Thursday, November 8, 2012
What Makes A Writer A Pro: A Neglected View
With fewer and fewer writers making a living writing fiction, the publishing industry frantically trying to predict the next bestseller, literary agents running scared, and more and more writers bypassing the gatekeeping process of traditional publishing in the age of the e-reader on the one hand and legacy business practices on the other, the perennial discussion of what defines a writer as a professional has become rather heated lately. We’ve been having this conversation on Poe’s Deadly Daughters, and it’s been going on on various readers’ and writers’ e-lists that I participate in.
There are two front runners for most widely agreed-upon criteria for being a professional writer. One, not surprisingly, is making money. In the mystery world, Mystery Writers of America is well known to define the professionalism it advocates for by making the dividing line between its affiliate (ie aspiring) and active (ie professional) members the earning of a certain minimum advance from a publisher that puts the work it accepts through a selection and editing process without any conflict of interest (such as an author list consisting solely of the publisher’s relatives or the publisher charging the author a fee for editing the work in question). Distribution to brick and mortar bookstores used to be an equally important proviso. That, of course, is changing.
The second thing that makes a writer a pro, according to a lot of those with opinions on the subject, is writing every day. I have heard quite a number of bestselling and highly regarded novelists talk about how they treat their writing as work that they sit down to daily, in short, as a job. James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton, and James Patterson all write every day. Note that all these writers, being highly successful, are paid for writing every day. None of them has to fit their creative time in around the demands of a day job, small children, or other significant distractions. James Patterson did have a high-pressure day job, an important executive job with a major ad agency. For many years, he got up at 5:30 am to write before going to work. (I heard him say this myself.) He still gets up at 5:30 am to write. But James Patterson authors or co-authors one out of every seventeen books sold in America yearly. Is James Patterson the only professional writer in America? Everyone knows that Patterson has co-authors, that he “team writes,” as he calls it himself, like advertising copywriters and movie and TV screenwriters. Some people might argue that that fact makes him less professional than other writers.
Both of these perceptions of professionalism leave out something that I think the public discourse on the topic has gone astray in ignoring completely. No, two somethings: the writer’s craft, and enough knowledge of the way books reach readers to function appropriately and effectively within the maze that publishing in its broadest sense has become.
I don’t write fiction every day. And I have spent a lot more money than I’ve made in the process of learning my craft, researching and writing my work, getting it published, and promoting it, which professional authors know that they must do in the 21st century. However, I know the difference between good prose and bad, my own or someone else’s. I know that my task is far from done when I’ve completed the first draft of a novel or story. I must revise it over and over, till I’ve fixed everything I can spot. Then I must subject it to critique, picking “critters” I respect whose suggestions are likely to be well-informed and helpful. I accept that I may have to “kill my darlings,” ie delete passages I loved when I wrote them in the interests of a tighter story. I know how not to switch point of view in the middle of a paragraph, how to use dialogue and action to “show, not tell,” and how to construct my story in a series of scenes with appropriate transitions. I’m not just saying I know that as a writer I should do these things. Any aspiring writer who’s read a writing book or attended a workshop knows them too. I know how to achieve these elements of craft. How? Because I’m a pro.
I’m still amazed when agents, editors, and fellow writers exclaim over how “clean” my manuscripts are. It astonishes me that in this age of intense competition, anyone turns in a manuscript that has typos, spelling errors, flawed punctuation, grammar, and syntax, and incorrect word usage. How come I don’t make any of these mistakes (beyond the occasional typo—I’m only human)? Because I’m a pro.
Because I’m a pro, I know how to submit a manuscript. I know what to put into a query letter and what not to put into a synopsis. I can describe my story at varying length from elevator pitch to query paragraph to one-page synopsis to three-page synopsis to chapter by chapter outline to jacket copy to catalog copy if called upon to do so. I know to scour the website of every agent and press I approach for submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. If I’m asked for a marketing plan, I can provide it. If I’ve submitted what I thought was a standalone novel, and the publisher asks for a blurb on the next five books in the series, I can sit down at the computer and bat it out.
The other day, a small press publisher to whom I’d submitted my Young Adult manuscript asked if I’d be interested in helping him start a YA imprint (for pay, of course). I was startled. I suggested that first, he needs to see if he likes my manuscript. He might not, and my study of his website turned up one factor that might make a working relationship between us difficult. On the other hand, the question fired my imagination, and within three days I’d come up with a page of ideas about what I could do, what I’d need to learn, and what I’d need to ask for in such a role. I’ve never been or thought of being a publisher. I haven’t sold a YA manuscript yet. But I’m a writer, I’m experienced, I’m published, and hey, I’m a pro.