Sunday, August 28, 2011

Writing Without a Net

It's hard to believe that it was only eighteen months ago that I first starting dipping my toes into the chilly waters of e-publishing. For the first year I was still under contract with my print publisher, and I experimented timidly with uploading some of my backlist titles to Kindle. All the time I kept daydreaming about sitting down and actually producing a new title-- an entire book--exclusively for self-publication. Finally, in May of this year, I got the courage to do it. And everything changed. Three weeks ago I actually withdrew a book from submission because a) I realized I could make more money by publishing it myself b)the book was too important to me to see it massacred, as so many other of my books have been, by the Big Six publishing system.


So wow. I guess I am now officially on my own. Papa Publisher is no longer there to pat me on the head, tell me what's best for me, and make all my decisions. My safety net is gone, and it's a long way down.

In my career with New York publishing have written (not even counting category romance) over fifty books in four different genres. Fifteen of them have made one bestseller list or another. I have been doing this for a living since the time of carbon paper (that would be the good old days when editors actually edited and the only reviews that were worth mentioning came from Publisher's Weekly or the New York Times.) I am what you call a professional fiction writer. And up until now, I have been completely addicted to The System.

This is how it goes: I write a proposal for a novel and send it to my agent. I wait, grinding my teeth and pacing the floor-- sometimes literally banging my head against the wall, until Agent reads my proposal and decides which editors to send it to. This process can take days with a good agent, or months with a bad agent (about the three month mark is where it reaches the head-banging stage). Agent sends the proposal to editors. I get rejections, which I receive with disdain (what do they know, anyway?), anger (how stupid can these people be?) and depression (I'll never sell another book. Just kill me now). Eventually I get an offer (usually within three months) and the euphoria is so high that all the previous agony was totally worth it. Someone loves me! Someone wants me! I am a genius!

If this dynamic sounds familiar to anyone, that may be because it's based on the same psychological principle used to torture prisoners of war.

My new editor heavily reinforces my genius status, of course, and showers me with adoration, thus ensuring my dependency on her. Sometimes she even sends me flowers or champagne! More importantly, she totally "gets" my book, and we spend hours e-mailing back and forth and talking on the phone about how to make it better. I am in heaven. Finally, I can settle down to write, knowing that when I have written the last sentence someone out there in the big bad world is literally waiting with hands held out to read it.

The writing process takes six months or so, during which time I am in heaven. Someone loves my work. Someone loves it enough to give me money for it (sort of). Someone loves it enough to make artwork out of my story, and write letters soliciting quotes, and have meetings at which my book is on the agenda. I get notices of advance reviews. I get e-mails from my publicist, setting up this book signing and that interview. Every single e-mail, every phone call, every request is another hit of adrenaline. My brain is flooded with dopamine. I want more and more and more. E-mails from readers start trickling in; you know the ones that begin, "I was in Borders the other day and was attracted by the cover on your book. So I picked it up and..." Livin' the good life, baby, livin' the good life.

Then I turn in the proposal for my option book. By this time the first-quarter sales figures are in (keeping in mind that my book may have only been on the shelves for three or four weeks) and, well, they are somewhat disappointing. Unfortunately, the publisher will not be picking up my option at this point. The crash is hard. The withdrawal is severe.

And the whole torture phase starts again.

I have lived like this for over twenty years. Day in, day out. Willingly. I was so brainwashed that even when I was offered an escape I wouldn't take it. How could I write a book when no one was waiting for it? How could I afford to write a book that no one had paid for? Who would even read anything I wrote unless someone in New York told them to? It seriously never occurred to me that the people who were really waiting for my book might be readers; that long before the pennies-per-copy that the publisher paid me actually trickled down into my hands, some reader had paid them twenty dollars, or that a writer with fifteen bestsellers to her credit might have accumulated a few readers along the way.

For me the hardest part about writing without a net was realizing that I don't need a net. Once I got over that initial, paralyzing conviction that, since no editor was waiting for this book it couldn't possibly be worth writing, I was amazed at how easy it was. Writing actually became fun again. My style was not inhibited by the constant balancing act between pleasing the editor and pleasing myself. The only person I'm trying to please now is the reader, and much to my surprise I've discovered that my readers almost always like what I like. Who would have thought?

Of course there are struggles, and of course there are downsides, and sometimes it's scary out there. But the important thing is that I've broken the cycle of addiction; I've escaped my own personal Stockholm Syndrome. And freedom tastes good. In fact, it tastes great.

I could definitely get used to this.