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What Makes a Writer?

I got asked this the other day, and to me it seems like a simple question, but it also feels worth exploring.

By basic definition, a “writer” is someone who writes. There are no other criteria. One doesn’t have to be published, or well known, or have an agent, or have done a book tour. You don’t have to write fiction, or poetry, or anything for public consumption; if you keep a journal, for example, it still counts. So long as you write, you’re a writer.

So long as you write. If you stop writing, you are no longer a writer.

Hang on, hang on, I can hear you screaming. But “writer” implies activity. As a noun, it still suggests an active verb. If you used to write but don’t any more, I’d say you’re a “written.” But that sounds weird, so maybe you’re just an ex-writer.

Jesus, don’t kill the messenger. Okay, yes, once you’ve written something, the words become immortal. (Heh heh. See what I did there?) Even if no one else ever sees them. Even if you erase them. Once they exist—or have existed—you’ve become a writer. And since the words last forever (in a sense), don’t you keep that title of “writer” forever too?

It’s a tricky question. But, you know, if you quit a job as a banker, do you still call yourself a banker? Some people might, but they usually do it out of a sense of shame and a need to be something. So if they have no new job, they may say, “I’m a banker,” even if they aren’t one any more. But if they’ve moved on to some other job, or if they’ve gone back to school, they’ll fill in the blank with that information. “I’m a cat wrangler,” or, “I’m a student.”

If you quit writing, you aren’t a writer. Just as that ex-banker might say, “I used to be a banker,” you could say, “I used to write.” But calling yourself a writer if you no longer write is a bit of a lie, to yourself as well as others.

This is more, I think, than the poser of the question wanted to know. The truth is, when we hear someone say they’re a writer or author, we immediately want to know what they’ve written because we make a set of assumptions. We assume they wouldn’t call themselves a writer unless they’ve at least published something. Sometimes we assume they wouldn’t call themselves a writer unless they’ve published a “real” book put out by a major publisher. It’s a shame that writers must contend with these assumptions. I hate, when I tell someone I’m a writer, and they ask, “Oh? Anything I would have heard of?” As if, if they haven’t heard of me or my books, my work must not be any good. Going back to the banker, if I were to arch my brow and ask, “Any bank I would have heard of?” that would be quite rude, I think. But somehow it is deemed okay to treat writers this way.

If you’re looking for validation—for permission to call yourself a writer—ask yourself why. I wrote for years, was even published in a few magazines and journals, before I allowed myself to answer, “What do you do?” with “I’m a writer.” And even then, it was only after I’d left my job in publishing that I adopted the title. Even though I’d been a writer for a long time. Leaving my day job was like being stripped bare, and “writer” was a scrap of fabric I could use to cover my nakedness. In our society, people who don’t work or produce in some way are considered worthless. “I’m a writer,” was my way of trying to prove I had societal value.

But calling myself a writer or author feels right now. It is what I do. Besides mother and wife and daughter and PTA board member, I’m a writer. I’ve embraced that. And it doesn’t matter any more whether anyone else sees value in it or likes my work. (Though I feel good when they do.) I write for me, because I enjoy it.

So. Are you a writer? If so, why? Let me know in the comments.

IWSG: October 2018

It’s time again for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group! Posts go up the first Wednesday of each month. Read more posts and/or join in here.

I’m a mess these days when it comes to writing. I go from being hopeful and optimistic to plunging into the depths of despair and being sure no one will ever want to read my work.

By the way, look at the post below this one to enter to win a copy of my forthcoming book Faebourne. You can also read the first chapter via “Sample Chapters” on the sidebar.

Question of the Month: How do major life events affect your writing? Has writing ever helped you through something?

Major life events usually disrupt my writing. Even minor life events can do that. This past summer, not only were the kids home but my husband was on sabbatical. We did some traveling and a lot of outings, which was a lot of fun. We made wonderful memories. But I got almost no writing done for three months.

As for writing helping me through things, sure. I sometimes write in a stream-of-consciousness way in order to figure out how I feel or what I think about something. It’s a good way to drill down and get to the roots of problems or ideas.

Win a Copy of Faebourne!

This is completely random, and the two things are utterly unrelated, but last night I was futzing around on Spotify and adding some songs to my library. I realized I had no Elton John. Not that I’m some huge EJ fan, but there are a number of songs of his that I like, and two in particular. So I thought it might be fun for readers to guess what they might be. The first people to guess correctly will win a copy of Faebourne when it comes out on November 12.

Rules:

1. To enter, simply guess which Elton John song is my favorite.

2. You may only guess one song per comment. Up to three guesses per person.

3. Your guess must be posted in the comments here, on this post.

4. There are TWO winning answers, so two people will win.

5. Sorry, family and close friends, you are ineligible to enter. (“Close friends” does not include Internet friends and acquaintances.)

6. Contest will go until both songs have been correctly guessed OR until October 26, whichever comes first.

Spotify is not a sponsor of this contest, nor does it have any connection of any kind to said contest.

M/M Regency Romance

When I started writing Faebourne, I had a definite plan. It would be the typical Regency romance except that the male protagonist (Duncan) would be the one who needed rescuing from the very odd Milne family. That’s still in many ways the fundamental starting point for the plot. However, the planned romance between Duncan and Adelia Milne, well . . . It’s there, but not in as much force as another romance that has taken center stage in the book.

After Duncan’s abduction, his valet Davies and best friend George go in search of him. In the original manuscript, we didn’t even have any chapters from their points of view—it was all Duncan, all the time. But I decided that it wasn’t as interesting to have Davies and George just show up at Faebourne. Better to follow their little journey. And as their characters grew, they, erm . . . They fell in love.

Now, this leaves me in a conundrum of sorts. A number of people who read sweet, clean, historical romances do so because their religious views don’t allow for anything more, er, graphic. It’s the reason I grew up reading Regencies, and though I’ve since left my sheltered childhood, I still greatly enjoy these kinds of books. (And I still don’t read steamy romances.) Those same religious views often frown on homosexual relationships. So I’m a bit afraid that Davies + George will offend a number of potential readers. I’m afraid I’ll get bad reviews because of it. Which is why I’m trying very hard to make sure readers know BEFORE they buy the book. That way, if it’s not their cup of tea per se, they can steer clear.

I did seriously consider going back and taking the relationship out. But honestly, it’s one of the best things in the book (in my authorial opinion). It’s a darling I can’t quite bring myself to murder.

Readers familiar with the broader spectrum of my work won’t be surprised to find a gay couple in Faebourne. But those who have only read Brynnde, which is far more heteronormative and hews to the traditional aspects of the genre, may be caught off guard.

SO. Be aware and spread the word: the “romance” in Faebourne: A Regency Romance is—at least in one of the two couples showcased (and the couple whose romance is most focused on)—a gay one. Don’t read it if you think that will bother you.

On Waiting

Today I’ll be talking to all you writers out there, you hopefuls. You can get the short version in a Twitter thread I wrote:

But I’ll go into a little more detail here.

When you’re querying agents about your manuscript, it’s like walking a tightrope. Without a net. There is an exhausting amount of tension involved as you try not to fall. When querying, that tension comes in the form of hope—you’re hoping all the time that an agent will have a favorable response to your query and/or your first pages. And if they do, you’re then hoping they’ll like the full manuscript. Constant hope is tiring to sustain. And as with tightrope walking, any little nudge—a lack of response, a bunch of form rejections, no sign of interest from anyone—can send you crashing right over the edge.

Let’s say you get an agent. Hooray! Well, now your agent is going to be sending your manuscript out on submission. More waiting, but this time you have a safety net under your tightrope. While your manuscript is in the capable hands of your agent, said agent may also be giving you guidance on what to work on next. You’re no longer alone in this venture.

[Note: I realize many authors will say, “I was never alone! I had critique partners and beta readers and fellow authors!” This may be true. But there is a marked difference between the support of your fellows—which is still a wonderful and lovely thing to have—and the support of people who are actually in a position to submit your work and make things happen on your behalf.]

Okay, so your agent is submitting your manuscript. There’s still a modicum of that exhausting, infernal hope that an editor or publisher will take it, but it’s not as exhausting as querying because of that safety net that is having an agent.

And then! Your book gets accepted by an editor! After you celebrate, you will wait some more, this time for editorial notes, and then more notes, and then more notes, and also a cover, and marketing info, and a finalized publication date. BUT. While this is all very exciting and you may be impatient to get through this process, the hope element is over. Now we’ve moved on to anticipation. Because there is no longer a question of whether your book is going to be published. It’s really happening! No more tightrope. You’re on the ground now, in the center ring, with the circus around you. It’s dizzying, but there is no fear of falling.

Well, maybe you’re a little afraid your book will suck and get terrible reviews. But you have an agent and editor and publisher who believe in you, and that goes a long way psychologically. From those lonely days of querying and hoping, you now have a full support system and—thanks to the guidance of your agent—other books in the works in case this one isn’t as successful as everyone, well, hopes.

Hoping alone, though, is very different from hoping together.

Knowing you won’t bear the sole brunt of the fall, should falling occur—that counts for a lot.

So what I’m saying here, that I said in much shorter form via Twitter, is that when people tell hopeful authors—authors without agents yet—to get used to waiting . . . Well, yes, that’s going to be a big part of the process. But I’ve noticed the people doling out the advice usually already have agents, and sometimes have editors and publishers as well. They’re speaking from a place with a safety net and support system. And while they’ve walked that tightrope that is querying, they are now in a position of privilege that feels out of touch with where querying authors are. Similar to the, “You’ll make it if you try hard enough!” school of encouragement, the, “Just be patient,” school doesn’t address fundamental problems. Like the very real psychological stress of not knowing an outcome. We like to make light of how we check our emails repeatedly and have trouble focusing because this hope takes up so much of our energy, but it’s a significant (and not always funny) issue. “Just be patient” doesn’t alleviate that stress and in fact often adds to it by making querying authors feel like they’re doing something wrong. Like there’s a wrong way to wait.

We’re waiting. We’re being as patient as we can be because, seriously, we have no other options. We’re on this tightrope, and we’d love a safety net. The truth is, we may never get one. That’s a stressful reality. So please, if you’re an author giving this advice, don’t be patronizing. We know you mean well, but you’re not always helping. Sometimes you’re even throwing us off balance.