Do You Aspire to Write?

Let me state upfront how I feel about the term “aspiring writer”: I like it not.

In other professions, it makes sense to refer to someone new to the field as “aspiring.” When you’re in med school, you’re aspiring to a career in the healthcare industry. When you’re studying for your bar exam, you’re an aspiring lawyer. When you’ve landed your first gig on a TV show, you’re no longer an aspiring actor. You’ve become a full-fledged actor.

Can the same be said of a writer?

There are several terms to delineate newer writers from those who have been around: novice vs. experienced, published vs. unpublished, etc. These are obviously important distinctions to make when determining the stage of a writer’s career. The term aspiring writer is often meant to provide a similar distinction, but from what exactly are we distinguishing it?

The examples I gave above (aspiring doctor, aspiring lawyer) refer to someone who is on the path to their chosen career, but are not there yet. The aspiring doctor is not yet practicing medicine. The aspiring lawyer is not yet lawyering.

But almost all aspiring writers do write.

Before, it might have made sense to say that an aspiring writer was one who has never been professionally published. Such a distinction these days is murky at best. For where do we draw the line? Would we say that bestseller John Locke is “aspiring” to be a real writer simply because he’s never been traditionally published (distribution deals aside)?

More fundamentally, to say that a person is aspiring to be a writer is to imply that they are not really a writer. Someone who has written a dozen books is a writer, even if he’s a lousy one and none of those books was fit to print. Say what you will of the quality of his writing, but he has written; do not take that away from him by saying he is aspiring to be, and thus is not truly, a writer.

You might argue that it’s just a word, and that it doesn’t really matter in the big picture. But the Declaration of Independence, too, is just words, but it is a collection of words that has shaped the course of history. As writers, we well know the power of words, as well we know that the wrong word can ruin the meaning of what we’re trying to say.

I think the term “aspiring writer” really only should be applied to the people who want to write a story someday, but have not yet managed to sit in front of a blank white screen, pummel their keyboards, and give shape to the story in their minds.

I have not yet published a book. I have not yet made a dime writing. I have not yet been showered with awards or praise or royalties. These are things I do aspire to.

But I am a writer, dammit, and I bet you are one, too.

Cathartic Writing

This isn’t the blog post I set out to write. We aspire to be a blog for writers dealing with the business and/or process of writing. Sometimes though, writing is about more than the characters and the plot. Sometimes, it can be about real life, even when everyone in the story is wearing armor and carrying swords.

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I’ve spent a fair amount of time the past few days watching documentaries about the 9/11 terrorist attacks. To the majority of Americans – indeed even a great number of world citizens – it is the single most historically significant event to take place within the span of our lives.

We can all remember where we were when we first heard the news. We’ve all seen the haunting images of the senseless violence. It was impossible to not be affected in some way emotionally by the events of that day.

Is it no wonder those emotions would find their way into my writing?

In the days and weeks directly after the attacks, I was surprised to see just how affected my writing became. I was in grad school for screenwriting at the time. Like many people I knew, I was angry, and the scripts I wrote during that period reflected that. Loss and vengeance appeared frequently.

But, what became apparent while revisiting the footage these past few days, is how certain images and themes found their way into my fantasy years later. The story I’m currently working on takes place partly in a desert city. The desert itself is comprised of fine, gray dust and littered with teetering towers of obsidian. When I was worldbuilding, I didn’t consciously draw upon images from 9/11, and yet this is just one of many that has manifested in my writing.

It seems only natural.

To write is to express emotion. Just because we write speculative fiction doesn’t mean that, in some way, we’re not using it to look at relevant issues of our own time. To dissect them. To find out what motivates some people to do unspeakable things. Perhaps, on some level, to find reasons to sympathize with those people, to understand them. Or perhaps to live vicariously through the hero, thwarting the enemy’s plan in the eleventh hour and saving the day.

Sometimes, however, we write simply to cope.

Conning the Budget

A good question raised about going to conventions, workshops, and seminars asked how in the world does someone budget for these things. They can get unbelievably expensive. And it’s not just the event itself; there’s transportation there and back, food while you’re gone, and lodging. I don’t have all the answers, but here are some ways that have helped me.

First off, no matter how well you budget, there’s going to be a price tag. I consider the cost of cons and workshops to be my tuition or continuing education so I fit it into the budget. Maybe I’m only justifying using up my family’s money, but really, if I went back to school to get a masters or Ph.D. I’d spend even more without a much better guarantee I’d garner a return. Still, there are a few things you can do to cut costs.

For transportation, sign up with a rewards program to eventually, I hope, help with the cost of airfare. I wish I’d given myself this advice two years ago. I just barely signed up and it’s going to take a while to earn any rewards. Or…carpool. You might be surprised at how many people are driving from or through your area to attend an interesting convention.

Share the room. By getting a roommate you’ve cut one of the major expenses in half. I’m sharing for FantasyCon with a fellow writer met at Superstars Seminar. We’re not coming and going at exactly the same time, but it’s still costing us less than it would otherwise.
Booking a room close to the event, but not as expensive as the sponsoring hotel can help with lodging costs as well. Two years ago I stayed with a sister-in-law who lived around the corner from where World FantasyCon was taking place. I also stayed with family in order to attend Conduit last year. Usually it’s more fun and a good idea to stay in the main hotel, but sometimes it’s just not worth the cost. I couldn’t have attended otherwise.

If you do stay in a different hotel, get one with a refrigerator and a microwave. I’ve been known to do what I call “camp con” where I eat the offered breakfast at the cheap hotel, nuke up lunch or dinner in the microwave, then go out with fellow attendees for the other meal. This worked great at one of Dave Farland’s workshops because he always has them in reasonably priced hotels which have refrigerators and microwaves.

Now you might say, but I don’t know people I can do this with. You have to make it happen. Usually, there’s a way to connect with other attendees before the event. Either the person or group hosting will have a list of attendees, you can contact people through facebook, or you can request something be set up so attendees can communicate with each other. By staying active in a local writing group you can often find others who want to attend the same event. As your networking grows, your own fb page may be enough to get the word out. Just post something like, “I’m going to WorldFantasy Con in October. Does anyone know someone who would be willing to carpool?”

Of course, make sure you get to know someone before you do something like this. And make sure you feel safe. There are crazies out there; different crazy than just sf/f nuts. You have to always be careful, but as you get out you’ll get to know people. Go to those writing groups in your area, go to smaller cons in your area, and find out who’s going where. The more we network, the more we can help each other. But that’s a whole other post, and I think I’ve said more than enough this week.
Anyone with other ideas or experiences? I’d love to hear more.

An Experiment in Marketing

The undeniable truth is that writers are ultimately responsible for marketing their books themselves. Nobody questions this state of affairs in the realm of self-publishing, of course, where the author is responsible for every aspect of his or her book. But even writers with big contracts from major publishers will tell you that a great deal (okay, the lion’s share) of the publicity work ends up landing on their plate.Having recently secured a publishing deal with a small press in Canada (where I’m from), I now find myself in the position of having to execute a marketing plan for my own book. Marketing is not my strength. In fact, as a purely creative type who wants to spend all his time living in his own make-believe worlds (I know, I sound like a fun person to spend a Saturday night with, right?), taking on the burden of building a fanbase is an unsavory business I would much rather avoid-or at least leave to the professionals.

Fortunately, I have a writing partner on the project so I don’t have to go it alone.

First, we set to the task of brainstorming some ways to get the word out about our coming book. Before too long, an obvious target for our efforts emerged: social media.

On my own, I would hardly consider myself a social media guru. I check Facebook almost every day, but I post updates infrequently (no more than a couple of times per month). I don’t have a Twitter account, and don’t even get me started on this Google+ nonsense. Frankly, it seems entirely too time-consuming, as though I could spend all my time promoting myself and never find the time to actually write. I guess some people are wired for it more than others.

Like my writing partner, for example. Thank heavens for small miracles.

Just over two weeks ago, we started our campaign by opening a Facebook account for one of the main characters in the novel. Just as it’s important to keep a blog active in order to see eventual success, we knew this would only have a shot at working if the account stayed active and busy, and built up a significant number of followers very quickly.

We met our initial goal (we have north of 500 Facebook friends now), so we expanded our effort by cross-posting all our updates to Twitter. We aim for three or four new updates or links everyday, to make sure we don’t disappear from people’s home pages. The effort does seem to be succeeding, as the activity on the page is significantly greater than any buzz I’ve ever managed to build or maintain on my own behalf.

The next step, which just kicked in earlier this week, was the formation of a blog for the same fictional character. We’re just beginning to get hits on it, and several people have already subscribed. At first, I’ve written blog posts that function as a teaser trailer of sorts for the book itself, introducing one of the novel’s central mysteries. As time goes on, we plan to tackle subjects and research that hint at possible sequels.

I have no idea whether these efforts will be successful in the long-run, but so far they seem to be exceeding our modest expectations. I have reason to be optimistic.

These are, of course, just a handful of ideas. There must be lots of others. What sorts of marketing efforts have other people tried? By all means, chime in and maybe we can do some brainstorming.