Not long ago, at the recent O'Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing conference in New York City, Bob Young, founder and CEO of Lulu, a web-based personal publishing service, said, "We've seen a huge increase in people who meant to write a book and now are unemployed and are writing the book."
As an agent and novelist, I think this is great. These people are finally able to pursue their writing dreams; something good has come out of something bad.
But I think it's sad, too.
Why is writing a novel so often a "someday" thing? You know, that guy who comes up to you at a party and says he's got a great book in him and will get it down on paper someday. Just doesn't have the time now.
Or that woman who says she's looking forward to starting her novel when she's retired... in approximately fourteen years.
Obviously there's something holding these people back. The message seems to be that if they can't write full-time, they won't write at all.
I have to laugh about that. I have never written full-time, and neither have most of the writers I represent. Some of them couldn't afford to write full-time; others wouldn't want to. They tell me they need the everyday interaction of working, of being out in the world, to fuel their fiction writing. I feel the same way. Most of my writing ideas came to me the week before.
Are you one of those people who say they'll tackle that novel someday?
If you are, what's holding you back? Why can't you start it now? You really should, because none of us is getting any younger, and though you don't like to admit it, fate may not cooperate with your plans. Even if you're not ill or worse, you might find yourself just as busy in retirement as you are now. Life has a way of doing that.
So let's look at the obstacles and try to knock them down so that you can experience the joy of being a novelist now.
Fear of rejection. This is the biggie. You'll put all that effort into a novel, only to have agents and/or editors turn it down, and your baby will never see the light of day. Sorry, that's not a good excuse anymore, because this is the age of personal publishing, micro-publishing, print-on-demand-call it what you like, there's now a whole slew of outfits waiting to help you publish your book well and inexpensively.
The long tail has come to the world of books. I think we all pretty much recognize that the New York publishers are good at certain kinds of books, such as major mass-market-type books, and not so good at others, such as special-interest, not-such-a-large-audience type books. Thousands of people are now getting their novels finished and published and into the hands of grateful readers, thanks to this new technology. Gone are the days of having to print 5,000 copies of your book and store them in the garage. Print-on-demand means that when an order for a book comes in, that book is printed. That's right: one book. Which means no inventory, as we in the business call it, to get or moldy under the work bench.
Lack of technical skill. You feel you're not ready. You don't yet have the skills you need to write that book the way it should be written. Well, if you expect to have those skills by the time you're ready to start writing, you're in for a sad surprise, because if you don't take measures to get those skills, you'll be just as unready then as you are now.
Take a writing course, either at a college or online. Join a writers group. Attend writers conferences. Form a critique group. Find a writing buddy. All of these things can help you acquire the skills you need or improve the ones you've got.
Another option is to hire a freelance editor, or "book doctor." In this age of layoffs, more fine editors than ever are hanging out their shingles as freelancers. Think about it: You could have as your editor the same person a #1 New York Times bestselling author had a year ago. Granted, some of these book doctors can be expensive, but often they are willing to work with you on a step-by-step basis; for example, starting with an analysis of your manuscript, later moving on to suggestions for revisions, then reviewing your revisions, and so on. These days, everyone wants to work out a deal.
Lack of time. If you've still got your job, you don't have a lot of time. But you do have time. You've got nights and weekends, you may have commuting time if you don't have to drive, and you even have lunchtime. After all, these are the times most of today's published authors get their work done. I run a busy, medium-size literary agency. Do I write during the day? No way. Too busy. I write nights, weekends, and a lot of times I used to watch TV. I've got eight novels published as of this writing, and more in the pipeline. I decided a long time ago that time was not going to be an excuse for me. But it does take a firm commitment.
Lack of an idea. It happens. It's a sort of writer's block before you've even started. "What do I write about?" Ideas are everywhere. The key is to focus on the genre of book you want to write and then come up with ideas that will work in that genre. The reason this is easy is that you should be targeting a genre you love to read, and if you read in a genre, it only stands to reason you'll be pretty familiar with the kinds of ideas that are popping up in these books. More to the point, you'll know what ideas haven't popped up yet. Grab one of them and write it.
Fear of ridicule. This is sort of related to fear of rejection, except that it applies to the time after the book has been published. People won't like your book. Critics will pan it. Your mother will be ashamed/shocked/embarrassed. And you're right! All of these things can and probably will happen, and not just about your first book but about all of them.
Because when you put yourself out there creatively, dare to produce a piece of art for the world to look at and judge, that is always going to happen. Just take a look at the customer reviews on Amazon. I tell the authors I represent not simply to be aware that bad reviews, whether from critics or your family, may happen, but to be aware that they will happen. And then I tell them to start developing that rhino hide writers in it for the long haul develop and get on with it. Again, it's the way the world works. Create something; someone's gonna hate it. But someone else is gonna love it.
Fear of loss of income. Don't expect income from your writing and this will never be a problem. It's when you decide all of a sudden that you're going to make your living as a writer that the problems start. I tell my writers, "Don't quit your day job... yet." If, one day, money starts pouring in-and it sometimes does-then it's a bonus. But don't put that pressure on yourself. See your writing as nothing more than fun. Then I guarantee you won't be disappointed.
So what are your excuses for not starting that novel now-today? Afraid you won't sell it? Don't know how to do it? Don't have time? Don't have an idea? Afraid you'll be a laughingstock? Can't afford it?
Sorry. Those aren't good excuses. In fact, there aren't any good excuses. Don't be that poor soul who comes up to me at parties and says "someday."
Do it now. You deserve it.
Evan Marshall is an internationally recognized expert on fiction writing and author of the Hidden Manhattan and Jane Stuart and Winky mystery series. A former book editor, for 30 years he has been a leading literary agent specializing in fiction. His Marshall Plan Novel Writing Software, co-authored with Martha Jewett, is an adaptation of his bestselling Marshall Plan series and has just been released in a new version for both Windows and Mac. He is the president of the Evan Marshall Agency, a leading literary management firm that represents a number of New York Times and USA Today bestselling authors.