The other day, one of my clients emailed me worried about his most recent manuscript. We’ve been working together for over 6 months, but the project is wrapping up. It’s almost time for him to start submitting his work to publishers. He’s apprehensive and asked:
Is it any good? Will anyone read it? Will my book sell?
I think, as writers, these questions tend to linger in our minds, burrowing deep into every dark corner of self-doubt. During the day, we can silence them with reassurances from friends, family, fans, and writing groups. But at 3 a.m., whispers of insecurities shatter the silence and leave us feeling like maybe we shouldn’t write at all.
I told my client that, as his editor, I couldn’t guarantee his book would sell. In fact, I can’t guarantee anyone’s book will sell – not even mine. The market is turbulent right now; self-publishing has changed the game. It’s difficult to predict what will find success.
So, why write a book if you aren’t guaranteed anyone will even read it? What is the point of pouring hours, months, even years into a story that might never sell a copy?
These fears weigh on my mind too. I hesitate to begin a longer work, to write a book and pour myself into pages and pages of prose only to find rejection and apathy from readers.
In these low moments of resignation and despair, I remind myself that I’m writing my book not just because I yearn to see it on the NY Times Best Sellers list.
1. To tell my stories
I am brimming with untold stories. They fill my thoughts, coloring my life with magic, dragons, romance, and that terrible plot twist in chapter five. Sometimes, I’ll hear a song that fills me with inspiration about a place in my dreams, or I’ll catch a glimpse of a stranger that reminds me of a character yet unwritten. I don’t just want to tell these stories; I need to tell them. Freeing a fantasy from my mind is cathartic even if only my mother reads it.
2. To practice writing
Writing takes practice. My six-year-old is learning to read and write. Her b’s are often backward, and she sometimes forgets to cross her t’s. Scraping the eraser across the page, she’ll whine, “Why don’t my letters look like yours?”
When I was seven, I wrote a story about a turtle who got lost at sea. Scribbled in crayon, the pages taped together, it’s full of misspellings and run-on sentences. Halfway through the action, I changed the turtle’s name without any explanation. Today, my main characters usually end the book with the same name they started it with, but it took years of practice. Feeling ready to write a blog, let alone a book, left me with folders full of first drafts that will never be published.
I showed my daughter my story about the turtle and reminded her (and myself) that the best things in life take time and lots of practice. Every time I sit down to write, I get a little better, and so will she.
3. To finish a project
There’s a unique feeling of completion and success that comes from finishing something. Writing a book is a labyrinthine adventure. There are characters to create, maps to draw, places to describe, timelines to track – it’s exhausting. Finishing a book is something to take pride in; it means I can see a project through until the end.
4. To explore difficult ideas
Writing is an intimate art. When I sit down at the computer to write, I’m not always sure where I’m going to end up. Even with a strict outline, my characters often lead me on unexpected adventures. Sometimes, these adventures include themes of death, violence, sexism, racism, spirituality, love, and the concepts of good and evil.
Fiction is a safe place to explore these ideas; characters aren’t real, after all. There’s a freedom in knowing the violence, disaster, heartbreak, and evil a character might encounter (or create) remains inside the world within the pages.
Writing is a unique sandbox where I can face my fears, my prejudices, my weaknesses, and my insecurities without real-world restrictions and judgment. As I write, I can work on personal growth and gain insight into who I am and who I want to be.
5. To challenge myself
We’ve all been there: the doldrums. I’ve found myself in a writing rut too many times. In college, I knew how to craft A+ essays without even reading the material (sorry, professor). When something is too familiar, it’s easy to get sloppy, bored, and bitter.
I’ve written essays, grants, short stories, articles, blogs, reviews, research papers, and long-winded social media posts about birthdays, anniversaries, and my opinion on the Tide Pod challenge. But I’ve never written a book. It’s not easy and requires a commitment beyond any of my previous projects. For far too long I’ve been telling myself: eventually, I will write a book; I could write a book if I wanted to; I’m just waiting for the right time…
Times up. I’m writing a book to challenge myself. I’m ready to leave the doldrums.
This phenomenon, called transportation, occurs when writing too. Often, I need to put myself in the mind of a character I’m nothing like. How do I make my villain’s cruelty feel genuine? What mindset is my main character in after seeing a loved one die? I’ve found that after exploring the perspectives of my characters, I’m better at empathizing with my friends, my family, and even strangers.
7. To learn something new
If the FBI weren’t watching me before (hi!), they sure are now. My Google search history looks like I’m planning to perform emergency surgery on an alien lifeform that I’ve psychoanalyzed after hacking into its phone during a six-course meal only to murder it quickly and dispose of the body in a woodchipper.
Pro tip: don’t look at a writer’s search history unless you’re prepared for some weird shit.
Writing a novel in the 21st century is a constant reminder of how lucky I am that the internet exists. Answers to “how to pick a lock” and “what is the capital of Minnesota” are only a click away. Thirty years ago, I would have set up camp in the library reference section and never left.
Writing is probably my most influential teacher. Every time I sit down at the computer, I learn something new.
8. To exorcise my demons
After profound heartbreak, I wrote an emotional, private blog about the pain, despair, and eventual healing of my ended relationship. The experience not only helped me organize my feelings but allowed me to reframe them into significant lessons about life and love.
My writing is personal. I find inspiration from every experience I’ve had and every person I’ve met. My work is fiction, of course, but intimate elements of my own life are woven within every word. There’s healing in writing a different ending to a painful experience. There’s strength in looking at a challenging situation I’ve experienced from a different perspective. And there’s wisdom in reliving moments from my own life as a creator, not a participant.
I’ve come to appreciate the richness of life through writing, and I can finally see that one chapter in my life does not define my entire story.
9. To read it myself
At the end of the day, I’m a selfish writer. I write the books I want to read. Too many times I’ve daydreamed about a character, a plot, or an idea and wished I could read a book about it. This happened a lot as a young girl. I felt like all the heroes were boys and all the blonde-haired girls were either boring princesses or bitter mean-girls. What if I wanted a sword?
If the book I want to read doesn’t exist, it’s up to me to write it.
10. To sell my book
Okay, okay, I know this defeats the purpose of my entire list. But the truth is, I do care if my book sells. As an artist, I have a need to share my work with the world. I want people to read what I write, enjoy it, learn from it, have an emotional reaction to it, and maybe pass it along to their friends. I don’t want my book to collect dust on a shelf or sit, unpublished, in a folder on my computer. It absolutely matters to me if my book sells.
Which is why I completely understand my client’s worry that his book won’t sell. I think every writer grapples with the fear that all those hours writing might never be read.
But I know they won’t go to waste. As I told my client, while I’m pretty sure his book will sell, he should remind himself why he wrote it, what he learned, and how it made him feel.
At 3 a.m. in the morning, when doubts about the instability of the publishing market, the harshness of critics, and the oversaturation of popular genres threaten to overwhelm my desire to write, I remind myself that selling my book is only one of the many reasons I write.
Why do you write?