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Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi shows Ralph Macchio’s Daniel Larusso how to wax a car in the Karate Kid, 1984

Remember that scene in the Karate Kid (the original one) when Mr. Miyagi promises to give young Daniel karate lessons but ends up making him wax cars, in a very particular manner, until he is exhausted? (Click here to watch it.) What Daniel doesn’t know (until later) is that he is developing muscle memory and strength and actual skills for karate.

I wrote headlines for The Globe and Mail’s news section for about six years. I didn’t realize it at the time but the skills I was practising in writing headlines would, much like the young Karate Kid’s car-waxing lessons, serve me later when I wrote my novel. I’ll share them here because even if you never have occasion to write a headline in your life, they will help you write.

The thing about writing headlines for a daily newspaper is you have to do it, and fast. You can’t do your laundry first or make coffee or visit Twitter. Deadlines are firm and they keep coming.

This is how you write a good headline: Write down the first idea that comes to you. This is important: You must write it down. You must commit it to paper (or the screen). Just put it down, no matter how lame. And know this: that first idea will very likely be lame. This is important, too. The lameness will free you to create: You won’t be so in love with it that you will fail to see it’s flaws.

And then you fiddle and tweak, considering why this particular word is not quite right or that particular angle is off. And before you know it, you will have a good headline. It works. I promise. Not every headline created this way is brilliant. But every headline is workable.

It isn’t effective, at least it wasn’t effective for me, to play out this process in your head. You’d think it would be. Headlines are usually only about 5 to 8 words long. Why not just hold these words in your head? Because, as every non-enlightened human being knows, the mind cannot remain still. It keeps flitting and moving and floating and not settling on anything.

Imagine a potter trying to create something without first throwing down a slab of clay. Impossible, right? You need raw materials to create. For writers, the raw material are words.

When it comes to writing creatively, I follow this method. I did it with each line, each scene, each chapter of my novel until I finished it.

Do you want to write fiction but are having trouble getting going? Commit something to paper, a line or two or a page or two. Whatever is flowing. Examine why you think it’s bad. And then make it good.


Book publishing is slow
I was lucky. The first agent I submitted to agreed to represent me. But I waited almost six months for a response. The book sold quickly, in an exclusive to HarperCollins Canada within a month of signing with the agent. But that deal was in March 2011. My launch date is early 2014.

Publishers are gamblers
Publishers cannot predict how a book will sell (Londonstani anyone?) They have to guess. Obviously it’s an educated guess, but it’s a guess. They have to make a call and be willing to swallow the losses if they are wrong. They make a decision how much to invest (advance, marketing etc.) based on what they think the book will earn in sales. The writer does not have to pay back the advance to the publisher (regardless of how the book fares) and the publisher won’t get back what they paid out in production costs, marketing costs, office overhead, billing expenses and distribution expense. Oh, and if a vendor (i.e. Indigo, Barnes & Noble) fails to sell any books, they can return them to the publisher.

Writers need agents
Apart from the fact that agents provide access to major publishing houses, match up writers and editors, negotiate the best deals and scour through those complex contracts, they generally love to talk and “network” and are not shy about telling people what they think is good about themselves. The latter personality traits are usually poorly developed or outright absent in fiction writers.

Advance is short for something
This: advance against future royalties. This means if you earn royalties that equal the advance your publisher agreed to pay, you have done what is called earning out your advance (a good thing) and not lost your publisher any money. If you earn royalties beyond that figure, you’ve made your publisher money (a very very good thing) and then you get paid royalties.

Writers are paid very very slowly
In my case, and this is the norm, I received one-third of the advance upon signing, one-third upon manuscript completion and one-third at publication. So, basically, I get paid over two to three years. Even with a really good advance, this is not something you can bank on to support a family. Royalties (see above) come even more slowly, if they come at all.

Editors are on your team
I have worked as a journalist. I know editors are vital. But I viewed them as overly critical, cruel, knife-wielding pedants (when I was the writer; when I was editing, I was just usually right. :)). An editor is a writer’s greatest gift. She wants to see your book succeed. Editors and writers are on the same team, and realizing this will make the editing process a pleasure and likely far more successful.

A well-written book does not mean it is a marketable book; just as badly written books often sell spectacularly well
The Da Vinci Code, Fifty Shades of Grey. Need I say more?

Big publishing houses do care about quality literature
There is a narrative out there that only indie or boutique publishing houses are interested in quality books and the big publishing houses are all about slapping books together and making deals with celebrities. Obviously, these are profit-driven machines and the bottom line is vital. And, yes, celebrities often get headline-grabbing deals. But in my experience, HarperCollins has invested a great deal of time and two excellent editors in my book, despite it being literary fiction and despite me being an unknown writer.

Those bestsellers I mocked above? They are a boon to the book industry
The profits from blockbusters allow publishers to take on books that don’t have the potential of selling very well but have the potential to enrich our culture.

Everyone working in book publishing loves books
This is a risky business. If you’re in it you love the craft.

I have finished.

I just sent the latest draft of my novel, Where the Air is Sweet, to my editor.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said “I’m finished” with respect to this book. Let’s see. Here’s a rundown of finishes of Where the Air is Sweet:

  • I finished the first rough draft in the spring of 2010.
  • I finished my first polished draft (which I could send to a prospective agent) a few months later in June 2010.
  • I made some changes at my agent’s behest, completing the draft in January 2011.
  • My first major structural edit was completed by August 2011.
  • In January 2012 I completed another draft that incorporated smaller fixes.
  • In January 2013 I finished the second structural edit.

Now, I had no fantasies that I wouldn’t work on the book after acquiring an agent and then a publisher. I knew that I had taken it as far as I could on my own but that it still had a ways to go before it was finished. I work as a newspaper editor in my other life and so I understand and have enormous respect for the editing process. That said, I don’t think I really understood the road I was embarking on when I decided I wanted to publish a novel.

I feel like a boxer who is being trained for years for a big fight. I feel that I keep getting better, the book does but I do too, more refined in my writing skills.

Anyways, I’m digressing from my theme of finishing. I think what I’m getting from this process is that we can get so caught up in finishing that we miss the experience. And if we aren’t present in the moment we cannot, at least I cannot, create.

Me, writing.

Me, writing. Pic surreptitiously snapped by my iPhone wielding 6-year-old.

When I embarked on writing my first novel I didn’t know if I would get anywhere, if I would even complete a novel, let alone publish one. I knew only that I wanted to write it, that I had reached a point at which if I didn’t write it, a kind of bitterness or frustration at all of my life would set in. And only when I accepted this fact — that the purpose of what I was doing was not a finished product but the honouring of an impulse, a desire — did I free myself to create.

And while I did complete a novel and sell it, I learned something that I believe was at least as, if not more, valuable: I love the act of writing a book, the process of creating it. I love writing.

Leap and the net will appear. The thing is, the net is always there.

It took me a very long time to learn this. I didn’t believe it was there while we were in Dar for that year or even when we returned home, safe, healthy, an almost-completed manuscript in hand. I know now it’s our awareness that’s the issue, not the existence of the net.

My husband secured a job flying a plane for some executives. It paid very little, which was expected. Low-hour pilots aren’t paid well anywhere, and Dar was no exception. But we were prepared to lose money in this venture. The point was to gain experience. So, we found an apartment and settled in.

Now, I could start writing.

I resisted. I had so much to do: get Mia into a school, figure out how to buy reasonably priced groceries, learn how to drive on the “other side” and in the chaotic traffic.

In about three weeks or so, we found a school for Mia and I learned to drive our rental car, though I kept turning on the wipers when I meant to hit the indicator. And more than once, while making a left turn I went into the wrong lane. But I was beginning to feel more and more comfortable in the chaos.

Still, I resisted writing. There was always so much to do.

My husband called me on it one night. “You have to just write,” he said. “There will always be something else to do.”

Simple, irrefutable logic.

Finally, one morning in June 2009, I sat at my new desk, purchased on the side of the road from a local African furniture-maker. It was still sticky with newly applied varnish.

I stared at a blank Word document and pictured my grandfather as a young man. He left his village of Malia, in Gujarat, when he was in his early 20s to make a go of it in East Africa. He went alone with very little money and no knowledge of where he was going. Having taken off the way we had, with no plan and with so much unknown before us, I suddenly felt a kinship with him. In my mind, he was not the old man dying of cancer that I recall from my childhood. He was tall and strong and aching for something. I had visited Malia about 14 years earlier. It was dusty and dry. I remembered pale sand. Like a beach with no sea. With those words, with those images, I started writing.

My husband and I kept a blog while we were in Dar from 2009 until early 2010. I’ve included some of blog posts from that time. The are categorized under Dar es Salaam and 2009.

When my husband and I decided to quit our secure and well-paying jobs as newspaper editors and take off to live in East Africa where I intended to write my novel and he intended to pursue his dream of being a full-time pilot, I bought him a card.

It had one of those calming, Zen-ish images on the front (I can’t actually recall the precise image, but probably a similar depiction of the Buddha as seen below). Inside the words read: “Leap and the net will appear.”


I loved this idea of the net because, well, we were we leaping and I was scared shitless.

We had given up careers, excellent benefits, sold our house (that we spent three years and a lot of money renovating), stored its contents and moved across the world with no jobs waiting for us. Oh, and we had our 3-year-old and 9-month old daughters in tow.

Four weeks after I watched him take the card out of its envelope, we were staying in a suburb of Dar es Salaam called Kariako at a dive of a hotel where our 3-year-old had a temper tantrum about three times a day and our now 10-month-old baby woke three or four times a night. Meals were always a challenge. These kids had to eat when they needed to eat and the restaurant in the hotel was limited — to put it mildly. We were frazzled, fried and snapping at each other with regularity. This was a few months after the global economy had taken a nosedive (in October 2008). The Arusha-based safari outfits where my husband planned to work were hit hard. So, he had no job or real prospect of a job and we were hemorrhaging money.

This plan of ours was 18 months in the making. Craig had left job almost two years previously to complete his IFR training. And now we were here. Could we quit? Should we?

I remember one night sitting on the floor with a baby resting in my arms. I had that blank stare of the mentally deranged. And then something caused me to focus my attention: a dead insect lying upside down under a table (hotel staff would come into our room each evening to “spray” at which point we would clear out for an hour or so). Our hotel room was small with two beds that were somewhere between a double and a single in size (one adult one child shared a bed). That pathetic dead insect provoked a thought: We were in free fall and there was absolutely no sign of a net.


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