pulling teeth

Posted by on December 6th, 2013

I discovered this article today, written by everyone’s favourite Creepy Old Rich White Man Living in Thailand, in which I am name-checked. Here are a few choice quotes:

“Writing should be fun. If it isn’t fun, you really shouldn’t be doing it. A horror writer by the name of Steve Mosby recently complained on Twitter that he found writing like pulling teeth.  My reaction to that – if it’s that painful, you shouldn’t be doing it. Mosby spends a lot of time tweeting about how hard he finds it to write his books, and how much effort he has to put into rewriting them.”


“I have enjoyed writing every single Spider Shepherd book – not one of them has been the equivalent of pulling teeth.”

Well, bully for you, sunshine. Let’s leave aside the obvious retort – that just because writing them wasn’t the equivalent of pulling teeth doesn’t mean reading them won’t be – and move onto the meat of the issue. Did I say that I found writing to be like pulling teeth? Yes and no. I actually remember this, as I noticed Mr Leather making one of his standard passive-aggressive references to it shortly afterwards, and what I actually said was that writing on that particular day had been like pulling teeth. An exaggeration, of course, but not a massive one.

And that happens quite a lot for me. I imagine it’s the same for many writers (certainly, anecdotally, I believe that to be true). After all, writing is not just typing, not if you care about it. You’re trying to convey the idea of what you have in your head through words, and that’s not always the easiest thing to do. That applies not just at the level of sentences and scenes, but across the entire story, which at book length is likely to be structurally complicated, thematically intricate and difficult to hold in your head as a whole and coherent narrative. There are going to be good days and bad days. I have far more of the latter, especially in the end stages where the slightest tug on one narrative strand can dislodge another from the knot.

All writers have different approaches – and congratulations to Mr Leather for enjoying his work so much, as nobody would wish him ill – but mine is a more complicated affair. As I’ve said before, I usually write with a vague outline, and at the end of my first draft I realise what the book should have been about all along. So I rewrite, and I refine. The book goes through various iterations as I add, delete and shift scenes about. Characters vanish and reappear. Things get dropped and things get added. Other writers are more straightforward, but that’s the way I work: my books tend to begin as exceptionally blurry photographs, and then every draft sharpens the image a little more. For me, this tends to exacerbate the good day/bad day problem I mentioned above, but the bad days don’t make me any more unhappy than the good ones. That’s because I know they’re both equally important to the process. I work hard at my writing because I care about it.

So, do I spend “a lot of time tweeting about how hard [I find] it to write [my] books, and how much effort [I have] to put into rewriting them”? Well, not really (although I wouldn’t be ashamed if I did). My tweets are generally about my mundane life and opinions, mixed in with retweets to left-leaning articles and dick jokes. I don’t tweet about writing much, but it’s a social media channel, and I am honest when I’m using it. If I’m having a good day, I say so. If I’m having a bad one, likewise. Because I’m a writer, writing will crop up. I don’t tweet because I’m trying to build up a false image of myself, or sell things to people. Although obviously – in social media as in writing books – other authors will have very different approaches.

“I think the fact that I enjoy writing so much is reflected in the quality of my work – I do very little rewriting and my publisher generally has little to do in the way of editing.”

And this is interesting, simply because it seems so obviously, palpably false. It’s not even the faux machismo (“I don’t need any editing! I’m a machine!”) but the general thesis. I would actually say the opposite is true in my experience: that the enjoyment I take from a writing day is utterly unconnected to how good the work that day really is. How egotistical and solipsistic to think otherwise. I’ve done good work on subjectively bad days and vice versa. Why should my enjoyment in writing a passage necessarily translate to someone else’s pleasure in reading it? How naive and self-centred to imagine that might be true. And I welcome editorial input and suggestion, as it has – with no exceptions – improved all my books, and caused me to raise my game. But then, as we’ve probably realised by now, other authors have very different approaches. So it goes.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 6th, 2013 at 7:16 pm and is filed under General, Rant, Stephen Leather, Writing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “pulling teeth”

  1. Stuart Neville Says:

    I’ve seen various tweets from Mr Leather in the guise of writing tips, one of them being never to rewrite, because it’s a waste of time. So, in other words, Stephen Leather has discovered an approach to writing that contradicts the advice of almost every other experienced writer on the face of the planet. I mean, what would Stephen King know? When he stressed the importance of rewriting in his book On Writing, clearly he was completely wrong. Him and almost every other writer who has ever uttered the phrase “first draft”.

    Writing is difficult. Unless you pay a ghost writer to do it for you, of course. Ahem.

    I’ve had serious struggles with my writing over the last two years, something I will blog about in due course, and I find Leather’s assertion that the amount of effort is inverse to the quality of the work entirely laughable. As would most writers, I think.

  2. Debi Gliori Says:

    Actually, having had a tooth pulled last month, I’d say the experience, though deeply unpleasant, paled by comparison to one of those days spent moving words around on a page to little effect.

    From my view, the ease of writing on a day-to-day basis varies as does the quality. I’m not entirely convinced that there is any correlation, whether inverse or direct. I would hesitate to try to pin it down. When it’s good, it’s the best thing ever, but when it’s bad…….

    It sounds like Leather works in a bland Californian writing climate; no decent winter storms, no highs or lows, just warm all year round, with the occasional light shower of self-congratulation to keep things alive. Personally, I think he’s missing out on a whole range of experience. Much as I despair during the grim times, the contrast with the sunny uplands is all the motivation I need to continue. If it was that easy, if I never had to re-write, if I sold by the shed load….. I think I’d probably get bored and go try something more challenging.

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