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A Writer's Expectations

Our society as a general rule expects instant gratification. Older generations had to wait for certain vegetables to appear in the shops; if they wanted to know something, they had to go to the library; if they needed to call someone, they had to find a telephone box. And to accumulate wealth, they often had to make plans that spanned decades or more, and be consistently thrifty.

Today’s expectations are different: foods of all kinds are shipped to our supermarkets from all over the globe; we carry smartphones around through which we can access the world’s libraries and call anyone at anytime. Naturally enough we come to assume that fame and riches can be acquired with equal ease.

This affects writers in terms of expectations. Many writers assume that all they have to do is complete a book, self-publish it and get it out there on Amazon - sales will then occur, so the supposition goes, and wealth will pour in. This assumption goes so far as to lead authors to be disappointed when their books have been available for a couple of months and hardly any sales have occurred. Everything to do with the writing and publishing process is now so easy - it can all be done from portable devices which we can carry around with us - therefore why shouldn’t the money appear as easily?

There’s a truth which the World Wide Web hasn’t yet managed to bypass: in order to get the emotional commitment needed to prompt people to pay money for something, there has to be a build up of trust. Paradoxically, the ‘easy come, easy go’ world of the internet can actually work to undermine trust - something as insubstantial as a website can seem equally unreliable and even unreal when it comes to handing over money. Internet businesses therefore have to work harder to engender the confidence that a storefront shop has implicitly simply by being physically present - if you walk into a physical shop, and deal with shop assistants who are clearly real and standing in front of you, and handle commodities with your own bare hands, you automatically have some confidence that none of it is going to suddenly vanish and that the proprietors are not going to abscond with your money while your back is turned. A website has no such surety - it can be there one minute and gone the next, at the click of a button, and so therefore can your money.

All this brings about an atmosphere of fragility. Relationships developed over the internet can come and go with a click. Their trend is towards solidity, if both parties persist: first there is a short message, then pictures, then voice calls, then actual meetings. At every stage, the chances of the relationship proceeding to the next step are increased; it is easier to terminate things, to move on, to lose interest or even to simply ignore the other towards the beginning of that sequence than it is towards the end.

Expectations are huge; trust is slender.

Developing as an author follows much the same pattern, on several different levels: first, within the author himself or herself, transitory ideas appear and disappear ephemerally. When these become attached to images, their life might be prolonged a little; when these ideas and images fall into place as scenes with characters they have some chance of becoming a story; and when they become interwoven into a fully-fledged narrative, they stand more chance of surviving for longer.

Secondly, outside the author, the same sequence is followed: a book may appear and disappear fleetingly in the minds of its potential readership, with minimal sales; then some readers review the thing and its life might be extended; then a small community forms around it, so that the book has some chance of becoming a success; and when it becomes popular outside that small community, it survives into the future. Wealth for the author doesn’t normally occur in the first part of this cycle. In fact, wealth insofar as it is defined as a steady flow of income generated by a book, doesn’t usually occur until right at the end when it happens at all, when a book breaks out of its initial ‘fanbase’ and begins to reach a wider public.

Of course, some books go through this sequence quickly and seem to leap into prominence so rapidly that they are seen by writers as the ‘model’ upon which expectations are based. This is unfortunate as it adds to the ‘instant gratification’ theme: what is not usually seen is the slower, steadier growth of a book through various less visible, earlier stages.

As a writer, you can probably appreciate how this outer sequence mirrors the inner one: stories don’t normally become anchored and firm in a writer’s imagination until they have proceeded through those earlier steps.

The whole thing takes time. And persistence.

Tolkien was 70 when The Lord of the Rings, published almost 20 years before, became a world-wide bestseller; C. S. Lewis was 50 when his Narnia books began to be well-known; Stephen King worked for years as a janitor before his wife salvaged an abandoned manuscript from the rubbish and urged him to get it published. Though Charles Dickens was only 25 when he first struck success with The Pickwick Papers, he is the exception rather than the rule: authorial triumph is usually the result of a slow-burn, a gradual build-up in the public’s trust, a growing faith in what the individual writer can produce. Then, once a certain threshold is reached, virtually anything written by a given author will sell.

Naturally there are exceptions - but as a rule, the idea of ‘instant gratification’ when it comes to success for writers does not match with what actually happens.

What then should an author who wants to achieve professional success do?

The primary thing is to recognise the truth of this sequence, described above: transitoriness builds into small communities which further builds into secure islands of popularity and thence to greatness. In those early stages, persistence is required not because of some magical ‘law’ but simply because these things take time. Once a few sales have been achieved and a certain reputation has been acquired, a new author may think ‘That’s it, then - that’s as good as it will get’ - but this is only due to inexperience. More persistence, more cultivation, steady outpourings, and that small initial success grows into a larger one; a little more persistence and breakthroughs occur.

Of course, all of this assumes that the writing is good enough anyway, but there is some truth to the view that the quality of writing comes second to the persistence, as you can measure for yourself by glancing at the best-selling lists on Amazon and elsewhere.

True gratification comes after long patience. Writing is like farming - seeds take time to sprout and mature and much is lost in that process, but it eventually leads to the harvest.

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