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.