Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#46: 'Easy' Is For Other People

by Seanan McGuire

That's a little hard to follow. Here's today's expanded thought:

Not everything you write is going to be easy, and not everything you write is going to be fun, and if you think "easy" and "fun" are your rights as a writer, please go find something else to do. Every book has a chapter you don't want to finish. Every story has a connective segment you just want to be done with already. It's going to happen. Acknowledge it now, and when it hits, you won't be so surprised. But you'll still be a little surprised. The painful parts of a project are like ninjas, and they sneak up on you.

Writing a book is a lot like cleaning a house. For every counter you de-clutter or deliciously sweet-smelling sheet you tuck into place, there's a toilet to be cleaned, a stove to be scrubbed, and a distressing stain to be attacked with baking soda and prayer. If you only take care of the easy, fun parts, you're going to wind up with a house that's one part showroom, one part disaster...and the disaster will spread. The hard parts are often the important ones, even if they're the parts that no one appreciates but you.

Today we're going to be talking about the hard parts, why they matter, the forms that they take, and why you can't avoid them, no matter how hard you may try.

Ready? Good. Let's begin.

The Hard and the Easy.

Every story has hard parts and easy parts. For some people, the breakdown goes like this:

Having an idea: Easy.
Everything else: Hard.

...this is a rather extreme case. Most of us will be somewhere in the middle, finding both ideas and execution to be a little bit easy, a little bit hard. Note that for the purposes of this essay, I'm defining "hard" and "difficult" as two different things. Something which is difficult can still be fulfilling and enjoyable. Something which is hard is generally something we whine about and avoid doing for as long as we possibly can. These definitions may not synch up fully with the dictionary definition, but we need the subtlety of having the two words mean different things, so this is what we're rolling with.

There is no project that contains absolutely no aspect of hardness. Even things we are totally in love with from beginning to end, that we feel represent our best work, will contain aspects of hardness. For example:

The song "Wicked Girls" is one of my favorite pieces of my own writing, and one of the only things that I feel little to no impulse to revise. The first verse and the structure of the chorus basically mugged me on my way home from the grocery store; I sang them loudly and gleefully, making absolutely no conscious choices about how the song would be lain out. It was easy!

Finishing the song, however, required making some decisions. How long could the bridge be? Did I want to mention only fictional girls, or did I want to cite some of the brave, wonderful women in my life? I named girls from five distinct stories in the chorus; did I really want to give each of them a verse, or would that make the song unlistenably long? Even the structure of the song required making choices. I knew I wanted it to be a duet, and I wanted Vixy to sing Alice, while I wanted to sing Dorothy. That meant putting the verses into a specific order, because otherwise, it wouldn't work. Many of these things were simply difficult. Others were actually hard, and frustrating, and had to be worked through. Otherwise, I wouldn't have come out the other end of the process with a song.

Here's the kicker: at least one of the hard parts, the bridge, wound up getting written, slowly and painfully, and then cut basically in half during the revision process. So I did a lot of hard work for nothing. Only...no. I did a lot of hard work to figure out what the true shape of the piece was meant to be. I did a lot of hard work to add depth to the canvas I was creating. Whether or not that hard work is ever visible isn't really what matters. What matters is that it was done.

Nobody Notices Hard Work Until It Isn't There.

The hard parts are frequently, sadly, invisible to anyone who isn't the writer, or possibly a member of the writer's editorial team. They're the bits you work all night to build, and then cover up with a coat of paint and an eye-catching picture of kittens that you bought at the flea market for five dollars. Nobody sees them. Nobody remarks on them. Nobody cares about them...at least not until that pretty kitten picture falls off the wall because there's nothing there to hold it up. When that happens, may the god or gods of your choice help you.

Hard work is the last thing to be noticed, and the first thing to be criticized, because it's the scrubbed toilet and the functional freezer in the house of your story. We take it for granted that we'll be able to pee without risking the wrath of the EPA, and that the ice cream will retain that all-important "ice" qualifier. When it doesn't happen, we get confused, and then we get angry, even if everything else is perfect. How dare the things we take for granted not work the way we want them to!

Coming to terms with the invisibility of hard work can be difficult. We want it to be held up and lauded as proof that we're amazing, dedicated writers. Instead, people skate right over it...unless it collapses underneath them, and then hoo, boy, do we hear about it.

All of this is a complicated way of saying that the hard parts can't be avoided: in fact, the hard parts are what matters most.

Forms These Things Take.

Things that are hard for me:

1. Killing some characters.
2. Not killing some characters.
3. Justifying what moves a character from #1 to #2.
4. Those long stretches of plot between explosions.
5. Leaving out the science.
6. Trusting my instincts where the science is concerned.
7. Endings.
8. Writing sex.
9. Ending conversations.
10. Balancing the action with the reaction.

Try making your own list of ten. Some of the items may be the same. Others may be different. You may find yourself with a list of two, or of twenty; it's all up to you. What matters is knowing where your own hard parts are located, because those are the places that you're going to need to watch yourself. When you find yourself avoiding the text, that's the time to roll up your sleeves and force your way through. Remember, revising the hard parts is always easier than writing them. Don't worry if your first draft is clunky or needs work. That's what your second draft is for.

Ninja Attack!

In my original topic, I said "The painful parts of a project are like ninjas, and they sneak up on you." I stand by this. What you need to remember is that you're the hero of your own story, and the hero always defeats the ninjas. Now go forth and write something hard. The results will be worth the pain.
© 2013 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with three cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded three albums, and published several novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy. She is nominated for four Hugo awards in 2012, including Best Related Work for her music album, "Wicked Girls".

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