Risky Regencies

What makes a pro?

Last week I blogged about the fun of doing amateur art, music, theatre, etc… without the pressure of making a career of it. Risky friend Susan Wilbanks commented that she enjoys singing, but though she has not yet sold a novel, her writing is not a hobby. I know what she means and I definitely don’t think it’s publication that separates the amateur writer from the professional.

It’s harder to put my finger on the difference, though.

There are people in Romance Writers of America who believe that membership in the organization confers professionalism. But some have been members for a decade or more, write sporadically or not at all and have not completed or submitted a manuscript. So I don’t think declaring oneself a professional is enough.

Part of it is that the pro seeks payment for her art (and that’s where finishing and submitting come in). She will take her craft seriously and strive to create work worthy of publication.

But it’s not just money either. Here’s what Steven Pressfield (THE WAR OF ART) says about the difference between the amateur and the professional: “The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning ‘to love’. The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while the pro does it for money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his ‘real’ vocation. The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time.”
To me this quote feels a bit derogatory to the amateur (though perhaps it wasn’t intended that way). Nor do I think one has to write full time to be a professional. But I do believe it is about commitment. Being an amateur is like dating while being a pro is like marriage. One can walk away from a hobby but a true professional hangs in there.

Some writers say one should write every day. I agree with that in principle but I also suspect the ones who say that have wives to deal with sick kids and household disasters. I agree with a married, working friend of mine who once said there were times she wished she had a “wife”. 🙂

Whether or not one writes every day–or even takes occasional breaks from the writing–I do think it’s important to come up with goals (which can be modest) and a schedule (which doesn’t have to be anything like 9-5) and stick to it. At one point I was working a “regular job” 3 days a week and had a young baby. I wrote during her naps (when they happened) on my two days off and on Wednesday evenings and Sunday afternoons when my husband was able to babysit. The hours were erratic, but I showed up and did my best. LORD LANGDON’S KISS was the result.

So anyway, this is what I’ve come up with so far. A professional writer is one who strives to improve her mastery of the craft, one who sets goals and shows up for work even if she’s not in the mood.

What do you think makes a professional writer?

Elena
www.elenagreene.com

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Amanda McCabe
15 years ago

I think you’re right that “showing up” is a big part of it, Elena! A certain seriousness of purpose, too. I have 2 friends (no one here, lol!), one of them sets a writing schedule and sticks to it, gets books done, polishes them, networks with agents, editors, and other writers, and recently sold her first manuscript. Another is just as good a writer, but only writes once in a while when she feels like it, starts new projects even when the old one isn’t done, etc. I doubt that’s the way to sell anything. 🙂

It’s very, very hard to stick to a schedule without a deadline (for me, anyway. I’m also easily distracted!), but we have to be the first one to take our work seriously, or no one else will. 🙂 Some people NEVER will take us seriously, even after we sell! Why do some people ask dumb things like “Are you still doing that writing thing?” I don’t ask them “Are you still doing that lawyer thing?” LOL

doglady
15 years ago

I think you hit it on the head, Elena. And I had to laugh at Amanda “Are you still doing that lawyer thing?” Even when I was singing professionally I had relatives who asked “When are you going to get a real job?” I mean I was a salaried opera singer with an opera company. I had a health plan, a clothing allowance, paid vacations – what is that if not a real job?? And now I am working to make writing my full-time career and hope to eventually give up my “real” job at Wal-Mart to write full time. The seriousness of purpose is the thing. The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one? The published one did not give up!

Anonymous
Anonymous
15 years ago

Here’s another perspective. Another big difference may be that the amateur writes the books she wants to write, while the professional writes the books the market wants.

The longer I write–and I’ve been writing for decades and have published quite a few successful nonfiction books–the more this is becoming a huge issue for me.

My novels have been rejected by editors at big houses with letters to the effect that I write very well and create vivid characters, but my stories are not the kind the market is looking for right now.

Unfortunately, what is selling in my genre right now are books that I’d be ashamed to have written.

So I face a decision, do I continue to push myself to achieve a higher level of craft by writing the kinds of books I love to read–complex well-researched character driven books with the kind of pacing that was popular in the 90s–the type of book I love to read, but which aren’t selling to the TV generation, or do I try to write what the market wants?

I spent several months trying to write to the market and learned that doing that took all the enjoyment out of writing. So I’ve gone back to writing the books I’d want to read, knowing that this means I’m not likely to sell.

Does this make me an “amateur?” I’m not so sure. Too many of the authors who were on my “auto-buy” list have lost their contracts over the past couple years and have been replaced on the shelves by younger authors writing poorly researched, badly written books with plots suspiciously like those of TV shows.

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

Perhaps seriousness of purpose is the defining element. If you are serious about your writing and regularly show up to write, then you are a pro.

Anonymous, this certainly fits you. I wonder if someday you’ll send a submission to an editor and they’ll say, “Wow, this is fresh!” and you’ll be the next “new” trend. So save your backlist!

Doglady, I am impressed beyond belief that you were an employed, professional opera singer–ARE a professional opera singer. Gosh, I hope I didn’t make any huge opera faux pas in Innocence & Impropriety, where opera has a minor part in the plot. I’m putting you on my consultant list if I ever write about an opera singer again!

Elena Greene
15 years ago

Doglady, how cool about the opera. My sister in law is a singer too and has had to deal with some of the same issues of being taken seriously. As writers we get that a lot, too. My inlaws used to keep asking how much I paid to have my books published…

Anonymous, I think you are a professional because you are serious about the craft and writing books of a sort that many have enjoyed reading in the past and probably would enjoy reading now were it not for the difficulties of the current market. I’ve heard a number of readers complain about the lack of meatier, researched books, so the trend may swing around at some point.

As a general thought–NOT directed at Anonmyous–I think anyone who has had repeated rejections needs to do some soul-searching. It may be possible to adapt in a way that preserves the essence of what you want to write but makes it easier to sell, i.e. when orphaned gothic romance writers brought the same sensibility to romantic suspense.

Or–again not in your case–some unpublished writers persist in the same errors, like avoiding conflict or writing too-perfect heroines.

But you’ve done your homework and you’ve done the soul-searching. It may be a matter of persisting despite the flaky market and keeping a backlog of work ready. Hang in there!

Megan Frampton
15 years ago

I think seriousness and commitment is what makes a writer a writer.

I know that until I made a promise to myself (and to my partner-in-writing-crime, KJ), I wasn’t writing as much and as often as I should have been; now I feel as if I am on a path with a specific destination.

Cara King
15 years ago

Even when I was singing professionally I had relatives who asked “When are you going to get a real job?”

I know what you mean, Doglady! I think some of it is, for some folks, if a job doesn’t fit the shape of the “job” they know, they don’t think it’s a job. For example, when Todd was working as a postdoctoral researcher — which meant he had a PhD in theoretical physics, and now was being paid a normal salary to do nothing but invent new bits of physics full-time and further our knowledge of the world — various members of my family would ask him when he was going to finally graduate.

And when I’d explain that he was done with school, he was working, they’d look puzzled, and ask the same question a year later.

Eventually I deduced that they only saw two parts of university life — teacher and student. And so if he wasn’t teaching, he must be a student…

A bit like the folks who have the vague impression that no art can also be a paying profession! 🙂

The difference between a published writer and an unpublished one? The published one did not give up!

I’m with you there!

Cara

Cara King
15 years ago

I spent several months trying to write to the market and learned that doing that took all the enjoyment out of writing. So I’ve gone back to writing the books I’d want to read, knowing that this means I’m not likely to sell.

And for all the editors saying “pay attention to the market,” there are lots saying “write what you love” — because then it will have passion…and if/when the Gothic/Paranormal/Whatever genre comes back into fashion, this passionate book will be sitting there waiting…

Of course, the flip side is, if the genre doesn’t come back, one may never have a sale!

Yes, I face these issues often.

Looking back, I see trends I wished I’d followed (or followed more quickly), and trends I wish I hadn’t. And times I wished I’d listened more to how I felt my novel should be, and times I wish I’d listened less.

And while writing the difficult book may make one’s book less likely to get published, if it does get published, it may be more likely to be big, trend-setting, award-winning, or at least memorable…

Ah, decisions, decisions… 🙂

And as to the “write every day” dictum… My opinion there is my opinion on everything: do what works for you…

Cara

Susan Wilbanks
15 years ago

Boy, was I surprised to go to the Risky blog this morning and see my name in the first paragraph!

As a general thought–NOT directed at Anonmyous–I think anyone who has had repeated rejections needs to do some soul-searching. It may be possible to adapt in a way that preserves the essence of what you want to write but makes it easier to sell, i.e. when orphaned gothic romance writers brought the same sensibility to romantic suspense.

This is what I’ve been doing by sticking with the Regency/Napoleonic era that holds such a strong interest for me and seems like a good fit for my voice, but writing alternate history/military adventure instead of romance. Though, what I’ll do if that doesn’t sell either, I’m not sure! Keep trying, of course, but I don’t know what!

As for what makes a pro, I think RWA is onto something with the PRO level. If you can finish a manuscript and submit it, that says something about your commitment. I also think you need to find a way to keep at it despite adversity and to find at least some time for writing no matter how busy you get with day job and family. Otherwise, you’re going to be a person who likes to talk about writing rather than an actual writer.

catslady
15 years ago

I used to think if you could make a living at it you were a “pro” but I like your definition better. I don’t think it’s just something you can call yourself because you want to belive it.

doglady
15 years ago

Diane. I can assure you that all of your musical and/or opera references were spot on in Innocence and Impropriety, another of your books near and dear to my heart. I officially retired from singing to play the doctor’s wife and I did not go back to it after Roger died. I do, however, do concerts from time to time and I have taught private students until recently. The life of a touring opera singer in Europe was quite an adventure. I am here as a reference anytime. And I hate to tell all of those people, but doing something you were meant to do and loving every minute of it is the only “real” job there is. I felt that way about singing and I definitely feel that way about writing.

Diane Gaston
15 years ago

doing something you were meant to do and loving every minute of it is the only “real” job there is. I felt that way about singing and I definitely feel that way about writing.

Maybe this is the definition of a pro! Whatever it is, I love it.

Doglady, thank you so much for telling me I did it right in Innocence & Impropriety. Whew! How exciting that you actually toured Europe singing opera. Aren’t you glad you let yourself live your dream? I’ll bet your Roger will be smiling down at you when your writing career takes off!

Todd
15 years ago

Cara wrote:

Eventually I deduced that they only saw two parts of university life — teacher and student. And so if he wasn’t teaching, he must be a student…

Yeah, most people had no idea was a “postdoc” was. Ah, those were the good old days! 🙂

More seriously: I often joke about what I do (research and teaching) by saying that I never wanted to leave school and get a “real job.” It’s definitely not all fun and games, but I love to do it, and it’s great that I can actually get paid reasonably well for it.

This semester I’ve been doing extra teaching and a lot of administrative work, and I find that very stressful exactly because it’s too much like having a “real job.” 🙂

Todd-who-needs-to-return-to-his-life-of-total-irresponsibility

Elena Greene
15 years ago

Susan, here’s hoping your strategy pays off–I’m sure all of us would be delighted to interview you about your debut novel.

Maybe this is another thing to add to the definition–a professional writer perseveres despite an uncertain market.

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