Middle Child Press: The Craft: Author vs. Writer

12.16.2011

The Craft: Author vs. Writer

During a discussion with Denny Upkins, author of Hollowstone, the subject of what we do came up, as it tends to since we’re both published authors. The text of the conversation is as follows...

Me: “I understand how refreshing it is to connect with like minds. It's rare. Ankh and I are storytellers, which is why we get along so well. Through her, I met you, and you're a wordsmith just like us. It's so great because we can talk about certain things. I wish I knew more real authors like us. I know plenty of writers, but very few authors.”

Denny: “Girl you ain't never lied. One of my friends was talking about this. She's critiquing my next novel and she stated something that really struck a chord. She said she loved critiquing me because my objective is to tell a great story and not be known as a great writer. Because there's a huge difference. I think with us, we're working towards something more meaningful in our narratives which is why we strive to be great authors because we're serving an ignored audience that is black women, women of color, POCs and LGBTQs.”

Me: You're so right. So right. Soooooooo right. I'm more concerned with telling a balanced, solid story than I am with being portrayed as a good writer. The second can't happen unless the first does.”

To which Denny co-signed. This was also a subject addressed in part on the Blasian Narrative as well. I also discussed this to some extent in my interview At the Bar. After Denny’s and my conversation, I decided to define for myself the difference between an author and a writer. Now, under no circumstances am I an expert in anything, but I am qualified to express my opinion on my blog. You may disagree, and that’s fine too. Educational discourse is always welcome.

An author begins as a writer, but then somewhere along the line, the vision changes and becomes all-encompassing. I knew I was going to be an author by age eight because I saw my name on the spirals of books, and I could imagine what my book covers would look like, and even who would be my publisher (Viking, Scribner, Random House...hey, I was eight). I illustrated my stories and bound them in 3-ring binders or loose pages glued together with rubber cement. I included copyright pages and stuff like that because I studied books by other authors. It was about the story, but then it became about the story and letting the world know about it. I knew that it would happen one day and I never had a moment’s doubt.

But it was always the story itself, first and foremost. How to make the words on the page match the images in my mind? How to interpret what I was seeing into the vocabulary (albeit extensive) of a kid? How to finish what I started? How do I end it? How do I end it? How do I end it? These aren’t easy questions when you’re a novice. You want the words to be perfect when you first put pen to paper. It just doesn’t happen that way. Nor will you pen a 250-page novel your first time out. As with all things, the key to getting better is consistent practice and learning who you are as a writer. I kept writing (and reading) to improve my overall understanding of how to tell a story to completion, and all I wanted to do was get better and better at keeping up with my muse; who if I allow free reign, will always see me through to the end.

Don’t be afraid to solicit feedback, but make sure it’s from reliable sources. You’ll want to find someone willing to edit your work, and here I stress the need to find another writer who’ll do it (especially if it’s reciprocated). Do not be afraid if the feedback isn’t positive. Feedback is essential, and people need to understand the nature of it. When I wrote my fanfic, I got a lot of “good job, keep going,” responses. I also got a lot of, “This is horrible; you should never write again,” replies as well. Those comments do absolutely nothing for authors. We have to know specifics: what’s good about the story, what’s bad about it, things of that nature so they can be addressed. And negative feedback is still feedback. The reviewer may not have liked what we wrote, but what we appreciate is when they can tell us in detail what it was they didn’t like, and what they did like. Such commentary is what gets us to our next book. And for authors, there’s always a next book.

The point here is to keep writing, keep practicing, keep making attempts to get better, including doing research on your subject, characters and plot specifics. Writers write what they know, but it is a measure of growth if you make serious attempts to move out of your comfort zone. For instance, I never wrote anything other than black women paired with black men because that’s what I knew. But I branched out and wrote a Blasian novel, and I learned so much; enough that I know I’ll continue down the Blasian path, as well as branch out into other genres like steampunk, mystery, sci-fi & dark fantasy. It requires a wealth of research, but the endgame for me is always a solid, readable novel, and so it’s worth it. You also need to know the audience for which you write because everything isn’t for everybody.

To this regard, I’m also making a concerted effort to branch out with character orientations. Never have I read a novel with a LGBTQ protagonist, and Denny assures me that there are very few books (good or bad) with such characters. I’m heterosexual, and I’m always concerned about authenticity in my storytelling. My characters believe in having sex, and so intimate encounters are a legitimate concern of mine. I know that I can do it, but research and time are required to make it believable. The last thing I want is for a LGBTQ consumer to read my novel and say, “A straight woman wrote this shit.” The last thing I want for anyone reading my novels is to question their authenticity and/or call them shit. So best believe I will use every resource available to get it right, including, but not limited to, conversations, interviews and reading books by LGBTQ authors. I’ve also made a serious attempt at writing slash in some of my fanfic, and have been mightily encouraged to keep going by fans of the genre. Baby steps, y’all, baby steps...

Another topic is the issue of book covers. Before I talk about this, I have to make an important point; one which Denny pointed out. Authors who sign with standard publishing houses typically do not have control over the cover their book receives. The author is at the whim of the publisher, who may decide to use an absolutely horrendous cover that does no justice to the book itself. The idea that someone else can decide how my book is presented to the world horrifies me enough that I will strive to always maintain creative control. For those of us who self-publish, this is completely possible. So I will limit my discussion on artistic book covers to us.

There is a continuous debate on the Narrative about book cover quality. Since a lot of people (me included) decide whether we want to read a book based on its cover, it behooves the author to produce a quality book jacket. It’s not enough to photoshop random images and throw up a title...what you oftentimes get is a hot visual mess that detracts from what may be a really good story. Take a look at some of the book covers on the Narrative and you’ll see what I mean. Denny has also touched on this very same topic.

When I invest years into the writing of a novel (Corruption took a year; Blade Dancer, 2 ½; In the Pale Moonlight, 3), I will not slack off by getting a weak-ass jacket to wrap my baby in. I will invest money into getting a beautiful and appropriate cover by a professional graphic artist or a superlative art student. If you’re a true visionary, you already know how you want the book to look and this last part is fairly easy.

Under no circumstances am I dissing writers. Absolutely not; I started out as one. As far as I’m concerned, the internal switch that turns a writer into an author does not go on for everyone. And there is nothing wrong with writing for yourself, which I think most writers do. I’ve met quite a few who are honest about their desire to write for themselves and only themselves. They haven’t made efforts to publish because the endgame for them is seeing the story in their head put to paper. I’ve also met writers who claim to be authors, but are not serious about the craft. They produce stories, but can’t handle constructive criticism about their work, even though they’ve put it out there for others to read. They haven’t made strides to protect themselves. When I ask about specific attempts at novelization or publication, I always get some kind of bewildered or bullshit expression; as if penning the story itself takes care of everything, including sales of the book. Again, somewhere within, that switch hasn’t yet turned on, or probably won’t. Being an author is about far more than just writing a story.

I belabor the point, but I feel like I always should provide context so that you’ll know where I’m coming from. Said point is: Writers can see, but authors are visionaries. Writers write stories, but authors produce books. Writers tell stories without the intent to publish. Authors go through great lengths to produce a publishable product. For my storytellers out there, ask yourself…are you a writer or are you an author? What is your objective when you put pen to paper? Who are you? Which are you? What I’ve tried to say here is merely my opinion; feel free to state your own and share your ideas with me.

For those of you new to the craft, I hope that my diatribe is of some use to you; feel free to contact me if you have specific questions. Either way, happy writing!