Why is Writing SO Hard?

As I write this, the sky is filled with smoke from fires in Washington and Oregon, smoke that is reaching all the way across Canada. It’s hard to go outside, even to walk to the car, never mind go for a walk. Living in a rural area, the fact that we can still get outside and hike, go to the beach and the many parks in this area has made the pandemic somewhat bearable.

Now it really feels like the world is ending. That the smoke is so dense and the fires are not near here reminds me that we are all in this together. We all breathe the same air and it’s the only air we’ve got.

I’ve got the whole day to write, and aside from a few calls, the only thing I plan to work on is a few blog posts. But I am struck down with WHY BOTHER? Why bother writing? Why bother sharing with others?

Why bother doing something that can only count as a luxury, when the ground is literally on fire? What is the point, when so many are having trouble even breathing? When the places in our communities where people would congregate to escape the smoke – the churches, libraries, community halls and rec centres – are all closed or have limited access because of COVID measures?

For several weeks I’ve wanted to write a series of posts about how to overcome writing avoidance and resistance. For some of us, the need to write is urgent. We are called to this. Desperate to tell stories — our stories, others’ stories, the stories borne from our imaginations — and yet, sitting down to write is a battle.

There’s always something that gets in the way. Today, for me, it is grief. Grief that all my places of reprieve – my garden, the trails, the city park, long walks with my friends – have been taken from me. How long will it be? Days, weeks, months? The grief would keep me from writing if I let it, but I will not let it.

You see, I have, for the most part, figured out how to get around the resistance that comes up with writing. It’s taken me years and a lot of practice, but I have found a way that works for me. The only thing keeping me from retreating to bed today and watching Faulty Towers until the sun comes out is that, by writing down what I’ve learned and sharing it here, I might help someone else.

Someone who feels that same urgent call to write, but gets caught in the weeds of resistance and expectation. Faulty Towers will have to wait. This post feels as urgent as climate change all of a sudden.

Has this happened to you?

When you really want to write, it stays with you all day. For me it used to go something like this: I’m going about my day and everything I do — the kids, the day job, chores and social obligations and exercise— for all of it, I’m just biding my time until I can get to the writing.

But then it comes time to write, and first thing I do is open up Twitter. It’s like my chair is on fire and it’s torture to sit down and concentrate. I’ve spent hours or days looking forward to this moment and now that it’s here, I’d rather do anything else. Literally anything. Scrub the bathroom tiles? Empty the litter box? I’ll do it! Anything and everything is better than writing.

Maybe for you it’s more of a seasonal thing. You’re a teacher and you can’t wait for summer so you can write. Or, maybe it goes on for decades — you’re waiting to retire and you’ll do all your writing then. But when the fateful time comes, when it’s just you and the table and chair and the blank screen, you can’t get anywhere. Before you know it you’ve joined three boards and trained as a hospice volunteer and you’re way too busy to even think of writing.

Why is writing so hard? What is that anywhere-but-here feeling and how can we get over it?

The long answer to these questions is coming up in the next few weeks, but the short answer to what stops us from writing is: resistance and expectations.

We think writing should be easier than it is, because know how to write. We write all the time. We write emails, we write Facebook posts, we write to-do lists and instructions, procedures and legislation. Sure, maybe our grammar is not the best, but we know how to write. How hard can it be?

When we finally sit down to write, it turns out it’s harder than we expected. The rewards that we’re after — the acknowledgement, the accolades, the bestseller lists — these are a long way off. There are no gold stars for sitting in your chair and forcing out a thousand words. There’s nothing finished, so nothing to check off a to-do list. And these are just the internal expectations.

What about those around us? They love us and want to protect us from hurt, and this writing thing we are so hell-bent on seems to be causing us a lot of pain. Plus, our long-suffering loved-ones are used to more of our attention. Why pay extra for a babysitter when all we’re doing is writing? Why aren’t the dishes done? Why can’t we take the grandkids this weekend?

Really, if we just stopped with the writing already, it would be easier on everyone. External expectations like these have stopped many a would-be writer in their tracks.

Plus, there’s that brick wall of resistance that comes up every time we sit down to write. What is that and where does it come from? Is there any way around it? Does it ever go away? The guilt, shame and anxiety. Oh, and let’s not forget the fear in all its glory. (Did I leave the stove on? Will my mother disown me when this gets published? Will this ever even get published? I’m terrible at this and should stop. I always wanted to do this and now I’m terrible at it and who will I be if I’m not a writer?) I’ll stop now. You get it.

We are going to talk about all of these things, and how to overcome them in the coming weeks. Since it feels like the world is ending out there though, I don’t want to leave you hanging for the answer.

The answer to all of it – ALL OF IT – is routine and practice. Find a routine and settle in to it. It could be half an hour, three times a week. In that half hour, you write. Keep your expectations low. Just do something. Write a list of ideas. Interview a character. Pretend you’re writing a letter to a friend about the story in your head, and write it down.

Keep it simple, quiet and regular. Show up when you say you will. Your body and mind will come to expect it. Your loved ones will get used to the idea. Your inner critic will cross its arms and let you do your thing, whatever. Even the wall of resistance will move back a few feet and give you a little bit of space.

That’s all you need. A tiny bit of room to breathe. That’s all any of us are getting right now anyway. Take it. Do something with it. It’s yours. You can watch Faulty Towers later.

Five Reasons I Hate Giving Publishing Advice

(It’s not that I don’t want to help you. Honest.)

You’ve just finished a writing project that you’ve been working on for months, or years. It was way harder than you ever expected and finishing it was a damn miracle. Now you’re done and you’re looking around and saying, now what? How do you get this thing you worked so hard on published?

And then you remember that author you know, or the one your friend said they knew. They must know how to do it! You’ll ask them. You kind of know them, right? You have two friends in common on Facebook or there’s only three degrees of separation between you on LinkedIN. You’ll just ask to pick their brain over coffee. You’ll even pay for the coffee!

Before you do that, can we just stop a minute? Let’s talk about it, okay? Because as someone who has had my brain picked over coffee plenty of times for publishing advice (and I don’t even drink coffee) I have a few thoughts on this approach. I’m going to be clear, and I hope kind. You might not want to hear it, but I have to say it. Here goes:

Ask Google, not that author you kind of but don’t really know, for help.

I believe in the importance of listening to your creative instincts, especially when it comes to writing. For better or worse, I’ve dedicated much of my adult life to this idea. So yes, I get how important this moment is to you.

Please believe me when I say it’s not that I don’t want to help you or that I don’t want you to succeed. It’s just that I really don’t want to give you publishing advice. Here’s why:

1. That’s Not What You’re Really Asking:

When it comes to accurate, current information about how book publishing works, you can’t get better than this article from Jane Friedman. Friedman is a publishing expert, and she updates this article every year. 

In my opinion, there is no better advice out there. So then, why is it that, when I send you this link, you still want me to explain publishing to you? I think the answer is that you are not really asking me how to get your book published. You’re really asking something different.

You’re asking:

Will your book get  published?

Was this worth your while, or did you waste your time?

Are you a good enough writer?

Can I give you a magic bean (or maybe an introduction) that will make this easier?

And, for those of you that are asking in advance of actually writing a manuscript: Can I convince you that publishing will be so difficult that you won’t even have to bother to write the book?

These are all very different questions from the one you have asked out loud, which is, how do you get your book published?

I can’t answer these underlying questions for you. I can hear them, clear as day, when you ask. But I don’t have answers for you. No one does.

If I take time away from my own writing to answer the question you are actually asking, you will still have those unspoken questions. If I try to address your unspoken questions, you’re probably going to get upset with me. Maybe more upset than if I simply send you a link to Jane Friedman’s article. So. Here we are.

2. I Can’t Teach You To Be Good at Musical Chairs.

Musical chairs is supposed to be fun, but the very premise of the game is that there will never be enough chairs for everyone. That’s the whole point. (Which is fun how exactly? But I digress.)

You can do everything right, follow all the best advice, be as agile as a young gymnast and still end up with no chair, because there are simply not enough chairs for everyone. (In fact, there’s some Mom taking chairs away, in full sight of the seven year olds scrambling and elbowing each other.)

Publishing is like that. There are way more authors than there are openings in a publisher’s catalogue. More manuscripts than chairs.

I might be able to tell you a few things to maybe improve your chances at getting that chair, but asking me, or any other author, is no guarantee you’ll get to sit down. There are simply not enough chairs for everyone. It’s the nature of the game.

3. I Want to Keep my Own Rose-Coloured Glasses on.

You wrote a manuscript! Or, you’re writing one now, and to me, that is everything. Something inside you called you to do this and you listened. You put in the hard work to bring an idea that existed only in your imagination, into form.

That takes courage and optimism and vision and a great deal of believing in yourself. More than that, it takes boundaries and discipline. It means saying no to friends and family and sleep and the latest season of Selling Sunset on Netflix.

Now, it’s time for your vision and dreams to meet the realities of the publishing world. While the very appeal of your work depends on that vision you listened to, on your dreams and your imagination and how well you carried them off, the decision about whether or not your work will be published comes down to a calculation on a spreadsheet. (Again, I’ll send you to Jane Friedman for expert information on how this works. )

What makes a book great is the author’s vision, imagination, creativity and willingness to do the work. What makes a book sell is a whole other matter.

Harsh?

Yes. But it’s still true.

Every day that I write, I have to choose to keep my own creative vision alive, knowing full well the reality that my stories will face once I finish them. Still, I choose to honour my innate desire to tell the stories that come to me to be told.

This is a hard decision, and one I need to recommit to on a regular basis. It’s even harder to do if I’m asked to spend my precious free time diving deep into the pool of those realities, again and again, in order to explain them to you and the three other authors that asked for my advice this month. I would rather spend that time going for a walk in the woods, connecting with my family and otherwise replenishing my creative wellspring. 

4. I Might Not Actually Be Helping You.

I write mystery novels set in Canada. What I know about publication is, so far, pretty limited to this very small slice of the industry.

You’ve written a memoir, a travel book, a guide to spiders, a romance novel? I don’t actually know more than what’s written in the Jane Friedman article. Each publishing journey is unique, and my experience is not all that current. (And besides, with COVID, no one really knows what the heck is going on anyway.)  So, while it might feel reassuring to have someone like me talk you through it, I’m not sure it’s actually all that helpful.

5. I’m not Sure Traditional Publishing is the Future.

Publishing was facing huge problems before COVID shut down bookstores and forced launches, festivals and events to go virtual. (Read about current Canadian publishing woes here and here. )

The imminent demise of publishing has been predicted every year or two since forever it seems. (Here are some examples from 2008 , 2011 or here, from 2016 .) Frankly, it’s no longer interesting to me. By the time traditional book publishing takes its long-predicted, last, rattling breath, I may be an old, old woman.

In the meantime, I’m in creative prime. I’m doing my best writing ever, right now. Will publishing be there for my stories? I hope it will, at least some of the time, but I’m not expecting it to change for me. I’m much more interested in exploring new ways to get my stories into readers’ hands than in giving a personalized guided tour of an industry that has been experiencing serious problems for decades.

Thank You for Understanding

You do understand, right?

It’s not that I don’t believe in you, or in your project. It’s not that I don’t want to see your book on bookstore shelves. (Honest, I’ll be first in line to have you sign it when it comes out!)

I do. I believe in the power of heeding the call to write more than almost anything else, and I’m so very proud of you for doing your creative work.

It’s precisely because I believe in the importance of expressing your creativity through writing, that I don’t want to give you publishing advice. I don’t want to discourage you or distract you or harsh on your dreams, or on my own.

Publishing is part of writing. And traditional book publishing is a great option for a lot of projects. I’ve chosen that option in the past and, given the opportunity, likely will again in the future. And I believe you can too. But publishing is what it is. And you can find out all about it with a few good Google searches.

Because I’m Canadian, and generally polite and apologetic, this saying no thing is pretty new for me. So, instead of just saying flat out no to all future requests for publishing advice, I’ve started recording a series of videos where I share everything I know about getting your book published. All of it in one place. That way, when I get asked, I can send along the video series, and then get back to what I was doing, likely writing some improbable story.

If you’ re curious about those videos, keep an eye on this blog. I’ll post them when they are ready. 

And, if you are curious about the story I’m working on, (hint: it’s a mystery set in Montreal in 1947), or about my current writing and publishing journey, you can sign up for my monthly letter to readers here.