Imagine an artist who paints as a hobby. Every now and again – weekends, or holidays, perhaps – he’ll head off with his watercolours and find a spot and paint. He might sell some paintings; others he might give away as presents. He doesn’t feel like a failure. And no-one thinks of him as a failure.
Writing isn’t quite like that. It’s a creative art form, but there are a few key differences between it and other creative art forms that can make pursuing writing as a hobby somewhat challenging.1
DIFFERENCE ONE: THE CONSUMER CONSUMING
It takes only seconds to glance at a painting; only minutes at most to hang it on your wall. Different people might like different types of art, but generally a nice piece of art is a nice piece of art, especially if it’s an original to which you have a personal connection. You’re happy to put it up somewhere and look at it occasionally when you walk by.
A novel isn’t like that. If a friend gives you a copy of their novel to read, it’s often not a gift but an obligation, and not a blessing, but a curse. It takes several hours or more to read a novel. You have to concentrate. And if that novel hasn’t seized your imagination it’s going to feel like work, and unpleasant work at that.
DIFFERENCE TWO: THE CREATOR CREATING
An amateur writing novels as a hobby might only be able to manage one decent, edited book every two years; unless an artist is painting huge canvasses I’d hope they’d be able to produce paintings at a better rate than that, even as a hobby on top of a day job.
DIFFERENCE THREE: THE PUBLICATION MODELS
While art does have the concept of prints, limited edition or otherwise, the tradition is in originals. You paint a painting and then you sell it to someone. Sure, there might be a bloke out there who sells his paintings though Sotheby’s for £1 million, while you sell yours through a local gallery for £30, but you and he are doing the same thing – it’s just a difference of scale.
In novels (in all fiction come to that), it’s always worked in a very different manner (except for this guy, and what he was doing was so different from the norm that he became the subject of a series of piss-taking Internet memes and received a torrent of hate and abuse)2.
With text, it’s the content that’s the art, not the vessel within which it resides, and a piece’s worth is measured not by how much one person wishes to own the original, but by how many people value the work enough to wish to spend their time consuming a copy of it.
This is a point I think that many people miss when they talk about giving their fiction away for free, or for very small amounts of money. It’s not money that’s ultimately the barrier to someone reading your work: it’s the time and effort it will take for people to read it (i.e. difference #1 above).
A novel self-published at £0.99 a copy that sells only five copies isn’t a failure because only five people bought it; it’s a failure because only five people wanted to read it.3
This also changes how other’s opinions affect the creators view of the work. If you paint a painting and one of your friends likes it, and all your other friends hate it, then great – you give it to the friend who liked it. Only one person needs to like a painting – the person who ends up with it on their wall.
But it’s not enough for one single person to like a work of fiction. When you show your novel to a friend you’re not simply hoping for them to say they like it; you’re hoping that they will say that they think many other people will like it too.
WHAT THIS MEANS
What it means is that painting (or sculpting, or freeze drying dog turds you found on the street and arranged into stick figures, or whatever the hell it is that floats your visual artistic boat) works better as a hobby than writing does. A hobbyist artist can spend some enjoyable free time painting paintings and then get the satisfaction of seeing other people enjoy viewing those paintings, and perhaps even displaying them in their homes.
By contrast, a hobbyist writer typically spends their time writing stories that might never get read, or if they do get read (by friends and family, as beta readers, perhaps) will be done in circumstances that amount to the reader doing the writer a favour. Its not “Here’s a copy of a novel I wrote for you as a present for your birthday.” It’s: “Could you do me a favour by reading my novel and telling me what you think?”
When judged by contemporary expectations and standards, the default is to judge amateur/hobbyist artists as successful but judge amateur/hobbyist writers as failures. The former is an artist whose works are found in various homes; the latter is an unpublished writer, who is yet to have a work published. Friends and family don’t generally ask to read your novel; they instead ask how your writing is going, which often amounts to asking if you’ve found a publisher or an agent yet.4
Imagine an artist spending evenings and weekends painting paintings that no-one ever sees, all part of some big series of paintings. Each month they finish a painting and put it in a stack with the other paintings. Then after two years maybe, they take the paintings round various galleries, but each gallery owner simply shakes his or her head, sadly, and tells them that it’s not what the market is looking for. So they put the paintings in the attic and start painting more paintings, more paintings that are probably destined to never be viewed. That’s not how it works with art.
But it is how it often works with writing.
An obvious point some might raise at this point is the possibility of self-publishing. But I think that’s a non sequitur. Self-publishing doesn’t eliminate any of the three differences I outlined above; it just shifts the responsibility of surmounting them onto you.
IS THAT IT? I’M INTO WRITING. SHOULD I TOP MYSELF NOW?
Well firstly, no, you shouldn’t top yourself now. I think what it really means is that when it comes to writing you have two choices: you can treat writing a career you’d like to aspire to (albeit, a part-time career you will do in addition to your day job); or you can treat it as a hobby. And then plan how you’re going to go about it accordingly.
In my case, for now, for the moment – given that I’m at a particularly busy period in my life – I’ve decided to treat it as a hobby4. So I’m now writing Selene, an episodic SF/urban fantasy/alternate history story set on the Moon (explanatory blog post, actual story), and publishing it as I write it, in instalments, on Wattpad. Wattpad is sort of a publishing platform combined with a social media platform. It allows people to follow you, both via the website, or via an app on their phones, and then get an alert each time you publish a new instalment.
If you just want to write for fun, for your friends, as though you were spinning anecdotes by the fire, then I’d recommend checking Wattpad out. (But in true BBC fashion, I’m sure that other social media styled, authoring platforms are available). But of course, as they say on the Net, YMMV (Your Milage May Vary)6.
1This entire blog post is the result of a conversation with my friend Warren, in which he pointed out the differences between writing and other art forms. So the credit for the actual idea should go to him.
2I think his story really illustrates the difference between written and visual art forms. Every city centre tourist spot in the world has street artists offering to do a one-off, custom sketch for a moderate fee. No-one bats an eyelid at that. Make the same offer, but for a written piece, and you’re treated an eccentric curiosity at best, and a freak to be hated at worst.
3I am making a value judgement here that a story that no-one reads counts as a failure. Some might argue that they write purely for pleasure, and get that pleasure even from a story that no-one other than they will ever read. If so, that’s great. But I think most writers get their pleasure from storytelling, and it is rather hard to tell a story if there’s no-one to tell it to. No-one ever told stories around a campfire at which they were the only person sat.
4I should stress that it’s lovely that people take an interest. But one of my intentions in writing this post is to explain to non-writers how writing can feel from the other side, which is why I’m pointing out this difference.
5That I’m treating writing as a hobby doesn’t mean that I don’t think I’m any good, or that I don’t care about what I write. Several years ago I had a novel published (it’s wasn’t technically self-published, but it was down to me to sell/market it) which has now sold around two thousand copies in paperback and a few hundred in ebook, got a load of good reviews, and got nominated for an ENnie award. So I’d like to think I can write a bit.
6i.e. What works for me might not work for you.