“You are so lucky to be writing a book. It’s always been a dream of mine” is something I have been hearing a lot lately. Well, grasshopper. Go ahead, write one. Writing a book has nothing to do with luck, it is just discipline. Getting it published however is luck. Coming to that later.
However I cannot dismiss all of those who actually want to write a book and will do at some point in their life. You might be one of those people who says things like “I’ve always had a book in me”, or a blogger with dreams of expanding to a book, or believe your life is so exciting it is worth writing about. Or believe you have a story/characters that would be perfect material for a book. In any case, before you go in for the big jump, there are a few things you should know.
- What most people imagine of a writer’s life is pure fantasy
Many imagine a writer’s life is a man with a three day beard smoking in front of an old typing machine in a wooden hut somewhere, facing the sea. Thinking about many things, smoking, drinking a glass of whiskey, talking to nobody, being suddenly inspired, taking walks and having ones fingers coloured by ink and tobacco.
The reality is that most writers spend their time in front of a computer at home after office hours. They have a day job, because very few writers live of their art. They maybe had to wait to put their kids to bed to work on their writing project. Many writers are also women, so usually less beard than you would imagine.
In our modern society that means that while others are going to parties and having fun in the sun, writers are inside writing things they will later erase because doubting it was that good after all. Writing a book is like having homework for a year, or two or three. Or ten.
The question you hopefully ask yourself is: Do I want this so bad I am ready to sacrifice a lot of time and energy to this project?
2.Writing a book will lead you to become either crazy, insomniac, alcoholic, depressed or all of those at once.
You were sane of body and soul? That was until you started writing a book. The craziness does not start at once, it creeps on you slowly as you get deeper in the process. As the deadlines get tighter and the pressure heavier. Note that there is a huge difference between talking about writing a book and actually writing it. If you are sipping wine in parties and using more time to talk about your book to people than the time you spend to write it, you aren’t really writing it. Sure, it is “inspiration” as well to talk to people, but it has some limits.
It is only when one is fully committed to the project and imposing oneself a discipline that one is actually writing a book. When you feel it in your bones, dream of your characters as if they were real life persons, research crazy things on the internet to find out whether what you thought your character could do is believable, or when you start looking like a ghost.
The reason you start looking like a ghost is that imposing oneself a discipline to write everyday, or every week is difficult. In our modern era of technology and with friends being able to contact you anytime, it is hard to resist to the calls of “normal life”, especially when you want to relax on weekends. Having this discipline despite social life, holidays, work and family is rough. Impossible on the long run I would say.
Of course, if you are a successful writer your publisher gave you an advance which allows you to quit your job, and you have a holiday home on a beach somewhere then that is another story. You can look at the sea and wait to feel inspired. In any case, for regular mortals, the discipline, associated to the fact that inspiration just does not come everyday at 10am might drive you close to insanity.
As explained above, the writing process is quite tedious. I have come to the conclusion that the harder is not to start a book but to structure it and finish it. The process makes you enter a parallel world. Either you were crazy before writing a book, or you will become crazy while writing it. Unless you are a magician, inspiration will come and go. When it is there, it usually comes at the wrong moment, such as the one hour where you decided to go out to buy some food, while being in the shower with no pen or paper to write it down, late when you are supposed to wake up the next day etc. When you have a whole day to write, planned a long time ahead, nothing interesting comes to mind. When inspiration does come, and you feel like you are on to something, about to find the way the plot will turn into something super exciting for the reader, then you need something to stay in that zone. Of course, that could be exercise, blueberry and kale milkshakes; but obviously it’s more likely to be whiskey and cigarettes. Combined to a lack of sleep, self doubt, spending hours in front of a computer and entering a virtual world where one lives one’s characters’ lives. Boom. You just found the recipe for disaster.
The first good news here is that you can avoid this disaster, for example by preparing yourself mentally, physically and logistically. Making realistic deadlines, having a true discipline which does not involve writing at night and sleeping during the day, feeding yourself exclusively of cheese, crackers and wine, and pretending you have not read your agent’s/editor’s emails. The second good news is that even if you don’t manage to make this a smooth process, you still have the rest of your life (after you’ve done writing) to sleep at night, eat greens and take real holidays.
3. Writing a book involves so much more than just writing.
You thought all you had to do is have an idea, and write it down? And your irresistible talent would do the rest. Well…you were wrong.
Most writers enter the process without a publisher. They don’t have a professional editor to help them edit along the way. They don’t have a marketing team to advertise their book, or an agent. They write a book in their living room for several years, edit it themselves several times until they have become blind to their own story and text. Then if they have not killed their confidence by reading their work one last time they send it to one publisher. And another. And another. Answers from these people can take weeks, if not months. But most of the time they are not interested in publishing your book. If they are, they will probably ask you to modify the plot, half the characters, cut 150 pages, and so on.
So writing a book is not just about writing. It is also about deleting. And editing. And writing more. Finding a publisher that believes in your project. Making sure your partner does not leave you because you have become obsessed with this project and that your Google search on your computer looks like a serial killer has made it (when writing a crime novel, one needs to make sure all these things in your mind could happen).
Even once you were lucky enough to find a publisher, getting feedback can be annoying at whatever your publisher wants you to change. Because this is your baby. Imagine someone tells you your kids is not pretty enough and should get dark hair instead of blond and a smaller nose. Same for your book. It is beautiful just the way it is, because you made it.
You managed to finish the book without hating your editor, your partner still loves you and you are done mourning over those characters who did not survive the last cut. Your book is out, now you have to promote it. Read your lines outloud in front of people you don’t know. Answer questions from journalists who pretend they have read and liked your book, etc. I personally love writing, it does not mean I want to get out there and talk about what I write. But if you write a book that is something you will have to do as some point.
4. It will raise expectations among your friends and family
So you haven’t had a social life for months, and when you meet your friends again all they want to know is whether they are in your book. Whether their amazing personality or life story have inspired you for some characters or events in your book.
If they aren’t in there they might get pissed off. If they are in there they will want to be pictured as the best version of themselves. Which is probably not the way you’ve pictured them in the book. So in most cases they won’t be very happy. Unless you become very famous and then all is forgiven. One of my cousins back in France wrote her first book about our family, trashing almost everyone. I asked my mum at the time how come they were still talking to her, she said that when you become famous then people forgive you because their pride to be your family member is more important than whatever crap you said about them.
5. It isn’t worth it financially.
You will (almost) never get rich from writing a book. Of course a few do, but most don’t even cover their costs and hours of work. Some authors even pay to get their book published…so if you do this it is for the art, or some other reason, but money should not be one of them. Actually you will most probably lose money by writing a book. Such project take much more time than one originally believes it will take. Deadlines can be pushed by months or years, in a normal setting. Many books with motivated writers, publishers on board and a great storyline never actually get published. Because the writer managed to write some stuff but never got it altogether in something looking like a book. Because the writer and the editor don’t agree, or because the writer just had to live his/her life and never got around finishing the project. Many books are also written, but never find a publisher. Then there are other options, including self-publishing and self-promoting. All of them taking time and money.
Still want to write a book?
If after reading all this you still want to write a book, it means you are driven by something higher, namely the love of writing and/or a little masochism. It’s fine, I understand. Happy writing! And write to me if anything else came up while you were writing your book that you would like to enlighten future writers about.
Mine is coming out in March 2017. I was lucky enough to have a publisher from the beginning, and still it was rough. Next time I write a book (yes, surprisingly I have not been turned off by the first experience) I want to do it from a small hut facing the sea.
*Food for thoughts- A quote from Hugh Macleod, the cartoonist and author:*
“A successful book agent I know tells me that at least half the people he meets who are writing their first book, are doing so not because they have anything particularly interesting to say, but because the idea of “the writer’s life” appeals to them. Tweed jackets, smoking a pipe, sitting out in the gazebo and getting sloshed on Mint Juleps, pensively typing away at an old black Remington. Bantering wittily at all the right parties. Or whatever. Anybody who wants to write books for this reason deserves to suffer. And happily, many of them do.”