Easier Than It Looks, Harder Than You Think

by Ksenia Anske

Please welcome A. Lee Martinez, an American fantasy and science fiction author of the award-winning Gil's All Fright Diner (2005), as well as In the Company of Ogres (2006), A Nameless Witch (2007), Monster (my personal favorite), and many more novels.


People think writing fiction is hard for all the wrong reasons.

They think coming up with "an idea" is hard, when it's pretty damn easy.  Perhaps it's because there's this mistaken assumption that originality is important.  It isn't.  I don't say that lightly or in criticism.  People think they want originality, but originality is as likely to confuse as impress.  Is there anything truly original about Harry Potter or his universe?  Luke Skywalker and his?  The Game of Thrones is merely mythological melodrama dressed up in pretty new clothes.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  The more closely a story follows established patterns, the more likely it is to be enjoyed.

Formula isn't convention.  It's fact.  It's the end results of thousands of years of storytelling, of experimentation, of exploration.  Stories evolved like everything else.  What worked stuck around.  What didn't was discarded.  This is why Homer's original version of The Odyssey where Odysseus has a nice leisurely trip home and goes home to his wife and kids was roundly rejected.  You can bet his editor told him to stick some monsters in there, add some conflict, some tragedy, some triumph.  Every story is better with a cyclops, I think we can all agree.

Formula isn't an excuse to be lifeless, and a story told badly that conforms to formula will usually crash and burn.  These stories are the ones we often mistaken label as "unoriginal".  But we aren't put off by the unoriginal part so much as the uninteresting part.  We only notice formula when we aren't involved in a story.  So when someone comes to me and tells me they have a great idea for a story, I will listen politely.  They might even have one.  But no matter how great the idea is, the skill of the writer is far more important than any idea behind it.

People think writing fiction is easy for all the wrong reasons.

They think that once the idea is formed, everything else comes to the writer like a thunderbolt of inspiration.  It doesn't.  Writing a book is a lot of dreary work.  The glamorous illusion of the writer sitting at his typewriter, pounding the keys with fevered inspiration, is a great one.  I've been fortunate enough to be that writer at times.  But never for an entire book.  Every book has the hard parts, the moments when you find yourself staring at the screen and questioning the story and yourself.  It's not necessarily writer's block.  I haven't had a lot of trouble with that particular problem myself.  The empty page doesn't taunt me.  It's the page full of words that might be great or might be terrible or just might be okay.  

Writing a novel is a lot like saying a word over and over again.  After a while, the word starts to sound weird, lose its meaning.  You're not sure if you're saying it wrong anymore.  There's always Chapter X in the novel where you're not sure if any of this stuff is sticking together properly, if you're writing something worth reading.  With experience, I've learned to move on, keep writing, and come back later.  Usually, it's better than I thought.  Sometimes, it's worse.  If so, it can usually be fixed.  It just takes time.

And that's why writing a novel is hard.  It's finding the time when I'd much rather be playing video games.  It's trusting that, even if the story seems to have lost its way halfway through, you can patch it together.  It's moving forward despite that nagging voice that's telling you to stop for any number of reasons.  I still deal with it, even as a professional so it never comes as a surprise when I hear it from aspiring writers who only have their ambitions and optimism to keep them going.

The hard part is easy.  The easy part is hard.  And if you've ever attempted to create a novel, short story, or memoir, you'll know what I'm talking about.  You aren't doing it wrong.

You're writing.

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