You Are Not A Machine

I suppose to most people this is not news.  In fact, it might seem odd that, having lived just a year short of half a century in the world, this is just starting to dawn on me.  (Though to be honest, it took me six years to realize I wasn’t a kitten, so allowances must be made for teh issues, which I clearly do have and in spades.)

It is tempting to blame the publishers and, if you read Amanda’s article yesterday, it’s hard to believe I shouldn’t, just because, in principle, one at times feels like blaming them for pretty much everything: stock market crashes, pestilence, rain of fish, teenage boys sulking, rainy days.

However, to give the publishers their due, it is not their fault.  To the extent they’ve treated me as a machine, I might have forced them into it.

It started long before the zombie career, before I was fully an adult.  You see, I was in one of those “advanced” high school programs, one of those in which each of the teachers thinks he’s your only teacher and gives you two hours of homework a night.

No, maybe it started before that, because when I came at that program I was already badly broken.  Broken in a “I’d rather break than bend” way.  Broken in a “I’ll be d*mned if I cry uncle” way.  So, faced with eight, or ten, or twelve (don’t ask) hours of homework a day, I’d give up sleep and sleep for two of three hours a night, then save the rest of the sleep for the weekend.  But the work got done.  (Which btw, was enabling behavior for those teachers, and probably the reason that I wasn’t too liked around the school.)

This, you can see, was perfect setup for the publishing age at the time I entered, when most writers got two books and out as a chance.  Part of the issue, of course, is that most writers aren’t insane.  Well, not insane enough.  Most of them don’t write because they have to.  Most of them don’t write to relax, when they run out of work.  I figured “Ah.  They’re weak.  I will not cry uncle.  I’ll stay in the field.”  And I figured three or four series are better than one, right, because then – ah, then, when one tanks the other one will keep you going.

Only I’m not a machine.  (I’m only coming to this conclusion now, yes.)

It’s not the volume of writing, I’m realizing, as I face the fact that my writing has SUDDENLY exploded.  It’s the scheduling.

Writing is not like school work.  It’s not learning, or reading, or even memorizing.  Yeah, there were times I wasn’t in the mood for math, but since all I was required to do was solve problems, my mood didn’t matter.

Writing is creating.  And to create you need several conditions.  Being in the mood is just the least of them.  Which means…  Which means that over the last few years I’ve a few times hit the wall of “I just can’t do this now” and let a book wait six months or a year.  While I forced myself to write another book I didn’t want to do.
So, what’s changing with being able to indie publish?  I’d think just about everything.

The first and most obvious change is that I can write things on spec – i.e. when I want to – and if someone won’t take them (or if the publishers in that particular area have failed to impress me, like, say, mystery) I put them up myself.  I told Toni years ago I hated having contracts, because I hated having stuff due.  At the same time, I hated not having contracts because stuff might never sell, and this meant I’d shut myself down mid writing it, out of sheer doubt.  Well, now I can do it.  I can write on spec.  I don’t need the contract and the arbitrary deadline hanging over me.  Mind you, my production might become very odd.  “This year I did five space operas, two shifters and two mysteries.”  BUT yeah, I expect it to become that prolific, so… who cares?  I’ll feed the fans more often than I have.

But there are other things, some which seem to me like they’d work, but I haven’t tried yet, so I’m going to put them here and let you tell me what you think:

1- Write what is pounding on the door.  But once started, whether novel, novella or short, finish it before moving to the next.  (Avoid popcorn kittens.)

2- the corollary is, “don’t force it” – I’ve written a couple of novels because they were grossly overdue, which frankly could have done with a bit more cooking in the back brain.  If you’re like me forcing it robs you of entire dimensions of subplots and links.  So, don’t force it, but also don’t sit idle.  Play with what’s ready to go.

3- Separate your writing and your editing time.  Like, one in the morning and one in the afternoon or perhaps “On Fridays, I edit.”  I used to do something similar with “secretary” work – i.e. proofing and mailing out of manuscripts, say.

4- Feed the beast. This will vary for different writers.  This varies for me.  Though mostly my beast runs to dinosaurs and long walks.  If I’m not on drop-dead deadlines, with the consciousness of it hanging over me, and if I am, in fact, writing more than I ever have, I can afford to take a long walk a day.  And maybe a weekend a month to go look at something dino related.  Or just walk in a nice place.  Or cook an elaborate meal, or… whatever.

4a – Read.  This is the need of every beast that writes.  Read.  Read everything.  Remember when you were a kid, and you read because it had printed words on it?  Like that.  Read.  Read in your free time, and in between writing times, but most of all – I’m going to try this – take a day a week and just read.  Just immerse yourself in it and enjoy it.

4b – Sleep.  Yeah, this works much better if you’re not wondering what those zany editors are going to do with your book, but it’s necessary, so… sleep.  Every night.  Or every morning, if you write at night.  Go to bed, turn off the brain and sleep.

4c – Do something non-writing related at least a few hours a week.  For me that’s usually playing with art.  Your mileage may vary.

5 – If you can’t pivot between works – always a big issue for me – take a couple of days off and do non-verbal stuff.  Paint walls.  Garden.  Whatever.  Then come back to it.

6 – Enjoy the journey.

7 – Stop berating yourself for not being a machine.

crossposted at Mad Genius Club

17 thoughts on “You Are Not A Machine

    1. Nah, that’s just Sarah off the leash. She melts keyboards.

      I’m not quite in that league, but if I can ever get out from under the day job eating all my energy, I might get close. My record is a novel in a week (no, it wasn’t readable, much less publishable. Trust me on this. I hadn’t figured out little things like avoiding POV whiplash back then.). Sarah’s is a novel in a weekend.

  1. I find it easy to shift between books I’m writing, but when I’m in art mode, doing covers, I can’t write. Or do Sudokus, which is very odd. Apparently I write and do math in the same place in my brain and turn it off for visual art.

    For feeding the beast, I like solo visits to the zoo in the early morning weekdays. No people, the critters are all rested and fresh, and look back at you. And museums, although our local natural science museum has put on airs and started charging outrageous amounts.

  2. re: #3, separating writing from editing. I once met a fairly successful songwriter who told me one of his secrets was that he wrote songs in one room of his house, but edited them in another. He was careful never to mix the two processes, and claimed it made a huge difference for him.

    1. It’s very strange to me, that many/most people can’t edit and write at the same time. I suppose it may be some terrible flaw in me, but I like editing, most of the time. I routinely read the prior few pages, tweaking anything I notice at the copy-editor/awkward word stage — or inconsistencies, if I notice them — and then arrive at the point where I have to start writing.

      What do people mean when they say, “turn off your inner editor”? Because my inner editor, as I define it, has never stopped me from writing. I just backspace to fix typos when the word develops a red line under it…

      1. I think it’s a personality thing. I stop myself completely, because I start wondering things like “Should I have said it that way? Wouldn’t this way sound better?” Eventually it all grinds to a halt.

      2. Fascinating! That’s not what my inner editor does, thank something! Maybe it’s just an inner copyeditor. Probably not a very good one, all told, without auto-spellcheck on… >_>

        1. the funny thing, Beth, is that after a month of letting the thing rest, it becomes very clear what’s voice and what’s dross, and also THEN I don’t have qualms. Weird, uh?

  3. On not being a machine … I’m gonna wander into the woods here (well, into the estuary between The Woods and The World) and touch upon some of the theories of educator John Taylor Gatto. Having taught in the NY City schools (twice winning Teacher-of-the-Year recognition) and studying the Pennsylvania Amish culture, Gatto’s thesis has been that American pedagogy was developed by late-19th Century industrialists (adapted from Prussian pedagogy) and is intended to train kids to become employable in the industrial state, taking their places on the assembly lines. Traits taught include obedience to supervisors, performance of tasks without concern for purpose or meaning, for arbitrary periods of time and quitting not when the work is completed but because the clock says to.

    The higher a person’s degree, the more attuned to this system he (or she, but one benefit of being conservative is the right to refuse abandonment of useful conventions simply because they’re unfashionable) has become (e.g., putting in absurd amounts of time on pointless homework) and the more he accepts this philosophy as normal. People working at publishing houses have been steeped in this brew for most of their lives and, by virtue of having reached such heights are as accepting of the system as any 16th Century Aristo was accepting of the privileges of that system. They succeeded by becoming machine-like and expect others eager to succeed to “pay their dues.”

    You are not a machine, not

    … a highly specialized key component
    Of operational unity,
    A fine and sensitive mechanism
    To serve the office community.*

    Watch young children. Their natural, evolutionarily programmed behaviour is to become absorbed in a task, working at it until it is complete … or they have lost interest. By abandoning your self-identification as a supplier to publishers, responsible to produce goods according to their schedule and their requirements (however absurd) you are returning to your mind’s root programming and flowing with the stream rather than trying to tame it through employment of dams, settling ponds and other unnatural impediments to the free flowing imagination.

    Or perhaps not. Perhaps the stars are simply better attuned for your creative work, Jupiter having replaced Saturn in your House of something or other. (Irrelevant note: I keep have recurring thoughts of Pratchett having written Harry Potter, with characters referring to The Dark One, Lord Whassname.)

    * A Secretary Is Not A Toy, from How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying

    1. Res:

      I’ve often thought that, in a general sense, the farther away from your schooling you can get, the better an education you’ll be able to build for yourself.

      In creative work — at least for me — total immersion is the way to go. I have to obsess on my current project, to the extent that I often become this isolationist curmudgeon who snaps at anyone who tries to talk to me. (Except for the few rare individuals who know how to approach me in a manner that signals my bear-brain that this is a fellow workman.)

      And it’s not just writing or design. I get the same way when I’m building a cabinet or a bookshelf.

      This makes it very hard for me to work in stolen moments. I have to rope off large blocks of time for projects, and then defend it viciously (think: honey badger) against all attempts at encroachment.

      Obviously, none of this makes me a good cog in anybody’s machine. But, as a reflection of somebody who jumped out of the grammar-middle-high-university schooling track at a relatively early age, and therefor has little respect for that mindset… You could be talking about anybody in skilled trades, for example. Or commercial artists or freelance writers. Or people employed in production in the arts — motion picture, theater, concerts.


  4. I don’t *even* have the depth of experience with the publishing machine that you do, Sarah, and I’m finding the freedom of ‘going indie’ really amazing. You are just going to FLY – I’m excited to watch it happen. 🙂

  5. FWIW my process is similar to Beth’s in that I often go over previous work to help me start out where i left off. I usually catch the minor error here or there, or replace an awkward phrase. Stuff that doesn’t take me out of the story writing process.

    What I consider “real” editing requires time away from the project so it is more fresh. SInce I’m no longer caught up in the story, I have more emotional distance, and I am happier about taking a scalpel (more like a machete) to the dross. The grammar and spelling gods were not kind to me, as I am blind to many of their whims, especially spelling. Since I know I am spelling blind, I also send away my work to someone else to copyedit. Perhaps its a poor description but going over these edits are not at all like writing the story, and use a different part of my brain. That is what I understand as “editing” in this context.

    1. Oh, yeah, Eric, I do the copy editing too and read over it to get in the mood. Part of the issue, of course, is that I sometimes change sentences and forget to change all elements, like in my post yesterday, so I make MORE of a mess.

      But we’ve come again to the confusion between EDITING and COPY editing. I can’t edit and write at one go. I CAN copy edit. That’s no big. In fact, it happens more or less automatically these days and btw, when finds a pen in one’s hand and directed at the kindle screen, then realizes it’s not one’s own book, it’s er… time to stop. 😉 (Yeah, it’s happened.)

      1. Given the quality (hmpf!) of copyediting in the traditional publishing business these days, anybody who can read a book without groping for a red-ink pen is giving the author a real compliment. Immersion in the story to that degree means quality writing.


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