Saturday, March 11, 2006

Tiers and Tyrannies of Writing

Pat, a.k.a. DesLily, wrote an entry on her blog today (AOL version here, BlogSpot version here) about a discussion we had in IM last night about who is a writer and who is not. Like many people who are interested in writing, she seems to have accepted the popular idea that writers are a breed apart, driven by their talent to write, to be "authors." She writes:

I was told once, by a friend who is a published author a few times over, that if you don't burn to write, don't even bother to try to get something published. I pretty much took this to heart, as it wasn't the first time I heard it. But I sometimes wonder how true it is.

Now, there are several messages imbedded in this interpretation of the words of a well-meaning friend, and not one of them is good for the writing. The first is that only a person who writes obsessively, compulsively, is capable of getting work published. The second is that only someone who is both a ) a compusive writer and b) published deserves the title of "writer" or "author" at all. The third is that this is a closed club of writers who are born, not made. No others need apply.

And yet DesLily has written books herself, a whole fantasy trilogy. Encouraged by friends, she wrote and expanded it and finished it, tinkered and polished - and put it away, because she wasn't really a writer.


On the AOL version of her blog, I commented,

Pretty much the only definition of writing that counts with me is basically the first one there. A writer is one who writes. Period. That means that someone who wrote a trilogy, for Pete's sake, is or at least was a writer, even if she never sent out so much as a query letter. Conversely, a person who has lots of story ideas, hangs out with writers, and has nothing to show for it but a 10 page partial outline written in 1975 and a map her neighbor drew for her, is NOT a writer.

There are higher bars to hurdle, of course. The "published writer" is the next step up, but the easy availability of self-publishing venues, including blogs, has muddied the waters quite a bit on exactly what this means. YOU are a published writer, because you're a blogger.

One more step up: a professionally published writer. To get that one, you have to actually submit something somewhere. Chances are you have to do it a lot, and try to shrug off the inevitable rejection.

Next step, and this is the one you're confused about: "professional writer." Not many writers make their living at it, and some of those who do, including our beloved Scalzi, do commerical writing - PR, technical writing, etc. - rather than relying on storytelling alone to pay the bills. Many well-known writers never gave up their day jobs.

The top rung is "bestselling author" - and that's a function of talent, skill, relentless self-promotion, and a whole lot of luck.

Okay, so I changed metaphors there, from high bar to a ladder analogy, and the subject line of this post has yet another image. But you get the idea. There are different levels of success as a writer, but even at the lowest one, you're still a writer. The other levels are something to work for, if you care to do so, and are legitimate measurements of success in the business of writing. But you have to start with the basic requirement of level one: writing. and you have to keep that part going if you're going to make your way up from there.

The real test of writing is whether complete works are actually being produced, at a level of quality likely to attract readers. The degree to which the writer is inspired, driven, or even previously published is irrelevant. A would-be writer who waits for inspiration will probably produce very little of value. A writer who writes compulsively suffers from a mental disorder called hypergraphia, and may or may not produce anything good. And someone who is deterred from writing by the belief that she doesn't have the right stuff is throwing away the chance to be proven wrong.

What counts, at least in the writing part of being a writer, is the writing itself. You've got to write, and you've got to keep writing until the book, poem, play, magazine article, tv script, whatever - is done. And then you probably need to revise and edit and polish. After that, unless you really only have one story you want to tell (and probably even then), you need to write something else, or at least something more. Your exact schedule, motivations, working method, are all unimportant compared to this one basic requirement.

The great thing that happens as you write is that you get better at it, assuming you have at least a modicum of literacy and good judgment. And maybe you find out you have more stories to tell after all. You may also learn more about the original story you wrote, enough to go back later and make it better. But it all starts with writing, and not believing that you can't do it, and therefore shouldn't even try. That negative stuff is your Inner Weasel talking, and it almost never has anything good to say. Maybe your story will never be optioned in Hollywood, or even sold to a major publisher. But you'll never get there, for sure, if you don't write it, or don't finish it, or don't try to sell it.

Selling the writing is, of course, as big a challenge as the writing itself, and requires different skills. Rejection is an inevitable part of the business end of writing, and that can be very hard on a writer's self-confidence. I speak from experience here. But if you want more than five friends to read it, it's got to be done. If you don't care whether more than five people ever read it, well, then, suit yourself. Getting something professionally published does four things:

  1. It tells you that on a given day, a person whose job it is to select works for publication honestly believed that your work was good enough, and marketable enough, to attract readers who are willing to pay to read your words.
  2. It actually gets your words out to those readers.
  3. It builds name recognition, so that readers and editors will be more disposed to give your words a chance the next time.
  4. It puts a check in your mailbox - usually a small one.
But that's all. It doesn't confer a mystical mantle of authorhood. It doesn't mean your writing is the best it will ever be. And it doesn't get you off the hook from writing something else.

(This is meant to be blurry.)

Yes, this is me ponitificating again, when the fact remains that Mages from Mâvarin is still waiting for me to type up a few missing scenes, and then take on the huge task of making this ridiculously large manuscript consistent and complete and, I hope, a bit shorter, when my history with such things is that they usually get longer. I also need to get on with either the sequel or the prequel, as soon as I possibly can.

See, I can't let myself off the hook, either. I write every single night, albeit mostly just in blogs these days. But for me to be the kind of writer I want to be, and know I can be, I have to continue to get my stories written, revised and edited - and sell the dang things, too.

"I can think of one, maybe two, writers who rely heavily on inspiration. Everybody else I know works like a dog." - Patricia C. Wrede


P.S. Oh. You may be wondering about the birthday. I had one. Here's photographic evidence. True to my long history of crying on my birthday, I cried on my birthday, and not with joy. But it was nothing important, and it's over, and it's fine. It started well, with cards and presents in my purse from John, and ended well, with lots of nice cards and emails (including gifts from Amazon!) from friends and family, a nice dinner with John at Peking Palace, and unsatisfactory season-ending cliffhangers on Sci-Fi. That'll do nicely - very nicely indeed. Thanks, folks!


Paul said...

An excellent entry. I think one of my favourites of yours to date. Also, happy birthday.

Julie said...

I cry on my birthdays too. Someone did something very terrible on my 30th birthday. It was a cold, calculated move designed to deliver maximum impact. It wasn't until ten years later than I was able to have a truly happy birthday. I still cringe at birthday time and would prefer not to have much of a celebration.

As for writing, I'm with you. Being a pro writer involves more than a paycheck, IMO. One of the best pieces of writing advice that I got was, "if you want to be a pro, then act like one." There's a certain frame of mind involved. It's not simply the drive to write, but the ability (as you pointed out) to meet deadlines, to actually finish the work. You can apply that logic to just about any job. And yes, that's a simplified definition, but I think you get my drift.

(Pardon the typos. I'm on the road today and using my notebook in a darkened room.)

Chris said...

I enjoyed this entry and I agree, it is not whether or not you get paid to write, it is if you want to write, that defines you are a writer.

I've never been pubished but I am a writer. Additionally, my writing at work has made my career and professional reputation what it is.

My Blog

DesLily said...

Hi Karen.. I read this FINALLY.. i was having trouble all day with only YOUR blog! It was only loading 1/2 of it!.. but now your whole blog is loading.. dunnow what that was.. everyone else's loaded.. just not this one and I wanted to read it! LOL..

well..very good, very good.. a few things you said I had thoughts about and will be posting that tomorrow .. One thing in here you said really struck home.. but i'll wait and you can see my entry tomorrow..
woulda been today if it would have loaded earlier! lol

Sarah said...

Happy belated birthday! Sorry I missed it yesterday!

Becky said...

You've been following SG1, right? I was pretty pleased with that cliff-hanger. Last season's was better, but... whatever. LOL Do you watch Atlantis too? Good story line...but...the episode just lost momentum for me toward the end. Battle Star...totally jumped the shark. What is UP with the "One Year Later" jazz?! What a cop out. I have a feeling next season will have a butt load of flash backs to that missing year. Feh. Have I told you that this next birthday of mine is the big FOUR OH? Yikes. I've read all your entries for the last week. Been sick as a dawg again and then had to deal with Tyler getting a stomach virus from god knows where. Why does he always get pukey sick when John goes out of town? John is so much better with puke than I am. *sigh*

Bea said...

Well said, my friend. Writers' Digest could have used this as one of their articles. Well written. I know I'm not a professional writer, but I do love to write. Will it lead to a published novel someday? Only if I keep working like a dog! THanks for your suggestions to name my dictionary activity. You are this writer's mentor. Bea