Wednesday 2 October 2013

The Process & the Eternal Amateur

For me personally, and for most writers I know with any kind of deeper familiarity, nothing is as fascinating as that mystery wrapped in an enigma we call "The Process". I think that's why many of us are "how-to" book junkies and we read all the interviews to crack the magic code of how to write, write faster, write better, sell, sell more.

I've coached and taught writers for a long, long time (10+ years), and I have a large toolbox of tips and tricks, partially cribbed from famous writers, friends, or from observing my own Process.

The fascination with The Process is plugged right into many of our vital systems. It's not just money, it's identity. The moment we define ourselves as "WRITERS", the ability to produce and sell becomes part of our DNA and turns from a possibility to create to a requirement to create. In short, we go from "can" to "must".

This is, of course, often fueled by the very real need to make money (whether to pay bills or have something to show to our partners who meanwhile do the cooking and shopping and often win the majority of the bread or for us to win bragging rights at parties - people don't respect writers until they've published. Everybody writes - few publish).

Hacking "The Process" and optimising it therefore can become a career-long obsession. I know it's been that for me. Still is. No day passes where I don't look down at my navel and think about what it all means.

I know writers who flail about The Process so much that they don't get any writing done. They're like birds who were flying just fine and then suddenly seem to realise how complex flying really is and then start to look like albatrosses that are not assisted by a friendly updraft at the right time.

I know writers who have their Process down to a science - including reliable wordcount on 99% of their days. Writers who know exactly how many weeks a novel will take, or can plan the production of a a novella down to the day.

My Process has evolved over about 26 years (holy crap, I've been at this for a long time, you'd think I know what the hell I'm doing).

1) Literary diary-keeping. I used to write as a teenager, and the plot was ... eh, it didn't really happen. Characters did stuff, but none of it had coherence and nothing really made sense. The characters themselves were thinly-disguised rip-offs of whatever character I was reading or obsessing about. To my credit, though, I skipped the "author insert" stage of juvenile fiction, at least as far as I can remember. My own identity was already so fraught at that stage that I essentially masked and compartmentalised from the start. The writing itself was driven by the knowledge that nobody cared and there would be no publication.

2) Writing for an audience of 1-3. I moved on, roughly when I turned 16ish, to writing about characters and I was beginning to share stuff with my best friends. Gods bless'em, but they cared and wanted to know what happened next. Plot was still thin on the ground, but I created some kick-ass characters. I also became more original overall. (This is when Silvio was born.) I still didn't have much plot - when I was written out, I just killed the characters off (though Silvio refused to die). I did manage to type up a short story and sell it, but it was written without much awareness of anything. I wrote it for the money, though.

3) Awareness of craft. See, Germany "in my day" didn't have much creative writing literature or infrastructure. It seems Germany hopes that writers spring, fully-formed, from the brow of Zeus. But I did learn some structural things in German lit class in school. I even applied it. One friend kept badgering me that my stories didn't have "arches" or "nothing really happened", so I was very aware that there was something missing that people were looking for. I joined creative writing groups. The one at university really helped - the lecturer looked at style and structure. And, combing back through some of my juvenalia, there were some seeds of some decent stories in there. I wrote more regularly, with the idea to finish. I sold a novella, which I'd written from my guts, very much. An idea that just ripped itself free. The money was enough to pay my rent for three months. Clearly, I was destined for greatness.

4) Learning and teaching the craft. I bought every book on creative writing I could afford and get my hands on. I also borrowed some. I wrote and published novels with Random House/Heyne Germany. Friends and I were teaching writers how to apply that. (Still very little infrastructure.) I worshiped at the altar of Sol Stein's "On Writing" (still a book I'd recommend).

5) Crisis of confidence. I emigrated. All my precious German-focused knowledge was gone and the fear of being "unable to compete with natives" petrified me. This intersected with the realization that I might be half as talented as my literary agents told me I was, but I couldn't write the things that "sell". I had no job after university, and basically sank into depression. I spent most of my creative energy on roleplaying games, online and off.

6) "Just playin'". Despite all the fears, I still wrote a little bit. I finished a novel that had bested me at every turn because the main character refused to play ball. The four books before that one were all outlined and planned and co-written, so they had natural structure. That last book, though, didn't. I laboured under it for a good 18 months. No outline or system would work. I'd quite literally "lost the plot". Considering I made only a month's salary from the book, that was an unacceptably long time to write anything. I'm still mildly scared to look at that book again, though I do think it might be the best thing I've done in German. Or maybe my agony shines through. After that I swore never to write without an outline again. Well. Then I got involved with "Special Forces", which was just playing on the page, riding kinks, writing sex, and keeping myself entertained. That led right to writing m/m and discovering people pay money for that ("There's a market?!") and yes, I could compete with the natives in their own language.

7) "Trying to go pro." So over time, I went back to outlining and running a fairly tight ship. The first couple years were haphazard, partly because of stressful day jobs. Partly because I was playing. Partly because I was looking for my themes and trying to learn the genre, or at least learn what works and what doesn't. I had a decent output, but not much success. Though the harder I worked, the deeper I dug, the harder I edited, things were slowly turning around.

8) "It's a . . . it's a . . .!" After quite a few hits and misses in terms of publishers, I wanted to run my own ship. Which I did. My Process got pretty tight. I used some of my strengths (playing well with others, aka co-writing) to balance out my weaknesses (slowness, fear, among others). I started really looking at and analysing my numbers. I talked to many, many other authors, many much more successful that I am/was. Immersed myself in the whole business side. Learned it all from the ground up. Marketing. I spent a lot of time reading about this "indie movement". Mind, I'd turned my back on "trad/legacy publishing" because of the small payout, the pressure, the slowness, and the crazed ideas of "what you can/can't write" (WWII was totally out) or what "you should write/what sells". I discovered there's a life in indie. There's even money in it, though I was still writing things that would never go blockbuster.

9) "Trying to go pro, pt 2". Armed with actual numbers and data, I tightened things up even more, imposing a draconian schedule on myself and the muse. It was "do-or-die". My day job was sucking much more from me than I was willing to give. I figured if I could work 80-hour weeks (or actually, more) for two years, I'd surely make enough money to quit my day job and be a self-funding author with enough cash to not have to lose my house or take handouts from my partner. I outlined, sometimes I pantsed. It was "Wordcount, wordcount ueber Alles". Above all, I weeded out books that "wouldn't sell". But the Muse is funny. The less a story was likely to sell, the more I WANTED to write it. I ended up working too hard. When I finally did have a bestseller on Amazon ("Capture and Surrender", with LA Witt), I realised it's not enough money and never will be, unless I have 5-6 sustained bestsellers a year, which means 5-6 contemporary novels, and a complete focus on contemporaries. Also, I clawed back "bad work" and re-took control of good work in the wrong hands (be it for small profit, small sales numbers or no marketing support).

(Meanwhile, the Muse sat in a corner, weeping over the euthanised non-selling novels that  were moved to "maybe one day" on my schedule.) Seeing the numbers that I needed, and seeing they simply weren't happening, and then looking at a short manuscript that the editor clearly hated (though to her credit, she didn't say anything), and my urge to drop-kick it into the next bin, and then damn near breaking into tears when a very short novel came back with 1,500 editing comments, and hitting block after block, until my whole world consisted of blocks, and spending every minute thinking "I should be writing, this is a waste of time", I realised what I was doing is not sustainable. By that point, I'd sacrificed everything else to that idea to be a "pro writer". Everything else suffered. Above all, my joy, but also my will to live.

Because that's the thing. The Process is what we do. But without the Joy, it's nothing. It's an idjit spinning an empty wheel. It might run smoothly, but it means nothing. Smoke and fury. Commercial tales told by a burnout.

Money-wise, it's a nice addition to my salary, but I'm going to take a big hit on it as I'm changing direction.

10) "Just playin', pt 2". Actually, I always revert to my "just playin'" mode when The Process no longer works for me, so this is more like "Just playin', pt 1,0000". I've said often to newbie writers that every book teaches you how to write it. A good 22 years after my first sale (as accidental and improbable as it was), I think that's truer than ever. Some books want outlines. I'm better with just a vague idea and a couple "cornerstone scenes", though I can get mired like I got with that 18-month novel. I maybe should have killed it or broken away to write something else that I could actually master. Generally, though, it's true. The way is the fucking way. The map is not the territory. All that.

I wonder if part of this is the whole "art versus genre" discussion, though I don't think so. I believe in Donald Maass's assertion that "genre is dead". Aka, the best books marry literary flair with genre's tricks and reader engagement. That's what I'd love to write. According to every literary agent I've ever spoken to, that puts me in "sales hell". But I think "creativity hell" is actually worse.

Genre-busting and envelope-pushing is my natural state. I don't do well with "you must" and "you can't", or when people try to impose their arbitrary rules on me. And I think The Process is exactly that - a constant flow of adjustments based on listening to your inner truth and that of the book (the both of them are actually the same).

I'm an introvert. And that's where I'm going: Inside.

It's time for me to go into the dark forest and wrestle monsters there. I know what they are called, and we all know names have power. There's "Market", the beast that's preyed on my weirdest and most wonderful little ideas hopping around me until barely one was left alive. There's "Doubt", which would rather have a clean house than a full screen. His brother, "Fear of Success", with his mocking laughter that kills me dead at the keyboard whenever I go wild. There's "Professionalism", which is trying to choke me with its tentacles, and its sister, "Branding" - voices endlessly following wherever I go, constantly correcting how I talk, think, or respond to anything and letting me have it when I make a mistake. There's "Always On", egging me into stuff that kills my productivity and making me act like I'm a five-person customer service team and my days aren't just 36 hrs long, but 48. All without pay, of course.

Their monstrous king is probably "Fear". Fear of everything. Of failing. Of succeeding. Of being heard. Of not being heard. Of being stuck in my day job at a mediocre company with apathetic staff forever. Of being financially insecure. Of not being respected. Of being respected too much. Of being important. Of being completely without significance. Of writing art. Of writing drivel. Of having talent. Of having no talent at all.

In essence, I have to return to that state where I was writing just for me, write the book first that twitches most, regardless of any market for it. It means accepting I'll have a day job for the rest of my life, and making the most of it. It means a lower wordcount. Less books published. Definitely less money (which is where the day job comes in which I must see as a necessity rather than a nuisance - which will take some effort).

I think there's much truth in Dean Wesley Smith's blog post about "Having Fun" (also read "Book as Event"). I was having fun, definitely co-writing. It was my own stuff that suffered.

I can't look at my books and murder them because nobody's going to read them. I'll treat sales as happy accidents from now on and not something I'm aiming for. I won't even look at the numbers anymore. I'm not going to look at reviews. As Dean suggests in that blog post, I'm going to shut all that stuff down and really only concentrate on the fun of writing. Because it is fun. It's the shit in my head that twists it all and turns it acidic in my throat. It my problem, my defect. My obsession with goals I can't hit without losing something that's actually a lot more precious to me than that goal could ever be.

So that's the freedom I'm granting myself in 2014. I've worked so hard the last 2-4 years. I think I deserve just writing to write for a year. In essence, I'll push hard to write the two novels I've promised by year-end, and then all bets are off. No commitments.

For readers, very little will change, strangely enough, at least at first. This is all Process thought, not Result. Besides, I've written a LOT of stuff recently - which is enough to keep 2014's schedule looking pretty decent. 2015 is likely going to be bleak/sparse, but I'm not thinking that far yet. Chances are, I'll fall in love with something and it'll come out then or now or eventually. I'm taking all deadline pressure off. There won't be any definitives for a while. No promises. I'm going to be an Eternal Amateur again and take all that freedom back.

I'm pretty sure I'll end up writing better stories for it. And slay a monster or five.

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