Friday, 11 April 2014

Questions That Boggle A Writer's Brain

If anyone has known you're a writer for more than, say, five minutes of their life, you can bet they've asked you at least one of the aforetitled (is that a word? My spellcheck says no, but my brain is saying "it is now, bucko!") You know the kind of questions I mean. The ones that any writer knows can only be answered with a blank expression and a New York shrug.

Non-writers ask them because... well, if you're not a writer they seem like the Great Mystical Secrets that writers keep from the rest of the world, lest they become common knowledge and the truth emerges that anyone and everyone can be Stephen King with the right set of tools and ingredients. Which is true, of course... but neglects to point out that Stephen King and all the other uber-famous and mega-rich writers are just naturally in possession of a more 'right' set than the majority of writers just trying to make a living. And even they still can't answer those really head-mushing questions.

Am I going to attempt to answer them? Am I heck! I'm going to join all my fellow writers in blankness and New-York-shrugginess. But while doing that, I shall be pondering and marvelling on how unanswerable they truly are. Questions like:

1 - "Where do you get all your ideas from?"
Do we have a special box hidden in the attic, marked 'Story Ideas?' Do we sit within a circle of candles, chanting "om" until inspiration strikes? Head into the woods at midnight and play Black Sabbath songs while sacrificing a chicken to Underlord of Stories?

Shrug Number One right there. I dunno - where does a person get the idea he wants a pizza with pineapple and anchovies but NO OLIVES? Part of it comes from life experience ('had that one last time and it was awesome') but other than that it was just... there, in that grey mush under the skull. Non-writers must get ideas, surely? Maybe the only difference between writers and non-writers is that when writers have ideas... they write stuff from them?

2 - "Why do you write [insert genre here]?"
Stephen King, why do you write horror novels? Why don't you write Mills&Boon romance instead? Far less people would accuse you of being weird if you did that, y'know. And you, Catherine Cookson - why didn't you ever have a crack at writing cyberpunk, you silly old thing? You could've been so much more 'down with the kids!'

It's as if they think writers hover over a great List of Genres and either: a) shut their eyes, stick a pin in it and see where it lands or b) scan the choices and think "Hmmm, which one's making the most ker-ching for authors at the moment?" Of course neither of these is true (although that's not to say it's never been tried... it's just never really worked that well as a strategy.) The simple answer is that writers tend to write in the genres they enjoy reading. But then that leads to "Well, why do you like reading those genres in particular then?" Well jeez... why does anyone? Time for another New York shrug...

3 - "How can you write a [insert opposite gender to yourself] main character when you're a [insert your own gender]?"
There seems to be a belief in some sections of the book-buying public that this is somehow impossible at an X-chromosome level. And on one level, I can... sort of see their point. After all, if you as a female have never possessed your very own love sausage, how can you really know what it feels like to carry one around in your pants every day of your life? (DON'T - way ahead of you and let's not go there, thanks...)

But consider this; do the people who ask this question of writers also ask them "How can you write a main character who's a horse when you're not a horse?" No-one considers that an arrogant thing for a writer to attempt - and yet I'd have thought imagining life as a horse would be a lot tougher than imagining life as a fellow human of the opposite gender. Especially since humans are gifted with the power of asking questions of their opposite gender if there's stuff they want to understand. Questions that couldn't be answered by horses. Or dogs. Or mice. Or pigs...

4 - "What's the best way to write something guaranteed to be a bestseller?"
The writers that truly know the answer to this question are the ones who own a continent, eat grapes coated in gold leaf hand-plucked for them by their own personal Oompa-loompa and walk barefoot on specially-constructed clouds, so that their precious tootsies are never sullied by that dirty old thing they call the ground (that's for mortals, losers!) Let's take a moment to count those writers up, shall we? Oh yeah, that's right...

I'm pretty sure even Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin and Stephanie Meyer would lurve to know the answer to this question. But even they don't. Getting each new idea to a completed first draft is only the first stage in a long journey - and even doing that is a Herculean milestone that every writer has to reach before they can even think about how great their final work might (or might not) be. Writing isn't like baking a cake or building an IKEA wardrobe; put all the right bits together in the right quantities and the right order and you'll get the same thing every time. It's more like alchemy.

(Not to be confused with "ALCHEMY, Khashoggi... pure ALCHEMY!" Although that would be pretty darn cool...)


Is there a writer alive who could actually provide the all-seeing answers to any of these questions? Truth is, you might as well ask them what's the best way to guarantee you'll win the lottery...

(Except I have a nagging suspicion there actually might be a way to do that. Not a legal way, but a way, nonetheless... )

Writing is not for sissies, 'cause there aint no guarantees. It's years and years of slogging away, our work possibly being ignored for most of our lives - heck, maybe all of them, we don't know for sure until that magic bell rings. And even when it does, we might end up being hated for it as much as loved (I'm sure E.L. James has had to grow a skin of armadillo-esque strength since 'Fifty Shades...') That's why some of us drink and get depressed sometimes.

But that's also why we love it. We're suckers for a challenge. And just a little bit crazy.

No comments:

Post a Comment