Since I finished my novel, some people have told me they really fancy writing one themselves. To which there’s only one reply: no-one’s stopping you. But maybe a better question is why? A freelance journalist friend observed that the 100,000 words of my novel is the equivalent of 40 to 50 features – which no-one has asked me to write, and I probably won’t get paid for. So you need a good reason to set yourself the challenge. To check you’re on the right track, make sure your reason isn’t one of these:
- I want to be the next JK Rowling/Dan Brown/George RR Martin and make a stack of money. But you probably won’t. That’s like wanting to play football so you can be as rich as Christiano Ronaldo. According to the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society, the average yearly earnings for an author are one third lower than the national average salary. And that’s all types of writing – the average yearly earnings from writing fiction in 2005 were £13,000 in the UK, less than I earned as a local newspaper reporter in 1995.
- I’ve had such a fascinating life – people are always saying I should write a book about it. OK, so write a memoir, autobiography, blog about how exciting your life is. But don’t write a novel, because a novel is meant to be a made-up story about fictional characters. And maybe you should check that people don’t say that in the hope you’ll stop telling them about it and go away.
- I’m a policeman/doctor/lawyer and I keep noticing that novels always get the technical stuff associated with my job wrong. I could do a much better job. Yes, you probably could. But people don’t read novels for the technical stuff; they read them for the story. If you have a good story to tell, fantastic. But be careful the technical stuff doesn’t take over.
- I used to really like writing at school. That’s a good start – you really, really need to like writing. But if you haven’t written anything since school, ask yourself why not. A novel is a lot of writing. Most novels are at least 80,000 words. If you write 1,000 words a day (pretty good going if you also work full-time), that’s 80 days of writing. And that doesn’t include all the time you’ll spend deleting everything you wrote yesterday and starting again. If you want to start writing again, maybe try some short stories? A diary? A blog?
- Being an author sounds really cool. Yeah, right. Especially when the alarm goes at 5am so you can get a couple of hours’ writing in before you go to work, or turn down a weekend away with friends so you can spend some quality time with your laptop, or find yourself falling asleep at 9.30pm because you got up at 5 to write. Authors spend most of their writing time in baggy sweatpants, hunched over a keyboard eating biscuits, swearing to themselves. I’ve yet to see that look celebrated in Vogue.
- To get revenge on someone or something that’s happened to you. One of the would-be novelists I know was writing a novel to describe something unjust that had happened to her, and warn people against getting into the same situation. The trouble was, each chapter descended into a polemic, which really wasn’t that interesting. If you’re too close to the situation not to get angry, stick to writing letters to your lawyer, or the newspaper.
- I want to make my mark on posterity. Ah, posterity. Remember Elias Canetti? You must do, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981, modernist novelist, non-fiction essayist and playwright, lived in Britain for 20 years. Works include The Comedy of Vanity, the novel Auto da Fe and the play Their Days are Numbered. No, me neither. If even a Nobel Prize can’t ensure you’re remembered for 30 years, what hope is there for the rest of us?
So is there any point in writing a novel at all? Course there is. I’ll come to that in my next blog. But don’t all write one – the competition is fierce enough as it is.