Three paradoxes of writing life

MC Escher Paradox of being a writerYesterday I spoke at the New Generation Publishing selfpub summit, and the discussions threw up some interesting paradoxes that writers encounter.

1 We must produce, but never rush.
Unless we’re writing only for the satisfaction of filling a document, we need an output mentality. We set schedules, aim to present work to critiquers, editors and readers, build a rack of titles for more market share and £££. But we must also learn our natural pace to give a book the proper time.

Last week Maya Goode took my post about the slow-burn writer and added some thoughts of her own, resolving to be swift with her blogging output, and leisurely about her fiction. (To an extent, this post will include a hopscotch through my archives. If you’ve recently arrived on this blog and these ideas strike a chord, these links are a junction box for further exploring.)

Certainly, some books take a lot of time – but equally, you can tinker far too long and make a mess.

So what do established authors do? What’s a reasonable daily wordcount? You might as well ask a bunch of cats to form an orderly queue at the fridge door. Every writer measures a good day’s work by different standards and methods (helpful, huh?) . And if slow sales are panicking you to hurry the next book, here’s what some authors did to fight back, without compromising their standards.

2 We learn from others, but teach ourselves.
No matter how many courses you attend or manuals you ingest, your most effective learning is your own explorations. None of my real-life author cronies ever took a writing course. They taught themselves.

How did they do that? By reading with awareness.

Here I’m going to advance a theory. If there’s such a thing as a natural writer, it’s a person who is unusually sensitive to prose. For such people, a book isn’t just a story told on pages, it’s a transformation they’re observing on their own heart and mind. With every phrase, a clutch of neurones parses this question – what did that do? (Honestly, it doesn’t spoil the fun. It’s part of the pleasure. Quick question – how many of us here are slow readers?)

Anyway, our individual style comes from noticing the tricks of others and knitting them into our DNA.

You might say I’m doing myself out of a job here. Indeed, how dare I offer writing books,  courses, seminars et al? Well, I can’t do the work for you, but I can help with insights from my own journey, feedback, awareness, methodology and (I hope) a friendly word of encouragement. To be honest, I’m first a writer, then a teacher.

BTW, there are ways to find writing help without paying a second mortgage.

sidebarcrop3 We make our own rules but recognise when we’re wrong.
Much of the time, the writing process is an experiment. If we’re novice authors, we’re searching for our style, our voice, our signature. Even when we’re experienced, we still grapple with uncertainty – a stubborn plot, obscure characters. Each book goes through a formative stage with shaky bits, and feedback to do things differently. Sometimes that feedback is dead right; sometimes it’s way off beam. We need to assert our own vision – but also know when to listen.

Sometimes we’re misled by critiquers who didn’t understand what we were doing. Sometimes we need to ignore an editor’s suggestions, but find out where the real problems lie.

But sometimes the only option is to unplug and listen to our instinct.

(Pic by MC Escher)

That’s me paradoxed out. What would you add? And tell me if you’re a slow reader – and if so, what slows you down!

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  1. #1 by gibsonauthor on January 17, 2016 - 7:25 pm

    Reblogged this on s a gibson.

  2. #3 by danholloway on January 17, 2016 - 7:28 pm

    The one I’ve come across most frequently relates to your last one – confidence and doubt. We need to have an unshakeable belief that we have something important to say, and yet doing justice to that message will often create an almost desperate sense of doubt and inadequacy in relation to the task. I am always deeply suspicious of writers who say they don’t get self-doubt (because Dunning-Kruger, and also because it usually means they are not scratching at their souls until they reach the darkest most terrifying recesses), but self-doubt can’t leave us so paralysed we never write – we have to believe that what we have to say is really important and that we are uniquely placed to say it.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 17, 2016 - 8:23 pm

      I like what you’re saying here, Dan. You’ve drawn my point out into another paradox, really – confidence versus fear. Fear that we can’t do it. Fear that we might, as you say, scratch too deep. But confidence that we must find a way to say it because we’re the only person who can.
      I’ve ended up paraphrasing your comment, it seems – which must mean I agree. Nicely put.

      • #5 by Lisa Birk on January 17, 2016 - 8:44 pm

        Yes! The paradox of feeling confident you’ve something to say, which grants the wherewithal to dig deep and find something true, and then because you haven’t read it written in that way, doubt, deep, deep doubt that you have anything to say at all. That paradox feels absolutely right to me. Reading your dialogue here helps on a day of many doubts! Thank you, Roz and Dan.

  3. #7 by JAPartridge on January 17, 2016 - 8:06 pm

    My wife has observed that I am a slower reader than her, but that I also retain much more than she does. In my case, having recently discovered I am severely AD(H)D, I’ve paid more attention to my own mental processes as I learn to deal with it. While I may have multiple threads of thought running in my head at any given moment, I believe I have always been aware of my own reactions to material I read or watch, effectively watching myself watch or read whatever material I am focused on.

    Your comment about taking the things we learn from other writers and “knitting them into our DNA” really rang true for me. Being a global thinker, when I recognize something interesting and/or useful, it really feels like it becomes a part of me or at least how I approach the world around me.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 17, 2016 - 8:28 pm

      Hail, slow reader. And what an interesting perspective you bring. Those of us who’ve learned to watch our own mental processes – perhaps through ideas like cognitive behaviour therapy or sports psychology – have this capacity to ‘watch ourselves watch’. You put it so well there. Thanks for stopping by.

      • #9 by JAPartridge on January 18, 2016 - 12:58 am

        I have rather enjoyed your insight. I think I might hang around a bit if you don’t mind.🙂

  4. #10 by theorangutanlibrarian on January 17, 2016 - 8:08 pm

    This is fabulous! I’ve never really thought of writing this way before.

  5. #13 by Diane Tibert on January 17, 2016 - 8:49 pm

    I am a slow reader. Why? I like to absorb each word, and long after I put the book down, I remember it. I know some who read fast but can’t remember certain scenes. How can that happen? Reading is a journey, not a destination. I take weeks to read a book, making the story last unlike others who might finish it in a day.

    Yes: we learn from others but teach ourselves. I’ve been doing this for decades.

    I feel the need to rush to get more books out, but I know this isn’t what I should do. So I don’t. I’m in it for the long term, so I write my books and think of them as steps to the next level.

    Thanks for the post. Very informative.

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 17, 2016 - 8:57 pm

      Hi Diane
      As with Dan’s comment above, I’m nodding furiously at many of your phrases. ‘Reading is a journey’ … ‘writing for the long term’. All I can add is this: amen. (And thank you for the tweet.)

  6. #15 by Helena Halme on January 17, 2016 - 8:55 pm

    A great post, as always, Roz. The self-promotion side of our writing lives as indie authors is another side filled with paradoxes. Hx

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 17, 2016 - 11:24 pm

      Hi Helena! Self-promotion is such a good example. Probably a post in its own right! Great point.

  7. #17 by raulconde001 on January 17, 2016 - 8:59 pm

    Reblogged this on raulconde001.

  8. #20 by acflory on January 17, 2016 - 10:32 pm

    Yes, being an author is like walking a tightrope while suffering from vertigo. Fun.

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 17, 2016 - 11:26 pm

      Isn’t it, Andrea? Might I add another paradox that goes with your wording. The word ‘author’ is the root of ‘authority’. So here we are, quailing with the weight of our own expectations, trying to look like we know what we’re doing.

      • #22 by acflory on January 18, 2016 - 10:04 am

        Hah! Trying being the operative word.😉

  9. #23 by Marialena Gallagher on January 17, 2016 - 10:53 pm

    So on point. I should get back to working on my book; it’s been laying dormant for a while. For some reason, when I have the time to work on it, I don’t think about it. It’s kind of sad, because it’s the farthest I’ve ever gotten with a story.

    • #24 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 17, 2016 - 11:27 pm

      Ho ho, Marialena. To quote a cliche: absence makes the heart grow fonder…

      • #25 by Marialena Gallagher on January 17, 2016 - 11:30 pm

        Touché. At the same time, I feel like if I don’t work on it, it’s never going to get done, you know?

  10. #26 by Paul Gresty on January 18, 2016 - 1:34 pm

    I did do some writing courses. My degree and Master’s degree were both centred on creative writing of some sort. They did some things well – notably, I really feel I learned how to edit, and self-edit, and be edited. In other ways, they weren’t great. F’rinstance, they taught me how to write to please certain tutors, and get good marks, which may not necessarily have been a plus point. From an admin standpoint, both courses were modified while I was on them, considerably devaluing the qualification I was studying for. (But then, maybe half of nothing is still nothing…)

    The two qualifications were pretty much pointless on a CV, except for those courses or jobs that required ‘a degree’ of any description. The teaching and translation I’ve spent much of my career doing to date has been utterly unrelated to creative writing.

    But then, I am working as a writer now. So maybe my studies were of some value. Or maybe I’ve spent five years training to enter a field that requires no formal education.

    Hmm.

    • #27 by JAPartridge on January 18, 2016 - 3:24 pm

      Try finding a company looking to hire someone who has a BA with a double major in religion and philosophy.🙂

    • #28 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 19, 2016 - 9:51 am

      Hi Paul! What an interesting perspective about the courses, that you found yourself trying to tick the tutors’ boxes. In the long run they probably had an effect by adding to your body of knowledge, even if you rejected most of the things you learned at the time. And it’s interesting what you say about the qualifications. I’ve never been asked by an editor or editorial agency if I have qualifications. Experience is all. That doesn’t mean qualifications aren’t useful, but they’re just one of the ways we learn.

  11. #29 by ccyager on January 18, 2016 - 3:49 pm

    Reblogged this on Anatomy of Perceval and commented:
    I found this blog post from Roz Morris helpful and interesting, so I wanted to share it with my readers here. Do you agree or disagree with the paradoxes she identified? Are there more?

  12. #30 by DRMarvello on January 18, 2016 - 7:11 pm

    I can relate to all three of your paradoxes. I think the answer to #1 (produce but don’t rush) is to write consistently. Achieving a specific word count is not as important as making sure you are always producing words. The only word count that utterly defeats you is zero.

    As for #2 (learn from others but teach yourself), I’ve found that reading with awareness has diminished the joy I get from reading. I notice “problems” now that I’d have never noticed in the past. I recently tried to re-read a book that I had long ago enjoyed enough to keep (rare for me), but the writing bothered me so much that I had to set it aside. On a positive note, I pay close attention when I find something inspiring about the writing, and I have definitely incorporated some of the things I’ve learned from reading the work of other writers.

    That said, I benefit a lot from books on writing. I find that the true “learning” from those books doesn’t usually sink in until I’m doing revision. While revising, my mind is in the right state to evaluate my work and apply the tips I’ve picked up from my writing library mentors (including one Roz Morris). Revision helps me internalize the lessons, so subsequent projects often benefit on the first draft.

    #3 (make your own rules but recognize when you are wrong) bothered me a lot when I first started writing fiction. When I didn’t know what I was doing, I pretty much had to make up my own rules until I discovered better ones. I think practice, reading with awareness, studying the craft, and honing my story sensibility have been the best ways to avoid holding myself back with my own improvised rules. I think it’s important for writers to consciously establish our own rules for writing, but we need to be ready to revise those rules continuously as our abilities evolve.

    When it comes to feedback, I’m sure I’ve shared my primary rule with you before. The question “do I agree?” allows me to assert my vision while fairly considering the critique. More often than not, critique acts as highlighting. It shows me how someone has reacted to a particular passage in my work. I maintain my vision by responding with my own interpretation of how that particular passage should be improved. No one else can possibly understand my vision for the story better than I can.

    • #31 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 19, 2016 - 9:41 am

      Hi Daniel! Happy to be on your list of mentors! And you add some good points – we certainly live and work in a constant state of re-evaluation. Does that technique work the way we thought it did? Is this the effect I’m striving for? Feedback and theories are triggers; a lot more work is done inside our own minds.

  13. #32 by John Rogers on January 18, 2016 - 8:11 pm

    You say, “None of my real-life author cronies ever took a writing course. They taught themselves.” Seems to me that’s the long, painful way, at least for the “real world” part of writing. True, writing courses are not very helpful in developing the parts of the craft you include in your theory you advance (a hypothesis) of the “natural writer.” On the other hand, it seems to me from experience in critique groups that one can collapse the time to understand the practical aspects of writing (things like keeping the action moving, introducing backstory only when it’s needed, etc.) with courses and (better) the critique of other writers.

    • #33 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 19, 2016 - 9:43 am

      Hi John – and you’ve outlined one of the paradoxes. I absolutely agree that a well-timed piece of feedback or theory can pull us ahead. But – as I was just saying to Daniel in his comment – the vast majority of a writer’s learning happens when they reflect on it or put it into practice. However, you’re right to point out that it would be a lot slower if we didn’t have help. And we all have blind spots we’d never be aware of if others didn’t shine a light on them.

  14. #34 by Maya Goode (@quotidianlight) on January 19, 2016 - 8:10 am

    There is so much to chew on in this post. It speaks directly to where I am at, not a novice but still a beginner. Reading with awareness is huge for me. Often when new writers hear, “read more.” They don’t get the “read with awareness message”. Forcing myself to read what I might not gravitate toward, analyze and discuss my reading has been the single biggest thing I’ve done to improve my writing. Have you read, How To Read a Book? I’m still making my way through it along with Read Like a Writer and recommend them both to intermediate writers.

    • #35 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on January 19, 2016 - 9:48 am

      Hi Maya! What a good point you make here about reading with awareness. And trying books that we wouldn’t have chosen for ourselves. I don’t know those titles you mention, but I might recommend them to some of my editing clients. I often find myself commenting ‘read a thriller/adventure/contemporary novel and notice how the writer does description, or shows the character’s feelings’.

  15. #36 by Alexander M Zoltai on January 19, 2016 - 4:19 pm

    Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Roz Morris comes through with some writerly wisdom…

    Today this is a re-blog—tomorrow, I’ll blog some of my own thoughts about it🙂

  1. Writing Paradoxes | Notes from An Alien
  2. Three paradoxes of writing life | Literacy Notes
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