Sunday, February 17, 2013

Process Vs. Product

Product enters the boxing ring, his slick dust jacket sporting beautiful and evocative photography, a special effect and the coolest title font on the shelf. He’s ready to go with those rough-edged pages and don’t forget that bonus poster in the back. Oh man, the characters have Twitter accounts? And dang. His shoes are Pro Wings. As Macklemore would say, “Aw, he got the Velcro.”  

Late, as usual, Process ducks under the ropes, held together by crisscrossed rubber bands. He wobbles on his feet, one clad in a sandal, the other in a glossy red four-inch heel. Oh man, and the coffee stains from his last fight with Midnight Hour are still visible in the upper right hand corner.  “Untitled,” his front page reads in plain old Times New Roman text, twelve point font.

Ding Ding Ding!

The fight begins.

Product swoops in with a well-timed right hook, reminding Process just where he stands—or doesn’t. Pages splatter, going everywhere. Good thing they’re numbered, right? It’s a knock-out, instant. The referee makes the count, and the winner is announced. Product wins again!

And what was Process’s fatal mistake?

He should have known better than to get in the ring with Product. Why? Because the two are separate entities, ill matched opponents. They’re not the same thing. And chances are, if a child version of you or I was put into the ring with a future grown-up version of ourselves, then that young version would probably lose, too.

Except the whole point is that there shouldn’t be any fighting at all, because it’s cruel to pit these two against one another.

That’s a difficult thing to remember when you’re in the thick of a project that you’re working hard to bring life to.

While you’re working, you want to envision your book on the shelf, face out and glowing. You want to picture your name in print and you should. Dreams are what we’re made of after all. And it’s fun, invigorating and exciting to imagine what your dust jacket might look like, and what kind of art might appear on the first page of each chapter. Print your work-in-progress out, make a cover for it yourself, dress it up, envision and plan, but let that all be part of the process.    

Process is where the magic happens, but that is easy to forget, especially today when things in the publishing world are speeding up with e-books, and the market is becoming bigger and more competitive every day and even every hour. Writers are being asked to produce at lightening speeds and, sometimes, that’s where I think the battle between process and product begins.   

Of course, the truth is that the books we write are a product. Because this is a business. But just as with any form of art, before our books can be books and something ready to be put in the hands of a reader, they need to be ideas. Our first efforts are loose and often poor. I don’t know of a way around that. And I don’t know of anyone who knows of a way around that, either. Process is messy. Characters come and then chapters, and then new ideas, and then a work-in-progress manuscript and then a first draft. Pages get chopped out or maybe you chuck the book and, in despair, realize that you must start over from the beginning. So then you get a second draft, third and however many more drafts after that. Process demands that we do whatever it takes to get it right. Product-focused, we tell ourselves to do whatever it takes to get it right the first time. And that is the equivalent of the knock-out punch that sends our process sprawling.  

I have learned that maintaining a goal of publication and writing to complete a marketable item seem as if they are one and the same thing. They aren’t. And I believe that the difference is found in our focus.  

If I am focusing on doing whatever I can to create something that will sell then, naturally, I find that my joy depletes while I’m in the thick of the work. The need to fill a niche siphons away my courage and my originality. The other books sitting on the shelf begin to loom too big. They take on the form of monsters that will devour my novel before it can ever even touch the shelf.  

If, however, I keep my mind focused on a goal of creating something that only I can create and listening to the whispers in my head and the fancies in my heart, then I can hear my characters more clearly when they speak. The whole crazy task seems less insurmountable, and I think we can all agree that the Goliath that is writing a novel can certainly stand a bit of shrinking.

So yes, imagine your book as a book. But don’t think too hard about when, where and how it will sell, and what you will do if it doesn’t. That’s equivalent to looking up at the peak of the mist-covered mountain when you should be focusing on finding the next available groove that will allow you to inch up just a little higher.
 Focus on process. Keep your strength. Fall in love with what you’re doing, not with where you’re going and what it will or won’t bring. Writing is hard enough. If we can enjoy the journey, then the victory of publishing will be what it always should be—icing on a cake whose sweetness has satisfied us already.


Colette Ballard said...

Kelly, Best. Post. Ever!!

Kurt Hampe said...

So you're saying writing shouldn't equate to foxy boxing? What am I gonna do with the four-inch red heels?

Seriously, thought, good post. While some of the most fun writing I've done should never see the light of day, it did add a lot of joy to the process, and I think that comes through in the words that I keep.