Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Writing Obsession? Understanding the Overachiever in Authors

It’s good to have a passion!  Sitting on the floor of the pit of my depression, staring around at the rubbly walls, I wondered what was wrong with me.  Nothing more than a warm body that processed the occasional thought, I realized one thing wrong with my life was that I had no passion.

We all need a reason to get out of bed of a day, and it helps when one reason is the joy, delight, verve, thrill, and zest in exploring or participating in something we love.  Sometimes a lifelong pleasure in reading works itself up to the impetus to try writing.  You may have dabbled with a few stories, asked friends and relatives to read them, and veered off with the thought that you could not handle the criticism or did not really want to expose your inner thoughts to the masses.  Or, like many of us, you may have had people rave over your efforts, experienced a deep satisfaction that someone understood what you have been trying to say all along, and gotten hooked on the praise.  And then it became an obsession....

I do not think all obsessions are bad.  I hope my local firefighters are obsessed with maintaining their safety as they put out devastating flames and prevent the spread of the fire to local homes or businesses.  I hope the EMTs taking my loved ones to the hospital are obsessed with all the support systems the patient needs to keep from decompensating before they get access to the fancy machines and medications in the emergency room.  I hope my lawyer has read every valuable precedent with the further intent to prepare every possible argument to my every extenuating circumstance. 

Yet when it comes to writing, most writers equate obsession with profusion and creativity with profligacy.  If that’s how you want to live your life, go for it!  But if you want to produce a body of work that withstands the trends and vagaries of current reader interests, you should consider redefining your obsession, taking it from passionate to professional with the intent to produce a body of literature that you can stand to promote for the rest of your life.

I love ebooks for a thousand reasons!  From carrying an entire library in my purse to uploading my manuscripts whenever I catch a mistake, I love that ebooks are cheap, quick to find, can be purchased and enjoyed immediately from your comfy spot in your home, and will last forever without contributing to the waste stream or wasting the energy needed to recycle tons of paper.  Unfortunately, the convenience provided by our technology means so many writers think they can slap a provocative cover on a piece of slop and make millions of dollars from it.  As a result, I’ve heard many a ‘burned’ reader (one who picked up a desperately underwritten story for free or $.99) tell me they still shop big-box stores because “publishers have vetted them.”  This depressing state of affairs should be addressed by each author, personally!   I hope I can encourage new authors to take their craft seriously as a result, by offering you ways to turn your obsession into productive measures.

Just because you have a thousand stories popping into your head every day does not mean they are all great ideas, nor does it mean your first words on the topic should be your last words.  To keep from turning readers off ebooks, the very first thing you should do is write your ideas down and let them simmer.  I have a file called Books to Write, with hundreds of ideas ranging from a mere title to several paragraphs of synopsis; I also have 25 files in my “Working Files” folder, most of which are story parts and partials.

Let me summarize the best pieces of advice I’ve found about writing, and I will refer back to them as needed:

A.  Write the piece with a target audience in mind. 
B.  Put it away.
C.  Write something else.
D.  Read something new about writing.  Perfect your craft by understanding tenses, moods, misplaced modifiers (my big problem!), characterization, literary devices, plot, and punctuation.
E.  Rewrite your piece with fresh eyes and new knowledge.
F.  Get a number of beta readers, and LISTEN to them.
G.  Rewrite again.
H.  Pay a professional editor to edit your work.
I.  Rewrite according to the editor’s suggestions.
J.   Send the piece to contests, magazines, and agents.

Now, here are my thoughts about those pieces of advice:

A.  Finish the damn story.  All of it, from beginning to end.  Chop off the front part to the first significant action, and the back part to the implied happily-ever-after. 

I am not so strict in that I think the first sentence should blast some appalling action at the reader to make them wonder “what the hell?”  But the first paragraph or two should provide an action which defines the entire tenor of the book.  The last paragraphs should summarize the resolution of the inherent need of the main character, yet leave the future open to the reader’s imagination to fulfill, even if you do not intend to write a sequel.

B.  Look at your finished work tomorrow, then look at it next week, then look at it one month from now.  Each day you learn, you grow, and you have a new perspective on how your work might answer a desperate need in people.  That vantage of time helps you recognize the faults in the story.  I particularly notice how I tend to under-express all the feelings and knowledge behind the actions and dialogue.  This leads to letter E, rewriting for content.

C.  You would not be a writer if you did not have things to say.  Starting another project is the easiest way to figure out what else you really have to say.  If you are an activist and all your articles are about one particular subject, you will surely have many issues you can address before the masses even ask you your thoughts about them.

If you are a fiction author and think you’ve written the Great American Novel, you have to consider what your raving fans will beg of you next.  And if you think you’re going to live off the proceeds of just one book for the rest of your life, think again.  The only ‘one-hit wonder’ I could think of who did so was J. D. Salinger, and he was a recluse not because he could afford to be.  His other works consisted of short stories and novellas that I doubt if any of you can name without going to Google or Wikipedia.  All the greatest prizes judge an author by their body of literature.

D.  The internet exists; all hail the internet!  You can find answers to just about anything.  Sometimes I cannot figure out if I’ve learned more grammar from my education, from my editor, or from online sources.  And sometimes you have to make up your own rules, such as when I read 3 different sources about spelling out numbers instead of using digits.

E.  Try not to beat yourself up while rewriting.  Recognize it as a process.  First, the inspiration: get down the major actions and dialogue.  Then, the crafting: check your dialogue tags, rewrite them for more subtle actions and meaning, do not overuse phrases (I am editing one phrase out of my ebooks right now), and check for everything you learned in part D.  I have a limited attention span, so I usually check for three issues such as commas, dialogue tags, and ‘which’ vs ‘that’, and edit my books continuously.

F.  Since I write science fiction romance, I had both romance readers and science fiction readers.  You do not have to do everything they suggest, but you MUST pay attention to their issues!  My romance readers wanted more open sex, and my science fiction readers wanted ‘closed doors’.  My solution?  I added short-story ‘Easter eggs’ to my novels, frequently using a unique POV than one in the novel, and deliberately labeled with a page warning, “Erotic Easter Egg!”  I describe what an Easter egg is for video games, and tell the reader not to read further if erotica upsets them.

G.  This rewrite should be from a holistic perspective.  Did I leave a sub-plot unresolved or unexplained?  Did I answer the original question, the thesis of the book, the ‘what-if’, as thoroughly as possible?  Did I crescendo adequately to the climax, and is the denouement inadequate or too wordy?

H.  An editor is a must.  Do not put out your work without professional advice on how to improve it.  Just don’t.  I treat my editor like a college professor; if she edits something I do not understand, I ask her why, she tells me, and I go look up misplaced modifiers.  Most importantly, I try my damndest never to make that same mistake again.  She loves me so much for it that she has gone from three rounds of editing with me down to two.  The first book I sent to her she returned with well over 200 comments.  She returned my fifth book (after the second round) with only one comment.

I.  Always take your editor’s comments seriously.  If you have a weakness, try to choose an editor who will cover your weakness.  I had been reading science fiction and fantasy for some 30 years, with only a few romance novels in my teens.  My editor primarily works with romance and erotica; although the science occasionally throws her for a loop, the essence of the story has been enriched by her descriptions of what the reader expects or needs.

J.  Even if you have a hundred reasons why you plan to e-publish your book, I recommend you send it to contests and try the ‘traditional’ publishing route.  First, if you win a contest, that’s a HUGE badge of honor to put on your book cover or in your query letters to agents and publishing houses.  Second, you might tweak an agent’s fancy, which is hard to do.  Third, although traditional publishing houses have editors and you have already paid for one, the prestige of being accepted by them, with the orchestra of copyeditors, cover artists, and marketing experts behind them to help you, will relieve you of a lot of the work for your next big project.  Caveat: research the agents and publishers first, for some contracts out there are getting tricky indeed.

LAST BUT NOT LEAST, the most important thing you should do THIS VERY INSTANT if you have not already:

Get an account with Google, Dropbox, SugarSync, or Box that gives you a free 5-gig cloud server in which to store your work.  I have all four that I use in different ways so I never have to worry about my computer being raped by a virus and losing it all.  Trust me, it’s devastating!  Not only do I have all four, I cannot count the number of flash drives, portable hard drives, and other devices I save my work to.  I even use one of hubby’s old Kindles with a broken screen to store my old versions!

Remember, if you have something important to say and a clever or expressive way to say it, a reader still will not want to read it if it irritates them with misspelled words, grammatical errors, and sloppy writing.  If they pay money for it, they will want it back, and you can kiss that future fan good-bye.  You must take your obsession for writing and consider all the angles, every aspect, not just how prolifically you can write or how outrageously you can surprise or stun the reader with your ingenuity.  

QUALITY vs QUANTITY: which do you prefer in your life?  If you must be obsessive, use your obsession to learn your new profession as well as a physician must learn the human body and how every system interacts.  Only then will you birth beautiful novels that thrill your readers, nourish their spirits, or perhaps inspire social changes that may even save humankind someday.

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Eva Caye is the author of the To Be Sinclair series of science fiction romances, which consists of six published ebooks, two in various stages of editing, and a finale and two prequels as works-in-progress.  She lives with her magnificent husband and two lovely mutts in a tiny, century-old farmhouse in Louisville, Kentucky.

Her website, blog, social media, and author pages:

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