Jul 18 2011

Slow & Steady Tortoise

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Slow and steady wins the race. Each July when the desert tortoises begin lumbering around our rural Arizona property, I’m reminded of this lesson from Aesop’s famed tortoise and the hare fable.

This little guy was no larger than a cereal bowl. You can’t see it in this photo, but his mouth was all green from munching on grass. Click to enlarge.

I am simply in awe of this creature, which imparts a certain wisdom through its patience and perseverance and is one of the most resilient creatures in the southwest. Desert tortoises (found only in the Sonoran Desert – my home – and the Mojave Desert) burrow to escape the heat, and they can survive long periods without food or water since they store water in their bladders.

This was one of the larger tortoises we’ve seen on our property over the years. He was probably a mature adult, about 14” long. Look at the deep, large scales on his legs. Click to enlarge.

Another wonder: these buggers really can cover some ground – even on very steep, rocky terrain. Multiple times, we’ve found juveniles crawling up the slick rock wall with agility and grace. Could it be those columnar, bowed-out legs?

And once, I saw a tortoise at the beginning of the week down by our house, only to find him the next day two mountain ridges over at the very top. Slow and steady wins the race.

This little guy (6" maybe), spotted last week, was a little frightened when I first stepped near him, as you can see from his hiding technique: legs tucked in, head pulled close. To get a better sense of scale, look at my Twitpic in the right column (comparing this guy to my size 7 foot). Click to enlarge.

I think everyone should have the privilege of seeing these wonderful creatures each year, delivering a subtle but wise reminder to slow down, take your time, and enjoy the journey. Scroll below for video.

The desert tortoise reminds us that slow, steady work on our WIPs can lead to a completed manuscript. This medium-sized tortoise was climbing our rock wall. Click to enlarge.

For Writers: Very good friend and author Jessica McCann once said to me (when I was lamenting how much time my WIP was taking), “It takes however long it takes.” Slow and steady wins the race. Two popular theories seem to exist about the fiction writing approach, though:

1)    The “creative” slow-and-steady approach: Fiction writing is a creative endeavor that calls upon the muse for inspiration. The best writing comes about when one isn’t rushed, when ideas can percolate, and when creative inspiration strikes.

2)    The “job” approach: Fiction writing is like any other commitment or professional pursuit: dedicated time must be carved into the schedule. Daily routines, specific word counts, and targeted deadlines are paramount to completing a quality creative work.

I personally fall in the middle on this issue: I’m a freelance writer and understand the value of deadlines and committed work time. In fact, some of my best journalistic writing was created with a ticking clock in my ear. On the other hand, as I work on my WIP, I’m drawing connections and making discoveries about themes, characters, and symbolism – as well as gathering insight for scenes – that I likely would not have drawn if not for the extended period of time I’ve had to work on the piece.

What do you think? Can the process of writing a novel be a combination of both approaches? What if you’re on contract and deadline to finish a multi-book deal? In that situation, is it even possible (or necessary) to take a slow-and-steady tortoise approach to keep the creative juices flowing? Can you be creative when under pressure? What works for you?


49 Responses to “Slow & Steady Tortoise”

  • avatar Jessica McCann Says:

    Thanks for the nice mention in this post. This is a great piece, and I think you nailed the idea perfectly with your analogy. Writing requires deadlines and goals, as well as a slow, steady resolve. Love the picture, too!

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    So welcome, my friend. Now if only there were some magic equation that explained how to get “slow, steady resolve” and “deadlines and goals” to mesh!

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  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    First, I LOVE your photos — amazing animals & amazing photos! Second, I don’t see choice #3, which is the stop and start style (or as we say in our family the herky jerky style, usually in driving). My preference and what I’m working toward would be to merge the two ways: be slow and steady but also to treat it like a job… it’s a process to get to that disciplined place right now.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    Herky Jerky style… I can relate to that as well (esp. with my first novel). Oh, who am I kidding? Maybe with the current one, too. I guess most writers can relate. (And, yes, Iove, love, love tortoises. They are so cool. Only one has tried to hide his head. Most of them seem kind of curious… and those eyes! They’ve very intense…)

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  • avatar Shary Says:

    I love the photos and the metaphor. It does take however long it takes. I’m like you in that I fall somewhere between the “creative” and “job” approaches to writing. I do like to make steady progress, but ideas often come to me when I let my story simmer on the back burner.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I agree 100% and wonder if the creativity flows a bit better when we take the “pressure” off to let the simmering occur?

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  • avatar Shakirah Dawud Says:

    Wow, Melissa, maybe the tortoise and hare should be the avatars for the two different types of writing!

    I, personally, have gone nowhere with my WIP in a couple years. I don’t really see that as a bad thing. But if I don’t do something writing-related for my business (blogging, client work) every single day, I’m climbing the walls. It’s really like two entirely different writing personalities.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I love the avatar idea! And I totally relate to the two different writing personalities; I think the brain uses different cells depending on the type of writing I’m doing – freelance or fiction. And sometimes it’s so darn difficult to alternate between the two.

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    I have always been so fascinated with anything turtle. Perhaps it’s because my brother and I would watch them hatch on the banks of our pond, then take them home and place them in our “swimming pool” (a bathtub). I agree that writers need to find the balance between “slow and steady” and also reaching a daily word count goal, no matter now low that goal might be. With my previous WIP, I constantly went back and revised. This new one, however, I’m trying to write as fast as I can. I guess eventually I’ll find a balance between that tortoise and the hare.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I remember your turtle story! I learned that tortoises, as a defense mechanism, will sometimes release all their urine – i.e. if picked up by a human. The bad news is that, if they can’t find water after this happens, they run the risk of dehydration & death since their bladder stores urine which they use to keep hydrated during drought. I once picked up a baby that peed on me (to move him off the rock cliff)… now I’m worried I killed him with my stupidity! If I recall, though, that was a wet year, thankfully. I will never touch one again!

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  • avatar Kim Samsin Says:

    Turtles!! I love turtles. This thrilled me today. Like you I fall into the middle on issues like this. Every day’s work is different… sometimes it’s the result of a subroutine that’s been working in the background while my brain is doing something else, and other times each word is a deliberate effort. When I rush through my work, the results are almost never worth it.

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    Melissa Crytzer Fry Reply:

    I agree. I hate the feeling of being “rushed” through my work. I know sometimes it can work, but I don’t like the uptight feeling it gives me. So glad you were happy to see my tortoise post! I’m coming to see you at your blog this week. PROMISE. Been swamped and barely treading water.

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    Kim Samsin Reply:

    No rush at all. See, you said the magic word: Freelance. You’re making time for the work that allows you to do your creative work and everything else. That’s the balance, right? 😉

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    Melissa Reply:

    I’m trying to find balance… Thanks for your kind words!

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  • avatar Tracy Mangold Says:

    I love turtles. I grew up on a lake. We had a little over a hundred acres of property and on it was our own private lake and an island that we had campfires and I played for hours at a time. It wasn’t a large lake – larger than a pond but it was wonderful. I am a water person ( pisces all the way) and there were always turtles ambling around. I kept a couple baby turtles. They were so cute. We had snapping turtles as well and I might add that they are quite delicious to eat too. I collect turtle and frog figurines – or I used to. I just love them. Thanks for posting the pics of these wonderful creatures. I fall in the “need to be inspired” writer although I totally get deadlines (former television producer). I do like the thrill of a deadline and miss that. I think my best work is when I am up against the clock. These days, I need to be inspired to work and part of me finds that sad – speaking for me and about me only.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I continue to be jealous of your wilderness experiences, Tracy! A private lake and island of ANY size sounds heavenly… and all those critters. Not sure I could eat somebody I was so fond of, though :-).

    On the deadline topic, yes, there is something fulfilling about “meeting” deadlines and having “real” deadlines vs. the ones you impose yourself (somehow, knowing that they aren’t a client deadline – and are created by ME – means I make them a bit more flexible… which is bad.) I think we all need inspiration in ALL of our kinds of “work.” You aren’t alone.

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  • avatar Bryan Says:

    I love desert tortoises! You’re lucky to see them just wandering around the yard; I bet they love the grass.

    You might be interested to know, too, that our tortoise species has been split from those in CA and NV, and is now called “Morafka’s Desert Tortoise” (Gopherus morafkai).

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks for the insight, Bryan. They ARE magnificent creatures. I didn’t run across that fact about our species being split from CA, NV’s in my field guides and online research. VERY cool. Makes them that much more unique!

    So riddle me this, herpetologist man… why is it that we generally only see the tortoises in July and August? Are they hibernating the rest of the year? Does it have something to do with monsoon season?

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    Bryan Reply:

    It should be in the field guides in a few years … the announcement JUST happened about 2 weeks ago, so I’m still going back through all my pics to update them, as I’m sure everyone else is, haha.

    From my limited observations, they are out the rest of the year, but the dry conditions keep them pretty low key. I saw some earlier in the year, in April, being active in the daytime very close to the den. I also saw signs of activity limited to the areas right around the den entrance throughout May. I have two in a wash near my place that I keep tabs on, and they both have a cave that serves as kind of a summer retreat … they appear suddenly in early July and wait out the heat before going out at night. I don’t know much about them, but it would seem that this is their high-activity period (as it is for most desert reptiles). If you were to hike the washes near your house at night, from maybe 11pm to 2pm, you’d see them on the move looking for mates and whatnot. Of course I don’t really advise this, since lots of other scaled critters are doing the same at that time 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    VERY cool that you’ve found the den to some tortoises. I ‘thought’ they were around year-round, but we only see them frequently in July – and it’s almost always the second week! Yes … agree … walking the big wash that runs through our property at night … not advisable since I know the rattlers are moving about then, too. Maybe I need to set up my trail camera low to the ground?

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    Bryan Reply:

    That would definitely work. I’ve seen people set up water stations along wash-walls to get trail-camera photos that way. Cut a milk jug in half and bury it to the edge, and put a big rock in the middle to make sure that anything that falls in can get out.

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  • avatar Leah Says:

    What a fascinating creature! I swear, I learn so much about your desert-dwelling friends from you. Great photos of the little tortoise too. I feel like I can relate to his journeys.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I can relate to the tortoise’s journey, too, Leah. So happy I can help a Cali-girl fall in love with Arizona’s critters :-).

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  • avatar DazyDayWriter Says:

    Loved your pictures, Melissa. All of nature provides guidance … we simply have to tune in. Sending joy from SunnyRoomStudio. Looking forward to having you as a guest this fall. –Daisy

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    I had a tortoise as a kid in California, Melissa, so your beautiful photos brought back memories of him.
    Like you, I think I can be very disciplined about my writing time, but getting anything good from our muses requires time spent doing nothing. It’s a balance, isn’t it. I agree with Jessica’s advice…slow and steady. I’ve never read any book cranked out in six months that was worth the paper it was printed on. Art takes time, and freedom of thought.
    Thanks for the fond memories. Loved the little video. =)

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks for chiming in, Cynthia. Even thoug I accidentally deleted the line of questions at the end of the blog when inserting my little video I do believe I know your answer about whether authors can churn out a book a year and still have them be of true quality. “The freedom of thought…” So well put!

    P.S. Love that you had a tortoise when you were in California!

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  • avatar Nina B Says:

    I fall in the middle too. I’m slow when I’m sitting at the computer, but (at least lately) I’m trying to sit there everyday WITHOUT THE INTERNET to actually work on the WIP. So though I can rarely do more than 500 words a day IF that, at least I’m working on it regularly. I guess that’s slow and steady after all.

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    Melissa Reply:

    When I view your approach, I see you as more of the “job approach” writer – committed to your 500 words a day, not waiting for the muse to strike willy nilly… And, I realized that when I inserted the video, I wiped out the entire line of questions I really wanted responses on about the two approaches. (It’s there now if you want to comment!)

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    Melissa Reply:

    And, by the way, Nina … 500 words a day is tremendous. Wish I were doing the same.

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    More tortoise pictures–I love it! And a video–my kids will go nuts for that one:)

    It depends for me. Some days the words (and story) flow so well, I’m afraid I won’t be able to get it all on the page–other days, ehh…
    One thing is for sure–like Nina says above, work ALWAYS goes better without the internet there grinding away beneath my word document!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Glad you enjoyed the photos and video, Erika. I’m very sorry, but I accidentally blew away the line of questions at the end of the post, when I inserted that lovely video. Would love your thoughts on the questions when/if you get time.

    And, yes, work WITHOUT Internet is the only way to be productive.

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    Erika Marks Reply:

    Melissa–those are wonderful questions. And you could have been writing them to me, in fact! Right now I am on deadline for a second contracted book and there is no question that the “juicing” changes in that situation. I think it is still possible–even imperative–to feel as if the pace of one’s writing will be what it will be–but of course, deadlines kick in and then that sense of taking one’s time goes out the window! For me, I feel fortunate that I can (for the most part) flick the switch when I need to, even if I’m feeling stuck in a certain scene/plot issue, but it wasn’t always that way. And I still have periods of hitting the wall where nothing but walking away will bring me (and the story) resolution.

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    Melissa Reply:

    You know, I do believe that “finding the creative muse” is something that can be learned. In fact, I wrote a post about flow not too long ago and need to remind myself to try some of the techniques. You’re fortunate to be able to turn it on when you need to. But, alas, there are those times when walking away to clear the head is the best – and only- solution. You’ll do great w/ novel no. 2. Can’t wait till the first is published! Your second contracted book… What fun!

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  • avatar Shari Lopatin Says:

    My family has an ongoing joke with me. And my Dad says it best: “Shari, I’m still waiting for you to finish one of those stories you began when you were 8.” That’s not to say I never finished anything. I have–but only when I had a pressing deadline. Perhaps that’s why I once made such a great newspaper reporter.

    I’d like to think I can just sit and wait for my muse to flow, but I’ve also noticed that I need to force myself to write, otherwise nothing ever gets finished. I’ve also noticed the more I write, the more creative ideas flow.

    Another great post, Melissa!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I can relate to you on many levels, Shari. the more I write, the more creative I become. And I’m learning that I am motivated by deadlines and am MUCH more productive when I have more to do. I think it’s human nature – though it makes no sense – that when we HAVE free time, we are less productive. When we are busy, we get more done. At least that’s how I am.

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  • avatar Girl Parker Says:

    Oh, I love Love LOVE these photos. What is it about turtles? They’re bizarre and yet strangely, I wanna hug one. I appreciate the analogy too. I joined the “A round of words in 80 days,” blogging your goals and answering for them. Ahem – It appears my goals are the smallest in the group – by a lot. That really bugged for a couple of days, but then I heard of other writers who have published books, who took years or only made daily small word counts. I think that’s me. Thanks Melissa! And thanks tortoises!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I couldn’t agree more about the appeal of tortoises and turtles. Their wrinkly, grandfather-type heads and shriveled lips, their slow movements … not what you would think would make you go “oooh, awww.” But they DO. I want to hug them, too.

    The fact that you HAVE goals is the key. And the other key is to not compare your goals to someone else’s. Think about it: those who haven’t set daily writing goals aren’t likely to make ANY progress. So look how much further ahead you are, even with goals you feel are less robust than other’s. You are moving forward. Keep it up!

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  • avatar Patrick Ross Says:

    A great post, Melissa, really tying together the magical place you live, your great photographs, and the writing life.

    When I was a kid one of these tortoises found his way into our back yard. We had a patch of strawberries growing in our garden, and he ate every one. We knew this because we caught him red-handed; well, red-mouthed. He had gorged himself so much that his belly had protruded and his feet couldn’t properly reach the ground! When he had returned to a more mobile state, we drove him away from our growing suburb out deeper into the desert, sad to have lost our strawberries but touched by our encounter.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Patrick, for stopping by (and for the compliments, even though I just learned my entire line of questions got chopped from the post at the end of the video. They’re listed now!).

    I LOVE your story (esp. since I saw a green-lipped tortoise, myself, from gorging himself on grass. The red on his face had to have been priceless. And he ate so much that his feet couldn’t touch the ground? Incredible!). I’m glad you viewed his visit as something of wonder and not as much of a nuisance. And how very nice of you to move him further out in the desert where it was safer.

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  • avatar Kimberly Says:

    I love the turtles!

    Your post is just what I needed to read today. We live in an instant-gratification world, but I think the slow & steady lesson applies not only to writing, but to any endeavor of importance, whether it’s writing an article, a book, starting a new business, etc. It takes time and patience to create something wonderful!

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    Melissa Reply:

    So happy the post came at the right time (and good to ‘see’ you, Kimberly). So true that “It takes time and patience to create something wonderful.”

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  • avatar Mahesh Raj Mohan Says:

    You and Natalia Sylvester have a true gift for metaphor. I really dig this. I was born in the Year of the Rabbit, so I kind of identify with bunnies. I can be bunny-fast if under a deadline for a client and tortoise-slow on my fiction.

    When I’m in the editing/refinement phase of a project, I’m always slow and take my time.

    But for non-deadline fiction, I’m with you on slow and steady winning the race!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Why thank you for the wonderful compliment and comparison to the ultra-talented Natalia. So happy you enjoyed the post (I like bunnies, too – and they may be my next post so that I give the rabbit its glory as well– kind of part two in my tortoise and hare metaphor).

    I seem to suffer the same affliction as you: bunny-fast on deadline and tortoise-slow on fiction. But I aim to change that.

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  • avatar Beth Hoffman Says:

    I’ve always loved turtles. This is a fantastic post, Melissa!

    As for deadlines … I don’t like them at all and am glad that for my current novel my deadline is quite reasonable. *whew*

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    Melissa Reply:

    Thanks, Beth. Your support means so much. So happy that you have a realistic deadline for your next novel (and can’t WAIT to read it… your synopsis has me beyond intrigued).

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  • avatar Stephanie Alexander Says:

    You always provide me w/food for thought! 🙂

    Think I’m a fast writer…I get frustrated when life’s distractions (like moving–hello!!) get in the way…it all tends to go in a rush for me, and then the revising takes much longer. But I’m getting better.

    On the “professional” side– I’m definitely going to be reciting your “slow and steady” mantra. Publishing is a business about waiting, waiting, waiting, and it can be enough to drive impatient people like me nuts.

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    Melissa Reply:

    I’m with you – frustrated when life’s distractions get in the way of my WIP (like the past three weeks of freelance work. I’m grateful FOR the work, just wish WIP wasn’t on back burner).

    I think all of us writers are – to a degree – an impatient lot. I know I am. The waiting game has to really, really stink.

    How IS the move going? When’s official getaway date?

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  • avatar Natalia Sylvester Says:

    I think my approach is a mixture of both. I takes things very slow and steady, especially when an idea is just barely a thought in my head that’s waiting to be born. I try not to rush that.

    But when it comes to writing that first draft–I need to just get it out! I like the “butt in chair, X words per day” approach for draft writing, because to me the first draft is the hardest and I’d rather rip it off like a bandaid so I can go back in the revision stage and gently nurse it till it’s in better shape!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I need much practice writing a fast-and-furious first draft since I tend to constantly tweak and fine-tune as I go. I’m the same way with my freelance writing, though. And I may not be as enthusiastic as you about the revision stage :-)… so maybe my method works for “me.”

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