Being a writer is a vocation for lunatics, the kind of thing you only do if you are a masochistic fool, the kind of person who loves nothing more than being repeatedly and consistently rejected, knocked, disappointed and laughed at, with only the occasional glimmer of hope, let alone happiness, to sweeten the bitter pill you swallow every day. It’s a little like being a fervent England supporter – except much, much worse. At least England fans have other people to share their unhappiness and delusions with.
Here, on the eve of the publication of my second solo novel, What You Wish For, which is my sixth published novel in total, are five reasons why you have to be nuts to be a novelist – but why I, like so many others, just can’t help myself.
The Loneliest Profession
There you sit at your keyboard, all alone, like Tom Hanks in Castaway. Except you don’t even have a friendly volleyball called Wilson sitting on your desk looking cute. All you have are a bunch of characters that you made up, your own Wilsons, characters who you probably feel, being mad, have taken on a life of their own. If you’re one of the lucky few you have an agent and/or a publisher, the boss you rarely see, and although you don’t have any real colleagues, or work friends, you kid yourself that exchanging tweets with other writers counts as water-cooler conversation.
And as you drag words out of your head, one eye on the word count at the bottom of the screen, you are dimly aware that across the country there are people having real conversations, laughing, doing jobs that actually matter. You start to talk to the cat. You start to tweet pictures of the cat. You stare at the words and have no idea if they are the fruits of your genius or the rotten eggs of your uselessness. Every so often you will ask your significant other, or your agent/publisher, or, God help you, a beta reader, to look over your latest pages. You try not to look too desperate when you ask them if they’ve had a chance to read it yet. You remember the first time an English teacher gave you an A+ for a story that you wrote at primary school, the first time you experienced the sweet hit of the addiction that would go on to rule your life.
Every so often, the words will flow, the scenes and chapters leaping from your imagination, brilliant ideas sparking and fizzing and setting your work in progress alight. This is it! The world-conquering No.1 bestseller! You leap up from your little desk, ignoring the pain in your back, and punch the air with joy. The cat blinks at you then walks from the room, curling up in a patch of sunlight, happy and content, mocking you with its purrs as it shows you what life could be like if you weren’t a writer.
Nobody gives a damn about you and your novel. Let’s face it, the world needs another writer like it needs to be struck by a comet, kick-starting the next ice age. The world needs new writers like it needs new boy bands. Come the apocalypse, when carpenters and hunters and Bear Grylls are at the top of the food chain, useful and necessary, you will be at the very bottom, just below tax advisors. Even if you cleverly predicted this very apocalyptic scenario in a YA dystopian trilogy that you wrote!
Unpublished? It doesn’t matter if you are the most incisive, clever writer in the world (which you almost certainly are not), mapping the human condition like a cartographer of the soul – tell people that you are working on a novel and they will look at you like you just told them your dog has cancer. Their eyes will glaze over as you attempt to answer the dreaded question, ‘What’s it about?’
You will sweat blood polishing and buffing your synopsis and first three chapters, carefully select a handful of agents from the Writers Handbook and send it to them. Then you will wait. And wait. You are vaguely aware that they receive quite a lot of other submissions. You might not be aware that they each receive approximately a billion submissions just like yours every single day – even Christmas day – and they will glance at yours with a bored sneer before sending you a standard rejection slip.
This doesn’t matter, of course, these days, because you can self publish, just like millions of other geniuses. Then you can tell all your friends that you have a book on Amazon, which is like telling them that both your dog and cat have cancer, and unless you are (ahem) incredibly lucky, you will hit refresh on your sales figures every five minutes and finally have statistical proof that nobody – nobody! – cares.
Everyone’s a Critic
Once you finally get a book out there in the world – whether you were snapped up by a traditional publisher or have gone the self-pub route – you sit and wait for the reviews to start rolling in. 0.05% of books get reviewed in newspapers and magazines. The rest get reviewed on Amazon. By people. Real people. Some of whom are literally members of the great unwashed. These people have no respect for all the effort that went into your life’s work. They weren’t there the day you lay on the floor weeping and hugging the cat a little too hard. They don’t know that your mum and your former English teacher think you are ‘quite good’. The first review rolls in:
How did this get published?
This was possibly the worst book I’ve ever read. I guessed that Professor Black did it on page three. Also, doesn’t the author know that electric irons weren’t invented until 1923, not 1922 like it says in this novel. If I could give it less than 1 star I would.
You mark it unhelpful then go and give the cat another really hard squeeze.
Every other writer in the world is luckier than you
‘Wow! Just had some v exciting news,’ tweets one of your writer peers. ‘Can’t wait to share!’
‘What is it?’ you seethe. A new book deal? Six figures? Seven figures? Oh God, please not a film deal. The rights have probably been snapped up by Spielberg. Nicole Kidman is going to star in it. The jammy, flukey, undeserving bastard. Their agent is obviously so much better than yours. What have you done to deserve this?
The next day they reveal the big news. They’ve sold the rights to their novel in Malta. A three figure deal. You still seethe. What do they have that makes their book so much more appealing to the Maltese than yours? You need a new agent.
The next day you find seven books by people you met at that literary festival in WHSmith, on the bestseller list. Yours isn’t even in the remainder bin. You smile and wish them luck. They deserve the success. The jammy, flukey bastards…
The dream is, like, a total nightmare
You’ve done it. You got the deal you always dreamed of. Your agent has phoned with the good news. You are elated, the happiest man or woman on earth. Your mum is so proud. The cat is probably proud too. This is it. You’ve made it. You are a proper writer now. The world is your oyster, and your oyster contains the biggest, most flawless, perfect pearl ever discovered. You tweet your good news and wonder how many other writers are glaring enviously at their screens right now.
Then your publisher shows you the post-it note containing the marketing plan. They tell you they’re going to tweet about it ‘quite a lot’. They’ve managed to bribe several shops to stock it. They are going to build your career from the ground up, one reader at a time.
The novel comes out. It’s No.78 in the WHSmith bestseller list for two weeks. It reaches no 4,718 on the Amazon rankings. Then it disappears. Forever. The cat laughs at you.
It’s all worth it! It’s like having kids. They trash the house, they smear chocolate on your new sofa, they never say thank you or appreciate how you’ve given up your entire life for them. But you still love them. And you love being a writer. Because, because…
The writing. The joy of inventing worlds, of feeling the power and excitement when everything flows. The pleasure of spending time with the characters you created. The sweetness of crafting the perfect sentence.
Getting an email from a reader who loved your book, who thanks you for writing it. They can’t wait for your next novel, they are going to recommend you to all their friends. You have inspired them, made them laugh or cry. They are going to leave you a five star review on Amazon.
Meeting other writers. Discovering that you are part of a community of people like you, friendly, generous people who have hang-ups and doubts just like yours. Who are genuinely pleased for you when you do well, just as you are for them.
The ecstasy of watching your book climb the charts, achieving sales you never dreamed of.
Not having to spend your days having water cooler conversations in a smelly office full of people who don’t like books.
The sheer pleasure of holding your novel, of seeing it in a shop, or on a website. You did that. You achieved it. No one can take that away from you. Ever.
And you get to hang out with the cat. Every day. And the cat doesn’t care if you’re crazy. Because it’s a writer’s cat. And that, in the feline world, is the very coolest thing to be.
What You Wish For is available on Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com. It’s a novel about pursuing your beliefs even when everyone in the world thinks you are mad. A novel about not giving up. It’s a novel about a young man whose girlfriend disappears and his desperate quest to find her. And nobody, yet, has written ‘If I could give it less than one star I would’.