Monday, February 21, 2005

Why do we write?

Over at Mad Max Perkins' place there's a quote in the sidebar that I find a little disturbing:

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy." --Georges Simenon (1903-1985)

Yes, writing novels is just about the most difficult thing I've ever done, but it is also tremendously satisfying. True, it's not easy to work alone for months with no direction but what your own gut provides and then send your project off to New York City and wait several months only to get a brief "no, thanks" letter. But what unpublished writers don't seem to get is that publication can be even more emotionally wrenching than those rejection letters.

Because once you sign that contract, you lose control over just about everything.

Hideous bookcover? Too bad. Typos in the finished book? Par for the course. (And the readers will believe you're the idiot, not your editors. Count on it, you'll get letters about the errors on pages 96 and 259.) Publisher goes belly-up just before your novel is due to come out? It's happened. Many times. Or maybe your publisher will simply fail to promote your book. That's even worse.

Suck it up, author. There's nothing you can do about any of these things.

My own first-book experience actually went quite well. But I knew--and worried about--all of the things that could have gone wrong. So I was profoundly grateful that I had a good editor who didn't dream of messing with my style, that I ended up with a beautiful cover and decent back-cover copy, that there were only a couple of copyedit goofs in the finished product, and that my publisher's knack for "branding" pretty much ensures that new authors will do well. The only real headache I had was hearing from about two dozen readers that several chapters of my book were missing from the copies they had purchased and in those chapters' place were pages from another book released at the same time. (Yes, readers wrote to me about having been deprived of the complete books they'd paid for. I sent them new copies at my own expense--and by that I mean not only that I paid the postage but that I purchased the replacement books at retail--because the publisher had no more copies.)

As I said, my experience has been pretty good, but that is not always the way things work out in publishing. Any number of things can go wrong, and when they do the author is right there, forced to watch the carnage and helpless to stop it. I've seen grown authors cry, and I've heard them insist that the sting of those rejection letters they received before getting The Call was nothing compared to the disappointments they're suffering now.

So I'm suggesting that it's not in the writing, but in the pursuit of publication that we "aspire" to a vocation of unhappiness. Because publishing is something we can't control.

But what if the desire of your heart is to write?

If that's where your focus is, you can find happiness. If you write to express yourself and your worldview, if you write to challenge yourself, if you just can't resist playing around with words and shaping worlds of your very own, writing can be a very satisfying pastime. Even if you never sell. Or even if you do sell and then things go sour.

After selling the first novel I wrote, my next three complete manuscripts were rejected by my publisher before this last one was bought, but I kept writing. That was because it was never about "being published" for me. It has always been about the writing. Sure, I want to be published, but I kept writing even when my editors weren't buying because I had to write.

If your sole reason for writing is to be published, maybe you're doing it all wrong. Here's what E. B. White had to say on the subject:

"The whole duty of a writer is to please and satisfy
himself, and the true writer always plays to an
audience of one. Let him start sniffing the air, or
glancing at the Trend Machine, and he is as good
as dead, though he may make a nice living."
--E.B. White, An Approach to Style

My advice to the unpublished is simple: Give yourself fully to the writing. Don't hold anything back. Then after you have written, try to market the work. By keeping the creative activity in a seperate sphere from your business dealings, you'll ensure that the writing remains a joy.


HerWryness said...

Nicely done, Brenda. I agree wholeheartedly.

Heather Diane Tipton said...

I agree.
Those few chapters missing isn't to bad... I bought a book once that was a christian fiction book (trade size), By a fairly well known author. I was so excited to read this book, I got me something to drink and something to munch on and sat down to enjoy. I opened it up... inside was not a fiction book. it wasn't even a christian book. it was a book on feminism written by two lesbians! Now that was a shock! It also made me laugh. It's a weird sense of humor I have. ;-)

Katie Hart said...

Great entry. I long to be published, but it's good to think of the benefits (and missing frustrations) I have now. No deadlines, "playing" with projects as much as I want, encouraging comments from everyone who reads my books (family and church are nice, aren't they?), keeping my visual picture of the characters intact . . . but hey, some money would be nice! :-) Similar experience with two books - one had the pages upside-down, the other had some repeated pages, some missing.

Brenda Coulter said...

The great thing about mass-market paperbacks is their low price and wide availability. Unfortunately, mass production means there will be some goofs: the quality-control people aren't likely to spot every mistake.

Two authors I know had their covers switched. Their names and titles were correct, but the cover art got mixed up. Every one of the books went out that way, but surprisingly, very few readers complained.

Much worse was what happened to one of my good pals a few years ago. The last page was omitted from her book! Readers did notice that, and they wrote to the author about it. My friend sent out the missing page to everyone who wrote to her and complained, but the publisher did nothing. And since the author's per-book royalty was less than the price of a postage stamp, she was losing money every time she sealed one of those envelopes.