The Opposite of Popular

The online home of alleged author Victoria Leybourne

What does it mean to “be a writer”?

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This is the post I mentioned last week, the one that splintered off from my whine. It’s come out a bit pompous, I think, because I was in A Mood and not my usual, gently sarcastic, self but I’m trying not to throw away so many blog posts.

Ask me what my dream is, my goal, my ambition and I’ll tell you without a moment’s hesitation: I want to be a writer. Ask me what that actually involves, and I’ll dissolve into a puddle of introspection. I’m starting to wonder if there aren’t as many definitions of “a writer” as there are people who consider themselves to be one. There are certainly a lot, and I’m still trying to figure out which one works for me: what I actually mean when I say that this is what I want to be.

These are a few of the ones I’ve tried on for size. (Note: I’m talking mostly about being a writer of novels, because that’s what I want to do, but I think a lot of it translates to other kinds of writing too.)

“A writer is someone with a publishing deal.”

This used to be my definition, and I think it’s the one that a lot of aspiring writers are working with. Unlike some of the other definitions, you can’t become a writer under this one on your own. You have to get past gatekeepers: professionals, experts. Agents and editors. People who read a lot of books very critically, people with huge piles of submissions on their desks. Leaping over all of those hurdles must feel like winning, and there’s a tangible prize in the form of a publishing contract. Head over to Catherine Ryan Howard’s blog to see what that’s like. She’s a big name in self-publishing but she got a traditional publishing contract and her book’s just come out. It’s pretty clear that this was her definition of achieving her “be a writer” dream (she says as much) and the happiness and fulfilment just radiates off her recent blog posts in waves (and I think that’s awesome, despite how negative I’m about to be!).

I’m not going to pretend that I don’t want some of that. But lately I’ve been thinking that striving to be “a person who has a book deal” has a lot of problems. Catherine compares her book launch to a wedding, which seems really apt to me, although I’ve given it slightly more negative connotations. Let me explain:

You dream of getting married (getting a book deal). It’s the main thing you want out of life. You date (write) extensively, sometimes enjoying it, often not, because of how high the stakes feel, but you always have your eyes on that prize. You might even end up adjusting your ideas about who you want to marry to suit what’s available (writing what you think will sell, not what you want to write) in order to be sure of securing that marriage (book deal). Finally, you find “the one” (finish a manuscript). Maybe they’re the latest in a series of “ones” but things didn’t work out (you have a big file of rejection slips). But this time, you finally get engaged (get a publishing contract). The big day arrives: your wedding (book launch). You celebrate and people give speeches about how great you are. Is this it? Has your dream come true?

Well, yes, for now. But, just like getting married, getting a book deal isn’t a gateway to happily ever after. If the wedding or the book deal are goals in themselves (and they’re perfectly good goals, as long as you accept that you can’t fully control whether or not you achieve them) then you can go ahead and tick them off your list. But if what you actually want is to “be married” or “be a person with a book deal” then you’ve got a lot of upkeep ahead of you. Neither of those are wishes that permanently come true. And neither of them is under your control: your marriage can be damaged or soured or ended by factors other than your actions, and your publisher can drop you. Jenny Trout has a particularly harrowing story about this (CW: suicide) and I’ve read others.

This isn’t a reason not to aim for a publishing contract, if you want one. But I’m not prepared to rest my ability to define myself as a writer on something so slippery and transient.

“A writer is someone who makes money from writing”

This obviously includes writers with book deals (unless it’s a publisher that doesn’t pay its authors, which is a thing that allegedly happens and another thing that takes the magical sheen off the concept) but it’s a wider category that includes self-publishers and people who earn money by writing in other ways, like ghost-writing.

I don’t have as much to say about the merits of this as a definition, but it’s another one that doesn’t quite work for me. I mean, on the one hand, I really want to be able to write instead of going out to work so, unless I win the lottery, I guess I ideally need to make some money from writing. But I don’t think that making money from writing would be enough to make me feel like I’d achieved my goal of “being a writer”. In fact, I know it wouldn’t, because I’ve been paid for writing in a couple of ways in the past. Reasonable money, too, although it’s worth noting that I work part-time temp jobs close to minimum wage and think that’s “reasonable money”, so my standards are not high. And, although I did experiment with calling myself a “professional writer” (only in my head, I have some dignity), overall it didn’t make me feel that good because I wasn’t excited about or proud of what I was writing, so it just felt like any other work.

Maybe it would be different if it was a lot of money. JK Rowling money.  I’d be happy to try it, let’s put it that way. But if I did get satisfaction from that level of success, I think it would be because it meant that a lot of people liked my writing enough to keep paying for it, which I think is a bit different.

“A writer is someone who publishes”

This is getting closer to the definition I want. This includes people who fall under the previous definitions too, but it also includes people who post their writing online, email it to their friends, staple print-outs to lampposts, whatever.

I thought about addressing “a writer is someone who writes” here but I’m a little reluctant to, because I feel like it has a lot of meaning to some people. It feels like deconstructing it would be an attack on those people’s right to define themselves as writers, which I don’t want to do. If you write in secret, want to be a writer and feel like you are, congratulations! I’m very pleased that you’re not aboard the good ship Angst with me and will happily wave to you as I set sail for Existential Panic. But I mention it because it’s always been a given for me that “being a writer” will involve putting my writing where other people can see it.

This definition still isn’t quite right for me, though. Maybe because I’ve been posting my writing online since I was thirteen. (It was a Phantom of the Opera fanfic on Neopets. Only I’d never heard of fanfiction, so I thought I’d invented it. I was hilarious when I was thirteen, and not always in a good way.) I’ve always enjoyed doing it (or, more specifically, getting good feedback for it) but it’s never really felt like an achievement. Maybe it’s the format: when you grow up reading books and wanting to write them, to see your own name on a glossy spine, maybe words on a screen don’t cut it? But I self-published a novel in paperback when I was fifteen and, while I was super-excited about it (until I realised how bad it was), it didn’t feel like I’d accomplished that “become a writer” goal.

Or maybe it’s a quality thing. When I post online, or self-publish, I know there was no gatekeeper to stop me. I know “anyone can do it”. So how do I know I’ve done a good job? Maybe…

“A writer is someone who produces good writing”

But MY GOD, how on earth does one define “good writing”? Whether it makes it into the literary canon and gets talked about seriously at universities? That probably won’t happen until after you’re dead (and Proust’s lucky he was when I was at university, because after a particularly laborious seminar I had some very specific ideas about what I wanted to do to him with one of his rotten madeleines). How well it sells? Reviews? This is as hard to pin down as the original question – maybe even harder. The truth is that no one can unilaterally stamp “good” or “bad” on a piece of writing and, if they could, millions of readers would be ready to argue with them.

So maybe…

“A writer is someone who has readers”

Looking back over this mammoth post, I realise I’ve hinted several times at the importance of this for me. And I certainly can’t say this loudly enough: having people read and respond to my writing is awesome. I think one of the reasons writing is so important to me is that, when I was a frequent outcast and inveterate weirdo as a teenager, I could secure myself a much-needed ego-boost by knocking out a chapter of the (relatively) popular modern AU of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast I was working on. In real life people were laughing at me and, on one memorable occasion, trying to set me on fire, but online they were full of interest and praise. (Relatively. I guess I should note that a) Beauty and the Beast fandom is not exactly, like, Twilight or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter fandom in its scope and enthusiasm and b) fanfiction reviews tend to be a lot more… let’s say nurturing than those on, say, Amazon. I’m not presenting this as evidence of my great literary talent, is what I’m getting at.)

When I think about popular writers I admire, what I think I envy most, what I think “Wow, what’s that like?” about, is having a fandom. Seriously, what is it like to know that there are people out there who turn to your work to entertain them, to cheer them up during bad times? People who would be super-excited to meet you? People who talk to each other for hours about stuff you just made up and wrote down? People who write fanfiction?? (There are authors who actually ban fanfiction of their work, or try to. I don’t understand that at all. I genuinely can’t think of a bigger compliment you could pay a writer than putting your time and effort into writing about their worlds and characters just because you love them too much to let them go.)

I really don’t think I want to be famous. But, equally, I have readers now (wonderful, dazzling paragons of good taste, every one of them!) and don’t feel like I’m “there”, wherever the heck there is, yet. So I’m shooting for somewhere between “a few really cool people read my writing” and “paparazzi on my doorstep”. Good to know.

So what do I mean when I say I want to “be a writer”?

I know, I was beginning to forget what the point of this post was too.

Snoopy with his typewriter: "I'm having a hard time ending this."

Regrettably, even after pondering it for lo, these 2000 words, I’m still not sure. Writing is so important to me, to the point where I think “becoming a writer” is a synonym for “feeling validated as a person” in my head. I wonder if it’s actually something that has to come from inside of me, rather than from any externally-visible definition like the ones above.

Having said that, writing all of this has helped me to think about some smaller, more tangible goals for my writing. In the short term, I would like to finish Venetian Masks and make a good job of it. I will market it as well as I can but I will refrain as much as possible from stressing over how well it’s doing, because if I’ve done the best I can at the writing and the marketing then I’ve done all I can. I’m pretty sure now that the sales aren’t what’s really important to me, although I’ll probably need reminding of that at some point. Basically, I want to let this book go, knowing that I’ve done a credible job and learned a lot.

Then, in the medium term, I would like to hang on very tightly to that knowledge and use it to write my next book, ideally with a noticeable reduction in self-doubt and general panicked flailing. And rinse and repeat at the end of that one.

Finally, in the long term, I would like everything to gradually improve. My writing to get better and faster. My self-confidence to become steadier. And I suppose, in terms of external validation, I’d like to pick up readers and sales along the way. I have extravagant dreams of fanmail and charts and being able to afford things.  But those are outside of my control and, not to sound like a letter to Princess Celestia or anything, none of them is worth as much as being proud of yourself.

(Although, to reprise a familiar idea one final time, I’d like to try them.)

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5 thoughts on “What does it mean to “be a writer”?

  1. There are, as you suggested, as many definitions of what a writer is as there are writers. Also, each one of those writers will have a different idea of what makes them a successful writer.

    To me, a writer is someone who writes on a regular basis. That’s it. But then there’s the “successful” part… That ones a little more difficult. I never doubt that I’m a writer, but sometimes I question how successful I am at being one.

    I consider myself a successful writer simply because I write regularly, have published stuff, and do a decent enough job of writing my poems and stories that the few people who actually buy my books appear to enjoy them. However, on the other hand, I feel I’m far from being successful, because if I was successful I’d have at least hundreds – if not thousands – of sales of each book, and be making enough money to do more than help towards covering the expenses of getting my books out there. I don’t want the kind of fame where you can’t even sneeze without it being in the newspaper. But being secure in the knowledge that my book sales will pay the bills, plus give me some disposable income, and having loads of people eagerly awaiting my next book, would be nice. So, I’m never really sure if I should say I’m successful or not, because whenever I start to say “yes” and mention how I have a few fans who enjoy my work, and more than 40 books out, I always feel like there’s a “but” waiting to be uttered, and that I should add how I could do better.

    Of course, what doesn’t help with defining success is that you always raise the bar when you reach a certain point. Until you’re published, just having your name in print will be enough. After that, you want more. In some ways that’s a good thing, because it will help you with finding the enthusiasm to reach for the stars, so to speak. In other ways though, it’s a bad thing, because you have to be careful you don’t allow the constant thirst for more to tarnish the success you do have.

    Oh, and… For the record… I’d consider it a great honour if a fan fiction site popped up for some of my work, and people started flocking there to read and write fan fiction.

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  2. I think only you can define what being a writer means to you. But, holy hell, I completely understand that whole feeling validated as a person thing. And again, only you can decide what validates you and what doesn’t. But I do think you’re on to something about that feeling needing to come from inside you as opposed to external markers of validation. But, I’d be lying and a crappy friend if I said those other things don’t help the validation process. I’d also be lying and a crappy friend if I didn’t say that I really do believe that you’re *already* a writer. You may not yet be where you’d like to be career-wise, but you are most definitely a writer.

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    • I think that’s what I’ve always guessed. Like, I don’t think anything that could happen would magically make me feel good about myself as a writer, but having some quantifiable evidence of success would definitely help to counter the anxiety squirrels.

      For some reason, I seem to have figured this out in most other aspects of my life but it all falls apart when I think about writing.

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  3. Isn’t a writer somebody who has the compulsion to write? All the other things (a wrier who is read, published, successful, …) is a wrter +, isn’t it?

    To be honest, this is probably just my idea because I need to write (and do write) but I’m sure that I’ll never be a writer + (unless you count FanFiction and FictionPress)

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