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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?”



Meg said...

LOLOL!! I certainly did laugh out loud and concur with everything you said. What could be worse? Trying to write TWO books in a year, or several novellas and a book.

Oh, and non-fiction freelance writing on the side. I often am asked, "What are you doing?" The answer, "Writing, what else?" ;-D

Happy trails to you!

Meg Mims
Double Crossing, Astraea Press

Beth Groundwater said...

Very funny post, Betty! And rough drafts always look like a steaming pile of horse poop, too, before we writers get to work editing them. :)

Dory said...


When you wrote: ". . . Well, editors aren’t that easy to please."

Ducking my head! Guilty, guilty, guilty.

My writers NEVER think I'm satisfied! But, hey, if they look good, I look good.

Great article, GF,


Laurie Fagen said...

Hmmm ... makes me think that writing is also a lot like shoveling horse poop:

First you write all this stuff that sometimes is just a bunch of poop.

Then you get your shovel out and start digging out all the bad poop.

It's at about this time that you think you'll never to get to the bottom of all that poop.

Then you get your book to where it's nice and clean and you're actually happy with it ... to have an editor say there are still a few poopy parts.

Great post, Betty!

(I'm watching and listening to you closely, and since your writing session at Changing Hands, have finished one mystery short story, am slogging away at a mystery novel and got an honorable mention for a short short from the Alfred Hitchcock Murder Mystery Magazine!)

Laurie Fagen

Anonymous said...

Very funny. Writing is what it is, and we face that daily. Often going cross-eyed by day's end, whenever that is. Thanks for a look at your world, which is quite similar to mine, except I had to learn to milk a cow and feed and care for hogs when we went "country." Oh, yes, there were chickens and rabbits too. Hmmm.

Betty Webb said...

Thanks, all. Yes, I ALMOST wrote "Writing is just like horse poop," but decided most of my writer friends would dump a truckload of the steaming stuff on me if I did. And Velda, we also had chickens, pigs, cows... the whole farmin' menagerie. I know more about those varmints (plus picking cotton and shucking corn) than a modern woman should ever know!

Heidiwriter said...

Well said, Betty! I enjoyed this post.

Lori said...

That's great! I think I'd rather be a poop shoveler some days. And I had the same lovely comment my first day signing -- there was indeed a typo. The worst part? It was in the name of a photographer who'd given me the use of her picture! "Red" does not begin to describe my face. and it was my fault, too -- couldn't blame it on the typesetter!

Now what do you do as you're rewriting Book One for the 120th time and Book Two is BEGGING to be started?! Oh dear...

Great blog, Betty!

Sarah Butland said...

Wow! So very true, as you all know. And yes, a written piece is never finished for us or our reader, even after typing the infamous "the end".

And I'm so glad to realize others struggle with their characters' names, too. Although each of my characters come up with their own name it seems they have a few in mind.

Laurel Anne Hill said...

Writing a story starts with getting the poop on the page. Finishing a story means cleaning up the last of that poop. At the completion of the process, with luck, both author and editor are happy.

Warm wishes,
Laurel Anne Hill
Heroes Arise, KOMENAR Publishing

EileenHamer said...

LOL for me, too. I have to keep a chapter outline (as I go,not before) so I can remember names and appearances. Otherwise a slim suspect suddenly becomes the Pillsbury Doughboy on page 95, or something worse! So many glitches, sometimes I wonder why we write at all. But then I remember we do it because we can't help ourselves. Is there a twelve step program for writers?

Jaimie Hall-Bruzenak said...

I've shoveled my share too! Lots of laughs!

Jaimie Hall Bruzenak
author of Support Your RV Lifestyle! An Insider's Guide to Working on the Road and other RV books

Eunice Boeve said...

Well said. I'm always writing, but cannot go directly to another novel, not without a breathing space. I recently did a sequel to my first western, Ride a Shadowed Trail. It was so hard to get back into the character. Had I known I was going carry the character on,it might have been easier,but then I had no clue. Crossed Trails is to be released in June and I just finished a kid's WWII story.
but the genres are so totally different. I couldn't do what you do.

Julie said...

Great post, Betty. I chuckled all the way through, realizing you've really pegged what writing is!