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Why do people write novels?

chicken motivationBy any standard writing a novel is a long hard grind. Despite popular opinion, very few novelists ever hit the real mega buck level (many don’t hit any buck level at all). But yet judging from the plethora of wannabe novelists on Twitter and Facebook, it appears that almost everyone nowadays is an aspiring author. So why do so many people do it?

I often ask the students on my writing courses what their motivation is. And here are some of the answers: ‘I want to make sense of the world, to explore my emotions, something awful happened to me and I want to write about it, because I love using language, it’s something to fill the time, I love books, I want to inform people about something, create another world, explore an issue, I’m bursting with a story to tell, my family is so funny I want to write about it, I see it as a kind of therapy, I want to share my knowledge, I want fame and fortune, I want to create something that lives on, a legacy,’ and so on.

These are all perfectly legitimate reasons for having a go at writing a novel. They do not, however form a good basis for writing a successful novel.

Let’s see what what the same students look for in a novel.

‘That feeling of getting completely immersed in a good story, I look for a clever plot, an escape, I love getting to know new characters, I want to laugh, I want to explore different worlds, to live other people’s lives, being be emotionally engaged, I want to be entertained.’

So I think we can see there is a bit of a mismatch. The word entertain, for example, rarely appears in the first list and yet always appears in the second list. This doesn’t matter at all if the writer realises that the hilarious exploits of their family are unlikely to bring them fame and fortune. But it does matter if that’s what they are aiming at. They are pretty much doomed to disappointment.

On the whole, people read books because they want to be entertained. Now, some people are entertained by dismal accounts of other people’s private misfortunes, some people even like being lectured to about obscure issues, but what most people really want is a book that grips them from beginning to end, about a subject that they find interesting and peopled with engaging and believable characters.

So if you are on the brink of starting to ‘write a novel’, stop for a moment and ask yourself what your motivation is. Then ask yourself what is the outcome you hope for. If you are going to aim for the fame and fortune option, then you are going to have to study your craft very carefully and prepare to write a lot of novels during the learning process. If, on the other hand, this is a one-off for your own pleasure or to amuse your family, then fine, just go for it.

In either case, knowing what you are up to will help you do it better. And I wish you the very best of luck with it!

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13 thoughts on “Why do people write novels?

  1. Pingback: St Helena and other news – an update from Helen Carey (and an outstanding opportunity) | themarcistagenda

  2. Terry Tyler on said:

    Oh, such a good point. Get rid of the self-indulgence. I once read an indie book in which the author had spent several chapters wandering away from the plot into detailed description of the food and architecture of a particular city she loved. Cue serious skip-reading! Of course, what entertains one will not entertain another, but I think the entertainment value (okay, so shoot me for the repetition of the word ‘entertain’, but it’s been a long morning!) is something that many writers don’t think about when they first start out. YOU may want to ‘explore your emotions’, but others don’t necessarily want to read about it. I’d say, if you want a cathartic experience, buy a diary. And if you want to show off your knowledge of a particular subject, write a non-fiction book.

  3. I echo Maria’s comments. Like Stephen King said, you owe the read a lot. They’re putting in the time with your book – make sure it’s worthwhile for them. I think if they’re entertained, you’ll be more satisfied with the book.

  4. As always words of wisdom Helen. For me its an itch I have to scratch, and I believe I do it better after your valuable tuition.

  5. Hi Helen,.I do find your blogs about writing really thought provoking, I would like to write,but time and other peoples needs always get in the way it seems.This last blog has made me look at what / why I want to write,and I am very grateful to you as it has helped my thinking.

  6. Maria McCarthy on said:

    Really interesting! I think it was Stephen King who said that you should write your book twice.. first for yourself, (to get all the stuff, issues etc out) and then again for your reader.. with it angled towards entertaining them. And agent Carole Blake says she looks for authors that are ‘in control of their material’ – which I think is the same – being able to move on from writing just for yourself, and to be able to make your novel work for the reader.

  7. Love this post, Helen – very insightful. And the comments are ones I also hear from my students. From my point of view I write novels because I have to. Ideas niggle away – refusing to go away – until I give in. Besides that, my husband says I’m unbearable to live with unless I have a book on the go. Hmm, think he’s trying to tell me something?

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