I’ve got a humbling admission to make. Writing a long-form story is a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. I’ve written a fair bit of short fiction in my time, but this is my first crack at a longer piece. And it’s really hard.
This might seem to be a strikingly obvious revelation to have. After all, who ever said writing was easy?
The thing is, I’m the world’s greatest armchair critic. I can sit back and analyse what’s wrong with a book or a movie until the cows come home. “It’s so obvious that was never going to work!” I exclaim. “How could the writer(s) miss something this obvious?” I ask. It’s obvious to me that the writers in question either weren’t trying hard enough, or somehow took their eyes off the ball.
Apart from this, I happen to be a trained, professional editor and proofreader. Quite a few people have given me their fictional work over the years and asked me for my opinion. And I’ve been happy to give it. I’m used to taking other people’s stories apart and telling them why they aren’t ticking. Surely I should find writing a novel a piece of cake…
Now I see that I was wrong. Writing is so much harder than, and very different to, reading and criticising. Even if you think you know structure, character, dialogue, etc., until you start putting that into practise in a big way, you don’t know the problems that writers face.
There are a few good reasons why being able to analyse someone else’s writing is different to actually writing yourself.
The first is closeness and emotional attachment. When you consume someone else’s work, it’s easy to see other’s mistakes because you have the required distance from the work. But when you are writing your own stuff, it’s much more difficult, because you are too attached to it. In the story I’m working on now, one of the first scenes I conceived, one of the scenes that made me want to write the damn book, was stopping the whole plot from working. Because I had basically started with that scene, and saw it as core and integral to the whole book, I couldn’t conceive of getting rid of that scene. The problem was, getting rid of the scene was exactly what I needed to do to move forward with the story. It’s emotional and ideological attachment to story elements that stop you from seeing whether they are helping or hindering your tale. When you see others’ work, you don’t have these attachments, and you can be far more dispassionate about whether they are working or not.
A second reason why critiquing is easier than writing, is that when you have a finished, complete piece of work, no matter how bad it is, you are able to see how the parts relate to the whole. Often, when writing, you don’t have that luxury. You have a half-written plot, and some characters and locations might be in kind of a flux. With only part of the information there, you have to make a decision about whether a scene or character fits or doesn’t, and that is much more difficult. This is one of the reasons why it’s best (I think) to work on the overall structure of a story before getting down to scenes. That makes sense, right? You don’t start decorating the house before you’ve built the wood frame, do you? But this approach comes with its own problems.
Which brings me to the third problem, the problem with detail. When you see a finished movie, for example, you have the whole picture up there on screen: the characters, and how they look and act (and who is portraying them), the sets, the lighting, the music. It’s quite straightforward to see what works or what doesn’t work because you are seeing something in its entirety. But when you are writing a story, what people often forget is that you aren’t seeing this whole picture. When deciding on a story direction, you are working with bare bones, and a lot of the texture and colour of a scene will only come after you have decided what is going to happen. So it’s lot more difficult to conceive whether that scene is actually going to work, without the finished texture and colour to breathe life into it. What’s the alternative? Well, you could actually write the whole scene, with dialogue, lighting, narrative etc. Then you’d be able to see better if it actually works as a scene. This is the writing equivalent of building a film set and hiring actors and filming a whole scene with a full crew to decide whether it works. It’s a very labour intensive way of writing. If you wrote every possible scene in a novel to see if it worked before deleting it, writing would take a very, very long time, and you’d probably go mad doing it.
So, having experienced all these difficulties in trying to write a long form story myself, I have resolved that going to be more humble in future when looking at others’ mistakes. Instead of just saying, “This doesn’t work because of X, what idiot wrote this? – more usefully, I might say “This doesn’t work for this reason”, but then go a step further and ask the question, “What might the writer have done to spot this problem, and how could that help me?”