My country of origin kept a (very bastardized) expression from the Moors that occupied the land for centuries: Oxala, the Portuguese version of Insh Allah and roughly translated as it’s used as “May it be G-d’s will” (rather than, “if Allah wants it.”)
It seems brazen, like walking around naked, to say “Tomorrow I’m going for a walk” without adding “G-d willing.” The most simple predictions, of the most trivial nature “I think tomorrow we’ll go to the beach” get a “G-d willing” appended to it, because if I said “oxala” people might take it wrong.
Now, I’m not stupid — most of the time — and I’m 55. This means I’ve seen a lot of “Man poses, G-d disposes” or “I can’t believe this happened to me” both good and bad. On the balance, for me, good. I’m a highly improbable creature, on a highly improbable life path (starting with still being alive at all) and so far so good.
But at the same time I know what that “can’t predict/can’t be sure” in reality — not just, you know, giving Himself his due to change plot on a dime — can do to a mind.
For years as a traditionally published writer, I experienced total and complete lack of control.
Sure, I could write the best book I could, and I neurotically did that over and over again. Neurotically? Well, madness is after all doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
But the thing was, once it left my hands, it was … out of my hands, quite literally.
The ones most extensively twisted-by-editing with the Magical British Empire books, part of the reason they aren’t out yet, because my “go over” for a writers’ edition amounts to a rewrite. (Yes, I know. But the files I have are… interesting. I don’t seem to have a final/delivered file. Don’t ask. I think in the dozens of back and forth editing exchanges, I overwrote it.) But all of them could be twisted. Words are plastic (in the sense of malleable) and if someone inserts the wrong thing at the wrong time… it can change the whole sense of the book. And yeah, sure, copyedits and page proofs are supposed to be run by the author. But often they’re not. And often, in the round robin of a publishing house, things appear in the book that weren’t there at “final” viewing of typeset pages.
For instance, in my Shakespeare books, there was an entire paragraph added, heaven only knows why, of someone’s idea of Elizabethan English. It didn’t add to the plot. It ddn’t add to character. It was just someone’s bright, last minute idea. And this person thought that “illiterate grammar mistakes” was the equivalent of “Elizabethan English.”
Now, I can honestly say stuff — I’m sure — gets through my final reading of page-proofed manuscripts. By that time I’m on my 11th or 12th go round of the book, and in traditional rhythms it usually lands on my desk as I’m nearing the climax of the current book and running a week behind. I’m sure that’s how I missed someone at Baen changed one of Simon St. Cyr’s names to Michelle from Michel (probably a spell check thing, honestly combined with not knowing Michael is spelled differently in French.) Those are minor, won’t make or break a book, and just get me half a dozen letters from fans saying “change this.” (I can’t guys.)
But that paragraph? No way in hell I’d have missed it. No. Way. In. Hell. I about hit the roof when I found it while casually flipping through the printed book. (I don’t normally read my published books unless I’m preparing to write more in the series, aka “reading myself into the world.”)
Also edits… Until five years ago, with a short story, and probably because I was on the verge of killing myself with an ear infection, while trying to prepare to teach a workshop, I never talked back to an edit. My mind had this setting that went “I’m ESL, so if they change wording, they’re probably right.” And also “they are paying for it. If they want it purple, I’ll do it.”
But mostly, really, I wanted to be known as “easy to work with” so my career wouldn’t end.
Has that stopped? Not totally. The awareness there’s indie makes a difference, though. When the first publishers of Sword and Blood gave the book to a “volunteer” to edit and she kept doing crazy stuff like correcting my French using some online translator (I no longer have the confidence to SPEAK French to French people — though it would probably be solved by reading in French for a month or so, if I had the time — but I do have a bachelor’s in French via some French college’s Portuguese outpost (I don’t remember which university. It’s been 26 years since I used it professionally. Heck, until last month I hadn’t told my husband I also had an equivalent of a BA in Italian from the University of Milan. It never came up, and also I never need to show the diploma. Until we tripped on it while cleaning my closet. Anyway, my Italian, like my Swedish is really gone. I can still READ in Italian, but can’t even start to speak it.) BUT I guarantee to you that my French is better than some online translator program. Also, (I ran into that in a recent edit, again) if I use a word in French, I mean that word, not whatever you think is more likely. This particularly editor of Sword and blood also decided I should change all the musketeer names, and not even to the names that people think are “right” because these people were the “inspiration” of the musketeers (look, inspiration and fictional characters are not the same. For one the inspirations were ALL Gascons and cousins. Clearly this is not the case in The Three Musketeers. Where the only one of the four with a first name is Aramis.) No, this special bunny had “researched” via google, and wanted me to give them the first names they’d been assigned in a 1920’s silent movie. She was also upset because I didn’t seem to know that Porthos had been a pirate.
That particular edit got returned to sender with a rhino-blistering letter, and they actually rolled it back.
But by then I’d been swallowing just as preposterous edits and editorial letters for years, because after all they were paying for it, never mind my name was on the cover. (And oh, the reviews I got sometimes, after Amazon became a thing. On errors not-mine.)
So, there’ s that. There’s also cover, over which we midlisters had no say, and even most bestsellers didn’t really have any control. There’s distribution and push, which means that in the nineties especially, when publishing houses got to tell the bookstores how many books to take of each title, you know… you could be published and never see your book in a bookstore, ever. (The Musketeer’s Seamstress and The Musketeer’s Apprentice. And no, according to my statements it wasn’t because Death of A Musketeer didn’t sell. It’s because in the four months between traditional publishing decided that historical mysteries didn’t sell.)
So you could write the best book possible, but after that it was all “Oxala.” And your entire career rode on it. And you had no control. None. In the long view of things, actually, whether the story was great didn’t even count that much for sales. There were any number of “pushed” bestsellers where you facepalmed so hard all the way through that you looked like a domestic abuse victim.
Sometime in the oughts I read a book on overcoming burn out. And the first advice was “Find a way to take control of your career.” I laughed, and laughed, then I put it down.
Now there’s indie. We have that control, right?
We have more control, sure. And I appreciate it, but it’s still a chaotic system with a million unknown variables. At least, though, no one can tell you your career is over. And you don’t need to walk on eggshells. There is always a third or fourth or fifth chance. Change your name, try another subgenre. You can always start again.
Of course, in the meanwhile and while you’re learning the ropes, you can eat pretty lean.
I think this is part of the reason my old-pro friends are having so much trouble with the change. Sure, it’s freedom, but it’s also being alone, bare to the world, with nothing to back you up, nothing to hide behind.
My friends in the fiction world are not the only ones running scared.
My journalist friends are half and half. The younger ones are thriving, writing for various sites, moving fast. The older ones are bitter, lost, sometimes giving up on their (traditional journalism) profession completely.
These are the fields I know well, but it’s hitting EVERYTHING. Non-fiction writing, sure, but also … well, everything, including apparently retail.
Information technology is changing the way we live, the way we work, the way we do business.
Sometimes the in-between forms, particularly where government gets its nose in, is practically non-functional. But by and large the more personal, more individual, information-rich new economy is a freeing one.
And yet people are scared, people are losing their minds.
The human animal is not a rational one. I know that, from myself. Even things that I know are hurting me, if they’re established ways of doing business/living are hard to leave behind. You mourn the old way of life, even when it sucked.
But the times they are achanging. The wheel in the sky is turning a little faster these days.
Those who do best are those with multiple streams of income, who keep it agile, keep it adaptive.
They are the mammals as the meteor nears.
Be a mammal. You might sometimes scurry in the undergrowth, but you’ll survive.
Keep moving, keep abreast of new conditions, cultivate multiple streams of income.
And don’t give up. Never give up.