As a psychologist and a writer, I’m not only interested in good writing and what constitutes that, but also what makes people want to write. The main reasons people want to write are:
a) they want to write a book that will earn them a lot of money
b) they want to express themselves artistically
c) they want fame (this is not connected to writing but a by-product)
My observations of the publishing world so far lead me to believe that few people are made instantly rich by publishing the first novel they ever penned, negating reason number one. There are, however, a few exceptions to this, which keeps the hope alive (much like hoping we will win the lottery). Literary agents report that they receive staggering amounts of unsolicited manuscripts every week, and, out of these, only around 5% are considered. Many agents only read three or four full manuscripts per year, and take on few new writers. So, fame is also unlikely by this route.
So this leaves artistic expression. The problem with this is that if a writer wishes to combine artistic expression with making money, then they must learn about the commercial market and business. Publishing is all about genre and traditional structure; there is little room for experimentation in first novels. So the choice here is whether to make your work of artistic impression fir with a formulae approach to get an agent, then pursue your artistic dream after you are signed, or to go ahead and hope someone will ‘get it’ and be up for a little risk taking. If you decide not to go for the formulae and trust your artistic instinct then you will probably realise that the road you are taking in shunning the commercial publishing world is a difficult one.
Unless your artistic impression leans towards creating the perfect commercial novel (and that has been known) then at some point you may become disenchanted with earning money and fame from writing. You might even decide to give up because the first round of rejections reveal the harsh reality that your novel about a cat who is transported to another universe is not snapped up right away. So, after all of the above, why would you continue writing?
There are many ways to tell a story. Right at this moment, we are all running our personal, inner story in our minds. This is externalised in speech and interaction with other people, who we are, what we do, when we did it, how we did it. We talk our stories all the time. Why wouldn’t we? Television provides us with stories in news items, films and soap operas. Every picture tells a story, so they say, and the urge to write is another way to externalise our story, even without the lure of publication.
But my writing is in no way autobiographical, I hear you say. This statement depends on your understanding of truth. Because we are constantly constructing our own world in conjunction with other people, we get a view of what our own truth is. We also filter a lot of information that we discard as untrue, or not real. I know that a cat has never travelled to another universe, but I still imagined it, so how have I done that if it’s not true in any way? How do people who are not criminals or psychopaths write crime novels? How do single men write as married women? Somewhere in their imagination they have enough information about it to make a story. So, although it may not form part of their personal moral code, or even reality, the information to link up cats and time travel is in there somewhere, struggling to be heard. I say imagination because although out memories are stored in our brains, I believe the imagination lies in both the brain and the environment. We have external inspiration, a muse, and a playlist for our project, as well as the memories that have stored all of the components necessary to make something up that is your version of the truth, something that triggers a part of you that projects a germ of an idea into life, to make its own world.
The urge to write is so important. It needs to be there in order to write that first best-selling novel, in order to create your lifework of artistic expression. It involves not only the imagination and the idea, but also the discipline to actually sit down and write. Challenges such as National Novel Writing Month hone the skill of sitting and writing 1666 words per day, no matter what. If you get a couple of days behind it seems almost impossible to catch up, but conversely, once your imagination takes flight it’s sometimes almost impossible to stop writing.