Don't expect me to write for money

This post is partly a response to Sam Tonge’s: Don’t tell me to write for fun.

Lots of people paint for pleasure. They have no expectation of ever selling a painting. Some of them are bashful to even show you their work. It’s nothing, really, just something I do to kill the time now that the kids are at school. They keep the canvases in the outhouse, next to their husband’s abandoned guitar, in the part of their property they never got around to redecorating. After many years completing level sixteen of the art classes at the local night school they might secretly take one of their canvases along to Prontoframe and then tack it up on the wall, but only if their supportive husband insists, and they only hang it in the abandoned, almost outside lavatory, the one that nobody ever visits. They don’t stick a price tag beneath.

Others learn to play the piano. They pay for lessons, but they don’t expect to be paid when they play. They might consent to perform for the family after a second glass of sherry-flavoured courage, when the tree is twinkling and carols are demanded. They have absolutely no anticipation of striding into the Royal Festival Hall to bow before the adoring throng of black polo necks.

If you’re going to make a point, you might as well overstate it and repeat yourself three times, so here we go. Thousands more play football every Sunday and though they dream of walking out onto the hallowed turf, they know it’s a dream. They don’t seriously expect to be offered eleven million quid to join Newcastle Untied (which just happens to be the team supported by Sam Tonge and her family). They’re shit and they know they are (the Sunday footballers, that is). It’s only a hobby, after all.

Writer’s are different, but you know that already: we’re all number fours on the enneagram, something I intend to blog more about another day. Have you ever met someone who described writing as a hobby? Poets possibly; they acknowledge the restricted career ladder. But fiction, no way. We see ourselves as professionals in waiting, apprentices ready to take over from the masters. We compete with McEwan or Keyes or whoever, not the boys at the village rugby club. We all secretly know we are the next JK Rowling. We’re just yet to be discovered. We know the market is tough and the odds are against us; we’ve faced down a thousand rejections, but our dream lives on. And all this at a time when the prospects are shrinking in front of our faces, as highlighted in the recent Guardian article about The age of the gifted amateur. However much success we’ve unearthed we want more, notwithstanding the paralysing self-doubt that freezes us rigid from time to time. Whatever we are, we are not amateurs.

My problem with this isn’t that everyone who writes harbours ambitions of winning the Booker or a CWA dagger, or securing a spot in the gondolas at the end of the aisles in Waitrose. It’s not that we predicate our enjoyment of our vocation on external validation. I take that for granted. I’m like everyone else.

What I do fear is that all this writing to please agents and publishers, all this following of the rules of writing that we all purport not to follow, is ruining our art. I'm talking about the perceived rules of what agents want and don’t want. It’s throttling our creativity. It means we will carry on churning out the stuff that has gone before, we won’t break the mould, we won’t escape the predominant genre. A friend of mine recently received a rejection from an agent that wasn't in any way critical of her writing, the main reason for rejection was that the story didn't fit easily into any established genre. That is grim.

I do sometimes think that, if we did it a bit more for ourselves, and enjoyed it a little more, then perhaps we'd ultimately be better at it. I suspect most people reading this will disagree. The prevailing opinion I've heard is a sort of Thatcherite literary economics - let the market decide.

And, if any agents ever read this, I didn’t really mean a word of it, honest.

pic: I don't expect to get paid for my windsurfing either, although that's not a bad gybe


Administrator said...

How nice to have a response to one of my posts:)

I can understand your standpoint, Rod, and to a degree i concur - i tried writing very directly for the market once, and the result was too derivative and very bland.

However, i think it's a huge risk not to bear your genre or audience in mind.I don't know how long you have been writing and what your experience of rejection is. For my first novel, thoughts of the market or my readers didn't enter my head once, i simply wrote the book i wanted to. Several (unpublished) novels on, i realize if i'm to stand a chance i need to be a bit more trend-savvy. So much effort and emotion and time goes into each book, i don't want to reach the end and have agents reject simply because they can't in any way imagine where it might stand on a bookshop's shelf.

And after all, they are in it for money - books are products and every producer has to think first and foremost of the tastes of their customer.

Yes, it's art but, as a very commerical writer, i see my stories as saleable entities first - so i guess we differ very much on that one.

And as for, eg pianists, learning only for their personal satisfaction and pleasure... well, if there was such a submission process for them to win a CD deal,eg by sending a recording of themselves into an internet competition, i bet thousands would enter. It's human nature to want one's talents (or perceived talents) to be seen or heard.

That's my pennyworth anyway...:)

Great post, Rod. It'll be interesting to see what others think

Deb said...

This is so true, Rod and Sam. Like your friend, Rod, I appraoched an agent with a novel - havng been told to write what I would like to read and to write the book I wanted to write. The agent liked it very much, but said it was too hard to place in the commercial world because it wasn't tied to one specific genre. I do however, think this will change in time - or at least I hope so!

Administrator said...

I think, Deb and Rod, it is all about finding a balance - i mean, my present wip is, for want of a better definition, paranormal chick lit. This hasn't taken off in the UK yet, but is huge in the US and there are tentative signs it is moving over here - so from that pov i have taken a slight risk. Yet its readers, imo, are women who love Sophie Kinsella and the like, so i could easily see it next to her books in a shop.

The key is not being so derivative,that your books says nothing new - yet at the same time producing something that is not so utterly different that the bookbrowswer won't get past the first paragraph.

Of course, i'm not sure this applies so much to literary fiction...

Brian Keaney said...

Yes it's true that writers who fixate on the market are likely to impose constraints on their work that will be counter-productive but it's also true that writers who write purely for themselves and ignore the other half of the equation i.e. the reader, often produce dreadfully self-indulgent work. So it's a question of balance.

Surely the real generator of hysteria is the delusion entertained by so many people and perpetuated by the media that having a book published will transform their lives by making them rich, happy and fulfilled.

DT said...

A great post and lively comments too! I think the art vs business seesaw all depends on what you want to achieve. The key factor for me is TIME. How much time would I like to spend writing comedy and novels and stuff for my own amusement / sense of achievement? Creativity is quite addictive and for me, some commercial writing is a fair trade-off. That's if you can get paid for doing it in the first place!

Rosy T said...

Interesting post, Rod - but I'm not sure I agree with you. I know a lot of people who write - fiction and memoir as well as poetry -purely for their own pleasure. My mum has always written - snippets of family history, funny short stories - and it would never have crossed her mind for an instant to submit anything for publication, except maybe in the parish magazine, or to print out and give to the grandchildren. I have also done library talks to audiences full of lovely, creative people who write as a hobby (often in retirement) and have no aspirations whatever to be published. It's just that these aren't the sort of unpublished writers whom one meets on writing messageboards!

Caroline Green said...

I think this is such an interesting discussion. I sometimes [in long dark nights of the post-rejection soul] if someone told me I would never be published, would I still write? Well, yes, I would because it makes me happy broadly, but lordy, I sincerely hope it doesn't pan out that way!

Unknown said...

Great article, Rod.

I am very stubborn about this. I write the books that are waiting to be written, about the characters that are waiting to be written about, and I've always had faith that in the long term they will find a publisher/audience.

It took 6 years, and now Snowbooks (who don't worry themselves with genres, but maybe they're in an enviable position as their outlay per book will be much less than the mainstream publishers) have sent them out into the world for me.

I still feel that I have a responsibility to write the best books I can - by revising, listening to feedback etc - but my characters and stories come from a mysterious place inside me that isn't open to negotiation. Genre schmenre ;)

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks for all the comments. I've been out shopping for school trousers and shoes and getting the blazer pocket sown back into place, and now he's gone and lost his oyster card. Kids, eh. Now, what was that about writing?

Roderic Vincent said...

Found it!

Rosy, I'm glad you know the amateurs. I hope to give up my deluded hopes soon and rest happy in their ranks.

Caroline Green said...

Glad you found it!

Meant to say, what the blithering dickens is a 'gybe' anyway?

Caroline Rance said...

Great post, Rod. I've tended to write with a vague idea of the end user - i.e. the reader - in mind, which unfortunately might not be the same thing as 'the market'. But I'm not very focused about this - I just try to write a good yarn and hope I'm lucky rather than veer towards any market trends.

I'm glad to hear Rosy's experiences of meeting contented amateurs because I think there is a lot of pressure to get published, and remaining unpublished by choice should be a respected option.

Sam, I think paranormal chick lit will take off in the UK and your gamble will pay off because you've got in at the beginning - if you start writing a novel once the trend is already established, you're likely to be too late. I bet slush piles are teeming with vampires and zombies at the moment, but people are already starting to get a bit 'meh' about them.

Administrator said...

Yes, you could be right, Caro - an agent has just turned me down cos she's just taken on someone similar...

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks, Carolines.

A gybe is a turn where the nose of the board turns away from the wind and the sail is flipped around the front. It's one of the most exciting things you ever get to do in life.

And it's interesting how some people seem to equate writing for the market with writing for an audience. I think there's a big distinction and perhaps I'll blog about that one next time.

Susie Nott-Bower said...


Susie Nott-Bower said...

Oooh, hoorah, it's working again! Rod, I SO SO agree with what you say. It's what's been on my mind hugely recently, especially since receiving an email from an agent saying that agents and publishers are really nervous at taking on any books about television (guess what mine's about...) I raged and cried a bit (well, a lot) and then I got out Julia Cameron for a quote for this blog and realised that I needed to do Morning Pages. Because they are for me, not for agents, publishers or any other monkeys (a metaphorical expression which in no way casts nasturtiums on agents or pubs, but which needs to be where I see them right now).
There's a difference between being utterly professional in one's writing and twisting oneself out of shape to fit an ever-shifting market.

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks, Susie. Good to see you back on-line. Morning pages are the purest source, falling like dew onto the pages. Enjoy yourself.

Susie Nott-Bower said...

'...falling like dew onto the pages...'
Sometimes. And sometimes wrestled, kicking and screaming and all elbows!

Suhayl Saadi said...

Great post. Btw, it doesn't stop once you're published, it continues on and on... and much depends not on what you write but crucially and most importantly on who and where you are, who you went to school/ university with, who you're married to, etc. - in the UK, social class, geography and race remain central, and unspoken, parameters in the arts - since these will determine how your stand in terms of literary politics is taken. If you have several of these factors in your favour and are trying to break the mould, you may be hailed as a genius; if not, you are likely to be mocked and/ or ignored. It's about power in the world of information.

Roderic Vincent said...

Thanks, your comments make scary reading. I've just put a copy of Joseph's Box in my Amazon shopping basket.

Susannah Rickards said...

Interesting post, as ever, Rod. I agree that the most brilliant work, the work which stands out from the rest has that individuality about it which suggests the writer has no intention of pleasing anyone, but is say what he or she feels impelled to say. In fact I was thinking just that about Kyle minor's writing (again) just yesterday.

But... I don't think we can have it both ways. Unlike musicianship or painting, writing isn't a background art. It demands the full attention of the person who engages with it. You can glance at a painting, peel spuds with music on but you must concentrate to read. So our art has to be closer to professional level to succeed at all. Private writing - diaries, emoting poetry- does exist. But as soon as you write a story you have a reader in mind.

That's all the market is: readers - is it really Thatcherite to appreciate what people want to read and provide your own version of it? There are basic elements of storytelling craft that satisfy many readers, and a level at which experimentation will satisfy only a few. We can choose to appeal to a minority - it can be more satisfying when we do. But I don't think we can write to please ourselves then feel peeved if the market (agents, publishers, book buyers) don't share our idiosyncratic taste.