It goes without saying that all writers are crazy. At least it goes without saying because people inform me of this everyday of the week and twice on Sunday.
I maintain I’m not crazy, I’m eccentric, and I have proof. They send me checks and I cash them.
But jokes aside, most people perceive writers as insane, whether we are or not. Part of this is the fact that we do something other people don’t do. No. I’m not talking about sitting at the keyboard and waggling our fingers. It’s the other stuff we do – the stuff with our minds.
While it’s not unusual for small children to have imaginary friends and to blur the line between reality and fantasy, it is unusual for grownups. Someone was posting on Facebook yesterday how she’d told a nurse that she wasn’t upset when her heart went out of control. She was writing and she was “in a different planet.” Of course, then she had to work not to be sent to the psych ward.
I’ve learned – well, it’s been twenty seven years. I’m a slow learner, but I’m not utterly stupid – not to let this stuff slip, but sometimes it still happens. Like, when I get a call from the library, because I’ve blown returning that book by… six weeks, and I say “Oh, I’m sorry. I was so submerged in this novel.” And of course, the woman gets confused since the book that’s late is actually an history book. Or like the late at night waitress who overheard Dan and I discussing how to get rid of a body. Or how sometimes, in the presence of strangers, I turn to Robert or Dan and go “No, maybe I should use elves. I think magic works better than science for that one.”
When we do that, we’re not giving writers a better reputation. But, as they say in game shows, wait, there’s more!
Part of what goes on inside our minds when we’re creating worlds, is that we obsess on all kinds of little details. Sometimes the details are only relevant for our particular story, and if what we’re studying is historical, it’s all too easy to go beyond the bounds of reason and become the world’s greatest authority on Venetian silver thimbles of the late fourteenth century.
That in itself is not a problem, unless you can’t help babbling on for months about Venetian silver thimbles. Or how much superior they are to those inferior thimbles from Paris. Then you might find that you lose all your friends, or at the very least, that your family learns to tune you out. (There is a reason that if the words “Kit Marlowe” pass my lips, I stop existing to Dan and the kids for the next hour or so. Or at least while sounds come out of my mouth.)
But that is not a terrible problem. People shrug and let it go, pretty much. It’s more… the habit of mind it creates. Yeah, while you’re creating your world, these little details are life or death. In the real world, things are rarely that fine grained, and you really don’t need to keep correcting people on points of minutia. You need to establish your credentials in your world building so people believe your voice in the book. In the real world, if you climb on a soap box and start preaching against Paris silver thimbles, people are ONLY going to listen for the novelty value, and before the men in white coats arrive.
But wait – there’s more! In addition to what goes on internally in a writer’s mind, there’s something else that propels us to acting crazy (even when we’re not… really) and that’s the fact that our profession has no milestones. Or rather, it has very few, and you can spend your entire professional life and never hit one of them. Oh, if it’s a professional life, you’ll hit the small ones: you’ll sell short stories. You’ll sell a novel. You’ll sell multiple novels. Those are the common ground of all professionals. But then comes the crazy making stuff. In the days of indie, what is “sell”? I mean, you could have ten novels up, make 1k a year on each of them off Amazon, but are you published? I mean, you just pushed that button. (Dears, the answer is yes.) What if you’re making a living (sort of) but you’re only published small press? (Well, the way the market is now, you’re not alone. You might also be better off, until NYC publishing clears itself up.) What if you’re professionally published by one of the big six? You’re published, but your books never seem to be in the local store. You’re not a bestseller. You’ve never won an award. What do you tell people when they ask what you do for a living? How do you present yourself? We’re a social species, and one that is geared for status. After a while, of people not understanding how hard you work, or that having three books out in this climate IS an achievement, you start acting crazy. You start trying to explain to strangers how great your achievement are, and yelling, and windmilling your arms.. And then people believe you’re a crazy writer and think that’s the reason you’re not a best seller.
But wait – there’s yet more! If you work for one of the traditional houses, EVERYTHING that goes wrong is your fault. The things that go right is never to your credit, not unless you’re already a bestseller. Instead, you “lucked out” or the editor did a “brilliant job.” But if the book never makes it to the shelf and therefore doesn’t sell? Your fault. The cover was horrible and no one would touch that book? Your fault. Virtually no promotion, your fault. This goes on until you go completely insane and enter one of two modes: continuous self promotion (which puts people off) or continuous self-justification (it’s not really my fault) which puts people off, and sometimes makes you wonder if you REALLY are crazy to be in the field, because clearly you stink on ice.
Of course, all this is made worse if you’re still trying to break in and not managing it, or if you’re just trying to get to that next level. Look, even in indie, this field is not a meritocracy. It’s closer than it was in traditional, but it’s not ALL how good you are. It’s how good you are and how much you appeal to people RIGHT NOW. This has to do with having the right idea at the right time, written in the right way. There is now way to tell what that is, without widespread and expensive research. You can’t do it. So… you go crazy trying.
But WAIT – there’s even more! Add to this complete lack of definition of your position in relation to the role you want to reach, and your completely nebulous status socially, AND the fact that the people who do have some control continuously tell you it’s all your fault, the fact that most of us work from home or at least alone. If you work from home, nowadays, when the job entails having a blog, and doing promo work, and going to cons, chances are you’re writing around the clock and when you should be sleeping, even. And that this is getting in the way of your normal non-writer contact with people. And your also important contact with non-writer people. (As if I knew any of them. Ahahahahah!!!!!!)
But… yeah, there’s still more. As you hurtle down the path to a mental breakdown because your book on Venetian thimbles didn’t sell, and some twit’s book called The Mystery of the Parisian thimble is a bestseller – because she was promo-ed out the wazoo, being a publisher’s step sister’s daughter – you have to be nice TO the twit who wrote about Parisian thimbles, nice to the editor who dropped your book on the floor AND nice to the fans of the twit. After all, there are tons of them, now that she’s a mega bestseller. You start pacing the floor in the middle of the night, picturing poisoning those martini’s she’s sipping on a tropical beach, while watching the skimpily clad hunks. The anger just builds and builds, till you could radiate enough menace while sitting at your keyboard, to level a small third world country. It’s going to escape somewhere, and you end up reducing the waitress who brought you a sesame bagel instead of the requested poppy bagel to tears with your pithy remarks.
But wait… yeah. You know that most publishers are strictly non-earl-greyans, reformed, but you can’t stomach any tea but earl grey. At parties and cons, you hear people on whom your success depends making fun of earl-grey drinkers, and talking about how stupid AND evil they are, and about how if they could they’d rid of the world of earl grey tea and those who drink it. And you can’t speak. It goes to build that anger, until you’re hunched over your keyboard, smelling the bergamot fumes and going “Ah! You can have my earl grey when you pry it from my cold, dead hands, you Lapsong Souchong drinkers!” You start posting in pro earl grey blogs under a nom de plume, and some days you think you’ll come apart from the tension between your public and private persona.
I’m here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. Particularly nowadays, when you have other options. Yes, it’s still a crazy profession. No, you can’t do much about a lot of the things that drive you crazy. But you can take a deep breath and do something about YOURSELF.
First – you have to live a life of the imagination, and yes, it will seem weird to most people. It will seem weird to you sometimes. Just accept it. It is what it is. Make sure you realize what you’re doing for work is what you’re doing for work. It’s about as weird as my husband going off into some weird programing language analogy in the middle of dinner – and as normal. Every profession has its special insanity. Embrace yours. When you must communicate with strangers, make sure you explain first.
Subsection of first – try to be in touch with other writers every once in a while, or, if you can, develop a group of writer buddies. Not a critique group, though they can be that too, but people you can call up and say “I have Kit Marlowe again” and they won’t go “What?” but instead go “Oh, no. What now? Mysteries? You know you have to finish the contract stuff first.” Your friends make you feel perfectly normal. (Often by being crazier than you. Or at least you can tell that to yourself. It’s very comforting.)
Second – learn that outside your head, no one wants to hear you go on and on about Venetian thimbles. I mean, they’ll endure small amounts, but… So, just take a deep breath, put the minimum needed into the book (the readers don’t need to suffer for YOUR research) and learn that what’s fascinating to you will make even your writing friends sleep.
Third, create milestones for yourself. And don’t let them be dependent on anyone outside yourself. “I want to sell a short story” is not a reasonable goal. You can’t control the markets. “I want to write ten short stories this year” is a reasonable goal. “I plan to complete a novel” is a reasonable goal. And what do you tell aunt Minnie, when she asks you why nothing has sold? I don’t know. Rehearse. It’s always best to say as little as possible and not to come across as defensive. If you get asked why you haven’t won an award yet (hey, took me eleven years) saying “I don’t know. I guess my stuff is just too odd for awards” works. Particularly if you add, “It’s not what I’d like to do, it’s what I do.” People tend to leave you alone, if nothing else. But if you say “It’s all rigged, rigged! They’re all against me” EVEN if it is true (I know a few cases) people think you’re crazy. The only way to make that last one fly is to make a deliberately crazy face and say “but I’ll show them all!” Then look normal, shrug and go “who knows? Eh. Maybe it will happen eventually. Or not.” And in the end, that’s what you need to cultivate, too. Maybe it will happen. Maybe not. Let it go. You can only do your best. The rest is not yours to decide.
Fourth – sh*t happens. Repeat after me SH*T HAPPENS. And sometimes it happens to people who don’t deserve sh*t. This applies both if your traditional house just dropped your book on the floor – no, it doesn’t mean they’re evil. Sometimes there’s huge stuff going on behind the scenes. Okay, some are evil too, but that’s not the point – and if your indie book on Amazon didn’t sell a bazillion copies. Perhaps it’s your fault, but more than likely it’s not. It just wasn’t the season for Venetian thimbles. Maybe what they really want is a book about venetian hooker shoes (Platforms. Like all writers, I’m a font of useless knowledge.) SH*T HAPPENS. It’s not your fault. Yes, you have to be good enough (remember those goals you set for yourself?) But beyond that, it’s in the lap of the gods. Let them deal with it. It’s their job. You just keep doing the best you can.
Fifth – you can’t anticipate what will sell. Accept that. You just do the best you can and you write what interests you. Look, you have a better chance of making it with a book you REALLY want to write. Interest tends to show through. And no one wants the fiftieth clone of Twilight. Or the five hundredth.
Sixth – control the work. Control your expectations. You can only do so much. Sometimes that’s a lot. Often, it’s not really. Accept what you can do, and what you can’t. Work with that. Pace yourself. Take weekends off. Take the occasional week. Your work will be better when you come back to it. (This is something I’m just learning.) Writing is what you do. It might even be who you are. But the well must be refilled sometimes, or it will go permanently dry. If you can’t do the blogging, don’t. If you hate cons, don’t go. Do whatever promotion you feel able to, or none. No one has found an effective form of promotion, yet, beyond “write the next book.” So, do so. At a reasonable pace. (Oh, listen. I’m working on it.)
Seventh – Envy is a sin, and it distorts everything. Who knows, maybe the Mystery of the Parisian Thimble is good. And if it’s not to your taste, maybe the author is still a nice woman. So, she got promoted and you didn’t. Yeah, that’s unfair. But remember? Control what you can control. Work on improving your writing. And if she’s not insufferable, make friends – genuinely, with no resentment. Tell yourself you NEXT book will leave hers in the dust. It will be so good. Then work on that.
And if the writer and the publisher are both insufferable, WHY ARE YOU WORKING WITH THAT HOUSE? Don’t tell me it’s the only option you have. No, it’s not. You can always go indie. Listen to me – make a sign and hang it over your desk. Write on it “Life is Too Short To Work With *ssholes.” (If you’re a minor and mom would object, feel free to write the last word as “idiots.”)
What about the fact that these Lapsong Souchongers disrespect Earl Greyans all the time and make bad jokes about them? Well… If they think everyone who drinks deeply of the bergamot is evil, they are going to stop working with you when you reveal yourself. So what? See that sign I just told you to make? Yeah. Read it. One thing you can be sure is that there are as many people out there crazy in tea love with Earl grey as there are with Lapsong Souchong . Maybe more. Work for them. Yeah, you’ll have to go indie, and you might never get an award. Big deal. You’ll be able to say what you think, and call your soul your own. TRUST me. It’s worth it.
Most of all, above all realize that writing – no matter how much you grew up worshiping writers – is not some amazing occupation for other people. It’s a boring job and maybe a little weird. So don’t go proclaiming your writerly status like it’s some sort of badge. Let it go. If they ask, tell them, but don’t try to impress them. You have nothing to prove.
In the same way, writing – whatever your mom told you – doesn’t mean you’ll die in a garret of absinth poisoning, after catching syphilis from a Parisian whore (Hi mom. I still haven’t even MET a Parisian whore. And Absinth makes the heart grow fonder.) You don’t have to act like it’s a terrible vice. Again, if they ask, tell them. Don’t try to defend yourself from imagined scorn. You have nothing to prove.
Follow these few points, and you’ll still be a crazy writer, but no one will KNOW. After all, you’d not want your characters to know you’d gone unhinged. They’d never think of venetian thimbles the same way again.
*This is where the title comes from, and a lot of it (though obviously not all) applies to my career in traditional publishing, particularly “I’ve been saved by a blessed fatigue.”