Monday, August 31, 2009

Why is Writing Hard?

Is there another task that's as hard as writing? Is there any other activity that requires as much thinking as writing a story?

The software engineers that work for me would argue that the tasks that I give them are hard, and require a lot of thinking. They are right, of course, writing software requires a lot of thinking and creativity, but there is a difference. Software tasks usually involve build this, and it has to work like that. There is a clearly defined specification for how it should work, and a clearly defined environment the software tool has to live within. It's not the same for a novel writer. While there are some rules that a writer has to live within, the story is free to roam anywhere you want it to go.

Writing YA, you're not going to put in a lot of sex, or the book won't be appropriate for the market. In the same way a debut author, or most likely any author, will not be able to market a million word manuscript. So yes it's true, there are rules, but they are more like guidelines. Some of these pseudo-rules may feel pretty hard, but it's also true that writing rules are broken all the time. It can be what makes a work feel fresh.

This is what makes writing a difficult task. You are free to roam any situation, any world, any character you like. Without a path to follow, how do you find your way to the end? How do you write a story that brings all of these varied elements together, but still comes off as interesting, and something that holds together? How do you write something that tugs at the heart, but doesn't seem over the top. How do you write something that makes the reader want to read more, but doesn't fall flat at the end.

It's not easy. There's no map to lead you through the "maze of twisty passages, all alike". (extra points to those who get that reference) Here's what's worked for me. Like anything, learn from others who have already forged the trail. There are a number of good books that teach writing, "On Writing" by Stephen King, "Writing the Breakout Novel" and "The Fire in Fiction" by Donald Maass. Those will give you some great ideas on directions to follow, and areas to explore. They are like maps of your story from 30,000 feet. You can see the general direction you want to go, but there are no turn by turn directions.

What I have found most useful is to read, read, and read some more. Find out how other writers have handled situations, built characters, and built worlds, and learn from them. Take your favorite story and plug in a new character and see where it takes you. Take your favorite characters, and put them in a different world and see what happens. As you explore the results, you will learn what kinds of changes are good and those that are not. It will help you form a strategy for what works, and what doesn't.

On that topic then, what would happen if Yoda from Star Wars was replaced by Gandalf from Lord of the Rings? or if Snoopy from Charlie Brown, was a cat?


  1. Well, if Snoopy from Charlie Brown was a cat, I doubt Woodstock would be his friend!

    As for Gandalf in place of Yoda . . . well, Gandalf didn't always have a great deal of patience, and he could get testy at times . . . I think on this one the possibilities are only limited by the imagination of the writer.

    Great post.


  2. Would a cat envision himself as a great fighter pilot? I don't think so. Gargield in a fighter jacket, not a pretty sight. And I really can't see Gandolf climbing onto Luke's back.

    What is most interesting is that the epic saga and the cartoon have stayed with us so long. The true mark of successful writing.

  3. I think what makes writing hard is that I'm trying to come up with a magical arrangement of letters, numbers, and punctuation that creates an emotion and/or thought pattern in another human who just happens to see those letters somewhere. I'm trying to control someone else's mind for a while, capture it, and entice it to continue to read enough of my words to cough up their own money and hand it to me. And hopefully write a good review.
    That's what's hard. Everything else is details.

  4. This was absolutely illuminating, even three years later. I help writers learn how to write with Fan Fiction and I think you really hit on the true value of playing in someone else's world at the end of the article--in the end, all of that writing helps us to find our true voice.

  5. Daphne, appreciate the feedback. I have been absent from writing for a while now as I have started a new mobile phone app company, but soon I am going to get back to it. It is my passion.

  6. Hi Daphne,

    Thanks for stopping by!

    I liked this article too. It is hard to deny the power of Fan Fiction to start the creative juices flowing. After all, many of the conventional anthologies in other writers' science fiction or fantasy universes are one big Fan Fiction service by published authors.


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