|Image: Alex Jones|
I know, I know. It seems like a stupid question. Of course you are writing as a writer. You’re writing! You’re writing right now*! It’s in the very definition of the word. Writers write. Otherwise they wouldn’t get to call themselves writers, would they? Writers do other things too: tweaking sentences until they sound pretty! Making things blow up! Inventing wonderful imaginary people and then ignoring all the real people in their lives in order to hang out with the imaginary ones for hours on end! Crafting imaginary scenarios so the aforementioned imaginary people end up kissing each other! You do all of this stuff. You are obviously writing as a writer.
Except, you know, for the times when you end up writing as a reader.
But of course writers are readers, you say. That’s what makes them become writers in the first place!
Yes, it’s true that writers are readers as well. But there is a difference. In some ways it’s kind of like the difference between being an adult and being a kid. Remember going supermarket shopping with your parents, and how they almost always bought things like milk and bread and vegetables? Remember wondering why they didn't just buy chips and icecream and chocolate? They were all right there on the shelf too, and man, they were so much more exciting than all that boring stuff. How could the adults not see this?
When you’re a reader, you’re usually in that frame of mind too. You want the chocolate, dammit. You want all those pesky things the writer keeps holding back. You want answers to all those questions the narrative sets up, and you want them now. You want icecream, and you don’t want to have to eat your broccoli first. You want the moment when Lizzie Bennet realises that her passionate hate towards Mr Darcy is actually love. You want the epic battle scene, and you want the characters you love so much to win without a single scratch. You want revelations, realisations, epiphanies. And the writer is like those frustrating parents, the ones who said that you could absolutely have icecream, but you’d need to wait, and you’d need to eat other things too. Sometimes they even told you that the icecream would be better because you’d waited, because they were cruel like that.
And the worst thing: they were right. When you live off chips, they stop being salty and wonderful. In fact, they actually become kind of gross. And when you read a story where everything falls into place too early and too easily, when all questions are answered as soon as they’re raised, it’s boring. And it seems obvious, but it’s still something I have to ask myself regularly, with every scene I write, with every scene I revise: am I approaching this scene as a reader, or as a writer? Am I hinting at chocolatey, awesome things to come, or am I coating everything in so much chocolate that it all becomes meaningless? Is my love for these characters getting in the way of making them suffer? Are the stakes high enough, or am I holding back?
In the end, stories are all about those things that readers (and writers) love so much: the moments of catharsis. The make out scenes. The midnight battles to save the world. The quiet but stunning flash of insight when the main character realises her father is actually very different to the person she has spent her whole life thinking he was. And they’re also about that glorious tension between what the reader wants to happen and what actually is happening. And it’s hard, because if you’re anything like me, you’re even less patient when it’s your novel, when it’s your beloved characters whose lives are at stake. But the magic is in the movement towards the thing, as well as the thing itself. Sometimes it’s not about having the sweet thing right now, but the promise of sweetness to come.
*Actually, technically what you are doing right now is hanging out on the internet, but we’ll let that one slide. Shakespeare himself would probably have hung out on the internet when he was meant to be writing too, if he’d had the option.