This week, I’m reflecting on what it means to be a writer, and asking if you need to be published to call yourself one.
What does it mean to be a writer?
That’s a big question, and one I’ve wrestled with a lot over the years.
I wrote my first novel when I was fifteen. It was really bad, but if you know anything about writing then you’ll know that your first piece is almost universally going to be a disaster. A proverbial first pancake. They say you have to write at least 100,000 words before you actually write anything good (for my very naive teenage self, it was sadly many more).
But actually this comes hand in hand with what I like most about writing, or about anything creative, I suppose. The subjectivity of it means the possibilities are endless. You never stop improving or getting faster or learning how to do it with just that little bit more elegance. With every word you write and read, you create more and more invaluable experience for yourself.
Whilst we’re on the subject, this question appears in my writers groups on practically a daily basis. “I want to be a writer, but where do I start? How do I get better at it?” My answer is always, undisputedly:
- Remember that your goal is to make your reader feel something, not to jam as many long and unusual words as possible into the same sentence
Read Bryan’s top advice for aspiring writers.
Anyway. Tangent #1 came pretty early in this week’s article. Back to the main plotline (see what I did there?): my first novel.
I only let two people read my first novel, and the feedback I received was resoundingly… constructive (read: they were struggling to think of nice things to say). This was, of course, an experience that shaped me as a writer (and a person) today. It’s incredible the amount you can learn when you open yourself to honest, constructive feedback without your defensive gloves up (oh no, I can feel another tangent coming on…). My second novel was a sequel, and although the writing might have been a little better, it enthusiastically brought along all of my first novel’s gaping plot holes.
My third novel was slightly better (I think, though I haven’t read it back in a number of years). Of course, still a teen myself, I was writing Young Adult Fantasy. Yes. I was a nerd.
I was almost eighteen by the time I wrote it. I dished it out to some of my closest friends at school chapter by chapter, and they loved it.
One day, I was walking to school with my headphones in and one of my best friends jumped out in front of me, giving me a fright. She had been driving along the road with her dad when she saw me, and felt the need to jump out of the car and tell me something.
“Oh, my god,” she said, “I need the next chapter RIGHT NOW. I NEED to know what happens after *insert plot point*” (no spoilers here 😉)
It made my day. Maybe even my year. If you asked me if there was one moment in my life in which I felt truly validated, that would be it.
Also: I’m very sorry to announce that this, too, was not the point of my article, but indeed another tangent.
After a while, teachers caught wind of my novel writing. One of our more eccentric teachers (let’s just say that I wasn’t too fond of her) asked me if I’d had anything published, and then seemed aggressively disappointed when I said no.
At the age of 17! She was unimpressed that I wasn’t a published author!
Do You Have to be Published to be a Writer?
Well, that was easy *pretends to leave the room*.
What makes you a writer? My opinion is that if you write, you’re a writer, and that’s that. It doesn’t have to be your main source of income; it doesn’t have to bring you any income at all.
The competitiveness of the industry inevitably leads to some sad truths:
- There are many talented books that will never see the shelves, because their manuscripts never made it off of the slush pile*
- A lot of crap, ghost-written books exist because their author was already famous, which makes a publishing house go 🤑
*Definitions for non-writers: the slush pile is what we affectionately call the stack of unsolicited manuscripts waiting to be read by a prospective agent
The validation of publication does not quantify whether someone is or isn’t a writer. Being a writer is more than words on paper, whether they’re published or not.
When someone says “I’m a writer”:
It tells me that they’re a storyteller.
It tells me that they look at the world in a certain way.
It tells me that they believe in themselves, because nobody ever got into writing by accident. (Actually, I think my friend Jasper got into writing by accident, and now he does it full time and has a vocabulary the size of Tolkein’s, but that was an unusual story.)
So, How Hard is it To Get Published?
If you’re talking about publishing a novel (which people generally are), then I can’t tell you, because I’ve not done it! But I have gathered quite a lot of information over the years I’ve spent in writers circles.
To become traditionally published, the generally accepted first step is to get an agent. And getting a book agent is hard work. It is generally considered the most difficult part of the road to publication.
Agents are always inundated with submissions, and even getting them to read your work can be tricky business. It is so competitive that there’s now software you can use to track agents, how they want to receive submissions, who you’ve already submitted to and endless amounts of data to give you the best chances of success.
It really is a minefield, and not one I was prepared to navigate at seventeen (and, honestly, nor am I now ten years later).
This isn’t an article about getting an agent (maybe I’ll write one of those in a few years, when I have one).
But here’s something you should know: next time someone tells you they enjoy writing, smile and ask about their work. Or, change the subject, if you really want to. Whatever you do, don’t say:
“Ooh, are you published yet?”