Dec 31, 2012 5
The air is thick with a weird mixture of smugness and insecurity: it’s the evening of the last day of 2012, and everyone’s busy telling everyone else what they did this year and what they learned and what they’re going to do differently next year.
This year I almost didn’t go totally broke, which for a freelance writer/whatever is pretty good going, or so I’m told. I spent a month having a long-overdue love affair with the place I grew up. I swam. I went to weddings. I started a PhD. And so on. But for some reason the thing I think of, immediately and exclusively, when I think of what I did this year, is ‘write a book’, I guess because this is a thing I’ve wanted to do for awhile (well, forever, really). And then I did it and people kept looking at me funny when we spoke, like, why aren’t you more excited about this?. And I looked back blankly, because I didn’t know what the appropriate facial expression for “I don’t know why I’m not more outwardly excited about this; but also I’m more excited than it’s possible to convey” was.
Anyway, it’ll be in bookshops sometime next year and in the meantime you can order it directly from the publisher, if you’re so inclined. And here’s what I think after having written my first book:
It takes longer than you think it should to write a book of publishable (debatable word, I know, I know) standard. Even if you once half-jokingly wrote 50,000 words in one month. Or maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it just takes me longer than I think it should to write a book of publishable(ish) standard. I don’t know how long it should take: I have literally no idea. Like, a year? A decade? A week? But this is a lesson I’m always learning and forgetting and learning again: that things, all things, take more time than I want them to take. So it’s important that I point it out, because by next week I’ll have forgotten again and I’ll be disappointed in myself again.
Maybe don’t do a crowdfunded book (or even album/film/whatever) unless you’ve already written the book. Or at least written most of the book. Or at least have a very very strong sense of what the book is going to ‘look like’. Otherwise you’ll be nibbled on by guilt for a year as you sit at your laptop late at night frantically not writing, and you’ll worry that the thing you produced won’t match up exactly with the thing you promised because let’s face it, things never turn out exactly as we envision, and people will forget completely about the project, and you won’t know if it’ll be a pleasant reminder when a book arrives on their doorstep or if the book will just be a sour artifact of a wasted £20, and you’ll be completely broke for a long time, etc etc.
Obviously this is a bit of a catch-22: isn’t the whole point of crowdfunding to allow people to contribute to the process as well as the product – to give, for instance, an author the opportunity to take the necessary time to write the book? And yes, maybe in theory it is. I’ve written about this before, and I still believe it’s fundamentally a good thing. But there’s a flaw, and I can’t quite put my finger on it it, and I don’t necessarily think it’s a fatal flaw, but it’s big, and it goes something like: the world doesn’t move at quite the right pace for crowdfunding to be practical for large-scale projects, unless maybe you’re Amanda Palmer and you have a million fans in the palm of your hand already. So yeah, if I had written half the book already, or if it was an extended essay or something, that works. But everything’s moved on in a year. We need to slow the pace of consuming down if this is going to work for someone who says, I’m starting from scratch on this project which requires me to do quite a lot of background reading and research and fieldwork before I can even tell you exactly what shape it’s going to take, and then, after I’ve read a lot and transcribed all my interviews and had a hundred conversations about the subject matter with the people I’m working with, then I’m going to sit down and write, which is something which in itself takes time, and then I’m going to edit and rewrite because I’m not going to do something that I’m not happy with or proud of. And then the actual publication process starts: the copyedit, the proofreading, the typesetting, the cover design, the printing: all the other stuff that takes time too. Which is basically what I did.
There’s no big “hooray!” moment. One day you’ll be sitting there thinking, how is this ever going to be a Thing? And then one day you’ll be emailing the manuscript to the copyeditor and then one day you’ll be reading proofs, and then one day you’ll be opening a box full of your own books. But there’s never a moment where you say, ‘let’s go get champagne and celebrate the fact that I’ve finished!’ Because you’ve never quite finished, quite. When you send the manuscript off, when you receive the proofs, when you hold the physical thing: people will say, isn’t it great, aren’t you so excited? You must be so excited! And you’ll say yes, it is great, and yes, I am so excited!, but you’ll also be thinking, but how did this happen? and what happens next?
Writing a book is really thankless work. I don’t know why anyone would do it if they didn’t take pleasure from the act itself, or if they had any expectations at all of external encouragement or gratification. Does that sound negative? I don’t mean it to: I love sitting at my desk and looking out my window and reading things and typing things and feeling a little at sea sometimes, and going for walks and swimming for a very long time when things are going badly and not having time to go to the pool at all when things are going well. I love all that, that’s all I ever really want to do. But listen: no one else really gives a crap if you’ve written a book or are writing one (except for your family, of course. They’ll tell everyone they know, with embarrassing abandon, about how you’re writing a book). You won’t be paid well to do it if you’re paid at all. There’s no guarantee that it’ll be worth it in the end. When people you meet at the pub ask what you do and you tell them you’re writing a book, they’ll ask you what the book is about, and for the first ten months or so you’ll dread the question because you don’t quite know the answer yet, or you do know the answer, fundamentally, but you haven’t figured out a good way to articulate it yet. And then for the last two or three or four months or whatever, you’ll really want them to ask, because you have the perfect answer, and you have so much to say about it, and it’s so exciting! – except that their eyes will glaze over immediately no matter how garbled or practiced your answer, and they’ll smile and nod and be polite and ignore everything you say and that’ll be that. Sometimes they’ll ask if you have a publisher. You’ll say yes, and they’ll want to know how you managed that, in this cut-throat competitive world (“and at your age!” someone will say, which is both a compliment and a challenge), and you’ll have to shamefacedly admit that you don’t have some story about Being Discovered, you don’t have any literary accolades, you’re not a fresh-faced, Brooklyn-dwelling, New Yorker-worthy young talent that everyone will have heard of this time next year, you’re not Lena Dunham, you’re not special. You were just in the right place at the right time. You know some people at a small startup publishing house. You’re lucky.
People never judge you as strongly as you think they should for this, though. Usually they’ll just say something like, “but God, isn’t the whole 50 Shades of Grey thing so depressing?”, or, “ooh, my cousin’s a copywriter, she has a really great website, you should get a website!” or whatever, and then you’ll say “what do you do?” and they’ll tell you all about their job as an administrative assistant or how they just finished a doctorate in neuroscience or how they’re about to head off to spend a year translating poetry in Kyrgyzstan (it’s Oxford, that sort of thing is de rigueur).
And then for no good reason at all you’ll feel a bit like an asshole, because you know it looks like you just sit around all day looking out the window and reading things and typing things and feeling a little at sea sometimes, and that’s precisely how you spend your time, and even though you have no money and no guarantee of ever having money again you feel spoiled, or like you know a secret that other people don’t know, like you’re getting away with something.