How & Why This Writer Went Hybrid, Part 3

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Okay, I promised to get to the WHY.

 

 

Just to keep the Darwinian metaphor going a bit longer: one could compare the life of a hybrid author with that of a hybrid vehicle. Able to run on fossil fuels (traditional publishing) as well as some form of clean, sustainable energy (the DIY internet revolution). But that would be unfair. I want conventional publishers to thrive. I hope there will always be a place for publishers who find, support, publish and disseminate good work. But it seems to me they’re going to have to get a lot more creative and imaginative and take more risks, in the face of new technology and new avenues for writers to do it themselves.

I also think publishers are going to need to re-learn how to treat authors with professionalism and even just common courtesy. It wouldn’t surprise me if much of the stampede of writers towards self-publishing has to do with being treated as nonentities by publishing professionals acting unprofessionally.

With a recent book of mine, I ended up working with three different editors during the course of writing this one novel. This high turn-over was indicative of the shake-ups and desperation in the publishing industry, I suppose, as Amazon and the rise of e-book publishing threw time-tested commercial strategies into disarray. But what it meant was that the two editors who followed the first one had to start from scratch, reading the book, getting to know it, and coming up to speed with what I was doing with it. Add to this the fact that there were long stretches of time where I was on my own during the editing process. I wasn’t getting any feedback at all, from publisher or editor or anyone involved with my book, for months. Which meant I was forced to keep working on the changes I wanted to make on my own. Eventually the editor would get back to me with pages of suggestions and recommendations, many of which were no longer pertinent to the novel as it was now, because I’d kept writing in the meantime. The editor was talking about an earlier version of the book.

All of this led to frustration and confusion, for both the editors and myself. I also couldn’t help but feel that I’d been put permanently on the backburner in favour of other books that the publisher deemed more important or urgent. Certainly when months go by and you don’t hear from anyone at the publishing house and no one answers your few polite emails, you get the message loud and clear that you’re not Margaret Atwood. You’re not even Thomas Wharton anymore. It almost seems as if there’s a scale of courtesy and effort you can expect these days depending on how much money you’re making for a publisher. I’ve heard more than enough tales like mine from other writers to know that this kind of treatment is pretty widespread.

But I don’t want to focus on criticism of publishers and editors. They work hard, no doubt about it. They’re caught up in a once-respected culture industry that has been thoroughly poisoned by the ideology of quick profit, which tends to treat human beings as a means to an end (for an example, read Lewis Hyde in The Gift on how the Ford Motor Company cold-bloodedly calculated the monetary value of human life against that of saving money on safety features). Self-publishing isn’t some kind of panacea for this blight, either. It’s driven in large part by the desire for quick profit, too.

The real issue was that this whole incident made me keenly aware of something in myself I didn’t much care for: somewhere along the way I’d started to focus more on expectations and external rewards than the writing itself. Expectations about what I deserved, about what should happen with my books. Career expectations. And the result: I was busily killing my own joy in the creative process.

What I’ve been looking for as a writer since then is a way to get back to that joy. To a kind of freedom as a writer that I’d once had. The freedom of pure discovery, of challenging the creative impulse in myself.

On my better days I’m even grateful for the commercial failure of my recent fantasy trilogy because it really focused all of this for me. The books have been vigorously ignored by reviewers, critics and readers (at first I worried that the books were deeply flawed in some way I just couldn’t see, but no one was saying the books were bad; no one was saying anything. Maybe the problem was that they weren’t bad enough). This hurt like hell, no doubt about it.

But strangely enough, in the time since then I’ve been writing more frequently and freely than ever. I have more confidence in my writing than I ever had before. I’ve experienced a daily bubbling up of creativity unlike anything I’ve ever known as a writer. I’ve written dozens of short stories in the past few months, stories that seemed to come out of nowhere and practically write themselves. And I think this unexpected creative renaissance is in large part a result of the decision to turn away from the conventional publishing industry and work for myself.

Freedom then.

Not money (as I said, I have a day job that pays the bills). Not fame (I like my quiet life – the world leaves me alone to dream my dreams).

The freedom I’m talking about is bound up very much with time, and how one thinks of and relates to time. And I don’t mean the kind of time one can buy. A six or seven figure advance can purchase a writer clock time, the freedom to concentrate on the writing all day. You could also call this “career time” or career freedom.

I’m talking about time in a somewhat different way, not as a commodity but as a relationship to the creative work. It was an approach to writing time that I had long ago, when I was working on my first and second novels and had no expectations about what the big wide world might think of what I did. Curiously, without the demand to get something done on a schedule, for someone else, my urge to procrastinate has actually diminished. I think because I’m enjoying writing again. It’s not a task. It’s not a career move. It’s what it was in the beginning: this strange calling that fulfills something deep within.

It hasn’t been easy. Once in a while I discover that I still have expectations, when they don’t get fulfilled (e.g., I send a story out to a magazine and they turn it down – how did they not see what was right in front of them?). Then I have to work through the usual onslaught of negative emotions that are always part of this solitary vocation: envy, anger, cynicism, spite, egotism, and even deep sadness. But I’ve found that self-publishing has oriented me in a different way to the time I have to write. I’m writing again not so much to get something done as to find out what the work has to tell me. I’m thinking less about whether an editor or publisher might like it. About whether it will sell. Time isn’t a scarce commodity anymore. It’s the work itself. Time is flowing from the work itself. Maybe that sounds like mystical bullshit, but I don’t know how else to say it. Time becomes a creation of the work, not the other way around.

I’m grateful to have found that again. I don’t know yet where I’ll go with the project I’m working on now. Conventional or self-publication. We’ll see. But I think I’ve discovered a whole new meaning to the term hybrid vigour.

 

 

 

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