Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

I just finished writing a book. Here’s what I learned.

So I have just, as in just this very moment, finished my final edits on the sequel to The Soak, “Only Revenge Was Left”. I have released it to my able and talented editor Michael Waitz and I am, for the moment, done. The monkey is off my back. So here, in no particular order, are some of the things I’ve learned writing my seventh book.


I got much faster and better at writing the first draft. I used 25 minutes sprints and  was averaging 1700 words an hour. This, for me, is madness. I’ve never been able to do that before. And what’s more important about this is that the work was more fun. Here’s what made the difference: taking dead aim.

It’s a concept I encountered in Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, a compendium of tips and advice he used as a golf coach. What he observed was that when golfers stopped vaguely aiming and would instead focus on the exact spot they wanted to hit with their shot, they would get a better result.

Of course this is fascinating. But in the context of writing what I mean is you have a very specific idea of what your writing is supposed to do in that session. The confidence this gave me allowed me to be much faster and a much better author.


Shakespeare didn’t write original plays. What he did was find a story that he felt he could do something with and do it better than it had been done before. (see also The Spanish Tragedy) There are a bunch of reasons I think this is a good idea, not the least of which is readers don’t want something original, even when they say they do. I don’t, you don’t, nobody does. You know what’s pretty original? Ulysses by James Joyce. You know what’s not fun to read? Ulysses by James Joyce. It might be worth reading, but even people who have told me that it is the best book ever written have admitted, it’s not an enjoyable book.

What people want, in just about everything, is the same, but different. A fresh take on a new story. And that’s hard enough. My feeling now is, if I steal a great story to begin with, my odds are better of producing something really good.


So, I came across this quote while I was working on this book. To paraphrase “A work of genius is one in which the strengths overcome the flaws.”This was a big idea for me. The though that really great books, movies, plays and works of art weren’t great because they were perfect. Look critically at anything you really love and you will see this is true. And the thing is you have to make so many trade-offs when you’re telling a story – or making anything – there’s bound to be mistakes. So I stopped worrying about the mistakes so much and started worrying about making the good parts great. A huge breakthrough for me.


There is a tendency, at least I have the tendency, to hold on to good ideas too tightly. Thinking that I will use an idea later to make the perfect story are the perfect thing down the road. What I learned is if you have something that you can use, you should just use it. Not only do you not know if that hypothetical other thing is going be any good, you actually don’t even know if  are going to be alive later. Play your best game right now and trust that your brain will generate more good ideas.

I’ll post both an audio and text excerpt in that chapter when I’m a little further along in the process. Right now I just want to revel in the fact that it’s good and it’s done.


 Another Facebook post will change nothing. Write the book.


Halfway through this book I almost quit. Partially because I was frustrated with the work, but partially because I’ve got a lot of life going on. I’ve got a nice marriage, great four-year-old son who is so much fun right now, and I’ve a daughter on the way. I also work full-time. So in some ways it’s both exhausting and selfish to spend this much time and effort on writing books. But it was only after I got very stubborn and stupid about finishing this book – for no other reason than because I started it, that I learned all these things.

“Only Revenge was Left” will be available August 15. Maybe sooner, but don’t push me, people.  I’m gonna have a newborn in the house.


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