There’s something about looking at a fresh, crisp trade paperback book that belies the messiness of the publication process, and writing itself. Books have bright covers, a little bit of heft when you pick them up, sharp edges, and lovely summaries on the back or inside covers–what a perfect little package of enjoyment. And oh, what it took to get there.
An idea, a cast of characters, copious hours spent writing, rewriting, ripping out words and inventing new ones. Then there’s the swaths of time just getting into writing mode, which I personally need to decrease this year, what with an adorable infant vying for my attention and all (and he gets it, no problem). After so many revisions and passes through the manuscript, beta readers come in and make the author rethink everything they considered perfect or innovative, or interesting. More rewrites. Boil down everything into a synopsis, fret over the book’s query letter, and email those lucky agents who could decide the manuscript is a gem. Handle the rejections, revise the synopsis, pitch it in person at a conference, dust off other projects and get started writing something new. And finally an email appears that someone wants to represent or publish the book.
And that’s just the beginning. I haven’t even mentioned publicists and press kits yet. My point is, if all of this goes into making a book happen–or its cousin, the ebook.
Writers don’t need any distractions or dead weight in this process of inspiration to printing press; bad habits are the one thing we can identify on our own and work to eliminate. And yes, I’ve exhibited or performed nearly every bad behavior in the following list.
Self-doubt stops, slows, or adversely affects the writing–This is so commonplace it’s talked about by some as part of the writer’s identity or part of the writing process itself. Hogwash. Maybe we all should have some humility, but humility by definition stops well short of self abuse. And repeating a mantra that we suck, especially to the extent that we stop writing or pull back from what we really meant to write counts as self abuse in my book. I’m not suggesting that we can twiddle our fingers and make it disappear, but we can ask ourselves where this self-doubt is coming from and work on minimizing its influence. And we need not call it writer’s block or presume it’s okay to hang around our psyches year after year.
Getting superstitious about what we need to write–In a way, this is a crutch to help us with the first point. No, you don’t need that special mug for your coffee, or a specific iPod playlist, and novel writing doesn’t have to begin on a cloudy Tuesday. It’s nice to have tools at our disposal, sure, but don’t let the lack of an item or circumstance derail the work. If it seems too onerous to forgo all little superstitions (I used to feel this way), try cutting them out one day a week, then two, and so on. Now free from the tendrils of my own invented universe, I’ve got more capacity to write under shifting or multiple situations. This is way better than requiring a self-imposed cocoon.
Insisting on isolation–There are some varietals to this one, so let’s count off a few of them. It’s too soon to show the work to anyone. I work better alone. If a writer sees my project, they’ll steal my idea. All I need to do is read in my genre. Perhaps each of these is true to some extent, but assuming the validity of all of them puts us in our own private Idahos and that isn’t necessarily conducive to better writing. If we’re toiling away on the same project month after month (or year after year) and we’ve never solicited nor accepted any input from other writers or from publishing folks, we may be caught in a project whirlpool. We need to ask ourselves every so often if a read by a different human being would be helpful. If the answer is always no, there may be an issue with valuing the work. (See bullet point number 1.)
Locking ourselves into a style or genre or theme–I admit that I tend to write about transformation, self-acceptance, and I choose to write mainly for a YA readership. But I need to break out of this framework, too. The second I think I can only write about Topic X for Audience Y, I need to shake up my writing world view. Of course we have our tendencies and our preferences. Are they locking us in or commanding our expectations? It’s the limitations for future work that need regular attention. I love a good food or travel essay to break up my usual writing topics and forms.
Preventing critique–Sometimes we use an aggressive offense as a defense. At a conference a couple of years ago, I met a woman who insisted her 240,000-word epic fantasy wasn’t too long for her first manuscript. That’s more than 700 pages in a mass-market or trade paperback format. Agent after agent told her that it was just too long for an unpublished writer, but she was sticking to her guns. If her goal was getting it to market, her insistence on keeping every single sentence was undercutting her. Not to mention that she had shelled out $400 to attend a conference and refuse people’s advice. Of course it’s her prerogative to filter information how she sees fit, but here again, asking some simple questions may put her behavior in a new light. Should she work on a shorter project and try to sell that first? Split the tome into a two-part series? Take a hard look at the manuscript and do some significant cutting? Decide that her words are perfect as is and walk away from traditional publishing? These would all be valid responses to the information she received from agents.
It’s a brand spanking new year, and I have a full plate of projects that need my attention. If I’m going to get everything done, I have to find efficiencies in my process and schedule, identify my worst habits and dead weight, and cast them off. Here’s to a successful and productive 2012!