Last week at the writers’ group, Frank read the opening pages of his work in progress. He has a lot of talent, does Frank, and if he can keep going, this novel promises to be something special. If he can keep going. My concern is that he confessed to looking up the the expected income for novelists — less than €5,000 / pa in Ireland — and he started wondering if all the work was worth it. “Just do it for yourself, Frank,” Una advised. Una’s the Dalai Lama of the group. Equal parts smarts, wisdom, and kindness.
It’s always dangerous to start asking yourself those awkward questions when you’re at the early stage of writing a novel. Once you’re fairly well into the work, sheer bloody-mindedness might help you hobble across the finish line. A sense that if you’ve come this far you may as well see it through to the bitter end. But if you’ve only got a few chapters under your belt, looking up at the many, many miles ahead and wondering if it’s worth it can really put you off.
…and miles to go before I sleep…
~ Robert Frost
As with any lengthy or challenging endeavour, you have to feel it is worthwhile. Why do people climb mountains, run marathons, or, yes, write novels? To prove they can? For the sense of accomplishment? For the dopey tee-shirt that says, I climbed Mount Everest and all I got was this Lousy Tee-Shirt?
There are certainly similarities between the physical challenges and writing a novel. The sense of commitment, the difficulty, the realisation that your accomplishment sets you apart as one of the elite. However, there are significant differences, too. There are no camera crews, cheering crowds, or big cups awaiting the novelist once he comes to those gasp–water!–gasp words THE END at, you know, the end. In fact, the odds are it will be 3am, everyone else will be in bed, just like when you wrote the other 120,000 words, and no one will give a toss. In the morning when you tell your spouse you’re finished, you’re unlikely to get anything more exciting than a pat on the shoulder and a, “That’s nice, dear.” On the other hand, at least you don’t have to worry about frostbite or bone spurs.
You may not know why you want to write a novel when you first take the notion (or the notion first takes you.) To be honest, I’m not sure it really matters that you are able to articulate it, though it can make life a little less complicated if you can come up with some sort of answer for the inquisitive relative who will prod you every time you meet. “I feel compelled to explore the ramifications of World War One, specifically the socio-economic structure of Europe that led to the rise of fascism in the 1930s, through the eyes of a fictitious American journalist, a Hemingwayesque figure, living in Paris…” That should keep any sane person from ever broaching the subject again.
Even if you can’t really explain why you want to write a novel, you should be realistic about what you can expect to achieve and what the cost will be. Writing a long work takes time and commitment. If it’s to be a decent work you can expect to spend at least a year working at it, and possibly considerably much longer. Once you’ve written a book, especially if you’ve published it, the people in your life will become less irritated by your refusal to down tools and take off to the pub at a moment’s notice. They’ll understand that you are serious about the work, even if they don’t understand why.
Don’t set out to write a novel because you think it’s trendy. It isn’t and it never has been. Maybe for five minutes when Dickens was boss. Don’t do it to get back at people, either. The evil boss you’ve made into the king of Mordor in your book probably won’t ever read it and if he does he won’t recognise himself (or, if he does recognise himself, look out lawsuit.)
If you write for money you’d best prepare yourself for disappointment. Sorry, Frank. Very few authors get rich by writing alone. OK, if you manage to get a hugely successful movie made from your novel and if you or your agent negotiated a very good deal in terms of profits (such agents exist, I’m told. Stop laughing.) Or if your name is Dan Brown or Stephen King you might manage to support yourself from your writing.
Fame isn’t a good reason to write, either. Sure, you want to live forever, learn how to fly, etc., but is writing a novel really the best way to accomplish that? You could go on a reality TV show, become a YouTube sensation, become a peace activist, start your own political party that actually tells the truth and makes sense. I know, that’s crazy talking. But really, if fame is what you’re after, writing a novel is one of the hardest ways of achieving it. Even if you do write a novel or ten, there’s still no guarantee that people will know who you are. Quick, tell me who wrote Gone Girl? Brick Lane? The Finkler Question? The Gathering?
Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. I have to remind myself of that sometimes, especially now in the third year of my current work in progress. Yes, it’s coming together. I’m on the third draft. Many of the problems that beset me are resolved. The characters are formed and I know what the story is. But placing one word on the page after the other is no less wearisome than if I were pounding the earth from Marathon to Athens like Philippides. Writers get blisters, too, only ours are on the brain, on the soul, not the sole.
Like running a marathon, writing a novel is lonely work. You’re out there on your own and whether you succeed or fail is entirely up to you.
A lot of people won’t understand why you’re even bothering. “Do people even read books any more?” At least if you run a marathon you’ll have people cheering at the end. There’ll be a ribbon, or maybe a cup or a plaque. Even if you finish the novel, there’s no guarantee it will ever get published. But it doesn’t matter. The object right now isn’t publication, fame, fortune, or prizes, it’s just finishing. And when your neighbours or your relative, the one one who nags you about your motivation, who demands to know was it worth it, spending all that time alone just writing and what do you mean, you don’t even have a publisher yet? You can look her in the eye and say, Yes. I wrote a book. How many people can say that?
So do it. Do it for you. Do it because you can’t not. Do it because the book in you is burning a hole in your heart and it will drive you mad if you don’t write it out of you. Do it because you have to know if you can. Because it’s the only thing you long to do, because writing defines you in a way that never else ever could. Do it because you’ll shrivel up without it.
Just do it.