Words matter. That’s one lesson you learn after spending three weeks deciding if it’s ‘that’ or ‘this’ in a sentence. That kind of fluency is, I think, largely instinctive. I’m not sure you can really teach someone how to hear what makes a sentence sound right and what strikes a discordant note. You can study the techniques, but if you’re tone-deaf to the rhythm of good writing, I don’t know if you can learn it. Words matter, and you have to be able to sing them in harmony.
So what I’ve been pondering of late is when you can call yourself a writer. It’s come up a few times already – tax return, hotel check-ins, meeting new people – and I’ve wondered when I’m entitled to use the word. I certainly am writing full-time and making my living that way. On the other hand, many commercially published writers still have day jobs, either through choice of necessity. And my book isn’t out yet, and won’t be for eight months. Most people can’t understand why it takes so long. Are you a writer before you can hold a book in your hand and say, look, I wrote this?
And of course this is a very novel-centric view. I only ever wanted to be a novelist. I can’t write short stories, I suck at them. I haven’t written poetry since I was seven and a girl in primary school passed off my elephant limerick as her own (my first, and biting, experience of plagiarism. Next time I’m copyrighting that damn elephant poem). Yet there are probably hundreds of short-story writers out there who write, win competitions, and have been published for years. Whereas I am still, technically, unpublished. Being a short story writer doesn’t seem much fun – it’s all about novels, as far as I can see. Waving a magazine with the story in and saying, look, I wrote that, doesn’t seem to have the same impact. Or am I wrong?
And what about all the unpublished/uncontracted writers? The ones who have agents but haven’t sold the book yet? The ones who’ve got an agent looking at it but aren’t signed up yet? The ones who are still working on the book, or too afraid to send it out, or letting it rest? Publishing is such a slow and stately process that people can be at all kinds of odd stages. Published overseas but not in the UK, for example. Self-published but selling well. Published with small companies. Published online only. There’s a very clear hierarchy, a ladder to climb. But as the saying goes, you have to be on the ladder to go up. And actually finishing your book and working hard to improve it is a massive leg-up. I think if you’re doing that, if you’re actually writing, then you are a writer.
I’m in a strange kind of writers’ limbo at the moment (not dancing under a pole; that would be a whole other matter indeed, that could spice up writing conferences no end). When I meet writers I’m introducing myself and going, ‘Hi I’m Claire, I-have-a-book-coming-out-next-year’. In other words, I’m one of you. Be my friend! Often, people look at me a bit suspiciously and ask who my publisher is. When I say Headline they visibly relax, smile, or (as on one occasion) mock-throttle me. I think this means it’s a good answer, and I can only look forward to being able to whip out the published artefact as a badge of belonging.