Writing is hard. When you research authors and journalists, you often come across those three words. I don’t believe the average reader really understands just how difficult writing is. Many people who aspire to write novels assume something like: Yeah, I’ve heard it’s difficult…but how hard can it be? I’ve been writing since the third grade. I know how to put together a sentence, and I can form a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. So, when people say “writing is hard”, I think they mean the craft can be challenging at times because of things like plot hole, deadlines, and submitting to publisher. I can deal with that because I have a great story idea.
No. That’s not it. Writing is frustrating. It’s a love-hate addiction. At its core, it’s about communication. Think about a time when you said just the right thing, and how cool it was. Now think about a time when all you wanted was X, Y, Z and the person you were talking to didn’t understand and you had to explain it four different times. In conversation, the setting, descriptions, and all the emotion and confusion of bad conversation happen in matter of seconds. In writing, it takes hundreds (if not thousands) of words to communicate all of that to the reader. To put it another way, people assume that because they’ve been reading and writing for thirty years, they could probably write a story and get published. First time out. Boom. Another bucket list item accomplished. When you start writing professionally (i.e. with the hopes of being paid), your skills are tragically low. They are akin to a child trying to communicate with a parent. Children throw temper tantrums because they lack the skills to communicate clearly. It takes years of daily practice to develop the skills necessary to clearly communicate.
A child walks up to a candy bin and takes a piece of candy. A parent takes the candy out of the child’s hand and puts it back. The child turns red, cries, kicks, and waves hands in frustration.
This é is how new writers start.
Over time, they improve:
“I want a piece of candy.”
“No. You can’t have a piece of candy.”
“Hey, listen…I know times are tough. You’re staying at home, daddy’s out all day workin’, and living on one paycheck isn’t what it used to be. I’ve talked to grandma and grandpa, I know what’s up. But you need to understand that things are tough for me too. I poop in my pants. It’s not ideal, but that’s how it’s done…and out of nowhere, you come along and introduce this thing—a “toilet”— that you want me to start pooping into? This is some serious bullshit, man; but, okay…you’re in charge. I get it. You’re the boss, so I’ll crap wherever you want. Just know that this change is very hard on me. I don’t have many outlets right now. My teddy bear, Rosco, is comforting and a good listener, but he doesn’t provide useful advice. I’ve been good lately. I think I deserve a piece of candy. I’m not asking for an entire bag. Just one piece.”
“I just don’t think it’s a good idea. I know you’ve been good, and I really appreciate all your effort going potty on the toilet, but we’re at the grocery store to pick up one last item that I forgot so I can make dinner. I’m making your favorite meal, meat and potatoes. And I have a special dessert for you, cherry cobbler. I think if you have that candy you’ll ruin your appetite for dinner.”
“Okay, I hear what you’re sayin’, but I’m starving. I haven’t had anything since you gave me mashed carrots at lunch. Do you know how quickly mashed carrots goes through me? This is a tiny piece of candy. It’s just to tide me over to dinner—and believe me, I ain’t missin’ a meat and potato dinner.”
“I’m sorry, but the answer is still no. Remember the last time I gave you one of those candies? You were hyper for a couple of hours, and then crashed. You ran around like a maniac, screaming, drawing on walls, and trying to stick your fingers into electrical outlets. It was all I could do to keep up with you. And then, just when I found a decent outlet for you, you passed out. That lead to you missing dinner, and then waking up crazy early the next day, which got your sleep schedule off, and that got my sleep schedule off…you’re going to have to trust me on this one.”
“Oh that’s right. I remember that day. It was…not my best moment. All right, you win this round. I’ll skip the candy and tough it out until dinner. But maybe tomorrow you could take me to the park and push me on the swing?”
“I can make that happen, if you can poop in the potty.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
The second story is quite a bit longer, and much more interesting. It’s still not perfect. There’s no setting, there isn’t a good balance between narrative and action, it’s all dialogue, etc. This is meant not only to show you physical examples of novice vs. experienced writers, but also the mental example. Put yourself into baby’s character for just a moment. Really think about what it would be like to be the child in the first example vs. the second. Of course you’d be upset in the first example. You have no way to communicate how desperately you want that piece of candy. You want it, and your mom took it away from you for no apparent reason. You do not have the skills to comprehend the action or to communicate your emotions. Meanwhile, in the second example, the child is articulate. The child understands reason, and can diplomatically argue a case. And, in the end, the child is okay with not getting the candy because the child has perspective. Professional writers can communicate their thoughts and emotions through written words more accurately than the average person.
This is why it frustrates me when a first time writer gets published and then says something like, “the story practically wrote itself”. Meanwhile I’ve been struggling over the opening paragraph in my novel for three days now. Let’s be clear, I wrote my opening paragraph a few years ago when I started writing my story. Then I updated it. Then it was turned in for critiquing. Re-worked. Put aside for months and months. Dusted off. Re-reviewed, and NOW I’m re-working it AGAIN. And I’ve been stuck on it for at least three days. I’m not obsessing over it. I’m not trying to make it “perfect”. Perfection is dream. I am trying to get it right because it sets the tone for the rest of the book.
I’ve been writing this blog for a few years now, and been working on my novel for several years. I know my skills have improved since I began, but I still feel like a child trying to communicate to his parents.