Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Thoughts on Writing

#34: Obligations 'R' Us

by Seanan McGuire

The only people you owe your work to are your agent, your editor, and your publishing house. Don't let anyone pressure you.

This is one of our simpler thoughts, on the face of things, but once we start digging into it, it rapidly expands in complexity. Don't we, as writers, have an obligation to our readers? More, don't I keep saying that we need to be gracious? Well, what's so gracious about saying "I'm sorry, I don't owe you anything"? It's a difficult line to draw, and it's an even more difficult line to hold, especially now that we're here in the Internet age of instant gratification. So how do we cope with the pressure when we've been praying for that pressure all our lives? Let's discuss obligation, pressure, and why they matter. Ready? Good. Let's begin.

What Is Obligation?

An obligation is a commitment; it is something you have agreed to do, or have been otherwise committed to doing. I own a Maine Coon cat. When I obtained her, I made a commitment to brushing her on a regular basis, to keep her from developing health-threatening issues with her fur. I have a saver bag at my local comic book store. When I opened my saver, I made a commitment to coming in at least once a month to pick up my comic books. These are obligations I chose.

I have a commitment to eat, breathe, drink, and occasionally sleep. These are obligations that biology has thrust upon me, and which I often wish that I could avoid.

There are many things I do which I am in no way committed to doing. I don't have to draw comic strips, send postcards to my friends, or make periodic field trips to the local genre bookstore. I don't have to play with my hula-hoop, shower Vixy in scorpions, or go out for Indian food. These are things that I can choose to do—and choose to do frequently—but they aren't actual obligations. When I write a book that interests me, I am making a choice. When I write a book that's under contract, I am fulfilling an obligation.

There is also a degree of unspoken obligation assumed by us as writers when we begin any sort of ongoing series. By publishing Rosemary and Rue and saying "book one," I am committing myself to doing my best to provide the reader with the books that come next. Please note the phrase "doing my best." We'll be coming back to that later. This is a general obligation, not a specific obligation. I have not promised Dave Smith that he'll have book two inside of six months. I've promised the world at large that I will make every effort to have book two finished and available at some point in the future.

Under Pressure.

As human beings—forget "as authors"; this is a general experience—we are under constant pressure to fulfill obligations both real and imaginary. Get up, go to work, do the jobs we're paid to do. Observe social and legal restrictions on our behavior, play nicely with others, share. Wear clothing. Do not gargle with cleaning products. It's a long list, and most of these obligations are so "normal" that we don't even notice them. They're a part of the social contract of existing in our modern world.

Now imagine what happens when someone starts trying to make you do something, even something that you normally enjoy doing or do automatically.

Is it done yet?

How about now?




This is pressure. This is also occasionally referred to as "incentive for homicide." This is also the reason things are sometimes done sloppily, too quickly, or before we're actually prepared to do them: because we feel pressured to accomplish them as quickly as possible. Now, some people only work well under pressure. Some people need the "now? Now? Now?" if they're going to get anything done. To them, I say: good job! Yay for you! To the rest of us, I say...

...well, we need to work on that.

I'll admit it: I become balky and unlikely to cooperate when pressured to do things I have not specifically committed to do. If I tell you I'll do something by a certain time, poking me about it usually gets an apology and a result. If I haven't said I'd do something by a certain time, or in a certain way, poking me is likely to cause me to dig my heels in and refuse to move. I sometimes say that every time I'm asked a question I don't want to answer, the answer is delayed by a week. This is not entirely inaccurate.

The trouble begins when we realize that we're outnumbered. Picture yourself in a house with one other person. That person wants something from you. You politely refuse. Then you less-politely refuse. Then you spray-paint "NO" across the living room wall in hopes that the point gets through. In the end, you're likely to have the peace and quiet you're praying for, and can get on with your work. Now picture yourself in a house with five hundred people. All of them want something from you. All of them intend to ask you for it personally. None of them believe that the spray-painting on the walls is intended for them, and so you're going to keep getting pestered, long after the point where you just want to withhold information out of spite. This is pressure. Pressure sucks.

The People We Owe.

The people we owe our work to are the people to whom we have made a direct and active commitment. What does this mean?

This means the publishing house that holds your contract.
This means the editor who needs your page proofs.
This means the agent who has requested revisions.
This means the publicist who needs a "sizzle reel" from your latest book.
This means the marketing department that assembles the new release catalog.

What doesn't this mean?

This doesn't mean the fan who wants to know what happens next.
This doesn't mean the guy who keeps writing to you demanding more cowbell.
This doesn't mean your high school graduating class.
This doesn't even mean your mother.

I believe that there is an implicit obligation between a writer and their readership, one which says "I will do my best not to start anything I can't finish, and to keep any series I start moving along at a reasonable pace." That isn't the same as "I will let you nag me into rushing things," or "I will keep writing this series long after I have reached the point of wanting to swallow live toads instead, just because you want me to keep going." There will always be someone who demands you bring Holmes back from the dead. Unless that someone is your editor, and unless that demand comes with a lot of zeroes, you are under no obligation to do so. (Zeroes aren't actually an obligation, but let's face it: an author's love is always for sale.)

Remember the Motives.

One thing I really do want to stress in all this: crazy as pressure can sometimes make us, people ask because they really want to know. Ponder that for a moment. While you may not owe Bob there your work, isn't the fact that he wants it incredibly flattering? I mean, he's going out of his way to ask for your work. That's the gold star standard of writing right there. So try not to get mad at him for asking. He just wants to know.

On the flip side of that coin, remember that Bob's request is in no way an obligation for you to actually provide anything at a pace that you're not comfortable with. If you don't want to write a sequel, don't do it just because he asks you. If you planned your new series to come out at a rate of one book per year, don't break yourself trying to go to every six months just because you think it will make people happy. A broken author isn't doing anything for anyone.

Write for yourself, and remember where your obligations really are. And keep that can of spray-paint handy.
© 2011 Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is an author, poet, and musician who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with two cats and a small army of plush dinosaurs. She has recorded two albums, Stars Fall Home and Red Roses and Dead Things, and has published five novels. In 2010, she was awarded the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

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