professor and hadn’t really wanted to write, but it’s expected now. She’s behind, but what is helping is getting a sort of team together that pushes her. Plus a friend helped tremendously by throwing together the outline. An outline and a deadline makes it suddenly seem possible.

Hey, stop that! I like what you write, including the rambling.

A few years ago, I read a book by Norman Mailer, after hearing an interview on ... maybe "Fresh Air." Here's an excerpt from Amazon:

"Writing is spooky. ... There is no routine of an office to keep you going, only the blank page each morning, and you never know where your words are coming from, those divine words.” In The Spooky Art, Mailer discusses with signature candor the rewards and trials of the writing life, and recommends the tools to navigate it."

Think of it as an adventure. There before you are the vast trackless plains of the Great American Desert. No one (well, no European), has been there before. It is yours to discover. (Does Ontario still have that on license plates?)

I compiled this advice for a project I'm doing. Other are free to follow it, if they insist.

Sixth century scholar Stephanus of Byzantium reputedly said:
A myth is something that never was but always is. Thrillers are the same as myths, they don't have much to do with reality. My farther was a detective and a sniper for a big city PD. He read Zane Grey, Louis L'Amour, Richard Llewellyn and other novelists—but no police thrillers because having been there and done that he knew they were fake.

SF author E.E. "Doc" Smith had a PhD in Chemistry, but no training as a writer. He said about following outlines: characters get away from me and do exactly as they damn please. Letting the characters write the story may be the way to go. Several novelists have said they have no idea how the story ends until they get to the end.

Political commentator Paul Street wrote: Resentment abhors a vacuum. There is plenty of resentment in the world—fill the vacuum!

Bad things always happen,” Doris Lessing said. “If you predict the worst you won’t be wrong.” Sound advice from a Nobel Prize in Literature winner.

Mike, I think you’re on to something in writing each chapter as if it were a book itself... tie them together afterwards. I like what you do with technical non-fiction wrapped with historical fact... Maybe let history frame your endeavors... and then bring in your photo/technical experience? Helps to have a compatriot, too, to hash things out with...

Mike, remember the advice of my one-time teacher David Vestal.
"Do your work".
and Minor White, not my teacher (in person anyway).
"Photography just has to be done along with everything else."

I await, patiently, your results. They will be worth the wait.

Maybe you should follow the construction of he Bible.
Two testaments, each containing a number of longer and shorter books that do not necessarily form one continuous story but are also interesting enough in itself.
Publish volume two first. Makes everybody curious for volume one and forces you to keep writing.

Odd-- I took some sort of aptitude test in high school (no idea which one) and one of the top items it spat back was also forester. And this was (and is) ludicrous. So I dismissed the test out of hand -- and I don't even recall what other fields it recommended.

" What I need to do is find my genius, in that antiquated sense of the word."

Uh, how about Photography Writer and Blog Host? It seems to me that you are pretty darn good at that.

Nothing about that meaning of genius that requires that it mean fame, fortune, or even economic survival.

Think of the number of people, especially in the arts, who are highly talented, have a great genius, and also need day jobs to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables.

You might even consider yourself lucky, as your genius has supported you for many years. \;~)>

Perhaps you need someone looking over your shoulder at what you’re writing, then they can provide some guidance on the directions across that vague open space ahead of you. In the more traditional writing environment there may have been an editor or publisher to do that.

Comment 2 - Thoughts On Writing A Book

As I noted in a comment to an earlier post, I learned long ago I can't write fiction. I have had some what I thought were great ideas for short stories, mostly SF, but I just can't get them to work on paper. But when it comes to communicating on technical topics I know well, that's really easy. And I get feedback that my audience understands and appreciates it.

If you goal is to end up with a book, you should be able to summarize what it is about in one sentence or a short paragraph. It may change as the contents develop but this creates the goal for a book project. Keep a bunch of them around for inspiration. Sometimes they crossover. Don't limit yourself to obvious topics, e.g. photography. After all my tech books and the Delusional Management book, I'm considering taking time to write a family history to cover all the black sheep in the family - we got some good ones!

I sometimes have an outline before I start a new book or sometimes I just have some topics that have things in common. I keep working on making them complete thoughts without worrying about final organization - that will eventually become obvious when the content is nearly complete. I almost always rearrange chapters near the end. The last technical book started with an outline of 10 topics but grew to 14 chapters. I rewrote the first chapter many times. Have you considered that perhaps your "first chapters" are really more mid-book "meat"?

I do have some strong opinions on how to write that work for me, but maybe not you or anyone else. I cannot sit down and force myself to write for a fixed time every day. I think that's how writers get writer's block - if you don't accomplish something you reinforce negative feedback and make it worse. To be productive and happy as a writer, you need to have an idea about what to write. Sitting in front of a screen is not an inspiring place to be. I like walking or working dong some task with my hands - gardening or painting is good. Even cooking or washing dishes.

Whenever you have an idea, write it down. Be sure to make your note explicit enough that you know what you meant when you read it later. I make that mistake sometimes. Leave that idea on your desk where you can see and think about it more - flesh it out into s thought that makes sense when put on paper/screen. BTW, sometimes it is more interesting to write about a topic that you have to research that one you know, as that will expose you to others writing on the subject .

Don't be disappointed if the project stalls. If you are at an impasse, set it aside for a while or share parts of it and get feedback. It helps to have someone to discuss it with, easier if you have an editor or someone with similar interests to read and discuss topics.

Sounds like you need to take a break. Breaks are good.

Topic thoughts: Think about some of the most interesting (to me) topics TOP has covered - the fact that choosing a camera is not always a rational decision. Why the user needs to decide what's important to them. One thing I often help people with is camera setup. Figure out how you like your camera to work and customize the camera to your shooting style/habits - then don't mess with the setup - just tweak what needs tweaking. Discuss the tangibles vs intangibles - do today's camera or lens specs from lab tests matter or is it how the photos look? Lots of people do the analytical/objective work, few deal with the human/subjective side. You do all the time. Maybe it's time to publish "Best of TOP"???

Finally, don't get hung up on writing books. It's hard to make a living off royalties.


Nobody but the writer himself or herself knows what triggers their creative impulse. Robert Louis Stevenson would systematically write 2,000 words a day. He said even he did not know what was going to happen in the next set of 2,000 words, but was always eager to find out what the next day's developments would be! Obviously, he had learned to harness the power of his subconscious mind, as have many creatives before and after him.
It works for me; I've never planned an essay, a short story or a book. They've always written their way out of me--after a brief period of drowsy meditation. Hacked their way out of me, actually; all I had to do was hammer away at the keyboard as the stuff flowed out through my fingertips.
Maybe 'Scientific American' has some answers:

That is not accurate. When you walk or sprint 50 miles in the wrong direction at the end you know it was the wrong direction. Many wrong directions finally reveal the right one.

Greats, Ed

Tip for writing a book I got from Abraham de Kruijf....write chapters headings first, then fill in the paragraphs, then per paragraph the alineas, and finally per alinea the words and sentences. This way you're forcing yourself to keep to the sructure.....

Tip for writing a book I saw J.K. Rowling use (in a documentary about her). Write everything you want te adres on yellow papers.....plotlines, persons, idea's, what not.....then arrange everything into a book and be turned down by 49 editors (OMG) to be accepted by the 50th. The rest is history.

Sorry for my second comment but you might enjoy this story, which may be apocryphal. Someone asked Elmore Leonard how he managed to write such concise but good stories. He answered that he left out the parts nobody reads.

As a so-so student I also took a battery of tests similar to the JOCRF series Mike describes. When we received our results the tester carefully and in some detail told us what amounted to "correlation does not imply causation." People who are successful in these professions (in my case airplane pilot, farmer, minister) had test results that looked like mine but that didn't mean that I would be successful in those fields.

Hi Mike, sorry to hear you are beating yourself up over this. I can imagine writing a novel / book is one of the loneliest jobs in the world. Some people might love that aspect of it; others, not so much.

Based on my knowledge of writing + some minor courses, can I suggest approach the following for your book:

1. Decide on who the audience is
2. Determine what top 5 ideas / skills / impressions you want the audience to take away from your book
3. Plan out your book, chapter by chapter. And how big a book is required
4. Write the entire first draft, without doing any revisions
5. Read the entire book and decide a plan of attack for the second draft. Do it.
6. Get some other people to read it and provide feedback
7. Third draft.

Hope that helps!

You cannot write a book in a year. Not a good one anyway. That is a too ambitious target. If you didn’t start writing it at all in 2018, then shame on you. You will never write it until you start. But be realistic and give yourself 3-5 years. You need a plan and outline. That can change during the process. Then you need to write. And then you need to edit. But first you need to get started.

Hi Mike
As an ex technical writer of longish manuals I can identity!
My solution may not suit your personality or your genre, but it worked for me. I find that this same approach works for me for all long / difficult / stressful activities.

It's really simple: a top-down approach.

So in your novel example, it would involve prior work to know the basic plot, the very top level.

Once you have that, you break up the plot into sections, i.e. you flesh it out a bit, which would probably be chapters.

You then do what you clearly enjoy doing, working at the detail level creating each chapter. The difference is that at the top level, you DO know where you are going, so your mind tends to help you along.
I read a book once on writing a novel and they advocated writing biographies for the main characters at least, to ensure they act consistently and that you know them well enough. Turned me off completely, lol.

But anyway, I really enjoy your writing, as many others clearly do. I would read (and buy!) ANYTHING you wrote, so please try to keep at it!


If you're anything like me, ultimatums to yourself about finishing something are rarely successful; rather, I find that I need to make myself take the next step, however small, whatever it is. Usually I find that at some point along the way, I've gotten far enough to feel a compulsion to drive to the finish. It can take a very long time, but it usually happens, and it's very satisfying to get past something like that. And it's a habit you can learn to put alongside all the bad ones...

Deadlines make things happen. That's it. For you it's not really due. You don't have any--there's no consequence if you don't deliver. Make daily ones and write poorly, rather than not at all.



Or maybe you really don't want to write. People who say they want to do things and then never do them, I question how much they really want to do it. You can't stop a musician from practicing, or a photographer from making photographs. It's what we do.

You don't have to write a book. Not required. In that case, just stick with the blog, enjoy having the pressure off and not having to write a book.

Writers write.

May I suggest a collection of essays, rather than chapters? The distinction could be academic, or it could be very useful. I don’t remember which aptitude test it was they gave me—but to your forester they gave me fishing guide. There were no questions about mosquitoes or squeemishness I guess. But, that aside—and the herding—the self-direction and plentiful solitude in an immersive sensual environment—maybe there was something to it.

Hey! I did JOCRF early in my high school "career". We are about the same age, so I gues it was a thing then. And in music (I was a choir boy in an excellent choir, and had won the choir medal that each year went to the best choirister)I had very high aptitudes for certain things, but manual dexterity was not one of them (even though had built models for years, and have great drawing skills...go figure). Thus they recommended "conductor" as my misic career possibility. I got a music minor in school, but found I didn't like classical music people. At all. And I loathed music theory. So, visual arts for me.

If your occupation is a writer, then that's your business model for self employment, taxes, etc. As anything in business, to succeed, you need to get project work done.

P.S. There is no try. Try to pick up an apple. There's only doing! Write.

I actually took one of these Stanford continuing Ed classes and it was pretty good. It was for, you will laugh, writing your first thirty pages of your novel. So now I have a pretty good thirty pages, over a year old.

Here's one where you write your novel in a month. No idea if it's a good class, but these things can be motivating, especially after paying...


My parents footed the bill for two days of aptitude tests when I graduated from college many years ago. The test results purported to show that I had a high IQ and should either be a lawyer or an entrepreneur. Not having the wherewithal or the slightest idea of how become an entrepreneur, I opted for law school and thus embarked on a 28 year career of toil and drudgery. Looking back on my time as a lawyer, I think that vocational recommendations based on aptitude testing alone can be completely unreliable. A lawyer friend once told me that law is a good choice for the bright and untalented. I believe him.

I just recently discussed Solo: A Star Was Story with a sci-fi friend of mine and noted that writing prequels must be an odd writing assignment; you know the end-point and have to write the backstory to get there.

Perhaps if you wrote your stories in reverse?

It may not be popular or feel-goody but my suggestion regarding your book authorship aspirations: abandon ship.

If you were a much younger person in your 20's, 30's, or even 40's I'd probably encourage you to keep swinging. But you're not. You've been at this for a long, long time and you clearly know yourself well. Well enough to recognize the traits that repeatedly confound your success. At your age your stripes are set, like it or not. You're not going to wake up tomorrow with the attention span of a snake hunting a gopher.

Look, all long-form endeavors require more types of skills and efforts than are readily apparent to the enthusiastic onlooker. (I spent half of the first quarter of my life 110% devoted to becoming a great architect. After that long expensive journey I later realized I was missing some key traits that would have been essential to lift me above an average technician.) Long-form writing is (especially) no different. It takes far, far more that an idea, a nice computer in a quiet spot, and dedicated time to squeeze out a popular read. But you surely already know that, eh?

I personally believe that you'll have a happier, more fulfilled final quarter if you just come to terms with your limits and leverage your known strengths toward achievable personal rewards.

(No charge.)

You could try to sneak up on it. Don't write, but simply think about the book from time to time, and dream it, and when you have pretty much the whole story, take an hour or two to write something like an outline, but really, a cross between an outline and a narrative. Don't number things. Then think about what you have, and when you've thought of some significant alterations, write those into the first piece. And so on. Eventually, after a few weeks, you might find yourself with a few thousand words. Then, take an hour or so to divide those up into logical sections -- I would suggest 30-40 would be a good number. These would become chapters, with adjustments when necessary. Then expand those sections until they're real chapters.

The problem with writing individual chapters and polishing until they're complete is that a novel isn't a short story collection; all the bones are connected to each other, so that stuff that happens in chapters 1-3-5-7 affect what happens in 25, 30 and 35. There are long threads woven from beginning to end, and it's difficult to imagine where all of those threads lead until you get to the end. If you've already spent days and weeks polishing, it would be difficult to go back and undo all that work because of a few recalcitrant threads, but that's what you have to do. This shouldn't be mistaken for an authoritative judgment, however; there are probably wildly successful novelists who write chapter-by-chapter, polishing each one before starting the next. I just don't know about them. I personally follow my nose day-to-day from beginning to end. Most novels have a logic to them, and you follow the logic. The difficulty comes in that logic branches and you have to select which branch to follow. That's a lot of help, huh? 8-)

Highly recommend the book 'Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on
Creativity' by Ray Bradbury. This volume has been very helpful in my own journey of putting together text to accompany a retrospective collection of my photography.
- Robert Stahl

I have been thinking about this test you took, and wondering if I am the opposite of you. I am so frequently guilty of "living in the future," and yet the past often requires a trigger to become interesting to me. Maybe this is why I am the one looking with bemusement at all the other moms crying as their kids start or graduate school.

I hope this doesn't impede your progress, but arguably one of the most lauded computer science technical authors, Donald Knuth, is still trying to complete his seminal _Art of Computer Programming_ books. He's just been featured in NYTimes (at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/17/science/donald-knuth-computers-algorithms-programming.html) and it includes this note that you might identify with:

'Lucky, then, Dr. Knuth keeps at it. He figures it will take another 25 years to finish _The Art of Computer Programming_ although that time frame has been a constant since about 1980.'

Like most of us, Knuth seems to find side tasks that seem necessary to make his writing happen better--- e.g. 'I've just gotta learn how to make a proper tea.' 'I need to arrange my writing room just so.' In his case, he decided to write his own computer typesetting software (the TeX system), develop his own computer fonts, and then of course invented a way of managing fonts in his software (a tool called METAFONT). These 'distracted' him for about a decade in making progress through his planned volumes.

If you take a shine to this story, maybe also read the Wiki entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Computer_Programming.

What about the memoir of your son's birth and journey to you?

As for the novel-I assume that’s what you failed to complete-why not outline the whole thing, index card style, and give yourself a little structure to hang your writing on?

I used to be a journalist and when the material was right and appealing, I could easily churn out an article (it’s a bit harder with boring or to me uninteresting content), but I know I’d have trouble ever writing a book. I once interviewed a former financial trader about a book he’d written and he told me how he had at least ‘one other book in his head.’ The irony struck me, as I was the professional writer but completely devoid of any books in my head.

I learned to outline in school. It was worthless. I was electrified writing on a computer - Wordstar on DOS 1.1. I did an outline, I started writing, I realized my outline was wrong. What had seemed incidental was central. My feelings about a subject exist simultaneously but sentences don't. When I plucked the right thread that allowed the whole ball of yarn to unspool smoothly I had a unique statement.

Your knowledge and feelings were built over years by the unique you. The readership of this blog is proof that an audience wants to know how you react to the things you see. Of course it's difficult to find that thread. I suspect that if you keep on writing sooner or later you'll read a paragraph and just know that you've written the start of your book.

As part of the silent Sunday group, I’d like to add my thoughts on finding a direction for your writing. This is supposed to be a support group, right? You’re permitted to have doubts. But not to admit defeat. Not yet.

You've got an excellent first chapter. But it doesn’t achieve a perfect finality. (If it does, then you’ve written a short story. Now get to work on another short, till you have a books worth collected.) The characters and their relationships don’t conclude neatly. Surely events are left unexplained. Please give thought to what each of these suggests for the future, where the characters might go, who they might meet and tangle with, what kinds of complications they could encounter, what sorts of historical events they might have inspired with their antics, what hints were left unresolved.

I’ve been using an app called Mindnode to help gather ideas for some fiction. Pretty simple to get down thoughts, move them around, change connections, list all the possibilities a particular scene suggests. Pick the one or two that seem the most plausible (if that’s the yardstick you measure by), write those scenes, look at where they might go moving forward. Repeat until characters have reached their goals, or abandoned them. And of course, reread Robert McKee’s “Story.” Many big picture ideas soundly investigated there.

Now, if only I could act more upon my own words.

There are so many different ways to write. And then there are an order of magnitude (or three) more ways to NOT write--at least, to not finish writing to a level you can accept (not necessarily "fully satisfactory").

I know what you need, but I have no idea how to get it for you. I think you need to work with a good editor. I know so many writers, fiction and nonfiction both even, who have had editors see what they had, point out what was missing, what was surplus, what was especially good, what needed work--all from the starting point of having figured out what work you're really trying to write (before you really know yourself). Problem is--that level of good development editor isn't sitting around on their hands waiting for people without a lot of book track-record to ask them for help; they're usually employed at a publisher (or running their own).

Can you, after writing disconnected bits for a while, sit down and then make an outline that contains at least roughly what you need to say (some of which will already exist in the disconnected bits)? Or does it keep changing and refuse to settle down? Outlines are the magic tool for big non-fiction projects, except when they aren't (everything I know about writing is of the form "X works for some / a bunch of people, but not everybody"), but it's never making one at the beginning and sticking to it throughout that works (okay, probably is for a few people).

Isn't the obvious solution to write a book of short stories? Worked for Hemingway and Dahl at least.

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