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By Scott Nicholson

Writing is a lonely enterprise. The benefit is that you can sit at the keyboard in dirty sweat pants, or even in the nude, and your readers will never know the difference. The down side is that you are often a tiny bobbing boat on a rough sea. The temptation is to scan the horizon for signs of land, or at least another boat.

These days there are endless communal possibilities for writers, thanks to the Internet and the writing industry. The Internet gives you access to Stephen King and Publishers Weekly, more writing information than you could read in a lifetime, countless author sites such as this one, and plenty of new ways to get published or buy reading material. Of course, the free reading material is so plentiful, even if sometimes barely literate, that you never have to spend another penny on a book or magazine.

The "writing industry" is the healthiest aspect of the publishing world, built largely on the dreams and aspirations of people who would rather feel like a writer than be a writer. That industry includes how-to books, writing-related magazines, expensive workshops and conferences, fee-charging agents, book doctors, vanity presses, nifty storytelling software, writing competitions with entry fees, dues-driven writing organizations, and even the local critique group where participants pass the hat to pay for the coffee. If you have the money, there is no limit to surrounding yourself with all the authorly trappings. But to borrow from a famous book, what does it profit you if you gain the whole world but lose your literary soul?

I don't wholly condemn that industry (except fee-charging agents) because I participate in it sometimes by selling writing articles, joining organizations, or hosting workshops. But none of those things can do the work for you. Some of those offerings can damage or mislead you but they can't destroy you. Professional advice too often has worked only once, and for the specific individual giving the advice, and can never work for anyone else. A conference or workshop can help you a little, though the value may not be worth the cost. In writing, you don't have to "pay to play."

Speaking as a member of the self-billed professional writing organizations HWA and MWA, I can say that the benefits are pretty much what you seek out for yourself. To me, that means databases and information, not the community, though there is some fun in that. One problem is that the organizations don't have the power of a union (for instance, I seriously doubt even a third of MWA's members would decide to strike and boycott the major publishers if some new emerging contract clause was wholly intolerable). They can issue "positions," certainly, or make minor influences on publishing practices. They expend a lot of energy on giving themselves awards and on the eternal fine-tuning of bylaws.

Many professionals see little need to be in the organizations, yet others consider membership an honor. The membership standards are arbitrary. Is someone who has managed to publish 3 pro stories (the general definition of a "professional" for voting membership privileges) in 10 years really a professional in any valid sense of the word? Is that writer any more "professional" than a new but uncredentialed writer who is working hard every day and researching the business end? As a writer, are you better off investing your dues money in promotion?

If you look at the two rosters, maybe 10 percent of all members are actually making a living in the fields. A bunch of new members come in every year but either lose interest, may actually be fans at heart, or figure out the organization is not essential for a writing career. Turnover is pretty high among new members, and both of those orgs raised dues $10-$15 this year. Sure, you want a lot of members so you can do things with the money, but you also want the name to mean something, so there's a delicate balance. You're not a "professional" just because you have some spare change lying around.

You can pay a vanity publisher to print your book, but then you have a closetful of books unless you hustle them on your own, which is another serious job in itself. You can hire a professional editing service, some of which charge in four figures, but it is not going to turn sow's ears into silk purses, nor even into whole-hog sausage. If a book doctor has the secret for converting your manuscript into a bestseller, the obvious question is why isn't the book doctor already writing those bestsellers? You can pay upfront to have an "agent" but all you're really buying is the dubious ability to brag to other writers that you have an agent. You can impress your postal carrier by subscribing to 20 writing magazines and you can have vapid inspirational manuals like "Bird By Bird" on your shelf, but you've done little more than contribute to the killing of trees if you aren't practicing the tenets of your expensive sermons.

But it's true of writing in general that far more people want to think of themselves as "writers" rather than endure the hard grind of trying to make it, with a lifetime dedicated to improvement and overcoming long odds. Writer's Digest has a circulation of 180,000. It is hard to imagine so many people sitting at the keyboard in isolation, challenging themselves in a world that often doesn't care and an arena that is far too crowded. For many, it's easier to simply pay for workshops, join clubs, hang out on message boards, and buy books about writing. Nothing wrong with that, certainly, because satisfaction is hard to find no matter your desires.

A "writer's organization" is the ultimate oxymoron anyway, because you really do have to carve your own path. Membership will always be a personal choice, not a professional necessity. Organizations, workshops, critique groups, etc. can't prevent you from getting published nor help you get published if you aren't making the commitment to the craft. You can buy books by several agents called "How To Write A Bestseller," follow the formula, then get rejected by those very same agents because your book is formulaic. The hippest advice means nothing if you can't focus it through the lens of your own experience and then onto the blank page. Over and over again, yet differently each time.

The bad news is, as with heaven, you can't buy your way through the gates of writing success. But who would want to enter such a place if all it took was money?

(Copyright 2003. Contact Scott for reprint permission)

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