Why I don't want to write a bestseller
Updated: Jul 20, 2019
When was the last time someone asked you what you want to achieve as a writer?
I don’t mean when was the last time someone told you how to achieve something as a writer – that’s different. When did you last get asked, “You’re talented and smart, that’s an interesting idea, so what are you hoping will come out of your storytelling, and how can we work together to get there?”
There are plenty of people who’ll tell you what you want, and lots of books and YouTube videos and how-to guides that assume what you want. Almost without exception, your goal as a storyteller is taken to be basically one of two things: life-changing commercial success or life-changing literary prize-winning. I’ve just taken a look at Twitter, and within the first five tweets there’s a flyer for a session with a literary agent about “what makes a bestseller”.
Here’s my confession: I don’t want to write a bestseller. I don’t want to write a prize-winning opus either.
Let me explain.
Late last winter, I was on a late flight somewhere above the English Midlands. We had already been delayed taking off by a storm coming in from the Atlantic, and now we were pitching and rolling in the midnight sky.
There was no moon, and clouds covered the ground. I was grateful. I didn’t want to see the horizon gybing and yawing around us. The captain told us he was going to bring us in to London, and the shuddering got worse. The seats rattled and the plane lurched.
My body fell through the air and that sensation told me I was going to die. On that flight, in the storm, I knew could not do anything to change that. There was no help on its way, no option to run. I could only accept my fate.
I shut my eyes. I put my earphones in my ears. I pressed play. I asked the Shahnameh to carry me over the line.
I fell through the storm towards the ground, eyes shut, heart thudding, gasping stale air, clutching my armrest, and a stranger’s voice told me the story of Bijan and Manijeh. A love story, and a survival story. A love that stared down death. I reached out towards the thread of the story and held on. I wrapped it round my fingers like a rosary.
Even though I was literally praying for my life, I also knew in that way anxiety attacks work that I would survive. But I wondered how many times people in far more danger had told exactly that story. I imagined ships on black, limitless seas. Nights under siege and nights before battles. The first night on a road away from a ruin that had once been home. Two thousand years ago, a hundred years ago, last week. That story, this story, was the thing they reached for, the thing they asked for, when they knew they had no more moves to play. When their own story frayed and unravelled.
Tell me something truer than reality. Say something to me that is bigger than my fear. Say something that will outlast this moment and all the other moments. Invoke the power that connects this life to all the other lives that will ever be lived, and in that telling we will make something that will outlive our death.
Tell me a story.
That said, I didn’t used to be like this. A storyphile, of course, but not a fearful or self-doubting one. That’s a recent thing.
No, in fact I used to be someone pretty intrepid. Nor is this my first time at the rodeo, publishing-wise.
When I was a student, through a series of beneficial accidents like a silent movie comedian falling up a flight of stairs, I landed a paid gig at one of the UK’s most prestigious features desks. I’d won other awards for my writing, despite not actually having done all that much writing. But for about three years in the early Noughties, if I tossed my hat in the ring as a writer I came out on top. I had no idea why, or what I’d done right, or what anyone else had done less right. And now there I was in the editorial meeting pitching ideas alongside household names.
It was one of the worst experiences of my life.
It wasn’t that I was thick or incompetent. It was just that I didn’t get it. I didn’t even seem to understand what it was, because when I picked up the supplement to see what everyone was gushing about today I didn’t like the piece. After yet another tumbleweed editorial meeting where everyone politely ignored my suggestions like they were unowned farts, the desk editor asked to see me in his office.
He stared at me for a while, and then this lanky middle aged man announced: ‘You don’t excite me.’
I don’t just assume the compliments are for someone else. I generally assume no-one is talking about me ever. But there was only me and him in the room.
‘The last girl I hired,’ he went on, ‘I was so excited by her. I just wanted to tie her to a chair and never let her leave my office.’
I’m not honestly sure what I said to that, because what is there to say? I probably apologised.
In fact I’d begun to come to the same conclusion: that I must be talented, because why else would all these people give me the nod and these opportunities, but that I was letting myself down by being uncool. Unexciting.
So I spent the next five years trying to get the X factor, trying to figure out what made other people cool and fascinating and zeitgeisty and me just a goof and a dork. I studied how other people spoke, how other people held themselves. I tried figuring out what my rivals were reading, listening to or watching, because it sure as hell wasn’t what I was doing with my time. My brain worked differently, and my brain apparently worked wrong. I was letting myself down, and I needed to change or miss my moment. I’d go to my grave as a waste of talent, a waste of space.
Needless to say, this did not end well. I lurched from pitch to pitch, career high to career low, desperately seeking a way out of myself, essentially. The constant effort of trying to guess what I would be like if I wasn’t as sad and pathetic as I am and then turning it into a slam dunk, breakthrough hit of a piece of writing was exhausting.
That was how I engaged with everything, really. When I watched a film, when I read a book or an article or listened to the radio or went to a play or even if I was just out for a drink with my friends, I was constantly analysing it with a view to getting an article out of it. Is this cool? Is this edgy? Is this what normal people want to read about? Would a normal person enjoy this? I stopped enjoying any of it.
Life is too short to fuck about, and it’s too hard already to expend valuable energy on trying to escape your own mind. It’s like walking around in shoes half a size too small: possible, but destructive to your mental and physical health. Trying to be someone you’re not and pegging your worth and self-esteem on other people’s approval of that performance is literally soul-destroying. It eats your soul.
It got to the point where I didn’t want to write. Not just write for that editor. I didn’t want to write at all. Which for me is like not wanting to eat or breathe ever again. To say I was heartbroken doesn’t even cover it. A shift to the camaraderie of broadcast journalism did help, but the job insecurity was too much. A sideways move into thinktanking proved to be almost as inauthentic, but it taught me that I loved taking my time over the things that fascinated me.
And that was how I came to hang up my pen for good. Or so I thought.
I’m going to disappoint you and say that that editor was not exactly wrong. I don’t have it. I don’t understand why a lot of stuff other people love is good, and I don’t understand why what I love is weird and dorky. I don’t have my finger on that pulse.
And actually, that time trying to make it in a particular kind of London journalism taught me a lot about what it takes to succeed, and about what it takes to consistently knock that kind of writing out. But more than anything else it brought home to me that writing is an art but publishing is a business. The guy had deadlines to meet and units to shift, and if we didn’t shift enough we all got fired. The first thing you learn as a cub reporter is that you aren’t entitled to anyone’s time or attention, and the bar is set very high for catching anyone’s eye.
It’s true that this doesn’t always make for fairness in publishing of any kind, and as margins shrink and the industry consolidates into a few massive corporations it only gets worse. It’s harder to shift some stuff than others if it’s rule-breaking or challenging. It’s harder to shift some people’s stuff than others. Structural injustice is a thing in books and newspapers just like in the rest of life. It may be true that your work is outstanding but it’s being passed over because of these reasons, and you’d be right to be angry at that.
For indeed good books, good stories, good writers get ignored and passed over all the time, and if you’re to get anywhere you need to find that belief in your work inside yourself. To take the incessant rejection you need to believe that you are a good writer, this is a good story, and this is a good book despite what you’re hearing right now. The reason it’s not being picked up is timing, or snobbery, or prejudice, or nepotism, or, or, or…
It's a comforting narrative, but logically this marginalisation doesn’t apply to most of us most of the time.
Instead it is possible for both things to be true: that your work is good but that it is also not of interest to enough people to make it worth a commercial release.
I am not down with the embattled, embittered defiance some indie authors seem to have towards traditional publishing, even if I think it is a broken system. There’s nothing wrong with being popular or getting paid, and there’s nothing inherently unjust about your passion project not delivering that. These aren’t illegitimate aims to have, and it’s not “selling out” to decide that that matters enough to bend your craft and your talents towards it. Nor is it inauthentic to write for others rather than yourself first and foremost. In fact, I think good writing is always about opening up dialogue between you and someone else.
I want to make it clear that it does not automatically follow that those who do land contracts and awards are being inauthentic or depressing for them. But in the end it wasn’t the relationship I wanted to have with stories or words, and it felt inauthentic and depressing for me, because who I am and what I enjoy was too far away from what was commercially popular.
I stepped away from writing because I didn’t know how to get the X factor without losing myself or the love I felt for writing. And at that point – not me anymore, flogging away at the thing I loved the most – what was the point? I was better off out of it. I moved to Scotland and became a research academic, I got married. And for a time I was content. I didn’t read or write, but I was safe.
In the year before I took that terrifying stormy flight with Bijan and Manijeh, I lost my marriage, my home and my job. I had tried very hard to preserve all three of those things in the previous few years, and the stress of trying to prevent it all was possibly worse than the losses themselves.
I had lost my dreams of being a writer when I was younger, and now I was losing the compensatory security I had built instead. I finally understood that “falling to pieces” is not a cliché, regardless of what they tell you in journalism college.
Maybe the most alarming thing about it all was the way I started trying to cope: compulsive creative writing.
I had no idea what to do except tell stories. Nothing else made sense anymore. Neither did the stories to be honest, but a deeply buried instinct kicked in. I knew how to trust in them and feel my way through them in a way I didn’t know how to feel my way through divorce and unemployment, and through all the political collapse around me. There was nothing to be done anymore except tell and retell them, to speak the name of my fears, loves and nightmares aloud somehow. I needed stories to replace the broken narrative of my life. Everything else was ruined and destroyed.
When everything else is gone, it turns out, stories are the thing that remains.
Human beings can be so different and to pretend otherwise is an injustice to them. Their stories can be so different, too, and how they are told. But not the simple fact of stories. That need, to sit together in the dark and to share stories, is unalterable. I think that the moral dilemmas people face, as opposed to the substantive, grounded choices they make, are the universals. Those are the things that cause us to rewrite ancient stories in new languages. Those are the things that reach out to us across unimaginable distances and tug at our consciences.
Love, revenge, loyalty, dishonour, envy and ambition… I think we have an instinct that these are the real things we pass on, the things that will survive us. They are what make us human.
So when you feel yourself falling through the world, unmoored from all the other stuff that tells you who you are and that you’re doing OK, you reach out for stories like your life depends upon them. Because in a way it does.
I wrote two novels in the last four years. They were both really, really odd genre-wise, and I own that completely. I submitted both of them to agents and publishers, the first more out of curiosity (it didn’t get much response) and the second because I had realised this urge to write was not going to go away again and that I needed to do something with it.
I’m retreading old and painful ground by putting my words out there. I think some of what I’m doing by pursuing this is trying to heal the various bits of me that have been in pain, that caused me to back off from what I love or make choices that weren’t good for me.
The latest book got some wonderful feedback, but unfortunately it felt familiar in a bad way. Several people said they personally really enjoyed it but didn’t know where it belonged. One person even used the dreaded “X factor” phrase. Someone stoked all my twenty-something anxieties by rejecting this one but suggesting I submit the next one, as if that was going to solve anything.
I know from experience that “the next one” is not going to be any more on-brand, any more zeitgeisty or marketable, than this effort. I do know that I could turn myself inside out again over many years, trying to figure out what it is about the stuff that interests me that doesn’t have mass appeal. I know I will fail, because I have always known that at some level deep down I don’t give enough of a fuck about making it or fitting in to actually change.
And that is how I wound up self-publishing.
This time it has to be different. I am not doing this to win big. I sort of wish I were, but I know that actually what I am in this for is something else entirely and it is that which has to come first.
I have made a pact with myself that I am not going to be upset if (or more likely when) The Very Wolf fails to find critical and popular acclaim. If it finds fourteen other weirdos, then it finds fourteen other weirdos. That is my community. It’s still twelve more weirdos than I currently have (not including my Mum). I will value every single one of my weirdos, but I may well reflect on whether I’m truly writing books that need to be in print, or if I could just mail out a zine next time.
I am happy for all this to take a while, maybe a very long time. I’d be happy to steadily grow my profile, to find readers who actually like what I do, to earn the respect of people I respect. Shifting as many books as possible as quickly as possible is honestly not the farther shore I’m excited to reach, my Ithaka that is poor but won’t disappoint me. I am mostly here for the journey, and today is only my first step, not my destination.
I sometimes feel quite lonely as a writer because of this attitude. Book Twitter is a remorselessly odd place, a closed loop full of aspiring writers “boosting” each other over a certain number of followers. Book reviewing seems even more peculiar. I’ll be honest and say that so far I haven’t enjoyed much about getting my words in print, and I often look at what is being offered – Bestseller! Prizewinner! – and it doesn’t click with me. I don’t feel like I belong.
So I want to give the reassurance and advice I never see. I want to say to anyone who’s stuck with me this far that it is OK to create for the story, not the book. You have to take the consequences of that - you don’t get to be butthurt that you are not a bestseller or a prizewinner – but equally you are allowed to be free to follow where the story takes you and to be satisfied with that.
You are not failing yourself or failing someone else to want different things to most people. You are not a dork or a weirdo for wondering if we could tell stories differently and then go and do it.
Case in point: I don’t want to escape my day job. I fucking love my day job. I am lucky to work with amazing minds and wonderful people, asking urgent questions about society and generally failing to answer them conclusively but still coming up with very interesting insights all the same thank you very much.
I am not doing my day job until something happens with my writing. I fully intend to always have a day job, even if I ever get to the point I don’t need one anymore. I also have the insight to know that I do not love writing or my day job when writing is my day job. This is a strength, not a sign of lack of commitment or self-belief. I will write slower, but I will avoid the kind of burn-out that floored me before.
If like me you feel doing other things adds to, rather than subtracts from, your ability to write – if you feel that you need other jobs, other loves, other obsessions – then I am here to tell you that that is OK.
Another example: having started out by saying that I’m not motivated by bestsellerdom, I’m not even sure – whisper it – that I want to publish books. It’s just what I and my resources are best suited to right now. It’s the stories I love. I’m agnostic about the medium I use to tell them. That’s why I took the decision to create an audio serial alongside a traditional book format. I have absolutely no idea if and where that will land, but I’m a radio journalist by training. I love the spoken word. If that turns out to be where I fit best, then so be it.
And to be totally, totally honest – I don’t necessarily like book and publishing culture. As an incomer it feels conservative, cliquey, expensive and endlessly self-replicating. I don’t look at publishing lists and see the same amount of stories that I want to engage with, told in a way I find exciting, as on other platforms such as podcasts or TV series. I look at the community and openness and willingness to experiment in audio drama and I am honestly jealous.
What use is an indie publishing revolution if it just replicates what was already there? What use is doing it yourself if you don’t do it according to your needs, your goals? It is OK not to be hungry. It is OK not to want, want, want all the time.
So now I’ve explained what I’m not aiming for and why, what do I want to achieve by writing and publishing?
The big external thing that keeps me creating, that thing outside myself that I really, truly want to stretch for and hold myself to, is the possibility of collaborating with other artists I admire. Prizes are nice, and getting paid for something somewhere is important, but in terms of what gives me shivers, what I fantasise about, it’s being able to dive into other people’s creative practice and produce something greater than the sum of its parts. Where Arya Stark has a kill list, I have a collaborate list, something I’m always adding to and I recite in my head like a mantra. It keeps me going, and it also keeps me true to who I want to be.
But I now know that – whether I meet with some kind of success or complete indifference – I write for something internal and intrinsic, that primal need to gather together, to tell stories. To surprise, move and delight. You don’t need an audience of millions for that to work. I write for that person alone in the dark with their headphones in, for that person full of dreams they can’t articulate, for that person who will remember that phrase or that image for the rest of their life. I write for that infinite moment, this breath we share across centuries and the vast, dangerous, beautiful world.
I may not always get there, but if you ask me what I’m aiming for that is the honest answer. And a literary prize or a bestseller sticker is by no means the surest route towards it.