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.