Control, Control — You Must Learn Control!

(Because Yoda is my main man. The old Yoda, i mean. The new one’s a bit of a prat.)

A thoughtful post on Future eBook, which i found courtesy of the Passive Voice bog. Mark Edwards talks about the experience that he and Louise Voss have been through as self-publishers who have leveraged their success in that venue. First courted by, then embraced by, mainstream publishing, the pair are republishing their originally self-pubbed titles through HarperCollins. It’s a good piece, and Edwards sounds like a very smart writer who treats all the various modes of publishing as a means to an end, which is as it should be. From what he writes, it’s clear that he and Voss made their decision to go with a big house based on what they thought was best for them as writers, and at the end of the day, that’s how every writer needs to approach such decisions.

But one thing that Edwards said struck me as odd when i read it, in the bit where he’s talking about the advantages that he and Voss see in working with a traditional publisher:
The final reason is the big one; the most important one. Quality. Publishers make books better. Having an enthusiastic editor, who can help you shape your work, is hugely important and Catch Your Death is a far better book in its HarperCollins version than in the original self-published version, despite the enormous amount of editing and re-writing Louise and I did originally.
And Edwards is absolutely right regarding the outcome. As writers, we want our books to be as good as they can be, and we need to be willing to do everything we can to make that happen. And he’s absolutely right that a good editor can make a world of difference to a book, and i have no doubt that the editors at HarperCollins are as good as they come.

But the question that jumped out at me when i read that is one that’s still nagging at me, and is posed here not to be directed at Edwards or Voss but just generically:

When you were indie-publishing, what the hell stopped you from hiring your own editor?

In a lot of the discussion about the pros and cons of indie-publishing versus contemporary (most of it conducted by people a lot smarter than me), this same undercurrent constantly works its way into the discussion. At the front end, all of the things that a publishing company can do for a writer — story editors, line editors and proofreaders, cover and design, layout and formatting — are things that a writer can simply hire out for on his or her own. The back-end stuff — promotion, reviews, and bookstore distribution — are different stories, and i fully acknowledge the advantage that traditional publishers continue to have in those areas. But there are plenty of good editors and story editors out there (full disclosure: I’m one of them; writers: call me), and so i’ve wasted a lot of time thinking about why so many indie-publishing writers — even the successful ones — are so seemingly terrified about taking on even the minimal amount of control involved in hiring someone to do a straightforward job.

Here’s the conclusion i’ve come to. Writers are afraid of control, because the very act and art of writing has conditioned us to feel like we’re at our best when we have no control.

There’s a moment that comes in the process of writing. It’s a point when you’re deep in the story, deep in the lives of the characters and tearing into the heart of whatever it is your narrative is about. It’s an experience where no matter what the source of the tale, no matter how well you know it, no matter how much time you’ve spent outlining and note-taking and breaking things down and dreaming of this fictional world, all you can is madly transcribe the events and action and dialogue that you see and hear unfolding in your mind — because you have no earthly idea where any of it’s coming from or where it’s going to go.

This is the best part of the writing process, for me anyway. It’s the point at which we lose control of the story because the story has taken over, and i think we subconsciously come to value this part of the process more than any other. We crave the out-of-left-field insights and moments of character that surprise us even though we’re the ones who created those characters in the first place. And as a result of that, we become used to the paradigm that the less direct, overt control we can exert over our work, the purer that work will be.

So i’m led to wonder if it’s not so much the fact that certain writers are afraid to exert the kind of control over our own work that indie publishing entails, but that we’re actually incapable of exerting that kind of control. Because to take that control means having to question who we are, what we do, and how we actually do it in the end.

This lack of control seems intrinsic to the art and craft of writing — the sense of not really knowing where the muse comes from, or how our ideas come together, or how we’re able to ultimately render our dubious insights in dramatic form on the page. And so i wonder if our having gotten used to this lack of control explains why writers as a group seem so consistently anxious to give up control at every opportunity — even in an age when it’s never been easier to step up to the responsibility of taking control of what we do.

We resist taking control because for a certain type of writer, gaining control means giving up the sense that our work is somehow greater that what we put into it. And as a result, we end up putting less into our work, waiting and hoping that we can let things like editing and design happen to us, just as we wait for the story to happen to us in the end.