If you haven’t read Donald Maass’s blog post, The New Class System, on Writer Unboxed, run over there and take a look. The response to this post has been varied and those of you embracing it surprise me.
Yes, it’s valuable to get an insider’s look from the men in the ivory tower, but is it really a reflection of the publishing industry today?
Maass’s post really got under my skin. It’s taken me a few days to figure out why it bothered me so much. With all due respect to Donald Maass, I don’t believe that embracing a class system breeds creativity and innovation. And for those of us in the indie trenches, it doesn’t ring true with our experience.
So as a ‘freight’ writer, here’s my take on the new class system:
When I first started writing, there weren’t many career paths available to a young woman who wanted to be a novelist. Most advice centered around holing up in the basement and writing your guts out, giving it to a few trusted friends and readers (yes, back then it was encouraged to have family and friends give feedback) and if they liked it, you were ready to query an angel above (an agent) and if he or she thought you had the ‘right stuff’, you magically became a novelist. Later, the writing group was touted as the best way to achieve publication. Create a writer’s group with any other writers in your area (this was before the Internet made it possible to get in touch with others writing in the same genre). My first group consisted of three middle aged men and me. I was twenty-four and writing YA. They hated my stuff and I hated theirs right back.
If you had the time and money, you could go for an MFA in Creative Writing, but that was only for ‘serious’ writers and if you liked horror or romance or any genre book, you were discouraged from wasting your time and money in grad school. If you don’t believe me, just go take a look at some of Stephen King’s old comments about genre writing.
So I spent a few years trying to write ‘serious fiction’ and was basically miserable and not having any fun. Over the years I had a few bites with agents, but they all fizzled and I was left feeling like a complete failure. Here’s the thing – how long can a person do what they love, strive for the profession they want and succeed with NO positive feedback at all. With no encouragement, no paycheck, no employee of the month plaque? It might sound silly but without some kind of validation, you can easily spiral into a pit of despair. No wonder writers have a reputation for heavy drinking!
Maass’s class system got me thinking about my husband’s job. He’s an architect and architects, like most professionals, have a ladder of achievement available to them. Taking a cue from other professions, this is how I see my publishing world.
I think of apprenticeship as the time we writers spend in writing groups and online classes, trading stories on Wattpad and writing fan fiction. It’s a time of exploration and a time to see if writing is really what you want to do. I spent a lot of time in various writing groups but I wish I’d had the benefit of some of the online resources earlier. Of course these resources aren’t a replacement for sitting down and slaving away in the basement, but they can be a huge source of validation in the lonely world of writing. Here you can find mentors and co-workers, tutorials and guidance.
According to my dictionary, internship is defined as “practical experience for beginners in an occupation or profession”. This is the opportunity that the e-book revolution provides for writers like me. We can self-publish anything from a short story to a tome of high fantasy fiction. We can write fan fiction. We can publish on Wattpad. We can submit to small e-publishers. We have a starting point for our careers. Yes, there is a lot of what Maass calls “purple prose” and “stereotypes” and “heavy-handed plots”, but even if we commit these grave sins and appall the first class, we are still learning. We’re getting feedback from readers. If we go with a small publisher or hire an editor, we get the invaluable experience of what publishing really entails. It was an eye-opener for me and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It has made me a better writer and helped me narrow the focus of what I want to achieve with writing.
You can also attend writing conferences and seminars to learn more about the craft and the type of writing career you want to pursue.
You can join professional writing organizations at any time. There are so many, that I can’t list them all here but they are a great resource. I found my publisher in a list on the Romance Writers of America website. Once you start publishing, most of these organizations have some form of certification. Romance writers can achieve PRO or PAN (Published Authors Network) status by hitting certain requirements. These certifications might lead to other opportunities like teaching an online class or giving a seminar at a conference. These things give you a sense of accomplishment and some validation in your chosen field. They also open doors and put you in a position to meet other writers and editors with similar interests or goals.
A professional writer makes money writing. Income varies as it does in most professions. You might make ten bucks or you might make millions. You might be a part time professional, supplementing your income with royalties. You might write full time and make the same salary you’d make working at McDonalds. You might write six books a year or one every two years. You might publish with Harlequin’s Carina Press, Random House or one of the many small publishers. You might publish yourself.
In my opinion, if you are writing consistently, submitting, publishing, and have built some sort of reader base, then you are a professional writer.
I’m a full-time Mom. I have writing goals, but I don’t expect to make six figures. If I make enough money this year to take my kids on vacation, I’ll be thrilled. Those are my goals.
I don’t think I’m a bad writer, but I also know that I have a lot to learn. I want to learn. I bought books like Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel and attended his Storymasters seminar. Did I learn a lot from these books and others? Absolutely. But you know what? I’ve learned a whole lot more after jumping on the freight train and publishing my first book with an e-publisher. I’ve learned more since it’s release than I learned in the thirteen years I spent writing alone, kicking it old school.
The e-publishing revolution that Maass says isn’t happening, has changed everything for me. Instead of slaving away in isolation and having only writer’s groups for a sounding board, I’m getting out there. I’m getting feedback from readers, from editors and publishers. For the first time, I have a road to possible success that doesn’t involve me working hard and holding onto the hope that I’ll write one magically perfect book that will spiral me to success.
I am a writer. I have readers. I wish I'd jumped into the new system sooner. Maybe I’ll always be a freight class writer and maybe I’ll only have freight class readers (I love you guys!), but you know what? I’m happy and I’m striving for success one book at a time. What’s more, first class or freight, I am a working novelist. And that’s all I ever wanted to be.