Part of my job description as an editor is to keep writers from getting discouraged as they struggle to publish and publish well. It’s not easy, since it takes a lot of effort to learn the craft of writing, and once you break into print, your readership tends to build slowly. Even writers who are prepared for these natural roadblocks often give up – I can think of several clients with promising first novels who I wish were still writing.
Maybe the answer is to change the focus, from writing to publish to just writing.
Of course, you want to publish. You want to share the joy of your creation with other people. It’s nice to have the marketplace affirm your skills. And it would be even nicer to be paid for writing, if only because it gives you more time to do it.
But if all you’re interested in is making money, there are easier ways to do it. I once had a potential client who said he didn’t want to spend money on having his book edited unless I could guarantee it would earn $100,000. I don’t think I need to explain to Writer Unboxed readers why we parted ways. So don’t lose sight of the other reasons for writing.
Writing lets you create your own worlds, to wrap your imagination around new places, seeing how all the various parts of them interact. Even if you don’t explicitly include them in your story, you’re giving your worlds a history, a set of rules to live by, an understanding of how they function. This creativity is most pronounced when you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, but even if you’re writing realistic crime drama or roman á clef, you’re still bringing your real locations to life and giving them your own creative twist.
You create people. Writing forces you to constantly imagine yourself as someone else, whether it’s a mid-level manager living in Peoria or a three-brained jellyfish/balloon floating in the hydrogen clouds of Saturn. You can’t create characters without delving into how people, including yourself, work, and then expanding what you find far beyond yourself. Creating characters opens you to see other people for who they are. It makes you more aware, and often more compassionate. And when you’re really doing it right, you are often surprised by how your characters act. Writing becomes almost a dialogue between yourself and these people you’ve made.
You’re creating . . . life. As you watch your characters grow and develop, as you watch your story unfold, you become aware of the way actions have consequences, of how different personality types interact, how people challenge their inner demons and grow (or not). You see how good and evil play out in ordinary human lives, how people face the big questions of birth, love, and loss. This unspooling of life is what stories are, and writing them forces you into the middle of it.
A painter sees a landscape more deeply than ordinary onlookers. Drummers experience time differently from the rest of us. And writing makes you more aware of the ebb and flow that goes on every day around you. It’s an education, a philosophy, often an epiphany, and it’s worth doing even if you never publish a word.
Ironically, though, if you approach your writing with this attitude, I suspect you are much more likely to publish. Granted, hacks still roam the world, cranking out formulaic Pablum without much thought behind it. But I suspect there are a lot fewer than you might expect – that a lot of formulaic mysteries or romances are actually written with heartfelt intent coupled with, perhaps, inept perceptions. It’s hard to really entertain readers, even at a most basic level, without caring about your story at least a little bit. And as the publishing marketplace grows more competitive, there’s less and less room for pure hackwork.
But if you look at the most successful artists – musicians, actors, athletes, writers – they all look like they’re having fun with it. That they’re doing it for its own sake, and would do it even if no one ever paid attention to them.
So if you’re writing to publish, stop. Instead, write to write. Do it for the moments when your characters say or do something so unexpected that you wonder if you ever really knew them before. Do it for the moments when you overhear something in the supermarket and think That was beautifully put and would make great dialogue. Do it for the mornings when you wake up and know exactly how the atmosphere of one of your settings feels, when you have to hurry to get it down on paper before the feeling fades. Do it for the late evenings when you finish a scene with tears in your eyes.
With most of my columns, the comments expand whatever theme I’m writing on, usually in intriguing ways – the comments are an extension of the article. This month, I’m deliberately inviting that. If you don’t normally read the comments, do. And tell us, why do you write? How is being a writer changing your life?