On being a Professional

Having made my 4th professional sale over the weekend– that’s officially four sales inside of 12 months, after 17 years of no sales whatsoever — I am again faced with the question: what does it mean to be a professional in this business? Because the honest truth is, all the professionals I’ve talked to have an opinion on this, and seldom do all of these opinions square with one another. Especially on matters of craft or other issues that are taste-related. However, pooling the data points I am pretty sure I have a base-line.

#1 — A Professional writes regularly. Not blog writing. Not jabbering on Facebook. Not chat rooms or message boards or texting. Writing. Fiction, as applied to the empty white page. To be mailed frequently to editors. 5, or 6, or even 7 days a week. This is probably the biggest thing that separates pros from ‘amateurs’ and this is the one area where I think I need the most fundamental change in my process, as well as my attitude. I’ve gotten much better at applying discipline, but I still let too many days slip under the bridge without having done any fiction wordcount, and that’s something which will kill me in the long run and prevent me from attaining many of my goals.

#2 — A Professional reads regularly. Again, not blogs or Facebook or texting. Other fiction. Sometimes books or articles about writing, and then only those written by well-established, working professional writers. Books on writing by people who have never published anything besides books on writing? Forget them. I threw out a trunk-full when I decided to get serious. Be especially careful about what I call “empty calorie” reading, which these days usually means blogs by well-known (and not so well known) writers who spend a great deal of time talking about everything besides writing. I’m guilty of that too much myself — as reader and as writer — and need to get more disciplined as a result. Healthy reading involves lots of fiction, with occasional ‘learning’ non-fiction. ETA: Kris Rusch reminds me that healthy reading is also recreational reading, not critical reading. Thanks, Kris, as this is something I still struggle with. Leaving all my Internal Editor instincts behind, and just enjoying someone else’s work, without always breaking it down and analyzing.

#3 — A Professional sets and keeps goals. Just wanting to write is not enough. Sitting down and pecking at keys is not enough. Professionals set goals for themselves, and keep them. I will finish X story by Y date, and mail it out. I will have completed X number of chapters in my new novel by Y time this year, etc. In this sense writing is exactly like every other job in the world. Writers have product that must go out the door. Unless you make production goals and work to meet and/or exceed them, you’re still fooling around in the ‘amateur’ scene. Best question I’ve ever heard a pro ask himself — hat tip to Dean Smith — was: if you were your boss, and you looked at your production, would you fire yourself? Too often my own answer is, yes. And it’s a bald fact that not making and keeping goals is one of the big reasons it took me so long to break in. Not craft. Not skill. It was failure to make and keep regular goals.

#4 — A Professional attends professional events. This mainly means workshops attended and run by other professionals. This was the biggest change I personally made — along with my ‘business manager’ wife — when I decided in 2007-2008 to crack back into gear and get super-serious about getting professionally published. After long years of never doing conventions or workshops, my wife and I mutually decided I’d have to start doing them. And so I did. It takes money. In fact, this is the only area I’ve seen where it’s advisable to break the ‘money always flows to the writer’ rule. Check your local writing scene. Go to the local conventions. Find out who is on panels. Attend the panels with the pros, and which discuss brass tacks of writing. Invest time and money in seminars or other learning events, taught by working professionals. Travel if necessary. Burn vacation days at work if necessary. For most of my aspirant history I stayed in a solitary cocoon and never went out to mix with or spend any time directly talking to pros. Mistake. Get out there and talk to and learn from the people who are doing or being what you want to do or be too.

#5 — A Professional doesn’t become a learning junkie. I think a lot of people at my level fall for this, and I can see why. Once you begin doing workshops and cons, and reading informational books on writing by pro writers, and having a little success along with it, it’s easy to fall into the trap of spending all your time and energy on these things, and not on writing itself. Workshops especially can be addictive because if you happen to find a good one that works for you, you tend to want to go back and recapture that experience over and over and over. Don’t replicate workshops. Once you hit one workshop that covers one area of learning, make sure the next workshop covers something different. And don’t be afraid to stop doing workshops for awhile, once you’ve covered most or all of the bases. Next year I plan on doing my final workshop for this “beginner” phase in my career, having already done the Writers of the Future workshop — which doubles as a prize for winning the Contest — and three different workshops by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch; those are highly recommended. Next year’s is the Superstars Writing Seminar, which promises to be all of the ‘business’ aspect of the Writers of the Future workshop, only distilled and concentrated into 3 days, taught by proven bestselling writers of advanced skill. After that, I don’t see myself doing any workshops for awhile. It’ll be time to produce, produce, produce, produce.

#6 — A Professional is humble. That’s just my observation. The best professionals — the ones you can learn the most from — seem to be the ones who still remember just how hard it is to break in, and won’t spare any expense telling you how hard it is to stay in. They don’t puff themselves up as super-talents, and are almost always the first people to admit that it was persistence, not talent, which got them to where they are now. I’ve heard that from the lips of new and old pros alike, including people who make millions. It’s the self-absorbed suckers you need to be careful with. The come-to-me fan horders and cult-of-personality types who glory too much in being adored, that you need to take with a grain of salt. By its very nature, writing is a game for egotists. But the professionals — the ones who last — usually find a way to keep that in check. Runaway egotists eventually fall off the radar, then spend all their time mitching and boaning about why nobody thinks they’re awesome anymore.

#7 — A Professional remembers where (s)he came from. This ties back to #6 and is part of the whole, “paying it forward” thing that gets talked about a lot. Barring trust fund babies, almost everyone who is writing bestsellers right now, came from modest or otherwise unremarkable beginnings. A professional remembers his or her roots, and does not begrudge other writers being further down the ladder (or further up the ladder) nor does (s)he pretend that (s)he appeared fully-formed at the height of his or her success. A professional will patiently help aspirants who are willing to listen, and who abide by the unspoken rules of aspirantdom: be thankful, be courteous, never be pushy, always be patient.

#8 — A Professional speaks no evil. This is a very hard one for me because I am a scrapper and I like on-line arguments especially. But it’s almost uniformly true. Professionals don’t publicly take dumps on fans, aspirants or other professionals. I’ll say it again, because this one is very telling: professional writers — the real, long-lasting professionals who are worth their salt — don’t take public dumps on fans, aspirants or other professionals. Things might get said privately, or in confidence, but a professional will not deliberately set out to publicly crap on other people, however justified (s)he may feel about it. Again, I cite myself as probably the worst offender I know of, and this is one area I’ve been thinking about a great deal. I’m still at a point with my career where I can go down a lot of different roads. What I say and do now will affect a lot of things for me, and I’ve had some very nice people I trust to know what they’re talking about give me a lot of feedback on this one. So it’s not something to sneeze at.

That’s it. 8 fairly simple — yet not always simple to follow — maxims. Write and submit. Read a lot of fiction besides. Set and keep goals with the work. Attend professional learning events, but don’t get hooked on them. Be humble and appreciative. Remember who you are, and don’t be an ass to people. Pay it forward. That’s it. A very abbreviated version of the most important things I’ve learned in almost three years of going to places and talking to the professionals — the bestsellers, the people living the life.

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10 thoughts on “On being a Professional

  1. I concur with Jason.

    Rule #8 is a tough one, though I guess it needn’t be. I recently started mentioning my… “feelings” about the books I’m reading on my blog, and I’m pretty sure I got a sarcastic comment from David Brin or his imposter because of it. On my old blog, the same thing happened with Jeff Vandermeer.

    In a superb twist of irony, they are writers I actually like; but, the demand I made on myself – to view even those good works I read with a critical eye – I have realized ought not to be a public goal.

    But that said… I actually really respect your fearlessness when it comes to Wading Amongst the Sull Bhit. Beyond what an author writes, I like to know who that author is, which is impossible unless you see that author say or do things that other people don’t like.

    So, I hope it doesn’t cause you too many problems!

    -bn

  2. Ben, I’ve often heard it said that doing reviews is the last thing any aspiring writer wants to do, because any criticism — intended or no — will be remembered by the author in question, with name attached. Having said that, I’ve also seen some authors effect a “good reviews only” policy in that they only ever talk about the books and stories they like, not the ones they had problems with. As that seems like it can’t hurt you.

    As for the Sull Bhit, I think I’ll probably try and throttle back on sticking my nose into that sort of thing next year. With sale #4 notched it does feel like I’m picking up speed on the ski ramp, as it were. I should devote the time I would ordinarily spend on web spats with idiots to writing more fiction. Now of course if the Sull Bhit comes to my door, it’s on. But really, the Sull Bhit has come looking for me specifically since 2009. I think most of the people who could dump on me, have already dumped on me. I’ll be surprised if I am wrong about that.

    But thanks for the moral support all the same.

  3. Good rules. They’re smart, they make sense. Working in academia, I see a lot of unprofessionalism; I’ve come to have strong opinions about it.
    Personally, I might have generalized #8 to, “Present oneself professionally” — not just speaking no evil, but being generally polite in public, giving credit/deference where it’s due, not showing up to professional events dressed like a flood victim, etc.

    (OK, I’m also partly commenting to make sure that I’m properly logged in this time)

  4. Good comments, John. Present professionally is something a number of pros have hit on when I have been discussing this with them. The consensus seems to be that because SF and F writers and fans often get away with being slobs at cons, it’s therefore okay to be slobs all the time, under all circumstances. Most of the pros I hold in esteem aren’t in agreement with this, generally believing that it’s good protocol to at least go ‘business casual,’ and one well-known Utah author in particular is a superb dresser, with a flair for vests. He’s probably at the high end of the spectrum.

  5. Great points, Brad. You’re bang on. In fact, re. #6, #7 and #8, making a living by having lots of people like your stuff and buy it seems good reason not be a, uh, dork in public. I agree with John’s expansion of #8 above, too.

    And, who is this Al Meyer guy with almost the same name as me? 😉
    — Al Mayer

  6. Al is an Analog reader who spotted my story “Outbound.” And yes, I need to cut down on being a dork — at least on-line. In-person? I reserve the right to be as dorky as I wanna be! Just ask the crowd who were in L.A. in August. (smirk)

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