Writing is Hard Work


Writing is Hard Work

I know this has a kind of duh! quality, but writing tricks writers because we don’t expect it to be hard. For one thing, when you’re reading a novel which flows, you flow with it. Events unfold in a way which seems almost pre-ordained. Because the reading is easy, it sets us up to assume that the writing of it must have been the same.

The real kicker is that sometimes it is easy. I’m sure you’ve felt it—when the words come faster than you can get them down. When the story seems to be coming from some other place, with your fingers merely its recorders. It is the high which keeps me writing.

Of course, we’d prefer to be constantly in that blessed state. It comes as a real disappointment to find that it’s not always like that. In fact, that these endorphin moments are the exception, not the rule.

I often wonder whether some beginning writers give up because the difficulty is an unexpected and unwelcome surprise. They assume it is tough because they lack the talent. When the truth is, it’s just hard.

Does it have to be hard?

Short answer: Yes. Becoming a good writer is about your unique talent and point of view but equally about mastering your craft and persevering until you can use the tools of your trade with ease and expertise. You must be in command of your technique to showcase your gift and ideas. Can’t grow flowers without the work of planting them, watering them, weeding them. The final product is beautiful but doesn’t come easy.

So my best advice to you: Quit expecting it to be easy. Embrace the challenge of learning a complex skill and keep going.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about needing 10,000 hours of practice to get good at anything. I hope you get there sooner than that, but I don’t think it is a bad number to keep in mind. Getting good at anything requires both talent and perseverance.

With all this doom and gloom, you might be asking yourself:

Why do it?

Because you have to. Because you have something to say. Because it is who you are.

What else do you need?

Does my Ending Work?


Does my Ending Work?

What ending you choose for your novel can make or break it. And where it should end. This post is about whether the ending you have written works.

Now, whether it works is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, so take everything I say with a grain of salt. Your finale may not work according to this post but does according to your readers. Go with your readers. These are only guidelines.

Ending types

Although types of endings can be parsed in many ways, I am going to concentrate on two.


I certainly know the feeling. I’m coming to the end of the novel. I know the hero is going to get his comeuppance but I’m dreading it. I want him to succeed even though I know that everything is stacked against him. I’m yelling at the page, “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!” But he does and suffers the fate I feared for him.

With this type of story, even though you may not be happy with the ending, it is nevertheless satisfying and feels correct.


The opposite but equally satisfying ending is unexpected for the reader. The story proceeds so that the reader thinks she knows where things are going. And then the conclusion is not what was anticipated.

For this ending to work, the novel has to be constructed so that the hero’s startling choice makes sense. That is, there have to be clues throughout the novel that he might choose the unexpected path but you have cleverly disguised them so that the reader doesn’t notice them while reading.

If you don’t do that, you run the risk of your reader tossing the whole book because the ending seems to come out of the blue and therefore is not credible. Establishing once again that Fiction is Not Life.

What doesn’t usually work

Deus ex machina

It literally means a god from a machine since plays in Ancient Greece used a crane to create the illusion of the gods descending from the heavens (did you really want to know this?). Anyhow, in present day fiction, it means an unexpected event which saves a hopeless situation. Your hero has to choose between his fiancée and the woman he is falling in love with (yes, Downton Abbey). Luckily, the fiancée gets the Spanish flu and is carried off by it. You can just see that crane yanking the fiancée out of the picture.

Seeing it coming from a mile away

On the one hand, with inevitability endings, you want the increasing doom (usually doom—happy is different—see below) to build over the course of the novel. Each action the hero takes pushes him down the inexorable path. On the other hand, you need to tread a fine line. Inevitability becomes boring and predictable and not worth reading if the reader can forecast the ending half-way through. You need to build tension without hitting the reader over the head with what’s coming. Not easy.

Happily ever after

I’m sorry, but as I pointed out previously, happy endings have rather fallen out of literary favor. I’m not saying it’s right but there you are. If the prince proposes to the surprised young thing and they live happily ever after—it’s all too pat for the modern reader. If you really really want a happy ending, you’d probably be better off trying to write a happy ending with a surprise finish. Give it a try but don’t say I didn’t tell you.

Will the Ship Sink? Creating Tension


Will the Ship Sink? Creating Tension

I know a writing book showed me a way to create tension but I can’t remember which one. But I pass the tip on anyway. To wit: every scene in a novel has to end with a question whose answer might imperil or impede the hero’s success (my definition). Doesn’t have to be a big question or an astounding solution. Just has to be one. This unknown writing book author’s capsule phrase was will the ship sink?

An example

You can do a story and not have any tension. Consider this.

Your heroine is climbing a mountain with progressively more challenging ascents.

First slope: No problem. She is enjoying herself.

Second: Also no problem although it is much steeper than the first.

Third: Almost loses her balance but recovers and continues upward.

Fourth: She makes it to the top

Honestly, it’s a story—I’m not saying a good one—but things happen and she achieves her goal. Soooo boring.

Will the ship sink?

Let’s do this again, introducing a little tension. I am keeping the original ending.

First slope: She enjoys it for the first twenty minutes. But is getting winded. The second ascent will be much steeper.

Can she climb the next section?

No: She goes back, humiliation, etc.

Yes: She gathers strength and presses on

Second: Her legs are tired and starting to shake. She tries to use her handpick for purchase but can’t break through the rock.

Will she collapse?

No: She gets a toe-hold in a crevice and catches her breath

Yes: She can’t move

Third: She crawls to the base of the third slope. She forces herself to stand. And feels herself going over backwards.

Will she fall?

No: A boulder stops her fall. She gets back on the trail

Yes: She tumbles down to the bottom of the slope

Fourth: She makes it to the top

It retards the action to pars each scene as I’ve done but I hope it shows that adding a question (however unspoken) heightens the tension for the reader and therefore the impetus to keep reading.

Tips for tension

Every scene

We of course want tension as the climax builds to the end of your novel, but at the end of each scene is also helpful. Not always possible to do, admittedly. But probably more possible than you might think.

At the end of the scene

In the original example, the path gets steeper and she almost loses her balance. These could will-the-ship-sink moments but are resolved within the scene. So they don’t impel the reader forward.

More possibilities

Building in tension can open up the story. What happens if she can’t ascend the first slope? Different story but interesting possibility. Does she go home, defeated? Or does she vow to train and come back?

Negative outcomes create more tension

Generally speaking, the story is more exciting if each scene has a negative outcome for the protagonist. More tension. More pulling of the reader along. It can also take you into unexpected territory, not where you expected to go with the story. And that can be fun for you.

So, will the ship sink?

The Difficult Middle


The Difficult Middle

Rosabeth Moss Kanter is a famous Harvard management guru. She wrote:

A basic truth of management—if not of life—is that nearly everything looks like a failure in the middle…persistent, consistent execution is unglamourous, time-consuming and sometimes boring.

In my last post, I’m Stuck, I recommended getting out of being stuck by creating a list of tasks (less description, more tragic heroine, more atmosphere, etc.) to fix the problems with your novel. It is probably a daunting catalogue. Like the swimmer in the picture, it doesn’t look as if you will ever reach land.

That’s where Rosabeth comes in.

Recognizing the difficult middle

It will be worth it when you succeed. Take that as your mantra. Having said that, it is also true that the road to nirvana will have some tough patches. This is one. You are far enough in to know the outline of the story but not far enough along to identify its true shape. You have already invested an enormous amount of time and effort and you’re not sure whether it’s worth it. But instead of doing the artist thing of throwing your hands up and the manuscript out the door, just accept that this is the difficult middle. It’s not a comment on the quality of your writing. It is just the difficult middle that all worthwhile projects have to go through. You have reached yours.

Getting through

What I am going to suggest is pretty mechanical but it can get you home.

Step 1. Elaborate on your list.

  • For each of the items, flesh it out a bit. How could you do it? What scene would illustrate it? Could I stick a bit in an earlier scene to accomplish this? Any main points that I want to make sure I include?
  • If at any point in doing this, you get excited about the possibilities and have to urge to write the scene, do it. No need to finish your broccoli before you get dessert.
  • But do eventually eat your broccoli and finish the list—again stopping to write if/whenever the spirit moves.
  • If you don’t have the skill/knowledge to accomplish a particular item, identify who to ask for help. Skill/knowledge is not the same as talent. You can have oodles of the latter and still need to learn the tricks of the trade.

Step 2. Prioritize

  • With your annotated list, re-order it. Not in order of what is most important for the novel or the hardest, but with the ones you are most interested in.
  • Work through from the most motivating to the least.

Step 3. Dump

  • Sometime as you are working your way out of the difficult middle, stop to ask yourself, do I really need this scene?
  • Often, especially near the end of the list but it can happen at any time, you realize that the passage is unnecessary because:
    • You’ve made the point elsewhere
    • You can tweak an already written piece to include what you want
    • The reader already knows this
    • You can just stop the last scene and open on the new one. You don’t need the transition scene. Like getting the protagonist from home to downtown.
  • Dump these. Not only will it give you a thrill but it will get you home that much faster.

Accepting that there is a middle, that it is difficult, and that has nothing to do with your talent or creativity will help you get through to The Promised Land.

I’m Stuck


I’m Stuck

One thing writers are unfailingly good at—finding reasons not to write. Whether it’s lack of time, fear of hurting someone, being convinced every word is junk, blanking, experiencing writer’s block—you name it, we can come up with it. And here is another variant: you are writing but are stuck. That is, you faithfully put bum in chair but the results are discouraging.

Varieties of being stuck

This one even comes in variants on the theme.

The story isn’t going anywhere. You know where you want to take the plot but your writing feels meandering and worthless. You can’t seem to make it as exciting and involving as it should be.

What I’m doing isn’t working. You want to put across a feeling, an action, a meaning and what you’re doing isn’t cutting it. Maybe you don’t have the skill?

The next scene turns out flat and boring. Your mind is numbing just in reading the scene over. You need this incident to move the plot forward but you’re sure the reader will toss the book at this point. If you can’t stand it, how can your reader?

Thoughts of junking the whole thing are raising their ugly heads.

Remedy to being stuck

First of all, you know, this can be a form of writer’s block, so reread that post and see if any of the suggestions feel right.

Luckily, although there are a variety of ways of being stuck, there is a remedy which can help all forms.

Choose something exciting to write.

Might be a later part of the novel which will be fun to write. Might be an action scene just to see if it works for your characters. Whatever it is, pick something which will entertain you.

Then write it. Fully engage your right brain. Suppress or ignore any demons lurking and go for it. Don’t stop until you have either finished the scene or gotten back your mojo.

This often works for me because it forcibly reminds me why I love to write. It has the added advantage of taking you away from drudging on with a tedious but necessary scene or even one which, in the edit, you decide you don’t need.

Bad news—sometimes you’re stuck for good reason

The remedy suggested usually works but sometimes you are stuck because the novel really isn’t working. But don’t throw in the towel immediately.

I know that you feel that it isn’t working, but feelings can be unreliable companions. Great for writing, not so good for analysis. You need to let your left brain kick in. Write down where the problems are specifically. Might be too much background, too little, too much build-up, not enough, etc. Actually write them down. If you just think them, the feelings may take over the exercise.

With the list, decide how to fix the issues, including getting help for techniques or approaches you don’t know how to do.

Look over list and remedies. If you did that, would the novel start working for you? Now, this is different from this is a lot of work. It undoubtedly will be. I’ll address that in the next post. Right now, stick to would it be good with the fixes?