Thursday, August 19, 2010

Attitude thrusters

A fellow writer recently asked me about my use of the term "attitude thrusters" in a story. She wondered if perhaps I'd meant "altitude thrusters." Attitude thrusters are very small engines on a spacecraft that alter the vehicle's orientation as it travels along a trajectory. They have little effect on the overall path of the spacecraft, but they can control where the main engines are pointed and do affect how passengers aboard the craft perceive the journey. Our lives are greatly affected by our own attitude thrusters. Small things of which we may not be aware that influence how we see ourselves and how we see the people and world around us. The effect of these attitude thrusters are not limited to our writing careers, of course, but this community is about writing, so I'm going to set all other life arenas aside to focus on our experiences and goals as writers.

A decade or so ago an online friend of mine won a writing competition, beating out 4,000+ other writers to have her work published. As it happened a writing conference was held near enough to her hometown for her to attend shortly thereafter. I'm not clear on the details of the event or its location. What I do remember is her description of a panel discussion that included a writer she particularly admired. At one point the panel invited any other professional writers in the audience to introduce themselves. She stood up, copy of her first published work proudly in hand, and did just that. At which point the writer she so admired led the panelists in telling her she was not a "professional" writer at all; merely a hobbyist who'd gotten lucky.

This past week a patient of about my age was in my wife's unit at the hospital. He let it be known early on that he was a writer; his attitude indicating this status entitled him to special considerations and a certain deference. Two people familiar with his work – one of them his mother – were in attendance periodically and reinforced the message great authors were above mere mortals on the karma pecking order. You know my wife did an internet search – she's always on the lookout for folks I should know in publishing – and discovered the man had self-published a novel about a geologically impossible earthquake originating off Wrightsville Beach and the havoc wrecked by the ensuing tsunami. The sort of writing with exclamation points in the descriptive passages. The local author expressed disbelief when told one of the nurses was married to a writer; my wife chose not to identify herself.

Conversely, local author Sharyn McCrumb, who frequents the same used book stores I do, puts on no airs at all, appearing to all intents and purposes to be a college instructor. (She is aided in her disguise by the fact that for several years she was one.)

One aspect of being a media tie-in writer that I've commented on before is the perception of such work by the public and other, non-media tie-in authors. As I noted in my first column here, over a year ago, if one thinks of writing original fiction as performing a violin solo, writing media tie-in is analogous to playing first chair in an orchestra. Both forms require skill and craftsmanship, but the purpose and application differ. Some writers, like friend-of-a-friend David Weber, tolerate game-related tie-in writing because it is a part of the creative process. However he has no truck with TV/movie tie-ins. Two things I do not discuss with him are politics and Star Trek (Trekkies should know there's a reason the uniform of the bad guys in Honor Harrington series is red tunic/black pants). Other non-tie-in writers dismiss the whole industry as something akin to writing ad copy. I've recounted elsewhere my experiences in searching for a MFA-creative writing program; I used examples of my published works as an introduction. At UNC-Wilmington an assistant of director Philip Gerard, whom I've known since his hair was brown and mine black, suggested I might want to first enroll in a few undergraduate courses "to discover whether I was ready for serious writing." Conversely the director of the MFA program at Queen's University in Charlotte commented that I probably had something to teach them about work ethic and meeting deadlines. I've found variations of these two perceptions to be nearly universal, with little middle ground. (Note: Here at Novel Spaces, my fellow novelnauts all fall into the latter group.)

Just yesterday I found myself in conversation with a woman who had given up her career to be a stay-at-home mom with six children. She said that being a writer had always been a back-burner dream with her, but she didn't feel she had the right sort of education and was afraid she wasn't really an artist. "Besides," she added apologetically, "all I'd really want to write are romances." I was quick to point out that romance is a field to which I aspire and that romance makes up 50% of the fiction published world wide. But the real issue was that in her mind a writer was someone larger than life – she had bought right in to the attitude of the self-published patient and the self-important panelists that as a mere mortal she did not have what it took to write. I recommended some reading and that she start writing, just for herself, in a journal or at the keyboard, to get used to the process and the idea of writing. I'd like to think I may have launched another writer's career.

What about you? What attitudes do you encounter about writing and writers that surprise you or shape your perceptions? What attitudes are shaping how you approach your own writing or your goals and objectives as a writer?


Tom said...

I readily admit that I have always been starstruck when I talk to writers. But thanks to authors like David Morrell, Scott Oden and even our own Charles Gramlich, I am refreshed to know that they are just normal people like me, albeit maybe a little more driven. Which in turn inspires me to be more driven. I've played at being a writer for years. And only now am I finally getting how it all works. And, it may be difficult to get published (not including self-publishing), but it can be done with persistence, patience and, above all, just knowing your craft. I'm now certain I will get there someday. And it will be worth the trip.

Bluestocking Mum said...

I don't have a degree or a great education or a background in journalism etc so I'm inclined to feel I won't ever be a success, my chances of having my novel snapped up are so slim. But despite my lack of optimism, I couldn't stop writing - I LOVE IT - I can't go a day without writing. And something inside tells me that I know that some things I write will touch people, they will relate to me or feel the same. So I've accepted now that I might never win the Man Booker prize but the women's fiction market is the path I will tread.

The point you make to the stay at home mum resonates and I really appreciate your comments.

warm wishes

Jewel Amethyst said...

I must admit, before becoming a published author I had never interacted with published authors here in the US(other than those writing scientific or educational textbooks). I pretty much thought authors were all up there, and I was down there.

Then my publisher had an author call me to discuss promotions, and I realized she was just an ordinary person like me. Not long after I got introduced to novelspaces authors and that confirmed to me that authors are not necessarily on a higher level than the ordinary man.

Jewel Amethyst said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Gramlich said...

Having someone in a crique group tell me that they weren't there to help people get published or keep them writing.

Liane Spicer said...

"...a hobbyist who'd gotten lucky." Ouch. Never understood this compulsion certain people have to put others down. Must be some kind of insecurity at work.

I find it difficult to tell people I'm a writer because of the attitudes I meet 'out there'. People who aren't familiar with the publishing industry tend to associate all writers with what I call the 'celebrity author' group (who must number 50 at most), truly unaware that the other 99.999 percent of us are just ordinary people living ordinary lives. I've been lucky, though, in that the writers I meet online have almost invariably fallen into the grounded, kind and generous demographic.

As for the 'qualified to write' question: many famous writers never went to university; some started but never graduated. Others never even finished high school.

G said...

I'm like one of your earlier commenters in that I don't have any kind of background connected in the field of writing.

I got into it way late in my life and really didn't start learning from other writers until 1) I transferred jobs and ran into a vendor who was a self-pubbed writer, and 2) started blogging.

From the self-pubbed writer I was able to glean a few good writing tips, honest critique about my writing and a very good look at the pros and cons of self-pubbing.;

From the blog world, I was able to discover other writers (including one on this blog) who also gave me valuable advice on writing, honest critique and a good look at the publishing industry itself.

I enjoy writing and probably will continue to do it until I turn older, balder and greyer. I'm also the enternal optimist and even if it takes me years to find a home for schtuff, so be it. But at least I'll have fun along the way in getting there.

Shauna Roberts said...

KeVin, I've always thought it would be fun to do a Star Trek tie-in novel, as well as good training in writing well fast.

One of my favorite romance authors got married at 16, started writing to have something to do besides take care of her baby, and has published dozens of novels. She's a good example that one doesn't need formal education or special training to become a successful writer with well-researched novels.

Many writers seem to be humble people. Writing can do that to a person: The more you learn about writing, the more you realize you have much to learn to be as good as you want to be.