Monday, 12 October 2015

How (not) to be a professional writer - in one easy step: by Ruth Hatfield

If anyone in the East of England hasn’t stumbled across the Norwich Writers’ Centre yet, I can only recommend checking them out – they organise fantastic workshops, talks and all manner of other usefulnesses. On Saturday 3rd October, they held a ‘Professional Development Day’ for writers in the lovely Dragon Hall. I’m reasonably new to the business of trying to trade as a writer, and keen to pick up practical advice on all aspects of it, so while my family enjoyed a day out in Caistor learning about Bernard Matthews, I sat and listened to talks on tax, applying for grants and crowd-funding.
Inside the Dragon Hall, Norwich

There were a few gems on the tax liabilities of self-employed writers: if you’re fortunate enough to win prizes, you owe tax on them if you or your agent submit your work, but not if someone else enters it (I’ve been chucking this over my shoulder and thumping it on the back for a week but the logic still eludes me); every time someone in another country downloads your book you should be paying income tax in that country; it’s a bad idea to pay your tax bill with a cheque from an account that you haven’t disclosed to the taxman. And there was a brilliant talk by Melanie Gow about crowdfunding that make me want to pull on my boots and march across Northern Spain.

The day as a whole was interesting and thorough. In hindsight, though, as I grapple with the one issue that’s left a taste in my mouth as lingering as a slug trail on the carpet, I realise that I often attend workshops looking for that magic Writer’s Job Description which will tell me how to eliminate the insecurity of a career based around writing books. This is impossible, of course. The best approach seems to be to maintain diversity – write books, do events, network, tour schools, dress up as a penguin and get filmed stealing from fish counters and so on.  And, of course, using social media to create an online presence and promote your work.

So during one of the talks, someone asked the question: ‘Do you have to be on all these social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook etc, in order to sell books these days?’. At which, a knot curled up tight inside my belly. Because this is my not-at-all-secret Guilty Secret: I’m really rubbish at social media. I know very well that I should put some effort into it, but every bone of my body is so disinclined to tweet the progress of my biscuit-crumb-baby-wailing-laundry-hanging-staring-into-space-filled days that I still just… haven’t got round to it yet.

And I absolutely knew that the speaker was going to tell this room full of people that yes, they do have to engage with these things in order to make a living from writing: i.e. to be a ‘professional’ writer. And he did.

This time, the knot inside me rebelled and sprung loose – that’s your opinion, I said. Not the absolute truth. What you’re doing is repeating a lazy modern ‘truism’, and scaring people.

Social media seems to be the new orthodoxy of the writing profession – a vital part of the job, as I’ve been told many times. I don’t deny that it is very useful, and I really should be trying to use it. But this is how things happened for me.

When I was a child, I wrote endless stories. Even though that was how I filled my spare hours and how I learnt to understand the world, it was my own personal crusade and my love: I didn’t ever think I would do it as a job. A job was something you went to a place and did for someone else, who paid you to do it.Now that I’m older and realise that it might be possible to indulge myself in writing for all (or most) of the days of my life, I’m very keen to know exactly how I can make it into a job – my own job. And I want to follow all the good advice of others who’ve gone there before me. But I don’t want to try and make writing into a job that I dread. So I have buried my head in the social media sand, dragged my feet through the social media mud, and tried desperately to push down the guilt about not doing it.

After I disagreed at this talk, someone trotted out the ‘formula’– you engage, you get followers, they buy your book, spread the word, it goes viral, you have a huge fan-base, more people the world over start following you and buying your book, and so on. The implied threat being that if you don’t go on Twitter or Instagram or Facebook, you won’t get followers, you will never sell your books, and you won’t be able to be a professional writer. And I just realised that while I still feel guilty about not using enough social media, I just don’t buy this line anymore.

If we allow and repeat a general orthodoxy that you must use social media in order to become a professional writer, it essentially sends out a message that no matter how good your book is,if you haven’t done your time on Twitter then the book itself is useless. And I don’t think we’ve yet reached a point where that’s true. It might be rarer these days, but it is still possible to get a publishing contract without having an internet presence at all. There are all those other event-based options, too - you can establish and maintain a presence in the physical world. It might be harder, take longer and wear down the soles of more pairs of shoes, but it’s possible.Social media is a useful tool, but it isn’t the single, vital and unique step that must be trodden upon in order to access the solid floor of a writing career.

Sitting in the ancient Dragon Hall, acutely conscious of the inspiring and unforeseen longevity of some human endeavour, I felt strongly that it is very wrong to discourage anyone from putting their all into their art on the grounds that they will never ‘make anything of themselves’ unless they are also prepared to share more aspects of their life than they want to. I’d even go so far as to say it is very bad advice. The future might prove me wrong, but if it does, I guess at least I’ll have sunk into such obscurity that nobody will know how to get in touch with me and tell me…


Joan Lennon said...

Good points - but don't forget social media's not an all or nothing thing, though it may feel that way - you really can do as little or as much as you like. Like posting on ABBA, for example! (You misspelled your name, though, in the labels, which WILL make it hard to find you again ...) (Does this make me sound pretentious? Now there's another minefield - tone of voice on social media - AGGHHH!)

Julie Sykes said...

I'm rubbish at Facebook. It makes me feel like I'm standing in the middle of a very fast flowing river. And I've been avoiding Twitter for similar reasons to yours!

The last talk I went to on Social Media said that you shouldn't use it to promote your books as it was bad manners. You should see it more of a way of engaging with readers and people in the industry.

The most important thing is to only do what your comfortable with.

Good luck with the writing career.

Richard said...

Going viral would be nice, but it isn't going to happen. One of the reasons that I haven't put as much energy into writing as I should have over the years was that I compared myself with Asimov, Clarke, King, Pratchett and so forth. There is no way I could aspire to those heights from a standing start and a few hours a day, and giving up my day-job in the hopes of one day achieving that sort of eminence would be idiotic. What got me back to the keyboard was the realisation that the middle-list authors were plugging away making (almost ;) )enough money to live on. I didn't have to write a bestseller and get a six-figure advance.

Social media is the same. A few lucky or skillful individuals become big names, but most people plug away with a handful of readers. Where I think it may be useful is in giving your readers some access to you. These days they expect everyone to have presence on Facebook and Twitter and whatever new thing is new this week. But I don't think you have to keep posting every day trying to be trend-worthy. Just an occasional post about stuff you were happy to share would be fine.

Ruth Hatfield said...

Joan - thanks for pointing that out! I'll change it asap. I definitely agree that it's not an all or nothing thing - I've probably just been to a few too many talks where it's been promoted as such! Actually, your comment about tone of voice has got me thinking - I wonder if my aversion to Twitter etc stems from a tendency to spend hours editing everything so that it's perfectly polished and impossible to interpret the wrong way...

Julie - I think that river might be quite bendy, and there are a lot of us in it who can't quite see each other... but it's a good point about engaging with readers. I guess writing for slightly younger age groups, you probably have to be quite careful and quite creative using social media, but I'm sure it's possible. Argh, I really should do it!!

Sue Purkiss said...

Oops - I put this up, so the spelling mistake is my fault. All better now. Thanks, Joan.

Nick Green said...

Ruth, you are not alone. I too don't use social media (except in terms of commenting on blogs) and I don't feel guilty about it. Nor, I should point out, does Jonathan Franzen, that famously unknown and talentless hack, in fact, who the hell is Jonathan Franzen, I never heard of him, he obviously can't be a good writer because he's not on Twitter.

Franzen actually has the ultimate solution in being completely unplugged from it all. He writes in an internet-free room. And people flame him on Twitter and so forth, and it never touches him because he'll never ever see it. The Twitterati just don't know how to deal with that. How are they going to get to him? Write him a [shudder] letter?

Stroppy Author said...

I have just written a book under a pseudonym for the precise reason that the name has no online trail. There is nothing associated with it. I will one day create a twitter feed just so that there is a single way people can communicate with the 'author' besides writing a physical letter and sending it via the publishers. Incidentally, the publishers are completely happy with this approach. So not all publishers want to ram social media down your throat.

Lynne Benton said...

Well done for sticking up for us non-tweeters, Ruth! I'm also very reluctant to do too much on social media, but I go along with Joan's comment that it doesn't have to be an all or nothing thing. I'm happy to blog for ABBA, if and when the chance comes along (my first one will be up there on Oct 31st) but other than that I would prefer to spend my precious writing time actually writing books! It seems to me that most of the writers who think a presence on social media is vital are probably writing for teenagers or adults, who are very likely to follow them on facebook or read their tweets. But since most of my books are for early readers of 4 and 5 it's obvious that they won't be doing so.
Having said all that, of course, since I am now self-publishing my middle-grade books, I do need to tell people that they're out there, so I may have to bite the bullet and do rather more than I'm doing at the moment. But I would hesitate to tell everyone that they have to do the same!

Steve Gladwin said...

Hi Ruth and thanks for - as Lynne says - sticking up for those of us who don't feel that social media is a comfortable home.
I'm not exactly kicking and screaming but I don't tweet and the idea of commenting on someone else's blog so that they might respond and be interested in me and what I write, makes me shiver. I'm a confident person but not on social media interaction which so often just feels false to me. I too prefer the chance to be an abba blogger and write other occasional droolings of my own. Nothing you have said in your article or in these varied responses, makes me feel much like changing my mind at the moment. Good luck with your individual path and do what you're happy with.

Ruth Hatfield said...

Thanks for all the comments! I've been down the rabbit hole for the last month (writing in a room with no internet is the only way I get anything at all done, which I now feel a bit more smug about knowing that I'm in illustrious company). It's very reassuring to hear from others who are happy to keep trying to write and be writers in the ways that they want to - makes me believe that it is possible (for now at least) to keep on enjoying things - hopefully the resulting enthusiasm might in itself go some way towards promoting our books and careers!