I’ve been enjoying Amber Belldene’s posts so much that I asked her to do another guest post in my place. If you haven’t met Amber or read her yet, she writes paranormal and contemporary (new book out last week! One Sinful Night in Sao Paulo). She’s also an Episcopal priest, which influences everything she writes, from blog posts to books. I’ve always loved her tagline, “…because desire is divine.”
The hard part about writing is getting better at it.
It’s probably not author-brand savvy to admit I had not mastered writing when my first book was published in 2013 or that I still haven’t learned to dominate my muse nor made craft my bitch. But heck, this is Wonkomance, where writers get real.
I hope you’ll get real with me about how growing as a writer means a deeper kind of struggle with craft.
In my life, I’ve gotten better at other things. I became a better knitter, and I loved to tackle more challenging techniques. I trained until I could complete triathlons. I’d like to think I’ve grown as a priest too, since being ordained. I’ve certainly grown comfortable in the pulpit and at the hospital bed in ways I once thought impossible. In all those cases, my growth was profoundly rewarding. Mastery made things easier and more fun.
Can someone please tell me when that is going to happen with my writing?
Because the more I do it (and hopefully, get better at it), the harder it feels. Sometimes it’s hard in a good way, and sometimes it’s just plain painful.
The best analogy I have for this is a musical one. I’m no musician, but this works for me: When I first starting writing, I was essentially picking out a tune, like I do on my kids’ xylophone. Slow, linear, not a bit of polyphony, and always something familiar.
My grasp of craft was so limited I didn’t really understand the difference between a symphony and a single line of melody. Or, better said, I had an appreciation for a lush, symphony-like book, but didn’t understand the elements of craft well enough to know how to get from melody to harmony and beyond.
And thank God! It gave me a fool’s courage to start. If I’d had any notion of how much I didn’t know, I would have faltered at the bottom of page one.
Now, I am probably writing music for trios and quartets. I’m still far from a symphony. But every sentence I write feels harder than those first sentences. I am simply aware of so much more. Aware of how, in the best books, every word and sentence is doing about a million things—it’s contributing to voice (character’s and author’s), characterization, plot, theme, mood, trope, and ties in to larger issues like stereotypes, gender role, and the conventions of the genre. Each word is working in harmony with and counterpoint to every other. There’s more. Even if I managed to write down all the facets I can attend to on my best writing days, a true master, a composer of symphonies, could add a dozen more words to the list.
As my writing buddy Mark Pritchard says in a Yoda voice, “Now you have begun to truly write.”
Before we started writing, most of us had probably read enough to have a solid intuition about how to do it, had paid attention to craft somewhat unconsciously, which is why we have that fool’s courage to start, and why others encouraged us to keep at it—they saw some kernel of unsuckiness in our beginner’s work.
But when suddenly we become self-aware, conscious of what once was automatic, it only adds to that sense of labor, not mastery. We have eaten from the tree of knowledge, we know we are naked and we’ve been kicked out of the Garden of Eden, forced to toil.
Even outside the Garden of Eden, eventually some things do get easier. When I was bemoaning the “it gets harder” problem on Twitter, Emma Barry pointed to a particular aspect of style essential to the romance genre: Deep Point of View, and how now she can do it easily, perhaps even automatically. Ideally, we become that fluent with many aspects of craft.
In the flow of drafting a scene, when I can cage my internal editor, I often enjoy a sense of ease. Even in the revision stage, I sometimes see something I might not have seen before, come up with a solution, and feel really happy about it.
But it never feels like mastery.
Perhaps you will tell me I’m just not there yet. A sense of mastery will come. One day (and everyone’s journey varies in duration) I will arrive at the writer’s paradise of ease and fun in this work. Other aspects of writing have come when I was certain they never would (namely, I think I’ve finally stopped pantsing).
Maybe you’re waving at me from that sunny shore of mastery at this very moment. Yay, you! I’m not even especially envious, though I doubt I will ever get there myself.
In fact, I’m not sure I want to, even if I sometimes wistfully wish it were easier (also, that I had more time).
I’m not arguing the best art is born in suffering or anything maudlin like that. Just that with greater self-awareness comes the potential for greater satisfaction in the struggle, even if less satisfaction with our product.
The wider our eyes are open, the more we will inevitably see how, say, the book we set out to write was inherently limited by its premise, and yet it was a story we longed to tell. The more we will make conscious, creative choices others disagree with and take flack for it. When these critiques appear in reviews, we will not be shocked but instead nod our head and agree and keep on writing the next story, hopefully a better story, but it won’t seem better, because by then our threshold will have risen yet again.
It’s like the reverse of how, when I see pictures of myself ten years ago, looking younger and thinner, I recall how I still thought I needed to lose five pounds. When I skim through a published book I wrote months or years ago, I am already cringing over how much better I could make it, if I could only do one more revision.
Growing hurts. We writers may develop thicker skin to the criticism of others, and we may also learn to manage our self-criticism, but I don’t think there is any way to escape going deeper into the struggle with our own vision and aspirations. It’s a little (or maybe some days big) fire always burning inside us, a flame of inspiration and purification, to refine ideas.
I’m trying to embrace it. I’m trying to have the courage to feed that fire and to keep working on the projects that scare me, that kick my ass, the ones I just want to finish but must find the patience to make better because I have gotten better as a writer.
If you haven’t reached that paradise of mastery yet, I’m glad to have you out here with me, toiling in exile from Eden. I appreciate your courage, the risks you take. I appreciate your honesty and vulnerability. I love your books.
The hard part about writing is getting better at it.
The best part is not struggling alone.
I grew up on the Florida panhandle, swimming with alligators, climbing oak trees and diving for scallops…when I could pull myself away from a book. As a child, I hid my Nancy Drew novels inside the church bulletin and read mysteries during sermons—an irony that is not lost on me when I preach these days.
I’m an Episcopal Priest and student of the worlds’ religions. I believe stories are the best way to explore human truths, and I’m passionate about the deep ties between spirituality and sexuality. Some people think it’s strange for a minister to write romance, but it is perfectly natural to me, because the human desire for love is at the heart of every romance novel and God made people with that desire.
I write paranormal, historical and contemporary romance and live with my husband and two children in San Francisco.
Find out more about me and my books at amberbelldene.com.