Pro Writing, Quizzes, Process and End Result

By way of my friend Mary Anne Mohanraj, I come across this list of questions which purports to tell you whether or not you are a professional writer. The author, Lisa Morton, writes, “Ideally, you should be answering ‘yes’ to all ten, but I’ll cut you a little slack and say you can get off with 80% and still call yourself professional.'”

Well, I’ve always wondered if I was a professional writer, so I decided to take the quiz. My answers:

1. No. My workplace is messy because I am lazy, period.
2. No. I don’t write in the evenings, and I like seeing friends.
3. No. I rarely watch TV anyway.
4. Yes.
5. No. Vacations mean I am not working. If I am working it’s not a vacation.
6. No. I like my friends and care about their lives and our friendship.
7. No. My day jobs have always involved writing.
8. No. I have a nice home because I devoted my time to a writing career.
9. No. Although I have been making money from writing for 23 years now.
10. No. My writing ambitions were largely achievable for someone willing to put in the time to devote to their craft.

So: One “yes” question out of ten.

I am apparently not a professional writer. By a substantial margin.

All those books published? A big lie. Those royalty checks? A laughing fiction. Writing awards and nominations? Well, one of them was for “fan writer.” So you got me there. Being president of an organization of professional writers for three years? Tra la la la, all a beautiful dream.

I wonder what I will tell my wife. We met when I was “working” on a “story” at a “newspaper,” you know. How do I let her know that our entire life together was a lie? Maybe if I offer a plush toy as a mitigating factor. It could work!

Okay, enough. Look, I’m sure Ms. Morton meant well and wished to imply that one cannot be a writer unless one is willing to put in time and effort and make sacrifices here and there. A fine point, which I have made myself. But this quiz? It’s crap. Here’s the actual quiz for knowing whether you are a pro writer or not:

1. Are you getting paid to write?

If the answer here is “yes,” then congratulations, you’re a professional writer! Well done you (if not, then “no.” Sorry). Mind you, professional writing organizations may place additional requirements out there in order to join them (which is not in itself a bad thing, but a discussion for another time). At the end of the day, however: Getting paid to write? If so, you’re a pro. Done.

(Strangely, this question is not on Ms. Morton’s quiz.)

Now, How you structure your life so that you are able to write pay copy is neither here nor there to this. Every writer is different; what works for one may not work for others. The only thing all pro writers have in common is that they get paid to write.

The problem with Ms. Morton’s quiz is that it confuses process for end result. Her quiz is about process, and presumably her process — what she thinks is necessary for one to do in order to produce the work that create the end result of making money as a writer. But process isn’t end result, otherwise in this case I wouldn’t be a professional writer, which I clearly and obviously am.

Confusing process and result here is not a good thing.  It confuses writers who are hungry to know what “being professional” means. The things Ms. Morton describes can lead to being a pro writer, but it’s not the only path, or a guaranteed one, not by a long shot.  In this respect this quiz defeats its own purpose — it offers no indication about whether one actually is a professional writer, only whether one has jumped through the process hoops that one single writer believes are important to become a pro.

And maybe those hoops are important for her. Good for her. They may not be for you. They certainly aren’t for me, or at least 90% of them aren’t. I know a substantial number of professional writers who would also fail this “pro writing quiz.” It doesn’t make them any less professional, except perhaps in Ms. Morton’s eyes. But with all due respect to Ms. Morton, as a professional writer, I will take my royalty checks over her personal approval.


A Creator’s Note to “Gatekeepers”

Which is to say, a note to those (mostly) dudes in geek circles, who decide it’s their job to determine who is geeky enough to enjoy the same entertainments and recreations that they do (hint: If you’re a woman, you start off with a failing grade). Yes, we’ve talked about this before, but they’re still doing it, because apparently some dudes just have a hard time learning.

So this time, let me talk to these dudes from the point of view of being a creator, i.e., one of the people who creates the stuff these (mostly) dudes spend their time defending from the horrible encroaching interest of others (mostly women).

Dudes: Cut that shit out. You’re fucking with my livelihood.

Let’s break this down a bit.

First: I didn’t ask you to be a gatekeeper. Did I, John Scalzi, come up to you and say, “Dude. I am so worried that the wrong people will like my stuff, and by ‘wrong,’ I mean ‘teh womans,’ so if you’re not too busy I totally want to deputize you into the Society of Dudes Keeping Scalzi’s Stuff Safe From Teh Womans”?

No? Then it’s not your job. Quit pretending that it is. When I want your help, I will ask for it. Directly to you. Until then, back off.

Second: I don’t need you to be a gatekeeper. You dudes understand this is my job, right? As in, this is what I do for a living. As in, if I don’t sell what I produce, I don’t pay my mortgage, my kid doesn’t go to college, and my pets start evaluating me for my protein content. Books, which are what I produce, aren’t terribly expensive, and I don’t get to keep every penny of their sale price — I get a percentage. So in order to make money from these books, I have to sell a lot of them. Some of them get sold to geeky dudes. But a lot of them get sold to other people, who aren’t necessarily geeky, or dudes.

When you attempt to gatekeep my work, you’re trying to wave off people I want to have buy my work. If you manage to do this, then congratulations, you’ve made it more difficult for me to be successful with my work, and thus, make more of the work which you also like. Well done you. I’m curious how you think I should feel about people who make it more difficult for me to make a living. Do you think I should feel grateful? Because of the many words I would use to describe how I would feel, “grateful” isn’t one of them.

I write books geek dudes like. But I don’t write books for only geek dudes to like. The difference there is subtle but real. Which brings me to my next point:

Third: Gatekeeping runs entirely counter to my intent as a writer. I’ve always been very clear that I write science fiction that’s meant to be readable to people who aren’t science fiction fans — or as I prefer to think of them, people who don’t know yet that they might like science fiction. Old Man’s War, Redshirts, Fuzzy Nation — all of these books were written with the intent of being readable to outsiders to the genre. To people who are willing to take a chance on trying something other than what they already know they like. I write gateway science fiction — science fiction designed to make the reader want to read more science fiction.

So, when I take the time and effort to create a gateway, to invite people into the genre, and then some dude shows up at that gateway, unasked, telling people they can’t come through unless they can name every Heinlein book in reverse chronological order (or whatever), I am, shall we say, less than pleased. One, demanding that people new to something be versed in all its trivia is stupid (it’s also stupid when they have liked it for some time). Two, assuming that one’s own interests are the only interests that define real geekdom is also stupid.

Three, get the fuck out of my gateway, asshole, I’m working here. Working to expand not only my audience, but the audience for written science fiction and science fiction in general. You are not helping. Go find someone one who really wants to you to gatekeep their work.

But here’s the thing about that:

Fourth: Almost no one wants you to be a gatekeeper. Geek dudes: Do you honestly think Marvel comics, owned by Disney, wants you to harass women away from enjoying the X-Men? Do you think DC Comics, owned by Time Warner, appreciates when you demand a woman present you with a list of every Green Lantern in order to be worthy of “true geekdom”? Do you think Paramount Pictures, owned by Viacom, is grateful that some dude has appointed himself Arbiter of Star Trek Fandom? Do you believe that Tor Books, owned by Macmillan, one of the world’s largest publishers, will pat you on the head for judging any potential customers of their books, including mine? Do you actually understand what it is these corporations do? They produce commercial art. To be widely enjoyed. By as many people as possible.

Moving away from corporations, do you think individual writers and creators really want you to wave away potential fans from their work? Almost all of them are in the same boat as I am, either directly or indirectly dependent on volume of sales for income. They are happy you like their stuff. They would be even happier if not only you liked their stuff. When you attack other people who like their stuff, you’re potentially cutting into their livelihood. You’re not making friends with the people whose work you’re making a centerpiece of your life. You’re hurting them.

Do you think the staff of the conventions you attend are in any way happy when you troll the other attendees? Those attendees go on Twitter and Facebook and blogs and talk about how unfriendly or even dangerous that convention is. Others pick up on that and amplify the complaints. The people who are trying to run the convention have to deal with it and have to apologize for the fact that you are being an asshole, because they are getting some of the blame for it. Who do you think the convention staff would prefer to have as an attendee? The cosplaying woman who is excited to be there and is enthusiastic about the convention, or the geek dude who spends his time shitting all over other people’s enjoyment of a convention, which the staff has invested so much time in to make work?

Nearly every creator wants you to enjoy what they create. Almost none of them want you to police it.

Now, bear in mind that I understand that when you’re off haranguing a woman (or anyone else) on the subject of geek worthiness, you’re not actually thinking of me or any other person or company who makes the work you enjoy and have made a focus of your life. You are effectively working under the assumption that all this stuff just magically appears out of nowhere, a golden store of treasure, of which there is a limited supply, and thus must be defended at all costs against the unworthy, which in this case are usually Teh Womans.

Well, surprise. It doesn’t come out of nowhere; we creators make it.  It isn’t a limited resource; we can make enough for anyone who wants it. It doesn’t need to be defended from anybody; we like it when it’s shared as widely as possible, including to Teh Womans.

And as for who is unworthy of it: Well. It’s not the women or anyone else who wants to try it, or who has tried it, liked it, and wants in to get more. It’s the people who are trying their hardest to keep them out.

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