PWAC (Professional Writers Association of Canada) Seminar March 9, 2004

Who Do You Think You Are?

All of you who’ve come here tonight have taken a shocking risk: you dare to think of yourselves as writers. That may be the biggest hurdle – the psychological one. Denigrating artistic endeavour is a tradition in Canada. Remember Alice Munro’s story collection titled: Who Do You Think You Are? It’s a reference to the small-town Ontario pique at any young person who presumes to elevate their standards and dares to excel: “Just who do you think you are?” Well, you folks here don’t just think you’re writers, you know you’re writers. So, congratulations for taking on such a big risk and overcoming it.

Writing a Novel? You Must Be Crazy

Is writing a novel a risk? Definitely. In fact, it’s a risk minefield. Let me enumerate the explosives. Some are in plain view, some lurk well-buried.

1. You’ll be making a huge investment in time. It will take you at least a year of writing, likely far longer, to create a marketable novel. (My first novel took three years.) Even after a publisher buys your novel, another nine months or so will go by before it’s actually printed and on the shelves. (That’s the approximate length of time a novel is “in production” with your publisher.) This can feel upsettingly endless. And, if you’re taking time off from a paying job in order to write a novel, this year or longer spent on the project is a truly major investment. It is the biggest risk.

2. You risk elevating your hopes and dreams. You want your book to be successful, to reach a large readership, and to sell well. The longer you spend writing the novel, the more intensely you dream of these things. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t.

3. You risk alienating loved ones. People around you, even those who love you, won’t ever really understand why the silly book takes so long to write. Or that when you’re staring out a window for an hour, you’re working. They really won’t get it. And it won’t help matters if you protest to your spouse or partner about needing peace and quiet to do “your art.” These people have more tangible jobs, and they work hard at them too. If you love them, you’ll keep that in mind. It’s a delicate balancing act.

4. You risk being an object of pity from friends and acquaintances. At parties, new acquaintances will ask with a kind of bored skepticism: “You write? Oh really? Would I have read any of your books?” And this can go on for years.

5. You risk questioning your own judgement about taking the risk of writing a novel. You’re going to hit some very low points. Writing a novel is like running a marathon: it takes stamina to get to the end. And once you do, you must then push on with the nerve-wracking but necessary effort to get it published. That will most likely include several rejections. All of this will tax your stores of resilience and determination.

Yin & Yang

However, like so much in our world, there’s a yin & yang principle at play: Big risk, big reward. The rewards of writing a novel are substantial. Let me enumerate them:

1. Seeing your first book published and on book store shelves

2. Seeing all your following books published

3. The money. There’s no joy like signing a contract for a nice juicy advance. Revise that:
there’s no joy like seeing the royalty checks that follow

4. You get to do work that you love

5. You get to tell the world what bugs you about the human condition, what breaks your
heart about it, and what’s thrilling about it

6. An office at home: Your morning commute is a half-minute stroll down the hall, coffee
mug in hand

7. When they ask at parties, “Would I have read any of your books?” you get to say with
a smile, “If not, go check them out at any bookstore.”

Think Big

So far, I’ve referred to negative risks. But there’s one major risk I would advise you to consider, and it’s a positive one. It’s this: Think big. Specifically, take the risk of submitting your work in New York.

New York City is the center of the English-speaking book publishing universe. The market the U.S. publishing industry reaches is colossal. The market the Canadian industry reaches is very small. There is no “mass market” in Canada. Therefore, there’s no successful body of popular fiction published here. Instead, Canadian publishers focus on literary fiction. But literary fiction doesn’t sell well. A handful of authors like Atwood and Ondaatje and Yann Martel notwithstanding, literary fiction does not sell well. Popular fiction sells hugely – that’s why it’s called popular – but it’s published only by U.S. companies. So, if you’re going to invest all your time and heart in writing a novel, do you want to sell five thousand copies in Canada, or fifty thousand copies in the U.S. and Canada. (American publishers consider Canada as virtually part of their domestic market.) The author gets only about 10% of retail: for a $30 book you get $3. So, using the above sales numbers, it’s a choice between $15,000 and $150,000. Which is why my advice is: start at the top – submit you work in New York.

Unfortunately, many beginning Canadian writers never think beyond Toronto. Some feel intimidated by the U.S. Some, I suspect, are punishing American markets for George Bush, by staying out. (A tactic that may have limited effect.) Some believe it’s simply impossible to break into the U.S. This isn’t so. American publishers are looking for good, marketable books, and they don’t care if the author lives in Timmins or Timbuktu or on the moon. All that matters to them is what’s on the page.

There’s a second positive risk about writing a novel that I’d advise. It’s the risk of taking your work seriously. By that I don’t mean thinking of your writing as brilliant. It probably isn’t. Yet. The point is, it can be made to be brilliant, but only if you take the job seriously and don’t underestimate the work involved. That requires a major commitment. Ironically, your loved ones, over time, will eventually come to respect this. People do, in general, respect commitment. (Though I still recommend that you don’t go around moaning about your “art.”)

Let’s Be Realistic

I believe it helps to put the risk in perspective – that is, in the context of a “real world” situation. Don’t think of what you’re doing as an “artistic” endeavour. Rather, think like an entrepreneur who’s starting a business. A restaurant, say. Very risky. And it’s obvious that a major capital expenditure is necessary. But once the risks are laid out, understood, and accepted, then one goes about creating the best damn restaurant in town.

The best way to look risk in the eye and live with it is this: Keep your expectations low and your standards high. The key is to look at the risk realistically. Know you goal and ask yourself: Is writing a novel worth it? Is it worth the hardships I’ve listed: the huge investment of time, and the concurrent loss of income; the strain on loved ones; the elevation of your hopes that may never be fulfilled?

If the answer is yes, then go out and write the best damn novel in town.