Who do you write for?
There is nothing like your first book. It is the only book you will write in innocence, you’ll have all the time in the world to write it, to cut and edit and fix and patch and rewrite, to tear it to pieces and begin again. It is totally yours. Nobody in the world knows what you are doing, you have no idea what anybody else will think of it. You don’t even know if anyone else will ever read it. You will write just what you think is right. Because of the lack of constraints it may be the best thing you ever write, or the only book you’ll ever write. While you write it you will know freedom that you will never know again. If it gets published your writing world will change. There will be an expectation to do it again, to follow it up with something just as good, if not better, for the same readership, only this time you’ll have a word count. You’ll get a deadline, a year or two years. Your freedom to do as you please when you wish will go, many people struggle. Maybe it took ten years to write the last one, to come up with the idea and make it real and round and solid. Can you do it again, in two, max? I have known writers to become immobile with anxiety at the thought.
I’ve been lucky, I only ever had one book deals - I was under no pressure for each book and had no anxiety. Also I’ve been writing for decades and knew that I had three books I really wanted to write. I probably won't want to write another.
The stuff you write to make other people happy is the worst stuff you will ever write. If you write solely for a market you’ll find there are other people writing for that market who love to write that kind of stuff. They are lucky that their own personal art has a market. If your love is for money first and are determined to make it by writing, then good luck, there are people who manage that, there are a few very big names who consistently make an awful lot of money, but a bit of research will show that the vast majority of them started by writing things they loved to write and ‘hit a lucky seam’ as a gold prospector might say. Very few of them are copyists, most of them have highly original voices.
Why do you write? Do you write because that is what you would do even if there is nobody to read it? I do, many writers have written since they were children just because they loved to write. Some of these people go on to make money out of it and a very few will go on to make a living out of it. Most of us love to write in the same way that painters like to paint or singers like to sing. We do it because it is what we love doing, organising our thoughts and ideas or making up stories, fantasising about different outcomes, some people are just natural storytellers. We write because that is who we are.
Some people like to write poetry; others love to write fantasies, some people love to write blogs, or reviews of things they have read or bought. People on social media love to tell us about their dinner or their kids or their holidays. We all do it for a massive variety of reasons, the most important of which is that we can’t help ourselves. As John Lee Hooker said: If the boogie is in you, it’s gotta come out.
We write for ourselves and this is how I stared out as a writer. I wrote to organise my thoughts, I have always had a very poor memory, I can be intense & pay deep attention to things and before I realise it they are gone and I’m looking at something else. I’m dyslexic and so by nature I see patterns and connections in things that are not on the surface, relationships between events and ideas and physical things, people etc. But my memory is such that I can’t hold onto the lighter ideas, they shift and change and fade and make new patterns, so from an early age I began writing, first to hang onto ideas and explore them, turn them around and play with them for fun and soon came to enjoy it as an art form. Just as I enjoyed photography and drawing and singing in the shower and anything else that was real and happening right now.
Writing was part of who I was, it was part of what I did with my life. I wrote a novel many years ago, sent it off to an agent, I think I have written somewhere about this before, but I sent it off and got a very nice letter a few months later saying that she really loved my writing blah blah, and over two pages she explained that she wouldn’t be able to find a market for it but that I ‘should definitely keep on writing’. Well I would have kept on writing anyway, I can’t help myself.
Many years later - decades in fact, I get some work published, poetry, short stories that moved in on me while I was working or unemployed, then a book, and then another one, books I wanted to write written in the way I wanted to write them. They started to get reviewed in the newspapers, the first one was long listed for an award, the newspapers were very kind, then the second one was published and a couple of reviews in the UK were less kind, they didn’t attack the book but me personally, how I dress for instance, one printed a quote they had made up. The newspapers in the USA however were wonderful, they compared me to Laurie Lee and Jack Kerouac, Robert Persig, I’m called a ‘Desert Mystic’ in one review.
All of this can turn a chap’s head and I began to think that I must examine the reviews carefully to see what I can learn, to work out what they think is worthwhile in my work so that I can do more of it, to see what I have done they didn’t like. In effect I was without realising it, thinking about writing to suit an audience, adapting my work a little, giving it a tilt, an angle. As I did this I realised that I had stopped enjoying the writing. I wasn’t having fun or learning anything or exploring thoughts, I wasn’t even having ideas in the same way because even before they were fully formed I was considering how they would be seen by others, trying to please, trying not to offend. I wasn’t enjoying it so I started to doubt my abilities as a writer. Am I just a ‘one trick pony’ who can only do one thing? I started to feel a little insecure. I have never been insecure before as a writer. Writing was just fun, expressing myself, exploring words and rhythms and ideas and suddenly other people were seeing it and judging it.
But then my dyslexic superpower clicks in and a few patterns emerge, one is a similarity between the personal attacks and what I see every day on social media, people piling in on others who do not share their opinions or choices. What and how I wrote was being effected by the opinions of people I have never met, who I know nothing about, whose backgrounds are as shaded from me as anything could ever be, as if the opinion of these shadows are worth more than mine. Of course the correct response when somebody attacks you is to ignore them and move on, you have no idea what is going on in these poor people’s lives.
Original voices, thoughts, ideas are rarely born from the security of being part of mainstream society. Writers and artists tend to come come from a background of ‘otherness’, they are often outsiders and given the tribal nature of much of society it is inevitable that they will be attacked. Sometimes being an outsider drives people to try to fit in and this is usually disastrous for them because they will be spotted and they will be ‘outed’. If you are driven to create, then I am afraid that you are stuck with it and just need to get on with it and stop pretending to be ‘normal’. You may be able to add to your income stream or even, if you are very lucky, end up being able to make a living out of it.
My best writing is done for me, not for other people. I am not trying to thrill, entertain or mystify anybody other than myself. I am not making a product like a fridge or a blender, I am creating something more like a painting that sometimes comes from somewhere deep, often subconscious, there may be repeated images and conflicting ideas, dark and shade, wet and dry. If readers like it then that is wonderful, if they prefer to move along and look at something else, well there is plenty of other writing out there that might suit them better. For this reason I never review a book unless I loved it - if a book just doesn’t work for me, then that is the the worse thing I can say about it. If something doesn’t fit, I put it back and try another. My opinion is just another opinion. But if I read a good review I read it closely - I want to find out what was good about the book, maybe it’s one for me and maybe I’ll try it and if I like it I’ll read their other stuff too.
The lesson for me and perhaps for you too is, enjoy your writing, the very best writing is always done for this one reason alone. Write what you want and how you want. Write the best you can. Learn your craft but also take your risks, the very best of your writing is creative, exploratory and probably outside the mainstream, it is who you are.
If you are reading something you enjoy, give it a nice review, there is no better way of saying to a writer that you enjoyed what they shared with you.
If you have any topics you would like me to explore, make a comment and if I can I’ll have a go at giving you my angle on it.