I got to see an old friend for dinner last week, and one of the things we talked about as we stuffed our faces and got drunk was what it meant to be a professional writer.
This wasn’t a philosophical conversation. It wasn’t even a particularly coherent one. It was the kind of conversation that is fuelled by many, many beers, and which keeps going off on tangents where you end up arguing about whether or not Donald Trump has a soul, and if he doesn’t, whether dogshit or dried mosquito corpses take its place. But either way, it stayed on my mind long enough that I wanted to write some of it down here.
One of the things we both agreed on was that being a professional writer didn’t really have anything to do with how much money you made from it (if at all), or whether it was your job. That might have been a good yardstick in the days before self-publishing, but it doesn’t work anymore. It’s very easy to imagine an author, with independent means, devoting most of her time to writing and publishing multiple books – even if she’s yet to make a cent from them, you have to argue very hard to tell me that she hasn’t made that her profession.
After about the tenth beer (and, if memory serves, some damn good tequila) we decided that being a professional writer wasn’t about what you wrote, or what happened to it after it was finished. Someone with sixteen self-published books and close to zero sales could be a professional writer, as easily as someone with a hardback novel at a major house can be a goddamn rank amateur. Here’s how it works.
1. A professional writer shows up.
It sounds simple, but there are plenty of writers who don’t. They are too tired, too lazy, too harassed, too bored or too indecisive to actually sit down and get the work done. If anything, I’d say this is the single most important aspect of being a professional: actually getting the work done.
Professional writers understand, deep in their bones, that not every part of what they are writing is going to thrill and delight them – at least not at first. There will be days where they want to claw their own eyes out, where they’d rather run naked through a giant beehive than put down a single word. But they will do it – the writing, not the beehive thing – even though it drives them nuts. They do it because they know that the feeling of walking away with their heads up, knowing that the work is done, is one of the best feelings in the world.
2. A professional writer works consistently.
You’ll notice that so far I haven’t even mentioned word counts, or page counts. That’s because it actually doesn’t matter one tiny little bit how much you write in a given period. Your target could be two hundred words a week, or five thousands words a day (although if you doing that on the regular, then I’m very sorry for the loss of your fingers). It’s not important. The important thing is that you work consistently, and that you are always working.
Only you know how much you’re capable of doing in a period of time, which depends on so many things, up to and including your mental and physical capabilities, which may mean working is harder for you than it is for other people. That’s OK. But as long as you’re sitting down on your own predetermined schedule, never taking a day off from it, then you, Sir or Ma’am or Other, are a professional, and don’t let anybody tell you different. And no, doing it once a year for NaNoWriMo does not count. NaNoWriMo is a playground for amateurs, and if you seriously think one month of writing a year is going to make you a pro, this post isn’t for you. Come to think of it, life in the real world may not be for you either…
3. A professional writer finishes.
I’m not just talking about the book itself, although God knows, writing groups and fiction sites like Wattpad are filled with scribblers who workshop the same scenes, over and over again, endlessly polishing and tweaking and never actually getting close to the finished article, which is about as useful as a velocipede in a Nascar race.
A professional writer not only understands that there is a need to create a finished first draft, however messy and shitty and filled with plot holes it might be, but that it is essential to keep moving forward. Keep rewriting the same scene, without ever finishing it, and you’re like a version of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day who could leave at any time but decides not to because he’s scared of what happens if he ever gets out of Punxsutawney.
4. A professional writer shuts the fuck up.
I am not interested in how many words you did today. I care not about the trials and tribulations your main character is currently going through. I give less than two tiny mouse shits about the fact that you think your book is too long, too short, or too weird. If you have ever used the hashtag #amwriting on any form of social media, don’t talk to me.
I don’t want to know that you’re writing. I want to read what you’ve written. When you’ve finished? When you’ve got a completed product that you’ve given at least one rewrite to? Then by all means, tweet and Instagram away. Until then, I only want to hear one thing: the sound of pencil scratching. And/or keyboard tapping. Anguished howls are also acceptable.
5. A professional writer doesn’t read reviews.
Actually, maybe I need to amend that one little bit. Reading reviews is okay, but a professional writer will never let any review, good or bad, affect them. Reviews are great. Reviewers are great. It is useful to have as many of them as possible, and to take excellent care of them. But they should never, ever, ever, ever affect how you write. The voices you should trust are those of your early readers, your agent, your editor, your spouse.
You should trust them because, unlike almost all reviewers, you will be able to ask them to clarify things and go deeper on points, and unlike reviewers, they will give you (hopefully honest) feedback at a time when you can actually do something about it. Hearing the reviewers say that your characters in a particular book could have used more work is great, but it doesn’t actually help you in the next book you write, outside of being a general guiding principle. The second you let reviews inside your head, they will never leave.
6. A professional writer allows themselves to make mistakes.
They accept the fact that the first draft will be terrible. Utter garbage. The kind of thing that would cause uncomfortable snorts of barely-held laughter if it was ever read out in public. Ditto for the second draft. And the third. But a professional writer will understand that you have to go through these fuck-ups in order to get something good.
There is no such thing as a perfect draft, and if you think there is, then you need to pull your head out your ass before you suffocate. All you can do is make things better every time, and acknowledge that not only are they likely to start out as pretty terrible, but that awfulness is what allows you to get something good in the first place. Give yourself permission to cock things up.
7. A professional writer is not an asshole.
They don’t get into stupid fights online. They don’t start arguments with reviewers, booksellers, staff at their publisher. They take the time to do the research, and if they screw something up, they publicly apologise for it (Although, for the record, this weird trend where people start their book acknowledgements by pre-emptively apologising for errors they have made drives me insane. If you did the research, you wouldn’t have to! The hell is wrong with you?)
If they disagree with someone, a professional writer will attack the argument, not the person. And for fuck’s sake: a professional writer always lifts marginalised voices above their own. Part of being a pro is leaving things better than you found them, and that means boosting people who haven’t had the same opportunities as you. It’s not always easy to do so, nor is the best way to accomplish it always obvious, and there will be times where you cock things up – I definitely have. But we still gotta try.
8. A professional writer makes peace with who they are.
Because think about it. You wouldn’t be in the situation – desperately scrawling words on the page in the hopes of telling a coherent story – if you didn’t have some imperfections. It’s because we refuse to accept the narrative of real-life as it is presented to us – boring, glum, infuriating, terrifying, downright impossible – that we make up worlds of our own. Unfortunately, what comes with that refusal is a psychological state that is often difficult for us to deal with. The key to actually getting past that, and not letting it affect what you do, is to be cool with who you are.
When you can do all that, when you can sit down and write and do it again and again and again, fully aware that neither you nor what you’re writing are perfect and almost never will be, then you can look yourself in the mirror, square your shoulders, lift your chin, take a long, considered sniff and say, “Yeah. I’m a goddamn professional.”