Monday, April 19, 2010

Writer Defined

This morning I happened upon the blog of paranormal author Jo Lynne Valerie. She posed some interesting questions that I felt compelled to answer about why someone is defined as a writer, by themself as well as by others. I liked a response that came after my own in which the person wrote that one can be able to dance reasonably well without being considered a dancer, or sing pleasantly enough without being considered a singer, so surely not everyone who has written should be considered a writer. Now everyone dances and sings and writes, but when it comes to the latter while everyone does scribble thank you notes and emails and shopping lists, surely not everyone has it in them to write a book. Writing an entire book (I'm not referring to a ten page children's book here but a text with some heft to it) is most definitely an accomplishment, even it the thing happens to be atrocious. That's why people will congratulate you even though they haven't read it and have no idea if it's coherent, just as someone will congratulate a woman for giving birth even if she hasn't parented yet and they have no idea if she'll be any good at it. The initial congratulations is earned by the act of labor. Writing a book, writing a readable book, and writing a good book are three very different achievements indeed. If you only manage to pull off the first task, it's still more than many who think of themselves as having writing talent manage to do. In short, you can write without talent and you can be talented without writing. And unfortunately, you can also write with talent without being read by very many. Below is what I wrote on Jo Lynne Valerie's blog in response to her fascinating query.

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I suppose I hold a distinction in my mind between "writers" and "those who have written books". Yet I don't have a hard and fast definition of where the line is to be drawn. As one with an old school mindset about the art and business of writing my impulse is to say that those who do it primarily with monetary gain in mind, who would quickly abandon it if something less taxing and more lucrative was stumbled upon, are not true writers. Writers are artists who create because they must, right? Whether or not they find an audience and make a profit is beside the point. They tell their stories because the alternative is implosion, then move on to the next one. Surely that's why Hemingway and Faulkner and all the other legends put pen to paper, right? On the other hand, I consider talent (part God given, part very hard work to gain mastery of) as a critical ingredient as well. Truth is, there are some who write because they feel it's a calling who do it so poorly I'd hesitate to call them writers. And there are some who come up with a "gimmick", perhaps latching on to a trendy genre of the moment, who write primarily because they've figured out how to make it pay, and do it well enough (even if with more head than heart) that respect must also be paid. You ask: Is there really a difference between authors who write books geared toward marketability, from those who write a book because they believe in it? I answer: Yes, they are very different types of people. But that aside, if both these types of writers can "bring it" then both types will satisfy their audience, and in the end the reader is both jury and judge. If you've earned the right to call yourself writer, regardless of how and why you earned it, readers will let you know.

It is obviously essential today for writers, particularly those who self publish or are published by small houses, to gain a measure of expertise at marketing and promoting if they want readers to find their books. These are critical components in becoming a "book seller", but have nothing whatsoever to do with being a "writer". Writers today perform multiple tasks because it's hard to grab people's attention with so many competing distractions out there. It's essential to wear the hat of both writer and book seller if you want to move units. These tasks are related to each other, but are not one and the same. A writer who doesn't sell much because he/she doesn't market well is still a writer. And an author who does sell many copies because he/she plays the game well does not automatically qualify as a talented artist on account of this. Some are merely effective salespeople and the product they're hawking just happens to be a book.

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If you have read my prose, perhaps even my novel Patches of Grey, yet have yet to meet me in person it's because I fall under the category of one who defines himself as a writer by the writing he has done, not by the strength of advertising campaign. You have not seen me at a book festival or heard me at a bookstore reading. Chances are that even if you actually want it, you don't have my autograph. The extent of my PR blitz to date has been confined to the infinite internet. Slowly but surely I am planning to change that, to get out there and meet with potential readers, press the flesh like someone running for office. I'm up for kissing baby foreheads if that's what it takes to make a sale, not because of the money, but because a major reason I write is for it to be read. My stories are not meant to be strictly for me. Even if the writing of some of my tales has served a self therapeutic purpose, my desire is always for the eyes of others to fall upon my prose. If the mountain won't come to me, then I'll head off to the mountain. That said, please mark your calendars, New Jersey book lovers. I'll be one of the authors meeting and greeting and wine-ing and cheesing at Sparta Books on July 29th in Sparta, NJ. The event runs from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 and I'm hopeful for a big crowd as well as terrified by the prospect of one. Public speaking is not a strength of mine, but life is too short not to take your best shot at it. Hope to see you and meet you there. If I seem at all nervous, a big smile and a book purchase will certainly help.

Find of the day: Joe Hemingmouse

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