Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Are Commercial Writers Born or Made?

Can you "become" a writer? Or is it just something you are that you can choose to exploit, or not, like any other Talent?

I haven't thought about what it takes to launch a writing career in many years. Neither of my children had any interest in writing for a living.

I've done a number of email interviews with High School kids doing the assignment "contact a writer and find out (whatever)" but when this newest request came in, it made me think about what this new world I've been describing on this blog (the E-book, self-publishing or at least self-promoting, Web 2.0 world of social networking) looks like from the point of view of someone in High School wondering if they can make money as a writer.

It's a fascinating point of view and I was rather surprised at my answers.

I found a number of basic human traits that a writer needs, that aren't actually widely distributed among the general population. These traits aren't "talent" for writing, just essential traits necessary for a writing career. Many of these traits are the same now as they were in my grandparents time. The changes and additions are all in the skills and techniques area, not basic personality traits.

And it isn't enough to have these traits, and write a few books, or even sell a few that actually do well in the marketplace. The real question is whether this profession actually chafes your nerves, making you get up every day forcing yourself to do something you'd really rather not do -- or whether you get up each day and mostly just do what you want to do because that happens to be what you have to do.

Then of course, as in every profession, there are "those" days when you just have to do what has to be done.

I have often said of myself that I don't "want to write" -- I "want to have written." As far as I can tell, there's only one way to get to where I want to be, and right now I've got a lot of published material behind me, some on the table in front of me that will be published, and a whole lot more in the compost heap of "Ideas and Concepts."

So here are the questions this High School student thought up for me to answer. Read and think first how you would answer. I did include a number of links with my answer, but here I'm adding a couple more since not everyone reading this post is as familiar with the material as this High School student.

1. Who are you and where were you born?

(This one really threw me for a loop. I could write an entire treatise on the concept of "who" and "are" and in fact have written many Review columns on the problem of "Identity" as a mystical component of "Character." But I decided to use my standard short bio instead.)

Jacqueline Lichtenberg, a life member of the Science Fiction Writers of America, (http://www.sfwa.org ). She is creator of the Sime~Gen Universe with a vibrant fan following (http://www.simegen.net ), primary author of the Bantam paperback Star Trek Lives! which blew the lid on Star Trek fandom, founder of the Star Trek Welcommittee, creator of the genre term Intimate Adventure,


winner of the Galaxy Award for Spirituality in Science Fiction with her second novel, and the first Romantic Times Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel with her later novel Dushau. Her fiction has been in audio-dramatization on XM Satellite Radio. She has been the sf/f reviewer for a professional magazine since 1993. She teaches sf/f writing online while turning to her first love, screenwriting focused on selling to the feature film market.

Screenwriting: http://www.slantedconcept.com

The above is my 200 word bio expanded with hotlinks that appears in program books at conventions, in newspapers, and websites where the URLs can be permitted.

I "am" a great deal more than just "what I've done." One day I may write my autobiography to try to convey some of "who" I think I am. Or not.

2. What was your childhood like?

(Again an entire book worth of answers swarms to mind. But I decided on a brief answer -- well Lichtenberg-brief)

Compared to world famous celebrities, I had a plain vanilla childhood with no real traumas or dramatic events. I was born in New York, grew up in California, lived in a 2 bedroom house with my parents, was an only child, and basically did as little as possible other than read books.

I lived in the same house with the same parents and went to school in the same public school system from Kindergarten to HS graduation, then on to the nearest University (UC Berkeley), commuted to campus from home, and graduated from that one school. All in a straight line.

When I was in 5th Grade, I was failing badly, failing reading in particular. My mother snuck me a book from the adult library. It was science fiction. Battle On Mercury by "Erik Van Lihn" which I learned later was yet another pen name for Lester Del Rey (founder of Del Rey publishing company that popularized adult fantasy).

Search for it on amazon, there are a few used copies. 

Pen names proliferated for that entire generation of SF writers because there were fewer writers than there were market slots.

With that book in hand, and my mother's refusal to read it TO me, I taught myself to read nearly overnight and read through the whole adult library SF collection, and tried to read most of the books in the children's library but, except for Andre Norton's titles, they were pretty awful. I also liked the Rick Brandt series but detested Nancy Drew and Nurse Nancy.

Rules in libraries about what kids could and could not read were much more strict then, so I had the collusion of my mother (a Reader) to support my habit, but she drew lines in the sand, too. I did the same raising my kids.

I used to sit on the floor in the stacks at the adult library waiting for my mother to choose a book and gaze at the titles of the books and imagine what the stories I wasn't allowed to read would be.

Then I grew up, got my degree in Chemistry from the University of California, (because a lot of my favorite SF writers had a degree in Chemistry and the University didn't offer a degree in Science Fiction Writing) then I worked in Chemistry for a few years, did some globe-trotting (all the biographies of writers that I'd read showed they had done globe-trotting, so I made that a priority) then got married, had 2 kids, and began writing those books I hadn't been allowed to read.

3. Who or what influenced you to become an author?

Here is a list of the writers I grew up wanting to write like and some anecdotes about finally meeting them professional to professional.


When I was in 7th Grade, I read a good story in an SF magazine but the illustrations were just plain all wrong, not at all what the words described.

At that point, my Dad had bought our family our first typewriter, and he taught me to type over a Christmas vacation. He was a professional teletype operator and taught me the way he had been taught, for speed and accuracy.

I later copped an A in a HS typing course without learning anything, in fact could teach the teacher a thing or two but of course what teacher would allow that?

In a fit of indignation, I pulled out the family typewriter (a manual portable) and typed (without handwriting a draft first) and blasted off a couple paragraphs of a letter lambasting the magazine for daring to publish inaccurate illustrations.

They published the letter, my first publication. HOOKED!

But it only worked to 'hook' me because I was already a 'writer' which is why I could blast out a few succinct but vivid words without a second thought (when I was not-quite in 8th grade mind you) and get my words published in a letter column that was strictly for adults and nobody knew that I was a kid. I made many SF fan friends over the next few years who never knew I was 15 years younger than they were.

The big disappointment? When I finally sold a story to that magazine, the illustration was even more badly messed up than the one I'd complained about some 15 years before.

They also published my name and address with that letter (at that time, there weren't the nasty predators out there who would stalk and attack anyone whose identity was made public.)

After the magazine came out, my parent's mailbox became stuffed with dozens then hundreds of letters from SCIENCE FICTION FANS!!! Which I duly answered. On the typewriter because in SF fandom, handwriting is impolite. Like a Kingdom a Fandom has a culture of its own.

Pause here to see Rowena Cherry's post on cultural dissonance. Entering SF fandom at that time was massive cultural dissonance, but at the same time it was a homecoming. Every strange thing was just "right" and "familiar" though I'd never imagined it before.


I discovered there was a whole, organized, huge, active, brilliant, rollicking, dynamic and just plain wondrous group of people who were interested in all the things I was interested in. In fact they thrived on what I couldn't share even with my parents.

I discovered something I could do that I wanted to do. I just had to figure out how to make a living while doing it because there was (and actually still is) no money in Science Fiction writing.

A QUESTION YOU DIDN'T ASK: my first sale.

Here is the story of my first sale.

That short story is now posted online for free reading.

It's the first published fiction in what was to become my Sime~Gen Universe novels. There is an omnibus of three novels in that universe that form a trilogy:

4. What does it take to become an author?

My second, and really key, mentor in the art and craft of writing was Marion Zimmer Bradley (look her up on Amazon).

Marion Zimmer Bradley

Marion Zimmer Bradley taught that anyone can write fiction and sell it, provided they have acquired one single skill. The ability to write a literate English sentence.

It's spelling, punctuation, and grammar, plus a huge vocabulary. Today add keyboarding and a facility with word processing programs, especially the tech underpinnings that allow you to manipulate text into various formats (from Word, or Open Office document, to html, to pdf, to Plain Text, to the newest version of whatever software).

A facility with building websites, manipulating images, and an eye for design can be helpful, but if you make enough with your writing, you can hire someone to do that. You will likely not be satisfied though unless you can at least edit the website they make for you.

Online social networking skills, Web 2.0, 3.0, and soon 4.0 plus whatever comes after that is going to be a primary necessity for writers in just a few years.

Public Speaking training. Join anything at school that gets you on a stage before an audience, the more hostile the audience the better.

The ability to throw a party, organize food, invite guests that blend well, attract Media Attention to it, create an EVENT (you may have to throw your own book-launch parties for a while). Training for this can be had by volunteering to run money raisers for charities or your school.

You need experience at being the center of attention at an Event, at being totally ignored and irrelevant to the Event, and at being in charge of the Event. You need to do this over and over until getting dressed for that special night is exactly the same as getting dressed to spend the day lounging around the house all alone. Practice until speaking to 2,000 people, or on a TV talk show, is the same as talking to one person.

All of the above modern skills are the equivalent of "writing a literate English sentence" on a typewriter.

Writing is basically just talking to someone who isn't there at the moment, but you know pretty much who that person is. You always write for a particular audience, fiction or non-fiction you must write to your audience, not above their heads, and not beneath them, just to them.

So start to learn to write by learning to talk. Learn the fine art of conversation, too, not just the art of the monologue. Elocution and Rhetoric are the core of these disciplines, but so is Deportment.

Finally, to become a professional writer, you need to amass a huge amount of trivia, bits and pieces and an understanding of the principles that relate those pieces into a whole. It doesn't have to be the RIGHT principles according to what anyone else thinks. It has to be internally CONSISTENT in your own mind.

In other words you need to study philosophy, anthropology, sociology, criminology, pre-history, archeology, linguistics (diachronic linguistics especially), Law, every bit of science you can lay hands on, and learn every possible culture you can find to learn about. You need to learn all about human behavior, and the human nervous system and brain functions. You need to learn all about Religion (all of them!).

You need to cultivate an attitude toward learning such that it never, ever, occurs to you that this or that subject is out of bounds, or you won't study it because you don't like it. And you need to set yourself a curriculum which you make up and then actually execute to your own specified deadlines.

A good role model from today's modern Romance market is my co-blogger here, Rowena Cherry, whose blog entry on cultural dissonance you just read if you followed the link above.

As Alma Hill my first writing mentor met through Science Fiction Fandom, taught me, Writing Is A Performing Art.

Robert Heinlein taught me the oldest stage adage: "Sounding Spontaneous Is A Matter of Careful Preparation."

To "become" a writer is impossible.

To recognize that you were born a writer, is possible. How do you tell if you're a writer?

Writers write.

That's it. That's the whole thing. Those who can't stop writing have to make a living somehow and the only recourse is to sell what you've written.

My blog post

Gives you a chance to get a grip on the 'business model' of the independent contractor which is what a professional writer is.

To 'go pro' you have to prepare yourself to do everything it takes to run a small business from incorporating to book keeping to management to advertising. You will be 'self-employed' and that means usually doing absolutely everything with your own hands, at least part of the time.

Marion Zimmer Bradley had a sign over her desk:

"Nobody ever told you not to be a plumber."

Meaning, plumbers make a lot more money more reliably and with a lot less effort than writers do.

Anyone who can be discouraged from "becoming a writer" should be discouraged resoundingly.

Robert A. Heinlein (look him up on Amazon)

Robert A. Heinlein

said that only people who literally couldn't do anything else should consider writing as a career.

He, himself, was actually physically disabled and had no other way to support himself, so he began selling his stories. He always looked at it as competing for some guy's beer money.

Every successful writer I know follows his 3 rules whether they attribute them to Heinlein or not.

1) write it
2) finish it
3) put it on the market and keep it on the market until it sells

I learned those rules when I was a teen.

So what does it take to "become" a professional writer? A certain amount of cussedness, a blazing fire of determination, an ego beyond all bounds of polite society, and a wide and deep understanding of humanity, life, the universe and everything.

5. What's the most rewarding part of being a writer?

As a professional reviewer I get tons of free books from all sorts of publishers which is one way to feed a reading-addict! I just saw a tweet on twitter from a writer who advised new writers that if you don't read, you can't write. Writing means READING. So if you're not addicted to reading, find another way to make a living.

So the biggest kick I ever get from all this work is when I read a book some publicist for some publisher has sent me and love it, then review the book in my review column, send it in to the magazine that pays me for the column, and email a copy of the review to whichever publicist sent it to me, and get an email from the author flipping out over my review because some of my novels had been the inspiration to them to launch a writing career.

The kick is from finding out how this writer I've just become a fan of grew up as a fan of mine! Wow.

This has happened consistently throughout my career, but I only recently started keeping track and asking permission to list the writer online.

So here's a very abbreviated list of some of the authors who will admit in public that I influenced them.

6. Is there anything you dislike?

Oh, that's way too open ended a question.

Of course there are many things, but the objective of training yourself to be a professional writer (meaning you not only write for money, but you also can and will write whatever they will pay for) is to whittle the list of dislikes you amass as a teenager down to almost nothing by the time you're thirty.

Broad tastes, wide experience, a zest and even lust for life in all its glory is the attitude a writer needs to cultivate.

If you haven't read it by now, do please read Rowena Cherry's post on cultural dissonance.

I didn't tell her to write that post and put it up right before this one. It just "happened" like so many of the connections on this blog. Rowena is prescribing just exactly the medicine a writer needs to become able to create scintillating characters and conflicts.

When you must create a character who is very different from yourself, you must be able to put yourself in his/her shoes and walk a mile in those moccasins. Likes and dislikes are part of the characterization of that character and to make a character consistent, you can't just choose those likes and dislikes at random or just pick what you, yourself like or dislike.

The characteristics or traits of your characters must form a pattern that bespeaks the essence of the character and the theme of the work.

To achieve that, you need to learn to like things you dislike, if only for a few months at a time while you write that book. Using your own personal likes and dislikes creates an effect in the work that labels it amateur.

If all this learning, studying, broadening, self-cultivating, degree work at university, lifelong course taking, lifelong dedication to learning-learning-learning sounds arduous, then you're not a writer.

If it all sounds irresistible, a life of pure vacation time, you might actually sell your work for money one day.

And in fact, that means you are already a writer. Possibly, if you have the right attitude toward the words you produce, valuing those words as if they already were worth money, being willing to barter words for valuable returns, then you may in fact be a professional writer without yet having sold any words.

Professionalism in any profession is all about attitude.

7. What other careers have you had besides being an author?

I trained and worked as a Chemist, but that wasn't another career.

The secret of the universe is that there actually is only one career.
We all write the story of our own lives.

Shakespeare wrote: "All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts."

That was engraved over the stage in my High School's auditorium and during meetings all I had to do was stare at it and ponder.

It is so true. Your story is your History.

So no matter what all a writer does to get money to live on, their career is writing, and all the rest is waiting to write.

8. What advice would you give to someone who aspires to become an author?

As noted above learn everything, master a language, then as many others as possible, and if committing yourself to a life of learning at an even faster pace than you are now learning in school seems to be a burden, DON'T be a writer.

Try everything. If there's anything else you can do, do it.

If you can stop writing, then stop.

9. Was becoming an author something you always wanted to do?

I didn't do it and don't know anyone who has though most of my friends are writers.

It's something you are, not something you become.

And it does not depend on having "talent." The traits I've listed above are not a "talent" but just a quirk you can't get rid of if you have it. You can use those traits to achieve a wide variety of things in life. They don't compel you to sell your writing.

So there is that one additional trait. A writer is a person who can't not write and can't not read even if there's no audience and no pay involved.

All the books of advice will say, 'Write what you know.' But the truth is that's not a good idea.

The better you know something, the less likely you are to be able to convey it well until you've acquired a huge range of skills in the writer's toolbox.

However, it's also true that you really should not expect to go do some research, learn something, then put it in a novel or non-fiction book.

Yes, you must research as you write, to check facts, but just to CHECK.

The research for a novel is done years and years before the novel is even an idea in the back of your mind. You use that storehouse of eclectic trivia as the potting soil to germinate ideas, and when you go to write, your subconscious will arrange that trivia into a pattern that will be art.

In fact, you get 'ideas' because some of that trivia is intrinsically interesting to you.

What you've just learned today will be of artistic use to you in about 20 years. So the sooner you start learning, the sooner you can start turning out publishable material with artistic merit.

A writer is an observer. Most especially, a writer is an observer of people. Like actors, because Writing Is A Performing Art, a writer should cultivate the habit of sitting down at the mall or in airports or other public places and just observe people and divine their life-story (like Sherlock Holmes or Psych) from details.

People-watching is the main avocation of actors and writers. They are allied fields.

10. As a child, did you have any favorite stories?

See my list of authors that influenced me.

All their work was favorite but I did reread Andre Norton's Star Rangers 16 times before I lost count.

For more on that story see the forward to DUSHAU, the first book in the Dushau Trilogy


The Dushau Trilogy's origin is recounted in the forward. I wrote them at Andre Norton's request as a kind of sequel to her novel Star Rangers though in a different Universe.

Star Rangers was the original title of Last Planet -- they used to reissue books with different titles to get you to buy them twice.

Star Rangers

All writers are readers, though not all readers are writers.

A writer is a compulsive reader who will read cereal boxes, toilet paper wrapping, billboards, license plates, even the fine print in contracts and installation instructions. Writers are read-addicts.

If you're not a read-addict, you likely won't make many sales of your words. You'll run out of material fast.

11. Did any life events inspire your works? If so, which ones inspired you most?


I write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

It's all imagination.

12. What is your motivation for being an author?

If you need a motivation, you're not a writer.

But there is one thing that spurs extreme bursts of effort. The promise of a paycheck if you meet a deadline does amazing things.

Deadline training is another skill set writers must acquire.

If you're in school, learn to meet every assignment deadline with plenty of room to spare (days or weeks if possible). You won't get a paycheck if you don't make the deadline.

Keep bugging teachers to give you the assignments for the whole quarter on the first day of class, and work ahead in the textbook, and get ahead and ahead of the class's position.

That's what writers do. You don't need teachers to teach you. You teach yourself and check the teacher's presentation to be sure you didn't miss something important. That way you learn to teach, and every book you write (fiction or non-fiction) is TEACHING which is also a performing art.

If you are a writer, and you accept the teacher's usual reluctance to provide this information (which they do have, no matter what they say, but won't admit it because they're taught in teacher-school that it's bad for students; most students aren't writers so mass-production schooling doesn't accommodate us), so if you are a writer and you accept no for an answer, you will find yourself getting grades way below what you really deserve because you are a different kind of learner than the others in your class.

Writers work ahead of deadlines wherever possible, and manipulate the world around them to allow for that. As a self-employed entrepreneur you can't afford to get sick and not have your work done ahead of the deadline so you can just send it in ON TIME and go barf in private.

13. Does your family support you in what you do?


You'll see many songs of praise in the Acknowledgments of books about how the family supported the writer through the ordeal of creating the book. Much of it is literally TRUE, but few writers actually experience the truth of that until after the ordeal is over. Generally, Acknowledgments are written an hour or two before you send off the final-final rewritten manuscript. By then, the truth of support has come home.

A main complaint of beginning writers is that the family demands time that needs to be spent writing. And that's true. Family doesn't understand what writing is about. But even worse, the writer doesn't "get it" when the family complains.

Many articles have been written about striking that fine balance between competing needs. No two writers solve it the same way.

One of the skill sets a writer needs is Team Leader. This requires the ability to amalgamate disparate people into a team driving toward a goal, and keep them focused until you get them there. Notice in the acknowledgments of the best selling books how many people are involved on various levels, professional and personal. That's a team, and the internal politics pretty much replicates any team (office or sports).

I've never met a writer whose family was actually actively supportive in a way the writer could feel during the writing process except two who are very exceptional: Marion Zimmer Bradley, whose husband was a writer actually wrote an academic book about her writing.

And I know a veteran Romance writer whose husband wrote mysteries and so knew what she went through writing romance to deadline.

But even there, the relationship is not so much supportive as tolerant and understanding.

Most writers never experience any local support, at least not until vast success has been earned, and then there's always the suspicion they only flock to you because you are famous, not because you are you (actors have the same problem, so do Olympic athletes).

If that kind of stress deters you or chisels down your output volume, you're not suited to being a commercial writer.

14. What is a lifelong dream of yours?

I've pretty much fulfilled most of them. Read what I've pointed you to, and follow the links in those pieces.

15. Do you expect to keep producing novels and stories for the rest of your life?

Maybe, or maybe scripts, or non-fiction which I?m working on now (a 7 or 8 book series), or whatever I can find a market for.

---------------END INTERVIEW QUESTIONS----------

So I sent this treatise to the High School student and she answered:

I was expecting responses but not responses that would make my head swim.

But I learned a lot that I had never even considered before. I do have the start, though, I think. I love to write. And I have a long ways to go.

Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my questions. I'll go through them and edit the answers. The paper needed to be a minimum of three pages but you've given so much more which will be very helpful to me. It was saved immediately to my computer.

Now, I ask you, is she a writer, or not?

I told her editing was yet another skill writers need.

I've edited this and added links and side notes to what I sent her, too.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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