A literary agent I have worked with for years once told me a story that made my jaw drop. She regularly attends writer’s conferences and at some of them, participates in “speed pitches,” where an attendee gets a couple of minutes at a table with a literary agent to pitch his or her book idea. It’s a great opportunity, and this agent told me that out of respect for the time and expense the writers have put in to be at the conference, when their pitch is done she always gives them her business card and invites them to send her their proposal or manuscript when it’s ready. But here’s what floored me: she will hear 50 or 60 pitches during a typical event, and do you know how many actual proposals or manuscripts she’ll get? Five or six.
What? A working literary agent says, “Send me your work” and only ten percent of people follow through? Is it me or is that insane? What I took from that was this: most people who say they want to write don’t actually want to write. They want to be writers. There is a difference. If you write professionally or aspire to, you write every day. You learn about the business. But that 90 percent who ignore the agent’s invitation want to hold on to some self-image of themselves as living some sort of bullshit writer’s lifestyle. They think being a writer means having a writing cottage and doing book signings and sitting around waiting for inspiration to strike. They want to think of themselves as writers.
What they don’t want is to do the work, worry about how to get paid for their writing, or be told that their writing sucks. They are wannabes, and wannabes drive professional working writers crazy. We don’t mind answering their questions (I really enjoy talking about the business of writing), but we can’t stand these effete dilettantes who think it’s crass to get paid for your work, think writing nonfiction or advertising or articles isn’t real writing, and spend all their time in writer’s groups whose members tell them exactly what they want to hear.
Writers want to write, be professionals and earn a living from their work. That’s a noble thing; the written word has the potential to change the world. Never mind those idiots who insist that writing is dead as a career and that the iPad will kill books; technology will actually save publishing, and twenty years from now there will still be paper books alongside ebooks, audio books and video books (I refuse to call them “vooks”). The world will always need good writers with original voices and compelling visions.
But are you a writer or one of those wannabes? Take this quiz to find out:
- If you write every day, even on days when you want to smash your computer with a crowbar, you’re a Writer.
- If you write only when inspiration strikes, you’re a Wannabe.
- If you only belong to writer’s groups that give you brutally honest feedback, you’re a Writer.
- If you spend more time in writer’s groups getting softball critiques than you do actually writing, you’re a Wannabe.
- If you finish what you start, you’re a Writer.
- If you have a stack of unfinished projects, including a novel you’ve been working on for ten years, you’re a Wannabe.
- If you can write anything from ad copy to speeches to ghostwritten blogs to business plans because your writing pays the bills, you’re a Writer.
- If you think it’s unseemly to want to get paid for your work, you’re a Wannabe.
- If you self-publish your books, you’re a Writer.
- If you’re waiting for a literary agent and a New York publishing sugar daddy to discover you, you’re a Wannabe.
- If you’re interested in the craft and skill set behind any kind of writing, from nonfiction to tech writing, you’re a Writer.
- If you think the only “real” writing is fiction and poetry, you’re a Wannabe.
- If your response to rejection and criticism from an agent or editor is to find ways to get better, you’re a Writer.
- If your response to that criticism and rejection is to become defensive and insist they just don’t “get” your work, you’re a Wannabe.
Now, I’m not saying you have a to be a professional writer to be a Writer. There is nothing wrong with writing for the love of the craft and because you feel compelled to put words on paper. Those are wonderful reasons to write. You don’t have to publish to be a Writer. But to my mind, even if you write for your own private pleasure, you must do three things to be taken seriously: finish some of what you start, accept valid criticism, and have an understanding of what it means to be a professional writer. Because there’s a big difference between a hobbyist writer and a paid professional who sends words out into the streets each day to boogie with the people in the hopes of bringing in a paycheck. Even if you have no desire to learn about the business, accept that what we do is not the same as what you do. Not better, just different.
And if you DO have a desire to learn about the business of writing and making a living as a writer, this blog’s for you.