I had a rather goofy idea for this week’s blog, but (perhaps fortunately for you!) George R. R. Martin wrote a blog entry about how the latest volume of his Song of Ice and Fire series will not come out before the next season of the Game of Thrones TV series, resulting in the TV series passing the books, to the consternation of at least some. (If you haven’t read the post, it is here and worth a read, if only as a demonstration of how difficult writing can be, even on a very successful writer, at least some of the time) Due to the fame and popularity of the series, there’s been a lot of reaction to it all over the internet. Some has been very positive, some extremely critical, and of course lots in between.
As usual this has Gotten Me Thinking, and although I’m very young in my craft as a (theoretically) professional writer, I thought I would use this week’s entry to sort through some of those thoughts today.
Most of the criticism has centred around the idea of being a professional meaning writing constantly, steadily, and producing work at a consistent rate, presumably also making deadlines. One author who I admire a lot was recently quoted saying that if you only write when you’re inspired, you’ll never make a novelist. (In fairness he also wrote, a few years back, a fairly passionate defense of authors, and George R. R. Martin in particular, to write at their own pace, which sort of demonstrates the complexity of the issues) That’s very much in the vein of a lot of advice for writers (from various sources) that says you must write every day, you must produce X amount of work in Y amount of time, and if you don’t you’re Not Taking It Serious and will never succeed.
To a degree, I sympathise with this. When I wrote King in Darkness, I did it as a self-imposed challenge to write 1,000 words a day, every day, and the book got done in a hurry. I wrote a blog entry a while back about deadlines and how, in my academic life, I took pride in never having missed one. You have a set amount of time to get the work done in, and so you see it done. You put aside other stuff to make sure it happens. You keep at the task until it’s completed, because it’s important.
On the other hand (and you knew this was coming), that’s academic writing and not fiction writing. I really do believe that you want to work at writing like you work at almost anything else; you need to exercise your writing muscles on a regular basis and that that’s how you get better as a writer, by Writing Stuff and doing it often. It has (as above) worked for me. At the same time, there are days when (for whatever arcane reason), it just isn’t working, every word has to be dug out of you like a splinter and the whole thing just sucks.
I had a professor in university who told me that when you write effortlessly, it’s because you’re interested in what you’re writing about. When you’re fighting it the whole way, it’s because you’re not. I think he may be right, regarding academic writing, but I’m less convinced that it’s true about fiction writing. In part that’s because from day to day the difficulty level of writing for the same project changes a lot. I don’t think I’m any more or less interested in the work on certain days. I wish I knew why some days I struggle to get anything done, but it absolutely happens.
When I was sticking strictly to my quota system I would, on those days, stay grimly parked in front of the computer until I had written exactly 1,000 words, and then erase nearly all of them the next day because they read about like they’d felt when I wrote them. According to some, that is all Part Of The Process and it’s what you do when you’re Doing Work as a writer. I guess I’m not entirely convinced that that is true – was it really valuable time spent painfully dragging out a bunch of stuff I knew I wasn’t going to keep? Might it not have been better to recognize that today is not a writing day, go do Other Stuff, and come back and write when it was working better?
I mean, I don’t know the science (or if there even is any science) behind the reason why some days creative writing (and, I suspect, most forms of art) go really well and others don’t. Heck, it may not even be that way for everyone. However, it clearly does work that way for lots of people, of which I am one. You might argue that I, and others like me, are just Not Taking It Serious, but I have started to sympathise more with the people who say (Daniel Jose Older being the one who I remember doing it most recently) that setting ironclad quotas for yourself and demanding that you must meet them is a recipe for building negativity about your writing and, as a result, ending up reducing your productivity rather than helping it.
I think they might be right. A friend of mine got very upset with themselves this past November when it became clear (due mostly to life pressures) that they weren’t going to be able to get their NaNoWriMo writing done on schedule. My immediate reaction was that the only value in something like that is if it helps your process, if it is only serving to make you feel bad rather than helping you write, then screw it. Take a break. Realize that it isn’t a good time for you to be writing, deal with other stuff, and come back at it when it feels good and you have the energy to put your best stuff on the page. Quotas and rules and deadlines are good if they help you produce your work; if they’re discouraging you and making you doubt yourself and adding stress (which makes it harder to work!) then they’re the last thing you need.
Obviously you have to be careful with that, at least if you want to write seriously and not just have it as a hobby. You can’t just endlessly give yourself days off because you don’t feel perfectly poised to write, or you will never ever get things done. Also, some days when I haven’t felt great about writing, once I sat myself down and started giving it a go, my brain will drop into gear with an almost audible thunk and all of a sudden it’s going great.
Maybe the answer (for me, at least) is to try to write every day but be prepared to step away if it’s clearly not happening. I’m not real convinced that writing just to write and then throwing away whatever I produced is really making me better.
I also think this is probably one of those things people need to work up to. If you’re planning on making writing your profession, you probably do need to get in the swing of producing work at least reasonably regularly, for a host of reasons (maintaining an audience being one that immediately leaps to mind) On the other hand, you don’t start a training program for a marathon by immediately running 41 kilometers. You start with something achievable and gradually build from there. Especially for people just getting started in writing, you probably need to build those writing muscles and habits in much the same way.
I guess I’m increasingly sceptical about all the people (mostly on the internet) who have Rules about how you must Do Things to be a writer, with failure guaranteed if you don’t. Increasingly, I don’t think there are rules for such a strange ephemeral creative process (more like guidelines?) and that you have to figure out what works for you. I’m very gradually doing that.
And look, I have no idea what George R. R. Martin’s particular situation is. I don’t know whether the missed deadlines for his latest book were the result of a busy schedule, laziness, fatigue, creative struggles, whatever. (I would hazard a guess that he’d love to have the book done, though.) I’m not writing this in defense of Martin (although I would think that his fans should probably make peace with the fact that for whatever reason, at this point in his career he writes at a relatively slow pace) who I suspect can look after himself anyway. I do think that there’s some value in thinking about the pressure we put on ourselves as writers and whether all of it is really valuable.
I am beginning to think (and I cannot stress enough that this is not an Expert Opinion) that the answer is finding the right balance between giving myself (and yourself) some structure, but not such an onerous one that it crushes you. The tricky part (I guess) is being honest with yourself about when you can probably push yourself a little more and when no, you really need a break. (Another thing I think I may be better at after spending time in the gym with someone who knows what they’re doing) I suppose ‘moderation’ isn’t a very exciting answer, and ‘find what works for you’ doesn’t make for a very retweetable Tweet or pithy column, but I’m starting to think it’s right anyway.
That’s more than enough of me thinking at you for a week. I appreciate your time in reading it.
Just because I wrote a whole bunch of stuff about deadlines and process I thought I would briefly update the King in Darkness sequel – I got kind of enveloped in holiday season things and not a lot got done through the tail end of December. There isn’t a great deal more to do on the first draft, though, and I think I should still be ok to have it completed for the publishers perusal in the spring.