Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lessons from Andrew Crofts

Today, in my "Writing for a Living" class, freelance writer and ghostwriter Andrew Crofts came as a guest speaker. He wrote one of our textbooks, The Freelance Writer's Handbook, and generally knows what he's talking about. Like much of the older generation of current professional writers (folks who were trying to get started in and around the 70s or so), Crofts had to find his own way of doing things -- sentiments shared by other creative writers that I've mentioned on this blog (Dean Wesley Smith, Kurt Busiek, Stephen King, etc.) I found Mr. Crofts to be a very knowledgeable person and I'm going to take this opportunity to share what I can of that knowledge.

Perhaps the most important thing I got out of Mr. Crofts lecture is an excellent description for both what a craftsman is and also what a craftsman does.

As you know, this blog is entitled "The Craftsman's Journey," and some of you may be wondering: Well, what's all that about? It's not just a whole lot of flowery language (although it does sound rather nice, in my opinion). It actually does mean something. Essentially, my goal is to chronicle my efforts to learn various crafts, with writing being the primary one among them.

And yes, writing is a craft. It can be learned, it needs to be practiced, and you have to market it. (I know, I know. I've been harping on this a lot lately. It's just where my attention has been at, that's all.)

Mr. Crofts summed this up quite well. He said that, as a writer, you can view yourself in one of two ways.
1. "I am an artist."
2. "I am a craftsman."
He then put these two mindsets into a practical light by using the carpenter as an example.

As a carpenter, if you are an artist, you'll likely go out and create a beautiful piece of furniture. Maybe you have an interest in old, English-style wardrobes. You know, like in Narnia. You'll spend several thousand dollars purchasing the high-quality mahogany and polishes and finishing solutions that are necessary materials. You'll of course need the tools, if you haven't gotten them already. You'll probably make a few mistakes the first time you cut a few pieces and so you'll have to do those over -- which will cost you more time and money. And, of course, you still have to live and eat, so there goes a few thousand more dollars.

BUT, after a few months of dedicated work, or maybe even a year or so depending on how large and ornate this wardrobe is, you'll find that you have a gorgeous piece of furniture. I mean, it's just ridiculous how magnificent this is.

Now, many of us (or at least myself) would be more than happy to have crafted such a beautiful piece of art that we would likely keep it in our home, proud of such an accomplishment. But if you're a carpenter, you need to sell it. You need to support yourself and recoup your losses and continue perfecting your craft in order to sell more and support yourself and... well, you get the idea.

So now you go out to sell it.

Except... between the costs of the materials and the food you ate and everything, you're going to need to charge quite a bit of money for this piece in order to break even. And, of course, you still need to eat so that will drive the price up even more.

Well, you certainly don't know anyone with the kind of money who would be willing to pay thousands and thousands of dollars for a wardrobe -- even if it is the nicest one you've ever seen, if you do say so yourself. And then there's the whole issue of space. Who do you know who has a house or a room large enough to put this blasted thing in? I mean, it's enormous!

That's the artist's approach. It's rather daunting, I know. But that's where the craftsman comes in.

See, the craftsman will go around the neighborhood (or whatever your equivalent wants to be) and start talking to people, saying "What can I make for you?", "What do you need me to make?", "What do you need from me?" They'll print up little pamphlets and business cards that say: "Andrew Crofts, Carpenter, Whatever you want me to make." Or something similar.

Sure, maybe the craftsman doesn't make any connections with the first round of business cards. Or even the second. But eventually, someone, somewhere, is going to want some handmade wooden furniture. And then, when they go looking around for a carpenter, they'll find your business card, with all of your contact information, and they'll get in touch with you and say "Hey, I want a chair."

So then you say "Great," and you make a chair. Sure, it's not quite what you were hoping to make, or be known for, or whatever. But it's work, and it's work in the field you're passionate about -- carpentry, wood-working. It might not be your favorite project ever, but you do it, because that's what people want and need.

After you finish the chair, you deliver it, and then you've got a happy client. That client talks to his or her friends about this wonderful new chair they've got (because you always make sure that you produce quality merchandise) and pretty soon other people are wanting high-quality woodwork from you, Mr. Marketing Craftsman Carpenter.

And how knows? Maybe you'll be reworking the cabinets in somebody's kitchen and you'll look over into the next room and there will be this nice big space that's just begging for a mahogany wardrobe to fill. And then you can tell your clients about your wardrobe -- maybe even offer to make another one in a smaller size if that's what they'd prefer -- and they might ask you to make one for them.

Of course, they might not. But that's the chance you take.

Now, how does this relate to writing? I would hope it makes sense, but I'll go ahead and provide some more direct advice from Mr. Crofts.

First, if you want to be a full-time writer, it seems to be vitally important that you possess an extreme dislike for having a real job. You need to really not want a job in order to have the tenacity to become a full-time writer. Otherwise, you'll likely just give up and leave all the writing jobs to other professionals, who have just a little bit more patience than you. This is what Brandon Sanderson did. He didn't want to have a day job, and so he worked constantly at a really high level of production all through college and for a number of years afterwards in order to get his writing up to a publishable level. And now look at him. (He's basically a superstar of Fantasy right now, if you don't already know.)

Next, it is very important for you to write as much as you can and to do interesting things. A writer is someone who introduces a world of readers to interesting experiences and/or ideas that the reader might not have encountered otherwise. It's hard to do that if you spend all of your days locked in a cupboard, hunched over a desk, staring into a flickering screen (much as I am doing right now.)

Now, taking those two factors from above, we apply them to the metaphor of the craftsman.

A few principles:

It's important to identify the difference between selling your work and marketing it.

If you're selling your work, you're basically producing something that you think is interesting or otherwise of value, and then trying to find someone to buy it. This can work, and it's generally the kind of thing you do with a career in fiction, but it's very difficult and requires multiple attempts and a really thick skin.

When you're marketing your work, you look around and try to find out what people need. Then you find a way that you can give it to them. Filling slots in magazines and newspapers, who need to produce the same quantity and quality of work each day, week, or month, is a great way to do this. Find the stories that no one else wants to write, or the places no one else wants to go, or the perspective/angle/idea that no one else has, and see if you can fill that role. After that, it's just a matter of contacting the editor and selling the article (oh, yeah, and you'll need to write it once they've approved the idea.)

Whether or not you're trying to sell a novel or market your services, it's important to shop yourself around constantly. Always have stuff in the mail (and always keep track of where that stuff is). You're not going to sell any writing by leaving it sitting there on your dining room table or (even worse) on your hard drive. If you have something to sell, it needs to be sitting on an editor's desk, preferably with the editor's eyes scanning the lines of text. If you have writing services to sell, then your name needs to be on that editor's desk, preferably with some writing samples and a list of recent publications attached.

That's another thing. Anything you can get in print is going to be money in the bank later on. Don't be too proud to take a writing job, of any kind. Even if it's just a small features piece in the local news paper and it isn't going to pay a dime, it's worth it. At least in the early days. You need to build up a portfolio of public, professional work that you can reference when you're querying editors. Whether you're trying to pitch an article idea to them or you're trying to sell them on your finished manuscript, editors like knowing that they're going to bet on someone with a track record. They want to know that they're working with a professional and have some reassurance (however small) that the writer can deliver what they're promising.

Wow, this post has gone on for quite a while. In case you haven't been able to tell, I've been spending a lot of time lately learning about the business side of writing. I'm still doing a lot of actual writing, of course, but that's really only half of the job here. I wouldn't be surprised if I found myself writing more articles on this subject in the future. For the time being, however, I'm not going to make any promises.

No comments:

Post a Comment