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The Plodder and the 3-Day Novelist

You may know the old fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare”:

Starting the race, from my fave illustrator Arthur Rackham

A hare was always boasting about his speed and mocking the slow and clumsy walk of the tortoise. One day the tortoise answered back, “You may be swift, but I can beat you in a race.”

“Good luck, slowpoke,” the hare replied.

The tortoise immediately set off in her slow and steady way without getting distracted or stopping to rest.

The hare zipped past the tortoise at amazing speed, but then he stopped in the middle of the field to taunt her. He ate dandelions and hopped about in the sunshine while waiting for her to catch up. He soon grew bored and sleepy so he lay down to nap, thinking the tortoise could never overtake him.

And the tortoise plodded on…

At last the hare woke up just in time to see the tortoise in the distance about to cross the finish line. He leapt up and bounded after her, but alas he was too late. The tortoise was declared the winner.

And the moral is: Slow and steady wins the race. 

I must confess, I never bought into this fable. It’s not the speed that loses the hare his race; it’s the stopping. The moral should be Don’t sleep on the job or It’s not over until it’s over. But moving on….

If Aesop were a modern slave to the written word, he might have called his fable, “The Plodder and the Three-Day-Novelist”:

A writer was always boasting about his speed: “Every Labour Day Weekend for the past five years, I’ve written a three-day-novel. Last November I wrote my second novel-in-one-month. This year I blasted through 30 picture books in the picture-book-a-day contest.” He mocked the slow and fussy ways of his friend: “You’ve been working on the same book for, what? Four years?”

“Five,” his plodding friend answered.

“You need to be more prolific,” the speedy writer said.

“Would you mind paying for your own coffee this time?” the plodder asked.

The whole time they were talking, they did not mention any races or contests – but the goal of publication waited in the distance.

After coffee, the plodder went home and put in her hours, polishing that same damned novel she’d spent two years planning, one year drafting, and two years revising.

The speedy writer went home and whipped off a complete chapter of a new book he’d just thought up in the coffee shop.

One month later, the speedy writer called up his plodding friend. “I’ve run out of file cabinets to store all my partial manuscripts and first drafts,” he said. “Would you mind lending me one of your empty cabinets?”

“Sorry,” said the plodder. “My cabinets are full of research and revisions and contracts.”

“Contracts?” repeated the speedy writer.

“Yes, I finally finished my book,” the plodder said. “I found a great publisher for it. It will be out next fall. Coffee’s on me next time.”

And the moral is: Slow and steady wins the race. 

Final caveat: You can spend five years on a book that is fundamentally stupid and still not get to the end of it. So really, the moral is: One good book is better than fifty half-assed manuscripts, so just stick with it till you make it to the finish line, and however long it takes you to get there – a month, a year, twenty years – doesn’t matter.

But that’s not a catchy moral, so let’s stick with “slow and steady.”

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10 comments on “The Plodder and the 3-Day Novelist

  1. Catchy or not, it’s a brilliant moral. Quality writing wins the race!

  2. Thanks! (I just wish there was a speedy shortcut to quality writing.)

  3. I like the “it’s not over until it’s over” but it always seems to me like writing is never over… even once a manuscript is a published book, you can learn from it and every time you look at it, you’ll glean something different from it…

    • That is very true. And looking at writing as a way of experiencing and exploring your relationship with the world, there is no race at all. In fact, seeing it as a race to publication can actually mess up that exploration. But what the heck. I like this fable schtick.

  4. I just finished reading, “All Good Children”. Once I started, I couldn’t put it down till closing the back cover. I like the fact the prose was not weighted down, long-winded and tedious and that character development organically drives the plot forward. You’ve managed to establishes a strangely charming rhythm that moves naturally with some exceptional prose; e.g., your description of Xavier: “He smells delicious, like a human dessert. Today it’s orange marmalade. He’s a compulsive bather with expensive taste in soap. He’s also the best-looking guy I’ve ever seen… His face is perfectly symmetrical. It’s jarring against his damaged personality.” (P.16). I admire the way you create such rich characters and the way you capture the interplay between different characters. I especially like Ally’s character and her relationship with her brother.

    The novel is set in an unspecified, not-to-distant future dystopia, rather than a world beyond our imagination, allowing the reader to draw lines back to today. Airport security, reality TV, an aging population, geriatric centers, corporatocracy, educational and societal utilitarianism, automatons/drones/zombies, unenlighted self interest, and drugs for kids (allusion to Prozac) all resonate with the reader. Your novel is among other things, a social commentary. The eradication of individual personality and how a corporatocracy can dominate the lives of individuals is established as a plausible, prospective extension of economic efficiency that is so real it haunts and echoes in the reader’s mind.Throughout the novel all the elements are realistic; reenforced by an uncontrived writing style. I like the way the main characters are blind to their situation and surroundings and unsympathetic to others until it becomes a personal experience. For example, the way Max pokes fun at some of the more tragic figures (I don’t want to add any spoilers).

    Morally compromised characters remind me of people/family who were forced to conform or starve under authoritarian rule. I can’t elaborate without revealing to much about your novel. For those who have not yet picked it up or have not yet finished reading it, I withhold further commentary. What I will say is, “I enjoyed it much more than “The Hunger Games” trilogy by Suzanne Collins, (which I found somewhat synthetic) because of your purity and ease of style, level of realism, and the rich world your imagination inhabits. I know your novel is aimed at young readers, but I believe it will be enjoyed by all audiences. After all, a good story appeals to everyone, especially me.

    • David, thank you so much for such a detailed and thoughtful comment. I’m so glad you liked All Good Children – it’s a thrill to hear from someone who really gets the book. You’ve made my day. I especially like your comment on the characters being blind and unsympathetic to others at first – there’s a line near the end where Max says he hates adults for not standing up for him, not helping him stand up for himself, and not teaching him to care about “all the peole they mowed down before they got around to us” – that’s the whole crux of the book for me and I think it’s the core of Max’s growth. (I loved getting stuck in that narrator’s head while writing this.)

      It was great to meet you at the launch. I’d love to talk books sometime.

      • “… I hope they choke on all their coffee-talk and tissues.” — Catherine Austen [p. 237]

        One of my favourite lines in the book comes just before, “We study industrial catastrophes through the ages. We leave out the suffering and death, skip who’s to blame…”

        I mockingly laugh when I hear people quote Joseph Stalin (i.e., a monster, butcher, brutal tyrant, genocidal racist), “The writer is the engineer of the human soul.” I assume he said it in jest during a toast. The truth is, just as engineers can construct building, bridges, and cities, tyrants/authoritarian governments control the mechanisms of education, entertainment and media to constructing human thought, personalities and souls.

        I’m sympathetic to Mr. Reese, Ms. Connors and others for this reason, because their indoctrination is insidious and social-economic inertia resists any shift of paradigms. What’s ironic is that the dystopia in the novel (and reality) is fundamentally maintained by individuals whose lives are made up of a series of compromises for their own economic self-interest. Max is justified in hating adults “for not standing up for him, not helping him stand up for himself, and not teaching him to care”. Every adult (plurality) is responsible and to blame for being a part of it. Even in compromising, it’s inevitable that a hard line must be drawn. Max is right in believing that the medical staff in the geriatric center should have drawn that line, but his mother argues otherwise to rationalize her unethical involvement, and indirectly, that of her husband’s.

        A lack of empathy is at the core of every cruelty and atrocity. On the empirical level, it is only through Max’s own personal experience that he develops empathy for others. Is it reasonable for him to hate adults for “not teaching him to care” when they have acquired their moral views from their society? With an expectation that they teach him to care, Max is arguing against moral relativism and demanding that an independent or at least an empirical moral standard exist, which should be passed on to the young. Religion (moral absolutism) aside, Max’s morality fundamentally stems from a personal context. By this point in the book, Max’s ethical judgments are derived from self-evident, knowable moral principles. It is plausible to conclude the weak and passive ethical nature of adults in New Middletown stems from indoctrination, but also from pervasive moral relativism, which results in dreadful consequences. Moral relativists have been essential to the existence of any totalitarian regime throughout history — they offer no resistance. Your novel leads me to believe that any plausible morality to some degree would be self-evident regardless of the environment, much like mathematics; otherwise, Max’s growth ethically could not have occurred.

        It would be a great honour to discuss books with you. I have so many questions that I can’t add here without revealing too much about your novel and being a spoiler. ☺

      • Interesting, David. Those adult characters are sympathetic, though they go along with things they don’t believe in. (And so does Max, frankly. The very day after his shot he leaves his classmates to theirs without a peep.) I think there are many different levels of “going along” with an oppressive system. The ethical judgments we make and the actions we take are not always aligned. (I am deeply opposed to factory farming but my friend took me out to St-Hubert’s the other night and I enjoyed my quarter-chicken dinner just fine.) Resistance is hard work. Simply not believing feels like fighting; but it is not fighting. Max takes risks in his art by exposing his feelings, and he cannot bear to stay in New Middletown – but he does not otherwise fight this system. (Maybe because he is indoctrinated to view it as a system instead of people, who are easier to change.)

        History seems to show that wicked regimes, like serial killers, often start out with smaller evils and, if there is no resistance or repercussion, get worse. Vigilance and empathy are always required to keep a country on a decent path.

        As for indoctrination, in every real dystopia through history there have been people who speak out loudly and who fight, and often die, for what they believe. They are the most fascinating people in history for me. Not the thousands who went along with murder, whether out of enthusiasm or fear, and not even the few who fled to safety, but the one who said no, emphatically and absolutely, even if it brought his own death. I don’t know that I could ever write from the point of view of such a person (unless I didn’t put religion aside).

        If you haven’t read Paul Rusesabagina’s book, An Ordinary Man, you might like it. (He’s the man who worked at the hotel fictionalized in the movie Hotel Rwanda; it’s the story the movie is based on.) It’s a great book. I should read it again.

  5. You need to add a delete, preview and/or edit button to your comments. I noticed some typos in my above comment (e.g., establishes -> establish, not-to-distant future –> not-too-distant future) but can’t revise it. D.

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