Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Lies Writers Tell... To Other Writers (Part Five -- It Shouldn't Be Work (Or "Waiting for Your Muse"))

Those of you who have been following my own blog (StrangePegs) for any length of time will know that my daughter plays the accordion.
In many ways, she has a love/hate relationship with it. She loves playing. She loves performing even though she doesn't like to admit that. She doesn't want to give it up. However, she hates practicing. She hates getting new, more difficult songs. She hates the work of it.

Now, let's go back to the beginning:
Learning to play the accordion was her idea. It would never have occurred to us to suggest to any of our kids that they ought to learn to play the accordion. I mean, who does that, right? But my daughter decided that she wanted to learn to play it. Of course, that meant that she had to learn to play it and that's work. Playing the accordion is not just picking one up and jamming it in and out.

At first, for the first year or so, she hated going to lessons. She also hated practicing, but the real issue was that she hated going to lessons. She wanted to play the accordion, but she wanted to be able to do it without putting any work into it. [How many of you know that feel?] Eventually, she got over hating her lessons and dislikes when she has to miss them. She still hates practicing. Well, not always, I suppose, but there are days when it's a huge ordeal to get her to sit down and put in the half hour. It's work.

But she wants to be able to play the accordion, and that means doing the work.
And let me just throw in here that her teacher (who has been teaching the accordion for decades) says she's one of the best students she's ever had. She has a lot of natural talent and great expression (let me put that another way, in a way that may make more sense to you writers (and readers) out there: Her playing has great voice). Talent isn't enough, though, especially with music. It takes work.

Writing takes work, too, although I think a lot of people that want to be writers want to deny that part of it. They believe they can get by with picking up their pens and paper and just jamming them in and out.

Some of you are probably offended right about now, but I see it all the time on blogs of people that talk about how they want to be a writer. They say things like
1. I only write when I feel inspired.
2. I have such writer's block and haven't felt like writing, lately.
3. Writing should be your passion. If it feels like work, you shouldn't be doing it. Only write from passion.

There's this sort pervasive idealization about writing that it comes from the universe and just flows through human conduits and it should just pour out of you and be, well, easy. I think this idea is a stumbling block for a lot of "young" writers because, when they start to struggle (and everyone will struggle), they start to feel like maybe they just weren't "called" to be a writer. Because, according to the prevailing wisdom, it shouldn't be a struggle, right?

Look, there will be times when you're inspired and words pour out of your fingertips and those times are GREAT. AWESOME, even. But that's not the norm. Mostly, writing is work. At least it is if you want to be any good at it. Which is not to say that you can't become a popular writer while not being any good at it, because there are plenty of poor writers out there that, for whatever reason, became popular. However, if you want to be good, it takes work.

So, see, I'm not dissing inspiration and I'm not saying that it shouldn't be fun. I am saying that if you sit around waiting for inspiration and quit doing it when it's not fun, it's very unlikely that you will ever finish anything. The first step to being... I don't even know what to call it, so I'll just say "published author" because that's what most people mean, I think, when they say they have aspirations of being "a writer." So the first step to being a published author is finishing what you start writing, and that will, at some point, mean work. It will mean sitting down to your manuscript when you "don't feel like it" or when you'd rather be out "doing something fun." See, just by using that qualification (and I see people say that on their blogs a lot), you're implying that writing is not fun and, usually, what people mean by that is that it's, well, feeling like work. Which it is.

Being someone that has a few things published, I get asked a lot of questions about writing and what it's like, and I always start with "It's a lot of work" and "It's both harder and easier than you would think." So...
I'm not saying that you need to "take lessons," although you might, and I'm not saying that you need to practice half an hour a day, although you might; I am saying that, if you want to be "a writer" expect it to be a lot of work and persistence and perseverance (and, yeah, those are kind of synonyms, but I mean them in contextually different ways). What I'm saying is that if you're out there roaming blogs (or whatever) and seeing a bunch of stuff about how glorious writing is and how people feel like the universe is speaking through them and how writing is so easy and never a struggle, you can just be about 95% sure that those people are lying (Just 95% because, heck, maybe there are some people who never struggle to put words down because the universe really is speaking to them). Writing is work, so be prepared.

[Having said all of that, none of this applies to Briane Pagel for whom writing is always fun and who would never do it if it all resembled "work."]


  1. This is a really good series, Andrew. I don't think I commented on editor and beta reader post, but I've been mulling them over. I may skip the developmental edit on my next book, but I do want beta readers to make sure the story makes sense to other people.

    Although the "flow" states are part of what got me interested in writing, those times don't come when you want them to. Sometimes you have to struggle with a work for a while before you figure it out. Writing can be tough, especially when you only have a short time to work and need to focus on it, but I look forward to doing it.

  2. It should be reminded to a lot of writers that writing is in fact an art. It's not just stringing a bunch of sentences together, but rather how you do so. Too often I encounter readers who are only interested in the story, and not how that story is told. This is fine for readers who are only readers, but for those who are also writers, this is entirely inexcusable. How this relates to what you're saying today:

    The art of writing is the work of it. You don't learn the art just by writing. You learn it by doing it. I don't think it's necessary to write all the time, or to wait until inspiration hits, either. Both are typical logical fallacies. The more you write, hopefully the better you understand how you write best. Then you can leave the really difficult stuff, such as making a story that's as interesting in concept as it is in execution. 99% of a truly good story doesn't happen on the page at all, but rather in the writer's own mind before a single word has been written. A good writer won't need a good reader to visualize what they've written. They'll have completed the portrait themselves. And a great writer will still leave the reader amazed at the end of it, trying to figure out how it was done.

  3. My analogy is always a pitcher in baseball: sometimes you don't feel you have your "stuff" but you go out there and do it anyway. A lot of times I might not feel great about it at first but then I start to settle in and things get going better.

  4. I was actually with you most of the way here and then saw my shout-out at the end. You're right: I have often times railed against writers who describe writing as "hell" or "torture" or something. I hate that kind of stuff. Nobody MAKES you write. I understand when people say they hate their job but they couldn't get a better one and they have a family to support and the like, but that's totally different. I have never heard of anyone who could truthfully say "I needed to support my family and the only way I could was to get a job writing mysteries for Hachette Publishing and OH GOD IT IS TORTURE."

    The simple truth is that writing is, like any creative career, something we choose to do either as a hobby or as a money-making opportunity or both. And when people complain that their hobby is "torture" or "Hell" I want to say: "QUIT, and then I can stop hearing you gripe about it." Plus, people who describe their writing that way typically also inflict the type of writing on US that is torture to read.

    But with that said: most of the past year has been a learning experience for me, in that I have been experimenting with writing and different things (including this blog and being an editor) and working on what I think are very exciting projects, and I have come to agree with you about 'practice,' or working at writing. In fact, JUST LAST NIGHT I got to the part of this project I am editing...

    ... I edit!...

    ... and noted that that particular point in the project (which I actually wrote last September) was sort of a turning point for me in that I had learned the importance of re-reading and editing and trying new things. And I specifically compared it (in my notes in the project) to an athlete having a lot of natural talent (which, this'll seem exactly as egotistical as I am, I think I have) but needing to work on the rough parts of their game.

    So I agree with you: you've got to practice at writing. I don't call it "work" because when you're making 52 cents a month, as I did last month WOO HOO it's not 'work', it's still a hobby, but you want to get better at it to make it more enjoyable. I enjoy writing, but I've realized that I want people to read it and to pay me to read it, especially -- so to make my hobby more enjoyable I've got to get better at those parts where people want to read it and keep reading it.

    So I write every day, and I apply rules to myself such as word limits or topics, and I now require reading something three times through before considering it finished, and I have other rules, all designed to make me better at this.

    I think it's working -- I just found out that I had another story accepted for paying publication, which means that points 2 and 3 of the plan are improving.

    But the thing is, it's still fun for me. I'm making a challenge of it. So instead of saying "I'm going to edit this story AGAIN BLEAARGGGHGHGHGH!" I say "I'm going to try to trim this 500 word story to 200 words," or I decide that I will not put a story on my blog until I submit it to X number of other publishers, or something. Or, as we'll see someday, I make a game out of the entire process and try to turn it into a giant metajoke.

    (THAT is foreshadowing, and I am told it is a valid literary technique.)

  5. I wanted to add, too, that there are things I do just for fun. I used to play golf, when I had more time and money and fewer kids and heart attacks. I was never very good at it; I just enjoyed it. Once, one of my friends said "You should practice at golf," and I said "Why?" He said "So you get better." I said "That would make it more like work, and I wouldn't want to do it then."

    If the practice isn't fun, then it's a job. I play piano and guitar and use to practice all the time, because practicing piano is playing the piano, and hence fun. Practicing golf involves things like "repeatedly trying to swing a club without actually hitting the ball" and stuff, and was not fun.

    When I decided earlier this year to get back to learning to draw, I went and got some books about drawing. Then I didn't read them, and instead just decided to draw some stuff. I'm no Rusty Carl, but I practice drawing by trying to draw. It's like writing: I try something, see if I like it, look at what other people do, and then try something else.

    MAN you really got me going. I've got to go do some WORK now.

  6. Great points Man. I'm not a writer but anything worth doing takes effort.

  7. I have a post about this coming up next week (or maybe for IWSG later). Yeah, there's a point where wishing and hoping has to turn over into grunt work to get the writing done. Funny, I don't have an issue thinking of writing as a job (that pays zero), but I have a hard time convincing those around me -- who assume I'm on the computer playing video games all day. :P

  8. Good points! I freelance write for a living, though, so most days I have no choice. I must write whether I feel inspired or not. But figuring out where to go next in a work of fiction definitely requires much more thought. You can't just start have to find that inspiration. Often for me that comes from reading.

  9. Sandra: I think flow states only happen because of the work. I think most of the research is showing that, too. Work first, then flow can happen.

    Tony: I don't think you need to write all the time (although I spend an awful lot of time writing), but I do think that inspiration more often happens do to the writing, not the other way around.

    Pat: That's not a bad analogy. When you have to take the field, you have to take the field, whether you feel "in the zone" or not.

    Briane: I agree with you that choosing to do something that you find tortuous is a rather ridiculous endeavor. And I was just poking a bit of fun at you with the ending.
    Also, I think that work does not necessarily equal not fun. Writing is work for me, but I enjoy the doing of it unlike, say, cleaning the bathroom, which is work that I hate.
    Fun and golf do not go together for me, though. Golf was invented by the devil. I'm sure of it.

    Maurice: I agree with you.

    L.G.: I know! Sometimes, when I'm sitting staring at my screen or, even, playing solitaire (because it is mindless and I can think about other things while my hand moves cards around) everyone thinks I'm doing nothing. That's often when I'm doing the most important part of the work!

    Stephanie: Ah, well, I think you can just start typing. Mostly, as I said, I've found that the inspiration comes after the process has begun.

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