They say three elements have to come together to make a good story. It’s true; did I ever tell you about the time I held up a line of traffic because the third element dropped into place while I was sitting in a queue waiting for the lights to turn green, and when they did, I just sat there, lost in my newly stimulated fictional world? I wonder if it’s also true of a good blog post. Let’s give it a whirl.
On Monday I read something on the web about writers’ earnings, and how much book advances have shrunk over the past ten years or so – not just for first-time authors but also for established, even well-known names.
This morning I read something else, about a well-known writer who supplements his no-doubt shrunken earnings by teaching on a creative writing course – but sounded off publicly about the lack of genuine talent among his students. (By which I can only think he means that certain spark of something which sets one writer’s work aside from the general run. Well really, Mr Well-Known But Clearly Not Rich Writer, what did you expect? A class of thirty John Updikes/Lee Childs and Margaret Atwoods/Val McDermids? And is that really what you want? In the immortal words of W S Gilbert, if everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody!)
And then I read Jeff’s post. Enjoyed every word, Mr Cohen, sir, but the bit that’s relevant here is the bit where you casually mentioned that your books have sold in tens of thousands. Hang in there; you’ll see where I’m going with this.
As well as the three elements mentioned above, a lot of other stuff invariably feeds into a story as it develops, especially if the story is destined to become a novel.
So you won’t be surprised if I add a fourth also-read-on-the-web. This was titled How Not to be a Writer: 15 Signs You’re Doing It Wrong. Several if not most of the fifteen apparently cardinal errors made by wannabe writers hinged on aiming for the money rather than the personal need and satisfaction.
It’s well documented that the huge majority of writers earn peanuts. Peanut shells, even. The million-dollar deals are news because they’re so rare; most writers can’t earn, or even scratch, a living by writing.
But the real writers don’t stop doing it.
They survive, somehow. Some do some kind of writing-related hack work or teaching. Some have supportive partners. Others stack shelves in a supermarket thirty hours a week, and carve out their writing time from what’s left. Some, and I know at least one, have reasonably stimulating day jobs, and set aside a specific day, or few hours, which is designated writing time and remains as sacrosant and jealously guarded as the real world allows.
Any of this sound familiar? It does to me. Been there, done a lot of it, old t-shirt was looking a bit threadbare so I invested in a new one. Which is a roundabout way of saying that when I was a writer last time around, before publishing and editing took over large swatches of my life, I mainly wrote fiction; this time around, the stories seem to be turning into plays. Must be a side-effect of all that theatre reviewing.
But I digress. The point I’m slowly getting to is this: if you’re a writer (which I’ve come back to the conclusion I am), you’re going to write (which I do.) Another also-read came by e-mail an hour or so ago. It was a long, fulsomely phrased round-robin response to a big national competition I entered a few months ago; my entry, along, no doubt, with several thousand others, didn’t make the cut. They hope, said the final para, that I will continue to write. Me and those several thousand others.
I can’t speak for them, but they’ll need to chop my arms off to stop me continuing to write.
Because writers do, regardless of rejection, penury and the time taken up by earning a living by some other means.
Which brings me to that line in Jeff’s post. The thing about writing, though probably more about publishing, that makes me want to punch walls and yell rude words is finding that yet another supermodel/comedian/footballer/TV presenter has ‘written’ yet another ‘novel’ which collects a six-figure advance and takes pride of place on the supermarket’s book shelves, distorting the entire business and some readers’ view of it. So, when I hear that someone who really is a writer, and really can do it, is achieving the kind of modicum of success I used to dream about, I want to whoop and cheer and stamp my feet.
I suppose I still dream. But if it never comes, I’m still a writer.