About a year ago, Colin Kearns, my editor at Field & Stream, asked me if I were interested in going to Cuba. Havana, tooling through Old Town in a pink and white Chevy Bel Air, Papa Dobles at the El Floridita, fly fishing in the Bay of Pigs, and the world’s most beautiful women everywhere you looked. It should have been a no-brainer. Still, I hesitated. I knew that by October, the proposed date of the trip, I would be immersed— a mild way of putting it—in a new novel, and ten days was a long time to be away from it. Not to mention the time I’d lose planning and the creative writing I’d have to do to obtain the quasi-legal documents needed to avoid being thrown into Guantanamo Bay.
Colin, sensing my indecision, waved a carrot. “You’re a better magazine writer since you started writing novels,” he said. “It only follows that writing this article will make you a better novelist when you come back from Cuba.”
I could have taken umbrage. I had, after all, been a finalist for two National Magazine Awards years before I began telling lies for a living.
But he was right. I was a better magazine writer since writing the novels. Articles were easier to start, they came more fluidly than before, I tried to do less with them and accomplished more. And writing two thousand words, even five thousand words? That’s a snap when you typically work in chunks of one hundred thousand words.
But was what Colin suggested also true? Does writing the occasional magazine article, short story, or op-ed piece for a newspaper make one a better novelist?
I came to the book the old-fashioned way, by climbing the literary ladder a rung at a time. I started out as a nightside and crime reporter, segued into writing for magazines, and was the Survival and Outdoor Skills columnist for Field & Stream many years before attempting a novel. In some ways, my background didn’t help the transition. The newspaper and magazine writer uses the declarative sentence as his stock-in-trade, while novels are driven almost entirely by character and dialogue. After nearly thirty years of making my living with words, I found myself working on my first novel and not having a clue how you get a character into a room. Does she knock first? Is she ushered in or does the door mysteriously open? Are there birds singing outside the window? What kind of birds? How do you get a character to say one thing while she means another? Do you watch her breathe or take it for granted? This was all new to me.
Yet I do believe that different forms of writing feed off each other, and a magazine writer or newspaperwoman brings discipline to the novel, a clarity of language, the ability to meet deadlines, and the common sense to keep enough rein on the characters that they don’t wander off the face of the earth.
If for no other reason, writing a shorter piece now and then is beneficial because it gives the novelist a finished piece of work to admire. I don’t have to tell you that a book is never really done. The publisher just takes it away at a certain point, it comes back for revision after revision, the publication process alone is ten months of busywork, and by the time it’s finally between covers, you are fighting against deadline to turn in the next one.
To be a novelist is to be insecure, and a short piece reassures that, yes, you still can write, even if the book you’ve been belaboring has been telling you that you can’t. Whatever time you may lose in writing a shorter article or story is more than made up for by the confidence boost you can then take back to the novel.
On the other hand, maybe this is just the logic I used on myself to take up Colin’s offer of a free trip to Cuba. The fruit of that adventure, a story called “Sons of Santiago,” is the cover story of the June/July issue of Field & Stream, and each time I look at it, I taste the rum, I see the women in their colorful dresses, I hear the singing of the fly reel as the bonefish takes out line, and I know I made the right decision.