Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Behaving like a writer

It's difficult for me to write a column this week. Not because I don't have any ideas, quite the opposite. My coconspirators here at Novel Spaces have done a wonderful job -- hitting a lot of topics I want to explore further. It's with some effort that I restrict myself to a single thought.

A few interesting things happened during GenCon this year.
>The art director for a game publisher apologized to me for the cover of To Ride the Chimera. He had been in the art department of WizKids when it was designed and -- though he was not directly involved -- knew the dull and static composition had nothing to do with the combat, action and intrigue within. He'd known the image was completely wrong for the target market (it is) and would hurt sales (it did); he had felt bad about doing nothing to change it when he had the chance ever since.
>I signed forty or fifty autographs and listened while people explained what they liked and did not like about my work.
>I was part of a group of male writers thanked by young women dressed as Japanese school girls, faeries, or warrior princesses for being the only men at the convention who did not make passes at them.
>I attended freelancers' briefings; meetings at which game developers tell writers interested in pitching stories what it is they're looking for in the coming year. (These usually happen after things wind down in the convention center -- writers jotting notes from 11PM to 2AM.)
>I was on panels for aspiring writers and panels for writers aspiring to write for some of the IPs I sell to.
>I introduced myself to a couple of game developers whose properties I admire.
>I reread two stories I'd written in 2004 and hadn't seen since (discovering several things I would now do differently in the process) because they were in an anthology that received an award and I needed to be able to discuss them intelligently.

None of these things had anything to do with writing as a craft. All of them (from going out of my way to cultivate/learn new markets to helping new writers learn the ropes to conducting myself professionally to the point catgirls notice) had to do with the business of being a writer.

Because writing for a living, publishing, is a business. There's nothing wrong with this, nothing "pure" about writing for art's sake or pursuit of the perfect story. Or sentence. A sculptor can use wood and metal to produce art with the power to affect observers long after they've left the museum for their everyday lives. A furniture maker can use those same materials to produce comfortable chairs and useful tables that people will value as part of their everyday lives. To my mind being a professional writer -- a person who writes for a living -- has more to do with cabinetry than art.

When I teach creative writing -- and I don't yet, but will after I complete my MFA -- my text for teaching the craft of writing will be Jerry Weinberg’s The Fieldstone Method. But I will require my students who intend to write professionally to study Larry Winget's It's Called Work for a Reason as well. This short book (less than 60,000 words) is on business management, not writing, but its subtitle tells the whole story: Your Success Is Your Own Damn Fault. I didn't come across this book until last year and wished I'd found it a decade ago. (Which would have been a neat trick; Winget wrote it in 2007.) It would have saved me a few novels' worth of false starts and wasted time. The fundamental concepts that enable an entrepreneur to succeed in business or a manager to succeed within a corporation enable writers who write for a living to actually earn a living writing.

Writers who write -- as opposed to authors who intend to write -- treat their writing like the job it is. They show up on time, stick with the task until it's done, then move on to the next project. When dealing with customers or management or coworkers (readers, editors, and other writers) they are straightforward and honest; keeping their word and doing what they are supposed to do to specs and on time.

Because success as a writer does not rest solely on literary talent. Of course the ability to create and tell a tale is seminal; and the craftsmanship and guile to tell the tale well are vital. Don't want to downplay the importance of any of that. But it's discipline and integrity and courtesy and the willingness to pay it forward -- to help others -- that marks the professional writer.


Shauna Roberts said...

Great post, KeVin. I'm currently spending most of my time on the business end and very little on the writing end. Very frustrating. I'll check out the business book you recommend—maybe it can help me be more efficient with the business stuff.

Also, thanks for treating the women at the conference as colleagues instead of as prey.

Liane Spicer said...

Lovely article, KeVin. As you probably know I've learned a lot from your example and I continue to learn. Still have some deep-seated issues to get rid of, and looking at writing as work, a job, certainly helps to correct the mindset. I'll add the business book to my list.

(Not surprised the young ladies appreciated the fact that you and your teammates were decent sorts. I've read of really atrocious behaviour at some of the SF conferences.)

Liane Spicer said...

...SF conventions, I meant.

Farrah Rochon said...

So very, very true, Kevin. The business side of writing has been the most eye-opening part of this entire journey. It's a business, and should be treated as such. Great post!