On Writing and Professional Guilt

Posted: 8th March 2011 by Jeff Bouley / Deacon Blue in Ruminations

So, at least a couple of my readers of this blog thought an idea I had was a good one for something to add to the blog, and that would be periodic ruminations on the act and art of writing these stories. That is, the thought processes behind them, the stray thoughts that guide me, the running themes and other such miscellany on the non-fiction part of the fiction-writing process. Hence, a new category called “Ruminations,” of which this is the first.

Today I wanted to talk about how I tend to approach stories, and the guilt (as well as pride) that comes with my approach and my results.

So to start off with, I have a confession.

I don’t spend much time writing these tales.

Well, relatively speaking.

Authors who get paid to write fiction (which I do not have the honor of being right now…I only get paid for the journalistic work I do, mostly writing about pharmaceutical business news and research these days) have their own styles. Some work from detailed outlines and some let the stories just flow out in almost stream of consciousness, and most probably fall in between those two extremes. But one thing I suspect that most paid fiction writers do is obsess over the details usually. In the end, however they got their words down, they will go back and re-work things through multiple drafts until they have a fully polished piece of art (or highly marketable pablum, which also takes a lot of work).

That’s not me.

Oh, I spend time on my stories. Writing one can take hours, easily, and with other work and deadlines to attend to, as well as being a husband and father and wanting to fit in things like DVDs and computer games at times, I don’t have as much time to write as I’d like. Therefore, my output is less than I would desire (or you readers would desire, since a steady flow would be more entertaining for you probably).

But I don’t spend a ton of time on them. I usually have some vague outline, but frankly, that usually amounts to between two and seven sentences that briefly mark out characters and situations and serve more to remind me not to forget certain things. When I actually do get down to the writing, I often let the story form as I go, which often means surprises for me as the writer, since characters and situations in stories drive me sometimes, instead of the other way around. Sometimes, I feel more like a man possessed and writing the words of some Muse or other non-corporeal entity than I do someone putting my own imagination into words.

Sometimes, I’ll put a story aside only partly finished, and might go back to re-read what I have done, and make minor adjustments before delving into the new portions. Or I might just write the whole thing before I go back and look it over.

In the end though, either way, I don’t make very many changes. I tighten things up perhaps, improve grammar, add a few more lines or an extra scene if I feel there are gaps, and things like that. But I don’t go through multiple iterations of the story and I don’t really do drafts. I write, and then I polish it up.

This is where the guilt comes in, because sometimes I feel that I’m not taking it all as seriously as I should, and not producing as high a quality as I could. This is probably endemic to most writers, but I can’t speak for them. Just making assumptions. But I do know that for me, I often think my writing, whether journalistic or fictional, is crap until I am told otherwise by editors and/or readers. That is when I can usually see the quality, and acknowledge that I am, in fact, a pretty talented guy.

My writer’s ego, you see, is apparently into delayed gratification. I can’t say I’m humble about my writing, because I don’t know if that’s possible. But my pride is diluted greatly until I have outside validation.

This is something I feel in particular with my fiction, more so than my journalism, and maybe that’s because I’ve been a journalist for more than two decades now and written God only knows how many hundred of stories (or thousands more likely). That part of my writing craft is well-honed and I know how to do quality work and what shortcuts I can get away with while not sacrificing quality.

This is a feature of all the fiction I’ve written, from the epic sci-fi novel (currently in hiatus) I was doing online at my other blog (here) and the erotic fiction I write online (which can be found at…uh, no…can’t share that with y’all, since some readers know me in real life or I do work for them, and don’t want/need to know my kinks). And yes, as for that latter mention, you can stop snickering. My erotica actually has plots and characterization and even if it didn’t, writing a sex scene well is harder than most people think.

In any case, the fact is that I always feel like I’ve given my fiction short-shrift, and I’m almost always pleasantly surprised to find that my readers disagree and truly enjoy it. But the guilt and doubt will be something I’m unlikely to shed for years, and the genuine surprise that you like what I write will continue to warm the cockles of my heart (whatever those are).

By the way, I did post a new piece of fiction here just the other day, a one-shot story titled “Insanity Peal” (here) and I thought I’d mention that in case this post pushes it down too far for you to have noticed it. Another chapter of “The Gathering Storm” will be up very soon, and I have a couple more one-shot stories I hope to get written in the near future.