When the words won’t come (the struggles of writing and editing)

The Wrath of Kerberos by Jonathan OliverI should be writing. Obviously I’m writing this, but I mean writing writing. Fiction writing. Because as well as being an editor, part of what defines me, mostly to myself admittedly, is that I’m a writer.

I’m not a very prolific writer. Over the years I’ve scribbled a bunch of short stories and had two relatively obscure novels published. I’ve never garnered huge critical acclaim, but neither has the criticism been harsh or unpleasant. And I’ve certainly never made bags of money from it. So, why do it at all? And the answer, as corny as this sounds, is that I can’t not.

But the fact of the matter is that right now I’m not. I finished a story recently, one of which I’m very proud – ‘Raise The Beam High’ to appear in the anthology A Town Called Pandemonium this November – and that was nice to do, but I haven’t written any fiction in about a month now.

I know roughly what I want to do. I’ve had this character in my head for at least 8 years and I know roughly the story I want to tell. But will the words come? Will they fuck!

I’ve written about four lines of dialogue and that’s it.

I think that the problem is that this next thing is a novel, and having written two already, I’m well aware of the challenges writing a novel poses. I have a full-time job, a wife and an eighteenth month old daughter. Novels take a long time to write. Finding the time in such circumstances is tricky. And, let’s face it, when I get home from work, having read fiction all day, sometimes I’d rather put on the Xbox or watch a movie than deal with more words. But like I said, I’ve written two novels before. Maia – our daughter – arrived half way through the second and I still managed to write it.

So, why can’t I this time?

The answer, of course, is that I can. The only solution to the problem of not being able to write, is to write. There’s no magic formula, no amount of planning or prevaricating is going to be a substitute for getting words onto the page. That, at its base level, is really all there is to writing.

That’s not to say writing is easy. I’ve never ever found the experience easy, and yet I still do it. If it’s going badly, I convince myself I’m rubbish. If it’s going really well, there’s a part of me that’s saying to myself, “this is coming too easy, there must therefore be something wrong.”

Writers, huh? Neurotic buggers.

This self-doubt, these common concerns experienced by pretty much every writer ever, (although maybe Dan Brown sits typing on his throne of $1000 dollar bills, wildly grinning to himself and cackling, “Solid gold, Brown! Solid Gold!”) are also experienced by the editor.

I would love (absolutely fucking love) to be that ideal of an editor: that suave, slightly academic individual, who chooses his words with care, holds forth with great wit at dinner parties and has absolute confidence in every one of his decisions and knows the formula to success. But that’s the ideal. It doesn’t exist, even though I really really want it to. The truth of the matter is that editors are as neurotic as writers. I worry about every single one of my babies (and by babies, I mean the works I publish [see, I told you I was neurotic, this is all getting disturbingly Freudian]). I commission the books and stories I love and I desperately hope that everybody will love them as much as I do and that they’ll find a place in people’s hearts and make everybody wealthy and happy and artistically fulfilled and… and.. and that truth and justice will prevail…and our children are the future… and

And, relax.

You can see, I’m sure, how difficult it is for me. And I’m sure your heart bleeds. No really.

But none of this changes the fact that I’m not writing.

I guess I’ll take another look at those four lines of dialogue, and maybe, if I’m feeling brave enough, I’ll add four more.


Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.

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