Why write?

Any article, magazine, book or website on the craft of writing will tell you what a difficult state the publishing industry is in. While writers now have the option of self-publishing, and publishing in electronic formats, we are worker harder than ever before and and for less money (and prestige).

These days only the biggest names in the publishing industry make enough money to live on, and while some authors are respected, just as many aren’t even noticed. The phrase ‘everyone has a novel in them’ both democratizes the writing community while also making it harder to get your voice heard. The idea being that it is easier now than ever before to publish, but the overall quality of writing is also lower.

But is this true? These days writers have to invest far more of their time, energy, skills and—yes—money to see results. Mentoring happens in creative writing classes and through editorial/mentoring services which most writers pay for with their own funds, because it’s important to them to increase their skill set. Of course, the most valuable contribution any writer can make to their career is to put in the time, working on their own stories and pieces as much as possible, experimenting, editing and discovering what works best for them. And reading widely and insatiably, of course.

CIMG0252 bookshelves from morguefile

credit: morguefile

I remember being obsessed with J.D. Salinger when I was a teenager, not just The Catcher in the Rye but also his other books: Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories etc. When I finally got my hands on his biography by Ian Hamilton, aptly titled: In Search of JD Salinger, I quickly devoured it. As most people know, Salinger was a recluse who lived an isolated life in Cornish, New Hampshire. After his initial success, he withdrew from the public eye entirely, but continued writing (though he stopped publishing). Only since his death have his unpublished manuscripts been brought to the attention of the public.

These days, you couldn’t be a writer and do that. Well, not one that anyone would take any interest in anyway.

An author platform and social media presence is crucial, and promotion of your work will often come through these channels. This is not easy to embrace, especially as many writers (like myself) are introverts, perhaps shy about participating in the necessary self-promotion and marketing required to publish today.

So, to come back to the initial question, why write? When I look at the question logically, I can’t find an answer. But, I know that writing is important to me. Through writing I can communicate—or attempt to convey—how I see the world, the people who live in it and what I think is important to take note of. I can attempt to tell the stories I want to read/hear, which I think people should pay attention to. Will these stories ever be read or published? Maybe. Maybe not. But I still have to take the chance in telling them, because if they aren’t written down and created in the first place they will never exist.

Of course, now that my first novel, The Forest King’s Daughter, has been published, this may increase my chances for having my second novel published. But even if it had never been published, I would continue to write, for myself, because the act of discovering and telling stories is part of who I am.

What about you, do you write for yourself, or primarily with the aim of publication? What is your experience of the publishing world today? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please leave a comment below.

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Books about Writing

What is your favourite book about the writing craft? Over the years I’ve built up a small library of books about writing novels, reading as a writer and, of course, grammar and punctuation. Which one is my favourite? Well, that depends on what I’m looking for.

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When I’m having trouble with a piece I like to turn to Stephen King’s On Writing for inspiration and tips on how to dig myself out of the mire. His easy going style and sense of humour about life (and writing) nearly always makes me feel better. On the other hand, his expectations of what makes a good writer can, at times, feel rather daunting to a beginner. For example, he says that when he begins a book he writes every day, and he finished one of his books in a week.

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I think he is right that we should try to work on our stories every day, if we can, or at least as often as possible. Writers should be driven by their writing just as painters are by painting or athletes are by playing sports. If you’re not then there is no point in being in this writing game. But I don’t agree that fast writing is always the best writing, or something that everyone can do. If you can be prolific without losing quality then you’re incredibly lucky, but not everyone can. Writers have to find their own way into their stories, fast or slow, and keep going with them. If writing every morning for two hours gets you there, that’s great. It’s equally wonderful if writing all day Saturday gets you to where you want to be with your story. As for myself, I tend to buy into the saying ‘slow and steady wins the race’. 🙂

But there is such good advice in here that you’d be hard pressed not to find space for it on your bookshelf. He covers everything from how to survive as a writer to creating memorable characters, strong plots and effective revision. One of my favourite parts is the book list he has at the back of the book. How many of these titles have you read?

The first book I ever bought about writing is Ernest Hemingway on Writing. Hemingway has always been one of my favourite writers because of his brevity and tightly knit prose. This book is a collection of quotes from his stories and letters about the craft, edited by Larry W. Phillips, and brought out in the 1980s, long after Hemingway’s death. Here’s one of my favourites:

“I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can’t expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.” To L.H. Brague, Jr., 1959 Selected Letters, p. 893 (page 18)

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He also talks about the importance of writing early in the morning before anything else can distract you and of not talking about what you’re writing so that you remain interested in it, advice I’ve attempted to follow but not always succeeded in.

Another great book about writing is called Reading Like A Writer by the aptly named Francine Prose. In this book she talks about the importance of reading carefully and slowly so that we fully understand what a writer is doing. She talks about courses she’s taught at college where students would speed read to the extent they didn’t actually know what the writer said, let alone how they got there. If we are to be good writers the first step is to be good readers. It is only by close reading that we are able to deconstruct character, plot and storyline to learn how it’s done.

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Of course, there are so many good books out there about writing. Which ones have you found useful for your own writing practice? And are you a fast writer, or a slow one? I’d love to hear your thoughts so please leave a comment below.