I take that phrase from a newsletter I read this week by learning expert Scott Young. Reviewing The Handbook of Creativity by Robert Sternberg, Young synthesizes this takeaway: Creativity is a by-product of acquired expertise and a willingness to take intellectual risks.
Lately I’ve been struggling to decide what my next novel will be. Over the winter I thought I knew, and I wrote 30,000 words of a historical suspense novel that was coming along nicely—so nicely, in fact, I kept noting “Fun!” and “Good writing day!” in my journal. Then I set it aside in order to do revisions on another project.
When I came back to the current WIP, I no longer felt sure it was worth continuing. The very thing that made the project seem promising before—ease—now made me suspicious. I’d accumulated lots of words, but something was missing.
Possibly, that “something” would be fixed in revision. But still, I found myself asking: Was this novel too easy to write?
(I’m not suggesting any novel is truly easy. But some feel easier than others, at least for a while, as if one merely has to put in the time and all will be well.)
Joyce Carol Oates believes that if you’ve selected the right subject, the writing should be easy. “If writing is difficult, stop writing. Begin with another subject. The true writing writes itself, it cannot be silenced.”
Yes, maybe, but also… no?
I have two alternate potential novels vying to be written this year. One is strongly voiced from my first test pages but I have no idea where the plot will possibly go because the premise is patently absurd. The characters are clamoring to speak, but it may be the silliest thing I’ve ever dreamed up. It feels like a big risk.
The other one is conventionally structured, a simple and serious historical novel in one sense, but it will require extensive research in two areas, and I can imagine a million ways in which I could get facts wrong, especially if I’m not completely committed. This novel also feels like a big risk.
These projects could easily fail—and that’s probably why I should pick one of them and just get going. As for that other novel that was feeling easy, maybe what felt like “flow” was actually me skimming over the surface, not digging hard or really committing to the characters or the genre.
There are lots of ways in which a book can be “hard” to write.
Maybe you haven’t fully figured out your main character yet—what she truly desires, for example.
Maybe the characters feel round—alive, authentic, accessible to the reader—but the plot is uncertain; you hit a wall somewhere early in Act II and you just don’t know what should happen next.
Maybe you want to use some technique you haven’t used before—a POV choice, or some kind of complicated structure.
Maybe you’re breaking a “rule” that society seems to be imposing at this moment, by writing a character who isn’t like you.
Maybe you are planning to show the reader something about the world that the reader won’t like to see.
Are you getting sweaty? Are you feeling like an imposter? Inadequate? Off-trend? Too slow? Too dense? A has-been? A never-was? Too old? Too young?
Does the discomfort feel bad? Does the discomfort feel good? Feel it. Name it.
Let me quote Scott Young again.
“Creativity is a by-product of acquired expertise and a willingness to take intellectual risks.”
Even Ty Cobb only had a .366 batting average, by the way.
I think it’s worth listening to that little voice inside. Sometimes it will say, “First base is fine.” Sometimes it will say, “It’s a home run or nothing.”
Either way, trust your gut and enjoy the game.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach and the author of five novels as well as numerous works of nonfiction. Her next novel, The Deepest Lake, a suspense novel set in Guatemala, will be published in 2024. www.romanolax.com.