24 February 2018

How long should we write?
Bad Girl confronts the hard question

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)

Is there an age at which we should stop writing novels? Philip Roth thought so. In his late seventies, he stopped writing because he felt his best books were behind him, and any future writing would be inferior. (His word.)

A colleague, Barbara Fradkin, brought this to my attention the other day, and it started a heated discussion.

Many authors have written past their prime. I can name two (P.D. James and Mary Stewart) who were favourites of mine. But their last few books weren’t all that good, in my opinion. Perhaps too long, too ponderous; plots convoluted and not as well conceived…they lacked the magic I associated with those writers. I was disappointed. And somewhat embarrassed.

What an odd reaction. I was embarrassed for my literary heroes, that they had written past their best days. And I don’t want that to happen to me.

The thing is, how will we know?

One might argue that it’s easier to know in these days with the Internet. Amazon reviewers will tell us when our work isn’t up to par. Oh boy, will they tell us.

But I want to know before that last book is released. How will I tell?

The Idea-Well

I’ve had 100 comedy credits, 40 short stories and 14 books published. I’m working on number 15. That’s 55 fiction plots already used up. A lot more, if you count the comedy. How many original plot ideas can I hope to have in my lifetime? Some might argue that there are no original plot ideas, but I look at it differently. In the case of authors who are getting published in the traditional markets, every story we manage to sell is one the publisher hasn’t seen before, in that it takes a different spin. It may be we are reusing themes, but the route an author takes to send us on that journey – the roadmap – will be different.

One day, I expect my idea-well will dry up.

The Chess Game You Can’t Win

I’m paraphrasing my colleague here, but writing a mystery is particularly complex. It usually is a matter of extreme planning. Suspects, motives, red herrings, multiple clues…a good mystery novel is perhaps the most difficult type of book to write. I liken it to a chess game. You have so many pieces on the board, they all do different things, and you have to keep track of all of them.

It gets harder as you get older. I am not yet a senior citizen, but already I am finding the demands of my current book (a detective mystery) enormous. Usually I write capers, which are shorter but equally meticulously plotted. You just don’t sit down and write these things. You plan them for weeks, and re-examine them as you go. You need to be sharp. Your memory needs to be first-rate.

My memory needs a grade A mechanic and a complete overhaul.

The Pain, the Pain

Ouch. My back hurts. I’ve been here four hours with two breaks. Not sure how I’m going to get up. It will require two hands on the desk, and legs far apart. Then a brief stretch before I can loosen the back so as not to walk like an injured chimp.

My wrists are starting to act up. Decades at the computer have given me weird repetitive stress injuries. Not just the common ones. My eyes are blurry. And then there’s my neck.

Okay, I’ll stop now. If you look at my photo, you’ll see a smiling perky gal with still-thick auburn hair. That photo lies. I may *look* like that, but…

You get the picture <sic>.

Writing is work – hard work, mentally and physically. I’m getting ready to face the day when it becomes too much work. Maybe, as I find novels more difficult to write, I’ll switch back to shorter fiction, my original love. If these short stories continue to be published by the big magazines (how I love AHMM) then I assume the great abyss is still some steps away.

But it’s getting closer.

How about you? Do you plan to write until you reach that big computer room in the sky?

Just launched! The B-Team 

They do wrong for all the right reasons, and sometimes it even works!
Available at Chapters, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and all the usual online suspects.


  1. The Big Question!
    I must confess I now find painting easier than writing. Is that a sign? We'll see.

  2. I just finished the second draft of the next novel and it feels good. Like I can tell...

    BUT I've started and abandoned two other ones (I thought one was only a novella, and it didn't work either) in 2017.

    I started late, publishing my first story when I was 60, and I'm sure those story neurons are underdeveloped. I don't know how many more ideas will develop, but I have about a half-dozen short stories (even harder!) floating around right now. And I'm playing guitar 'way more often than I used to...

    An interesting post on a subject not too many of us are eager to talk about.

  3. Janice, a good friend of mine has done the same thing. Moved from writing to painting. I only wish I had the talent to be good at two arts, like that.

  4. Steve, full disclosure here: I won my first writing award in 1989. So I've been writing professionally since I was in my twenties. I think this is why I find the idea of not writing, and not getting published, so frightening. Writing, to me, is life. I wonder if this is how professionals in sports feel? Imagining a time when they may not be able to do their passion.

  5. I think I'll be writing always, but what I have noticed is that what I write has changed over time. I started out writing songs (hey I was a teenager and wanted to be the next Joan Baez); then moved to short stories, then two very bad novels, then plays, then back to short stories. Also, I've found that I moved from lots of humor to less... Perhaps I'm just getting old and tired and more in need of sympathy and medication. Who knows?

  6. Eve, I'm smiling. I've actually increased the humour in my work, as I've gotten older. I simply can't write serious for long. Now, my only serious work is in short stories. The novels must be zany escapes. Thanks for commenting!

  7. At first, I thought you meant "How long should I write at a sitting?" For me, the answer is two minutes to six hours, depending on whether the husband is asking for my attention, or if I need to visit the kitchen or bathroom, both conveniently next to my office.

    Then I thought you meant "What length of work should I write?" For me, the shorter the better.

    Eventually I figured out what you actually wanted to know. I'm not a good person to ask. But an "old" friend, now deceased, who wrote parodies of plays, told me: "When people get old, they get weird."

  8. Laff! Elizabeth, I would venture to say, when we get older, we let our 'weird' show more. Mine is pretty visible now :)

  9. I've written steadily since the mid 1980, some years producing more than others. Health issues in 2007 reminded me I was mortal and I've been on a tear ever since. I have not slowed down and have many ideas for novels and short stories waiting to be written. I hope my mind stays along for the ride.

  10. O'Neil, I admire you more than you can know, and I hope to follow in your footsteps! We both have been in this game a long time. I'm just entering my 60s, and hope for many years more of ideas. The best thing about being a writer? The other writers I've met along the way who have become friends.

  11. I worry with nearly every story that it's crap and my best work is behind me. But to stop writing entirely because of it? What an incredibly scary idea.

  12. Barb, you've nailed both fears. That's also the problem with winning awards. Once you've done it, you are always facing the internal struggle: will anything I write ever be a as good as this?

  13. You speak the truth, my friend.


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