Thursday, November 8, 2012

What Makes A Writer A Pro: A Neglected View


Elizabeth Zelvin

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.

27 comments:

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Liz,

I think a professional writer is first as you observe someone who is paid for their writing, who writes consistently and submits work consistently. I would also agree that a pro writes a "clean" manuscript.One more point, a pro knows how to deal with rejection.

Jacqueline Seewald
DEATH LEGACY
THE TRUTH SLEUTH

Sheila Connolly said...

Liz, what you said about taking your writing seriously is absolutely correct. Very few writers start out with a flawless manuscript, but the more you write (whether you sell or not), the more you learn and improve. It may be your tenth manuscript that sells, but it's bound to be better than the first.

But that takes a time commitment, and a support system--a working spouse or partner, a wealth family. If you're still keeping that day job and/or you have children at home, the time and energy you can give to your writing is reduced, and the learning curve is that much longer. We should applaud the writers who stick to their dream and make that work.

For the decade since I began writing, I think I more or less broke even with my writing income, once I'd deducted business expenses (I have a working spouse). It's only in the last year or two that I've come out with a profit at the end of the year. Luckily I enjoy much of the "business" end, mainly conferences and research. For me, writing is a pleasure, and I don't draw a line between work and pleasure.

Julia Buckley said...

You are a pro, Liz, by anyone's definition, and this was a very interesting post.

Anonymous said...

Serious writers should accept the fact that writing is a business and if they want to be successful they must follow the rules of the world of commerce! MHC and Jim Patterson were both pros in the tough worlds of business before they carried the take-home-pay from their books to the nearest bank! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Steve Liskow said...

Excellent post, Liz, with many important observations.

Money is good, but professionalism is an attitude as much as anything else. The pro respects the writing and the craft, which means she or he uses the language correctly and effectively. The pro revises and rewrites to make the plot and characters as strong as possible and researches to get the crucial facts right.

The formatting and proof-reading should be axiomatic, but I've seen traditionally-published books recently that would not have surviced my class when I was teaching. I'm finding myself wondering more and more about editing and revision in some of those books, too.

Above all, a professional will help and encourage other writers at any stage of their development.

Thanks for sharing this.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

A good eye helps--I spotted that "surviced," Steve. ;) (You get a pass, because Blogger doesn't allow for editing Comments.) For me, it's not so much the published books as the manuscripts. That stuff should be not only axiomatic, but habitual, even compulsive. Recently on a list we know, post after post after post referred to NaNoWriMo as "Nanano."
To a pro, that's like a grain of sand in your undies.

Jan Christensen said...

I agree with you, Liz. And I think Steve makes a great point about attitude defining a professional. Professionals in any profession continue to learn throughout their careers, pay attention to detail, and polish their work. And this usually results in at least some money earned.

Joyce Lavene said...

Good post, Liz. To me, a professional writer is someone who gets paid for their work, ebook or print. Basically, this is the criteria we apply to most efforts (pro sports, for instance). What you do with that acknowledgement is up to you then. I know many pro writers who don't write a clean manuscript but that doesn't stop them from being paid or from being published.

Joanne Guidoccio said...

Excellent post, Liz. It's great to hear from a pro.

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