Be clear what your objectives are

“There are men that will make you books, and turn them loose into the world, with as much dispatch as they would do a dish of fritters.” – Miguel de Cervantes

When you’re writing a book, it’s best to be modest about it. I remember getting over-excited because an agent had asked for a full manuscript of my first novel, and telling all my friends about it. That novel remains (rightly) unpublished. It was another eighteen months and a different book before I really had anything to tell them about, and then they didn’t believe me until they saw it in the shops.

For most of us though the modesty is just a front for our secret ambitions. We may say, “Oh, it’s just a stupid story I’m writing,” but secretly we dream of applause, awards, and interviews with Mariella Frostrup. It’s well worth taking some time though to be honest with yourself about what you’re really trying to achieve, because if you do you’re far more likely to achieve it.

Some people don’t care whether they are ever published, or even read. They write purely for their own pleasure, or as a form of therapy. If this applies to you, then enjoy your writing, and count yourself lucky. For one thing, you need never write when you don’t feel like it, which is a wonderful freedom.

However be warned that by the time you have completed a novel you may feel very differently about it. You will have poured a lot of time and love into your creation, and you’re likely to find that you want to share it after all. If you do, you’ll probably need to do a lot of work on it first. A book that has been written solely to please its writer is rarely pleasing to a reader.

This is particularly true if you’re writing as therapy. Other people’s angst, like other people’s dreams or holiday anecdotes, are not usually very interesting, although we find our own fascinating. (I know that there has recently been a vogue for the “misery memoir”, but in that genre it is the extremity of the experience, rather than the feelings of the protagonist, that seems to fascinate readers. Personally I find the whole phenomenon ghoulish and distasteful.)

If, on the other hand, you are writing for publication, you still need to be clear about what that means for you. There are essentially two routes to go down: self-publishing, or traditional publishing. Unscrupulous people work very hard to blur the distinction, but in fact the difference is very simple. Traditional publishers pay the writer an advance, and publish at their own risk and expense. If the publisher asks you for any money at all, whether they call it fees, contribution to costs, expenses or anything else, then you are self-publishing. (You should also beware anybody who advertises for new writers.)

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with self-publishing. You may just want to see your story properly printed, in a form you can share with friends and family. In that case you should choose a good, honest company that offers a quality product at a reasonable price, and doesn’t try to dazzle you with false promises. Make sure that you check them out on a reliable site like Writer Beware or Preditors and Editors.

The goal for most writers, though, is publication in the traditional sense. They want the endorsement of respected figures, the chance for reviews in the mainstream media and to see their book in bricks-and-mortar shops. For the purposes of this blog I’ll assume that this includes you. To achieve this you will need more than just talent. You will need a big slice of luck, a lot of patience and will have to work very, very hard.

Only you can decide what is important to you, and it doesn’t really matter what your motivation is, as long as it’s strong enough to sustain you on your journey. However there is one very bad reason for writing a book, which will be the subject of my next post.

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