First-time novelists often make the mistake of believing their first novels will be the most difficult writing of their lives. Once they’ve stamped finis on Novel #1, their writing worries will be over. They’ll have a handle on this writing gig, and everything from here on out will get progressively easier. As of this week, I’ve written eight novels (I typed “the end” on The Deepest Breath’s first draft a few days ago), and I’m here to tell you that it’s simply not true that writing gets easier with time and experience. In some ways, it actually becomes more difficult.
When I wrote my first (eyes-only) novel, the words flowed, the characters spoke, and the whole thing was on paper in a few victorious months. That first story was nothing but fun. Of course, it also stunk, because I had zero idea what I was doing. What little I learned from that novel, I applied to the second (also eyes-only), and what I learned from the second I applied to the third (you guessed it: eyes-only). With each novel, my awareness of the craft increased a little bit, and with each little bit that my awareness increased, so did the difficulty of getting the story right. By the time, I reached Novel #4—which I can now look back at as a personal writing plateau, a place where I finally got it as a writer—writing was downright hard.
It was about then that I came to the epiphany that writing was probably never going to get any easier. In “On Finding Your Mentor” (Writer’s Digest, January 2011), Dinty W. Moore quotes his professor Vance Bourjaily’s wisdom on the subject:
It doesn’t ever get any easier…. Each book presents a new narrative puzzle, and you start off with no idea how that puzzle can be solved. I begin each book as uncertain of myself as I was when I first began.
Every single book I’ve written has been its own adventure. After those first four novels—and the bout of trials and travails that accompanied mastering the foundation of the craft—I learned that every new book presents its own complicated set of difficulties. Perhaps I was able to master the lessons taught by one novel—but the next novel will offer a completely different set of demands.
At first glance, this might all seem dreadfully depressing. “You mean to tell me I’m going to go through this kind of mental distress and labor on every cotton-picking book?” Yep. “The struggles are never going to end?” Nope. “Twenty years from now, I’m still going to grubbing along, agonizing over word choice and story structure?” Yep. And ain’t it grand?
In his wonderfully encouraging Booklife, fantasy author Jeff VanderMeer explains that the glory is in the struggle:
Because you are uncertain, despite having mastery, you know that your writing is still alive, that you are not simply doomed to repeat the same path you chose so many times before. Because you feel once again as if you are writing your first book, you know that writing is still meaningful to you.
A writing life without any challenges would hardly be worth the effort, now would it? Recognizing, and even appreciating, the fact that writing never gets any easier, frees us from the doubt, and even guilt, of feeling we’ll never be good enough—because the truth is we won’t. We’ll never be perfect, but we can always be better. So, here’s to Novel #9 and a brand new round of lessons to be learned, mountains to be climbed, and story tactics to be mastered!
Tell me your opinion: Has your writing become easier or more difficult with time?
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