Have you ever written a book review?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Why do you Write?

[Note: This is an edited version of an article I wrote for a Northern California newspaper a few years ago. -tps]

A prominent psychologist claims nearly everyone is a rock/movie star wannabe or frustrated author.

Dreams of taking a stage or seeing yourself on the silver screen usually fade away with the reality of kids, jobs, choking government regulations, and income taxes. For many, however, the desire to write the great American novel--or just see a book spine with your name stamped into it--never dies. Indeed, the yearning only grows as one decade slips quickly into the next.

My casual chats with residents of El Dorado Hills demonstrate the urge to write a book is alive and well here in the golden foothills. Many of my neighbors are laboring on mystery novels, screenplays, thrillers, and cookbooks. Knowing I am in the publishing business and a published author, they sometimes ask (at their own peril) for my candid advice. This is what I tell them:

STOP! Raise your hands slowly over your head and back away from the keyboard!

(Caveat: If your goal is to travel the road paved with disappoint and quiet desperation, don’t read the rest of this column--just keep clicking those keys and praying you will get published. Otherwise, read on.)

A significant slice of my last sixteen years has been spent as an acquisitions editor evaluating manuscripts for publication. I do this for my own company and other publishing houses. Many editors find the process wearisome. I never do. I love it because I appreciate the toil and sacrifice it takes to produce a book-length manuscript.

Last year I read through more than 130 manuscripts and queries from hopeful authors, the vast majority of whom were unpublished. Many were outstanding (well written, creative, entertaining, and publishable). Sadly, most will forever exist only as unbound stacks of yellowing paper buried away in a box on a closet shelf. Each rubber-banded stack represents thousands of irretrievable hours spent away from family and friends, hobbies, and life’s other adventures. Want to add to that headache? Calculate your uncompensated hourly rate.

So why in the world would any sane person write?

Is it because you have the next killer screenplay? Do you fancy yourself the next J. K. Rowling? Want to be the next Clancy, or Cussler, or Ludlum? Stop wasting your time and go play catch with your son. Very roughly speaking, about 1 in 300 will finish their book manuscript. Out of that slim handful, 2 in 100 will snag a legitimate contract. Discouraged? There’s more bad news. Only a handful of contracted authors will sell enough copies to cover their driveway. These odds are not encouraging if you are driven by dollars or fame.

So why should anyone voluntarily shoulder Atlas’s burden? In a word, love.

Do you have a burning need to write about something for which you have a passion? Do you weave a plot as you drift into the soft arms of Morpheus? Do you wake up in the morning crafting a character in your mind? Does that troublesome footnote pop into your head when your wife confronts you with her Honey-Do List? Is there a story inside aching to be written?

And now the real question: Would you spend the time and money writing even if you knew in advance your work would NEVER be published?

Was the the answer to the first set of questions yes? Good. Was the answer to the last question a resounding “Yes!” Better. If so, you have the virus. The sickness that never goes away whether you are at work, on a beach, in a plane, or wasting time in front of a television (We turned ours off when our kids were born, and banned it during the school week, allowing only 1 hour each weekend. Now, they don't watch TV at all and don't care. Instead, they use all those free hours to be productive; you can, too.)

Yes to these questions mean you should write. Souls so afflicted have a much better chance of realizing their potential--and being published.

Why? Those driven to write because of their love of the endeavor tend to be better writers. (However, not everyone who loves writing can turn a phrase.) Their ardor for storytelling is more palpable, their plots more believable, their organization and research more compelling and genuine. Amateurs who one day pull their books off a shelf at a Barnes & Noble or a local library almost always write about a personal passion, be it a hobby, career, success, or obsession. They are smitten.

Is this you? If so, never forget you write because of your love for the craft, your desire to learn, create, and share with others. Those are your true rewards. And maybe . . . just maybe . . . someone will one day send you that acceptance letter.

So get back to that keyboard you slid away from a few minutes ago! Now you know that regardless of the outcome, only good will come of it.



Colt Foutz said...

As someone afflicted with the virus -- and terminally so; anyone who slugs it out in a newsroom for five or more years must find some redeeming value in putting words in print, and for scant pay -- it's music to my ears when a publisher like Ted Savas speaks so eloquently on the topic. Simply put, despite the eyestrain and LOOOONG hours, so many professionals are in this business because they LOVE it: books, stories, the smell of ink on paper, and even -- gasp! -- grammar.

This is the message that is hidden between the lines of every set of submissions guidelines for any agent or house you query, but it comes with a caveat: care enough to do your job well, and tirelessly, or else risk never getting the attention of the folks who can make your dream come true. Ted addresses this caveat brilliantly in his earlier post about submissions. It may seem like a big "duh", but it isn't. Taking care with the little details, like proper manuscript formatting, and knowing what the publisher publishes, and what they don't, should be no-brainers and in the end save you time and money. But that's just getting in the door. To stick around, and make a go of it, it's being on-call and tireless and gung-ho about the really minute details: photo rights, and proofing galleys, and lining up endorsements, and being ready to shout from the rooftops and burn shoe leather even when the rest of life (and the next book!) calls out to you.

It's a labor of love, truly. And sheer madness. But woah, what a rush when it comes together. At Savas Beatie, that means benefitting from so many talented folks. The fact that they're sharing their heart and knowledge here should be manna for the manic masses of us in Writerland.

Colt Foutz, author
Building the Green Machine:
Don Warren and Sixty Years with the World Champion Cavaliers Drum & Bugle Corps

visit www.cavaliersbook.com
December 2007 from Savas Beatie

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Confession - I'm infected and have been since high school, though I never dreamed I could actually get something published. I have the blessing of being able to say I've never received a rejection slip. Not meaning to boast; I actually expected them and was very much surprised. 3 manuscripts, all accepted. 2 of them were actually accepted by TWO well-known publishers and I had my choice! So I suppose I'm an exception to the rule, but your comments are right on, encouraging for my next project, and very much appreciated. Thank you so much for your insightful comments.