Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Post O'Day for Writers #61

Guest blogger Burl Barer posts about the difference between pros and amateurs.

Buying a stethoscope doesn't make you a doctor. Owning a pen doesn't make you a writer, and running off copies of your material doesn't make you a "published author." Harlan Ellison once said that there are no great unpublished works for the simple reason that great work gets published. There are professionals and there are amateurs. One is not superior to the other. The difference is whether you are paid for your work, or if you pay to work. I come from a family of journalists and authors. We find nothing unusual or extra-special about writing for a living. A family of real estate speculators or a family of ranchers regard their professions in the same manner.

I recently attended a writers group where people who didn't know the basics were helping each other remain ignorant. They critiqued a woman's ten page short story, suggesting her protagonist's name be changed from Mary to Sue, or perhaps Suzette. They argued over the type of sofa upon which she reclined on page five.

When my turn came, I read the first paragraph aloud and then stopped. "If you came across this story in a magazine, would you keep reading? No. Of course not. It makes no sense, says nothing of interest, and does absolutely nothing to engage the reader. Why bother discussing her name, the sofa, or anything else if you don't entice the reader in the first paragraph?"


Well, thanks for dropping by. Sure. No problem. Now, excuse me. I have three books on deadline.

All great writers, and mediocre ones, have books written that may never be published. Why? Because they suck. They are the wrong book with the wrong characters at the wrong time for the wrong market.

If you wrote a book that no publisher wants, there is probably a damn good reason -- a reason better than the book. So, when your novel is rejected, write another one, and keep at it until you write one that someone wants.

Dixon says: Let me tread carefully here. I've learned that if I applaud 95% of a guest post and criticize 5% - well, you know what happens. However, I think the above post deals with important issues within the writing community, and I'm not sure there is a right or wrong way to approach them.

First of all, most of us lust for publication but I know a significant number who write for the pure joy of putting words on paper. Their "trunk novels" will never see the light of day, and they're perfectly happy with that. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with that approach. As Burl says above, "One is not superior to the other." These writers probably embrace the title of amateur. On the other hand, not seeking publication doesn't mean they shouldn't still seek to improve their prose or poetry.

Secondly, I understand impatience towards writers who "don't get it." My local critique group has seen potential members over the years who (1) couldn't write a coherent paragraph if their lives depended on it, and (2) just wanted a pat on the back rather than constructive criticism. The good news is that they usually run screaming into the night at the first sound of honest feedback.

However, honest feedback can still be delivered in a diplomatic manner. Higher standards can be established and enforced with a kind heart. This won't happen overnight. It may never happen in a group that has become a social gathering rather than a self-improvement group. But I have seen it happen.

So I really appreciated Burl's comments, and hope all professionals can find a space for mentoring in their toolboxes.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your comments. I didn't mention in the blog that I encouraged the writer(s) to get a copy of "Elements of Style," and to read the excellent on-line sites for writers dealing with the basics of language, story construction, manuscript formats, and submission guidelines. I encourage everyone to write the story of their life and family history so it can be passed down generation to generation. This will give your grandkids and their grandkids a wonderful sense of "where they came from," and it makes a major contribution to their sense of identity.
    Thanks for allowing me to stimulate discussion.

    Burl Barer