We deal in words all the time, but some words don’t always mean the same thing to everyone. In particular, many of the words associated with the business of writing books mean different things to different people.
Take cozy, for example, the term often used to describe mysteries featuring amateur detectives, mostly female and usually doing their sleuthing in small towns where the protagonist has a close-knit circle of friends and a remarkably large pool of potential villains to choose from.
I always say I write cozies, both as Kaitlyn Dunnett and when I’m writing historical mysteries as Kathy Lynn Emerson. I don’t see anything wrong with the term myself. But some folks who prefer their crime stories darker have for years made derisive remarks about the cozy. I agree that some are too fluffy even for my taste, and personally I could live without recipes or craft patterns, but overall the term cozy no more designates only one narrowly defined type of story than the term noir does. They’re guidelines to tell the reader something, but not everything, about the general content of a given novel.
Faced with all that negativity about the term cozy, many of those who once used the term now prefer the word traditional, defining a traditional novel as the sort Agatha Christie wrote, as opposed to, say, Raymond Chandler. If you look at the novels that have won the Agatha award, however, you’ll see that traditional takes in a wide variety of story lines.
Another word people quibble about is writer. I know. You’d think that one would be pretty self-explanatory. But no. There’s the whole writer/author debate. Some think that only an author writes published books. I don’t agree. For one thing, auth is not a verb. To me, a famous author is as likely to be a movie star who hired a ghost writer to write a book for him as he (or she) is to be a novelist, biographer, or true-crime writer. Note the prevalence of the word writer there.
True, anyone who writes more than an occasional letter or term paper can call him or herself a writer. It’s helpful to clarify. A published writer has something he’s written in print (or, these days, available digitally) but hasn’t necessarily been paid for his writing. A professional writer has been paid for his writing. The amount doesn’t matter. If you have sold something you’ve written and received money in return, you are and will forever be a pro. A working writer earns some or all of his regular income from writing. A successful writer actually makes a living at it. The amount it takes to be successful varies by where you live and your lifestyle. The equivalent of what you would earn at a “real” job is a good ballpark figure.
Please note that I don’t define success as a writer in terms of number of fans on Facebook, rating or number of customer reviews on Amazon, appearance on a bestseller or “best of (year)” list, or by award nominations or wins. Some writers do. For some the goal of writing is not just to be published but to make the New York Times list. I have to admit that there are times when I wish I could answer the question I sometimes get at signings (Have I heard of you?) with a confident “yes,” but in general I’m happy to be able to make a living writing books I’d enjoy reading if someone else had written them.
Sometimes, in connection with a professional writer’s writing life, the term professional comes up in another sense. It seems not every writer is as “professional” as they could be about meeting deadlines and honoring commitments. This came as a shock to me the first time someone (my agent, actually), complimented me on being so professional. I was brought up to follow through on obligations. I can’t imagine doing things any other way. On the other hand, there are some things traditionally published writers are now expected to do by their publishers as part of the package that were never included in the deal in the past. I have politely but firmly refused to be bullied into Facebook, Twitter and the rest. I blog because I enjoy it. I keep my webpages up to date for the same reason. And I write because that’s what writers do. In fact, the best definition I know of for a writer is someone who can’t not write. Publication. Income. Success. Even fame. Those are excellent side benefits, but the real joy comes from the act of creation.
One last thought: there is actually a better name than either writer or author for a person who crafts novels, short fiction, or works of nonfiction. It’s wordsmith.