Unattached to the Work

So the recent website follies have me thinking about attachment. (Very Zen of me, I’m sure.) It doesn’t bother me that much to have lost, let’s see, about three years’ worth of blogging about five days a week. At an average of 1K words per blog post, that’s…eh, a few words. (I am too tired to do math.) I know it’s archived on the Wayback Machine, but cutting and pasting to that degree is one of my ideas of Hell. So…there it is.

Which brings up something I think doesn’t get addressed in a lot of writing books: the quality of detaching from one’s own work.

Obviously this can’t be done in the throes of creation. A small amount of detachment is needed even in the white heat; otherwise one runs the risk of turning a good story into a bathetic abomination. But one must care one way or the other for one’s characters, if one wants to have someone else give a damn about them. It’s an odd dichotomy, caring intensely for the characters and yet being unafraid to hurt them in order to serve the story. There are tricks to that, but that’s (say it with me) another blog post.

Once you have a whole corpse–the zero draft–the first phase of detaching commences. Revising calls for becoming progressively more detached each successive time. A scene you loved during the initial writing seems overblown when you come back to it, and needs ruthless pruning. You do the best you can, but the first revise is a little like splinting a broken arm–necessary, but it takes more time to fix the problem.

Your editor (if this story is intended for publication) helps with further phases of detachment, simply by telling you where the holes and weak spots are. This is where the phrase “Murder your darlings” becomes most applicable and useful.

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings. (Quiller-Couch)

Now, there will be cases when your editor is wrong about a certain weakness in the work, or a certain character’s actions, or even some dialogue that raises a red flag. There will be cases when the writer cannot see the work clearly and is wrong. My rule is: 99% of the time, my editor is right. The other 1%, I stick to my guns. (Or, as Ilona Andrews so pithily puts it, “Pick the hill you want to die on.”) If I find myself fighting on something more than 1% of the time, I have to take a step back and reconsider.

This presupposes you trust your editor. I am lucky in that I’ve only been revenge-edited[1] once or twice, but each time was incredibly painful. I doubted my ability to string words into coherent sentences each time, and had to ask a second source for an opinion before I held my nose and turned back, politely prepared to do battle for a good 60%+ of my manuscript.

If editing doesn’t force a certain detachment, copyediting certainly will. Copyeditors are those brave, blessed souls who comb every goddamn word and punctuation mark, looking for typos and errors. Sometimes a copyeditor tries to do editing, which never works out well for me, but that’s exceedingly rare.

Incidentally, if you find a good copyeditor, tell your editor. A lot of CEs work freelance and the feedback helps them get rehired. On the other hand, if you have a really bad copyedit, don’t bitch overmuch to your editor. Content yourself with saying, “Wow, this one was rough.” Because you can’t ever be sure that you’re not just worn raw by having to stet or keep a zillion changes on a story you’re already so sick of you wish you could stab UNTIL IT DIES.

You’re still not done at that point. Further detachment is required when you proof the damn thing, going through it for the final time before it hits print and looking for typos and dropped words, last-minute minor cosmetic changes, and the like. At the proofing stage, I am usually so sick of the book I just want to set it on fire and stamp on it to make sure the goddamn beast is dead, which is wonderful for helping me disentangle myself from my emotional investment in the characters.

Then there’s release-day nerves, and the hell of waiting for reviews, and the hell of actual reviews. By the time a book hits the shelves, I’m excited because it means I won’t have to go through the fucking thing again looking for holes. I very rarely reread the books once they’ve been published; usually it’s only a refresher skim while I’m working later in the series.

Each book requires me to develop a fresh emotional callus, so to speak. Maybe there are some writers who detach more easily. There are things that make it easier, yes.

  • Time. Putting the zero draft in a folder and forgetting about it for two weeks to a month is critical, and the wait between edits and CEs and proofs and release day is actually ideal to force you to view the work with a fresh eye each go-round.
  • Bitching. Bitching relieves some stress, if you have a good crit group (is there such a thing?) or a good writing partner (yes, there is such a thing; I have one.). Allow yourself a bit of it. By “a bit” I mean ten minutes TOPS, closer to five if you still want friends. And that’s not per day. That’s per week. But do not bitch publicly about a certain editor or copyeditor. The place for that is in the bar at a convention, not on the Internet where it makes you look like a jerk.
  • Physical activity. Writing is, despite its reputation, a physical job. It’s hard on the wrists and the back and the legs to sit and type for long periods of time, and it makes your brain calcify in odd ways too. Getting up and walking away from the thing, setting a timer and taking a break, is a good way to regain some crucial millimeters of perspective. It’s not much, but it helps. I run and climb my stress off, but you don’t have to. A brisk walk, a few jumping-jacks, a five-minute dance to your favourite jam, even just pounding on a pillow and screaming for five minutes counts. (And is immensely therapeutic, let me tell you. Heavy bag is also good, but watch your hands.) Moving around can help your brain shake free of the story.
  • Understand it’s not just you. Every writer deals with this to some degree. It is not a reason to stop writing, or to allow bitching to cut into writing time, or to be an asshole to your editor/copyeditor/marketing department/spouse/children/friends/passing strangers. This is part of the price of the art, and part of the drawbacks of publishing being, you know, a business.

A lot of people have asked me if I’m angry about all that work being gone. Eh, it’s on the Internet, it’s not gone. Plus, now when I get dotty and start repeating myself, it’s less aggravating. (Hopefully.) But above all, those posts are far enough in the past that I’m pretty detached. Better to start semi-fresh, I guess. And besides, it gave me something writing-related to blog about.

Silver linings, I guess. But if you do want to hunt down the hackers that have been messing with author sites lately and administer a beatdown, I won’t complain. Detachment doesn’t mean I’ve lost my rage.

Over and out.

[1] Revenge-editing is the practice whereupon an editor takes out their personal hatred for an author on the manuscript. This happens exponentially less often than one might suppose.

  • I know nothing about hackers and how hunt them, but if I could do this I’d do it to these who are messing with authors I love. I love reading “behind the writing” blog posts, and when I saw I could do this because of some assholes — sorry for swearing — that broke down authors’ websites that do this wonderfully I got angry and upset. I’m glad you’re unattached with what has been lost, because now I’ll be able to read wrinting related stuff I haven’t.

    As always, sorry my grammar errors — I hope I’ve managed to say what I meant to. Someday, when I’m studing English in the USA, I won’t worry about it.

  • Your comments on the proof stage reminded me that I’ve meant to thank you for all the writing tips. Spent the last 2 years going through the process for a tech book, and while some advice doesn’t apply (we torture the readers, not the characters), other comments certainly did. (Private Cloud Computing book link for the curious.) Page proofs suck, or at least our cycle did…
    Thanks, and keep up the great work!

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  • Yes, I think people often don’t rlieaze how much goes into being a professional writer! If they did, I wonder how many of them would be as enthusiastic about it? It helps to be the sort of person who thinks it’s all interesting and fun, even reading contracts . . .

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.