I was struck by two conflicting pieces of advice yesterday about writing. One was on that pit of risks, the internet. The other was, in all places, the middle of a university seminar. It wasn’t even an English Literature class.
Firstly, the internet. I am sure I was not the only one to come across (in my opinion) the rather delightful piece of news that J. K. Rowling is writing a book for adults. It will be intriguing to see how she branches out away from children’s literature territory. Purely from a writer’s point of view, I am terrifically excited for her. But what about her readers? Well, you might imagine a typical reaction. ‘Don’t do it!’ scream the sceptics. ‘Good for you!’ shrieks her adoring fan-base. But I was actually encouraged to see a lot of support for this idea following the news article, judging by readers’ comments. I’m never one to query the Goddess Rowling and I shall be one of the majority eagerly anticipating a new project from her, both as a writer and a reader. Good on her for exploring new ideas. There were a few commentators who argued that she will never surpass Harry Potter, and they may for ever more compare sales, not to mention ideas, to the schoolboy wizard’s success. But does she have to surpass? Can’t she write for herself? Authors don’t wish to be typecast, the same as actors don’t wish for it. Michelle Paver wrote five books for adults before beginning her children’s series. When starting out, I wrote two historical novels and then experimented with fantasy. Dabbling around with projects help you to decide the kind of writing you enjoy. On one flip-side of the coin, the writer writes for themselves, their need to pick up the pen and see ideas flowing.
On the other side of the coin, authors may enjoy sticking to one style, and there is not a thing wrong with that. Carole Matthews is well-known for her romantic comedies and has found a niche. Philippa Gregory writes historical fiction. Ian McEwan relishes unfortunate events occurring at a certain time and place. Jodi Picoult continually writes such stories that, if they were true, would find themselves in the “Sad Lives” section of the bookshop. In fact, I often find myself buying books purely on the back of the authors’ names. I’m waiting for Michelle Paver’s next set of children’s stories, Ian McEwan’s next novel, and for Yann Martel’s next project, whatever that may be. (However, a word of caution here. Nothing can live up to the spectacular Life of Pi. I picked up Beatrice and Virgil purely because Martel had written it and when I’d finished, wanted to chuck it straight under the path of the nearest passing bus. Perhaps, then, it isn’t always wise to go for a book because a certain person has written it. A university friend has sworn never to buy another Jodi Picoult because she was so let down by one of the novels. And this is where it starts to feel personal and a connection forged. We like to pretend there isn’t, but there really is.)
On to the second piece of advice. ‘Don’t ever stray!’ barked a lecturer in one of my university classes. ‘You are writing for your readers, not for you!’ I nearly fell off my chair. That had contradicted everything I had ever learned to feel about the writing process. Fine, the end process comes up all nicely air-brushed, edited, formatted and scrubbed to high heaven, all for the benefit of making your readers happy. But the starting process isn’t for the readers. Nobody ever became an author because they didn’t want to. Forcing someone to write a certain style when they don’t enjoy it is like … well, I don’t wish to insult you all with a cheap cliché. But was the lecturer right in a certain way? Do readers want their authors to stick to a specific subject matter? Well, of course some do. Ask any author who have successfully made a living out of it how their readers have reacted to them. I personally think the ‘Don’t ever stray” spin was going a bit too far, however …
So what to do? I am in the fortunate position of being able to choose which option I take. Having just finished one major project, I might stick with fantasy. Equally, I might want to try a new style, perhaps a book for adults, a book for younger children, a romantic comedy or a mystery. I am exceedingly lucky and may find my own niche along the way. It might even be the readers who decide it for me. I have always said it was the readers who make it happen and I trust them to choose whether they like a certain book or not. In this case, I am indeed writing for my readers, and the lecturer was correct. But in all cases, to really feel a book, I am writing for me, and only me. I can tell the world about it, yet it was my idea and my creation to nurture. That is the true joy of being a writer.