Why does an otherwise normal person decide to commit their life to writing a book?
The answer to that question would create a vaste mountain of paperwork because we all have different reasons for setting pen to paper. For Daphne du Maurier, a foremost writer of the last century, it was to escape the unhappiness of a loveless marriage. For me, it was being forced to replace a sparkling career with the more mundane aspects of domesticity – cooking, cleaning and ironing. Maybe it was the tedium of housework that led me to writing for children, who mostly remain ignorant of the need for housework until at least 18.
Nevertheless, regardless of what we give as our reason for days spent peering into a notebook, typewriter or pc, the pursuit of ‘fame’ although strenuously denied is the most likely one, even if the words ‘and fortune’ do not accompany it. If someone says to me, I write only for myself, my retort is likely to be: ‘I confess the lady protests too much,’ which I believe Shakespeare used about Hamlet’s mum in Hamlet. I mean, if they genuinely do only write for themselves, the book can live on a shelf or in a drawer – like Fagin’s ‘guilty secret’. (Dickens) It does not need the Internet.
As a test, ask yourself the question: why should someone buy my book? And does it matter if they don’t? If your answer is: Like hell it does. Then, like the rest of us, you are seeking at the very least recognition as a writer, plus a wish and desire for fame.
Sadly, writing fame has now become an endangered species, and was far easier to achieve in, say, the last years of the 19th century than in these early years of the 21st. To begin, there were fewer aspiring novelists vying for the prize. For the vast majority of the population, the word ‘leisure or spare time’, a basic requirement for the aspiring writer, did not exist. As for leisure pursuits … nope what the hell are those? We were either sleeping or working … no time for fancy embroidery or petite pointe unless it was an occupation that put bread on the table, in which case it was likely to occupy every waking hour. Candidates for writing fame grew from families who had a bob or two to spare, and who were able to educate their children and keep them at home without the family starving to death. Although it is fair to say starving in a garret in Montmartre did become the in-thing for artists around this time. Never the most dependable of men, a good dose of cold and hunger went a long way in their search for both fame and fortune, which brings up the point: how did they manage to live in squalor and never pay the rent and yet spend all night in a bar drinking copious amount of brandy or wine?
Be that as it may, once fame and fortune struck it was for many already too late to jettison the attic in favour of something warmer and more comfortable. Sadly, all too often the cold and damp, not to mention cheap liquor, resulted in TB which took them off at a very young age. (Look at La Bohême and La Traviata).
Surprisingly, this garret business did not apply to writers, mainly, as stated in a previous paragraph because writers needed a smattering of education which had to be paid for. In this regard the Bronte sisters might well be considered cool. Their father’s income was, or would have been, sufficient to keep them all handsomely had not their brother run up huge debts. However, having been fortunate enough to belong to the gentry who actually believed in girls being educated, and living in a picturesque part of Yorkshire, they were able to decide on a writing career as a way of providing for themselves, even if they did have to pass themselves off as men.
(What a long way we women have come!)
Indeed, it is likely there are more writers currently starving in garrets or basement flats than there were in the 19th century, although modern writers are generally cushioned by a weekly benefit cheque, which does to some extent keep the wolf from the door.
But I digress.
Even twenty years ago, becoming a household name as a writer was more readily achievable than it is today. However, if you want someone to blame for this downturn, I suggest you turn your attention to successive laws that have limited our working week in order to give us some much needed leisure time, adequate pensions that allow us to sit at home at the young age of 60 or 65, and twiddle our thumbs, and Tim Berners Lee who created the Internet some twenty-eight years ago.
(The jury is still out as to whether in the long run this will be considered evolutionary progress or a step backwards.)
As a result of this cataclysmic social change, a series of brilliant thinkers invented the play station, mobile phones, Facebook and virtual stores. Amazon sells its books in our sitting rooms, children have become addicted to interactive games, independent bookshops have mostly disappeared, and the invention of E-readers has given rise to free publishing on the web.
Did you know that one million books were published on the Amazon sites last year alone?
I mean, what sort of odds can you give fame against that: a million to one?
I still prefer the old-fashioned way of publishing a paperback because that may have a chance of finding its way onto the shelves in a bookshop or library. I remember vividly doing book-signings in Waterstones for one of my children’s books against the background of The Hunger Games, and seeing teenagers dragging their parents to the relevant shelf and exhorting them to read it.
(They probably still do this, but display the cover of the book to their parents on a mobile or computer screen.)
Of course fame is still possible as a small percentage of writers on Amazon have proved. Lightning does have a habit of striking in strange places – look at Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.
So … write your book and hold onto your dream of achieving recognition and fame. It’s a wonderful dream to have but the likelihood is it will remain just that, a dream, unless you do something about it. And I mean something with a capital S.
So what does it take to get your book read? The answer to that is a lot of hard work and a whole helping of luck.
Good writing, good editing and good presentation are a given. More and more writers are using third parties to proofread and edit. Yes, it costs but so do mistakes in the text. And get several people to have a go at the blurb – some is really cringe-worthy.
Genre has never been as important as it is now. We love historical novels, unusual thrillers, and fantasy with vast canvasses (Game of Thrones). Dystopian fantasy is out of favour at the moment and vampires have had their day, as have werewolves and angels, although outrageous comedy and romance remain firm favourites … we still love a happy ending. Series are good … very good. Readers still like to know what happened to each of the characters as they march off into the sunset of the last page.
Nevertheless, whatever you write, you have to promote and work as hard at promotion as you did at your writing. Join groups, use social media, donate your book to libraries. Friends will buy because they want to support you and with luck they will recommend to their friends. Even so, it will take time, trawling the various groups you belong to, commenting and blogging, offering promotions and free copies in exchange for a review. And being generous with your time by reading the work of others … very important.
Yes, it can be soul-destroying and heart-breaking. You will ask yourself a dozen times a day, why am I doing this?
The answer to that question is usually: because I must … it’s a good book and deserves to be read.
So keep pushing.
I learned a very salutary lesson today, hence the reason for this blog. Apparently although I am a ‘very successful writer’ I had never bothered to bring myself to the attention of a prestigious local Literature Festival and so was ignored.
Who’s kicking themselves now!