The Really, Really, Really, Really, REALLY Big Difference Between Writing and Publishing

I think a lot of the world, myself included, have a fairly naïve perspective on what it means to “write” a book. Hell, I didn’t really have a clue what it all encompassed before I started these activities a few years ago. Like most people, I loved reading books and magazines, and I’m sure my thought process at some point was the same as everyone else who has ever curled up with a good volume: “This is awesome! I would love to be part of creating stories like this.”And thus begins the journey of many from infatuated fan to aspiring novelist, essayist, journalist, or creative memoirist. It’s a naïve position, one that, should it remain in that unenlightened state, might actually allow someone to continue to enjoy the writing process.

Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

Writing is a creative, generative activity. 

For me, it’s akin to the growing and birthing of life. First there is nothing, in fact there are two nothings, like two separate ideas, that eventually come together. Maybe, “What if there was technology that could dramatically extend lifespans? And that was applied to a prisoner who was in prison for ‘life plus a thousand years’?”

And then out of that nothing there emerges something, and then that something takes on a form and grows and grows and grows, finally resembling a thing, a reality, something concrete and solid, beyond just imagination or ideation.

Eventually, you have a thing! Just like you have a baby child, or a newborn kitten, or a foal, or a baby giraffe, you can see that the thing is there and you can have some general idea where it’s going to go in the future.

You might not be able to completely predict, and you might not be able to control, but you can at least be there to provide it the right values, offer boundaries and corrections if it’s off track, and encourage it as it takes ever increasing risks to discover just what it is, and cheer it on as it finally reaches its final form.

Publishing, however, feels less like a generative process and more like a reductive one. 

Look, I get that there are developmental editors, and peer reviewers, and critiquers, and that’s not what I’m talking about. Those are more like the mentors and advisors that come into the story’s life during its young adulthood so that it doesn’t go off the rails, and it actually meets the goals it has for its own life and doesn’t completely disappoint its parents by doing something stupid, like getting addicted to pot or becoming a fan of the Cleveland Browns.

Instead, the publishing process that I’ve gone through, whether that’s via submitting stories to multiple journals or creating and publishing a book (which I’ve done thrice now!) feels more like you’re carving a finished product out of a big empty block of marble. Michelangelo’s quote about “removing everything that was not David” seems especially apt. When you’re publishing, you’re removing everything that is creative, and you’re basically inverting the pyramid of effort and emotional energy expenditure.

During submissions, you’re not being creative at all. It’s simply process, a decision tree that must be followed without any sort of thinking: Is this a market that takes my kind of story? My length of story? My aesthetic of story? Does this market pay what I want for the story? Is it open? Do I match the criteria for authors? Will it respond fairly reasonably?

When you’re working on publishing, yes, there can be some creativity, but substantially all your effort is devoid of that generative activity which gives me energy. Sure, you have some flexibility when decide on a cover design, but the vast majority is more rote activity: What size pages do you want? What font? Blank pages here and there? Header? Footer? Page numbers? Spacing of lines? Margins? Do you have an account set up with the publisher? Did you choose all the categories appropriately? Turn on all the right switches, and turn off all the others? Did you proofread every page? Double-check everything? Did you pay your invoices? Did you set up all your reminders?

I haven’t worked with an agent and traditional publisher, but I suspect the same kind of administrative headache saps your emotional energy: does this agent work with your genre? Are they accepting new clients? Did you send the right number of pages? Did you get formatting correctly? Did you sign all the dots and pieces correctly? Did you input the right account numbers? Did you set all the switches on the client portal right? Do you have the meetings on your calendar? Do you have all your accounting set up correctly? Fuckin’ accounting. Shit, man, I though this was about writing stories! Nobody wants to keep track of goddamn receipts, we got narrative arcs to tend to and emotional beats to ensure get appropriately spread throughout the second act.

Thus the end-to-end is heavily weighted towards the administrative, tedious stuff, and I suspect that what often happens is someone loves writing, does some of it, is willing to put in the effort to practice and get critiques and make it better and better and better, but when it comes to publishing eventually gets smacked in the face by the alternate reality. Hard. Like, brick wall at 80 miles an hour hard. And that’s when they quit.

I don’t blame them.

In my experience, it feels like writing the text itself is only about 25% of actually completing a book. 

And the publishing is the other 75%. Which means that the vast majority of the work isn’t in the writing, it’s in the publishing. And therefore, it’s no wonder why I’ve spent so much of my time in the past years on writing for myself, and very little on publishing.

I’m fine with that. You know, it’s a maturation that I think all writers go through. And it’s an unspoken truism of the writing and publishing world that non-writers and non-publishers just don’t understand.

Maybe I should have joined those who quit while they’re still writing for themselves. Perhaps then I’d just be doing what I was doing for ten years, just drafting stories in my notebook and leaving them there, satisfied by my obeisance to the Muse and my cup filled with the knowledge that I’ve been honest to myself and my desires.

But I didn’t. And, through that, I’m glad I have persisted. There is value in publishing, certainly, and yet I’m not experienced enough in that to be able to fully flesh out all the value. I’m pretty sure it’s not a fair trade for all the administrative headaches, but I can’t be sure yet. Perhaps with a few more rounds to evaluate I’ll be able to create some greater objectivity.

Anyway.

I don’t really know how to finish off this exposition. Do I regret publishing? No. Do I wish it on others? Not on the unprepared, or those with weak stomachs who just want to enjoy the creative process or just appreciate the finished product.

This process exposes several undesirable elements that are quite easily glossed over in the pursuit of “Bestseller” status. If you’re fine holding your nose and putting up with them, you can get there. But if you’d rather remain indefinitely in the blissful ignorance of your youth, maybe better not to even try.

So that’s the major difference between writing and publishing. The WRITING is actual, real, exploratory development. It’s the storytelling that all of us fell in love with and which inspired us to pursue this kind of thing.

PUBLISHING is, to commandeer a phrase, the mind-killer. It’s the thing which, I would bet, turns more people off from actually putting their work out into the world than the creative process itself. It’s probably holding loads of us back, and, frankly, I don’t know how to solve the problem. Except by maybe, lowering our own standards and accepting that not everything we read is going to be superlative: it won’t be the newest, freshest, most intriguing, most-hyped, bestest anything. It won’t win awards. It won’t light a fire in our nether regions. It won’t move mountains, inspire thousands of ships, make us sit up and take notice, or even be worthy of commenting to our partner in the bed beside us.

But, still, it’s worth it. 

Because it’s someone’s creation. And therefore it’s worthy of reading, even if for no more reason than to validate the effort.

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