In one of my (as yet unpublished) novels, two best friends in their middle years set out to write their own novel to solve their respective problems. Aside from a general agreement that the end product will be a work of fiction, their external goals for their writing are very different. Kate hopes that the book will solve her debt problems; Eliza sees it as a way to win respect from her difficult-to-please father and to show up her high school nemesis, who is a successful romance novel writer. Eliza is more interested in producing a literary work, whereas Kate envisions a best seller without great regard to its quality. Their contrasting goals for their joint project naturally produce some conflict (and isn’t that what keeps a novel sizzling?).
I’ve thought a lot about this issue of the goals of writing fiction. Goals answer the question, “What do you want to happen to your writing?” The more common question that writers (and especially writing teachers) pose is, “Why do you write?” Reasons for writing often revolve around the need for self-expression and creativity. “Because I have to” is a common response among people who are committed to writing. Although there is some overlap, these two questions tap into two different sets of motivations.
Initially, many of us may not even consider our eventual goals. We just want to get our stories down in print. Then friends and family members, aware of the hours we are putting in, ask, “So, what are you going to do with your stories/your novel when you’re finished?” (Oh, but when is something finished?—another question for another blog entry.) Or, worse, “You haven’t published that thing yet? You’ve been working on it—FOREVER!”
This question about our goals can provoke a variety of responses. Anger at the source for assuming that our creative efforts are triggered by the need for an external reward or acknowledgement. Annoyance that behind these questions is the assumption that getting published is a piece of cake and that failure to do so on our part means we’ve been wasting our time. Guilt and self-flagellation for not being able to complete our writing project to our satisfaction or to find a home for it.
Nevertheless, who among us hasn’t tried on various scenarios about possible outcomes, even if we haven’t yet found the right shape and fit? Goals for those of us writing novels can range from the modest to the all encompassing:
- To complete a draft
- To write a piece of quality work (not necessarily literary fiction, but well written no matter what the genre)
- To share a finished piece with a narrower audience of friends/family
- To have a finished product available to others (as opposed to just a Word file or a PDF), through any formal media source (e.g.,an e-book)
- To have a tangible product with a cover and pages in between.
- To reach a wide audience through whatever means, even if the books sell at a low price or go for free. (How wide is wide enough?)
- To get one or more books published through traditional, vetted channels (usually starting with an agent, though possibly directly through an independent publishing house, not self-publishing)
- To earn some money through writing (enough to pay for any costs associated with writing? More?)
- To become a well-known writer
- To become a well-respected writer (great reviews?)
- To make a living through writing in combination with other-related activities (scraping by or relative comfort?)
- To make a living through one’s writing alone without having to teach or take on other work (ditto on the scraping by or relative comfort)
- To write one or more best sellers, maybe with a few film options thrown in, and make a spectacular living.
No doubt there are others. These goals aren’t mutually exclusive, and our goals may change over time. Some of us start with modest goals that evolve as our writing evolves. If we manage to complete #1 above, we may advance to #2 and skip to #7, and then choose #4 if #7 doesn’t pan out. Alternatively, others of us prefer to aim for the whole enchilada and then scale back as necessary.
Stage of life may also help to shape goals. The retired person may have different ambitions for her writing than the younger person who can’t imagine being anything but a writer. In a world where getting a book published can take several years, time is on the side of the young writer; a secure financial situation may be on the side of the retired person.
There is no one size fits all or right model for writers. Changing technology and an evolving publishing industry have given us many more options. But it’s important to realize that anything beyond #3 means doing activities that take us away from the writing per se. Just ask any writer how they spent their time the first year after their book was published. These days the business side of writing can be a job unto itself—not without its own rewards, of course, but not necessarily suited to everyone. Thus, we need to respect whatever options our friends and colleagues choose.
As for my protagonists, they both get to where they need to be although not in ways they would have guessed in the beginning. Life doesn’t always work out as planned, even for those of us with goals. But we can still keep writing.