Disclaimer: I told myself when I started this blog that I would never cross the line into trying to tell writers what or how to write. I’m about to toe that line very closely, but for what I hope is a very good cause. Proceed at your own risk.
I have this friend...
I have this friend, who’s also a writer. I distinguish these two titles for an important reason: Past experience has taught me that if I don’t, one overwhelms the other, and the relationship suffers. So when I say I have a friend who is a writer, it’s because I place the importance on the friendship part, with the writer part being an afterthought. This is important for the story I want to tell.
My friend recently finished writing a new book. He was super excited about it. It’s a new genre for him and he put in a lot of hard work to get to The End. He texted me as soon as he did, and I could practically see him bouncing in his seat with happiness. He jokingly asked me, “What do I do now?”
I answered, “You put it away for a month and think of something else.” It’s something I learned very early on, and it’s been my mantra for as long as I myself have been a writer, so I said it out of habit. But in the back of my mind, I also wanted to say it to underscore the importance of taking a break, because my friend, as much as I love him, has a bad habit of jumping the gun in many aspects of writing and publishing.
He replied, “Right! I’ll do that.”
A couple of weeks later, we were texting again (I’m very much not a phone call person) and he randomly mentioned that he didn’t know what to do with his time now, since his book was with the editor.
Record screech stop.
“Wait, which book?” I asked. “Not the one you just finished, right?” As far as I knew, he didn’t have anything else ready for editing, unless he was re-editing one of his older works.
He sheepishly replied, “Yeah, that one. I know, you told me to wait, but I just didn’t see the point.”
Not gonna lie, that hit a very bad nerve in my brain.
He went on to explain his reasoning behind it, but none of it made any difference whatsoever to my mind. It sounded to me like he was making excuses for not doing his job, not delivering the book his readers deserved. As a reader, what I heard was, “I got tired of fixing it, so I sent it off to someone else to fix it for me.”
Taking a deep breath, and reminding myself that this was my friend, not a writing partner, I said, “This is one of those times when I have to give it to you straight, no sugar coating.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I know you’re disappointed because you told me to wait.”
“You just wasted your money and your editor’s time.” Honestly, that is the nicest way I could put it. I tend to not mince words when it comes to quality control, and I have some very strong opinions on the matter. Which kept me talking even when, in the back of my mind, I knew I should shut the hell up. “Your editor is not there to fix your mistakes. They’re there to polish the best version of the book you can possibly deliver. And the first draft of anything is never the best version. Not for any writer.”
What followed was me trying (and failing) to explain my reasoning, and him trying (and failing) to defend his, saying something that sounded to me like, “At a certain point I just don’t care anymore.” Not his words, but that’s what I heard and I pounced on that telling him, “As a reader, when I hear you say that, I think, you don’t care about your book, so why should I?”
Something that gets under my skin in a bad way is when authors throw out editions like it’s perfectly acceptable to use readers as proofreaders. Like it’s okay to make them pay for a book that they know for a fact has errors, have them point out said errors in the reviews, so the writer can then go back and fix them, and rerelease as a new edition in the future. No faster way to lose my respect for you, and ensure I will never read one of your books again.
My friend tried to tell me that wasn’t the case at all. He wasn’t asking anyone to fix his errors, and of course he delivers the best book he can. It’s just that he goes over it so many times that he eventually can’t see anything else to fix and needs a second set of eyes.
At this point, I realized we were both talking about the same thing, just on completely different frequencies. He wasn’t grasping that what I was saying was, in fact, the solution to the problem he was describing.
I said, “YES! Exactly. That’s why you need the break. If you just keep going over it and over it, you lose sight of the big picture. Can’t see the forest for the trees.”
He tried to explain that that wasn’t it, and then proceeded to repeat the same issue in a different way, adding, “Would I be able to see more errors after a break? Maybe. But I doubt it.” He didn’t get it. I didn’t explain it well enough. All he kept saying was that he loses sight of the story even while he’s reading it, so by the time he finishes going over it, he’s in the same place he was before.
Forest for the freaking trees.
So I tried again. Because this was too important for me to let go. I’m not my friend’s writing coach, and I didn’t want to cross any lines, but I figured I already did just by broaching this subject, so what the hell? In the interest of making myself clear, nothing more, I said, “When you keep rereading the same thing over and over without a break, your brain gets used to the patterns it sees on the page. You end up skimming the familiar shapes, but don’t actually read the words that are there. You just perceive what you think is there. Which makes it extremely difficult to find any potential issues. By taking a break, you rest your brain and get some distance. After a month or two of not looking at it or thinking about it, when you look at the book with fresh eyes, it feels like someone else wrote it. You have some distance to notice things you haven’t before. So it’s not so much about the art of writing, more of a technical trick that makes it easier to spot issues.”
He was replying in between my partial texts with things like, “Well I know that to be some TRUTH right there.” and, “OMG, yes!” Fully agreeing with what I was saying–what I’d been trying to say this whole time. When I finished he said, “Huh… when you say it like that it makes so much sense. People kept telling me to take a break but I kept thinking why? No one ever explained it this way. Ugh. Now I’m mad at myself.”
I could have done a happy dance. Not because I’d changed his mind, but because I finally managed to get on the same wavelength and explain in a way that resonated with him. Seriously, it just made me giddy. For all that I can tell a fantastic story (if I do say so myself) sometimes my communication skills fail me in real life. I can put my foot in it, and usually do more often than not.
When people (myself included) advise to take a break, there’s a reason. It applies to anything you do in life, not just novel writing. Studies have been done over the years on how the human brain works, how we process, create, and imagine. I think the most recent thing I read, earlier this year, was in an article about how the work day/week structure is counterproductive to productivity. The human mind can only dedicate itself to full concentration on a task for about 3-4 hours max. After that, it just can’t focus right without a break. It was an argument for shorter work days and work weeks to increase productivity in the workplace across the board.
It makes sense. Our minds are capable of so much, but we’re not robots. We weren’t built to do one thing for extended periods of time. It’s not healthy, and it leads to so many issues, for us, for our work, and for the people around us.
Another study I came across some years ago said this also applies to creativity. We like to think that all we need is long stretches of peace and quiet and that bestseller will basically write itself. Turns out, we are more creative and productive in our creative endeavors with periodic distractions. Who would have thought it, right?
So what does that all add up to? Perception. When you can’t (or won’t) disengage from a task for long periods of time, you get tunnel vision. You stop thinking of the task before you and switch to thinking about it being done and over. You might not consciously set out to do so, but your brain subconsciously switches gears in a bad way. Either you stop seeing the forest for the trees, get lost in the weeds, and can’t think yourself out of a wet paper bag, or you stop seeing the details, skim over the big picture, and fly right over some crater-sized potholes.
Tunnel vision, one way or another.
A very good example is this video. You may have seen it already, but in case you haven’t, I won’t spoil it for you. Just give it a quick watch. It’s not very long:
A very personal conclusion
That level of tunnel vision isn’t limited to certain tasks. It can apply to life in general. I get it whenever I focus so hard on the business side of publishing that I lose sight of the love I have for books and writing. It’s happened before, but over the last couple of years it’s gotten so bad I stopped reading all together and writing became a chore. I became disillusioned, bitter, and defeated. I started seeing all the bad, and my writing became a commercial failure, rather than my much needed escape from reality. I should have been able to sink deep into books and swim my way to sanity when COVID hit. Instead, all I could see was how nothing I did made even the slightest bit of difference.
I’d burned out.
I’d burned out so badly, that even the thought of trying to write made me resentful. I started to hate the publishing industry as a monster that devoured talent, killed dreams, and broke spirits, all while dangling that golden carrot of “success” as an ever possible, but rarely achievable goal in front of my nose.
The hardest thing about it is that my brain refused to disengage from it.
I told myself 2021 was going to be the year I took a break. I’d finished Prince of Deceit and published it at the end of 2020, the final book in a trilogy I’d been working on for over a decade, and it felt like the end of an era. Even my afterword at the end of the story somehow came out like a fond farewell to fantasy, and fiction in general. I was just done.
In January, I put all three novels into a hardcover tome so I could have something epic on my bookshelves.
During summer, I got that last book produced on audio to complete the set.
A month ago, I logged out of my author social media because it had become so toxic I didn’t want to be there anymore. And now I’m here, writing this blog that feels like I’m saying good-bye.
I’m subconsciously putting my writing affairs in order, even while I tell myself this isn’t the end. Each action is a period and hard break where there should be ellipses.
I don’t want this to be the end. But at the same time, I’m not healed enough yet to start over. I resolved to read 2 books a month this year, and I’m happy to report that I have already hit 24 books read in 2021. It’s rekindled my love of reading, but writing is still dormant. I do still put a few words on the page here and there, but it’s sporadic, and I don’t do it with any sort of publishing goal in mind. I’m doing it only when I want to, when I feel the words clawing to be released, because that’s when it feels the most rewarding. Otherwise, I don’t even open a word document to try. The effort is no longer worth it.
My break hasn’t been long enough. And it hasn’t been as complete as I need it to be. So yes, I am putting my affairs in order with this blog post. It’s been great while it lasted, but I’ve run out of helpful advice to share. I’ll keep it active, but I doubt there will be many updates going forward. Mostly because it perpetuates the problem: focusing my brain on the industry and not the beauty of writing.
To everyone who’s read this far and followed my blog, I send a heartfelt thank you. To everyone who’s read this blog and got curious enough about my books to buy one, words of gratitude will never be enough.
I hope, if you’ve read this far, that I haven’t completely ruined your opinion of me as a writer. I hope you don’t think of me as someone who’s just giving up because she can’t hack it. I’m not giving up. I’m simply sorting out my priorities. The stories I tell are my priority. How I tell them is very much a priority. How well they sell simply isn’t and, in my opinion, shouldn’t be. If my focus is more on how many books I sell than how well I told the story, I haven’t been doing my job.
Some people can do both at the same time. I’m not one of them. I’ve never compromised quality at any step in the writing and publishing of my books. But trying to also be a rock star promoter is not something I am capable of doing, and pushing myself to do it is what got me to this stage.
I’ve been publishing works of fiction for over ten years, and have a healthy backlist to show for it. If I never publish another story, I won’t be mad. I’ve left my mark on the world and I’m happy with that. From now on, I write for the love of it. And I sincerely hope you’ll come along on the journey. It’ll be long, and you’ll have to be patient, but one thing I can promise you is that the wait for the next book will absolutely be worth it.
Until next time (whenever that may be...)
Alianne Donnelly is an avid lover of stories of all kinds. Raised on a healthy diet of fairy tales in a place where they almost seemed real, she grew into a writer who seeks magic in the modern age and enjoys sharing a little bit of it with the world through every story she writes. Her books span the spectrum from fantasy to science fiction with varying degrees of romance sprinkled throughout. Alianne now lives in California, where she spends her free time reading, writing, and daydreaming. To read more about her books and works in progress, visit her author website: aliannedonnelly.com