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Tuesday, September 08, 2009


Stop Potchkying and Write

While reading the September issue of Writer's Digest this past weekend, I ran across an unfortunate truth that bears repeating.

It was in a Q-and-A with author, blogger and Creative Commons proponent Cory Doctorow, who was asked what he tells writers seeking advice on getting their books published.

Doctorow responded by observing that many of the writers who ask that question haven't even finished writing their books. Not that it's wrong for writers to consider their ultimate goal, but, as Doctorow says, when questions like this turn into research tangents, they consume time that should be spent writing.

So true.

I see this all the time at writers conferences and workshops. The workshops are the worst. That's where I never fail to find an attendee or two who hasn't finished their book despite the fact that the workshop is intended for those with completed manuscripts. I mean, it's not like anyone checks. Though some of the best workshops screen applicants by requiring the prior submission of sample chapters, I've never heard of one that actually verifies the existence of a completed manuscript. In most every case it's an honor system, so all you absolutely have to have is a valid credit card.

Foolish as it might seem to some, it's easy to understand the appeal of jumping ahead like this. Writing is lonely work and belief can be hard to come by. For first-timers, mere participation in such an event might in itself seem a form of validation, something to share with all the naysayers because, of course, only real writers attend novel writer's workshops, right?

In the end, however, the result is often quite the opposite of what the writer expected.

Instead of going home energized and inspired, these folks can end up feeling overwhelmed and dejected. Not only do they have trouble relating to the experiences of those who have completed a book, or two, or three, but they also compare their unfinished work to the finished work of others and unfairly judge themselves unworthy.

You can't compare a novel in progress to a completed book no more than you can compare a half-mixed bowl of cake batter to a fully baked cake. You have to do the work. You have to finish the book ... then focus on how you're going to make it better ... then brainstorm about how to market it to agents and publishers ... and then you worry about how to negotiate a contract.

Doctorow describes the activity using the Yiddish word "potchking." Though I'm not sure about WD's spelling -- Wiktionary spells it potchkying -- the definition is the same either way. As Doctorow explains, if you're potchkying, you're "fiddling around."
"Once you are taking the time you should be spending writing and using it (for example) researching technical questions about negotiating the fine details of your contract with your publisher -- who as of yet doesn't exist because the book isn't written -- you are no longer writing. You are potchking."

Now, it should come as a surprise to no one to learn that, yes, I have been known to procrastinate. I may, at times, even be worthy of the title Captain Procrastination. But this isn't that. Not exactly anyway. Potchkying could arguably be defined as non-procrastination because the intent is to make forward progress on a project, even if the result is just as nonproductive.

So, stop potchkying and write!

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— TJ Sullivan in LA


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Blogger NealMedia said...

In "Pages From a Cold Island," Fred Exley finds himself teaching a writers' workshop at Iowa -- and he's appalled at how petty and cruel the grad students get when reviewing each other's chapters. Finally he walks in and tells them the class is over. Half drunk, half crazed, he advises them: Go find a room. Write until you get something written. Then you will be a writer.

Monday, September 28, 2009 5:44:00 PM PDT  
Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

This post has been removed by the author.

Monday, September 28, 2009 5:49:00 PM PDT  
Blogger TJ Sullivan said...

Hey Neal. Thanks for commenting. I just turned the comments on a few weeks ago. You're the first to notice! Cheers!

Monday, September 28, 2009 6:03:00 PM PDT  
Blogger J. S. Chancellor said...

Oh,I've been doing an awful of potchking lately. I believe I am somewhat involved in it at present...hmmm. There are scenes to be written, characters to bicker with and plot that needs to be discerned, but my kitchen sink suddenly seems in great need of polishing and that leaky window sill in the guest room (where I coincidently haven't stepped foot in over two years) is in need of a bit of caulk...see a trend here?

Monday, October 5, 2009 11:30:00 PM PDT  

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