The novelist is the king of delayed gratification. You spend a year writing a novel. You spend the next year looking for an agent. The next year your agent looks for a publisher. The publisher then takes another year to actually publish your book. Four years after you sat down to work, you finally hold the fruits of your labors in your hand.
Would that it went so swiftly. It seldom does.
I have wanted to be a novelist since I was 14. I am now 64. I have just published my first novel, The Wistful and the Good. (Get it here: http://mybook.to/thewistfulandthegood. Or here: https://books2read.com/u/mqEKEe. I would be very gratified if you did.)
But notice that I said that I published it. Myself. That is, to be frank, less gratifying than if a traditional publisher had published it. But I discovered, much too late, that I had chosen the wrong period and the wrong style for the right-this-minute historical fiction market.
It is gratifying that the book has received one glowing and perceptive review on Amazon. I haven’t gone around dunning all my friends and relatives for reviews. People do that to game the Amazon algorithm, but there is nothing gratifying about that. I hope you will read the book and like it and take a few minutes to review it honestly. That would be gratifying, and it would help me gain a smidgen of attention from the Amazon bots.
It is also gratifying that, having published the book myself, I am now getting expressions of interest from a traditional publisher. Nothing is signed yet, but I’ll let you know when I know more myself.
But back to this question of delayed gratification and the novelist. Because, like I said, I have wanted to be an novelist since I was 14. 50 years is a long time to wait for the somewhat tainted gratification of holding The Wistful and the Good in my hand.
Full disclosure: I chose to say age 14 because it gave me a nice round number of 50. I don’t actually remember when I first decided to be a novelist. I do know that I had written a couple of novels and had a short story published (by someone else!) by the time I was nineteen.
Oh, yes, I said above that The Wistful and the Good was my first novel. It is, if you count by date of publication. If you count by date of authorship, it is my seventh, give or take, because I’m not sure I have an exact count of the derivative science fiction novels I wrote in my teens and early twenties. They were consigned to the fire the last time they showed up at the bottom of a moving box. But I have three other novels finished and ready for final review and publication, and another two that are probably one good rewrite away from being ready. Overall, I have written about ten novels in all. So “first novel” should be pronounced with air quotes.
Sometimes the delay of gratification lasts not through the composition of one novel but through the composition of ten.
One reason that many people self-publish is because they are not willing to delay gratification long enough to seek traditional publication. That’s hardly a criticism. Just finishing a novel requires extremes of delayed gratification that few people can muster. When they say that just finishing is an accomplishment, they are not kidding. I figured after 50 years, I was off the hook for any accusation of impatience or not being willing to work hard enough at it. (But am I writing this post as a kind of exculpation? Maybe.)
Writing is not the only art that requires the ability to delay gratification. They all do. And it is not like delaying gratification is a universal skill independent of its object. I have tried several times to learn to play the guitar or the piano. In none of these cases was I able to persevere beyond the stage where it sounded like I was throwing bricks through a piano factory. I haven’t even managed to master more than three chords on the ukulele. The ability to delay gratification is clearly related to how much the goal matters to you.
Why does writing a novel matter enough that I have been able to delay gratification for 50 years while I have never been able to persevere more than six months with a musical instrument? I have no idea. Do any of us really know where their interests and passions come from? Theories in the comments, please.
But even love of the craft and of its object cannot sustain the delay of gratification indefinitely. You need to find some secondary gratifications along the way. I have received plenty of writerly gratification over the years. I have published three non-fiction books, contributed to three others, and published countless magazine and newspaper articles, as well as a handful of short stories. (All published by other people, to be clear.) And I made a good living writing technical manuals and marketing materials — good enough that I was able to retire a little early and turn back to my first love, the novel.
There is nothing that helps you delay gratification like other kinds of gratification. Writers can find these in many forms. Publishing short stories is easier than publishing a novel (though not all that easy), and it takes less time. Writers groups, classes, and workshops can provide other forms of gratification. In these, actual flesh and blood people who are not your mother will read your work with attention and tell you what they think of it. Unless they are like me, they will go out of their way to say nice things about it even if it doesn’t deserve it. (Many workshops now mandate this practice!) I, on the other hand, will tell you exactly what I think. But you should probably ignore me because I am impossible to please.
The trouble with this kind of gratification, though, is that while you can learn a great deal from a critique group, class, or workshop, the gratification that they give can become a goal in itself, replacing the much more difficult goal of achieving the gratification of publication. I have known people whose progress on a novel has been totally stymied by bringing endless revisions of the opening chapter or two to a workshop, sometimes for years, while never making any progress beyond the opening. If you end up letting the critique process slow you down, you will eventually have to force yourself to graduate from the workshop circuit to get back your hunger for the real gratification the novelist seeks.
Serializing a novel online is another approach some writers take to gain more immediate gratification. Some publish chapters as they write them, depriving themselves of the agony and joy of revision. I wondered if serializing The Wistful and the Good would provide me with some kind of gratification. It didn’t. But then, I have wanted to be a novelist since I was 14. My image of what that looks like predates the Web by decades.
The reason I finally chose to self-publish The Wistful and the Good myself, however, was not primarily about running out of the will to delay gratification further (though as the fell age of 65 approaches, at my back I do sometimes hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near). In many ways it was about clearing the decks. There is only so much finished work that you can have cluttering up the workshop before it becomes impossible to bring another project into the shop.
And there is also that sense with a novel manuscript that it is not really finished, not finished finished, until it is bound between sheets of cardstock with a pretty picture on the front and your name in big letters. For a novel to be truly finished and out of the creative workshop of the mind, it has to be either published or burned. I got to the point where I didn’t think I could begin a new project until the backlog went out the door. (If you are counting, that’s burned: 4, published: 1.)
The novel is arguably the most complex piece of art that a human being can create. (Movies are more complicated, but that is not the same thing.) Certainly novels make the greatest claim on the audience’s attention of anything that is the work of a single artist. No one contemplates a painting or listens to a song for the 8 or 10 hours it takes to read a novel. Only TV serials compare and they are the work of hundreds of people and cost millions to make. A single author, on the other hand, can create (and, if necessary, publish) a novel for a minimal amount of money, though with a huge investment of time, and thus a huge delay of gratification.
Know this, therefore, if you are thinking about writing a novel yourself: be prepared to delay gratification for years. Perhaps even decades.
You can, on the other hand, gratify your desire to read a good novel simply by clicking here: http://mybook.to/thewistfulandthegood.
You can also check out the BookFunnel promo I am participating in. You can get free samples and even free books in exchange for subscribing to various authors’ newsletters (which you can cancel any time). You can also grab a taste, though not strictly a preview, of my folklore/fantasy novel, Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight: Very gratifying! https://books.bookfunnel.com/mythfantasy/vk5a1gwvhr.
I'm five years up on you. I'm 70 and had my first novel published in 2010. I never cared about being published; I just wanted to write because I love words. I really LOVE words and painting a story with them.
It was never ever about gratification but it was always a compunction. What surprised me on publication - indie of course - was that I did actually entertain folk. That never ceases to amaze me.
Fourteen novels and anthologies later, many awards, a renovated laundry and a degree of complete contentment, I have no expectations at all. Never did have actually. But I love that historical fiction and historical fantasy readers took a chance on an unknown indie - I am and will always be forever grateful and have 'met' many lovely book-folk.
I bought your novel when it was first released. I have a beta-e- read to finish reading and a print novel as well and then you're next. Looking forward to it as I love hist.fict!!!
I've often thought about this same concept with the language of "feedback loops." A book is a very long feedback loop: You have to write the whole chapter before you can get a sense of it, maybe the whole book before you know if it's "working." Compare that to a musical instrument where you can learn a few measures at a time and tell that they're starting to sound nice, or graphic design where you can determine if the shapes and colors are moving in the right direction. Or compare that to video games, which are designed to have feedback loops as often as possible. The best-selling Civilization series was designed to give the player a burst of dopamine every 90 seconds. And that's slow compared to most modern games.
The thing about feedback loops is that they don't necessarily bring gratification. If you get to the end of your book and decide none of it worked, that's not very gratifying. So part of the delay in a book isn't even the sense of gratification but the ability to know if you should feel gratified.
You are also spot-on with the idea of finding happiness along the way. I remember reading somewhere that "Flipping burgers sucks. But so does being a CEO some days. Every profession has its pain points and its pleasures. So find the one whose pain points you can stand." I think the same is true here. In addition to being a writer, I've dabbled in many other creative hobbies, including digital art and painting. But I realized one time that I had to paint a whole forest to finish a piece and I couldn't even stand the idea of doing that. That's when I gave up. Because when it comes to writing, there's some part of me that takes satisfaction even in the most monotonous parts. Like Prue said in her comment, I love words, so working with words brings me joy even in the pain.
I recall a time in college when I was deciding whether I wanted to pursue writing or video game development as my life's passion. I decided to do a bit of both and see which one I liked better. There came a day during the writing when nothing was working, my characters were flat, my plot had stalled, and all of my descriptions sounded like they'd been written by 3rd graders. I said to myself, "I would rather be doing anything than this." And so I tried making a video game. And there came a day when my code wouldn't compile, my art assets wouldn't load, the graphics engine kept crashing, and I said to myself," I would rather be doing anything than this."
I realized that this is the nature of creative life. So I picked the hobby that mattered most to me and decided to soldier on. Five years later, here I am working on book #3 with no idea if or when any of them will be published. But that's the journey.