Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Are You Still a Real Writer if You Haven’t Published?

All of my life, I’ve considered myself a writer. Heck, aren’t we all? We all churn out book reviews for middle school English classes and history essays for high school. We all do some writing at work, if only to tot up our hours worked every week. In a sense, we’re all writers.

But creative writing is a different animal. Most of those people who’ve written essays and book reviews don’t choose to write another document once they’ve graduated. Most of them wouldn’t pay attention to word count or run spell check unless they’re getting paid to do it. Most people don’t choose to write.

That’s what makes writers great. Every writer, at some point, has written a story or a novel for nothing. Zilch. Nada. As the industry politely calls it, “on spec”.

I’ve spent my entire career writing on spec and I’m not sure that that situation will change in the near future. Yet I keep churning out the manuscripts (I’ve produced more than twenty completed romance manuscripts to date – everything from historicals to alternate realities to contemporary series-style). Why? Am I crazy?

Yeah, crazy like a writer. An unpublished writer.

So, back to our central issue: are you still a “real” writer when you haven’t published a word?

On one level, we’re all real writers because we spend time and energy on our craft and produce stories and manuscripts that our families and friends love to read, even if forced to do so.

But there are real negatives to being unpublished.

First of all, you belong to the great unwashed hordes of aspiring writers who are hungrily seeking: a literary agent, a book deal, a few cents. The conundrum that most unpublished writers experience is that many publishers won’t look at your work without an agent and many agents won’t represent you without a publishing history or a contract in hand. Yikes.

Second, you can’t belong to certain professional organizations without a publishing credit behind your name. Organizations can be a great way to network and learn the inside tricks and tips of experienced writers. Unfortunately, some of them don’t want to hear from you unless you’re already one of them. Another conundrum for the aspiring writer.

No one takes you seriously, least of all your family and friends. Aside from the industry, who has turned its collective back on you, your friends and family tend not to take your years’ long toiling at the computer too seriously unless you’ve produced a publication during that time. They want to push you aside so they can play computer games and surf the internet. The nerve! Don’t they know that you’re working?

When you’re writing, the word “working” can often end up in quotation marks. People may see it as a harmless but time consuming hobby. You get paid to do work, right? So you can’t be working. Not really.

Acquaintances want to ask uncomfortable questions of you if you’re brave or foolhardy enough to announce that you’re a writer (instead of identifying yourself by the much easier day job title of lawyer or IT tech). The inevitable question is “what you have written?”, followed by “where have you been published?” “Nowhere” is such an unsatisfactory answer.

These are the pitfalls of being a real writer. But does that mean you stop calling yourself one?

Ask yourself this: if a doctor stops on the side of the road to administer emergency medical attention, is she no longer a doctor because she isn’t getting paid for it? If a musician plays a free concert with a bunch of other amateurs in the park, is he not a real musician? NO! He does it for love or she does it because it’s what she feels she has to do. Both are valid motivations and neither is money-based.

Fame and success can happen overnight. Ask any YouTube sensation. Paradoxically, such overnight success often takes years of hard work.

So remember this: you’re a real writer. Tell yourself that a hundred times a day in front of the mirror. If you stick with it, one day you will be a published one too.

Photo courtesy of Kittikun Atsawintarangkul at