Misc,  On Writing

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Writing is Hard

This myth comes in many forms and has many faces, but let me put it as plainly as I can to start.

Myth: To be Good, Writing Must Be Hard. (And it can’t be fun.)

Total hogwash, of course, yet it is stunning how many new writers believe this, and how readers, when they bother to think about it, believe the myth as well. And, of course, almost everyone who teaches creative writing in a university program believes this as well, and teaches the myth.

Where does this myth come from?

Answer: A thousand places, actually. But I think the best place to look first is at writers themselves.

Fiction writers are people who sit alone in a room and make up stuff. By its very nature, one of the easiest tasks ever given to a human being. But, alas, fiction writers are people who make stuff up, and thus, making stuff up doesn’t stop when our fingers leave the keys. We use words like “struggle” and “fought” in sentences describing the creation of a story. “I had to really struggle with that story.” Or “I fought that story into existence.”

Good, active writing. Who cares if the reality was you sat fairly still, in a comfortable chair, in a warm room, at a computer, and just made stuff up.

Don’t forget that we writers, by our nature, are drama queens, to say the least. Because our task is so easy and so much fun, we have to make it seem harder to those around us, and to ourselves, otherwise we get no credit for all the “hard work” we do every day.

Writers play up this myth of “hard work” so much, we actually start believing it ourselves at times. If nothing else, fiction writers are the masters of self-delusion.

A second place to look for why this myth exists is the culture of publishing. See my last Sacred Cows post about books as events to see part of the reason. But let me do the math one more time to show just how really silly this is.

One manuscript page is about 250 words. This post is now a distance past that number of words right here. So if I write one page, 250 words, I would be done writing in about 10-15 minutes. Sometimes quicker. If I did that 10-15 minutes every day for one year, I would complete a 91,000 word novel, about a normal length paperback book.

Oh, yeah, that’s hard work, sitting silently for 15 minutes per day and moving my fingers. And the current culture would consider me a prolific writer if I did that every year for ten years. Heaven forbid I actually write 30 minutes per day and produce two books a year.

We writers have to really hide this math, and we have to really do a lot of drama to keep the world believing that working fifteen minutes a day typing is hard work. Stunning how good of a job we have done in this scam, isn’t it? As I said, we are masters of delusion, self-delusion, and just flat making stuff up.

Of course, there is always the “art” argument that comes flying in. Writers who want to hold onto the myth that writing is hard work talk a great deal about the “art” and the “craft” of what they do, especially out in public. And of course, see my rewriting posts about that part of the myth. But the truth is, when we are really creating art, we are doing it from the back of our brains, typing fast, buried in the story. Much more on the myth of “art” in later chapters.

So the myth of writing is hard has built up almost as much as the myth of agents. How did that come about?

In the beginning (I love starting a sentence like that), all writers struggled over simple sentences, meaning back in the early days of learning how to talk and write as kids, writing was hard for all of us. I went all the way through college avoiding any kind of class that forced me to do a paper or essay. I hated writing. It was just too hard. Much easier for me to do a multiple choice test.

Most people never get past those early, almost basic memories. So we grow up thinking that someone who can write a story, an article, or heavens, an entire novel, have a special power and are working really, really hard to write. Some writers I know actually still believe this.

And, of course, the pulp writers, pounding out thousands of words a day, actually were working hard on those manual typewriters. Go ahead, don’t believe me, try pounding out a single page on a manual typewriter. You’ll be covered in White Out and your arms will ache.

But sitting here in my perfect chair with perfect arm support, letting my fingers try to stay up with my old brain, I’m not doing much work. In fact, if I didn’t get out and do some exercise, some sort of movement in the real world, I would turn into a 500 pound blob with fingers. I was headed that way about three years ago. Now I’m down to 190 and still losing and exercising. That’s right, I have to get up and move away from the writing to do any real work or exercise.

Also, the early days of trying to learn how to tell stories is difficult and very frustrating. The people around you think you are wasting time, your family talk in worried whispers behind your back, your workshop hates everything you type, editors give you form rejections, and even your cat won’t go near your computer chair. Everything about learning how to write stories in the early professional days is hard. No argument.

The early days of trying to learn how to write professional level fiction is an ugly extension and reminder of learning to write as a child. Very basic fear. It’s a wonder any of us ever learn how to write novels, now that I think about it.

And of course there’s Practice. Don’t even mention that ugly word to writers. Writers, unlike any other brand of art, think they don’t need to practice. However, early days of trying to get published forces practice on all of us. No one buys our practice sessions and calls us brilliant, so we keep putting out stories and novels until someone does buy one. Practice is hard work for the most part. Anyone who played a sport or a musical instrument knows this fact. So when writers are practicing in the early years, it is hard work.

And remember, learning is uncomfortable by its very nature. When you are learning something new, it makes all us uneasy, makes us want to return to the status quo of not knowing something new. We all like stability, but when learning writing and craft of story telling, there is no stability. A writer is constantly trying something new, constantly on edge, and thus it feels hard and uncomfortable for years at a time. That’s normal, just normal. And clearly not hard work, but because the learning and trying something new feels difficult, we think it is hard work.

And this applies when we are struggling (nice word, huh?) through a story and it feels like it’s not coming together. That, we say to other writers, is working. We had to “work” at the story, the plotting into an unknown place felt uncomfortable, therefore it felt hard and if it feels hard, it therefore must have been work.

As I said, writers as great at self-delusion.

So the memory of working hard at writing still haunts all of us from our childhood. On my writing computer I have a short story to finish. But that feels like work, so I sit here at my internet computer, typing this instead. See, even I do it, still, after all the millions of words and 90 plus published books.

So, as I do with every chapter in this book, let me try to outline in simple form where writing is actually hard, and where it isn’t hard.

Where writing is hard.

1) The business of writing is hard. No argument there at all. And that business comes flowing into the writing. Thoughts about selling or not selling stop most writers at times. That makes the typing hard. Just dealing with the myths around agents can drive a writer to a nap very quickly. Cash flow, doing proofs, and everything about the business is hard.

2) Discipline is hard. Just carving out time to write is hard. Really hard, actually. Especially in the early years when the feedback loop is so negative. Simply finding time to get to the computer is hard when day job, kids, and bills get in the way. That’s hard and very hard work. The fun starts when you get to the chair with some time ahead, but getting there is hard work early on.

3) Writing more than six to eight hours a day is hard work. I know, under deadlines, I have spent that many hours and many more at a computer. When you write for eight hours a day, you know you have physically worked at something. But fifteen minutes a day to write one novel a year. That’s not work. Write ten thousand words a day for a week and you will know real hard work in the area of writing.

Those are the only places I can think of that writing is actually difficult work.

Where writing is NOT hard.

1) Sitting in a chair for an hour or so a day, making up stuff, is not hard work. It’s just not.

2) Coming up with story ideas and novel ideas is not hard work. In fact, after a while, professional writers have far, far too many ideas to ever think about writing them all, and we are constantly coming up with new ones every day. Coming up with story ideas actually becomes annoying because there are so many and it is so easy. (Fear of ideas not coming is something you learn your way past in the early days, the uncomfortable days. No worry.)

Where writing is just flat fun.

1) Sitting in a chair, making stuff up, while knowing that someone will pay you a lot of money for what you are making up. Yup, that’s fun.

2) Knowing that the typing you are doing today might still be read and earning you and your kids money fifty years from now. No other job I know of has that wonderful aspect to it. That’s fun.

3) Finishing and mailing stories is fun. Some of you might call that work, the mailing process, but actually, it’s fun. (If you think of it as hard work, if the fear is trying to stop you, you have other issues to get past.) Every time you mail something, you are mailing potential, and that’s exciting.

As an attorney friend of mine once said, when he goes to work, he gets so much per hour and then goes home. When I go to work, finish a story and mail it, every day I have the chance of making a lot of money and being read by a lot of people and making money with what I did that day for decades to come. That’s exciting and fun. If you don’t approach mailing manuscripts to editors as fun, you’ve been listening to too many agents talk.

4) I wrote that. Yup, that’s fun, great deals of fun, simply saying to someone, “Yes, I wrote that.” I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it was last weekend spending a good hour and a half signing books as fast as I could sign. I have an ego, just as anyone else, and trust me, that’s fun. Signing books for fans who love your work is not work. It’s an honor and a ton of fun.

5) The challenge of the business. Nothing is easy about becoming and staying a professional fiction writer. The business, the push to continue, the dealing with money is never easy. But the challenge is great fun. If you aren’t the type of person that goes at something that seems impossible and says, “Oh, why not, let’s try,” then you might want to find another job to chase. If you feel that security is everything in your life, then go work for Enron. That should do the trick. But if you love challenges, there is no more fun challenge than this business.

Suggestions on how to make writing more fun.

1) Take the pressure off. Simply put, this is not brain surgery. No life is in your hands other than some made-up characters. And you can kill them if you want, since you are God in your story. Take off the pressure.

2) Take stock of how you feel when you get up from a good writing session, where you finished pages. Do you feel good, excited, happy? Most of us do, sort of like just coming off a good carnival ride. Remember that feeling when you go back to write the next session or the next day.

3) Make mailing manuscripts to editors (or agents if you have that pathological need to add problems into your career) fun. Mailing and the game of trying to match the right manuscript with the right editor at the right house is fun. Frustrating at times, sure. But the more you make that part of things into just a game to keep as much writing on the market as you can, the more fun you will have and the less rejection will bother you.

4) Stop calling your writing work. Stop thinking of writing as a grind. Stop complaining to other writers all the time how bad the week was and how little you got done. In other words, CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE.

If you have an extra ten minutes, write something. If you are lucky and have a few hours, be excited about sitting down and exploring whatever world you are running around in with the story. Come at the writing with excitement, with expectations of fun, with delight.

As a mug I use for tea says on the side, “Attitude is everything.”

Over the years I have allowed myself to fall into some pretty nasty traps around the business of writing and writing itself. I let myself forget how much fun it is. I let myself believe that some writing was better than other types of writing. I let myself think that it was better to not write than write. I have managed to escape all the traps, but I was not immune to them by any means. Heck, I quit writing a half dozen times along the way.

That’s right, I figured the grass was always greener on the other side of some fence, so off I went to start a comic book store, or off I went to play professional poker, or off I went to try to play professional golf for a second time. And every time, at some point fairly quickly on those side roads, I realized I had left what I loved to do, that I had left the easiest job on the planet, and a job that paid the most. I had left a job I really enjoyed.

So now I write for a living once again, and I enjoy it even more than I ever did. I have a very, very cool story to finish tonight, one that I have been playing at too long because I’m just having too much fun with the idea. Am I going to work now?

Yeah, I suppose, since I make my living at my writing, I am going to “work” now. But I sure ain’t complaining about how hard I work. Or how tough my job is.

I sit alone, in a room, and make stuff up. That’s my job description. I have, without a doubt, the easiest and best job in the world.

It is a giant myth that my job is hard work.


Notice below that I have added onto this series of chapters a donate button where you can donate if you feel these chapters of this upcoming book helped you in some way and you want to keep me writing them and putting them up here. And if you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean