Being a professional writer is a strange and wonderful thing -- kind of a combination of philosopher and hobo. It permits experiences that a fortunate few will ever get to have, and many more that would make most normal people wonder why on earth someone would purposefully subject themselves to such emotional torment. In light of this incredible cross-section of joy and despair, inspiration and rage, and coffee and even more coffee, here are seven great things about being a writer, and seven more that make us wish we'd all just gone to law school like our parents wanted.
The very first time you get paid for your work
Proof that someone feels your contributions are actually worth something beyond a mildly pleasant, "Oh, good for you!" If you're lucky, you'll get paid in actual currency. The first time I was paid to write, I wasn't paid in money, per se, but with a gift certificate to a restaurant from an online zine which had accepted a short story of mine. If I recall, the gift certificate didn't quite cover dinner for me and my-then girlfriend, but the feeling of being about to knock about $50 of the check was incredible.
Not So Great:
The first rejection(s)
In college, I wrote a novel. It wasn't very good. It was a hammy coming-of-age story (originality alert!) about a college freshman who finds himself (of course) with the help of some kooky friends, a terrific girl, and a couple of plot twists that could be seen from orbit. At the time I knew the publishing industry as well as I knew the shrimping industry, so I wrote about a dozen queries to agents and editors and received, I believe, three rejections in total. I never heard from the others. Each letter (remember letters?) felt like a punch to the gut, and I remember thinking (like any writer who didn't know a lick of the craft yet) that these troglodytes didn't recognize my clear genius. Here's the thing: they were all totally right to reject me.
Landing an agent
After the calamity that was my coming-of-age novel, I wrote another. I sent it to half a dozen agents -- three offered representation. To me, this was like going out to a bar and having Gisele and Scarlett Johanson hit on you at the same time while Bob Sugar raised a glass in your honor. One agent gave me editorial feedback, I signed with him, and he's been my agent for about eight years now.
Not So Great
The reactions when you tell people you're an aspiring writer
If you're John Grisham or J.K. Rowling or E.L. James, I'm sure they're thrilled for you and are glad you can finally buy a round. When you're 23, most people picture you at a cafe in Brooklyn wearing the same hooded sweatshirt for the fourth straight day, staring at a computer screen with the intensity of a Roman general while drinking enough coffee to cure narcolepsy. Writing, at first, is never glamorous, and when I first started writing seriously I hated talking about it and only opened up with serious prodding. I didn't want to think of myself as a writer until I'd actually been (legitimately) published. And I've never lived in Brooklyn.
Your first book contract or byline
I got the call at my office when a publisher had made an offer on The Mark. Working in a cubicle within earshot of 20 or so people was the only thing that prevented me from whipping out my awful version of the Electric Slide. I got the final call from my agent that we'd accepted the negotiations at dinner with my mother and sister. Not only was I proud of myself for keeping at my writing (I wrote two books that were rejected before my first sold), but it was validation that I was actually good at something I truly loved.
Not So Great
When your cover sucks
Book writers have all been there. That breathlessly excited email from your editor containing an attachment, informing you that this is the concept that everyone at your publisher absolutely loves . (Nobody's ever gotten an email that says, "Here's your cover. Meh.") And then you open it and you're about as enthusiastic as Michael Bluth when George Michael starts dating Ann (aka Egg, Bland, Yam, etc). This can't be it, can it? If you're lucky, they'll go back to the drawing board. If not, your final cover looks like one of these.
When someone takes the time to find your email address (or snail mail your publisher!) and sends you a note saying how much they like your work, it's that fine line between serenity and bliss and a great cup of coffee.
Not So Great
When someone takes the time to find your email address (or snail mail your publisher) and sends you a note saying how much you suck. One time I got a package containing a tattered copy of my third book along with a handwritten note. In the note, the reader told me how much he disliked my work, and that he'd actually taken the time to re-edit it for me. The copy of my book was filled with red pencil markings, as this clearly sane person had taken hours upon hours to re-edit every page of my book for content, grammar and characterization. To a writer, this is like going up to a stranger and telling them that a) they could use some plastic surgery, and b) that you'd like to perform it yourself.
Similar to the above, but includes the warmth of a handshake, maybe an autograph or picture, leaving you with the same smile you give the people who enjoy your work. Considering the majority of writing is done in solitude, the personal connection means everything.
Not So Great
Meeting crazy people
Writers, for the most part, appreciate everyone who takes the time to read them. Then there are those who assume everything you write was written just for them. They spend 20 minutes telling you their life story at a conference or bar, ask you to meet them alone for a drink when you're in town for an event (not creepy at all), and send angry follow-ups declaring that you've sold out and don't care about your readers when you take more than two days to respond to their four-page emails. One time I got an email from a reader saying she was looking forward to meeting me at a book fair. I responded pleasantly. She asked if I would like to stay at her place. I declined. She told me that I should reconsider because she looks, "like one of the Olsen twins." Not a selling point.
When people come to your event
Even if it's a launch with friends and family and other people you've guilted/berated into coming, it's like a second birthday party with memories that will last forever. Or at least until your sixth glass of wine.
Not So Great
When nobody comes to your event
And you sit there alone, in a bookstore or elsewhere, awkwardly chatting with the proprietor who trying desperately to make eye contact with everyone who wanders by as though that will make them feel sorry for you and inspire them to buy 36 copies for their entire extended family. I once made the mistake of doing a signing at my old college bookstore. On a Thursday night. Sadly I forgot that, when I was in college, I'd rather be tearing open up a brand new case of PBR instead of waiting to get a book signed.
Stumbling upon a great idea
That 'lightbulb' moment when an idea invades your brain and you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is what you're meant to write about next.
Not So Great
When everyone thinks they've come across your next great idea
We've all been there. A family dinner, drinks with friends, and someone (it's only one if you're lucky) insists that they've got the greatest story the world has ever known and that it is your duty to drop everything and write about it. ("My dry cleaner lost one of my shirts -- you should use that in your next book!") And if you resist, you're either ungrateful or obtuse. Which is why every writer has perfected the 'nod and smile and tell them you'll look into it'.
Writers: what else do you love or hate about the job?
Jason Pinter is the bestselling author of five thrillers (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), as well as the ebook exclusive FAKING LIFE, which have nearly 1.5 million copies in print in nearly 20 countries. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, was published in November 2011. Visit him at www.jasonpinter.com or follow him on Twitter.
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