So I went to a party recently and I had The Book Conversation. There’s always one.
Woman: You’re KJ, you’re the writer, yeah? I’m writing a book too.
KJ: Really, what’s it about?
Woman: Oh…well, I mean, I haven’t actually started it yet. I’m really keen to do it, but I think I need more experience of life before I start the writing.
KJ: Do you think that your stories and ideas might come now if you started actual writing? I find that I need to get down to it to see the ideas and the characters develop—
Woman [cutting that right off]: No. I definitely need to understand life more first. To have deeper experience, do you see?
KJ: Well, to be honest, I write gay paranormal Victorian romance, so I mostly use my imagination.
Woman [with just a smidge of condescension]: My book is rather different to that. A bit more weighty.
KJ [in my head]: And a lot less written.
I have had a lot of variants on this conversation. It’s my fault, of course. 95% of the time, the correct answer to the party statement ‘I’m writing a book,’ is ‘Wonderful, congratulations,’ and then nodding until you’ve finished your drink. (The perfect response is what the late great Peter Cook apparently used to say: ‘Oh, you’re writing a novel? Neither am I.’) But I love talking about writing and I tend to take what people say at face value, so I always say damn fool unwelcome things like ‘How much have you written?’ that presuppose the person is actually writing a book.
There is nothing wrong with not writing a book. Lots of people don’t write books. There’s a great deal to be said for more people not writing books, in fact, especially if I get to choose which ones. And there’s nothing wrong with liking the idea of being an author, or indulging in a bit of fantasy. I clearly spoiled my fellow partygoer’s fun by talking about writing as a thing she could do, rather than a thing that she was prevented from doing by her own artistic dedication. Sorry.
But it is a bit weird how many people seem to go from ‘I’d like to be a writer’ to ‘I’d be a writer if only I wrote’ to ‘I am a writer’. I mean, I occasionally daydream of doing a plumbing qualification and becoming vaguely competent around the house, but that doesn’t mean I tell people I’m a plumber. Still less that I would be a plumber, but I’m waiting for the Plumbing Fairy to magically turn me into a plumber with no effort on my part. (Which is what I am doing, of course.)
The problem is, basically, that people confuse ‘I want to write a book’ with ‘I want to have written a book.’
It’s fabulous if you have written a book. Congratulations! There it is, done, with all the characters worked out and the plot beautifully resolved. A huge great undeniable achievement, ready for the world to buy and read and leave 5* reviews for. Your publisher sells the foreign rights in twenty countries. There’s a movie deal. I think Michael Fassbender would be perfect for the hero, don’t you?
Writing a book, on the other hand, involves typing, swearing, getting the cat off the keyboard, junking 30K words over which you’ve wept blood because you made a stupid plotting error, your family getting annoyed you’re always writing, working for three solid hours at a stretch till your neck is killing you and discovering that you only achieved 800 words, not selling the book, and writing another one. (And a lot of good stuff too, of course—that feeling when the words are singing, the joy of bringing your characters to life, the plot clicking into place—but it is neither quick nor easy to earn the good stuff.)
I have written five published/to be published books. It’s amazing.
I am writing my sixth book now. It sucks.