The other day during lunch with friends, the conversation turned to books and writing, editing and publication. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series came up, specifically how the quality of her writing changed after she requested that the publisher stop editing her books. The change, as one friend described it, was not a positive one, but that Rowling had become too verbose for her own good. I found that interesting. Not that her writing became bloated but that she could tell her publisher that she no longer wanted to be edited. The conversation moved on to other topics, but my mind still batted that story around like a cat playing with a half-dead mouse.
First of all, I suspect Rowling’s writing is not so awful that it would miss editing, but I’d have thought she’d want the writing to be the best it could be. I wondered why she no longer wanted to be edited. Then I wondered, what did publication mean to her? Was it to share the stories? Was it to make money so she could get off the dole? Was it for self-gratification? Was it to say she was a successful writer? I doubt there’s anyone in the world today who’d say she wasn’t successful as a writer. She’s published. She’s made billions. She really wouldn’t have to write another word or do anything else for that matter. Will she continue to write and stretch her abilities as a writer? Is success only about publication and making money for a writer?
For me, publication is a measure of success, but isn’t the only one. There’s what comes before, and what comes after to consider. For the reading public, publication is the first step of success, becoming a blockbuster and making lots and lots of money seals it. As a writer, though, success is cumulative. When I’m working on a first draft, each 1000 words I finish writing in a day is a success, each finished chapter a success, each finished draft a success. When I’m ready to begin marketing, then each query sent out is a success, each agent requesting the manuscript a success, and landing representation a success. The same “steps of success” apply to the search for a publisher. So publication is one step in the long stairway to writing heaven. Writers dance up and down that stairway all the time.
Does publication make me a writer? To the general reading public who aren’t writers, yes. That is the general perception, I think. And after the first publication, a writer is a writer forever. Especially if the books do well! (smile) But if they don’t, then a writer becomes a “used to be” a writer, like I used to be a musician. I still listen to music, but I no longer play any instrument or participate in a performing group. Back to writing, what about all that time the writer actually spends writing, even long before publication? Doesn’t that make him or her a writer? Even more so than publication. The person is writing. All the work that goes into writing — reading, research, coming up with ideas, characters, settings, a narrative structure, and an ending, and putting the right words down on paper, then revising, revising, revising — this is writing and makes a writer. The commitment to the work, the dedication, the practice of writing, the creation.
What does publication mean? At times, it means writing stops in favor of all the work of promotion. But it shouldn’t mean the end of writing, the end of good ideas, of imagination. For me, publication is a beginning: the beginning of the public life of the novel. It is sharing stories among us. And it doesn’t end there. For real writers, it is the end of one era, the era of that particular story, and time to sit and stare. Flannery O’Connor wrote in one of her essays: “There is a certain grain of stupidity the writer can hardly do without, and that is the quality of having to stare.” When writers stare out a window or across the room, they are open and receptive to what their imaginations will give them, and they wait for it. Staring….