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Comedy is Hard: The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Season 2

Spoilers for both seasons.

The first season of the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt knocked my socks off. It was a show about women recovering from abuse, but this was no Jessica Jones. This was funny, irreverent, and clever without being nihilistic about it. One of the things I’ve loved about television recently is that we get to have so many different kinds of female heroes. It’s not just Supergirl OR Jessica Jones. It’s not just Buffy out there swinging by herself. We get a full range of female characters.

And this is what I loved so much about Kimmy Schmidt. It was unapologetically feminist and fun while hitting you right in the feels. When Kimmy fishes a rat out of a garbage can and tells her kidnapper he will never break her in episode one, you are all-in.

The season ended on a high note, with the inevitable showdown trial with the kidnapper who held Kimmy and several other women underground for fifteen years. Her budding romance with fellow GED-student Dong is on the rocks. Her employer has gotten a divorce from the jerk she was using for his money. And Titus’s wife shows up to confront him about why he left her.

It was a great season ending. I was looking forward to what happened next.

It didn’t take long, unfortunately, to see that Kimmy Schmidt season 2 was going to be a VERY bumpy ride.

I’m not sure what happened here. Part of me thinks there was a writing room shake up between seasons, and the second writing team spent the first half of the season trying to tie up all the loose ends laid down by the first writing team, clumsily going for easy gags and stuff that was… just not funny. It was weird to be watching the first couple episodes and realizing… wow, this is… just not funny.

The characters all wander around getting new jobs – Kimmy works at a Christmas store for awhile, then becomes an Uber driver. Her former boss, Jacqueline, bounces from trying to get back her old life by marrying rich to actually doing some fundraising for a good cause. There’s a lot of back-and-forth with Kimmy’s beau Dong which seems to go nowhere. Smartly, they no longer required Dong to speak in his embarrassing accent, which makes me think one or both of the showrunners watched Master of None and realized how rude it was to ask an actor to do that.  Worse, while I kept expecting them to finally handwave the Jacqueline storyline (a white actor playing a Native American? Really?) by saying she was adopted, they instead totally doubled down on that one, giving her vision quests and putting her on the road to demand reparations through fundraising. There’s also an incredibly weird episode where Titus gives a play in yellow face as a geisha, and “angry Asians from the internet” show up and act… like a parody of people on the internet. There’s a jibe at the Black Lives Matter movement. It falls horribly flat. The worst part is that they could have pulled this episode into the realm of relevance if they had the main protester be like, “Hey, Titus, clearly you did your research and your song and story really moved me. But the problem with black actors playing Asians is that it reduces the roles of real Asians in media, so all we end up getting to play are immigrants with horrible accents who have to get into sham marriages to keep their green cards, and angry Asian social justice warriors from the internet.” They could have made this funnier while pointing back at themselves and going, “Yes, hey, we got that wrong! We get it. We’re going to do better.” But they didn’t. If you’re a white feminist and don’t get this, imagine it as about gender instead of race – a straight cis man doing a show about being a woman, and angry stereotyped feminists coming to protest the event, citing stats about female representation in plays and film. I had a feeling the showrunners would get exactly why writing this episode this way would be problematic.

In truth, there were several times over the season where I was like, “This show needs some not-white women in that writers’ room cause my god. My god.” If you understand misogyny, you should understand racism, but outside of Titus’s storylines, the show just continually fell flat there.

Speaking of Titus, his storyline was probably the most successful throughout the whole show. The scene between him and new boyfriend Mikey (the catcalling construction worker from season 1) were just adorable. The scene where they geek out and bond over the Lion King was about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Any episode with Mikey was an episode I could forgive for being fall-down unfunny elsewhere.

There’s the introduction of a soldier with PTSD as a possible romance for Kimmy, where they start to bond over their shared PTSD, but that goes nowhere. I thought, “Oh, this is great! This season is about overcoming trauma.” But it took a third of the season to get there, and then that got dropped and he never showed up again and I was like, “THAT WAS GOING TO BE GOLD! KIMMY AND A SOLDIER!” But it moved on, and Kimmy got lost in the show amid Titus’s engaging romance and Jacqueline’s increasingly bizarre attempts to rebuild her life (I enjoyed the episode with the mistresses). It kept bouncing from one thing to another, and I couldn’t figure out where it was going.

The show was also missing a lot of the ongoing/recurring gags that made it feel more linked last season (the ridiculous Bubreeze commercials, for instance). While there were a couple episodes in the middle that were all right once Tina Fey showed up as Kimmy’s therapist and we circled back to the “yes, this is a season about addressing trauma!” I still found myself less than eager to click “play” on the next episode, and it took me awhile to get to the last two episodes.

What’s funny is that the season actually finally comes together in those last two episodes, and makes it look like the show knew where it was going all along, it just didn’t know how to tell us it knew how to get there. There’s a hilarious gag where Kimmy goes to Universal Studios and is mistaken for a character. Titus goes to Titusville and works out his fear of failure among astronauts. We find out why Kimmy is afraid of velcro, and she confronts her mom while realizing that she is not going to get the closure she needs from her terrible mother, and she comes to peace with that. Jacqueline falls in love with a do-gooder lawyer and they decide to take down the Washington Redskins. Their landlady decides to fight the hipsters coming into the neighborhood by running for office (which will be great). Finally, all the things that they were muddling around with all season long came to a head, and I breathed a sigh of relief, because the final show cliffhanger had me hooked again and ready for season 3.

As a storyteller, though, I found myself endlessly fascinated with why the season was so muddled compared to last. And it reminded me that comedy is fucking hard. I could see why they wanted to have Jacqueline do a ton of weird, different things. They didn’t want her to just hook up with a lawyer and fall in love immediately after getting her independence. She needed to explore other options first (still no excuse for not going the “you’re adopted” route, which I STILL hope they’ll do in season 3). The Kimmy storyline, I don’t know. The actress was really being earnest with the material she had, and it felt so strained in those first few episodes. There was gold here, but I’m wondering if it was just uncomfortable to go where they needed to go with it. I’m currently working on a book which involves two very abusive relationships, and to be dead honest, the subject matter itself does create a lot of resistance when I’m writing it. Writing about trauma, abuse, PTSD, and overcoming bullshit is hard to do. I can’t imagine trying to do it in a funny way. The episode about the internet mob was just bad all around, but I think if they could have reframed the ending as a lesson to Titus about representation (and indirectly, a lesson to themselves) it would have worked (Sam Means is credited as the writer of this episode, but also wrote the very funny Kimmy Finds Her Mom episode, so you know, you win some you lose some).

I give the season 3 stars out of 5, because it figured out what it was doing in the end, and promises some gold in season three. If nothing else, watching this season reminded me that making comedy look effortless is really fucking hard. It was a rough season, but so is life. I’ve reached a point as a creator where I understand that sometimes shit goes wrong. Sometimes the best intentions create really problematic stuff. If I was running the show, I’d bring in some women writers who aren’t white feminists (and yes, I say that as a white feminist. This is a serious problem), or at least have some consult on the show. There was some amazing stuff they could have done this year in smart, heartfelt ways if not for the myopia, there.

Criticism aside, this is a brave show doing brave things. I would rather it continue trying to push the envelope – writing a comedy show about abuse and overcoming trauma! – and fail at it than go back to doing the safe, boring, tried and true stuff that so many other shows rely on. I salute you in your efforts. Keep doing better.

And keep on trucking, Kimmy.

How (and Why) I Write My Books Non-Chronologically

So I write the scenes in my books out of order. I had some vague idea that this wasn’t what most people did, but it was so normal to my process that I didn’t think it was very interesting. Yet I had a few people on Twitter ask me to break this process down because it sounded intriguing. It’s always funny when people ask you to break down your process because if they didn’t, you know… well, I wouldn’t interrogate it much.

I often try and start a novel from the beginning, but my brain isn’t always accommodating. More often, what I’ll end up with are little bits of dialogue, fight scenes, political discussions, etc. that jump into my brain. I’ll put those down into the manuscript file, adding them into it in roughly the order I think they’ll appear in the final book.

Like this bit of dialogue from Lilia for THE BROKEN HEAVENS that came to me last night right before bed:

“It’s what I’ve seen us trying to do this whole war – set ourselves apart from the enemy. Be different. I think we built a people that was as different from our oppressors as possible. The Dorinah became like the Saiduan. We deliberately became something else.”

This is probably going to go somewhere in the last third of the book, so I’ve plugged it into the manuscript before the big ending scenes that I’ve already written, but after a lot of the mixed dialogue and opening chapters for the first third that I already have in there.

I have another one that comes much earlier in the book between Lilia and Yisaoh, which I plugged into the first third:

“You’re already a drug fiend,” Yisaoh said, “hacking out your bloody lungs every night. Are you becoming a liquor fiend too?”

          “You don’t understand my life,” Lilia said.

 “No, my life was spent trying to convince Ora Nasaka there was an imminent invasion, and position my family so we could lead the country. Prepare our people to face it. You see how well my life’s pursuit turned out. But you don’t see me numbing my sorrow.” She fumbled for another cigarette.

         Lilia smirked. “What will you do when you run out of those?” she said.

Not all of these snippets will make it into the final book, of course. But when my brain serves me these little bits of dialogue and scene-setting, I take them. It’s why I ended up writing the last chapter of the book so early, because my brain was busily stringing it together. Now the rest of the book will move toward that ending.

When it comes time to put all the scenes together, it’s a bit like patching together a quilt – or, more accurately – a complex puzzle. You find that not all the pieces fit, and that you have to create new pieces to bind the existing together.

I start out with a rough shape/outline for every book. I have all the basic beats down, especially with the Worldbreaker books, which use big events in the sky as turning points for characters and situations. I put five of these down into a sort of five-act structure and just nestle in these dialogue bits and scenes and descriptions as I go. When I sit down to officially write for the day, I’ll try to start writing chronologically, filling in what needs to be filled in from the beginning, but if I’m stuck or I get bored, I’ll jump ahead to some other scene that I’m excited about writing so I don’t waste my writing time. It’s this determination not to waste my writing time that’s probably led me to write this way today more than I did in the past. When you are writing as quickly as I am, and your time is so precious, you can’t just sit there and stare at the place you’re stuck at for an hour. I do also use techniques from Rachel Aaron’s book 2k to 10k, the biggest of which is to outline the scene(s) I want to write for the day before I open the file to work on them (I purchased this book a little over two years ago, and you can see how it helped kickstart my productivity).

Writing THE STARS ARE LEGION is another good example of this type of writing. Though I wrote one of the POV character’s chapters mostly in order, I skipped a lot of big scenes and transitions and just put placeholders there the first time through. This is because I had an epiphany about what the plot actually was for that character and sat down and re-wrote the whole outline in a rush one night, making it more of an episodic exploration with clues to the larger mystery woven in. Framing those chapters as a journey up through one of the worlds level by level with crazy adventures made it easier to write all in one go. The tough part was the other POV character. I wrote her first couple chapters, and her last couple of chapters first, so I would know where she started and were she needed to end up. Those missing middle chapters are the big chapters I’ve been working on the last couple weeks, trying to fill in what happened to get her to the place I needed her to be. I’m continuing to refine and rework those as I go, and we’ll do one more big pass here before it’s ready for reviewers. I also went back and filled in a lot of missing scenes and transitions, cleaned up stuff like, “Where did they get this rope from??” and other inconsistencies. When I need to draft fast, I just tell myself “You can fix it in post” and careen on ahead. Sometimes I’ll even make notes to myself along the way, “Be sure to go back and give Casamir’s settlement a name” or “Foreshadow the use of the air balloon.”

I realize that not all authors can write this way. I recently spoke to another author who was trying to write this way and found it aggravating, as they were used to writing chronologically and editing as they went, so by the time they reached the end they actually had a whole, coherent novel ready to turn in to their editor(!). I would LOVE to be able to write this way, but… it just doesn’t work for me. I get stuck, and then I get blocked, and then I just piss off and go screw around and angst about the book for months until it’s the deadline and oh no and then I write it all out of order and fill in the other parts later. So remember that there are lots of different processes out there.

So far, writing out of order works for me, though my agent would sure like me to come up with a coherent plot before, you know, the weekend before the book is due. I’d like that too, but I’ve found that though I can do big plot beats ahead of time, the really good, meaty stuff comes while I’m writing. It’s the scenes I plug in after the fact, or weave in from snippets I wrote into notebooks just before bed, that really give these books the character and worldbuilding details they need to go from “OK” to memorable.

The Slog on the Mountain, The Calm Before the Storm

It’s been fairly quiet around here recently. As it turns out, when you’re 6 weeks out from the publication of one book, copyediting another book, actively writing a third book, doing a Patreon story every month or so, and contemplating the projects you’d like to pitch next, you run out of time for non-essential writing things like blogging (remember that I STILL have a day job on top of all this!). Understandably, I’ve also been less interested in wading into the screaming mire that is every internet meltdown. Even the act of muting keywords and accounts takes away from time I could be spending writing new work. I do miss waxing on here, but I find that I need to save my spoons for coping with comments/responses/meltdowns to my work during set times. I’ve been seeing a lot more writers step back from the internet this year, especially Twitter, and for good reason. No matter what you say on the internet, it’s going to piss off somebody. Sometimes you need to save up the points you spend on deflecting the piss.

Time management has been high on my list of things to fix this year, and if I was going to get all the work done that I needed to get done, something had to go. That something was engaging with the internet. When people pop into my Twitter mentions now with a passive-aggressive response or angry point of disagreement, I just mute them. Folks forget that they are talking to a Real Human Being here, with a shitbrick of work to do and no time for their nonsense. I’ve reminded myself over and over this year that the purpose of most abuse you get online for speaking your mind (especially if you don’t present as a Generic White Dude), is done to steal your time. People want to wear you down, to break you, to silence you. And in order to keep working, I’ve had to make some changes to how I interact (or not) in online spaces. Most of the bloviating circle-jerking stuff is just not worth my time. I engage when it matters, not just in reaction to somebody being dumb and wanting me to waste my time bloviating a “response” to something patently ridiculous like “women shouldn’t vote” or “periods make women dumb.” I’m too fucking busy getting shit done over here.

While our dog is finally on the mend, he’s still got another 4-6 weeks of rehab left to be a Real Dog again, and a lot of physical, mental and financial resources have gone toward helping him get better the last five or six months. What this also meant is that we went from being in a free-wheeling place with money earlier this year where we were looking at how to prioritize house maintenance projects to biting our nails waiting on royalty checks, which is sort of depressing.

In the meantime I’ve been consuming a lot of media whenever I’m not writing. Since the only traveling we do these days is for conventions or writing retreats, I binged a bunch of Parts Unknown to get my travel fix, and since it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to afford a writing shed or a 500 square foot cabin somewhere anytime soon, I watched Tiny House Hunters and Tiny House Builders and Beach Bargain Lake Property Hunters or whatever they’re called because I’m too lazy to Google. I finished reading a couple of novellas, as they are perfectly sized for my busy brain: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, which wasn’t my usual bag but captured an emotion that I really grokked. I also read and blurbed Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone, which dealt with some triggery abuse themes, but which uses such great language that it turned a contemporary setting into Lovecraftian Weird, and I love that. I’ve been working my way through Robert J. Bennett’s City of Blades slowly but surely, too. It’s a much more politic-y book than the last one, with fewer divine wonder moments than the first one to pull me through. Still solid, though. Also slowly reading Kai Ashante Wilson’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, which, though the language and worldbuilding is great, is 100% male characters so far, and has been a bit of a slog to get to the through-line. Still, I am persevering. YMMV.

Exercise has been high on my list of getting my shit together, so I invested in some gardening work. Hauling bags of mulch and rocks and three hours of weeding have served to highlight 1) how much I need to get into shape 2) how deplorable my garden got last year. If we can scrape some pennies together here after taxes are paid (we got an extension. Long story), I’d like to plant some more trees around the yard, too. Though our house is cheap, which is great, the problem is that it’s about a mile from downtown, in a residential area that borders an industrial area, which makes it very noisy. Big trucks, a warehouse nearby, trains, people yelling, kids playing… noise. As an introvert, I want to be able to walk around in my yard or sit by the fire with a drink and just have… quiet. I don’t like feeling on display for the neighborhood. Even if we do put some pennies together for a fence at some point, it doesn’t solve the problem of the noise. But finding a house that has the privacy I need to work most efficiently and relax that’s still close enough for my spouse to have his gaming nights with friends in town has been an epic and impossible undertaking. The closest we got was a house that was nearly 40 minutes from town, overpriced, and which still needed some work. Hence the cabin idea, as if you add up what we owe on our current cheap house with a cheap cabin, you still get a price that’s about half what the average mortgage is for other folks. The only reason to live in Ohio, folks, is that it’s cheap cheap cheap.

And efficiency is very much on my mind these days, with so much going on. I squirreled myself up away in a frontier cabin from, like, 1848 or something in the Hocking Hills the weekend before last to give myself time away from the grind to finish a more plot-y draft of THE STARS ARE LEGION. It was a long slog – I cut 3,000 words and added 15,000 – in perfect silence in a place where I could only get enough signal to check email if I stood on the porch and waved my phone around. It was lovely, and made me miss the woods. The older I get, the less patience I have for people and noise and the constant interruptions that bombard us every day. I work in marketing and advertising, so I get that I contribute to the noise problem, too. I generate a massive amount of content every week for brands. The reality is that the goal of all this modern technology is not to make us more productive and achieve our life goals. Quite the opposite. The purpose of this technology is to give you  more “free” time that you’ll spend gorging on content in places where they can sell ad space. To put it another way, “The world is not designed to help you achieve long-term goals.” The world wants your attention to be confused and fragmented, because confused people make stupid decisions. They click on dumb ads. They give their emails to spammers. They respond to spam email. They accidentally sign up for junk. The less focus we have, the easier we are to manipulate and control. And yeah, I feel this a lot when I’m overtaxed and stressed out. I spend more time on dumb junk media because it can be picked up and put down far more easily than truly engaging work. But I need that engaging work, that deep focus, to achieve the things that matter to me. Unfortunately, deep focus and stuff like Twitter just don’t go hand-in-hand. So, once again, we circle back to the necessity of spending less time on social media.

Time has become especially dear here to me as I contemplate life on the other side of 35. At 36, I’m pushing toward forty faster than I expected, and frankly, I’m kind of a mess. Yes, I’ve achieved many of the things I set out to achieve. I always wanted to have one of those Interesting Writer bios, full of weird places I’d traveled, and odd jobs and awards and swanky publications, and you know, I have the cool bio now. My books may not be uber-bestsellers (yet!) but they’re building an audience, and I’m proud of having written nearly 8 books since 2011, all of which were the sorts of books I wanted to read, the sorts of books that nobody else could have written. But more and more, I’m looking at what I’ve had to sacrifice to get here – health being a big one – and seeing that even after all those sacrifices, I’m not in the Writer 1%. Funny that I think about that, because honestly, being in the Writer 1% was never a goal of mine. But being in the Writer 1% is, alas, the only way to make a comfortable living as full-time fiction writer these days (unless you want to write 3-6 books a year and go insane, which I did last year, and which was… yes, insane, and unsustainable). So many full-time writers I know are actually making half or more of their income from freelancing, or they have a spouse with a solid day job. You’d be surprised.

So here I find myself, writing like I’m running out of time (ha!) because I’m well aware that I am. I continue to work on projects that I’m passionate about, projects that I choose because I want to level up, and it’s been nice to see the market shifting a little more toward what I write. I feel less like I’m on the fringes now, which is great for selling things, but an interesting place to find myself after twenty years of raging against the machine. At some point in the grind you look up, and you’re there on the mountain, and you don’t take time to see the view because you are so fixed on the top, the summit, the peak that keeps stretching on and on ahead of you, shifting further and further away with every step you take.

Writing for a living is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s not something you knock out on the beach in an hour (unless you have a rich spouse or a trust fund that can support that). It’s great to do what you love, but let’s not pretend there isn’t a cost. Everything has a cost. You just have to make sure that the price you’re paying is worth what you want in return. What I want is worth it, but that doesn’t mean every day is a rose garden. Most days are a slog on the mountain.

 

THE STARS ARE LEGION: Publication Update

Howdy folks. Quick update, especially for those who’ve pre-ordered THE STARS ARE LEGION (I legit raised my eyebrows when my editor told me how many pre-orders we have already. With what I can track here, even, the conversion rate is 6% for folks who click through to Amazon, which tells me that cover and synopsis is selling books. Thanks, folks! Keep ordering!). I want to make sure I tap you about this before Amazon sends out an email and freaks everyone out. Work continues apace on this one, and I think the final product is going to rock your socks.

That said, my agent and editor recently pulled me into some discussions about how best to market this book, and the issue came up that since we won’t have a reviewer copy ready for another few weeks, we’re not going to be as well positioned in the lead-up to this release as we could be. Sure, I can get the book kicked out the door on time while tearing out my hair (fuck knows I’ve done it before) but one of the things my prior work has suffered from is short lead/buzz times. Some of that is my fault, as I tend to fiddle with my books until the end. Some of that is that this is a bigger press book and their marketing teams prefer longer lead times. When we looked at all of the books coming out in October – not just Saga titles but other books with October release dates in the genre – it also looked like we were going to be vying pretty hard for market voice. Last year EMPIRE ASCENDANT came out the same day as ANCILLARY MERCY, among others, and though that may be OK with a book that’s $14.99, the hardcover for LEGION will set you back the cost of two books, and if you can only afford one that week, wellllll…. yeah. Stars Are Legion final cover

All that is to preface me saying that we’ve decided to push out the launch date of THE STARS ARE LEGION from the first week of October this year until the second week of January next year, which is a much slower book week. You’re going to still see the original date online for awhile, but I want to be the first to give you a heads’ up that it’s going to change, and it’s not a sign of the apocalypse, just Team Hurley trying to give this book the best shot we can.

This doesn’t impact anything else right now – THE BROKEN HEAVENS is still scheduled for Spring next year. LEGION itself is in a big revision right now, being mostly-done. I’m heading up to a cabin in the woods this weekend to give myself some headspace away from my sick dog and filthy house to focus wholly on cleaning up and clarifying the plot and reveals.

So no worries about, you know, me not having anything to turn in. This was largely a strategic decision. That said, it sure won’t hurt to have longer to polish this book. It’s a weird book with a lot of interest and pre-orders, and I’m not going to sniff at having more time to polish the book and build interest in it. I was initially pretty hesitant to do this when my agent pitched the idea over the phone, as I didn’t want all my books to push into each other, but as most know, smart marketing talk can sway me. I know sense when I hear it, and I tamped down my emotions about it and agreed that strategically, this made more sense.

One of the things I’ve taught myself how to do at my day job work is divorce myself from the emotion of a thing vs. what is best for the thing. That’s a tough skill to cultivate, but when you’ve worked with enough teams on enough projects you start to learn to divorce your ego and go with what is best for the success of the project as opposed to what will make you feel most brilliant. Moving the book does not make me feel brilliant, and in fact left me feeling dejected enough on Monday that I poured my sorrow into a glass of Talisker, but it makes sense for the long-term success of the project, and I awoke Tuesday knowing it was the right thing to do.

It also gives me the ability to work on THE BROKEN HEAVENS all through October instead of pausing for six weeks to do promotion around LEGION’s release. That helps ensure you all get that third book out here before I’m hit by a truck or whatever seems to happen to epic fantasy novelists when they get to book three. Alas, this does not mean I necessarily get more time to write LEGION – it just gets to spend more time with reviewers and more time in development. What I’ve learned with bigger house releases, as with GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION, is that after your first copyedit pass, they try and keep the manuscript away from you so you don’t fuck with it. I appreciate this sentiment, but it does mean that I have to be super brilliant sooner in the process.

Anyway, part of me is a little deflated about this and part of me is relieved, as I would really rather be spending October working on THE BROKEN HEAVENS. I also like the idea of taking 30 days mostly “off” here between books. “Off” doesn’t mean not writing, but, to me, means not grinding every day. I might play a little WoW and read some books or something while working on tweaking THE BROKEN HEAVENS outline, for instance. Then it’s back to the grinding so I’ll have something to show my agent in August, and we can turn in a draft between October and December this year.

I have had a pretty exhausting last six months with the sick dog, switching day jobs late last year, edits to GEEK FEMINIST, Patreon stories (to pay for said sick dog), and writing LEGION. I think promotion for GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION, editing and copyediting LEGION, and writing THE BROKEN HEAVENS is going to keep me plenty busy the rest of the year.

So there’s the update: you know when I know, folks. Thanks for sticking with me.

Career Milestones, Prioritizing Projects

As some people know, the last couple of years have been a little surreal for me. I’ve gone from having a third book in a series that tanked and nearly killed my career, making it nigh impossible to sell anything else – to being solidly mid-list, with a good backlist, some awards, and increasing interest in my work from a variety of editors. I’m being sought out, often, for blurbs, and my agent only tells me when there’s serious Hollywood interest in my work anymore, not just when people request to read something (cause there’s plenty of that). I also recently got an inquiry from a big media company about possibly doing some tie-in work for them, and much to my spouse’s dismay, turned it down. I did this for a host of reasons, but primarily because for all intents and purposes I’m pretty booked here for the next couple of years with both contracted work and original proposals that I’d like to pitch. That’s not saying I wouldn’t entertain the right property, but early 2017 is the earliest I’d consider more stuff on my plate.

One of the things that all this behind-the-scenes stuff has got me considering is how I manage and prioritize projects and make career decisions. Unexpectedly, I find myself in the place where I’m not begging for work anymore and instead have the ability to sort through my options. Another reason I’ve kept my day job is that it gives me the ability to make writing career decisions based on strategy instead of money. In speaking with other writers, what I’ve heard again and again is how they got themselves into tough situations or bad deals because they needed to say “yes” to something they didn’t want to do because they needed the money. That could be signing over a movie option to the wrong partner, or taking on tie-in work that turned into a nightmare, or taking a small advance from a struggling publisher that imploded.

I like being able to keep my options open. I like that when someone says, “Yes, we could pay you $20k for this!” I can step back and go, “OK, great, but does doing this project really get me further to my career goals of building Team Hurley?” And if it doesn’t, I can say no and we can still eat and pay our health insurance. It’s no secret that I got burned out here last summer, aiming to get GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION out the door while doing promo for EMPIRE ASCENDANT and writing THE STARS ARE LEGION, and it about murdered me. Was it worth it? Well, based on the reactions so far to GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION, yes, it was. That book had to get out the door when it did, or it would miss its cultural window. I expect most of my work to backlist really well, but this one is more likely to have just a handful of good years before it loses some of its cultural relevancy. So I know that has to make a splash up front and garner strong sales early, which, again, based on reception so far, I think it can do. But it required a lot of work on my part, and my publisher’s part, to make that happen.

From the outside, all this might look amazing, but inside, there is a lot of overthinking going on. Because with every opportunity you take, you have to turn down something else, and you’re always thinking, “Was this the right choice?” Strategy is great, but there’s an awful lot of luck in this business, and some of that luck can hinge on a single decision. I have watched many writers go from “hot new thing” to has-been in just a few years. Some of that is just that the media loves “newness.” Some of that is that their work stagnates, or never takes off, and they get discouraged. Some of that is making bad business decisions. Some of that is simple burnout. I almost didn’t recover from the Night Shade hell. It’s hard. And I expect more bumps and setbacks along the way.

But in the meantime, I am working at fielding opportunity as it comes at me. Lots of people will tell you to say “YES!” to everything, but when you’ve got a day job and a book to write in, like, four months, this is unrealistic. You have to choose the BEST things to say yes to, and what “best” means is going to vary based on your situation and what you want out of your career. I am very much at work making my own genre over here. I want to write Kameron Hurley novels. I want Kameron Hurley novels to become a genre in and of themselves. As great as a one-off megahit would be, those are harder to achieve than a strong backlist. With every new book, I see a good bump in backlist sales as new readers discover me, and I’m betting hard on drawing in Kameron Hurley readers, not just MIRROR EMPIRE readers, or LEGION readers, or GOD’S WAR readers. I want to see more overlap.

Whether or not I will achieve that in a way that makes it possible for me to write full-time has yet to be seen, but that’s what I’m gunning for. And to do that means investing in particular projects and passing on others. As wonderful as it is to have the choice, tho, let me tell you  – having the choice is almost worse, because you will always worry that it’s not the right one.

Career management is one of those things you can’t make broad generalizations about, because we are all in this with different goals. Whatever your career goals are, though, I advise you to figure them out as soon as possible, as it will make all the other decisions you need to make later on down the line a lot easier.

PupDate: The Long Slog to Recovery

As some of you know, last November our big dog Drake went lame in one leg. He is barely a year old, and we’d always blamed his doofy clumsiness on his rapid growth. He’s a Mastiff/Great Dane mix who was 60 pounds when we first brought him home at just five months old. Here’s a video of him and our husky, Snax, playing when we first brought him home:

Puppies playing

A video posted by Kameron Hurley (@kameronhurley) on

He doubled in size rapidly, reaching nearly 160 lbs by the time he was at about a year. At some point, though, he started being afraid to go up our stairs. No amount of treats or urging would get him to go up and down more than four steps at a time. We figured he’d developed an irrational fear of stairs. He always had some trouble getting going in the morning, but over time he got worse. We’d thought maybe his left leg would fall asleep while he laid on it at night, and that’s why he’d have trouble getting moving in the morning. After a few steps he would usually work it out.

But then, one morning he pulled himself off the couch to go outside and his entire back end just thumped onto the floor, and he whined at me. I had had growing concerns by this point, and was researching stuff like pinched nerves. I tried to help him up, but he just fell down again. When I helped him up the third time, he was in so much pain that he growled at me. This was pretty shocking, because Drake is the nicest, sweetest dog in the whole world. I’d never once heard him growl. I looped my scarf under his back end and helped him outside to do his business, but he was clearly in intense pain.

When we brought him into the vet, they gave us drugs for the pain, which helped, and had to sedate him to do an xray, because he wouldn’t let the vet touch his leg (“When I tried to touch his leg he growled at me like a dragon!” she said. Yes, he is a large dragon, our Drake). When she sedated him and examined his legs, she found that he had torn not one, but both ACL’s in his back legs. The left was likely completed shredded at this point, causing the two big bones in his leg to slide against each other, putting him in terrible pain. The right was not as bad, but would be soon.

The good news was that we had pet insurance, as Drake has always had a funny walk, and my spouse figured he was going to have some kind of leg or hip problem in the future. So even though the surgeries would be incredibly expensive, we should get 80% of it reimbursed.

What we forgot, of course, is that pet insurance is just as agonizing to deal with as people health insurance.

Drake’s first surgery went well. He had to be confined so that he couldn’t jump or get onto furniture or try and go upstairs for eight weeks. The first four weeks, his rehab schedule proceeded apace. We did everything right according to the rehab book, giving him meds right on schedule – anti-inflammatories, pain meds. We had to put heat on his leg before we took him out every day, and ice on it when he came back in. We had to do passive range of motion exercises, massages, hip sways, and walks of 5 minutes, then 10 and finally 15 minutes. Drake was up and using his left leg better than ever before. He was able to stand and walk on his own. My spouse was able to pick up the majority of this work, and let me tell you – it’s work. Drake had plenty of stamina after the first two weeks. But when we got to week 4 of this schedule, after everything going right, something went wrong.

Knee #1. 12 weeks of rehab. Oof.

A photo posted by Kameron Hurley (@kameronhurley) on

 

His left leg suddenly swelled up. The fluid in his leg sought the path of least resistance, and burst out his old suture scars, pumping fluid all over his bedding. We spent New Year’s Eve and again on New Year’s Day in the vet ER with him, trying to get answers for what was wrong. They took a culture and sent us home with antibiotics the first day, and finally wrapped up his leg the second day, which did put us on the path to recovery, finally. When the results of the culture came back, it turned out Drake had an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. They switched us to a different antibiotic, and he seemed to improve. The trouble was that at this point now we were waiting for the pet insurance to reimburse us so we could do his other surgery, and after two months, they still hadn’t. In the meantime, Drake’s other leg, with the ACL that wasn’t yet completely torn, finally gave out and tore completely, giving him one healing leg and one really bad leg to try and get around on. It became harder to get him up in them morning. He required a lot more help. We got a harness for him that has handles that give us the ability to pull up his rear end, and let me tell you, we have needed it. It got to the point where in order to get him up the stairs outside, we were hauling this dog up all four steps through sheer brute force. We were able to get him in for about two weeks of water treadmill and physical therapy, though, which helped a lot. He was finally able to stand on his own again, even if he still wasn’t up to going on long walks. It was something.

4 hour wait and basically just a bandage. Sigh.

A photo posted by Kameron Hurley (@kameronhurley) on

Finally, I got a book check, and we determined to just spend the book check on Drake’s second surgery instead of waiting for the pet insurance. The second surgery went well, and we got a whole week where everything seemed to progress normally. He was getting up on his own. He was slogging away, slowly but surely, whenever we’d bring him out.

But in week two, he took another turn for the worst. Once again, his leg swelled up. The right one we’d just had operated on, this time. We took him in and got some antibiotics and a culture done. Sure enough, it was the staph infection again. After getting through ten days of this new antibiotic with little change, they switched us to one where you had to wear gloves to give it to him, because it was toxic to humans. We figured this would be a win, and we’d knock it out.

No such luck.

He went through a whole regimen of these, all the while refusing to put weight on his right leg, and still weak in his left leg. Getting him outside three times a day, let alone get him to all his doctor’s appointments, was an ordeal. Because Drake still couldn’t get up on his own, my spouse had to stay home to care for him while I was at ICFA. At this point, they put him on a new antibiotic, trying to find something, anything, that would clear the infection. The new one, tetracycline, was very cheap, but it interfered with his other medications and gave him a horrible stomach upset that left him screaming in discomfort several times a night. He was already feeling pain from the infection in his leg, and pain from muscle wastage. If you’ve ever had to sit in bed and listen to an animal scream and know there is nothing you can do for them, you know how awful this is.

Then, when I was at ICFA, Drake stopped eating.

Our dog has always had a huge appetite. The one thing that remained constant through the whole horror was that he was eating regularly. But I noticed a couple days before I went to ICFA that he would leave his breakfast and not eat it until dinner. Once I left, my spouse said that Drake ceased eating all together. The vet gave us an appetite stimulant, but Drake wouldn’t eat anything. My spouse went through the whole pantry – chicken, peanut butter, butter, sugar, brown rice, honey, mayonnaise – everything he could think of, and Drake wouldn’t eat his pills with it. So my spouse, having worked at an animal shelter, had to pill him – basically force the pills down his throat through the back of his muzzle where there are no teeth, then hold his mouth closed until he swallowed. This was agony for both involved. This went on the entire time I was at ICFA. I was starting to wonder if I’d come home to a dying dog, or if he was already dying.

My last day of ICFA, my spouse managed to get Drake to eat some brown rice and vegetables mixed with kibble. He’s a hero like that, which is one of the reasons I married him.

So when I got home, Drake seemed much more alert and happy than I expected. He had lost a scary amount of weight, and he could not get up on his own – he hadn’t stood up by himself in weeks, at this point – but at least he was eating. Our standards were lower.

We had a new medication, the tetracycline, but in addition to giving Drake horrible stomach pain, his leg was not looking better. In fact, in the days after I got home from ICFA it became abundantly clear that Drake was fading fast again. Yes, he was eating, but his leg was sporting new bumps ready to burst, and he was lying on the leg and trying to guard it from us. He wouldn’t let us touch it. He finally got so bad he wouldn’t even whine anymore. He just laid in the living room on his bed, curled up in misery.

The vet did another culture, and recommended we wait for the results before we decided on a treatment plan. But it was clear to us that the tetracycline wasn’t working. The problem was we only had one option left, and that was to give Drake a particularly dangerous antibiotic via IV which would cost us about $150 per injection, per day, for 7-10 days. I was less concerned about the money (royalties were due any day) and more concerned about Drake dying. But the truth was, as I told my spouse, Drake was dying right now. We were watching him die. I have worked at a vet clinic before, and my spouse worked at a dog rescue, and even if the vet was being optimistic and conservative, we knew better in this case. We feared that if we waited another week to start, Drake would be too weak to endure the treatments. So against the vet’s recommendation, we didn’t wait for the culture, and we started the antibiotic IV treatments.

Drake improved almost immediately, but had to have urine analysis done every three treatments to make sure his body was handling the drip without, you know, giving him kidney failure. So I waited for the first results before I started being optimistic. Luckily, he is a young dog, and he passed the first urinalysis just fine. About five days into the treatments, the vet called with the results of the culture. Sure enough, as we’d suspected, the infection had adapted to the tetracycline, and had indeed been slowly killing Drake. “You made the right decision,” the vet admitted.

On Friday, we hit Day 7 of Drake’s treatments, and his perpetually oozing wound has finally closed. Just to be safe, now that his second urinalysis came back OK, we are doing two more treatments to make absolutely sure we’ve beaten the infection. On Monday, we’ve scheduled his first water treadmill visit since his second surgery.

It was been a long and exhausting trek, and we still have months of rehab left to go. What this whole ordeal has made me consider, though, is the coming health crisis with antibiotic resistant infections. While Drake was oozing everywhere we’d wash his bedding, clean his leg, wear gloves, and scrub our hands religiously. At the vet, they scrub him up and scrub themselves with the same amount of vigor. We are cautiously optimistic that we’ve finally caught the infection this time, but going through the vast number of antibiotics and treatments we had to to get here brought the horror of this particular apocalypse that much closer. People die of infections today, yes. But you don’t think about dying of an infection when there’s a hospital right down the street today. You don’t think you’ll get cut by a thorn, or scrape your knee, and die from it. Yet those days are coming back. In researching these types of infections I found that more and more people are dying from them. Drake’s surgery went from routine to life-threatening slowly and then all at once. It was scary. It was scary that some days he seemed fine, and he’d rally, and then he’d be back at death’s door.

Clearly we care a lot about our animals. We don’t have kids, so for us, the dogs are part of the family. He still has about 6 to 8 weeks of rehab to go, but here’s to hoping the worst is over. He is a great dog, and we are happy to have him around, however awful the last six months have been for all of us.

So How Many Books Do You Sell?

It’s the question every writer dreads: “How many books have you sold? ”

It’s a tricky question because for 99% of the year, those with traditionally published books honestly have very little idea. But two times a year – in the spring and in the fall – we receive royalty statements from publishers, which give a sometimes cryptic breakdown of what has sold where. So for those keeping track here with my “Honest Publishing Numbers” posts, here’s an update.

THE MIRROR EMPIRE

Sold about 23,000 copies as of December 31st, 2015 (representing about 16 months of sales)

EMPIRE ASCENDANT

About 7,000 copies as of December 31st, 2015 (note that this book came out in October last year, so that’s only two months of sales. Not bad)

We’ve sold quite a few more e-copies of tME than EA, which I think has more to do with the fact that tME had a couple of KDD sales and a BookBub promotion, and folks are more likely to pick up first books in series from new authors in ebook.

IS THIS GOOD? gwzjowiyfr7rwq8qy6wv

Book numbers are messed up because what’s considered a “success” for one book may not be considered a “success” for another book. It depends on how much you were paid up front and how much your publisher spent. But by comparison, GOD’S WAR, which came out in 2011, is probably at about 15-17,000 or so by now in US/UK (it’s really tough to measure total sales over there because… well, it’s a very long and agonizing writer horror story. But suffice to say those numbers will also be approximate).

So MIRROR EMPIRE got there way, way faster. Once you get up over 20,000 copies on a title within a year or two, it’s more or less considered  a success unless you were paid something crazy for it (and especially if it’s trade paperback and not mass market paperback, as trade, hardcover, and ebook have higher margins – again, the math makes raw numbers talk a difficult measure of success). I wasn’t paid huge advances for these books ($7,500 per) so I’m making royalty money on both already, as well as my three prior titles, GOD’S WAR, INFIDEL, and RAPTURE.

I will say that it’s pretty cool to have all five of my published books earn out already. So thanks to all the fans for that, it’s a big deal.

All that said, remember that powerhouse 1% authors generally sell like 20,000 copies the first week of a release. So. You know. That’s the difference we’re talking about here between the 1% and everyone else.

As someone who was struggling there in the lower-midlist for awhile, I’m pretty happy with this. My goal for something like GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION is going to be far higher, though. I want to move about twice that many the first year or two, in part because I was also paid more. Same with THE STARS ARE LEGION. I did the math on LEGION and I need to sell about 8,000+/- to earn out (hardcover and ebook royalties are pretty good). Even though LEGION is SF, I think we have a shot at doing that as more people learn about my work. My goal is to keep building my career with every title, and so far, so good with that.

As far as making a living writing, I made about $50,000 in writing income last year, all told. But that includes royalties, two new book sales, outstanding payments for existing work, and Patreon. Minus 15% for my agent and 30% for taxes and yeah – not a stable wage that I’d like to live on if I can help it, thanks. But we’re edging up there slowly. If we can keep up this forward momentum I may be able to go full time in five years or so, if I wanted, or at least go half-time at my day job. But that’s if things keep working out, and if there’s nothing else I’ve learned in publishing it’s that you just never know what’s going to happen next, so I will continue to hedge my bets. But… I am cautiously optimistic.

This is the Dystopia We’ve Built: The United States of Japan

TW for discussion of physical abuse

My grandparents met in France during World War II. My grandfather, whose German family had emigrated to America just a generation or two before, found himself part of the force that liberated France from Nazi occupation. Like many GI’s, my grandfather did not talk much about the war. Mostly he talked about meeting my grandmother, and how he spoke very little French, and she spoke no English.

But what I gleaned over the years is that one of his primary jobs in Europe after the war was driving the trucks that hauled out the bodies from concentration camps. I am not a fan of my grandfather – he was a petty tyrant, probably with a host of untreated issues related to the war that I can sympathize with in retrospect, but in practice, he was mean and abusive and I didn’t cry when he died. My grandmother looked after me and my sister and brother and my older cousin during the week while our parents worked. My parents would get us up so early that we’d still be huddling in our pajamas in the car on the way to grandma’s house so they could get to work on time. My parents would pick us up around six every night with just enough time for dinner and bed by the time we got home. This went on until I was twelve, and legally old enough to stay home and watch my siblings. Until then, my grandparents’ house was our second home.

peter_tieryas_the_united_states_of_japan_by_alternatehistorian-d986jlsBut as many families know, not all homes are happy all the time, and though I had, overall, a fabulous childhood, warm memories do not erase the bad stuff that would go down there sometimes: I remember the searing red imprint of my grandfather’s hand on my little brother’s thigh, from when he smacked my brother so hard that my brother ran away, screaming, for several blocks before my grandfather caught him; the day my grandfather pushed my cousin down the stairs and took me by the hair and slammed by head against the wall; my grandfather dragging my brother, shrieking, out from under the Christmas tree where he was trying to hide from my grandfather’s wrath. My older male cousin, and my little brother, as he got older, got the worst of the physical abuse, which was not constant, certainly, but it was always a looming threat; a possibility. The stories my father told me were of far worse abuses, verbal and physical, that my grandfather had meted out when he was a younger man with five children to feed on a military salary. It’s a wonder my dad turned out to be the World’s Greatest Dad with that upbringing, but as his three older sisters are always quick to point out, my grandfather was so happy to have a son after three daughters that despite the occasional explosive outburst of physical abuse, my dad was showered with praise and expectations while they were called whores and sluts.

And it made a very big difference in how they all went out into the world. But that’s a story for another time.

My grandfather, like all people, was not, however, the cartoon villain from some badly written story. I have some happy memories of being out in the garden with him, weeding, even if he did constantly deposit worms in my pockets to make me scream in terror. When his dog ended up having a litter of puppies that rotted inside of her, and had to undergo major surgery and couldn’t go outside to relieve herself for weeks, he and my dad rolled her onto a plywood board and took her outside to relieve herself, putting in the weeks and weeks of recovery time required instead of putting her down. He went to church, and paid his $100 to the Catholic church every month no matter how poor they were, to secure a place in Heaven. He had a deep fondness for processed American cheese slices, which he would offer up and I would devour, most likely leading to my positive associations with processed cheeses of every sort. Yet when I try to think of other positive memories of my grandfather, what strikes me most is how few I have. For the most part living with my grandfather was like living with a large bear. Most of the time the bear is sleeping – literally in the case of my grandfather, who, after retiring from the military, worked as a night security guard at a bank – but every once in a while, the bear wakes up. And you’re never sure what the bear is going to do. It might go out weeding in the garden with you, or throw you down the stairs. You just never knew.

That was always the worst part, the not-knowing.

None of us are all bad, or all good. I’d argue that this is what makes it so difficult to leave abusive people, because they are never 100% awful all the time. Just like our lives, our jobs, our countries. It’s very rarely a constant shit-fest. This is what can make it so difficult to change it. Oppressive societies and governments, in particular, are like living with that large, unpredictable bear.

It’s this understanding, that we are all a little bit the hero and a little bit the villain, that The United States of Japan understands and illustrates so well. It’s this awareness of itself, and of the current state of America, and what America could be, that makes both this and the Amazon series for The Man in the High Castle such important reads right now. We have built a dystopia in which we live with the bear, now, here in America. Would the USJ be so different?

The United States of Japan opens with the Japanese liberating the US internment camps where we kept tens of thousands of Japanese Americans prisoner for years during the war. I could tell this bit was added later because, admittedly, the prose is a little clunky and ham-handed here. I almost stopped reading the book. But the idea was so compelling that I kept going to see what Tieryas would do with it. This was an important reframing of how we are taught about World War II in this country, and USJ asks the tough question: What if the Japanese were seen as the liberators, here in the US? How would that change not only the whole global economy, but the whole story of history?

The premise of USJ is a clear homage to The Man in the High Castle, only in this instance what the authorities are seeking to suppress is a video game, not a film reel, that posits the idea that the Japanese lost World War II. The game’s proliferation across the country and the world is seen as hugely disruptive, and inspires rebellion. The two primary characters are Beniko, head censor, coward, and bumbling ladies’ man; and Akiko, a hardened, slightly psychotic member of the secret police. Pairing these two opposites together throughout the book results in much of its humor and tension, as their ways of solving problems as they seek to hunt down those responsible for making the game are… quite different.

The action in this one starts slow and picks up the pace throughout to batshit insane levels. For real, there was a moment about 3/4 of the way through where it was like Tieryas was channeling God’s War, with torture, reversals, plans that go wrong, characters who make dumb choices, gooey organic tech, stimulants, explosions, and hey, here’s a giant mecha battle for good measure! It’s so wild that after a time you just don’t even care if there are plot holes because you’re having so much fun in this insane world. Characters are good at keeping their secrets close to their chests, so as the truth bleeds out along the way about what’s going on, you’re surprised and fully invested in the outcome. Bonus points for having complex, interesting characters throughout that are actually gender-balanced. united_states_of_japan_by_alternatehistorian-d92fhzn

While the characters are fun and insane at times, it’s the worldbuilding here that’s truly captivating. Tieryas goes all-out. Remember that whole, nothing is all good or all bad? Japan continues its human experimentation and eugenics programs, which means that though the book is set in 1988, technology and health have advanced tremendously. Cancer has been cured, artificial limbs and implants and stimulants are highly advanced, better than anything we’ve got today. But again: eugenics, human experimentation. There are far more relaxed attitudes toward sex, but the Emperor is divine, so if you talk shit about him, you’re dead. The hey, that’s cool! Oh shit, but you’d have to do that, moments are many, and they reminded me often of the give and take in our own society, the decisions that must be made for every society to build its shadowy Omeleas. Even and especially our own.

This is what’s so clever about books like this one. Books like USJ perfectly illustrate why we read and write science fiction. They have the ability to pick us up out of our own time, so that when we’re finished we look back at our world with new eyes. When you come back from the USJ you can’t help but ask tough questions about history, technology, and the exploitation of labor here in the USA. You are compelled to turn around and see the USA as it really is, not the way the stories pretend it is… and it leads to you question, again, the stories you’ve been told about the way it was, too. We are all of us living with the bear, the oppressive state, to greater or lesser degrees.

We are not all good. We are not all evil. Societies and their histories exist in the seams between things, just like people do.

The United States of Japan is one of those books that you think about long after you put it down. I haven’t been able to shake it. This is a darkly fun, clever, and unrelentingly ambitious book. Pick it up and enjoy the ride.

Just be careful about poking the bear.

Finish your Sh*t: Secrets of an Evolving Writing Process

It’s certainly no secret that I’ve already completed a shitbrick of work this year. I’m currently finishing up another pass on my draft of The Stars are Legion, which needs to be Advanced-Reader-Copy-Ready in ooooohhh, about thirteen days (not that I’m counting). I’ve also completed two short stories for Patreon readers, one weighing in at nearly 25k and another logging a respectable 12k. Additionally, I committed to finishing up an anthology story which I’m completing this week, and oh, did I mention that the third Worldbreaker book, The Broken Heavens, is due in October?

People often ask how I’m able to do all that work on top of having a day job, and the answer is, most days, I just don’t know. But one thing I have learned in the last three months is that I have a lot easier time completing a draft that has me stuck in the mucky middle if I just skip ahead and write the ending.

I tend to spend a lot of time on the openings of my novels and stories, and it shows. My latest short story for Patreon, “The Plague Givers,” is a good example of this. There’s a very polished beginning, as far as the prose goes, and then it veers off into simplier language for much of the middle, and returns a bit toward the end to the more polished language. I will most likely go back and polish out the other half of the story before finding a home for it elsewhere, but watching how I completed that story reminded me of how I’ve hacked my process the last few months to try and get work out the door just a little faster.

I’m a discovery writer, which means I like to be surprised by events that happen in a book just as a reader would be. That means that though I may write with a few sentences about things that should happen in a scene, I don’t feel bound by it. If the characters veer off course, then I  follow and see where they’ll lead. The trouble is when those small character choices begin to compound over time. As GRRM says of the small changes made in the television version of GoT, those little changes start to snowball, until you find yourself in a far difference place than the one you were planning on.

One of things I knew I’d need to soften up on if I wanted to write faster was some of the discovery writing. I wrote “The Plague Givers” with a fairly comprehensive outline, bits of which I rewrote or deleted as I went, but it helped keep me on track as I wrote hard up to the Patreon payment date cut-off time (I had 90 minutes to spare!). Most importantly, though, once I wrote the end I knew where I was headed. I knew all the character interactions needed to lead me to this place. And though I later went back and tweaked the ending to match choices I’d made earlier, it was a much smoother, faster writing process than it had been before I wrote the ending.

I did the same thing with “The Heart is Eaten Last” and The Stars are Legion, writing the endings about the time I hit the middle and started to flounder. By the time I get halfway on most any piece, I get tired of it and am convinced it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written. To get myself out of that mindset, I skip ahead to the part I write where I generally believe I’m brilliant, and that’s the ending.

And yes, I continue to refine and rework the endings after I complete the whole story, but at least I have somewhere to go. One of the biggest questions you can ask yourself about any story is “What is this story about?” Not what is the plot, or what are the events, not “It’s about a woman who battles snakes to win the throne of the empire.” But thematically what you’re trying to say. A lot of my stories have similar themes “What would you sacrifice to win?” or “All people are monsters” or “Sometimes you have to give up a piece of your humanity in order to save the world.” Knowing the theme helps me figure out how characters drive the events of the stories and why they make the decisions they do and where they need to end up at the end. The Stars are Legion is about knowing when you have to transform yourself to save yourself, and the understanding that however scary that transformation is, adhering to the status quo is going to kill you. When I figured that out, the choices my characters needed to make became much clearer, and it was easier to drive everyone to the ending that I’d written.

I’ve already applied this technique to The Broken Heavens. I’ve written the two opening chapters, the last scene, and the epilogue already. I know where I’m heading, and my hope is that that will make this drafting process a lot easier than the last few I’ve done. I sure as hell hope it works, because as of right now, The Broken Heavens, if I turn it in on time, will be the fastest book I’ve ever drafted.

I’m not one of those people who believes that writing quickly necessarily means sacrificing quality. In fact, what I’ve found is that the longer I have to noodle on a piece and worry over it, the more convoluted it gets. It’s well known that it often takes me months and months just to write the first forty thousand words of a story, but I can write the last forty thousand words in just a couple of weeks, and honestly, I tend to like the last forty thousand words a lot more than the first forty thousand. The most editing I did on The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant was on the first halves of those books; much less on the second halves.

Certainly, this mad way of writing doesn’t work for everyone. I don’t like the idea of writing 80% of my book in the last month before deadline either, which is why I’m working on ways to write more efficiently. I don’t believe that taking a year to write a book when you’re actually doing most of the work in the last month makes it any higher quality than a book you write in two or three months where you’re actually writing hard every day and getting shit down instead of dickering around because you have the time to follow characters through endless useless plot meanderings before you finally get to your point. I want to be able to get to my point faster. What I’m finding is that writing the end soon after I write the beginning is helping me stay a lot more focused while keeping up the quality of the work.

In the end, one’s writing process is an endlessly hackable thing. When you get to a place where I’m at where you can’t squeeze out any more hours in the day, you have to figure out how to spend them more efficiently. Making little process changes here and there is the only way I’m going to be able to write at the pace that I’d like. I’m constantly aware of my own mortality, and I have so many, many stories left to write before I go. If you want to be the best at what you do, you have to keep learning, and keep leveling up. I’m never content to stay in one place.