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The Madhatter Teaparty: Rescuing Your Characters from Endless Cups of Tea

Plot kicks my ass. It kicks my ass up one end of a story and down another, because honestly, all my characters want to do is snark at each other over tea. Or whisky. Or coffee. Or bug juice. Whatever. Any excuse for them to sit around flinging zingers at each other and discussing what they are going to do next works for me.

This over reliance on tea-and-conversation scenes is a hallmark of discovery or gardener writers like me. When we get stuck on what happens next, we just sit the characters down for a chat and let them figure it out. Needless to say, this is a time consuming bit of lazy writing, because while it may get us where we’re going eventually, we can spend literally thousands upon thousands of words over the course of a novel having the characters explain the plot to each other, and then we have to go back and remove all those scenes or make them more interesting in their final form (I spent a lot of time in Empire Ascendant in particular going back and making talking scenes more interesting. For real: in the first draft, the first 150 pages of that book was just people talking).

Since I started writing the Worldbreaker Saga, my goal has been to work hard on how I plot and draft novels so that I can write faster, stronger, and more readable stories. But when I was up last night putting in my 500 words for the new Nyx novella dropping on Patreon this month, I immediately caught myself falling into my old routine. After Nyx and her mercenary companions apprehend a rogue Death Magician in a nice action-packed opening, I wrote this:

Khos sat under a tattered awning, mouthing the words on the menu as a scrawny Nasheenian kid peered over his shoulder like a bird. Nyx saw a cup but no tea, nothing that looked remotely wet in that damn cup, sure as fuck not her either, and that annoyed her. He was always coming up with slim excuses to shirk off his work.

            He raised his big head, and had the sense to get up when she  came over the low fence surrounding the tea shop.

            “The fuck, Khos?” she said.

            “You found her?” he said.

            “No thanks to you,” she said. “I’m splitting this bounty with Anneke, cutting you out.”

            “I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said.

            “I don’t give a fuck what you think. Why are you always late to the game, Khos?”

            His glacial face moved into a frown. For all his bulk and careful movements made him seem slow, he wasn’t. Oh, sure, he wasn’t the best to pick up on social cues, but he wasn’t completely stupid. She didn’t like stupid people on her team, and she certainly never fucked stupid people, so he must not be stupid, even though she hated his face in this moment. 

            She reached for the teacup only to have her hand spasm. She shook out the tingling numbness and gripped the cup purposely. If anyone noticed, they said nothing. 

            Falling apart, she was.

            “Get me whisky,” she said, shaking the empty cup.

            “This is a dry town,” Khos said.

            She loomed over the scrawny kid. “Whisky,” she said.

            The kid took off.

            Nyx slumped into the chair across from Khos. “She had two death head beetles on her,” Nyx said.

            “Like the last one,” he said.

            “Want to get them back to Rhys,” she said. 

It just goes on and on like this. While there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this scene, the truth is I have written tea-and-plot scenes so many times that they bore the crud out of me. And I can’t imagine how much they bore readers, at this point, even with the hints of conflict and tension woven in here.

And while the scene achieves several things: we get a pause after the opening action to regroup; we cover next steps; we get some character moments – I found myself a couple hundred words in before realized I was leaning on my old go-to scene just to churn out a few hundred words and call it done for the night. It repeats information about the beetle, and the fact that they have apprehended the suspect. While I like that it sets up Nyx’s usual distrust of Khos – conflict is always good – I feel I can do this in a scene with a cooler setting that ties into the plot. This could be a shooting range, or a public pool, or a kitchen where Khos is learning local recipes, you know, something that does more than the invisible “tea and whisky chat.” While sometimes you DO have to have a “talk plot” scene, it’s far better to have a “walk and talk plot” scene (or sex-and-exposition scene, which the GoT TV series has become famous for. That’s their own lazy writing go-to for these sorts of scenes).  Better is to have this scene happen somewhere that ties into the overall plot/theme of the book: this scene should happen at or near a crematorium, or in a morgue where Khos is searching bodies to see if any of the recent dead are among the girl’s gang. Fixing this is a classic “pope in the pool” technique from Blake Snyder’s book Save the Cat ( was watching Mr. Robot recently and laughed uproariously at the first episode, because the main character literally saves a dog and I was like, Wow I can see how that conversation played out. “This character needs to be more likable. Have him save a cat or something!” And lo, the dog was saved. That likability probably could have been better achieved without inserting a dog into the show that then has to be mentioned again and again throughout; unless one is setting up the dog to serve some other purpose).

Leaning on your go-to lazy writing techniques happens even more when you’re writing fast, in short bursts. This is the trouble with giving myself short evening writing goals, and one of the reasons I prefer Saturday binge writing sessions when I can set everything up and write out what comes next. But I’m reserving my Saturdays for working on The Broken Heavens, and this novella won’t get done if I don’t carve out time for it. What this scene reinforced for me is the necessity of sitting down and writing out a couple of sentences about the scene I’m going to write before I write it, even if it’s only 500 words. Otherwise they are all going to end up like this. And while I can go back and fix it later to a morgue or crematorium scene, that’s a pain in the ass. Better to catch myself before I do it and fix it then. The more I write, the easier it is for all the writing to sound the same. Writing in a state of flow doesn’t always mean you write the best ideas, only the ones easiest for your brain to latch onto. While the may be great for the first couple of books, at some point your go-to stuff starts to feel like old hat. You have to start working harder, thinking the scenes through, figuring out how every piece works together and becomes resonant instead of just relying on your brain stew.

Remember that this is not BAD, to do. Plenty of people write the same book over and over and do well doing that. But I don’t want to be OK or even just Good. I want to be GREAT. And these days, with the competition that books have with other sorts of media for readers’ time, I don’t feel that I can afford to be “OK” or even “Good.” More and more, I see that there is only room for great, and everything else.

I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim—and Then I Promptly Went Broke

This, from Merrit Tierce, has been making the rounds:

I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim—and Then I Promptly Went Broke

My first thought: yeah, well, welcome to the club.

Ha ha, just kidding: I kept my day job. I kept my day job – I keep my day job – even though some days it pains the hell out of me, because yeah, I’d be broke immediately if I quit. Like, no contest. And I’ve published five novels and an essay collection in the last 5 years, with two more novels coming out next year. So.

My straight talk about writing and finances is what I get the most pushback about. Everybody wants this to be the million-dollar Scalzi blog, but yanno: there is the 1% of writers, and then there is… everyone else. Not that I don’t intend to be the 1% at some point (DON’T WE ALL!) but you have got to be real in this business about where you are and where you’re headed and how you plan to get there. Because you are going to be spending a lot of time grinding your way up in this biz, and you need to be prepared.

A lot of aspiring writers call these finance posts “depressing” and “brutal,” and yes, it may be those things, but it’s also the truth. Seeing it get a lot of play at larger venues just makes me roll my eyes and go, “See, kids, I’m not making this shit up.” Yes, this is real. This is the hustle. Huge numbers of “acclaimed” books sell a few thousand copies. Selling 12,000 copies in your first year as a debut author, as Tierce did, is pretty good! I think my first novel, God’s War sold like 10,000 its first year, and was also nominated for and the winner of a couple awards. We can’t all be The Girl on the Train, mmmkay? That magical shit that sometimes happens to books is pretty out of our control. The most you can do with your own marketing push is stay afloat in the midlist.

But this isn’t what the media would lead us to think is pretty good, and from the sound of it, her advance was so great that she hasn’t earned it back on those numbers yet, so I dunno, I would not be boo-hooing about that. Sounds like a good advance for a debut novel. Next time, tho: snap up that two-book deal. You only get to be a debut, with debut-risk dollars, once.

But of course, Tierce isn’t complaining about this so much as she is marveling and noting upon the difference between public perception of what it is to be an “acclaimed” writer and the financial reality, a dissonance I’ve been struggling with myself for some time. It’s a weird place to be, where people scream with joy when you walk into a room and burst into tears at your signing and swoon when you give them a blurb, but you’re cashing a royalty check for $800, which you’re dumping into your dead dog’s old medical bills before heading into your day job. You often feel like you’re a hamster on a wheel, or a ditch digger who’s been employed to dig out and fill in the same hole day after day, book after book.

I have seen this sudden, shocking realization – that writing is a job, a hustle – destroy a lot of debut writers. Many of them, like Tierce, have trouble with that second book. I was lucky enough to have already completed my second book by the time my first came out. Yet I too have stared down the barrel of reality, and found it wanting. It gets to me sometimes, too, when it’s not just “Breaking in for a few years” but “Breaking in for a few decades.” Dedicating oneself to a singular purpose with that sort of passion and stamina is rare in any field. But in writing, as in any field, the longer you are in it, the harder you work, the more chances you have to break out, to get lucky. Writing a novel is still better odds than playing the lottery, but only just. If you are looking for your self-esteem in your sales numbers or the size of your royalty checks (if you get them) you are on a fast road to disappointment.

This is why I encourage folks to have writing goals that aren’t tied to bestsellerdom or advance numbers. Oh, sure, HAVE those goals, too, but look for goals that are things you can control. Stuff like: write a book every year, or every two years. Or write a comic book. Or write a screenplay. Something you can do on your own, not something that relies on the goodwill, opinion, or marketing dollars of someone else. You will go mad in this business if you tie your business success to your self-worth. Writers who have spouses with solid day jobs, or trust funds, or connections from rich parents, are always going to be better positioned to get opportunities than you. But again: it’s like that in any industry. All you have is your unique voice, and your ability to persist.

If you’re a fan, knowing how much even “acclaimed” authors make is good to know for you, too. Writers don’t want to be jerks about going to events, but if you can’t pay them to go, you know: a lot of us can’t make it. Hell, even if we’re making good day job money, we are often limited by how much time off we’re allowed to take. One of the things that will shock you when you start going up through the pro writer ranks is how little money everyone makes from writing. Many award-winning writers live in poverty, living hand to mouth on freelance projects and praying they don’t have a health disaster because they have shit health insurance (or none at all).

Making a living wage as a writer is not a given. It’s not the norm. The year you spend working on that novel might net you $5,000 if you’re lucky. Add up those hours at minimum wage and let’s be real, you’d make way more working a minimum wage job than writing a novel. That’s the reality. That’s the odds. You do it because you enjoy it, because you’re good at it, because you like it better than flipping burgers.

But don’t expect the world to coddle and support your inner artist any more than it would coddle and support your inner grillmaster. The hustle is the same. The grind is no prettier. Writing is not a get-rich quick scheme. Fans, media, and aspiring writers need to stop positioning it as one.

Going Dark ’til January 9th to Prep for EPIC 2017

I’ve cancelled the rest of my appearances for this year, which I know surprised and worried a lot of people, but frankly, there is a lot of writerly-shit on deck right now, and I keep falling further and further behind. You have to know when to cut off promo and shift into writing hermit mode, and this is that time. So: no more appearances til next year, and no more hours spent being chatty on Twitter until January, which I am announcing here so I will hold myself to this pledge. You may get the occasional post if I feel up to ranting about something, or if I have some announcements, but that’s it.

It’s HERMIT TIME.

Folks know that I pride myself on hitting my deadlines, but since we sold GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION last year and slipped it into our existing contracted publication schedule, I have just never been able to catch up. Dates keep sliding: a couple weeks, a couple months, and now four months for BROKEN HEAVENS. Note that we have pushed back this release to later in 2017 as well: it was running too close to the release date for THE STARS ARE LEGION and creeping deadlines for that book have interfered with my writing of tBH. I had to push that date way out or risk pushing it out again at the end of every month and then looking flighty. I want to get back to hitting my deadlines like a pro instead of doing that wishy-washy “artist” thing.

When I look out at the crazy that is my life in search of more hours in the day, I find them on social media, where I can easily waste 2-3 hours a day or more. That’s great during promo times, but right now in deadline mode, those are hours I should be writing or reading books.

Lots of folks are like, well, what else are you doing? And folks, you know: I have a day job on top of this wild publication schedule, which eats a lot of time and which I’ve also gotten behind on these last few months. I also have a pilot script I’m working on with a producer (don’t get excited. 99% of these never go anywhere, but it’s a good exercise). I have Patreon stories I need to produce so we can finish paying off Drake-the-dog’s vet bills by the end of the year and still have Christmas.

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If you want to help with the vet bill backlog, you can contribute here or via Paypal Donate button below:

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I’m also going to take some family trips with my spouse and the dogs and just enjoy life here during my favorite season, because shit, I need a real fucking vacation. I have been grinding hard for the last two years, figuring that a break out was just around the corner. But a novel career is a marathon, not a sprint, and you can’t full-out sprint for two years without injury. So less sprinting, more living.  I intend to take a week or two off through the end of the year for actual rest and vacation instead of my usual working-writing vacation, too.

A lot of folks don’t realize what kind of costs come with trying to build a novel career while holding down a full-time day job. I work constantly, no joke. People always want to know the secret, and working constantly is pretty much it. But you can’t get up at 5:30 a.m. to do promo projects and posts, go to a day job from 8-5, do a couple more writer-related hours in the evening with contracts or reprint markets, spend 10 hours writing on Saturday, and then write columns on Sunday and expect to keep that pace going for years on end without repercussions. I have heard of too many writers burning out, and doing that for years on end is a great way to court burn out. No thanks!

So, my next public appearance will be ConFusion in January of 2017, and that will kick off an epic year of traveling. I’ll be a Guest of Honor at Swecon in Uppsala, Sweden and am attending WorldCon in Helsinki, as well as Gencon. I also have TWO books out next year, so hey, wow, yeah. I need to prep the fuck up for what is going to be a wild 2017.

To sum up: 2017 IS GOING TO BE EPIC.

So I will be largely absent from Twitter and ye olde blog, but you may find me making appearances on Instagram or posting scheduled content. But I won’t be interacting as usual.

That said, if there are any GRAND NEWS REVEALS, or new Patreon stories, I’m sure I’ll pop in and let ya’ll know.

Now, to the word mines! See you in January, unless there’s some good news before then.

Need to contact me urgently? Well, you know where to go. 

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P.S. Also we have this new dog, Indiana! And who wouldn’t want to spend MOAR TIME with this cute hamface of a dog?

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Why Being a Writer is an Exercise in Cognitive Dissonance

Being a writer is a weird thing. I guess any time you live publicly, it’s like living in an abusive relationship. You’ve got a bunch of people publicly and simultaneously declaring that you are the most talented and humane person in the world… and also the biggest jerk hack that ever lived.

This is one of the reasons why I encourage people to have a very firm internal compass. It helps to have good friends and colleagues to reach out to when you’re feeling low, sure, but if you don’t have a firm grasp on who you are and what you want to express, it can be really easy to lose yourself. This is one reason why I’m glad I’m seeing the success I am seeing now at 36 instead of 26, because I have a much better handle on who I am. I can stand taller and firmer in the onslaught.

There have been many times when my editors or agent made a suggestion that I decided not to go with and was happy about. Other times, I wished I would have taken their advice instead. But at every turn, I trusted myself to make the right decision… even when it was wrong. More often than not, having a firm internal compass ensured that I made the book I wanted to make. Better, it continues to ensure that I’m making the books I want to make even after the reviews come up and people even higher up on the food chain start asking for changes. I know when to bend, and when to pass.

Living publicly can be very strange, as you have people reacting to your work like they know you, and can Intuit All. For the most part, I just roll my eyes at this, but I can see how reading some of the things people say about you and your work in public can get to you if you don’t stay the course. When a bunch of people say you are a hack, it can be super easy to stop and wonder, “Gee, am I a hack?” and veer off course. I’ve been reading about some very interesting studies where people who check a box on a questionnaire that says, “I am altruistic” are more likely to do something altruistic in the days and weeks that follow. This is because our minds don’t like to live in a state of cognitive dissonance. Unless you are a sociopath, your brain really wants to align your actions so that they gel with who and what you say you are.

This is one reason why imbibing toxic images and statements is so very bad for us. The more we internalize negative statements about ourselves, the more likely we are to become those things. “I am a shit writer,” or “I am a bad human being,” are not good things to make a part of your internal litany. Instead, for instance, when I get rejections my internal monologue is, “FUCK YOU I AM A GENIUS YOU WILL RUE THE DAY YOU SLIGHTED ME.” And yanno, that’s worked pretty great for me so far.

If you’re a newer writer coming up through the field, or a pro struggling to keep up the slog, I urge you to formulate your career and ego compass as early as possible, and to stay your course. I’ve had a couple of opportunities recently that I had to weigh carefully against what I wanted my career to be, and whether or not it kept me on target. If I am here to do good, to change the world, to make it easier for those to come after me, to advance my original work to get the message to a broader audience, then knowing all those things makes it easier to decide which projects to pursue and which not to. It also keeps me grounded when angry people yell that I’m a hack, because I often see myself in them. I am The Machine, and they are the Rage, now. I have been the Rage. I have needed a Machine to rail against, to push at, to use as my guidepost and inspire my own work. I’m OK with folks who hate on me because it inspires them to do better. I’ve been there. Some of those writers I railed against are my favorite-ist colleagues now. Other haters, you know, the trolls: they don’t bug me at all. Again, not sure why, I just… I guess I know too many real life trolls. I know that it’s not me they hate, but their own place in the world. Some use hate to drive them to do better; those ones I get. But the ones who hate just to wallow in it, those I just throw out, because living successfully in public means not only drawing legitimate criticism, but drawing the ire of those afraid to get off the couch. Being able to tell the difference, and adjust or throw out accordingly, is a public person’s greatest skill. It’s one I encourage you to cultivate early.

Most importantly, though, is that no matter how many voices plague you – well-meaning or no – you have got to stick to your path. In this world, not everyone is going to love you. Nor should they. You aren’t here to be liked. You’re here to change the world. Adjust your internal monologue accordingly. At the end of the day, yours is the only one you have to live with.

Do Authors Check Out Those Business Cards New Writers Give Them at Cons?

At various conventions, I’ve had new(er) authors come up to my signing table or come up to me after a panel and basically just give me their cards. I’ve also had authors hand me their books or, in the case of a couple of very smart new authors, ask if they can swap one of my books for theirs, so it’s a win/win for both of us (this is how I met Myke Cole and the reason I read Run Time by S.B. Divya, which I enjoyed and tweeted about. That is A+ networking).

Yet the question I hear from folks is, generally, is this worth it? Like, to just give an author your card cold? Or will they think you’re a pushy jerk?

To which I respond, well, it depends.

At my level, this happens rarely enough that I still do, in fact, read your business card and check out your work. This goes for folks who just hand me one after a signing as well as those who hand me one after we’ve talked at the bar for awhile. I do actually go to your website and – if you have a book up on Amazon – I will read the first couple paragraphs of your book to see whether or not I like the prose style or not (truth be told, if you have a crappy website and crap covers, I will be less likely to take this step, though, as these things do signal that the books, too, may not be great. When you are quickly sifting through information after a con, you make snap judgments). What I generally find is that most authors aren’t writing in genres that interest me, but yes, I will take you more seriously next time if I read a few paragraphs of your book and you’re clearly very skilled. True story! (this is how I met my sister from another mister, Melissa F. Olsen, who is not only very funny, and great to hang out with, but super talented, even if the genre she generally works in isn’t up my alley).

That said, if I was going to a con every month and got handed forty business cards, I’m going to be less likely to do this. At the rate I do events, though, and based on the number of cards and books I get, I do still take the time to connect work with a face. This is one reason I don’t recommend networking a lot until your work has reached a certain level, because you want to put your best foot forward when you meet people. There are plenty of writers I will hang out with whose work I don’t read or don’t like or can’t get into, but if your goal is to connect with an author who might like your stuff and talk about it, it’s useful to find authors who will like it and ensure that it’s at a pro level.

If you’re an author without any work online – no short stories, no books – I’m not sure how useful it would be to try and connect in this way. I don’t read unpublished work (this is a general rule that most writers stick to), and while I might suggest you talk to my agent, I’m not going to recommend someone to my agent with a personal note or anything without having read any of their work (and though personal recommendations might surface you higher in a slush pile, again, it really comes down to the work). You should really just go to cons to have fun and forget just dropping business cards off to every. single. person. after a panel (pro tip: don’t do this. I’ve had several people go up to panelists after a panel and hand ALL of us a card. Yeah, spray and pray is not a great strategy, and signals that you are unprofessional).

To be honest, the most annoying cards I get handed are from people who clearly have no idea who I am and are just trying to generically “network.” If you’re a fan as well as a writer, or if you think our work is similar, or if we have a fun conversation at the bar, yes, by all means, approach me with a card! But, like, if you write funny stories about aliens and have no website and no idea who I am except that I write stuff on the internet and we’ve never talked before, why are you handing me your card after a panel? What do you hope to get out of that? Save your money.

Be strategic in who you approach, when, and for what reason. It’s perfectly appropriate to hand me a card at a signing after squeeing about my work, or after we’ve chatted in the bar about Pokemon, but just randomly shotgun spraying writers you have only tangentially heard of “from Twitter” wastes your time and ours.

 

The Author as a Busy, Busy Bee and Other Bee-Filled Nightmares

Over the last month or so I’ve become one of those writers with a Secret Project (I know – I hate those people too) on top of The Broken Heavens manuscript due at the end of the year, on top of The Stars Are Legion copyedits due the end of the month, on top of the Patreon to pay back our dog’s vet bills (I will not even put the number here, but suffice to say it’ll be year’s end before it’s all paid off), on top of the usual Locus column, and the day job, and planning for the next project my agent and I pitch since we’re out of contract after the next book for Saga, etc. etc.

I got behind on everything sometime last year when edits for Geek Feminist Revolution, drafting for The Stars are Legion, and promotion for Empire Ascendant were all happening at once. I just… could not do all those things at once, and as noted, had to get some help just to get through it.

Then, when it looked like I’d finally get a break there in November/December, our dog had surgery, and so began the long eight months of his rehab and eventual death, which was a long, slow, painful and agonizing thing across the board as his health got better, worse, better, worse, until there wasn’t anything left we could reasonably do for him. That process ate a lot of time and headspace for other projects. The more emotion I’m spending on life, the less emotion I have in reserve for the writing. Add onto that day job hijinks that led to another switch in jobs late last year, and yeah, I was burnt, and Legion ended up several months late, and I have never caught up.

Now suddenly it’s August, nearly a year after my blowout (I know, I know, “Kameron Hurley having a blowout” means I only wrote one book, released one book, wrote three short stories, pitched a novella project, and picked up a Secret Project. JUST THINK WHAT I COULD DO WITHOUT A BLOWOUT), and I seem to finally be getting back into the groove of things. I read a bunch of books, did some low key events, and seem to be a little more idea-driven instead of slog-pushed the last couple weeks. Oh, I’m still epically behind on things like The Broken Heavens, but now at least when I think about them my brain doesn’t put up a big iron wall that I have to crawl up and hack at every time I need to get to work. The last three months in particular was really bad for this, and I recognize now that the emotional rollercoaster involved in Drake the Dog’s recovery-that-wasn’t really took its toll on the brainspace I need for writing. I’ve found in life that low emotional drama is very good for productivity, which is also why polyamory was never for me (I once dated two people at the same time for, like, a week, and it was so emotionally draining I vowed never to try that shit again, but I admire those who can make it work and still have a life) and why I started to drop out of high-drama and high-maintenance relationships. I also moved far, far away from my own family and that particular drama, which has helped me maintain my focus on what I want instead of getting dragged into doing what I feel like they want. It helps.

Low emotional expenditure outside of the writing is good for me because it means I can stay focused deeply on the work. I need that deep focus to stay as productive as I’d like to be while staying sane. The more distractions I have, the lower my productivity and the less likely I am to level up my own skill level. I had to make a lot of tradeoffs in life because of that, and it’s another reason I try hard these days to live within my means, as well. Financial stress can take just as much a toll as emotional stress. I’m certainly more productive here in my 30’s with a stable relationship, stable address, and stable finances (ok, once vet bills are paid!) than I was in my 20’s when I was careening around the world. While my life may be less exciting in the “Let me tell you a story” sense, it’s certainly a good mix for getting shit done.

One of the things I’ve had to acknowledge, though, is that I can’t run full-tilt here for years on end without hitting a wall of burn out. I needed to take a break, read some new stuff, and explore other projects. Paired with a more stress-free life, it does seem to be working again, so here’s to hoping that I ramp up my productivity and begin putting out some really great work in the next year and have some fun with it instead of just grinding my weary bones down for bread.  I understand that life is finite, and I remain dedicated to making the most of it, which I’m better able to do when I’m not slogging through every project.

 

What I’ve Been Reading: The Nonfiction Edition

The last month or so has been a non-stop glut of nonfiction reading. My creative bucket has been a little low of late, which signaled to me that it was time to get back to work. I’ve also been spending less time on Twitter, which has indeed helped me up my reading time. Reading is, as ever, a crucial part of being a writer, whether it’s nonfiction reading like this to refill the idea bucket or fiction reading to study for craft purposes.

Stiff by Mary Roach

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Easily the most interesting and entertaining of the Mary Roach books I devoured, this exploration of what we do with all those cadavers donated for research was fascinating. I immediately texted my mom and said her and my sister should read this one, to which she responded that they already had. Which tells you something about how interests in the macabre run in our family. What I love about Roach is her wholly curious and inquisitive nature. Her passion for subjects is impressive. The humor is just an added bonus. While what we do with the dead was interesting, even more interesting were the questions she had for those researchers, students, and doctors who engaged with them as part of their work. I’m profoundly interested in what makes us human, how we determine human from not-human, and how we psychologically distance ourselves from this type of work, so I found this fascinating.

 

 

 

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

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It’s the unsexy side of space that you always wondered about but never uncovered, all in one book. How do people poop in space? How do we study the effects of weightlessness on earth? Who comes up with all those disgusting space foods? Did astronaut ice cream ever really get eaten in space? Great dive into the gooey junk that makes it so difficult to put people in space at all, let alone for the long-term. Tons to chew on here for science fiction writers like me looking to create great galactic empires flitting between the stars. Once again, our juicy human-ness gets in the way, and we’ll need to start tackling issues such as bone loss, bacteria, and vision issues associated with long stints in space if we want to continue exploring the stars.

 

 

 

Gulp by Mary Roach

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If you’ve read any of my fiction, you know I’m fascinated by all the messy guts that make us human. After reading a lot of these Roach books, I suspect she is too. In Gulp, Roach takes us on a tour of the long and twisted journey food takes from our mouths all the way back out again through our butts, and all the stuff that goes right – and wrong – in between. Tidbits here include the fact that Elvis probably died because he had an enlarged colon, you can put about three gallons of food in your stomach until it bursts (typically – food competitors get their own assessment) – and other fun facts to amaze your friends and colleagues… and readers.

 

 

 

 

Spook by Mary Roach

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This was the weakest of the Roach books, for me, largely because it wasn’t hitting the sweet spot of my interests the same way (which is to say, still better than most other books, but I read those other two first), with an exploration of the evidence for life after death. Though I did get a very good Nyx novella story idea out of this, and found myself shocked that 19th century mediums could pass off muslin cloth as “ectoplasm” which they hid in their vaginas (I will certainly be using THAT somewhere too), it was not as rollicking a read as the others. Still, lots of interesting tidbits for writers looking to fill buckets.

 

 

 

Grit by Angela Duckworth

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Why do some people succeed and others fail? (OK, once you take out money and support networks, which are influenced by sexism and racism, etc. out of the equation, because this is America, not an actual equal society). One of the most interesting things to see in writing circles is who is still writing twenty years after their debut novel comes out. And, of course, before that: who from the Clarion Writing Workshop is still writing twenty years after Clarion, or who among your friends actually became the doctor or lawyer they aspired to be in childhood. The difference between those who persevere and those who drop out tends to be a matter of grit, which Duckworth not only quantifies here but teachers others how to cultivate. So if you’re worried you’re not gritty enough to succeed at what you’re passionate about, check this one out for tips. I pretty much found myself nodding along the whole time to this, because for some reason I had that type of personality to start, though I certainly have cultivated it throughout years of slog and failure.

 

 

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

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Why do we fall for scam artists? From the guy at the corner playing the ball and cup game to the guy in the suit offering you an “amazing” investment opportunity, there are common tricks that scammers use to keep you unbalanced and ripe for scamming, and common psychological reasons that we continue to fall for it while convincing ourselves we didn’t. If you’ve ever watched the show Leverage (about a group of thieves and con artists who do good), you’ll recognize a lot of the plays here, and get more in-depth details about the art of the con. Great stuff. I picked up lots of ideas for another project I’m working on.

 

 

 

 

The Now Habit by Neil Fiore

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I’ve been having some real trouble with procrastination, which seems to be getting worse the more I have to do (I got the opportunity to write a script recently and was like SURE I CAN DO THIS INSTEAD OF THIS DAMN BOOK THAT’S DUE IN A COUPLE MONTHS BECAUSE WHY NOT). Jaye Wells recommended this one on Twitter. Worries about critical acclaim and perfectionism are actually just forms of procrastination (and very effective ones at that). This book offers some strategies, which mostly come down to unfucking your brain and thinking about things in new ways and (wait for it) DOING THE WORK. Much of what holds us back from creating in creative fields is indeed our own brains, though, so it’s worth learning how to think differently so you can push through. That said, again, the real trick is: doing the work. Most of these strategies are about finding different ways to think about doing the work so you can tackle it.

 

 

 

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday 

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I found Holiday’s Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, to be a sobering and entertaining read, and though it made me kind of hate him as a person (I may be in marketing, but the sort of deceptive tactics he lays down here are way over my moral line), I found it interesting. In this one, Holiday is not such an unlikable personality, as he talks less about himself and more about other people who have encountered obstacles and reframed them not as stuff stopping them, but challenges that could help them move on to the next stage in their careers. Another good book to help you unfuck the way you think about life.

 

 

 

 

Deep Work by Cal Newport

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Clearly you can sense a theme here in my nonfiction reading. This one tackles the idea that we are at our best when we have large chunks of uninterrupted time. Clearly I know this works for me, what with my preference for cabin getaways where there’s no wifi and binge-writing Saturdays at the coffee shop. Newport gets into the weeds about how distraction is not only bad for us generally, but especially bad in this particular economy when it’s advanced skills, creativity, and frankly, being among the best at what you do that is going to get you ahead. There are no more manufacturing jobs with pensions or bus drivers who can retire with a million in assets (yes, my great grandfather did this. Yes, as a BUS DRIVER with amazing benefits and pension. WHAT A TIME TO BE ALIVE). And to be the best, and to cultivate difficult skills, what we need are periods of intense, distraction-free time where we can actually do the work we must do to get there. Some have heard me say that my goal here as a writer is to be the absolute best at what I do, and that is no bullshit. But to get there I need to find ways to do more high quality work. I’ve been struggling a lot with my productivity lately, and it does all seem to come back to increasing fragmentation. One should not start one’s day reading Twitter, however much it feels like “reading the news” and “being informed.” In truth, it’s just a distraction, and I should be bundling up Twitter time for myself into 15-20 minute blocks once or MAYBE twice a day. So, I’m working on that. My mornings in particular have become lost causes for productivity, in part because that was the habit I got into when our dog was sick. My whole morning was taken up with caring for him instead of working on novel-related tasks, or with work interrupted by his care, and I just couldn’t get anything done. Now I’m working to get that morning productivity back, where I can write posts like this one, work on copy edits, tackle email and contracts, and all those other things I’m super behind on instead of doing those during my “writing” time. This book is good not only for reminding my of how important deep work is to me, but also for considering strategies to encourage it.

You Don’t Owe Anyone Your Time

One of the drawbacks to our “always on” culture is this expectation that if we see something, we have to respond to it. “Sea lions” take advantage of this knee jerk reaction we have to engage with people who ask us questions on the internet. They can get you to waste hours going around in circles “explaining” things to them that can be easily googled. If you aren’t careful you could find yourself spending all day “explaining” why women should have the right to vote and why slavery is bad and why police shouldn’t shoot unarmed people in the street and yes, the Holocaust really happened my grandfather helped haul the bodies out of the camps.

The fact that we feel we have to reassert reasonable moral positions and actual facts which should be common knowledge over and over is depressing in and of itself. But when you feel the urge to do so I want you to remember this quote from Toni Morrison:

“The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

In case it’s not obvious, this quote can easily apply to any other type of “ism” out there. No one wants you to do your work. Doing your work can change the status quo. And that’s why they work so hard to keep you from doing it.

Certainly one in a position of privilege does have a moral imperative to state, “This atrocity is wrong.” But when you buckle down to engage the haters on any issue, consider what your end goal is in having that conversation, and consider what other valuable work you could be doing with that time. I can pretty much guarantee you that, say, writing The Geek Feminist Revolution and getting it into people’s hands was worth about a billion times more than spending that time arguing with dudes on the internet who were just there to distract me. They aren’t here to change minds. They are here to keep us from doing the work that changes the world.

We all have a finite amount of time on this earth. Those of us with chronic illness or who have had near-death experiences appreciate that more than others. I feel that it’s my moral imperative to remind you that you could get hit by a bus tomorrow. And if you did, would you regret how you’d spend the hour, the day, the week, the month, the year before?

My goal is to live the sort of life where I won’t feel I’ve wasted my time if I die tomorrow. It has kept me on target through a lot of bullshit. The truth is that all this shit is made up, and because it’s made up, it can be remade. But only if we focus our efforts on creating the work that moves the conversation forward, instead of letting ourselves get caught up in the distraction.

The Wisdom of the Grind: It’s Always Darkest Before a Breakthrough

Writing three books last year was an exercise in grind. While there may be many people happy to write 4, 6, 12 books a year, I am not one of them. A big part of my process is the research involved in worldbuilding and the deft untangling of what makes character relationships compelling, and that takes a lot of time and a lot of brain space. The more brain space I put into other things: worrying over my sick dog, puzzling out a day job problem, considering the world descent into fascism, noodling over whether or not we are well-positioned for climate change, head-desking over ancillary projects, the less brain space I have for building worlds and stories.

Spending too much head space in the The Dark Teatime of the Soul isn’t good for anyone, and I’ve been opening up Twitter less and staying on it for shorter periods, in addition to pretty much muting every Dark Keyword and many Negative Pity-Party-Wallowing accounts that feel they must vomit their misery into the ether. I am there with you, friends, but I am full up on that brand of dark. My goal is to get my news/social check-in on Twitter down to about 20 minutes a day. I’ve already removed TV and radio from my life, so I only hear the constant fear-mongering now when I go to waiting rooms that have TVs on (and what is it with places that do that? I don’t need to listen to screaming heads on CNN prophesying our doom while waiting at the doctor’s office).

Doing this helps me get back the head space that I was giving over to stuff I don’t have any control over. And yes, there’s been studies done that show that it is being put into situations in which we feel we have no control that cause the most stress and depression. This explains the four years of my life that I spent at a day job that laid people off every 4-6 months. I hung on for a long time, but the stress was constant, and I dealt with it in unhealthy ways. I jumped right from that job into another, even crazier one, where eveyrthing was constantly in flux. Where I’m at now is much more secure and stable, but wow, I had five years of awful stress there for awhile, and I’m still figuring out how to come down from it.

Paired with my crazy day job history was (and is) my crazy publishing history. Talk about an industry where you feel you don’t have a lot of control… as I’ve noted before, sure, writing a good book and marketing it well can keep you in the midlist, but breakout books take something more, and as yet no one has figured out how to actually manufacture bestsellers from unknown writers yet. Though they keep trying.

And then outside of all that, of course, is the uncontrollable world. And while each of us individually and together are working hard to enact change, the way it’s reported (if at all) isn’t under our control. It’s in the media’s best interest to serve us the most vile and hate-mongering stories, because those get the clicks. They show us a world that’s rampaging out of control, a world we can’t change. Even knowing, intellectually, that that’s wrong, the crazy outside world can contribute to that feeling of overwhelming, ongoing stress and depression that keeps you soaking up tears in your cornflakes.

I make note of these outside factors because I’ve had a rough time getting control over – or feeling that I have control over – a good many things lately. I’ve spent the last five years at a hard grind, pushing for a breakout book that was always the next book or the next book or the next book… and though there are certainly plenty of successes I can point to (coming back from the implosion of my first publisher was a huge win in and of itself. Not many of us who debuted there were able to do so, and many have disappeared completely from the field), I am always aiming for more, and bigger, and better. At this point my reasonable goal is to be able to write and freelance full time by the time I’m forty. That’s very reasonable! But I can see the hard grind ahead of me, and I admit that some days I do not have the gumption to look it in the face.

My focus continues to be on becoming a stronger writer. Not just at the prose level, but at the all-important story level, too. That involves sitting down and doing some research, too, and breaking down existing stories. Me sitting around writing the same book over and over doesn’t help me level up as a writer. Note the full depth and breadth of Le Guin’s work. She didn’t get to be a great writer by writing one endless fantasy saga. And while I would love to be able to write an endless fantasy saga that paid the bills, what I want more than that is to be an excellent writer. When your work is selling all right, but hasn’t broken out yet, you just gotta keep banging on story. But yeah, it’s not always fun. And yes, I realize that Le Guin didn’t have to make a living via her writing, which did probably free her up to write a lot more of what she wanted to write. But there are writers like Gene Wolfe who had day jobs their entire careers and wrote plenty of transformative work, so there’s no hard and fast rule here.

Lately I’ve been in one of those rough periods where I just want to quit for six months or a year and travel around the world and refill my creative bucket. Cause right now all I can see down there are beer dregs. The truth is that every profession will try and squeeze out of you as much as it can get. While I’d like to be mindful of how much I give it, I also recognize that in order to get to where I want to be, I’m going to have to give it everything. This is a marathon, yeah, but I don’t indeed to have anything left for the way back. This is it. The older I get, the rougher than knowledge is, though: knowing I have saved nothing for the way back. There is only forward.

When it gets dark like this as I sweat over the next book and start putting together ideas for pitching a new series, I remind myself that sometimes it’s the very bleakest right before a major breakthrough. These are the long plateaus in skill and ability that we have to push through to level up. Once you get to the pro level at anything, your effort/skill ratio flips. You no longer see huge gains with minimal effort. There’s a reason you can get 2 years of skill leveling up out of 6 weeks of Clarion. You tend to be newer to the craft. You’ve got more to learn.

My next big level up is taking a lot longer to get to – several books, many stories. While I have recently seen some rise in my short story skill level due to all the grind I’ve been doing on Patreon, and all the study I’ve done on story, I’m not seeing it as clearly in my novels. Creating interwoven storylines with multiple characters is difficult for any writer, but I have the added bonus of insisting on portraying weird, weird worlds as I do it. It’s a grind.

Oh, the grind.

Nothing in life or business is fair, but even when you know that, it can be difficult to accept it when the fairness doesn’t seem to be on your side. When things get especially bad I will mutter aloud, “Life is pain, princess,” and push on. I once read that to the ancient Greeks “happiness” meant being free from pain – physical and emotional. If you think about it, you were spending a whole lot more of your life sick or mourning friends and family than you do in many parts of the world now. We run around thinking that there’s something wrong with us for not being “happy” but if you aren’t currently grieving or suffering from an illness, well, you’re doing pretty well by ancient Greek standards. Ok, well, I DO have a chronic illness, but it’s not generally painful… So I have that going for me.

Which brings me back to expectations. I often think I should lower or adjust mine, but I’m not convinced this would change my drive to be the absolute best at what I do. What concerns me is that the path I’ve laid down to get there – the writing grind – is incomplete. With debts and day jobs came a lack of head space to do anything at all but writing outside of those things I need to do to live. While this sounds great – read any book about grit and active practice and it will remind you you need to work harder than other people if you want to compete – the trouble is that I keep pretending like I’m everyone else. I pretend like I don’t have a chronic illness. I pretend like I can get by without significant amounts of exercise. Hell, there are days when I think I can eat carbs without regretting it. But none of those things are true, and I have to build a life around who I am and what I need instead of what I wish were still true.

While I have survived stressful day jobs and publishing implosions and career death several times over here at the ripe olde middle-age of 36, I’d like to hope there’s another 30 years in me still to go. It’s tempting not to be able to see that when you’re this deep in the dark grind, but I know it’s there. I know it’s always darkest before everything breaks open. The hope is that you can survive the darkness long enough to get there.

We fall down seven times. We get up eight.

We get up.

We get up.

We get up.

 

 

 

What About Me? Dealing with Professional Jealousy

Delilah Dawson asked folks on Twitter how they deal with professional jealousy. Scalzi’s response was, more or less “I am a leaf on the wind,” and while being a leaf on the wind is admirable, I admit I don’t know very many folks who manage to reach that level of zen. Lilith Saintcrow, having seen the horror of the midlist herself, offered some coping strategies.

For my part, I’ve found that my professional jealousy takes the form of, “Why him and not ME?” (and yes, it’s generally a “him” but not always). The truth is that there is a lot of luck in this industry, and some of that luck has to do with who you know (including who your parents and relatives are) and whether or not certain people like you. Some of that is having the right book at the right cultural moment. All of that luck is enhanced by actually being a good writer (but I will note here that being a good writer does not preclude someone from publishing novels or getting a movie deal or selling millions. It does improve your chances, though).

That said, I’ve used, “WHY THAT FUCKER AND NOT ME?” to fuel me through this business since I was a teenager, so I’m not sure that I’m compelled to give it up any time soon. Some measure of professional jealousy can be good for you. But it can also be a lot like the snake eating its own tail, because like Alexander Hamilton, you will probably never be satisfied. Oh, you published a critically acclaimed book, but it wasn’t a bestseller? Oh, you published a bestselling book that critics thought was crap? Oh you’ve won awards but not sold millions, oh, you sold millions, but didn’t win awards? Oh, you’ve sold well but never got a movie deal. Oh, you’ve sold well and got a movie deal but the movie tanked? Oh, you sold well and got a movie deal and the movie did well but didn’t win Best Picture. Boo-hoo.

You see how your measure of “success” can keep going up and up and up until you’re just never happy, ever. My spouse often shakes his head at me because I move my bar for success all the time. What I have is never enough. For me, this works, because if I was satisfied in my professional life I wouldn’t be inspired to do anything. But for my own sanity I did have to make my own definition of success. I had to create my own career goals so that when I did turn down opportunities or choose to do one project instead of another, I would stop second-guessing myself. Staying true to that course has become increasingly difficult as lots of other stuff is thrown at me, but finding that true north makes it a lot easier to come back to it when I get distracted and ask WHY THAT DUDE AND NOT ME? cause usually the answer is “Cause your career path is different anyway. You are playing a different game.”

The times when I’m most filled with despair tend to be on social media on days when I see hordes of great deals for folks I know. While the vast majority of those are certainly deserved and make me happy, I admit I’m far happier for a midlister who hits the bestseller list than a debut who gets a seven figure deal. I’m also happier for a great writer who gets a movie deal than a shitty writer, because my god, the world is already so full of shit do I really need that shit to bleed over into film?

Yes, I’m laying down some truth there. Why pretend?

This is usually when I’ll mute people or keywords or just log off social media entirely. Surrounding yourself in the book people bubble means you’re choosing to see book people deals constantly, and it’s bound to give you a warped view of the world. We aren’t all signing big deals, and even when we are, let me tell you, on the back end there is often a lot more annoying bullshit and behind the scenes that you don’t get to see. I’ve heard from a lot of people in the field that my opinion really matters out there, and lots of folks respect me and think I’m doing aces. But every day I’m getting up and snarling into my coffee because I’m heading out to my day job and writing articles about “5 Things You Shouldn’t Wear This Summer” to ensure I can eat. Seeing a shit writer getting a seven-figure movie deal when you’re doing your timesheets can be super annoying.

But when this happens I remind myself that one of the reasons I work isn’t just to eat. If we paid off all our debt and never traveled again or went out, ever, and lived on ramen and second hand clothes permanently, sure, I could quit. But in quitting I would have to make other sacrifices. I’d have to take on writing projects far worse than “5 Things You Shouldn’t Wear This Summer,” and there would be no health insurance. My compromise is keeping the day job so I don’t have to take another writing opportunity that has my real name on it that I have to live with forever. I want to be in charge of my own career, and I can’t do that if I’m worried about money all the time.

Those are the choices I’m making. Do I wish I was selling millions NOW? Sure! Who doesn’t? But I am willing to work to get there my way.

Jealousy, then, actually serves to keep me driven and focused on the goals at hand. When all the deals become too much (SERIOUSLY HOW DOES EVERY WRITER BUT ME HAVE A TV DEAL AND DAMMIT THAT GUY IS A SHIT WRITER WHY DID THEY PAY HIM SO MUCH WHO BUYS THOSE GODDAMN BOOKS), I sit back and refocus. Their career goals aren’t mine. I’m playing a longer game, with a different end goal.

Knowing that doesn’t always make it easy, but it makes it manageable.