I have a treadmill desk and at one point I used it religiously four to five hours a day. Then I started having asthma attacks, and had to stop using it. Now it feels strange, and I have trouble actually thinking to write on it.
But it’s all a matter of habit.
There are habits that come with twenty years in the traditional publishing sphere. Mostly habits of stress and fear.
Because once the book leaves your hands you’re completely at the mercy of the publishing house, and because whatever the results of what they do will be imputed to you, you become used to fear. Constant, pit of the stomach fear.
I learned this lesson early when a series in which book had earned out was yet deemed to have “failed” (one wonders what the house had intended for it to do. One also wonders about what lies were told in expense reports, and whether much publicity was ascribed to the poor books, who got their ONLY publicity from me (which pretty much ate the first two advances)) so badly that no other house would touch me.
It’s not what you do. It’s not anything you can control. But your career could fail utterly at any moment due to even mere inatention (not even malice) of someone at the publishing house. Or you know, not even that, they could just “deem” you to have failed according to standards never communicated.
That was five years into my career. It’s been another fifteen now.
Sometime around 2005 (I think) when actually the issue was hypothyroidism, I was having so much trouble concentrating, sleeping, motivating myself, or really giving a hang about whether I got out of bed in the morning, that I bought a book on overcoming burnout.
This was before I went mostly electronic. Electronic is good. I can just return the stupid ones. This book’s first chapter said that burnout was composed of overwork and lack of control. Without the lack of control you don’t get the burnout. So, first they advised changing companies, and going to one where you had more control.
If you’re a traditionally published author, what company you work for is ALSO NOT under your control. So I walled the book. And I kept on.
Fear of the other shoe falling — an invisible shoe falling from an unknowable height — does burn you out, though, even if I had something organic wrong with me. Over time, slowly, it grinds at you.
For me the main symptom was my imagination going “arid.” (I find it weird of all the people I described it to, John Ringo is the only one who got exactly what I meant by arid.)
It’s not gone. And you can still write carefully pre-scripted books.
It’s just if you’re a writer like me, you’re used to your bare bones plot being enriched by “grace notes.” Characters who become unexpectedly multi-faceted. Subplots that grow around who the characters are and what they want and which emphasize, contrast or otherwise make the main plot better. It’s… for those of you who’ve never written a novel, kind of like tasting the soup you made from recipe and going “Oh, just a touch of mint (or thyme or rosemary.) would make this awesome.” You can still make soup without it, it’s just not as flavorful. Just like you can grow crops in a parched land, but they will be stunted, barely surviving. (Hence arid.)
It wasn’t even deadline stress. It was just stress. Each new book was like a hostage delivered to the hands of fate, and after a while it was hard to create new hostages.
So, a year ago I decided from now on I’ll be mostly indie. Why aren’t the books pouring out?
First, of course, there is the fact that the last year has been fraught not just with worries, but with things that “need to be done right the frack now” so I end up being a construction worker (or furniture refinisher) for 17 hours a day, which even if I had energy to write, leaves no time for it. But that’s minor-ish. I’m finishing the “last big to do.” Left is re-flooring two rooms and then nothing more till Spring. It would be wunderbar to have made enough money from indie by Spring that I can actually pay someone else to destroy their knees to do the rest of the house.
Second … second is something more insidious.
Humans are immensely adaptable creatures. We adapt to everything, even things that are bad for us. Older son tells me that if you are overweight too long, or have high blood pressure too long, or any other thing like that, your body “remodels”. I.e. it develops structures to support the incredibly unhealthy thing you’re doing and being. Some of these remodels are worse than the thing itself.
I’ve learned to associate finishing novels with pain. So my thoughts of publishing come with flinching away from pain.
There is only one way to fix that. Yes, you’re right losing weight. :D. No, that’s just the peculiar obsession of my past PCP. Seriously, you could crawl in with pneumonia and he’d tell you it was because you’d gained ten pounds. Is it weird that I’m finally losing weight under a physician who thinks my weight goals are crazy. (They probably are. I was unhealthily thin when young.)
Habits can be superseded by new habits, subconscious expectations by new expectations. I’ve promised myself that publishing a book — just publishing — will lead to our going away for a weekend of writing (yes, I know that sounds funny, but Dan and I love our writing weekends. We write and talk story, and take interesting walks, and do fun research.) That way, regardless of how the book does, I’ll rush to finish with an expectation of something fun. Yes, it will be tight. But hopefully only for the first few books.
But habits are hard things to break. Even those that are counterproductive and you know they are.
For instance, I wrote for so long while listening with most of my attention for the sounds of kids in the floor below (when the noise stopped it was a problem) that for years after they entered high school and were more or less self-sufficient and trusted (at least not to water the piano, draw an entire landscape on their sleeping brother’s back, pull dressers down on themselves, build elaborate structures that obstruct their ability to leave the bedroom or other such adventures) I couldn’t settle to write. Took me years to figure out that the problem was I was listening for sounds of little kids and panicking wen I didn’t hear them. (Silence was always bad.)
So, can I learn to live without the fear? the overhanging the stress? the listening for the other shoe to drop?
I’m going to try.
For most of the last twenty years I’ve been on a treadmill. Movement was forced by movements I had no power over. Series started and were declared dead at seemingly random. Proposals were written and the least likely was bought. Dates were set not by me. In the middle of the next book, revisions would come for a book I finished over a year ago, and I had to wrench myself from one and into the other. I’m not whining, that’s just the way the business worked. But it’s hard when you write in as many different times and series as I do.
So… I need to learn to step down and write while standing on a firm surface (not physically. There I need to train to the treadmill again. Ah, the irony.)
I need to figure out the best way to do things, and do them. I need to set deadlines. I need to reward myself for doing what I should (which is hardest of all. The reward thing. I’m just not used to them.)
Habits. The problem is that we’re not creatures of will, we’re not creatures of mind and spirit. We’re creatures of mind and body, and the physical body (even parts of the brain) run on habits which are hellishly hard to change.
But it will be done, because I’m a creature of mind and spirit too.
This analyzing what is holding me back is hard, and I don’t want to do it. It’s still better than the treadmill.
And so it will be learned, and it will be done. It is being done as we speak. Because habits can be changed, and are not in charge of me.
I’ll stand or fail on my own.