Fighting off the Black Dog

So I was having a dose of the black dog – the beast behind your shoulders – that stalks every writer I’ve ever met. Sometimes they’ve turned on the beast and driven it back to its cold lair… for a while. But in the small hours when you’re looking at that blank screen, when that royalty statement that shows the book you thought bound to break out sold far less than you dreamed, when the words seem elusive and meaningless… take a sniff. You’ll smell his fetid breath, as he creeps closer.

Look, the truth is few other professions require the same bizarre combination of sensitivity and hardness from their members. Nursing and medicine have some of the same elements – You need empathy, you need to understand, and feel, and care for your characters, even the ones you detest, to do your best for them, to get the best for the reader from them. And yet you need to do your job. Sometimes, as an author, you kill your characters, often you hurt them. If you’re doing it properly… they’re part of you. You feel for them. Just as a good ambulance officer can’t just ‘do his job’ – but has to have some degree of empathy and care – even for the worst people he has to deal with. Yes, you – the patient – might be a wife-beating Ice addict, who just assaulted me when we answered the call-out. But I still have to stop you from drowning in your own vomit, or harming yourself further. Some people I get called for are wonderful folk I’m only too eager to help. Some are, inevitably, not. I still must treat them as if they all were great people.

The difference of course is I get home from the call out, and decompress (not always that easy) and it’s over. I move on, within hours. Yes, there are marks. That’s life. But when you write a book and really enter into it (doing it properly, in other words)… that’s not a few hours, it’s not superficial. You’re part of that character, even if he was an asshole. You may live with him in your head for months, not half an hour in the Ambo. And yes, I know ‘the character is not real’. When has that ‘not real’ stopped what’s going on in human heads? I had nightmares about Bianca for years.

Still, that’s not what I find is my underlying problem with novels (and I’ve written more than twenty, some as long as three novels.) It’s the marathon runner issue. For me, anyway, (perhaps less so for faster writers) a book is a very long run. One I can’t see the end of at the start. It takes hardness and determination to finish a novel (which is why so many people fail. The world has 1000 started novels for every finished one.) And yet… you (well, me) can’t be uninvolved and not care. For me, anyway it’s never just been the ‘a job’, which one tries to do adequately. My best may have got better, but every book has always been every last bit of effort I COULD put in. Heh. Given that I always had far more ‘success’ with girls I didn’t care that deeply about, than when I did… maybe I’m doing it wrong.

This makes every book into a rather precious child, which your natural instinct says every word is precious and you’ll defend to the death. Which of course if you’re going to get any benefit from first readers and editors, you have to be able to set aside.

And then of course, if you’re traditionally published – you hand your precious baby over to someone else. Someone who deals with these babies every day of the week. They may be good or bad at it, but it’s never going to be your level of effort. Look, their bad may still eclipse your best, just as a professional glassblower’s ‘bad’ would still eclipse my ‘best’ attempt at glass-blowing. But your book is being handled by a chain of people. And trust me: there are always going to be weak links having a bad day giving it anything but their best. Now if the publisher paid a lot for it, he or she will probably try to catch and fix these. But for the rest of us, it’s down, more-or-less, to luck. I’ve never had a single book pass through the process where EVERYTHING went well, every link in that chain performed at least as well as my inept self could have (because this was my precious baby) . Of course some of those times it was relatively trivial. A good few of those times a careless little asshole just doing the minimum came close to destroying my career. Many times I have to admit they just dropped the ball along the way, and the end result was a long way short of what I dreamed of. This is just reality in Traditional Publishing. Occasionally the stars will align, and an author will get that lucky ride to much better than expected results. This hasn’t come my way, but it does happen. Just don’t expect it.

Mostly it won’t. You have to watch them, and they HATE being watched. You have to understand the process, and they won’t tell you what it is. You have to pick up the pieces where you can, do the jobs and fix the jobs that other people should have done, where you can. And it’s not a bit of use yelling at them. It’s depressing, exhausting and difficult, because the process is designed to avoid oversight (quite understandably. 1) You don’t understand what you’re overseeing, and you care so much you would interfere, and you’re ignorant. 2) They’re just doing a job. They make cock-ups and do less than the ideal. The last thing they want is for you to know that.) I’ve been occasionally really happy with parts of the system. A great edit here, a great copy edit there, or proof-read, or a brilliant cover… I can think of all of those — just not in the same book. Marketing, distribution, and the sale of rights they always insist on have almost inevitably been less than pleasing, to abject failures.

And every crash is ALWAYS driver (author) error. Sometimes it is, of course. But as picking ‘good drivers’ is part of what they’re keeping most of income for, this too is questionable.

Keeping your pecker up in the face of that, well, it takes a fairly hardened optimist.

So: yes, the Black Dog has lots to nourish it, for most authors.

It’s one of the real joys of going Indy. You may drop the ball, you may not be very skilled… but you’ll work your socks off for your baby. It can still fail, but not because some jackass forgot to tell the printers to ship, or couldn’t be arsed to give the author the release details.

Still. It’s a dog I deal with all of the time. Sometimes it gets worse. You have to work through it or you end up another statistic in list of authors who just gave up, or, at worst, offed themselves. For some people chemicals are an answer. I am reluctant to go that way, beyond some extra vitamin D – but that is me, not you. I can only tell you what I try to do. Some of it makes some difference.

Don’t live in the past. Yes, I can’t help think that my life would have been somewhat better if Baen had accepted the offer for PYRAMID SCHEME from FUNAMATION. I still can’t fathom why not – but if I’ve learned one thing from a friend who has to bring his ‘might-have-been’ into every conversation – it never lifts him up, it just takes him down. I b’ain’t dead yet.

Take exercise: for me, scary exercise is best – nothing like being frightened that you’re going to die, to make glad to be alive and to put lesser things in perspective. But even a brisk walk with the dog is good for me. The dog likes it too.

Tidy your desk. The best part is that means you can’t find anything for weeks, and it gives you something else to think about… well, besides that a clean tidy environment makes me feel out of place better. Yes, definitely better.

Read a great book. Give up work and read one of those old friends that always gives you a lift. Unknown Ajax or Flint here I come.

Play music that distracts and uplifts. Not everyone gets cheered by Scots laments, but happiness is all about relativity. I’m listening to Runrig’s Dust, right now.

Have a network of friends – and don’t be the guy constantly bitching and moaning in it. That way, when you really need to let off steam, you can.

Do something, anything, active rather than merely reading facebook or worst the news. Depression means great strides in kitty litter changing…

Target small successes. It’s like that vast book ahead is too big – like the marathon-runner’s hell-hill. A hundred words is a success too. Books are made up of lots of little successes, in the end. So is a life well lived. I don’t get to be read by millions. But occasionally I get to be the guy who wrote the old friend book. I can’t save the world. But I have at least helped save a couple of people.

Work on things you CAN control (indy books). I find one of the most debilitating things is the waiting and reliance on things and people entirely outside my control. Yeah, I am a control freak – at least about myself.

Keep visible tokens of success visible: Pictures. Reviews. Letters. Covers. Books themselves. Just getting a book finished is freaking vast. Thousands of people try and fail for every one that succeeds. You’ve done something most people fail at.

And most of all, Nil carborundum Illigitimi.



  1. One of the LibertyCon panels was about writers and depression. Many of us have it. There are now treatments for clinical depression that do not strip people of their creativity. And acknowledging that d-mned black dog is part of shooing him back to his kennel.

    1. One of the things that helped me a lot with a period of depression was changing my employment situation. Lots of very little success, no clear evidence (that I was aware of) why, no idea what changes did what, no obvious path to greater success, no hope, and no obvious alternatives.

      What I’m getting out of it hasn’t changed, but I understand processes much better, and I’m on a path of improvement that gives me hope for adequate outcomes.

      1. I don’t know. I got called out of the panel before I could ask. I probably should have stuck around for the Q&A.

      2. Such as?

        What about for those of us who were already damaged by the psych meds?

        I can’t say for certain, and I couldn’t point you at a good practitioner, but there are some interesting and useful things being done with neurofeedback these days. I could not tell you what advancements in the field will bring.

      3. Apparently cannabis oil (CBD oil specifically) is excellent for treating anxiety. CBD is the component that doesn’t get you high. Canadian physicians are getting encouraging results with CBD oil and combination THC/CBD for treating insomnia and anxiety. If you can’t go to sleep with THC oil on board, there’s something seriously wrong with you.

        Much less good at treating genuine depression, which is the thing that responds well to SSRI meds. Worth having a go IF your country/state allows medical cannabis, and if you can get the genuine proper article prescribed by a doctor who isn’t an idiot. That last is not a given, you’ll have to shop around a bit.

        For y’all Amurikains, be advised that the FDA just certified a CBD oil product for treating seizures, Epidiolex. The DEA will presently be changing the classification of CBD from OHMIGHODSOILLEGAL to “prescription-only.” Epidiolex was approved for treating intractable seizure disorders in children and adults, but particularly children, because it reduces the frequency of seizures by 40% or more in most patients. That’s the blurb, the real deal is that in many cases it stops the seizures entirely. Basically they had no choice, there’s no other seizure med out there that can do what it does.

        Street weed is nearly useless, and can be worse than useless due to the application of synthetic THC analogs. Those are the things you see in the news where people are found bleeding from the eyes and ears, trying to eat their girlfriend, as in for a snack, stuff like that. “K2” is an example of that, don’t touch it.

        As I’ve said many times, the combination of Holy Basil and Theanine (an amino acid usually extracted from green tea) works well for depression/anxiety in -some- people. That stuff is 100% legal everywhere. I take it all the time, works great for me, zero side effects that I know of. The “that I know of” part is significant, mileage may vary so go slow.

        This concludes the drug lecture for today. ~:D

  2. ” . . . Nil carborundum Illigitimi.”

    I’m quite certain that means “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Which is a reasonable recommendation, no matter what.

    What we need is magic fairy dust to get more people to try just one of our books . . . Although plenty of affluent people are depressive, commercial success isn’t going to hurt!

  3. Dave,

    Thanks for mentioning the band Runrig. I’d not heard of them, so I looked them up on YouTube. I love what I’m hearing.


  4. “Keep visible tokens of success visible: Pictures. Reviews. Letters. Covers. Books themselves. Just getting a book finished is freaking vast. Thousands of people try and fail for every one that succeeds. You’ve done something most people fail at.”

    I always keep a pile of my published works on my bookcase where I can see them. I can always look over and remind myself that I did that, and can do it again.

  5. I look at my word counter, not having anything published yet. Today ‘The Discarded Shoe’ is up to 151,499. A bit more to go, but certainly nearing the end of the tunnel. Light is streaming in.

    Begone, foul cur!

  6. The great Gaels of Ireland are the men the gods made mad,
    For all their wars are merry, and all their songs are sad.

  7. OTOH, I have seen comments here and there saying that Funimation absolutely destroyed some of the properties they got hold of. Really, it’s probably the same crap-shoot as when you turn your book over to trad pub, except with even less input into the final product.

    I keep thinking that, if I had been a young and naive new SF fan, and had seen Starship Troopers (the execrable one), I would have had this image of RAH as “just another military hating writer of dystopian left-wing dreck,” of which there is a lamentable surplus already. It probably would have been years, if ever, before I actually picked up a book by the man.

    1. But the money for obtaining IP rights, small to Funimation and to Baen’s Hollywood agent, would have gone a lone way for Dave at the time. Dave lives on a very cheap budget in locations that aren’t super costly, and has had times when money has been very tight.

      1. Okay, the brain is overheating – I need to read only after the sun is long over the yardarm… I could have sworn that “life” was “career.”

        Only Dave can tell us whether it was the immediate money, or the potential career boost that hurt the most. (Immediate money just about always hurts for writers, though…)

        1. Funimation… Um, how to say this….

          Well, there was a time when a lot of anime distributors got overextended, and were not actually paying their bills. I have no knowledge of Funi being one of those companies, and it did survive the Great Unmaking of Companies.

          But if Been felt unsure that anyone would get paid, and the offer happened at one of those times; or if one of Funi’s Japanese publishing partners had wanted to do a good old rights grab… I would not be surprised.

          1. I look forward to the day when video production is as simple as publishing on Amazon (or more so, hopefully).

            Then we can maybe be in at the birth of MGC Studios.

            Of course, the ways to make money in the indie video market seem to be even more fluxatious (OH, THAT IS SO A WORD, YOU STUPID PROGRAM).

            Pardon. Making money at indie video production appears to be even more of a chaotic art form than indie writing.

            1. its not *that* hard to sell one offs to Amazon and Netflix and iTunes. A series is a different matter. that’s where ‘direct top video’ goes these days.

            2. Video editing has actually become become very reasonable. The software is easily available, learning to use it is a bit time intensive, but easily achievable.

              But editing film is only a small part of video production.
              Actor, director, cameraman, sound engineer, set design and construction, and many more hats need to be worn, at the same time, in different physical locations. It’s necessarily going to be more of a team effort than an individual one.

              And then there’s the issue of monetizing all that work…
              YouTube makes the Big Five look like fairly decent business partners.

              1. I was thinking more full production. Now, that would take AI assist, fairly heavy assistance at that. But it might be possible, some day, to give a computer your script and have it turned into a realistic CGI animation, with little to distinguish it from live action.

                I think it was Google not too long ago that demonstrated software that composed faces without any model for them – that might seem a long way from grabbing a bunch of CC0 character files from a website, and stock locations, and running the software through its paces. My future predictor is miscalibrated, so I’m not going to give a year here – but note that it usually has read out as far too many years.

                At that point, it’s learning how to write the script and edit the finished video to clean up the rough patches that show up when you actually see the product.

                The hard part will then be, as always, convincing people to part with their beer money.

          2. No rights grab: I know this for an indisputable fact – because I offered them the rights -free, gratis, and for nothing, to of my other books where I do own the rights. They said ‘no thanks’ – they wanted Pyramid Scheme. If all you want is a rights grab, you’re not going to turn down an offer like that.

        2. Actually it was neither ‘immediate money’ (which would have been welcome, but not ‘do we move under the bridge in a cardboard box or do I get paid for this’) difference. I would happily have taken a very small offer – although a big one is good because 1) money 2)they work hard er to get their money back. OR the dream of seeing my work faithfully portrayed on the screen. I really don’t expect that. It was the third option, you didn’t mention. Heinlein could have cared deeply about an accurate portrayal: because people went to see the movie because they’d read his books and knew them. He’d already reached a far wider audience than the movie would. But I am not Heinlein. I’m a relatively minor author, not very well known. Few would go to see the movie, because they knew the book. Most of the people seeing the movie… would never before have heard of me or seen my books. Even if the movie was a total horse’s bum – I would have been increasing my exposure to readers… a lot. based one author I know, who sold one crappy movie, that bombed. He was getting 10 grand advances before – and circulation to match. Ever after – and that’s a 15 years… he was getting 100 grand advances, and distribution to match. The movie sucked. His writing sucks. He still increased his sales and income 10 fold because of name recognition. Me… I’d be delighted with five fold. And I don’t think my books suck, so given the exposure and name recognition -not only could I do well out of the future, BUT my backlist would step up too.

          1. Ah. Educational. Well, that’s one of the reasons for this place.

            Another reason to find out what actually happens in the real world, rather than what one thinks should happen from one’s own limited viewpoint.

  8. ”You need empathy, you need to understand, and feel, and care for your characters, even the ones you detest, to do your best for them “

    For they each and every one were the daughters and sons, some beloved, of mothers and fathers. And even if they weren’t, it can say more about the person who treats them ill when they could help and heal than the poor sod what’s there. A character that is so unloved (or under appreciated, perhaps) rings all hollow and dead. Not every character needs an epic backstory, but woe betide the author that cares so little for his villains (or his heroes) that they don’t get to live on the page.

  9. ‘tidy’ my desk, assumes there is space for tidy. I need that rat’s nest of cables right there….

          1. nope. one is for the game controller that i need to reconfigure to use in Modo, one is a standard usb cable for use on my ultranova, one is a micro usb cable for use on my Launchkey Mini, and o is a stereo audio cable for use on the ultranova, plus the ‘spare’ Sennheiser headphones.

            1. I have a veritable sea of tech shit on my desk, wires everywhere. That’s what makes the cable tie joke even funnier. Under the desk looks like an explosion in a computer store. All of it Doing Something Important.

              At least I’m past the stage of having the naked motherboard sitting on a pizza box, with all the peripherals dead-bugged around it. Now I can actually afford a case!

  10. A late comment, because I’ve been away and sans access; so a big catch up is in progress.

    As a former mental health practitioner I feel for you. All I can say is that “Nil carborundum Illigitimi” is a great reminder to not let bad thoughts rule in your head. Make them pay rent, and if they don’t say, “I know you, you’re not saying anything new, have a nice day, I’ve gotta get on with my day.”

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