Guest post: Being an Author: Hobby, Career, or Calling from David G. Johnson
I am honored today to have an article by an online friend of mine. After an exciting and varied life in many areas, including an IT executive, David, his wife, and their daughter felt a strong call to go to China as missionaries. He writes partially to support himself, but mainly because he has stories to tell, and they are excellent. For him, writing is a calling and epic fantasy is the genre. The worlds he builds are immensely entertaining, his characters memorable, and the tales exciting. If you like the genre (and it’s my favorite), you need to read David’s books. He recently took back his books from the original publisher and is now self-publishing them. The production quality has benefited.
Being an Author: Hobby, Career, or Calling?
One thing I have realized running an author’s group on Facebook is that authors come in all shapes and sizes, ages and experience levels, with motivations that run the full gamut of possibilities. While generalizations are “generally” bait for arguments, I think I am on fairly safe ground in saying the overwhelming majority of authors I have met through various groups and conferences fall into one of three motivational categories. Sometimes writers get into periods of severe frustration or depression because other authors they know are living out very different experiences. What they don’t realize is, those other authors may be in a completely different class.
I am not talking about levels of talent, ability, or imagination. I am not even talking about the vast differences between the characteristics of authors in different genres. I am talking here about their category of motivation. Understanding why one writes is easily as important to longevity, joy in writing, and long-term mental stability as any other factor about who we are and what we do.
This article is going to briefly examine the key motivational aspects of the three major categories of writers, in an attempt to help writers find where they are and find peace in the aspects of being in that category. It will hopefully help writers recognize why their experiences may not be the same as other authors they know, and how to tailor their writing experience to find the joy in being where you are with your writing.
Category One: The Hobbyist
Often degraded or ridiculed by the hardcore career writer, the hobbyist can find themselves dejected when they see the aggressive word count goals or publishing productivity of other writers. Many hobbyists unrealistically attempt to set goals based on what they see career writers or even called writers doing. When they fail to meet those goals, they can even question if they are truly a writer or just someone playing dress-up.
Strengths: A hobbyist generally has a keen imagination. They love stories, and are often the most avid readers among the writing community. They can build up other writers, because many hobbyists love blogging or social media, where they can satisfy their desire to write in smaller, manageable snippets. Hobbyists are generally bottomless fountains of ideas, and are exactly the kind of people other writers want involved in brainstorming sessions. They tend to have a natural exuberance and contagious joy that can be key fuel to those they interact with. Their contribution to the writing community is the joy and excitement reminding all of us how amazing writing can be.
Weaknesses/Caution Areas: Hobbyists generally have a full time job or other life commitments that greatly limit the time they can spend writing. Full-length novels can sometimes take years to complete, especially considering the distractions of new ideas constantly popping out of their imaginations. Focus and routine can be challenging for hobbyists, and if they try to constantly compare themselves or set their schedules according to career or called writers, they are setting themselves up for disappointment.
Advice: Enjoy who you are. There is nothing wrong with setting goals, if you feel that will help you, but set realistic goals based on your own knowledge of your time, how quickly you write, and what other obligations you have. There is nothing that will kill your joy of writing quicker than seeing an ever-growing deficit of word count goals. You are not going to turn out four books a year. You are not going to build the series momentum sales of more prolific writers. The key is to remember why you write. You love stories, reading them and telling them. If you want to build readership, focus on more sustainable goals. There are flash fiction and short story markets that might be exactly your niche. You may not turn out four novels a year, but you very well might be able to churn out four short stories per year, and the paying markets for shorter works can be lucrative, while simultaneously building readership for your longer works. Walk your own road, and enjoy the journey. Don’t be someone else, be yourself.
Category Two: Career Writer
This one is almost self-explanatory. This category covers everyone from professional journalists to self-help gurus, to fiction masters like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert Ludlum, J.K. Rowling, and George R. R. Martin. These people write for a living, and they treat their work like a job. Many have scheduled “butt-in-chair” time every day, with aggressive goals for turning out the next best-seller. They are the ones in line for the Pulitzers, the Hugo and Nebula awards, and frequently feature on the NYT bestseller list.
Strengths: These can solid writers or critically lambasted hacks, but they have one thing in common, they sell! Common readers seldom care about literary genius or flawless diction. They want a good story, and whether it is newspapers, magazines, or novels, these folks deliver. They are the darlings of the big-house publishers and the mainstream media because their stories have unmatched mass appeal. They generally have the discipline to meet deadlines and are reliable as clockwork in promoting their works and generating sales. At one time they were the knights in shining armor of the writing world, but with the recent wave of independent publishing opportunities, the ramparts they once stood upon have largely crumbled. They still have their place in the world, but it is a world much more crowded than it once was. Their place in the writing community is as examples, models, and beacons of hope for what could be.
Weaknesses/Caution Areas: Pride and arrogance are always a danger to these writers. They are no longer kings of the hill, and some have chosen public condescension and polemics as the response to the wave of increasing popularity and viability of indie published authors. While many have seen the writing on the wall and adapted to the changes in the publishing world, others staunchly refuse to adapt and run the risks of falling under the waves of the changing tide.
Advice: Recognize a critical fact as you assess your place in the changing world of publishing. A rising tide lifts all boats. Indie publishing has resulted in a huge increase in readers overall. Ebooks have made commutes, travel time, and layovers a venue to get what we write into the hands of more readers. Find ways to tap into the wave of popularity of indie authors and social media. Cooperation trumps competition. When one cannot stem the tide, survivors learn to go with the flow.
Category Three: The Called
Usually calling is associated with religious service or vocation. That can be the case with writers, and often is for many Christian authors. For a writer, however, being among the called is about motivation. Why do you write? The simple answer for those who fall into the category of the called is simply, “I can’t not write.” Author R. A. Salvatore is quoted as saying, “If you can quit, then quit. If you can’t quit, you are a writer.” While I am not sure this quote equally applies to all writers, if we are talking about the motivation for writing, it certainly applies to the called. This category includes many of the masters, whether prolific or those who only ever wrote a single book. It is their craft and their mission to complete the project buried in their heart. Whether a single great-American-novel or a series of epic stories that change a generation, called writers like heroes on an epic quest, and only the achievement of their goal will quench the fire that drives them on.
Strengths: Called writers are driven to recognize writing is part of their DNA. Doubts about whether or not they are “real writers” rarely figure into the picture. Low sales numbers don’t discourage them. Word count goals can be useful tools, but are not intrinsic to their feeling of success. Their value comes when they turn out that perfect story. Some spend everything to craft that perfect creation. Others, once done, begin the next quest for the next adventure in a line of adventures. Called writers are often the hardest to discourage, because they draw their encouragement from something within rather than anything outside themselves. Their place in the writing community are like the prophets of old. They can make us believe!
Weaknesses/Caution Areas: Called can sometimes be almost as elitist as some career writers have been known to be. The eccentric nature of their driving force can often cause called writers to be standoffish or disconnected from the writing community. There is a tendency to scorn those who can’t see the “vision”. Some called writers might become so reclusive and detached that by the time their masterpiece is completed, they have lost touch with all channels to bring it to light.
Advice: By all means nurture and maintain that special drive within you, but recognize others, while different, also have value. There is no single “right way” to be a writer. You have the ability to be a visionary and inspiration to other writers, and you may find other authors can rally behind you and support your vision like few readers can. Use the gifts you have been given to build up the writing community. Continue to inspire those around you, and continue to turn out the masterpiece(s) that drive you. Often called writers represent the apex of the craft and can inspire future generations of writers with their stories.
I hope this article has been helpful to those of you who find yourself, for whatever motivation, in the classification of writer. Maybe you find yourself squarely in one of these categories. Perhaps you find yourself with a foot in two of these camps, and maybe a hand in the third. Whatever your motivation, spend some time in quiet self-reflection and seek to understand why it is you do what you do. Recognize that every motivation and category has strengths and weaknesses. Learn them both, and then learn to take joy in who you are as a writer. Don’t let the success or failure of others in their goals have any effect on you. Find yourself, then be yourself. Doing this, you will find writing one of the greatest joys in life.
Bestselling Author of the Chadash Chronicles