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The 5 Differences Between Professional and Amateur Novelists

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems.

This week I’m publishing a new novel, The Last Enchantments, about an American abroad at Oxford (kind of a Brideshead Revisited remix).  It will be the eighth book of mine released by a big New York publishing house, but I think it was only somewhere around the fifth or sixth that I stopped feeling like an impostor.  There’s no magical change you feel when your first book finally sells – the same doubts are still there, and definitely the same feeling that you’re a kind of crazy charlatan, trying to trade words out of your brain for money.

But for all that that’s true, the more writers I meet, the more I notice that there are some crucial differences between the professional ones and the ones who want to be professional.  I hope that doesn’t sound condescending – every professional writer used to be an amateur writer, after all, and often the distinctions I’m talking about don’t have anything to do with talent as much as with attitude.  These are the five that I’ve noticed.

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Finch-author photo C#18626Afinch-bookThis guest post is by Charles Finch, a graduate of Yale and Oxford. He is the author of the Charles Lenox mysteries. His first novel, A Beautiful Blue Death, was nominated for an Agatha Award and was named one of Library Journal’s Best Books of 2007, one of only five mystery novels on the list. His first contemporary novel, The Last Enchantments, is out now. He lives in Chicago.

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Tools

When beginning writers approach me, they often want to know where I get my ideas (Pottery Barn, I tell them) or my inspiration.  By contrast, I think published novelists understand that you can’t really get help with inspiration.  No five-minute conversation at a signing is going to make it easy to write a great book.  It has to come from within.

But you can talk about process.  That’s why, when I talk with other published writers, it’s often not about high-flown ideas on writing but about the mundane, workaday tools we use to do our job.  What pencils do you use?  What reference books are at hand while you work?  Coffee or food or nothing?  Music, no music?

There’s so much you can’t control about writing that it’s crucial to control what you can.  The less time you spend thinking about how you write, the more time you spend thinking about what you’re writing.

[Did you know there are 7 reasons writing a novel makes you a badass? Read about them here.]

Patience

To me, the single biggest mark of the amateur writer is a sense of hurry.

Hurry to finish a manuscript, hurry to edit it, hurry to publish it.  It’s definitely possible to write a book in a month, leave it unedited, and watch it go off into the world and be declared a masterpiece.  It happens every fifty years or so.

For the rest of us, the single greatest ally we have is time.  There’s no page of prose in existence that its author can’t improve after it’s been in a drawer for a week.  The same is true on the macro level – every time I finish a story or a book, I try to put it away and forget it for as long as I can.  When I return, its problems are often so obvious and easy to fix that I’m amazed I ever struggled with them.

Amateur writers are usually desperate to be published, as soon as possible.  And I understand that feeling – you just want it to start, your career, your next book, whatever.  But I wonder how many self-published novels might have had a chance at getting bought, and finding more readers, if their authors had a bit more patience with them?

Focus

“I’m working on a memoir and a novel and a collection of long poems about my family’s life as settlers in the west,” a woman once told me.

I personally find that having a couple of projects going at once can be an aid to focus, refreshing my brain as I go back and forth between them – a book review and a novel at the same time, for example.  But I’ve seen that writers who are starting out sometimes throw their energy in so many different directions that they can never finish any of the projects, much less all of them.

To me a good test is this: what do you like to read?  What kind of book moves and affects you the most?  Is it the memoir, the novel, the long poem-collection?  Personally, I find myself most immersed in the novel, and that’s why I write them – they have the most magic for me.  The joy of self-expression is exhilarating, but ultimately choosing one venue for it can make your work much better – and same for your chances of actually finishing something.

[Learn 5 Tools for Building Conflict in Your Novel]

Habit

“Routine, in an intelligent man, is a sign of ambition.”  Those are the words of W.H. Auden (never mind that his routine eventually came to revolve around drinking more than writing).

If there’s a single idea I emphasize when people ask about writing, it’s that there’s no right way to produce a book.  But I do think that whatever you do, you should do regularly, whether it’s waking up at midnight and drinking vodka or waking up at dawn and drinking tea, whether it’s sitting in a monkish study or writing on the back of a flatbed truck.  The analogy I like is children’s literature: in a lot of children’s books, there’s a huge institutional structure (Hogwarts, for example) whose presiding safety allows the children’s imagination to run free.  The more consistent your habits are – and this ties into having your tools nailed down – the more secure your brain will be to run free and create.

Practice

There’s more mystical nonsense written about the process of writing than almost anything.  Inspiration, genius, “the muse.”  So I want to lay out one huge, comforting, wonderful fact: the more you write, the better you get at it.  Writing is like a forehand or driving a car or playing guitar.  Practice makes you better.

That’s not to say inspiration and genius don’t exist.  Not everyone can become Tolstoy through hard work.  What it means is that, wherever you start, you can improve.  And the way to do it is to write a lot.

I mentioned at the start of this piece that I’ve published eight books.  When I flip through the first one now, I can’t believe it ever made it onto shelves.  I see so many flaws and problems in it that I’m amazed.  The reason is that I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words between since then.  As long as you produce a little something every day, every week, in time, invisibly, you’ll get better.  Trailing behind every successful writer are a million words that never saw the light of day.  Sometimes it takes five million words.  The most important piece of writing advice anyone can give or get is simple, and therefore can seem uninteresting, but it’s true: just keep writing.

Thanks for visiting The Writer’s Dig blog. For more great writing advice, click here.

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Brian A. Klems is the online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
Sign up for Brian’s free Writer’s Digest eNewsletter: WD Newsletter

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23 Responses to The 5 Differences Between Professional and Amateur Novelists

  1. A.R. Files says:

    Thank you so much for this article. As a teenage writer, I was worried that people may not take my work seriously because of my age. However, I see that, with points, that may not be the case.

    The only problem I saw me having after looking at this list was, honestly, patience. I need to slow down. My book will be published in a fortnight! XD

  2. atwhatcost says:

    I have already developed most of that. (There’s no such thing as enough tools or persistence.) I’m still an amateur. What’s the difference between a professional and an amateur? A check.

    I’ll get that check eventually, but no matter what else I do, I will never be a professional until I get it.

  3. It is amazing how angry some people are. I self published my first book, and as much as I am proud of it and will always cherish it, the author of this article is completely right (and not smug at all): I was totally in a hurry. We live and read and learn, which is why book #2 is being rewritten for the third time and I will take my sweet time working on it. No rush here. And perhaps in ten years, after hundreds of rejection letters and ample rewriting, I will self publish because self publishing is great too. It just doesn’t have the same opportunities. I don’t care about the money but I would be happier if my work was read by more people, and that requires a publishing house. Thanks for the honest advice.

  4. laurenruiz05 says:

    “Patience” is something a good number of my clients lack. Having goals and time lines helps keep one active, but setting unnecessary deadlines because you want to see your name in print sooner is detrimental.

    This post was really great. Thank you. I’ll have to check some of your novels out, Charles. They sound interesting!

    Lauren I. Ruiz
    Proofreader, Editor
    http://www.pure-text.net

  5. PeterTaylor says:

    A great post. Hmmm. Yes, I do have a problem with focus …and routine …and research and… But I have had several non-fiction books published, and now a picture book is soon to be released. It’s my first traditionally published picture book after 15 years of writing texts and submitting. Maybe I’m a slow learner, but it does feel that it’s been worth the wait to gain industry recognition of having created a story worthy of very heavy investment by the publisher to bring it to the marketplace.

    The non-fiction books have been vastly improved with the help of the professional editors in the publishing houses, whose pay for the several months of involvement would have been far far more than I would ever have been able to afford as a self-publisher paying an editor. I wonder if this is true of novels, too? The publishers’ art directors and designers have also worked their magic to make my books far more attractive than I could ever have envisaged or created myself. But I do know many good reasons for some books being self-published, and there are excellent examples.

    I’m currently working on a creative biography (written from the character’s brother’s imagined perspective). I’ve no idea if it will be publishable, but I wonder if novelists feel more hurt when their story is rejected than if publishers turn down a memoir, expose or a work in another genre?

    Surely writers realise that having a novel or any book published is not going to automatically lead to fame and fortune? Most authors still need a day job. However, to see your writing appreciated by a wide audience, offering to write and compile the newsletter for an organisation to which you belong can be a rewarding experience as well as a useful form of practice. And such offers are usually grasped with much gratitude.

    Best wishes to all

    Peter Taylor

  6. Charles, thank you for this article. I needed the reminder about patience. I think many newer writers believe that if we don’t hurry up and put something out there, then what few readers we have will not stay around and wait. However, I am learning that as long as I give them a reason to stick around–my blog–they aren’t going to run away.

    Thanks again for this great advice.

  7. 1seashell says:

    Thank you for writing this interesting article. I do have a question. Do you consider self-publishing the dead giveaway of the “amateur”? If so, that’s hugely condescending, and most would say unfair.

    • johns says:

      That dividing line makes sense to me. Spending years writing and learning and developing the craft to the point where one can get through the gate at a professional publisher is not a small accomplishment. Once at that level of proficiency, going the self-publishing route to sell directly to an established audience is not a sign of being an amateur, but I see a number of self-published writers as being too impatient and unwilling to put in the time it takes to get to the level of traditional publishing. One exception would be regional publications for which there is just not an adequate market to attract a traditional publisher.

      Where would you draw the line, considering where the dividing line between amateur and professional lies in numerous other fields?

  8. lynnru says:

    On the subject of inspiration:

    One piece of advice I preach to anyone who asks is to read, read, read. I tell them reading is gasoline and writing is the gas tank. When you feel empty or have writer’s block, stop writing and start reading.

    Also, I’m a singer, so often when I need a writing break I’ll open up a song on the computer, turn up the speakers (when no one is home) and belt one out. That’s inspiring!

  9. bendwriter says:

    I didn’t want this article to end. Yes, it’s information we know (maybe only deep in our gut), but it’s refreshing to hear an author of eight books reflect on his journey and share some insight into the process. I like the quote about behind every successful writer there are a million words that never saw the light of day. Amen.

  10. Annabelle says:

    This was very helpful. At least I’m doing a majority of things correctly. I do need to perfect my “habit.” I could rename it and call it “ritual.” I also need to change my location where I write so I don’t continue to get a back ache but if I try to write in my “office” I’m in danger of freezing, especially know with the cold winter we’re having in Wisconsin, plus I like to have TV on as my background.

  11. Scorpiaux says:

    “I wonder how many self-published novels might have had a chance at getting bought, and finding more readers, if their authors had a bit more patience with them?”

    How much patience is enough? Until death comes? It seems every publishing organization has a too-small staff to handle the daily avalanche of mail (slush pile sounds too trite) with its unsolicited submissions, query letters, synopses, and probably free books, testimonials, and industry newsletters. Would-be first time authors study every known tome on writing, research agents’, editors’, and publishers’ idiosyncrasies and rules. They are constantly reminded that 99% of the submissions will get rejected (after six months in the stack waiting for an interne who is underpaid to render an assessment on whether someone else should read the first few pages to decide whether or not to continue reading or open the next envelope.) The self-publishing authors are acting on self-defense motives when up against this kind of inanity. Be patient? For what? An undeserved rejection slip? If money is the name of the game, why pretend that it isn’t?

    • bconklin says:

      Scorplaux: I agree, the author was maybe more than a bit smug. I completely understand your issues with patience. And I think for many (probably most) writers who dream of that “lucky break,” it’ll probably end with the Grim Reaper (just being realistic, not morbid). I’ve got hundreds of rejections slips and e-mails that I’ve amassed over about 10 years of trying. What keeps me going is every now and then a personalized reply or a request for a whole or partial manuscript. I’ve started to realize it’s a lot like a gambling addiction. You keep pulling the slot lever with every query, hoping for a big payoff. And yes, I’ve been very tempted to just throw in the towel and self publish. So maybe it all comes down to what you’ll be satisfied with at rock bottom: a few vanity copies for friends and family, a POD book through Amazon, a royalty check from a big NY house? There’s no doubt this Finch guy is a professional (but did I mention smug). However, there’s nothing wrong with being an amateur either. The main goal is to create the art and not worry so much about hitting it big. Bigness in literature means absolutely nothing to 99.999% of the world’s population. After all, I’ve never even heard of this Finch guy till now. And I probably won’t be reading any of his novels anytime soon (too smug ;-)

  12. jaimiengle says:

    Great piece. Thanks for taking the time to share. I absolutely agree with all of it, and found it a refreshing reminder of where I need to spend more time focusing…mainly Habit.

  13. LevRaphael says:

    I’ve published 24 books in many genres with a 25th coming out from one of my favorite presses, and patience is absolutely essential in the writing. Every book has its own schedule. Some have taken me two years, one actually took six months, another almost twenty years on and off–but with all of them, setting them aside for a while gave me a fresh perspective. Rushing is rarely a good idea, despite writes being pushed to get as much content as possible onto Amazon.

  14. This is a great post, Charles. Similar to DanielR, I find patience to be the most challenging. Where you say, “For the rest of us, the single greatest ally we have is time.” I often feel like time is my biggest enemy. It always amazes me how quickly a deadline can approach when I still have a ton of work to do. Best of luck to you. Your book sounds great!

    Jason
    http://www.jasoncanderson.com

  15. Your book sounds intriguing! I am a fan of Brideshead Revisited and will check out The Enchantments at the Library. Good title and beautiful cover. I have written a collection of short stories and am working on a novel. I have become a serious writer in the past fifteen years. I try to write a short story a month and work on my novel. Best advice, keep writing.

  16. Brian, this is a great piece. I started reading it, quite honestly, with my right eye slightly cocked, but you really make some valid points … specifically under HABIT (“But I do think that whatever you do, you should do regularly …”) and PRACTICE (“As long as you produce a little something every day, every week, in time, invisibly, you’ll get better.”).

    Thank you so much for sharing — and continued success!

    Cassandra Black
    Specialize in Mini Romance Series

  17. This is a very nice piece, and it reminds me of Graham Greene’s comment that he always wrote 500 words a day. Every day. Not more and not less. Which I think shows that he was superbly disciplined. And though he wrote many books, if you look at his actual publishing output he clearly wrote more than he published, suggesting he did a lot of rewriting, self-editing, cutting, etc. Greene was a pretty good role model for a “professional” I think, and he certainly matches up with what you’ve written here.

  18. This is a great post, Charles. Similar to DanielR, I find patience to be the most challenging. Where you say, “For the rest of us, the single greatest ally we have is time.” I often feel like time is my biggest enemy. It always amazes me how quickly a deadline can approach when you still have a ton of work to do. Best of luck to you!

    Jason
    http://www.jasoncanderson.com

  19. mcthomas007 says:

    Patience is the hardest one for me. It’s a good thing I have an editor that will ‘slow my role’!

  20. MK says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been working on my first novel for approximately five years, I think mostly because I wasn’t satisfied with my writing quality for a long time. And now that I’ve just finished, some people can’t understand that I’m not rushing to get it published. I explain I need it to marinate for some time before I return to it and edit it, and THEN I will start looking for an agent. It’s taking forever, but I want to do it right. Hopefully it all pays off.

  21. DanielR says:

    These really resonate with me. As I have developed as a writer, I have made progress in most of these. I just wish I could get the patience one down!

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