Top Five Misconceptions about Writing: A Keynote Address from ’06

I was searching my blog archives today and stumbled across this speech I gave to the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference in Denver, Colorado back in 2006. It’s interesting to read now that my career is a few years farther along. So much has changed, but really, my perspective hasn’t. I think the main points still apply. See what you think.

Keynote Address: Why Write Novels?

As 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.

No. 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.

And 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.

1. 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 Surely, writing had superseded my old life.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 start 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.

3. 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 in 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!

5. 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 my 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?

We 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.

What 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.

In 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!

Rick Riordan