Saturday, May 31, 2014

How Do You Know If You're a Real Writer?

I wrote my first short story when I was in 7th grade. It was an extra credit project in my English class, and I had so much fun with it that I completely forgot it was supposed to be work. My teacher's horrified reaction to it (it was a "found journal" horror story in the style of H.P. Lovecraft regarding a giant crocodile in the Amazon river basin) gave me a thrill the likes of which I had never gotten from anything else, and I was hooked. A few months later I decided I wanted to be a writer.

There was just one problem. I had no clue how to become a real writer.

Step 1: Text Step 2: ? Step 3: Rich and Famous
Over the years I bounced from one opportunity to another. I entered poetry and short story contests in high school, worked for campus papers in college, and before I received my degree I discovered there's a whole market out there looking for freelancers to put words on the page. It wasn't till 2012 that I managed to start publishing fiction with some regularity. I thought I'd found the answer, and that I'd become a real writer.

Others weren't so convinced. Here are some of the reasons why.

Where Can I Buy Your Book?

This question is actually two fold. The more direct question being asked is "are you an actual writer, the kind I can find in a real book store?" The second, more subtle question is "Did you write a novel?"

When I started getting my fiction published I had to answer in a double negative. I had written short stories in response to open calls for anthologies, which meant I had some short stories on the market but no novels. As such people shrugged me off. Because I published electronically and with small presses no, my work is not on the shelves at Barnes and Noble or Books-A-Million. This conversation gets repeated a dozen times a day when I'm having a signing or speaking at an event. This leads to the second issue a lot of writers face...

Who Published This?

The world of publishing has changed phenomenally just over the past few years, but if you're not involved in it you'd never notice. With the advent of electronic fiction and Amazon's Create Space (among others) authors who either don't want to deal with the rigmarole of traditionally publishing or who prefer to have full control over their work can go out and become independent authors.

The problem is that the common reader is still very likely to dismiss you if you're an independent author.

Who did you say published this tripe again?
The problem isn't just defending yourself to potential readers though. Traditional publishers have been known to be quite dismissive of independent authors and small publishers, and that attitude permeates the industry. While they might not say "these authors aren't good enough for anyone else to publish them, so they do it themselves," that sentiment is very present. Convincing someone that there are other reasons to be an independent author, and that yes you can be a successful professional doing that, is an uphill battle of Sisyphean proportions. It's only magnified by the fact that there really are a huge number of shitty writers who have decided to self-publish because no one else will take them on. It's a lot like trying to distance yourself from ambulance chasers when you're an upstanding, quality attorney.

For those who want to examine this issue more deeply check out Lauren Jankowski's blog here. A dedicated independent author, her trials with this issue could make a book all their own.

How Much Do You Make?

Not so much that I don't want you to buy a copy of my books. All of them.
I mentioned this on my Things You Should Never Say to an Author, but it bears repeating. There are members of the public who don't realize there are levels of success in writing, just as there are levels of success in painting, music, or any other creative field. Just because someone doesn't make millions of dollars off their work that doesn't make that person less of a writer. That said, there will be people who refuse to consider an author legitimate unless that author makes enough to quit the day job. If you've never tried to do this I can vouch that it is a certified, gold-plated bitch kitten.

So What's It About?

Let's assume for a moment that you are an author with a big contract from a well-known publisher. You've written several novels, and you've been on TV for how much money you've made. Maybe you've even got a few awards and one of your books was made into a hit movie, just as the icing on the cake.

There will still be critics who question your legitimacy based on what your work is about.

*clears throat*
Literary critics turn up their noses at fantasy and sci-fi writers. Genre writers thumb their noses at romance writers. Romance writers roll their eyes at horror writers. The vicious cycle goes any number of ways, but it always comes down to the same statement. "People who write X aren't real writers."

This is the last bastion of the ignorant, the biased, and the judgmental. While I might not accept with grace that there is a monster erotica series based on the premise of bigfoot raping female campers and hikers, I do not deny that the person who created it and makes a living off of it is a professional author.

You don't have to be a fan to acknowledge someone's professional status.

So What Makes You a Real Writer?

Othering is a big problem in our field. Everyone is so eager to get his or her piece of the pie that a lot of authors, and even publishers, are more than happy to throw others under the bus if it means getting a shot at a bigger market share. As you can see there are at least half a dozen bullshit qualifications that have nothing to do with whether or not you're a real writer which people still try to use.

I have two standards of my own, and I think they're two that most of us can agree on.

Are you listening?
Number One: In order to call yourself a writer you must actually write things. This doesn't mean jotted notes on a napkin, or a novel manuscript you've done the same two chapters on fifteen times; you have to actually complete something before you can lay claim to the title. If you want to keep calling yourself a writer though it's probably best for you to keep writing things. If you want to be taken seriously as a professional writer then you must be paid for your work. Whether that's by Random House, or by those who support you as an independent or self-published writer doesn't matter; money is money. If you're ghost writing erotica or turning out books of short stories for a tiny press, if you're being paid then you're a professional.

Number Two: Professionalism. The major difference between someone who is a real writer and someone who isn't is best summed up by author Agatha Christie. She famously said:

“There was a moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don't want to, don't much like what you're writing, and aren't writing particularly well.”

In short if you want to be a writer then you have to do it like it's your job. No spacing out on Youtube, no starting over just because you're bored or not having fun any more, and no skipping the hard work of sharpening up your blade and making stories so sharp you're going to cut every reader who opens your cover. Real writers write, and they do it regardless of whether or not the muse is whispering in their ears, or if it's raining outside, or if the kids are screaming, or they didn't get a good night's sleep. They do, and that is what matters.

As always, thanks for dropping in on The Literary Mercenary. If you want to make sure you don't miss a beat then fill in your email address in the box on your top right, or follow me on Facebook or Tumblr. If you'd like to do your part to keep my words coming then drop your loose change into the "Shakespeare Gotta Get Paid, Son" cup on the upper right, or drop by my Patreon page and become a patron today!

1 comment:

  1. Last week I spoke to a women's group at a church. Many said they've always wanted to write. Then they listed "but firsts" to keep them from beginning. When they asked me how I write, I answered that I write every day, seven days a week, for at least five hours. I've been doing if for years. Maybe one day I'll feel like I've learned my craft. Until then, I'll keep writing and learning...