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Pro-ness, part II - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2006-09-30 16:37
Subject: Pro-ness, part II
Security: Public
Location:Fireside Lodge Coffee House
Music:Something Southern fried on the radio
Tags:personal, process, writing
Yesterday I asked what your definitions of "professional" were. There was a cornucopia of responses, all of them quite good, most of which generally fell along the lines of suricattus's remarks:

Pretty much the same thing it does in any career: Working hard to hit deadlines, exceed expectations, and satisfy the person(s)who sign your paycheck (in this case, both editors and readers). Not sticking your foot in your mouth so far you can't recover is good but not essential, as has been proved time and again. Accepting that being talented only covers so much, and that hard work often more than compensates for a lack of genius. Knowing that it's not enough to get there, you have to work to stay there, wherever "there" is for you. Doing things that may not be as much fun, because they're needful for the job.

In short: remembering that it's a job. It's the best job I can ever imagine, but it's still a job.

Interesting. Consider that part of what got me thinking that we're not all singing from the same sheet music was tim_pratt's comment in my recent post "On television, gaming and writing":

I'm content to write 250,000 words or so per year -- a novel or two and a bunch of stories per year seems like enough, for me personally, and that's only about 125 hours a year of first draft writing time (I still cruise along at around 2,000 words per hour). Triple that time to include revising and business stuff, and it's still only about 7 hours a week of writing work.

Back on the professionalism post, davidlevine also offered this:

in the usual fannish sense of "published in a professional venue'

So now we have three operating definitions, the one offered in passing by davidlevine, as well as the self-descriptive elucidations by tim_pratt and suricattus. This is actually where I was going in my head when I asked the professionalism question. In effect, I think the definition is rather fluid with time and circumstance, much as davidlevine implied, in that he was drawing a distinction between where people stand in relationship to their work on several axes.

Thoses axes are:
  • Career arc
  • Financial relationship to writing
  • Writing ambitions

And we'll call the three definitions above (all obviously subject to endless refinement and discussion):
  • Writing as primary, full time employment
  • Career expansion as an established author
  • Career initiation as an emerging author

How do this fit together? (You knew there was going to be a table, didn't ya?)

Full time
Career arc
Financial relationship to writing
Writing ambitions

Table 1. Success criteria in defining professionalism

I'm not certain that I've demonstrated anything terribly useful here, and I've certainly made a number of highly arguable statements, but the underlying point seems to me to be valuable. The definition of professionalism varies with the scope of your desire and your relationship with your work.

Case in point: Howard Waldrop. I don't think he models well into any of the above definitions, yet he's inarguably a professional, and by some lights one of the leading pros in the field. Howard has his own relationship with career arc, finances and ambition which reflect deliberate choices on his part, choices he's made and stuck by for many, many years. In this sense, to my thinking he resembled tim_pratt, in building a life model that doesn't include the broader definition of dedication-to-job indicated by many of us.

Me, I treat it like a second job. I work hard, and I work a lot. I'm definitely in career expansion mode per the above model, beginning to be meaningfully concerned with my career arc (since I now have one), still fairly indifferent to my financial outcomes (I don't pay the mortgage off this stuff), intensely focused on my ambitions.1

On the other hand, as Gavin Grant said to me last summer, "You can write four or five books a year. You could write until you're seventy. Does the world really need over a hundred Jay Lake books?" Gavin wasn't making an argument for putting the brakes on or scaling back, simply for the sake of slowing down, nor was he making an argument for a tim_pratt style assessment of my overall time commitments. He was just asking me what I thought I was doing, and making an argument for remapping my process to write a handful of great books instead of a trunkload of good ones.

Me, I'm writing. I could get hit by a bus walking home from this coffee house (sorry, Scalzi) and I would be done. I could live to be a hundred and thirty seven. How do I know? What I do know is that at the ripe old age of 42, I'm sufficiently conscious of my own mortality to already feel like I'm running ahead of the tide. My answer to Gavin is that I know my own process, and the way I'll get to a great book, if I ever I do, is through the pages of a lot of good ones. I haven't reached greatness yet, as a writer or a human being, but like Moses I've been vouchsafed a glimpse of it. Unlike Moses, God has not promised to strike me down.

So my definition of professionalism? Write as well and often as I can, treat my art like art, treat my business like business, and be as nice as I can to people. Everything else is situational.

And if I were forced by venomous fate to cut back that list, writing would be the last to go. As always, the final answer is "write more."

1 There's a school of thought amongst some of us writers that holds "ambition" to be a dirty word. Often this is the same mindset that sneers at self-promotion or indeed, marketing of any kind. I submit this is an outgrowth of the Romantic obsession with art as a product of suffering, cross-fertilized with some Platonic notion of the purity of art. I also think it's bullshit. If a writer lacked ambition, they'd never submit a story. Any writer who's ever sold anything anywhere, as opposed to waiting around to be noticed, has acted on ambition. Get over it, ambition is a powerful tool in helping make us who we are.
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Jenny Rae Rappaport
User: eiriene
Date: 2006-10-01 01:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great post, Jay. =)
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User: robvagle
Date: 2006-10-01 01:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

Nice breakdown of "professionalism." I've known some writers who cringe at that word or the idea of it.

You're having a great time when you write, Jay, and it shows. Rock on, dude.
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David D. Levine
User: davidlevine
Date: 2006-10-01 06:44 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Not much to say about that other than ::nods::.

Thanks for correcting my typo. ("Aboard the good ship Venus, you really should have seen us...")
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User: tim_pratt
Date: 2006-10-01 23:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The one consolation I take regarding death is that I won't be around to realize how much being dead sucks. Who cares if my works are read after I'm dead? I won't be around to enjoy the attention. (Having my works read and appreciated *now*, while I'm alive --that's fun! I like ego-strokes as much as the next guy.) I'm basically a pleasure-seeker. I write because I *love* it, and find it fun and challenging. If I ever stopped loving it, I'd quit. (Well, first I'd fulfill my outstanding commitments, because that's part of what being a professional means, to me -- you do what you promised, in the manner and time you promised.) Then I'd take up Chinese cooking or the serious study of chess or something else that sounded fun, to fill in the void left by writing. But writing is sufficiently challenging and weird and engaging that I think I'll keep doing it until I die or my mind disintegrates, because I just don't see ever getting bored.

I'm a professional, because I get paid for my writing. (These days I derive between one third and one half of my income from writing.) It would be cool to make a living writing and doing nothing else, because it would feel like the equivalent of making a living by playing really good video games or playing chess.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2006-10-02 14:21 (UTC)
Subject: Alien
Sometimes I feel like I'm secretly looking in on another world with some of these comments on these professionalism and writing process threads.

My knee-jerk reaction to something like this from Tim Pratt

"I'm content to write 250,000 words or so per year -- a novel or two and a bunch of stories per year seems like enough, for me personally, and that's only about 125 hours a year of first draft writing time (I still cruise along at around 2,000 words per hour). Triple that time to include revising and business stuff, and it's still only about 7 hours a week of writing work."

is, frankly--what a bunch of bullshit posing. Like, I don't give a shit how many words you do per hour. And: you only spend triple that time revising (and "business stuff"). What the fuck are you writing? Ad copy for the backs of cereal boxes? I don't think you can do 250,000 words in a year and have much of it be that spectacular.

That's the knee-jerk reaction. The proof'll be in the puddin', of course. But for me, I'd rather spend 10 fucking years on 60,000 words and get it as right as possible. (Knee-jerk reaction to that is probably "pompous ass", and perhaps rightly so.)

So I see Gavin's point, and I'm glad you include it, Jay, because even though his point may not apply to you specifically, it's a good counterpoint to some of the discussion here.

I understand the point of providing real-time data about how writers work, but it begins to make it all seem like some kind of factory.

One of the biggest problems I find when I teach beginning writers is that they can't slow down to save their lives. They literally are unwilling to put in the necessary thought and work it might take to turn a decent or good story into something great.

I think more and more it's not that they're writing too little but that they're writing too much and not thinking about what it is they're writing.

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-10-02 14:30 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Alien
I understand the point of providing real-time data about how writers work, but it begins to make it all seem like some kind of factory.

Yanno, I take your point completely. But the only process I can talk about is my own.

As for writing fast or not writing fast (where "fast" might or might not equal "too much"), I don't the issue you're referring to with new writers is writing fast so much as writing with care. Fast drafting is not careless writing, it's simply fast drafting. I've never argued (or at least never meant to argue) against careful editing and rewriting to whatever extent the text and the writer's individual process call for.

I'm on the fast writing bandwagon because in my experience, fast writing is how I best tap into my own voice, not because I think there is a need for rapid overproduction.
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Jay Lake: jay_headset
User: jaylake
Date: 2006-10-02 14:34 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Alien
To be a bit more clear on fast writing:

I do think there's virtue to building inventory, if one desires a commercial career. I also have seen way too many new (and some established) writers with the opposite problem to what you've described -- they become so obsessed with revising to perfection that they write a thousand words or more to fill a 250 word page. My problem with that approach is how do they know what worked, what would be worthwhile, if they did't write it out?
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User: tim_pratt
Date: 2006-10-02 22:42 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Alien
Huh. It wasn't meant as posturing, but I see what you mean. We were talking initially about writing as balanced with other time committments/leisure, so I thought a breakdown of the time I spent might illustrate my point that writing is just part of the whole rich tapestry of life and etc. And, at the risk of you thinking this is *more* posturing -- I don't write quickly anymore. I used to produce about a short novel's worth of wordage per month, and it was crap. I wrote *hundreds* of stories in high school and early college, and they've all mercifully been trunked or destroyed. I've slowed way down, because I'm being much more careful, and thinking a lot about each thing I write before I start writing it. I just write pretty quick first drafts, and, yeah, I tend to spend about as much time revising a story as I did writing it initially. It's the only process that works for me so far. It doesn't always produce stellar work, but I'm happy, overall, with what I'm doing and how I'm progressing. Yeah, I'm doing maybe a couple of novels a year. A handful of stories. As opposed to the eight or ten stories a *month* I used to craptastically turn out, and the novels I wrote in 3 weeks.

As for ad copy for cereal boxes -- nah, never written that precisely, though I have written ad copy professionally. And I wrote that *way* faster than I write fiction, I promise.

But I actually agree with your point. It doesn't matter how many words you write in a year; all that matters is the quality of your work. But, hell, dude, we're mostly writers here, and a lot of writers are weirdly fascinated with peering into the processes of others. I know I am.
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