Has anyone else ever given you 'that' look when you say you're a writer?
It's the look that simultaneously questions your grasp on reality while accusing you of harbouring caffeine and daytime television addictions.
Now think of someone doing his or her job. What is he doing? Making a product? Working in a business? She works regular hours. He might be studying at night to boost his qualifications. She might be attending a breakfast meeting, or an industry conference on the weekend. Are they working hard?
Most people slot 'writer' into one of three stereotypes: an A-list international success who jets from the premier of one movie version of their book to the next; someone who downs espressos while effortlessly knocking out a best-seller; or a mooching slacker who claims to write because it sounds better than ‘I sit around all day doing nothing’. Whatever the stereotype, they don't consider writing as work. At best, it's seen as a hobby.
Someone recently farewelled me with the words ‘Keep working hard,’ and I later realised it was sarcasm; that person thinks because I’m not a hugely successful published juggernaut that I must be sitting around all day doing nothing.
I was a professional writer, as a journalist, for 20 or so years, but as I write this sentence I’m questioning the term ‘professional’. If ‘professional’ relates to producing quality, published work and meeting deadlines, then I was professional. If it means getting paid, that wasn’t always the case. Like workers in many industries, I put in a lot of unpaid work to get the experience that would lead to a paid job. Moving into fiction, it appears the same applies – the advice I’m constantly getting is to seek out any opportunities to build a portfolio.
When I left journalism for family reasons everyone was supportive. The reaction I’ve had in relation what I’m doing now is different. And, as it’s Christmas and I’m expecting the usual barrage of questions from well-meaning friends, family and acquaintances – and I’m sure I’m not the only one – I’ve come up with a list of appropriate responses.
Q: What job can you do after you get your Masters?
A: I’m not doing it to get a job. I’m doing it to extend my writing knowledge and skills, and learn more about the publishing industry. But it will open up jobs in publishing and editing.
Q: Isn’t publishing a dying industry?
A: It’s like lot of areas at the moment – changing. One of the reasons I’m studying is to find out where it’s heading.
Q: What have you written?
A: Several picture books, some short stories, a children’s series, and I’m working on a young adult novel at the moment.
Q: Anything published?
A: Other than thousands of articles as a journalist? Not yet, but I have several manuscripts with publishers.
Q: How do you know you’re any good?
A: I don’t, but I won’t know unless I try. I enjoy writing, look for and listen to feedback, and I’m willing to improve. I’m not charging in with unrealistic expectations.
Q: How can you claim you’re a writer if you’re not getting paid?
A: Do you like to garden/sail? Yes. Do you get paid? No. But you still consider yourself a gardener/sailor.
Q: But you won’t get paid unless a book is published.
A: Money is not the reason I write, and most people aren’t paid before they’ve done the work. For example, other than artistic pursuits, real estate agents don’t get their commission until after a property sale has been finalised; business owners only earn income if they have customers who buy their service or product; freelance journalists are usually paid after the article is published; lawyers are usually paid after the work is completed; and anyone lodging a tender for a contract can put in hours of work, research and preparation and not get the job. In fact, most people in salaried or by-the-hour work are paid after they’ve put in the time – that payment is just at regular intervals.
If writing earns an income it is based on units of work sold. It’s no different to someone launching a new product: it may sell, it may not. But designing, researching, redesigning, preparing and manufacturing that item is still ‘work’. It’s the same as researching, writing, editing and publishing a book: a large portion of the work’s done before the ‘product’ hits the real or virtual shelves. And in both cases there’s likely to be failed attempts before there’s a success.
I write almost every day. I submit work to publishers. I am a member of professional organisations. I am furthering my skills and qualifications in the profession. I’m currently not earning an income from my writing. But I am still a writer.