Friday, January 6, 2012
Why Writing a Book is More Work than Shoveling Horse Poop
Another year, another book.
At 7 p.m., Tuesday, January 31, I’ll be at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore Scottsdale AZ, talking about my new Lena Jones mystery, DESERT WIND (to read an excerpt, log onto www.bettywebb-mystery.com). It’s much more fun to talk than it is to write so I’m sure I’ll enjoy myself.
Oops. Did I just give away the fact that writing isn’t easy? I guess I did. Thanks to good health and good luck, I’ve led a long and busy life, often working two jobs at a time. No, I’m not counting my role as a parent, because that would be the third job, the unpaid job that never ends.
Here are some of the you-get-paid-for-doing-it jobs I’ve held down over the years: go-go dancer, bartender, chicken farmer, commercial artist, car hop, job counselor, teacher, advertising copywriter, cotton picker, waitress, music critic, horse breeder, customer service representative, sales clerk, book reviewer, zoo worker, etc. But of all my various jobs, the most grueling by far is the job I’ve held for the last 12 years: mystery novelist.
Non-writers are always surprised when I tell them writing is harder than many jobs, including shoveling horse poop, which I’ll use as my example. In most jobs, you know what’s expected of you. Horse stall overflowing with poop? Turn Seabiscuit loose in the corral, get a shovel, shovel until all the poop’s gone. Put in fresh hay, lead Seabiscuit back into his stall, walk away. You’re done, and the horse is happy.
Writing isn’t like that. You get up at 4 a.m. every day for a year, write until it’s time to go to your paycheck-generating job, then 10 hours later return home and write some more. Tired? Too bad. Oh, and another thing: while you’re still working on Book One, you need to start doing research for Book Two. Research takes time, too, and sometimes you even have to hop a plane to do it. Afraid of flying? Too bad.
But finally, a year after you began Book One, it’s finished. That night you send it to your publisher and at 4 a.m. the next day, you begin writing Book Two.
Remember my saying that when the poop-shoveling is done, the horse is happy? Well, editors aren’t that easy to please. Around the time you’re grunting through Chapter Ten of Book Two, you get an email from your editor saying that Book One needs some fixin’. So you file Book Two away, return to Book One, and make the requested changes. When you send the revised manuscript back and return to Book Two, guess what? You’ve forgotten who the heck all those characters are. This means that you spend the next couple of weeks reading through the manuscript, making notes, making changes. And chances are, you’ll begin all over again – from the first word of Chapter One.
You’ll notice that I haven’t even begun to describe the complexities of the writing craft itself. For the sake of brevity, I’ll list only a few that plagued me during the writing of DESERT WIND. Keeping characters’ names straight, so that the wrangler known as Gabe on page one doesn’t become Jake on page 235. Remembering that John Wayne died in 1979, rather than 1974, which I’d originally thought. Discovering that uranium mining continues at the Grand Canyon, although most people think it was shut down years ago. Keeping the arc of action rising ever upwards, a common problem with novelists (although we mystery writers have an easy solution; we just kill someone else whenever the action threatens to slow). Stop using the same words so often (my favorites are apparently “probably,” “seemed,” “just” -- and “apparently.” And getting rid of a dozen other writer’s hoodoos.
But in the end, it’s all worth it. Two years after you began writing the first page, Book One – your perfect, perfect creation, the reflection of your very soul -- hits the streets. And there you are, wearing new clothes, scented with the finest French perfume, sitting proudly in the bookstore as your fans line up to get their first edition copies of Book One autographed.
Then the first fan arrives at your table, gives you a big smile and says, “Did you know there’s a typo on page two?”