Why Writing is So Hard

Broken pencil

I started 2017 with the Big Plan of writing my supernatural novel. I’d never written a novel before, so I had no benchmark for how long it would take or how difficult it would be; but after toying with the idea for years, I knew I needed to get serious and set myself some firm targets.

First up: how many words could I expect to produce? I didn’t have a clue. So I started investigating the approximate word count of other books in the genre I wanted to write in (a fantasy/supernatural mystery/not-quite-thriller sort-of-thing): the range 70-80,000 words seemed to be a good starting point.

Second, how long would it take me to write that number of words? I’d already written about 3500 words in a couple of bursts prior to my official starting point, and they’d taken me about 3.5 hours in total: so I estimated I could get through 1000 words in an hour. Break that down by the amount of time I knew I could spare in each week, and I figured I’d have my first draft done and dusted by the end of March.

Allowing for time to set it aside to breathe, come back to it to edit and polish, send it out to beta readers, take in comments and edit further, I concluded that I would be happy if, by the end of the year, I was sending it out to agents. After self-publishing my first book, The Book Diaries Volume 1, I’d already decided that I wanted to try the traditional publishing route for my fiction.

It’s now the middle of February, and I’m two weeks in to my official writing routine. So far I’ve met (or slightly exceeded) my weekly targets, which is one of the most fabulous feelings I’ve had for a long time. To see a story gradually taking shape, mostly in the way I anticipated, but with some very unexpected twists and turns that have led the tale down even more intriguing routes than I’d imagined… it’s a very exciting sensation.

And yet it’s also hugely frustrating. Although the time I’ve set aside has been enough for me to reach my weekly targets, I have to admit I was hoping to have some time left at the end of each week. But no. So far, I’ve needed every minute of the time I’ve so diligently carved out for myself: contrary to what I’d hoped when I set out, I’ve been averaging 500 words an hour, not 1000.

Why is this? I think it’s because writing is really, really difficult.

There’s a romantic view of writers, sitting in garrets, beavering away at the latest work of genius, and emerging to plaudits and fame. Accompanying that image, there’s often a slightly envious feeling of ‘well, that sounds like a nice job!’ As if these favoured individuals simply put pen to paper and see the words flow out on to the page, with no real effort; as if the muse takes over; as if no work is involved.

There’s a temptation to think that writing must be easy: you sit down and words come out of your pen (or your keyboard), just like that. Not like a real job: managing people, making decisions, selling, serving, struggling. Just writing.

Well, my experience of the past two weeks is that writing is no easier than a ‘real job’. I have really struggled to get my words down on the page, and this is not because I’m short of ideas, nor is it because I can’t pull a sentence together. I am both creative and articulate, and I have a sense of where my story is headed. So why aren’t the words just flowing?

Have you ever tried to describe a dream to someone? It makes perfect sense in your head, but when you have to actively find words to explain it to someone else, you know that what they’ll hear won’t be an exact reflection of the image you’ve got in your mind. ‘I’m walking down a street, but it isn’t really a street; then I bump into the Dalai Lama, except we’re in a warehouse…

Writing is similar. I have pictures in my mind that make perfect sense to me, but I know that the words I choose to lay out the scene for my readers won’t necessarily convey what’s in my head. This is because I am familiar with the contents of my head and, over the course of 46 years, have learned a lot of the shortcuts to understanding what’s going on in there. When I experience a certain feeling, I know instinctively what that means for me; when I picture an image, I don’t have to find the words to describe it, because I can see it.

We are all the same. We have enormous universes inside our minds that only we, individually, can navigate coherently. But writing is about taking the contents of those minds and translating them into a form that is understandable to the outside world: we have to find concrete words, with finite meanings, to express the inexpressible. And not only do we have to translate our own thoughts and images, we also have to get into the minds of our characters and ensure that their massive internal universes are transcribed appropriately; they have to make sense, hang together, help the story flow. Most importantly, all of this then has to connect with the reader’s own personal internal universe. And not just ‘reader’ singular: ‘readers’ plural.

That’s a lot of universes.

No wonder it’s difficult. Communication is a great gift to our species, but it is extremely complex and nuanced, and very difficult to get exactly right. So it’s perhaps not unusual that I’m finding it slow going. I guess that the more I write, the easier it will become; that I will become practised at finding the right word to describe the particular mental image I’m working with – but for now, I’m feeling like a very rusty garden implement that’s been left out in the rain for too long (and even that might not be an image that resonates with you – see what I mean?).

The only way forward is to keep at it, day after day, week after week, month after month. There may be a muse of ideas, there may even be a muse of word flow, but, as so many writers have said before me, you can’t just wait for the muses to show up: you have to do the hard slog, the translation of the untranslatable. And then, just at the point where your words start to fail you, maybe the muse will come with coffee, and you will be revived, pick yourself up and keep going.

I’ve decided to post my ongoing word count on my Facebook page, so if you’re interested in keeping up with my weekly progress, just hop on over there and give my page a like.

2017: It’s All About the Novel

New writing

As we’re now a week into the new year, it seems like a good time to tell you of my plans for 2017. There are going to be some changes around here!

I’ve been writing my Book Diaries blog for two years now and am about to embark on my third. This, however, will be the last. It’s been a rollercoaster ride: the book of Year 1 is due to be published very shortly (Kindle elves permitting), and I still intend to produce books of Years 2 and 3 in due course.

The purpose of the blog has been to get me to make changes in my life, taking inspiration from each title I read. These changes have been hugely varied, from the practical to the abstract, but the one thing I’ve always maintained is that the more frequently you make the small changes, the easier it becomes to make the big changes.

The time has now come for me to make a big change.

For years now I’ve been planning and plotting a novel. I’ve mentioned it occasionally in the Book Diaries, and I have a teaser page on my website that gives a sneak preview of the plot (note: this may change!). Since my big holiday in September (which gifted me a month away from the daily grind) and, more recently, the Christmas break (when I had time to stop and reflect), it’s become inescapably clear to me that this is the work I need to focus on.

The Book Diaries have been incredibly illuminating, and I will continue to read new books on a regular basis even when I stop writing the blog – but I’ve realised that what it has all been leading to is this: the novel; the work that is deep inside me begging to be let out. And I need to honour it and give it the attention it deserves. It may even be that the novel is merely the starting point: I really have no idea exactly where this will lead, but it’s thrilling to have a blank map waiting to be filled in…

This means that I will be changing the focus of what I post on (a) my website and (b) social media. Specifically, you can expect the following:

  • I’ll be publishing more blog posts/status updates on my writing process and progress.
  • I’ll also be writing posts/updates on elements of my subject matter: what I’m tentatively calling ‘supernatural medical fiction’.
  • The Book Diaries will continue throughout 2017, but instead of being inspired in a random fashion, I’ll be looking for inspiration that I can take to my writing.
  • I’ll be reinstating my monthly newsletter, which will contain general news, updates on the novel, and exclusive insights into where my ideas come from.
  • I may even try out other pieces of writing, e.g. short stories, to polish my technique and get some of my non-novel-related ideas on to the page.

In short, expect the unexpected. I may not post frequently, as my time will primarily be spent on writing the actual novel, but I anticipate being too excited about it to keep all my thoughts to myself!

The first of my new monthly newsletters will be out at the beginning of February, so if you’d like to keep up to date with my progress, sign up here.

If this new direction doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, then you can of course unsubscribe/unfollow me, and there will be absolutely no hard feelings. Thank you for your support so far.

If, however, you’re intrigued by what ‘supernatural medical fiction’ might mean, and want to find out more, then hang on to your hats and enjoy the ride…

Book Diaries Receives the Liebster Award!

Liebster AwardI’m very excited today to announce that my Book Diaries blog has received the Liebster Award!

The Award is presented to blogs by other bloggers and is a great way to discover new voices and fresh topics. I was happy to be nominated by Marie Anne Cope (thank you Marie!), who is a horror and dark fantasy author; her books include the novels Bonds and Broken Bonds and the collection of short stories Tales from a Scarygirl. If witches and vampires are your thing, you can find lots of great stuff on her blog Scary Ramblings.

In accordance with the rules of the Award, I have to write several things. Read on!

Ten random facts about myself…

  1. I am a professionally qualified librarian.
  2. I once posed in a ‘Calendar Girls’-style calendar for my old amateur dramatics group.
  3. I went to the same Oxford college as the Rev. W. Awdry, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine.
  4. I am half Welsh, half English.
  5. In the Myers Briggs personality test I am an INTJ.
  6. My favourite book of all time is The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.
  7. I have travelled on the Trans-Siberian Railway.
  8. I passed my Grade 7 piano exam.
  9. The tables at my wedding were named after all the actors who have played Doctor Who.
  10. I played Olivia in a school production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Answers to the questions posed by Marie…

1. When and why did you start to write?

I used to write a lot as a child, but haven’t done so for years. The Book Diaries is kind of my way back into writing (as well as reading), and it has been quite inspirational in that regard: instead of writing about other people’s novels, I now want to write one of my own! I have a story in my head that wants to get out, and, being a fan of fantasy, the idea of creating my own world has a huge appeal. I’ve started making copious notes about the plot and characters, and have determined that next year will be the year I finally do it!

2. What is your chosen genre and what was your motivation for choosing it?

My novel will be a fantasy novel, specifically a supernatural novel, and most of the other ideas that I have in my head for further creative projects are also sci-fi and fantasy (SFF). I’ve always enjoyed those sorts of stories myself, I think because it enables me to escape from the mundane worries of daily life and imagine how the world could be improved – or at least made more interesting – on a much larger scale. I also find myself asking ‘what if?’ quite frequently: what if some aspect of nature or civilisation was different in some key way? How would that affect the way we live? I guess I’d like to explore those thoughts further and see what develops; and SFF is the perfect place to do it.

3. Is your blog in the same genre as your writing and, if not, why did you decide to make it different?

My two responses above probably answer that. Although I want to write creatively in SFF, I also want to write about books (and the joy of reading) more generally. I’m interested in having ideas and pursuing them, and while SFF certainly offers a great deal of space for that, I also firmly believe that any book (or any story in any medium, come to that) can inspire you to think differently and create change in your life. So what I’m trying to do on this website is both indulge my own need for speculative storytelling, and offer support and encouragement to people who want to use books to pursue their dreams.

4. What came first – blogging or novel/short story writing?

I wrote short stories as a child, I’m now blogging, and I have at least one novel lined up for the future!

5. Do you think a blog is a must for a writer and, if so, why?

I think it’s a great way of (a) honing your writing and editing skills and (b) building up a relationship with your readers. People are always keen to know about the person behind the book cover, and blogging is a fab opportunity to talk about the things that make you tick. You can go into more detail about elements of your books that readers might find interesting, give them sneak previews or behind-the-scenes reports of projects and events, ask for feedback on work in progress, or just chat about your daily life. Of course, if you hate the very thought of it, then don’t force yourself! But it’s definitely worth trying: set yourself a manageable schedule and you may even end up enjoying it…

6. Describe your writing routine and why it works for you.

At the moment I write a blog post every fortnight. I try not to set specific dates for posting, as it makes me feel too tied down, but I do try to get the posts published by the Wednesday of each week in which they’re due, so that I’m ready to talk about them on our community radio show, Calon Talks Books! While I can fit in a blog post around other tasks in a day, when it comes to writing my novel I think I’ll need to set aside larger chunks of time: half days or whole days, depending on my schedule. My freelance work tends to be busier in the summer, so I may end up doing my writing during the winter and earning money during the summer! Time will tell, though.

7. Do you have a special place to write and, if so, where is it and why?

Not really! I have a back bedroom that functions as a study, and that’s where I do all my work. It’s comfortable and free from distractions, which is all I really need. Having said that, I have taken myself off once or twice to Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, so when next year rolls around and I want to dedicate more time to my novel, I may just use that as my ‘special place’. It’s got a magical vibe for anyone wanting to settle down and concentrate on writing – and being surrounded by all those books is certainly inspiring!

8. If you could go back in time, what piece of advice would you give yourself as you embark on your writing journey?

Just do it! Make time for writing, and keep at it: the more you do, the better you will get and the more you will develop. You also don’t know what you’re capable of before you start, but there’s only one way to find out…

9. What is your favourite genre and is this the same as the one you write?

See above – I love reading sci-fi and fantasy, and am looking forward to writing my own stories in this genre. The Book Diaries introduces me to a variety of books across genres, and this is both interesting and hugely valuable, but it’s SFF I’ll turn to when I want to indulge myself or take it easy. I’m currently trying to finish Shadowmancer by GP Taylor, which I’ve been struggling to fit in amongst Book Diaries reading and a busy work season – but when that’s done, I have plenty more to choose from!

10. What do you feel the advantages and disadvantages of blogging are?

The advantages I’ve mentioned above, but there are admittedly downsides. Firstly, it can take up a fair amount of time, and if you’re already struggling to find time for your creative writing, it may not seem very sensible to eat into that time further by blogging. I guess blogging should come once you’ve got a regular writing routine up and running, or when you want to start reaching out to your readers a little more. The other downside is that it can sometimes be difficult to know what to say in a blog post. Particularly if you’re an introvert, talking about yourself, your thoughts and your feelings can be quite challenging. Ultimately it’s a matter of striking a balance, finding what you’re comfortable with and ensuring that the blog supplements your creative writing rather than detracts from it.

11. What was the best piece of advice you have ever received?

I’m going to quote Polonius from Hamlet here: ‘To thine own self be true’. We are surrounded by advice both good and bad; but bear in mind that what works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. I have realised that I would rather fail in my own way than succeed by imitating someone else. It’s not that I don’t listen to words of wisdom or take on board practical suggestions, but if something feels wrong for me, the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to heed my own intuition and figure out how *I* would do something.

My own nominations for the Award…

My 11 questions for my nominees…

  1. What book would you take to a desert island, and why?
  2. Tell us about a favourite book-related memory from your childhood/youth.
  3. Has a book ever changed the course of your life?
  4. Pick a favourite quote from a book and tell us what it means to you.
  5. If your life was a book, what genre would it be?
  6. Who is your favourite fictional character, and why?
  7. What is the best film adaptation of a book you’ve seen?
  8. What is your favourite place to read?
  9. Which book is next on your ‘to-read’ list, and why?
  10. What is your favourite medium for consuming stories: books, film, TV, theatre, other?
  11. If you could only read one author for the rest of your life, who would you pick?

The official rules of the Liebster Award 2016

If your blog has been nominated for the Award, and you have chosen to accept it, you need to do the following:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you, and post a link to their blog on your blog. Try to include a little promotion for the person who nominated you.
  2. Display the award on your blog — by including it in your post and/or displaying it using a ‘widget’ or a ‘gadget’. Images you can use for your 2016 Liebster Award can be found at http://theglobalaussie.com/the-official-rules-of-the-liebster-award-2016/
  3. List these rules in your post.
  4. Answer your nominator’s questions.
  5. Give 10 random facts about yourself.
  6. Nominate 5–11 small blogs (preferably below 200 followers) that you feel deserve the award.
  7. Create 11 questions for your own nominees to answer.
  8. Once you have written and published it, you then have to inform the people/blogs that you nominated that they have been nominated for the Liebster Award and provide a link for them to your post so that they can learn about it.

Happy reading (and writing)!