Monday, December 23, 2013

Why We Write: It's Complicated

Thomas Wolfe: On writing a book.
My friend Keith Ferrell and I just spent some valued Christmas time in my living room, exchanging gifts (books, what else?) and talking about why we write. He got mine, I got a wonderful fiction lesson from Thomas Wolfe.

Writing's "why" is a greatly underappreciated topic, I think. So many people--generally not writers--believe we write because it pays us. It sometimes does. Not a lot, but I've made a living with it for nearly five decades; Keith for about four. We've earned well and badly, but always, we wrote regardless of whether we were being paid $3 a word (Keith, not me) or 10 cents a word. Or nothing. Sometimes nothing.

I have a new novel, CLOG!, that I published. I went through traditional channels for a while (about four months) and didn't come up with a publisher or an agent that I thought suitable. I got tired of that process and simply went ahead with the book because I didn't write it for money or fame. I wrote it because I needed to write it, because that story has rattled around in my brain for years and now it's on paper and people can read it. Some have. They seem to like it.

Keith has a book on the NYTimes bestseller list at this moment. It's History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time, written with Brad Meltzer. He wrote that mostly for the money (and says it was a joy of a project), but he has two other books in his pipeline that he is writing because he's a writer. History Decoded likely helps make these two an easier sell, though it doesn't change a word in them.

The book industry is in a strange place these days. It's changing and people are monumentally uncomfortable, nervous and unsettled. A novelist I know had a publisher break its word to publish her very good book recently and she wound up at an academic press with it. That's pretty much death for sales of a book, but she wasn't writing for the money, though the book is certainly good enough to have a major imprint.  

Someone I know criticized me for scheduling a launch party for CLOG! because "it's only a self-pub." That hurt and it made me angry. I like this book; I'm proud of it; and I want to share it with people who believe in me and people who want to read a good tale. That's what a launch is about. It isn't about an agent with an agenda or a publisher with quarterly goals to meet. It's about me and my book and celebrating an accomplishment that few people on earth ever get to enjoy.

Keith's Christmas gift to me was The Story of a Novel by Thomas Wolfe, who wrote Of Time and the River, one of the great works by an American. Wolfe was reared in my hometown of Asheville and his Look Homeward Angel was set there (though it was called "Altamont"). CLOG! is partially set in Asheville. That's about as far as I can logically go with a comparison.

Here's Tom's take: 

"An editor, who is also a good friend of mine, told me about a year ago that he was sorry he had not kept a diary about the work that both of us were doing, the whole stroke, catch, flow, stop, and ending, the ten thousand fittings, changings, triumphs and surrenders that went into the making of [Of Time and the River]. 

"... I propose to tell about this experience. I cannot tell any one how to write books; I cannot attempt to give any one rules whereby he will be enabled to get his books published by publishers or his stories accepted by high-paying magazines. I am not a professional writer; I am not even a skilled writer; I am just a writer who is on the way to learning about his profession and to discovering the line, the structure, and the articulation of the language which I must discover if I do the work I want to do. It is for just this reason, because I blunder, because every energy of my life and talent is still involved in this process of discovery that I am speaking as I speak here. I am going to tell the way in which I wrote a book. It will be intensely personal. It was the most intense part of my life for several years. There is nothing literary about it. It is a story of sweat and pain and despair and partial achievement. ..."

I'll buy that, even if a major publisher won't. 


  1. Self-publishing gets a bad rep because so many people abuse it. But there's positives also. Passion projects like Clog! get to see the light of day. And not every self-pubbed book stays within the boundaries of 'passion project' some of them go on to be hugely popular and land the authors lifelong fan bases. Hugh Howey, John Scalzi, and many others have ended up building careers from a self-pubbed beginning.

    I finished Clog! about 5 minutes ago and, with a couple of minor exceptions, it felt like as professional as any other book I've read. Hint: Those exceptions had little to do with the work itself.

    Anyway, when it comes to weighing pros and cons of self-publishing I'd mark Clog! as one of the pros.

  2. Thank you, Dusty. You're very generous. Hope you'll post your thoughts as an review of CLOG! Hope you're coming to the book launch at Hollins Jan. 8, 6-7:30 p.m. in the Green Drawing Room. Consider this a personal invitation.