There are days when writing makes me feel like this guy. Actually, every day I write I feel like this guy, at least at the beginning. That’s because beginning is the hardest part, contrary to that annoying song by Tom Petty which claimed that waiting is the hardest part. (actually, I’m much more on board with what Fran Lebowitz had to say about waiting: “The opposite of talking isn’t listening. The opposite of talking is waiting.” But enough said.)
I was on a panel at the magnificent and life-altering Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference last weekend during which we were supposed to talk about writing rituals, and things we had learned on the way to becoming professional writers. Here is what I have learned, in that the following four things are the bedrock of my complete lack of moral fiber when it comes to writing:
And angst. Don’t forget the angst.
I had coffee with a novelist friend who doesn’t write crime fiction while I was at the conference. I asked her how it was going. She said, “My second novel almost killed me. Actually, it may have killed me. I might be walking around dead right now. My brain is so fried I wouldn’t really know the difference at this point. Writing sucks. Did your second novel almost kill you? Because mine almost killed me. Have I mentioned that?”
I said, “Dude, every moment I worked on my second novel, I didn’t know whether to cry or throw up. Some days I did both.”
She laughed in recognition of this mental state. “Third one’s a piece of cake, though, right?”
“A piece of shit, more like,” I said.
I said I would always remember what Jan Burke told me, when I confessed how hard it was to be writing my second novel, back when I was writing my second novel. Here is what she said, “Yeah, they all suck. It’s always excruciating. Don’t expect it to ever get any better.”
My non-crime-writing novelist friend laughed again… the bitter laugh of the completely hosed.
“I think that was really cruel of Jan Burke to say, don’t you?” I continued. “I mean, couldn’t she have lied? Couldn’t she have said, ‘kid, here’s the thing–the second one almost kills you, and you won’t know whether to cry or throw up, most days, but after that it’s like falling off a log. No problem. Just get through this one, and the rest of them you can write in your sleep with both hands tied behind your back,’ right? I mean, would it have killed her to lie about that?”
My non-crime-writing friend said, “So now you’re laying that same horrible view of my future on me, even though you’re still pissed with Jan Burke for telling you the truth. Thanks so much.”
I nodded. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Jan Burke… it’s just that I might have thrown up a few fewer times if she’d lied in that instance, you know?”
“Yeah. Aren’t we the lucky ones?”
“We are. We could be throwing up and not published.”
“That could still happen.”
“Yeah, any day now,” I said.
“So how was it writing your third book?” asked my friend.
“Shit,” I said. “Unmitigated shit. And I hate the fourth book already.”
“How much of the fourth one have you written?”
“About a page and a half,” I said. “And it’s already a stinking pile of unreadable crap.”
“You know what Dorothy Parker said are the two best things you can do to help out aspiring writers?” I asked.
“No, what?” asked my friend.
“She said the second most helpful thing you can do is buy them a copy of Strunk and White.”
“What’s the first most helpful?”
“‘Shoot them now, while they’re still happy.'”
Then we spent the next twenty minutes talking about how everyone who sold more books than we do should die, unless they were really nice to us. Successful novelists who don’t know us should be loaded onto a bus and driven off the edge of the Grand Canyon, we figured. With bells on.
This is why I love hanging out with fellow writers. We’re all nuts in similar ways, which makes me feel better.
We are none of us exactly Little Mary Sunshine.
But as I said to my stepmom a few weeks ago, sitting down to right every morning is like knowing you have to punch your way through a brick wall. Except every morning you realize again that the bricks are made of styrofoam, as soon as you screw up the courage to throw that first roundhouse.
On the other hand, I still have a page and a half of book four. So, you know, it’s not quite like falling off a log yet. Or maybe it’s like falling off a log with both hands tied behind my back.
And also, I am a whiny little bitch.
‘Ratis, what do you tell yourself when it’s time to get started? How do you talk yourselves out of believing everything is doomed to failure, and that it’s time for The Rapture? Inquiring Cornelias want to know…
I haven’t even had breakfast and this already made my day. Usually breakfast makes my day, well, starts it anyway, but you made me laugh so much that I may not need caffeine.
Shoot me now. I’m still happy.
We had the option of being shot instead? Great. Now you tell me. Thanks a lot.
Book 2 nearly killed me.
Book 3 was a slight bit easier, if only because a lot of decisions I’d had to make for book 2 carried forward for book 3 — so I knew much more about book 3 going into the first page.
Book 4 very well may kill me yet.
Oh, great post! I’m unpublished but working on an historical suspense, and I can say that some days the only thing that makes me sit down at the computer is the big "JUST. BLOODY. WRITE." sign I have stuck above my desk. Not like I’m going to die from writing, right? Though it feels like it, some days. And then I think of what it must be like to be published, with deadlines and expectations, and I think it would be better to do anything else … but that’s not going to happen.
Thanks for the laugh, and thanks for the honesty.
Well, it’s not like I have any choice.
Remember Elaine Flinn’s immortal words? "You’re not a real writer until you’ve learned to whine."
And I’ll use Jan Burke again as my inspiration every day: "I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank page."
Cornelia, can’t help but can commiserate. My 4th book kicked my ass from here to eternity. The second was a breeze, if you consider that 60,000 words in a decided the plot wasn’t working, bagged the whole thing and started over. Each book has it’s worries and delights, and all we can do is get those words on the page.
The first book is just out (Freezer Burn, ‘scuse me while I dance around in circles), I’ve started on the second, and I officially want someone to shoot me. Now, please. I can’t figure out who I want to kill and why (in the book). Maybe I should just invent a writer (me) that gets too full of herself (me) so she has to be assassinated (me).
Yeah. Yeah, that’ll work.
If the Red Sox can win the World Series–twice in four years–I can write a novel.
I SO needed to read this today. LOL. I am a real writer because I , too, am a "whiny little bitch."
Thanks so much for making my day.
Great post, Cornelia. I’m right there, man, working on the second book as we speak, quite aware that I will turn it in a month late. And I’m just about to start today’s work…and I don’t wanna do it. The beach is out there. People are playing volleyball. Please, don’t make me do it…
Loved, loved, loved today’s post Cornelia! Sounds like similar conversations I’ve had with writing buddies. Oh, the tragedy of it all!
Louise, Elaine Flinn’s quote is briliant – "You’re not a real writer until you’ve learned to whine." I believe I have been honing those skills for years.
Thank goodness most writers are all a tad bonkers – that’s probably why we all stick together – no one else gets us or our angst!
I was really counting on the fourth book to be a walk in the park. That’s what got me through the third book. I’m not sure what will get me through the fourth book…
Faye Kellerman told me the same thing about it not getting easier. If I hadn’t been interviewing her in front of around 300 people, I might’ve socked her.
The way I get past the insecurities is just to sit down and do it . . .
Karen, so glad to make you laugh. As for the shooting, maybe we should all just take numbers and get in line?
Toni, yeah baby!
Rachel, I think I need to copy out your sign to paste to my laptop.
Louise, I love that quote from Elaine–perfect!
JT, I dumped about 30,000 words from my #2, and now it’s #4 that’s horrible. Oh well…
Gayle, huge congrats on Freezer Burn! And take a number about the shooting…
Chris, those Red Sox are just making the rest of us look bad at this point. I used to feel like they shared my pain–freaking winners, I hate them!
Rebecca, welcome to Planet Whiny Little Bitch!
Stephen, volleyball, schmolleball, dude! Let us all suffer together…
Alli, we’ll just let our angst flags fly. Yay!
Barrie, we need to bond over our fourth book hell. And maybe we can just worry about how much book five will suck?
Pari, I’m supposed to be sitting down and doing it right now. My writing group drove down from San Francisco and environs today, and we’re all sitting at my mom’s dining room table, trying to stop gossiping and start typing.
As an aside, as… well I’m the person too freaked out to even start a writing course( although I am starting an editing course on Monday) I’d like to mention to Toni that even though writing that second book was like a near death experience…damn it paid off for the reader. Just finished reading it the other day and that puppy is tight. Absolutely beautiful pacing, and the layers are all there, just woven together quietly behind all the action.
Actually for each of the newer authors here I noticed this. Greatly enjoyed your first book…but whatever suffering/writing you did with the second book just made me sit back and go whoa.
So although I’m only one reader I’d like to say thanks…for breaking through whatever bricks of self doubt you need to get those books out there.
Wow. Thank you, Catherine. That freaking made my week.
Not only does it not get easier… it seems to me it gets harder… I’m starting #12 and jeeze it has never been as hard.
Great post, Cornelia!
And you still haven’t figured out that I was just trying to get you to shoot me.