Sunday, September 28, 2014

September 28 2014. What are the really hard things about writing? And what is the hardest?

“Writing and learning and thinking are the same process”

William Zinsser

There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it's like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.

Ernest Hemingway

Every writer I know has trouble writing.

Joseph Heller

I must write it all out, at any cost. Writing is thinking. It is more than living, for it is being conscious of living.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh



Let me start with the good news. However long, frustrating, and exhausting, the journey towards becoming an accomplished writer may be—the rewards, when you achieve that status, more than justify the effort. Here, I am not talking about financial rewards, but the sheer pleasure and satisfaction one gets from writing itself. Much as runners get a ‘runner’s high’—an extraordinary sense of exhilaration—so you can (nothing is guaranteed) achieve much the same feeling from writing.

Let me paraphrase Mel Brooks It feels good to be the king. It feels very good indeed to be an accomplished writer. It is an exquisite skill to be able to deploy.

It takes the stamina and fortitude of a Navy SEAL to acquire it—and more years than I care to mention..

So why not write and run? If you want to write at your optimum, that is exactly what you should do—though how you exercise is a personal decision. I’m a walker, not a runner, but it is scarcely news that physical fitness enhances mental agility—and, just so you know, writing is all about the mind. You may type with your fingers, but you write with your mind. Your journey starts with your mind.

Your journey may drive you insane! It will almost certainly be long and difficult. Realistically, you need to be thinking of years to decades.

Incidentally, that phrase ‘mens sana in corpore sano’  (a healthy mind in a healthy body) comes from the Roman poet Juvenal.

You should pray for a healthy mind in a healthy body.
Ask for a stout heart that has no fear of death,
and deems length of days the least of Nature's gifts
that can endure any kind of toil,
that knows neither wrath nor desire and thinks
the woes and hard labors of Hercules better than
the loves and banquets and downy cushions of Sardanapalus.
What I commend to you, you can give to yourself;
For assuredly, the only road to a life of peace is virtue.

I can make no promise about direct financial rewards. As matters stand, the number of journalists employed by the media has been drastically reduced, and making a living from writing books has been ever hazardous. On the other hand, if you are good enough, you can make a comfortable living in both these areas. Good grief—some Best Selling Authors become obscenely rich. It’s unlikely—writers are notoriously badly paid—but it is possible.

Pretty much anything is possible. Achievable is another matter.

The indirect rewards of being able to write well are considerable. It means, in essence, that you are able both to think clearly—and to communicate those thoughts in entertaining written form. Such a facility is invaluable in a wide range of occupations—and in life generally. Just being able to write well to those you love is no small thing in itself. It is also surprisingly useful to be able to express yourself with vigor to those you are not so fond of.

Whether the pen is mightier than the sword does rather depend on the circumstances, but good writing can be a formidable weapon. That said, if ever you find yourself up against someone armed with a sword, good writing isn’t enough. Trust me on that.

In my experience, your writing journey breaks down into four phases. Other may see this differently—there tends to be more than one way to do just about anything—but the following is based upon my experience.

  • PREPARING YOUR MIND. Writing starts with reading—and a great deal of reading at that. But, in addition, you need to develop a certain mindset and relevant skills—like fostering your powers of observation, listening to how people talk, structuring a story. You also need to have enough experiences so that you both have some knowledge of the world—and some things to write about. Given that now you’ll be entering a world where rejection is the norm—as is criticism—it is a good idea to develop your Zen qualities in advance. Keep cool under any, and all, circumstances. You won’t, but it should remain your goal 
  • LEARNING TO WRITE.  This is where you are faced with a blank computer screen and a mind to match. The important thing here is to get yourself writing—even if its only a shopping-list. If you write at least a couple of pages daily, you will find that converting your thoughts into entertaining written words will become easier.  After that you can work on content.
  • LEARNING TO RE-WRITE.  Once you have completed your first work, you need to take a break—and then go back and re-write it. You may hate this at first—because you are probably sick of your damn book. However, after a while, you will be amazed at how much better you are making your manuscript—and then you’ll begin to enjoy re-writing. I have learned to love it. You are competing against yourself.
  • LEARNING HOW TO SELL WHAT YOU HAVE WRITTEN. There is a great deal of advice available on the internet on how to do this—and some of it is excellent—but sorting out the wheat from the chaff is difficult—especially if you have no training in marketing. Essentially, there are two problems: marketing takes away from writing time; secondly, it requires an entirely different mindset. I have not yet resolved this issue to my own satisfaction as yet. It’s a work in progress.


We all have different strengths, weaknesses, and circumstances—so this list may not apply to you. Nonetheless, it will give you an idea. It is based upon my experiences writing books. If you write short pieces for magazines, things will be a little different.

  • FINDING A PLACE TO WRITE. Some people can write virtually anywhere. Most of us benefit from solitude, comfortable (not to be confused with luxurious) surroundings, adequate equipment, and a regular writing routine.
  • FINDING THE TIME TO WRITE. The world seems to be organized to distract the writer. Best to have regular times during which to write. Negotiate accordingly. Adhere to rigorously. 
  • SUPPORTING YOURSELF & FAMILY WHILE NOT EARNING FROM WRITING. This is difficult—and I have no instant answers. I will merely say that writing is hard enough without having to endure financial worries as well. Essentially, if family harmony is to be maintained, you need some stability. Prepare in advance.
  • GETTING TO GRIPS WITH HOW LONG EVERYTHING TAKES. The time frames, where writing is concerned, tend to be unusually long.  Anticipate the worst—and hope for the best. But prepare mentally and financially.
  • RETAINING MORAL SUPPORT. Most people are used to relatively fast results so don’t either understand or sympathize with how long it takes to get results in the writing game. As a consequence, support tends to evaporate—even from your nearest and dearest. Best to anticipate this, and line up support for the long haul. You need at least one supporter to see you through.
  • SEEMING TO GET NOWHERE.  When you are learning to write, it can seem as if you are getting nowhere—yet the months are passing. This is very demoralizing. Actually, if you are writing every day, you are almost certainly making some progress. The trick is to be realistic in advance and factor in the long learning curve.
  • PLOTTING. Your plot is the skeleton of the story.  You’ll get better at plotting over time. Read up on how to plot. Practice structuring stories. Your first efforts may well be terrible. Keep at it and you will surprise yourself.
  • WRITING STUFF WHICH YOU KNOW IS NO GOOD. No one writes well all the time—but it is vitally important to keep writing regardless because you will get better. Still, that apart, writing regularly gets you used to turning thoughts into ideas. The practice develops your writing muscle memory. In short, even bad writing serves a purpose. Bad writing is not a sin (in this context). Not writing is. 
  • KEEPING THE FAITH. I can’t tell you how to keep the faith, but I can tell you that you must even if you seem to be failing at everything. Writing is rarely an instant results business. Take that self-doubt that you feel, and give it to one of your characters.
  • REJECTION. Rejection is a normal part of being a writer. Best to prepare yourself mentally in advance. You will be rejected for all kinds of reasons other than the quality of your writing—so don’t take it to heart. Keep submitting regardless. Today, think seriously of self-publishing—which means self marketing as well.
  • LEARNING TO UNDERWRITE. This means writing as tightly as possible. Only put in what is needed to tell the story. In fact, it is amazing how much you can leave out. People’s imaginations are good at filling in the gaps.
  • ACCEPTING CRITICISM. The trouble with criticism is that it is not necessarily right—or even very good.—even from experienced editors. I made a point initially of listening to my editors, and mainly following their guidelines. Over time, I have learned to trust my own instincts ahead of my critics.
  • DEVELOPING YOUR INNER VOICE. This is incredibly important. It means that—with luck, experience, and a following wind—you will develop really good judgment regarding your own work. This has the added benefit of giving you a sense of direction. Cultivate and trust that inner voice. It will guide you through hell and back—and may well have to.



It seems to be almost a convention that the hardest aspect of writing is actually writing. Once I started writing, I never found that to be the case. I certainly had to sit back and think on many occasions, but once I had developed the habit of writing, the words just tended to flow. They weren’t necessarily the right words, or the best words, but they were normally serviceable.

In my opinion, the most important thing to do the first time around is to get the story down.  Hesitating while you search for the perfect choice of words takes the momentum out of the process. Much better to write the story, and do all the fine-tuning during the re-writing process. Then—within reason—you can be a perfectionist. Just appreciate that if you are writing a big thriller of perhaps 160,000 words, you’ll be in your grave before you finish it if you try and make everything perfect (which assumes you will know what is perfect—which is most unlikely).

A better approach to searching for the ideal word is to focus on flow—on the book as a whole. Does everything work together? Is the pacing right. Is it an entertaining read? Finding the right word with relative ease comes from reading widely and well—because that builds up you vocabulary—and experience.

The best is the enemy of the good.

I find the hardest part of writing is coping with when I’m not writing. But to get more specific, I think the hardest part for most writers today is handling the marketing aspect. It takes time away from the actual writing—something which is maddening enough in itself—but, more to the point, it requires a different mindset.

If and when I resolve this issue—which I am determined to do—I’ll let you know via this blog. It is a wrenching process which seems to require re-wiring part of my brain yet again.

Will I succeed? To be frank, I keep on failing. But the willingness to fail—sometimes to the point of despair—is the precursor of success.

Writing—and by that I mean all the elements including marketing—is a ‘Battle of the Mind.’ That battle is primarily with yourself.

You will never face a more formidable enemy.






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