David B. Coe, author of the Winds of the Foreland series, wrote an interesting piece for SF Novelists about the motivations of a writer and who they truly write for.

So my question is this: For whom do we write? And before you answer that you write for yourself, and that you’d write even if you knew you could never sell anything, think long and hard about whether that’s really true. It’s my knee-jerk response; it’s certainly the answer I want to give and want to believe. The truth is a bit more complicated. I write for myself because thus far I’ve been able to make something of a living at it. There are easier ways to make a buck (at least there were; they seem to be disappearing) and I would never deny that I have chosen this career path because I love it, and because I have to write to be happy. But again reality rears its ugly head: If I couldn’t sell books I’m not sure that I could afford to write them. Oh, I’d write in my spare time, but I used to be an academic; my wife still is. I have friends who are lawyers and doctors and business people. I’ve seen how hectic their lives are. Once they’re done with work and family, they don’t have a whole lot of spare time or energy for creating worlds and writing novels.

I write for me because I can afford to, because I’m fortunate enough to do for a living what I love to do anyway. But if I’m to be completely honest, I write for myself and also for a whole host of other people. I write for my agent, because she has to believe in my books to sell them. I write for my editor, because he has to contract the book before it can be published. I write for my readers, because their purchases of my current novel make the next contract possible. I’m pretty sure that my fellow professionals would join me in admitting that they don’t — can’t — write solely for themselves. And what about those of you who aren’t professionals? I’m sure that you take great pride in your creative accomplishments — as you should — and that you write to satisfy your passion for storytelling. But don’t you also write because you want to see your stories in print? I’m an amateur photographer, and I’m also a musician. I do these things “for myself.” Still, I was thrilled when I was able to display my photography in a gallery. I used to perform music in bars and restaurants and to this day I occasionally fantasize about doing so again.

I am a writer, which should come as no surprise. I expect almost every other blogger out there would consider call themselves writers and I also expect that many of my readers would consider themselves writers (or artists of another medium). I think it’s also safe to say that the vast majority of us are at a point where we practice our craft solely for ourselves, with little professional or monetary gain. I know I do.

As a blogger, I do this for free. I make no money off of it, in fact, it costs me money (in hosting fees, domain, etc…). I suppose one could consider the amount of free novels I get as a sort of reward for the work done, but in the end, A Dribble of Ink, like the majority of non-professional blogs, is a labour of love. The reward for me is to have a place where I can articulate my passion for Speculative Fiction and help spread that passion to other like-minded people.

Of course, like most writers, I have ambitions. I dream of the day when my Work-in-Progress (a contemporary Fantasy called Through Bended Grass) is a full fledged novel, lining the shelves of bookstores and climbing the charts on Amazon. Still, I know that I am just a drop in an ocean of aspiring writers, and my novel, no matter how good, will be one among many when it hits the slush piles. Does this discourage me from devoting endless hours to finishing it? Not at all. There’s always that burning desire to get the story out on paper, a feeling any artist can attest to, and the fun, the challenge and the reward is in the writing of it.

Coe touches on this honeymoon period, when aspiring writers can write for the sake of the craft and the pride they take in it:

What’s my point? Simply this: Nearly all of us who love art begin with that passion to create. We start by saying that we’re going to do it for ourselves, for the sheer pleasure of creating and celebrating that accomplishment. And we mean it. But I would argue that all art is inherently a performance. Painting, taking pictures, singing, acting, dancing, and yes, even writing — especially writing — it’s all done for an audience. When a child creates something that she thinks is beautiful her first thought is to show it to someone else — Mom, Dad, a teacher, a friend, a complete stranger if no one else is around. And I don’t think that impulse ever really goes away. Nor should it. Because art is inherently interactive. Art is about creation and appreciation, passion harnessed and passion evoked.

What’s most interesting to me is how the paradigm of being a writer shifts once it becomes a profession and how it’s not always so peachy keen as us wannabes think it is. A little Twitter conversation between Matt Staggs (Twitter: @deepeight) and Jay Lake (Twitter: @jay_lake) got me thinking about this:

‘Turns out I’m way too busy to run a D&D game. Part of going from fan to working pro, I guess. Sad in some ways.’

‘@deepeight Dude, writing has really interfered with my reading career’

‘@jay_lake Yeah, kind of sucks, huh? There are some good things about just being a fan.’

As a hobbyist/wannabe novelist, I’m perfectly happy to write with no other reward than the writing itself. It’s liberating and keeps my mind from gathering cobwebs. But is this what I have to look forward to, if Through Bended Grass does make it to store shelves? To join those downtrodden professional writers chained to their typewriters, forced to ignore all the great things that led to my original love affair with Speculative Fiction in the first place?

By Coe’s own admission, artists begin with a passion and curiousity for a medium, about what would happen if they applied their own touch to it. As soon as one becomes a professional, though, other factors enter the picture that determine the course of the artist and a modicum of freedom is stolen.

Tobias Buckell has been struggling with this, and recently wrote an article about how he is shelving his current Xenowealth series and trying shifting his focus to a new novel called Arctic Rising, in an attempt to broaden his audience.

Sadly, the sales have not been as strong as everyone around me wanted. Crystal Rain did somewhat okay in hardcover in libraries and online sales, but not as much on the book shelves (particularly at Borders). It did get Wal-Mart distribution in paperback, however, which was nice. Ragamuffin, sadly, suffered from very low orders (almost no presence in Borders in hardcover) and limped out there. Sly Mongoose was a nice rebound in the big picture, selling more copies than Ragamuffin but not quite as much as Crystal Rain: but mostly online. Sly Mongoose was hardly carried in actual bookstores, but has sold fairly briskly online. Last checked, I think over 60% of sales have been online with Sly.

It’s been a symptom of: bookstores order 100, sell 50, then order 50 the next time, and sell 25, and then for the third book order 12.

Sly Mongoose got incredible reviewer love, my agent and editor both are happy with everything I’ve done. About half or more of my income, despite the slowing bookstore orders, still comes from writing novels. So I’ve been pretty chipper. But as I finished the Halo book and looked back at restarting Duppy Conqueror, which I have somewhere between 10-20,000 words of, my editor and I sat down to chart out what we could do to get bookstores re-interested in me (particularly now that I had NY Bestseller next to my name with the Halo novel).

So my editor, agent and I, decided to reboot. We didn’t want to change my name (this is usually what authors do at this point to ‘fool’ the bookstores, often quite successfully), but send a signal with whatever I work on next that I’m doing something different, that is not associated with the Space Opera series to see if we can dream a bit bigger and go for the brass ring. I had two novels I owe Tor still, so why not?

This is a startling example of an author being forced to write not for himself (considering Buckell began work on another Xenowealth title, one can assume that that is where his interest as a writer lies), but rather for what he (his editor and his agent) feel his potential audience wants. Buckell seems to be at a crossroads where he’s having to to sacrifice a bit of that freedom (so liberating in the early days of a wannbe-writer), to be able to stay in the game. Is it fair? Probably not (especially considering Buckell’s Xenowealth books are terrific, and deserve to sell many more copies than they apparently have), but it’s part of the juggling act that authors not named J.K. Rowling, Stephen King or Dan Brown have to deal with.

Now, this is not to say that Buckell is sacrificing any of his integrity as a writer by selling out simply for a pay cheque. Quite the opposite, actually. Buckell needs to pay the bills, Buckell’s publisher needs to pay the bills and to do that they need to sell books. Buckell, his agent and Tor obviously see an opportunity to move Buckell’s career forward, which, in turn, will allow Buckell the freedom he needs to get back to to the Xenowealth books. It’s less about saving Buckell’s career as it is about opening more doors for Buckell and all of his works. If turning to Arctic Rising and Halo: The Cole Protocol allows Buckell to write Duppy Conqueror and further novels in the Xenowealth series, is that such a bad thing? Further, it’s not as though Buckell’s being forced to write a spiritual successor to Twilight to pay the bills, but rather he’s tackling projects that might have been lurking at the back of his mind. He might not be writing exactly what he wants to write at the moment, but it’s not like he’s working on something lacking in passion or curiousity, either.

Peter V. Brett, author of The Painted Man (REVIEW) is on the other side of the fence. He’s writing a sequel to his successful debut novel, but is inundated with the pressure that comes from having to move from hobbyist to full time writer, while satisfying a newfound legion of fans. He writes:

I woke up this morning knowing I was going to finish the book. I went to sleep at 3am last night, my eyes practically closing by themselves, knowing that I only had a little bit left to write, and that there would be no real obstacles left in doing so. Dani knew it, too, and packed up the baby to go to her parents’ house, so I could finish up in peace.

But then an interesting thing happened. I had an anxiety attack. A pretty bad one, as these things are measured. Usually these came when I was despairing that the book would never be finished, but I never imagined I would have one at the idea of writing “the end”.

Of course, it was the first time in my life I ever wrote the words “the end” knowing there was a paycheck on the other side of them.  Not to mention the crippling fear that people won’t like Desert Spear because I didn’t just re-use the proven-successful template of The Painted Man/The Warded Man.

When Kermit the Frog was nervous before his movie audition in The Muppet Movie, Dr. Teeth gave him a valuable piece of advice: “Ain’t nothin’ to it, but to do it,” he said.

Despite the fact that it came from a gold-toothed drug addict made of felt, I never forgot that advice, and I cling to it whenever fear or anxiety or nerves try to stop me from doing something. It’s gotten me through some difficult times.

So what does this mean for us wannabes? We all want to quit our day job and become full-time writers or painters or photographers or musicians, but is the grass really greener? One piece of advice I’ve heard constantly from professional writers, agents and editors alike is that writers looking to break into the industry should understand the industry – know what’s hot, what’s not. A good friend of mine, Shawn Speakman (of Suvudu) wrote a novel a few years ago. It was good (I read it), but when he shipped it around to various agents and publishing houses he constantly received replies that boiled down to, ‘It’s good, but we’re looking for Urban Fantasy. Do you have one of those, instead?’

Now, Speakman is just one writer looking for a publishing deal among many, but his story is a familiar one. Perhaps they were being polite (but let’s face it, when have agents and publishers really played nice with manuscripts in their slush pile?), but that repeated question of ‘Do you have an Urban Fantasy, instead?’ kept coming up and forced Speakman’s hand. Instead of continuing with his Epic Fantasy trilogy, he went back to the drawing board, pulled out a niggling idea from the back of his mind and started outlining an Urban Fantasy. A year or so later, The Dark Thorn is almost done and the game’s about to start again: querying agents and editors with a solid manuscript, but this time in a genre they asked him for.

Now, was Speakman writing exactly what his heart told him to write? No, not really, but is he more likely to end up as a published writer because of it? Sure, the response of the agents and editors he queried seems to indicate so. Whether Speakman’s book gets published or not, he was willing to take the plunge and committed to writing for someone other than himself. More accurately, though, I suppose I could say that he took the plunge and committed to writing for more than just himself: he was writing for an audience (agents, editors and the seemingly endless stream of Urban Fantasy fans), which, like Coe says, is the point, right?

In the end, as much as any artist works for themselves, I think there’s always a niggling sense of searching for approval in any artist. Kurt Vonnegut is the perfect example:

Vonnegut “has said…that a writer achieves unity in his works only by writing as if to one person – in his case to his dead sister” (5). It is after he begins to address his late sister that his work reaches a radical new level in depth and artfulness.


Vonnegut found a singular muse and that allowed him to free himself of the other constraints of being a writer. His sisters’ influence would go onto craft the rest of Vonnegut’s career as a writer (starting with The Sirens of Titan, published shortly after her death.) Vonnegut lived in a different time, and had a much higher level of success than any new author can ever dream of, and so was able to narrow down his audience to just one person. That may not be a reality for an author today, especially those looking to live off their writing.

Vonnegut’s message (to find a muse and to write to them, exclusively) and Coe’s message (that there are many different reasons to write) seem to be at odds. When one digs just under the surface, though, I think the real message is revealed. That message is simply to write for whatever it is that drives you to write – your child, who loves everything you write; a growing audience of fans; a burning desire to find out what happens; a way to keep your mind sharp; your sister; or yourself.

Simply put, writing itself is the reason and the rest is just an excuse.

  • […] For Whom Do We Write? — Aidan Moher with some fascinating reflections. […]

  • David B. Coe March 24, 2009 at 6:47 am

    Always cool to read your thoughts on these things, Aidan. Great synthesis of a lot of different thoughts on that “Why We Write” question. Glad to know my post caught your interest.



  • Shawn March 24, 2009 at 9:16 am

    I’m definitely on David’s side of the fence in this.

    There is a certain extremist righteousness that comes with, “I only write for myself. No one tells me what to write and no one will ever tell me what to write. I’m an artist, be damned!” I feel that kind of philosophy, while perhaps letting that type of person sleep at night, will damage any chance of them finding an audience and being successful.

    And to be clear, I actually don’t think those types of writers sleep very well when they are repeatedly rejected.

    Tobias is doing the right thing. He is an interesting case, actually. He wrote quality books, he was backed by a large publisher, he made himself available to his fans, and he had great cover art. On paper he almost (I didn’t care much for the fonts used on his covers) had the perfect storm, a rarity for most new writers. And yet he didn’t find a strong foothold.

    At least for the moment.

    Now, where my first book is concerned, I wrote it at the wrong time. But in all things and especially in publishing, everything is cyclical. Tobias’s time will come around again just as Fell Hammer’s time will come around again. Oddly though, the rejection of my first book sent me developing a story idea I already had — and it’s a far stronger book than my first. Perhaps that’s because I have one more book under my belt, perhaps it’s because the universe meant for me to write this book instead.

    For me, I write because it is peaceful for me to do so AND because I want to shake someone’s foundations. Like David, I want an audience. And I want to make that audience think.

    With posts like David’s and your follow-up Aidan, hopefully first time writers will be a bit more aware of the pitfalls facing them… especially these unseen ones!

  • Mark Charan Newton March 24, 2009 at 11:15 am

    I wrote a really long response to this, but then deleted it. The essence of the crap I was writing could be summed up as: Dude, whatever makes you, the individual, happy. Write for whatever or whoever you want, whatever gets you doing it to the best of your ability. But try to enjoy it, if that means writing for yourself or an audience. There are no rules.

    As for the commercial aspects: yeah of course, publishing is a business, so you have to treat it like one. A lot of people forget that. Which doesn’t mean you have to be a sell-out, or write stuff you hate, just an awareness of what’s going on around you, like you say. Publishers aren’t looking for something that sold well thirty years ago. A bit of awareness saves you a lot of heartache and months of effort, is all.

    As for fanboy turn writer – what a problem to have.No matter where you look, the grass can always be greener. Fuck it, for me it’s a dream come true, and it’s still another couple of months before my book hits the shelves. Sure there are problems, and there aren’t enough hours in the day, but I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.

  • Shawn March 24, 2009 at 6:09 pm

    Ahh, but the crux of the problem with doing what makes you happy is once a writing project is done and the writer tries to get that book published and is roundly rejected due to current publishing industry trends, is that writer not going to be upset? Bye, bye happiness. :)

    But where you went, Mark, I think there is a middle ground and that is the area where magic happens. And that middle ground can only be found through knowledge of the industry, how it works, and how a writer can improve their chances. A writer can write what the industry is looking for and still maintain integrity by being wise about what projects they choose.

    I think most true writers have more than just one idea. If they are anything like me, they are inundated by them, each catering to different sub-genres. I guarantee Tobias had Arctic Rising in the back of his mind for quite a while and now he will write it with the knowledge that there might be an “out of the gate” readership for it. He probably picked the story he thought would work and still keep him happy.

    That’s why I advocate new writers learn all they can. They should work in a bookstore for six months. They should read PW and see who is buying and more importantly WHAT they are buying. They should spend hours and hours combing the internet(s) to increase that knowledge. Because it is the only thing that will aid them when they start out — without an agent, editor or publisher guiding them.

  • Shawn March 24, 2009 at 6:10 pm

    Wow, Aidan, go get Larry! Personally I can’t stand Harrison. Pompous ass who won’t ever get my money.

  • tobias s. buckell March 24, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    “I guarantee Tobias had Arctic Rising in the back of his mind for quite a while and now he will write it with the knowledge that there might be an “out of the gate” readership for it. He probably picked the story he thought would work and still keep him happy.”

    I’ve had the rough sketches for it mind for 3 years, yeah, which is why I started writing short stories set in the milieu over the last year.

    Another thing writers who’re not in the middle of a series might not fully appreciate is that a series is its own set of constraints and walls that you have to work around. Writing something new is sometimes a freeing thing of its own accord (writing the Halo book was actually a nice novelistic change of pace, so far, so is Arctic Rising)…

  • Mark Charan Newton March 25, 2009 at 4:57 am

    Ah, (zen master voice) but what’s making you happy – the writing, or the thought of ‘being a writer’? Is it the fame and attention that we think will make us happy instead…?

    But yes, I certainly agree on the later parts to that.

    Apart from attacking M John Harrison! His influence on the industry has been subtle yet massive.

  • Peter V Brett :: Peephole In My Skull March 25, 2009 at 5:56 am

    […] Moher from A Dribble of Ink quoted from my recent post about The Desert Spear in his article about Why Writers Write. It’s an interesting […]

  • Shawn March 25, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Glad to know I was right, Tobias! When should we expect the completion of RISING?

    And Mark, I have to honestly say that in their heart of hearts, all writers want to write and be read. No one does it just for the enjoyment of writing. Those who tell that to you are either lying to you or lying to themselves. haha

    No, it’s somewhere in the middle, both being needed for true zen happiness. If the rejections start coming in, what happens to that zen feeling of being one with the universe? It collapses like a rotten corpse.

    Or maybe a collapsing star would be more apt?


    About Harrison, basically from the six or seven posts I’ve read from him, I can’t stand his arrogance. It conflicts with my own. Often writers whose achievements are focused solely on winning awards no one cares about makes for a lousy writer, shut away in a world of their own making. These writers forget the other side of the coin: There are far more people who read books for enjoyment and entertainment rather than literary significance. Harrison decries those books, those readers, and slams them every chance he gets, from what I can tell. Is it envy? Jealousy? Or does he truly feel this way? I don’t know. All I know is I take exception to a man whose readership is tiny and who points a crooked elderly finger at people who love a certain brand of fiction. It’s pompous and it conflicts with my redneck roots.

    And like Neal Stephenson, I won’t read him. Ever. I don’t give money to people I don’t respect.

  • Mark Charan Newton March 25, 2009 at 1:15 pm

    Hey, I’m all about the attention! :) But I wouldn’t say fame should be a motivation – and I think (maybe I’m wrong, Aidan!) but isn’t that the crux of the debate? So doing whatever you do because you love doing it is important. Because some people out there might never get published. I know I’m not going to record my cutting edge indie album anytime soon, but it doesn’t stop me from tinkering on the guitar now and then.

    As for MJH – he’s said many things to support genre fiction over the years too, but that rarely gets reported. His efforts with New Wave SF (before my time) contributed to helping change the genre, things we take for granted now, things we’ll never quite appreciate.

    But I get the feeling he loves putting stuff out here for everyone to debate and tear apart, and maybe that’s what’s the important thing, that he’s making writers and readers question what they do and challenge themselves a little. Which is great, right?

  • Mark Charan Newton March 25, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    Oh, and: “All I know is I take exception to a man whose readership is tiny and who points a crooked elderly finger at people who love a certain brand of fiction. It’s pompous and it conflicts with my redneck roots.”

    Actually, I think his readership is pretty big, just not all that vocal online. According to his interview (http://www.orionbooks.co.uk/QandA.aspx?id=5111&catID=3) he has very humble roots, and is somewhat the autodidact.

  • Larry March 25, 2009 at 5:29 pm


    “Get Larry?” What? There’s no “getting” in a debate, only in a fight. As far as I know, there’s been no fight.

    As for your comments on MJH, it’s a bit…odd, to say the least. Don’t know what books you like to read, but many writers, new and old alike, from Mark here to China Miéville to Jeff VanderMeer to Steph Swaintston to quite a few others of the New Wave and New Weird groups have cited Harrison as being a major influence. Just because his readership rarely interacts with readers whose literary experiences/tastes are similar to your own doesn’t mean he hasn’t had a major influence on SF/F.

    There are authors whose personal opinions I don’t much care for, like Dan Simmons on occasion. Yet the man can write and tell intriguing stories. But what if I had read his blog and judged his talents/character based solely on that? Would I have been doing the man any justice? Your choice on what you read, but I’d be careful about making sweeping generalizations about writers you haven’t read.

  • Gabriele Campbell March 26, 2009 at 2:33 am

    I agree with Shawn about wanting to be read. And traditional publishing is still the best way to achieve that.

    But while professional authors (for whom writing is the main income) need to find a way to make interests and the market meet, for those – like me – who don’t plan to quit the day job any time soon, there are other venues to find some readers.

    I know that sounds a bit shocking in the SF genres, but in Historical Fiction, self publishing is less frowned upon, the books get reviews and the overall quality is not bad (I’ve read some that were pretty good, and not all traditionally published books are stellar, either). Chances to get a book about an obscure 7th century AngloSaxon king mentioned twice in Bede taken up ARE slim, and those of my online acquaintances who went that way made sure the books have been edited.

    Where I differ from them is that I will at least TRY the traditional route first. But should the overall reaction be: change the Roman Empire into the Tudors, make the MC female and add a Romance, I’d take a closer look at Lulu.com. ;)

    The Fantasy NiP is a bit different because it would suffer from the – often rightfully – bad press self published books get. In case I can’t find a home for that, I might serialise on my blog or something. Because I do want it to be read; it’s a more important aspect than the money for me.

    Sure, if I liked to write Urban Fantasy or Romance, I’d do that and put the epic Fantasy and the Epic Historical Fiction with male MCs and more battles than love on the backburner. But I don’t like to write those (I rarely read them) so I’ll have to stick to what I love and make the best of it.

    Who knows, in a few years vampires may be dead for good :) and there will be interest in something that can best be described as Lord of the Rings meets Song of Ice and Fire, with a bit Icelandic sagas thrown in.

  • tobias s. buckell March 26, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    “Glad to know I was right, Tobias! When should we expect the completion of RISING?”

    No idea. So many variables (impending twins, my health/energy levels). Tor is hoping for 2010 sometime, I imagine for it to work out best I need to be done Sep. or Oct/ish…

  • Why We Write « Mechanical Hamster March 31, 2009 at 7:26 am

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