Mistakes I made Part III: Writing as Hobby

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As everyone will now be sick of hearing, it took me over twenty years to get published, and that the purpose of these posts is to try and sift through the years of failure to identify things which held me back. Today’s is a big one. There are a number of potentially separate posts here but I’m rolling them into one under a single title: unprofessionalism.

Writing starts for most of us as an interest, a pastime, a private creative outlet. It might be glorified journal writing or another form of so-called self-expression, and it’s fun: a hobby with product. But at some point we decide we want to take it further. We want to be in book stores. It’s not enough to just write for ourselves anymore. We want to be published.

The specifics of how we get there, the pursuit of agents and editors, the honing of craft and polishing of process are the stuff of frequent posts here at MW, so I want to target something different but just as crucial. Call it an attitude. Because it’s not enough to know the steps towards getting published. At some point you have to start thinking of yourself not as a hobbyist but as a professional.
This is hard. We’ve all toyed with the question of when you can start calling yourself a writer or a novelist, and while calling yourself that before your work is generally available can invite awkward follow up questions (like “where can I buy your books?”) the attitude thing is crucial. When you complete your first novel, you are, crucially, a novelist. So start acting like one. In fact, start before your book is done.

That means that you take to heart everything sites like this tell you about the mechanical stuff (attending conventions, finding readers’ groups, learning to write a good query letter etc.) but it also means THINKING as a professional writer. One of my biggest mistakes was that I never took seriously what a writer friend once told me: if you’re going to be a novelist as well as an academic (or whatever your day job is) you need to make sure they both get equal time.

Now, I don’t want to be puritanical about this. I’m not one for arbitrary rules about how much you have to write per day, or when (if ever) you can take a day off, but there is an essential truth to the advice that I don’t think enough beginner writers take seriously (myself included). That is that you have to be serious about your craft, about the way you pursue publication, and that if you continue to think of writing as a hobby it will probably stay that way.

Here’s a for instance. I slipped into a pattern. Write a book, polish it, share with a few people, send it out to agents. Then wait. As many of you know, agents can take weeks or months to respond, and if you are sending out only a few queries at a time (as you should) the process by which a book finally gets rejected by everyone who might have been suitable for it can take years. In that time, the hobbyist sits by the phone for a while, and then very gradually starts to wrestle with the question of whether to write another book. After all, the last one which you had thought was great went nowhere and took 2 years to do so. Do you really want to go through all that again—the work, the waiting, the rejection? For what? I mean, it’s not like it really matters. You have a job, a life. The writing thing is just a hobby, right?

But it’s not. It can’t be. Not if you are going to succeed. Whether other people around you believe it or not, you have to act like writing is a job in which you are already employed. If it remains a hobby to you the stakes stay low: there’s no pressure on you to deliver.

One of the things professional writers learn is that in few cases is success about one book. That book might get you noticed, but success is about productivity, and publishers—though they commit to a book—are usually more interested in a career. So. If you are serious about this writing thing, send your (thoroughly polished) novel off to your (carefully researched and targeted agents). Give yourself a break for a little while. You have, after all, earned it. Then–soon–get to work on the next project. Don’t even consider waiting to see what happens to the last one.

You’ll find that this generates more product—which means you learn faster—but that it also takes your attention off the phone. It will also serve you well when you do make that first sale and when you suddenly don’t have the luxury of taking 3 years over your next book. You don’t have to quit your day job (and most writers really shouldn’t—though that’s a post for another day), but you do have to balance it with this other commitment. Take a look at your life and your priorities. You can’t spend 8 hours a day on all of them, so you are going to have to share. But if being a writer is something you really want, it’s going to have to rank up there with job and family. I eventually realized that there were certain things I used to enjoy, other hobbies like painting, woodworking etc. that were going to have to become very occasional if I was to give my writing the time it needed. Cutting some things almost completely out of my life was hard because they were part of me, but it also felt like pruning in order to give the really important stuff the best survival chance.


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19 comments to Mistakes I made Part III: Writing as Hobby

  • AJ – you spoke to my heart and my past with this post. While I *never* told people I was a writer, I *always* lived as if I was. I took a job that left me time to write, though it meant a longer commute. (A job I still have. Maybe we should work together on that post. 😉 ) I worked on my writing 5 days a week. I never stopped researching for the perfect agent/editor/etc. I did my homework. Like you, it took me a long time to find a publisher. But I lived the life while I did, and I think that made the difference between eventually finding a pub and never finding one.

    Last — If you want to hear the Fab AJ and me on a panel this weeked, and can manage a drive to Charlotte, N.C., We are here:
    http://www.plcmc.org/about_us/in_the_news/releaseDetails.asp?id=471

    I understand that parking is problematic, so come early!

  • Whether other people around you believe it or not, you have to act like writing is a job in which you are already employed.

    This is a big one and I continually thank the MW people for bringing this one up. Quite often it’s relatives who wonder why you’re bothering to devote so much time to something that isn’t giving you a daily, weekly, or bi-weekly paycheck. Usually those who had to, as they see it, work harder than you seem to be to earn a paycheck. I did my share of working my butt off in retail until my body gave out and ignoring my writing because of the long and unpredictable hours. Now I’m working my mind and doing something I enjoy doing and will get paid to do it.

  • This is great advice, A.J., and I was actually told something every similar early in my career. For me, this nugget of wisdom didn’t come from an editor or agent or even another writer. It came from my father-in-law, who is a farmer. He had been a navy pilot and was originally from the East Coast (he is now in Idaho). When he started out farming, his friends thought he was nuts, and the other farmers in the area didn’t take him seriously. So, as he put it, he went out and bought himself a cow. One cow. But he learned to milk it and feed it, and because he had that cow, he was able to say “I’m a farmer” instead of “One day I’m going to be a farmer.” He told me this story when I was getting started, and he basically said, “If you really want to succeed, the first step is thinking of yourself not as someone who aspires to write, but as A Writer.” Best advice anyone has ever given me.

  • Faith,
    as you suggest, we all have different ways of figuring out what it means to be professional, but you’re so right that getting into that mind set makes all the difference. Looking forward to seeing you tomorrow!

    Daniel,
    yes, family pressure can be a tough one. I nearly gave up several times because I felt I couldn’t justify the time and expense (mailing, printing, new computers) to my family (though they NEVER asked me to). And when my son was born, I really nearly stopped, sure that I could no longer spend hours at the keyboard. But I adjusted, got rid of other things, and it worked out. Stick with it.

    David,
    that’s a great story. I love the idea of a man learning to be a farmer with one cow. I may use that! And yes, it’s great advice. At some point we should write a joint post on the day job issue, me from the perspective of someone with another career, and you from the standpoint of the full time novelist. Might be interesting.

  • A.J., your post is perfect timing for me. I’ve been struggling with this topic quite a bit lately because I realized I was doing all kinds of other things and playing mind-games with myself instead of writing.

    A few weeks ago I realized I needed to, in my mind at least, decide writing was going to be my profession and act accordingly. It’s a huge adjustment in thinking. That part about cutting out activities that you love but that will keep you from writing is something I’ve been fighting against. But I know it has to be done or else there won’t be any writing. I’ve messed up a bunch of times already, but knowing what I’m working toward yanks me back. And reading and participating here at MW helps keep me going. Thanks.

  • One of the added benefits of thinking this way is that, like all behaviors, if you do it enough, it just becomes your reality. Your body gets use to it. Being “a writer” becomes the habit, the norm, and it’s the other things that seem odd to you. After all these years writing, it’s so ingrained in me now that during those feel-down-you-want-to-quit times, I can’t conceive of what else I’d do. I’m a writer. How can I be doing something else?

  • EK,
    glad this seems apposite. It is a tough choice but, as Stuart points out, the new version of life becomes a different norm and you opperate within it. Obviously you have to be careful about things that have an impact on others (esp. family) but you can probably trim in other areas. I watch less sport than I used to, and less TV generally, neitehr of which I really miss. I also am much more focussed on the computer (no random browsing, no video games). One of teh other sides of viewing your writing professionally is that I think it makes you more efficient. You can be mulling your writing at other times, but particularly if you set attainable goals for yourself, I think you’ll get more done when you actually sit down to write. And–again, as Stuart says–if you find such habits and thought processes become central to who you are, then you’re a writer. If you find the writing thing frustrating and miss the stuff you feel you gave up, then you’re probably not. At least you get that learnt!

  • AJ> Great post. Something I’d struggled with because I felt like calling myself a writer was silliness. I now call myself a writer because I have a very small (paid) publication. 😀 But I thought of myself as one before that.

    On the other hand, you would have to post this today, when all I want to do is go home on a Friday afternoon and veg out. What I need to do is go to BnN (I write better in places where I can’t do other stuff) and work on two chapters that have been giving me trouble and get a short story that’s bouncing around in my head out on the page, and grade 10-20 (if possible) of the student essays handed in today.

    So, off to BnN I go. Later tonight, though, there will be cookie baking for a potluck tomorrow.

    But, in all seriousness, doing this does take the mental committment of “it is my job and I have to do it…” for me. If I didn’t think of it this way, it wouldn’t get done. (I also need to turn this attitude on to some scholarly writing, too, which also is my job. Yay!)

  • Thanks, Pea. I hope you had a productive afternoon! Save me some cookies.

  • AJ — I have reread your post and I need to add a PS to my earlier comment. I really appreciate this post. It says what scientists, inspirational speakers, psychologists, and some mathematicians have been saying — if you believe it, if you claim it, if you *work* it, it becomes reality. I wish I’d had this post when I was a struggling, unpublished writer. I appreciate this post–and you–so very much! And I’m so glad you came to MW!

  • Thanks, Faith, that’s very sweet 🙂

  • Well said, sir. Getting between the ears and mashing the reality you WANT into the grey matter until it becomes the reality that IS is no small feat. And there’s no way to teach it either. A person either grasps it and owns it — or they don’t. It’s harder than it sounds.

  • Sarah

    Thank you A.J. If writing isn’t my job, but only my hobby it will always, always get pushed to the back burner. I started putting WRITE on my calendar in red, the same color I use for classes and mandatory meetings. Everything else can get shuffled or rescheduled, but those are what I have to do no matter what. (Though I second PeaFaerie – I wanted to just come home and flop down on the couch this evening.)

  • Thanks Ed! And yes, it’s harder than it sounds. I still have to work at it.

    Sarah,
    ah, the dreaded back burner. There are certainly times when my writing finishes up back there, but there are times when the slow simmer just won’t cut it. If it’s always on teh back burner, the chances of you really coking up something special is slim. [I know, enough with the cooking metaphor already.]

  • Thank you for the reminder, A.J. I’ve come to this conclusion repeatedly in recent years, but in the last six months or so, I’ve let it slip. And then it becomes harder to maintain that ideal of putting writing first. And then I start to question my sanity. Am I just some full-of-it wannabe prancing around in her pen name like it’s a shiny cloak and I’m a little kid playing dress up? And then real life intrudes and I put things off. And then I start to feel like a fake, even though I know I have it in me. Who knew that self-esteem (or lack thereof) could be so destructive?

    Seriously, Thanks. I needed this kind of boost right now.

  • I couldn’t have said it any better than Miss Moira, so I won’t try. I’m definitely in the same gondola, though. I actually AM a writer. I’ve been published in various publications over the years, yet I still fall into the mentality of being “aspiring” rather than actually wearing a capital-W “Writer” tee-shirt. I think it’s because, despite all those publications, that actual full-length novel is my personal touchstone, and it’s a stone I’ve yet to touch (much like the Blarney Stone of legend). Somehow I need to teach myself to overcome that mindset.

    Hmmm. I got it! I’ll have a tee-shirt made with a big fricking “W” on the front. Like a superhero, I’ll change into it whenever I prepare to flop down in front of the ol’ laptop and log some wordage. If I do that, I’ll let you all know if it actually works.

  • Moira, thanks. Love the dress-up analogy. That’s exactly what it feels like in hobby-mode sometimes.

    J.M. you could probably market those T-shirts!

  • Young_Writer

    Moria, that’s how I feel sometimes; especailly since I AM a kid (relatively). I’m trying to think more and more professionaly, but school makes it hard sometimes. I still try and write everyday. Sometimes I don’t have tiem to coem on the site, and I feel strange. For months I read them everday and I’ve memorized how posts on what day.

  • Well, A.J., you twisted my arm. I have a few contacts in the screen printing biz and I actually shot off an e-mail to them about pricing. Seriously.