The Burden of Being a Writer

“When you’re a writer, you no longer see things with the freshness of a normal person.  There are always two figures that work inside you, and if you are at all intelligent you realize that you have lost something.  But I think there has always been this dichotomy in a real writer.  He wants to be terribly human, and he responds emotionally, and at the same time there’s this cold observer who cannot cry.”

~ BRIAN MOORE

Let me begin by making one thing perfectly clear:  I am a hobbyist author.  For most of literary history, the term “author” has described both a professional and his or her profession, and by no means has that profession fallen by the wayside.  But over the past decade or so, through the magic of the internet, it is the case that anyone can write anything they choose and, without regard to whether they have any idea what they’re doing, make a few mouse clicks, and voila, their opus is for sale on amazon.com.  These are the hobbyists, myself among them, who publish 5,000 new books every day.

Those 5,000 new books run the gamut from “How does this guy not have a book deal?” to “This guy couldn’t write a grocery list.”  The only statistic in question is how many of us admit that we’re hobbyists, and how many put that unedited, virtually unreadable first-draft up for sale, and immediately list “Author” as their profession on their tax return.  But there is one area in which the professional and the hobbyist are indistinguishable.  I refer here to those hobbyists who have put at least some level of effort into learning The Craft.  You’ve taken a class, read some how-to books, or otherwise made some effort to grasp the basic principles of what you’re trying to do.

Once you understand how plots and characters are created and developed, you always have one eye out for another author’s technique.  Now, when I read The Sword of Shannara, I’m no longer just on an epic quest through the wild with Shea Ohmsford.  Part of me is standing behind Terry Brooks watching his technique, second-guessing his choices, trying to understand why he gave the reader this critical piece of the puzzle now, and not earlier or later.

You are told what the author feels you need to know at the time you need to know it.  That’s all well and good, and when you are immersed in a tautly-crafted read, you aren’t even aware that you’re reading; the experience being described in the book is going on around you, and you aren’t just reading.  You’re hearing the twig break in the darkness, smelling the prosecutor’s harsh after-shave lotion, feeling the sweet lips of your paramour, and even though there is nothing to hear or smell or feel, you are there!

Compare this to what happens on a movie set.  The camera is dollied along a suburban street, and you as the viewer take in the details of everything from the house numbers to the garden gnomes, and maybe wonder what sort of life is lived in this house or that.  But those houses are only the fronts, plywood cutouts hung on scaffolding, and as a writer, part of you is constantly trying to pull back the veil and see how this other writer built his scaffolds.

I myself write in third-person viewpoint, which means I tell a story in the form of “he did this,” and “she said that,” but I’m not completely omnipotent.  Each scene has a “viewpoint,” a character through whose eyes that piece of the narrative is told.  I aim for 80-100 scenes in a novel, generally four to a chapter, with plot twists at the quarter, halfway, and three-quarter marks, and never more than six viewpoints.  The majority of the story is told through the eyes of the Protagonist, with a lesser number of scenes falling to the Opposition, the Confidant, and the Henchman.  My protagonist always has a distraction going on, rats in the basement, so to speak, while he’s trying to deal with the wolf at the door.  Sometimes this distraction takes the form of a fifth viewpoint character, and on rare occasions, I’ll use a sixth just to stir the pot, but never more than that, and when I see a well-established professional introduce that seventh main character, I’m out of the plot.  I want to know why, what story point made it necessary, what was the author trying to accomplish, did she succeed, how did she make it work?

And that’s the burden.  You’re a reader trying to have a good time, but you’re also a writer trying to improve your own Craft, and how better to do that than to crack the code of J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Michael Crichton?  If you’re a writer, you know that it never stops, and it does interfere with your enjoyment.  I can’t say whether it’s worth it.  Financially, certainly not.  I often joke that one month, my book sales paid for my internet service, but that isn’t really a joke.

But as a hobbyist, it has been very much worth doing.  I have a number of writing friends that I get to rub elbows and compare notes with, and the feeling you get when someone tells you in person, or better yet, posts a review praising your stellar work and divine skills is worth almost any sacrifice it might take to get it, even if the numbers aren’t that great.  And in my case, they won’t be.  I have turned down a book-signing, a couple of conventions, and a radio interview, because even though the chances are infinitesimal, there is that fraction of a percentage point of possibility that some unsuspected event could catapult me to celebrity, and I don’t want to live that life.  I’m happily retired, have a great relationship with my family, and that’s the way I want to keep it.

None of that means that I don’t carry the burden, though.  How about you, my writing friends?  Do you experience anything like this?  How do you maintain your enjoyment in the face of that “need to know?”

6 thoughts on “The Burden of Being a Writer

  1. I have to say I do not have this problem. When I read, my purpose is for enjoyment. I don’t analyze what I’m reading. I simply experience it. How I separate my reader self from my writer self, I do not know. I just do it. The only time my writer self intrudes into my reading is if I’m reading something that is not well written. Then I start saying, “Ouch! He did THAT?” Or, “She seriously wrote it that way?” Otherwise, I just read.

    When I’m writing, I at times reflect back on what I’ve read and think how so-and-so would have written the scene. But not often. I think I simply read and then let what I’ve read percolate into my writer self. I don’t consciously try to imitate or emulate anyone. I just write. And I just read.

    Maybe part of it is that as a writer, I don’t think about what I do. I just do it. I just sit down and start writing. No outlining. No plot points. No counting of scenes. I keep it simple and just write. When I wrote poetry, each experience, each new scene, was a possible poem. Perhaps that kept me fresh. And keeps me in tune with my world, rather than trying to analyze it.

    Sorry, I can’t tell you how I keep it all separate. I just do.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome back, C.W. Good to hear from you. I can always count on you to raise an interesting point or two. I may have left something out of my approach to this.

      The primary difference I see between us is that I’m a planner of the first order. I plan my plans, wheels within wheels, as it were, and you’re a seat-of-your-pantser. I can’t do that. Well, that’s silly. Of course I can do it, I’ve done it before, and it was a catastrophe. Perhaps not being a planner yourself, you aren’t aware of, or even that, another writer is following a plan. I don’t normally insult pantsers, unless they insult my planning method first, and having read your work, I know that you can write an engaging story without a plan. Maybe that’s the difference, and I envy you. For me, it’s like I said in the article, part of my mind is always trying to pull back the curtain.

      Maybe that’s why nearly all that I read any more are historical documentaries…

      Thanks for stopping by!

      Like

  2. Well, like CW, I wouldn’t say that my enjoyment of reading is spoled by my trying to understand the craft, maybe because since a very early stage of my reader’s (and writer’s) ‘career’ I started analysing stories ‘after’ I’ve finished them. So probably I learned to spit the two experiences.

    I do analyse what I read, always. I do try to understnad why things work or don’t work for me in a story, and if I like what a writer is doing, I’ll most likely try to do it myself.
    But as I read, I just read and enjoy, to the point I’m extremely bad at taking down notes or quotes, because when I read, I just read.

    But wheter it happens at the same time or at different times, I think you’re right: authors will always look at stories differently than any other people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome back, Jazz! I’m sorry, I must have given people the impression that I sit down to read with a pad and pencil at my elbow. I don’t take notes, nor is it even a conscious process, and again, it may only affect planners. As someone who storyboards every scene, to borrow a film term, I’m constantly trying to improve my Craft on the subconscious level. I’ll be reading along and come to a reveal, for example, and I may be amazed, almost certainly am, at the reveal itself, but part of my mind automatically disengages to ask “Why did she disclose this here instead of two chapters back when the crime was being committed?” or whatever. The sad fact is that the only time I’m fully engaged is when I’m not being dazzled. I believe that if I were not a writer myself, I wouldn’t be afflicted with this condition, and that is the unfortunate condition I report on.

      Thanks for your views on this. A more thorough picture of the whys and wherefores is starting to emerge, and I may have to revisit this down the road. If I remember correctly, you’re more of a planner, right? I’m thinking of all the background material you were sharing about your Old Shelter novel. This is germane to understanding where you’re coming from on this discussion.

      Thanks for engaging on this topic. It’s always good to hear from you!

      Like

  3. At the Tucson Festival of Books, I was on a panel about scientists who write science fiction. One of the topics I discuss is how my training as a scientist actually helps my writing. An aspect of that is planning and plotting. Like you, Jack, I’m a plotter. I also talk about the importance of reading and understanding what has come before. An element of all this I haven’t really considered is that as a scientist, analysis is actually part of the fun for me.

    How this plays out in life is that I might dip my toe in water and shiver. In the back of my brain, a part of me remembers thermodynamics and how the heat is leaving my body. On a windy day, I might think about the pressure gradients and how the larger system is moving through. I see pretty colors in the rocks on a hike and think about the layers of sediment laid down or volcanic activity in the area. It’s just kind of automatic and happens because of training.

    For me, much the same happens when I read. When something wows me, I have some fun thinking about how the author pulled that off. When something doesn’t work for me, I think about how I would have done it differently. For me, this process is going on in the background, it’s kind of fun and it’s actually part of the enjoyment of reading, not a separate entity at all.

    David

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome, David. You’re describing pretty much what I go through. It isn’t forebrain-occupied, but it’s there, and it’s distracting. I’m just never completely “in” the story the way I used to be. I’m reading, I’m enjoying, but the subconscious, instead of visualizing the events on the page, is visualizing the writer constructing those events. It’s hard to describe, but I think we’re getting to it.

      Thanks for your input on this; seems to be more interesting than I first imagined it would.

      Liked by 1 person

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