Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Isn't it supposed to get easier?

By Jenny Hilborne, author of mysteries and thrillers

I've heard a familiar grumble from lots of multiple book authors who find each book they write is more difficult than the last. I'm no different. Each new book is harder and takes me longer to write. I've asked myself why. Is the difficulty a sign of improvement, or an indication I'm somehow lost in the process, buried under all the new information I pick up? Am I trying too hard?

I'm currently working on my fourth novel, Stone Cold, and I'm finding it is my most difficult book yet. I said the same thing when I wrote book #3, Hide and Seek. I thought the writing process would be easier with each book -  I've picked up more and more tips, learned many of the "rules" along the way, and attended numerous workshops and writing conferences.

I first attended the Southern California Writers Conference in 2008, with a completed manuscript for my first book, Madness and Murder. I paid for a one-on-one critique with a publisher, who later became my publisher, but not until they'd rejected me, given me advice on how to fix my mistakes, and presented me with a rare second shot at submission. You see, I thought I knew enough to write a good book at that early stage, and I didn't. I've attended SCWC several times since, and always learned more and come away with great advice. Even after all this, I still find every book harder to write than the last.

Drew Kaufman and I briefly discussed this in a recent Facebook exchange. With all the feedback we've received, with what we now know and have learned along the way, why does each book become harder to write? Do we present our protagonists with more complicated challenges? Weave in more subplots? Do all authors feel this way? Are we improving or getting lost?

The more prolific an author is, the more readers expect from said author. Is this right? Fair? Well, I expect a lot from the well-known authors whose books I choose to read, yet I find I'm currently enjoying the books from lesser known authors much more. I've stopped reading Harlan Coben altogether. His later works don't impress me as much as the earlier stuff. I wonder if he got bored, or stopped trying as hard to please his audience, having "made it." In the works of some prolific authors, it's often easy to note similarities between books, a pattern if you like, or the authors voice. In some cases, this makes the outcomes of the stories predictable.

It's a challenge I struggle with myself. Only on my 4th novel, and I already find I have to work hard to avoid repetition, to stay creative and bring in new and unique threats, problems, and plot lines. After the release of my 2nd book, No Alibi, a returning reader remarked how my first 2 books were so dissimilar, they could have been written by different authors. Rightly or not, I took it as a compliment. I noticed from watching the X Factor how judges want new singers to be instantly recognizable to an audience by their style, their voice. This raised a question in my mind: do all authors have a "style"? Should they? Does it work the same way for emerging authors as for singers?

Back to difficulty: The hardest part of my first book was how to finish, writing a satisfactory ending. In subsequent books, this has become the easier bit. Now, I get lost in the middle. I know more about my writing and understand myself better as an author than I did several years ago, have learned more about character development, energy, pacing, consistency, small detail, yet it feels more than ever like work. Hard work.

Authors: Why are subsequent books more challenging to write? Is it because we continually raise the standards for ourselves as authors and strive to make each book better?

Readers: Do you like the authors you read to have a recognizable "style"?


  1. We do raise the standards for ourselves, and some of us try hard to make each book unique, even if it's part of a series.

    So yes, each book is harder. But for me, each story has its own struggles (a new character, consistency with old stories, getting the timing right).

    Yet I'm writing my eight Jackson story now and it's been rather easy. So I'm a little worried about that. :)

  2. I've just completed my 3rd mystery, and even though it was a little easier than the second, the difficulties came in different ways. I made Hit or Missus difficult, both because my hubby said Freezer Burn's mystery was too simple and because I got bored and abandoned my outline.

    The new one, The Hot Mess, was more straightforward to write, but my outline showed a very spare arc, and it took me awhile to get the subplot(s) injected, plus there was a little more research for this one. The result was, it took about the same, lengthy time to write as the second one.

    I'm hoping to get to the place where I do all the research and outlining up front, then let my fingers fly and get the story written in a couple of months. Does that place exist?

  3. This post feels so relevant for me right now. I recently told a close friend, this is the most difficult novel I've ever written, and he replied: "You said that last time." To which I responded: "True, but this one's even harder."

    And it is, and I think I know why--at least for some of us. It's because with each novel, we take what we know and we raise the bar. I know I have. This one is far more complex in its elements. That's a good thing, even though it feels like a bad one. It means we're stretching ourselves. Growth seldom feels great while it's happening--you don't get to enjoy the benefits until after.

  4. Part of learning the craft of writing is also learning the process. What works for us. And sometimes the more we learn, the harder it becomes because we are no longer blind to what makes a story work.

    I've just begun my third novel, and if it what happened with the first two happens with this one, it goes something like this…in the beginning, I love it. The book practically writes itself. Then I begin to get bogged down and worried and at some point will hate the story, hate my writing, and will know beyond doubt that readers will resoundingly hate every word.

    I was nervous with my first book, and more nervous with the one that was just published. Will I be disappointing people who liked RED TIDE because THE MISSINGS is different?

    A thoughtful post, Jenny. Thanks.

  5. Playing devil's advocate: Do you ever wonder if part of the learning process takes away from the beauty of inspired writing or changes an author's voice? Perhaps that's part of why some author's later works lose us. Also, the push to crank them out faster and faster maybe has an author not putting into is all that they did before.

    I know there's always room to learn and grow and that every author wants his/her current release to be just as good and well received as the last one. I think you hit it perfectly: authors continue to raise the standards. Not necessarily a bad thing :)

    Looking forward to your next book. Enjoyed Hide and Seek.

  6. I had the good fortune to interview Sue Grafton earlier this year and learned that, for her latest novel, she had over 900 pages of notes. She also is finding each novel harder to write than the previous. Part of the issue is, indeed, she wants to keep things fresh. But, more than that, I think that it's just human nature to want to improve each time we do something. Whether it's writing or playing a piano, I always want to do better. And, since my piano playing now sucks, I'd better focus on my writing.

  7. Linda, yes I do agree part of the constant learning and obeying rules does affect a writer's creativity, and definitely the pressure to produce results in reduction in quality for some authors. I've never understood authors who crank out 4 books a year manage it.

    (So glad you enjoy H&S)

  8. This was a great post for me at just the right time. I couldn't figure out why I was finding my seventh manuscript so much harder to write than all the others. I really did think it would get easier as time went on. :D


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