Why do you write?

This week I have been following with interest the rise and rise of indie-publishing phenomenon Amanda Hocking. In case you missed it, Hocking has over the last year or so been building considerable sales of her self-published paranormal romance novels through the Kindle store. Estimates of her sales run at on average 100,000 a month. Then at some point in the last few weeks, Hocking’s success became a story in and of itself and that part of the internet concerned with books basically caught fire and exploded her up to the heights of web-stardom. The latest news is that Hocking has signed a traditional publishing deal, and it seems likely she will be remembered at the very least as the first true indie-publishing star.

Amanda Hocking’s good fortune raises a few interesting issues. It certainly rocks the traditional publishing world, who simply can’t compete with indie authors that can make their work available online at $1 a pop or less when publishers are insisting on ebook prices of $10 or more to preserve their publishing model. And it makes it abundantly clear that e-books are now the primary delivery vehicle for fiction, and particularly for new writing.

But. The more interesting question arises from the intense excitement generated by Hocking’s success. Because while Hocking has demonstrated that indie-authors can tap real audiences with self-published e-books, it is not millions of paranormal romance fans who have made her a star. Instead it is the incredibly large number of writers seeking to imitate her success that have, through their fascination, become the very fuel of that success.

(I should at this point admit the existence of my own ebook, a short story published recently in the Kindle store, after being published in print and soon to be podcast.)

It is not news to anyone involved with writing or publishing that there are a very large number of people who carry the ambition of becoming a writer. It’s really impossible to know how many, but what we can say is that, between the vast growth in education and wealth in the developed world, and the array of democratic publishing technologies provided by the internet, it is exponentially more than a generation ago. In fact there are now so many aspiring professional writers that they have become a common object of pillory:

And yes, many, indeed most, will fail for exactly these reasons. But putting aside the millions of hopeless wannabes who will never get close, there are still literally tens of thousands of people putting in serious work, hour after hour, to honing their craft and drafting and redrafting short stories and novels. And given the very small number of people who will ever ‘succeed’ at the holy grail of becoming a professional, full-time writer, one has to ask…why?

At which point, I must turn to you, dear reader. If you are reading this then you (like I) are likely engaged in the thankless task of ‘being a writer’. Why, I ask, are you doing it? Do you enjoy pain? Are you addicted to rejection? Do you crave the patronising reactions of your more successful peers at dinner parties? What makes you do it? Why do you write?

Here is my answer. I write for al the reasons that we all do. I write with the deluded fantasy that I, despite the astronomical odds against it, might become successful and escape my mundane life for that of a famous author. (Did I mention I have an ebook? I did? Have you bought it yet?) I write because I’m one of those unfortunate souls who keep succeeding just enough to keep that fantasy intact. Somehow or another I have shaped some kind of career around writing, writing about writing, teaching writing. And I write because I like writing. I enjoy the muscular sensation of wrestling words towards some kind of meaning on the page.

But if there is one single reason above all of these why I write, and why the thousands of hours I have invested in writing have been worthwhile, and why none of the millions of aspiring writers out there are wasting their time, it is this.

I write to grow.

Emotionally. Intellectually. Spiritually. Socially. If I did not write I would be less a person in all these ways. I would probably have thousands of more hours TV watching under my belt, but I would understand far less about the world. I might have a few more friends, but they would be far less interesting than the friends I have made through writing. I would be less fulfilled in almost every way, of that I am certain.

We live in an age where, quite amazingly, millions of people are able to grow as humans by exploring their own fundamentally creative nature. That is a true wonder, and, while I might secretly resent the competition, if we ever reach the point where everyone of the seven billion humans on the planet are striving to be an artist of some kind, it will be a very good sign for our species.

But we also live in an age obsessed with the cults of success and celebrity. And I question how compatible the drive for creative fulfilment and the drive for celebrity can ever really be. The dream of success is no bad thing in itself, as a goad to fuel our creative development. But when that dream becomes the goal in itself, it risks completely destroying the creative growth and development which is the real reward of writing.

Amanda Hocking is, I have no doubt, creatively fulfilled by her writing. Her novels are well written, they know their readership and I believe they grow out of their authors genuine creative interests (if they did not I doubt they would have succeeded at all). They do the most important thing for any work of fiction, which is express their author’s true voice as an artist. But I truly doubt this is or will be the case for the millions of writers self-publishing dark fantasy, high fantasy, sci-fi, horror or other generic novels on to the Kindle. And this is a great shame.

Back in the pre-interent days of paper publishing, there were very few ways for people to succeed. Which, in creative terms, was a good thing. Because with every rejection it kept challenging aspiring writers to break the model of their work, and rebuild it…better, stronger, faster. As much as the multiplying opportunities for publication, recognition, success are an incentive, they are also a trap. Because with a few thousand ebook sales, or a few dozen good reviews, or a fan voted award or two, the temptation to say ‘I’ve made it! I’ve succeeded!’ becomes very strong, even when the truth is that you may still be a very long way from fulfilling your creative potential. From growing in to what you might become.

(ahem…did you catch the bit about the ebook. Its an urban fantasy. Kind of. Maybe more life an anti-urban fantasy. My Lovesick Zombie Boy Band. Go. Buy. Read.)


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

14 thoughts on “Why do you write?

  1. When I was really little it was fun, and then I wanted to be Lois Lane. When I was a teenager I just wanted to escape, and writing was the way to do that.

    Now it’s my constant. Nothing else remains as solid and as reliable as writing does. Not my thoughts or feelings, not my medication, not my friends or family or the world or my life. Writing though, there is always a pen and paper and something to write. Also I love writing, I love the what I can create, what people can create, it’s always been my primary form of communication, probably always will be.


  2. Damien, you wrote: “And it makes it abundantly clear that e-books are now the primary delivery vehicle for fiction, and particularly for new writing.”.

    I don’t see how, from the preceding paragraphs, you come to this conclusion. One outlier does not a trend make. You can’t draw a line with only one endpoint.

    And in particular, isn’t Amanda’s action (signing the traditional deal) actually kind of negating the argument? If e-books were the primary delivery system for new fiction, she’d be staying with it.

    (Unless of course she actually buys into the concept that you’ve not really made it in authorship until a big NYC house validates your work with their imprint and/or the traditional houses can still deliver something that indie publishing can’t, ALL of which, again, kind of negates the argument. Not that it’s an argument, really.)

    But to get to your main question:

    Yes, I AM into pain – both giving and receiving it. But beyond fey humor:

    I think you hit the nail on the head without naming it directly. EGO.

    The sport I am most successful at requires me to believe that I can pick up a gun and shoot other people (many, many other people) before they can shoot me (paintball).

    The avocation I’ve chosen (that I’ve achieved moderate success with, though no where near my mental goals) requires me to believe that I can pick up a pen and….

    They really are very similar in the manner in which ego/hubris/whatever plays. The big difference is that the sport is a zero-sum game (only one player or team can actually shoot everyone else out) whereas the writing game is not zero sum: there can be multiple winners and we’re each shooting at a target, as opposed to at each other.

    I think in some (not to far distant) future, they’ll discover that a balance of masochism and sadism are required in the writer’s toolkit (just listen to what some writers say about their characters and their audiences if you doubt the sadistic part: I’ve got one friend who’s written me into three different projects just to kill me!) and that it is all tied in to some psychological dynamic involving a need to prove worth/value while at the same time constantly moving the bar. Self-teasing. Never being satisfied. Seeking after perfection. (How many writers can actually handle the statement “don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough”? If you actually think that’s a valid statement, I don’t think you can really be a ‘writer’. You may be able to hang words together and even sell them, but if you aren’t saying to yourself – ‘the next one needs to be better and it can be better’, you aren’t a writer).


    1. @Steve- Ebooks first. I think it’s simple economics. Writers can put their work on the market at a price publishers simply can’t match. I think emerging and mid-list writers are all going to find that the indie model is now their first port of call. The role of publishers is to to what they do best, take a moderate success and make it a huge success. I think it’s now going to be pretty much standard for writers to establish an indie following before getting in bed with a publisher.

      Ego. Yes, that’s the word I was skirting around. It’s the thing every writer is in continuous dialogue with. You have to have one to pick up a pen. But if you don’t keep it under control it wil eat you.


  3. Your list of reasons to write matches mine pretty closely, Damien. But if I dig down to the roots of it, for me it’s about uncharted territory. Writing – any creative process really – is like exploring the Amazon rainforest without a map. You just don’t know what you’re going to find, or where you’re going to end up. Sometimes you discover ancient treasures. Other times you just get covered in leeches. And it’s a guarantee you’ll get tired and sweaty. But it’s that not knowing that turns me on and keeps me coming back for more.


    1. This resonates with me. I’ve only recently started to write, yet I’m gobsmacked by some of the stuff in my book. I can see where some of it came from, but other bits look quite mysterious to me. Did I really think of that? Must have done. Clearly it’s changed my inner life quite a bit. I quit chemistry in disgust at the end of 6th form, as we had a deeply uninspiring teacher. Now I find myself searching the web for info on it, and boring people with it down the pub and elsewhere. All in search of verisimilitude.


      1. One of the things creative writing does really well is show us our ‘blindspot’, which is really more of a huge vast ocean than a spot! We all contain multitudes, and thats where all those ideas come from when we write.


  4. Graham’s reason is very similar to my own. I like my work to become a journey and whilst I’ll have a framework, I don’t necessarily have a plan per se. I write to my mood more than anything and whilst that may churn out a final product that appears to have more than one personality.

    Granted, it’s not an ideal way to write, but it generally fulfils my reason for writing – which is primarily to utilise the multitude of ideas that I have. I’ve been doing a spring cleaning session tonight and have stumbled upon several ideas that I had probanly 8 or 9 years ago that have switched me back on to ideas that I had abandoned.

    But, apart from the NaNo that I wrote last year (Stasis Update) I’ve yet to finish anything substantial that isn’t a micro-planned article written in the here and now. NaNo gave me much more focus to write and to complete something.


  5. Authors still need to be able to do the PR to drive readers to the e-book distribution points to make sales. So I don’t think all new writers will go this route. It’s also unclear whether the YA market is as of yet as affected by the e-book phenomenon. As well as other niches.

    Further, a lot of people are being really dumb in how they are viewing their meat-world books when translating them to the e-book market. One book does not necessarily equal one e-book. Nor should things like covers necessarily stay the same.

    I think physical books will be around for awhile–at the very least until we cease to exist in the sense of a civilization–at which point their popularity will pick up again since electricity will not exist.

    Trust me, in 30 years when I’ve fled to England, been shot by poachers, and you’re merrily roasting me on a spit while, somewhat unsympathetically, re-reading Finch by the light of my own fiery flesh one night, you’ll remember this thread and think, “VanderMeer may be stringy, but he was right!”


  6. Also, if I didn’t put get the words out of my head, the pressure in my skull would build up to the point of cranial fracture. The only task remaining then would be to wipe my brains from the wall.



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