The Hard Part About Writing

Amber2014I’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.

About Amber

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

About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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9 Responses to The Hard Part About Writing

  1. Oh yeah, I totally relate! A fool’s courage sucked me into this gig too! The adage holds here: the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. Sometimes I catch myself seeing other writers putting out these amazing symphonies and compare my humble offerings but then I make myself stop as I tell myself they didn’t spring onto the scene with these fully formed from their heads: they had to practice and struggle too. So we can link arms as we go forward and yearn for that elusive shore of ease.

    • Hi Angela! Great to hear from you. And ditto. As an author, I especially enjoy seeing how other authors have grown–it’s heartening. I can think of a few who came out strong with something amazing and groundbreaking, and everything else is meh. I would have been incredibly proud to have written those books, but I would definitely prefer a long career with progressive improvement.

  2. Kim says:

    I feel like the more I read about craft, the more paralyzed I become. I just have to stop looking through books and making myself crazy over it or I’ll never put another word on the page. As for the question of when does it become easy, I think of what my daughter told my nephew when he quit college because he “just didn’t like school”. She told him if it was fun and easy it would be called Fun, not school. I guess writing is probably the same–it’s work. We may like doing it, we may be relatively good at it, but it probably won’t ever be easy and fun because it’s work.

    • Kim! Oh, man. I feel you! In fact, after learning that lesson a while back, I personally don’t read any craft books. (I’m sure someone will read this and say “And it shows.”) They just make me totally neurotic. I’m way better off to learn by doing, analyzing, soliciting feedback from trusted CPs. And if there is a craft book someone recommends, I do better with someone else summarizing it for me over coffee or reading a summary blog post. I want to know the big idea and implement it in my own way. This is probably why I became a priest instead of an academic theologian–I felt like most of the school books I ever read would have been adequate as essays ;-)

  3. You are not alone! I am feeling this so much right now. Sometimes the pure volume of things I feel like I’m supposed to know is paralyzing. I have to remind myself, too, that a book doesn’t have to be perfect after the first draft. Sometimes all those lessons you’ve acquired about craft and language can wait until you’ve got the basic bones down. But it’s so hard to put it aside when you see yourself falling into a bad habit.

    In the meantime, I agree. The best part is being in this together <3

    • Yay! High fives on being together!

      And yes to paralysis. And yet…is it really? I’m totally speaking for myself here. (I’m pretty certain creative process is more personal than sex, money and religion. And so far I’ve never gotten severely bogged down or stuck in mine, so I don’t presume to speak about that condition.)

      For me, I wonder if maybe some stories just take that kind of laboring over, some write themselves slower. It’s because I’m learning those things as I go, and sometimes they demand to be nailed in the moment, and my gut is trying to tell me the story won’t come out the same if I don’t linger over this particular scene or dynamic and the aspects of craft it demands.

      I am constantly experimenting with my process–fast draft or not? Plot or not? For me, the speed I move forward seems to have to do with both the rest of my life’s demands and with the nature of the story I’m writing. And I’m trying (which means gritting at my teeth and telling myself over and over again) to be content with how long things take me, because it does seem to take longer than it did in my fool’s paradise.

  4. Emma Barry says:

    We talked about this on Twitter, but it feels like whack a mole. I’ll get one skill down (so, deep POV, as we discussed) but then I’ll notice ten other things I want to work on. Writing is different than (for example) riding a bike. It isn’t one of those things where you ever have mastery because your goals are progressive and changing. But at least it’s like that for all of us. ; )

    • Emma, that little Twitter chat inspired me to think more about this issue–thanks for sharing your two cents with me the other day! I thought Deep POV was such a perfect example of something we have to learn and pretty much master early on–a skill which does get easier in the larger landscape of increasing challenge.

      I like that example of riding a bike, too, because it reminds me that cycling is somebody’s passion and that I’ve been known to get a little OCD about my stats in spin class, too, so achieving balance while peddling as a kid wasn’t mastery either. I suppose all of life can be approached with this attitude, though to keep sane most of us choose one discipline!

      And yes

  5. Bonnie says:

    Oh, I how much I relate to this post. I’ve had a few romance novels published and thought, “Hey, let’s try a screenplay.” I read Story, which knocked me on my butt, craft-wise, I’m still trying to regain my footing. I did not know what I did not know.