Monday, September 12, 2016

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Anyone recall the push to consider what you're filling your mind with? Garbage in, garbage out. That's the mantra I recall from my youth. If you fill your head with trash your thoughts/actions/life will be trashy.

It's a simple concept that has shortcomings. I read a lot of crime fiction and watch a lot of crime fiction. I don't go out and commit murders or break the law. However, when I'm around someone who swears a lot I do find myself cussing more... which supports the idea of the GIGO effect.

Where I find the GIGO effect to be really applicable is in how writers manage their time. Garbage in, garbage out.

This week is going to be a tough week. Many will head to Bouchercon, and they will undoubtedly have a great time catching up with old friends and making new ones. However, new authors in particular should bear in mind that Bouchercon can be a drug, and in the post-Bouchercon days that follow the convention it's necessary to get back on track with priorities.

Most of what we writers do is in solitary confinement. We have limited social interaction, typically through social media or the odd occasional event with other authors, and spend many months locked in our offices in our imaginary worlds.

Now, more than ever, authors are being pushed to promote their books, which forces us away from the creative process and into the social sphere. It can be very affirming to have people ask you to sign books at events or want to interview you about your creative process.

It can also be very distracting.

The trap a lot of new writers are falling into - and some of us have been working to dig our way out of - is the spotlight promotion focus. With the push from publishers to have a marketing plan and promote your work it's easy to justify doing event after event or interview after interview, or thinking ads and posts and a constant presence online is the best way to raise your profile.

In the short term, you may feel you've succeeded if you invest a lot of time in this. And you may feel validated as a writer and artist because of any attention you receive. However, if this begins to consume too much of your time it will ultimately undermine your work as a writer and hinder your long-term accomplishments and future projects.

The New York Times just ran a piece on how Megan Abbott spends her Sundays. There are several key bits worth noting:

I wake up at 6 or 6:30 and get out of bed immediately. The coffee starts right away. Then I get to the computer as quickly as possible. I like to start writing when I’m still half-asleep, in a state between dreaming and waking. Sunday is a big writing day for me, a cocoon day, so I don’t check emails or go into Manhattan. Before I write, I like to read obits in The Times because they’re well written and I like the little details. It gets the energy going in the morning. I really like the obits of old Hollywood actors and actresses.

I go out once in the morning and once in the afternoon. If I have a writing problem, the minute I step away there’s a solution. 

There's a lot of discipline in this focused writing day. And you know what there isn't? Any marketing. There's no block of time set aside for assessing Facebook ads or working on a promotional plan. The focus is on the actual work of writing... Which is the first and most important thing writers do.

We don't all have the luxury of writing full-time. Many of us have jobs and kids still at home and juggle the demands of life and have to work at carving out time for writing. No matter how much time you devote to your writing career - whether it's 5 hours a week or 3 hours a day - the majority of that time should be spent on writing.

And that 10% for promotion? The majority of that time comes within the window a few weeks prior to and after the release of your book. You might use some of that time to mail out review copies a few months in advance, but beware of focusing on ads too far in advance or talking up the book too much before it's available. You want to begin to create a buzz to coincide with the release because people are forgetful beings, and if we're interested in something we tend to want to buy it then. I think I pre-ordered a book once, and it was by an author known to me.

There are a lot of authors who are being misled into basking in the potential 15 minutes of fame they experience with a release or with big author events. It's very easy post-Bouchercon to want to recapture that high and book yourself for the next convention possible or spend a lot of time on social media reminiscing. There's nothing wrong with making friends, connecting online or sharing memories, but there is a problem if it begins to interfere with your writing time. That, above all else, is what you should covet. It's what you should prioritize, and it's what you should protect. Without investing in your craft you will fail to produce more material, or to progress as a writer to your full artistic potential.

If what you spend your time on is marketing or socializing or course after course, eventually what you'll produce will be ads, friendships and course-related lingo. What you won't produce is another great manuscript because your time investment isn't focused on your craft. Balance can be hard for writers; I know. The worst thing ever for me was a Bouchercon near my new place of residence shortly after a major move across two time zones. I had that initial pick-me-up from seeing friends and feeling that sense of belonging. Then, post-Bouchercon, the reality of living in a new place far from friends hit me along with the post-convention blues. That was compounded by life and several years of working in the most soul-sucking toxic environment I've ever been in. That basically impeded my writing for over four years, but what it taught me in the end is that I'd rather be alone than surrounded by certain types of people. People who don't value intelligence, integrity or ambition will weigh you down mentally and creatively.

What has helped with restoring my writing discipline is knowing that I'm okay with just a few friends, I'm okay if I go weeks to months at a time without seeing anyone socially (which I often do), and I'm great when I've been able to develop my characters and stories in a way that I'm satisfied with.

At the end of the day, I hope that my writing shows progress and passion and that people enjoy my stories. As long as that happens I'll sell books and keep writing. Hopefully, new authors will realize that if the craft isn't there, they have nothing to promote in the end. As Steve Mosby said once, if you write 1000 words a day, in three months you should have a first draft. The most important thing to do after signing a book contract and before edits start? Write the next book. If you haven't finished another manuscript to the point where it can be submitted before the release of your signed book you have to ask if you've been managing your time wisely... And chances are (with the exception of real life complications) you haven't.


John McFetridge said...

Good to have you back, so to speak.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks John. Good to be in a much better mental space.

Judy Penz Sheluk, author said...

Good to have "found" you Sandra (remember me, former Winghill tutor...). You make excellent points here. I find that so much of my time is now spent on promotion/marketing. I remember the bliss of writing full stop before all those 'obligations' and I need to get the balance back in my life. This was just what I needed. Will share. And then I'll get writing again.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Hi Judy! Glad you found this helpful. I'm really working at the balance myself these days.