Friday, August 13, 2010

What makes a professional writer?

Are you a professional writer?

Some newbies to the fiction world tremble in fear at the very thought of considering themselves professionals. They may voice it in hushed whispers, as if a circle of professional writers will leap out of the shadows and commence stoning them to death.

When can you say with a clear conscience and no ambiguity that you are in fact a professional writer? Should you say it at all? Should others praise (or not) your writing abilities and yourself refrain from the subject all together?

…Indeed, should you?

Are you a professional writer? Are you an imposter? Are you an amateur with a desire or perhaps a facade of grandeur?Do you have a degree in English Literature and believe that qualifies you as a professional writer? Does it? Should it?

Hit a nerve, did I?

I was encouraged by many English teachers to pursue a career as a writer. My Freshman English teacher, however, was not one of them. She happened to be a published writer and discouraged anyone from pursuing such a goal. In fact, she seemed to teach that writing was a nearly unobtainable rite of passage that very few could dream of accomplishing. If false writers were stoned to death, you better believe her stones would have caused the deathblows.

So then, the question remains, what is a professional writer and indeed, are you?

One proper explanation for a professional writer is one who makes a living writing. In this economy, that would narrow down the pros handsomely, wouldn’t it?

In that case, small press writers would never be considered pros unless they are selling thousands of novels and can sustain themselves financially. If you happen to be a fantasy or science fiction writer, does being a member of the SFWA declare your heir of professionalism? Couldn’t hurt, dare I say anyone who is a member of the SFWA is a professional writer but not all professional writers are members of the SFWA.

If you happen to be a self-sustaining writer then bravo for you and I tip my proverbial hat in your honor(Insert chorus here).

Seriously, does monetary gain alone promote you as a professional writer? Did Homer (if indeed Homer existed as a single entity) make money off of writing or was he a wandering vagabond poet at the mercy of others’ hospitality? Many of the great writers didn’t become popular until after death. So what, do you write on their tombstone, “In life he wrote but in death he became a professional writer?”

Well then we can surmise with this argument that monetary gain alone does not qualify one as a writer of proper professional status, right?

Let’s venture another possibility. Does the number of sales alone grant you the title of professional writer? Is it gauged by the number of books you sell? Hmm… but what if you don’t write novels? What if you spent your life just hacking out short stories? How many published short stories qualify you as a professional writer? Ten, fifty, a hundred or a thousand?

Is it the millionth published word count that lifts you to the heir of a pro? Is it the air itself? In that case we all need to move to La Rinoconada, Peru and perhaps we’ll strike gold.

...A million words published is like ten average sized novels (100k words) or about four hundred short stories or articles averaging 2500 words each.

...La Rinoconada is a gold mine located in the Peruvian Andes at an elevation of 5100 meters, that’s about 16,728 feet and over three times the elevation of Denver, Colorado.

Confused? Good that means you are thinking.

What is confusion but our inability to understand intelligent structure or fear of not being able to categorize that structure in an ordered fashion?

I had fear of going to the bathroom when I was a kid. Always thought the toilet was going to suck me in…Go ahead, laugh. I think it actually did once.

Anyways, fear and doubt does play a huge role in the ability to call yourself a professional writer. However, it does not mean you are one just because you have the guts to say so; and it doesn’t mean you aren’t one because you will not say so.

What is the point of all this?

Sometimes it is better to let others praise you and simply refer to yourself as a writer. As a writer you will always be loved and hated. This is the path of all who choose to entertain. You may be a great writer in the eyes of one reader and a slack hack in the eyes of another. Sometimes that opinion may be shared by the same reader.

You may even get people who say they wrote a story once, tried writing a novel or had a family member who could write. Perhaps they’ll mention that they wrote some in college and the teachers were impressed. In other words: “I have a vague recollection of what you do, but that is really as far as my interest goes.”

Perhaps you will get hit with, “Do you make any money?”

“No, not really,” you may reply.

“You must not be very good at it,” they may say with a flutter of eyes-so-innocent. Or they may simply reply, “Then why do you do it?”

You’ve heard about the starving artist? Well, writing is an art and many writers struggle to make income based on just writing. Very few can make a living as a writer. It isn’t easy to do and you have to be a really talented hack to do it.

I do mean hack as in articles, nonfiction pieces and the concept of selling numerous manuscripts. Yes, novelists and short story writers can make money and sometimes really good money. Most of the prominent writers are an environmental adaptable species: Ergo, they go where the money can be made and usually that money is made in freelance non-fiction articles.

So what is a professional writer?

A professional writer is someone who gets paid for his work or at least could get paid for his/her work. If you aspire to be a writer, I hope one day your dream will come true.

Just remember that dreams—all dreams—remain so until you as an individual decide to make it a reality. In writing, that means write, write some more, write often and don’t stop. Words on paper are never transformed into life until they are created with blood, sweat and many tears. In other words, love what you do and do it even when you don’t want to.

I will part with a quote from Richard Bach:

“A Professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

So don’t quit and remember you are the only one keeping you from your pen, quill, feather or key pad.

So, happy writing—professionally speaking, of course!