Once upon a time it was easy to picture Jack Kerouac hiding in a cabin, on the corner of Wilderness and Misanthropy. Today, writing as a solitary pursuit is no longer the norm. Editors want to collaborate and writing groups are around to offer their opinion, and in many ways, it’s beneficial. However, there are certain truths about the writer’s life that can’t be escaped – even if you have the greatest, most forgiving support network around you.
Here’s a list of the main ones:
You won’t find another person as excited about your unfinished story idea as you.
You have an interesting plot, fascinating themes you’re exploring and characters so well-drawn (in your mind, at least) that they seem to have a will of their own. You’ve made a heap of progress, and desperately want to tell other people about it in the hope they will jump up and down in giddy elation for you.
Except … nobody cares. No, seriously – even the ones who are Academy-Award-contention good at acting don’t care. They will smile at you and nod, blank-eyed, but they will not care that, while Timmy is trapped at the bottom of the well, he finds an alternate dimension akin to Water World and he’ll become the emperor of the mermaids and it’s the best idea EVER, LIKE, LITERALLY. Even Stephen King’s friends would love to shove a bagel in his face hole to shut him up.
The reason this is the case is simple: the many disparate elements of a story are confusing, overwhelming and sometimes plain yawn-inducing to most people, including writers. Members of your writers’ group may offer you sound advice and show enthusiasm that is genuine, but they are looking at your whole story through a microscope, and having you explain the whole premise to them will only slow down your progress. You are pretty much alone with your story – as the ultimate decision-maker on plot points and as your personal cheerleader.
You won’t be taken seriously until you outsell the titans.
‘Big Exciting Publishers have picked up my manuscript!’ you shout at anyone who doesn’t ask.
‘Awesome/Amazing/How exciting!’ the masses cry.
Editing. Revision. Editing. Revision. Proofreading. Printing.
‘Let me sign this copy of my book you bought, Nan/Dad/Aunt Shirley from New Hampshire who came down especially for this momentous occasion!’ you say, signing your name with a flourish.
‘What a terrific/grand/wonderful achievement!’ the masses reply, clutching their new favourite novel.
Days pass. Weeks. Months. You get a few well-worded reviews on Goodreads. Mum asks how many copies you’ve sold and is shocked to learn you are not on the New York Times best-seller list. The fanfare peters out. Your publishers lose faith and don’t offer you a contract for three more novels. You shuffle back to your desk to write something better.
‘What are you up to these days/Got a real job yet?’ the masses ask, concerned.
‘Of course not. I’m a writer! I’m a published author!’ you insist.
‘But not really,’ they whisper. ‘You’re not a proper one, like J.K. Rowling/Neil Gaiman/that Patterson guy who gets his interns to write his novels so he can go fishing. But, hey – you gave it a shot!’
TL;DR: you will constantly have to legitimise your work. Real writers write every day, whether they are being paid or not. But it is not viewed by the wider population as a profession because it rarely comes with a salary/benefits/opportunities to move up to larger projects. Your scribbling in a greasy spoon diner for three hours every other day is definitely work in your mind, but not to others.
You are not intellectually superior to anybody.
This one might seem left of field, but ego is something I encounter frequently in writing circles (not among my writer friends, I must stress). Sure, writers tend to me more observant and well-read than other people, but it’s nothing to brag about and it certainly doesn’t make you cleverer than anybody else – no matter how successful you are.
‘Oh, I’ve had nine short stories published and my manuscript has been picked up by an agent; I think I’ve got this writing thing down.’
‘True. But that won’t fix the fucking chasm of a plot hole you have in Chapter 13 here, old pal.’
You should always be open to learning new things to do with your craft. Those who excel in their respective field do so because they acknowledge they don’t know everything, despite their experience, and the landscape is ever-changing. There is no limit to your growth, so try to listen to advice, criticism and warnings from others, take it on board and decide if it will benefit you to accept it.
Only you can get yourself out of a plot hole.
Being bogged down with minute details in a story is one of the most frustrating things about the process. You’re convinced your novel/screenplay/space opera is trying to kill you with a combination of panic attacks, insomnia and perpetual headache. You find yourself in a random place, weeping from fatigue and the genuine belief all your hard work has been in vain.
Desperate, you reach out to your writing comrades:
‘PLEASE. PLEASE HELP ME WITH THIS DETAIL/SUBPLOT/CHARACTER!!!’ (Read: ‘Please write my novel for me or I shall perish.’)
Time for some cold hard truth. For the same reason that nobody cares about your unfinished story, nobody can throw you a rope and remove you from your dire situation. You, and only you, can get your story back on track. It’s a sobering thought – isolating and debilitating, if you handle it with the wrong attitude.
Take the age-old advice you constantly hear from one source or another: step away from the project for awhile. Let the story sit in the back of your mind, bubbling away like a potion. Read/watch other things and try to find some inspiration. Often the solution will present itself, but when it doesn’t, your only option is to make a decision and stick with it. If Timmy is allergic to water, make the alternate dimension a land in the sky. If the mermaids don’t cooperate (i.e. fall into line with the plot points), torch the buggers.
We get so caught up with our ideas, and fall so desperately in love with tiniest little details, that we forget the writer is the boss of the story. It is absolutely okay to eliminate something if it is not working. Nobody knows what the story could have been, remember?
See the first point; they don’t care.