Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Author vs Writer

What, pray tell, is the difference between an author and a writer? Is there a difference? Do you call yourself an author or a writer? Does it matter?

In musing about the difference between a writer and an author, I’ve thinking that a writer is one who does not create works of fiction, i.e., technical writers, journalists, etc. However, when I started seeking definitions for the two words, I found the line between the two is blurred.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a writer as “one that [sic] originates or creates” while its definition of an author is “one that [sic] writes.” Interestingly, according to Merriam the latter word predates the former by two centuries. Thus, according to this dictionary, the words can be seen as interchangeable.

Wanting something more definitive, I moved on to Wikipedia. Wiki says that a writer is “anyone who creates a written work, though the word usually designates those who write creatively or professionally.” Wiki helpfully points out that someone writing a laundry list “could technically be called a writer” but not an author even though it says the word writer is “almost” synonymous with author. It concludes that “skilled writers” can “use language to portray ideas and images, whether fiction or non-fiction.” It seems, then, that Wiki believes the terms to be interchangeable. But let’s see what it has to say about author.

When I moved on to author in Wikipedia, I found that an author is “the person who originates or gives existence to anything” and that authorship “determines responsibility for what is created.” In an effort to try to be more helpful, Wiki goes on to say that the author “is the originator of any written work.” The latter, of course, begs for a definition of what is “work." Can a laundry list be considered a “written work?” Since a laundry list, to use Wiki’s example, can be created by either a writer or an author, the terms remain interchangeable.

Still not satisfied, I went to Google Dictionary. Its definition of writer is a “person who writes book, stories, or articles as a job.” Interesting. So those people who aren’t earning a living from what they write can’t call themselves “writer.” Google defines author as the “person whose job is writing books.” Not much difference, if any, between the two. So Google, too, thinks the terms are interchangeable.

Are we going to have to create a word for those of us who write, either fiction or non-fiction, but who don’t make a living doing it? What could that word possibly be? Should we revert to some of the “old” words, like “wordsmith?” I, personally, love wordsmith, but have refrained from using it believing it would be pretentious. But Google may have justified our use of the term. We could take wordsmith and make it our own. We would know instantaneously that someone calling herself a wordsmith is a writer/author, but doesn’t make a living doing it.

Perhaps I’m the only one who wonders if there is a distinction between an author and a writer. I guess I really can’t call myself a wordsmith without sounding pretentious. So I must make a choice between author and writer. I think I will continue to call myself an author. How about you?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bicycle Writing

I grew up loving speed. I lived on Air Force bases all of my childhood. My father and I would spend Saturday afternoons sitting at the end of the runways watching the fighter jets land. For me, nothing compared to the speed, power, and thrill of those jets and those afternoons.

I came close to duplicating those afternoons with my Dad when I sped down a hill on my bicycle. I felt I was going so fast that I might take off like the jets I watched. I had to take my feet off the pedals because I couldn’t pump as fast as they were turning. On those downhill flights, I felt a soupcon of fear of crashing, which, of course, only added to the thrill.

One of the best descriptions I’ve ever read about writing is by Donald M. Murray in The Writer magazine (December 2009). He said,

“On a good day, I am the boy on the bicycle wobbling downhill so fast his feet are off the pedals, and he is out of control. That’s how I want to write, with such velocity that my typing is bad, my grammar ain’t, and my spelling is worse. I want to write what I do not know in ways I have not written. I need to speed ahead of the censor and write so velocity causes the accidents of insights and language that make good writing . . . .”

As I read those words, I was immediately transported to memories of headlong bicycle flights down a hill. I knew exactly what he was talking about.

These days, there are no afternoons spent watching jets land and no afternoons spent speeding down a hill on two wheels. I haven’t lost that thrill. Now the same thrill comes to me when I spend time on my computer writing novels, when I shut the editor off in my mind, and just write. I enter the zone where nothing penetrates, where my fingers fly across the keyboard so fast words spill onto the blank page like water from an upturned ewer, and characters urgently whisper in my ear. I feel the thrill of the downhill flight. That’s when writing is exciting and makes the time spent writing so wonderfully thrilling.

I want to spend my life writing “with such velocity that my typing is bad, my grammar ain’t, and my spelling worse.”

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On Joining Twitter

A few years ago, I joined Twitter. A few months after that, I quit. Now, I’ve joined again. Call me fickle.

The first time I joined Twitter, I had no purpose for being there except a few friends were also on Twitter. To tell the truth, I got tired of the 140 character messages telling me what someone was doing, i.e., “I’m out of the shower and going to the kitchen.” This from someone I didn’t know much less cared that they had just showered. I find tweets like that BORING. Soon, however, I had way too many followers filling up my account with just that sort of information. I stopped going to Twitter.

Now I’m back. I’d been reading reports that Twitter was a great place for authors. I was willing to test that premise. I returned to Twitter with high hopes of connecting with other writers, and with agents, editors, and publishers. Twitter did not disappoint this time.

I started out reading the Tweets of agents. They were giving a wealth of information to authors at a remarkable pace. I quickly determined who I wanted to follow. Next I started looking for my favorite authors. I was pleasantly surprised to find several were tweeting away and disappointed that others were not.

I think in the phase of following people, you have to be somewhat obsessive. I would see who the agents and authors I admired were following, I would click on them, see what they had to say, and decide whether to follow them. If the answer was yes, then I’d check to see who they were following. Before you could say, “following,” I found myself following 50 people.

Next I found myself checking out other professionals and the media. I started following professional bloggers for their tips on blogging, I added Publishers Weekly to the list, and the Wall Street Journal.

I was now following 100 people and media sites. I quickly learned that everyone who followed me wasn’t doing so because they found my 140-character Tweets enlightening or even interesting. No, they were following me to add to their follower-count. The courteous thing to do, I learned, when someone follows you, you are supposed to follow them as well. It turns out that those who just want to add you as a statistic are the ones with thousands of followers and are following thousands of people. It was apparent from the 100 people I was following that keeping up with them was time consuming. There isn’t any way, I don’t think, that anyone can follow thousands of tweets never mind millions. You have to know that Ellen DeGeneris is not reading every tweet from the 5 million people following her.

There are many tricks of the Twitter trade to be learned, like using hash tags, i.e., #amwriting, or creating lists to make following certain categories, like agents or authors, easier.

Twitter, as it turns out, is a great place to learn about the art of writing, what agents really want, and what established writers do as well as authors aspiring to be published are doing.

If you are an author and you haven’t joined Twitter, give it a try. You might be surprised at what you find. Be forewarned, however, it is addictive. And it can be time consuming.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Rejection is Not Fatal

There are many kinds of rejection, some more painful than others. Some say it is the measure of the person in how we respond to rejection.

As authors, most, if not all of us, must deal with rejection. Even the most successful authors have suffered the slings and arrows of being rejected by agents and/or publishers. Look at the following:

  • J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter suffered 12 rejections before finding a publisher willing to take a chance on the boy wizard.
  • Gertrude Stein submitted her poems to publishers for 22 years before finally having one published - talk about perseverance.
  • Madeline L’Engle submitted her manuscript entitled A Wrinkle in Time 26 times before getting it published and then won the Newbery Medal for it.
  • Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times before being accepted for publication.
All these authors were once aspiring authors. They all continued to submit even after being rejected time and time again. I might add that Stephen King, too, received a rejection and put the manuscript on the shelf.

Being the inveterate list maker that I am, I am keeping track of my rejections. When I first created the list, one thing stood out. One of my favorite books that I’ve written was rejected only once. I never submitted it again possibly because I love that story and those characters. Recently, I put it on my to do list - I’m going to revisit that book, do a hard-copy edit, and start resubmitting it again.

I’ve gotten over taking the rejections of my work personally. Now when I receive a rejection email, I simply add it to my spreadsheet. I look at the statistics and, if I feel myself about to spiral into the rejection black hole, I remind myself of two things. First, getting published is a business and rejections are a part of that business. Then I remind myself that Margaret Mitchell suffered through 38 rejections before getting GWTW published.

Finally, Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: It is the courage to continue that counts.”

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Query Advice that Makes Sense

Like so many other writers, I have been reading advice from agents about what they’re really looking for not only in the manuscripts they would be willing to represent, but what they want to see in a query letter. I have read literally hundreds, if not thousands, of words of advice about how to write a selling query letter. And still I was unsure. There were times when one agent would contradict another. What was a writer to do?

Then I came across the advice by an agent being quoted on another agent’s blog. In three words, Barbara Poelle of Goodman Literary Agency, gave the best advice I’ve seen on writing a query. Her advice consisted of three words. Those three words so resonated with me, I immediately rewrote my query letter for the manuscript that I’m currently sending to agents. I’ve seen query advice from literally hundreds of agents, but nothing so succinct, so logical, and so on point.

Hook, Book, and Cook were the three words Ms. Poelle wrote.

What do they mean?

Hook - a one-sentence description of what your book is about. Yes, she said one sentence. It may sound impossible, but try it. It really isn’t all that difficult. Hard, yes, but not impossible.

Book - write four or five sentences that give the agent more detail about your story.

Cook - this is where you tell the agent about you as a writer, i.e., the cook of the book.

How much more simple is that? Best of all, it’s easy to remember. It will be there in your head every time you sit down to write a query letter. Oh, you think that your first query letter will be your last? I hope that’s true. In case, its not though, I bet you’ll remember hook, book, and cook when you sit down to write that second letter. By the way, what will happen if your agent drops you because the agency decides to close its doors and/or your agent decides to retire from the business? I read about an author with a similar story not too long ago. She was back to seeking a new agent after having published several books. Something like that could happen to anyone.

I wish I could tell you that immediately upon sending out my first query using the hook, book, and cook formula I got an immediate reply asking to see the full manuscript. It didn’t happen. What did happen is that for the first time since I started sending out queries, I feel as comfortable with my query letter as I did with my manuscript.