4 Ways the Publishing Industry Promotes Ableism

CW: Ableism, Mental Illness

I am afraid to write this post.

I’ve been thinking these things for a long time, years even. I want to talk about them. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid because the Publishing and Literary community is small, small, small. Even when you include self-publishing and small presses, it’s tiny. You’re always running into the same people. And it’s easy to be seen as contentious, a problem, for your reputation to be damaged. Which, in turn, damages your career. I’m afraid because the things on my mind are hard to talk about, and because I am certain there will be people out there keen to invalidate my concerns. It’s difficult not to invalidate my own concerns in this arena, tell myself I’m not doing it right or not trying hard enough. And as much as I tell myself these are messages I’ve internalized because of ableism, the questions remain: Am I whining? Am I seeing a problem that doesn’t exist and using it to rationalize my lack of success? Am I simply “not good enough?”

I’m afraid to write this post, and I’m going to write it anyway.

Last night I stumbled on this article on Everyday Feminism. It’s an article about “Inspiration Porn,” which is also known sometimes as “Disability Porn,” and why it’s harmful to people with disabilities. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “Inspiration Porn” is a class of memes that feature an image of a person with a disability–a double amputee with prosthetic legs, a person in a wheelchair, etc.–accomplishing something popularly assumed to be impossible for a person with a disability. Crossing the finish line at a marathon, accepting an honors diploma. Like that. The text points out the disability: “So and so lost both legs in a tragic accident,” and lauds the achievement: “and went on to place in the top five in the Boston Marathon!” The meme closes with some variation of “What’s your excuse for not achieving stuff?”

You’ve seen these memes. I’m sure you have. If you want to understand more about why they hurt people with disabilities, read the article.

The information and analysis weren’t new to me. I read a lot of these types of articles. I read them not to learn about topics I have no knowledge of (although I do often gain new knowledge, and I always want to hear about other people’s experiences). I read them for validation, to see how others cope with problems I face, to get some reassurance that the problems are real, not just figments of my imagination. With this article, I got more than I bargained for when, toward the end, the author started to rant about ableism in literary circles (again, read the article). This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I have never before heard/seen someone address it in public. If it gets talked about at all, it’s in whispers and private messages. Because, as I’ve already said, the publishing industry is small, and it’s easy to be labeled a malcontent and a malingerer if you challenge the way things are done.

Hey, time for me to give my disability cred! It sucks that I don’t feel like I can continue this post without doing so–and I think that’s probably another kind of ableism–but I do feel that way, so here it is: Chronic Migraine Disorder. Complex PTSD. Social Anxiety Disorder. General Anxiety Disorder. Bipolar with Chronic Depression. All these are currently “managed” as well as is possible for me. Please note that “managed” means I can “function” and/or appear as “normal” to a certain degree about three-quarters of the time as long as I am diligent about self-care. And there are still days when one or the other of these disorders flares without warning, and all I can do is initiate the routines that keep me from jumping in front of a train and wait it out. (N. B. If you think the “jumping in front of a train” part is hyperbole, IT ISN’T.)

Let me also take time to point out that all the above disabilities are INVISIBLE. I don’t need mobility aids. (Actually, aside from the migraines, my body is in pretty decent shape.) I’m not deformed–unless you think fat is a deformity, and some do. I am not missing any limbs. I do not match the picture of “disability” most able people carry in their heads. My disabilities are nonetheless real, and they have a profound effect on the way I live my life.

Good gods, if I could only communicate to you how difficult it was to say “my disabilities are real,” and how loudly the voices in my head rose in protest. When I talk/write about this stuff, the struggle to articulate is constant. I’m sure everyone has their moments of self doubt. I am equally sure that if everyone had my brain process, nothing would get done anywhere, ever.

So, publishing. Over the last year or so, as I’ve said elsewhere, the publishing industry has expressed an interest in being more inclusive and putting out more “diverse” books–meaning books written from perspectives and including characters other than the usual white, cis, het, able-bodied, neurotypical, standard-religion-having ones that comprise 90% of what gets published (no, this isn’t a hard percentage). Agent and editor wish lists solicit submissions from People of Color, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people, and look for stories featuring the same. This is great. I support it! I can’t be enthusiastic enough about the trend!

And yet. Speaking as a person with mental illness–several of them–I have this to say: Despite the inclusive words, the actual practices of the traditional publishing industry promote ableism in that they require people with disabilities to jump through hoops they are not capable of jumping through, and often fault people with disabilities for not performing “professional writer” to an able standard. I’ve believed for years that my problems with the practices of traditional publishing were all on me, signs of my intractability and unwillingness to comply with the “norm,” maybe born out of a weak will and lack of dedication to succeeding in my chosen profession, or maybe from a flawed personality and sheer orneriness. Reading the article last night was literally the first time I allowed myself to believe, “Hey, maybe this isn’t just me. Maybe the flaw is in the system.” I’d thought it before, but I always dismissed the idea.

Here are four ways the publishing industry promotes ableism. For the purposes of this list, I focus on invisible disability and mental illness, because that’s where my personal experience is. Also, there may be other ways the industry fails to accommodate disabilities. These are the first that came to my mind.

#1: Reliance on Social Interaction/Networking

How many times have I read the acknowledgments page in a book by a new author and seen some variation on the words: “Thanks to (INSERT WELL-KNOWN AUTHOR) who encouraged me and recommended my manuscript to his agent”? Or seen (traditionally) published authors suggest that newcomers “get to know” people in the industry, either in person at conferences or on social media? Enough that the message sticks. It’s not a bad message, in and of itself. All businesses rely to some extent on networking, because human beings are social animals. A huge number of people seem, for reasons incomprehensible to me, to want to be authors, so making a personal connection with people in the industry who might be of use in advancing your career is almost a no-brainer. You want agents and editors to remember you.

The reason this is ableist: For people with anxiety disorders, this advice is akin to recommending an extended vacation in the hell of their choice. This goes double if the person is a natural introvert. Some people find it easy to make connections and interact with others. Some find it difficult. For people with anxiety disorders, it’s nearly impossible. Even in a managed state, my daily anxiety level is so high that I almost never leave the house outside of the company of my husband or another person I trust implicitly. I’ve been to one writing conference in my life–and, by the way, suggesting people attend conferences is also classist–and it was so overwhelming I had regularly to retreat to my room to recoup. I managed to engage a few other writers, but I cannot imagine trying to pitch my work in that kind of environment. Putting your heart and soul project on display is hard enough for able people. For people with anxiety disorders, if getting through the meeting is possible, recovering might require days.

I try to perform normative body language, but I know my anxiety often makes me appear stand-offish. I don’t make eye contact. I turn away and cross my arms over my chest. I fidget. All of these are apt to make a negative impression on an able person.

Connecting on social media is somewhat easier, but not much. Frankly, I am exceedingly uncomfortable with all but a small circle of people. Every tweet to someone outside that circle is agony. If the person responds dismissively, or worse, not at all, I am convinced of my utter worthlessness and stupidity. Most of the time, making an overture isn’t worth the expenditure of energy. This isn’t something I can control. It’s the way my brain works. I can tell myself over and over that nothing is personal, blah, blah, blah. And it helps. But it doesn’t alter the process.

For a person with an anxiety disorder, every social interaction requires weighing possible benefit against probable distress and need to recover. Publishing’s focus on social interactions doesn’t take this into account.

#2: The Query Process

I’m pretty sure everyone hates querying and faces it with some mixture of fear and resignation. Most of the writers I know manage to do it anyway. Even I’ve managed to do it. It’s THE WAY THINGS ARE DONE. So how is it ableist?

Okay, I’m going to come out and say that it’s my belief that the whole idea is fucked up beyond belief. I get the need in the industry for some kind of filtering process. I really do. The slush pile is essentially a thing of the past. Big publishers don’t take unagented submissions, or take them very rarely. Agents read submissions in their “off” hours, because they spend their days working for their clients–which is proper. And it’s not uncommon for an agent to get several hundred query submissions in a day. I get that. And I still believe that judging a 100,000-word manuscript by what a writer is able to convey in a 250-word query is incredibly problematic, and points to what I see as flaws in the industry as a whole.

The ability to write an effective query isn’t one that I think comes naturally to many people, and acquiring the ability isn’t easy. You can attend workshops, both on and off line, and these are difficult for people with mental health disabilities for many of the same reasons I cited in point #1. Some websites devoted to writing have forums where you can post your query and get critique. My experience with those is that they are NOT a good place for people with anxiety and trauma. I frequented several when I first started trying to understand the query process, and found that constructive feedback was rare, while demeaning and downright abusive critique abounded.

I have Complex PTSD from abuse and trauma sustained over a long period of time. I know most of my triggers, but that doesn’t stop them from being activated. For me, the entire query process triggered me to a point where I stopped writing at all because I could not perform this necessary task, and if I couldn’t learn it, writing was pointless. I had severe anxiety attacks even trying to learn the skill. Nothing about it is accessible to me. I did eventually learn it, but I had to take the lessons in fifteen-minute doses over the course of several years. If you want to know what that was like for me, imagine choosing to be flayed alive, not just once, but over and over for years, with no expectation of gaining anything by it and no control over the process. The first time isn’t so bad. But with each successive flaying, the terror and the anticipation increases because you know what to expect and how much it’s going to hurt. Yet you force yourself to do it anyway, time and time again. As soon as you heal enough to stand without pain, you invite flaying one more time.

That’s the closest I can come, and it hardly encompasses the intensity of the terror and the determination necessary. Bottom line: The query process isn’t mental health-friendly. It needs to be changed to be more accessible to people with anxiety and trauma if they ever want to see people like themselves represented in print.

#3: Standards of “Professionalism” are Geared Toward the Able and Neurotypical

This one encompasses a lot of different things, like the ability to meet deadlines and engage in  marketing activities like book tours, as well as expectations of acceptable ways of performing “up and coming author.”

Most writers I know are writing all the time, on something or other. When they finish one manuscript, they start another. They go back and forth between projects, rotating writing, revising, editing, and querying. Most of the writers I know also have “day” jobs (I’m including “full time mom” in this category). Having a paying job to support your writing is a necessity for all but a few, because most books don’t earn out their advances. When you have a contract, you have to keep your deadlines. There’s some wiggle room in these, but once a book is on the publisher’s schedule, things can get pretty tight. If you’re lucky enough to have an extended contract, you’re expected to turn out a certain number of books within a certain time frame to fulfill your contractual obligations (I remember one popular cozy writer mentioning her relief that her new contract allowed her eighteen months between books, rather than requiring a book every year.) Some writers juggle multiple contracts at once.

After your book is published, you’re expected to engage in promoting it. This might mean doing interviews, writing guest articles, going on a book tour, attending conferences to represent your publisher, and more. All of it is part of the job. If industry professionals doubt your ability to keep up, your chances of landing a deal go way down. To quote the article that inspired this post:

“Agents have actually said things to me like, ‘I don’t know if you can handle having a book’ or ‘I don’t know if you can promote a book.’ They mean because of my epilepsy, bipolar, and PTSD.”

I mentioned earlier in this post the need to be diligent about self care. I have to maintain constant awareness of my physical and mental states. If they look dicey, say, if I recognize migraine prodrome or aura, or if my thought processes go haywire, or if a bodily sensation warns me of a change in brain chemistry that heralds a mood dip, I HAVE TO do the routines I have learned will keep me on an even keel. This might look like eating a lot of protein, or it might look like retreating from the world and watching Netflix for two days. If I get a migraine or go into a depressive cycle anyway, all bets are off. I am non-functional at these times. Anything that was on my schedule gets canceled, no matter how much I wanted to do it or how important it was. My health comes first.

This isn’t appealing to the people whose job it will be to book your speaking engagements and need some assurance that you will be able to show up. They’re likely to want to represent a client who is less high maintenance and more dependable. And while that’s understandable, it’s also ableist as hell.

My need to be diligent about self care also makes the very idea of deadlines problematic. Sometimes I can write and sometimes I can’t. That’s just the way it is with my brain. It’s not because I’m not dedicated or I don’t want to do the work. I ALWAYS want to be writing. Doesn’t mean I can. When my brain chemistry is on a high, I can churn out two or three full length novels in as many months. When it’s not, I might go months when getting out of bed is the most I can manage in a day. Writing is about as possible for me as walking on the surface of the sun. In between the highs and lows, I have to pace myself. Even with medication, my capacity to stay on an even keel mental health-wise is limited. I am easily overwhelmed. Pushing too hard because of a deadline or an expectation is an unfortunate part of my trauma. When it gets activated, I invariably plunge into a depressed cycle. So there’s no question of “pushing through” or forcing myself to produce X number of words when the energy isn’t there. It isn’t something I can do and maintain good mental health.

My brain chemistry means I can’t perform “professional writer” to the expected standard. As a consequence, my opportunities in publishing are limited unless someone is willing to make accommodations.

#4: Prominent Voices in Publishing are Able Bodied and Neurotypical

This is the one that bothers me most, to tell the truth. I have read about one or two conference panels where authors talked about their struggles with anxiety and depression, and I follow several authors who speak openly about it on social media. (It occurs to me just now that the latter group rarely, if ever, mention how their anxiety and depression impact their careers or state whether they need accommodation, or what it looks like.) However, the most prominent voices by far are those of the able, and those able people are the ones who most often engage in telling the rest of us “how to do it.” The ones saying “write every day” and “don’t make excuses” and “the only way to write is by writing,” and other things they can say and believe are true because their brain chemistries aren’t fucked up. I’m older than most of them, and I know my process, thank you. And I STILL agonize over it when my brain tells me it’s not a good time to write. I ask myself constantly whether I’m trying hard enough, or whether I’m avoiding writing because it’s hard, or whether I’m being lazy WHEN I KNOW THAT ISN’T THE CASE. The messages we hear from able and neurotypical writers damage those of us who are neither. They promote the view that there’s only one way to succeed, and it’s inaccessible. And they reinforce the idea that we’re flawed, that the problem is in US rather than the system.

A frustrating addition is, I know people with mental illnesses and invisible disabilities who have managed to jump through the hoops and get representation and traditional contracts, enough that you can point to them as evidence there isn’t a problem with ableism in the industry, not at all. It makes me question my experience even more.

Right now, as I try to wrap up this blog post, a number of thoughts are running through my head. The top layer is dismissing the entire conversation as flawed, and therefore worthless. Everyone gets overwhelmed. Everyone is nervous making their work public and afraid of rejection. I have no reason to believe I feel these things more intensely than anyone else. No reason, except that I believe the professionals who have diagnosed me with several mental illnesses.

(Aside: It’s the feeling of being overwhelmed, of not measuring up, that’s worst for me. I’m not actually nervous about putting my work out, because I believe in my work. It’s myself I find wanting, and my fear is that my work might meet rejection because of personal qualities or deficiencies everyone sees but no one will tell me about. And because my various disabilities influence my interactions and behaviors the way they do, I see this as a very real possibility.)

When an entire society and its business models are built on mental and physical ability, it’s almost impossible to address the issue in a single industry. Everyone expects workers to be on time, to follow through, to be presentable, not to take too many sick days. Not everyone is suited to every, or any, job. Unfortunately, in the US in particular, personal worth is most often viewed through the lens of being able to fit into corporate culture and “earn a living.” There is almost no flexibility for people who don’t fit this mold. In fact, most often “flexibility” is something required from workers, who need to be available to meet the needs of employers. I’ve rarely seen it the other way around.

Not everyone who writes is going to succeed at it, whether able or not. It’s a tough and highly competitive industry, and no one is entitled to a place on the bestseller lists, or seeing print at all. Still, there are a few things traditional publishers could do to support people with disabilities. First and foremost, publishers could devote more time to on the ground marketing of more than their top authors. Several years ago, I attended a panel on marketing strategies, where all the panelists were from what used to be termed the “mid-list” — authors who sell steadily, but don’t have the clout of a Stephen King or a Nicholas Sparks. Every author on that panel stressed that their publishers left marketing up to them. In fact, a few related that when they inquired about marketing plans, representatives of their publishers actually laughed. This is not okay. It’s not okay in any case, and for people with disabilities like mine, it’s abhorrent. In most instances, the worst part of social anxiety is making first contact. For example, I can show up to an interview or a reading. I can’t set them up. I can’t cold call booksellers and ask them to take a look at my work and consider stocking it. This is something that publishers should do for everyone far more aggressively than they do at present.

Another thing that would help is simple recognition that not everyone functions the same way. Some authors can manage back-to-back engagements. Some can’t. Some can spend twelve hours at a time “on form,” interacting with the public at a convention. Some can’t. Offer of a contract should not presuppose the former. In fact, agents and editors shouldn’t even be considering a potential client’s stamina, or whether they can “handle” having a book. The only reason a disabled person wouldn’t be able to “handle” it is that they might be required to fit into an impossible model. Instead of wondering whether we can “handle” it, a better use of energy would be adjusting expectations and working out ways “handling” it would be possible. Frankly, wondering “if” rather than asking “how” is insulting. Disabled people know what we can handle. If we didn’t think we could handle a situation with proper accommodation, we wouldn’t try it on. Many people in publishing do have an intellectual awareness that people are different. More work needs to be done, to put this intellectual awareness into practice.

The query process could be made more accessible with a very simple adjustment: Stop requiring that queries come from authors. I’ve often joked with other writing friends with anxiety disorders that “I need an agent to get me an agent!” I know people think that they can better determine a writer’s skill if they write their own queries, and I believe this is a flawed assumption. Determine the quality of the writing from sample pages. Let people who are able to engage in marketing do the marketing. I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that some writers privileged enough to have assistants already delegate this task, because everyone hates it. All kinds of professionals delegate, dictate, and/or cooperate on tedious business correspondence. Why shouldn’t writers be able to?

Because of the progress that’s been made in digital publishing, and the lessening of stigma against self published authors, people with disabilities may choose an independent path rather than a traditional one. I did, and I was glad of the opportunity to do so. I also know that self publishing entails many of the same problems as far as networking and marketing. So it’s not a perfect solution.

In speaking of the ways ableism in publishing affects me personally, I haven’t even touched on the ways it limits opportunities for people with other chronic and invisible illnesses. People with lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, schizophrenia, and all the rest have the same or greater need to practice self care. Many do not have my “advantage” of qualifying for government-sponsored disability support, or an understanding partner willing to undertake the bulk of the bread-winning, and have even more limited resources and energy to devote to pursuing writing on a professional level. And they also have stories. I see a great many people in publishing expressing a wish for manuscripts dealing with recovery rather than onset, or simply including disabled characters because disabilities exist. But I have to wonder, when being in recovery means sleeping for days and numerous doctor visits without clear narrative resolution and more tedium than excitement, how would those stories be received? And if the industry doesn’t address its ableist bias, will disabled people believe it’s a good use of their time and energy to write them?

I don’t think so.




I Complain About Stakes

It’s common wisdom for writers that an effective story contains three things: Character, plot, and stakes. A person risks something to accomplish something. An author works hard to make queries, pitches, and blurbs reflect all three in the least number of syllables. For example, “When (Character) discovers (Plot Point 1) she must (Plot Point 2) or else (Stakes).”

I’m going to come out and say it: I hate working with stakes. As far as my technical ability goes, it’s probably the thing I understand least and do the worst job of. For a long time, I thought I was worst at plotting, but I was wrong. A plot is simply what happens. It can be any sequence of events: “I went to the store, and the store was closed, so I got on the bus and went to another store. I bought some orange juice, because I like orange juice.” That’s a plot. But it’s not a very good one, because there aren’t any stakes. As far as we know, there is no risk to the narrator. There would be no consequence of NOT getting orange juice, except, possibly, mild disappointment.

I have a hard time with stakes partly because of my world view and partly because of my writing process. For me, writing is an attempt to express a gut feeling or mood; at least, I began that way. I usually start with a character and try to put them in a situation that evokes the mood for which I’m aiming. In my teens, I wrote a lot of pieces–I suppose they might qualify as prose poems–that spoke of smells and sounds and sights and memories without anything actually happening. When I branched out into longer fiction, I knew something had to happen, but for the most part I inserted random events that seemed like they would be “cool” without being able to link them in any coherent fashion. Or else, I stole plots from other authors. I generally ended up with a bunch of still slides of emotional high points, through which my characters moved without much rhyme or reason. Stuff happened because I said it happened. But my characters didn’t make a journey or evolve.

In fact, it wasn’t until much later, when I started querying and pitching, that I ever heard anyone refer to stakes. It gave me a kind of “slap my head” moment: “Oh, of course, that’s the hook. Duh.” But then, when I considered my work, I couldn’t find the stakes to save my life. I thought they were there, but they often were very subtle and only rarely did I articulate them in any coherent way. Sometimes I did all right. “Unless she finds a way to heal him, both will lose their souls.” Those are pretty good stakes (in my opinion). Other times, not so much. “Unless she interferes, the world will be changed.” Um, okay? Mostly I think, “So what? Why is that a bad thing?” And I have a hard time answering. Especially in a 140-character pitch.

I even have a hard time finding the stakes in other authors’ works. Or caring about them. “If he doesn’t make the basketball team, he won’t get the girl.” So? Why don’t you find another girl who doesn’t require you to become someone you’re not? Which is another novel altogether, I suppose. Maybe choosing between trying to change yourself to suit someone else and learning to accept yourself and eventually find the way to happiness would make a good story, but what are the stakes there? I don’t get it. How would you turn that into a hook?

In Fantasy–in other words, in my genre–stakes are often huge: Death, Dismemberment, Apocalypse. I have a hard time caring about those standard tropes. Everyone dies, and the world as we know it won’t last forever. I’m interested in smaller things: personal trials, family problems, past trauma. Okay, maybe those aren’t categorically SMALL, but it’s hard to convey them in a few words. You have to care about the characters FIRST. THEN you’ll care about their experience. This is a difficult thing to express in a pitch or a blurb.

An early reader of She Moved Through the Fair told me she didn’t think Caitlin had a good reason to get involved in the plot because she wasn’t personally attached to the murder victim. There wasn’t any threat to her if she didn’t personally solve the murder; in fact, getting involved created the threat. I thought about that for a long time. Caitlin got involved because magic was the murder weapon and she was the only person aware of that fact. If she didn’t look into it, no one else would. In the end, I decided that was good enough. Her character, her sense of responsibility toward others within her particular field of expertise, was enough. Besides, the book isn’t really a Whodunnit. It’s about a load of other things, like wishes, and consequences, and desire.

I get tied up a lot because I don’t like making antagonists EVIL. Usually they have valid desires of their own; it’s their methods that are problematic, or they make stupid mistakes that put people at risk. The one time I invented a really evil antagonist, the whole time I was writing the book I kept thinking, “This is so stupid.” It’s my most popular novel so far.

A lot of authors take positive delight in doing horrible things to their characters. I don’t. I’ve gotten good mileage out of traumatizing my male protagonist, but I can’t keep doing that forever. I know I need to so something awful to a secondary character people care about soon, and I don’t want to!

I still haven’t found the stakes for book seven. I have a vague idea of something I might do, but once again a part of me is thinking, “It’s so stupid. I can never pull that off.”

Maybe that means I’m on the right track.



What I Learned from a Big Bookstore

Last weekend, my husband and I went to Grand Junction on errands. This is a thing we do from time to time, because we live in a small town where certain goods and services aren’t available. When we first moved here, we went “to town” at least once a month. As the years have gone by, however, we’ve become more small-townish ourselves, and the trips are much less frequent. Our tolerance for THE BIG CITY (population 60,000, more or less) has also dwindled, with the result that when we do go, we’re apt to accomplish a few of the things on our to-do list, get overwhelmed, and give up. So some of the things we used to do for recreation have fallen by the wayside.

One of the things we used to do was visit Barnes and Noble. As of last weekend, we hadn’t set foot inside in years. It was always a dicey proposition for me. I love books– considering my chosen profession, I’d better. But when I was first struggling with writing and publishing and all the self-doubt those incurred, seeing the shelves loaded with titles by authors who WEREN’T ME often caused me more anger and anxiety than anything else. Lots of reasons for this that I won’t go into here.

I’ve been in a “not-reading” phase since the beginning of the year. Most years, I read upwards of 100 books. Since January, though, I’ve had a hard time maintaining interest in anything. I read a few pages or a few chapters, and go back to Twitter. Even books I can tell are good don’t hook me. I’m not sure why this is the case; maybe the endless lure of Internet click-bait, available at the merest touch of my phone, is to blame. But it bothers me. I feel like I should be reading more. So, while we were in town, I suggested we go to Barnes and Noble, figuring that being surrounded by books might inspire me. I might stumble upon some gem of the written word that would make me want to read again.

At first, I felt hopeful. When I walked in the doors, it smelled like a bookstore: that mixture of paper, dust, and imagination no other shop can imitate. After a brief cruise through non-fiction and a stop at the restroom, I headed for the Science Fiction and Fantasy section, my natural home. And that’s when I noticed the changes.

I’m kicking myself for not taking pictures to illustrate this post. Initially, I didn’t have any intention of writing about the experience. By the time I did, I was so overwhelmed that I forgot I owned a body, much less a camera.

I couldn’t find SF/F at first, because it had shrunk from seven full rows of shelves to three, one of them dedicated to new releases. This disturbed me A LOT. Following the writers and agents I do on line, I’d seen certain types of Science Fiction and Fantasy described as “tough sells,” but I hadn’t imagined the entire genre had gone into collapse. When I started looking at the shelves, I got even more of a shock. A great many people whom I consider masters of the genre–Charles De Lint, Ursula K. Le Guin, Sherri S. Tepper, Diana Paxson, and others–didn’t appear at all. I didn’t even see any Heinlein or Asimov. Yet I didn’t see an overabundance of new names, either. Rather, the bulk of the shelf space was devoted to a few authors with high name recognition, usually from popular culture tie-ins or cross-media presence (i.e., writers of both comics and “word books”**). I’d already noticed that store offered a LOT more than it had in the way of games, toys, and collectibles, but they were doing a pop culture promotion so I figured that was why. Checking out the shelves changed my mind.

75% of the books on offer in SF/F were by men. I caught a few well-known women’s names–Robin Hobb, Mercedes Lackey, a mouldy volume of Melanie Rawn. All the women represented were writers of Fantasy. I happen to know women both read and write Science Fiction, but Barnes and Noble doesn’t seem to share this knowledge, or recognize its importance. Charlaine Harris, Laurel K. Hamilton and Kim Harrison, all authors of multi-volume series, were featured. In fact, they took up three whole shelves. This was the most presence given to women authors, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Paranormal and Paranormal Romance didn’t exist as genres the last time I set foot in the store. Harris and Hamilton used to be shelved in Mystery. They didn’t belong there, not really. But in my opinion, they don’t quite belong in Fantasy, either. Paranormal has a different flavor than either High Fantasy or Urban Fantasy, and I think it needs its own section.

Beyond this, I spotted another bothersome trend: Multiple editions of the same few titles. Particularly for titles with astronomical sales, it was usual to find two or three different trade editions as well as a mass market edition, and sometimes a hardcover. Many of these titles were shelved facing cover-outward, instead of spine-outward, which would have taken less space. George R. R. Martin’s books consumed more than an entire section of shelving in this fashion. I’m a Martin fan, myself, but how many editions of A Song of Ice and Fire does a person need? Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time received similar treatment, as did Tolkien. So did several straight Science Fiction authors, Larry Correa among them.

The multiple edition trend carried over into the Fiction and Literature section, where a large proportion of books offered a movie tie-in cover edition, a “classic” look edition, and something I can only describe as a “pretentious hipster” edition, meaning a book that will look cool when you read it at the coffee shop. I don’t like this trend. Showcasing multiple editions made me wonder how many lesser-known but deserving authors are passed over in the name of assuring space for so many different covers and trim sizes of bestsellers. The thing is, casual readers already KNOW about bestsellers. They’ve heard the buzz or they’ve seen the movie. These are books that people will ask for BY NAME. If they’re browsing, it’s likely they’ll know where to look. The same doesn’t hold true for lesser-known titles and what used to be called mid-list authors. Once you could stumble on them, hidden gems in a bestseller setting. Now bestsellers, instead of supporting new and different voices, hog all the space and there’s no mid list at all.

Fiction and Literature did have a fair share of woman authors, though. On the other hand, some genres that once had their own sections, such as Thriller and Horror, were now lumped into Fiction and Literature with nothing to distinguish them, so Stephen King appeared alongside Barbara Kingsolver and both shared the section with Jane Austen and T. H. White. This makes for a confusing browsing experience, and it also emphasizes how arbitrary a lot of genre distinctions have come to be, with authors mashing up elements like Time Travel and Romance or Procedural and History. Personally I think these mash-ups are great, by the way. And I understand the complications of figuring out where to put them without resorting to an infinite number of genre sections. However, I think it would be more helpful to the casual shopper at least to differentiate between Contemporary Fiction and Classic.

Some other things I noticed: Mystery has shrunk and Folklore and Fairy Tales has disappeared. Romance still has a substantial section, and contained the largest number of woman authors. (On the other hand, I have to wonder why Nicholas Sparks novels were shelved in Fiction and Literature when I found Jodi Picoult in Romance. Do you suppose it’s indicative of anything?) Graphic novels gained a section, as did books devote to Gaming, and there was a huge selection of Manga that didn’t exist before, almost as big as Mystery and SF/F combined. Joining the ranks of things non-existent at my last visit was a YA section very nearly as big as Fiction and Literature. Once upon a time, the few YA books available were located in the Children’s section. In this case, I was glad of the change.

I noticed topical and thematic trends as well as genre. Witches are big, both in Fantasy and YA. As a religious Witch, I have a hard time with this one. While some Witchy fiction gives a nod to difference in world view, most of it focuses on the light show (Paranormal does somewhat better here). Faeries and Fae-like beings are also big, and I also have difficulty with it. I admit to my attitude being the result of arrogance; I’m an amateur folklorist and I’ve studied Faerie lore most of my life. I also believe in the Fae. So seeing them portrayed as the latest incarnation of Elves, with little, if any, attention paid to the stories both disgusts me and strikes me as rather dangerous. In fact, I picked up a novel I’d seen people on Twitter raving about and put it down immediately when I read the back cover’s description of the Faeries involved. While I’m at it, I love “fairy tale” retellings. But really, how many interpretations of “Beauty and the Beast” does one need? (No offense to friends who have published retellings of “Beauty and the Beast.”)

Except in already popular series, vampires and shifters have fallen off, as has dystopia–though the YA section still had plenty of the latter.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing I noticed while I wandered the stacks was the absence of authors of color. I did see a few, like Laura Esquivel, in Fiction and Literature, where Like Water for Chocolate made a bizarre appearance on the New Titles shelf. But in YA, in SF/F, in Mystery and Romance, ALL the authors were white. No N. K Jemisin, who has been nominated for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy awards. No Octavia Butler, who is widely recognized as one of the Grande Dames of Science Fiction. No Samuel R. Delaney. From the books available, one would suppose that no People of Color ever become detectives, or have love affairs, or dream of space travel or becoming wizards. It’s unconscionable.

This is the point where I lost it and had to retreat to Starbucks for a restorative latte and croissant. The small section of the store roped off for coffee addicts was surrounded with racks displaying still more mass market copies of A Game of Thrones and a table covered with various editions of Go Tell a Watchman. Looking at Harper Lee’s novel, I thought about how unlikely it would be, in today’s publishing climate, for To Kill a Mockingbird ever to have been written. As you may have read, the classic grew out of a few pages of flashback in Watchman. A kindly editor to whom Lee had submitted the earlier work told her the real story was in that flashback and she should “rewrite” the book and resubmit. Would this happen today? I think not. People do still get R & R (rewrite and resubmit) recommendations, mainly from agents. But I have to wonder if something requiring so substantial a rewrite would ever get farther than a form rejection.

Incidentally, if I’m wrong, I’d like to hear about it (please keep it civil). From where I sit, it looks like publishing today mainly exploits trends until they no longer sell and then moves on in search of the next big thing. Wish lists for manuscripts ask for things that are different, but not TOO different, paying lip service to the desire for diverse voices while not challenging the status quo in any remarkable way. Editors in the big houses often come and go; few have the leisure to nurture potential. Books are a market, a commodity, and authors lie thick on the ground. I hear all the time, “we WANT to like your work!” But mostly this seems to me like a polite way of saying “we want to find out that your work fits into a particular, salable niche.”

As disturbing as I found my Barnes and Noble visit, I learned something important from it: I’m glad I chose to self-publish and I’m grateful for the technology that has allowed me to do so. Sometimes, when I see contacts and acquaintances posting about signing with agents or being picked up by a traditional publisher, I am envious and regretful. I wonder all the things self-published authors wonder (many of them, anyway): Was I just too impatient? Too resistant to learning the ropes? Too cantankerous? Is my work itself flawed? Do I write less well than I like to believe? And if I answer these questions in the negative, am I lying to myself?

I believe not. I believe that really, I’m too idiosyncratic a writer, with too different a world view–not to mention life experience–for the traditional publishing world to make sense for me. I might have been able to hook an agent; once I figured out how to write queries and synopses and all the rest, I got requests on a regular basis. I might even have been picked up. But if my bookstore experience is any indication, even IF those things had happened, I would have been unlikely to find my work on the shelves at a major retailer.

I absolutely don’t dismiss out of hand the value of traditional publishing. Truth is, once I get through the current Caitlin Ross book, I’m going to excuse myself from that world for a while and work on some things that I think will do better in a traditional market, because that interests me. There are a lot of advantages to it, and it works for many writers. Even so, it seems clear to me that, despite its problems, self-publishing is home to most of the innovation in the field and gives a greater welcome to diversity. That’s important to me, so I’m glad that’s where I ended up.

**”word books” coined by Greta Ladson

Writing About Witches: Ten Tired Tropes

I get sad sometimes when I follow the #WeNeedDiverseBooks tag or see a discussion on the Internet about the need for diversity in fiction. Please don’t get me wrong: I altogether agree with the sentiment. The voices of People of Color, people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples, minority religions, and LGBTQ+ people, among others, are underrepresented in fiction. WOMEN are still underrepresented in the book world. No question about it, the movement towards more diversity is necessary.

So why are people still writing the same old stories and using the same tired tropes about Witches and Magic?

Pagan religions are a minority, with about a million practitioners in the United States and about 3 million worldwide, although numbers are hard to determine; many Pagans remain closeted due to misconceptions perpetuated in the media and ongoing discrimination. As well, even among ourselves Pagans disagree about terminology. Some include Indigenous religions and their offshoots, and some don’t. Some claim the term “Pagan” but not the term “Witch,” and vice versa. For an outsider interested in writing an engaging story, wading through all the differences may seem like more trouble than it’s worth. But the fact remains that we are a real minority religion, and very few authors who are not some manner of Pagan themselves give attention to that, or do in depth research into Pagan practices that they would for any other minority religion. When Witches and Magic appear in fiction, they almost always succumb to clichés . And this perpetuates harmful stereotypes, the same way it does when you resort to stock depictions of other marginalized groups.

I think a lot of this is due to the fact that the Pagan world view is so different from that of other dominant religions at this point in history. Even if you don’t subscribe to one of the dominant religions, their ethos, myth, and outlook have shaped the world, particularly Western culture, for the last two thousand years. They influence the way people think and the stories we tell, and those thoughts and stories show up in the art we produce unless we challenge them. The problem is, most people coming from a majority viewpoint don’t even understand that their views don’t apply to everyone. It’s “just the way the world works.” When you operate under that assumption, you have no reason to ask the questions that will lead you deeper. Anybody can do an Internet search and learn enough in an hour to give a fictional Witch a veneer of reality. You can find out the basic belief structure and the basic shape of ritual. But this isn’t enough to instill a real understanding of what it means to be a Pagan: how we look at the world, how we interact with the forces we know as divine, and how we relate to those around us.

Can you write a witchy character without bringing religion into it? I want to tell you, “Sure, go ahead!” Witches are powerful archetypes and they’re prominent in fairy tales and folklore for a reason! Unfortunately, a lot of the reasons the witch archetype is powerful are innately linked to systems of oppression society has deployed against non-conforming individuals for hundreds of years. This includes the rationalist belief that witches and magic aren’t real. I can’t see a much better way to erase a minority than to claim they don’t exist. You can see a similar thing in the way some still claim that sexual orientation and non-conforming gender identity are “disorders” that need to be fixed. There are no doubt people who identify as witches without claiming any religion, just as there are cultures (usually Indigenous ones) where the word that translates most closely to “witch” refers to a person who is categorically harmful and evil. In my opinion, however, we have enough stories where this is the case and religious witches deserve to see ourselves accurately represented as much as anyone else. To that end, I’m compiling this list of ten tropes I’m tired of seeing in the hopes that someone might find it educational and useful.

#10: You Can Tell A Witch By Looking

laurie cabot quote

The irony of the Laurie Cabot quote aside, Witches DO look like everyone else. You can no more tell a Witch by looking than you can a Catholic, or a Presbyterian, or a Jew. Still, most of the time when Witches appear in books, they look strange. Whether as Goths or Hippies, we’re presented as outsiders in dress as well as belief. And often our tastes are outré even for the subculture. Sure, there are Goth Witches and Hippie Witches. There are also Preppy Witches and Witches in the Military and Witches like me, who mainly wear T-shirts and sweat pants (or jeans for special occasions). The reasons most Witches look “normal” are 1. we’re human beings and 2. in a lot of places in the USA (I don’t really know about other countries) you get shit for looking different. You especially get shit for having an appearance people might associate with stereotypes of scary black magic. And by “getting shit,” I mean anything from catcalls and literal mudslinging to being murdered in the name of Jesus. So it’s no wonder many actual Witches and Pagans would want to dress as unobtrusively as possible. The pictures you see of people like Laurie Cabot and Druids in robes at the local park are most often people who have made a special dedication to the religious life and/or in a position of enough social and financial privilege that they are safe being obvious.

#9: Witches Are Hyper Sexual
How 'bout that cauldron of red-hot love?
How ’bout that cauldron of red-hot love?

How many times have we seen the plain girl discover her occult power and turn into a glamorous bombshell? Way too many. This trope comes from common understanding of many types of Paganism as fertility religions and quotes like “All acts of love and pleasure are my rituals” (From “The Charge of the Goddess,” written by Gerald Gardner and stolen from Aleister Crowley), as well as a prurient focus on “The Great Rite” as popularized by Raymond Buckland, among others. Please note that all of these were white men of privilege who had certain views about the roles of women, even if they tried to oversome them. It leads to random guys showing up at rituals expecting to get laid because “Witches are easy” and lobbing shit around like, “If you’re serious about honoring the Goddess, you need to sleep with me.”

Most Witches and Pagans believe that things of the earth and the body, including sex, are just as sacred (if not more so) as things of the spirit. This is true. It’s also true that most of us see it as important to all, and women especially, to reclaim sex and beauty as the powerful expressions of self that they are for many and dispense with messages we may have absorbed that sex is wrong, dirty, or otherwise a bad thing. In this way, a character’s transformation from mousy to mouthwatering can be an appropriate metaphor. Unfortunately, most places where it appears fail to put the change into any kind of context.  If I see another drawing of a teen witch in a mini skirt flipped up to reveal her panties, my head is going to explode. Our religious beliefs don’t exist to titillate you. Please stop.

#8: All Witches Are Women

No explanation necessary. It’s not true. Yes, in most Pagan sects women hold equal power to men and in many women hold greater power. There are quiet a few sects that are woman only. That doesn’t diminish the fact that men can also be Witches. Please show some. And by the way, male Witches are Witches, not Warlocks.

#7: The Mysterious Spellbook

book of shadows

The character inherits it, or finds it in an attic or used book store. Maybe they read it out loud on a lark or to make fun of it, or maybe they want it to work because their life sucks. And WHAMMO! It does work! Shit, what now?

There are so many problems with this that I actually have to unpack them in separate tropes. In the main, despite the fact that words are magical, reading a spell–even out loud–does not guarantee the spell works. Also, Witches often keep Books of Shadows (I’m sure you’ve heard of the practice). They are a sacred object, and it’s demeaning to see them treated as a joke or a plot device in this way. It’s analogous to having a character read The Bible aloud and cause Jesus to manifest. Don’t.

#6: The Magical Destiny

Often appears in company with the mysterious spellbook. The 90s TV show, Charmed, is a prime example. Character or characters inherit or find spellbook and discover they’re Witches. The next thing you know, they’re tossing fireballs around and fighting demons. As much as we might like it to, Magic doesn’t work like that. You might be born with an aptitude for it, but you’re about as likely to accomplish amazing feats on the first try as a person with a talent for playing the flute is to perform Bach’s First Flute Sonata they first time they pick up the instrument. They simply won’t have developed the necessary skills and coordination. Finding out you have a destiny doesn’t change that.

#5: Magic Is Inherently Dangerous/Inevitably Will Cause Harm/Go Wrong

I see this trope in a lot of Epic Fantasy as well as Supernatural and Paranormal fiction. In a way, it also is a standard of fairy tales featuring Witches. The Witch always loses in the end, whether she gets pushed into an oven or whether the hero steals the required magical objects, murders her family, and abandons her on a glacier. The message is the same: Look what happens to people who mess around with these things. This is a problem because cautionary tales of this nature are often used by people in positions of power to prevent others from gaining the ability to challenge them, or simply becoming empowered in their own right. (You can see this working in so-called “abstinence only sex education,” with its focus on all the terrible stuff that will happen to you if you have sex.) And it encompasses another idea I’ve run across more than once, that “An untrained magic user is a danger to themselves and everyone around them.” Usually this leads to the magic user in question being given the particular training sanctioned by the relevant government. Which I find interesting, to say the least. (Disclaimer: I have read a few books of this type where the magic user later falls in with “outsiders” and learns about the gaps in the government-sanctioned training.)

Magic as modern Witches and Pagans know it doesn’t work that way. As I said above, it’s HIGHLY unlikely that a person without training would be able to move enough energy to level a city or cause some other kind of disaster. People have defined magic in a lot of different ways: as the ability to effect change in accordance with the will (Crowley), as a talent for seeing things sideways and responding appropriately, as “the art of changing consciousness at will.” (Dion Fortune) I see it as a process of bringing the known self into line with the potential self and with the forces, both seen and unseen, that underlie events. It’s a discipline much like yoga or meditation, with the difference that it’s often geared towards material change rather than only a change in consciousness. In that respect, it makes about as much sense to assume an untrained magic user is a danger as it does to assume an untrained yoga practitioner is. A beginner who attempts something beyond their ability might pull a muscle, rarely more.

Magic requires focused intent to work. The ability to focus on a specific intent, without the intrusion of hopes, fears, unconscious desires, and the like, does not come easily. If intent falters, the energy dissipates. It doesn’t get out of control or go on to wreak havoc.

This trope encompasses those instances of the power-hungry coven leader being led astray by some supernatural entity (I’m looking at you, True Blood), becoming deluded, and otherwise succumbing to evil that the (morally pure) protagonist has to avert somehow. Notice how these coven leaders are almost always women? There’s a reason for that.

#4: Love Spells

love spell

I’m giving this one a section of its own because love spells have a nasty habit of working, often in ways the one casting it doesn’t foresee or like. I think this is because everyone on some level wants love, so you don’t have to reach too far for the intent. A love spell going wrong is a common trope all by itself.

In some traditions love spells are not seen as problematic. You can buy ready made ones from the Internet: Burn the candle at the appropriate phase of the moon, recite the charm, add these herbs to your bath, and Bob’s your uncle. Feminist Witches, however, tend to see them as unethical because you’re using your intent to affect another person WITHOUT THEIR CONSENT. It’s the magical equivalent of drugging someone’s drink, and as such should not be played for laughs. In fact, no magic that affects another person should be performed without their knowledge or consent, no matter WHAT your intent is. Even healing. Ask first. In writing, please refrain from having your character(s) do this unless they are the villain. It’s the spiritual and magical equivalent of rape.

#3: Summoning Demons/The Devil/Angels/Etcetera

This is one where the opposing world view problem really comes to the fore. You may have heard that Witches don’t believe in the Devil, and the orgiastic sabbat where we all lined up to kiss his infernal arse was an invention of the Inquisition. Yes and no. It may or may not be true about the sabbats; there are a variety of explanations, including mass hysteria, ergot poisoning, and Morris Dancing gone wrong. The question of “belief” is a little harder to answer, but the pertinent information is that “The Devil” as defined by the Christian Church is not part of our cosmology. Do I believe there IS such an entity? Actually, yeah, I do. People have fed way too much energy into that thought form for it not to exist. But it’s part of the Christian cosmology, not ours. Same with demons and angels. Sure, they exist. We don’t run in the same circles.

So when I read about some witches summoning any of these entities, my first question is always, “Why?” Because they’re ignorant and happened on a spell? I already explained why that’s unlikely to work. For kicks? Honey, if you’re stupid enough to place a prank call to Lucifer and you get through, you deserve what you get. It all boils down, once again, to intent. Now, it may be that a Witch would have a really good reason to contact an entity from this cosmology, and there are traditions that mix and match pantheons. There are indigenous traditions with their own demons and guardian spirits, as well. So this is my take. The main thing to remember is, you don’t do this on a lark. For gods’ sake, do your research.

While I’m on the subject of summoning, I ran across a “spell for summoning the ancestors” the other day. I had an issue with this. In traditions that practice ancestor worship, you might get in touch with them, honor them, or otherwise approach your ancestors, but you wouldn’t “summon” them. They’re already there. This is another world view conflict. The major religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, but also Buddhism, believe in a transcendent spirituality. That is, the gods, other supernatural entities, and heaven lie OUTSIDE the material and’/or outside mortal ken, and are most often seen as superior to it. There is a stated goal to escape the world and its suffering. Paganism and many Indigenous traditions are religions of immanence. That means everything is present right here, seen and unseen. We talk about the World-That-Is, and it encompasses gods, monsters, mortals, ghosts, rocks, animals, death, life, and the spaces between. It all IS. This is a difficult thing for many outsiders to grasp.

Another thing that often occurs with this trope is that the (female) Witches call up a (male) entity that takes over their lives and leads them to destruction or otherwise causes them to experience BAD THINGS. This is what incensed me about The Witches of Eastwick. In the first place, it perpetuates the stale notion that women doing magic < men doing magic; in fact, a whole group of women doing magic often doesn’t measure up to a single man doing magic. It taps into the idea that women are easily misled and manipulated. And it encompasses the trope I’ve mentioned above, about magic always being dangerous. So please don’t so this one, either.

#2: Tarot Cards

So many stories of a Supernatural or Paranormal bent that I’ve read feel obligated to insert the obligatory, gratuitous card-reading scene. When I was hanging out more on writing forums a few years ago, I saw a question about this every week. Most often they appeared in this form: “I want my protagonist to have a card reading done that predicts such-and-so. What cards mean that?”

Stop. Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that. I’ve read Tarot for forty years, professionally for thirty. Tarot doesn’t work that way. Divination doesn’t work that way. Don’t buy a deck and take your meanings from the included booklet. It looks ridiculous. Tarot and other divinatory tools help people gain insight into themselves and their circumstances. They don’t predict the future, and the meanings of a reading are seldom straightforward. There can be many interpretations. If you MUST, take a class from a reputable reader or read a decent book on the subject, buy a deck, and spend a couple months learning how it works. Really, I’d prefer it if you left out that card scene altogether.

#1: Blood Magic

Blood is old. Blood is powerful. Some traditions practice blood sacrifice. It is always performed by someone trained to do it, for specific reasons. In the Pagan community, it’s a divisive subject.

I gave this the number one spot on the list because blood sacrifice is the without a doubt the most sensational thing non-conforming religions do. Practitioners of Santeria and Vodoun have fought legal battles to be allowed to continue the custom. It strikes a dissonant chord with outsiders for all kinds of reasons: Because of the association with death, because you shouldn’t do that to the poor animals, because Jesus died to make blood sacrifice unnecessary, whatever. Books and movies and TV shows present it in the most sensational way possible. This actively harms practitioners of minority religions. Every time you show a character you call a witch draining the blood from a rat and using it to write a spell, you are reinforcing the dangerous stereotype that we commit gratuitous and unthinking acts of violence and that we have no respect for life. Stay away from it. I know it’s great shock value. That’s precisely why you should NOT indulge in it. Real people practice Pagan religions, and these real people will be the ones hurt if the neighbors take against them. In fact, history has shown that witchcraft hysteria sweeps up innocents who simply don’t look right or who act in ways that communities find threatening. This is not the past. It’s still going on. Don’t add fuel to the fire. Especially don’t add it because the ones who suffer most are People of Color, the mentally ill, and others who push the comfort level of privileged society. (I’ve heard anecdotes of Caucasian witches being harassed out of their homes, but I couldn’t find any documentation.)

This is my list of tropes I’d like to see vanish from fiction about witches. Paganism being what it is, others will no doubt have their own, and many will disagree with what I’ve said. That’s fine with me. I just want our voices to be heard and our lives to be represented, same as anyone.


Carving Up Writer’s Block

The other day on my Twitter feed, I stumbled into a conversation about writer’s block. I’ve addressed the topic before in other blogs, but never here. And I wouldn’t have decided to address it here, excepting that the conversation shed some light on an issue I’ve been peripherally aware of for a long time: Whether or not writer’s block actually exists. (Spoiler: I believe it does.)

If you want, you can read some articles supporting the idea that writer’s block is a myth here, here, and here. You can even reference this Google search. All of the articles dismissing writer’s block as a real phenomenon say pretty much the same thing: It’s an excuse people make for not doing the work. It’s lazy and you should “just power on through it.” Sometimes people will acknowledge that maybe there is some other thing–life stress, a change in the weather, self-doubt–interfering with a person’s ability to write. But writer’s block as an issue in and of itself…no, that’s not possible.

All right: Nothing exists in a vacuum. Writer’s block as I have experienced it is intimately related to many other factors, and the presence of those other factors may make writer’s block more likely to appear. (In disease theory, this is known as “co-morbidity.”) But dismissing writer’s block because other things may contribute to it is like dismissing someone’s depression because they also suffer from hypothyroidism. Treating the second does not necessarily cure the first. Also, I’m going to come right out and say that any time I hear anyone say “It’s a lazy excuse and you should just muscle through,” or if I read those words, my head explodes. It’s an ignorant and judgmental stance. “Lazy” is a word meant to shame, both when other people use it toward you or you use it on yourself. It comes from a reality where everyone must be engaged in productive industry all the time, where work for its own sake is accounted the highest virtue. After all, you don’t want to go to hell like those naked heathens who pull fruit off the trees and lounge naked on the beach all day! White Westerners have a tendency to believe that any easy path is invalid, and it shows up in attitudes toward making art as well as in everything else. And as for “just muscle through,” that advice may be wonderful for healthy folks in ideal situations. It’s not the reality of most people most of the time.

Is it, or is it not, an actual thing?
Is it, or is it not, an actual thing?

So what is writer’s block?

I actually think about this a lot, because although I have “been a writer” virtually all my life (okay, since first grade), when I add up all the years, I have spent a great many more of them not writing than I have writing. Sometimes it’s been through choice, and sometimes not. Sometimes I’ve had ideas that fizzled when I tried to put them on the page, sometimes I’ve had ideas too distant or uninteresting in the moment for me to put them in any coherent form, and sometimes I’ve had no ideas at all. All those experiences are subjectively different. So are all of them writer’s block? Some of them? None at all?

I think any discussion of writer’s block needs to begin with defining what it means to be a writer. My handy dictionary tells me “writer” means “1. One who has written something” or “2. One who writes as an occupation, an author. ” This is practically useless, because it encompasses just about every literate person on the planet. If I go to “author,” the results aren’t much better. I find 1. “The original writer of a literary work,” 2. “One who practices writing as a profession,” and 3. “The original creator of anything.” I could go on unpacking by looking up “literary,” or “profession,” or even “creator.” It wouldn’t be helpful.

Looking at my writing friends and my life experience, my personal definition of “writer” is as follows: “A person who is dedicated to the process of making art with words as their medium.” I find this a useful definition, because it encompasses both those who write as a profession and those who don’t (or don’t yet), those who are currently engaged in “writing behavior” and those who, for one reason or another aren’t. “Writing behavior,” to me, describes the Gestalt of the writing experience and can include research, plotting, thinking about what happens next, and even sitting in your recliner staring into space while things gel as well as the act of setting words on the page. Since every person’s process is different, everyone’s writing behavior is also going to look a little different from everyone else’s. AND THAT’S FINE. It’s up to every artist to find their own definition of success, and their own way of achieving it.

Digression: This is the main reason I have an extremely hard time with “writing rules.” Rules–especially rules about art–presuppose everyone has the same process and that there’s some magic code for unlocking success. It ain’t true. I have a particular dislike of the biggest rule of all: Write Every Day. What other profession requires of its practitioners that they go to work every single day, whether they feel like it or not? You don’t hear “Paint Every Day” or “Do Spreadsheets Every Day.” Granted, working in the arts differs substantially from working in an office or as a physician. There are times when you DO engage in your art every day, especially if you’re learning a new technique or absorbed in a new piece. And since art, and one’s relationship to it, is ever-changing, it’s a good idea to keep your hand in. But once you reach a certain level of skill and professionalism, writing simply to write every day can be a waste of energy. [N.B. As far as arts go, music and acting are a bit different because they’re more body-centered. When I don’t play the flute or sing for an extended period of time, I lose skill. I get rusty. I don’t experience the same thing with writing. Even so, taking a weekend or a few days off from scales and tunes actually makes you better when you pick up your instrument again, because you’ve had a chance to absorb the practice. And in this case, the experience of writing is the same.]

burning words
And so it begins…


Will you PLEASE get to the point?

Okay, fine. Writer’s block. In my experience, there are three kinds. I’m not saying these are the only kinds, mind. But these are the ones I’ve been through personally and feel competent to discuss: Depression-related, Fear-centered, and Wrong Direction. They can occur simultaneously (there’s that co-morbidity factor again) and in any combination of intensity.

Depression-related writer’s block is both the easiest and the hardest to deal with, and it’s the one that’s most interfered with my engaging in writing behavior. When I first started writing in a serious way, around about eighth grade, it was all joy and puppies. Writing was my escape and my haven. I loved the process of letting the story unfold, the time when I entered a different world where nothing hurt me. I loved the feeling of doing something I was good at. I looked forward to opening up my notebook and taking up my special pen and seeing what happened next. It was delightful and it was easy. I didn’t have to struggle the way I did in my non-writing life. Every contest I entered, I won first prize, and that was pretty keen, too.

And then my depression got worse and the words dried up. Just like that. One day I opened up my notebook, more out of habit than for any other reason, and I felt nothing at all. The story didn’t come, the characters didn’t speak, and I didn’t see the landscape. I’d stopped caring.

For at least five years after that, I didn’t write at all. Not a single word. Not even in my journal. I didn’t agonize over it, because I was too sick. I wasn’t even sure I’d live to see the next day–no one was–so whether or not I wrote wasn’t important. When I came out of that first bad episode, I remembered my writing self, and for the next ten years or so I sometimes wrote and sometimes didn’t. I dropped into and out of degree programs in writing and turned out the occasional short story when the spirit moved me. But mostly it didn’t move me. I got down on myself for “being lazy” and “waiting around for inspiration,” both of which I had learned were the wrong way to go about writing. But the truth was, when I didn’t have any inspiration, I didn’t have anything. I lacked the spark, the thing that made me write in the first place. So I figured I wasn’t a writer at all. I did some other things. I got a degree in Dance Therapy and worked as a counselor in a women’s shelter. I facilitated workshops on women’s spirituality. I developed a radio show.

In my better times, the times when I felt most alive, I still wrote. I actually finished a couple first drafts of novels (including the one that would become The Unquiet Grave). More often, I got halfway through a story, lost my impetus, and stopped. Not because I didn’t want to do the work. Because I didn’t care.

In the mid-2000s, my depression got debilitating again. I did virtually nothing for five years but sit on the couch and stare into space, and I ended up hospitalized and over-medicated. Eventually, late in 2009, after trying about every antidepressant medication on the market and many combinations thereof, my doctor prescribed me a new one, and it worked.  Before that point, I had never believed the stories of antidepressants changing people’s lives, but that one did. By January of 2010, I had started writing again. It wasn’t hard or unnatural. I didn’t have to think about it. I just opened up the manuscript of The Unquiet Grave and began to work, as if I had never left off. Since then, I’ve taken a few breaks (some lengthy). But I’ve never again lost the ability to write at all.

That’s what it looked like when I couldn’t write because of depression (and I want to make it clear that I mean the debilitating mental illness and not just feeling blue and out of sorts, or even lacking energy because of other life factors). I couldn’t “muscle through” because there was no muscle and no through. It was the hardest thing to conquer because it took thirty years of trying different medications before anyone even invented one that worked on my brain chemistry. It was the easiest because I’d also done thirty years of therapy, so once the meds kicked in everything fell into place. I didn’t have to work or try–not very hard, anyway. The words returned in the same way they had dried up, suddenly and without warning.

If you are clinically depressed or believe you might be, GET HELP. Find someone to talk to. Use your support system. Talk to your doctor or another person you trust. You may want to try the medication route. Keep in mind that psychoactive medication does not work for everyone, and even when it works, it takes time.

What it feels like. (Image credit: Joel Holland)
What it feels like.
(Image credit: Joel Holland)

Fear-centered writer’s block is the one I believe most people think of when the term comes up. It’s probably the most common, and it may be the most responsive to the advice to “power on through.” The tricky thing about it is that we don’t always know what we’re afraid of, or even that fear is the thing keeping us from writing. Fear is a difficult emotion to process, and our culture doesn’t make it any easier by painting fear in a negative light, as something only weak people experience. So when you have a fear-centered block, it can present a lot of different ways. It might be a lack of interest or an inability to focus. It might be that the ideas you came up with in the coffee shop, or on your daily walk, or lying in bed at night dribble away or vanish when you try to put them on the page. You might make excuses for not writing, like not having time or other things in your life being a priority right now. This is when turning writing into a discipline by setting aside a dedicated time to write regularly and sticking to it whether or not you feel like it can actually be helpful. And for some people, this works.

The problem is, when you “power on through,” you haven’t actually faced the fear that’s causing the block in the first place. And when you don’t confront a fear, it finds ways to come back and bite you in the ass. So while it might work in the short run to work on your discipline, in the long game it’s possible that writing will become harder and harder until you’re banging your head against your desk because you simply can’t make it work. Or you get stuck on writing the same page over and over, “making it better,” because every time you look at it you only see the flaws. And this reinforces all the negative self-talk that likely is the source of your fear.

In this case, what you need to do it take a deep breath and ask yourself what you’re afraid of. Try to be honest. Some fears are common. People fear the empty page. This is one I’ve never had to deal with personally, so I’m afraid I’m not really sure what it’s about–maybe the idea that YOU’RE ABOUT TO CREATE SOMETHING AND IT HAS TO BE SIGNIFICANT takes over. To this I can only say, nothing has to be anything. Loosen up. A description of your cat sleeping or of your lunch is still writing, even if it isn’t the Great American Novel that will win awards and earn millions. Let go of your expectations of yourself. Give yourself a break. Every writer churns out thousands and thousands of words that never see the light of day, much less publication, and that’s fine. Or maybe you have an image labeled “WRITER” somewhere in your brain and the idea that you might not measure up terrifies you. In that case, too, it’s maybe a good idea to go back to the simple dictionary definition: A writer is a person who has written something. There’s no value judgment involved. If you’ve passed notes in school, you’ve written something. Maybe someone–or multiple people–has dismissed your ability, or your dream, or sneered at the idea of you being a writer, and you want to prove them wrong by making a success at it. Maybe there’s a quiet voice in your brain telling you “maybe they were right all along!” This is a lot of baggage you’re bringing along to your work. I’ve found an effective technique for dealing with it is to make a pact with yourself, and with that doubt, that you’re not going to bring that baggage into your writing time. You write for you and not that voice. So what it thinks doesn’t matter.

Another thing I’ve discovered about fear-centered writer’s block is that it often strikes when you’re about to get better at writing. Remember how I described writing being easy and full of joy, way back in the long ago (both of my life and of this blog post)? A lot of that writing, from a critical standpoint, wasn’t very good. It was derivative and it rambled. The characters didn’t have clear motivations, and I had no idea how to plot. Later, I discovered that good writing is actually work, and that it doesn’t happen quickly. My joy level diminished exponentially because I was no longer able to fall right into a different world. I had to think about it. And when my joy level diminished, I began to wonder why I was writing in the first place. Not being able to answer this question kept me from writing at all. I had to make a leap of faith, convince myself that whether I experienced joy in the moment or not didn’t really matter, because the act of writing mattered. When I realised this, I started writing again and the writing was better. I’ve gone through this cycle over and over again, and I’ve learned that some days are great and some aren’t; some days I’m “in the zone” and some days I’m not. And this is okay. I miss the joy and the spark when they aren’t there. I feel frustration on the days when writing is drudgery. But I don’t waste time on longing for it (not much, anyway), or berate myself for not experiencing it.

In the end, you have a lot of power over fear-centered writer’s block, because you’re the only one who can figure out the nature of your fear and what you need to do about it. If sometimes that means stepping away for a while, that’s okay. (Yeah, it becomes more frightening and problematic if you’re operating under a deadline. But even in that case, taking a reasonable break usually does more good than harm.)

My brain on bad days.
My brain on bad days.

I guess Going the Wrong Direction may not be a type of block on its own, but I mentioned it, so I’m going to talk about it (even though this blog is already 3000 words long and shows no sign of ending anytime soon). It has a lot in common with fear-centered block, and is sometimes a result of it. I experience it often, both in regards to pieces of projects and projects as a whole. What happens is this: I start out great guns one a book or a chapter, and the writing gets slower and slower and harder and harder until I give up. Then I sit around on my ass for a while. I complain that I don’t like what I’m doing. I complain that it doesn’t make sense, or it drags–this is a HUGE indication–or it doesn’t feel right in some indefinable way. I can’t think what happens next. I can’t see the scene or hear the characters talking. I’m not THERE. I’m stuck. I piss and moan to my husband for a few days, and eventually something clicks. And inevitably what I realise is that I am going the wrong way. I’m writing the wrong book, or the wrong chapter. I have to back up and start over.

This, incidentally, is why Book Four of the Caitlin Ross series is a prequel instead of a story that continues the internal timeline. After finished A Maid in Bedlam, I tried to go right on into the next book. I wrote 400 pages and stopped because something was off. I cut 200 pages and wrote 200 more, and stopped again. I abandoned the project and didn’t write much for the next year because of life. When I did start writing again, I wrote The Parting Glass because I had NO IDEA how to deal with the next events in the timeline. After finishing The Parting Glass, I went this way and that way–tens of thousands of words that were fine words, but they just didn’t work. Finally I realised I was starting the book in the wrong place. I had jumped too far ahead in the continuity, and I needed to look at an earlier point. By a strange coincidence, this earlier point took me to a story I had thought of before but was afraid to write for various reasons. Out of fear, I made a conscious decision NOT to write the story that needed written. Once I faced the fear and decided to write the story anyway, the block dissolved. This is a good example of how fear-centered writer’s block and going the wrong direction can work in concert.

There’s always a reason not to write, and many of them are valid. Not all of them constitute writer’s block, and most of them have to do with a writer’s particular process. Some people can come home from working a day job eight hours and jump into another five to six hours of writing (I have a suspicion these people are extraverts, and I have no idea when they sleep). Some people don’t have the energy or even the desire to write after working a day job, so if they want to dedicate time to writing they need to find another way. Both these paths are legitimate. There’s no one right way to be a writer; in fact, thinking there is and trying to fit yourself into a box where you don’t belong probably causes more writer’s block than anything else.

In writing, being your authentic self is the best way to be. Depression, fear, and mistrust can interfere with your ability to be that self. Developing awareness can help you chip away at all those things and become better able to convert your writer’s block to dust. And sculpture, of course.


The Challenges of Being a Self-Published Author

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.

Look at all that sun you're wasting and the beautiful woods you could be tramping through!
Look at all that sun you’re wasting and the beautiful woods you could be tramping through!

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 should probably do this right now and get it over with.
I should probably do this right now and get it over with.

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.

As the man said.
As the man said.

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.

What my process feels like.

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.


We Still Have A Long Way To Go

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.”

Condescend, much?

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.

In her speech at the national book awards, Ursula K. LeGuin said:

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.