Lots of people think writing isn’t real work, that all you have to do is sit at your desk, a page, a screen and allow the words to flow; that the very act of sitting opens a magic hinge with a direct link to inspiration. They imagine that words flock to the page in perfect, shining order. These words are supposed to arrive all dressed up for the party, not a hair out of place, primed to strike sparks from each other and generate the near-mystical experience of reading. All a writer has to do is press the odd button and perfect finished work will result. Your job is to keep the printer supplied with paper, then bring your manuscript to the post office. You probably don’t even have to do that much, because surely publishers are desperate to get unsolicited documents by email from total strangers? Sure, they must be only dying to overload their networks, expose themselves to viruses and incur all those lovely printing costs for themselves.
Not so, my friend.
That version of events has no notion of false starts, of groping around in the dark for an idea, of false trails, dead ends, distractions. The words that push their way to the surface are often the wrong ones. They don’t agree with your plans, want to sit with their friends. There’s always a sentence that shoves its way in where it’s not wanted. This is an unruly, opinionated crowd who’ll try to shout you down. It can be hard to think in that racket, never mind the jeering crowd that’s waiting for you to make an eejit of yourself – again – the minute you open the door.
But guess what? It’s up to you to manage the situation. Writing is work, and it’s hard. The suggestion that it isn’t hurts writers – especially novices – if we buy into it too.
Yes, there’s an element of mystery most writers are superstitious about and reluctant to discuss. But some of writing’s power can be harnessed, its skills can be learned. Everyone’s heard the cliché – 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration – well, being a cliché doesn’t save it from being true. The inevitable structure, the indelible word – they don’t exist. Behind the scenes is a weary, sweating writer, wrestling them into submission, lining them up in one formation, discarding that and trying another somewhere else until her brains resemble mush.
Big deal. That’s the job description. A writer isn’t just someone who can summon words. You have to be willing and able to put in time and effort, the sheer slog and often soul-destroying self-criticism required to make words do what you want them to do. If you’re in so deep that your eyes skid off the lines, put it away for a while. Take a break, a walk, a holiday. Come back ready to get to grips with it and work – hard – on structure, content, every single word, the gloss and all the trimmings. And again. Then again, harder.
This is work only you can do. It was your idea, you’re the only one who can see it through. But here’s the thing: if people think it isn’t work, you’ve done well. A good writer knows that the hardest work is making it look easy.