Writing a book for easy money – a myth examined

There’s a question I get asked a lot. So I thought I’d let two Rozzes, 15 years apart, slog it out.

Young Roz, fresh-faced ghostwriter: Why don’t you write a quick series of novels that would sell shedloads and make a mint. Then you can spend the rest of your time on your, er, slower-selling books. The arty ones.

Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. It’s not that simple.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But you’ve had the best bootcamp ever for commercial fiction writing. You’ve worked with ruthless and brilliant editors. You’ve seen your books as posters on the London Underground.

Older, wiser Roz: When I ghostwrote, I was new to professional writing. Unformed. Looking for my way.  Then I started on my own novel and everything changed. Once upon a time, my goal was to please those taskmasters. I discovered I could suddenly please myself. I’d learned to drive the car; now I could take it anywhere I wanted.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Well come on, why do those books take so long? I can hammer out a ghostwritten novel in six weeks. I thought My Memories of a Future Life would be a left-field suspense. Lifeform Three was supposed to be a light futuristic romp. What on earth were you doing?

Older, wiser Roz: The books kept changing. The more I worked on them, the more they seemed to pose an irresistible mystery about life. A novel in progress isn’t just a thing I pick up at the keyboard and put down again. It travels with me. An endless conversation. A personal crusade. Keyboard-time is when I catch up with the points I honed as I watched a film, worked an editing shift, went for a run, cooked dinner, groomed a horse. That process is one of the pleasures of building a novel. And frequently the frustration. Do you know what? I don’t want to live with a book unless I can take it to its genuine limit.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Don’t over-think it. Just write to a trend.

Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. I was chatting to a senior editor at a Big Five publisher. ‘Roz,’ he said,  ‘we’re looking for another Girl On The Train. Just knock one off. The manuscripts we’re getting from agents are rubbish. We need you.’

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: I am totally going to do that.

Older, wiser Roz: Yes, you will. You’ll take a publisher’s informal hint and write a thriller that chases a trend. By the time it’s ready, the trend will be over. And anyway, I don’t read books like that.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But … bestsellers. Hot categories. Salivating now.

Older, wiser Roz: Yes, the cash doesn’t just rain out of the air if you write one manuscript. You need to feed readers regularly. You won’t just write one, you’ll write several. Even a book that is fast to draft has a lot of other time behind it – knowledge of the market, promotion activities, reading the innovators so your work is fresh enough. Have I mentioned that readers will spot if you don’t adore that genre to your very boot-soles? Writing like that is not a part-time job, it’s a dedicated role. It’s full on, full time. What bandwidth does that leave for crafting a nice book for the soul?

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But there are surprise breakouts. I’ll take a few rejections on my determined chin, and eventually we’ll be Rowling in £££s. I’ll whack a book on Kindle when it’s invented, learn some sales-fu and watch it rain dollars.

Older, wiser Roz: Oh just buy a ticket for the lottery.

Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Think of those Tube posters for the books we ghostwrote. Wouldn’t it be nice to see our real name there?

Older, wiser Roz: Yes, there was a time when I could dash off a genre book. I was new and eager and didn’t know what I wanted to write for myself. I’m happy to ghostwrite non-fiction, because that’s creative journalism. I like editing too; it’s the fun part of problem-solving, helping another writer with their vision. Being a supportive godmother instead of the flailing, gnashing parent.

In the professional world of publishing, there’s no such thing as writing a book for easy money. So I prefer to be careful how I spend my creative energy. Because there’s a lot I want to do.

(Psst… if you’re curious to know more, sign up for my newsletter.)

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  1. #1 by Viv on March 11, 2018 - 10:23 pm

    This.

  2. #3 by valeriavescina on March 11, 2018 - 10:27 pm

    Really enjoyed this, Roz. Many a truth, said with humour…

  3. #5 by davidarditti715978306 on March 11, 2018 - 11:44 pm

    Excellent. Very true and funny. Nearly all the same points could be made about creating music as well.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 12, 2018 - 8:27 am

      David – great to see you here! How interesting that music has many of the same pressures and caveats. I bet visual artists would say the same. The way that the arts are used in the commercial world has made for some strange assumptions.

  4. #7 by A.C. Flory (@ACFlory) on March 11, 2018 - 11:47 pm

    Yes. 🙂

  5. #9 by Garry Rodgers on March 12, 2018 - 12:19 am

    Great piece, Roz. Wise words from someone who’s been there!

  6. #11 by J. M. Galindo on March 12, 2018 - 1:23 am

    Honest and true

  7. #13 by Susan Sloate on March 12, 2018 - 1:54 am

    Totally get this. Especially loved the part about writing to trends. If I knew what those were, it would be a snap, right?

    No one wanted STAR WARS till STAR WARS came out. No one wanted HARRY POTTER till HARRY POTTER came out. NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THE NEXT TREND WILL BE. You have to slog away at what you love until it’s finished and out there. Then slog away to get it seen and read, and pray for a good outcome.

    That’s all you as a writer can ever do.

    • #14 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 12, 2018 - 8:32 am

      Hi Susan! Yes, that point about trends. Someone has to invent a trend – and that’s usually a brave and singular writer! Not someone who copied someone else!

  8. #15 by mrdisvan on March 12, 2018 - 8:12 am

    Very interesting. This is the “two cultures” of writing and the argument has gone on since at least 1891, when Gissing published New Grub Street.

    • #16 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 12, 2018 - 8:32 am

      Disvan, good to see you here. Ah, so many people tell me I should read New Grub Street….

  9. #17 by Don Massenzio on March 12, 2018 - 11:48 am

    Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this insightful post from the Nail Your Novel blog on the topic of writing a book for easy money: a myth examined

  10. #20 by Anna Dobritt on March 12, 2018 - 11:52 am

    Reblogged this on Anna Dobritt — Author.

  11. #22 by DRMarvello on March 12, 2018 - 1:43 pm

    Right on, Roz. Writing to market does not produce a great novel–not even accidentally. It’s all about the mindset of the writer, and setting out to be derivative or to “hit the tropes” isn’t the right mindset for creating original and astonishing work.

    However, commercial fiction isn’t about original and astonishing works. Judging by what sells in bucket-loads, readers want the comfort of tropes and met expectations. It’s literary candy that tickles the pleasure centers but doesn’t satisfy the soul. The appetite for more is never satisfied, and writing candy becomes a treadmill for the commercial writer. Some writers thrive in that environment. More power to them.

    The real tragedy is that I’m certain many excellent works are routinely relegated to obscurity because they don’t fit neatly into a genre mold or match some marketing department’s idea of what’s selling that day. C’est la vie.

    Every once in a while, something original and astonishing does find it’s way onto the market and achieve commercial glory. The writers who toil in obscurity point to these extreme rarities and scream with joy, “See? It can be done!” all the while ignoring the unlikely and convoluted path that made the anomaly possible (and the infinitesimal odds of reproducing that lightning strike). But for them, writing candy isn’t an option. Their creativity must nourish their own souls before it can nourish the souls of others. More power to them as well.

    “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”
    ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

    • #23 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on March 12, 2018 - 7:17 pm

      Oh you are so right, Daniel. I’ve heard so many times from publishers that they want 5% original and no more than that, otherwise they don’t know how to sell the book. Small presses might be different, though.

  12. #24 by William Grabowski on March 31, 2018 - 5:23 am

    I’m living it, Roz! I too was once a young wise-ass more than willing to write ANYTHING for the sacred green paper$ known as money. Theme song [to the tune of “Jingle Bells”]: “Me me me, me me me, me me all the way, HEY!…”

    In the words of Mike D. (Beastie Boyz): “Adulthood is overrated; maturity is underrated.”

    Insightful-as-hell post. Thanks, Roz!

  13. #26 by Icy Sedgwick on April 2, 2018 - 9:48 am

    I sometimes think filmmakers can get away with making something with less artistic integrity just to show the studios they can make money (*cough* Guillermo del Toro *cough*) but writing novels is such a gamble anyway!

    • #27 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on April 2, 2018 - 10:08 am

      Hi Icy! In filmmaking it’s an established pattern – one for me, one for them. In novels, it doesn’t seem to work that way unless you’re in deep cover under a pseudonym. In novels, if you start by writing ‘one for them’ and use your real name, you seem to get stuck that way.

    • #28 by sablabrune on April 6, 2018 - 8:24 am

      +++

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