Monday, 30 May 2011

Amateur or Professional?

I went to an art exhibition at the weekend, the annual 'show of work' of a local art club a friend of mine belongs to.  It was....interesting.  Not because the work was dreadful - because it wasn't, it was uniformly competent - but because none of it was good enough to be in a commercial art gallery.  

I see a lot of writing that is competent.  It does what it intends to.  It tells a story, it gets characters from A to B, and yet it just isn't good enough for publication.  (In my opinion, of course, and all this comes with a great caveat that comment on art or writing subjective and open to challenge.)  The trouble is, you could be in the top 1% - ie the best out of 100 writers you know - and still not be good enough.  I expect you have to be in the top 1,000, or even the top 10,000 to get published. 

I was talking to a poet friend who said that people never understood how she could tell immediately whether a poem was good or bad.  'I've been writing and reading and teaching poetry for twenty years,' she said.  'I can tell, just like that.'

I know what she means.  Experience makes such a difference, which is why your friend saying they really like your work doesn't mean very much (unless they're actively involved in looking at new writing). I've seen a lot of student work over the past twelve years that I've been teaching, yet I expect I've seen less than an agent sees in a year, or even six months. Just imagine how acute their eye must be, how sharply they read, how quickly they judge if it's worth a further look or not.*

If you want to be a professional writer - ie you want someone to give you money for your work - then you have to be professional about it.  If you don't want to be a professional writer - and there's no reason why you should, the best reason for writing is for the sheer pleasure of it - then you can do what you like.  But don't confuse the two.  Competent isn't good enough.

*That's not to say they don't get it glaringly wrong sometimes.  Like the agent who told me I was wasting my time about a book that went on to be a bestseller in 14 countries....   

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