Lots of writers seem to really hate writing. For them, sitting down in front of the computer or typewriter or notepad and forcing out their daily word count is like pulling teeth, except rather than simply pulling them out through their mouth, they’re having to pull them down, back through their gums, to be extracted via some unmentionable orifice below. “I hate writing,” they Tweet. “Everything I’ve written today is awful and ghastly and embarrassing and horrendous. No one has ever written anything this bad. I hate it and myself and the very concept of the written word. #amwriting.” Then they realise they’ve overwritten by 77 characters and decide to do a Facebook status instead.
It’s unfortunate, because if they’re real writers then they probably have to write. I don’t mean real writers snobbishly, as if drawing a line in the sand between proper bona fide literary types and phoney journeymen, I just mean people who write, who sit down and produce writing, regardless of quality, regardless of whether they have a publishing deal or even an audience beyond themselves. And when I say they have to write, I don’t mean because they have a deadline, or mouths to feed, or a terrifying cigar-chomping editor breathing down their neck, but because it’s a physical imperative. A compulsion, a mental itch that never goes away. A problem, some might say. If you’re not writing, you feel uncomfortable, like you’re not fulfilling the role that’s been encoded into your DNA (possibly against your will).
I’ve never suffered from this problem, and I’m not smug, just inordinately grateful. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be, being compelled to write while hating every minute of it. Do I get frustrated with writing? Of course. When it isn’t flowing properly, or at all, it can be soul-crushing, as can the headaches and heartaches you suffer while struggling to get published (and even when you have secured that elusive deal, there are still headaches – nothing’s simple, even when you’re fulfilling your lifelong dream). And there are always those off days, when your brain decides to reprocess everything you’ve ever written through a special this is all dreadful and how have I managed to get this far being so dreadful filter.
It’s a physical imperative. A compulsion, a mental itch that never goes away. If you’re not writing, you feel uncomfortable, like you’re not fulfilling the role that’s been encoded into your DNA (possibly against your will).”
But I love it. I always have. One of my earliest writing memories is being at school, aged eight or nine, and our teacher setting the class a story-writing task. A story about a bike, a few A5 exercise book pages long. That was the brief. I never completed my fifteen-plus-page epic Bike Blitz, which featured interdimensional bicycle travel, alien monsters, explosions, magic and various characters and plot points I had shamelessly ripped off from whatever films and TV series I’d been watching at the time (this still happens, but now it’s called ‘inspiration’), and I can’t remember if I lost marks for not finishing, but I had a blast writing it. Just as I had a blast bashing away on my old Amstrad word processor at home, writing about a funny fantastical community balanced on a giant human flying through space (three guesses who I’d been reading at that point), or dragons giving fiery birth to golden-scaled offspring, also in space (one of the few genuinely good pieces of original writing I produced during my formative years, so naturally it’s been lost to the quagmire of time), or two dim-witted brothers called Grab and Nab who flew around on robotic falcons and blew things up (this was written in partnership with my friend Kate, and was very much the Good Omens of its time).
I started countless books, rarely progressing beyond Chapter One (in fact, rarely even getting halfway through Chapter One). Often, I think I liked the idea of writing books more than the reality – the thrill of writing Asteroid Crisis Rangers, Book One of the Endless Infinity Saga at the top of the page, the raw, crackling possibility contained therein. Where might this go? What wonders might I uncover? How amazing might these books be when (not if) they’re finished?! Nowhere, none and not amazing, respectively.
Still fun, though.
Then, when I was fifteen, along came Stanly. A socially dysfunctional, aggressively cynical sci-fi geek who, on his sixteenth birthday, discovers that he can fly, and move things with his mind. He also has a talking beagle called Daryl for a best friend, because why not. Not only did I finish this book, and not only was it actually book length, and not only was I fairly sure that it was not terrible… but this year it was published by Salt Publishing, with a really awesome cover. It’s called Bitter Sixteen, and IT’S REAL.
I never seriously considered being anything other than a writer (well, apart from a Power Ranger – still waiting for that call, by the way), but I also never really expected to hold a book that I’d written in my own two hands, with an actual cover and an actual ISBN and actual page numbers and everything. ’Cos that idea was ludicrous.
Still is, a bit.
Everyone’s route to publication is different, and even those that sound easy are not. Mine was littered with disappointments, frustratingly kind rejections (it’s much easier to fix something when someone tells you why it’s broken than it is to fix something that someone likes but won’t publish for reasons they can’t really explain), self-doubt, bad drafts and thousands of words that I loved but had to jettison because they weren’t serving the story. It involved a three-year creative writing course, during which I learned the tools of editing, craft, constructive self-criticism (and of taking criticism from others without throwing a massive wobbly) and discipline. It involved learning that if I was going to do writing properly then I had to do writing properly. I needed to sit down and get on with it, even when I didn’t want to – especially when I didn’t want to, in fact – because the world wasn’t begging me to write that novel. There are already plenty of books out there, and while people are always hungry for more, no one was banging on my door demanding I bring them my shining golden manuscript, like Moses bringing the twenty magical rings down from Mount Doom, or whatever happened there. You have to do it, first and foremost, for you. You have to create the story, and love it and hate it and shape it and make it whole. And then, hopefully, the readers will come.
I think I can self-identify as a writer now, but that doesn’t mean I’m anywhere near the summit. If I ever reach a point where I feel like I’ve stopped learning, that I’m there, then I’ll probably be in trouble. I’m always learning: how to craft that sentence so that it’s kicking ass at its job, rather than listlessly – if effectively – dragging things from point A to point B; when a character would do something and when they wouldn’t, and why; when a scene is a living, breathing, integral part of the story and when it’s dead weight that needs to be ruthlessly amputated (and then saved in a separate document, because you should never get rid of anything – not even my Forgotten Novel, the abomination that shall never be spoken of and which I will never show to anyone, has been deleted, just in case). I’ve written other books since Bitter Sixteen, and each one is a new experience. Each one, in a way, has required me to re-learn what I’ve already learned, and starting again is often bumpy. So is carrying on. So is finishing. Editing follows a similar theme. But with each, at some stage, I’ve got that feeling. The feeling of OK, yes, I can do this, and I can do it better now than I could before. It doesn’t always come during the first draft. Or even the second draft. Bitter Sixteen’s first sequel, Ace of Spiders, was the second novel I ever finished, but only this year, after having written several others, have I completed a draft with which I’m even vaguely happy. And there’s still a long way to go.
Giving writing advice isn’t necessarily helpful. Everyone’s creative process is different, everyone’s circumstances are different, everyone’s goals are different. All I can say is what worked for me, and maybe others might find it works for them too. If not, that’s fine. Creative writing courses aren’t for everyone, but I benefited massively from mine, and am objectively a better writer for having taken it. Sitting down and forcing out the word count, and not wafting around and writing when the mood happens so strike, may not be for everyone, but for me making the decision to be disciplined was one of my biggest turning points – the moment I decided right, I’m going to do this properly. Weirdly, it came a number of years after having written the first draft of Bitter Sixteen. So it goes.
And finally… loving it. ’Cos otherwise, where’s the fun?
Stefan Mohamed is a 27-year-old author, poet and sometime journalist. He graduated from Kingston University in 2010 with a first class degree in creative writing and film studies, and later that year won the inaugural Sony Reader Award, a category of the Dylan Thomas Prize, for his novel Bitter Sixteen. He lives in Bristol, where he works as an editorial assistant, writing stories and performing poetry in his spare time. Read more.