Another blast from the past: This is a keynote address I gave in 2006 for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Denver, CO. I'd forgotten about this speech, but I think it's still got some good points for aspiring writers, so I'm posting it again!
First posted 2006:
I was privileged to give the keynote address at the annual Rocky
Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Denver, Colorado, this weekend.
My subject: Why write novels? For those who might be interested, a
transcript of my speech is below.
Keynote Address: Why Write Novels?
you may have heard, I recently made the change from teaching middle
school and writing adult murder mysteries to writing full-time,
primarily young adult fantasy. People often ask me why. I’d like to set
the rumors straight. It is not because once I was out of the middle
school classroom, I suddenly lost my desire to contemplate murder.
In fact, I enjoy teaching and writing for kids. But there’s one thing
I’ve learned doing elementary school visits over the last few years:
Assume nothing. On one of my first school visits to a second grade class
in San Antonio, I was talking with the kids about cover art for books. I
showed them a poster-sized version of the cover for The Lightning Thief
and told them that this is what the book would look like. The kids
gasped in amazement. One girl said, “Will it really be that big?” I
tried to explain that no, books weren’t really that large. Then every
child in the class pointed to a nearby easel, where they did have a book
as large as my poster. Like I said: Assume nothing.
so I’m going to use this keynote address to pose a simple question: Why
write novels? Here we are at a writers’ conference, learning to create
and hopefully publish books. But why? There is so much else to do, why
should we aspire to write books?
Well, Sherlock Holmes
once said that when you eliminated the impossible, whatever remains,
however improbable, must be the truth. So maybe we should start by
dispelling some misconceptions about writing books, thereby eliminating
the reasons we do not -- or should not -- aspire to writing.
So here, ladies and gentlemen, are Rick’s top five misconceptions about writing.
Writing is a responsible career choice. The question that surprised me
most after I published my first novel was, ‘What did you do before you
were published?’ The assumption: Now that I was a published writer, it
must be my full-time job. I was probably lounging by the pool all day
with a Martini and a laptop computer. Surely, writing had superseded my
old life. In truth, as we know, writing is very rarely a full-time job.
Depending on which survey you believe, the average salary of a
published writer is between $2000-7000 a year. Now these numbers are a
few years old, but still, even if we assume that this salary range has
doubled, it’s obvious that most writers will never quit their day jobs.
When I explained to people that I was still a full-time school teacher,
they would give me sympathetic looks. I tried explaining that I loved
teaching. I was not anxious to leave my calling. For some strange
reason, no one believed me. When I finally did become a full-time
writer, everyone was so impressed. Finally, I was a “real” writer.
Strangers would congratulate me. Many people wrote to ask my advice on
how they too could become a full-time writer. They would say, “I want to
change careers and become a writer. I’ve got this great idea for a book
. . .” I hated to admit that I couldn’t explain how I got to write
full-time, much less explain how they could do it. If they had an idea
for a book now, it would be five years minimum before they saw any money
from that idea. It took me ten years before I became a full-time
writer, and even then I didn’t plan it. So is writing a responsible
career choice? I’d have to say no. A possible career, yes. But this is
not a good reason to starting writing books.
2. I write
because it’s fun! Everyone should try it! The most oft-repeated
anecdote in the writer’s world: A writer is at a cocktail party, having a
conversation with another man. The writer says, ‘What do you for a
living?’ The other man says, ‘I’m a brain surgeon. How about you?’ The
writer says, ‘I write novels.’ ‘Fascinating!’ the surgeon says. ‘You
know, I’m thinking about writing a book when I retire.’ Writer: ‘What a
coincidence! When I retire, I’m thinking about taking up brain surgery!’
The point is two-fold: writing is not easy, but many people believe
that they have a story inside them. Wanting to be a writer is a common
dream, right up there with owning a restaurant and playing pro sports.
About five years ago NPR did a survey of people walking through a Barnes
& Noble bookstore in Washington D.C. The question they asked:
Do you think you have a novel inside you? 81% said yes. But what
separates the idea from the reality? A lot of insanity and a touch of
masochism. Writing isn’t digging ditches, I’ll grant you, but it is
extraordinarily hard work. We don’t write simply because we think it
sounds like fun. It isn’t true that anyone can do it.
Writing a book is the first step toward a TV/movie deal. Oh, if I had a
dime for every time someone asked me, ‘When is the movie coming out?’
Or even better: ‘Can I be in the movie?’ In our culture, books are very
small potatoes compared to movies. In fact, books are often seen as
minor preludes, stepping stones toward the ultimate expression of the
idea: the movie version. This is in spite of the fact that almost no one
walks out of a theater and exclaims: ‘Wow, that was so much better than
the book!’ Frank McCourt, in his most recent memoir, was talking about
all the attention he got for the movie of Angela’s Ashes. He said in
America, it’s all about the Movie. You could write the Manhattan phone
directory and everyone would ask, ‘So when’s the movie?’ Of course, this
obsession is not just limited to America. I get that question from all
over the world. Even my local pizza delivery guy is infatuated with the
idea. He showed up on my doorstep and asked if his wife could have a
part in my movie. I had to break it to him that I had as much control
over that as he did. The pizza guy came bearing food. He had a better
chance of getting onto the set. The infatuation is understandable, but I
hope we are not writing books simply as a prelude to the movies. If we
are, we will be disappointed. The number of books optioned for movies or
television is miniscule compared to the number of books published,
which is turn is miniscule compared to the number of manuscripts
submitted to publishers. Even if a book gets optioned for feature film, a
film agent recently estimated for me that the odds of the book actually
becoming a movie were about one in twenty. The average time? Anywhere
from two to fifty years. Narnia and Lord of the Rings took a generation.
The Golden Compass, an extremely popular children’s book, is just now
going into casting. The book is fifteen years old. Even Lemony Snicket
and Harry Potter took years of work. A few years ago, I was having lunch
with a friend who is a screenwriter in L.A. He’s produced and written
several TV shows you’ve probably heard of. His big goal, however, was to
publish a novel. I asked him why. He was doing very well for himself.
His work was known by millions. And yet what he really loved was the
idea of writing a book, knowing full-well it would probably be a midlist
title that received very little attention and made no money. He told me
it was about ownership. In Hollywood, everything is done by committee.
Nothing is really yours. A book is different. A book is yours. Anyone
who has ever had a book turned into a movie can probably tell you about
the pain of watching something you created twisted and turned into
something else by Hollywood. So I hope we are not writing for Hollywood.
4. We write to get famous. My favorite
question kids often ask: Have you met any famous writers? Kids are
great about keeping you in your place. But when they ask this, it does
make me realize that even writers I consider ‘famous’ are not known to
the general public. It takes huge publicity to get noticed by the nation
as a whole, not just the book-reading population, which is a tiny
fraction of the nation. What writers are recognized by the general
public? Can you name more than a dozen who are household names? Because
of this, people judge writers on the exceptions, rather than the rule.
We are all compared to J.K Rowling, which is sort of like judging
everyone in America based on George W. Bush. Writers, by and large, are
not famous. Publicists will tell you how difficult it is to get media
attention for a book, any book, unless there is some timely
controversial tie-in, or unless it was written by a celebrity. I got a
taste for how distorted the view of fame and writers was when I did an
interview last year with an Irish tabloid newspaper. I did a simple
interview about The Lightning Thief. When the tabloid article came out, I
was amazed to learn that I was a dying, bestselling American author
desperate to find Irish kin who could inherit my fortune. The tabloid
even provided a hotline number for their readers. They’d had to do some
serious image-enhancing to make me print-worthy, but there I was, right
next to an article about David Hasselhoff and an ad for naughty Korean
nurses. You see what you have to look forward to when you’re a famous
writer? So please, don’t write to get famous!
Finally, my favorite: We write because we have the time. A question I
got asked constantly when I was a teacher: ‘How do you possibly find the
time to write?’ I didn’t have a good answer. I simply found the time
because I had to. I would write in the early morning and again at night.
I wrote about three or four hours a day, maximum. When I quit teaching,
I had illusions that I’d get twice as much done. In fact, I still write
about three to four hours a day. That seems to be by maximum output. I
feel just as busy now as I ever have. People often tell me that they
hope to write some day, when they retire, when they’re not so busy. My
response? Don’t wait. That day will never come. We are always too busy
to write. No book has ever been written because the author had spare
time to write it.
So if all those are
misconceptions, why are we sitting here? If we cannot expect fame, or
money, or even a stable career, why do we write books?
write, I hope, because we have a story to tell. How easy it is to lose
sight of that, but the goal of writing is telling a good story. To be a
writer, it’s not enough simply to love the idea of writing, or to dream
of being published. You have to forget that. You have to find the story
you must tell – the story so important to you personally that you have
no choice but to write it. For me, I first got that feeling with Big Red
Tequila, a story about a detective who goes home to Texas from San
Francisco. It was a story born out of homesickness. I would have written
it for myself whether it got published or not. But it felt different
from anything else I’d ever done. I knew, deep down, that this story
would get published. Then, with the Percy Jackson series, I had that
sense again. I was writing a modern myth, an allegory to help my son
make sense of who he was. I would have written it whether it was
published or not. And it’s that very fact that made it publishable.
Find that story.
will help you in your journey? Read a lot. Write a lot. Do your
homework on the publishing industry and be professional. All of that is
important. But most of all, make sure you have something to say. And if
it’s any consolation, when that story is ready to come out, you’ll know
it. It will find you. At least, that’s the way it was for me.
conclusion, I’d like to turn that old anecdote about the cocktail party
around. One time at a party, there were these hundred writers and a
keynote speaker. The audience said, ‘We’re hoping to be writers
someday.’ And the keynote speaker said, ‘What a coincidence. Some day I
hope to be a reader . . . of your novels.’ Good luck, and keep writing!