Why we do it

Even when I’m not gallivanting around the country attending festivals I can be tardy in my responses to other people’s blogs. By the time I read this post from Karen Mahoney she, and her responders, had pretty much covered the topic. But it got me thinking, albeit at a slight tangent. (Warning – this is an uncharacteristically long post, so you may want to get a cup of tea).

The comment which started the whole thing off came from an industry professional who isn’t a writer. He said this:  

I feel that novelists fall into two broad categories: those whose desire is to be published, and those whose passion is to spin stories. I think of these as status seekers and storytellers.”

Personally, I’ve never met a writer – pro, semi-pro or amateur – who I would describe as a status seeker, and I know a fair number of writers. Admittedly they’re almost all SF or Fantasy writers, so maybe we’re a breed apart, but since crossing into pro country I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how modest and personable the vast majority of professional writers are, even those whose presence turns me into a squealing fangirl (ahem).

True, most writers I know want to be published but this is because they want the stories they tell to be read, not as a means to assert their worth or receive public adulation.

What really galled me about this judgement was the lack of comprehension it showed of how much hard work, frustration and disappointment is involved in trying to get your stories read (which does mean getting them published, yes). I cut my teeth on short stories, and in the decade or so since I’ve been submitting them to magazines I have been the unlucky recipient of several hundred rejection letters. Most of the stories I’ve written have sold eventually, but sometimes  only after the fifth or tenth or twentieth submission (my record is a sale to the 26th market I submitted to – this was ‘Death on Elsewhere Street’, the first published ‘Hidden Empire’ story and still a personal favourite). There’s a whole world of rejection to deal with, without any certainty of an eventual result; some stories of mine never sold (for good reason), but I was too stubborn to admit defeat until I was sure they were lemons.

This is not a path for someone who seeks fame and fortune, or even moderate status.

There’s another post I could and maybe should do about investing your time in short stories vs. novels, but the important thing to remember is this: though you get fewer rejections if you concentrate on novels, they generally take longer to arrive and the story being rejected took a lot more of your life to tell.

So, that’s not the route to personal gain, either.

Yet still we do it. Just before Gollancz picked up Principles of Angels I was in one of my periodic ‘I should give up on this now, I’m not going anywhere’ phases. Writing took so much time for so little reward, financial or otherwise. It was a waste. There were so many other things I could be doing. I went through this every few months, and did sometimes wonder if I really would give up one day. But I knew in my heart that, for all the rejections, I probably never would. I couldn’t: I had to tell my stories even if no-one, save a few long-suffering friends, was interested in them.

Unlike many at-least-as-deserving writers I know, I was lucky enough to have my novel picked up by a major publisher (and believe me, that took luck as well as hard work). Having said that, the future is far from certain; I won’t say too much for fear of collapsing the waveform, as right now I am Schrödinger’s author, but even if my luck has run out for the moment, one glorious result of having a book deal was that it has given me the permission to write. In fact, for two years I’ve been not just encouraged but contractually obliged to do the thing I love most in the world. This rocks. Big time.

(To be fair, I suppose that might have been what the author of the original contentious comment was getting at (yes, I was too lazy to go read the whole thing … so sue me), but I don’t think so. I think he meant that the status matters more than the telling of stories to some people.)

It is brilliant to get feedback from people who like my stories and some of the publicity stuff I’ve done is fun (especially the parties …) but the main thing being a pro has done is to make me a more confident and prolific storyteller. Once I was given the licence to make writing the centre of my life I found myself constantly amazed at the stuff that came out of my head. And, regardless of what anyone else thinks, I want to find out what happens next.

So whatever the future holds for me, I can’t see myself stopping writing any time soon. I’ve got too many stories to tell.

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