For some months, I've been working on my second novel for Orbit Books. It's going great now, thanks for asking, but in the early days the book hurled some alarming curveballs right at my face, because that's what books do.
Smoke grenades led me staggering down blind alleys of narrative. Characters who had once seemed integral to the story, actually needed to be winched clean out of the manuscript forever, taking many thousands of words with them. Ideas that had once seemed great in my head, actually weren't so great and it turned out there were far better ways to do this. Cue more thinking, more planning, more gnashing of teeth, more demons dancing around my head shrieking, "You can't do this writing thing! You're an idiot!"
Chances are, if you write then you've experienced similar issues, regardless of your experience level. Every new project feels like it requires a brand new skillset.
And you know why that is? It's because you're conjuring up something out of absolutely nothing, out of the clear blue sky. And that's incredibly difficult. If we writers are all gifted at one thing, though, it's forgetting that it's always hard. Oh yeah, we're great at blaming ourselves until we remember how hard it always is.
As I quacked on Twitter recently...
There are positive sides, however, to accepting just how brain-meltingly tricky writing should be. More positive sides than negative, I'm saying.
First of all, what's the alternative: labouring under the delusion that writing's a breeze? That's a surefire way to churn out complacent and under-cooked work. Whereas if you know how hard writing is, you know how high you need to aim. As a result, you're much more likely to turn a realistic and unblinking eye to your work and see its flaws and problems, hopefully before non-editorial readers get a chance to point them out in an excruciating Amazon-based smackdown.
I certainly never thought writing fiction was easy, but I suspect there was a time, many years ago, when I reckoned it was easier than I do now. I multi-tasked more and was probably more productive in terms of the number of projects I took on. But looking back, perhaps I wasn't aiming quite as high as I thought I was. These days, I hope I genuinely aim to write something properly great. I may very well fail, and that's for the reader to decide. But I know I devoted more back-breaking work to my novel The Last Days Of Jack Sparks than I'd ever put into anything before. Because in a world that effectively offers endless alternative channels of entertainment, why should we expect readers to commit to a book that's anything less than great? Anything less than next level, even, in some respect or other? These thoughts are as terrifying as they are true.
Regardless of whether we succeed in our lofty aims, acknowledging the size of the challenge and facing up to it, that's half the battle. And I think that's why writing perversely seems to get tougher, the more experience you gain: you realise how insanely perilous this mountain you pig-headedly keep attempting to climb really is.
You come to realise exactly what writing takes. What it really takes. Especially when you're operating on a landscape liberally studded with geniuses.
So. If you often feel like writing is tougher than wading through a swamp in concrete boots, and the sheer difficulty of it all regularly inflicts a terrible paralysis upon your very soul, then congratulations: you're so one of us. Because the vast majority of writers feel exactly the same way. Here's to tipping your head back, gazing up at the mountain's peak and feeling the fear, then digging the first crampon in anyway. (And of course, if you find writing a breeze, then I'm delighted for you and you're still one of us. Just a bit weird.)
We'll end with the words of one of those aforementioned geniuses. One who, in this great quote, references two other geniuses.
Steven Moffat: "There isn’t one single script when I’m not, at some point, sick-makingly terrified of my inability to write it. I mean, it’s just hard! I asked Russell T Davies, 'Do you ever wanna stick your head out the window and shout that you don’t know what you're doing?' And he said, 'Oh God, every day.' He then mentioned it several times, saying how Cardiff Bay was echoing to his cries!"
"And every time I make a script work," Steven continues, "it feels like luck. I don’t think that feeling ever goes away. It really is that hard, and that’s what it’s supposed to be like. The sheer amount of thinking you have to do, to make this work! When I read scripts that are bad, it’s often because they’re just lazy. The writer hasn’t thought things through in the way that I would. There was a quote from John Cleese, around the time he was ruling the world with Fawlty Towers: 'If I’m any good at writing comedy, it’s because I know how hard it’s supposed to be.' And that’s it. It’s shockingly difficult and emotionally upsetting!”