Thursday, December 26, 2013

Amateur or Professional: Attitudes and Behaviors

Yesterday we talked about a basic misconception about amateur vs. professional writers. That misconception was that amateurs produce lower quality work than professionals. This is certainly true sometimes or even often, but it is also true that many amateurs produce higher quality work than many professionals. So, if the difference isn't quality what are the differences.

Well, the simple answer is that professionals write for money and amateurs need money to keep writing. It's a bit over simplistic. But they key distinguishing factor between the professional and amateur in any endeavor comes down to money. Not whether or not one makes money writing. I suspect that some talented industrious amateurs may make more money writing than some less talented, less industrious professionals struggling to make a living with words.

No, it's not the amount of money, but more of the function the money plays. For the professional, money is the paycheck for work done. Projects are chosen, at least in part, based on how much money can be realized from that project. This is not a matter of being untrue to oneself or writing romance novels when you hate even reading romance novels. It is, however, a matter of given two projects, both of which are of interest and choosing the one more likely to be published (or for the indie writer, to sell more copies.) An amateur, freed from the need to show a profit, is more likely to pursue projects out of personal interest as the dominant deciding factor.

Amateurs in general are more willing to take risks than professionals. Since I am in the process of transitioning from professional to amateur for awhile, I am particularly attracted to this idea. When you are depending on part or all of your income coming from writing, you tend to play it safe. If you know a certain type of writing pays the bills, then you do more of that. If something is too far out there, your first instinct is to shy away from it. Amateurs, freed of the need to show a profit, can afford to experiment with something interesting, but uncertain of success.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the professional and the amateur is the priority writing assumes in their lives. Again, I warn you to not place any value judgement on what comes next. Just because writing is not your top priority doesn't make you a bad writer any more than making it number one makes you a good one. However, it is a distinction between pro and am.

The professional writer has writing as close to his or her top priority. Think about it as your job. This is even easier to do if you think about it as your job as the sole wage earner in the household and you work for a fair but demanding boss. I spent 30 years as a college instructor. I couldn't give the excuses I often hear from "professional" writers for not having time to write. Since this is close to Christmas, I've heard a lot of writers say they haven't been able to write because of getting ready for Christmas celebrations.

I could just imagine if I went in to my dean and said, "Hey, Dean, I'm going to be missing a lot of classes because I have to shop for gifts, write some Christmas cards and go to a few parties." I would probably have been able to go to a lot of parties without the encumberance of classes if I did that.

The professional sets his or her craft above just about everything else. At times this can even include family. Now, I'm not saying the professional writer will miss his or her daughter's high school play in order to outline a novel. However, I am saying, s/he has to be willing to set limits. Again going back to my days as a teacher. I was primary caregiver for my mother the last few years of her life. But she knew that she could call the school (which she had on speed dial) in the case of an emergency. Otherwise, she could call me when I wasn't in class. Did that mean that she was less important to me than my job? No. It meant that when I was in that classroom, only an emergency (usually meaning something that would involve people in uniforms and vehicles with sirens) was enough to get me out of the classroom. Mother understood this and never called for minor things while I was in school. After all, guess where I learned my work ethic.

Just because a professional works at home, doesn't mean s/he should be any less diligent about the job. The professional sets times to work and, barring emergencies, works during those times. Entertainment, minor family matters, conversations with friends or any other distraction is eliminated during that time.

The amateur by contrast, can be less tied to a routine. S/he can lay down the pen or shut the laptop and say, "That's enough for today. I'm taking the kids out for Ice Cream." The amateur doesn't have to meet any self-imposed deadlines. They can work at their own pace, and, if they get behind their planned schedule, they can tear up the schedule and make a new one.

The amateur can take a day off just to kick back and relax. If her daughter wants to go out shopping for a prom dress and she is in the middle of a chapter, she can finish that sentence, close the laptop and head to the store.

Again, this does not make the amateur a poor writer. It does impact productivity. The amateur who makes writing a lower priority than other activities will produce less copy than the writer who does not. There are trade offs. I'm at the point where I find I've been trading off too much of my rest and relaxation that I should have as a "retired" person for my writing. That's one reason I'm moving from professional to amateur. I put out 23 titles last year. I'm not going to do that this year. It will likely be less than half that number. But I'll be doing some other things which, for the time being, will be a higher priority. Teaching, mentoring, helping other young (not referring to age, but experience) writers get published. And maybe taking an occasional day to stock up on snacks and soda and watch a marathon of old movies or read an entire novel in one setting. But I'm under no illusion that my writing output will suffer. But it's a worthwhile trade off for me now. In a few months, when I go back into pro mode, then I'll trade off that freedom for productivity.

Professionals also write whether they feel like it or not. Going back to my college teaching. You might not realize it, but teachers are creative artists. We have to create original ways to teach a subject. Sometimes those take as much planning and inspiration as plotting a novel. Then we have to stand in front of a group of 30 people and do our song and dance at the highest energy level we can muster to get the point across. I have left class sessions completely exhausted and soaking wet with persperation. And we do that, at the college level, 2-3 times a day or more.

Did I always feel like doing that? Did I always have an "inspired" lesson plan for the day? Did I always "wow" the students with my performance? I think you know the answer. 186 class sessions a  year, some days I was not exactly inspired to teach. However, I couldn't call in and say, "Well, Dean, it's like this the teaching muse just isn't with me today. So, I'm not teaching. I'm just going to wait until I feel like teaching."

The professional writer is going to have days like that too. S/he can't take off the day. Now there are tricks many of us use to keep going. I have more than one project going at any one time. So, if I don't feel very inspired by my primary project, I can switch to a secondary one. Or if you don't feel like composing, then you might switch gears and do some editing or marketing. What you don't do is take the day off. You keep working.

The Amateur writer, however, can step away from the writing for awhile. If the writing is like pulling teeth, you can stop, take some time to recharge and come back to it later. Read a book, take a trip out of town, wash dishes, play a game, whatever and get back to the writing in a day or two. Of course, this, too, will affect productivity. But the smart amateur understands that productivity, while important for a professional to create a steady income stream, is not always going to be the amateur's top priority.

The most important thing for amateurs to take away from this discussion (which we will continue tomorrow with a deeper discussion of the benefits of each approach) is that first, there is nothing wrong with being an amateur and your writing can be as good or better than much that is done by professional writers. The second takeaway, though, is that the advantages of the amateur approach (ability to experiment, time to perfect the details, working inconsistently and not being tied to the computer) come with a price. That price is lower productivity.

The takeaway for professionals is that there is a price for pursuing writing as a career. You will have less time to spend with family and friends. You will need to keep a schedule, set and meet deadlines, write everyday (or close to it), have to say "no" to some social events and even some minor family activities, just like you would if you had a job outside the home. On the other hand, you have the joy of seeing your work in print and you have a career which let's you work with words and build worlds and characters.

Either approach requires trade offs. Neither is better or worse, but you need not expect either approach to come without a price.

Amateur or Professional Writer: Some Observations -Part 1

I'm currently moving from the professional camp to the amateur for awhile. Having lived on both sides of that dividing line, I have some observations about both. Over the next few days I'm going to be discussing this. As we face the new year, many of us who write have to decide in the months ahead whether to be an amateur or a professional.

However, before I get into a discussion of the differences and benefits of each, I want to dispel a
couple of red herrings.

First, being an amateur does not mean low quality work or a lack of discipline. This is a big misconception. Sometimes I've mentioned to a writer who said they wanted to create a certain type of writing without concern for sales, marketing or profit that they were amateurs, I've almost gotten my head knocked off metaphorically speaking.

The distinction between Amateur and Professional has nothing to do with quality.
In a few weeks the Winter Olympics will open. These are amateur athletes. No one would claim that their devotion to their discipline is less rigorous than that of athletes on the pro circuit. The difference is that they received no prize money, and, theoretically, they do not receive renumeration for their competing. Okay, that may not be the best example, because we do know that many of them receive endorsements which, for all intents and purposes, are a type of prize money.

A better example possibly is a musician and a community band or an actor in a community Playhouse. They get little or no money from the music or the acting, and they have day jobs unrelated to those fields. Nevertheless, they are usually very good performers.

An amateur writer is simply one for whom the act of writing is of less importance than getting paid for that writing. In other words, they do not think about writing as a means of making money. It is always nice when they get money. However, the real joy of the writing comes from the writing itself and seeing that writing in publication.

A professional writer, on the other hand, uses or her writing is primarily a job. Is there a means of making an income. That income may be a full-time income or maybe a part-time income, but many of their decisions are made based on the business of writing rather than the joy of writing. This does not mean that they don't take joy in the writing. However, they continue to write even when the joy is there. They may even write things that they aren't exactly thrilled about writing, but it brings in part of that income.

They are interested in productivity and profit. Now, this does not make them a hack anymore than a mechanic who owns his own shop is a poor mechanic simply because he watches the bottom line in his business. It seems, that the arts are the only business where, if you act like businesspeople, you're accused of betraying your craft.

However, many professionals may produce lower quality work than many amateurs. Indeed, a highly skilled amateur will probably produce individual works of higher quality than most professionals. This is because they do not have to meet deadlines, build up a brand, produce a line of books, and manage their time to a place where they cannot spend months or even years perfecting a single piece of writing.

Indeed, in traditional fiction, the majority of the titles published by major publishers are not published by professional fiction writers. They are published by people who have other jobs. With the exception of a few best-selling authors, traditionally published fiction doesn't usually provide enough income for someone to devote themselves full-time to that field. There are exceptions. Some people have supplemental income like a pension or working spouse. However, most have "day jobs, and they fit their writing into their life."

Perhaps that is the single distinguishing characteristic of a professional writer in contrast to an amateur writer. An amateur writer fits writing into their life. The professional writer adjusts her life to their writing.

However, this does not mean the quality of the writing or the commitment of the writer to his or her art is inferior in the amateur.

So, as we go through the following days looking at these two paths good writers can take, do not lay a value judgment on either path. Each is a perfectly legitimate path which can lead to publication. However, at some time most of us have to make the decision whether we wish to remain an amateur or pursue a professional career. And, for some like myself, we have to decide whether or not we want to remain pursuing a professional career with all its limitations and stresses or return to the less stressful amateur approach.

So, over these next few days, I would like you to begin to think about which path you want to pursue in 2014.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Going Out of Business - Sort of, temporarily.

For the past year and a half, writing has been my business, my profession. Since I retired, I've used my writing income to supplement my pension. It has helped a great deal.

However, recently, I've been noticing a great deal of stress. The sort that makes it hard to sleep, saps the joy out of life and makes you sick. Since I retired, I have no health insurance, so not getting sick is a big deal with me. Especially, since I retired early because of health issues. (Can you spell I-R-O-N-Y).

Anyway, I've been praying and I have decided to quit my job as a writer, at least temporarily. I have other writing related things going on like doing ebook formatting for a small publisher and I have several things I've written that just need editing and uploading to Kindle. And I intend to keep working on some writing projects I have. However, I am no longer going to treat it like a job or my profession.

I'm going to play the dilettante for  awhile. Write when I feel like it. Wait for inspiration. Not set a schedule. Take days off. Let it become a lower priority than say time with family and friends. In other words - a hobby.

Now, if you are dependent on writing for your income, or if you are trying to make an income (part-time or full-time) or you want to be a serious writer, DON'T DO THIS!!!

I'm kind of in a creative depression right now. I think it is because I have been putting out more creative content than I've been taking in. I've been exhausting myself working or worrying when I'm not working. Trying to produce too much in too little time. I need to full up the old bucket of creativity again. And I can afford to do so. The books I have out already provide some nice residual income as do a few other sources.

Most significantly, i feel I need to devote more time to mentoring other writers, teaching my classes (where I've fallen behind), and basically helping others get into print.

This is not a "resignation", but more like a leave of absence or sabbatical. How long it will last, I do not know. Check in and maybe I'll give you some updates. Maybe I won't. Right now, I'm getting out of the front seat and letting someone else do the driving for awhile.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Keeping the Main Thing THE MAIN THING

Right before I retired from teaching, i kept a time log and discovered, to my dismay, that I spent more time in committee meetings, working on accreditation, and dealing with other aspects of administrivia than I did either in the classroom or developing educational plans for my students. 

Sometimes as writers, we can get into the same routine. We can spend time blogging, posting to our author pages on Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, etc. We take part in email discussion groups or go to writer's club meetings and conferences. And none of these things are bad in and of themselves, but I've been tracking my time again and I don't like what I see. I seem to be doing it again. I'm spending more time on the peripheral aspects of writing than I am on actual writing.

So, since this is the time for New Year's planning. (Resolutions are worthless without a plan to actualize them) I've decided in 2014 to increase my writing and decrease some of my ancillary activities.

I may have to reduce some of my social media presence. I may need to control myself when I want to spend an hour responding to something in an online writing group. Most important, I need to set and keep specific times for writing.

What are you planning to do in 2014 to keep the main thing THE MAIN THING in your writing?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

El Nino: A Christmas Mystery

El Nino:
A Christmas Mystery

Michael pulled open the dark oak door. It took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the subdued lighting inside the church. Michael pulled a handkerchief from his coat pocket and wiped his face.

“December 23 and the place is like an oven out there,” he grumbled.

“I’m afraid our weather control is not as sophisticated in Aldrin as it is in Armstrong, but we are assured that we will have snow for Christmas,” The small man in clerical garb pumped our hands bowing slightly as he did. “I am Father Vishnu Singh. I know, Vishnu is an odd name for a Catholic priest, but my parents were Hindu. And you are the famous Carolyn Masters and Michael Cheravik. Would you like some tea? I have an excellent Ceylon.”

I was not sure I liked the idea of being famous. So, we solved a couple of crimes, but if I had known it would make us “celebrities,” I might have let the crooks go. However, I do like a good cup of tea. Mike? Not so much.

“You called and said something was stolen. What is it?” Michael considered himself direct. Others called him blunt. I say he is an acquired taste.

“Oh, certainly. You are busy people. Very busy. If it weren’t Christmas… But it is… And the children you see….”
As he spoke not quite finishing any thought, he led us to the front of the church. He quickly genuflected and then pointed to a nativity scene. The baby Jesus was missing.

“This is terrible. Why would anyone steal… Why now?” The priest kept wringing his hands. 

“Father, perhaps the figure was valuable.” I tried to be gentle. I had the feeling this priest didn’t think much about the material aspects of life.

“I – I never thought of that. But it’s not. Not really. We are a poor parish. Most of the people are transient workers. They come to the moon to work the mines and the big agricultural domes. Three years ago the people sacrificed to buy these. They were not expensive by the standards of Armstrong or Collins, but the people are proud to have done what they could.”

I understood Aldrin. It was a company town. Cheap housing, company-owned businesses, half the pay chips tuned for use exclusively at the company stores. I grew up in its twin on Earth.

“These people. They work hard. What little they make they send home to their families on Earth. The few families we do have live on the edge of poverty. Not like Earth, of course, but still it is a hard life. I do what I can to help. But they are a proud people. The Marquez family, for instance, has a son, Colin who suffers from a degenerative spinal disease. He needs stim braces or even a wheel chair so he can get around. I offered to ask the Diocese in Armstrong, but Adrian, the father, declined my offer, even though his wife and Colin’s brother Gabriel begged him to relent.”
“Sometimes people too proud to accept a gift are not too proud to steal.” Mike grumbled.

I wanted to slap Mike for saying it, but it is true.

“No, No. I cannot believe that of the Marquez family. Besides, Adrian is working the silicon mine this week. It’s so far out of town the miners sleep on site.”

“Well, I think we’ve seen all we need to see here.” Mike turned to leave.

“Uh- sir – ma’am. Don’t you want to take fingerprints and all that?”

Before Mike could put his foot in it again, I said, “Father, your door is open all the time. I am sure many people in reverence have touched these figures. Dusting for prints would just make a mess in your sanctuary and not help us find your stolen property.”

The tea in the tiny rundown coffee shop at the tube station was adequate, but the grimace on Mike’s face told me his “cup o’ Joe” was not.

“I don’t see what we can do. That place is open to everyone. You know Aldrin. The second highest petty crime rate on the moon. Can’t you work some FBI profiler magic?”

My FBI years were way behind me. I much prefer parsing out historical trends in pop culture to investigating crimes. However, Mike didn’t seem to recognize that as my past.

“One thing bothers me. If this theft was about money, why take the baby Jesus and leave the rest. You don’t fence one figure from a Nativity Scene. And why leave the silver candlesticks?”

“Yeah, I thought of that. For some reason, someone wanted THAT figurine. Think something’s hidden in it.”
“Maybe, but what? It’s not a great hiding place. Maybe we should consider victimology.”

“The baby Jesus as victim?”

“Sort of, in a homicide we always ask ‘why this person at this time.’ Let’s do that now. Why the baby Jesus at Christmas.”

“I see where you are going.”

“I think we can clear this up before the next tube leaves for Armstrong.”


The homemade wind chimes fashioned from old tubing clanged as I lifted the knocker on the pressed wood door covered by a type of plastic wood look veneer. We could hear a baby crying. The crying approached the door.
A woman about thirty, whose eyes looked much older, with a baby pressed against her shoulder, opened the door. “Hello, what do you want?”

“I am sorry to disturb you, but could we speak with Gabriel. Father Singh asked us to check on something, and we think Gabriel could help us.”

“Father Singh, eh. He’s a big guy. He should be able to take care of his own business.”

“Mrs. Marquez, Singh is a short guy that a strong breeze would blow away. Now, if you are satisfied we actually talked to him, we need to talk to Gabriel.” Sometimes Mike’s bluntness was just right for the situation.

Mrs. Marquez pulled back the door. “Gabriel, aqui, ahora!”

A boy, about ten, came running from around a corner, and then caught a throw rug and slid to a halt in front of us.

Mi hijo. One of these days you will fall and break your neck doing that.”

Gabriel didn’t seem worried.

“These people want to talk to you. Father Singh sent them.”

The smile on Gabriel’s face faded and he looked down.

“I didn’t mean no harm. Really. I would have taken him back.”

Mi hijo, what did you do, now?”

“Mrs. Marquez, let’s sit down and discuss this. I think we can clear everything up.”

“All I have is some horcha in the refrigerator. Would you like some?”

“Yes, thank you,” Even though I knew this was probably the last of the coconut milk, and the family would be drinking water for a week, I also knew that to refuse would be an affront to the dignity of a woman who had little left but dignity.

We sat around a plastic table in the kitchen. Gabriel fingered his glass of horchata.

Mi hijo, tell these people the truth. We may not have much, but we have our honor. But there is no honor in lying.”

Gabriel looked at his mother and then at us then he looked back toward a bedroom.

“I had to do it. Colin wouldn’t get to see him otherwise.”

“See who?” The mother was doing a better job of interrogation than we could.


“I don’t understand.”

Gabriel hung his head. “You see, Papa is the only one strong enough to carry Gabriel to church. He won’t be here this Christmas. So…”

I decided to help the boy out, “So, you decided if Colin could not go to Jesus, you could bring Jesus to Colin.”
Gabriel nodded without looking up.

“Gabriel, where is it? What did you do with it?”

“I was going to bring him here for just a few minutes and then take it back. I washed my hands real good, even put holy water on them. But when I went back, town security was there.”

“Well, Gabriel Jose Antonio Marquez, you know what you have to do?”

“Yes, Mama.” Gabriel left his glass of horacha on the table untouched. His mother poured it back into the bottle. He returned with the figure, wrapped in a blanket carrying it like a baby. 

We walked back to the church together.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Tell the Story


As writers we tend to micromanage our writing. It is easy to get caught up in where to place a comma, how long a chapter should be, whether to use dialog tags (he said, she said) or action tags in dialog, the proper CMOS for chapter headings, passive tense vs. active, less or fewer, and the list goes on. 

Don't get me wrong, these are all important aspects of polishing, but you can polish a lump of coal for hours and it
Photo by Pratham Books
will never become a diamond. To make a jewel you have to start with the gem, uncut, dull, lusterless, but the gem has to be there. 

For fiction writers, the gem is the story. I notice that when many writers critique other writer's work or post reviews on Amazon, they often point to the minutia of the writing, and, often, gloss over the story itself.

However, a non-writing reader is primarily interested in the story. When talking about your book to others, few will mention a particular turn of phrase, how often you used adverbs or if there were "floating body parts" or "head hopping scenes." What they will focus on is "And then they...."

The reader will forgive the occassional missed comma, awkward sentence or passive voice. What they will not forgive is a boring plot with characters they cannot relate to. Someone said the unforgivable sin of writing is boring your reader.

Always start with characters your reader can love, hate or move between the two who are sympathetic, but unique and interesting, who are real, but not quite ordinary. Then put them in a challenging situation, give them plenty of problems to solve, get them into trouble and show them overcoming the problems or succumbing to them, but tell a story that makes your reader keep turning the pages.