(Not) Writing a Book

So I went to a party recently and I had The Book Conversation. There’s always one.

Woman: You’re KJ, you’re the writer, yeah? I’m writing a book too.

KJ: Really, what’s it about?

Woman: Oh…well, I mean, I haven’t actually started it yet. I’m really keen to do it, but I think I need more  experience of life before I start the writing.

KJ: Do you think that your stories and ideas might come now if you started actual writing? I find that I need to get down to it to see the ideas and the characters develop—

Woman [cutting that right off]: No. I definitely need to understand life more first. To have deeper experience, do you see?

KJ: Well, to be honest, I write gay paranormal Victorian romance, so I mostly use my imagination.

Woman [with just a smidge of condescension]: My book is rather different to that. A bit more weighty.

KJ [in my head]: And a lot less written.

I have had a lot of variants on this conversation. It’s my fault, of course. 95% of the time, the correct answer to the party statement ‘I’m writing a book,’ is ‘Wonderful, congratulations,’ and then nodding until you’ve finished your drink. (The perfect response is what the late great Peter Cook apparently used to say: ‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? Neither am I.’) But I love talking about writing and I tend to take what people say at face value, so I always say damn fool unwelcome things like ‘How much have you written?’ that presuppose the person is actually writing a book.

There is nothing wrong with not writing a book. Lots of people don’t write books. There’s a great deal to be said for more people not writing books, in fact, especially if I get to choose which ones. And there’s nothing wrong with liking the idea of being an author, or indulging in a bit of fantasy. I clearly spoiled my fellow partygoer’s fun by talking about writing as a thing she could do, rather than a thing that she was prevented from doing by her own artistic dedication. Sorry.

But it is a bit weird how many people seem to go from ‘I’d like to be a writer’ to ‘I’d be a writer if only I wrote’ to ‘I am a writer’. I mean, I occasionally daydream of doing a plumbing qualification and becoming vaguely competent around the house, but that doesn’t mean I tell people I’m a plumber. Still less that I would be a plumber, but I’m waiting for the Plumbing Fairy to magically turn me into a plumber with no effort on my part. (Which is what I am doing, of course.)

The problem is, basically, that people confuse ‘I want to write a book’ with ‘I want to have written a book.’

It’s fabulous if you have written a book. Congratulations! There it is, done, with all the characters worked out and the plot beautifully resolved. A huge great undeniable achievement, ready for the world to buy and read and leave 5* reviews for. Your publisher sells the foreign rights in twenty countries. There’s a movie deal. I think Michael Fassbender would be perfect for the hero, don’t you?

Writing a book, on the other hand, involves typing, swearing, getting the cat off the keyboard, junking 30K words over which you’ve wept blood because you made a stupid plotting error, your family getting annoyed you’re always writing, working for three solid hours at a stretch till your neck is killing you and discovering that you only achieved 800 words, not selling the book, and writing another one. (And a lot of good stuff too, of course—that feeling when the words are singing, the joy of bringing your characters to life, the plot clicking into place—but it is neither quick nor easy to earn the good stuff.)

I have written five published/to be published books. It’s amazing.

I am writing my sixth book now. It sucks.

_________

KJ Charles loves it really. A Case of Possession is out now. Non-Stop till Tokyo and Think of England are freshly up on Amazon for inspection.

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23 thoughts on “(Not) Writing a Book

  1. Couldn’t agree more, to quote Dorothy Parker “I hate writing, I love having written.”. I spend so much time agonising over what I’ve written, rewriting- but when it goes right bliss. I think less time on blogs + twitter may help me…

    Reply
    • I think writing is basically worth it for the having written. You sit there with a glow of satisfaction that lasts at least until the first read-over.

      Reply
  2. I might have to take your plumbing example and quote it during the next conversation which goes like that ^

    I tend to say “I write” rather than “I am a writer” in those conversations: despite the fact I’ve got two completely finished drafts and those books which are unfinished are at least 20k started and usually plotted completely.

    I love writing more than editing, but ‘having written’ is definitely a good stage.

    Reply
  3. I have it from the other way round – people assume that because I work in publishing with, y’know, words, that I want to write a book. I don’t want to write a book. I couldn’t even if I wanted to and I DON”T. I’d make a better plumber than writer – and make more money at it. Sheesh.

    PS

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  4. I once had somebody tell me, “Yes, but you write smut. Anybody can do that. I’m trying to write something that’s worthy.” (She’s now been writing her memoir for several years. I know half a dozen people who are writing memoirs. I always wonder, is there a big market for memoirs of average, middle-class Americans? No, I didn’t think so.)

    Reply
    • Oh, I dearly love that one. ‘I haven’t written a book, but if I had it would totally be better than yours!’ That said, her ‘Notes on a Bland Routine Smut-Free Existence’ sounds great, let me know where to preorder.

      Reply
  5. You have almost inspired me to write a blog post on the joy of not having written. What a challenge — taking all the joys of writing and editing, not to mention publishing and selling, and turning them around. Maybe it would serve as correction for some of those people who will never do anything but dream, but like to imagine themselves as writers. Hmm, it actually sounds like fun.

    Reply
  6. I often get asked when I’m going to write a proper book, but fortunately I haven’t had too many non-writers try to convince me of their literary genius. Perhaps I’m going to wrong parties. Or the right ones, depending on how you look at it.

    Alternatively, there’s always the possibility I’m not going to any parties at all. Oh wait… yeah, that’s it.

    Reply
  7. Great post!

    I can definitely relate to this as well as the whole concept that anyone can just knock out a romance novel because there isn’t anything to it. Oh yeah, go ahead then if you think it is so easy is what I ‘want’ to say, but never do.

    Oh and yes, cats on the keyboard. LOL

    Reply
  8. I did need more experience of life to reach the point where I could sell what I wrote.

    On the other hand, I started writing at 22, and kept right on writing crummy manuscripts that slowly became less crummy over the years, and the more I wrote the easier it became. I don’t think that would have happened if I’d sat around trying to gain more of a perspective on life before I decided to complete a manuscript.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: March of the Links | Becky Black

  10. The only thing more horrible than writing, is wanting to write and not being able to. I wobble between the two 🙂

    Oh and I just preordered your “Think of England” Something to look forward to!

    Reply

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