Writing: are you an amateur or a professional?
Vlad the Impaler, the original for Bram Stoker's Dracula
Last year I was living in Romania. It was approaching Halloween so it occurred to me that a story about Vlad the Impaler - the original of Bram Stoker's Dracula - might be of interest. I pitched the idea to an editor, which started off : "Although Bram Stoker's castle was based upon a castle in Scotland...."
I needn't have written any more. Despite the fact that it was perfectly clear I was writing from Romania, the editor came back asking me to write a story about the Scottish castle. I wrote back to explain that, no, I was writing from Romania, and didn't she want to hear a Romanian story? But the damage was done. I wrote several more letters and didn't get a reply.
I had another good story, about the plight of bears in Romania. I had seen a bear in the wild. I had interviewed the Romanian Minister of the Environment. I had researched the story thoroughly. It was, I thought, an important story about the future of European wildlife. I pitched that story, one by one, to every editor of every magazine and every newspaper in the UK. Not one bite. Not one response. Nothing. I must have written a hundred letters. In the end I did get a taker, and a severely truncated version, about bear-stalking holidays in Transylvania, eventually appeared in Wizz It, the Wizz Air in-flight magazine. It was the only story I sold last year.
Currently I am sitting on four 1,000 word columns about the domestic life of an aging couple. It's called The Home Front, and, although I say it myself, it is a warm, wise and very funny look at the process of growing old. It is currently sitting on the Daily Telegraph's editorial desk not being read. Previously it was not read by editorial staff at the Guardian and the Independent, amongst others. I can't remember which ones now as there have been so many. I haven't got the heart to write any more of them.
In the end you give up.
I have given up.
The problem is in order to write you have to go through editors. So your first writing task is a letter to an editor, a pitch. Maybe I'm not very good at this. You need to know the editor, and I've never been in the trade, so I have no idea who these people are. Anyway, this is not what I became a writer to write. I became a writer to write real stories about real people that would really move an audience, not to write pitches for editors.
I wrote a 2,500 word piece about a soldier, Ivor Coles, who died in the First World War and whose grave was lost. Subsequently his family - by following a string of clues - were able to find the grave again. Once more it has been sent out to a string of editors. One or two of them even took the trouble to answer using the SAE I'd provided, although I doubt from the responses that any of them had actually read the story.
What would a letter to an editor say about this story? Pretty much what I've said in the above. And yet the finished version is as poignant, as deep, as moving as any story I've ever written. It absolutely deserves to be read.
So I put it on HubPages. Here is the link if you want to look it up.
On HubPages all sorts of aspiring writers can publish their own material and, possibly, earn a small amount of money at the same time. If anyone clicks on any of the adverts on the page, the author gets a percentage of the revenue. Up till now I've made $4.65. So, you can see, I'm not here for the money. I'm here for the readership and for the comments: for the encouragement this gives me to keep on writing.
I asked the staff at HubPages to give me a snapshot of the traffic that passes through these pages. This was the reply:
Currently about 600 new hubs are published a day (which is one new hub every 2 minutes or so). 15-20% of hubs end up eventually being unpublished for a violation or removed by their author (for whatever reason).
Total Published Hubs: 135,242
Total Published Users: 27,629
Hubs with 1,000+ views in the last month: 1,929
Hubs with 100+ views in the last month: 13,591
Hubs with 10+ views in the last month: 61,703
Meanwhile, at the time of writing, the Ivor Coles story has netted me 384 page views, while my complete hubs have garnered a total of 3141 hits. That's not that many I admit. But it's way better than when the stories were sitting on my hard drive waiting for an editor to answer my queries.
One day I imagined what 384 people would look like. It would fill a substantial club. In human physical terms that's not a bad audience. It would satisfy most rock bands. It satisfies me.
I know that many writers would say that this is very unprofessional. It's true. Most of the writers on HubPages are amateurs. There are some great writers here, but people are doing it as a hobby rather than as a trade.
So, you have to ask, what is the difference between a professional writer and an amateur? The difference is that a professional writes for money, of course, and demands a proper rate of pay. This is reasonable enough you might say, and it's certainly true that I could do with being paid for some of the things I write. But the real truth is that most of these professional writers are not writing for themselves. They write for an editor who works for a proprietor whose main purpose is to fill his paper with advertising. So in the end, most writers are writing for advertisers.
You may wonder how this has come about, why I am writing for free on HubPages, rather than for pay in one of the national newspapers as I used to. I am a good writer, not trained, but with a very distinctive voice, and a special skill. I have the ability to invest words with feelings. I can make words come alive on the page. I can invoke a mood or an emotion, but what I can't do, it seems, is write a pitch to an editor.
A few years back I was even a little bit famous. When I went to London people would recognise me. Sometimes, even, people asked for my autograph. Now I'm lucky if I can get the editor of an in-flight magazine to pay attention to me.
One day I was at a party. Someone from my old newspaper, The Guardian, was there. I was introduced to him.
"This is CJ Stone. He used to write a column for your paper."
"Ah CJ Stone. Yes. Weren't you some kind of an anarchist?"
So that's it. That's me labelled then. Some kind of an anarchist. In celebration of which I've stuck a bunch of anarchist writings on here to sell.
So no, I don't write for money any more. I am a thorough-going amateur. A professional writer writes for money. An amateur writes for love. And I know which side of THAT fence I want to remain.
Special thanks to Dorsi and to pgrundy who between them provided the inspiration for this hub.
CJ Stone has written four books: Fierce Dancing (Faber & Faber 1996), Last of the Hippies (Faber & Faber 1999), Housing Benefit Hill (AK Press 2001) and The Trials of Arthur (with Arthur Pendragon, Element Books 2003). Columns have included Housing Benefit Hill and CJ Stone's Britain in the Guardian Weekend, On The Edge in the Big Issue, On Another Planet in the Whitstable Times and Written In Stone in Prediction magazine. He is currently working on two new columns, and his latest book, the "biography" of a well-known supernatural being. He lives in Whitstable in Kent and, when not at his desk, is a part-time postman, which he describes as "like a four-hour workout every morning".