The Beta Read Saga #2: Am I A Real Writer?

Am I a “real writer?” That’s a pretty important question since I included a full chapter on that topic in my manuscript (or maybe 2 or 3 chapters–I can sometimes be a bit repetitive, according to my beta readers. Even though I have spent copious amounts of time in the manuscript warning other writers about this, it seems I do need to take my own advice. Which is actually pretty good advice, don’t you think?).

Anyway, back to my topic. See, the thing is, I have two pet peeves related to this question! And I’ve realized they figure into why I wrote my WIP (that’s “work in progress” in case you’re wondering. Some of my beta readers have pointed out I need to define my writing and editing jargon–or write more simply).

Now I’m not so sure that pet peeves are the greatest reason to write a book. Might be they’ll turn the manuscript into more of a rant. And/or cause me forget my purpose for the book and end up following Alice down the rabbit-hole … and we all know what that leads to. (Which reminds me. A couple of beta readers have suggested that some of my references are obscure or old-fashioned. Oh, come on, everyone knows about Alice and her rabbit hole, the Pevensie kids and their closet, Harry and his train station door… Good references, right? Or not?)

But maybe those readers do have a point. I do seem to be rabbit-holing (and better to do that with writing about pet peeves than other more psychedelic means, right?) Yes, I know: Focus on those pet peeves. Stay on track, girl. Here we go …

Pet Peeve #1: Real Writers Write Fiction

Did you ever notice that an awful lot of books about writing, as well as writers’ groups, writers’ conferences, workshops on writing, writing courses, and so on assume that “real writing” equals fiction writing? Fiction novel writing, to be precise (although sometimes short stories are considered acceptable if you can’t manage a real book-length story).

I mean seriously … What about the gazillions of written materials that aren’t fiction? Not just the nonfiction categories like self-help, reference materials, how-tos, and academic tomes, and memoir and other creative nonfiction (plus the perennial nonfiction favourite, cookbooks. I had to mention them since I once wrote one that has sold quite well, thank you, in three editions. But again I digress…).

Then there is poetry, dramatic scripts (plays, TV, movies), anthologies of this and that, freelance writing for periodicals, newspaper columns, blogs and website writing, journalism, writing for broadcasts (radio, TV, podcasts), curriculum writing, courses … and let’s not forget the fun stuff like video game writing, graphic novels, comics. You get the idea.

But the fact is, there seems to be this widespread assumption that a “real writer” writes narrative fiction, ideally long-form. I’ve experienced writing groups that constantly talk about how they wish new writers would join. But as soon as writers come along who aren’t story writers, they tend to be ignored or at least get the distinct feeling they’re somehow second-class writers. Likewise, I’ve gone to writing conferences where dozens of workshops on writing are offered, and maybe 90 to 95 percent focus on fictional story writing.

Don’t get me wrong, I love reading novels. I enjoy editing them, too. I have taught fiction writing skills as a schoolteacher and a tutor. But when you consider that other kinds of writing have a larger audience than most novels (and yes, frequently make better money), as well as often having a much longer shelf-life, it makes me pretty annoyed when there’s this huge emphasis that “real writers write fiction.” Okay, enough ranting on that topic.

Now how this relates to my WIP: This isn’t about my beta readers. I have a wonderful variety of beta readers. And I value them all because they come from many different writing backgrounds and perspectives. Which is awesome. It’s not their fault they have to point out that my fiction writing has some serious flaws. I admit this freely: I simply don’t have amazing characters running around in my head, leading me off on wonderful adventures. I don’t have the imagination necessary for inventing lengthy tales, although I’m told I have pretty humorous oral story-telling skills (with an emphasis on “very creative nonfiction,” I confess), and can churn out some entertaining short stories when I’m in the mood.

But composing a novel-length story is not my kettle of fish (Oh, for Pete’s sake! Did I just use a worn out cliche and possibly mix a metaphor? Oops! Sorry! Okay, that will be a topic for another blog post.) But I’ve heard many writers (no, not my beta readers) insist, or at least strongly imply, that I need to write a novel to be a real writer, and I guess—silly me—that I hoped weaving a story through a non-fiction tome might do the job (since the novelized part would really be a novella in length, and I might be able to handle that?). Then maybe people would love the book because the novelized part would be “real writing.” Huh.

Maybe not so much. It appears from the kindly-worded comments of almost all my readers, no matter their writing background, that I am probably not a novelist. And they are right. I’m not. But I still believe I’m a writer. And I believe my other writing is just as valuable as novel writing (and hopefully entertaining sometimes, too). Let me declare it: Real writers don’t just write fiction—or may not write fiction at all! So there!

Pet Peeve #2: Real Writers Write Books

It also seems that you aren’t a “real writer” until you’ve written a BOOK! To be honest, I’ve never truly desired to write a book. Okay, other than the cookbook, maybe. Plus numerous chapbooks (those, my dear beta readers, are small paperback booklets or pamphlets containing tales, poetry or even nonfiction—does that help?), and entries in anthologies, etc., but those don’t count as “real books,” do they? Honestly, though, I have felt quite pressured sometimes to “prove my writer’s creds” by producing a book. I’ve even been asked occasionally, “How can you edit other people’s books when you haven’t written one yourself?”

Just the fact of having read gazillions of books (going back to my childhood, when I read well over a hundred novels in one year as my personal “Canada Centennial Project”), taking writing courses at the university level, teaching English, tutoring writing skills, leading workshops, blogging, and working in both print and broadcast journalism (go, CBC!), apparently doesn’t quite cut it. No book—therefore not a real writer (especially no novel, though if necessary, any kind of book-length book might do). Yes, I know I’m ranting again.

How does this relate to my WIP? Once again, it’s mostly my own problem—not at all a reflection on my awesome beta readers. I shouldn’t be so thin-skinned about my writing. (You writers out there aren’t thin-skinned, are you? Really? It’s not just me? Whew!). I shouldn’t feel like I’m second-rate just because I don’t have a “real book” to carry around in my car’s trunk and sell from the back of the room at workshops or in the bookshop at writers’ conferences. Right?

Fact is, I do seem to have bought into the whole “real writers write books” thing. But it doesn’t seem to have worked out very well. Okay, yes, my beta readers—wonderful folks that they are, bless their souls—have found lots of worthwhile aspects in my WIP. But I realize, as I look at their kindly-worded critiques, that my desperation to be “a real writer” may be at the root of a lot of the issues they’ve pointed out I need to work on.

So what, you ask?

Well, I’m not necessarily about to chuck the whole thing out. That would be silly. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. Truly. But I’m seriously considering a variety of different approaches to using that material—and my beta readers have been giving me some excellent ideas that have got me excited to carry on with this project.

It just might not end up being “the book” I envisioned. And as for that fiction/novelization part? Hmmm. Well, we’ll see. Keep tuned.

Why not check out the entire series of my Beta Read Saga? Here are the links:

11 thoughts on “The Beta Read Saga #2: Am I A Real Writer?

  1. Faye Arcand says:

    Norma! This is such an awesome post. Your voice is so authentic here and I love it. The little sassy quips…
    .”Oh, for Pete’s sake! Did I just use a worn out cliche and possibly mix a metaphor? Oops! Sorry!”
    …show so much of your personality.
    You’re fired up and I love it.
    As one who writes a bit of everything it’s not easy to find a niche. I’m good with that. What’s important to always remember is that there isn’t another Norma so no one else can write like YOU. That’s what makes every writer special. You’re a great writer–and you’re a REAL writer. Never doubt it.
    …but I will add that I often feel a similar tinge of doubt when I read literary fiction…That’s the one thing I don’t write and have to stay away from.
    Go forth and conquer. Keep up the great work.


  2. Julie H. Ferguson says:

    At writers’ conferences, workshops, etc., nonfiction writers are often an afterthought. We make up less than twenty percent of attendees, hence the disparity. And it’s odd, given that nonfiction books have long legs and many sell for years, while novels have a short shelf life, except for a very, very small minority. Keep going!!


  3. Faye Arcand says:

    Norma. I just posted a blog of being a fraud. Funny that our thinking was so similar on the same day. I put a link in back to your blog for a further perspective. Just wanted to let you know.


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