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Sarah Elton: Slaying the Deadline Demon

Posted: 06/15/2013 12:36 am

Sarah Elton will be appearing at Trinity Bellwoods Park on Saturday, June 22nd, from 12 - 4 pm at A Literary Picnic, part of Luminato Festival 2013. With the theme of "Beginnings" as inspiration, over 60 authors will take to three stages to share selections from their work and offer insight into where a story begins, and how writers confront the blank page. Many of the participating authors will also be setting up their own picnic blankets "backstage" for one-on-one exchanges with the public throughout the day.

On each Saturday leading up to the festivities -- as well as on the big day itself -- The Huffington Post is presenting blog posts from selected authors on how they personally handle writing that daunting first word. Today, we feature Susan's contribution. You'll find past entries here.

When you're a journalist working in the daily news grind, the page can't stay blank for long. You're responsible for turning your interviews and reporting into a cogent piece, as quickly as you can, so the rest of your colleagues in the news chain can do their job too. Everyone's counting on you--and that pressure is a wonderful antidote to writer's block.

Early in my career, I worked as a news reporter and a morning radio producer and in both jobs, I learned how to crank it out. And I mean crank. I've composed opening lines for my articles in my head, while driving on the 401, riding an elevator, cycling and even while running, frantically, to save the 3 minutes it would have taken to walk. The deadline was breathing fire at my back.

Once when I was working the early shift at the radio station, I wrote an introduction as the segment was going to air--in mere seconds. I'm not saying this was necessarily good writing--though sometimes fast can equal good in a surprising, creative way--but it was certainly terrific practice to write whatever you can, when that blank page must be turned into something quickly.

Before starting my first book, I would have imagined that there would be lots of time in the writing process to ruminate over those opening words. To ponder and pontificate and all those things writers--sorry, Writers, with a capital 'w'--do. But two books later, I know how wrong I was. That deadline demon is always there, its fiery breath scalding my backside. I don't feel much different now from how I did when I had to race to file my breaking news story. There's someone waiting to read my 100,000 word text in the same way my news editor was waiting for my 600 words for the paper.

So when I was writing my latest book, Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, the pages didn't stay blank for long. I conjured up my inner journalist and filled the blankness with stories.

For the book, I travelled to China, India, and France to report on the growing global sustainable food movement and I let the narratives of the characters I met there push me forward. So it was Rose, who grew up in the rice paddies of southern Yunnan where her parents saved and sowed their heritage seeds and who later moved to the big city of Kunming, like so many other Chinese of her generation, who filled my blank screen. Or Chandrakalabai, the Indian farmer I met who had radically changed her life when she switched to organic agriculture and sold her food directly to her customers, who filled another and another. Or the dynamic Monsieur Valadier in France, whose passion for stewarding the countryside and for making cheese kept the words flowing until the book was done and that demon satisfied.

Sarah Elton is a journalist and author. Her new book Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet is a bestseller. Please visit sarahelton.ca for more information.


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  • Philip Pullman

    Yes, he did produce his own retelling of classic fairy tales last year, but really we want him to write<em> The Book of Dust</em>, the latest companion book to the His Dark Materials series. No publishing date has been announced yet. Get on with it, Philip! (Photo by MJ Kim/Getty Images)

  • George R.R. Martin

    Yes, you just wrote a new novella set in Westeros. Not enough, sorry. STOP WITH THE EVERYTHING ELSE, GEORGE! STOP IT NOW! (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

  • John Green

    So you hosted an amazing gig at Carnegie Hall, you make more videos a day than we eat meals, and you blog/Tumb/tweet more than a teenager whose cat just died. But we loved <em>The Fault in Our Stars</em> so much, we just want more books. Write on, Mr G. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • EL James

    We're not necessarily excited about the prose that will result, but the survival of the publishing industry may yet depend on EL James writing several more books a year. (Photo credit should read KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images)

  • George Saunders

    Suddenly the flavor of the moment, his quirky, disturbing sci-fiesque suburban short stories have critics fighting over each other to say who thinks <em>Tenth of December</em> is the best book of the month/year/decade. However, as Adrian Chen <a href="http://gawker.com/5978325/writer-of-our-time-george-saunders-needs-to-write-a-goddamn-novel-already">so perceptively puts it at Gawker</a>, write a goddamn novel already.

  • Hilary Mantel

    <em>Wolf Hall</em>: Booker Prize. <em>Bring up the Bodies</em>: Booker Prize. The final part of the trilogy, <em>The Mirror and the Light</em>... publishing date unconfirmed. What? Get to it, Mantel! They can only give the Booker to so many other people before you take it back again. (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Cormac McCarthy

    It's been seven years since <em>The Road</em>, and still no sign of <em>The Passenger</em>, <a href="http://www.thewittliffcollections.txstate.edu/research/a-z/mccarthypapers.html">his unfinished next novel</a>. You're turning 80 this year, Mr McCarthy. On your olde worlde typewriter, it's time to tap a little faster. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

  • Erin Morgenstern

    We liked <em>The Night Circus</em> so much, we made it <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/08/the-night-circus-morgenstern-book-club_n_1501671.html">a book club pick. </a>But it came out more than a year ago. Morgenstern says her next book is "a film noir-flavored <em>Alice in Wonderland</em>." We want to read it, Erin. WE WANT TO READ IT NOW. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Summit Entertainment)

  • Jhumpa Lahiri

    <em>The Interpreter of Maladies</em> was an incredible debut. <em>The Namesake</em> was a fascinating book and movie. But <em>Unaccustomed Earth</em> was five years ago now. Time to put the fingers to the keys and give us all what we want. UPDATE: An eagle-eyed Random House reprentative <a href="https://twitter.com/SarCahill/status/294957571704487936">tells us</a> that she has a new book slated for <a href="http://www.randomhouse.com/book/97151/the-lowland-by-jhumpa-lahiri">later this year</a>. OK, we'll let you off this time, Jhumpa. But don't leave us waiting so long next time, k? (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

  • Jonathan Franzen

    Hey, Franzen. Enough with your compilations of witty, insightful non-fiction and documentaries on bird watching. You know what we see flying over the horizon? Another bloody novel. PUT DOWN THOSE BINOCULARS AND PICK UP A PEN. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO)

  • Donna Tartt

    <em>The Little Friend </em>was disturbing and memorable. It was also 11 years ago. Time for another, Donna. You can thank us later. (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

  • Jeffrey Eugenides

    <em>The Marriage Plot</em> was fun and less frothy than many people assumed. Two years have now passed. Take your lovely shirts back to your desk, and don't leave until you're done. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

  • Harper Lee

    We know, OK? You wrote <em>To Kill a Mockingbird</em> and that was it. But you started a second novel, <a href="http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_happened_to_The_Long_Goodbye_written_by_Harper_Lee"><em>The Long Goodbye</em></a>. Isn't it time you gave it an ending? Please? (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)