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Why Writers Write Fiction, by Ben Marshall

What’s your reason for writing a novel? Do you want to leave a legacy, play make-believe, teach or preach, confess, get revenge, impress friends and family, learn from the past or the future, or do you write for money?

I write for money. I make my living as a scriptwriter. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson; no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. So far, so pragmatic.  At the point at which I start writing novels, however, I join the legion of blockheads in queasily examining my baser motives for doing so, because my chances of making any real money are almost vanishingly slim.

Orwell said he wrote from “egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose.” Joan Didion dug deeper, writing to “find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.”

Writing is fun, so why should we examine our motives? For me, as a working writer, branching out into novels should be, at least in part, a commercial decision. I need a basis on which to decide whether to continue in a positive manner, or realise I should give it up as a bad lot. It’s too expensive a hobby not to do otherwise.

Many novelists cheerfully claim they’re ‘driven’ and can’t not write – it’s an almost biological need to ‘express themselves’ and ‘tell stories’. We may be driven, but something is providing the motive force, and with novel writing, money isn’t it. Our priority might be a ‘good story, well told’, but other drives lurk like existential stalkers, and, for me at least, it’s foolish not to acknowledge them.

Writing is teaching. Samuel Johnson: “The task of an author is either to teach what is not known, or to recommend known truths by his manner of adorning them.”

I recognise a geezerish desire, deep within myself, to pass on acquired knowledge and values. It’s not something I’m proud of, but my awareness of it is important if I’m to ensure there’s nothing in my writing that could be deemed useful. I skirt around this impulse to teach by exploring themes such as racism and misogyny through character and conflict. I research and explore the clash of cultures in history and make educated guesses about the future in a way that entertains and educates me. I can’t also help hoping it might do the same for my hypothetical readers. Don’t condemn me too quickly – in a sense, every story you write that tells of cause and consequence is, by definition, a moral story.

Writing is therapy. Sitting around a television storylining table coming up with stories is fun. The stories are often generated from one’s life experience, and the most mortifying confessions are often the ones that propel a story forward.

It’s good to unburden with sympathetic others; confessional even. The pain and guilt of regret eases a little. Novels, by necessity, must also carry a degree of self-disclosure, no matter how buried in character and plot, and perhaps they too wash some of our psychic burdens away in the river of words.

Writing is fun. The sense of play when we write is addictive. Giving rein to our imaginations, we connect with our childhood selves and our adult pretensions fall away. Whether, as kids, we played with trucks, dolls or both, we invested inanimate objects with character and story, and produced a rich emotional life out of thin air.

Creating narratives is a biological drive. We exist in a sea of story; recreating memories, retelling the footy game on the weekend to colleagues, telling a joke, thinking about our lives, planning our next moves. From an evolutionary perspective, imagination lets us perceive the thoughts of others, rehearse a battle plan, envisage where a predator or prey might lurk, and discern the patterns that reveal the fruit trees among the forest. We write because telling stories is what humans do.

Writing is immortality. One day we will die. All the meaning we have created will disappear; only a few ephemeral memories in the minds of our loved ones remaining. It’s the human condition to know we will die; the tragic underpinning of our days.

On our deathbeds, some will be satisfied they have left a tangible legacy of children and grandchildren. Some will be pleased to leave behind an ongoing company or charitable enterprise. Some will have left a dog-eared novel behind. Any of these acts allow us to imagine immortality and, as authors, that a reader of our works will share and relive our thoughts when we were writing. We write to live on.

Writing is love. Some novels are written to a formula so constrictive there’s little caring beyond assembling the genre tropes into a narrative, but I don’t believe any good book I’ve read wasn’t written from a place of caring.

We write to love and be loved, so we don’t feel so alone. Even surrounded by family and friends, the need to connect with others is strong. We might not want to meet our readers, but we do want to introduce them to our colourful cast of characters, and take them on a journey. We want to make our readers laugh and cry, and escape their worlds to exist in ours. We don’t know them but we imagine them and care about them. We must love them, because then they will love us and pay us.

So, there you have it, the ultimate reasons to write are those that make the world go ‘round – love and money.

I leave the final words to Mark Twain: “Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for.”


Ben Marshall’s author website:

Ben Marshall’s bio page


Beneath the Dark IceDark HeartStillwater CreekAmber RoadShattered SkyWithout WarningThe Magician of Lhasa

Writing Novels in Australia

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ah! Another Twain quote I can relate to. Interesting post, Ben, and I think it is important to examine the reasons, although I think the reasons evolve with us. I didn’t start to write for money becasue I didn’t think it possible. When that looked like changing, so did everything else. I had hope.

    January 16, 2013
  2. Great post. I have to say, money was the very last concern I ever had about writing. Writing was an end in itself, for many of the reasons above: teaching, love, biological drive and therapy. Getting published and making money has always been gravy for me. I am always amazed when people find out I write novels and they immediately assume I am a millionaire. One half of one percent of all the people who write can live on what they make. Does that stop any of us? Nope. There are other things in life way more important than money. Telling a good story, drawing an arc of growth, enthralling the reader with excitement and emotion–all much more satisfying than getting a paycheck, in my humble opinion.

    January 17, 2013
    • Thank you and I agree. My professional scriptwriter side says every word I write should eventually earn me something to help with the mortgage but my other side mirrors yours. I write novels and short stories out of love, and for the the joy of the thing. And yes, the magic of enthralling ourselves and, hopefully, our readers, is way more satisfying than a paycheck.

      January 17, 2013
  3. Great insight, Ben. I related to many of your thoughts. (My hubby would just say I have to write so I don’t get sad and cranky – but I’d rather subscribe to your higher level theories). Good luck with your many projects and I hope you can turn your novels into another profitable aspect of your writing career.

    January 19, 2013
  4. Great blog Ben, and so very true.

    January 25, 2013
  5. Donald McMiken #

    Great stuff Ben. I had not thought of all these reason, but I do know that I’m motivated by every one of them.
    Cheers, Donald McMaster

    August 8, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Why Writers Write Fiction, by Ben Marshall | Novel Writing
  2. Month In Review with Steve Rossiter (January 2013) | Writing Novels in Australia

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