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Lots of people – usually inexperienced writers, or those who know very little about the publishing industry – have lofty misconceptions about being an author. I can admit to having them, when I was a young, inexperienced, and naive writer. But now I’m older and wiser.

Well, older.

This week, I thought I’d look at some of the misconceptions that commonly do the rounds.

    Being an author is lucrative.
    I heard a joke yesterday:

      What’s the difference between an author and a pizza?
      A pizza can feed a family of four.

     
    The top-end authors – JK Rowling, Stephen King, Lee Child, etc. – would be rich. But most authors are working full- or part-time jobs, and writing on the side. Now that’s most. Go look at the books in a bookstore, and determine how many of those authors would be rich. In Australia, it’s harder, since we’re a tiny market.

    So you can ditch the dream of marching into your job and telling your boss to stick it. You could have a huge hit. It could go international. Be turned into a film. Etc. It could happen. It could. You can’t rule anything out, because it does happen.

    But it’s rare.

    And if you think you’re the one, well, damnit, think about how many other writers have had that exact thought – because they have.

     
    I have an idea for a book, and it’s going to be a bestseller!
    Well, it might be. It just might be. But there’s no guarantee.

    Plenty of great books go unsold, and plenty of bad ones sell well. Publishers can market a book. You can hustle relentlessly. But you’re still left to the whims of the public. Sometimes, it’s just about timing. The market might be saturated, or another similar book might’ve taken the limelight. Sometimes, it’s just bad luck – for whatever reason, a book doesn’t capture the public’s imagination en masse.

    Your idea might be unique, your writing brilliant, and your book the best thing ever published, but that still doesn’t guarantee that people are going to buy it.

     
    Writing is easy.
    I would like to embark on The Les Zig Tour 2019 (dates and venues to be announced), where – using a cold, wet, mackerel – I slap everybody who believes writing is easy.

    You might have a brilliant imagination and a fantastic story idea. You still have to articulate that onto the page. That takes structure, voice, prose, plotting, characters, arcs – well, this list can go on.

    Consider this if you’re likely to be on my tour: go and paint me a masterpiece, and see how well you do with that if you have no or little background in art. Writing is about that easy.

     
    My first (or second) draft is brilliant – I don’t need to work on it anymore!
    Your first draft will never be brilliant. It might be filled with brilliant potential, but it takes a lot of work to realise that potential.

    Both Just Another Week in Suburbia and August Falling came out what I consider ‘easy’, in terms of writing. They flowed and developed and evolved.

    Yet both were revised extensively – around thirty drafts of manuscripts that were just in excess of 80,000 words. Both books also had two major structural revisions, in which lots of stuff (especially in JAWIS) was cut and new material was written.

    I hope reading my books is effortless, but it took lots of work to get them there.

     
    Publishers are infallible.
    Well, Pantera is, because they picked me. (← Joke.)

    Publishers aren’t. There’s plenty of tales about manuscripts that have been rejected umpteen times, are finally picked up, and become bestsellers or win literary prizes. And books that have been bought for huge sums, only to flop.

    The literary landscape is a subjective and capricious market that’s impossible to consistently predict.

    Publishers are taking educated guesses, but they’re still guesses. Nobody truly knows what will be a hit. If they did, then all they’d have are hits.

    It just doesn’t happen.

     
    Only good books are published.
    There’s plenty of bad books that have been published. There are plenty of bad books that have done well. Surely, you, as a reader, would’ve read a book (or two) and thought, This is terrible – how was it ever published?

    Reading is subjective. What I love you might hate. And what you love I might hate. But I think there are also misfires – just like the film industry.

    Even with all their expertise and money, Hollywood still churns out bad movies. For whatever reason, they just don’t work. Some go on to become cult classics (e.g. Plan 9 from Outer Space). Some do well based on branding or the franchise (i.e. existing fanbases) supporting them. Others get masked in hype. But it doesn’t change what they are.

    I think the same applies to any artform, be it film, music, art, sculpture, books, etc.

Lots of these points overlap and intertwine and tangle you up, but they’re worth thinking about.

As far as TFSoLY goes, I’ve just made some massive cuts again – about 5,000 words worth, although I hope I’ll be able to reseed some of it back into the new material I write.

But, again, the story wasn’t working well enough for me to move forward.

So back I go again.

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If I asked you to guess what jobs were being advertised here …

    1. WANTED
    Do you spend all your time thinking about how to hurt people? How to torment them? How to torture them? Are there no depths you’ve haven’t ploughed? Ruin their relationships, destroy their families, dredge up the secrets from their past, and set them onto a course to oblivion? Do you not only contemplate all these courses – and more – but also take delight in them? Do you relish the damage that you can do? Do you take joy in your own cleverness? Do you take your plans and go over and over and over them, trying to perfect them?

     
    2. WANTED
    Interested in concocting plans of violence and destruction? Rob a bank. Kidnap and ask for a ransom. Commit an amazing murder. Commit many murders. Hurt and maim and kill. Devastate. And elude and befuddle the authorities. Taunt them, wherever possible. Show them up as incompetent. Celebrate your most heinous glories for all the world to see and fear, while mocking everybody else’s safety and security.

     
    3. WANTED
    Are you capable of threatening democracy? Of rattling its foundations? Perhaps you can bring down a government. Set bombs and rob the everyday people of their security. Destroy strategic targets and let civilisation know that the day of reckoning is near. Threaten to burn the world in pursuit of your own ideals, or a radical refurbishment of life as we know it.

… what would you say?

Your answers might be:

    1. Homewrecker / Narcissist
    2. Murderer / Kidnapper / Serial Killer
    3. Terrorist / Spy / Donald Trump

Your answers would be wrong. Well, in this context. The answer for all three is simpler:

!!! Writer !!!

Writers think about this sort of stuff all the time.

And it’s always miserable. Stories aren’t happy. They may have happy moments. They may end with the contemporary equivalent of, And they lived happily ever after. But the journey to get there is a passage through shit and misery, because that’s what makes stories interesting. Nobody wants to sit around reading 80,000 words about characters having a good time.

Part of what makes reading compelling is that journey, in seeing characters confront and overcome obstacles, grow, and move forward; or seeing that no matter how our way of life is threatened, we can triumph and move on.

As it is, I think writers are, generally, a lot more sensitive and definitely more empathetic than most people. That’s why (and how) they’re able to get into the headspace of so many different characters and represent them genuinely. It’s how they’re able to insert these characters into extraordinary circumstances and produce authentic outcomes. It’s how, when they’re successful, they deliver verisimilitude.

But thinking about all this can’t be healthy.

It’s been shown that our thoughts influence our outlook. You don’t have to be experiencing a terrible time to feel terrible – you can feel terrible just by recounting a terrible memory. That’s enough. Everybody would’ve experienced this at some point – watching a recording, for example, that either made them feel happy (e.g. a wedding) or sad (e.g. a funeral) even though it might be years (or decades) since those events.

Making matters worse is that writing is an isolated pursuit. Writers don’t sit in offices chatting away with workmates. They sit alone trying to get all this to work.

And then there’s that whole judgemental hierarchy, e.g.

  • Is this any good?
  • Will the publisher accept it?
  • Will people like it?
  • Will reviewers like it?
  • Will people buy it?

Most writers wouldn’t think, Yes. That confidence isn’t in their DNA. Most writers would think catastrophically. E.g.

  • Is this any good? It’s terrible.
  • Will the publisher accept it? No – it’s not good enough.
  • Will people like it? They’ll think it’s horrible.
  • Will reviewers like it? They’ll pillory it.
  • Will people buy it? Nobody will buy it.

This isn’t even pessimism. Publishers reject books – even good ones. Art is subjective, and plenty of great books haven’t been recognised as great until long, long, long after the author is gone. Tons of books – even amazing books – don’t sell.

It’s a mess. All of it. So it’s little wonder that writers can feel down.

And it’s something to be aware of. I don’t have any solutions. I doubt there’d be a blanket solution, just like there isn’t a blanket methodology to writing.

But it’s something to be aware of, and it’s equally important to find a constructive way through it.