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A tale of truths. About writers. And other strange happenings, part II.

Where were we now? Oh yes, back on the job in California, shortly after my trip to Ireland. Dealing with writers.

I hope not to disappoint after yesterday’s cliffhanger. But this really is about writers and not about defiance and resistance — though it is possible that my old friend Maurice could make another appearance before this story is done.


Not long after returning, I was making my way down the pile of short-story manuscripts when I ran across another from one of those “two percent” writers — the almost-wonderful ones.

This manuscript told a charming tale, perfect for the kind of magazine we were working on.

It was about the first radio in a small town in the late 1930s, and the shy young doctor who owned it. On the day the story took place, the doctor was juggling a medical emergency and a budding romance with his nurse (of which he was oblivious as the story opened) while the town’s only mechanic tried frantically to get the radio working in time for a big Christmas Eve concert. Everybody was running hither and thither, with the whole town counting on the doctor and his radio. Because of course everybody was expected to gather ’round that all-important radio on that all-important holiday evening. If the mechanic failed, if the doctor didn’t cure his patient and get home in time to open his doors to his neighbors, it would be a town tragedy to be mourned for the next year, if not the next decade.

And the story was set in Ireland, which of course made it great for an airline magazine and intrigued the heck out of me.

But as I say, it was a two-percenter. The plot couldn’t have been livelier or lovelier. The writing was competent. The big — big — flaw was that the writer hadn’t created any real sense of time or place or character. Everything was generic. Generic Irish people. Generic town. Generic era. Generic.

So promising, though.

I looked at the return envelope. The address was only about 20 miles from our office. I took a deep breath, called the writer, and said, “I really like your story, but I think it needs more work. We’d be willing to buy it if you’d be willing to revise it. Would you come down and meet with me?”

A few days later I was sitting across the desk from a friendly older lady named Betty. She had taken up writing only recently, after the death of her husband. She was delighted somebody was considering her story and eager to do anything she could to get it published.

Unfortunately, either I wasn’t explaining myself well or she just couldn’t get it. “It needs to be more specific,” I said. “Right now it doesn’t feel as if these people are genuine individuals living at a particular time. Or in a specific place.”

“But it is a specific time,” she protested. “And some of them are real people. I knew them. I spent time with them as a girl and as a young woman.”

I was trying to think how to explain that no matter how real everything was in her head, she hadn’t gotten that “realness” onto the page. Before I got the chance, she continued. “And I assure you it’s a very real place! In fact, it’s a village called ________.”

You know what’s coming, don’t you?

She spoke the real name of my Glocca Morra. That tiny, obscure spot in the middle of nowhere on the other side of the world, that place no outsider would go if not for pranksters turning road signs.

I went white. When I explained why, Betty also went white. Minutes later, we were both shaking as we shared recollections. Yes, she knew that monument with the trumpeting angel. Of course she remembered the fallen-down stone house. And did she know Maurice Daneher? Good heavens, naturally she did! And the pub in the story, a place where all her characters kept leaving messages for each other? That was none other than Daneher’s — although Maurice’s father was still running it when the great wooden radio came to town.


Betty went home, still in a daze, to revise her story. She and I eventually became friends (or at least as much as my snotty young self would allow an old lady to be friends with me). We had lunches together and she shared memories from her very adventurous life with her husband, whom she missed terribly.

But she never did get that story right. She tried and tried. Betty willingly revised her heart out. But while she improved many details, she never got past the original sense of everything being generic.

We bought the story because I’d promised to. But we’d never have run it, even if the poor magazine hadn’t quickly disappeared from the CEO’s interests and the airline’s budget.


That’s the heartbreaking thing about “two-percent” writers. It’s absolutely possible that some will find their way — via hard work, good observation, practice, constructive criticism, more practice, time, and a heavy measure of luck — into being one-percent writers. Truly dazzling writers.

But most won’t. All my experience tells me this.

Betty may have been too old and set in her ways. Or too literal in her thinking to get that she had to put Glocca Morra on the page, not just see it in her mind. I don’t know why. But she couldn’t do it.

Ms. Lynn Shepherd, who inspired this long recollection, will never rise out of the two percent because she doesn’t have the wisdom and humility to understand that she needs to try.

And I confess that one reason the two-percenters break my heart is that … I’m one of them. When I was young I moped about waiting for “inspiration,” never realizing that what I needed much more was “backside planted in chair” to write and write and write some more. Then and later, I stayed in the two percent because of self-doubt or lack of confidence or because I had no natural talent for fiction and wasn’t strong or patient or brave enough to push past my own barriers.

Oh, sometimes — with non-fiction, with rants — I get up there in one-percent territory. I think I do, anyhow.

But mostly, I live with the frustration of knowing I’ll never be more than merely good. Never great.

For writers, and all artists, there is that … call it a trumpeting angel atop a grand obelisk. It’s the height worth reaching. And we two-percenters, for whatever reason, don’t soar that high.

And, Ms. Shepherd, whatever our particular faults may be, we’ll never soar, even if every greater artist in the world were to step aside, get behind us, and push us upward with all their amazing power.


One more thing you might like to hear from Betty before our story ends.

At that first meeting I asked her, “Did somebody in the town really burn a Black and Tans’ barrack?”

I had half a suspicion that my old friend Maurice had only made up that tale because I so obviously wanted a little drama.

She hesitated. “That was before my time. But yes. It happened. Everybody talked about it, even years later.”

“Who did it?”

“Oh, that was never said, you know. Not aloud. At first, it would have been too dangerous and might have gotten many people killed — and not just the ones who set the fire. Later people never said because they’d just developed the habit of silence. Officially, no one knows. Not to this day.”

“But really … who did it? People in small towns always know. Who had the guts to burn the barracks, knowing what those evil thugs would do to them if they were caught?”

Betty gave me a sly little smile. “Well, you know that as well as anybody, don’t you? After all, you met one of them.”


  1. Bear
    Bear February 26, 2014 6:11 pm

    I figured out the inspiration/perspiration bit a long time ago. Inspiration’s easy… or not; I get too many ideas. I sometimes say I’m a compulsive writer, but that’s just the only way to get ideas to settle down.

    I probably should have stuck to nonfiction. I’m not half bad there, if I say so myself. But fiction? I don’t understand people well enough to create believable characters. Or, on the rare occasions that I did manage it, readers were convinced that X was really me. (Or worse, them– a woman was apparently convinced one of my characters was her. But she never said which one, leaving me to hope it wasn’t the the pissed off lady with the .357 Magnum and a box of explosives.*) I spent years at that before I finally admitted that I had the inspiration and perspiration aspects nailed, but what was lacking was talent.

    * “Point of Honor”, for those who might be wondering. It’s in The Anarchy Belt.

  2. Kent McManigal
    Kent McManigal February 26, 2014 6:24 pm

    I like the story. Still can’t imagine you as “snotty”, though.

  3. Claire
    Claire February 26, 2014 6:52 pm

    Bear — Yeah, talent. That sure helps. When it comes to fiction writing, I didn’t have that, either.

    Kent — Well, you’re nice. And I generally tried to be nice, too. Mostly. But back then I was living a dangerous combo — insecure and unknowingly arrogant. I’d been shoved into a job where I knew I was over my head, yet at the same time, I could be completely intolerant of people who weren’t living up to my expectations. (I was actually expecting everybody to be better and smarter than I, which I had always been taught that they were. When people didn’t live up to my high expectations I thought they just weren’t trying.)

    Gads, I wouldn’t go back to those days for anything.

  4. Joel
    Joel February 26, 2014 6:56 pm

    Hey, I liked The Anarchy Belt.

    There are people who tell you wild stories, and you know it’s bullshit. There are people around whom wild stories just sort of coalesce, and you know they’re all true. My first instructor was like that: He was a lifer in the Marines, spent far too much time in a certain narrow country in what used to be called Indochina, (and left some of his marbles there, in my opinion,) and eventually – much later – managed to get himself pointlessly killed in Africa. In between he ran one of the first shooting/survivalism schools, and there was this bunch of Sikhs, and then this Prime Minister got killed by her own bodyguards, and nobody ever SAID the two things were related, and in fact there were denials. But…

    But (getting back to writing) yeah. I like to think on a good day I hit Claire’s 2%. After four unsellable novels I decided I don’t have it in me to write commercial fiction, and it’s not for lack of typing.

  5. Joel
    Joel February 26, 2014 6:59 pm

    Hey, Claire, re-read Rebelfire. There was talent in there. I don’t think it was well marketed, but it certainly isn’t badly written.

  6. Claire
    Claire February 26, 2014 7:01 pm

    Thank you, my fellow writer. It’s true RF wasn’t well marketed. But oh, if I could go back and do it again, I’d make some changes.

    ‘Course, that just seems to be the way of writers, doesn’t it?

  7. A.G.
    A.G. February 26, 2014 7:04 pm

    10,000 hours of dedicated and directed practice seems to be the magic number needed to attain mastery of any given endevour. If those are not racked up prior to age 25 or so, chances are it ain’t happening. Life gets in the way when your folks stop paying the bills.

  8. Jim Klein
    Jim Klein February 26, 2014 9:02 pm

    That was worth the wait; thanks for sharing, Claire. Though frankly, I think you miss an important factor in your critique of your writing. I’m no literary critic, so I can’t speak about the 2% or 1% or any of that. Personally I enjoy your style, at least what I know of it. I rarely read any books, since I have the attention span of a gnat.

    But there’s another element, far more important IMO, that puts you eons above the 2%, and in my view above the vast majority of the 1%. Simply put…you say something, and inevitably something important.

    That’s a big deal in this zombie world and it’s an even bigger deal that what you say is right. There are tons of good people out there–I think a lot of ’em read your blog!–but it’s a whole ‘nuther thing to express that goodness to others. And to express it in a fashion that they want to hear it…well, it just doesn’t get any better than that, for a writer.

  9. ENthePeasant
    ENthePeasant February 27, 2014 12:57 am

    Probably less than a 2%, but there have been moments. I edit to this day even though its like getting on a bike that’s not been ridden for years. I’ve grown very sloppy and what my Dad calls “conversational”. Editing has become serious work. There’s one non fiction book to my credit, a collaboration. Funny thing about that. I said what I wanted to say in that book. It was said. Nothing left after that. Even worse some of the people I edit for, particularly magazine writers, can’t write worth a damn. But they have clearly thought out ideas that work. One guy is pretty famous. When he sends articles to me they’re a mess. I’m struck time and time again by the simple fact that he has ideas and vision that I never had… but he can’t write. He’s famous and guess who will never be? At 21 the guy staring back at me in the mirror was surely going to be a great fiction writer. He had a great way with stories. At thirty he woke up to the fact that he could tell stories from his life, but making them up was near impossible. My life has had some very interesting times. However, not interesting enough to fill more than one book. And what does that leave? My failed marriage? Sure, let’s do a “new” take on that.

  10. RickB
    RickB February 27, 2014 3:32 am

    Young, self-absorbed, pretty California girl–I can completely picture Claire as a snotty princess. I think many of us look back with horror at how oblivious we were as youths.

    Excellent essay, by the way.

    I just started (seriously) writing this year (two web sites). I’m struggling to break into the 2%.

  11. Water Lily
    Water Lily February 27, 2014 4:38 am

    I really liked Rebelfire. The story was compelling.

    I enjoyed your Ireland story and Part 2 as well.

    If I’ve learned anything from the “how to write” books, watching my friends writing careers, and listening to beta readers, critique partners, and reading reviews, is that telling a compelling story trumps everything else – the grammar, the little nitpicky things that traditional publishing houses grouse about, (especially if you are a nobody.) Story trumps all. Everything else can be fixed.

    The self-publishing world is exploding. Yes, there’s a boatload of crappy books out there. But there are also fabulous books that were rejected because they were cross-genre (traditional publishers couldn’t figure out bookstore shelf placement) captivating stories that went to the slush pile for whatever reason, and some damn good books. JA Konrath, Barry Eisler and Russell Blake are making boatloads of money from self-publishing their e-books and the traditional publishers and agents are terrified and lashing out. Especially at amazon.

    Why would a competent writer even bother with 17-25% e-book royalties from the trads, when they can get 70% from amazon? Established authors are self e-publishing their backlist, pricing some at .99 and still making piles of money. Having multiple books out there seems to be the way to go.

    I hope those snooty publishing world elitists (I’ve known a few publishers from my NYC days) go the way of the VHS tape and the rotary phone. And they can take the bankers with them. 🙂

    And as far as Ms. Shepherd is concerned: write some good stories, (maybe under a pen name, since you’ve disgraced yourself,) self-publish them, and stop the whining.

  12. Ragnar
    Ragnar February 27, 2014 9:27 am

    I loved RebelFire far more than you did Claire. And everyone I know who has read it loved it as well. My 16 year old nephew liked it better than the “Hunger Games.” And yes… I still wear my RebelFire T-Shirt, and the CD is still in my truck.
    And where would I be without a fun book like Freedom Outlaw in my memory?
    It’s neat that you are your own best critic… I love everything you do and this 2 part post shows your a great storyteller which is what counts the most for me.

  13. LarryA
    LarryA February 27, 2014 12:22 pm

    I’d guess I’m high 2%. One paperback through a small press in Austin (which disagrees with NYC and CA publishers who think women never compete in shooting sports) and quite a few short stories and e-pub novels published.

    I’d say my main contribution is being president of a good writers critique group, helping new authors get started.

    Everything else can be fixed.

    If you let it. The wannawriters with the biggest problem are the “I don’t knead an editor” types. And those with an “innovative” publisher.

    Just “finished” a book after the first few chapters. Whoever birthed it didn’t set off dialogue with quotes. As in: She said Lets go to the store. Then they left. I kept having to go back and figure out where the talking stopped. I seldom don’t finish a book, but it just got too hard to keep going. Yet it got made into a movie, so I guess it’s a success.


    Claire. Honestly. Quityerbitchin! The only thing literary I hate worse than whiny writers is long serials, and you totally hooked me with Hardyville.

  14. Water Lily
    Water Lily February 27, 2014 3:49 pm

    I tried to read a novel by Gary Hart (yes, that Gary Hart)

    No dialogue quotes.

    I couldn’t get past five pages.

  15. jed
    jed February 27, 2014 4:11 pm

    Well, Claire, I think you’re being too hard on yourself. That can be a hard thing to get over.

    And, again, a very delightful story. And what a thing that was, to meet someone from your little Irish town.

  16. Terry
    Terry February 27, 2014 4:57 pm

    Whoa, you startled me there. You said Glocca Morra, I heard Connemara, and thought ‘Hey, I’ve been there!’ Then I realized my mistake.

    But you sure have one lane, walled in Irish roads right. 🙂

    I agree with Jim Klein up there – what makes your work stand out is that you say something, and most of the time it’s important. Fiction or otherwise, getting people to think is better than plot or character or opening lines or gut-twisting finales.

    Keep up the good work.

  17. Shel
    Shel February 27, 2014 6:38 pm

    I only have a few comments on the Irish. If their monuments, humble as they are, are about all they have, it means they place paramount importance on courage and sacrifice for the benefit of others. We Americans used to have those high standards, too. Rearden Conner brought to life the very people Betty could not. His writing was so startlingly real that he absolutely had to have been there as a participant. After reading his “novel” and his autobiography, I felt a considerable sense of loss that I could never meet him. While I have known people who are comparably interesting, I still envy you for having the very good fortune to have found a friend in Maurice.

  18. Jim Klein
    Jim Klein February 27, 2014 8:57 pm

    “If their monuments, humble as they are, are about all they have, it means they place paramount importance on courage and sacrifice for the benefit of others.”

    Speaking of expressing ideas, a simple rewording of this sentence makes the lesson much clearer—courageous sacrifice for the benefit of others, leaves you with nothing but old monuments.

  19. Paul Bonneau
    Paul Bonneau February 28, 2014 7:40 am

    I never looked at it in terms of 1% or 2%. This sounds like a grading connected to the needs of the old-school publishing industry.

    Now with the internet we just put our stuff out there, much of it rough and with many mistakes, and ideas sometimes poorly communicated. Yet we still manage to positively affect those who read our material. And I like the give and take that happens with blogs followed by comments, where both sides can learn.

    Only a tiny, truly miniscule fraction of humans can ever reach the level of “best” at anything, whether writing or anything else. It’s OK to hold them up as an example to aspire to, but we can go overboard in that direction. The rest of us mediocre folks still manage to do something worthwhile. We are good enough, and that should be good enough for us – as long as we continually seek improvement.

    BTW I dropped your “Hardyville Tales” on the desktop of a co-worker, a friend who you might characterize as “conventional conservative”. He was really impressed with it and you could see how he absorbed the ideas well. I think it’s among the most effective and accessible things you’ve written, Claire. Keep plugging away!

  20. leonard
    leonard February 28, 2014 4:49 pm

    yeah you definitely do get in one percent territory.

  21. ENthePeasant
    ENthePeasant February 28, 2014 5:02 pm

    “Now with the internet we just put our stuff out there, much of it rough and with many mistakes, and ideas sometimes poorly communicated. Yet we still manage to positively affect those who read our material. And I like the give and take that happens with blogs followed by comments, where both sides can learn.”

    Paul Bonneau, this is kind of what I was driving at. I’ve read a couple of books in the category of “prepper fiction” lately where the writing was horrendous… but the books were excellent. I’m seeing this happen more and more… not to mention the guy who wrote one of the books I’m speaking of has written two more and his writing improves with each addition. In the end it’s about ideas and stories conveyed to an audience in a manner that they can understand. I’m not sure that being a “writer” of great skill means much any longer. If you’ve got nothing to say perfect writing in the technical sense will no longer get you by.

  22. Shel
    Shel March 1, 2014 8:47 am

    JK: Yes, the rewording is less convoluted, but also much less respectful.

  23. Jim Klein
    Jim Klein March 1, 2014 7:46 pm

    Shel, I wasn’t trying to correct your writing. I was trying to say this: “Sacrifice is the scourge of the Earth.” Sorry…you’d probably prefer I was trying to nitpick your wording!

  24. Neal Reynolds
    Neal Reynolds March 1, 2014 11:35 pm

    As I was reading the last few paragraphs the scene in “Amadeus” where Salieri throws the crucifix into the fire popped into my head. I saw the movie back when it first came out, and I still remember how that was the point when it really won me over and became one of my favorite films.

    However when I, somewhat hestitantly, told my best (high school) friend (who had also just seen the movie) this, the shock and horror on his face made me (until now) never mention it again.

    And yet, whereas my friend apparently gave up on being a writer not long after I high school, I never did. (Though I did put it on the back burner for many years in favor of having a good-paying job.)

    And now that I am starting to have some success, I realize that the scene (and movie) allowed me to experience certain feelings so intensely that I got over resenting that I wasn’t a great writer (but, along the lines of Salieri, able to recognize great writing) and dedicated myself, no matter how long it took, to becoming one.

  25. Shel
    Shel March 2, 2014 6:00 am

    JK: Sorry, I misunderstood. I’ve done my share of “sacrificing,” and would have been better off leaving most of it alone.

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