How To Deal With Other People's Expectations Of Your Writing
“Have you finished it yet?”
“When is it being published?”
“But you’ve been working on it for years. When will it be done?”
“Will I be able to buy it at Barnes and Noble?”
“What about the film rights? Will you be able to retire?”
If you’ve written a book, or are writing one at the moment, then no doubt you have fielded questions like the ones above. People who don’t write have absolutely no idea what it takes to write a book, or to get it published or to figure out how to sell more than a handful of copies.
Non-writers don’t realise how many rewrites a book goes through. As a reader, you just pick up a novel, read it, have a feeling about it (good or bad) and then read something else. But that book was months or years of the author’s blood, sweat and toil as well as the summation of their learning and expertise.
How much are they a reflection of what you are thinking?
Fielding comments like the ones above can tap into your own neurosis about why working on your book is hard or why it seems to be taking so long.
I have found writing to be a totally different experience from working to a deadline in my day job. In the job, if something needed to be done by the end of the week or the end of the month, then I got it done.
But creativity seems to have its own rhythm. It needs to go at its own pace, not yours.
Writing a book, especially a novel, can take time. If it’s your first book then you probably have more to learn than you initially realised. (This recent article might give you reassurance: It’s okay to take forever to finish your novel)
Are you working consistently?
That’s the only question you need to ask yourself.
If you only have thirty minutes a day to write, and you manage to do that most days, then just keep plodding on. It will take the time it takes.
If you’re not doing much writing, or are surfing the internet more than writing in the time you do have, then you need to address this. Setting the bar low, such as aiming to write for just ten minutes or two hundred words can help you create a consistent rhythm, rather than aiming for something more ambitious and not doing it.
If your partner is putting pressure on you because you’ve taken time out of work to write, then make sure you are actually writing. If weeks or months have gone by and you haven’t got on with it, go back to your job.
Set people’s expectations
When I’m justifying how long it takes to get a novel done, I get people to imagine they’ve written an important letter or a personal statement for a job application. It is normal to write something of that nature and keep tweaking it until it is right. Then I say, now imagine that effort multiplied by 80,000 words.
Last year, when I was doing edits on the sequel to Tales of the Countess, if someone asked how it was going, I said that I was getting through it but there were issues still to solve. I told them that getting to the end of the draft didn’t mean that the book would be finished.
I also explain the metaphor that writing a novel is like doing an archaeological dig. It can take a lot of digging to uncover all the layers of the story and make sure that it all fits together. You can read more about this here: Writing a novel is like doing an archaeological dig
If you are self-publishing, tell people that your book is unlikely ever to be stocked at Waterstones or Barnes and Noble or at the airport bookshop, but you’d love it if they went to their favourite online retailer and ordered it.
If people are surprised that you still have a job now that you’re published, just tell them exactly what you’ve made from your book and then they will understand that you’re not in a position to retire yet.
Hang out with other writers
Having writer friends is essential. They understand how writing works, the pitfalls and the inexplicable urge to write even though you may never make much money from it. Swapping anecdotes about a difficult scene or the realisation that you have to rewrite a story again, will help you feel better about the pace of your own work.
If you don’t know any other writers then find a local writers’ group or join an online community.
(Shameless plug alert: also consider being a paid subscriber to this newsletter so that you can join the Ask Me Anything Zoom call next week.)
Remember, most people never follow through on their “one day” dreams, they wouldn’t fare so well when sat in front of an empty page and they don’t have to handle the rejection or criticism which you have already faced.
As writers, we have to accept that others will never know what it is to confront your resistance every day and keep moving forward with your project.
But if all else fails, take the advice of Elizabeth Gilbert:
“Just smile sweetly and suggest – as politely as possible – that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”
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