I tend to forget that disappearing home every night and scrambling about on a keyboard isn’t normal. What with Twitter, Authonomy and all the author blogs I read, it feels like every man and his mother is writing a novel. I spend days psyching myself up to “Eye of the Tiger” and telling myself how fierce the query competition is. But then I go out and meet the general public…

People as a whole seem to realise how hard it is to get into the music industry. They also understand how actors struggle to get agents and auditions. But they seem to think being an author is simple. I’d like to share with you some comments that came up when I attended a friend’s wedding.

Now weddings are tricky, because you meet a lot of new people and they all ask you what you do for a living.  I answer “Oh. I’m an administrator.”
I have no interest in it, they have no interest in it (how could they) and it cuts the conversation dead. So then out comes the little gem.
“But what I really want to do is be an author. I write around work, it’s like a second job. One I don’t get paid for.”

The invariable response is “What, you’ve written a book? A whole book?” The fact that it’s a whole book always seems to impress them. I nod in confusion – I’ve been writing whole books since I was fifteen and it doesn’t seem that incredible to me. But at least it’s got the conversation going again.

Depending on the person you’re talking to, they’ll either ask this other question or jump straight into the next paragraph. The question is “What kind of books do you write?” I like this question – it’s always lovely to have people show interest in my work and I like to talk about it. The only problem is, when I reply “historical fiction”, very few of them know what I mean. I get a blank stare.
I try to expand.
“I take a historical figure and research about their life and their character. Then I turn it into a narrative, I mean a story. I try to bring them to life.”
More blank.
“Erm… have you ever read Philippa Gregory? Kinda like that I suppose…”
Only one of the people I spoke to had heard of Philippa Gregory. One. I wanted to kiss her.
The others tended to respond with “Oh, I don’t read many books” which rather left me wondering why they asked in the first place…

People may not know Philippa Gregory, but they do know one author: J K Rowling. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had to say something about her. Now I think J K’s alright, I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and stuff. I don’t understand the full amount of hype around her, because I don’t think she did much that was new – in fact, Ursula le Guin had already written some rather fabulous books about a boy who became a wizard before she even put pen to paper. But I detract from the point. The one sentence that everyone says when you tell them you write is this: “So you could be the next J K Rowling!”
Vain, hopelessly vain, to point out that she doesn’t write historical fiction. Even more useless to suggest you don’t aspire to be her.  Best to smile, nod and say “I don’t know about that.”

It’s around here I try to point out just how hard it is to even get a book published, let alone succeed. When I tell people my book is finished, they say “Are you going to send it off to publishers then?”
I have to explain about agents, the query process, partial submissions, full submissions, editorial suggestions from the agent before trying publishers, the rarity of getting a book deal, then working with the publisher’s editor…
Their eyes start to glaze over. I begin to think I’ve finally got through to them – this is a tough and gruelling business.  They open their gaping mouths and say “Well, I’m sure J K Rowling got rejected lots of times before she made it.”
Seriously, again with Rowling? Do they know any other authors?

I think people mention J K Rowling so much because she’s clearly made a lot of money from her writing. And sad as it is to admit it, people seem to see writing as that: a get rich quick scheme. Of course all us authors out there, starving in garrets, laugh in their faces, but they do really believe it. On the way back from said wedding, I popped into the W H Smith at the services. There was a guide on publishing your ebook which I decided to flick through. The contents made me recoil in horror.

It had, as I expected, many pages on formatting, the differences between Smashwords, Kindle etc etc. But it also had a chapter on writing your ebook. Choosing a subject. As if you’d decide you were going to do a book just for the hell of it without even knowing what it was going to be about. Nothing on editing, nothing on proofreading. It was coming up with a money spinning idea.

Now let’s do a reality check here. If  I was going to publish my own work in an ebook I would do these things: hire a professional editor, hire a professional copy editor, hire a professional cover designer and hire a professional type setter.  I would consider this the bare minimum. All these extra people working on making my  project perfect would cost me upwards of £1,000. Let’s say £2,000. And, being an unknown author, the most I could sell the ebook for and get sales would probably be around £2.50.  My goal would be to break even. And since this would mean selling 800 copies without any kind of professional marketing, I would consider this a rather unrealistic goal. At what point is this going to make me a millionaire?

It may be hard to make people understand, but my writing goals are these:

  • Write the best story I can
  • Give someone a book to read that they can’t put down and feel glad to have read
  • Do justice to my characters
  • In some small way spread awareness of Georgian history and its forgotten women

It would be wonderful if could make enough money from this to mean I could write full-time and give up the day job. But that’s not my writing goal; that’s my writing dream.

So perhaps for the moment I shouldn’t tell people that I write. I should just give them the link to this blog post.

Have you had any funny or frustrating conversations with others about writing? I’d love to hear them!

5 Comments on Telling others you write

  1. Sarah Waldock
    19/05/2012 at 3:15 pm (5 years ago)

    You are so right about everyone mentioning JK Rowling. “No, actually I believe in internal self consistency and characters who are true to themselves without plot-required occasional stupidity, so no, not like JKR” I say. “WOT?” “More like Ellis Peters” I say. “Oh with monks?” is the hopeful comment. “Er, no, but historical mysteries” by which time I’m thinking why did I start this conversation. Things tend to go downhill in one of several ways thereafter: [a] “Oh I love Agatha Christie, she knows how to write a mystery, I really couldn’t read any other author” [b] “Oh I don’t read mystery stories, they make my poor head ache [titter]” [c] “Oh, I like mystery stories but not historical ones, history is so boring”. This is the point at which there is nearly a murder for real.
    Editing is vital. This is the point at which you pressgang your old teacher who happens to be a neighbour and can’t escape and your highly professional mum-in-law who can’t reasonably escape.

    • lauradpurcell
      21/05/2012 at 7:19 am (5 years ago)

      ‘What, with monks?’ Classic! Mystery writing seems to have even more conversational pitfalls!

  2. J. G. Burdette
    19/05/2012 at 4:14 pm (5 years ago)

    Hmmm…Outside the family and fellow bloggers who read my ‘about’ page I don’t think anyone knows I write. So no out-of-this-world-stories for me to tell, been spared. :)

  3. thegeorgiangentleman
    19/05/2012 at 6:51 pm (5 years ago)

    As for being a conversation stopper at parties, saying that you are an author is SO much preferable to admitting that you are a lawyer! I did that for 30 years and it either meant people shuffled nervously from one foot to another, or else launched immediately into a long conversation about how dreadful their own solicitor was and what did I think…! Yes, I too get the comments about JKRowlands. It is such a different world for the rest of the writers who never get a look in. When I look at the sales figures I think “pathetic” – at least in comparison with what I earned as a lawyer (but when I think of the satisfaction I get from knowing that there is another human being out there who actually appreciates what I have written, well, it’s worth a million dollars!

  4. Anita Davison
    24/09/2012 at 8:42 am (5 years ago)

    Laura – I came on this post late, but it still strikes a chord-so much so I blogged about the general misunderstanding that people have of historical fiction authors, aspiring and published.

    If you have a moment – http://thedisorganisedauthor.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/writing-childs-play.html

    I see you are off to London for the HNS Conference, if we find ourselves fighting over the croissants on registration day do say hello.