The Hardest Thing About Writing

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Writing is hard. But what exactly is the most difficult part of the craft? Creating realistic characters, perhaps? Writing dialogue? World-building? Coming up with an idea that isn’t boring and overdone like the thousands of novels flooding into the market every week? No, no, and nope.

The hardest part about writing—for me at least—is getting the words right. See, when you first start out writing–and I’m still sort of trying to tread water in that stage–you overwrite. And by overwriting, I mean you use a thousand words to describe a single exchange between two people, including unimportant details like gestures and hair and the thoughts of the characters, when three hundred would have sufficed. But overwriting isn’t the only faux-pas amateur writers commit. We also have a great deal of trouble describing things in the first place, and this is because translating real-life or imaginary objects or buildings or people or places into words, dead words on paper, mere brushstrokes of ink, is very difficult.

It’s not like other forms of art, like painting, or photography, where the artist can simply jot down, curve by plane by angle, exactly what something looks like. As a writer, you have to make something, using only words, oftentimes things you have never seen before except in the realm of your own imagination, come alive. You are an artist, words are your paintbrush and paint, and you have to use them to paint a picture inside the reader’s mind, to the point where they feel like they are in the story themselves, without the convenience of pictures, or photographs, or diagrams (though some books do include maps to ground the fantasy world in reality). If you were to ask someone on the street who isn’t a writer to describe, say, a church, they would probably fumble along with words like “doors” and “cross” and “stone”. And guess what? If you were to stop a writer on the street and ask them the same question, on the spot, they would probably give a similar answer. That is because writers actually sit down for a very long time to re-write and rework descriptions and sentences that initially started off as “a church made of stone adorned with a cross over its front door” until it conveys both sound, colour, sight, smell and texture. Until it becomes real. Which, may I point out again, is very hard.

It’s one of the reasons why so many writers often have to undertake real-world research before writing a book by actually traveling to the country or the place their book is set in, or resembles the world their book is set in. If the world and the people in it aren’t “real” to the writer, then it won’t come to life for the reader. Think of actors: when they speak their lines, they momentarily delude themselves into thinking that what they are saying is actually true. That they’re not just speaking to a camera, or someone else who is also acting. In other words, the best actors forget they are acting, and embody their characters and the scenes entirely. Writers, who are the actors and the director and in charge of props and scenery all at once, are the same. And to describe a whole world, all while juggling characters and the pace of the plot, using only words, to make it actually feel real, takes hours and hours of practice, carried out over years—probably why some books can take up to ten years to write, at the end of which it isn’t even a guarantee the book will sell well, if at all.

I’m not even close to being even adequate at it yet. I haven’t clocked in all my hours, found out what exactly lives inside me and brought it out in tangible form. I haven’t found a voice, though I have picked up a few characters and worlds along the way, quietly brewing inside the back of my mind. In the years to come, I hope to master the tricks and techniques of writing enough to be able to put on a good show, make people think, delight and astound and amuse. In the meantime, I’ll be in my workshop, working quietly away carving figurine after figurine and throwing them aside, living for a dream.

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