By G D Penman
I’ve been writing for longer than I’d like to admit. I joke about being thrown off of my father’s computer when I was six years old for typing rude words. While that did happen, I’m not certain that particular novel was ever going to come to anything. In reality I’ve been pursuing writing professionally for about ten years now with only one real gap.
That gap lasted almost a year, and it came from one major misunderstanding on my part; I was trying to be a good writer. I‘d heard that a good writer sits down every day to work. I‘d heard that a good writer edits and edits until all of the evil is driven from their manuscript, leaving only shining golden prose.
The first one led me to quit writing for a year, the second stopped me from getting my work published for almost a decade.
Write Every Day
In a perfect world I’d be free to sit down at the computer each morning and write to my heart’s content. I’m getting closer to the goal of becoming a full-time author with every book I get published, but it will still be a few years of hard work yet. Before I get to write for myself, I still have to spend about eight hours each day writing for other people to pay the bills. Back when I quit, I was working twelve hours a day in an unrelated job. Sometimes more. I had no time for hobbies. I had no time for much of anything except sleeping, then heading back to work. Writing was one straw too many. I wasn’t getting anything written even when I did sit down to do it. I was exhausted.
Unfortunately, I had to eat. I had to put a roof over my head. Like most writers in the modern era, I didn’t have rich parents or patrons to lean on. I had to work.
Writing requires energy, something that all of us only have a limited supply of. I was all out. Even now that I’m in a much more comfortable position I sometimes look at that expanse of blank white on the screen and it is too much.
The most important lesson that I’ve learned about writing is that most of the work happens long before I put my fingers to the keys. That’s why I can cheerfully churn out a novella in a weekend but writing sprints like NaNoWriMo are a nightmare to me. (The first year that I attempted it nearly prompted me to quit writing all over again, and the month long depression brought me as close as I have ever been to divorce.)
So I am a bad writer. Some days when I’m struggling I just don’t bother. I understand myself well enough to know that I’ll make up for lost time on those good days when inspiration strikes and I have the energy. When I’m working out how long a project is going to take, I average the up and downs.
Refine to Perfection
While banging my head against the wall of having no energy and no idea what I’m working on may have derailed me once or twice over the years, the idea that I could make my writing perfect by coming back to it over and over is what nearly ruins me on a daily basis.
There is an old adage that no work of art is ever completed; only abandoned. My problem is that I just can’t quite pry my fingers off of them. I’ve held onto short stories for years before submitting them. I have a folder of abandoned stories that didn’t even get that far. Too imperfect to even come to fruition. One particular story has gone through the grind of edits and revisions so many times I’ve lost count; comparing the latest draft to the very first, one is clearly inferior to the other. The writing is more grammatically correct perhaps, but the edited version has lost all the passion the first one held.
I know that I’m meant to edit in passes, the first one to put the story structure in order, the second to fix the prose, the third to fix the dialogue and the fourth to fix descriptions. That’s the way I was taught to work by older and more experienced authors when I was first starting out. As it turns out, the correct number of editorial passes for every novel that I have actually sold is one; to pick up any typos.
So I am a bad writer. I don’t edit my work before sending it off, and it is much better for it. Of course, I get pages and pages of notes and changes back from my editors but from what I understand, the situation would be the same regardless of how long I review and revise.
Be a Bad Writer
Writing is an art rather than a science; there is no “right” way to be a writer, only a cacophony of conflicting advice coming at you from all directions. Writing every day does not make you a writer any more than swimming every day makes you a fish.
It has taken me years of practice to get to the stage where I believe my work is good enough to be published. Years in which I took classes, studied the craft of writing, and read extensively.
Being a “good” writer made me miserable. Being a “bad” writer made me successful. If you can call someone who still has to eat Ramen for every other meal successful.
G D Penman writes Speculative Fiction. He lives in Scotland with his partner and children, some of whom are human. He is a firm believer in the axiom that any story is made better by dragons. His beard has won an award. If you have ever read a story with Kaiju and queer people, it was probably one of his. In those few precious moments that he isn’t parenting or writing he likes to watch cartoons, play video and tabletop games, read more books than are entirely feasible and continues his quest to eat the flesh of every living species. He is the author of over a dozen books including; The Year of the Knife, Motherland, Call Your Steel and Heart of Winter.