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The Benefits of Distance

One of the things I always tell my students is that proofreading right after finishing something is a waste of time. You just can’t see most of the stupid typos and awkward sentences you just wrote because you just wrote them. Your brain (your lazy, lazy human brain) just kind of handwaves it all away – yeah yeah, it’s fine, pal. C’mon, lets get some pizza or something…

“Jesus, is *this* ever a pile of crap! Wow.” ~Ernest Hemingway, probably

Well, this doesn’t just apply to college undergrads, as any author or writer will confirm. Hell, it’s the whole reason editors exist – you, the writer, are just too damned close to your own work to be a good judge of it. You need distance and objectivity. There are only two means to accomplish this that I know of. One is the aforementioned editor, and the other is distance. You’ve got to put the story down, move off, let it set, and ideally forget all about it. That way, when you come back, you can look at the work with clear(er) eyes.

Of course, this means all works of writing exist in this kind of Schrodinger’s Cat-Box space where what you wrote is simultaneously brilliant and terrible until, at long last, you open it up to check, at which point the quantum wave function collapses and you’re suddenly cursing yourself for not having a keen grasp of syntax. This is painful – acutely painful, actually – but it’s also a necessary part of the writing process. “The first draft of everything,” says Hemingway, “is shit.”

But then there’s that other possibility.

You write the draft. Heck, you revise the draft. You revise it again. And still it’s garbage. You don’t know why it’s garbage (if you did, you could fix it), but you know it is. You put it in a drawer in disgust and resolve never to look at it again. But then, one day, you do anyway.

Or this version:

“By all the gods…this…this is freaking GREAT!”

You write a story. At the time, you think it’s pretty good and, whaddya know, you actually sell the damned thing! It’s going to be published! But, of course, the publication sits on the story for a while – maybe even longer than a year – and you, of course, have been writing other stuff. Better stuff, you think, because you’ve been working hard at leveling up your craft and pushing boundaries. And sometimes you think back to that story you wrote and assume it probably wasn’t that good after all – it was so long ago, and you are a different writer now, and you kinda-sorta dread it coming out. But then…then the copyedits come in and you read it again for the first time in over a year…

And it’s actually pretty goddamned awesome. Like really awesome. Like “wow, I actually pulled this off, didn’t I?” awesome.

That right there, friends, is among the best feelings you ever get in writing. Because what it means is that, despite all your insecurities and doubts and bouts of impostor syndrome, it means that you, author, actually have some idea of what you’re about and, by all indications, maybe you always have. That makes you feel like a million bucks, let me tell you, because if there’s one thing – one consistent thing – that all writers have to struggle with, it is fighting that never-ending, nagging possibility that you are out of your goddamned mind and living in a deluded fantasy world where your stories are worth the paper they’re printed on.

Now, it just so happens that this very thing happened to me just today. I got the copyedits back for a story I sold a good while ago to Stupefying Stories. They have a new anthology dropping soon and I’m in it, and the story I’ve got in there – “Upon the Blood-dark Sea” – is honestly a really solid tale about pirates and dream magic and boiling oceans, an homage to the work of guys like Robert E Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’ll announce when the book is out, but for now you can check out the table of contents on their website.  Bruce Bethke, the editor, always manages to put together a hell of an anthology and I’m looking forward to this one. Go and check it out!

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That Way Lies Madness…

So, my first novel is out (did you hear? No? Well go out and buy it!). This, being a new experience for me, has also brought with it a bunch of unusual lessons I wasn’t really expecting. In the interest of forewarning others, I will now take you on a tour of my neuroses.

Lesson #1: Having a Book For Sale Is More Stressful Than Selling a Book

What if NOBODY LOVES ME?

What if NOBODY LOVES ME?

Like, 2000% more stressful. Rejection from publishers, while moderately painful, is way less worrisome than if the entire world decides it hates your book. With publishers, there’s always others, right? If they don’t like it, you can always self-publish! Who cares what those New York fat-cats think!

The thing I forgot (and that maybe a lot of writers seem to forget) is that the audience to which the book deal will grant you access is not guaranteed to like your book. So, there I was, on release day, sitting there with a case of the shakes because I was pretty sure the only people who would read and like my book were my friends and family, and at least some percentage of those people would lie about it because they love me and don’t want to hurt my feelings.

Awesome.

Lesson #2: There Is No Upper Limit To How Much You Can Stalk Yourself

Like, hours and hours, easily. I have been swinging by Amazon and Goodreads and Barnes and Noble so damned often that it was reaching a kind of mania. It was: “Do I have any reviews? No?” (five minutes pass) “Do I have any reviews? No?” (five minutes pass). Never have I wished I didn’t have a smart phone more.

As an addendum to this rule, I’m not really sure how you can’t look at your reviews. Like, I have honestly no idea. Sure, I can deal with them (I’ve only received one bad review so far, and that person somehow read the book before it was for sale but wasn’t given it for review, so…shady, is what I mean. Of course they’re entitled to their opinion, but…you know what? I’ll shut up now.). But not looking at them at all is pretty much beyond my willpower’s capacity. Like Pandora, I’ve gotta open the box.


Lesson #3: Analyzing Amazon Ranking is Bad For Your Health

As of this precise moment, THE IRON RING is ranked 76,698th on Amazon. On the one hand, considering that there are probably millions of books on Amazon, this isn’t all that bad. On the other hand, I am forced to reconcile the fact that 76,997 books are selling better than mine. In other words, more people than could fit inside the Superdome have books out that are better appreciated than my own. For somebody who has a pretty intense competitive streak, that is frankly driving me bonkers.

Look, I know it’s irrational – those numbers are more representational than they are actual and they fluctuated by the tens of thousands every hour, so what do they really mean, anyway? Besides, the book just came out 13 days ago, so I should cut myself some slack. Of course, much like reviews, I can’t not look, so there I am again, wondering what magical publicity button I can push to make it down at least into the four-digit realm. Then, of course, this sets off a spate of Impostor Syndrome and all kinds of other stupid senses of inadequacy that are really bad for me. I have to cut it out.

The Takeaway

The fact is that I don’t know how well the book is selling, nor will I know until I receive my first royalty check. I’m doing everything I can to help sales (and still keep up with my other job), so I shouldn’t be down on myself. I’ve accomplished something pretty amazing here – I have to admit that. Of course, being me, I want to do better than just that. As with all things I do, I’m not in it just to play, I’m in it to win. Of course, once you “win” in anything, there is just another, bigger contest beyond the rise. That’s the nature of writing – first you try to write a book, then you try to write a good book, then you try to get a book deal, then you try to actually make money, then you try to make enough money to just write for a living. It never stops.

It is important to remember that, if you’re a writer, you can’t get into this race and expect to just win and then stop. You should be in this race because you like running.