Prometheus Bound

Writing is slow, painful misery?

I was reading Brandon Sanderson’s recent annual post on his accomplishments for the year and plans for the next several when something leapt out at me:

However, sometimes there’s also this sense—from fans, from the community, from us authors in general—that whispers that being productive isn’t a good thing. It’s like society feels artists should naturally try to hide from deadlines, structure, or being aware of what we do and why we do it. As if, because art is supposed to be painful, we shouldn’t enjoy doing our work—and should need to be forced into it.

Is that really how society sees us? Is that how we see ourselves? And if so, is it deserved? Well, first let’s take a look at each piece of that accusation separately–they’re not all the same, nor equal.

“Being productive isn’t a good thing.” I have an idea where this comes from. There are writers out there who crank out multiple books per year, and many of them are producing mediocre work at best. But is that necessarily true of all writers? Sanderson himself turns out several books a year. It just may be harder to notice, as he spreads them across genres and target age groups. If you can afford to write professionally like Sanderson, why not?

I can write a 100,000-word novel in six to eight months working an hour a day. So it stands to reason that an author working at least four hours a day should be able to produce four good-sized books in a year. And, if they’re a good writer, what’s wrong with that? Speed–or the lack thereof–is really no indicator of quality. There are certainly the Patrick Rothfusses and George R. R. Martins of the world, but there are also the Brandon Sandersons and James Pattersons.

“Artists should hide from deadlines and structure.” I’m less certain on this one, as I’m in the middle of reading “Altered Perceptions” and finding out how many authors struggle with mental illness. That’s not something you can necessarily control. When it hits, it hits. It doesn’t wait until it’s convenient, or when your deadlines are all met. Even when it’s treatable it can still knock you for a loop.

That said, can be hard to make yourself write. It’s very much a mental exercise, and while it’s easy to talk brave about writing when you don’t feel like writing, it’s easier said than done. But one can develop stronger discipline, like you would develop a muscle. I’ve learned not to squander my one writing hour per day. I’m not perfect at it, mind you, but I’ve become reasonably skilled at making myself write, even if it’s not my best writing. I think we owe it to ourselves to try to develop that discipline. Being someone who can deliver consistently and on time will make us more attractive to editors, I suspect.

“Artists avoid awareness of what we do and why.” I’m not entirely sure what Sanderson means by this, but it may tie back into the previous points. There probably is this idea out there that authors shouldn’t write for the money. We should be pursuing Art, not dollars. To do otherwise amounts to prostitution, right?

Eh, no. We don’t expect NBA players to play for the love of the game. We don’t expect bus drivers to drive bus for the joy of driving. We don’t ask actors to do movies for free because they’re creating Art. They expect to be paid. They need to be paid. Why should writers be any different?

If we just write for the fun of it, that’s another thing. When I try out for a community theater production I’m doing it for fun, not money. But if you’re trying to become a professional author–or at least a paid one–then there’s absolutely nothing wrong with treating your effort like a business; a business for which you plan to be paid. James Patterson is not a sell-out because he writes with selling his books in mind. Your approach may not be the same as his approach, and that’s fine. But never feel embarrassed about wanting to make as much money as you can. Dead authors please no fans. It’s okay to want to be supported by those fans. With money.

“Art is supposed to be painful; we should have to be forced into it.” Now, there’s no denying that writing can be painful. But it can’t be all that painful or we wouldn’t do it. Truth is, we write because we like it, and even the painful parts are enjoyable, like when the massage therapist works on that one knotted muscle that really needs to be relaxed. “Come on baby, make it hurt so good!”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying writing. I heartily recommend it, actually. It makes it so much easier to do! If we have to be forced into it we should probably consider something else. Something fun! Or at the very least, something more lucrative.

Nor should we feel we have to play coy with our readers. “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly write another book yet. Why, it’s just so hard, you know? And I’m just not sure I could meet your expectations! But…if you really, reeeeeeeally want another one, okay. I’ll write one more. Because I love you enough to go through all that trouble one more time. For you!” Puh-lease! Go into acting.

I’ll never be another Brandon Sanderson. I’m not trying to. But there’s one thing he and I agree on:

People thank me for being productive, when I don’t consider myself particularly fast as a writer—I’m just consistent. Fans worry that I will burn out, or that secretly I’m some kind of cabal of writers working together. I enjoy the jokes, but there’s really no secret. I just get excited by all of this.

Consistency counts. It’s okay to view writing as a job–a fun job, of course, but still a job. It’s okay to want to be paid. It’s okay to develop discipline so that you can get paid more often. It’s okay to be a steady, reliable producer of stories your audience enjoys. We don’t have to live up to the stereotype, and we don’t need to let other people guilt us or impose restrictions on us. Whatever makes you the most successful as a writer and achieve your goals–do it!

There is no right or wrong way to be an author. But we would do well, I think, to not buy into the stereotype of the suffering artist, bound to the caprice of a fickle muse, destined to be tied to the keyboard each day while an eagle rips out our liver and delivers it to our editor. Our readers will be just as appreciative of our bringing them “fire” if we actually enjoy what we’re doing.

Thom Stratton

About Thom Stratton

Thom is a Utah transplant, works for a regional bank, and spends his lunch hours working on his latest novel. His wife, three kids, and four pets find him amusing and somewhat useful, so they keep him around.