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Writers Can Gain Social Acceptance
#20 of 100
But It Isn't Easy, It Takes Work
Writers can gain social acceptance.
Some are lucky enough to get support from their families early in childhood. They get labeled as prodigies the first time they put three sentences together or do a haiku. They get labeled as Talented and teachers get prompted before the first day by proud parents to watch this kid, encourage writing, art, whatever it is the kid got labeled as exceptional for.
Most of the rest of us got picked on, laughed at and discouraged for ever having the gall to think we could make a living writing anything, least of all whatever it is we most wanted to write. The whole myth of Talent is this huge bugaboo. You either Have Talent or you Don't.
Guess what, no beginner in the history of anything popped out with something polished and brilliant at a professional level with no practice unless they spent a long time watching and learning before they ever did any of it to show anyone. Little kids learn in a deep, immersive way. Child prodigies may well come out with something way beyond their level, because they got focused and took an interest in it long before they actually showed any results. My granddaughter surprised me when she was two by drawing a recognizable cartoon head of Kiki from Kiki's Delivery Service.
She also watched that movie so many times before she did that the DVD had to be replaced for getting scratched up and the adults in the house flinched at the sound of the background music coming up. Little kids love repetition like that. They learn, they are learning during a process of brain growth that makes for faster learning. If you didn't learn something as a little kid, it will take more time and work to learn it as an adult.
Big deal, it doesn't mean you can't. You also might surprise yourself with what you learned as a kid and forgot from disuse.
Early prodigies also have some serious social drawbacks too. They get overconfident and don't quite get it that a lifetime of learning and training is ahead of them. They get egotistic and think they don't need to learn any more -- and then wind up surpassed by some plodder who took the time to practice and study instead of just coasting. So it's six of one, half a dozen of the other, and early labeling as Talented is neither necessary nor 100% a good thing. Many many child stars and early prodigies never go on with it as adults.
Having lost their childhood to having to work like adults, they'd rather do something else with their lives or they don't go through the hard part of learning the ropes that has to come as an adult with the entire process of learning the craft at an adult level and learning all the skills of life and career management necessary to be self employed. They're also subject to another deadly myth -- the idea that genius is unstable and it's socially expected for them to turn into drunks or drug addicts, ruin any romantic relationships, turn their lives into a train wreck.
Many, many writers, artists, musicians and dancers just have lives as good or as pleasant as anyone else's. They don't necessarily abandon spouses or children, and there's no real job requirement to treat everyone around them with contempt. But those bad habits are easy to pass on to a child prodigy who's getting lots of applause and artistic license for things that other kids would get grounded for. It depends on the family. Raising kids is tough in itself and that's a whole different rant.
The point of this one is that whether you were a child prodigy at writing or not, you may face some serious social barriers against becoming a successful writer. If the people in your life don't see you as a writer (or artist, or musician, or anything in the arts) there's enormous pressure never to try and never to show your work to anyone if you do.
One way to deal with that is to stay completely closet until your book is done and it's sold, then present it all with one slam -- giving the people who have no idea what's involved in writing books a reinforcement to the Talent idea. You get no support but you get no interference doing it that way, but it does mean finding time to be alone to work on it when your spouse, friends, children, etc. all want your attention.
This is true of everyone. You can't be human in this society without being constantly barraged with people who want your attention for something important to them. Sometimes you'll agree that it is. Sometimes not. But living as a sane human being takes being able to say No when someone just wants to sit around talking all afternoon and you want to get something done, or they want you to volunteer for yet another activity, or put in extra time at the office or whatever it is.
People who have trouble setting limits on other people's demands have a much bigger problem than trying to become a successful writer.
What's essential for healthy living -- being able to set boundaries when other people are making demands on your time -- is triply so for any writer whether or not you tell them what you're doing on the computer. But the strategy of just making time to get on the computer is one that'll work, because most people will understand that. They too like to surf, visit forums, answer their mail, post to videos they liked or play games.
So if you spend a certain reasonable amount of time every day on the computer and skip television especially when it's anything you don't like, you can get away without making a big deal of being a writer to the people you live with. Or just say "I'm working on a project" and don't describe it. If this sounds impossible, it's not.
I've known a number of writers who did just that. It's not what I did, but it worked for very many people I've known. It has the advantage that they can't argue with success: the book or story actually sold, therefore you must actually be a writer. Of course then they can always reject it as not being any good, especially if they don't read your genre.
But that at least gives many of the nonwriters around you the idea that you do know what you're doing, have the skill and some success at it. A more common approach is that they start bragging about it whether you sold it to Bantam or self published on Lulu. Many healthier families do accept the writer among them with positive reactions once some success has been achieved.
Of course that's not the point that I needed support. I've written fifty novels so far -- almost all in some stage of rewriting and some that are early drafts of current projects. I know how to craft a book. I have confidence in my ability to sit down with an idea or grab the first one that comes to mind and make up a good story in the length I'm most comfortable with -- which is 80,000 to 200,000 words. I'm definitetly a novelist.
I could not believe that would ever become easy back when I hadn't finished even one novel.
Every writer has a natural length. Some produce brilliant little gems of short-short stories in one or two thousand words. Others do short stories, novellas, novelettes, novels. I learned this from Leigh Brackett. When she first explained that, I thought I was a short story writer because everything I'd ever finished was a short story.
Mysteriously, I failed to comprehend that half my rejection slips came back with some variation on "Very good, I liked it, but it's not a short story. It reads like the end/middle/beginning of a good novel. Why not try writing the novel?"
Listen to that kind of feedback. They're not saying it to be cruel. Editors have a teaching streak and love being the one that discovered the next great famous writer. They like nothing better than hearing their names mentioned in a testimonial from someone who just won a big award.
They're like other teachers that way -- the whole job of editing involves helping writers reach another whole level of skill and polish. The better the writers learn, the less work an editor has to do with that writer and the easier it is to just drop that story into its place in the magazine without too much delay.
Book editors don't do as much of that as they used to. Agents have taken over some of it, but often writers need to kick it to that final level of polish on their own, which is where writing groups and critique circles can help -- especially if most of the members are at about your level. Past a certain point, helping beginners is good but you also need critique from people who write better than you do and see it from an outside point of view.
Writing groups are all about critique usually. About improving your writing to the point where an editor will write a check for it. Finding one that's a support group takes some focus and takes clear communication.
It's very hard to dare to become a writer. People will say things like "No one makes a living at it." (Then who paid for Stephen King's house?). Many variations on "Who do you think you are?" come up.
This is because writers who are good at it get some fame and some status. Journalists don't get as much of this treatment because people can think of journalism as a job, a "real job" with a boss and deadlines and assignments, and many journalists do seek jobs. Others freelance and work their way up till they can earn enough they don't need to work for a specific publication. It's your choice of career.
Many freelancers make a living on the Internet doing topical nonfiction. It takes a while to break in and to build skill and prolific volume but it's free to try and HubPages is a darn good start. But that's not going to get your novel finished or convince you that you have a right to write one, when so many otherwise perfectly good, kind, gentle, generous people will turn on you viciously and do their best to demoralize you as soon as you mention what you're doing.
I think of it as a particularly American social phenomenon. Many times when I read UK sites or talk to friends in the UK or in Europe, there's more social acceptance of people who take up hobbies in the arts -- people who paint on weekends or get involved in a local theatre or play an instrument, it's part of their view of middle class working life that it's all right to write a novel or a play or do landscape painting. But in America there's a particular prejudice against the arts and a stereotype that they aren't real work.
That only a very few people are ever successful in any artistic career and they're all special Talented people who were singled out on pedestals -- where they can then get attacked socially for everything from what they wore to who they dated last week. Fame is supposed to be the glittering prize. But let's get real.
Few authors wind up so famous that they get paparazzi. Those who do are subject to a lot of unpleasant events -- they wind up having to get unlisted numbers, receive more mail than they can answer, have thousands or millions of people they don't know all screaming for attention and would never get another book done if they paid attention to them all.
Fame may look very cool to a blue collar person but they don't often stop to think of how nasty that can get. Actors and musicians get it worst, those in performing arts wind up essentially having to be "on duty" anytime they go in public and will have any personal activity interrupted by people who want them to stop and do their job. Cab drivers do not go out on a date to see a movie and then get interrupted in the middle of it by someone who wants to get them to talk about their work.
So fame isn't all it's cracked up to be and most of it is set up by deliberate publicity work, it's still more stories written by that group of journalists and photographers so they can get paid, because human beings like to gossip. And if your name gets known then you're the object of gossip and anything you do is going to be judged critically. Does not sound like fun. Thankfully writers can be a lot more private than actors and don't get nearly as much of that.
The problem is that fame gets seen as something almost sacred -- and how dare an ordinary person try out for it? People get jealous.
I should run a poll sometime about whether people like their jobs. Based on what people tell me in person, they don't. A lot of working people put up with jobs they loathe because they need to make ends meet and the process of finding a better one is too much trouble. Or they don't believe they could find a better one or that doing anything else would be more rewarding.
"Nobody makes a living at it" is prompted by jealousy, because if you did, they might have to reconsider why they wasted so many years working for a bank or a grocery store, underpaid, unappreciated, constantly stressed and harassed with nothing to show for it but managing to tread water financially. That's a life problem so common it's absurd.
The ugly fact: jealousy is socially acceptable. It's okay to be malicious, cruel, mean as it gets as long as you admit you were jealous. It even gets brought up in murder trials as a reasonable cause for a crime of passion, at least if it's a guy murdering his wife, not so much if she murdered her husband. But petty jealousy over things like whether you have to get up at Ouch in the Morning and wear Business Casual and put a phony face on incredible boredom and frustration is totally acceptable to most of the people out there.
It doesn't get questioned and it confused people when I asked them about it. Everyone gets jealous, right? It's forgivable. The term for it is "schadenfreude" and it's probably behind all the "Fear of Success" therapies that were popular in the 1980s -- almost every personal growth article seemed to touch on "feeling like a fraud" or "fear of success."
Because success at anything and doing any individual accomplishment that gains approval will attract a large number of jealous detractors who all think they are completely justified in their flames. If you are successful you'll be accused of being selfish because you went off and did something that mattered to you personally instead of what, becoming Mother Teresa or spending all your time being dragged to help set up bingo night?
Egotistic because you dared to do it at all.
This social barrier is coming down. One of the things that's helping break it down is http://www.nanowrimo.org -- it started as a nutty group of maybe 30 people in 1998 getting together in San Francisco to get around to writing the novel they always meant to. Grew to a few thousand in 1999. I joined in 2000 and it was snowballing.
It continues to snowball every year. November is National Novel Writing Month, though it's really international and has some fine forums that crash every time the membership doubles. You can find critique, you can find support, both. Local groups get together for "Write ins" to work on it in a social atmosphere.
The world's loneliest art form turned into something like the Boston Marathon.
Maybe the happiest result is that if you are serious about becoming a professional writer, most of the hobbyists also share the dream and it's not inconceivable to spend some evening and weekend time working on it while you maintain whatever day job is keeping you alive in the meanwhile. If you're doing it as a sideline and it's not your main goal for how to make a living -- most science fiction writers get their income from high paid science jobs rather than their popular books, or by writing popular science nonfiction with them -- then there are groups of people where you're not crazy to do so.
And there's always someone whose novel in progress is crummier than yours. Someone who doesn't know the thing you figured out last year or last week and could use some help. Someone who can't spell as well as you can, or another dyslexic who figured out a better way to get the spell checker to handle personal names.
Becoming a fast typist will happen from doing it a lot. Don't worry about that. If you're a creative writer doing two-finger hunt and peck, either that will speed up or at some point you'll ease into touch typing because it's easier. Or switch to the Dvorak keyboard layout and save your wrists from repetitive motion injuries.
I faced a lot of discouragement growing up and it carried on through into my adult life. I think one of the reasons it did was that it was what I came to expect from people. No one I grew up with wanted me to be a science fiction writer. I got both ends of the Talent myth simultaneously, because they believed I was a Talented artist and threw in the "insane genius" thing on top of it because with chronic fatigue from three different physical disabilities, how awake I was at any given moment could be very inconsistent.
I didn't want to become a full time fine artist or illustrator. I wanted to illustrate my own books because J. R. R. Tolkein did and his pen drawings were cool. He could draw well because he was a university professor who passed biology -- you needed to be able to draw well to do that back in those days. Even today being able to draw well is probably worth at least one grade step in biology classes.
"You're never going to be a real writer."
"You never finish anything, how can you ever be a real writer?"
"You never have the nerve to send it in."
I got sabotaged by a great many people who meant well. All but two of them were blue collar people who when I looked at their attitudes from outside, did not actually like books. They didn't like reading either, thought it was a waste of time. Thought books were too expensive unless they were cookbooks or How To. They're who they were.
When people in your life discourage you, stand back and look at why. See if it's jealousy or a general attitude about books, reading and writers in the first place. You may still love them, but don't talk about work with them in any terms other than how much you got paid for it. Real money can sometimes gain some acceptance if the anti-reading prejudice isn't too deep and they care about hard work. But it's hard for some people to see sitting still and typing as real work even if it's in a bank or a newspaper office.
Many people get jealous of the simple fact that writers love their jobs and will often take a pay cut compared to what they could earn doing something other than writing in order to not have to go to someone else's office and do what other people tell them to do every day. That kind of independence is scary. Many people would much rather someone else organizes their time.
To become a successful writer, you need to find some way to organize your time and develop a routine, whatever it is, that puts enough hours into actually producing the writing that the books get finished and the scutwork of cover letters, printing, research or whatever other aspects are less exciting get done well too. This is the difference between professional and amateur, not skill.
Seriously consider keeping amateur status if you don't want to have to do all the small business management stuff and try to earn money with it. Amateurs can be as skilled and have professional quality but they're like the SF writer who's also an engineer -- the engineering pays the bills, so the novel can have artistic freedom and the novelist can take risks not worried about surviving if the next great idea turns out to be a flop.
Here's what finally did it for me.
I got a book finished because my life circumstance left me enough time to get through writing the bulk of my first book without having to overwork just to survive. I got two months off from scrounging for survival and used the time to write Raven Dance. If I hadn't been disabled, I might have gotten to it a lot sooner, also I made some other life decisions along the way that soaked up most of my time and were mistakes. Be that as it may, I got in a long vacation and got lost in the story.
I spent more time with my characters than anyone who didn't want me to become a writer, and circumstances left me fairly isolated. Writing a novel is a pretty cool thing to do with your time if you're in a new city and don't know anyone, no one's going to bug you or interrupt with phone calls or dropping by. Isolation may be painful and scary, but it does help if you don't have the support of a Nanowrimo event encouraging you.
Once I had actually finished a novel, that gave me a big chunk of confidence in itself. Half the objections I'd met were in splinters.
The other half went down when I went to http://www.iuniverse.com and self published it.
Most of the blue-collar people I've met since 2000 take it for granted that I'm a science fiction writer. I have an answer to "What do you have in print?"
It's the natural next question.
Writers do not have a period of college or trade school where you can say "I'm an art student" or "I'm studying engineering" or "I'm a music major." There's no public obvious social role for someone who is learning how to become a science fiction writer.
Or a romance writer, or a mystery writer, or anything. Are you supposed to go out and kill a dozen people in order to start getting good at coming up with the perfect murder? Not a good career path, though jail might be isolated enough to write a lot of novels. And the damage of ripping through all personal relationships with the kind of chainsaw conflicts romance novels specialize in would seriously ruin a person's life.
The answer is online. Find groups of people also interested in it, join writing communities, find others who are also working on finishing their first book or sending out short stories to magazines. Instead of expecting the people who don't care about it to change their feelings, work on doing it for yourself and seek new friends who have an interest in the topic.
http://www.sffmuse.com/forums is a writing group I formed in 2004, a bit slow, small and low key but friendly, with a chat room. Support is as important as critique because I knew how much I needed it before I got to the point of typing The End on Raven Dance.
Do not believe the English teachers who said you had No Talent. Many of them reject genre fiction out of hand. If you are still underage and in school, never turn in your only copy of a story to a teacher. I've heard from way too many other friends whose only copy of their best story got ripped in half unread because it was genre, whether that was horror, romance, SF, fantasy or anything.
Do believe the ones that say you're talented and can do it. Any that are genuinely supportive ought to be listened to and believed, but take it with a grain of salt if they're pushing you in the wrong direction -- which is a type of writing you don't enjoy actually reading. The other great problem with teachers is that some think you're the Next Great Talent but have already planned out your career writing things that you wouldn't pay 50 cents for on the overstock stack in a used bookstore.
Watch for other philosophical disagreements. They can cause people to discourage you from being a writer. Consciously or unconsciously, if you are talking to someone who hates your political-religious views, the last thing they want is for you to be able to express those views eloquently and get a large readership. That could be as common as jealousy for why people discourage new writers.
Most of all -- do not try to get people interested in reading unpublished manuscripts unless they are other writers and you agree to read theirs and help. This is why critique groups succeed -- but in critiquing it's important to point out everything you liked in their story. They may not know they got it right. New writers often get embarrassed about the high points of the story.
They think the most interesting character is too far out there, or the conflicts are too much, when if they took all that out there wouldn't be anything fun in it. I've got another hub on Positive Criticism that goes into more depth about this -- if you give it, you will receive it and get useful, targeted support that both knocks down your fears and helps you improve your skills as much as negative critique.
I've probably had every bad attitude it's possible to have about my writing in the long journey from age 4 to 54. I've spent a good half century becoming a science fiction writer and now that I am one, I can see how I could've got here on a much shorter, pleasanter road but for some twists of fate and some other problems that would've got in my way no matter what I wanted to do for a living.
Don't tell people your ideas for a story. Don't judge whether to write it on whether your best friend thought the idea was cool or thought the idea was dumb and you got it from last week's episode of Legend of the Seeker. Instead, try to write up at least some of the story cold without any support, work it out, at least do the outline or something -- and then sit down and use your yes, genuine skills as a writer to start boiling down a TV Guide description of it.
Write the hook line that you'd like to see on the poster for the movie they make of your book when it's successful. Write the back cover blurb -- if they want to know more, give them the back cover blurb -- and nothing else.
What makes people reject wannabe writers is the thought of spending half an hour wading through a handwritten twenty pages of badly written stuff and having to force themselves to say something nice about it. If it's a drawing, they can handle it easier. "That's nice" or "I like the colors" is very easy to say to a new artist, which is why artists don't get quite the degree of discouragement writers do (though they do get a lot too, and the process of changing your social role is necessary for anyone who wants to make a living in the arts).
Instead, the skill of synopsizing and blurbing is going to do you a lot of good in writing cover letters and professional synopses. The story itself in all its half-done majesty is half in your head and half on the page. Until it's all on the page no one wants to read it, and once it is, they need to be warmed up for it. Then only show it to people who ask for it after they liked the hook.
Filter out your readers from the general run of people who read but aren't interested in your topic. You, by being who you are as an individual, are a niche writer. Out of everyone you could meet or get your writing into the hands of, there's a significant number of people who disagree with everything you believe is right and true and good. They will hate it for ideological reasons.
Ignore them, they will never be your readers.
There's a very large number of people who don't read. Who don't enjoy reading, don't buy books, think they're too expensive or too boring or both, and distrust anyone who reads too much. They are not your readers. If you love them for other reasons, don't talk about anything but financial success or other topics. Accept that they will at best ignore your writing, don't invite discouragement by trying to plead your case to them. I broke my heart on way too many.
There's a significantly big group of people who do read for pleasure but don't like your genre. These may someday love one or two pieces of your writing that are so brilliantly crafted they appeal to everybody (it can happen, and practice helps) or more ilkely, the one or two that cross through into some topic they're interested in. They're not your main readers. Don't go into depth about it with them, fish to find out their topics and only mention the projects that have some relation to their pet topics.
There's a smaller but much more important group of people who like your genre. They understand what you're trying to do. They like the books that inspired you too. They are more likely to share your favorite movies or music. These are a pool from which you'll draw your core readers, they're the group of potential readers who will love your book once it's edited to professional quality. They may even like it before that stage.
Then there are your core readers.
These are the people for whom once it's in print, your book makes you their favorite author. These are the steady readers who later on will buy any book that has your name on it because they trust you to still be yourself and like the same things and write as well or better than you did last time.
Out of genre readers, discover who the jealous ones are and avoid them. Definitely don't talk about your plans with anyone jealous. Don't reject compliments by saying or thinking that they're only saying it to make you feel good. Even if they are, it moves you along the path to the point where they're saying it because your story made them feel good and they had to tell you that.
When you have enough done to fill a volume, go ahead and edit to the best you can and either send it out or self publish. If you're really having a lot of trouble socially, self publishing can help with that. It may not be the greatest sale of your life and the income may only be a trickle, but it will establish among acquaintances and coworkers that you're not just saying this to get applause, you really are a writer and enjoy writing books as much as they like painting landscapes on weekends or fly fishing.
It'll also let enough of your readers find you that you get that important affirmation -- when someone you don't know loves something you wrote and made available to the public, understood it, got it, you know that's what you're doing it for. After that it's all a matter of numbers and lifestyle choices -- do you want to build on it and become a full time professional, build on it to be a part time professional, go on doing it for a small readership and trust your job (which hopefully you enjoy as well as drag a paycheck out of) to provide a steady income.
Those are life decisions separate from the one that goes "I want to become a novelist."
The only person who can make those decisions is you. The only person who can write your books is you -- no matter what anyone says, his or her opinion is not the fact or the truth and he or she isn't "everyone." Obviously people do make a living writing books because a lot of authors are doing so to this day. Take it as their personal opinion and set it aside, because they don't speak for everyone.
They speak rather specifically for everyone who agrees with them, and those people aren't going to buy your book anyway, so why write to please them? If you write to please yourself, do your own favorite flavor, your core readers will be the ones who like it the same way you do. Anyone else will get a different flavor of pizza.