A Long-Winded, Meandering Treatise On My Writing

Who knows why, but I keep getting stuck.

Maybe it’s anxiety; maybe it’s ignorance. Either way, I go back and forth in the wonderful world of writing so often that it’s a wonder that my head hasn’t snapped off. One second I think I have it all figured out, and the next I suddenly “realize” that I am all wrong. Why is realize in quotes? Well, that is because I cannot ever be sure that these realizations were real or if they were a manifestation of one of the many obstacles a writer like me throws up into the path to derail the creative process.

The truth is, that even despite being a published independent writer for many years and having a few books done and out in the marketplace, I consider myself a novice rather than a professional. On one hand, that is good because it means that I am open to the need to learn, that I don’t think I know it all. It’s bad because I don’t consider myself professional, and that adds a whole host of issues.

One thing, being a professional does not preclude an inability to learn. It does not mean that learning, adapting, or changing is out of my ability. It simply means that I approach work with purpose and that I take it seriously. Professionals take in critiques and learn to consider the ones that are legitimate and can lead them to improve and dispense with the ones that are not constructive. Conversely, a novice takes every critique as a slight against the work and justification to the work being crap. Only, the critiques of my work are all imagined, meaning that they are coming only from me.

Writing and being a published writer means a number of things. As with many things, we carry with it some definition that we constructed in our minds. When I started my writing journey and decided that I wanted that journey to go towards being a published novelist, the idea of the indie writer meant going through vanity presses. With vanity presses was a stench that held stronger and longer than if one were to fall into the Bog of Eternal Stench when distracted by the Goblin King. Even as publishing houses gave less than a pittance to most of its writers and even staff, they at least held a prestige that couldn’t be matched by a independent writer, irrespective of the actual quality of the writing.

Another stigma on the vanity presses was in its cost. Printing books costs money, and the technologies of print-on-demand or electronic readers (e-readers) hadn’t come about, making the writer who wanted to go independent need a large-ish sum of money to front the costs. (There’s also the costs of distribution and more to consider.)

Like with many things, the internet came through and made things cheaper and easier. E-readers and print-on-demand services really lowered the barriers for entry, with Amazon being one of the biggest catalysts for that. Suddenly, writers who were business minded and *gasp* as good if not better than traditionally published writers (and yes, plenty of those who can’t write themselves out of a wet paper bag) started making bank. And suddenly, being indie wasn’t such a bad thing… mostly.

After this avenue presented itself, my decision to go indie was two-fold. On one hand, it was laziness. I hated the idea of jumping through all those damn hoops just to maybe get a shot at maybe being a published writer. On the other hand (and more important and much bigger a reason), I wanted to own my work, for better or worse. The whole idea of a publishing house owning the rights to my work, whether I made bank like Stephen King or was destitute like most authors, was hard to swallow. It’s my work; I should own it. That was even before we learned the numerous ways traditional publishers screwed its writers over the years.

Yet there is an allure to being published by one of the big presses. And a stain for being independent that I cannot seem to shake from my perception. Even after writers like Hugh Howey and *sigh* EL James made massive commercial success as independent writers, the fact remains that there is a presumption that follows the idea of us DIY (another way to refer to indie) writers. That presumption is not good.

I realized recently that no matter what I try to tell myself, that stigma is ingrained in my thinking. Being an indie writer is bad. Even though the big reason I choose to do it is ownership of my creative work, there is that creeping thought that it really is because I know I am not good enough. As much as that statement is really bullshit.

What being an independent writer really means is that I am not bound by the rules that govern “normal” writers. Grammar still applies, yes. Can’t buck those rules recklessly. What I mean is that an independent writer can write what they want, when they want, and release how they want; whereas, a traditionally published writer is forced to follow the whims and rules of the established industry — the gates and barriers to entry.

Now, I understand fully that these rules were not born out of a simple whim of keeping the majority of writers out of the market. Limited resources were available to spread, so there had to be serious consideration as to the content that was put out. Audiences had to be willing to spend their money on it. It had to be good writing, or marketable, or ideally both! Both is a rare combination. And these companies really did their best (for the most part) to balance this… that is until technology made it so a schmuck like me could bypass it all.

Independent writers, given the available resources of modern times, don’t have to sell as much as one might think to be financially viable. A bonus for certain, if we can manage the sales.

Before this becomes another treatise on the differences between indie and traditional publishing, I have to return to the point of this rant. Regardless of the benefits or awesomeness one can claim about being indie, that whole stigma remains. If anything, it remains in my own mind. Because of that, even when I think I’ve conquered this whole idea of forging my own path, doubt and shame creep in. Hey, after all, one of the reasons I went indie is laziness. What if I am only lazy because deep down I believe I am not good enough?

Stupid question, but to those who are familiar with that kind of impostor syndrome and doubt understand it.

I am lazy because I couldn’t see the point of the industry’s demands of jumping through all these hoops when it was nothing more than a business decision on the part of the industries that was all about profit rather than genuine art. My anti-establishment brain railed against it every time I tried to write some crappy query about some book I knew that no one would read unless I was exceptionally lucky that some underpaid junior editor decided it was worth their time. And then, only if it happened to be the right junior editor would it get passed up the chain.

In short, I was lazy because I didn’t see the point of putting effort into people who cared little about it. Most people aren’t simply lazy for lazy’s sake; they are lazy when they feel the work is without purpose or meaning.

Doubt rephrased that anger and punk-like anti-establishment into my just being a lazy slob, though. Because how many people really think that laziness is anything other than simple laziness?

But I am independent now, so I win right? Yeah… tell that part of me that listened to the many years of hearing that only the legitimate writers got book deals and that independent writers were nothing more than egotistic bastards who couldn’t write. That part of me loves to run into the room and punch me in the nuts right as I believe I am about to turn a corner. And my words I shall eat…

Writing is not something that exists strictly in the walled garden of traditional publishers, though. Writing is a craft and an art. Given that the barriers to the marketplace are down, it should be celebrated rather than derided. Doubt is a fickle bitch, though. Crafts and arts have within them techniques as to how one is to approach them. Many are tried-and-true methods that passed through generations of artists. Others are mere suggestions, rules to try and know before breaking.

In writing, there is a lot of books and lessons to be had that venture down this path of learning. Honestly, most are repetitive, with writers simply placing their own spin on those techniques that they believe all writers should use. A few are more honest and place disclaimers of “this worked for me”, but largely the information has been regurgitated, with few examples given of those writers who flagrantly broke them. Because many writers still insist on outlining, copious revisions, and other things I don’t connect to, it is frustrating to say the least.

Thanks to my wife, I am reading a book of advice on writing that is closer to what I need than anything in the writing advice genre I read before. “Refuse to be Done” by Matt Bell is the first of the many books I read on writing that spoke to me directly… or rather that I felt like it spoke to me.

While there might have been a different meaning behind the advice other writers gave on making a sloppy first draft while talking about the need to outline, Matt was the first I read that outwardly said that the first draft is the outline, that the first draft should be used for exploration and discovery. Now, like I said, I am certain that there were plenty of others who might have meant for that in their advice, yet it was never explicitly said in anything I read before. And for someone who HATES outlining, it was like a revelation to me.

He also notes an approach to revision that is more palatable to me than other methods I’d tried. And it’s also a hard and fast number — 3 — which I can get behind.

With that issue having a path I can try to follow, this brings me to the next dilemma. How does a writer measure their progress? Lately, it is this question that had gotten me stuck. Is it truly word count? Is it number of projects finished? Published? What metric is best to measure progress? Metrics are a measure, and progress is best measured… right?

Even in the business or political world, where metrics almost appear to be held in reverence, they can be a trap. For instance, does new word count indicate my story-telling ability? Does it relay any work done in revisions or editing? How about planning? Maybe I spent an entire day editing, revising, planning, and working on the details of publishing a project. That day was exceptionally productive, yet what it might show in the metrics is that I had an off day.

Here’s the rub — where the whole idea that Matt Bell pointed out and the idea that everything is about word count, word count, word count — my hatred (lack of skill) of outlining, combined with my natural sense of being a pantser, the obsession with capturing word count, then my lack of effort on the revision side, all coalesced into a concoction of my stagnant writing.

How does one fix this?

Part of the idea that I had in measuring word count each day started as a measure of my doing the act of writing each day, and trying to make sure that I spent “reasonable” time on the task. Of course, like any good metric, the whole point of the measure turned into the measure itself being the point. In some cases, word count is still a valuable measure, but only so far as displaying a volume of fresh words being applied to various projects. It says nothing outside of that. Nothing on quality. Nothing on revision. Or even time spent.

Perhaps part of what is needed is a little less adherence to the metric. Measure it, but beyond that, ignore what it is telling me — or what I think that it is telling me. X number of words written new per day does not give me any feedback on how I am doing as a writer. If all those words are simply ending up as stored bytes on a hard drive somewhere, or as fibers of ink-stained paper, never to be seen by another human, then I am failing, no matter how big an X the number of words is.

The choice forward is to become a professional writer. Being professional means more than earning income from that path, as I’ve noted above, although, I do earn some money from my writing. Professionals look at metrics, but only so long as to determine if they mean anything or not. If they don’t, they move on. Professionals continue to learn and train in the profession they are employed. Unlike the novice, who believes they know nothing, the professional remains confident in their abilities and knowledge while maintaining an open mind to learning and change. And I do know at least something.

But the novice also is focused more on what is going on in the outside world. They are looking at the gates and barriers, thinking that they need out the ways to be lifted rather than blasting through them. Professionals take them into account while looking for other ways to get through.

All-in-all, this is a mindset change. It is a change in how I view the craft and art of writing and my relationship to it. I need to shift from a novice mindset to one of a professional. This doesn’t preclude success, but it does at least make it more attainable.

It isn’t easy to change this mindset. Hell, I’ve been working at changing it since the days I chose to take my chances out in the indie space. And yes, I made a ton of mistakes back then, mistakes that I am still nervous about making, even as I grow and change in both style and ability. Still, like any good creative artist, I am finding new and creative ways to sabotage myself. Professionals see this sabotage and work through it. But I have to if this is what I want to do with my life.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: