So am I a writer? (Part Two – the question of success)

writingmagcard0001Back in August 2011, I asked the question, ‘So am I a writer?’ here. That was when nobody – nobody at all – was reading my blog. I had scrawled the first (catastrophically rough as it now turns out) 45,000 words of my first ever first draft and written 3 unremarkable short stories, one of which has, astonishingly, been published.

Today, I have produced the completed manuscript of my first novel – that’s 97,000 words give or take – and I have the firm intention to get it out there one way or another.

In the intervening months whilst writing, editing and doggedly refining Singled Out, I’ve continued to earn my living as a business copywriter and marketer.  I deliver blog posts for my clients (for which I am paid); I deliver short promotional vignettes for my clients (for which I am paid); and I deliver a slew of output around sales propositions, products, thought leadership and product/service promotion (for which… yes… you got it). So I will, thank you very much, define myself, however cautiously, as ‘a writer’.   I write, therefore I am… a writer.

Moving on from this, today, a fellow blogger Eli Glasman at his fascinating blog here, gave me pause for thought on defining success or failure as a writer.  It gave me cause to reflect on whether I am – or ever will be – a successful writer.

Here were my thoughts on the matter, commenting on Eli’s blog:

What makes you or I a successful writer? Is it enough simply to write until something – anything – is complete? Must one produce multiple stories, or a novel, or more than one novel? Is it enough that your friends and family love what you write? Is it sufficient to self-publish? Or to be published by an independent? Or do you need the credibility of a mainstream publisher? Do you need sales in the several thousands to consider yourself successful? Do you need an occasional royalty cheque, payment for the odd short story? Is it enough to earn something – anything – from your writing? Or a proportion of your income – one-third, half perhaps? Do you need to be able to live on your writing income? Do you need to be an in-demand speaker at literary events? Would you have to have a place on the bestseller lists? Or a prize – Booker, Costa perhaps? Where does it end?

If you’re one of my writerly blog followers, have you ever considered what would make you classify yourself as a successful writer?  It’s a wholly subjective question.  And the inevitable follow-on question is this: If one isn’t – perhaps by one’s own definition – successful, does that mean one is an unsuccessful or even, heaven forfend, a failed writer?

I don’t believe so.  I might be successful on one level as my freelance work, which is largely writing, supports me.  On another level – in the field of fiction – I can’t own the word successfulYET.

I’m going to brand that perspective on the matter ‘success-in-waiting’.

More is More

As a professional copywriter, I’m often required to write to a word count to fit a defined space in a  web site, brochure or e-communication. I find the best approach is to write what feels necessary to convey the message and then sharpen and sharpen, finding more powerful words to replace flabby phrases, cutting out unnecessary ones and so on, until I arrive back at the designated word count.

I hear it’s not that different when editing your novel’s first draft. Some people say you should expect to cut at least 10% of your word count simply by eliminating superfluous adverbs, finding more concise phrasing and crossing through all the redundant and’s, but’s, that’s and was-ings. That’s never mind what you do to improve the narrative itself.

I look forward to it – mainly because it will feel like an amazing achievement simply to have reached the second-draft stage. For the time being, I’m still on my first draft. And here, encouraged by my esteemed mentor, the job is very different. ‘What else?’ she asks. What else? What can I ADD to enhance the scene, show another facet of my character’s state of mind, deepen the experience and immerse the reader more thoroughly in the time and place and space? ‘Stay here for longer,’ she says. ‘Let the reader into this scene,’ and ‘I want more of this’. I think, I must be doing something right – and that’s encouraging – but it’s not quite right enough.

It’s a challenge to this neophyte, would-be novelist, still flexing and connecting creative synapses and discovering what it means to move beyond fact and marketing-speak into storytelling and imagination. I’ve written WHAT ELSE? on a card and fixed it to my PC monitor. From now on, every scene, every piece of dialogue, every paragraph will get the question, WHAT ELSE? That is, until it comes time for the second draft massacre, when I guess the question will be what else can I delete. . . ?

A dilemma

What do you do when a client corrects something you know is right and in doing so, makes it wrong?  Do you put it right, because it needs to be right to make them look good?  And if so, how do you do it without embarrassing your client?  Or do you leave it, because “the customer is always right”, even though they aren’t.

I tend to take a view.  If something is a whopping blooper, I re-correct it.  If it’s a spelling mistake, I re-correct it.  If it is some odd thing that’s more about being technically accurate than creating clear, understandable copy; if the copy is just as articulate and the error doesn’t stop the reader in his or her tracks, then I leave it.  Sometimes that goes against my perfectionist streak, but hey, that’s my problem.

The advent of social networking and text-speak has spearheaded a far greater informality in language and many of the more formal grammatical rules and structures seem to have become almost optional.  There’s a right way, but then there’s often another way or several other ways, which are just as clearly understood, even if they are grammatically less than perfect.  As time goes on, the alternative usages cease to be wrong and become tomorrow’s norm and since language is always on the move, why is there anything wrong with this?

Language today is less formal and more rapidly changing than at any time in the past. So, is the job of a humble copy writer to cling perilously to the vestiges of yesterday’s terminology and style, or acknowledge that change happens for a reason and it isn’t always bad and embrace the brave informal new world?

Agnostic? I don’t know

Since when has the word agnostic changed its meaning?

I write often for companies in the technology sector and you see this phrase everywhere these days: platform agnostic. It’s used to mean that it doesn’t matter which hardware or telephony platform you own, the solution in question will work with it. Go back a few years, and the accepted phrase was platform independent – used for software that is independent of any platform constraint, therefore can run on any platform.

Look up agnostic in the dictionary and you’ll see it means unknown or unknowable and  it relates specifically to the existence, or otherwise, of God. What  these misguided corporate marketers are actually saying, is we don’t know, not it doesn’t matter. And I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

So why reinvent the word agnostic to replace a perfectly acceptable term which everybody understood?

I found this article which describes the take-up of the term platform agnostic in recent years. It says what’s happened, but it doesn’t explain why. So I offer this as a thought; every marketer seeks to differentiate. Somewhere, a few years ago perhaps, in a shiny air-conditioned unit on a landscaped Silicon Valley campus, in a 6 foot square cubicle decorated with a thousand colourful giveaway gadgets, gismos and graphics designed to show what a quirky, creative individual the occupant is – a quirky, creative individual without a full grasp of the English language coined what he determined was a new and different way of describing an old and well established concept. His colleagues, none apparently in possession of an English dictionary, congratulated said quirky, creative individual on his quirky creation, and the phrase was launched on the techno-marketing universe.

And I don’t know, but somewhere, in a damp crypt in deepest rural England perhaps, an ancient scholar, a teacher of Latin, a lover of language, from the first or second century, turned silently in his grave.

So am I a writer?

I’ve loved writing and the written word ever since my school days.  I used to relish the challenge of essays and lengthy exam responses.  Over the years I’ve honed my skills on a slew of erotic vignettes (they spiced-up a diverting if unconventional relationship), more letters of complaint and pleas for better service than I could ever recall (I am an acerbic and uncompromising Angry of Tunbridge Wells) and a couple of lengthy and impassioned diatribes (hours wasted deconstructing failed relationships).

Today my paid-for work includes writing sales proposals and every type of business communication.  If it needs words, I can rise to it.  Space issues or word counts?  No problem. Formal or cheery?  Technical or salesy?  Humorous, ironic or earnest?  Whatever you want.  I find it absorbing to develop documents in different styles which address all sorts of audiences.  Absorbing enough, but if I’m honest, it doesn’t exactly excite me.

I’ve lately become intrigued by the idea of writing stories.  I want to find out if I can evolve my commercial writing abilities to craft entertaining, saleable fiction.  I began by writing three short stories and I submitted one to a magazine competition.  It won first prize and with the cheque for £200 came the first, very small sign, that this story-writing idea might not be a totally absurd notion.

So I pressed on, and now I’m around 45,000 words into what I’ve been calling my writing project.  It’s very much a work-in-progress – a learning-in-progress.  If it were a marathon, this would still be the first fresh-faced mile or two; to call it my novel still sounds far too agonisingly pretentious.