I have seen a lot of writers out there trying to become authors. A lot. I only have small things published here and there, but I’ve hung around the industry enough that I’ve learned a few things. Many people painfully flounder in their dreams and efforts to write, and I blame most of that on the fact that “author” is one of those vaguely defined career paths that has a lot of idyllic images and images of glory, but very little hard facts out there. So I’m going to tell you a bit of what I’ve observed. Please note that a person can be wearing multiple roles listed, or be in one as they learn and grow on the way to another.
The most common denizen of this path is Writer. A writer, simply, writes. They write for fun, they write for practice, they write to communicate, they write for catharsis, they write to escape. It doesn’t matter why they write, because it’s all worthwhile. If you are in this stage and enjoying it or getting something good out of it personally, do not feel pressure to ‘prove the time spent worthwhile’ or ‘earn a living at it.’ Those are fine goals, but in all reality, they are quite separate goals that can spoil the experience of being a Writer. But you don’t need to justify the time spent on something you enjoy that edifies you. Publication is not necessary for this to be worthwhile. Writers may not feel as ‘valid’ as someone who is published, but whether this is their practice phase or their end goal, this is still a great pursuit.
The next player in the path is Publish Hound. They write, though they are often not true Writers because they don’t often enjoy the writing so much as they see it as a means to an end. Their goal is to see their name in print and say that they are a ‘published author.’ Sometimes they do this out of a desire for fame and some idea of glory, but sometimes they do this because they feel they need to justify their love of writing and the time they spend on it. They are most commonly self-published or with vanity presses, because those are the quickest and easiest ways to their goal and doesn’t involve pesky things like millions of words of practice, extremely deep pursuit of understanding of what makes good writing, or dealing with rejections. They don’t grow as much from critiques or rejections as many of the other roles. They rarely make much money and most of their writing isn’t very good, but with their name out there, many are happy with where they are.
Between the Writer and the Publish Hound is the WannaBe. They have this idea that they can ‘just’ write books and make a living out of it, maybe even get rich. Little do they know that a) being good at school, even in college, at writing, covers maybe 5% of the skills you need to be a good writer, b) it takes at least as much time and effort (and FAR more self-discipline) to become good enough to be marketable at writing as it does at a traditional job, c) the amount of ‘frontloading’ (that is, work you have to do before you even have a chance of seeing any returns on your investments of time, money, education, and effort) in this industry is massive with zero guarantee on return, and d) if you aren’t passionate about it, the chances of any level of success is quite low. This group is really driven at first, but as most of their knowledge-seeking is trying to find ‘the trick’ to becoming ‘successful,’ rather than just trying to get better, they generally fail. Statistically, the odds of making enough money to live on is extremely low, even writing full time, and the income per author has actually gone down a ton in the last couple of decades. Want to get rich quick? Don’t delude yourself into thinking the author career is one of these paths. There are a lot of reasons to write. Getting rich quick is absolutely not one of them.
The next category I like to call the Market Masters. These are those who tend to be prolific (and often formulaic), but they know their target market, they know how to utilize the various marketing tools available, they have the basic writing skills down, and they have their system of editors, cover designers, and formatting down pat to maximize their income. They often write romances or cozy mysteries, the snack food of the publishing world, and most often (though not always) are self-published or through indie publishers. They put out a lot of books fast and make a fair amount of money at it. Their writing tends to be lighter, more fun, but without a lot of depth, research, or meaning.
I like to call the next role the Up-and-Comers. They are, at their core, Writers, but they have goals to really improve their writing, understand the industry better, and make this their career. They tend to spend more time and money on various forms of publishing-specific education (conferences, books, MFAs, etc.), and put a lot of effort and time into writing and finding and improving their writing process. As Writers, they tend to start out fairly ignorant with the rest of us, but they are serious about this, and make the sacrifices necessary to push the dream forward. They are usually humble enough to recognize that they don’t know that much and if they want to reach their goal, it’s more a matter of improving themselves and gaining understanding than it is forcing or gaming the system to more quickly give them a superficial satisfaction of just having their name on a published piece or just making a few bucks.
Sometimes, life events or other things derail them, but they tend to always have at least the Writer hat on. Their writing tends to be good and most often becomes better, sometimes very quickly. If they do become published, they may not make as much as the Market Masters, but more than the Publish Hounds. And if they are able to have the diligence, talent, and luck necessary, they can become a Big Author.
What is a Big Author, you ask? This is far more vague for me, as I don’t know many. They are definitely real people. They have definitely put in the time and the work. But as I mentioned before, they often also need to have talent and luck on their side. There is a popular belief these days that luck isn’t that big of a factor, and talent is unnecessary. But to be truly big–like, months or more on the NYT Bestseller list big–you usually need a little more. The Big Authors I’ve seen run the gamut of personalities–narcissistic, hermit-like, endearingly awkward, all sorts. But their particular combination of dedication (spent in time and effort), talent, and luck has put them in a position where their author-career-beyond-writing efforts are less breaking down barriers and proving themselves, and more juggling the media presence that includes vicious wolf-dens like Twitter.
So, this is just a quick list of what I’ve seen. I don’t care if you agree or not, or want to add or take away from this list. But if you are interested in writing, sometimes I think it can be helpful to first figure out where you are on this list. Do you enjoy writing but feel uncomfortable pressure–internal or external–to publish? You can be a Writer and be happy, and revisit later if your desires change.
But if you look at the other roles and feel discomfort because you realize you are in one camp and want to be in another, don’t fret. The list is there to give you some clues. Here are some others that might help (on top of Keep Writing, which is a given):
- Be aware of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is basically that the less people know, the more they think they know. Be humble enough to seek more knowledge, and seek out good colleagues that can help you keep you understanding growing and your hubris in check. Writing, in almost every way, is a path where you know far, far less of the craft than you think you do.
- Don’t be afraid of ‘wasted time.’ I see way too many people who think that they MUST publish their first finished manuscript or else it was ‘wasted time,’ or who refuse to rewrite problematic scenes or books because that would mean the time spent on the previous draft was ‘wasted.’ Truth: none of that time is wasted. Just like a concert pianist is never wasting time when they practice, anything that hones the skill is time well spent. Even research that doesn’t show up directly in a novel isn’t wasted, as it contributes to the foundational knowledge you have of your characters or world, making it feel more authentic. If you are learning, you are growing and becoming better. This is never, ever wasted.
- Artificial and arbitrary deadlines are demons that cripple dreams. If your goal is to write great literature, do not sacrifice that because you feel you should have that goal reached before the age of 30, and let that deadline pre-empt the quality that takes time to achieve. Writing the best you can and then improving on it with more practice is fine. But don’t rush or shame yourself into sacrificing what you really want for something that isn’t as important as you think.
- Build your creation skills by exercising them. That means that, while asking for feedback can be helpful, recognizing that the end decision on how to write your book is yours (especially when there is conflicting feedback), is valuable. That also means that while input and research can be good, asking people to do your job of creation (such as naming characters, figuring out a plot twist, etc.) isn’t. Creating core things, ESPECIALLY when it’s hard, is vital to this being YOURS as well as honing your skills. Crowdsourcing important parts of your story is a crutch that will weaken your abilities as a writer if you let yourself rely on it.
- Constantly seek learning and improvement. It doesn’t matter what role you are shooting for. Learning and improvement is always good!