On Writing: Unlearning the Process

I subscribe to a handful of writing magazines, many that I’ve been picking up for a good few decades.  Over the years, they’ve helped me rethink how I look at my stories.  Sometimes they’ll point out the blatantly obvious that I’d been ignoring for one reason or another (weak prose and word repetition for a start).  Sometimes they’ll provide insight on what agents and publishers are looking for and how to contact them.  It’s all helpful, and over the years their advice did help me get a lot farther than just guessing or assuming I was doing it right.

On the other hand, I’ve been quite contrarian lately, and I’m not entirely sure why.

Well, maybe I am sure; I think it has to do with self-publishing my work.  Also that I’ve been a nonconformist at heart since I was a kid.

Thing is, lately I’ll read these advice articles and think, ‘well, why can’t I do it that way?’  For example, I saw an article earlier this morning regarding a novel having too much plot.  I get where they’re coming from, don’t get me wrong; the example they used was bombastic and ridiculous (some litfic plot regarding way too many characters causing way too many plot twists and coincidences that even reality gave it the side-eye), and in that instance, it’s probably for the best that you back it up a bit and maybe narrow the focus.  My reaction, however, was this: well, how is it that apparently readers don’t like way too much plot, and yet we love reading doorstop novels from George RR Martin, Kate Elliott, Neal Stephenson, and so on?  How can I write the plot-heavy book and still make it readable and enjoyable?  The kind of doorstopper that makes readers go ‘damn, that’s some great world building!’  In other words, the kind of books I love to read.

That’s when it dawned on me: it’s not that the writer of the article is stifling creativity; they’re just trying to keep your novel’s highway from gridlocking.  If you’re going to write a doorstopper, just make damn sure it’s navigable.

 

Getting back to my bit about nonconformity, here’s an ironic admission: I’m also a pathetic conformist as well.  Let’s just say that even though I touted my individuality in my high school years – sometimes to annoying extremes – and tended to question authority when needed (again, usually in the form of “well, why can’t we…?”), I also found myself desperately trying to fit into the status quo at the same time.  I’m a proud self-contrarian in that respect.*

[* – A good example of my proud self-contrarianism:  Yes, I am aware of the irony of using a Psykosonik song in a blog entry about writing my sf trilogy, considering that one of the band’s principal songwriters was one Ted Beale, aka Vox Day.  I’m not a fan of his politics in the least, but I did love the Unlearn album when it came out in 1995, so I’m fine with keeping the two separate.]

 

With regards to my writing, I went through quite a few phases of trying to shape my novels into something that agents and publishers would enjoy.   The truth is out: one of the reasons it took me so long to self-release the Bridgetown Trilogy is that I spent a good number of years trying to figure out how to revise it so that it was more commercially acceptable to agents and publishers.  Suffice it to say, I never successfully figured out how to do it.  I didn’t want to give up on the Mendaihu Universe, I just wanted to make it marketable.

I could never figure out why nobody was biting, though — and that’s the downside to the form rejection letter.  No one is telling you why.  I understand the reason behind the process…most agencies and publishers are actually quite small in crew and literally can’t respond personally to thousands of submissions.  At the same time, though, it doesn’t help the writer one bit.  It’s like being trained at your workplace for a new system, and when you’re baffled and stuck and ask for clarification, the trainer responds with “Well, what do you think it does?”  My initial response to that kind of question is almost always “How the fuck should I know?  That’s why I’m asking you!”**   I get that they’re trying to make you think it through, but some need a frame of reference first before they can answer that question.  If I’m not doing it right, I want to know how I should be doing it to your specifications.  I’m a writer: asking that question of me provokes about 3,425 different responses.  I have no idea which one is the right one or which would bring me success.  I have nothing to base it on.***

[** – Yes, this has actually happened at one of my day jobs.]

[*** – I am aware that this is what writing groups and beta readers are for, but they’ve never quite worked for me.  They’re great for talking out ideas and suggestions and I love the camaraderie, but more often than not they end up doing little more than confirming problems and issues I’ve already noticed and hadn’t yet acted upon.  I’ve come to the conclusion that I just happen to work better solo and should trust my instinct more often.]

 

And the nonconformist in me, after so many years, finally decided that DIY seemed like a more viable and entertaining option.  The time was right, the field has been quite strong, and I’d already done my research on it.  This time I listened that rebel in me.

I’ve mentioned here before that music is an incredibly huge influence in my life, and I took that to heart this time out when I chose to rethink how I viewed publishing.  I’ve read so many music bios about punk bands scraping by on a meager pittance and a beat up van yet absolutely loving the lifestyle; I’ve read about their wonderfully creative ways of getting their singles out to radio stations and audiences.  There’s a reason why the image of a telephone pole covered with the bark of a thousand nightclub flyers is so iconic; that was punk’s social media of the time, to let all and sundry know that you were in town and were going to play at some seedy bar close by.

So this is what happened in 2015: I chose to unlearn the process of publication as I knew it.  I already understood it all too well…if I want to publish commercially, I already know what steps I need to take, and I think I have a bead on how I can make my lighter stories marketable.  What I had to do for my self-published work, though, was think like a nonconformist: what makes sense to me, first and foremost, and be consistent in that belief.  I taught myself to react to moments of weak prose and plot.  I learned to completely trust my creative instincts.  I taught myself the mathematics of creativity (thanks again to music), of being aware of what makes a pleasurable work.  And most importantly, I taught myself to ignore any self-doubt that popped up.  I’m proud of the creative things I can do; I love writing and drawing and playing music, always have since I was a kid, so it was about damn time I followed through with those long-held dreams and make them realities.

I won’t lie…sometimes the DIY route can be daunting.  It can be emotionally nerve-wracking.  It can also be expensive.  But I really do think unlearning the process of trying to be a commercial writer was one of the best moves I’d ever made.  I’ve never been happier and more excited about being a writer.

 

On Doing It DIY

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Courtesy of Etsy

Back when I first started taking my writing seriously — I mean, as in thinking “Hey, I kinda like doing this, I could see myself doing it professionally” and setting out a goal to actually finish a full novel, way back before I actually knew how to do it — was in the mid to late 80s when I was in my mid-teens.  Out of that came the Infamous War Book (basically a Red Dawn pastiche), which took me three years to finish, in between false starts, obsessive planning, revisions, homework, and hanging out with friends.  On the one hand it was kind of expected I’d be a writer, considering my dad was a local reporter and historian, and well known in the area; many adults would not have been surprised if I followed in his footsteps.  On the other hand, though, I was following a path I didn’t think any other kids my age would have followed.  I knew a handful of kids who wrote stories alongside me, but I think their interest was more on what many nowadays would consider the fanfic level.  A fun thing to do as a hobby, but their career paths lay elsewhere.

crass stay punk
Courtesy of Etsy

Around the same time, I’d discovered college radio (which I still go on about to this day, as you can tell from my other blog).  After years of listening to commercial radio and being fed a cross section of classic rock and pop hits, the college radio thing hit me like a revelation:  you don’t have to be commercial, you know.  I was completely drawn to the DIY aspect of it all; they weren’t exactly writing and recording music for the fame, they were writing and recording because they wanted to.  And I had a real respect for that.  It was a real inspiration on multiple levels for me, from my clothes to the way I thought and acted.  It also inspired my writing quite a bit — in the latter half of the IWN, you can really see a change to a much darker mood and style.  I may not have been the leather-and-mohawk punk; I was more the Morrissey, hiding in my bedroom with my books and my music and writing the most brilliant things.  I eventually grew out of the self-important lifestyle, but the thirst for creativity remained.

I was thinking about this the other day while listening to an 80’s-themed radio show (on a college radio station, natch).  In the late 80s I had a huge burst of creativity that lasted from about 1987 to when I graduated in 1989.  Having finished the IWN I quickly wrote a silly little screenplay (basically a John Hughes pastiche), taught myself how to play bass, started a band with a few friends and wrote many of the lyrics, started writing another novel and other small bits and pieces, and started writing a LOT of poetry.  I knew a lot of it was going to be crap, and I totally understood that if I was going to release any of it, it would need a hell of a lot of revision and rewrites.  But the most important thing was that I had a goal:  I was going to get these things out into the wild, one way or another.  My life’s career was going to be as a writer!  The major goal was to try to get my writing released by a major publisher, but barring that, I could always go indie.  I came to know about vanity publishers, small independents and print-on-demand, thanks to years of studying Writer’s Market and seeing all kinds of punk zines in record stores.

Courtesy Wikipedia
Courtesy Wikipedia

The decision to go DIY for the Mendaihu Universe stories was always there, it was just that I wanted to try my hand at the pros first.  One of the reasons for that was to learn and understand how it works on that end of the business.  I wanted to see what they accepted and how it went from manuscript to printed book.  I’d even submitted it to a small number of agents and publishers over the years.  But after finishing the trilogy and a few years of further revising and rewriting, I knew I was at the point that they were ready (or closer to that point than ever before), but did not feel that I wanted to spend even more years trying to sell it to an agent or a publisher.  It was high time to put them out there before I ended up over-revising and ruining them.  Going DIY meant that I was going to do a good chunk of the “backstage” work myself, and I was up for it.

I’m lucky in that this is a perfect time for it.  There are legitimate self-publishing companies out there like Smashwords and BookBaby and CreateSpace, who do all the technical bits and bobs while you focus on the creative end of things.  You can hire a cover artist (or buy a stock photo and fiddle with it on Photoshop if you have the ability and the inclination).  You can hire an editor.  You can even find a few authors you can hire to critique your work.  And with the help of social media and the internet, you can even give yourself a bit of promotion.  The only prerequisite is that you have an understanding of what you want and how you want to get there.

Not gonna lie, seeing this still makes me giddy.
Not gonna lie, seeing this still makes me giddy.

Every step so far for me has been DIY, from the story, to the editing (with the help of a few beta readers and a partial critique from a pro), to the cover, to the formatting and uploading to Smashwords, all the way up to this blog.  Hell, even my picture in the About the Author link here was done using my nice camera set on a timer and a slight touch-up on Photoshop.  The promotion will be a little trickier, because I’m still trying to find what works, but I’m taking the Indiana Jones approach on it (“I dunno, I’m just making it up as I go”) and remaining aware of any potential avenues that might pop up.  It’s definitely been an interesting couple of months, but I’m having a hell of a fun time with it.  I’m almost tempted to make this my primary avenue for my writing.

I’m certain that’s the alternageek in me saying that, reveling in the nonconformity of it all.