|People have strange ideas about writing. Some of those people are writers. You can understand non-writers being baffled by the whole writing thing: the alchemy of transforming words into a world that transports the reader. From the outside it seems like magic.
You open a book and begin to read: the ordinary world fades and into your mind springs another, complete with characters who seem so real you half expect to run into them in Tesco buying cornflakes or beans or the latest copy of Fortean Times.
This magical thinking can infect writers too, especially when they first start out. Writers can suffer from impossibly high expectations, or perhaps delusional fantasies, of what writing is really about.
With that in mind I’ve gathered some writing myths and sorted them into five types: Time, Talent, Work, Money, and Publishing Myths
This myth sounds something like: I would write if I had more time. The fantasy is that if it weren’t for the job and the kids and the teetering pile of DVD box sets and whatever else you manage to cram into your day, you would definitely get that book written, the book you’ve been fantasising about writing for decades. I sympathise, I do, but really this is an excuse. Yes, we have stupidly busy lives but so much of this activity doesn’t need to be done.
The proof? P.D. James: writer of The Children of Men, Death Comes to Pemberley and many more. James worked as a civil servant, raised her children and took care of her mentally ill husband, all while writing her books. She didn’t quit her day job when her books became successful and stayed put until she retired.
The next Time Myth goes like this: once I get a book deal I’ll be able to concentrate on my writing. The fantasy is that a publisher will pay you to sit at home and write your masterpiece. Putting aside the whole question of book advances, this scenario is unlikely. In the happy event of you having a book published, you will be expected to get out and sell, sell, sell. There’ll be book tours, writers’ festivals, interviews, online Q&A sessions… Time is always going to be a problem whether you’re successful or not. Something else will always be intruding into your precious writing time.
These myths are all variations on one whopper: writing is easy. How hard can it be? Everybody writes stuff: emails, blogs, tweets, shopping lists. Surely writing a book is simply a matter of sticking down one word after another until you’ve accrued around 90,000 of the little blighters. If only that were true.
The idea that writing just kind of happens springs from another myth: good writers are born with talent. Poetic and artful sentences flow onto the page and glimmer as if written in gold. Perhaps there are writers out there who are born with an instinct for dramatic irony but I suspect they learnt it, along with spelling, grammar and where to put an apostrophe.
Which brings us to our next myth: spelling and grammar don’t matter if you’re a genius. This is for the egomaniacs wielding pens as offensive weapons. The idea and the vision supersede all else and the writer thinks they can vomit whatever is in their head onto the page and people will bow down before their evident brilliance. Ha!
The conceit of the previous Talent Myth probably derives from the next one: you must be inspired to write. Since writing is so easy, all you need to do is wait for the muse to whisper in your ear and write down what he/she/it says. Admittedly, sometimes writing is exactly like that. Those are the good days, or minutes. But if you hang about waiting for inspiration you won’t be writing much and your output will be sporadic and unreliable. Certainly no way to earn a living. The old adage of 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration applies here.
There’s one final myth in this section which embraces all the Talent Myths: a book is written once. In other words, the first draft is the final draft. I’ve often encountered this myth in non-writers. Sometimes people believe a writer simply starts on page one and keeps going until they type THE END. In reality books are written many times over. Writing, as they say, is rewriting.
I’m going to contradict myself now. The first Work Myth is: writing is hard. We know how much work and rewriting goes into writing a book, or anything longer than 140 characters, so how can this be a myth? This is the dreaded Writer’s Block. You stare at the blank page or screen desperately casting about for the right word, any words, something, anything, but it won’t come. I have a suspicion that writer’s block doesn’t exist. It’s another excuse writers concoct to explain their lack of productivity. When I’m stuck it can be for any number of reasons, rarely because I don’t know what to write. It could be fear or confusion about what I want to say, but it’s more likely to be laziness. Harsh? Perhaps.
Related to writer’s block is: it’s hard to find good ideas. This one baffles me. I’ve had people who call themselves writers tell me they want to write a novel but don’t know what to write about. This is backwards. Surely the idea comes first: you’re intrigued or surprised by something and want to explore. Look around you – the world is filled with ideas waiting to be turned into stories. If you don’t know what to write about, open your eyes.
The final Work Myth is: writing gets easier the more you do it. If only. Some things get easier with practice, writing isn’t one of them. You may develop a routine and learn how to get the words down faster, but it will never get comfortable. As in Zen, you should cultivate beginner’s mind. The day you believe you know what you’re doing is the day you are no longer writing anything worth reading.
Brace yourself for the first Money Myth: writers are rich. Some writers are rich. We all know who they are, and most aspiring writers have a secret fantasy that one day they will be rich too, just as soon as the world recognises how utterly spellbinding their latest novel is. To make the kind of money enjoyed by J.K. Rowling or Stephen King, you have to work incredibly hard and be incredibly lucky. The work part of that equation you can control. Luck? Good luck with that.
The next Money Myth is related: you can earn a decent living as a novelist. While it is possible to earn enough purely from writing, you’ll probably be writing more than just novels. The truth is most writers can’t quit their day jobs, even if they want to. They simply don’t earn enough from writing to have the luxury of swanning around in their pyjamas all day. Book advances ain’t what they used to be.
So you’ve overcome all the hurdles, your genius has been lauded and your novel is to be published. Great! Our first myth: a writer’s debut novel is their first. In other words, your first novel will be the first novel you publish. Perhaps if you do it yourself. But in the world of Ye Olde Publishing most debut novels will be the second or even third book written by the author. That’s a lot of work before you see any cash.
Our next Publishing Myth has two parts: being published means no more rejection. Simply having a book in print will not stop people criticising your work. Now the whole world can form an opinion, not just the elect circle you shared with before you were published. Related to this is another myth: once you’ve had one book published, the rest is easy. Not so. Every book you write will go through the same process of ritual humiliation before final acceptance or rejection. It never ends.
The final myth goes like this: books that sell the most are the best. Putting aside the subjectivity of the reader, some books are clearly better than others. But what sells rarely has anything to do with quality or talent. Books that sell are books that are easier to sell. Think about that for a second. Books that sell are books that are easier to sell. Advertising, coverage in the media, reviews, shop displays, and so on, are all bought by the publishers to ensure maximum profit. They will only invest in books that guarantee a return. Everybody else can whistle.
Finally, a recent article from Lionel Shriver: If you want to be an author, the worst thing you can do is get published. If this doesn’t destroy your illusions about writing as a career, nothing will.