15,700

Last week, four writer-friends (Ryan O’Neill, Kim Lock, Laurie Steed, and A.S. Patric) talked about insecurities in writing. Given the Twitter response and the retweeting that followed, their answers resonated with many other writers out there. A big thank you again to my four friends
for sharing.

Now it’s my turn. These are my insecurities when it comes to writing:

 

  • That the writing is no good. I can revise exhaustively, and still not be assured, because here’s another truth: You know what you know.
  •  
    When I was younger, stupider, and naïve(r), I had an unfailing confidence in my writing. But as I grew older and more experienced, I started to learn what could be wrong. When I worked as an editor specialising in structural editing, I really learned what could be wrong. There’s so much stuff out there I don’t know about, how do I know that’s not thriving – beyond my abilities to detect – in my writing?
     
    The pattern I’ve found is that inexperienced writers are confident, because they simply don’t know what could be wrong. Experienced writers are insecure because they do know what could be wrong.

     

  • That the words will stop coming. Back in 2007, I intended to adapt three screenplays I’d written into novels. I did the first, only adapted the second as a novella last year, and the third sits unwritten because I had ideas for eight other books, one novella, and two screenplays whose ideas demanded they were written first. I have ideas. I have lots of them scribbled down. So I’m (fairly) confident I’ll always have ideas.
     
    Back in 2006, I went off an antidepressant – Aropax – and suffered hideous side-effects as part of the withdrawal. One of the side-effects was to draw a blank on what word came next. It didn’t even have to be a difficult word. I don’t know how much this side-effect has grown; or if, as I’ve learned more, I’ve put more pressure on myself to produce, thus unwittingly asphyxiating myself; or I now suffer from a combination of both.
     
    But what if words don’t come? What if I’m in mid sentence—
     
    Just like that, nothing more.

     

  • That nobody will like what I write. A writer-friend was lamenting their struggle to get published. I informed them that once they were published, a train of new insecurities began.
     
    Obviously, the interpretation of any artform is subjective, but there’s still a tipping point either way that indicates if something is generally good or generally bad.
     
    If the rating is out of 5, then anything below 2.5 is below average. Anything above is above average. I doubt many writers with an average rating of 2 for their book, for example, would feel assured their story is good and memorable because a handful of people like it when the evidence overwhelmingly suggests there’s something not quite working there. (Bizarrely, I do think some bad books get lauded and flattered in ratings.)
     
    A book is sent out into the world and largely has to fend for itself. There’s always the concern it just won’t be good enough to even be remembered as above average. And then, what if it’s worse? What if it’s mediocre? Or terrible?
     
    Or just shit?

     

  • That I’ll realise I should’ve done things differently. As an editor, I’m worried about picking up any book I’ve edited just in case I find something I could’ve done differently. At the worst, I can assure myself that the author is happy with it, even if I become discontented.
  •  
    I don’t have that failsafe with my own work. I’m scared I’ll find an error, terrified I’ll discover something I could’ve phrased differently, and petrified I’ll unearth an idea I could’ve explored better. Or, maybe, just maybe, something entirely new will occur to me that should’ve been included and would’ve elevated the work.
     
    I’m astonished that we have a stream of movies that are rereleased as director’s cuts when they hit DVD and BluRay, but we don’t get more author’s cuts of books where the author feels they can now do it better, or they can address issues they had during the original writing and/or editing of the book. Only two come to mind: Stephen King rereleased The Stand in 1990 with about four-hundred pages (roughly 150,000 words) restored. And Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which was republished as Beginners. (Carver complained about being heavily edited and, at times, rewritten, by his editor Gordon Lish.)

     

  • That what I write won’t make sense, or the sentence I begin now will have no (or little) realisation. Last week, I said I’d get into my own insecurities after the answers from my writer-friends. I never did (not that I think anybody noticed). Sometimes, I see stuff like that when I revise. I would’ve begun something, and am either building to or foreshadowing a point, and it never comes. Or a sentence begins about something, and becomes about something entirely unconnected.
     
    How often do I miss those things? As an author, subconsciously I’m filling in the gaps without ever realising them on the damn page. Or I think I understand why something has evolved the way it has.
     
    An editor should pick it up, but the piece has to get that far first – and that’s provided they’re not put off by the unexplored threads or the disjointed passages.

 

Some may be surprised that there’s no fear of rejection, but that’s part of the writing life. If you’re going to write, you’re going to be rejected. That’s just reality.

I can live with rejection.

1972

Fantasy – namely The Lord of the Rings – inspired my love of storytelling. I read LotR over one Christmas break, way back in about 1982. Then I devoured other fantasy novels. Swords, magic, heroic quests – everything that would appeal to an imaginative kid.

In 1985, I wrote my first book – part one of an intended five-book fantasy epic – when I was 15, hand-writing it in two A5 exercise books over the space of eighteen months. I gave no thought to planning it. I just wrote, my mythology changing as I went. Often, I would sit up late at night (and sometimes through until morning) working on it, surviving on a diet of tea and cigarettes, or I’d swill seven or eight Red Bulls. When I was 17, I rewrote the book on a typewriter. From 18-19, I retyped it on a PC – this is just when PCs began to appear as home computers, although they were luxury items at this point. (Incidentally, I still have that draft of that novel on this computer; I just checked, and it’s 137,000 words.)

If I ever stopped to think about what I was doing, I might never have written the book in any form. But I learned early that whatever methodology a writer brings to their craft, the one thing we all share in common – without exception – is that, ultimately, we have to sit down and write.

I never did anything with that novel, because I didn’t understand the publishing landscape and had no idea how it worked. So I wrote another standalone fantasy epic (I just checked that one, too: it’s 260,000 words – that’s no typo) and the same thing happened. What next? I wrote short stories over this period. I veered into screenwriting and wrote screenplays. I’m pretty sure (99.999%) I was plagiarised on one occasion (and the result went on to some success). Through it all I just kept writing.

While the capacity to sit down and write became intrinsic, what gradually drained away was the fanaticism to succeed at all costs because I learned two things about the arts:

    1. They’re vastly competitive industries.
    2. They’re subjective industries.

And, to top it off, it’s all about timing – something over which you have no control.

You can have a brilliant novel, and it might just come out at the wrong time. Or it might hit the wrong reader at the publisher where you’re submitting – if only your novel was picked up on a Wednesday when Erica was working, instead of a Tuesday when Fred was working. The arts can be so capricious that if you stop to think about it, to ponder how you are at the whim of forces entirely beyond your control, it’s terrifying.

That’s when you need perspective.

The dreams of becoming a bestselling author or lauded screenwriter have faded. That’s not to say that there isn’t that recess of my mind that doesn’t still desire those things or, given the opportunity, I still wouldn’t do everything I need to do to make them a reality. But it’s no longer a singular focus.

And yet I still write obsessively. Typically, I’ll work on a new book as I’m revising an older one – as far as the latter goes, I might just read one chapter twice daily. I find this is a good warm-up before I begin writing. Then I continue working on my new book. If I see submission opportunities – be they for short stories or screenplays – I might earmark a weekend-morning to give a suitable piece a read. If it needs a lot of work, I might dedicate several weekend-mornings to it.

When plans come up – dinner with friends, seeing a movie, going to the football, etc. – I will find somewhere in that day the time to sit down and dedicate to my priority: the work-in-progress. I’ll do this even if it means waking up earlier, staying up later, or just finding some time to squeeze in before my plans begin. If I’m really struggling for time, I’ll either postpone the plans, or (in the case of fixed events) decline attending them.

So ensues this bizarre contrary existence about not being hinged on the result, but still writing as hard I can.

 
Last Week’s Lie: Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 does not begin, ‘It was a pleasure to burn marshmallows over the bonfires’, but, ‘It was a pleasure to burn.’