MIND MELD: The Most Difficult Part of Being A Writer Is…
I’m not a writer, nor do I play one on TV, but I have read enough writers’ blogs to know that it’s a tough field to succeed in. And being published does not necessarily mean you’re living on Easy Street. So we asked this week’s writer panelists:
Here’s what they said:
For me, the hardest thing about being a writer is that it’s solitary. There’s a great deal of fallout from all that alone time. For starters, pure boredom. Hours spent every day staring at some words you are already intimately familiar with because the came out of your head. And lonely. The little interactions that take place over the course of a working day in a shared environment are easy to take for granted and be annoyed by, until there’s no one to talk to except yourself. Hours pass, suddenly you say something aloud, to test a line, or because you stubbed your toe, and you realize it’s the first voice you’ve heard all day. And it’s yours. And there is the constant irritation of yourself. There are huge gains to be had if you believe in the value of the examined life, but you’re also likely to dig up some stuff on yourself you just didn’t want to know. Like spending too much time with one person in intimate contact, too much time with yourself can lead you to be driven insane by all your little annoying habits. If I squeak the casters on my chair one more time I might kill myself.
What’s the hardest thing about being a writer? That’s easy: Writing. Doing it, not talking about it. Not thinking about it or procrastinating to avoid doing it. Not checking the email for writing-related messages (hah). Just doing it. Putting. The words. On. The page. Damn, it’s hard sometimes. A lot of the time. Most of the time. Okay, nearly all the time. Microsoft’s patented Blue Screen of Death can’t hold a candle to the dread induced by the White Screen of No Words on the Page.
I’m not talking about writing in general, but writing a work of fiction. Creating a story out of whole cloth and telling it in words that make the reader want to come back for more. Okay, I’m not even talking about that last part-that comes more in the rewriting phase, which for me is easier. I’m talking about, Who is this character, really, and why is she angry, or scared, or passionate? I’m talking about, What comes next-and why is it interesting or unexpected or inevitable? Why should anyone care?
I got some interesting insight into the different creative tensions in writing a couple of years ago, when I was asked to write a novelization of Battlestar Galactica: the Miniseries. I had just finished a first draft of my novel Sunborn, which for a variety of reasons had been a years-long struggle. The novelization had to be done quickly. But I had a DVD of the miniseries (it had already aired), and I had a shooting script (different in many respects from the final edit). The story was there. The characters were there. I couldn’t change them, and didn’t want to change them. But I had to bring them to life. I had to add dimension and depth where I could, and I had to make scenes make sense that were fine on-screen, whizzing by at the speed of TV, but that on closer examination had issues. It was a writing challenge of a particular kind, and I enjoyed it immensely. But it was a very different experience from writing my own books.
What it was, I think, was that my story-imagining lobes were given a break, while my story-crafting and writing-craft lobes did the heavy lifting for a while. I worked hard, while at the same time, part of my brain was vacationing! And afterward, I came back to the rewrite on Sunborn with better clarity and more energy. Based on feedback from readers so far, I think I did good.
Guess what I’m doing now. That’s right, I’m first-drafting a new novel. Blank White Screen of No Words on the Page. Damn, that’s hard.
For me, the most difficult part about being a writer is capturing the first draft. That initial transition, from nebulous thoughts and ideas and half-realised airy fairy scenes to concrete, nailed down, nuts and bolts word-based plot-driven narrative construction? It nearly kills me every time. And even though I’m currently writing my twelfth novel, the jitters and the heebie-jeebies and head-banging ohmygod/whatwasithinking/i’moutofmyfreakingmind mantra still runs through my brain. Perhaps that’s part and parcel of the writerly psyche – in which case I guess I’m stuck with it. And quite possibly screwed.
I know there are many writers out there who positively salivate at the idea of starting a new story. Not me. I salivate after the first draft is finished. Not until I’ve mangled some rough version of the book onto the page, and it’s time for rewriting and revision, does the fun truly start. I think it might be because every first draft is yet another chance for me to reveal that I really can’t do this thing called writing novels after all, that somehow it’s all been a great big con and any second now the woman behind the curtain is going to be unmasked in all her imperfect lack of glory. Ah, the wibbly wobbliness of being creative!
I’ve often wondered why it is that I struggle so with the first draft. At the end of the day I think it’s because I want it to be wonderful and perfect and right – and even though I know that’s highly unlikely in a first draft, a part of me still expects it. What helps with that lunacy is reciting – many times — Terry Pratchett’s golden words on the subject: The first draft is you telling yourself the story. In other words, it’s not for public consumption, build a bridge and get over it.
I love being a writer. I love it so much sometimes I scare myself. Being afforded the privilege of telling stories – how cool is that? Which maybe explains my struggle with the first draft. It’s the fear of loss if I mess up and get the book wrong. And maybe it also explains why I don’t think I’d give up the struggle, even if I could…because it’s what keeps me on my toes. It’s what demands that I sweat blood and tears over every first telling of a new story. And I hope it’s what stops me from getting lazy and complacent as I complete book number twelve, and look ahead to number thirteen.
So maybe…there’s actually no difficult part about being a writer! Sweet!
Short answer: An almost complete lack of minions. I’m still getting my own coffee and mixing my own drinks like a sucker.
Longer answer: Explaining your idea. The process goes like this:
- Despair because you are a hack and have no good ideas.
- Drunken month in Mexico.
- Wake up in a graveyard wearing someone else’s white linen suit.
- Hitchhike home with no memory of previous month.
- Suddenly have an inspiration: The most genius idea you’ve ever had.
- Spend months slaving over idea in privacy, occasionally emerging to giggle knowingly and promise everyone you’ll remember them when you collect your Nobel.
- Put final finishing touches on idea/proposal/draft and tremulously approach Beta Reader.
- Attempt to explain the Idea. Slowly realize, as you’re speaking, that it sounds like two kinds of crap.
- Fall to the floor, weeping.
- Drunken month in Mexico.
If you’ve never witnessed a slowly deepening expression of confusion mingled with distaste while you explain a premise or story idea to someone, you simply haven’t lived life to its fullest. Ideas that seem perfect and wholly formed in your mind’s eye fall apart into pathetic failure when you actually expose them to air.
Of course, the flip side is when you explain a concept and it flowers, growing stronger and more beautiful as you talk, until your Beta Reader is cheering and asking you when you’ll sell the film rights. This, sadly, happens much less frequently.
Considering the pain and horror of this moment, it’s amazing that any of us ever actually vocalize our ideas at all. Much better to keep it all in your head, where every line is poetry and every plot hole is filled with rainbows.
Oh, that’s easy.
All the damned paperwork.
For me, it’s simply getting the words on the page, especially in a form anyone’s going to enjoy reading! My books are pretty long, 175-200k words, so that means I’ve got to hit 5000 words a week consistently to keep to my deadline. That’s getting easier now I’m only working part time, but it’s still an exhausting prospect for someone who’s as lazy as me. I’ve had back and eye problems for a while now so it’s not just mental tiredness either, my whole body aches after a long session in front of the computer! It’s still something I love and I certainly feel that the sense of achievement only comes after you’ve put in some real effort, but as someone who’s not a natural wordsmith it’s always a struggle. I like to make stuff up and tell stories, not work hard!
Starting a new book gives me something of a sinking feeling – I’ve got a general idea of the plot or where it’s going, but that’s when the real work starts and I have to wrap my head around the structure of a whole book. For the last two books my notebooks have a page that starts “oh crap, I really don’t have a plot yet, how the hell is this all going to fit together?” It makes my brain hurt. Four months of hard work in and it’s perfectly possible I’ve not yet got a proper sense of how it’s going to look at the end. How I see the book is very different to how everyone else does anyway so I have to spend a good month after finishing the first draft just trying to get a sense of how it looks to a reader. It all adds up, and makes me think that I’ve got to start writing simpler, shorter books!
Writing is an act, not a state of being. I can no more “Be” a writer than I can “Be” a singer, or “Be” a swimmer, or some amalgamation of the three. Defining an individual by a single action is too reductive to capture the self. It only captures a single activity among dozens, hundred, thousands of daily activities. Am I an exerciser? Am I an eater? Am I a coffee maker? A drinker of water?
Am I a typist? What is so difficult about typing? My chair is uncomfortable, and I currently don’t have adequate wrist support. What is so difficult about making stuff up? I balk at any effort to come up with an answer to my own rhetorical questions sometimes. Other questions come to mind, instead. What is so difficult about sustained concentration on a single group of ideas? What is so difficult about hearing people speak who are not in the room? What is so difficult about showing instead of telling when even showing involves the telling inherent in speech and language?
All these questions are synonyms to your vague, open-ended question, John. There exist countless other synonymous questions, each with an answer that is as simple and meaningless as the puny, reductive, synonymous question that created it.
What is so difficult about being a writer? I’ll tell you the real answer: putting all of these individual acts and actions, and the infinite synonymous questions end-over-end into a single gesture.
Remember the old mathematical quandary about the race where one guy can only move half the distance to the goal, while the other guy moves at a very slow, deliberate rate of motion? The first method, where a huge, leaping act occurs, followed by another not-not-quite-as-leapy, but still leapy act occurs. Then, another one of diminishing leapiness. Then another.
That is the natural way to approach all the bits and pieces of the writing act. Listen to the way people talk about their works in progress sometime, and you’ll hear it. I wrote X many words today. I wrote X chapters. I completed X revision for Y problem. I worked for X number of hours, every morning, for X number of days. Often I wonder if these great leapers ever learn. I wonder if they ever wrote a book I really enjoyed except as the wild accident of the drunken muses.
When I talk with the folks who write at the level I want to write at, they don’t talk like that. They just do like that, and do not describe their act of writing in a language of reduction. Often, seeing their works in progress involves numerous notepads, computer files, perhaps a luggage of paper and found artifacts. Even if you ask that fellow or lady what it is they are doing, they couldn’t quite tell you. They are engaged in a method of colliding forces that seems to indicate a merging of all the unspoken, felt, known, deep pieces of the act of writing, of all the synonymous questions. Just as the racer that covers half the ground, then half the ground, into infinity quickly finds themselves bogged down in silly gestures, the person that merges all the synonymous questions in each step wins the race. Slowly, meticulously, and brilliantly wins.
Asking me what is the most difficult thing about the act, then, merits the answer that sometimes my chair is uncomfortable. Sometimes, I don’t have an answer to the questions I ask myself. Sometimes, I’d rather be playing Peggle drinking games. Sometimes, I can’t hear anything, see anything, or feel anything. Sometimes, I get bogged down in the way the glacial response times inherent in the system of publishing makes it hard for me to think about anything else.
Really, though, the challenge I find most challenging, and the heart of what I think you are really asking me, above all the synonymous questions, is that it is hard to take all those scattered pieces of an act and pull them into one meticulously accurate, repetitive motion. It is easy to fall back into the simple comfort of great halfway leaps.
If you’d asked me this question when my sons were young, I’d have answered, “Finding enough time to write.” I know I’m not the only mum to have squeezed her writing in around friends home to tea, cub scouts, saxophone lessons, washing gym kit etc. etc. So I’ve come to realize that those writing coaches who advocate writing a little every day (preferably about the same time and in the same place), are giving Good Advice. Because it can be done, even alongside children and their busy schedules; some writers even write their best when distracted.
Then, way back in the twentieth century – this is turning into an historical saga – the next most difficult part used to be the typing out on a typewriter, the laborious editing process with Tipp-Ex and little bits of paper, then the photo-copying that had to be done before submitting work to publishers. But the coming of the word processor and then the internet has made that so much easier – far too easy, some would argue, wading through the million, billion blogs, original work in progress, and fan fictions ‘out there’ in cyberspace.
As a fantasy writer, I’m often asked, “Isn’t it really difficult thinking up all the names and place names for your novels? Isn’t it difficult knowing how to balance the amount of time you spend on world-building and thinking up magic systems with the actual writing?” The truthful answer is that it’s all part of the fun. Establishing some kind of credible consistency in the created world and the way it works can be one of the pleasures of the genre. Making sure that the story doesn’t get weighed down by massive info dumps about the early origins of the legends of Elesstar/Azilis or the intricacies of the spice trade war between Tielen and Francia is another necessity – but it’s not a hardship.
These days, though, I could argue convincingly that it’s the social isolation that can be the most difficult part of being a writer. Over the years, I’ve had to juggle the day job and the writing, and now most of my social contact comes through my job (I’m really lucky to work in a lively primary school.) But many of my friends must have given up on me by now for not being around to share coffee mornings or leisurely lunches – or even answer the phone – when I’m working. I’ve had to forego the Book Group I belonged to because I couldn’t keep up with all the reading! Thank goodness, then, for the internet which allows me to correspond with friends, fellow writers, and readers all over the world. Although recently I haven’t been keeping up with my Facebook duties nearly as often as I should… Could that be because I’ve started a new novel?
For me, the hardest part of being a writer is explaining to other people what my books are about. After all, if I was able at the time to boil it all down into a sentence or two, I wouldn’t have written a book; I would have just written a couple of sentences. But one should be able to answer the question succinctly–hypocritically, I expect other writers’ answers to the question to be relatively succinct, and oddly, I seem to be pretty good at summarizing other people’s books–and by a process of brute repetition, after having been asked the question a few dozen times about both books, I finally have my cheeky one-sentence descriptions of both Spaceman Blues (“A man goes looking for another man and gets into trouble”) and Liberation (“The economy collapses; hijinks ensue”). Just please don’t ask me what I’m working on now.
The hardest part of being a writer is the constant internet-based distractions. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a blog post to finish, then I need to trawl the forums for the slightest mention of me or my work.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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