When I began writing back in my early years of high school, I imagined that all established authors spent their days writing and their nights partying. I imagined plenty of alcohol and smoking by men in fedoras. I pictured high unwieldy stacks of paper and the incessant drone of typewriters. In essence, I dreamt up Mad Men when I was 15. Matt Weiner owes me a lot of back-royalties.
I think many of us in the writing business have a lot of different ideas about the actual artistic process and how that process translates into an occupation. Such a concept–the creative process as a business–might appear contradictory to the way we feel about making art. I think the stereotypical vision of the author’s creative process involves the author completing a bunch of “mind-freeing” tasks (like paragliding in the Andes, sipping champagne in Marseilles, or drinking in a lot of dive bars talking to strangers about their amazing lives), and, feeling a sudden burst of inspiration from their leisurely hobbies, the author sits down at a word processor and types until a finished novel springs from their fingertips. Usually, this process occurs in some sort of montage with some self-empowering music blaring in the background.
Unfortunately, professional writing very rarely resembles this dream, and I think all the people who will make writing an occupation know this fact of life. Whether we like it or not, the act of distributing a novel, a collection of essays, or a poetry collection is a business, and to be a successful (i.e. to make a living off of writing), writers need to treat some of the ways they write as a business. After many conversations with my boss, professors, writers, and editors, I’ve noticed an overlap in 3 fundamental areas where writers shoot themselves in the foot. They are as follows:
1. MEETING DEADLINES
I’m sorry to tell you, but we live in a world where the breadth of writers outnumber publishing presses. Poets & Writers magazine’s website lists just under 300 (American) independent presses with the note, “It’s largely the small, independent presses that publish and consider work from new and emerging writers.” Independent presses provide an incredibly important service for emerging writers; they’re willing to invest in an untested writer. However, being an independent press means less opportunities to take chances. They can’t squander what little funds they have on individuals who lack the responsibility to follow through on the immense task of publishing a book. Even though independent publishers are more inclined to publish an untested talent, they must be careful in who they choose.
Meeting the deadlines set by press editors demonstrates a writer’s responsibility. By providing work on time and within set guidelines, an author demonstrates their work ethic and their responsibility. How an author decides to meet the deadline (writing a little every day or writing in large chunks a few days a week) is entirely up to the writer. But, the moment an author fails to meet a deadline, they demonstrate an image of the unreliable and unenthusiastic artist. An editor will not work with someone they cannot trust, and of the many faults writers may have, tardiness should never be one for the aspiring professional writer. Work as much as you can in a consistent fashion and don’t be too worried about turning in entirely polished work, especially in a first draft. As Tamerlane said, “It is better to be on hand with ten men than late with ten thousand.”
2. MAKE FRIENDS, NOT ENEMIES
I’m sure everyone has heard “It’s not what you do, it’s who you know.” While I’m willing to bet that virtually every publishing press has a deeper interest in a writer’s work than the writer’s personality, keep in mind that you’re selling both your work and yourself as a colleague. Editors and publishers are closer colleagues than that guy who always steals your stapler in the next cubicle over. Writing is a highly personal business, and every writer would nod their head at the very obvious statement that writers put part of themselves into everything they produce. Issues tend to arise when editors and publishers attempt to help publish the writer’s work by suggesting (or insisting) on changes. Writers need to assure their publishing colleagues that they won’t take suggestions or criticism personally, because everyone wants the same thing; everyone wants to see the story, essay, or poetry in print.
I’m not telling anyone not to burn bridges. Burn’um as much as you want. Some people don’t get along and it’s best not to interact with them. But, with writing, it’s important as possible to secure many positive relationships. For graduate writing students, I’ll address this specifically to you: make friends with your English Literature colleagues. Those people will be your future editors and publishers, and having them as a contact is a great way to do some business networking while you’re seeking a professional degree. Compete with others for the sake of improving your own work, not to beat others.
3. WRITING PROFESSIONAL COMMUNICATIONS
As I’ve mentioned before, I have an anthology-in-the-making (called Prairie Gold and our deadline is August 31st, click on the link and check it out!), and of the many surprising things I learned in this process, the one that surprised me most was the unprofessional e-mails and cover/query letters from various submitting authors. All of the editors I’ve spoken with agree: if you cannot write a professional e-mail/cover letter/query letter, then how can you write a good piece of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry? After all, professional communication requires very little imagination and only basic knowledge of grammar and spelling whereas stories/essays/poetry require mastery of the language. From my interviews with several editors, I’ve discerned that cover/query letters and e-mail professionalism “counts” at different parts of the publishing process, depending on the individual.
But, in all cases, an author’s level of professionalism in their communication matters greatly, no matter the step at which a certain editor may read the query/cover letter. Whether a writer knows the editor and/or publisher or not, it’s always good procedure to separate your business ventures and your personal ventures. Eschewing an all-too familiar tone in order to send a professional e-mail–even to a friend–demonstrates respect and an ability to be both a friend and a colleague with an individual. Just because an editor or publisher may be a friend does not mean that a writer should forego the traditional query letter or cover letter. Simply because a writer knows an editor/publisher doesn’t mean that that writer is guaranteed any sort of acceptance.
I hope anyone who wants to write professionally heeds these three basic rules. Even if you want to become a professional writer, but you’re not particularly talented, at least you can make the contacts necessary for publishing when you’ve bettered your writing skills.