When we first start writing, thinking we might like to have a crack at the caper, we have all the tools we need. A basic knowledge of the language in which we want to write. A computer and a new Word document. Or a piece of paper and a pen. After all, writing is pretty simple, right?
In writing’s defence, it is pretty easy. As long as all you want to do is tinker. As long as you don’t care about ever being read or published. However, if you do, you might be interested to know it’s actually a very long process that can be broken into five stages.
And the hardest stage of writing is always whatever stage you’re at.
Stage 1: The Blank Page AKA The Idea
The reputation of the blank page is infamous. You can stare at one for hours without getting any closer to writing than you were when you decided that you wanted to have a go. And it often seems like coming up with a brand new idea is a bit like coming up with a brand new name for a race horse. As more and more of them are claimed, the fewer there are remaining for the rest of us. And those that remain seem just a little bit silly.
Perhaps even more disillusioning is the fact that to write just one thing, you will often be faced with more than one blank page. Because just when you think you’ve overcome this hurdle, you realise your idea just isn’t going to cut it and you either “Select All” and press “Delete” or you crumple the piece of paper in your hand, throw it to the floor and pull out a fresh, crisp, white sheet to restart this hellish stage.
Stage 2: Execution AKA The Writing AKA The Hard Work
Once you have your idea, after all the hard work of coming up with one that hasn’t been done a zillion times before, then comes the even harder work of writing tens of thousands of words to bring it to life. But you’ve probably heard it in reviews before: “The idea was good but the execution was terrible.” So you know that a good idea or even a great idea isn’t ever going to be enough.
The writing is almost always a long slog. It takes forever or at least a lot closer to forever than you’d like. And the closer you get to a completed first draft, the further away you feel from it. Writing can take months and more likely years and the satisfaction of constructing the ending is about thirty minutes out of hundreds or sometimes even thousands of hours.
This is most likely the stage at which you will give up. It’s all too hard. And the likelihood of reward for effort is so remote. Part of knowing you are meant to write is just keeping on going despite everything that tells you you’d be happier if you gave it up.
Stage 3: Editing AKA Fixing and Finalising
If you thought the idea and the execution were hard, they are nothing compared to the editing. Something you thought was pretty good will be unrecognisable by the time the editor has finished with it. Even if you’re acting as your own editor. At the end of stage 2, you should savour that feeling of accomplishment because as soon as you start stage 3, it will disappear rapidly and become so distant that you will wonder if it ever actually happened.
This is also the stage at which you realise that your basic knowledge of the language you are writing in really isn’t enough. You need an intermediate to advanced knowledge of the language you are writing in. You also need an understanding of structure and plot and characters. You need a consideration of voice and style. You need a murderous detachment from your “baby” that will allow you to hack off arms, legs and sometimes even its head. And if you don’t have any of these attributes, you will need to pay somebody a lot of money to do it for you.
This stage can also end up being much longer than stage 2. I wrote my second novel in six months but I’ve spent over two years fixing and finalising and I’m still not finished as of writing this blog post.
Stage 4: Publishing
Now comes the semi-public humiliation. You send your book off to every large, medium, small and vanity publisher out there, hoping against hope that something in your first three chapters will catch somebody’s attention. You wait. And wait. And wait some more. And worse than getting rejections, you simply hear nothing. Ever.
So you decide to publish it yourself. And realise yet again that you don’t have the skills required to accomplish this stage. So you learn. You read what other self-published authors have had to say and follow their advice. You have a cover designed (more money). You follow a one hundred page instruction booklet to prepare your book for one platform. And then you follow the instructions in another one hundred page booklet to prepare another edition for a different platform.
And suddenly you have a book. You’ve published a book. But no one except you cares.
Stage 5: Marketing
And then it’s time for the public humiliation. You don’t know how to market your book any better than you knew how to edit or publish it but it has to be done. You tell everyone you know. You use Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and LinkedIn and Pinterest and Goodreads, where you set up an author account for yourself. You do some cheap advertising. You email your old schools so they can praise you as an achieving alumni in their barely read newsletter. And you now refer to yourself as a published author.
And still no one cares. Nobody buys your book. Nobody reads your book. You get one star reviews on Goodreads, which surprises you since you haven’t made any sales. Or worse, you get no reviews on Goodreads. Not even from your parents.
And when people ask how many copies you’ve sold, you say, “Oh, I’m not keeping track. It’s just such an accomplishment to have published my book.” Then when they leave, you cry into a pack of Tim Tams that you could only afford because they were on sale.
If none of the above has put you off wanting to have a go, then congratulations! You might just have what it takes to be a writer. It’s one part talent, one part masochism, one part obsession, one part not giving a crap what everyone else thinks could end up being an enormous waste of your time. Welcome to the club.