Prompted by this article in Salon.
There are, perhaps, three good reasons to be a writer.
- You already are a successful writer and your public want more.
- Someone is paying you to do it.
- You can’t help it.
Hopefully you’ll get to 1 from 3. 2 is the territory of people who are already famous for something else and can cash in. TV chefs, politicians, porn starlets, that sort of thing. 3 is where most of us – including me – are.
You will drive yourself crazy if you pin your ego and your success to the number of sales you make. You will also piss a lot of people off by using every opportunity to sell your book. Twitter spam will drive people away, as will endless facebook updates. Every now and then, sure, but you don’t want to annoy your audience you want to bring them in – if you can.
Don’t write for success. Don’t write for respect. Don’t write for money or to impress someone. Don’t write because you think it might be nice. Don’t write because ‘its easy!’.
Write because you wake up at 2am with a great idea, a perfect line or a rhyming couplet going around and around in your head and refusing to shut up. Write to exorcise (or create) your demons. Write to share your consciousness, your pain and your pleasure. Write because it excites you, terrifies you and because its the only way to scratch an itch you have inside you brain.
Being a cynical, pessimistic depressive doesn’t have many up-sides but one useful thing it has taught me is to set low expectations which can easily be outstripped. A pessimist can only ever have a nice surprise.
Don’t obsess over what you’re not selling, the world is flooded with shitty self-pubbed novels at the moment. You could be the next Stephen King and the odds of your great work being discovered are low as hell just because of the sheer amount of noise to signal. Don’t feel too bad about it though. Babbage wasn’t a success in his lifetime, nor was Van Gogh. Talent and hard work aren’t enough, you still need luck.
Look at what you have accomplished though.
- You actually sat down and you bashed out a story. No matter how good or bad it is you did it. You put fingers to keyboard and you spun something out of your imagination. That’s a wonderful and praiseworthy thing.
- You put it out there. That’s not easy. Lots of manuscripts languish on hard drives or in dresser drawers. Some get deleted. Even if you don’t sell a single copy you put your story out there and that’s a feat as brave as any.
- You learned. Your next story will be better.
- Did you pay an editor? If you did then that money’s not wasted even if you never make a penny back. You supported that editor. You put food on their table. You learned to work with someone else and you honed you craft. If someone does find you book this puts you ahead of the pack too, through quality.
- Did you pay a cover artist? That money’s not wasted either. Whether you succeed or not you helped someone live their dream and do what they love and that’s never a wasted investment. You’ve also learned to think visually about your novel and about presentation. Commissioned art, specific to the book, also puts you leagues ahead of he mob.
Even if you never see a penny or sell a single copy you’ve still made a positive impact. You’ve grown and you’ve helped others and they will remember and help you later on.
Oh, and lastly, don’t worry about your appearance on a book jacket. Stephen King looks like an over-nourished maths teacher. Neil Gaiman resembles a crow’s nest in a high wind. Pratchett looks like someone slapped a fedora on an upturned Action Man head and I look like Stig of the Dump‘s less evolved, older brother.
Words matter more.