Slow Words: A Manifesto for the Unprofessional Writer

Since edging back into fiction writing after breaking my arm last December, I've been reading a lot of on-line commentary about being a successful writer, both in regard to self-publishing and to the more traditional pathways to success.

I find myself a little uncomfortable with the most common interpretations of "successful".  These seem to involve (but not necessarily limited to):  Writing every day.  Writing a minimum number of words every day.  Writing a million words before your first sale.  Writing a novel.  Writing a series of novels.  Being paid for your writing.  Building a fan base with social media. Getting an agent. Reviews.  Having lots of readers. Qualifying for SFWA membership.  Making a living with your writing.  Award nominations. Awards.  Guest of Honor invitations.  The envy of others.

I think a lot of this loses sight of the primary goal of writing.  And that goal, that success, doesn't necessary involve any of the above.  You don't have to write every day, you don't have to make money with your writing, you don't even have to market it or publish it at all.  A lot of this confuses "successful" with "professional".

If you want to write every day, if you want to write ____ words per day, if you want to write novels or series or ten-volume trilogies*, if you want to have lots of readers for your work, if you want to earn an actual living from your writing, fine.  Great.   You want to be a professional writer.  Go for it.

But that's not why everyone who writes, writes.  Right? 

To be a successful writer, you only have to do one thing:

Write a good story.

That's it.  That's all you have to do.

If you're writing, the only audience you have to satisfy is yourself.

If you only ever write one good story, you're a successful writer.  Even if that story's manuscript goes into a drawer and is never read by anyone else.

Everything else is optional.  Publication, payment, readers, reviews, etcetera, are great; they can be considered "more successful", if you want.  But it's that initial act of creation, that bringing forth of something you consider worthwhile, that's the basis, the foundation, the rock on which everything else is built.

Write a good story.  That's all you have to do.

I don't write every day.  I don't write quickly.  I don't write novels.  When I've tried doing the "professional" thing, the results turn stiff.  Clunky.  The words become something I don't want to read.  The writing becomes anhedonic, something I can take no joy in.  The "professional" thing doesn't seem to work for me.

When I write something, I don't want it to be a  job.

That may make me an amateur, a hobbyist, a dilettante, an unprofessional.  But you know what?  That's just fine.  Because the stories I do write are usually good stories, and sometimes even damned good stories.  That not only makes me a writer, it makes me a successful writer.

A manifesto needs a list, and I've been making a few notes towards a set of guidelines and inspirations for those unprofessional** writers like me who don't write every day, don't always finish what we start, and don't overly fret or worry about marketing, publicity or other after-story concerns. 

So, the Slow Words Manifesto, Version 1.0:
  1. Write a good story.
  2. Write what you can, when you can, the best you can.
  3. Most story revision should take place before the first word is put to paper. 
  4. Story progress trumps word-count.
  5. Some stories aren't ready to be born.  Let them wait.
  6. Procrustes is not a role model.  Let a story find its own length.
  7. Don't "dare to write badly" if you can't recognize bad writing.
  8. There will always be other writers better than you.  So what?
  9. Read.  Read a lot.  Read widely.  Read with a critical eye.  Try to figure out why what you enjoy reading works, and what you don't doesn't.
  10. Write a good story.  (You can't say that too many times.)
I may expand on some of these pithyisms in future posts.

*These were five-volume trilogies twenty or thirty years ago, but, y'know, inflation.

**(My God, Bruce, how can you apply a nasty label like "unprofessional" to yourself?)   Because I'm not a professional in much of any standard way other than sometimes people will pay money to publish what I've written. Because "unprofessional" is a word that can be applied to part-timers, amateurs, and hobbyists. Because I resent that it's used as a term of disregard in so many instances. So I'm putting in a claim on "unprofessional", because "professional" has nothing to do with writing a good story.)

(photo from Smithsonian Institution, via The Commons on Flickr)


Don Fitch said...

I have only one disagreement with your comments, but it's a big one. You seem to be assuming that anyone who wants to Write wants to write fiction (i.e., "a story"). I happen to feel more suited to writing essays.

Bruce said...

Don Fitch submitted a comment a few days ago, notice of which showed up in my email queue. But for some reason, it hasn't posted here, or shown up in the Moderation list for approval. So I copy it from the email here:

"I have only one disagreement with your comments, but it's a big one. You seem to be assuming that anyone who wants to Write wants to write fiction (i.e., "a story"). I happen to feel more suited to writing essays. --Don Fitch"

D Gary Grady said...

Now George RR Martin will say he's following your advice...

Unknown said...

Non-fiction/essays tell stories. Good non-fiction is as much a story as fiction. Even manuals can be stories if well done. My technical manuals never quite reached that level but I tried to make them interesting as well as useful.