There seem to be two basic myths about How Writers Work. The first is the painfully slow, unbelievably picky Brooding Poetic Genius typified by the Oscar Wilde remark about having a good day writing because he’d spent the morning removing a comma and the afternoon putting it back. The second is the inspired whirlwind All-You-Need-Is-An-Idea Genius typified by the montage scene in dozens of movies about writers – you know, the one that shows the writer being struck by an idea, racing for his typewriter, and then typing steadily away as images of pages pile up and up on the overlay, until at the end of the two-minute segment, he sits back with a sigh and his completed first, last, and only draft…which of course goes through the entire publication process in about a week and becomes a big hit.
I’ve never been able to decide which of the two I like least. Whenever I’ve met someone who takes either image seriously, the effect has always been detrimental to that writer’s work. Half the ones who go for the unbelievably picky myth polish the silver shine right off their prose, then continue down through the copper until all that’s left is a thin steel core, and then they go into despair because they “can’t write.” The other half struggle mightily to be as picky as they think they should, and fall into despair because they are really satisfied with their prose, mostly, and therefore they obviously aren’t doing it right.
The folk who go for the inspiration myth are much harder to deal with for me personally, because I so do not work that way (which makes it very difficult for me to come up with alternatives that such writers will find useful). They, too, seem to fall into two groups: the ones who sit around waiting to be inspired, and who therefore produce nothing at all, and the ones who actually do produce quite a bit, but who refuse to believe that anything they produce this way could or should ever be changed. Every comma is golden even, the ones that, are in totally wrong places. I find this sort particularly frustrating, because it’s obvious from their production rate that they’ve stumbled across a big chunk of What Works For Them, but most of them will never make that final step to publication that they’re dreaming of because they think that as long as it’s inspired, it must be good.
Inspiration is no guarantee of quality. It feels good, but that’s not the same thing. There is, most definitely, such a thing as inspired dreck. There are, certainly, writers who can and do produce enough publication-or-better quality prose to make a living at writing, and who write only when they are inspired. I’ve met maybe three of these in the past thirty years, and all of them produced just as much unsellable stuff as the rest of us. The reason the inspiration-only method works for them is that they are inspired all the time. They never feel like not-writing. And they are under no illusion that everything they write is of the same high quality. They’ve learned to recognize when something is publication-ready and when it is going to need painful revision (and in my experience, the revision process is far more painful for these folks than it is for the rest of us…which is really saying something).
Also, I’ve never yet met anyone who could correctly identify, from reading the published version of Mairelon the Magician, which parts were written in a white-hot heat and got minimal revision; which were written fast and then revised to within an inch of their lives; which were done at an excruciatingly slow slog, etc. Heck, nobody’s ever correctly identified where in the ms. I took a years-long break to write other stuff. If you can’t tell the difference in the finished product, does it really matter whether the prose was inspired or not?
And ultimately that is the fundamental problem with all of the assorted would-be writers who get so invested in these writing myths. They get so focused on the “right” way to get to their goal that they forget about the goal itself. The goal varies, writer to writer, but it is always some form of a finished manuscript. For some, the goal is just to finish, and the heck with quality (NaNoWriMo writers, for instance). For some, the goal is to produce a “good” manuscript (according to their personal definition of “good writing,” whatever that may be). For some, the goal is to get the story out of their head and down on paper as accurately as they possibly can. For some, the goal is a manuscript that meets the standards for professional publication.
Regardless of the specific goal, there are lots of ways to achieve it – probably as many ways as there are writers. The important thing is getting there, however one does it.