Thursday, January 2, 2014

What's the point?

Before Christmas, I did a writing workshop at a school, with some A-level Creative Writing students. They spent an hour coming up with characters, using fun exercises. When I asked them to read their work aloud, I was pleased by how uninhibited these teenagers were as opposed to adult writers. Their characters were bold and surprising, in the midst of dramatic, thrilling stories.

Afterwards, we had a question and answer session and we got talking about how you decide what sort of thing to write. I talked a little bit about how publishers like authors to have a 'brand', so that readers know what to expect when they pick up one of your books. If you've got a publishing contract, I said, your publisher will want you to stay within the same genre and write the same type of books throughout the contract. They wouldn't be happy if you'd been contracted to write a mystery novel, and suddenly you came up with a high fantasy swords-and-sorcery novel without a mystery in it.

'If you can't write whatever you want to write,' said one of the students, 'what's the point in getting published?'

I was taken aback by his question. I'm so used to talking to writers who dream of getting published, who want to know the golden secret of getting published, who work and work and work and try and fail and try again, so that their work will be on a book shelf somewhere. And this student couldn't see the point?

Yet what he was asking was deeply profound. He was asking what was more important: a publishing career or creative freedom? He was asking, why would you create something that isn't exactly what you want to create? He was at the time in his writing journey where the story was what mattered—not who read it, or how much money he could get for it, or what the Amazon reviewers said about it.

Just the story. The story was the point.

I'm ashamed to say I didn't answer him the right way—I was surprised, and I said things about being able to publish different types of stories with different publishers under different names, and about authors taking pseudonyms or changing direction as their careers grew. But what I should have said was:

You're right.

It is so easy to get caught up in the writing business. To worry about contracts and promotion, to jostle for attention and readers and good reviews. It's easy to look at other authors and get jealous because their publishers give them more support, or because they're winning all the awards, or getting better covers, or getting more press attention, or selling more books. It's easy to angst over publishing trends, and the decline of book selling, and the lack of book reviews in major publications.

But the truth is: the story is the point. The writing is the point. The creation is the point.

There's no reason to write anything otherwise.

So I'm going to try to remember that student's words this year, this 2014. I hope that I can.

(There's a thoughtful post on this subject here)


  1. Kids can be insightful without knowing it. I find it hard to read on demand so I can easily see how hard would be to write on demand. Most best sellers don't really fit a formula. The author writes what's in them and the audience finds it and appreciates is. I guess that's why self publishing is so amazing.

  2. I think you're absolutely right Chanpreet, that kids can be incredibly insightful. This student probably didn't know how much his question has made me think!