“All is well at 03:00. There is traffic in the strait, commercial vessels and fishing boats, but the spacing is good. An overnight sky hides the moonlight. Flying Fish is sailing well to windward. I am tired.
“In the next moment it is 03:08! Proximity alarms are blaring. Control lights at the helm are flashing. I … see a bright green starboard running light directly in front of the mast. What is happening?
“As I jump up from the cockpit seat my head, and then my mouth collides with force against the hard fiberglass surface of the spray dodger. I hear my front tooth crack and then taste shattered enamel.
“I disengage the autopilot and swing the boat hard to port. The rain on the windscreen of the dodger distorts everything. I brace for impact.”
Great writing. There is nothing — I would argue — that has influenced the world more. Great writing can move us in so, so many ways.
It can trigger all our emotions. It can frighten us and make us cry. It can lighten us and make us sigh. And as my journalist friend Jeffery Cardenas shows us above, it can build suspense. In this passage he uses short staccatolike sentences, similar to your breathing pattern when you’re in a tight spot, putting yourself in his predicament.
Jeff is sailing around the world, mostly solo, and as he does so he is writing a log to document the journey. He has many months to go and if you’re interested you can follow his adventure at flyingfishsail.wordpress.com. Oh yeah, you can also see how that little jam above ended.
• • •
I’ve been thinking a lot about writing lately. Why? Because I’ve come to a conclusion many of you might not agree with: If you’re a good or great writer you have to be intelligent. I don’t care if you are left- or right-leaning, if you can put pen to paper (who does that anymore?) and the result sings to readers, you’re pretty bright. It is not unlike great painting or dancing or singing. Let me say that again: In my view great writing is art.
On the other hand, if you can’t string two sentences together that make any sense, you’re more likely to be just a doorknob. Look, I’ve seen doorknobs be very successful, reach very high political office. But they are doorknobs nonetheless.
One last point about this conclusion of mine. There are exceptions. Some bright people struggle with writing. But there are no exceptions to the opposite point. If you are a great writer, you simply cannot be a nincompoop. Let that settle in before you move on.
With that in mind, I wanted to share with you some thoughts on writing from a couple of writers I respect.
• • •
Many of those who read this column know Pat Jollota’s name. She’s been around Vancouver for decades and has done the city councilor thing and the volunteering on boards thing and the going to community lunches thing. But she has taken up writing books and is quite successful locally.
Her latest effort is expected to be titled “Hauntings in Vancouver” and will be out sometime in the fall.
I asked her if she knew how many books she’s sold.
“I don’t keep track of the number. I just cash the royalty check twice a year, just enough to pay for a vacation,” she responded.
Does she feel writing is a form of art?
“Great literature definitely is that. I just tell stories. It becomes more of an obsession than work, once I’m into it. I can’t stop. I sit at that damned computer while my feet swell up, my back aches and I get fat for lack of movement. Kind of like pregnancy, you carry on for a few months then painfully deliver what you’ve created. The difference is you don’t throw a baby out into the town square for people to throw rocks at.”
You can tell from the above Pat has a way with words. Please pick up her latest book this fall.
• • •
I have lots — lots — of writer friends. They’re a stimulating group to hang with. My most successful writing buddy is Randy Wayne White. We worked together at a Florida newspaper before he became a bestselling author. Today, he hangs his hat on Captiva Island, just off the southwest Florida coast.
He is involved with three restaurants — a fourth is coming — named after the main character in his books, Doc Ford. By day, Doc is a low-key marine biologist. By night, he turns into every bad guy’s nightmare and every good gal’s dream.
His latest book, “Salt River,” comes out Feb. 11. I read an advance copy of it. As all great writing will do, it transports you to the scene.
When Randy had a little more bounce in his step he used to travel the country for book-signing events. He even made it out to Washington back in the day. Today, he mostly travels within the state of Florida, but I know plenty of people in Southwest Washington who read him. In fact I once went to a book club event at a Vancouver bookstore where his novel was the topic of discussion.
Randy has more than 30 published novels under his belt, so I asked him if this writing thing is easy for him now.
“Writing is still as hard as ever,” he answered. “It is a rare, rare day when the words actually flow. Normally, it is a consistent sculpting process. Chip away at a paragraph word by word, constantly re-writing, deleting, start over, then chipping away some more. It has never gotten easier.
“I doubt it ever will because I have a relentless, never-satisfied A-hole for a boss — me.”
I also asked Randy if writing is art.
“In my opinion, writing ‘popular fiction’ is a demanding craft that can, depending on the writer and/or reader, justly qualify as ‘art.’ ”
Randy said he’s likely sold more than a million books (some under pen names early in his career) so I wondered whose books he might buy to read. Whom he thought might be stellar writers. He mentioned several names. Then he added …
“I also urge people to read lesser-known classics such as ‘The Windward Road,’ by Archie Carr, ‘The Sea and the Jungle,’ by H.M. Tomlinson and any of Jeff Klinkenberg’s wonderful nonfiction.”
• • •
Do you agree that great writing is art? The next time you read something you enjoy, try to think about the way it’s written. Learn from it. Grab some ideas that will make you a better writer. Trust me, there’s no downside to stringing a couple of sentences together that actually make sense.