Posted by: Tony Carson | 20 October, 2007

Toastmasters speech ‘On the Perils of Writing a Book’

Here is a Toastmasters speech I gave last night — On the perils of writing a book

There is no greater crap-shoot than writing a book. I know. I wrote one.

But why? Why did I bother? I ask myself that all the time, sometimes bolt upright in bed at 4 in the morning. Why did I bother writing a book? I mean, what was I thinking? 500 pages yet!

I ask myself that ‘why’ on so many different levels:

• Why did I think I could write a book?

• Why did I think I had anything to say?

• Why did I think I had the time?

Why? Why? Why?

And that’s not all. How about Who, What, When, Where?

Who am I to try to write a book?

What did I expect to accomplish?

When would t be over?

Where did I expect to fence it?

If I had asked those questions, asked them just once, I would never have started the damn thing. But I didn’t, of course. I just put my bum in the chair and pecked it out, hour after hour, day after day, month after month and, if the real truth be know, probably year after year  … while I aged.

The hardest part was writing “The Long procession passed solemnly through the city gates in a wet, light easterly wind.”

Once I got those words down, the first line of my story, you didn’t matter to me. Not one of you and nor did your world. Why should you matter? Why should it matter?

I was creating my own friends, my own acquaintances.  I was creating my own fictional universe.

You know those thoughts you have … those thoughts of responsibilities and duties and obligations? Ya, well I didn’t have any of them, not for years, not a hint of them, not a fleeting notion of them,

I cared only about a few figments of my imagination who traipsed along an historical thread through five countries in the late 17th century.

And I was with my characters every step of their journey — in breeches and doublets and caftans, in ships, on horses, in carriages, in taverns, in hovels, in castles, in angst, agony, and orgiastic bliss and, if I didn’t like the way they were behaving, well, they were command-deleted into oblivion.

I was omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Nothing happened without my careful, dextrous choreography: I could create life, cause death, I could reek mayhem and inspire joy, I could command earthquakes, tempests and sunsets, I could summon morning, noon and night — just with a peck of my fingers. I was God.

But, alas, a meek God, an uncertain God. What did I know about women, truly, what? What did I know about 17th century Amsterdam, the Russian court, English shipyards, the rigging of a frigate, the finery of aristocracy?

What did I know about the stench of post-revolutionary London, the rip-tides of the frothing Baltic, the impassable morass of a Prussian turnpike?

But they were just detail. I swept them away with distain?

Do you stop reading because you don’t know a word? Do you stop writing because you don’t know a fact?

Nooooo, you push on. You do what you were told to do:

You create a cast of characters, then you turn them loose in an environment you, yourself, created and you step back and frantically record their actions and interactions, their successes and failures, their highs and their lows.

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

Precisely when I lost control, I don’t know. Was it on page 5 or page 25? It hardly matters. It was almost immediately — they cut the strings to this puppeteer almost immediately and they trod off on their separate ways.

They did what they wanted, how they wanted, when they wanted, where they wanted and they did it all for their own unique, unmentioned, unexplained reasons — all the time, wholly indifferent to the guy at the keyboard, me.

My characters appeared only when they wanted to, performed only when they could be bothered, spoke only when they felt like it — and they obeyed — never.

This writer was never a creator, I was only ever a recorder.

Because of their sullen intransigence, my dreams were dashed.

I had planned on an effusion of wealth and fame through my engaging characters, living fabulously interesting lives with a backdrop of adventure, intrigue and mystery. My story would fascinate sophisticated readers the world over. I would be on Larry King.

Instead, what I got from my feckless cast of characters was a sketchy journal dictated by languid ne’er-do-wells, who were more interested in idleness than action, banalities than profundities, interia than effervescence and all the time looking for the easiest possible way to avoid any and all conflict.

It was humbling. I had imagined the best for my characters, exciting, meaningful, memorable lives. Instead, they force me to record the ho-hum, humdrum of their undifferentiated mediocrity.

But I did learn one thing from my experience.

Fiction, it turns out, is a lot like life. If you don’t take charge, if you don’t make determined, deliberate demands, you are going to spend a lot of time with some really ordinary people.


  1. I think you’ve captured something here.

    “It was humbling. I had imagined the best for my characters, exciting, meaningful, memorable lives. Instead, they force me to record the ho-hum, humdrum of their undifferentiated mediocrity…”

    Yes, indeed, when your characters seize control of your story it’s a GOOD thing. It means that the writing is no longer contrived, the characters have taken on a life of their own. Go with it, at least for the first few drafts. You can trim the out of control parts without losing the spontaneity of your characters’ whims and movements…

  2. Ahem…

    And where might we sample this masterpiece?

  3. […] from Marcelle Proust […]

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    Manjula Ramakrishnan

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