It Doesn’t Get Easier

By Allison Brennan

Two weeks ago I offered an ARC of SUDDEN DEATH to one commenter, and the winner is . . . 

Renee!!! 

Please email me at allison @ allisonbrennan . com (no spaces) with your snail mail address and I'll pop it out in the mail to you.

Writers get the same questions over and over again. Most non-writers usually ask, "Where do you get your ideas?" Aspiring writers ask many things, chief among them, "What do you know now that you wish you knew before you sold?"

I always HATED that question. Hated it. Because I didn't have an answer. It's sort of like the question, what decision did you make in your past that you wish you could do different? I say, nothing. Because even though I've made mistakes in my life, if I made a DIFFERENT choice, I may not be in this place. Even mistakes have silver linings.

But now I have an answer to the dreaded question.

Earlier this week at Murder She Writes, I blogged about hating my writing process. To summarize: I procrastinate and write and rewrite the first act (to use Alex's terminology!) of every book (over and over and over again) until I become panicked because my deadline nears, yet I seem to write better and faster when I'm in panic mode. The first act takes me twice as long to write as acts two and three combined. (And no, when I'm writing I don't think of them as acts, I didn't even realize I had a problem with the beginning of act two until I read Alex's essay on Act Two.)

I think I was writing my seventh book when I was chatting online with the incredible Mariah Stewart and I said something really dense, like, "I can't wait until like you I have twenty books under my belt and it's easier." I think she's STILL laughing at me. She said something like, "Honey, it never gets easier. No matter how well or poorly your last book did, you'll always keep pushing yourself to do better."

So now I have an answer to what I wish I had known then: "It doesn't get easier."

If only so I didn't embarrass myself in front of Mariah and look like a total amateur.

It not only doesn't get easier, it gets harder.

There's no doubt in my mind that I'm a better writer today than I was when I sold my first book in March of 2004. THE PREY was my fifth completed manuscript, and I knew it was better than the four that came before it. When I sold it, I thought that was the pinnacle, that I could never write another book as good as that one. That was it. When THE PREY hit the NYT extended list, I couldn't write for seven weeks. I was paralyzed. I was convinced it was a fluke, that when readers bought THE HUNT–which came out the following month–that they'd realize I was a novice and not worth the time or money. When THE HUNT hit the extended list, I convinced myself that it was only because people liked THE PREY so they bought my next book, but everyone was going to hate it and the last book of the trilogy would tank because reader would feel ripped off.

So until THE KILL hit, I couldn't write. It wasn't because I didn't have ideas–I never seem to lack for ideas (knock on wood)–but because I didn't think I could do any better.

Authors can't tread water and be successful. And when you're growing your career, treading water is the kiss of death. Especially in this market and economy and with all the changes in the industry.

Let's face it: if Stephen King or Nora Roberts or John Grisham writes a dud, their readers will still buy their next book because most of the time, they deliver and their fans trust them.

But what up those of us still crawling up the mountain? One dud and we're teetering on the edge. Worse, or confidence is shaken because we KNOW we're teetering and we KNOW we couldn't have done better, and if we couldn't have done better THEN, how can we do better NOW?

I think about this whenever I start a new book. Okay, "think" is the wrong word. I obsess about this whenever I type CHAPTER ONE.

I typed CHAPTER ONE on Wednesday night.

When I read the page proofs of my upcoming book (the one Renee won), I was thrilled. Why? Because I was shocked that I liked it. It didn't have any major flaws that I could see, nothing I would have done different, I liked my characters and the story and . . . then I panicked. Because I had just started another book and there was no way in hell that I would be able to write another book like that one. It couldn't be done. I didn't even know how I did it. How could the mess in my head turn out so good? It can't be done again.

And that was the first reason why I missed the deadline on the next book. Yes, my book was two weeks late. Why? Because I couldn't get beyond the fact that what I was writing sucked.

Now that book is off to production and I'm dreading getting back the copyedits and going through it again because I know I'm going to see every flaw and problem in the manuscript and just know my career is over.

Thus my problem with CHAPTER ONE.

When I type CHAPTER ONE, I expect to have learned something from the previous books I've written. Before I was published, I assumed that once I got the hang of things, that writing a book would be easier–after all, I have eleven books out there. It SHOULD be easier. Right? 

But it's harder. Much harder. Because now I have READER EXPECTATIONS. 

I don't expect to please all the readers all the time, but I DO expect to please MY readers all the time. And what if I can't do it? What if the last book was the last book I had in me, regardless of all the ideas that pop unbidden into my head. I'm paralyzed thinking that I'll disappoint them. I'll disappoint my editor. 

So it's harder and I stare at Chapter One. I can picture the story in my head–the characters, the opening scene. Because I'm visual, I see everything. I know it's there, somewhere, I just have to pull it out. But extracting the story isn't easier, and any aspiring writer out there needs to know that.

When you sell, you have a whole host of other things to deal with, in addition to being creative and writing stories like the one you sold. When you have readers, you have reader expectations and they'll let you know when you screw up. When you hit lists, you have people who tell you how lucky you are, when you feel like you're clinging to the side of a mountain without rope or a safety net. Yep, lucky. Sure. Did you see those cliffs down there? They're sharp. And there are sharks in the water, too, circling, and they smell fear as well as blood.

The book I'm writing now is the last romantic thriller I'm contracted for. Next up is the supernatural thriller series. I'm scared shitless. Though I'm getting burned out on the romantic thrillers (not because I don't love them, but after writing twelve in less than five years, I want to do something different) I'm scared to start something that isn't similar to what's come before. I wrote a proposal for my next romantic thriller trilogy and in some ways, I want to write it next because there is a comfort to going back to your roots and writing within a structure and to specific reader expectations. But if I get burned out, it will show, and I'll never want to
write another. So taking a break for a couple books is a good thing, I know that intellectually, my muse knows that (as she's been screaming at me about the supernaturals since I came up with the series idea in 2003–yep, before I sold), but in the back of my brain I hear that little naysayer bitch saying, "You're going to piss off your readers, you don't know what you're doing, how in the world do you think you can pull this off? Do you have delusions of grandeur or what?" 

But I also know me, and if I get bored I won't do a good job, and then my career really will be in the toilet. I'll be treading water, but in a toilet the suction pulls you down into the sewer. Not pleasant. So taking a break is a good thing. Unless, of course, I fall off that cliff, my body breaks on the rocks and the sharks chow down. (Now I'm mixing imagery. I really am losing it!)

Ironically, this is true in all other aspects of our lives. Take raising children. You think having a baby is hard. The panic of an infant and toddler and how precious and delicate they are–you think, this is hard, making sure they have what they need and taking care of them. You think, okay, it has to get easier. Then you have a teenager and realize she's so, so, so much harder than a baby and you wish you had that little one back . . . but in many ways, though harder, more satisfying because all your hard work has (hopefully) paid off.

PainPanic
Because I'm a professional (professional=someone is paying me to tell stories and, honestly, it doesn't get any better than that, warts and all), I will get beyond CHAPTER ONE and I will finish this book and I will do revisions, through all the pain and panic.

Here's my parting advice:

1) It gets harder. Accept it now and you won't be surprised.

2) Don't tell an author you think is successful that they're lucky. Sure, luck is involved in everything, but believe me, they don't feel lucky. They feel like they're about to fall off a damn high cliff and be eaten alive by sharks. There is nothing lucky about the writing itself. Every author has to put their ass in the chair and write one word after another.

3) Writers block is a figment of your imagination. Repeat often enough and it will come true. Honestly, professionals write even if they screw up. Amateurs use the crutch of writers block to avoid making mistakes. We all get stuck sometimes. But writers block is really fear, and you just have to accept you're scared to death, then write on.

CHAPTER ONE

It was a dark and stormy night . . . 
 

15 thoughts on “It Doesn’t Get Easier

  1. Alli

    I recently discovered this blog and love, love, love it! Allison, thanks for a great post – I feel the pain and thanks for the warning that it doesn’t get easier. Argh! Looking forward to your new series!

    Reply
  2. Allison Brennan

    Hi Alli! Glad you discovered us deviant minds at Murderati. We’re not as crazy as we appear. Except for that Cornelia chick . . . πŸ˜‰

    RJ, I figured I’d stick with the tried and true for this next book.

    Reply
  3. J.T. Ellison

    Allison, you’ve just voiced EXACTLY what I’m going through right now. And I do the same thing – rewrite the first 100 pages 100 times, then the last 250 flow no problem.

    I think you’ve hit on the one thing no one wants to admit – it DOES get harder, not easier. Thanks for saying it out loud.

    Reply
  4. ZoΓ« Sharp

    Hi Allison – great post. I think we all suffer from the weight of expectation – either our own or somebody else’s. Real or imagined.

    I solve the scary blank CHAPTER ONE file and that goading cursor, by always trying to have an opening written to the next book before I’ve actually finished the current one.

    Sometimes it even works …

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    You’ve pegged it, Allison. I remember stumbling with the second book, then the third, thinking “Oh my God, it’s not just my writers group this time. My agent is going to read this! My editor! My readers! What if they hate it?” It never goes away.

    Reply
  6. Allison Brennan

    Hey Cornelia, our neuroses must be from the water . . . since I was raised in your backyard.

    J.T., wait, no one admits it? Does that mean I’m the weird one? The neurotic one? Damn.

    Zoe (okay, last time I tried to put the dots on top, I cleared all the fields and had to retype my comments . . . ) . . . I used to have multiple WIPS going, but now I become so focused on one that I can’t even seem to think of anything else, or if I do, I tend to give the new characters my current characters personalities and that always ends in tragedy . . . But I watched THE MATRIX for the umpteenth time last night and that movie always seems to make my creative juices flow . . .

    Thanks for making me feel oh so much better, Louise. I wasn’t even thinking about my agent and editor . . .

    Yep. I embarrassed myself in front of Nora Roberts once when I told her I admired her because she put her ass in the chair and wrote . . . I kid you not. (she has a great article on her website about focus and her schedule. I don’t remember if she quoted someone or if she coined the phrase, but she’s often said, “I can fix a written page, I can’t fix a blank one.” I have to remember that, especially at the beginning . . .

    Reply
  7. toni mcgee causey

    I so needed to see this today, A, thank you. In the middle of line edits for book three that I honestly believe is the best thing I’ve ever written, and STILL there are awkward phrasings and rough transitions and imagery that falls short of whatever it was that was in my head when I was in that dreamlike state back when I wrote it. It made me sigh last night and feel incredibly frustrated because I thought, “Surely by now, I’m supposed to be better at this writing thing.” I know this one’s better than the last, but still, it hasn’t met that bar I have in my head. Which immediately begs the question, “Can I possibly do it again, but better?”

    It’s like saying, “Gee, for a career, I want to get paid for being scared witless on a roller coaster.”

    Then I came here and saw that you’re still terrified at book 12. I’m not sure if that’s reassuring (BECAUSE SUDDEN DEATH IS AWESOME–I am LUCKY to have gotten an ARC)… or if it’s depressing as hell, because one day I’d like to think I know what I’m doing, but if you don’t, and Mariah Stewart doesn’t… yikes.

    Maybe this is why hanging out at the bar at conferences is so damned much fun–we’re all just terrified together, might as well enjoy the ride.

    Reply
  8. Robin of mytwoblessings

    I have to say that even for all the angst you go through with the writing process, the end result is always amazing. I was just writing on my blog, how we, the readers, benefit from hearing about your writing process. It makes reading the book all the more worth it.

    Reply
  9. Mariah

    Allison, I never thought you were dense – about ten years ago, I thought this would all get easier, too. Did I leave that part out? I’m just finishing up book #25 and have spent the last three days wrestling with the ending – it would be really nice and much appreciated if just ONCE the process was easy.But as we’ve talked about, it keeps getting tougher because we keep demanding more of ourselves with each new book. But that’s a good thing, right? Why settle for less?xxoxMariah

    Reply
  10. Allison Brennan

    Toni, you read SD, not Fatal Secrets . . . so the jury’s still out on any awesome-ness. The reason we hang out in bars at conference? We need to drown our sorrows in margaritas. Somehow, life just isn’t as scary when you’re tipsy with a bunch a friends who are as scared to death as you are πŸ™‚

    Hi Robin! Thank you so much for your vote of confidence. I’m glad the pain doesn’t show through in the writing . . .

    Marti! Wow, what a surprise πŸ™‚ . . . I use that conversation we had whenever I speak because I always get that question about what I wish I had known . . . you’re too kind to think I wasn’t being a totally dense novice newbie writer. I still feel like I’m new. #25! That’s the silver anniversary, right? You need to treat yourself to something nice when you type THE END.

    Alex, looking on the bright side. LOL

    Reply
  11. Mariah

    No surprise – this is one of my favorite places! I usually don’t comment because for some reason, most of the time when I try to post something, it just sort of vanishes!No, I don’t know where it goes…

    >

    Sweetie, I always treat myself to something terrific when I finish a book.This time around I think it’s going to be a puppy since we are, sadly, down to one dog now.

    xxo

    Reply

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