What kind of writer do you want to be?

The question caught me off-guard.  I’d been practicing the craft of writing for nearly thirty years at that point.  I’d started thirteen manuscripts. Finished ten.  Had approached nearly a million words committed to page.  And yet: no one had asked that question of me before.  Least of all, me.
What kind of writer do you want to be?

The obvious answer was, “A good one.”  But it’s more complicated than that.  I spent my life waffling between genre and literary in my consumptive practices.  I’ve tried my hand at them both, for nearly every genre I could muster.  Genres come with conventions, practices, beats. (Tropes.) (Cliches.)  So long as I could pull off a WTF moment somewhere in my story, elicit that jaw-drop of surprise, I was happy.

The question was posed by an editor I admire highly, whilst she was in the midst of calling me out for not taking things seriously. And while I’d had fun spinning cotton candy in that particular forum, I was doing it on a lark.  I wasn’t striving quite hard enough.  Occasionally, I’d do things the right way – but only when I wasn’t trying to be clever.  More often than not, my experiments landed half-baked.  And while some people appreciate cookie dough, it’s a bit more limited in audience than actual baked goods.

What kind of writer do you want to be?

Maybe I could blame Poe’s Philosophy of Composition?  I was writing for effect, rather than to a particular goal or purpose. Whether I was going for a horror sucker punch, some heart-string arrangements, or just typographical tomfoolery, I wasn’t bad at it.  But sucker punches do not a story make.  And as much as it might please me to blame it on Poe, or on Hemingway, or on Tolkien, that didn’t work: they didn’t hold a pen to my head.

In college, my fraternity brothers would occasionally ask: “what’s the difference between a writer and an author?”  Other than publication credit, I didn’t think there much of a distinction.  The industry, as fond as it is as cloud tags and shelving orders, does love its classification systems.  And I’d grown up reading things like Piers Anthony’s Apprentice Adept series — the sort of book that had both the sci-fi and fantasy Del Rey logos on the side.  Why limit?  Why constrain?

The answer underpinned the question:  focus.

I dabble.  (You can see it in my Twitter bio:  writer, hacker, mixologist.  Occasional gardener.  Sometimes cook.  Runner, but not very far; yogi, but prone to falling over; golfer, maybe once a year.)  And while it might be fleetingly pleasing to engage in a Renaissancissitude de temps en temps, there’s an important qualifier that follows the phrase “jack of all trades.”

If you’re going to break through, you have to start somewhere.  You have to write until your fingers ache.  You have to read omnivorously, if only to know the markets.  (More often than not, also to learn.). You have to be good enough to stand out against the thousands of competitors flooding the markets with on-demand print works or online-only stories.  You have to exemplify a mastery of language, of craft, of the sort of story you’re looking to tell.  You have to get good.  Not just good enough, but good.  Good enough at what?  Well, the question comes back to start:

What kind of writer do you want to be?

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