How To Be A Writer
I’m sitting next to my dad on one of those standard conference chairs — metal framed with cushioned seat and back, but not at all comfortable, especially for my boney twelve-year-old self. I wiggle around, pulling my legs up, folding them underneath my butt, rising above the heads of everyone in front of me so I can get a glimpse of the Authors.
There they are, a row of five sitting behind a table on a raised platform at the front. I’ve forgotten now, or possibly never knew, who the Authors were, except for Spider Robinson. I’d met him earlier, in the lobby. My dad introduced himself, introduced me, told him he loves Callahan’s and all the quirky characters that go along with it.
I didn’t say anything during this exchange, just smiled and held my dad’s hand. I’ve not read Spider Robinson’s books but I know about him. My dad has told me his story, how he started out. “He was a security guard and he used all the downtime on his shifts to write his books.”
This is a story I am familiar with. Writers write, regardless of what they do to earn an income. There’s the job that puts food on your plate and a roof over your head, but also provides time for the job that defines you, the one that feeds your soul.
There is a critical distinction in my twelve-year-old mind, between a writer and an Author. When a writer becomes an Author their writing is no longer their own but something shared with the world, bound in paper and sold in bookstores, checked out of libraries, held in the hands of The Public. I know I am a writer, have always known it, but to be an Author is entirely different. If you asked me, as a child, what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d give you the answer without hesitation…
So I strain to see these Authors, these celebrities that hold far more clout with me than anyone on television or the big screen. I’ve been raised without a television, you see. In fact, at twelve, a TV is a sudden new addition to the household. My entire childhood has been decorated with books — a long shelf in the living room, dominating the wall most people would fill with a screen. Not to mention weekly trips to the library where I eagerly consume everything on offer. I read voraciously, have since I was five or six. I find an author I like and commit to reading every single thing they’ve written.
This is what I tell the panel of Authors before me, when my hand stretched to the ceiling is noticed and I’m invited to speak. “I read all the time,” I say. “And I’ve been writing since I can remember. But how,” I implore, I query, I ask with longing and desire, “do I get myself published?”
There is chuckling. Like I’ve said something sweet, amusing, naive.
“Keep writing,” they say, or one of them says, and the rest nod in agreement.
“Yes, that. You’re doing everything right.”
I am satiated and I sit down, this time letting my legs dangle over the too high seat, my question supposedly answered.
A few years later I’m in a bookstore with my parents. It’s late, the store is closed to the public but lit and full of people. We are there for a book launch of a neighbour and friend. There is mingling, glasses of Champagne, the book on display for all to see — non-fiction, historical, about the Canadian Pacific Railway.
I do not read non-fiction and historical things bore me because I am a teenager and victim of an education system that presents ‘history’ as dates and names with little narrative and therefore not much to hold my interest. But still, I am jealous. I have a pang of envy to see this person I know, this fellow writer, step away from that title and assume the shinier, more interesting role of Author.
My completed manuscripts (two or three at this point) are all Young Adult fiction, inspired by the gaps I find in the YA section at the library. I want to tell the stories of teenagers honestly, without the ‘after-school special’ message I so often encounter. I’m a volunteer at the library now, reviewing publisher’s proofs and feeding back to the head librarian of the Children & YA section as to which books should be bought and which are so dreadful I’m appalled they were published at all.
These books give me hope, of course. I am not terribly confident in my writing but I know that it’s better than a lot of what I read for this volunteer role. And I know I’m writing to fill gaps. I write about the outcasts, the freaks and weirdos and non-conformists.
There are speeches at the book launch. People who worked with the Author on the book — an editor, someone from the publishing house, the Author himself.
Later I approach one of these people of import, perhaps it was the publisher, my memory fails me now. I tell them about my work and that I’m interested in getting published. “How would one go about that?”
“Do you write every day?”
“I do,” I say.
I am now an adult. I have been a youth worker, an administrator, project manager, fundraiser and most recently begun to do design and social media consulting.
I’m doing a consulting job for a small company, a start-up but not a techie one. The hours are minimal and I’m being paid in trade. One day the owner asks me if, before I go, we can have a chat. I tell them that’s fine but that I have to leave by 4:00pm, at the latest, no matter what. We agree to chat at 3:00pm.
3:00pm comes and goes, though, and they are still on the phone, popping in and out of the office, exuding busy-ness.
I catch their eye as they pass my desk, phone to their ear. They hold up a finger to indicate one minute, as if they won’t continue their usual pattern. I’ve been doing this consulting with them for long enough to know that the person on the phone always takes precedence and I’m going to be forgotten.
It’s four o’clock and I start packing up to go. They’re chatting on the phone and give me a look, surprised. “Hold on one moment,” they say to their caller, and then to me, “You’re leaving? I thought we were going to talk.”
“Me too, but I did say I have to go at 4:00pm today, it’s already three minutes past. I really can’t stay any longer.”
“Really? Not even for the greatest job offer of your life?”
I smile, a small smile, a tight, bemused smile, “Sorry. I just can’t.”
They shrug, eye brow raise, smug, as if to say, ‘your loss’, but I find it unaffecting. I grab my bag and walk out, thinking to myself, “Best job offer of my life? What would that be?”
The answer is obvious. It’s always been obvious. If someone were to tell me I could have a salary and any job I wanted for it, could be comfortably earning an income to feed and clothe and house me and what I did was entirely up to me, there is only one thing I would choose…
I am thirty, a grown woman, confident and more assured than I’ve ever been. I look back on my younger self with fondness. I was naive, silly sometimes, often arrogant or full of false confidence.
Now I am forever cultivating awareness of what I don’t know. Embracing and admitting to my arrogance as a way to practice humility. I no longer consider sixty to be ‘old’. I think dreams are great but goals are better. I am fiercely independent but learning, always learning every single day, that it’s okay to accept help and okay to ask for it. I can differentiate between a contract full of expectations and a genuine offering of support. I have come to realise success is not how other people see you but how you see yourself.
I was always asking how to become an Author. How to get paid for my art, my creativity, my words written down, composed to inspire and lift and delight and intrigue and entertain. But something has shifted.
It’s not that I don’t want to earn a living this way, not at all. If anything my focus on this is stronger than it’s ever been because right now, for the first time in my life, I’m actually doing something about it.
But it hadn’t occurred to me that I was so focused on what it meant to be an Author that I hadn’t considered what it meant to be a Writer. I figured I’d always known how to do that. And I did, in a way.
But it’s only been recently that I’ve truly recognised it. Because I’ve suddenly seen that while I was working all those other jobs, filling my 9:00 to 5:00(or 8:00 to 4:00) doing stuff for other people, I filled my 5:00 to 8:00 or my Saturday or Sunday with writing.
This distinction is key because I have spoken to so many people who mention their idea for a book or character or plot but never get beyond that. They have an outline, maybe, or some notes in a journal, but they have not written their book(s) down.
Here is where all that advice, which didn’t tell me one thing about getting published, came in handy. They were saying, regardless of what you do to pay the bills, regardless of how long it takes, regardless of anything else: You must write.
Agents can’t sell ideas. Publishers don’t want character sketches. The public won’t pay for a plot outline.
So if you ask me today, what my ideal dream job is, if you ask what I want to be when I grow up or simply what I ‘do’, I’ll answer you proudly, confidently, with ease:
I’m a Writer.
Since you’ve read this far I DO want to offer a little something on how to go about getting published, for those of you with finished manuscripts:
Get an agent. Send your manuscripts to agents regularly, with tailored letters and genuine interest in working with the agents you approach.
Publish online in blog form to gain a following. If it’s well-written people will want to read it and it could get picked up for publication and may even eventually become a film.
Approach a publisher directly, but only if they accept work without an agent and if they’re a good fit for what you’ve written.
Self publish. If you’ve got the money to do so and are willing to put in the work to edit, market and promote the thing so it might actually generate an income for you, this is easily done through sites like Lulu.com and Blurb.com.
Crowdfund your book to build a following, possibly get a publisher interested and to fund the cost of editing, marketing and promotions.
And in all these things, whatever approach you decide to take, be willing to do the work. There’s a big difference between doing what you love and getting paid for it.
For those of you who still have a book inside you? I can only say one thing:
Write. Write now. Write often. Write terribly. Write beautifully. Write regularly.
Always, always write.
An apartment full of strangers come to understand what it means to love thy neighbour.publishizer.com
I’m running a campaign to raise funds to get my first fiction book published. Please consider becoming a patron!