Sunday, July 08, 2012

Journeyman Writer

In the Middle Ages, the way a young man or, less frequently, a young woman, learned a trade was through the apprenticeship system. For seven years, they would live with a master craftsman, being trained in exchange for receiving room and board. They usually started out doing menial tasks like sweeping up. The master would give them lessons and eventually they started to produce work of their own.

Once they had completed their training, they would then become a journeyman. A journeyman had learned his trade or craft and was paid for his labor, but was not yet considered a master craftsman. They might stay working under a master or travel about the country plying their trade.

Under the Guild system, a journeyman only became a master after producing a masterpiece that was submitted to the guild for judging. If the work was not judged worthy, the applicant would remain a journeyman.

I've been thinking a lot about this system lately and was reminded of these thoughts by a blog recently written by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Her point in that blog was that creative writing was the only field in which your education included nothing about how to become a working writer who earns a living from their craft.

This attitude persists in the traditional publishing world. Everything about the process screams that you have to produce your masterpiece in order to get published at all. Even once you are accepted for publication, the advance money is minimal, somewhere around $5,000, doled out in three pieces over a year's time. And you're expected to spend that money on promoting your book. In other words, like an apprentice, you're expected to work for free. Without the room and board.


 Kris Rusch uses music as an example. Performance was required of music majors. I remember when my brother, a professional musician who earned a living at it for many years, was in high school. He, like most high school musicians, formed a band and picked up "gigs" on weekends. For pay.

They were still students. They were learning how to play in a band, how to relate to an audience, what tunes people liked and didn't like. And they got paid for it.

It was similar when I took my first job as a programmer. I had an associates degree in data processing. I'd taken classes in Cobol and PL/1 and RPG and assembler. I'd done assignments. But when I got my first job as a junior programmer, I still had an awful lot to learn. Senior programmers mentored me. I wrote simple programs. And I got paid.

Somehow writers have been sold on the idea that being published and read is reward enough for their labors. I've read blogs written by more than one agent saying you shouldn't expect to earn a living as a writer. Somehow, the honor of getting past all those gatekeepers and getting your book into print should be reward enough.

Worse than that, writers have been suckered into paying to try to achieve this goal. There are still vanity presses out there who will gladly take your money, promising to publish your book for you. Or, in the age of epublishing, houses that will format your work, slap on a cover, and upload it to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords, something most people can do for themselves for free.

One way of impressing the gatekeepers is by winning writing contests. Which have entry fees. In other words, you pay a group to judge your writing. The judges are most often other writers, some of whom who haven't been published themselves yet. That doesn't stop them from grading your work and doling out criticism in ample spoonfuls.

The competition to be traditionally published is so intense, it isn't enough anymore to submit a query letter. Now you're encouraged to go to conferences, often held at luxury hotels in large cities, so you can get an appointment for a five minute pitch to an agent or editor. So, for a few thousand dollars more, you get the right to send in your query with the treasured "Requested Material" written in the heading.

As I've written before, I've decided not to play this game. I've done my apprenticeship over the past seven years. I've written several "practice" novels. I've taken classes on plotting and characterization and grammar. I've put my work through critique groups and entered contests and gone to conferences.

Another recent post by Kris Rusch reaffirmed my decision. In it she talks about the difference between writers who critique a story and readers who read it. Writers are always looking for the perfect story, the masterpiece. They've learned all the rules and look for violations. Readers read for enjoyment.

And getting hung up on perfection (which is very easy for me) is fruitless. As Kris writes:
Is the story perfect? Of course not. No story is. Not a one. No matter how many times it’s “polished” and “fixed” and “improved.” No one can write a perfect story.
So I know I'm not writing my masterpiece. It won't win a Pulitzer Prize or even an Edgar. But I'm no longer an apprentice. I'm at the journeyman level. And journeymen get paid for their work. Which is what I intend to do by self-publishing my book. Hopefully, some readers will agree.
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