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Writing When It's Hard

Don’t believe people who say it never gets easier. It does gets easier. But...

I’ve come to that crazy point in the writing of my (first) novel where I’ve started talking to it.

Me: I’ve given you five years of my life. I’ve found you a badass agent. I’ve even stopped looking for freelance work! What more DO YOU WANT FROM ME?

Novel: 20,000 new words? And can you make them good? Thanks!

I’m remembering, as I work on the 432nd edit of this book, why it’s taken so long. Every book I’ve started since “finishing” this one, I’ve known what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I knew the parameters of the world I was writing in. With this novel, I went in blind. I knew I didn’t want to write my story, so I had to create everything from scratch. It started out as a crime novel. Then, for a while, it was a women’s fiction book about female friendship. I don’t know when we entered the “literary fiction” zone, and I certainly can’t remember when mental health became a part of it.

If I had to guess, I’d say that it happened two years in, probably around the time I started finding the confidence in my own voice and the truth as I saw it. For two years, I wrote the novel almost as an aspirational book. The relationships I wanted to have, the culture as I wish it had been, the freedoms I had hoped to enjoy growing up. At some point, I started telling the truth of my experience through an entirely made-up story arc. Not the neat little story with a bow-tie ending that protects the flaws of what you’ve seen and experienced and makes you a spokesperson for a community or culture, but what I know to be true of the world I grew up in. The great parts of it. And the ones that weren’t.

It was two years in when I had learned how to get people in and out of rooms, as one of my favorite novelists Harlan Coben likes to say. It had taken me a while to learn how to craft a scene and write snappy dialogue and it was only once I had the confidence in those basic structural elements, that I could begin to explore what I truly wanted to say.

This, let’s face it, is extremely difficult even today.

Mridu Khullar Relph
Source: Mridu Khullar Relph

Earlier this week, I was standing in the kitchen, a cup of tea in my hands, my eyes red from all the late nights working on the final draft of my novel. I’d just come up with a non-fiction book idea and I had to tell my husband all about it, that very moment, never mind that the novel was what most needed my attention. He sat on the sofa as I explained how I would structure the book, who the readers would be, what kind of competition already existed in the marketplace, and so on. When I was done talking, I looked up at him. “Well, what do you think?” I asked him, irked by his lack of enthusiasm.

“Babe,” he said. “Go finish your novel.”

Many of the early readers of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S Guide to Getting Words on the Page have emailed to say something along the lines of, “We are the same person! This is exactly how I work, how I procrastinate. Now I know how to fix it!”

All I have to say is, there are only so many ways writers can put off writing the things that are important to them, and I’ve done them all. Unlike most authors and “gurus” of the Internet, I don’t come to you from a place of deep understanding, of having figured it all out. I come to you from the trenches. I am—like you—constantly trying to increase my income, find time for creative work, write more, be more fulfilled. Let’s not even talk about the whole “life” issue that happens.

I haven’t reached some writing ideal. That’s rubbish. There are always more words to be written, more money to be made, a bigger award to be won. I think of those writers who, having hit The New York Times bestseller list, then become obsessed with the #1 spot. We may judge them, but this is human nature. It’s no different from when you said you’d be happy just being published once. And here you are, now reading about how to do it on a consistent basis, perhaps even to make a very good living from it.

There is no such thing as a writer who has it all figured out, in that sense, because the biggest problem writers have—how to keep writing consistently—is one that even the most accomplished of writers grapple with. Don’t believe people who say it never gets easier. It gets easier—of course it gets easier!—but as you grow, your ambitions and your expectations grow, too. That makes it difficult to appreciate just how much easier.

Of course, that knowledge doesn’t help you when you’re alone in your office, facing the blank page, all the weight of the self-doubt and expectation you’ve carried around on your shoulders crippling your will to work. You know the difference between good and bad writing; you’ve been a reader for decades. This, you know, is bad writing. What are you to do?

Get out of your own way. Take away the pressure.

This is practice, you say. You stop counting words and just sit down for an hour each day, as if in meditation. A page, you tell your accountability partner, your writing coach, or your spouse. All I’m going to do today is write one really bad page. And then you do because anyone—anyone—can write one really bad page. Then you go have a cookie because you did your work for the day. And you keep going like this for however long it takes to graduate to two bad pages or four bad pages to, heck, even one good page.

You stop arriving at the page expecting to create. You arrive at the page expecting to practice.

There is no one secret that I’m going to share in my book. There is no such thing. You instinctively already know all I have to say. But perhaps I can say it in a way that brings it home to you, that solidifies it in your mind. Maybe it will help you reassess how you’ve been structuring your life, how you’ve been coming at your writing from the wrong angle. That’s my goal with the book. I want you to look at your life and think, how can I consistently create time to work on this thing that I love?

How do I first, commit to this, and then, consistently follow through on my commitment?

In Shut Up and Write, I help you create that plan because they’re the same questions I asked and still ask today.

The answers worked for me. I hope they work for you, too.


Want to see a query letter that sold to the New York Times? You can download that (and 20 more) by clicking here. Or perhaps you’re looking to learn the secrets of a six-figure freelancing income? I asked successful freelancers what they’re doing right and they told me. You can read that report here.