On setting boundaries: My book is my baby!

First off, a quick Happy Father’s Day to all the dads. I took my brother out for dinner today for his Father’s Day, which is why this post is so darn late. We got talking, we got walking, we got drinking (but just a little…). I do have to admit, we walked so far, and I was wearing such totally inappropriate footwear, that I will be doing a lot of sitting down and/or hobbling until the blisters heal.

Anyway, we got talking about a lot of artistic type things, because we both work in artistic areas. He works in story and game design. And one of the topics that came up was about boundaries. And kids, because we both have kids at those scary transition points–his going to school for the first time, mine moving on to junior high. Eek!

So, bear with me, because this is a little bit about consolidating it for myself as well, since I tend to have problems with boundaries. And a lot of this is probably repetetive, but it’s good for me to put it in a framework. Think of how much good you’re doing me. 🙂

Boundaries, for an artist, exist in all sorts of ways. And not necessarily in the ways that we think of them.

First of all, you need boundaries between your writing time and the rest of your life. The obvious meaning of that is that you need to keep your regular life from taking over your writing time. Which means you have to prioritize tasks, some of which might not get done if they butt up against your writing time. It means making sure that people understand that, when you’re writing, or researching, or working on your author’s blog, or reading other authors’ blogs, you are working. This is like a job. For that period of time, people need to only contact you for emergencies, just as they would if you worked at the corner store or the local Department of Transportaion. This counts even if you aren’t getting paid yet. Why? Because they wouldn’t bother you constantly if you were studying in your spare time to become an accountant, right? Even if you’re not making money at it yet and you don’t know if you ever will. I mean, you can study to be an accountant, but it doesn’t mean that you’ll ever make a living at it. Still, you’re putting in your time, improving your craft, and banking that this investment of time will have a payoff. And at least it doesn’t cost anything except a few dollars on the electric bill, right? Darn sight cheaper than distance ed.

You also need to keep your writing life from taking over your regular life. Which means you have to leave time for family, for earning a living and for not writing. Yeah, I said it. Not writing. Why? Because, as lovely and fun and exciting as writing is, no one ever said it wasn’t work–especially if you’re doing it right. If all you ever do is work to make money, work to look after family and work to make art, you’re going to drain your well dry. An odd parallel is when you have a newborn child. The nurses themselves will tell you, once the child is six weeks old, to take an afternoon to do things that are just about you and have someone else look after the baby. Why? Because loss of freedom creates resentment. What a horrible thought, to come to resent your child, whether of your body or of your mind, simply because you could not set boundaries on the demands it makes of you. Go, have fun, recharge. It’s good for the baby, too. A happy parent makes for a rich, vibrant baby. Of both kinds.

The other thing we talked about was craft. Crafting your story, and crafting yourself as an author. Hang on, it’ll make sense in a minute.

Setting boundaries with your book? This comes down to a lot of that author advice we get, that we go all rah-rah about when we hear it and then whine and cringe when we have to apply it. So, have people read your story, have them critique it, talk to them about strengths and weaknesses. And then decide what’s valuable and what’s hogwash. Not everyone is the right critiquer for your story. Not everyone has developed the skills to critique appropriately. You can let them go, not let them affect you, recognize that what they find as a problem is not, in your story, written in your style, a real problem. My own critiquers consist of a really varied group, and each one has their own strengths and adds a different level of polish to my work. It doesn’t mean they’re always right.

But sometimes, they are horribly, terribly, soul-crushingly right. And then you’re forced to set boundaries around yourself. Because sometimes, we are our books own worst enemies. This is where the idea behind “kill your darlings” or “put it away for two months and then edit” comes from. It’s setting boundaries for ourselves, so we don’t spoil our darling by refusing to believe that they aren’t the Einstein/beauty queen/gold medal athlete/movie star that they are when they first pop into our heads. It takes a lot of labour to push a book out onto the page, just like it takes a lot of labour to push a kid out into the world. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone describe their newborn as being stunningly gorgeous, except through those rose-coloured parent glasses. (Or the ‘I’m still totally drugged up glasses’) But, give them a wash, feed them up a bit, put a cute hat on them and presto! Darlings! Crit partners really help with that.

And then we push them out into the world, like sending our kids to school. Until they go into that environment, they’re perfect. Oh, maybe they have a temper, or a tendency to lisp, or like to talk in huge, drawn-out sentences, but they’re really lovely. After all, you’ve coaxed them through all their different incarnations and you know, in your gut, how much they’ve grown.

And then you meet someone who doesn’t like them, or doesn’t like them as much as you do, because they can’t see the growth that went into this little creature. You’ve put so much time into them, taught them manners, used all the appropriate comma rules, dressed them up nicely, had people you trust critique them. They are as perfect as you can make them–but still, someone doesn’t like them. You want to do all sorts of nasty things to that person, because this is your baby and you’ve put so much time into it and look how clever they are, tying their shoelaces. Boundaries, again, or you risk falling into that crazy parent/author behaving badly trap. Yes, they didn’t like your work. It didn’t suit them, as they are, at this time of their life. Or maybe they picked it up, thinking it was one thing, and it was something completely different. Who’s to say they won’t pick it up again in five years and go, “Wow, why did I not see how complex/vibrant/eloquently written this was?” Or, they might pick it up and say, “Yeah. Still crap.” It’s not about you. Not any more. It’s about whether their needs were met. If they met you at a party, you might become best friends–I have lots of friends who won’t read my stuff for various reasons. (The best one was from a lesbian friend who said, “Ewww, boy bits!”) But, they still won’t read my books, because my books don’t meet their needs. It’s not personal.

If you’ve done your job properly, made sure your storylines hang together, made sure everything happens for a reason, made your characters human and accessible (even the aliens) and haven’t done anything in your writing that distracts the reader from your story, there will be people out there who will like it. Just as there will be best friends for your child when they go to school, if you’ve taught them to share and be polite and be kind. Just remember that not everyone will be your child’s friend.

The gospel according to wine and Corona. 😛 And I know I’m going to have to come back and re-read this when the first reviews of Tender start coming out.

I will be a good author, I will be a good author, I will be a good author. (Can you see me squeezing my little fists and wishing every so hard?)

If I blow it, you all have my permission to beat me with a 10-day-old trout from the fish market.

About the author: Kate Lowell

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