It used to be a joke between my husband and I, when I started writing full time. He’d come home, find me particularly cross and ask if it was a rough day at the office, and if the characters had refused to obey.
He did not know it wasn’t as much of a joke as he thought, nor, to be fair, did I. Nor that the problem wasn’t so much the characters but the employee of my own, self owned business.
Much is said about how to “behave like a business person” but very few people tell you how to be a business.To be fair, that was less important under traditional publishing models. I always thought it funny when I was told things like “remember it’s your career, you’re in control” because we had practically no control. Our decisions on what to write, when, what to let molder in the drawer, whether series would be finished or left hanging mid-series, or even if our books would be distributed in such a way that the fans could find them, or not show up in any bookstores and not be listed as part of the series (cough) at Amazon was not ours.
Sure, if you were a bestseller and they were eager to make you happy, you had some control. (Depending on the house, you might have a great deal of control or just the ability to move release dates and request a new cover.)
I was mentored by and grew up as a writer around a few bestsellers and mega bestsellers, and even they had to take contracts they’d rather not, let a book go they really wanted to write, or write a book they had almost no interest in, because the publisher demanded it.
In fact, honestly, there wasn’t a ton of difference between bestsellers, even mega bestsellers, and those of us trapped in the purgatory of midlist.
The thing you could apply to both of us is that we couldn’t call our souls our own. You had to dance to the tune, and more importantly, you had to pretend to enjoy it. In such circumstances, telling you to manage your career was like telling a beggar extending his bowl out in the cold and damp to manage his income.
If you got to J. K. Rowling’s status, what we called the “drop dead” status, you could do whatever you wanted, of course. The reason we called it the “drop dead” status is that you could tell your publisher to drop dead, and before you hung up there would be a limo at the door to take you to your contract signing for a few million with one of the rivals. There were at any given time maybe 10 people in the world at that level. And sometimes fewer.
But — and this is germane — traditional publishing did have something that was useful for the writer: structure.
You could, of course, sign a contract and never deliver, but, weirdly, the number of people who do that is miniscule. Most people who sign contracts consider themselves honor bound to fulfill them. But creative work being what it is, and us working from home, it helps to know someone else is waiting, and someone else WILL nag you.
Of course, that’s also part of working for trad. The less you want to do a book (and with me, often — more often than I’d like — it’s not the book but how I feel about the house) the harder it is to stop being called away by a million little things that happen around you every day (one of my bestseller friends told me to book weeks in hotels. As many as I wanted finished books. Because you had to isolate yourself to make it happen.)
Weirdly getting prodded at regular intervals did get the work done. Even if you didn’t appreciate it. (There was a book, weirdly the highest grossing in royalties for me, which means it’s doubled my advance) which I truly had NO interest in writing (it was work for hire, and I’d applied for a different one in the series, but been given that one, because no one else wanted it.) But I did have an interest in paying two mortages, as we were attempting to sell the first house. And so, I accepted the contract, but couldn’t sit my but in chair to do it. Until the book not only had a cover, but I was getting DAILY phone calls. Which is when I wrote the book in three days. (In my defense, part of the delay was that I’d got severe concussion and was dealing with vision changes, fugue states and who knew what else.)
The good news that you are now free and you can tell whomever you want (including your readers, though I never found reason for it, since I like mine. But you know, if you really feel a need to say tell people you hate them for nominating you for an award, you can do so. It will only cost you your name not your career. Hell, it might not even cost you your name. It’s been borne upon me that not only are conventions irrelevant, our internet games might be also. There is a public that buys on Amazon but is not on social media nor reads blogs. Indications are it’s the majority.) to drop dead comes with the bad news that you are now both boss and employee, and that writers are horrible employees, full of bad habits, slaves to their fancies and absolutely unreliable. The only thing you can say for us is that we’re not as bad as artists.
If you’re laughing at the preceding paragraph, you shouldn’t. It really is very hard to manage yourself. We used to have a joke in the field that when people quit their day job to write full time they’ll never finish a book again.
The joke is not wrong. It’s very difficult to discipline yourself to the use of time without artificial constraints, and the whole day which stretched in front of you gets eaten up by little stuff (I call it nibbled by ducks) so writing never happens.
I’ve faced this twice now, once when I quit to stay home and write, after the move to Colorado. (Impaired by toddler, of course.) and once when the kids went to college. I’d been used to setting my writing hours by the hours they were in school, and suddenly that structure was gone, which weirdly, translated into less writing.
And I’m facing it again now, with dispensing with the “nagging by publisher” in going indie.
So, some of the things below are what I’ve done and some what I need to do. And some are what I have done and need to learn to do again, now that the moves are over and I need to set a routine again. Of course I could have chosen a better year for this than the year of two weddings and hopefully no funeral, in which duties to our sons, duties to our parents, and remaining duties to my outgoing publisher are likely to keep me traveling all over the country (and abroad) from March through September. (And I suspect that’s only because the family hasn’t come up with things for us to do in October yet.) But one does what one can. And in the turmoil getting discipline into my writing, that is, managing my sole employee who happens to be me is extremely necessary.
Here go a few things to attempt:
1- Set a schedule to write. This works wonderfully. I used to set Saturday morning aside for short stories and got so trained to it that when we were out of town for the weekend, the story arrived unbidden at the right time.
1a. Your schedule might be dependent on children, or day job, but try to set it to the clock, not “when I’m done with” or “until they come back from school. Otherwise when you lose that, you lose the writing.
1b. Shut the door. This means both the physical door and facebook and other distractions. Pretend it’s an office, and the boss is looking over your shoulder (well, you are.) You can see music being allowed, but is your boss really going to be happy at your browsing facebook?
2- Keep to the project. No, seriously. Your first impulse on going indie is to think “I can write anything! And you will write 10 beginnings. Then 100. And never have anything to show for it.
Set a publication schedule and try to keep to it (yes, I’m already running late. What else is new?) DO NOT let yourself start new books till that one is done. Starts are always more attractive than finishes.
3- Set up periodic schedule revisions, but don’t be too lax with yourself.
Look, this month I’m really late because I caught cold from hell. And every time I try to work I set myself back again. So, yeah, one of the books will have to be moved, and the other needs to be finished today and tomorrow. I need a schedule revision. Being sick is a thing, and writing is not the vital occupation you must kill yourself for.
BUT remember writers are unreliable and trained to lie. Don’t cut yourself too much slack.
4- Reward yourself. I haven’t tried this, and rewards for me are a little difficult, since the things I really like I can’t do without impinging on my husband’s time (take your mind out of the gutter. I mean going to museums, or the zoo, or a weekend away.) Or rather, I can do them myself, but it’s not as much fun. I’m going to try for smaller ones, though. You know, finish that section and get an hour in front of the TV with a mystery. Or take the afternoon off to do some art. That sort of thing. With the big rewards for finishing books.
Peterson says that if you don’t reward yourself with something tangible (when you’re self-employed you can’t pay in cash)then you’ll slowly grind down and be unable to write. He might not be wrong.
5- Play mind games.
If you come from traditional, you have some spectacularly bad habits. Well, I do, at any rate. And if you don’t, you might have them from your day job. In my case there’s an habit called “they’re not serious till you have a cover.”
So for the book I MUST deliver tomorrow (i.e. send to copy edits) I sent myself a cover. Because Publisher Sarah is REALLY serious.
Of course, if I get to the point of calling myself three times a day, my husband will have to put me away. So let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, as I go write.