So you want to be a writer, Part 1

A while ago, an aspiring author sent me a manuscript to look over the fight scenes. I just finished sending him my remarks and can picture him now, sitting at his desk, grinding out paragraphs and polishing the sentences. Now I don’t write fiction (nothing published anyway)  but writing is writing, at least at the level I’ll be talking about.

I started writing over six years ago. It happened by accident really. Loren had seen some of my reviews and articles and asked if I’d be interested in co-authoring a book. I was amazed he’d even consider me for such a project but it seemed like fun so why not?

For the record, we wrote several books together and I still don’t feel like a “real” writer. I just don’t know what that’s supposed to feel like. I’m just me, that big, blond guy from Belgium, but with a few published credits to my name.

Anyway, fast forward a year and The Fighter’s Body was born. There’s no feeling quite like the one when you open the box of author copies and see all your hard work lying there on the table. Tangible, real, after all that time and effort. It’s easy then to  romanticize the process that led up to that moment. In your mind’s eye, it all turns into fun and good times:

  • The time you amazed yourself with a hilariously funny sentence.
  • How great it felt when the first chapter was finished and the anticipation of starting on the second.
  • The feeling of accomplishment when you send the manuscript to the publisher.

As you reminisce, your soul fills with a sweet, soft warmth and before you know it you have “The IDEA!” (TM). You’re going to be a full-time writer! By God, Crom and Bob the Mechanic, you’re the next Hemingway!

Hemingway, aka YOU at your desk!

Hemingway, aka YOU at your desk!

Hell, you can already see yourself in one of your million dollar homes! If those other guys can do it so can you, right?

As you can guess, I had “The IDEA!” too. The problem is that it’s a lie. A sweet one at that but you’re still deluding yourself. Because that warmth you feel is not tempered by the other memories it suppresses:

  • The crushing pressure of deadlines.
  • The times you absolutely didn’t know what to write next and were ready to give up.
  • The complete chapter you threw away because it might have been great (you sure thought so) but it was also totally off topic for the book.
  • Those many, many paragraphs you never really managed to get quite right, no matter how much you tried.
  • The quote you KNOW you read five years ago and searched for during the last three days but can’t find anywhere on the internet. Crap,there isn’t even a reference to it.
  • I saved the best for last: The toll it all takes on your personal, professional and romantic life.

And that list goes on for a long time. To be totally truthful, when I finished my last one with Loren, The Fighter’s Guide to Hard-Core Heavy Bag Training, I was ready to burn the manuscript and dance a jig on the smoldering ashes. In fact, of the three books we wrote together, I haven’t ever re-read one of them completely since finishing the manuscript.

When I open that box of author copies, I page through it and am usually happy with some parts but also frustrated and angry at myself for not getting other things right. The first three months afterwards, I don’t even touch the book. I just can’t stand it anymore. It feels like a roommate who spent the last year crowding your every move; you’re ecstatic once he moves out and never want to see him again.

That feeling lessens in time but a part of it always remains. At least, that’s how it is with me. Don’t get me wrong, I love to write. There’s something about it that scratches and itch deep inside of me like nothing else can. It’s also why I started my first website ten years ago and why I like blogging so much. But it’s not all honey and roses. Before you start on that path, you need to know this on a level beyond “Yeah yeah, you just want to bring me down, whatever!” Because that’s certainly not my intent here.

On the contrary, if the bug has bitten you, I’d say go for it and enjoy the ride because it can be an amazing one. Just don’t do it blindfolded.

In the next part, I’ll cover the gruesome reality of what you can expect.

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Comments

  1. Wim,

    This is a excellent and completely accurate post in every way – I experienced the same feelings in the same order! I published a of technical mysteries in 2007, kinda like Law & Order or CSI for technically-minded folks. I had THE IDEA and wrote a sample chapter – I was excited when it was accepted for publication in an industry magazine. Yes! Then I wrote a book proposal and received a contract to write the whole thing.

    You mused about the “hilariously funny sentence” – YES! There are a few sentences in my book that just flowed right out of my brain, and they still crack me up! I can hear them in my mind even now. They say you can’t tickle yourself, but it’s like a great line written by someone else that gets you going over and over – I just love that.

    But you’re right – there’s pain in the process. It had been easy to outline the book – 10 individual chapters of mysteries, so it was easy not to careen off into the sticks and lose good work. But the approach became a little mechanical in the process. I reached a point about 2/3s through where it became a chore – something I dreaded. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel but it was So Far Away. That resolved itself after some serious painful pushing for a few months to meet my own internal deadlines, and the end became a joy/relief.

    Yes, I’ve got pictures of me so excited opening the first box of books, and when it first appeared in a bookstore, but like you, I’ve never reread the book after it was published. Fast forward to today – it’s not like the roommate from hell – THAT point for me was the continual editing/proofreading cycle right before publication. They incorporated the changes they wanted from me, but added other grammar and spelling errors in the process. We went round and round for weeks. But that feeling as since passed. It’s like the book and I went through something together and survived in spite of the pain, and we’re both better for it.

    Thanks for sharing – I’m looking forward to your take on part 2!

    Lisa

    “If I Only Changed the Software, Why is the Phone on Fire? Technical Mysteries for Engineers”

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/blog/A3J9T46E9BOUKN/ref=cm_blog_dp_artist_blog

  2. Wim,

    This is a excellent and completely accurate post in every way – I experienced the same feelings in the same order! I published a of technical mysteries in 2007, kinda like Law & Order or CSI for technically-minded folks. I had THE IDEA and wrote a sample chapter – I was excited when it was accepted for publication in an industry magazine. Yes! Then I wrote a book proposal and received a contract to write the whole thing.

    You mused about the “hilariously funny sentence” – YES! There are a few sentences in my book that just flowed right out of my brain, and they still crack me up! I can hear them in my mind even now. They say you can’t tickle yourself, but it’s like a great line written by someone else that gets you going over and over – I just love that.

    But you’re right – there’s pain in the process. It had been easy to outline the book – 10 individual chapters of mysteries, so it was easy not to careen off into the sticks and lose good work. But the approach became a little mechanical in the process. I reached a point about 2/3s through where it became a chore – something I dreaded. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel but it was So Far Away. That resolved itself after some serious painful pushing for a few months to meet my own internal deadlines, and the end became a joy/relief.

    Yes, I’ve got pictures of me so excited opening the first box of books, and when it first appeared in a bookstore, but like you, I’ve never reread the book after it was published. Fast forward to today – it’s not like the roommate from hell – THAT point for me was the continual editing/proofreading cycle right before publication. They incorporated the changes they wanted from me, but added other grammar and spelling errors in the process. We went round and round for weeks. But that feeling as since passed. It’s like the book and I went through something together and survived in spite of the pain, and we’re both better for it.

    Thanks for sharing – I’m looking forward to your take on part 2!

    Lisa

    “If I Only Changed the Software, Why is the Phone on Fire? Technical Mysteries for Engineers”

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/blog/A3J9T46E9BOUKN/ref=cm_blog_dp_artist_blog

    • Hey Lisa,

      I figured people have a very limited view of what writing is really like. the romantic idea of it is real nice but the reality is very different. When people find out I’ve written a few books, they usually look at me in a funny way, either as if it’s some big deal or like I just sprouted a second head. Lots of misunderstanding out there. And the main thing is always an image of the writer sitting behind his desk as the words flow out of his pen. Probably lighting a pipe as he churns them out…

      When Russel sent me his manuscript, it reminded me of all the things I experienced at first and still do after six years. Some things are different now, some are the same. That’s what this guide will be about. Pretty much my experience and take on things. It’s a blast seeing that your path is similar so far. Makes me feel a little less like a lunatic. ;-)

      Wim

  3. Yes, lot’s of misunderstanding. People look at me the same way – kinda with awe and then ask how long it took me. I used to think the same way – “Oh, someone wrote a book – amazing! I could never do that!” Now I realize it’s 10% great idea and 90% sweat and headbanging.

    I pitched the idea to a guru in my field who has written several good books, and crossed my fingers SO HARD that he would agree to write the foreword – and he did! And I thought that maybe I COULD write a book. And then he said something I didn’t realize then, but now completely agree with.

    He told me, “I don’t write books to make money. I’ll never get rich or fund my retirement on book sales. I never sit down and decide to write a book; instead, a book forces its way out of me.”

    To me, that was profound. My book MADE itself be written. I left it open to a part two, but now I find a DIFFERENT book is starting to force its way out. He was right – it’s the strangest feeling in my gut!

    Nah, we’re both lunatics. I’m happy with that. ;-)

  4. Yes, lot’s of misunderstanding. People look at me the same way – kinda with awe and then ask how long it took me. I used to think the same way – “Oh, someone wrote a book – amazing! I could never do that!” Now I realize it’s 10% great idea and 90% sweat and headbanging.

    I pitched the idea to a guru in my field who has written several good books, and crossed my fingers SO HARD that he would agree to write the foreword – and he did! And I thought that maybe I COULD write a book. And then he said something I didn’t realize then, but now completely agree with.

    He told me, “I don’t write books to make money. I’ll never get rich or fund my retirement on book sales. I never sit down and decide to write a book; instead, a book forces its way out of me.”

    To me, that was profound. My book MADE itself be written. I left it open to a part two, but now I find a DIFFERENT book is starting to force its way out. He was right – it’s the strangest feeling in my gut!

    Nah, we’re both lunatics. I’m happy with that. ;-)

    • That’s what I meant with writing scratching an itch inside of me. Some things just have to be written down. You need to get it out of your head.

      If you have a good feeling about the new one, just go for it. You’ll have no peace of mind until you do. :)

  5. Writing is one of the least romantic activities I know of. I have been doing of and on since I was a teenager, both fiction and non-fiction, and it’s bloody hard work most of the time. The more you do it though, the better you get at it, but it is usually still a hard slog to get the words out. Fiction especially is quite hard work and incredibly frustrating at times. Blogging, I find to be a bit easier, since I’m writing about something I’m passionate about and have quite a lot of experience in. The words flow a bit more because of this.

    Despite the fact that writing is hard graft, I love it- always have and always will. I consider it my calling, not to be too pretentious about it. If I didn’t have the compulsion to do it I probably wouldn’t bother. It’s just one of those things that I have to do, like martial arts.

    If you have the writing bug nothing will stop you from doing it. In fact you need it to get you through. Without that compulsion you just won’t succeed.

    Good post, Vim. Looking forward to the second part.

  6. Writing is one of the least romantic activities I know of. I have been doing of and on since I was a teenager, both fiction and non-fiction, and it’s bloody hard work most of the time. The more you do it though, the better you get at it, but it is usually still a hard slog to get the words out. Fiction especially is quite hard work and incredibly frustrating at times. Blogging, I find to be a bit easier, since I’m writing about something I’m passionate about and have quite a lot of experience in. The words flow a bit more because of this.

    Despite the fact that writing is hard graft, I love it- always have and always will. I consider it my calling, not to be too pretentious about it. If I didn’t have the compulsion to do it I probably wouldn’t bother. It’s just one of those things that I have to do, like martial arts.

    If you have the writing bug nothing will stop you from doing it. In fact you need it to get you through. Without that compulsion you just won’t succeed.

    Good post, Vim. Looking forward to the second part.

    • No worries Veal, I should have it up next week. And there’ll be a couple of cool “guest appearances” in the next parts. :-)

  7. I ended up reading Part 3 first, but this is a great series, thanks. Writing is weird and I admire all who take it on and do it well. Like so many other things the standards vary greatly and seem to be coming down in many circles. It is a great pleasure though to read really well written work. And I do appreciate that it is work.

    DD

  8. I ended up reading Part 3 first, but this is a great series, thanks. Writing is weird and I admire all who take it on and do it well. Like so many other things the standards vary greatly and seem to be coming down in many circles. It is a great pleasure though to read really well written work. And I do appreciate that it is work.

    DD

    • @Dennis. Yes, when it’s done well, it’s a joy. That said, I’ve wrestled through some hideously written books because the subject matter was so intriguing. But you just keep on wishing the writer was better at his job every time you turn a page… :-)

  9. I think I must be slightly odd. I love writing and I don’t find it hard to get the words out. I have the opposite problem where I will come up with one idea, then another, then another and they’re all clamouring for my attention like little children saying ‘daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy, dad, dad, dad, dad, dada, dada’ whilst tugging on my coat :)

    I too had issues with my somewhat expensive editor adding in mistakes, not spotting others and not spotting that I’d used two pictures that were the same as part of a sequence. I only noticed that when someone on martialartsplanet.com pointed it. Gutted is like saying ‘seppuku hurts’.

    However, I have another martial arts book that I’m part the way through (only 15k words or so, I’ve submitted an entry to the Black Library for a piece of fiction (they had an open window) and I have a number of Steampunk-based books that I also want to crack on and get writing.

    All this with a family, martial arts club, full-time job and LIFE in general :)

  10. I think I must be slightly odd. I love writing and I don’t find it hard to get the words out. I have the opposite problem where I will come up with one idea, then another, then another and they’re all clamouring for my attention like little children saying ‘daddy, daddy, daddy, daddy, dad, dad, dad, dad, dada, dada’ whilst tugging on my coat :)

    I too had issues with my somewhat expensive editor adding in mistakes, not spotting others and not spotting that I’d used two pictures that were the same as part of a sequence. I only noticed that when someone on martialartsplanet.com pointed it. Gutted is like saying ‘seppuku hurts’.

    However, I have another martial arts book that I’m part the way through (only 15k words or so, I’ve submitted an entry to the Black Library for a piece of fiction (they had an open window) and I have a number of Steampunk-based books that I also want to crack on and get writing.

    All this with a family, martial arts club, full-time job and LIFE in general :)

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