Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hobby Writer

posted by Sharon Wildwind

I’m a quilter. I’ve made over 50 quilts and wall hangings, ranging in size from a queen-size bed quilt called “Plowed Fields” that I designed and made to celebrate my first book being published to a 3” miniature, which one of my stuffed bears uses as his security blanket. I’ve quilted pillows, book bags, cosmetic cases, coin purses, tea cozies, vests, beaded bags, and treasure bags, just big enough to hold a trinket and 2 pieces of designer chocolate. I’ve even been paid three times for commissioned work.

I remain a hobby quilter. I quilt for my own amusement, to make gifts, or simply to relieve stress. I have no desire to be a quilting teacher, or write a quilting book, or take my quilts on the road in a trunk show. For all I know, “hobby quilter” is a applied to me pejoratively behind my back by the more haute couture quilters of my acquaintance.

Hobby writer is certainly pejorative. “She’ll never be anything but a hobby writer,” another writer says cattily over lunch. “Maybe you should try just being a hobby writer,” members of a critique group suggest gently. There is a certain segment of the mystery community who would, if it could, lump all authors of light, funny, fluffy mysteries into the category of hobby writers. Fortunately, it’s a very small segment, and can be mostly avoided.

So where’s the line? Does a writer go to bed one night a hobby writer and wake up the next morning as a professional writer. Or vice versa? The demarcation certainly is not in the quality of writing. I’ve read spectacular pieces by people who openly call themselves hobby writers and have no desire to turn pro. Nor is the line crossed if an author occasionally makes money on writing or is published. Contrary to urban myths, the Internal Revenue Service does not have a hard and fast rule about what makes writing a hobby versus a legitimate tax deduction.

It’s not even attitude. Many hobby writers say they write professionally, but are not professional writers. To write professionally means to keep learning the craft and try to turn out each piece a little better than the one before, which is what I try to do in my quilts.

I think the difference between the hobby writer and the professional writer has to do with two things. The first is reflected in a quote I collected a few years ago from another mystery writer. I didn’t write down who said it, so I’ll give it to you unattributed. If you have a clue who might have said this, please let me know so I can credit them. The quote is “The business of writing has to be as much fun as the writing. The difference between an amateur and a professional is how much time they devote to business.”

Ah, the business. Agent searches. Query letters. Knowing the market. Filing taxes. Keeping up with the publishing world. Doing an inventory of what’s in your home office and your storage closet. Making and sticking to a budget. Writing business goals. Having a professional portrait taken. Doing book signings and classes. Marketing, marketing, and more marketing. Getting your name out there even before you have a book to sell and keeping your name out there in front of readers.

The second difference is that the hobby writer allows herself the luxury of not writing. I don’t mean those occasional spells of taking a few days, or in some cases, a few weeks off. Everyone has those, but no matter what’s going on in the background of the rest of her life, the professional writer eventually puts her bottom in the chair and her hands on the keyboard or around the gel pen and knocks out the 5,000 words for the short-story or the 90,000 words for the novel. She may have to write around children, or family illness, or a broken furnace, or the pressures of a day job, but write she will. As well as she can, and perhaps just squeaking in under the deadline by minutes, but she gets there.

Not all writers wish to turn pro. It's time we stamp out this arbitrary dividing line and treat one another simply as writers.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

My accountant and I talked just the other day about this very topic with respect to the IRS. While there's no hard and fast rule, the IRS (sez my accountant)tends to consider you a hobby writer--despite all evidence of professionalism to the contrary--if your writing expenses exceed your income for too many years in a row. In other words, the Feds live in a different reality from ours.

Lonnie Cruse said...


Excellent post. There are writers who get paid for what they write simply because they have a famous name, married someone famous, were born to someone famous, etc. Writers write. All the time.

Jenue said...

This is a great post. I never thought about the difference between a hobby writer and a professional writer before. On my blog I say that I'm a hobby writer because I don't write for money; at least not yet. I post my best work so people can enjoy my writing. I just love it when people ask me, "so what happens next?" Now that is priceless!