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Life As A Novelist, by William Dietrich

Here’s my Hollywood version of what a novelist’s life should be.

Limousine delivery to the bookstore, after first class travel.

A window dominated completely by one’s books.

Crowded readings and long lines at signings. If a woman, the men want to marry you. If a man, the women want to sleep with you.

Riches. Fame, but only enough to get a good seat at a restaurant, not to be harassed by strangers. A house in the south of France. Long afternoons of wine drinking in the garden with witty literary companions.

The tedium of actual writing? On the cutting room floor of this film.

Bad reviews? Empty readings? Nay, you’re a genius.

Reality, of course, doesn’t match fantasy. I love the independence of the writing life, but the actual work is often seven days a week of solitary confinement in front of a big blank screen. The secret to writing? Long hours of seat time.


Fame? Try reality TV. Fortune? To only a favored few. Happiness? I read John Sutherland’s excellent Lives of the Novelists and was struck by what a miserable, suicidal, alcoholic and penurious lot the literarily famous were.

So why do it? We humans have a natural instinct to express ourselves, which you can see in every toddler’s determination to speak. Writing is a way to explore oneself. It’s at least a try at literary immortality. It can free one from the conventional workplace and imperious bosses. There’s at least the chance of hitting the bestseller jackpot, while regular jobs promise a raise of a few percentage points. It’s a lottery ticket.

Today’s writer is by necessity a small business person. There’s a budget, taxes, a strategic plan and self-promotion in the form of blogs, tweets, readings, talks and teaching. Oh, and your friends will call you ‘retired’.

Few authors have a big success with their first book. To create and sustain any kind of career, you typically need to write many. Words by the million! Best not to think about that.

While self-publishing has confused the options, the usual path is to write and write, attend conferences, take classes and ultimately pitch to an agent who takes you on. Then comes a contract, you hope, with some portion of the promised advance up front upon signing.

Your new best friend, an editor, is as smitten as you are, but tells you a shocking thing. The manuscript you’ve labored on in secret these many years not only is not perfect but perhaps doesn’t work at all. Rewrite time!

The exquisite descriptions of my first novel? Slows the story, I was told. My plot? Doesn’t work.

It typically takes a year to publication, which can be an anticlimax. Don’t believe your best and worst reviews, and don’t be surprised when there are almost no reviews at all. Can’t get a waiter’s attention? Chances are you won’t get the literary community’s either, unless you’re a prodigy or connected.

The publicist may send you out on a modest schedule of local readings to which few show up. The royalty statement may be embarrassing. The message you so wisely delivered in your masterpiece may be missed.

So what. You write another book, and another. You can’t help yourself, you’re an author! You know you have something to say and an entertaining way of saying it. You have faith that readers will discover you.

Here’s the miracle. They will.


William Dietrich’s author website:

William Dietrich’s bio page


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Australia (and beyond)

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Writing Historical Novels

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Reblogged this on Time Will Tell.

    October 22, 2013
  2. Pretty well sums it up. I’ve said for years that writing historical novels is a dreadful way to make a living, but it’s the best life-style I can think of!

    October 23, 2013
  3. danielfbowman #

    What a pessimistic dream we spend our lives pursuing with love.

    October 23, 2013

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