Monday, 1 June 2009

Don't tell me to write for fun


I have never written for fun. That doesn’t mean to say I don’t derive pleasure from my work. I simply don’t write for pure enjoyment, to practice my sentence structure or to fill an empty half-an-hour. I write because I want to get published. I write with that as the sole goal. Always have done. Always will.

Yet in some literary quarters, ‘The Market’ and ‘Target Reader’ are dirty words. They are considered somehow less noble than ‘writing for me’ or ‘following my heart’. As Moliere once said:

Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.”

Goodness me – financial reward has always been my goal! But why, I hear you cry? Because I seek fame and fortune? A big house? A celebrity lifestyle? No. Because, quite simply, I need - I crave - an audience. The story is in my mind, so I don’t need to reproduce it on paper for myself. For me, things are better if shared. When my husband is out I find I cannot watch a film. I cannot cook a meal. It’s channel-surfing and snacks on the sofa – alone. And that’s how satisfying I would find it to write a story and never show it to the world.

Initially, I started my latest novel, Lunch Date with a Tomb Robber, with no reader but myself in mind. I indulged my every fantasy. I ignored the current chick lit trends. But only a few chapters in I was considering market niches and looking up agents who like quirky literature. I’m not wired to create stories that no one else will read. And yet I’m aware that I might be a better writer if I was. I truly admire those who craft short stories and poems without the end goal of a competition or publishing deal. I truly admire those who don’t seek validation or approval.

But don’t suggest I write Flash or a Haiku just for fun. Don’t turn up your nose at authors who, some might say, only ‘write by numbers’ to get their work sold. If you write as a hobby, because it’s therapeutic or simply to please yourself, I’m in awe. But I need any talent I may have confirmed by a publishing deal. I need to hear the clink of sales. My apprenticeship is in the business of writing commercially viable novels and that’s all I intend to do. And if the day comes when I admit defeat and jack it all in, you won’t find me in my rocking chair, writing wee tales for me and my dog. I’ll find another obsession – like re-learning how to do housework or getting through the day without a blog search.

28 comments:

Geraldine Ryan said...

Well, Sam, you have no need to defend yourself to me. As you know I have only ever written for money! I love the title of your novel, by the way!

Fionnuala Kearney said...

Sam, it's like looking in a mirror! Although I have to say fame and fortune are not necessarily what I seek. I'm more an audience/validation junkie so I really relate to this post!

Phillipa said...

Sam - thank you so much for giving voice to this issue. Not sure if you saw this article in the Guardian (naturally) earler this year. One comment from Geoff Dyer (
Novelist & critic) particuarly made my blood pressure go up...

"Anyone who has an eye on the market is not a writer but a whore. Nothing wrong with being a whore, of course – just don't try to make out you're a writer."

Phillipa said...

Whoops, sorry, I did the Guardian a disservice. the article was in The Independent.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/does-the-credit-crunch-have-a-silver-lining-for-literature-1232961.html

Samantha Tonge said...

Thanks, Geri! Yes, and aren't you doing well at the moment - virtual drinks on you! Long may it continue.

Glad i'm not the only one, Fionnuala because sometimes, amongst groups of writers, it is hard not to feel somehow less worthy because you main goal is to get a book deal.

You know, Phillipa, i think someone posted that on a writing site i frequent at the time and i certainly don't see myself as a writing whore. To me, this business is no different to any other. We should be paid for good work and in that sense writing is like any other commerical product, if you want success (ie healthy sales) you need to take the market into consideration.

CarolineG said...

What a brilliant post, Sam, thank you. I think I would always write as I feel slightly doolally when I don't, but I know exactly what you mean about needing that validation - and audience.

RosyB said...

I don't know. It's all very well if you decide to create a simple "think of the market and get your book published and have terrific sales" versus "have a hobby and never write anything commercially viable and have no sales" divide.

But, in reality, is it really like that? The difficulty comes when the first group don't get published or don't get big sales, or find themselves suddenly dropped or missing the zeitgeist or whatever it is and the second group suddenly win a prize and are touted about every book shop in the land and are suddenly a huge commercial proposition....

I mean, hats off to anyone who thinks they can control this stuff. I just don't think it's that easy to predict what the market wants, whether a book will do well or that it will get out there at the right time....Basically I think if you are after fame and fortune - writing is not your best bet.

Therefore I'm of the "there has to be some element of writing for your own satisfaction" or else the whole thing can turn into a total waste. Whereas if you write something you believe in...well you'll always have that no matter what is going on in the rest of the publishing world.

But you know me. :)

Samantha Tonge said...

Thanks, Caroline.

Hi Rosy, nice to see you here:)

No, it's not as simple as that, but there is a definite gulf between writers who consciously keep an eye on the market and trends and those who do not. There is a definite gulf between writers, such as Mills and Boon authors, who are prepared to write within constraints, to a certain model, to stand a greater chance of fitting in with a certain publisher and therefore a greater chance of getting published.

And i agree, as i said in my post, i'm not after fame and fortune, i think that is a hopeless aim - what i am after is validation and that for me is not achieved by simply writing a story that i - or my friends - feel is good.

We all have different goals and needs with our writing and that diversity should be respected.

RosyB said...

I also believe that writing requires a lot of waiting and a lot of faith in your work. And a certain confidence in the first place in order to invest the time and effort into creating something and making it good. If you are needing outside assurance all the time, it can be very debilitating for the writing process and can mean you don't commit properly to what you are writing.

In a time where we are told less debut writers are being taken on, I think this belief is going to be more and more important. I (personally) think it can be a bit debilitating to think of markets and agents etc just a little way into the first draft of a book because it is so possible to get side-tracked and end up with a mishmash or lose confidence in some ideas before they've been given enough time and work to work. Might have a lot to do with second book syndrome come to think of it.

I love the title of your ms too, though!

Geraldine Ryan said...

Rosy, I agree if you want fame and fortune then writing isn't your best choice of career. But a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, which is what I've always craved for myself, shouldn't be out of bounds to anyone with talent and a work ethic. And of course, it's a given that you do it for your own satisfaction too, because if you're not enjoying it then you won't keep applying the seat of your pants to your chair every morning. I don't think anyone can control what sells or what doesn't, but if you have two ideas - and most writers I know have at least two juggling for space at the same time - then it would be folly not to choose the one you think has got the best chance of selling. Quite how you decide which one that is, of course, is another matter entirely, but if you read round your genre enough you ought to be able to decide.

RosyB said...

Sorry, crossed with you there. That wasn't supposed to sound like a stern repost - LOL!

Samantha Tonge said...

Rosy, writers are some of the least confident and most paranoia-driven people i have ever met!!!

Roderic Vincent said...

I think there's a difference between writing for yourself and writing for a external audience. Strictly writing for yourself can be self-indulgent and you are likely to end up with something that nobody else would want to read. I believe that writing for an audience - trying to understand the reader's perspective and provide them with a valuable experience - leads to better writing.

Writing to please agents, or to hit some imagined target of "What the market wants" may be a mistake. I've no idea, but I don't like the idea.

I try to write with a few imagined readers in mind, myself as reader being one of them.

In other words, thanks for a thought-provoking post, Sam. Sorry I have nothing coherent to say about it.

Anne Rooney said...

And then there's writing to pay the bills... because once it's what you do and you don't other things for money, you have to pay some regard to the market in order to live. But it can be an interesting and exciting challenge. I've written in genres I wouldn't have tried because a commissioning editor has asked if I have anything in that genre. It's fun. Nice post, Sam :-)

Samantha Tonge said...

I think though, Rod, we all have to write to please agents or markets or whatever, when revisions come in, when we start working with an editor.

I'm currently paying an editor to look at my submission package and have done two big rewrites based on his advice, because i can see that the result is going to be stronger and more marketable.

Thanks, Anne. Gosh, i didn't really think of it like that (as i am that far away from being in such a position!) - but yes, absolutely.

Karen said...

Excellent post. I also write to be read, and have no intention of giving up until I'm published!

It's not even about the money actually, though that helps, but definitely the validation - can't get that if my words stay stuck in a drawer.

Bernadette said...

To some, writing is their job, to others it is their hobby and there is every variation in between.

I'm definitely more at your end of the spectrum - I don't write what I wouldn't want to read myself just because I think it will sell, but I also try not to write stuff that is self indulgent or therapeutic and then expect other people to want to read it.
I want people to read what I write, but I also would like them to enjoy what I write so why shouldn't I be thinking about what other people might like?

There's room for all types of writers in the world. It's a shame that some of them see fit to look down on others.

I'll look forward to reading your book when it's published.

Samantha Tonge said...

Thanks very much, Karen and Bernadette. Glad there are some like-minded writers out there.

Gillian McDade said...

Interesting post, Sam! And excellent feedback too.

Rosy T said...

I do sympathise with your POV, Sam. But speaking personally, my experience has been that there is never a guarantee that anything will sell - so it pays ALSO to be writing for oneself, and for the pleasure of the process - if not, indeed, primarily so. The other way, self-destructive madness lies....

It's what I kid myself, anyway!

Samantha Tonge said...

But you haven't ever written with an eye on the market, have you Rosy? You have always written what you want.

I'm certainly not suggesting that taking into consideration current trends would avoid some of the problems you've had. And i'm not suggesting that anyone can consider themselves to have ticked all the boxes marketing-wise, and therefore expect good sales.

All i'm saying is that some of us do write with all these things in mind and are prepared to tweak our stories/style, in an attempt to increase our chances of success.

But especially in this times, whether any of that makes a difference is a hard question to answer!

Rosy T said...

Well actually, Sam - in fact with almost every book l've written I've either tried to replicate what my editor liked about a previous book - or else tried to avoid what she thought was wrong with the previous one. Avoid unsympathetic characters, avoid politics, avoid academic/intellectual issues, etc, etc - which is why my latest one had a MC who sews and gardens rather than reads! But my experience has been that it doesn't necessarily pay off, in terms of the end product. So I still try to be writing for the personal satisfaction of it, too.

emmadarwin said...

I agree with RosyB that it's not a simple polarisation between writing for the market and (hopefully) being published, and writing for yourself and (probably) not.

For one thing, glowing reviews in the TLS, a small band of passionate fans, and a reputation as a writer pushing forward the boundaries of literature (i.e. a writer who will actually be remembered in a century's time, unlike the rest of us) is a success as worth having and striving for as selling by the pallet-load in Tesco: validation for writers comes in many forms, and though most of them involve publication, sales figures are only one of them.

The best writers in any genre and at any point on the literary-commercial spectrum are the ones who are writing plumb centre in what they do naturally, whether they're Martina Cole or J H Prynne. And that's how you'll write your best: by accepting what sort of writer you are.

Having said that, if you've any craft at all you can push and tweak your writing in one direction or another. I agree, why go for a less commercial idea if you've got a more commercial one as well? Except that sometimes a tick-box concept leads to tick-box writing, and though it may sell, it won't extend you and teach you to write better. And it's highly unlikely to really break out: sometime it's the challenge of making a less obviously saleable idea into a good read which leads to really exciting work. It's the difference between making a nice job of decorating one of an estate of identical suburban semis: easy to sell but limited forever in its possibilities, and taking on a wreck and turning it into a palace.

Samantha Tonge said...

Fair comment, Rosy, i hadn't realized that. Although you could go that one step further and mention a few more designer labels and makes of shoes!

Seriously though, i never said writing my way meant i assumed i would have success. All i'm saying to certain literary circles is - don't judge me for writing with an eye on the market.

But i think, Emma, the problem is that some writers find it hard to accept that tick-box writing will do for some authors. I know. It's unmentionable. But why not allow some writers to simply be satisfied with commerical success, with a nice decorating job? Some writers - like me - want to sell rather than receive literary acclaim, not for the money but to reach a wide audience. I think the recent interview with Martina Cole is very pertinent here. It doesn't mean i'm not striving to write my best, but if i get a part-time income, if i find an audience for my work, that's more than enough for me.

There. I've said it:)

And ye

Samantha Tonge said...

Don't know where that "And ye" came from - spooky.

womagwriter said...

I'm with Karen on this. Writing will never pay the bills for me, but having someone pay me for something I've written means that I've created something of value. That's important, and is one of the reasons I do it.

The Write Woman said...

What an interesting debate! I'm sure most of us at least have a desire and ambition to be published, don't we? And if it doesn't happen, we still go on writing anyway, with the ambition still burning, but also enjoying it for its own sake? At least - that sums it up for me! Just call me 'whore', then!!

Olivia Ryan said...

I agree - I think most writers do both (write for their own enjoyment but also write for a market). I can never understand people who write things that are so obscure there's no market for them, and then complain when editors won't read them! If they're only writing for their own enjoyment, fine, but then why complain?!