To any Writer With A Capital W, the above looks like a very simple question with an equally simple answer. We keep writing because we have to, because it’s what we were meant to do, because, if we stop writing for any period of time, we actually get cranky and more than a little bit cheesed off with our lives, the world and… well, existence in general.
In that sense, it’s like choosing a career path; starting at intern and working your way up the medical profession to become a respected consultant, for example. You have to be a certain kind of person with certain particular qualities to not only want to go in that direction, but to keep wanting it as you rise up the ranks and then continue to enjoy it once you've got there. It’s definitely not for everyone, but the ones it is for have the same passion for it as a Writer (with a capital W) has for writing.
But that’s not what I mean with this question; I'm going deeper than that. Three levels deeper, actually. So let’s take them one at a time…
For those of you out there making a living from what you write already this is obviously a no-brainer – it’s what pays my bills, dear. You know what you do works for that purpose, so you carry on doing it so you can… afford to carry on doing it. The Circle of Life! (Well, at the very least the circle of making a mostly enjoyable living, I would hope.) For you guys, that carrot is a real one, and you know it’s real because when you’ve reached out for it in the past you were able to grab it and take it.
Unlike the yet-to-be-published writer, who can only hope the carrot they’re reaching for isn’t just a fanciful illusion that exists only in their yearning writer’s imagination. What keeps you yet-to-be-published writers chasing that carrot, pushing through that nagging fear that it’s not really there at all?
I’ll use myself as an example, purely because I’m here now and ready to answer any questions I might ask me. My ‘area’ in the past was song lyrics – for straight-up commercial songs, for two full-length musicals and a lot of parody lyrics. That’s where the bulk of my writing experience lies, while Redemption is and will be my first completed novel. It’s a hell of a switch – in terms of genre, expected writing style, size of finished work… just about everything really. Who’s to say that, just because I’ve had some success writing lyrics, I’m also capable of writing a decent novel? Ultimately, for all the effort I’m putting into it, I might suck as a novelist.
I can write lyrics for a complete song, start to finish, in two hours if I put my mind to it (and my personal best is twenty minutes – but that was a really good day…) So the idea of spending more than two years now on one project is… well, it’s been an adjustment, to say the least. Jeez, no wonder I’ve worried about being crap at it! Why am I making life so hard for myself? I could just go back to writing lyrics instead – stick to what I know, and cherish that feeling of finishing something without watching entire birthdays fly by…
But for some reason I can’t. I’m still hell-bent on completing my novel, scene by scene, chapter by chapter – even though the process seems so agonizingly s-l-o-w compared to writing lyrics. What the heck is driving me? What is that intangible thing that keeps any aspiring-to-be-published-writer plodding down the road towards that carrot-that-may-be-just-a-mirage on the horizon?
This relates not just to the fact that you’re writing a novel, but that you’re writing that novel. You’re investing a heck of a lot of time and effort into this one story burning a fire in your brain that ultimately… people might never bother to read. Or all the ones that do read it don’t like it -- hate it even, to the point where they vow never to read anything else written by you ever again. That thing you just spent ages toiling and sweating over? It was a bad idea, chum. Should’ve gone with something else entirely.
Ouch. Now they tell ya’…
I know many writers (including myself) talk about these stories as being tales they have to tell, that almost have to be extracted from their minds and released into the world before they can sleep normally and carry on with their lives. They even say things like “I don’t care if it never gets published or no-one ever reads it, I'm still going to finish it because I have to” (I know that, because I've said it myself, about Redemption.)
It’s easy to motivate yourself into writing something that’s guaranteed to work out just fine. But what about that thing that “will probably never get published, because no first novel is ever good enough to get published...”? How do you make yourself believe that’s still worth slogging your guts over? I suppose the argument is that you can’t write the novel that will get published until you've written all the ones that won’t first – but that’s like telling a kid if he doesn't keep eating all those Brussel sprouts he’ll never get to eat the ice-cream… someday. Sooner or later most kids just say “Y’know what? I don’t want the ice-cream that much anyway.” And stop eating their sprouts. But what about the ones who don’t? What is that magical thing that keeps them shovelling down the sprouts?
Okay, so you've got through levels one and two – but this one’s the real toughie. Because this level happens even with the stories you’re most in love with and most desperate to tell. All of us writer-types are in on this secret; writing a labour of love is a roller-coaster ride, and on the downward-sloping parts even trying to put one sentence in front of the other – without the results looking like the work of a monkey after a bottle of Jack Daniels and a spliff – is harder than sucking porridge through a straw. That’s when your Inner Grinch pops up, and tells you there’s only one reason it’s suddenly become so hard; it’s because this story sucks, and you suck too… and y’know what? You’re probably always going to suck, because you’ll never get past writing stuff that sucks because you know you suck soooo much…
(Or is that just me? Not that I’d wish it on anyone else of course, but I’m kind of hoping it’s not…)
This level is the reason I – and probably a gazillion other writers out there – have a Novel Graveyard somewhere on their hard drive. And a secret pile of half-filled, handwritten notebooks in a musty-smelling cardboard box in the loft. All of them containing stories that begin full of fire and promise, before slowly petering out and being left to die in the pit of their own loneliness somewhere around Chapter Four. Maybe they really were stories that were never meant to be… but even if they were, ultimately the Grinch won.
Redemption is the first novel that my Grinch has thus far been unable to kill. I finished – actually finished! – its Draft One, and, even though it’s been hard going, I am still squirreling my way through Draft Two. And I am in no mood to give up on it – someone or something will literally have to kill me to make me do that. My Grinch has still been making regular appearances, acid-raining on my parade with the schadenfreude of all his previous attempts. And, in low moments, I still listen to him and feel sad and hopeless for a while. But then I punch him in the face (metaphorically of course) and carry on writing. What’s changed this time around? What is it about this story that’s making me believe in it so deeply, where I didn't or couldn't believe in the ones I attempted before? What is that special ‘thing’ in every writer’s first completed novel that kept them believing this was the one they should put a ring on?
Why am I even asking these questions anyway? It’s certainly not because I know the answers (sorry if that’s what you were hoping.) To be honest I wouldn't even know where to begin. Maybe it’s better not to have a definitive answer anyway. Sometimes analysing something too deeply is the surest way to kill it – in the same way the Victorians thought knowing how butterflies lived required chloroforming them and sticking their corpses on pins. Or maybe it’s just something that can’t be defined by some sort of formula for human behaviour – “So, you want to actually finish a novel? Try X + Y = screw you, Grinch!”
So I'm putting it out there because I'm wondering if any of you have any theories. I’d love to know, seriously. ‘Cause even if we don’t manage to come up with any answers, it’ll be nice to know if we’re doing similar sums to get there.