"Why don't you write a book?" This is a question I hear often, most often from my wife. It's on my mind because tonight we are headed to her company's holiday party and I'd bet a large amount of money someone will ask me that question tonight. So, I've been thinking about what my answer will be. And that answer is, "It's too hard."
Huh? I've got a degree in English. I attended the Radcliffe Publishing Course at Hahvahd (it's now the Columbia Publishing Course). I've worked in-house or freelance for nearly every major publishing house in New York. I've edited dozens of fiction and nonfiction books as an editor and author coach and I've represented dozens more as a literary agent. And I think writing a book is "too hard?" Well, yes, I do.
If you have ever taken a seat at a typewriter, computer, or just with pad and pen and started to write a book, you probably know what I mean. The comic strip "Shoe" once had a great strip about the writing process that boiled down to "staring at a sheet of paper until beads of blood appear on your forehead."
Recently, Amazon and Walmart and a few other outlets have been involved in price wars, knocking the price of new hardcovers down to less than ten dollars, and the cost of eBooks to $9.99. Publishers are worried not just about the potential effects on their profits, but also upon consumers' opinions of the value of books. Because most consumers seem to think that all these authors do is sit down and hammer at the keyboard and out comes a book. This is far from the truth. Writing is hard, dammit. And if you find it easy, you probably aren't a very good writer.
A friend who should know told me that before he wrote the Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown read Al Zuckerman's book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Reportedly, he then followed it to the letter in crafting his mega-blockbuster. Add in all the research he must have done and you start to see how much work was involved.
Most readers seem to appreciate research, but don't understand exactly what might encompass "research." For example, if you are writing a work of military fiction, you'd better know your weapons and tactics. If you are going to write a Victorian romance, you'd better know your history of the period, not to mention the dress, manners, colloquialisms, politics, breeds of horses ridden, types of carriages used, and a hundred different ways to communicate sexual excitement without using the word sex.
Even if you are going to write science fiction or fantasy, you still need to do your research. For SF, the key word is science, which you'd better get right if you want to be taken seriously by editors and agents. And if you are inventing technology that hasn't yet been invented, you'd best be able to make it all sound plausible, which you can really only do by researching the field in which the technology might exist and then extrapolating from what is to what might be.
In fantasy, you might think anything goes, but this is simply not true. Just like in Quidditch, every fantasy has rules and in some fantasies those rules are complex and elaborate and if you think creating rules like that and then writing your book so that you follow them is easy, then I'd bet you were very good with a Rubic's Cube.
So, do I think about writing a book? Sure. But when you consider the amount of time that must be spent just pounding the keys, plus the time researching, plus the time pitching publishers, plus the odds that any book will sell and become a success, then you start to see why I might think I'm better off reading books by prospective clients to find ones that I think I can sell. In the end, my job as an agent if far, far easier than that of a writer.