Speaking of Writers . . .

Today was my day at the Second Wind Publishing Blog, and I posted an article entitled: “What Do You Call an Unpublished Writer?” If the truth be told, it’s a reworking of a bloggery I wrote over a year ago, but back then only a few people read it, so it’s practically brand new. What is also new (or rather eternally fresh) is that particular question, and it got me to thinking how only in the arts do people categorize themselves by their aspirations not their jobs. How many self-named actors in Hollywood or New York are restaurant workers with a few bit parts on their resumes and a head full of dreams?

It seems that writers, even more than actors, struggle with this identity. When do we become writers? When do we become authors? When can we call ourselves professional writers or novelists? It seems there are many steps on the path to becoming a writer, or at least to being able to call ourselves writers, and we have all sorts of definitions to prove that we are writers and other lesser beings are not. A writer writes — always. A writer has a compulsion to write. A writer . . . well, you get the picture. I have never been able to use such adages to define myself. I don’t write always. I don’t have a compulsion to write — it’s a choice.

I do know one thing, a writer does write some of the time. If a person has a novel in their head but nowhere else, that person might be a storyteller (not a bad title in itself) but not a writer. As for the rest of it, does it matter? Perhaps on the internet, where we are whatever we say we are, it makes a difference, but when we are alone with our words and our stories, we are simply being. Not being writers, but being the creat(e)ures we were meant to be.

23 Responses to “Speaking of Writers . . .”

  1. Pamela Villars Says:

    Pat, it’s good to hear an author says it’s a choice and not a compulsion.

    It’s the same for me (I’m not a professional, but the words are going on paper and out into the world) and I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to read constantly that you’re not a “real” writer because it’s not “write or die.”

    I’m old enough to know better, but I worry about how discouraging that might be those those who take it to heart.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Pamela, Every time I hear the words: A writer writes — always, I feel my teeth grind. Who started that? Outside of the idiocy — we don’t do anything always except breathe — what’s wrong with writing when we want and when we choose?

  2. Malcolm Says:

    I’m better off when I’m writing but I don’t have to like it. When I choose not to do it, I’m worse off.


  3. Pamela Villars Says:

    Pat, yes, yes, yes! When the impulse or deadline is there. What’s the point of all the guilt? Except to create more and feel worse.

    Sometimes I feel like I need a support group – in support of voluntary writing.

    Off my soapbox now – thanks for joining me.

  4. themegalomaniac Says:

    I don’t think people should struggle so much to define themselves as writers, rather to just write. People who think they are writers and don’t write are delusional.

  5. Susan Says:

    I wonder about this one: you aren’t a writer until you are read. Which of course means you have to finish something. Woody Allen said something like “90% of success is showing up.”

  6. joylene Says:

    It took me a long time to feel comfortable with the line, “I’m a writer.” 25 years, in fact. “I write” was my usual reply, until my novel Dead Witness was released last summer. And even then I hesitated to mention it. Not until I started hearing from readers and receiving good reviews, did it dawn on me that I didn’t have to hide my profession. Even my family feels free now to tell their friends what it is their mother does.

    I’ve been involved in the profession long enough to know I’m not alone in my attitude. Every unpublished writer I’ve met since my first book signing couldn’t answer the question when I said, “Are you a writer?”

    Some said, “Oh, no. I–I’m sort of working on something, but …”

    I’m doing a reading at the regional library near me on January 27th. My talk is going to be on that very issue. Of course, I’m assuming most of the audience will be wannabee writers. I attended quite a few readings in my day. And when asked, my reply was the same. “No. I’m a storyteller.”

    You’re so right, Pat. A writer is someone who writes. The time, energy, effort, desire dictates that term readily. And I think it should be said with gusto and pride.

  7. Cliff Burns Says:

    Good post–writers seeking to define themselves often find themselves prey to their own desperation. Recently it was revealed that HarperCollins’ “Authonomy” site–originally touted as a venue for authors to “Beat the slush” and get access to HC editors–has yet to offer a single contract for any of the thousands of manuscripts posted but HAVE approached certain authors with an option to PAY FOR PUBLISHING THEIR BOOKS through a POD-like system. Here’s a link to a thread where I denounced the concept and was soundly thrashed by the outraged community of authors who reside there and are, apparently, willing to forgive HarperCollins for everything:


    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Cliff, thanks for the link. I checked out the discussion, and you’re right — Authonomy does seem like a con, one that people are willing to forgive. But the writers’ acceptance of the situation makes sense; what other choice do they have? (Well, they do have choices, but not if they want to make it big.) The power still resides in the hands of the few major publishers, and in that power resides the dreams of millions of wannabe best-selling authors. Some, if not most, of the vanity presses are owned by the major publishers. This seems to be an extension of that. I found it interesting how many writers said they were in it for the critiques. That seems to be another thing writers are desperate for — critiques. (An odd contradiction — if writers think their book is so good as to perhaps be picked out of the slush-pile, why do they think it’s so bad as to need critiquing? Unless, of course, they are really wanting acclaim instead of criticism.)

      The desperation of writers to get published, to make a name, and to make money is fueling a whole industry that preys on them — from books on how to become a bestselling author, to blog tour directors who demand a fortune, to reviewers who demand big money ($500 in one case), to publishers who demand money.

  8. Cliff Burns Says:

    Amen to that.

    Now I know why people (like me) keep coming back here. Practical advice and a common sense perspective.

    Not to mention the fact that you’re one smart lass…

  9. knightofswords Says:

    One point I made on that thread which nobody noticed is the fact that even the best book on Authonomy might not meet HC standards in terms of sales expectations, that being purportedly 50,000 or more. That, I think, could be one reason nobody is seeing an HC contract.

    That said, the editorial comments (we can’t see these on the site, can we?) that appear to have been written by editors who didn’t see the MSS (plus the POD option) certainly make the site look different than advertised. We all wanted a chance to put our work on the desk of an editor who wouldn’t otherwise see it unless we got the attention of an agent first.

    Of course, that begs the question of why the authors with the best books on the site aren’t spending more time seeking agents then reading other people’s books on the site. Authonomy is very time consuming for any author who wants his/her book to get enough votes to make a splash. Might be better to be using more of that time submitting the MS elsewhere.


  10. Pat Bertram Says:

    Malcom, thank you for bringing up the point of sales expectations. It is one thing we seldom take into consideration when we’re rejected. I heard of one author (can’t remember the name, sorry) whose contract was not renewed because he only sold 40,000 books, which fell way short of the 100,000 that had been projected. So, while a book may be well written and the story well told, the publishers/editors/publicists might determine that it has too small a market. It’s also the reason they want legal thrillers written by lawyers, medical thrillers written by medical professionals — it gives them a platform to stand on. Woe (and failure) to writers who are simply writers.

    Still, the publisher could offer a POD contract without demanding any money. It’s a matter of a few hundred dollars to get the book into print. Not a big outlay, and would go far to creating good will in a business that has so little of it anymore.

    Why aren’t they seeking agents? We all want the short cuts. Submitting queries can be a daunting and labor intensive task, to say nothing of expensive.

    I’ve been castigated for going with a new publisher who is using POD technology to publish his books rather than waiting for a “real” publisher. But if I kept sending out queries and proposals and manuscripts, I’d end up spending more than I could reasonably make from an advance.

    No matter how you look at it, it’s a heartbreaking business.

  11. knightofswords Says:

    Some of those people bothering you about the POD might be associating it only with self-publishing/vanity rather than noticing some university presses are using it for books with projected runs too short to justify offset.

    There’s also a fair amount of talk about POD being a prospective choice for major houses for first runs of novels as well as books they don’t want to go out of print but which sell a thousand or so every year.


    • Pat Bertram Says:

      POD — the technology — is the wave of the future. at least so far as print books go. I wrote an article about it earlier today, but won’t get a chance to post it until tomorrow. I think I’ll call it McBooks. Nice, catchy title.

  12. Pat Bertram Says:

    Speaking of writers struggling with identity. Several people ended up here after googling “How to know if you’re a writer.” The way I figure it, if you’re a writer, you know it. You don’t need to define it.

  13. amydetrempe Says:

    Great discussion, Pat. It is nice to know I am not alone in my writing progress. I could spend an entire weekend on my WIP because that is where my mind and heart was at. It is during these times I am compelled to write, as if my muse will not let up until it is typed out. Then there are weeks where I have no desire to write a single word. My current WIP has not seen a new sentence since Jan 4. I just haven’t had the drive or have been in the mood. I used to be concerned when this happened, but no longer. That need to sit back down and write and edit will return. And, I don’t think it makes me any less of a writer because I don’t follow a discipline of having a writing schedule. Though, I do admire those who can sit down the same time everyday, without interruption, and crank out paragraphs and chapters.

    McBooks – love it!

  14. Pat Bertram Says:

    Wow, you’re all over the blogosphere today, Amy. Glad you stopped by here. There is entirely too much pressure on us, either from within or without, to define ourselves as writers. Good for you for not becoming obsessed with it.

  15. Janice Campbell Says:

    Great post, Pat. It took me years to feel comfortable saying that was a writer, despite the fact that I walk into my home office in the morning, sit down, and write and write and write. Despite the fact that I have steady income coming in from my books. Despite the fact that my work has appeared in magazines.

    Why the difficulty? I think that it was because none of my work counted as literary fiction. I have literary projects I plan to write someday, but for now, I’m putting bread on the table with non-fiction, and that just doesn’t feel the same.

    I don’t have difficulty calling myself a writer any more, because the reality is there, but it’s a hard transition to make. I’m pretty sure I’ll feel more like a real writer when my literary works hit the shelves.

    The feeling that commercial writing or non-fiction was less respected than literary fiction is one of the reasons I’m working with the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors. There needed to be an organization that understood and respected the fact that people who earn their living (or even part of it) with words are writers and editors, and there needed to be a way to acknowledge and support the fact that writers and editors are entrepreneurs who need support for marketing and other aspects of business. NAIWE does all that, and I hope it will make it easier for non-traditional writers and editors to claim their identity. We welcome literary writers as well as commercial writers, and I believe the association is richer for the blend.

  16. Pat Bertram Says:

    Janice, it seems that all writers are insecure in some way. Literary writers might feel secure about calling themselves writers, but feel insecure in that they don’t make the money the major commercial writers do. I had never realized how difficult a situation this is, and how writers struggle to define themselves. During the first years I wrote, I did not have any connection to other writers; I simply wrote my books and edited them. Being by myself, I never had a need to identify myself as a writer (still don’t, really.) But now that I’m on the internet and in contact with writers at every phase of the process, I can see how difficult it is for people.

    Today, more than ever, we need to promote good writing over mediocre, and to learn to respect those good writers whether they write non-fiction, literary fiction, POD-published books.

  17. Pat Bertram Says:

    As promised, here’s my article about the future of POD technology: McBooks

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