NSFWG member Rod Rees on becoming a writer...
I’m thinking of declaring a jihad against actuaries.
My theory is that they’re in league with the government to stop me retiring. I’m getting to feel like Tantalus: every time the fruits of a pension come within reach they change the pensionable age and I’m back to square one looking for something to do that will provide me with three square a day.
And then, of course, when you could actually use an actuary – professionally rather than for fertiliser that is – there’s nary one of the buggers around. And, boy, the day I decided it would be a good idea to write a novel was sure as hell one when I could have used some advice of a statistical nature.
Gotta tell you, if deciding to write a novel is a dumb idea, then deciding to write one when you’re at the wrong end of your fifties is a really dumb idea.
Fifty is a funny age. It’s the Wednesday of your lifetime: too far from the fun-packed weekend of your youth and too far from payday ever to stand a chance. It’s the age – as Leonard Cohen so pithily reminds us – when we begin to ache in the places where we used to play. It most certainly is not an age to embark on novel writing. But then I suppose there’s no good age to start writing because it is – both actually and actuarially – a stupid occupation.
Okay, you need to be stupid to start writing a book. But read any guide to ‘writing a book’ and the word ‘determination’ features prominently, this being the trait considered necessary to finish writing a book. But in my case you can substitute ‘determination’ for ‘enraged naivety’. I was prompted to write ‘Dark Charismatic’ after watching the travesty of a re-imagining of the Jekyll and Hyde story that was the BBC’s ‘Jekyll’. Now although I love and revere Stevenson’s tale I nevertheless accept that like many things approaching their one hundred and twenty-fifth birthday (me, for example) it could certainly handle a wash and brush up. Unfortunately as wash and brush ups go the BBC’s effort was more akin to a really good sand blasting in that it stripped all the good things away and left ... well, not much actually. And like many before me, as I sat there aghast watching this twaddle, the thought crossed my mind, ‘I could do better than that’.
Fool! Such hubris!
So I sat down and wrote ... and wrote and wrote and wrote. Two hundred and twenty thousand words to be exact, each word of them carefully, lovingly and laboriously crafted. And the final two were ‘The End’.
Now here I pause to proffer my first statistic, namely, the one regarding how many books once commenced are ever completed. My guess – and I suspect this is an amazingly generous estimate – is that no more than one in a hundred neophyte writers ever stagger across the finishing line. Around the country there must be millions of first, second and third chapters gathering dust in drawers or languishing forgotten on laptops (and long may they remain there; who needs competition). And as support for this contention I am willing to bet, dear reader, that you too are the proud possessor of an unfinished novel.
So remember that statistic: only one in a hundred books is ever finished.
Having written the bloody thing I was troubled by a rather belated thought: what do I do with it now? And the answer is, of course, get an agent. Oh, you can do it yourself, sending your unsolicited manuscript to publishers directly but you might as well spend your time attempting to roast snow. Believe me, nobody in the publishing world will touch unsolicited manuscripts. They’re the tsetse fly of the literary world: everyone’s heard of them but no one wants to come in contact with them. So I googled ‘agents + science fiction + fantasy’, chose the three I thought most receptive – that is they had kind faces – and sent off the first three chapters of my magnum opus. And waited...and waited...and waited. One outright (or is that outwrite) rejection in the form of a platitudinous standard letter, one rejection because ‘the end of the book was obvious’ – the guy must be prescient or something because I didn’t know what the ending was until a week before I sent it off – and – hurray! – one acceptance.
So back to those statistics. In later conversation with my agent (get me: ‘my agent’) he advised me that during his time in the business he’d received something north of six thousand submissions from would-be writers and as he’s currently got a stable (or should that be a pen) of forty-three authors that comes out at a newby having something like one chance in a hundred and fifty of securing an agent.
Remember that: you’ve one chance in a hundred and fifty of finding an agent.
So ‘Dark Charismatic’ was sent out ... and every publisher and his father rejected it. The general feeling was that there was too much sex in it. My fault: in retrospect what I’d written was an over-long aide-memoire, something to refer to if Alzheimer’s kicked in and I found myself with some free time on a Saturday night. So what do I do now? As I’d just spent a year wasting my time, writing unpublishable crap and earning precisely zip, the answer was obvious: I’d write another book! I think this sort of behaviour is classifiable under Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. Anyway, thus was born ‘The Demi-Monde’. Another year drifted by but this time when my agent pitched the book it was taken up by a publisher.
Remember that: there’s only one chance in two of your agent being able to find a publisher for your book.
Okay, so you’ve got a publisher now, so let’s have a look at the sales prospects for your master work. Somewhere between seventy thousand new fiction titles hit the bookshelves every year in the UK and the average sales of each are somewhere between one thousand and three thousand copies. That’s average, folks, so there are some seriously shit sales needed to compensate for the stellar success of such luminaries as Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson. No matter, these average sales, by my calculations, will net the author between £500 and £1,500. That’s after two years bloody hard work (and don’t forget you’ll also have to go through the publisher’s editing process which can be enormously time consuming, especially if your grammar is as rotten as mine ... or, possibly, mine is): that works out at about 10p an hour. Minimum wage it ain’t. It makes misdirecting customers at B&Q look like a gig from heaven.
So what are your chances of your book generating something approaching a reasonable return on your investment of time – say £30,000 a year? My guess is that maybe two and a half thousand titles turn that sort of profit for their authors: one in thirty.
Remember that: one book in thirty turns an okay profit.
If I recall my statistics – and those lectures were a bloody long time ago – the chance of you finishing a book, finding an agent, having it published and turning a reasonable profit is about one in forty thousand. Or about the same chance you run of being struck by a renegade meteor ... on a Sunday ... in Slough.
That’s why, in my humble opinion, the chief quality needed by a would-be writer isn’t determination, or creativity, or style, or a wonderful plot idea ... it’s stupidity. No matter how you slice it, writing’s a mug’s game.
But to paraphrase Lloyd in ‘Dumb and Dumber’: ‘One chance in forty thousand? So you’re telling me I’ve got a chance’.
What do actuaries know anyway?