Friday, November 29, 2013

5 Grievances Every Author Faces (and how to deal with them)

Writing books is for masochists. No, seriously. There's so much grief and misery that goes into the process of taking an idea and turning it into a novel that we authors often find ourselves wondering, "Why did I get myself into this?" At the same time, we can't make ourselves stop, so we just rant and complain and sigh, then slink back to our keyboards. And then we get into our stories, and we can't imagine doing anything else. You could say we're a bit bipolar.

Here are five things I find myself complaining about the most (with cat pictures).

5. Some people think all authors should be perfectly secure beings all the time.

No doubt, some people will read the above and think, "Well, if you don't enjoy writing, why don't you just quit?" Such comments crop up whenever someone posts about how hard it is to be a writer. Which makes sense, since ramblings of that nature tend to be self-pitying, and the source of the problem is entirely voluntary. However, we all need to vent from time to time, and what we're really looking for isn't a lecture, but a sympathetic ear.

It gets even more frustrating when the venting turns to "My book sucks! I'll never be good enough!" And someone replies with an oh-so-condescending, "Well, if you don't think your book is worthwhile, you shouldn't be writing." Again, I can see their point, but that kind of response is not helpful. We authors can be sensitive beings, and we already have little gremlins in our minds telling us to stop doing something we love because we can't handle it, or because we'll never be good enough.

The gremlins aren't entirely unreasonable, since the vast majority of writers will never be the next J.K. Rowling or F. Scott Fitzgerald, and that's what makes it worse. Part of you wants to listen, so when an external force comes in and reinforces their gloomy message, the blood starts boiling. "Hey! I'm sorry I'm not a perfect egomaniac who thinks everything I write is the next Pulitzer Prize winner!"

Zen Kitty lets the gremlins' words slide off her mind, like water off a rock.
Solution: Ignore 'em. The gremlins, both internal and external, will always exist, but that doesn't mean you have to listen. So stick your tongue out at them, thumb your nose, and remind yourself of all the reasons your book is the best thing ever. And if the rest of the world doesn't see it, well, their loss!

4. Word count envy

Before I started writing, I never thought in terms of word count. In fact, I barely even thought about book length. I noticed that the "Harry Potter" books got progressively fatter and that "Animal Farm" seemed awfully small compared to the other assigned high school readings, but otherwise, I really didn't give a damn. If anything, I might ask about how many pages a book is, or how thick it is (as indicated by space between forefinger and thumb). 

 Now, I know that the average book is 64,000 words long, and that anything over 100,000 words is frowned upon for a first novel (Artificial Absolutes was 141,000 words when I submitted it to Red Adept... oops). Why do I know this? Partially because of genre conventions and submissions guidelines (no one would read a 300,000 word chick lit book), and partially because I started hanging out with other writers online. 

 Writing is a long and tiresome process, and it's easy to procrastinate. So many writers will set word count goals for themselves to keep on track. The ultimate manifestation of this habit is NaNoWriMo (that's National Novel Writing Month to the novs out there), where people join a virtual writing community (which also holds local in-person writing sessions) and aim to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Which is why right now, my Facebook newsfeed is blowing up with statuses like "OMG, wrote 5,000 words of the new book today and am exhausted!" 

Meanwhile, I haven't written anything new since June, even though I have plenty of projects on my plate. Between my time-consuming day job and editing the two books I have in the pipeline, I just don't have time. So part of me starts getting defensive when I see all these people creating so many words, even annoyed. I know I should be happy for them, and I do my best to cheer them on, but the bratty part of me wants to stomp my foot and say, "Knock it off!" At the same time, the insecure part of me wants to crawl under the covers and weep about how I can't keep up with all these awesomely productive people.

"Like I'm going to count all these words."
Solution: Repeat after me: Word count hardly matters. Yes, it's a good indicator of whether you're within your genre conventions (do NOT submit a 300,000 word novel claiming it's light-heared chick lit). And yes, it can be good for setting goals. But the number of words produced pales in comparison to the quality. George Orwell's masterpiece-turned-classroom-staple Animal Farm is only about 30,000 words more. Same goes for John Steinbeck's classic, Of Mice and Men. Meanwhile, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, at about 190,000 words, is far too long for the children's section by most standards, but who cares? Whether you can pour out an epic in three months or require two years to compose a spare, quick-to-read thriller, the thing that matters in the end is the book itself. So just smile and congratulate the mass producers and remember that everyone is different, and people work at their own pace.

 3. Rules, rules, rules 

You'd think that if you were pretty good with grammar, you'd be a good writer by default, right? HAH! Not so much. There are all kinds of rules about writing fiction that, while absolutely mandatory, are strongly, strongly encouraged.

Don't use dialogue tags. Don't use too many adverbs. Don't make your sentences too long. And those are just the most basic, easy-to-correct-for ones. There's also the word count conventions I mentioned above (don't write a YA novel that's the length of Infinite Jest). And the tenets of fast-paced storytelling (start your book by dropping the reader in the middle of a scene and end the first chapter with a cliffhanger to keep the pages turning). And the edicts about handling descriptions (don't stop your story to describe something, don't not describe anything). And, of course, the ever-present "show, don't tell."

Of course, none of these are set in stone, and many authors and editors will laugh if you bring them up ("There are no rules to writing! You can't restrict art!"), but the fact is, most people, whether they are conscious of it or not, expect authors to adhere to them. Which can be frustrating because it feels like you're being tied down and boxed in, but at the same time, you know the rules are there for a reason (overlong descriptions bog down action scenes, too many dialogues tags interrupt characters' conversations without adding anything, etc. etc.). 

"Just write!"
Solution: Pick your battles. Some things, like the bit about dialogue tags, are annoying to deal with (since you have to come up with actions and gestures and whatnot to indicate who's talking instead of having "he said" after every other sentence), but relatively simple. Others may require more maneuvering, and changing your work to fit the guidelines may stifling. Hey, rules are made to be broken. While it's a good idea to be aware of them, you don't have to treat them as the letter of the law. Especially since editors often disagree about which ones are important (one editor might hate long descriptions, another might love them).

 2. "I love it! Now, change everything!" 

Writing a book is freaking hard. Not only is it a ton of labor, but you pour your heart and soul into the story. Each character is a piece of you, and each idea came from the innermost parts of your mind.

So when you send your book off, be it to your friends/family for feedback or to an agent/publisher for consideration, you want to be told that this is the most brilliant thing they've ever seen. You want honesty, of course, but you want the honest answer to be, "Holy cow, this is the best thing to grace the earth since Nutella! And here is a detailed description of all the reasons you are a genius!"

Of course, it's never like that. Most agents/publishers will send you a form rejection (if they reply at all). Friends and family can be plenty supportive, but their feedback is colored by the fact that they are friends/family, so you never know for sure if they really loved your masterpiece or if they're just being nice.

The most valuable feedback is often also the most frustrating. Readers are picky, and editors even pickier. If your book is picked up for publication, the first thing you think is, "Hooray! They love me!" Then come the edits. You're told that this dialogue you love is pointless, or that plot line that's close to your heart leads nowhere, or these characters you thought represented your inner demons are flat and uninteresting. It's crushing, and after scrolling through a sea of red, you find yourself wondering, "Did they like anything about this book?!"

"Hey, I didn't add all those comments for my health!"
Solution: Take a deep breath and remember: Editor knows best. Also, they're not dictators. If there's something they want changed that you really want to keep, then you can negotiate. The editor flagged it because it wasn't doing what you intended to (for example, that description you thought was so heartfelt comes across as whiny), but if you think it's important, find a way to make it work. The same can be true even before you reach the editing stage, when you receive comments from honest beta readers. These, of course, need to be taken with a bit more of a grain of salt, since it could just be that your book's subject matter or tone doesn't line up with the reader's tastes. But remember, people are toughest on the things they truly care about. So when you open your document to a sea of red, smile, because that means the editor (or beta reader) found your story compelling enough to invest tons of time and energy into trying to make it the best it can be.

 1. Waiting, always waiting

I'm a very impatient person. The book world, however, is a slow-moving animal. That's because of the nature of the product. Books take ages and ages to write, edit, proofread, lay out, and design. And once they're out in the world, people take ages and ages to read them (some fast readers can finish a book a day, but many more take weeks or even months to get through a novel). But we writers have already invested so much time in our literary babies, we just want to see them go off and fly already.

So it's hard having to sit around waiting for the ball to be in your court again. Especially once that coveted publishing contract is signed. You think that means your book will be churned out and let loose in the bookstores, but no. It enters the editor's queue, so it'll be months before anyone even looks at the manuscript. And then edits come back, and you have much more work to do than you expected (see Grievance #2). Then you finish your changes, hand it back and... wait some more.

It feels like an awful lot of work with no tangible reward, since you're just toiling and toiling, but there's still no book to show for it.

Waiting means not working.
Solution: Answer me this: What date was Anna Karenina released? How about The Hobbit? Does anyone remember? Unless you're a literary scholar studying one of those two works, you probably don't know and don't care. It's the quality of the book that matters, not how quickly the publisher got it out the door who-knows-how-many years ago. The only time release dates matter is if you're trying to catch a particular trend, but chances are, if you're writing to jump on a bandwagon, your publisher knows this and will fast-track you (I'm pretty sure that's what happened with Divergent, catching the Hunger Games-spurred dystopian wave). Otherwise, the release date really doesn't matter in the long run. So just sit back, relax, and enjoy the down time before you have to go into crazy marketing mode. Or, you could always work on your next book.

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