Thoughts on Writing #48: Step Away From the Pen.
And now, because context is king, our expanded thought:
If you find yourself critiquing the comma placement in published novels, it is maybe time to step away from the editing process for a little while.
Most of us became writers because we were readers. People who hate books don't devote their lives to writing them, any more than people who hate happiness go to work at Disneyland, or people who hate sugar decide to open wedding cake bakeries. We are drawn to do what we love. One of the dangerous consequences of this, however, is that sometimes this will begin to erode the love that brought us here in the first place. What are we supposed to do when our critical eye for our own work starts spilling over onto everything else?
Today we're going to be talking about turning off the editorial mind, why it can never happen completely, and why a little critical thought is good.
Ready? Good. Let's begin.
Bad Books Exist.
Guess what? Some of the books contained in the world today are bad. Very, very bad. Eye-gougingly, "how did that get published?" levels of fuck-awful that will make you question the entire process. Some of them will be the latest by bestselling authors with their entire careers behind them, making sales numbers most authors can only dream of solely on the basis of the name on the cover. ("Sure, it's probably awful, but it's the newest work from the author of IKEAmancer, and I loved those books!") Others will be written by first-timers, just like you, and yet will somehow have made it to the bookstore shelves without seeing a single red pen or comma correction. And that's just the traditionally published ones, since that's mostly what I am equipped to speak to: the books that some editor, somewhere, decided to pay for. Once you take the editors out of the equation, all bets are off.
So bad books exist, and yet somehow, your books, your works of pure and unfettered genius, are not finding the audience that they deserve. How dare the readers of the world? Don't they know who you are?!
This is the part where I reassure you that this is a natural thought to have. Before I started publishing, I would sometimes read really bad urban fantasy (since that was the genre I was trying to publish in), and spend an hour swearing at the top of my lungs because this trash could get published and I couldn't. I'll be honest: sometimes I still have those thoughts, especially when I read something that came highly recommended and am just like, oh my sweet Great Pumpkin, why?!
(I note that somewhere in the world, maybe even reading this very entry, there is undoubtedly someone who has had this same thought about one or more of my books, because everyone's tastes are different. One man's classic is another man's cliche, as they don't really say very often at all. And that is okay.)
Because there are bad books in the world, you're probably going to read at least one of them. And your editorial brain is going to switch on with all the force of a barrel full of rabid weasels. That's okay. That's fine! But you need to learn to shut that shit off, or you're not going to have much fun.
Reading to Read.
Most of us became writers at least in part because we started out as readers, people who thought that books were just about the best thing the human race had ever invented. I started writing because I kept running out of books. Having a story I could controll seemed like the perfect solution to all my problems.
Ha ha ha. "Control." Ha ha ha.
That aside, most writers love to read. But if you can't enjoy what you're reading because you're constantly judging and weighing and judging again, you're not going to have much fun. And a writer who can no longer enjoy reading is a writer who will no longer enjoy writing before too much longer. You need to read for the sake of reading. You need to read trashy novels in whatever genres you enjoy, non-fiction books about subjects that interest you, and be able to separate "this is great, except the commas are bad" from "this is a fun story and I like the way it's being told."
So here is what I am asking you to do: if you catch yourself re-punctuating someone else's book, stop, close your eyes, and count to five before trying that sentence again. Do this as many times as you need to in order to turn that editorial brain off. Get it to shut down, and approach the work with fresh eyes. You may find that everything gets easier after that.
What If I Never Get My Groove Back?
A good groove, a groove that can be maintained and supported and is not just a dead sprint toward collapse, will be there waiting for you after you finish your book, I promise. You need to be able to rest and relax and read. Otherwise, the joy goes out of things, and once that happens, you're going to find that everything gets harder.
Trust me. Slow down, and read.