Monday, September 6, 2010


The Strokes of Brilliance

It took a long time for me to tell people that I am an author. Even with five books under my belt and two contracts on the horizon, I sometimes do not feel like I qualify. I know it’s silly, but the mind believes what the mind believes.

I still do not openly admit that I spend much of my free time working on manuscripts. Beginning a sentence with “my publisher” or “my publicist” still seems affected to me, as if I’m pretending to be more important than I am. When asked what I plan to do on holidays, I list a series of plans and tack on, “uh, and I might do a bit of writing” at the end of the list. In reality, the writing bit is the main thing I plan to do.

Why this reluctance to talk about my writing career and my success to date?

I believe it comes down to how personal and precarious I find the writing process. Past success does not equate to future book contracts. In addition to there being no yardstick to say when you’ve ‘arrived’, once in the business, you realize that there is a hierarchy of success. For instance, I was told about a group in Toronto that will not book an author unless they have won a major award.

As a rule, writers guard their ideas and their manuscripts until their product is complete and ready for the first round of critiquing, and I am no exception. Perhaps, we are superstitious of saying our ideas out loud for fear of losing momentum or belief in the characters and plotline . . . or belief in ourselves. Maybe, it’s simply because I’m never truly certain the story will be worthy until I am done.

My husband and close friends can attest to my angst toward the middle and the end of a project when I’ve lost all perspective on the quality of my writing. I’m certain this happens because I’ve read and reread the same passages so many times. “I have no idea if this is any good. I must have been daft to spend so long on this piece of crap.” Grumble. Grumble. Edit. Rework. Grumble. “The whole story reads like a cliché,” I say. (Read anything enough times, and that tends to happen.)

A few years back, I attended Bouchercon in Baltimore and sat in the audience for a writers’ panel that included the extremely popular American thriller writer, Harlan Coben. He talked about his writing process. To paraphrase Harlan, early on with a manuscript, he says to himself, “You are bloody brilliant! This is genius.” Then, a few weeks later, he complains to his wife, “I’m a failure. This is complete garbage.” On one occasion, his wife looked at him and asked, “Are you on page 130 by any chance?” After he nodded and asked why, she commented, “Because this happens at page 130 in every manuscript.”

So, my creative process, mired in self-doubt and rewrites, is not unique. Even the top guns experience the creative angst. I’m beginning to believe, this is a necessary part of the process. By questioning and fussing with each word and idea, we become better at our craft.

Writing is an adventure. The process is both frightening and exhilarating. Each time we put our thoughts to paper, we are exposing a piece of ourselves for public scrutiny. We are like caterpillars working away silently in our cocoons until the big reveal. Nobody except our nearest and dearest knows of the effort and sweat that goes into making our butterflies; what goes into building the confidence to call ourselves authors.

Brenda Chapman is the Ottawa author of the Jennifer Bannon mystery series for young adults. Hiding in Hawk’s Creek, the second novel in the series, was shortlisted by the Canadian Association of Children’s Librarians for the 2006 Book of the Year for Children Award.

Brenda has also written several short stories that were published in an anthology (When Boomers Go Bad, RendezVous Crime 2004) and various magazines. In Winter’s Grip is Brenda’s first adult murder mystery and available at the end of September from RendezVous Crime. When not writing, Brenda works as a senior communications advisor in the federal government.


  1. It's always re-assuring to hear that insecurity prevails, even well into publishing famedom. It's trying to keep it in check and attain the right balance that's often so hard to do.

  2. None of that angst shows in the smooth and compelling book! Congrats on In Winter's Grip. I am very happy to have had that sneak preview.


  3. I couldn't agree more. I'm right at the point where I'm asking myself if the book I'm in the process of writing will hang together, if it's worth finishing but having felt like this at some time in the first three novels I know it will pass and I'll love the editing process. Looking forward to your new book.

  4. Congratulations, Brenda! I like the butterfly analogy, especially since sometimes I'm sure I'm a moth.

  5. Good blog, Brenda. And good for Harlan Coben. Not all authors are willing to let us in on their insecurities. It's reassuring to know I'm not the only one who cringes at some of the stuff I write.

  6. Well said, Brenda! I am so impressed by your quiet determination and modesty. I haven't known you for long but it's wonderful to see how you are growing and gaining confidence in yourself and your talent with each new book. Congratulations! Can't wait for "In Winter's Grip"!