Friday, July 9, 2010

Becoming "A Writer"

Did you feel like "a writer" when you started to write? I didn't. I suppose I felt 1. like a person trying an experiment, 2. like someone who'd discovered a dangerously absorbing hobby, 3. like a person writing alone in a closet (not literally!) when she should have been doing something else.

To take the closet metaphor a little further, there came a point when I decided to "come out." This meant talking to other people about my writing - at first, those people were friends who were interested in science fiction and fantasy already. Sometimes, though, I ended up having cool sf/f related conversations with people on airplanes, or in other relatively anonymous circumstances where I could "try on" the identity I felt I was striving for.

At a certain point in this process I had one of my little disconnected anthropological epiphanies.

I wasn't going to feel like "a writer" just because I was writing. I needed to take a public stance - in a sense, to declare my identity as a writer within a community that would recognize me as one.

This was a project.

Changing one's identity isn't as easy as slapping another label on. I take the identity of "writer" very seriously, in the sense of taking writing as a vocation, and I didn't want to be a person who was pretending to be a writer (I felt like this in some conversations). Fortunately I discovered something: the community of science fiction and fantasy writers is an extremely welcoming one, willing to help you join them.

That said, I think it's important to realize that entering any social community needs to be done with care and respect. It helps if you can recognize early on that this is what you are in fact doing, and think through the steps you want to take. It's not enough to go out and say to others, "I'm a writer. See how good I am? You want to read and publish* my work!" You need to enact writer-ness at the same time.

*This isn't really a post about getting published, though getting published is related to the process of becoming a writer. The nice thing about getting published is that people go to the trouble of writing down steps to take and rules to follow, so that you can take/follow them.

So how does one enact writer-ness?

If you're paying attention, the closer you get to writers, the more you'll learn about what they (we!) are like. Of course, I know enough writers by now to tell you definitively that there is no one single way to be a writer. However, I still think there are some helpful ingredients worth mentioning.

If you're not doing that, then why are we talking about this anyway?

2. Strive to improve your craft.
There is no pinnacle, and there is no "done" until the words are on the page the publisher has printed for you. There is only, "this is as good as I can make it right now." Every conversation you have, and every new thing you learn can open your eyes to more depth and possibility.

3. Listen respectfully.
So long as it addresses the content of your text, every word of feedback you receive on your work is worth listening to. If your aunt or your mom says they get confused at the beginning, believe them, and think about what that might mean for your approach. If you are on a critique group like Critters, consider each piece of feedback and why the reader might have had the impression they had. If you are lucky enough to get feedback from an established writer, be grateful and think through its import very carefully. There will be much to learn there even if you disagree.

4. Read attentively.
Read both to experience the range of story, style and voice, and to "get to know" authors in your field.

5. Try to meet and talk to other writers.
This can be literal face-to-face meeting or it can be engaging on the internet through blog comments, etc. Face to face opportunities are more valuable, I believe. One important thing to note here, however: going fangirl or fanboy is not going to be particularly effective for your learning process (as tempting as it is!). I think the place where I learned the most about writers was when I went to the Nebulas weekend - which was all writers and a very very few fans. I realized that most writers love to talk about their work, especially in direct and specific terms, so if I had a story of theirs that I could make comments on, I would have something meaningful to contribute to a conversation in which I could learn a whole lot.

You may have noticed at this point that I think it's valuable to approach the community of writers from the stance of a learner. I still take this stance all the time. This doesn't mean that you have nothing to offer of your own - of course not - but from the point of view of writing craft, it's important to recognize the experience and resulting expertise of others. Even if that person's writing is not your favorite kind, their success in the community will be related to their expertise in any of a range of different areas (gorgeous prose, great pacing, "story," inventiveness, marketing savvy, etc. - and not necessarily all at once).

I was very lucky going in, because I had my academic background, and I was able to use it to help my craft and to hone my ideas. Linguistics and Anthropology are great resources, and I was able to have wonderful conversations with writers where I felt like I actually did have some expertise - not in being a writer (yet, at that point), but at least in language and culture (topics which are clearly useful to stories). This blog has done wonderful things for my writing career: it helps people to learn my name, it helps me focus my own thoughts, and it creates a community that I can feel a part of on a daily basis, so that I don't feel any more like I'm writing in that little closet. The best part of it for me is that I started it out of love of the topics I discuss, and I still enjoy writing it - it helps me, and yet is not a chore.

We are so lucky to have the internet. Online is where the community of geographically separated writers can "meet" and interact - one of the reasons why it's worth spending time there.

But don't forget to write.

Our writing lies at the core of our identity as writers. I might meet an author at a convention or see them appear online, but unless I've read their work I don't feel like I really know them. I think this is the case for a lot of us. Similarly, it's possible to hang out with writers all the time and yet never be one, either because you're not writing or because no one cares to read your work. This points to a critical step in entering the community of writers: getting people to read your work.

Getting published is a terrific way to get read, no doubt about it. But remember all those rejections? If the editor read past the first sentence, they shouldn't be considered a waste. A rejection with comments is true gold, because it means the editor cared. It might look like a "no," but it might better be phrased as, "no, but I can see you're a writer." Other writers will respect you for having rejections like that, especially if they can see you're using them to improve your craft. And when you finally get an acceptance, your identity in the editor's mind will not be on that story alone, but in your history of interaction (as impersonal as those interactions might seem at first).

Because your writing is at the core of your identity as a writer, asking someone to read your work is a more high-stakes activity than you might imagine. Don't push it. Approach it with care, and with an awareness that professional active writers are extremely busy. Chances are good that they're either slammed with deadlines, excited about putting together the climax of the story they're working on, or trying to fit their writing in around the other busy parts of their life (like full-time jobs, children, etc.). Don't be offended if they say no, and similarly, be thrilled if they say yes. Not only is that gift of their time and attention extremely valuable, but they're expressing their willingness to consider you as a potential colleague. One great way to approach this is to comment on published stories in a constructive and respectful manner, and to volunteer to critique for someone if the opportunity presents itself. Your ability to provide a helpful critique can demonstrate your willingness to contribute to the other person's success - and writers help each other.

There is probably a lot more I could say about this topic, but at this point I'm going to close by saying I'm extremely grateful to all the many people who have taken the time to read and comment on my stories. I've learned a lot from you, and I know I will continue to learn in the future. At this point, though, there's one thing I can say with joy and confidence:

I am a writer.


  1. Thank you for the insight.
    So far my writer interaction has been pretty much restricted to the internet, but I feel lucky to have fallen in with the group of folks that I have.

  2. I agree. The requirements to be a writer are 1) write and 2) work to improve your writing. Improving involves reading, learning from other writers, and accepting feedback.

    Right now, I consider myself still at the apprentice level. I'm creating a writing habit and learning basics of the craft, but not nearly ready for publication. So while I'm a writer, I'm not yet an author.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Brad and ella144. Ella, thanks for bringing up the distinction between writer and author. I didn't touch on it, but my own understanding is that the difference between the two is publication. I wanted to stick to a single term so I could share my observations (these are *not rules*) and not muddy terminology.

  4. Well spoken, Juliette.

    When I attend the Contact conferences, while they are most welcoming, I am definitely an academic outsider. It's a room full of professors, and I have a GED! But I still go, and make myself useful.

    In the writing field, I suppose one major epiphany was sitting on a panel at BayCon. Just as much as seeing my name in Analog, there I was in a room full of interested people, having useful (and also enjoyable) give-and-take.
    I used to get stage fright, and still do in flashes, but sure it's worth it, to really _be_ an author.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Paul. It's always a pleasure to see you on a panel - and of course you have valuable things to offer!

  6. If the editor read past the first sentence, they shouldn't be considered a waste.

    I was chuffed when a big market sent a personal rejection... and it was obvious they'd read the whole story, because the end was mentioned. It was still a rejection, but it's nice to know they didn't get bored after the first paragraph.

  7. I think it was a couple years ago when I started feeling like I was an actual writer. Obviously, I'd been writing so of course I was one by the act of doing, but I hadn't felt like I could claim the job title until then. There are still days and even some weeks where I know I'm a total slacker with my self-chosen work, but if I hadn't settled into that job title, I wouldn't be feeling guilt over my slackerhood. So, I'm still a writer.

    Now I've gotta go crack the whip over myself and make me get back to work.

  8. Hi Juliette

    I found your blog via SFSignal. Great piece, really speaks to me, since I'm starting to "put together my identity" as a writer.

    I never thought about it as "changing" my identity, but now in hindsight that's true...and how frightening that can be when you attempt it later in life.

    Thanks :)

  9. Hi there, Amanda! I'm so glad you found this post meaningful. I spent a lot of time thinking about it before I put it together; it's been an interesting process for me, and not without pitfalls. Definitely worthwhile, though. Good luck with your writing!