Lately I’ve stumbled across a number of articles, like this one and this one, about the perils of self-publishing. To be fair, because I do always try to be fair even when I don’t want to be, many of the articles point out valid problems and their writers, in theory, explain why it’s not the path they would choose. In theory. In practice, they present a narrow and one-sided view of the practice, focusing on the worst stereotypes of self-published authors as lazy hacks who clog social media with constant promotion.
I could write my own article about why no one should ever take the traditional publishing route. I might make points like this:
You have to spend a disproportionate amount of energy on pitching and querying. Writers do what they do because of a drive to tell stories, and part of telling stories is sharing them with others. If you go trad, you can forget being able to do that. Someone else gets to decide whether or not your story is worth sharing. Often more than one person, because if you’re lucky enough to sign with an agent, you still haven’t got a book contract. It takes a special skill set to be able to hook and agent and/or editor, and it’s not one most storytellers are born with. You have to learn it. Despite helpful Internet resources, most of the learning is through trial and error. Meanwhile, the story you wanted to share isn’t being shared, and any new ones get placed on the back burner. Traditional publishing actively prevents you from doing what you set out to do in the first place.
Being published traditionally can make you a condescending ass. Sure, there are nice traditional authors out there, ones who are open and accessible, and willing to help a person starting out. There’s also a lot of jerks who think they got where they are on merit rather than the serendipity of having the right manuscript at the right time combined with class, racial, and appearance advantages that make them easily marketable. These guys strut around like they’re the gods’ gift to literature and give condescending “advice” like, “Keep plugging away and you’ll get where I am some day.” Do you really want to risk being one of them?
Gatekeepers are subject to societal prejudice. You know 89% of books published are by white, cis, male authors, right? If you’re a woman and/or person of color, or another marginalized identity, your chances of “success” in a traditional climate plummet. Even if your book gets picked up, you’re apt to hear your character “isn’t relatable” and asked to make changes. Traditional publishing is giving lip service to diversity right now, but the industry hasn’t taken a great many strides. Why fight that fight?
I did my apprenticeship. Can people in traditional publishing please do theirs? I’m 53. I’ve been writing since I was 7, and I wrote my first novel at 12. Yes, it was an achievement for a child, and yes, it was derivative and the language was less than elegant. I’ve improved since then. I’ve been an avid reader since before I started writing, and I’m fully capable of learning from what I read. I understand pacing and dialogue and how to use words. I go over my work relentlessly, making it the best it can be. On the other hand, I don’t know about some editors. I’ve read traditionally published books with hundreds of pages of purposeless exposition stuck in the middle of a story, and ones with so many typos and grammatical flaws I wonder how it got printed. One series I like very much used the word “yolk” instead of “yoke” for three volumes, leading to phrases like “the yolk of slavery.” Really, I don’t have it to trust an industry person half my age, with little or none of my experience, to direct me how best to tell my stories.
See, I could write this post. I could refute every single point anyone has ever made about self publishing. But I’m not going to. I know that not every path works for everyone, and even our definitions of “what works” differ. Traditional publishing is a valid path. Self publishing is a valid path. Some people earn vast amounts of money in each. Most don’t and never will. Except in the case of a few, writing is not a calling that leads to riches (though hope springs eternal, and all that).
Inevitably, these articles about why not to self publish are written by people who have been traditionally published, who seem to have a limited understanding of why people choose one route over another. Often they strike me as “protesting too much,” of dismissing self publishing not because of its real flaws, but because the writers have doubts or questions about the path they’ve chosen. Have your doubts; that’s fine. Please stop thrusting them on those of us who have chosen differently. Thanks.
If you follow me on social media, you already know I participated in #NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. I swear I thought I had written a blog about my decision to do this, but I looks like I didn’t. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo (or just “NaNo”) stands for “National Novel Writing Month.” It’s an event that falls every November, not just in the US but around the world, in which participants set a goal to write 50,000 words over the course of the month (50K being the minimum length for a book qualifying as a novel). People don’t always stick to the novel idea. Some write essays, or poetry, or short stories–whatever takes their fancy. The only stipulation for “winning” is that one write 50K words of whatever.
I hit 50K last Friday. For me, this word count doesn’t represent a finished novel. At the moment, it looks like this is going to be a shorter work, more along the lines of She Moved Through the Fair than A Maid in Bedlam. So I have maybe 30K more to write to round out the plot. But okay: I did it.
As I said, I’ve never participated before. I don’t think the reasons for this are important. I went back and forth about participating this year, and eventually elected to do it because my writing process needed a boost. I’d spent over a year muddling around with book 7 of the Caitlin Ross series, tossing plot after unworkable plot. All of them stalled out at about 25K; I got bored, or the book didn’t move, or some weird shit took control that detracted from the story. I think it’s possible that any of those stories could have been made to work with time and effort, and I’ve kept a lot of my notes. But I’m not good at making progress when I feel like I’m dragging a ton of bullshit behind me. Even though my brain said, “Just get through it and fix it in edits,” and even though a couple times I asked for outside (meaning not my husband) opinions and heard “It’s fine!” I couldn’t follow through. I kept going back to the beginning, over and over again, fiddling with the opening chapters and trying to pull them into some kind of shape that excited me. After doing this a number of times, I got lazy. I hate using that word–it has triggering connotations for me–but it applies. I used any excuse at all NOT to write: “Oh, I’m just not in the space,” or “I kind of don’t feel well,” or “I have to wash my hair.” And while I’d like to emphasize that ANY of these is a valid reason not to write and no creative person is obligated to be creative at any time, I recognized that, for me in this situation, they weren’t doing me any favors.
So I started over with NaNo, and I got through. The last few weeks of October I took some time to noodle around and rediscover my protagonist’s voice, which I’d lost. I found a plot I felt more passionate about (“more” being the key word here; my ability to feel passion for anything remains lower than I’d like). I wrote every day, even when I had a minor headache, even if it wasn’t any more than a couple hundred words. I passed the 25K disaster mark and went on. I relearned how to let the story unfold and how to keep out of my characters’ way. I stifled the urges to prove my worthiness through promoting a political agenda and write a bunch of tripe that served little purpose but to show I’d done my research on things I haven’t personally experienced.
What kept me going more than anything was the event website (and I hope next year, if I participate again, they have an app, because really). In the same way Weight Watchers has hooked me in the past with its charts and tracking widgets, NaNo hooked me with the ability to earn badges and chart my progress. I liked updating my word count every day. I liked posting my running totals to the Twitter hashtag. I have a more competitive nature than I like to own, and the website helped me compete with myself and push past all the little foibles that I’ve allowed to stand in my way.
I didn’t feel a lot of community support, but I think that’s mostly about the way I work. I didn’t participate in any events or frequent the forums. Trying to write in public, like at a write-in, distracts me. And when I’m working a plot, I prefer just to focus on it.
Before I started, I heard a lot about “You’ll feel so great when you hit your goal!” and “The sense of accomplishment is worth it!” I don’t feel either of those things. Some of that is because I simply don’t feel a huge amount of excitement or accomplishment about anything. When I do something, even something others think is amazing, at best I feel, “Okay, I did that.” It doesn’t seem any great cause for celebration. (And yes, this is something I’m trying to address in therapy.)
Right now, what I feel is tired. I worked on my new book every day for a month. I have a fair way to go. I’m not really looking forward to it. A few days ago, I saw a post to the Twitter tag that said (in essence), “The lesson of NaNo is not just that you can write every day one month out of the year, but that you can do it ALL THE TIME!” Um, yeah, for me not so much. As I said above, NO creative person has an obligation to be creative every day–in fact, I think the idea that we must create every day in order to justify our creative identities is harmful. I did learn that I can do more than I usually assume. And I also acknowledge that doing so takes a lot out of me and I need time to recover.
Was participating worth it? hard for me to judge, but on the whole I’d say yes. I’m closer to finishing an actual book than I’ve been in over a year. I need a day or two off, I think, but I’ll get there. Will I participate again? No idea. Depends on what’s happening this time next year.
A little over a year ago, I released the sixth book in the Caitlin Ross series, Demon Lover. As you might know if you interact with me on any kind of social media, I’ve been trying to write book seven ever since. It’s not going at all well.
I had an idea for what came after Demon Lover. Six chapters into it, I realized it wasn’t working. I got another idea that interested me more. I tried that idea. Couldn’t make it work. Went back and tried it another way. And another. STILL couldn’t make it work. Tried another idea, which ALSO didn’t work, and another, and another. Every time, I got 200-odd pages into it and didn’t feel right about it. Nothing worked.
I got another idea. This time, I thought I really had it! But it got harder and harder, and yesterday, after only 100-odd pages this time, I took a good, hard look at it. I realized a couple of things about it, the main one being I didn’t have a believable conflict. I had a bunch of semi-interesting events, but they didn’t build or lead anywhere. My antagonist wasn’t doing anything evil enough, or even problematic enough, for my characters to get involved. So I lost interest.
I think this has been the problem all along. Michael says I’m usually good at conflict (which astounded me, because I feel like I’m terrible at it). But I’ll tell you, when you have a world view as out of the ordinary as mine, it’s hard to get riled up about any of the major ones. Murder, okay, I can do that. I’ve done human trafficking and involuntary possession and breaking magical rules in a way that has disastrous consequences. But drug dealing? I don’t think drugs should be criminalized at all, so I can’t get into a lather about it. Breaking THE LAW? I’d have to look at circumstances. I can’t even bring to mind other kinds of BAD THINGS.
A helpful–I mean this non-ironically–person on Twitter just suggested “Give the character a goal and stick an obstacle between him and the goal.” This is great advice. I can’t come up with a goal for any of my characters, either. What do Caitlin and Timber want right now? Since they had a baby in the last book, I expect what they want is to settle down and live a relatively normal life for a bit while they adjust to being parents. This is not the stuff of epic storytelling. In one way, literally anything I came up with that interfered with their lives would be a conflict. In another, it still has to be believable that they’d give two shits about it. And I’ve already established that a happening has to be pretty big for them to get involved. Or have personal significance. Preferably both. But I feel I’ve tapped out the personal significance vein. I’ve got three more things I plan to do in the series arc, as far as that goes. I don’t think any of them happen yet. So I’m stuck.
Part of the problem is Timber (male protagonist, for those of you unfamiliar with the series). He went through some traumatic shit in the last book. Truth be told, he goes through a LOT of intense shit. Sure, he’s a hero, but that kind of shit leaves a mark. I don’t think I’ve given enough attention to the affect it may have had on him. I don’t WANT to. But it keeps coming up, even when I don’t intend it to. I don’t want to spend another book dealing with Timber’s trauma; that was the whole plot of book 3, and I can only play that so much. In order to skip it, though, I have to advance the series timeline about a year and a half. This is something I intended to do anyway, AFTER book 7. I’ve been giving Caitlin and Timber two adventures a year, or thereabouts. The result is, the series timeline lags six years behind real life time at this point. I don’t like this because it becomes increasingly difficult to work with as certain issues of the historical past become more and more irrelevant and difficult to keep track of. I want to catch up to real time better, so the series doesn’t become unbearably dated.
So one question on my mind is, will I be doing a disservice to the characters, and to my readers, if I skip over the personal consequences of book 6? This is something I worry about, because a critique I often see of serialized entertainment is, “You put so-and-so through this awful thing in the last episode and then next episode it’s like it never even happened!” I’m loath to do that.
Speaking of things I worry about, I’ve also developed a tendency to self-censor more than I have in a very long time. I can trace this difficulty directly back to following and interacting with lots of writers and people in the publishing industry. Now, the writing community is mostly great and I’m glad I found it. But it can also be strident and divisive. This sort of thing affects me. I wish it didn’t and I try to have strong boundaries, but the truth is, I don’t have a strong sense of self and I really, really want people to like me. So I often absorb other people’s opinions more than is good for me. For at least the last year, there’s been a lot of talk about how the publishing industry needs more diversity. Yes, great, I’m all the way down with that! I’ve looked at my work in that light and found I could do better. At the same time, however, some people have an issue with authors writing characters from marginalized populations when they are not, themselves, a part of that population. And as a writer who isn’t part of a few marginalized populations I’ve been trying to write about, I’m always second-guessing myself, wondering if I’m doing it right, or at least right enough. Plus, in the writing attempts of the past year, I’ve included some characters who are Native, or LGBTQ+, or PoC, because they might as well be those things as not. But then, I have to devote a huge number of words to explaining that. I mean, if you want two male secondary characters to be gay, you kind of have to point out that they are in order for it to have any relevance. Otherwise, they’re just two guys, because that’s the default in most people’s minds. But if the story isn’t about their gayness, then devoting so much verbiage to secondary characters actually detracts from the story. Or, at least, this has been my experience over the last year.
I kind of wonder if I should table the diversity issue for this series. At least, not try so hard at it. The main characters of the Caitlin Ross series are a het, cis, white couple. So sue me. I have other ideas for other books with different kinds of main characters. I have secondary characters already who are Bi, and Gay, and Lesbian, and PoC. Maybe I don’t need to go out of my way to include more. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s enough, and the second-guessing is doing a disservice to my getting actual words on the page.
On top of all this–and what follows is mostly a rant I need to get out of my system, so bear with me or not–almost everyone I know on Twitter is sharing today’s blog by a popular author/blogger about how you shouldn’t sit around waiting for motivation, because writing creates its OWN motivation. Which is just this kind of thing I want to read when I’m sitting around feeling blocked and unmotivated. I have mixed feelings about this author/blogger on the best days. Often he has good things to say. I can’t stand the way he says them. He adopts this tone that I guess is supposed to be funny, but to me it reads as a weird mix of authoritarian and condescending, like some kind of inspirational drill sergeant. I often feel alienated when I read his stuff, because so many people think it’s so great and I want to scream, “Yes, and you’re a heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical DUDE!” who treats this obvious stuff as some huge revelation. Kind of the same feeling I get when well-meaning people say, “But haven’t you tried…(Insert alternative healing method) for your depression/migraines/whatever?” Like, “Oh, gee. in forty years of dealing with this I NEVER ONCE THOUGHT OF THAT THANK YOU SO MUCH!” If simply sitting and writing created motivation for me, I’d never run out.
So, anyway. This is stuff I’m dealing with. Thanks for tuning in.
Okay, I’ll bite. There’s a Twitter game going around, #7Lines. The rules: Go to page 7 of your current WIP (page 7 of chapter 1, for those of you who, like me, start a new document for each chapter). Count down seven lines and post the NEXT seven lines (i.e., lines 8-15). Then tag seven writers to do the same.
I went a bit over, just for context. But here are seven lines from page seven of The Mist-Covered Mountain.
“What kind of trouble?”
My steps had faltered and my stomach had dropped into my toes as his words caused the past months’ vague unease suddenly to manifest. I’d prayed it never would. He’d been doing so well.
“What happened last winter…it’s preying at my mind, ken. It’s gnawing at my soul.”
I’d noticed. In the six months since our daughter’s birth, he’d grown less spontaneous, more meticulous, as if making plans and following them to the letter reassured him.
I tag Jennie Davenport, S. A. Hunt, Louise Gornall, Krisitne Wyllys, Marie Hogebrandt, Luther Siler, and Katie Bailey.
If you work in a creative field, particularly one which involves storytelling–literature or film, for example–you probably know what a trope is. If you don’t work in a creative field, you may not, but you’re about to find out. To put it simply, tropes are shortcuts. A trope uses a familiar collection of concepts, images, and/or traits (among other things), to give the audience a snapshot of a character, theme, or plot, so the artist doesn’t have to explain every single detail of their artwork every single time. It’s like a macro for your story. Some familiar tropes are “The Poor Little Rich Boy,” “The Wise Advisor,” “The Helpful Old Fart,” and “The Underprivileged Person Who Possesses Insight The Rest Of The Characters Don’t.” (If you want to fall into the world of tropes, Look Here.)
Tropes can be as simple as “Superhero” or “Secret Agent,” of they can be as complicated as “Mysterious Orphan Raised By Wolves Who Holds The Key To Saving The World.” Generally speaking, a simple trope gives an artist more leeway for creativity, while a complicated trope gives the audience a better “in” to the character or plot device. A “dystopia” (genre is a kind of trope) might take any number of shapes. A “Post-Nuclear Apocalypse Where Survivors Must Fight The Earth And Each Other” is more limited. Tropes can contain or require other tropes. For example, the post-nuclear apocalypse I mentioned above might need a “Plucky Yet Confused Teenaged Heroine Who Takes No Shit.” As well, some tropes are subsets of other tropes. Your “Wise Advisor” might be a “Helpful Old Fart” or a “Dangerous Yet Likeable Pain In The Ass.”
In a way, all stories are collections of tropes compiled in different numbers and orders. This can be an advantage to both creators and their audience. Once you employ a trope, you have a code for how to proceed with your work, and that makes the work easier. Once the audience recognizes a trope, they can put aside the task of figuring out that piece and turn more attention to less familiar aspects of the artwork.
The obvious problem with tropes is that they can all too easily become clichés. It’s exceedingly hard to put an original spin on something like “The Chosen One” or “The Dark Lord,” both tropes that appear often in Epic Fantasy. This isn’t to say it can’t be done. But as a creator, it’s easy to relax into the trope and follow where it leads, without giving due thought to an original interpretation. You can often tell a creator’s experience level by the number of overused tropes they cram into a single work. A new writer is much more likely to use tropes in this way. So, in an Epic Fantasy, you might get the elf analogue (pointy-eared forest dweller who is nearly immortal), the halfling analogue, the shield maiden, the hidden king, the inaccessible wizard, the humorous sidekick, and the ancient prophecy in addition to the Chosen One and the Dark Lord. If you don’t pay attention to your own process and mix it up or add new elements, the work becomes dull. You’re telling a story that’s been told umpteen times before, probably better.
Another, less obvious, problem with tropes is that the tropes you use in your project reflect your worldview. If you come from a dominant segment of society or a privileged class, your tropes will reflect those societal norms and/or that social privilege. Currently (meaning in the early half of the twenty-first century), especially in the United States, the culture of creation is dominated by people possessing a certain amount of privilege: financially stable, heterosexual, white men in particular, with women of similar advantage running a distant second. Consequently, the tropes in our fiction overwhelmingly represent that worldview and the voices of minorities of all kinds are minimized.
Many socially advantaged creators do make an effort to include more diverse voices, true. And there’s a different problem inherent in this task. It results, once again, from falling back on tropes. Often the minority characters who make it into fiction aren’t realistic to actual members of the minority, and can even be offensive, because creators of privilege don’t take the time to do research or put the effort into learning about unfamiliar thought forms and cultures. So, over and over again, we see the “Magical Negro,” the “Noble Savage,” the “Disturbed Transsexual,” and the “Psychopathic Nympho” (to name a few). It’s a nod to “diversity,” but it only serves to reinforce ideas of minority held by the dominant culture. Hell, I’ve done it myself. I love my book, The Parting Glass, for a lot of reasons. I still cringe every time I think about it. At the time, I was pleased at how easy it was to write. Now when I look at it, I see how much of that ease came from my use of tropes, and how I presented the minority characters as near stereotypes. I have the “sassy black girlfriend,” the “alcoholic Native American” who becomes the “sadder but wiser Native guide.” I even have the “white guy who does Native shit better than the Natives.” FML. It doesn’t matter that I’ve known people like those people and based those characters on real life figures. I should have paid better attention when I was writing, and I didn’t.
A third, related problem is that when you buy into a trope without examining it, either as creator or audience, you run the risk of both normalizing and perpetuating some really problematic stuff. Take the whole Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon (this entire article was inspired by a discussion of FSoG, in case you wanted to know). The success of this series, in my opinion, stems from the author adding a veneer of sexual naughtiness to a bunch of standard Romance tropes. On top of “Beauty and the Beast,” you have the “poor little rich boy,” the “naive virgin inducted into pleasures of the flesh,” the “damaged hero who needs saving,” the “will they/won’t they” and the “he desires her in spite of difficulties” tropes, as well as many others that have honest appeal to many, many (women) people. It’s easy–and yes, I admit to reading the whole series–to identify with Ana, the heroine. I mean, who DOESN’T want a rich, attractive person to desire them just for being themselves, without having to devote any effort to it? I’d have trouble not letting something like that turn my head. But in FSoG, these tropes are employed without thought. In consequence, behaviours that would be obviously abusive and terrifying in real life are easily told off as “He just loves her SO MUCH!” Coercion, stalking, and downright rape are transformed from crimes into romance.
What To Do About It
The best thing a creator can to do avoid poor trope use, clichés, and stereotypes is to PAY ATTENTION. Make yourself aware of the tropes you’re using and if they’re dicey, change them. Don’t kill off that Black security guard in act one; instead, try turning him into the unexpected hero. If you’re trying to add diversity by including minority cultures, talk to actual members of the minority. Enlist them to read your manuscript and point out problems, if you can. If they do point out problems, try not to get defensive and justify your trope use. Look at how you can change things.
There is definitely some risk inherent in this process. I see it in my own experience as an Independent Author writing from a Pagan perspective. When you intentionally subvert tropes, you lose the advantage of the shortcut. Your audience might react by judging your work inaccessible. If you’re looking for an “in” to traditional avenues of distribution (e.g., querying agents), you might discover you are less able to find a “fit” for your manuscript. Coming up with a succinct pitch, like “Puss in Boots retelling complicated by romance between the cat and her master,” will almost certainly prove difficult. On the other hand, you give yourself a unique opportunity to tell stories that haven’t been told and develop characters that haven’t been seen before. And this may help you reach a whole new audience.
When I started writing the Caitlin Ross series, I made a couple of decisions about the tropes I would use. First and foremost, I wanted to present a happily (for the most part) married couple who practiced healthy communication. I did this for a number of reasons: I didn’t want to write a romance, I despise plots that hinge on miscommunication, and, most of all, I wanted to show that the kind of relationship Caitlin and Timber have is possible and desirable. In other words, I wanted to subvert the standard relationship trope where the people involved bring all their baggage into the arena, don’t listen, and don’t really seem to understand each other beyond experiencing sexual chemistry. I wanted to defy myths about marriage being the place where desire goes to die. In Timber, I wanted to show a man who can be communicative, passionate, caring, strong, and vulnerable–the kind of man I’d like more men to learn how to be, and the kind of man I wish more women would demand men be. I believe as a woman writer I have a great opportunity to communicate to the world what a healthy relationship looks like. So that’s what I did. And maybe it lost me some readers who are more familiar with and interested in the tension that comes from misunderstanding. On the other hand, almost every reader who has contacted me has mentioned how much they appreciate Caitlin and Timber’s partnership. I’ve even heard from women who, after reading a couple of my books, began to work on getting more of what they want in their own marriages. I count this a success.
In the end, tropes are a tool in the creator’s toolbox. Like any tool, they can turn in your hand and cut you if you’re not careful or lack experience. But when you learn to use them, you can craft reality to suit your vision. And that’s no mean skill.
For the past two weeks I’ve been sick. Not raging fever and completely incapacitated sick. Just sick with this year’s respiratory virus. You know the thing. It comes around every winter/early spring, knocks you upside the head with a sore throat, congestion, and maybe a cough. In the normal flow of events, it runs its course in a couple weeks and then moves on to its next victim. Time passes, and you forget you ever had it.
This year’s crud, as we call it, features exhaustion. For the first week, it was all I could do to move from the couch to the toilet when I needed to pee. Even after it began to let up, minimal effort tired me out. I’d feel fine for a couple hours after I got up in the morning, but after noon or so I had to lie down and recuperate.
Being tired is difficult for me. I guess it’s difficult for everyone. For me, it’s difficult in a particularly annoying and frustrating way. See, I devote a LOT of energy just to being okay. By “being okay,” I mean ignoring all the internal programming and belief systems that tell me how terrible I am, both as a person and as a writer. The ongoing internal monologue with its myriad voices insisting I’m no good, I don’t do things the “right” way, no one will ever read my books, everyone hates me, etcetera. Over the years, I’ve learned to disconnect from those voices, let them, in the words of Natalie Goldberg, be “the sound of distant laundry flapping in the breeze.” When I’ve had enough rest, maintaining that distance is no great problem. But when I’m tired, the shields I’ve built disintegrate. After a bad night, or an illness, or even an especially long day, the voices get louder and louder until they’re the only thing in my reality. I get anxious. I question myself. I ask my husband for validation, over and over: “Are you mad at me? Am I in trouble? Am I bad? Do I have worth? Do my books suck? Is everyone lying to me?”
“No, no. no, yes, no, no,” he says. It doesn’t quiet the voices, but it gives me something to hold onto until I get some rest and can go back to ignoring them.
Over the last two weeks, while I’ve been sick, I haven’t been writing. Now I’m feeling better and I need to get back to it. Notice how I said “need” there instead of “want.” I need to get back to it because I’m only about a third of the way through the first draft and I had planned an early summer release (HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Yeah, right.). I need to get back to it because the story needs to progress. But right now, I don’t really want to go back to it. I’m having a horrible time getting motivated to sit down at my desk and open the Chapter Nine document, which is where I left off. Some of this is no doubt due to the fact that I’m not entirely over this crud. But most of it, I fear, is due to my inner critic.
Book seven has been an interesting journey so far. When I finished book six, I thought book seven would be an entirely different story than the one I’m writing now. In fact, the plot I thought would take place in book seven hit me in the head when I wasn’t very far into the first draft of book six. (This happens often. I know I need to concentrate on the current story or task, but these other ones seem so much more attractive and exciting! I gather this is common for authors.) I even churned out the first scene of that plot to append to book six when I released it. And after the obligatory break to recover from my book release, I plunged ahead. About six chapters in, however, I realised THAT book did not belong at that place in the overall series arc.
Well, okay. I had another project in mind. For about a year (ever since I got addicted to White Collar, if truth be told), I’d wanted to write a book about a confidence game. It’d be fun, and it would give me an opportunity to show Timber in a different light. The desire only got stronger when one of my husband’s construction clients turned us on to Leverage. So, fine. I had long cons and grifters nudging my brain. I decided to do the con book NOW instead of in some distant future (I’d originally slated it for book nine).
I tossed the idea around for a while until I came up with a plot I thought would work. I hadn’t started with any plot, just this vague notion of “Hey, you know what would be great? A CON!” I began writing. And although I felt certain I’d made the right choice as far as the series arc–if you’ve ever grappled with trying to shove a decent book into the wrong timeline you’ll know what this feels like–the new story gave me trouble almost from the start. Not because I questioned my writing ability; I’ve grown confident about that over the years. But because my inner critic woke up and opened fire.
To put it in simple terms, I am experiencing more doubt and judgment of this story than I have of any I’ve written in a long time, maybe ever. It takes a particular form. I think the story is stupid. No, I don’t really think that. But that’s what the inner critic keeps telling me. The story is stupid. I don’t get any more than that. Nothing concrete, no reasons it’s stupid. Just stupid by virtue of existing. Every time I open the document–whichever chapter I happen to be working on–the chant starts up in my brain. “STUPID. IT’S STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!” Sometimes I get a bit more: It’s unrealistic. No one will be able to suspend their disbelief about this. It’s off the deep end. It’s too farfetched. I even went as far as to enlist a second Alpha reader to give a look at the first act and give me a straight opinion. She did give me a few tips about things that needed addressed. But none of them was an outright dismissal of the setup as “stupid.”
Yet I keep hearing it.
To complicate matters, as a writer I am a “Pantser” rather than a “Plotter.” In case you don’t know these terms, here’s a brief definition. A “Plotter” is a person who plans everything in the book in advance, before embarking on any of the creative writing portions of the task. They make meticulous outlines of every chapter, sometimes every scene. They know every rise and fall of the script. When characters interact and what happens when they do. Where those interactions lead. You get my drift. A “Pantser,” on the other hand, writes by the seat of their pants. For me, this means I start out with an overall idea, a set of probable characters, a beginning, and an end. If I’m lucky, I get a middle too. Usually when I start a chapter I have an idea where I want to end it, but not always. Sometimes I stumble on a chapter ending unawares. Sometimes the unimportant transitional scene I thought I could cover in two pages turns out to be WAY more vital that I guessed and ends up taking a couple thousand words. And that’s okay. I trust my process, and I work better with a loose set of guidelines than with a strict playbook. And sure, sometimes I get stuck. Then I stare into space a lot and try to hear/see/feel what happens next. Or I get my husband to take me out to dinner and we hash things out over a meal.
Anyway. I had less of an idea than usual going into it what this new book seven would be about, and it’s taken several turns along the way. What I thought would be the main theme turned out to be irrelevant to the story I’m telling. A character point I thought I could cover in very little space turns out to be major. Characters I hadn’t planned at all keep appearing and influencing the story, and some of them aren’t who I thought. A scene I thought would be a major plot driver looks like it has no purpose and no motivation behind it except that it’s “cool.” And so forth. And every time something like this happens, the inner critic screams at me. “STUPID, STUPID, STUPID!”
I know what this is about. It’s about fear. Most obstacles I have to overcome in my writing are about fear. I was afraid of writing explicit sex scenes. I was afraid of making my heroes violent. I was afraid of killing antagonists. I was afraid of being judged for stuff too close to personal experience. This time, I’m treading unfamiliar ground. Most of my books are driven by relationships. This one is driven by events. Most of my books have a strong magical component. This one focuses more on mundane skills. I love stories about cons and capers, but I’ve never tried to write one before. I’m unsure of where all the twists and turns are leading, and of whether I can pull this off. I’ve taken my characters out of their comfort zone, and so I have taken myself out of my own comfort zone. And in those places where I’ve allowed myself a modicum of comfort, I question it. “Are you reallyusing thatplot device again? Isn’t that a bit much?” “Well, yes,” I tell myself. “It does looklike that plot device. But really you’ll see that it’s totally different.” This doesn’t help. Even when I got really Meta and had a couple characters comment on how the device keeps popping up, it didn’t help.
I’m not sure why my fear manifests as “STUPID,” however. Probably some messed up shit from my childhood. Both my family and my peer group put a high premium on intelligence. Being smart was virtually the only way I got any validation. It’s the personal quality I feel most secure about and the one I value most. So convincing me that I’m stupid, that what I’m doing is stupid, is my inner critic’s surest way of getting me to abandon the project.
That’s what it wants. That what the inner critic always wants. It wants you to stop. It wants you to give up. Doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a creative project or personal growth. The inner critic abhors change of any kind. It wants you to stay comfortable, not to challenge, because your comfort zone is where your inner critic has the most power. Horrible, but there it is. It’s true especially for people who have been damaged, because the inner critic is part of what helps damaged people, or people in dangerous situations, survive. It keeps you safe by steering you away from actions that can hurt you. By reminding you what happened last time. By warning you away from shaky ground. By hurting you–just a little, so you don’t get a bigger hurt later. By calling you stupid.
It makes you a nice, cozy nest where nothing harms you and nothing challenges you and nothing changes.
But you’re not the same person now. I have to keep telling myself this. I am not the person who had to tread carefully. I don’t live in that world any more. It’s a memory. It’s not NOW. And in the NOW, I want to stretch out. I want to challenge myself. I want to go places I haven’t been and see things I haven’t seen. I want to grow, and I want my writing to grow. And I can’t do that by giving into the inner critic and staying in my nice, cozy comfort zone.
Of course, when I come to this place, the inner critic gets louder and louder. It hurts me more and more, trying to keep me from taking the next step to the place where it won’t have so much power. I have no real idea how to combat this, except by slow steps, with the occasional burst of frenzied activity. But I move on in the faith that, eventually, I will move beyond the range of that voice.
Having a down day today–didn’t sleep well last night because my brain refused to shut off, “woke up” rather late to discover that with daylight all those great ideas had vanished into the fog of dealing with a disturbed sleep cycle. I get judgmental of myself when this happens. In some part of me, I don’t care how my personal schedule fits in with societal expectations or doesn’t. In the part that becomes more conscious at these times, the fact that I didn’t get out of bed until ten o’clock this morning, and that it is now one in the afternoon and I have just managed to get dressed and think about doing something productive really bothers me. Especially in winter. I think, “Shit, it’s going to be DARK in four hours! How can you WASTE DAYLIGHT this way?” Even though my work doesn’t depend on the presence of daylight, as long as we have functioning electricity.
So what does this have to do with the challenges of being a self-published author? Well, I get judgmental about my work, too. Which is kind of funny, because just the other day one of my writer friends, who was having some doubts about the direction her work wanted to go, asked me, “Don’t you ever go through this?” And I answered, “Oh, no, not me! Of course not! I always trust my work!” or something like that. I see now, of course, that this is bullshit, because all morning I have been thinking things like, “This new book is so stupid, the premise is ludicrous, no one is going to buy it, and I can’t believe I ever thought it was a good idea.”
I have to remind myself I chose this. I didn’t choose to be a writer; that’s something I HAD to do. But I chose to go with self-publishing. I chose it for a lot of reasons, some good, some maybe not so good. I chose it because I believe in my work (most of the time), and I believe there’s an audience for it out there, somewhere. I also chose it because I’m impatient, and the traditional publishing path takes A LOT OF TIME, and requires jumping through hoops I don’t like jumping through. And yes, I chose it because I have trust and control issues–especially around my current series–and I had a hard time even imagining giving up control to an outsider who might not share my vision (although my traditionally published friends do, for the most part, seem to support the idea that part of the process is finding a “match,” i.e., an editor or agent who shares your vision and helps shape it, rather than turns it into something else altogether). I chose it because I have some real health issues that would inevitably pose a problem to my ability to meet imposed deadlines, and that is stress I just don’t want to deal with. I chose it because I write in a genre that’s a “tough sell” these days, and because by the time I figure out how to write an effective query letter I had already published three books in the series. Some day, when Caitlin Ross and Timber MacDuff give me a break, I intend to explore some of the other ideas I have on the back burner and shop them out in the traditional way. Some day.
I see my decision to go with self-publishing as a good one, for the most part. But every positive, as they say, has a negative. A lot of people may not notice this about me, because I tend to be more vocal when I’m in a negative mood, but I do try very hard to be positive. Unfortunately, on days like today, the positives about my life choices get swamped by an overwhelming gut sensation of bitter failure. I feel like Sisyphus rolling his rock uphill. (Side note: how awesome is it that my spell-check recognized “Sisyphus” just now?). Some days I believe I’ll get that damn boulder to the top and coast down the other side. But some days I lose my grip, and I spend all my energy running after it as it careens back down to the bottom. And I wonder if it’s really worth the struggle to get my shoulder under it again.
In self-publishing, I get to keep control and work at my own pace. But self-publishing is lonely. Several of my traditionally-published friends have released books recently, and I am so envious of the support systems their publishers provide. A good editor and/or agent can be a cheering section and a source of encouragement on those days when you wonder why the hell you ever thought you could write in the first place. A publisher can send out Advance Reader Copies of your book to reviewers, schedule Blog Tours, and get your work into the public eye in a way that it’s very difficult for a self-published author to match. They handle the interior formatting and cover design and all those details of production that a self-published author has to look after for herself. (Some self-published authors do have budgets for hiring those things out, but I don’t.) You have a basic guarantee of getting a professional product that people will take (mostly) seriously.
I had to learn how to do almost all this stuff. I don’t regret it. But I always have questions. Does the interior flow properly? Should I change the header font? Do my covers work? I started with still life photographs, a couple of which I liked and most of which I didn’t. I always knew they were a temporary measure, and earlier this year I contracted an artist to redo them. But the questions didn’t go away! I love my artist and I love her covers. All the same, I can’t help noticing that they don’t look like most covers in my genre. And I wonder if that matters. How can I tell? Since the cover redesign started, a couple of people have told me they prefer the original ones. One magazine editor with whom I investigated advertising looked at my IAN page (which at the time showed a couple of the new covers and four or five of the old ones) and told me point blank not to put money into a display ad because my covers wouldn’t sell. Do I believe her? Do I not? I’ve seen all kinds of covers, and all kinds of warnings about bad cover art. Am I wrong to like the ones I paid for? Should I be more concerned with my books “fitting in?” I don’t think the contents “fit in;” why should the covers?
I question my writing process. Without a publishing house handing out deadlines, I can keep a schedule that suits me and allow myself to function “at the level I’m at,” as my dance teachers used to say. Do what I can, but not force myself to push the energy where it doesn’t want to go. Except, a lot of the time I wonder if this is a good thing. There are many days I don’t write at all because I’m not in the headspace I need to be in to sit at the computer and put words on a page. Maybe, instead of practicing self-care, I’m just lazy and lack dedication. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to make this work. Maybe I’m a dilettante. Maybe I chose to self-publish because on a deep inner level I realize I’m not willing to do what’s necessary to succeed.
Maybe I’m not a real author at all.
This is the kind of thing that runs through my head day after day.
I wish I had a team. I wish I had “people” designated to look after some of these things, so I didn’t have to think about them. I wish some kind soul would take it upon themselves to send out my books and make sure they got reviews and attention. I sure don’t seem to be able to manage it with any success. I promote to the best of my ability, but most of the time I don’t see any result. I have my small knot of fans, and that’s nice. I have a few people I can count on for reviews, and that’s nice, too. But I can’t manage the kind of reach that gets books into the charts anywhere. I’m not talking about the New York Times Book Review, here. I’d just like to create a buzz on Goodreads or Riffle. How do self-published authors do that? I haven’t a clue.
Don’t get me wrong: My “Tribe” on Twitter is a huge support system and I’m grateful for them. But they have their own struggles with their own books. It’s not their job to promote me, nor should it be. It’s not their job to prop me up and give me pep talks. Many of them do anyway, and still, sometimes it’s not enough. I wish for a cheering section I could keep in in a bottle and summon on the days I’m feeling low. I wish for a genie to magically navigate all the book promotion sites on the Internet, sort the worthwhile ones from the less worthwhile, and pin a neat list of the ones I need to investigate on my cork board.
I am thankful for advances in POD and e book publishing that have made it possible for me to make my books available. I am thankful that these same advances give others the same opportunity and contribute to creating a publishing industry where small presses and flourish and we’re enabled to address some of the issues with the Big 6 publishing machine. I’m thankful that advances in technology make it possible to ignore the Big 6 publishing machine, if we so choose.
But sometimes, sometimes like today, I wish I had chosen the other way.
The life of a writer can be lonely, especially if, like me, you don’t “play well with others” in real life and find writing groups more irritating than helpful. The life of a self-published author can be doubly lonely (I’m sure this is why so many writers hang out on Twitter all hours of the day instead of getting down to work.). I encourage you, if you’re making the choice between the independent path and the traditional, to take all the time you can to examine your options. Remember, self-publishing is NOT a path to a traditional contract (not for most people, anyway). It’s a publishing method of its own. One that supplies its own benefits, true, but also one that requires dedication, knowledge, and strength in many disparate fields. One where, in many ways, you’re on your own and must continue through force of will when the going gets tough. You have no obligation to make your book available as soon as it’s finished. The words will still be there. In fact, you might pull them out in a couple years and see ways of making them better. Take all the time you need to examine your options.
For the last few days, I’ve been nursing a cold. This always makes me cranky, because I have an active mind and feeling foggy and unable to exercise my mind due to some whim of my body frustrates me no end. I get discouraged about life in general and the fact that despite the best I can do in the promotional department, my books aren’t selling the way I would like. Anyway, earlier in the day I was chatting with a friend about the difficulties of self-publishing, and how there’s still a stigma around it despite the fact that many in various segments of the book industry–authors, editors, and agents–now support self-publishing as a valid path. The conversation reminded me of a blog post I wrote back in March of 2013, so I decided to reprint it here.
Another Dig At Independent Authors
Ran across This Blog Post the other day. In the main, it talks about how the publishing world is out to screw authors (for more about this, See Here), and how many professional associations purporting to support authors–e.g., the SWFA and the HWA–have membership restrictions that are far too narrow for this day and age.
All of that, I agree with and applaud. Thanks for saying all this, Elizabeth Donald.
But then. Then the author feels compelled to make a dig at independent authors:
“Here’s the other danger of a kerfuffle like this: aspiring writers will look at this and say, ‘Screw all the publishers. I can bop onto Amazon right now and put my novella up for the Kindle. If I’ve got to pay for the thing to get published at Random House, then I’ll just pay CreateSpace or Lulu to do it, then I get to keep all the money!’
First: don’t. Just don’t. I’m begging you.”
(Editor’s Note: By the way, I’m not sure Donald did her research here. You don’t have to pay anything to publish through CreateSpace, and Lulu only requires you to purchase proof copies. Both companies do offer services you can buy–anything from editing to book and cover design packages. But neither technically charges anything for you to publish, unlike some other POD companies or so-called “vanity” presses.)
She goes on to tell you the things that you really need from a traditional publisher, because you poor, ignorant saps who self-publish obviously will not take the time to research how to make your work the best it can be. Because you all sit around in your bathtubs thinking up great stories that you never edit, and you’re so in love with your idea of yourself as A WRITER that you lose any capacity for self-criticism.
Here’s my “favourite” quote:
“You are not a special snowflake who created the Great American Novel the first time out, and it’s a brilliant stroke of lightning sure to outsell Fifty Shades of Grey, because that was a piece of shit.”
I am the first to admit that there are many self-published authors out there who really should have stuck to selling used cars. I have done some beta reading for people intending to self-publish that just had me shaking my head. But the kind of attitude Donald shows in her blog only serves to perpetuate a stereotype that does a disservice to authors of ALL stripes. I know a great many independent authors who work harder and know more than any traditionally-published author I can name. We are hard on ourselves. We constantly question the quality of our work on all fronts. We read with a critical eye, hunting for writing that moves us and looking for the reasons it does. We enlist intelligent readers–editors, writing professors, critics and the like–to beta our work and tell us truthfully what they think. We make changes where we need to.
We do not simply upload the first thing that comes out of our heads because being published would be cool. This is our career. Credit us with some measure of professional pride, please. And if you needed a traditional publisher to teach you the basics of sentence structure, well, that’s your problem. Not ours.
When I read stuff like this, particularly from small-press authors, what I think of is Poor White Crackers who go around saying, “I may not be rich, but at least I ain’t no nigger.” You may not publish with a major label that gives you a huge advance, but at least you’re not (shudder of horror) one of those.
It’s demeaning. And it’s bad for everyone in a business that already treats writers as poorly as it can manage.
Writers–ALL writers–need to stick together and stop playing the hierarchy games. We need to support each other, not throw labels and tired stereotypes around. That’s is the only way we can achieve a modicum of power in an industry that eats its own young as a matter of course.
Things have changed in the industry since I wrote this post. Many organizations have begun to recognize self-published authors as the professionals we are, and now offer different membership options. Options based on earning rather than advances, for example. Some of them require total earnings from self-published authors that are rather higher than most can expect to achieve, but it’s a step in the right direction.
We still have a long way to go, however. People who love books and their ability to give us access to realities not our own, previously unimagined worlds, or simply to provide a means of escape for a few hours or days, are at odds with each other in many forums. Writers of “Adult” literature dis YA. Men who write Science Fiction and Fantasy give less credence to women in the genre. Romance is dismissed as less valid and valuable than “serious” work. Traditionally published authors look down on self-published and Independent authors for being lazy and producing work lacking in quality, and self-published authors attack traditionally published authors for bowing to “the gatekeepers.” Booksellers and reviewers dismiss certain works and laud others for what seem spurious reasons. And the list goes on. Personally, I see much of this as a reaction of fear in the face of a changing industry, where no one knows what’s going to happen next or whether his livelihood is going to vanish with the next radical shift. As such, it’s understandable. But fear and the reactions it provokes are rarely helpful. Most often, the impulse to protect what we have at all cost prevents us from coming together and supporting each other through difficult times. It hurts everyone, and in the long run, it hurts you as well.
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.
(She said a bunch of other incredibly relevant stuff, too. So if you haven’t, just go read her speech for yourself.)
I’ve been around for a while. I’ve been a reader almost my entire life, and a writer of some sort very nearly as long. I’ve watched various independent publishers in all genres, whose staff were generally motivated by the love of books and who were willing to take a chance on new and challenging voices, get absorbed by larger, profit-motivated companies until five or six corporations virtually control everything the public has access to. And yes, I do realize that every business is to some degree motivated by profit. And I certainly do not intend to cast aspersions at or diminish the contributions of all the agents, editors, and publishers in the traditional industry. But it concerns me deeply when it seems that a skillful practice of the art I love has less importance in the current environment than potential profit; when the market gets flooded with books in a popular genre until everyone gets tired of it and it becomes a “difficult sell” despite originality or quality; when–excuse my hyperbole–fame and fortunes get built upon the backs of those who create “the product,” and the likelihood of those creators benefiting in any measurable way is slim. It upsets me that a wonderful book may never see print because the author doesn’t have the–completely different–skill of expressing his point in a 140-character pitch or 250-word query, in a way that will make an agent or editor take interest. (And in case you wonder whether this is sour grapes on my part, I DO have that skill, and I have worked hard to develop it. I didn’t choose self-publishing for lack of traditional interest.) I loathe the fact that agents and editors are so overworked that they rarely have the time to savor submissions or the ability to take a chance on an interesting new voice that might just need a helping hand.
And, of course, I realize I have a one-sided view of the whole process. When I wonder how much you can really know about a 100,000-word novel from a 250-word query, I also remember that when I was a DJ, I could make a decision on whether I wanted to air a song from previewing the first ten seconds.
In the end, I have no words of wisdom, no sweeping resolution to offer other than this: Publishing is changing, and it will continue to change. If we want the changes to carry us in the direction we would prefer, all of us who love books and believe stories have a value beyond their profitability as a commodity need to support each other in moving the industry forward along the path we’d have it follow. Not just for ourselves, but for each other. And in that respect, we still have a long way to go.