Writers are curious creatures, a phenomenon the world is still struggling to understand. So much of the art (is it an art, the world asks?) is done in solitary confinement that it is difficult to know what goes on in a writer’s mind or at their desk. There are many misconceptions about us but here are ten in particular worth mentioning.
1. WE ARE ALWAYS LOOKING FOR HELP WITH OUR STORIES
Many people, when they ask about what you are writing (and you actually tell them) feel at liberty to make suggestions. If you are not a beta-reader, a family member, or a close friend who knows how I think, the chances are that your suggestions will be disregarded completely and the only input you will have is making me feel awkward. Beta-readers and those who read and review advance copies are the only people outside of the inner circle who get to give their opinions before the book is published. After that, you can say what you please.
For the most part, there is no reason why, having heard only a brief synopsis, you have the authority to tell me how to completely rewrite a book I have spent months toiling over. It’s like watching an artist paint for five minutes then suggesting that they add a rabbit to their seascape because you like rabbits. That being said, though we aren’t looking for help, from time to time someone unintentionally says something that gives us the idea we needed to get back out of the rut. It’s rare though.
2. WE CAN WRITE OTHER PEOPLE’S STORY IDEAS
So many people, when they hear you are a writer, will give you an unsolicited rundown of a book they always thought it would be cool to write. Then they tell you they don’t have time to write it, you should do it since you’re a writer.
The trouble is that we actually can’t. It’s not that we are rejecting your idea as fodder for the slush pile (although some of the things I’ve heard are), it’s just that we are not you. Stories are such personal things that even in telling the same story, like Little Red Riding Hood or something, it will sound different from each person who tells it. When people suggest you write their idea, they don’t understand that even if you did, it would be completely different from what they had in mind because you simply don’t have the same mind and imagination as them.
In addition, I don’t have time to take unsolicited commissions like this. My TBW (to be written) shelf won’t allow for it. I only write one book at a time but I have the problem of never being short of ideas. I already have at least thirteen more ideas still loitering around as I write my current novel. Even were I to churn out a draft a year, it would take over a decade to get them all down on paper — and I suspect that even more will add themselves to the TBW shelf before I can make it through what I already have.
I love hearing other people’s ideas but you need to write them yourselves, I don’t have the time.
3. WRITING DOESN’T TAKE LONG
I write all my first drafts by hand (I’ll explain why another time) but it takes about the same time as it does to type when all is said and done. Nevertheless, it takes a long time to write a first draft (and I’m not an edit-as-you-go type) even though they get faster and higher quality as you write more of them.
Because so much of the actual process of putting pen to paper happens in seclusion, it’s difficult for non-writers to understand just how much time is consumed with writing. If you think about dressmaking, carpentry, painting, welding, and other creative things (acting is another on that’s more time-consuming than people realise), it’s not so unreasonable after all to take six months to several years to write a novel. That’s why NaNoWriMo is such a big deal — because it’s crazy to try to write 50,000 words in one month, particularly if you work full-time and/or have a family. If you think your teachers were mean to make you write three to six 2,500 word essays in three months at university then how do you expect a writer to produce forty times the word count of one of those essays in hardly any time at all?
4. WE PUBLISH OUR FIRST DRAFTS
That is, unless you are a super big-headed self-publisher. Even some of the most famous writers will tell you that the first draft is never fit for anyone to see (this is partly why I never have alpha readers) and is pretty much written for yourself. The problem with first drafts is that your perfect villain turns out to be one of the good guys by the end, his side kick only appears halfway through, and your main character’s family name and significance to the plot changes half a dozen times before the end. Not that I’m speaking from experience.
First drafts always have painful inconsistencies, a ton of crutch words and purple prose, and plot holes you can fly a Boeing 747 through. The truth is that writing takes a lot of time partly because of the need to redraft so many times (and that’s before you even fix the spelling and grammar issues). You can’t just throw your first draft out into the ether and expect people to buy it or an agent to pick it up. That’s crazy.
5. WRITING IS ALL THERE IS TO WRITING
This follows on from the previous point. I had never realised how little of writing a novel is the actual part where you sit down and write. There is also a long and drawn out revising and redrafting process, followed by endless rounds of betas, followed by more edits, followed by more readers, followed by a few less edits and that’s all before you find yourself an agent who sets editors and proofreaders on you. That’s if you don’t completely rewrite it four or five times during the process.
Alongside this, publishers are beginning to expect more from authors and aspiring authors. They want that terrible curse word: platform. I’m thankful to God that I enjoy writing these articles and interacting with you guys because otherwise it would drive me to despair. Novelists are having to come to terms with the fact now that a chunk of their time may well be taken up with platform and other similar things and that will take away from their writing time. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but there is a balance to be struck.
6. WE ARE ONLY WRITING WHEN WE ARE WRITING
It’s one of those things that takes over a little. You might be doing the dishes externally but inside you’re plotting the downfall of a nefarious villain. You may be staring into space with a worried look but really, you’re wondering why on earth that secondary character keeps popping up and whether they have some sort of significance to the plot that you never realised before. You might be out walking the dog but you’re actually working through another exciting new idea for a novel that you want to write but you’re going to have to shelve till further notice but you’re mulling it over anyway because it’s interesting. Ideas don’t come from nowhere, they have to stew awhile before the pen hits the paper.
7. WE ARE ANTISOCIAL PEOPLE
Most of us aren’t Hemingway or any of the other tortured souls. If you know a writer who spends all day drinking wine and having existential crises, you need to stage an intervention as soon as possible.
Though writing is generally a solitary activity, writers can be very sociable creatures. It’s partly because we are studying you to help us create new and authentic characters and it’s partly because we spend so much time talking to imaginary people in our heads that it’s nice to spend time with real people in the real world. Besides, there is no substitute for good company and I am thankful that I have plenty of it.
8. WRITING IS SOMEHOW LESS LEGITIMATE THAN ANY OTHER JOB
It’s a little bit of double-think for people to say that writing is not a career, it’s a hobby in one breath and to rave about how much they love their favourite book and wish the author would write more in the other.
Though I talk mostly about writing novels, writing in general is a legitimate and even honourable job. There are words everywhere, from the well-crafted slogan on an ad campaign to the State of the Union Speech that the President of the USA gives. All of it had to be written by someone and none of it was scribbled down on a post-it note. Everything from cereal packets to political speeches are carefully crafted using just the right words to create the intended effect. It’s an art for my good people and it’s disheartening when it is dismissed as a hobby.
9. WE DON’T HAVE DAY JOBS
Despite the assumption that writing is not a real job, it’s commonly assumed that we don’t do anything else. In fact, many of us have day jobs. Your average writer, even a published author, is not going to be earning anywhere near as much as people like George R. R. Martin, Steven King, and James Patterson. Most of us earn our keep, pay our taxes, and write when we can. Being published and being minted rarely actually come together and there’s nothing wrong in that.
10. OUR WRITING HAS TO EARN MEGABUCKS TO MAKE IT VALUABLE
Unlike so many other careers, what we earn does not define our worth. Thought there is something good about the idea of being able to live off of your craft, writing is one of those things that you have to do for the love of it. Income is not the measure of a writer.
Look at E. L. James, she’s a prime illustration, making a fortune from writing erotica. The measure of a writer is their work, not their bank account. Rubbish is rubbish no matter what people will pay for it. If your characters inspire a child to be brave, if they teach a teenager that good will always triumph in the end, if they point an adult to the truth that they are not their mistakes, and if your writing ultimately points people to Christ then what does it matter how many zeroes there are on the end of your paycheck (or indeed if there is any paycheck) at the end of the month?
What have I missed? Are there any misconceptions about writers that you have come across and would add to the list?