You’d think it gets easier to write a book after the first two or three have been published, wouldn’t you? Well, it doesn’t. Ask any writer — each book throws up a whole new set of problems and headaches and makes you feel as if you’ve never written anything remotely sensible or insightful in your life.
Sad, but true.
I’ve just published my sixth full-length novel, in addition to short stories, a novella and some picture books, and nearly all of them have been hell to write in one way or another. I console myself with the thought that if writing were easier, everyone would want to do it. After all, it’s one of the few jobs you can do without changing out of your pajamas. No wonder we love it so much.
The thing I find hardest is plot. Any story arc I manage to squeeze out of my walnut-sized brain is always an emotional arc – protagonist starts off selfish and sad and ends up altruistic and happy-ish, or at least a bit wiser. But as to HOW that happens – to be honest, I don’t really care all that much. This is when I need a team of James Patterson-style clone-assistants or James Frey’s writing factory drones. “Fill in the story,” I’d command imperiously, and then go back to sleep.
But they probably wouldn’t do it right. Which would make me cranky. And I wouldn’t be satisfied with the result. So I’d have to go back and think about it some more, tear my hair out, phone my agent and sound mournful, tell my husband I’ve lost my touch and we’re going to starve, phone up all my writer friends and ask if they have any plots they’re not using right now, and eventually, drag some miserable bit of story kicking and screaming into the world, slap it onto the pre-existent emotional arc and pray it works.
A fair amount of cutting, pasting, patching, invisible weaving, and airbrushing comes next, and at the end of months of agonizing misery, voila! A book crawls and scrapes and limps its way into the light.
“Wow,” says the sweet guy interviewing me for a literary festival some months later. “You make it look so easy.”
And I deck him.
Whenever I do any teaching, I inevitably get twenty-five middle aged aspiring writers sitting around a table looking mournful. “I got halfway through my book,” they all say, “and then I got stuck.”
This is when I think a cattle prod would come in handy for creative writing classes. “Of course you get stuck you silly people,” I practically scream. “Getting stuck is what happens. Everyone gets stuck!”
“Well, so, what do we do?” they chorus in funereal tones.
“You work harder,” I tell them. “You snap at your family, you feel depressed, you waste time on Facebook and Twitter, you clean the house (but only when you’re really desperate), you devour whole cakes, you pace, you despair. You read other peoples’ books that are better than any you’ll ever write and you cry. Eventually you get so desperate that you just write some nonsense, and if you’re lucky, something in that nonsense clicks with something in your brain, and you start to see a way through. If you’re not lucky, it doesn’t click, and you have to be depressed for another day. Or a week or a month.”
They stare at me, mouths open, twenty-five identical versions of Munch’s portrait, The Scream.
“Yup,” I say. “That’s what you do. That’s what I and everyone I know does, anyway.”
Sometimes I feel sorry for them and tell them what Picasso said about the muse: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
Of course working can take many forms, and sometimes the better part of sanity requires going to a 2pm film or sneaking off to ride a horse.
Having said all that, Picture Me Gone was a relatively easy novel to write. But it took me months to sit down and start it, months during which I can only assume my brain was up there composting material, organizing characters and preparing the ground – so all I had to do was to come along and set up my tent. They were terrifying months, however, months during which I was convinced I would never write another book.
The book features a man who leaves his wife and baby, and a twelve year old girl who sets off with her father to find him. No one knows why he left. I didn’t either when I started. I didn’t know until about the 12th draft. It was nerve-wracking, but I wrote on, and eventually he revealed to us all what he was up to. Phew.
As for book seven? As of this writing I’m hopelessly, despairingly stuck.
By the time this appears, I expect to be dancing around merrily with total amnesia about how much I hate writing.
“What’s it like being a writer?” I’ll say. “Best job in the world.”
What holds you up while working through a draft? How do you get beyond it?