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[GUEST POST] Sam Sykes (THE CITY STAINED RED) on Why Writing Should Be Hard, and Why Hardship Makes Good Stories

samsykesSam Sykes has done many things worthy of note, most of them involving violence of one manner or another. Amongst his feats of strength, he counts the following:

  • Wrestling a Kodiak bear to the earth
  • Defeating nine of ten prime ministers
  • Founding, and later destroying, the East India Company
  • The Renaissance

Those are most likely true, as Sam Sykes is not given to lying without cause.

Sam Sykes currently lives in the United States with his two hounds and, at any given time, is probably yelling at something inanimate. He is author of The Aeon’s Gate series, and his brand new book, The City Stained Red, is out now from Orbit.

I don’t like writing blog posts on the actual subject of writing.

There are several reasons behind this reluctance, of course. Chief among which is that I am an awful person and give bad advice to people in hopes of sabotaging future careers—totally unrelated, but you should include the word “taint” in your books at least sixty more times than you are already.

But a much more palatable reason, I think, is that the experience of being a writer—the career aspect, the artistic aspect, the business aspect—is so unique to the individual that any advice I would offer would largely be pointless. It’s like puberty; how would you advise someone on that? Everything’s changing, you don’t fit in with anything anymore, life is much harder, but in a way that’s totally unique to your perspective.

For that reason, I wouldn’t presume to go on at length about what you should expect as a writer, let alone what you should do. But I’ve been doing this for five years now and my fourth book just hit shelves, so I think I’m qualified to offer you at least one piece of advice. And I’m going to choose the one that I had to tell myself many times after other people told it to me many times.

If it’s hard, you’re doing it right.

Let me tell you a story about my latest novel, The City Stained Red.

Unlike a lot of authors who went through a lot of rejections and had the opportunity to refine their novels while weeping bitter tears, I had the excellent fortune to have my first novel, Tome of the Undergates, be picked up upon its first submission.

Like puberty, you don’t to go through it again. I was more fortunate than most and I’m thrilled that things worked out the way they did with the publishers that it did. But it also meant that I had to learn how to write a book as I was writing them, which is not something I’d recommend doing.

As a result, while it was very fun and I’m pleased with how it turned out, I made so many mistakes in those early books that, upon remembering them, make me furrow my brow and sigh inwardly: “I could have done that better.”

Pacing issues, coyness about words, a meandering plot, some rather brusque interpretations of sensitive issues…

I could have done those better.

But at the time? I was militantly against changing those things. I was against having conventional plots, conventional pacing, conventional dialogue. I was against overwrought worldbuilding and overcomplex magic systems. I was against doing things I thought were beneath me, things that wouldn’t leave my mark on the reader.

Thats’ a fairly common trap for authors to fall into I think. And one that’s fairly easily avoidable. It’s not the devices that leave their mark on the reader, but the voice behind them. Some people interpret that as a conclusion that one should never use devices, ever.

But as I looked back at all the things I could do better with my previous trilogy, I came to a different interpretation. If it was my voice that would seize readers, I could use all the devices I wanted. The most bog-standard worldbuilding, in the right voice, can be the most subversively built world.

When an author says: “I could have done that better,” one of two thoughts follows immediately afterward. “I can’t do that better” or “I have to do that better.”

If it’s hard, you’re doing it right.

That’s what I told myself when I sat down to write The City Stained Red, first book in a new trilogy.

And it had to be better.

So, I started delving into things that I had never done before: more complex worldbuilding, more fleshed-out cultures, more streamlined pacing. And weirdly, I found that I was not growing more cautious in writing as a result. I was becoming more unapologetic.

And that felt pretty fucking fantastic.

The world became richer, a thriving city whose powerful city was fueled by the silk of giant spiders. The cultures became deeper, pointy-eared savages and philosophical ape-people and furiously religious legionnaires and drunken bird-riders and enigmatic thieves all clashing off of each other. And the pace became delightful, going from combat to sex to jokes to poetry.

I had a blast.

And at no point was it ever not hard.

I spent a lot of time writing and a lot of time rewriting and a lot of time sitting quietly and thinking and making things fit together. There’s a small black and white graveyard in my document files where the text I couldn’t use has gone to die. Some of it was nice. Good stuff that I had to bid a bitter farewell to.

Your parents, at some point, made you do something you hate. And if they had ever read Calvin & Hobbes, they probably told you that it was to build character. You probably didn’t believe them at the time, but it’s true and the same goes for writing.

Hardship builds character. Hardship makes good stories. Because hardship makes you stop, makes you think, makes you realize that things not only can be better, but that they must be better. You are so much less willing to say “eh, good enough” when the stakes are higher and you’re hungry.

What I learned writing this was that mistakes breed opportunity, hardships breed story, failure breeds patience and patience breeds joy. What I learned was what I knew all along.

If it’s hard, you’re doing it right.

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