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Louise Penny on writing to the next corner

On the 10th Anniversary of the publication of her first book Still Life, the master crime writer shares the story of the advice that changed her life—and the critic she had to lock out of the room to make it happen.

Penny_Louise_1_credit Sigrid Estrada.jpg
"You can’t write a book. What’re you thinking? And even if you do, it won’t get published. And if it is, you won’t make a living at it, so why even try?”

The voice in my head. It was very quiet, very seductive, very persistent. And very convincing.

Writing was all I wanted to do, since I was a child. But I was afraid I’d fail, so I became a journalist instead. Then, at the age of 40, I looked at my life and I knew if I was ever going to try, that was the time. With the help of my husband I quit work, to finally write that novel.

Then spent five years suffering from writer’s block. It was awful.  

I was filled with shame, guilt. I was also perplexed, not knowing what the problem was. Then, slowly, it came to me. I was trying to write the wrong book, for the wrong reasons. My goal was to write the best book ever, so that my mother would be proud. So that teachers who made me feel quite small and thick would see that I was smart. So that friends, colleagues, strangers would applaud.  

So that I could prove that voice wrong, and perhaps silence it. But I was paralyzed with fear.

Then, five agonizing years on, it came to me. Just write a book I’d love to read. Not “like” to read. But love. Not for my mother, my acquaintances, critics, even readers. Just for myself. A private edition. I looked on my bedside table and found all sorts of books from nonfiction to classics, to history and biography. And traditional crime novels. My first great love.  

Then it struck me. I’d write a crime novel, a neo-traditional, that used death as an excuse to talk about life. That used vile acts to examine friendship and love and belonging. To look partly at cruelty, but mostly at kindness.  

It would be just for me. I needn't worry what anyone else thought. I needn't even worry if it was published. All it needed to be was written.  

And so, I finally started. But not before picking up some great advice. Let me pass on some that changed my life.

When I was afraid the writer’s block would return, a therapist said the problem was that my “critic” was writing the book. She said I should thank the critic, but show “her” the door. My creative self should write the first draft. Just write with joy. Write everything down, no matter how odd. Then invite the critic back into the room for the second and subsequent drafts. There’s a place for the critic—in the editing—but not in that first draft. That was unbelievably freeing. It meant I didn't have to get it right the first time.  

The other hugely helpful insight came from reading Douglas Coupland's book on Terry Fox—namely, a passage in which Terry Fox described running across Canada to raise money for cancer research. Now, no one knew better than he did what his goal was. But he wrote that every day he didn't set out to run across Canada. All he did was run to the next corner. Then the next. Then the next. He knew if he did that often enough he’d reach his goal.

I knew then that that was how I needed to write. If I think every day, "I'm going to write a book," I’ll freak myself out. Instead, I just run to the next corner.  

I set myself a word count every day—generally quite low to begin with to be kind to myself— and then I raise it. A thousand words is what I eventually settle on. And every day that’s what I write. Not a novel, but the very best 1,000 words I can. And if I do that often enough, eventually I’ll have a book.

And so will you.  

Photo credit: Sigrid Estrada

    stilllife-books100.jpgLouise Penny didn't begin her writing career until her mid-forties, when she set to work on her first crime novel, Still Life. Set in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, the series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of Homicide for the Sûreté du Quebec. Her books have been translated into 23 languages and have hit the major bestseller lists, including the New York Times, the London Times and the Globe and Mail.


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