So you’ve been tinkering away on the novel for years. In your spare time, at weekends, when work’s not been so good – the novel’s an emotional lodestone, you pour yourself in it and finally you actually start getting better at this. Your friends think you’re a bit odd, girls you meet in bars think it sounds terribly romantic that you’re writing (combined with the fact you’re broke and shy but terribly earnest about everything) until you tell them that you’re working on a battle scene and the giants are refusing to perform a forlorn hope for reasons you’re not certain about. Even after you explain what a forlorn hope is, and that yes there are orcs in the book as part of a complex and well-rounded alternate world, you sense they’re not so impressed now.
Still, that doesn’t matter. Who needs girls when you’ve got art to produce? Your family’s understanding and buy you clothes at Christmas because you can’t afford them. Somehow you hold onto your friends despite your tendency to moan about the last book you read and the fact in real life girls don’t throw themselves at writers. Your life’s punctuated by drinking sessions and anti-social periods of writing, but you’re running on adrenaline and the book’s taken shape. The ending’s done, you’ve edited it a few times, still drinking more and spending more on rent than you can really afford but this is an investment in the future we’re talking about. Bills will work themselves out later.
Finally you get your big break, you know nothing about the publishing/editing process but all these clever people are saying nice things to you and seem to know what they’re doing so you resolve to learn all you can. An agent’s taken you on, you’ve put in more all-nighters and somehow got a slightly better job at the same time. It’s still crap but it pays more bills and allows you to write still. At last you have a book a publisher wants to buy – not for a lot of money, but if you squint at the figures and don’t think about time scales for writing the sequel it sounds like a lot. You’re a clock watcher at work because there are sections of the novel you need to redo yet again and now there’s a deadline. Girls still don’t seem to be much impressed, but maybe it’s just because all writers are a bit weird and you’re officially allowed to be now. You meet a few of your stablemates and they’ve all got their eccentricities, rather more emotionally rounded than you but you’re the youngest of the lot so that’s no big surprise.
Your editor puts a proof copy in your hand and patiently waits while you dribble and forget how to speak. It’s exactly how you pictured it, it’s lovely. It’s also surreal and difficult for your brain to process after working towards this moment for years. A few days later you start feeling like a god and your friends are suitably impressed. Not long after you start acting like Gollum in case someone tries to take away this precious thing from you, but it doesn’t happen.
The book isn’t published yet, but you have to go back to work. It’s months before anyone buys a copy but you realise you’ve got a year to write a sequel to something that took you six years. You’ve got something of a plan, but you’re scared it won’t hold together when you try to put it on the page – it was all academic when you wrote it after all since no one wanted to read the first book either. Still, you get writing and discover that starting a book is still bloody hard second time around. More drinking sessions are required for your brain to wind down from the frantic, terrified planning it’s doing, but things progress. Then book 1 comes out and some people like it, some people don’t. Turns out your first book isn’t perfect, something you hadn’t fully considered much beforehand, and some people vocally tear you apart as a result. You obsessively google your name while the writing of book 2 stalls. The first result and easiest review to find is someone who’s gone for the jugular. The more you read it the more you think they’ve even gone over the top, highlighting minor points instead of the flaws you see increasingly easily now. But there’s nothing you can do about it now and just hope enough people enjoy it to bother buying book 2, which of course will be better because you know what you’re doing now.
You realise there’s no way you can write a book this long in a year. Your editor’s far from surprised and you wonder if she knew it all along and gave you 12 months to shake you up a bit. Whatever the truth, it works and you get 18 months to do it. The book scrapes in on time and you realise finally that you have actually improved. Unfortunately, your knowledge about books has also improved and you still feel well behind the curve.
You start to feel nervous in publishing parties/drinking sessions. The other writers are talking about books you’ve never heard of, books published twenty years before you were born and every bloody one of them seems to have read them. You’re not the newbie any more but still smile and nod a lot, desperately hoping no one notices you’re pretty ignorant for a writer, have only read about two classics and don’t have an English degree so some of the terms they bandy about mean nothing to you. As you start the next book, people continue to say some nice things about you. You realise that some people actually did like book 1 and said so publically. Oddly this only increases the sense that you’re a fraud. You hope that paranoia is up there with lack-of-social-skills in the standard writer’s mindset, the alternative being that sometime you’ll be exposed as someone pretending to be a professional writer.
The trolls on the internet periodically get stuck into you and make you feel like shit, but the odd writer reads your book and seems to enjoy it enough to ask for the next. Others are getting big-name endorsements and you’re not, the only writers who like your books are selling fewer copies than you are, but they’re still count more than trolls – except in battle, and even then it’s a different sort of troll. You also start to get increasingly narky about people getting fewer and less mixed up, but then discover publishing is the one industry where it’s right and proper for grammatical errors to be gently mocked. Which goes both ways as you’re the only one who didn’t do A-level English, but no one seems to notice much.
Book 2 comes out amid a general atmosphere of “eh, oh, I think I heard about book 1 but didn’t read it”. It wasn’t helped by the publication date being moved so no bookshop knows when it was coming out and you realise the acknowledgements section is missing, rather than just wrong as it was the first time round. You start to feel pretty drained by the effort of having to be cheerful and nice to people when out as a novelist, plus somewhat resentful of the other writers who’re all genuinely nice and several of them have actual charisma. The sense that you’re a fraud remains but no one seems to have noticed, which is a relief. You realise that you’re selling fairly well, by the standards of a rather dismal industry where so many people fail completely. You’re never going to be rich off this but there’s some money happening and this encourages you.
You get a better job, it’s still something of a stop-gap because you’re a writer dahling, but a childhood of D&D and daydreaming hasn’t exactly qualified you for much except this. You start to feel like a grownup – or at least a bit more like how you imagined you might be when you’re grown up, rather than actually responsible and stuff. To your surprise you haven’t lost all your friends in the process of writing these books, and most of them are fairly accommodating of your oddities, willing to put up with much in support of a friend who’s actually doing what they want. You’re unsure how you’ve made new friends since your social skills don’t get much of a workout when you’re hunched over a computer, but somehow it happens and you start to feel good about life.
Something happens and you don’t write for the best part of six months. When your brain stops being mush you realise you’ve got 12 months to write an entire book, even with the deadline extension, and you panic a bit. Your editor is again unsurprised, apparently life gets in the way for a lot of people and if you’re going to do something for years, it’ll happen to you. Still you know you’re not selling enough books to extend the deadline without everyone forgetting who you are so you push on through and produce your longest book yet in the shortest period of time. You coast a bit at work to get this done and have no idea how you manage to meet a girl while desperately writing, but things start to look a little brighter all round. Much of it is a blur however and you feel like you lost most of that year to an alcoholic blackout without the fun of actually getting drunk much. Still, it’s all for the future as a writer right – now’s a vital time in your career as a novelist.
You realise several of the other writers on the list feel like frauds and haven’t read every classic SF novel from the 50s either. You get a new contract and something like proof that not everything you’ve done has been complete shit unless you were aiming to set the world alight. Given you’re just pathetically grateful to be paid for making stuff up and not forced to get a real job where you need to be nice and competent, this is just fine. You still don’t have much money and most of your friends have real careers, but you’re not entirely broke either and have been published in several languages so when you read that former interns in your office now have director in their job title you’re not hopelessly depressed.
The wheel of time turns and ages come and pass. Just where the time’s gone exactly you’re not sure, but you’ve had several books published and they’re all still in print. Plus you can make Robert Jordan references with a self-assured smile that ensures people who don’t get it assume you’re being clever and writerly, and those who do get it don’t think you’re a sad prick. Most of them anyway, but the rest are secretly worried that they’re the ones being pricks so it all balances out. You’re not in your twenties now, but you’re still younger than most other writers you meet so the fact some of the newer faces are still better-read than you doesn’t irk you as much. You deal with the fact that your book does horribly in one major foreign language because the publisher couldn’t be bothered to put any effort in. You’re starting to understand apathy pretty well at this rate so you’re not really surprised.
You reduce your work hours in an attempt to be more productive on the writing. It doesn’t really work but it does enough – you realise at least that writing anti-social hours around a full-time job was quickly exhausting you, forcing you to take several months break between books to recover. Living that way was most likely going to send you into a fit of depression anyway, and then nothing would get written. You go out less but enjoy life more and find yourself spending most of the week at home. This suits you fine as other people are difficult sometimes, but it means you see only one person for most of that week and how long before they get bored of your stories involving stuff that happened while doing the washing up (or point out that you could still do the washing up more)? You still love seeing your books on the shelf in Waterstones, but like everything else, after years of it the thrill isn’t quite the same.
You have plenty of time to write in the days now, but someone don’t feel so much like it. Which is weird because this is you living the dream, right? This is what you’ve been working towards, and now you want to play Xbox instead? Your output is just about enough, but you know in your heart you could be doing better. You realise that this has become a job, and like lots of jobs it’s harder to throw everything into it when you’re six years at the same company doing basically the same data entry. Real life gets in the way more and more, marriage and mortgage provide some hard questions about income and you wonder if a grownup job might not be easier? Then you laugh and remember that being a writer remains fucking awesome despite the fact you feel no urge to write at the moment. It won’t last forever you know, and while that thought scares the shit out of you because you’re useful for nothing else, you’re starting to feel resigned to it. Very few writers do nothing else their whole lives but many haven’t even made it halfway to where you are, so maybe you should just enjoy it.
You feel a patronising irritation towards all the energetic young writers out there who still have the passion to sacrifice other aspects of their life to the great god of writing, and seem imply they’ll always do so. You know it won’t last forever, but they’re the ones getting all the attention you never got at the start and you feel this is somehow unfair. You need to work on the new book but really can’t be bothered so you sit down to write a blog post for said new writers to remind them that energy and drive won’t last forever, so they might not want to completely sell their souls to Amazon’s self-publishing program. But then you start to ramble a bit, not making up as much of it as you were intending, and forget that your point was to tell people not to expect writing to end up too different from any other job.
You decide you don’t care if you wandered off topic much, that the second half is pretty much all non-fiction and less funny that the start, it might still be interesting reading to other wannabe writers out there, among whom you once numbered and remain not-too-different from. Their exactly experiences will differ, but there might well be a trend there for most of us. Other writers aren’t the enemy after all, that’d be Amazon.