Why is writing so damned hard?

Some thoughts on common conceptions and misconceptions about writing.

1) I’ll write that book as soon as I have some time.

Buzzzz, no. You MAKE the time. If the book wants to be written, it will eat you alive from the inside if you don’t write it. If the only reason that you aren’t writing is because you can’t “make time” for it, you probably aren’t meant to be a writer at all.

People who want to, need to, write stuff have been known to write ten words while stopped at a traffic light, type with one hand while trying to burp a toddler with the other, write during their lunch hours while working their second job as a janitor.

I was writing fairy tales with my biochemistry textbook open in front of me two days before finals. Harry Potter was born to a struggling single mom on benefits.

I am not saying that you aren’t a writer if you don’t do all of these things. But blaming “time”? You won’t suddenly “find the time” when you retire. You write because you can’t help writing. If you don’t really want to write, nobody can help you. But if you do… nobody can stop you. Not even “lack of time”.

2) Everything I write must be perfect the first time.

Sorry. First drafts suck, by definition. That’s what they are FOR. You blurt out the story you want to tell onto a permanent record, so that if it turns all evanescent on you and vanishes as soon as you stop thinking about it, you still have it. The basic story is there to be tweaked, and polished, and played with, to be made perfect.

Much as I hate to admit it, all the best writing is rewriting – the thing that you do with that first draft once you’ve got it down. No. It does NOT need to be perfect out the gate. NOTHING is. Give yourself this golden opportunity to make your mistakes – because it is here that you will have a chance to correct them.

3) Everything I write is terrible.

If it’s the first draft, it probably is because what’s in your head is not what’s in front of you on the paper or screen. In your head you have already begun improving it, fixing errors and infelicities and the version before you doesn’t reflect that…yet.

Oh and also – write this down and put it on top of your computer monitor so you don’t forget it – YOU ARE NOT THE BEST JUDGE OF YOUR OWN WORK.

Before you condemn it as the world’s uttermost crap, run another pair of eyes over it – no, not your mother’s, nor your best friend’s — the eyes of a cold reader. They will inevitably see things in your work that are too deeply buried in there for you to notice. This second look gives you a chance to fix the things that may TRULY need fixing. It will also serve to show you that you aren’t necessarily writing the complete drivel that you think you are. Distance yourself from your work. It’s freeing.

But do be prepared that there will be some out there who will genuinely NOT LIKE IT. This is nothing to do with how good or how craptastic it is. It’s subjective opinion. Don’t take it personally.

4) I have to start at the beginning, go on until the end, and then stop.

Well, that is one way of doing it — if you are that kind of linear thinker; if your story is that kind of linear story.

But now hear this – IT DOESN’T HAVE TO WORK THAT WAY.

The genesis of one of my novels came when I first wrote a vivid scene that I rather liked. It wasn’t the starting place for the novel, but I knew I’d find a place to fit it in. I did, of course, but that place was nearly 2/3rds into the book.

Changer Of Days USA coveThe scene that inspired this and which I wrote first shows Anghara, my heroine,  atop a hill looking  back at a plain black with the dust of the army pursuing her. In the final manuscript it doesn’t appear until  two-thirds of the way through the book. 

If your story insists on being a jigsaw puzzle that’s fine too. Write the scenes that scream to be written, and then see how they fit together. The only true way of writing is the way that works for you. Everything else is true, too – it just isn’t YOUR truth. And your truth can, and often does, change depending on the sort of story you’re grappling with. Accept this with grace.

5) Beginnings are difficult.

Yes, they are. Beginning writers often start way too early and drone on and on – or they will start way too late, in the middle of a situation the reader doesn’t understand and full of characters they haven’t been given a chance to care about yet.

So yes, beginnings are difficult. BUT…it is also somethng that is made easier by practice. And by that I don’t mean write a million words of beginnings of your own. Read and re-read the books you love. See how THOSE writers led you in and made you want to stay. Beginnings are difficult, but they are not insurmountable. But once you begin something, the next thing that you’re going to say is…

6) Endings are difficult.

Yes, they are. Again, beginning writers have their problems because they don’t know that their story ended three chapters ago. Or they just stop, in the middle of something, and leave a reader screaming for closure.

The perfect ending is elusive… but achievable. Practice. Read. Become familiar with what an ending needs to do in order for your story to remain in the reader’s memory. Make sure an ending is satisfying – it doesn’t have to be neat and all deus ex machina but it has to be satisfying – you have to give emotional truth and closure.

It is difficult, yes, but it is only impossible if you give up.

7) Middles are impossible.

In between those difficult beginnings and endings you have to TELL A STORY THAT MATTERS.

Have you ever heard about the EIght Deadly Words of Literature? They’re these: “I DON’T CARE WHAT HAPPENS TO THESE PEOPLE.” Whoever your people are, whatever happens to them, your reader HAS TO CARE. And this does makes middles an almost impossible achievement.

They can paralyze a writer because they don’t seem substantial enough or important enough or even just not worth telling. But a good story is a good story – and a good writer can make almost anything into a good story. The middle is a path through the wilderness. Learn to recognize these trails. They’re worth following.

8) You start with short stories and then graduate to novels – that’s how you build a career.

Sounds logical, but it’s nonsense.

Novels and short stories are two very different animals. I’ve known exquisite short story writers who have NEVER made the leap to novel-length works – and I’ve known amazing novelists who simply can’t write a short story.

Some writers can do both, but it isn’t a given, and it certainly is not the career stepping stone that it’s been touted as. Short stories and novels require completely different skill sets, and they are not training for one another.

If you want to write novels, write novels. You don’t have to master the short story first. By all means write short stories if you want to but you don’t HAVE to. It is NOT obligatory.

9) Your work is done when you’ve finished the first draft.

Oh, Hell, No. As I said before, your first draft is going to suck.

Your first draft is there so that you have the story in front of you. The real work doesn’t END here, it begins. You have to tease that first draft monstrosity into shape. You have to hack at the rough edges. You have to mold corners. You have to make sure the light falls on it JUST SO. You have to buff and polish and fine-tune. Are you SURE there isn’t a better word for this? are you SURE this is the character’s real motivation? Are you positive that nothing at all in here can’t be made better?

And even then you aren’t finished. It goes out to editors, and comes back with THEIR comments and corrections. No, you don’t have to accept them all, but a good editor is worth their weight in rubies and you at the very least must pay attention. Often their best comments arent specific – they just tell you that they feel that there is a problem here somewhere and it is UP TO YOU to find it and fix it.

Now you’re done, right? Wrong. You return the editorial MS, it gets published, people read it, review it and then you have to deal with their reactions and responses. And then you have to go on and write the next thing.

What, you thought writing was a destination? It’s a JOURNEY, my friend. You’re always thinking, working, dreaming, researching, pushing words around to make new and pleasing patterns. Call yourself a writer? Your work is NEVER done. You’ve just given yourself DIFFICULT homework to do every night. For the rest of your life.

10) Only books on bestseller lists are worth reading.

If you think that, we don’t have much to discuss, do we? Do I need to tell you that sometimes bestseller lists are self-fufilling prophecies? Sometimes you can find a rack of books for sale which are labelled #1, #2, etc – but they’re the ONLY books for sale, so of course every sale goes to boost that number? Often the best and most satisfying reads never make the best seller ranks.

Don’t read only the things everyone else reads. Go wander in unfamiliar groves and pick strange fruit on occasion. And wait for the amazing taste of it to burst inside your mouth as you bite into it, the kind of taste that doesn’t always live on bestseller lists where everything is in some way shape or form a Red Delicious apple – good but bland and after a while it ALL TASTES THE SAME…

11) Showing and telling.

“Show, don’t tell” – a scene with action or dialog rather than just narrative – is a dictum often leveled at beginners because quite often it IS a problem. The story was started in the wrong place and too much background is missing and needs to be supplied somehow, or you’ve got the wrong POV for the story and your poor character is flailing while trying to understand things that (s)he could not possibly have known in the circumstances which you have set up.

But all that being said, sometimes TELLING something is precisely the right way to go. Once again, it comes down to practice – and honestly, I’m sorry, but there really is no way to learn writing except to WRITE. And you really do have to write your million words of crap before you start having an educated enough sense of what you’re doing to KNOW that it isn’t the right thing and to begin to have the ability to reach for the right thing through all the mess that you’ve got on your hands.

In other words, feel free to tell.

Sometimes description MATTERS. Just know when it’s enough telling, and sweep us forward into what happens next. It’s like cooking with salt. A little goes a long way. Use a light hand.

12) ALL the research I have ever done on this subject needs to go into the book.

Oh, you’ve seen it in a lot of novels, haven’t you? The ones where it’s obvious that the writer has REALLY done his or her research because the book rings with it hollowly like a bell every time you strike it. The author had to learn all these things, and by gum, YOU WILL KNOW THEM TOO, or at least you will know that the author knows them.

But there is a little thing called the Iceberg Theory of Writing. An iceberg is beautiful and imposing and you can admire and appreciate it while you’re floating past it. But NINETY PERCENT OF ANY GIVEN ICEBERG IS BELOW THE SURFACE. Sure, it gives the iceberg stability and balance and presence. Without it, there wouldn’t be an iceberg. But you don’t have to know precisely its shape and size and position and how much of it there is and how heavy it is and all the relevant physics and chemistry of it all in order to know that it exists, that it needs to exist, and that the iceberg knows what it’s about. Do thou likewise with thy research. Make it the basis for your world. Don’t make it YOUR WORLD.

13) All it takes is talent.

And perseverance. And luck. And a thick skin. And a coin whose heads is humility and whose tails is pride (yes this makes sense. Think about it). Many things go to make a writer. An ability to sling words is important but it is not nearly enough. You have to have all those other things, and you have to have faith.

Now go. Write. Believe.Good luck.

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Quote of the Day

Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. ~ JOHN MAXWELL

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Alma Alexander

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