Why am I writing a novel?

Foyles front desk

Dreams of being front desk at Foyles.

Someone once said, “Everyone has a book inside them.” That may be the case, but it’s a fairly meaningless statement. You could equally claim “Everyone has a painting inside them,” and indeed, if someone left me for a couple of hours with a paint set and some blank sheets of paper I could probably produce something that would at least give me some satisfaction, and might even elicit a few “That’s nice” comments from friends and family. However the chances of it ending up on a wall in the Royal Academy are pretty small. That’s not the point: the point is that I had some fun doing it, and perhaps learnt a few things about myself and about the world along the way.

Many set out on the path of writing a novel in a similar vein. However at some point, perhaps a few months or a few tens of thousands of words later, the enormity of the task dawns. My father, who’s work did once decorate the walls of a Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, could knock out a couple of paintings in an afternoon. By contrast, unless you are exceptionally talented, or have a great deal of spare time, it’s likely to be several years before your novel reaches a state that could remotely be described as “finished” in the sense that you have a manuscript of perhaps 70 or 80,000 words that, after several revisions and even rewrites, you really believe is the best you can make it.

If, as writers, we are honest with ourselves, we all harbour dreams of seeing our novel displayed on the front table of Waterstones or Foyles, or reading reviews of it in the Times Literary Supplement, or even seeing it shortlisted for a Booker. However the chances of that happening are vanishingly small and largely symbolic, because what we are really chasing is some recognition that those years of effort have some value; that someone who knows what they’re talking about actually considers our work to have some literary merit.

And it’s here that we come up against the gatekeepers to this world, namely the literary agents. These are the people who reject our work, or at least force us to face the fact that it is far from “finished” in the sense of being commercially viable. Rejection, or even constructive criticism, of something you have poured your heart and soul into for several years is hard to take, but your chance of achieving any of those dreams is effectively zero if you do not go through a traditional publisher.

At this point it’s worth taking a moment to look at the world through their eyes. For a start, agents are looking for viable authors, not books. Their holy grail is a JK Rowling, a Stephen King, a John le Carre: someone who can reliably turn out bestseller after bestseller for decades to come. Most literary agents are unlikely to take on more than ten authors a year, and more likely just three or four, but these will have been selected from many thousands of unsolicited manuscripts that they will have received over the same period. Given those statistics, your precious work will be lucky to get much more than an experienced but nevertheless cursory glance.

Until recently the alternative was ‘vanity publishing’, and there are plenty of stories of authors who’ve been conned out of tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds in the mistaken belief that film rights are just around the corner. However nowadays a much cheaper and more viable option is available through ‘self publishing’. Amazon in particular has gone out of its way to provide easy-to-use services for publishing not only for the Kindle but also print and even audio editions.

I’ve written more extensively of my experiences with these services elsewhere (The Cost of Self-Publishing), but suffice to say you can publish in all three formats effectively for nothing, although I would advise that you invest in at least a copy edit and a professional cover. Once you’ve done so you will have a published product to share with friends and family, and if you’re lucky you may sell a few copies and even pick up some favourable reviews, which in itself is immensely satisfying. However, unless you are extremely lucky, your success is unlikely to be recognised outside the Amazon universe.

But this is to miss the point: just as with painting, the real pleasure is to be found in the making. Writing a novel involves building a believable world, populating it with characters that we care about, and sending them on perilous adventures. It involves constructing a complicated, interwoven structure of scenes, dialogues, encounters and events, and researching topics of extraordinary variety. Where my particular adventure will end I don’t know, but so far it’s been well worth the ride.

Incidentally, as you can see from the picture above, even if you self-publish you can achieve your dreams. As luck would have it the buyer for the computing section in the Charing Cross branch of Foyles did take a chance with my first publication and, for a brief period, found a place for it on the front table. I have no idea how many copies they actually sold, but that’s not really the point.

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