When do you know you're an author?

by Donna Alward

I started to think about this a lot when someone posed the question on their E-harlequin.com blog.  When do you know you’re an author? 

Webster’s dictionary defines an author as a “writer of a literary work (as a book).”  According to this definition, one needn’t sell that work to be considered an author.  You only have to write it.  There you go…validation straight from Mr. Webster himself. 

I also looked up the definition for writer and discovered that a writer is “one who writes esp. as an occupation”. 

The difference between author and writer seems to be the almighty dollar, but those of us in the trenches know that it’s not nearly as simple as all that. 

When did you first realize you were an author?  Was it the moment you first sat down to write?  When you finished your first manuscript or story?  Was it the first time you submitted your work to a publisher, or that first rejection?  Was it when you signed your first contract, or maybe your tenth sale?  Eightieth?  Was it when you made your first dollar?  It is different for everyone, so I enlisted the help of a few friends to share their experiences. 

Kate Austin, Harlequin NeXT author, said “I knew I was an author when I put WRITER in the space on my passport where they asked for occupation.”  When you’re a writer in the eyes of the tax man, I guess that’s pretty good validation!   

“I knew I was an author the moment I held my very first book in my hands.  Seeing my name on the cover was the biggest buzz!” says Nicola Marsh, Romance and Presents Extra author.      

But when can you stop being an employee and be a full-time writer, and do you even want to? 

Jill Sorenson (Silhouette Romantic Suspense, Dell) said“As a stay-at-home mom, I had the opportunity to follow my dream.  I was willing to make financial sacrifices to stay home with the kids, so why not make sacrifices for writing?” 

I worked for several years and then had my children and, like Jill, became a stay-at-home mom.  Jill’s right…we’d already made the sacrifice to be a one-income family, so our finances didn’t change at all.  But what about those who do have jobs? 

I was working part time when I sold my first book, and for the last few months of the school year I felt pulled in too many directions.  Suddenly I had deadlines and new books to write, and there was nothing I wanted more than to be able to stay home and write full time.   

But some people thrive on the contact that an outside job provides: Rachel Caine (Bombshell) says that she likes the stability and socialization of employment, and while she’s currently writing full time, is seriously  considering going back to work at least part time. 

Writing for a living is more than a job, though.  When does your writing move from being something you do to being a part of who you are?   

I’ve always written.  I remember being in elementary school and needing a poem to go with a class project, and everyone just turning around and looking at me, expecting me to write it.  I also remember whiling away hours in high school, pouring out my soul in poetry and taking Creative Writing as part of my English degree.  Did I feel like an author?  Nope.  But the day I finished my first complete manuscript, and my husband surprised me with a new watch, it hit home – this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.  Jacqueline Diamond (Harlequin American) claims she always knew she was a writer… “In college, for one of those typical sociology assignments, another student asked two questions: Who are you? and What are you? To both, I answered; A writer.” 

There’s a big difference between knowing it in your heart and sharing it with the world.  It can take a long time to get to a point where you feel confident enough to come out of the authorial closet.  There is no right time…only you know when it is.   

What is it we fear?  The reaction?  Sometimes we aren’t comfortable saying it out loud.  There will be questions.  When someone asks, “What do you do?” and you respond “I’m an author”, frequently the next question will be, “Are you published?” or “What have you published?”  To admit that you haven’t been published can sometimes make you feel like af raud.  How dare you call yourself an author, when you don’t even have any books out!

Or perhaps you have a day job and you’re doing that andwriting.  Do you say, “I’m a teacher and a writer”?  Do you mention the writing at all? 

I had a really hard time with this one.  For some reason it felt so presumptuous of me to call myself an author, especially during the five years it took for me to get published.  And even after I signed my first contract, and had a title and release date, I still kept that part a little bit quiet among the general population.  Like no one would believe me.  Or maybe that they’d pat me on the head and say, “That’s nice dear.” 

Part of that has been bound up in being a newbie, especially when daily I’m cyber-surrounded by other authors who have a backlist as long as my arm.  Fiona Lowe, Harlequin Medicals author, told me:  “I was giving a talk at a conference about conflict and I realized that I must really understand it as I could answer all the participant's questions. It really surprised me and I remember thinking, “Hey, maybe I do know something after all.” 

I’ll also admit I’m getting more at ease with it as time goes on.  With every new book contracted, with a growing backlist, somehow I feel more comfortable saying this is my job.  With more titles under your belt, feeling legitimate comes a little bit easier. But it probably won’t happen overnight.  “As far as truly feeling like a legitimate professional, I'd have to say that it took at least ten years of steady publication.  Even then, I often feel like it's a dream that could end at any time.”  (Rachel Caine. Bombshell) 

The truth of the matter is, you’re an author when YOU decide, even if the world doesn’t see it or acknowledge it yet.  I know I worked very hard before publication--I took it seriously.  I wrote and got rejected, and wrote some more and got rejected some more…but I can say with absolute certainty that even if I hadn’t made that first sale, I’d still be writing, and submitting. 2008 RITA finalist Samantha Hunter concurs.  “Authors don't just write with no endpoint, they finish books, submit them, get rejected or accepted, and write some more.” 

That says it so much better than Mr. Webster, don’t you think?


Donna Alward is a Canadian author for Harlequin Romance and belongs to the Calgary chapter of RWA (CaRWA).  You can visit her website at www.donnaalward.com.

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