What IS a Writer?
This is Sarah. Charlie is doing the links again. (Thank you Charlie.)
Recently someone at my blog accidentally put words into my mouth. He must have remembered an old comment of mine about people being “professional” writers.
I must explain here, that “professional” in the old sense meant qualifying for membership in SFWA – science fiction writers of America – which almost the entire time I was involved in it required either 3 short stories at professional rates (I don’t know if those have changed from six cents a word) or a novel at a professional advance (last heard of that was three thousand, but it might be lower now.)
That used to be the threshold to be technically considered a professional in science fiction and fantasy. Mystery had similar rules, and I think so did Romance, though I only had an RWA membership for about a year.
Anyway, my reader conflated this with my having said that a writer was someone who had sold at least three stories.
I don’t know. I can see where defining the term was necessary back when people had to sort of move up through the classifications and the established field. It was necessary not for you, but for publishers and others to know where to place you. When a magazine said, for instance, that it was only open to “published” authors, it was assumed that anyone who’d sold to a magazine that paid in copies could apply (and would.) If they said “professionally published” then they would get everyone who had sold a story at six cents or more. And if they said to professional authors, then you assumed you had to be SFWA qualifying.
This had absolutely nothing to do with whether you were a writer or not. That was solved for me when Dan and I were applying to rent our first house almost 28 years ago. We’d talked to our potential landlord for a while – he was about our age. We were 22. Yes, they let children marry in those days (shud up) – and had found a mutual interest in science fiction, and I’d mentioned I was trying to sell the stuff.
When we were filling the application, I put down I didn’t have a job (which at the time was true.) He said “But you’re writing a novel.” So he crossed that out and put down “Writer.”
I tried to explain I hadn’t sold anything, I might never sell anything, and he said “If you’re writing and you’re serious about it, you’re a writer. Never mind the rest.”
In these days of indie publishing when the notion of “sales” is slippery – are you a sold writer if your first story out-sells five copies? Or when, like my friend, Cedar Sanderson, they’re well on their way to selling enough of a book to gather a medium sized advance over the next few months? What do you call someone who has a book out with a small press for a year and suddenly, out of the blue, sells 8000 copies or so, like my friend Ellie Ferguson? Was she a professional before, or only after she got all that money? She had done the work before selling! Years before!
For organizations like SFWA this is simple enough. You are not published unless license your copyright to a third party who pays you the prescribed amount and then publishes the book. Old-style writers adhere to this too, and it drives me nuts to be on panels with them. I’ll want to shake them and shout “you do realize these people you’re sneering at are making three times what you make per book?” I’ll never forget being at a panel at Fencon in which someone who sold his books for $1500 a piece to a small press was sneering at “self published people” while the late Ric Locke, in the back of the room, meekly took it – even though at the time he had already made ten times that from his self-published book. It was one of those moments when I felt embarrassed for my colleagues.
Okay – some people will keep holding on to the old definitions of what makes you a writer, but are you obligated to care? Not so far as I can see!
You are a writer if you are working at being one. Whether it’s your main job or not. If this is what you want to do, do it. (Of course, just talking about it and not doing it won’t work. Also, it will get me upset at you and no one wants that.)
But other than trying not to delude yourself – go for it. You want to be a writer? Be a writer. Don’t wait for anyone’s permission. (This actually applies to everything else that requires application, effort and learning. You want to do it, do it. You’re not getting any younger, you know?)
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