Why Writing Well is Hell
Let me start by just saying this: anyone can write. And in my personal opinion, everyone should write.
Obviously, it's a good idea to be able to update your own resume when you get fired for complaining about your boss on Facebook, or draft an angry drunken e-mail to your neighbor when they leave a passive aggressive message on your door. I'm speaking more of "composition", the art of conveying in written form something coherent: formed purely from nonsensical ideas in your head. Or perhaps relating a boring real life story in an entertaining fashion. I'm talkin' Writing with a capital W: the kind you had to do in high school and/or college; if you're awesome, the kind you still do today. It's important, it's necessary, and it's great. It's also absolute hell.
Writing in and of itself is not some insurmountable task, as I said: anyone can do it. But writing well is a nightmare.
Let me clarify: I can write. I might have some form of compulsion. I have completed National Novel Writing Month no less than three times, and always well OVER the expected word count (50,000 words, which is arguably not a real book but for most people that's a crazy amount of words in a month). I write a series of journals, editorials, scripts and prose for the sake of just doing it. Sometimes it gets drawn by my awesome wife. Like most people in my generation, I've found myself in a really dumb internet argument that stole my entire evening (the word counts there are too embarrassing to relate). But I can't promise you any of it is "good." I certainly can't promise that any of it is written well, and holds together under any kind of scrutiny.
Why not, Nathan? Give me one good reason, you jocund, rotund, fecund wall of hubris! Feel free to look those words up, I'll wait. In the meantime, I'll do you two better: three reasons writing well is such a grand and face-melting task, and my vain attempts to address them.
Writing Something Worth Reading
I can't tell you how many conventions I've attended in which people tell me that their story "is one of a kind." It's "never been told." When I finally coerce them to divulge their secrets (after swearing on the blood of my firstborn that I will never steal said solid gold nuggets of genius), they tell me something like this:
- See, the main character is actually dreaming the whole time.
- They use a gun that is illegal in this country, no one's even heard of them here.
- The hero is actually the villain.
- It's like Lord Of the Rings, but darker.
I won't even go into how these people define originality, because honestly it doesn't matter. The problem here is that these are not stories. These are not journeys of the human spirit. They're twists, hooks, gimmicks, and (generously perhaps) they're concepts. I can laugh and judge them for this: but we all do it. I'm as guilty as any and all of these people. In fact I slipped one of my own ideas in there.
I get it: you have a story you want to tell, and you don't even get why the hell anyone should care if it's original or true or deep. It's your damn story. What makes YOUR story worth telling, jerk?
Well, it's worth something if it matters to you, the writer. If you're honestly passionate about a story in which the hero was secretly a sleeping villain with an illegal gun in a dark Lord of the Rings universe, then you've got a start. If you're telling that story because you think it'll sell, quit now. But if you REALLY want to tell this story, if it has been a part of your life longer than you've known you wanted to tell it, your next step is making me give a crap.
Eloquently Making People Give a Crap
Creating a story (or embellishing an existing story) takes understanding. Not just of language, pacing, direction, and themes; it requires understanding of other human beings. You know, the ones you want to read this thing. If you have never spoken to someone about your ideas for fear of letting the world know your secret genius concept, there's a good chance you haven't let someone tell you that said concept is really stupid. And you should. Right now: find someone and tell them your idea, and PRAY they tell you it's stupid. If it is, you will know right now that at least one person is going to write a nasty comment if you share it online. If they don't, now you're going to have false hope that you're a genius, and merrily go about your life believing that until an editor pops your bubble. I know this all firsthand. Most importantly though, if someone doesn't like your idea, don't quit.
MAKE them care. It may mean you need to tweak your core concept to appeal to them. Much, much more likely is the possibility that you just need to tell the exact same message in a way that reaches them. Maybe your epic space opera setting isn't necessary for telling the story of a girl who loves her pet. Make it a dog, not a flesh-eating space mutant rat: maybe your audience can step into the role of the girl without having to imagine their face being ripped off.
Ultimately, your story is not your setting. Your story is not your gimmick. Your story is the core of what you believe and who you are laid bare for someone else to read. Or, it's like, bitchin' lasers and stuff. But it's your story.
Know Yourself: Know Your story
The biggest reason that writing is hell is this: it's all you. The medium may obscure this a bit. A script for a film or a comic or video game may end up taking on more attributes of other creators before it reaches the viewer, but it will always be your story. Your characters will all be some person born in your head, and whether you like it or not, they are your little brain babies. When people read the work, you will have the fear that they are peering directly at your soul. If they hate it, they hate you, not your writing. The bad news is: this is a little bit true.
Now I'm not saying that anyone who has hated something you've created wants to murder you in your sleep. That might be true, I can't speak for everyone. But more than likely, they saw your need to be loved shine through more than your need to be honest. They may have seen your lack of confidence as a joke, and the punchline never came. They may have seen your over-confidence as a mask for your true fears. And they didn't hate you, per se, but they found a moment of untruth. This falseness reeks. What's worse: it makes the reader feel fake. It's okay to lie: as a matter of fact most writers make a great living doing it. But ACCEPT the lie. Realize it's a lie, and sell it like a used car salesman. If you're trying to convince yourself, you're not going to convince the reader.
How to make Writing Well Not Hell (The Hard Sell)
If you're the TL;DR type, you jumped down here looking for The Big Truth. I hate to disappoint you: there is none here. Maybe writing isn't hell for you, maybe it comes easy and your stories are genius and no one ever dislikes them. Maybe you're full of crap. But in the end, no matter how much you master the semicolon, you can't use technique and style to get around a complete lack of something to say. How do you know when you have something to say?
Some itching, burning desire to communicate something must exist somewhere in the recesses of your heart. If you don't express it you will feel emotional and possibly physical pain. If you don't feel this way, then go find something that makes you feel this way. Go to the bookstore, and ask the hot guy or gal that works there what's a great book to read on a day like this. Or hell just hit on that person. The resulting adventure (or absolute failure) will give you something to write about.
If you're just writing to make money, or because you think you deserve to be popular for your unique and wonderful brain, you're going to either be very lucky or very sad. Anyone can write. Writing well is about the courage to know that you're probably an idiot and your work feels like an ego trip. But that's okay: we all are. Real writers just keep writing anyway.