My Name is Don and I'm a Control Freak
They say that recognizing that you have a problem is the first step in getting help. Screw that. I am a control freak and I like it that way. I see nothing wrong in trying to control the things that you can control. For example, when I travel by car, I prefer to be the one driving. It's not that I think other people are bad drivers, just that I'm more comfortable being a driver than being a passenger. (Since I'm a non-drinker, that makes me a handy designated driver, too.) Apparently this character trait is obvious to other people. For example, once I was on the way to the annual picnic for the company where I worked. There was road construction which prevented me from using the obvious route and finding an alternate route was difficult, involving an unwieldy map (a more effective means of navigating than asking random morons directions, especially when you are a control freak). (Like many of my tales, this occurred before tech like GPS devices were available--at least for anything besides nuclear weapons guidance systems). A long while and a few expletives later, I arrived at the picnic a bit tardy. I got out of the car, locking the door I was about to shut, then noticed the sprawling map on the passenger seat. Thinking that my designated driver skills might be called upon later in the day, I decided to fold up the map and put it away to make the passenger seat available for any inebriated passenger needing safe travel home. So I leaned into the car and put the map into the glove compartment, then shut the door. Of course, it was only then I noticed that my keys had fallen out of my pocket as I leaned awkwardly across the driver's seat. Yep, I had locked my keys in the car. Finding no obvious immediate solution to the problem, I decided to put in my appearance at the picnic and try to later snag a coat hanger with which to attempt to unlock my car (yes, more cave-man tech). I greeted a few people and grabbed an ear of sweet corn to munch on and sat down. My boss wandered over and plopped down next to me. "You look unhappy," he said. "You must not be in control of something." "It's not that," I said. "It's just that I locked my keys in the car and it's irritating." "It's irritating you because it evidences a lack of control," he replied placidly. Marveling at the ability of my boss to read me, I excused myself for a few minutes, found a hanger (not really that easy at a picnic), unlocked my car and retrieved my keys, then returned to the festivities in a better frame of mind. What does all of this have to do with writing? A couple things. First, one of the most frustrating things for me about being a writer is the submissions process. I can control writing a book or a story. I can control the re-writing and editing and polishing. I can control where I submit it for consideration. But then I completely lose all control. It's not the rejection I sometimes get that I despise, it's the whole open-ended uncertaintly of the process. Will the agent/editor/publisher get back to me in a day (HAH!), a week (SNORT!), a month (I wish ...), or will it be months or years (the likely scenario)? Two months after submitting a short story (3000 words), I got an automated email response indicating I should expect a reply in another three to four months--a sucky turnaround time, but at least I got a time-frame on that item. Too many places just never respond at all if they are not interested, leaving me uncertain and out-of-control. Should I move on to another publication? Should I self-publish? The second thing about control and writing for me is how much it bothers me that many other writers profess not to control their own writing. I do a lot of writing to specifications (deadline, genre, word-count, topic, tone, etc.--hence, the whole Writer on Demand TM branding effort). I need to meet those specifications and am always mindful of them as I write. I not only keep track of things like whether I am using up more plot as I write than will work out for word-count purposes, but whether my story or even a particular character or scene will fit into an anthology of other similarly themed stories without being too similar. I also write a fair number of reveals (not just "twist-endings," but mysteries, thrillers, and character and setting revelations), so it is important to me to understand where my story is going at all times and how a reader will be reacting to it. That means not only putting in clues and foreshadowing for the attentive reader (which I find is always more effectively and subtly done in the original draft than if plopped in during a re-write) and sometimes dropping in a double layer of clues, so even the attentive reader will be surprised at an unexpected twist or turn, yet not find it abrupt in hindsight. While I am not a person who outlines or pre-plans a project chapter by chapter (that takes much of the fun parts of writing away from the task for me), I do know where I am going and why I am doing what I am doing at most moments of my writing. So when people say "I just let the characters speak to me and take me where they want to go," or "I was really surprised by the direction the story went," it drives me insane. Believe me, I understand fully getting into the mindset of your character. I played over 600 different characters in tournament role-playing games and did my best to play each one in character, even if that might be to the detriment of the party goals. In fact, my biggest disappointments in gaming were when GMs, for their own meta-gaming reasons, went to extraordinary lengths to prevent my character from doing something in character. But I understand my characters, I don't get surprised by them. Sometimes I may get surprised by me, but not by them. They are mere wisps of electricity flitting through my neurons. They don't exist without me. On a rational level, I understand that not everyone's process is the same and that much of this nonsense of characters controlling the storyline is just a harmless affectation of those who are more character-oriented than plot-oriented. But at a visceral level, I cannot understand characters controlling the process, because I am a control freak. First of all, if the characters control the story, you get a lot less good story-writing, because the characters have no interest in pace or creating conflict or upping the stakes for the protagonist. The characters don't care about tension and foreshadowing and plot, much less word-count, theme, and tone, etc., etc., etc. But, worse yet, by maintaining the fiction that the characters just tell authors what to do, the author gets no credit for the hard work of writing the story. It belittles him or her, making the writer a mere scrivener of the fantastical lives of imaginary characters. It is like writing something and saying it was really done by the fae--that Rumplestilskin is spinning your tales for you while you sleep. That sends me over the edge. Writers get little enough credit for their efforts from Hollywood and the public in general. Everyone wants content, but they are willing to give damn little money and even less respect for it. Fostering a belief that writers are mere conduits for genius floating about the ether doesn't help. But, then, I'm a control freak. I hope you are, too. Let me know what you think. For more on the content I have created as a control freak, go to www.donaldjbingle.com or look for my stories or books on Amazon, bn.com, DriveThruFiction, and the other usual sources of genre fiction. I'd love for you to read (and review!) some of my stuff.