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On Becoming A Writer

I'm seeing lots of posts, and essays, and articles about the boundary between being an amateur and being a professional writer. The not-an-urban-legend complaint among many unpublished wannabes is that they are being held back by the Cabal Of Pro Writers/Agents/Editors what have you. The truth is a lot simpler: if you're good at it, and keep working at it, eventually, your ability will catch the attention of the right person.

There's also a running joke about a secret word or phrase that, when invoked, can confer an aura of professionalism on a writer.

The thing about that is that it isn't a joke - it's real. The catch is that it can't be invoked by the aspiring writer. It has to be conferred.

"You're not a writer until a writer tells you you're a writer," Harlan Ellison once told me over dinner with a mutual friend. I nodded in agreement. "Okay, hotshot," said Harlan, "who told you that you were a writer?"

"Paul Chadwick," I replied. (Creator of Harlan's favorite comic, CONCRETE).

"There you go," said Harlan, nodding.

There are some published authors who aren't very good, and might never be. And there are unpublished writers who are professional calibre, and will remain so, hopefully to their desired goal of publication. We work in isolation, but it is not an isolated profession. When one of our own comes to the table, we recognize them, and pull out a chair. That's how I got started - and that's how many of you will get started, even if it takes a long while to get the deals you want.

If you have the ability, then you just need to add a good work ethic - and eventually, someone will notice.

Comments

( 33 comments — Leave a comment )
theferrett
Feb. 20th, 2009 09:54 pm (UTC)
The not-an-urban-legend complaint among many unpublished wannabes is that they are being held back by the Cabal Of Pro Writers/Agents/Editors what have you. The truth is a lot simpler: if you're good at it, and keep working at it, eventually, your ability will catch the attention of the right person.

The one thing that Clarion changed for me is that going in, I was convinced that the editors were staunch gatekeepers, more willing to publish a known quantity than to take a chance on someone new and awesome like me.

Coming out, I was convinced that the editors were hungry for new talent, and that I just needed to actually be good enough to be that talent.

It's been a surprisingly healthy adjustment. Even if I'm not quite there yet.
coppervale
Feb. 20th, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC)
You're on the right track, man. Just keep going!
roninspoon
Feb. 20th, 2009 10:03 pm (UTC)
After years of struggling with it, I finally figured out what conditions worked for me to get any productive writing done. It's made a huge difference, and had a noticeable impact. I also think starting the webcomic, regardless of how little attention it gets, helped me push past my confidence barrier.
coppervale
Feb. 20th, 2009 10:28 pm (UTC)
Starting anything helps, man. Keep it up.
gregvaneekhout
Feb. 20th, 2009 10:18 pm (UTC)
Personally I think if you write, you're a writer. If you write diligently, you're a diligent writer. If you write well, you're a good writer. But I think the designation "writer" can only come from the act of doing it, and while external validation from other writers is wonderful, they can neither grant you the designation of "writer," nor take it away.
coppervale
Feb. 20th, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
You're right, Greg (and I like your distinctions). I wasn't really thinking of it as an external validation though, as much as a sort of screening by those who know of what they speak. I mean, somebody has to determine if you are a 'good' writer - and a lot of lousy writers do it themselves.
(no subject) - sarah_prineas - Feb. 20th, 2009 10:31 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - coppervale - Feb. 20th, 2009 10:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sarah_prineas - Feb. 20th, 2009 10:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - coppervale - Feb. 20th, 2009 10:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - coppervale - Feb. 20th, 2009 10:56 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gregvaneekhout - Feb. 20th, 2009 11:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - coppervale - Feb. 20th, 2009 11:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gregvaneekhout - Feb. 20th, 2009 11:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gregvaneekhout - Feb. 20th, 2009 11:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - coppervale - Feb. 21st, 2009 12:14 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - gregvaneekhout - Feb. 21st, 2009 12:22 am (UTC) - Expand
corvidophile
Feb. 20th, 2009 11:16 pm (UTC)
not that i'm a writer or anything hehe... but i so agree with the comment: "There are some published authors who aren't very good, and might never be."

just because someone is published, doesn't mean they should be. there are a few authors i've come across that it boggles my mind how they got as far as they did.

and on the flip side - a few newcomers out there who need to write faster so i can read more, sooner! ;D
kalimac
Feb. 20th, 2009 11:40 pm (UTC)
I'm not a "writer" in the particular sense you're using here, and have no calling to be one. What I am is a scholar (which of course also involves writing, but of a different kind), and I went through the same process of being validated by those whose work I respected.
bluestockingbb
Feb. 21st, 2009 01:20 am (UTC)
That's very interesting. I'd never heard of that. No I'm not a writer. I'm a book blogger. I guess you can say that I've been validated by other book bloggers and authors for my reviews. Speaking of which, I've reviewed two of your books on my blog. I need to get cracking on the third. I'm happy to hear about the fourth. I can't wait to post it on my blog! I think the third book was my favorite.

Here, There Be Dragons

The Search for the Red Dragon
thunderchikin
Feb. 21st, 2009 01:33 am (UTC)
Eventually can be a very long time. Sometimes, it can be never.
coppervale
Feb. 21st, 2009 02:21 am (UTC)
I went to go sell a screenplay in Hollywood, and after two months of meetings and no deals, some of my friends declared that it would 'never' happen. I disagreed, and kept at it after they stopped pursuing it at all.

Two years later I sold my screenplay. Through that whole period, I had been mocked for my ever-increasing delusion that I'd make the sale.

From one side, two months equaled forever to them.

From this side, it was no time at all.

The difference was I was willing to work my way through 'forever' to get to 'no time at all'.
byronical
Feb. 21st, 2009 01:53 am (UTC)
I find this all very encouraging! It gives me a good goal to shoot for, sure the goal is as high as the stars but you might as well aim high.

I'm willing to work as hard as I can to get that affirmation, as long as it takes to get it I'll get it.
klwilliams
Feb. 21st, 2009 02:10 am (UTC)
I was visiting my mother and stepfather in Rwanda, and one evening at a dinner party an English man referred to his Pakistani/Kenyan partner as a girl. I pointed out that she was actually a woman, not a girl, and this lead to a spirited discussion of when does a girl become a woman and a boy become a man. My favorite response was from one of the Hutu men, who said that a boy becomes a man when the other men let him "smoke the pipe and pass the gourd*." In other words, when the other men let him join them around the circle as they hang out being men together.

*The homemade alcoholic banana "beer" is passed around in gourds.
coppervale
Feb. 21st, 2009 02:13 am (UTC)
That's a much better metaphor than my table and chairs!
(no subject) - klwilliams - Feb. 21st, 2009 02:18 am (UTC) - Expand
mordraeth
Feb. 21st, 2009 03:57 am (UTC)
thanks for posting this.
christymarx
Feb. 22nd, 2009 02:23 am (UTC)
What that other friend Dan Simmons? He did a signing here on Thurs. and I was able to chat with him for a few minutes. He also mentioned that Harlan anecdote.

Although I've been a pro writer for 30 years now, I don't think I ever had that moment where some other pro told me I was a writer. For me, that moment was seeing my first work in print and my first credit on the TV screen.
scribblerworks
Feb. 22nd, 2009 05:55 pm (UTC)
"First work in print and first credit on the TV screen" -- I think that would qualify as "some other pro" telling you that you were a writer!

:D

They just didn't say it to your face. Heh.
(no subject) - christymarx - Feb. 22nd, 2009 08:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
mordraeth
Feb. 22nd, 2009 02:18 pm (UTC)
I didn't have time to elaborate the other day.

This is a well timed reminder for me. The story I'm working on is floundering and I'm thinking who would possibly want to read this. I guess that's not much more elaboration, but thanks for the post. Back to writing.
catvalente
Feb. 22nd, 2009 05:41 pm (UTC)
I was living alone in Japan without a friend in the world when my first novel came out. I don't think anyone ever told me I was a writer. But then, because of that timing and geography, it took me a lot longer to know or meet any other writers than most.

But I'm living proof that even the weirdest stuff can get into the big publishers if you're persistent. Whether you can stay there? Is a whole other issue.
ebess
Mar. 3rd, 2009 07:08 pm (UTC)
Catching up on my blogs, darling. Hi.

This October, a certain writer and editor whom we both know looked me square in the face and said, "Your apprenticeship is over. Decide."

Changed everything.
( 33 comments — Leave a comment )