When does a manuscript become a book?

The other day a bloke came to build an additional doorjamb and install a screen door. Conversationally he asked me what I did for a living.

“I’m a writer,” I said.

“Oh cool,” he seemed impressed. “What do you write?”

“Fiction mostly,” I told him. “I write fiction books for young adults.”

“Oh,” he looked at me and scratched his head. “Yeah, I could do that. It’s just making stuff up right? I always wanted to write a book.”

I left him to his doorjamb.

Back in front of my computer, I continued work on the manuscript I have been writing, editing and rewriting for the past fourteen months. Yep, FOURTEEN months. That’s over a year of living with these characters in my head. A year of plotting and sub-plotting, drafting and redrafting; of worrying about character development and voice, making sure they are ‘growing up’ right; of being concerned with consistency, ensuring all questions are answered and all loose ends tied. Then writing and rewriting it all over again. I worked on it three days a week. Every week.  Over a year. For one book.

My last novel was the same. By the time it was ready for publication it had taken about a year to write and edit. Before that, I spent two years completing a Master of Creative Writing to develop and hone my writing skills. And that’s without mentioning the hundreds of thousands of hours over a lifetime spent reading, or the years before and since my degree spent writing in a variety of genres for a variety of purposes —all for the purpose of developing and refining my craft.

So could anyone do it? Well, sure. I guess. If they had the time and tenacity. But unless they intend to have their book read, why would they bother? When does a manuscript become a book? Is it when you finish writing it? When you receive the completed draft back from the printer and put it on a bookshelf? Or is it when you format and upload it as an eBook? Maybe it’s not until you sign a contract with a publisher. Or is it when someone actually engages with your work and reads it?

I would suggest the latter. Writing (like reading) is a very subjective thing, but the common factor experienced by every successful writer is this. People read the book. That’s it. That’s all it takes. The thing is, readers are not a particularly charitable bunch. I know this because I am one. As a reader, I have no tolerance for bad writing. I won’t persevere with a badly written piece. And like most avid readers, I can tell from the first paragraph (sometimes even from the blurb) whether the writing is any good, or more importantly—whether it’s readable.

Now I’m not talking about the abject quality of any particular writer, that’s a discussion for another post (writers of literary fiction versus writers of commercial fiction for example), I’m talking about whether or not a piece of written work can be easily read and understood. If the technical aspect of writing is there, if the characters are authentic, the dialogue genuine, the plot believable (whether or not it is fantasy), then someone will read it. And it becomes a book.

There are thousands (perhaps even millions) of writers across the globe, all vying for readers’ attention. And in this age of electronic publishing, the ‘keepers’ of the book are no longer there. There is no middleman. It’s more cut-and-dried than ever before. And with all that choice, readers are less inclined to persevere with reading something they have to work at.

The bottom line is that unless you are prepared to learn the craft of writing, are committed to improving and are prepared to put long hours for many years into it, there is little point to ‘writing a book’ at all.

Why do you write?

Someone asked me this this morning. It was in response to a litany of whiny complaints from me about my current lack of motivation (or what I prefer to call writer’s block),  procrastination, financial pressure, little support, isolation… I could go on and on. And I did. Until the question was posed.

I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Why do I write? Why do I write? I write because I have to. I write because there is something inside me that is only satisfied when I am creating narrative. I feel alive when I write. Maybe it’s because I’m creating worlds ―I’m taking a seed of a thought and growing it and nurturing it and turning it into a person, a plot, a theory, a life, a world in its own right! Maybe it’s a power thing. There is enormous pleasure in being able to manipulate language sufficiently to evoke an emotional response in someone. Or maybe it’s an opportunity to live vicariously through the characters I create. As a writer I explore the extremes of human nature on all levels, from the sweet and innocent to the evil and vindictive. I can explore any job or any relationship, I can take the kind of risks I never could in real life.

When I write I step outside of myself, of these four walls. For five hours a day (on a good writing day) I become someone else, somewhere else. It’s the same pleasure I get from reading, the same suspended reality that occurs when you allow yourself to float off on a wave into a shifting time-space continuum. Or maybe I write just because I can.

Writing is not the easiest path I could’ve chosen, and after listening to me whinge this morning my friend said simply: “Why not just go back to having a full-time job?” Of course, my response to that is: I have a full-time job. I’m a writer. Problem is, it doesn’t pay me the same amount each fortnight ― or sometimes at all. I have to supplement it with a second job. And I’m very lucky to have found one that pays regularly (at least during term time) and keeps writing at the forefront of my mind.

Even on days like today when it all seems too hard, there is no choice. I have to write. Despite the frustration of hitting the wall three-quarters of the way through a manuscript that had been flowing well, despite not being quite sure if I’m going to manage to stay on top of the bills this month, despite people thinking I’m mad, or sad, or both, there is no option. I have to write. Because it’s who I am. I am a writer.

So tell me, why do you write?

I am a writer. I really am.

I’m writing today. I’m two thousand words down so far, and it feels great. I’m now just over half way through my third novel. But I have to work really hard to make sure I get a few free days to write each week. I’m determined not to let life get in the way of making progress on this manuscript.

My first novel took ten years to write. And it's still sitting at the bottom of my desk drawer. There were a plethora of reasons it took so long. I was raising a child, working, studying, dealing with... well, life! But I think the main reason it took so long to come together was because of the way in which I thought about my writing.

Thoughts of being a writer had plagued me since I was a child. I’d write short stories, poems, opinion pieces, song lyrics, and later, novels ― all to satiate a need I didn’t understand and couldn’t explain. I did this for twenty years. But none of these musings ever saw the light of day.

No matter how much I needed to write, or wanted to be a writer, I guess I didn’t take my writing seriously enough. It was something that sat in the background while I prioritised other things. During that time I was a mother, a teacher, an employee―someone who wrote as a hobby, but I wasn’t a writer.

I battled for years. Mostly myself. The writing thing never went away though. That burning desire to write simmered away just beneath the surface of everything else I did. Eventually it boiled over in spectacular fashion. I quit my job, put my house up for sale, and wrote. Just wrote.

I wrote my second novel in six months. Then I ran out of money. But you know, I have this overwhelming sense of ‘all is right in the world,’ because I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing. I don’t have a cent to spare, and I’ve had to pick up a few days a week casual work to support myself, and make some major concessions and readjustments in terms of lifestyle. But that’s okay. Because I am a writer. It’s who I am, who I’ve always been. It just took me a very long time to get there.