A number of writers I follow on Twitter have been abuzz over an article by Lisa Morton published on the Horror Writers Association website. Morton’s article suggested a ten question test to determine whether or not one is a “professional” writer. Ideally she wants you to answer yes to all ten questions but she very generously allows anyone who answers 80% or more with a yes to consider themselves professionals, too.
If you’re sensing a little sarcasm in the tone of that last sentence, you’re reading it correctly. Morton’s test is ridiculous. She insists you must do completely irrelevant things like live in a messy home, turn down chances to talk to or spend time with friends, and voluntarily take lower paying jobs to be a professional. Sure, you can answer any one or two questions no and “pass” this twisted test, as long as you can say say yes to the other eight. To make matters worse, some questions are virtual repeats of earlier questions with slightly different phrasing. There are two questions relating to sacrificing time with friends, numbers 2 and 6. Questions 7 and 8 both ask about financial sacrifice. Number 3 blatantly asks if a minor part of your preferred writing process is the same as Morton’s.
Smarter people than me have thoroughly debunked this silliness already. Chuck Wending has the perfect response. As most of the responses point out, there’s only one test to determine whether or not you’re a professional writer: Are you paid for your writing? If yes, you’re a professional. Period, end of story, drop the mic and walk away.
Let’s not ignore, though, that “professional” can have more than one meaning. Surely that’s what Morton meant, right? Not the pay part but those other qualities that win your colleagues’ admiration as a professional? I work in IT, and I think we all know some IT people who are paid well but are hardly “professional.”
I’d argue that one of the key criteria for professionalism is collegial behavior. Show respect for others in your field, accept them as equals, treat them kindly by default. In most fields, someone who publicly sneers at his colleagues would be called unprofessional, no matter how many hours he works or how well paid he is. This is the major test of professionalism missing from Morton’s article and one it fails by a wide margin.
Professionals don’t sneer at their colleagues for daring to discuss topics other than work and for having the nerve to tell jokes. Professionals don’t insist that their career choices are the only valid choices. Professionals don’t count choosing to work in a different environment against their colleagues. Even (*gasp!*, apparently) working with the TV on.
I know that writing is a different professional environment from other fields, including and especially IT. I can’t imagine, though, any field in which Morton’s condescending article would be seen as anything but unprofessional. If someone in my field said to me, “That’s okay, as long as you don’t call yourself a professional. At least around irritable me,” my response would be, “Then I’ll gladly never be around you.”
Hopefully in the future Ms. Morton will include professional behavior in her criteria for professionalism and adjust her own accordingly.
If any great American literary tradition is in danger, it’s the fortune cookie. The people who write these things aren’t even trying anymore. These days they seem to be just recycling one liners from business books and making random predictions about the reader’s future. Once in a great while I get a good one, though. The one I randomly picked up at lunch today had a great reminder for aspiring writers:
The greatest of all mistakes is to do nothing, because you think you can only do a little.
I may have to tape that one to my monitor.
As you may be aware, for the last month the SFF community has been embroiled in a series of controversies regarding sexism within SFWA, blatant racism aimed at author N.K. Jemisin, and, somehow, the shocking notion that sexual harassment at cons isn’t okay. I have many, many thoughts on all this, which I’m planning to post about in the next few days.
In the meantime, Mary Robinette Kowal has the smartest response by far to all this nonsense.
Here’s what Mary’s post looks like as a dramatic presentation:
ETA: Seanan McGuire has an equally awesome follow up.
One of the hardest things I have to learn about writing is something I’ve known for years: It’s okay to write first drafts that suck. I know it but somehow after all these years I still don’t know it. I haven’t internalized it to the point that I believe it at a gut level when I’m busy writing some of the worst crap in the history of mankind.
I started writing today. It was maybe a couple of hundred words typed into OneNote with the onscreen keyboard on a borrowed iPad in a crowded, noisy waiting room. Still, I wrote.
But ye gods, did it suck.
I knew it sucked as I wrote it. It took all my self control to keep writing, to keep putting one disjointed, misplaced thought after another. To not delete the entire thing, smash the iPad against the floor, and burn its remains for being the vehicle for such abomination. But I did it. I wrestled the ego monster that insisted I should be ashamed of allowing such crap to exist and I beat it.
And, yay. Good for me. I used to write by agonizing over every sentence before typing it out, then revising the newly typed and massively overthought sentence several times before moving onto the next. I learned that the glacial pace of progress that imposes is very discouraging to me. Plus I often found that overthinking still led to crappy prose, so what was the point? I’ve been trying for years now to switch to writing drafts that aren’t meant to be anything but drafts, then add the good in the revision process. It’s very hard to break lifelong habits but so far it’s much healthier mentally.
So. Today I wrote something that sucked. And I’m happy about it.
I’ve wanted to be a writer since the fifth grade. That was, I’ll just say, a while back now. In the years since then I’ve been a spasmodic writer. I wrote a lot in high school and college, had another burst in my mid-20s, and a smaller one as I approached my mid-30s. In between those periods I never stopped thinking about writing. I imagined stories, characters, places, and things. I told myself, “Someday…” As any successful writer will tell you, though, thinking about writing doesn’t put words on a page. “Someday” never comes unless you decide that it has.
I’m deciding that someday is now. I’ve ‘someday’-ed a significant portion of my life away. Not that I’m old…but I’ve let a lot of youth pass me by. If I don’t jump on that horse and tie myself into the saddle now I might actually be old the next time I look around. I believe – have always believed, deep down – that with enough work I can be a good writer. But that work will take time, and probably a lot of it. I could continue to bitch and moan in my own mind about how much time I’ve wasted already…or I could just quit wasting time and get down to the work.
Now I have to face the demon that’s held me back for the last 25 years: fear. Writing terrifies me, as much as I love it. While I’m doing it I’m sure it’s no good. I second guess each and every word in every sentence before I even type them. I revise before I write because I’m afraid of writing something that sucks. Which is damn stupid, obviously, because then I write nothing. Beyond the immediate fear in the actual process of writing, I’m scared of the business of writing. I’m afraid of the rejection that’s a constant companion of most writers. I’m afraid of criticism. I’m afraid of working for years and years and never making it. I’m afraid of failing.
I know these are common fears for a writer, especially someone just starting out. I bring them up now to pull them out of the shadows, call them by name, and take away their power. If I’m going to be serious about this venture I have to refuse to be intimidated by ancient terrors. My first step has to be confronting and defeating this monster hiding in the dark that’s kept me cowering under the covers for so long. Then I can start the long, hard work waiting for me.