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.