On Writing Process: Interlude about work

Posted in writing, process.

My job is writing.

No, let me start this again.

My work is writing. Job implies pay of one kind or another, but… the work itself existed before I was paid. When I chose publi­ca­tion as a viable aim, I did that work in the hope that I might one day be paid for doing it. It was the same work as I do now, but I wasn’t as good at it.

Writing is work to all of the people who want to share the results of that work in future with readers. While you are in the writing trenches, we are strug­gling to do the same thing. We are all working. We are all writing.

Let me start with an anec­dote.

***

When they were in high school, my sons decided that they would write a mod for an ancient program. I believe it was the older son’s idea, initially, but the younger son did the bulk of the tedious work. They were attempting to put a popular mod together with a once-popular map. They had, because it’s a small commu­nity, access to the writers of the former, and those writers had made clear that they were not going to write code for other people and for other people’s attempts to use that mod, although they were acces­sible and would answer ques­tions.

One day, older son and younger son came to me, as they some­times do, and asked a ques­tion.

We couldn’t get this to work, and we asked (orig­inal programmer) how he’d managed to get around a problem we were having. And … he even­tu­ally said, here, use this; it will patch over the problem part. It’s way too compli­cated to just explain, because it’s a limi­ta­tion of the envi­ron­ment you’re using.”

Which was good, and it worked, but it confused them. Sorry, the ques­tion part is coming.

He said that he wouldn’t write code for other people. So… why did he do this for us?”

And I said: “He doesn’t want to do All The Work for someone else. But he knows you’re actu­ally doing the work.”

??”

The type of ques­tion asked by people who are doing the work is very different from the type of ques­tion people who want to be seen as having done the work ask. It’s like, hmmm. It’s like your mother will meet people who will come up to her and tell her all about the bril­liant book they are going to write someday, as if that makes them a writer.

That is not about doing the work. But… a reader came into the store today and said that she was grateful when I posted about the problem days and books because it made her feel less alone. If even I’m having trou­bles, her trou­bles don’t mean that she’s terrible, or doomed to be terrible. And… then she asked me a ques­tion: How do you know when to throw a book away and start it again? How can you differ­en­tiate between that and the certainty that Every­thing Is Awful?”

That was a ques­tion I’d never been asked (and if the person who asked is reading this, I’m waving at you!). But it was also a ques­tion that made clear that she was strug­gling to do the actual work.”

***

To me, the work itself is impor­tant. In working, we’re peers. Being paid for the work, being paid a ton for the work, not being paid for the work, are irrel­e­vant to the refine­ment of process. The reason I’ve been mulling over the process in these posts is that the process itself has always compelled me. And that process, that struggle to find processes of your own, is inher­ently inter­esting to me.

Yes, we are writing to be published, to publish. And yes, that involves money; the ques­tion about what happens to the results of your writing struggle are rele­vant – but… they aren’t rele­vant to the process itself. To me, on some base level, they’re sepa­rate things.

Writing is not about the results of that process, although they are both entan­gled, and possibly in a way that they can’t easily be sepa­rated by everyone. Results can vary widely and wildly, both.

Books speak to different readers. Books that people have loved have left me completely cold. Books that I have burbled about endlessly are books that people can’t read or can’t engage with. Books that I would sooner use as doorstops than read are #1 NYT best­sellers. Books that I love like a compul­sive person are also #1 NYT best­sellers.

I think it’s dangerous to equate sales with quality. I think it’s dangerous to say, “but my book is so much better” when looking at the publi­ca­tion success of others. Books aren’t fungible. Writers aren’t fungible. And the quality – the perceived quality – of your writing is orthog­onal to sales.

Why? Because what you love might not be what others love. What you think is good, or great, might be different from other read­er’s concepts of good or great. When I look at those NYT lists, I look at the books. I don’t think I’m better or worse, but I do think that my sales are. I don’t look at #1 books and think “why are they so successful when every­thing they do is wrong” in frus­tra­tion — but I do think “why are they so successful, what are they doing right that I can’t see?” And then I try to look.

It’s true: if we don’t hit a certain sales target it becomes very hard to continue writing for publi­ca­tion. That sales target doesn’t have to be Rowling level. It doesn’t have to be Roth­fuss level. It does have to be what the publisher considers worth­while. The concerns – can I continue to do this for money–are real, they are valid, they are concerns that most of us will face or have.

But… that’s actu­ally not about the writing or the work. It’s the other half. It’s what happens after we’ve found and shaped and completed our books.

All books take work. Books are a product of people sitting down, and then sliding into the writing trenches. And you know what? From a purely work perspec­tive, we are all in those trenches together. In isola­tion, but facing the same base struggle.

You might hate my books. I might hate yours. Or conversely, you might love them, and I might love yours — but that’s the after. That’s when it’s not the working para­digm that is most rele­vant. The during is the trenches. While you are in the trenches, I treat you as a peer because you are doing the same work.

The work is the work. The work is trying to find your own process, your own way of connecting with story — and then of commu­ni­cating that story to people who aren’t you.

The work is the story.

I think it’s dangerous to tie commer­cial success to the writing. You can put your heart and soul, to be cliched, into the books you write. But tangling those with finan­cial success – or, more precisely, its lack – means you are encum­bering the book you write. You are telling the book that it must be your breakout book, that it must hit those publishing marks, that it must be seen as New and Great, that it must somehow speak for you – it must carry this weight, it must have this signif­i­cance.

And writing anxiety — see the previous blog post — is already diffi­cult enough. Hard to carry. The expec­ta­tions and the fears that are added to the writing itself when the writing has to somehow be All The Things can over­whelm the ability to connect with the book and story that’s there. You see the anxiety more than you see the book.

You are writing from a place of fear. Not a place of excite­ment or engage­ment or joy. But fear.

Fear is not a good driver. At the very best, it can make you cautious – but that’s when it’s bundled with wisdom.

Sadly, writing is never wise, imho. It’s not a wise career, given money. If you want to make money, there are many, many jobs that will do that, and better.

We chose writing for a reason. We were driven to write for a reason. Fear wasn’t it.

The work is the work. And to me, there is a joy in it. Not always, of course – some words are just hard. But… in Skir­mish, for example, when the book turned sharply, sharply left — I could have written for days. Every­thing was, in that moment, so clear it was almost hard to choose words to give it all shape.

(I have a secret wish that an entire book could be like that; the book isn’t fighting you, and you’re not strug­gling with it; for a moment, all veils have been ripped away and you can see the book so clearly, there’s almost nothing like it. Sadly, no book has ever been entirely like this for me. But all books have some of that in them.)

And this leads into part two of Writing Anxiety.

8 Responses to On Writing Process: Interlude about work

  1. Pam says:

    Thank you many times over!
    This whole series of describing the process and defining the work has been wonderful!
    Pam

  2. Ash says:

    Poetry, for me, happens in those bursts of inspi­ra­tion where I can see all things Xanadu portends. I had to learn to write prose even when I could not, all-knowing, see. It has taken nearly a decade to figure out a stable way to churn out words that doesn’t require the veils asunder torn, and the road illu­mi­nated ahead. So now, of course, when those moments happen while writing a piece, they inevitably intro­duce entire new view­points or framing devices or…I’m sure you under­stand.

    One day I will meet someone for whom those moments are avail­able on demand, and I shall hope­fully refrain from eating them in some strange aneal­ment of love­craftian ritual and fit of jeal­ousy tosteal their power. Soli­darity.

  3. michelle says:

    @Ash: LOL!!!

    Sadly, that is not me, so I am safe from love­craftian ritual.

    Poetry for me is all of a thing, or several attempts to express all of a thing; not so much a story, as a series of metaphors that cage a specific emotion.

    Prose is building all of the paths that lead to that emotion. Not describing the emotion itself, but — creating ways into the events that will, hope­fully, engender emotion. The events, though, have to speak for them­selves, and yes — I’m not always sure at the start what the paths are to reach them. So I build off the page events and inten­tions  — I once had to stop writing for weeks because I didn’t under­stand logis­tics and the move­ments of large armies well enough, and there’s not a lot about logis­tics avail­able. Strategy and tactics, yes. Logis­tics, not so much — but it’s a small avalanche of scenes and char­ac­ters that become the ending.

  4. Argentum says:

    This post has been partic­u­larly helpful in keeping me down in the writing trenches this weekend, so thanks for that! It is harder for me to find the joy in revising than in writing, though perhaps it only seems so because I’m revising at the moment. Certainly, there is a satis­fac­tion in fixing story prob­lems, but my list of remaining prob­lems to fix just seems so long…

    Wishing you the best of luck in the trenches, your­self!

  5. michelle says:

    @Argentum: for the purposes of my process, revi­sion is sepa­rate from drafting for those elements of joy.

    I’m what they have called a rolling reviser — I go back over the previous day’s writing and line-edit. Or the previous few days. And then I write forward. But… that’s line-editing, which really isn’t the same as more struc­tural elements.

    Bigger elements, and I need to somehow ground myself outside of the book as a whole. I start looking for specific things. And it’s diffi­cult because some­times the book sucks me back in, and then I’m in writing mode not revi­sion mode.

  6. Therese says:

    How inter­esting. So do you typi­cally review and line-edit the previous day’s writing first thing before you begin a new day’s writing, or is it done when you get to a good stop­ping point?

  7. michelle says:

    @Therese: I review and revise before I start because it helps to put me imme­di­ately into the novel’s frame of mind.

    But keep in mind that for some people, it puts them into the revi­sion state of mind, which… Isn’t helpful for them.

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