The Chore of Writing: How to Get the Joy Back

Question: I look at the progress I’ve undergone in recent years, and I can definitely say I’ve improved as a writer – in plots, language skills, work discipline (as in, starting a novel and sticking with it until it’s done). But… something of the joy, spontaneity, creativity and freedom of writing was lost along the way, and I miss it. I used to finish up everything else as quickly as I can, so I could get to writing. Now I finish up writing so I can do other things. I don’t want writing to become a chore. I want the joy and pleasure of it back. How do I accomplish that? Any thoughts?

I came across this question a week ago and have left it to let the full implications of it sink in. Now, as I come to write this blog post, I have come to the conclusion that it boils down to one quite major question:

Are you writing for fun or are you working towards writing as a career?

Let me make myself completely clear from the off. There is nothing wrong with either of these approaches to writing and each is just as valuable as the other.

People write for fun in so many ways, not just in the crafting of stories: people read articles and comment about them on social media, they write in their daily diaries they write silly and seemingly pointless letters or emails to their friends. Writing stories for fun is just an extension of that mindset.

As with all hobbies that we want to get better at, a huge amount of practice goes into it. Despite the fact that it is only something we want to do in our spare time, writing takes a huge amount of energy to do properly and therefore requires a huge amount of discipline. Unfortunately, sooner or later, that desire to keep to rigid writing times will lead us into the hell that is boredom. You resent having to sit down and start writing when you really want to do something else and, for a while at least, what was once a fun hobby begins to smell suspiciously like a job or chore.

At this point, as with all hobbies, you have two choices: put your shoulder to it and hope you get past the boredom aspect or walk away.

Even as I am writing this, I can hear the collective sigh as everyone snarls at the very idea of walking away from writing, but consider this… If your only motivation is to write as a hobby and the hobby becomes dull and unfulfilling, is it really worth your time to pursue it?

This brings me quite nicely round to the second scenario from my question. Likewise there is nothing wrong with someone only wanting to write as a career. Many writers who started writing because they love it might say that the career-driven writers don’t deserve it but ultimately if you are good at what you do why shouldn’t you try to make a living off it? Obviously there are some massive drawbacks about only wanting to write because it seems like a good career, but I won’t delve into those right now.

If you are one of those people who are writing in the expectation of gaining a career from it, then you need to start with a very simple thought in your mind. Regardless of whether you jumped into writing knowing that you would pursue it for work, or if you came to the conclusion after years as a hobby writer, the thought should be the same…

Writing is a job.

Not many people like this idea of reducing writing to such dull and bland terms but unfortunately it is very much the case. If your writing starts feeling like a chore it is because you stripped away the fascinating aspects of writing and begun to unearth the upsettingly tedious processes that create a story. It’s like watching your favourite CGI film and then, when watching the extras, realising that it was all done with green screen. Some of the magic gets sucked away when that happens but, regrettably, it is an important part of the process if you want to improve as a writer.

Writing, like any job, has its downsides and if you want to pursue it as a career you have to accept that there will be times when you’re not enjoying what you are doing. There will be times when you want to write an original story but your fans are crying out for yet another sequel to your already growing collection of similar stories. There will be times when you can’t wait to finish that chapter so you can go back to having fun in your life. It happens, there is nothing you can do to stop it. What is important is that you embrace it when it does.

So, back to the question in hand, how do you put the joy and passion back in to your writing when you hit that boredom zone?

The answer is surprisingly simple and yet terrifying at the same time.

Walk away.

That’s right, you heard me, walk away.

Treat your writing like hunger. You’ve been working solidly on it, keeping to the same routine over and over again, and now you’ve lost the taste. So walk away. Allow your hunger for writing to build up again, give your mind space to breathe, put down your pen and go out and experience the world outside.

It seems like a daunting task. What if I never come back to writing? What if that is the end? Certainly, it is a risk that you will be taking but allow me to put it to you in completely brutal terms. If you end up coming back to your writing, invigorated and brimming with that passion and imagination you had before, then you will be back on track and you can say to yourself that it is meant to be. If you don’t come back at all, it is probably because you have had enough of writing and that phase in your life has passed by for the time being…

Better yet, if you don’t come back, the chances are that you’ve found something better…

And that is where I will leave it today. As always, I will be browsing the internet for more writers’ questions but if you have anything specific you would like me to answer, please ask in the comments section and I will address it in a future post.

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Character Descriptions: All At Once or Over Time?

Question: Just wondering what your opinion is on character description. I’ve read some reviews that cite the lack of a description and I’ve also heard in my IRL writing group about it.

 As writers and as readers, how do you feel about character descriptions? Do you prefer to get them out of the way in a brief paragraph or to have breadcrumbs dropped as you go? Or does it not matter at all? Do you prefer to let your own imagination create the flesh and blood?

This is a good question to ask and one that I think a lot of writers need to be very careful with when they are writing their manuscript. Whether it is a short story or a novel you are writing, character descriptions are key to making your story come to life.

For me, character descriptions are as dependent on the point in the narrative and the circumstances of the story as any other creative part of the process. Would you spend a page describing how a spider repeatedly tried and failed to climb up the side of a vehicle during a car chase? Would you stop to describe the faint smell of sulphur in the air during the middle of a kissing scene? Would you stop the final battle scene mid-way through to explain why the third pikeman from the left was hobbling on his right leg?

The answer to all of these questions is – maybe.

It depends entirely on what you are trying to gain from the story. If you’re writing a comedy, you might well decide to go off on a tangent about the spider if you wanted to make the reader understand how terribly boring and uneventful the car chase was. You might well talk about the smell of sulphur in the air if a dragon was about to appear to eat the two lovers. You might well distract from the battle scene if the fact that the third pikeman from the left has a dodgy right leg will determine the result of the battle.

With character descriptions it is much the same thing and it really is a matter of practice. Some writers will tell you that using long descriptions is a very schoolboy thing to do, others will tell you that long descriptions are the way to go. Ultimately, however, it does come down to the scenario so, in hope of helping some of you decide what type of description to use for your characters (a long paragraph immediately when they are introduced or short snippets spread out over the story) I will use two characters from my latest short, The Butcher of Barclays Hollow, as case studies.

The names of the two characters I am going to talk about are Conroy and Reverend Babcock.

Conroy is the protagonist of my story, the hero if you will. In this short mystery story, Conroy is the detective figure although he is rather reluctant to be that person. As such, I wanted him to be an unappealing and disinterested as possible. He’s a large man, pudgy fingers, broad shoulders but strong and quite intimidating to look at. He’s not educated and hated by everyone around him, which naturally makes him not like anyone else either. And finally, he is Irish, the main reason for his unpopularity.

So how do I introduce Conroy?

Well the first thing to consider is that he is my main character. I am going to be spending the vast majority, if not all, of the story following this character around. I don’t need to reveal everything about him to my reader in the first couple of hundred words. In fact, for the most part, I can tell the reader about him by having the character show the reader. He’s a strong man, so I have him do something that requires a lot of strength. He’s intimidating to look at, so I have other characters shy away from him. He’s Irish so maybe I make reference to his accent or another character could call him ‘Irishman’.

The possibilities are endless, but the important thing is that this is the character we are going to be following so I need to hold back enough information that leaves my readers asking questions. Why did he do that? Who is this random character whose name he called out? Why won’t anyone talk to him?

In this instance, the long paragraph of description would not help in the slightest. If I spend my first hundred words explaining that Conroy is hated because he’s Irish and that everyone is trying to kick him out of the village, what is there left for the reader to discover on their own?

On the other hand…

Reverend Babcock is a minor character – a catalyst of sorts. It is his appearance that sparks Conroy to begin his investigation. The first time our main character comes across the vicar is when he is sat in the shadows of Conroy’s room, hidden by the back of an old armchair.

Now this is the perfect example of when the long description can be used to great effect. Babcock is being revealed to the reader as he is to Conroy – in essence, the reader is very much in Conroy’s shoes as he creeps his way around the outside of the room and the figure of Babcock is slowly revealed to him. So, as Conroy creeps around, we can use long descriptions to show what Conroy himself is seeing.

However, whilst using a long description here is useful, the writer must be careful to only describe what is important to the character. If it is important that he is an elderly vicar with arthritis in his left hand then describe this. If it isn’t important that the vicar crossed a field to get to Conroy’s house, then we don’t need to describe the tiny speck of mud on his right boot that indicates this, unless of course the main character is going to point it out in a Sherlock Holmes fashion as part of their own character development (although on a personal note that has been done to death so unless you’re planning on your detective being wrong in his assumptions, don’t do it).

And finally, most importantly, just because I have used a long description to reveal the Reverend, it doesn’t mean I can’t throw in some incidental descriptions during the flow of the action (or even some descriptions that turn out to be key to the narrative). In fact, I would almost recommend it, particularly if the main character is finding things out bit by bit – for example, Conroy is unlikely to know straight away if Babcock has a scar on his chest or if he is wearing something underneath his vicar’s garb so there would be no point describing that if Conroy doesn’t know it himself. But he could discover that at a later date…

Always remember whose perspective you are writing from as that will often help you decide what type of character description is warranted for any particular character.

So there you have it. Two different characters with two different roles in the story arc and two different ways that I have chosen to describe them. But that is not the be all and end all. Some of my characters get quite detailed descriptions, others don’t get barely more than a line or two and it depends on so many things.

The best advice I can give any of you out there is to plan out exactly what your characters are like long before you ever write them in to your story and make sure that those characters are fitting for the story you are trying to tell. At least that way when you come to describing them, you are not only consistent but the descriptions are also relevant to the plot.

Every week I will be scouring the internet for writers’ questions to try to answer in my posts. If you have a specific question that you would like my opinion on, please leave it in the comments section and I will address it in a future post. 

Challenge 2015 – First Titles Announced

In my last post, I announced my plans for the Challenge 2015.

For those of you who remember, last years challenge tested my ability to try something new and uncomfortable, something I think all writers should at least try doing every once in a while. As a result of this challenge, I wrote my first book of poetry, Grey Skies and Broken Branches, which enjoyed a fair amount of success and has inspired to continuing to challenge myself.

But, as you all know, I am a crime writer first and foremost and, whilst my short stories have enjoyed a reasonable amount of success in their own right, I don’t feel that I write enough of them.

So – Challenge 2015 – I have tasked myself to write one short story every month until next August when I will assemble them all in to an anthology and make them available for general consumption.

The Rules:

  1. I cannot use an already written story, nor edit an old one and count that in the collection. The only exception to this is Dressed to Deceive that will occur in the collection but does not count as any of the offerings for any particular month.
  2. Completed stories can be edited after the month has passed to make them presentable for the collection if I am still not 100% happy with them.
  3. Stories can be submitted to magazines, ezines or made available prior to the release of the collection.

So, now that I have finalised the rules of the challenge, it with great pleasure that I can begin announcing the working titles of the shorts that I am looking to write for the collection. Many of these working titles will change during the course of writing, but they will hopefully give you all a fair idea of what to expect in the coming months.

Wish me luck…

Short Story Collection Titles

Dressed to Deceive (completed)

The Butcher of Barclay’s Hollow (in progress)

Black and White (working title) (announced)

Sacred Agendas (working title) (announced)

If you have enjoyed reading about Challenge 2015, please subscribe to my blog and share the word. Stay tuned for an up coming competition to win a signed, limited edition copy of Dressed to Deceive.

NRBT