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Archive for the ‘The Writing Life’ Category

Dancing for Dinner: Fame, Publishing, and Breakout Books

Fame is a funny thing, because it used to come with a certain dollar amount. Or, that’s what I’d always assumed, anyway. By the time you became generally known via one of the four publishers, or three TV channels, or big record labels, there was an assumption that you were making a living wage, at the very least. With the proliferation of niche audiences now, though, you can become famous to a great number of people long before generating the income you probably need to protect yourself from that fame. This piece on how most Youtube “stars” have to struggle to make ends meet in retail and food service jobs while simultaneously causing a ruckus for being famous is one of the best summaries of this weird 21st century dissonance.

In my own life, I find I have to remind people often that I have a day job. I actually had a client email me after a conference call one time and ask, “Are you THE Kameron Hurley?” and I had to admit that I was. I had to have a conversation with my boss about online harassment, and how the release of my upcoming essay collection, The Geek Feminist Revolution, might create some pushback at my job, and how we should handle that should it happen. The whiplash you get in going to an event where people literally scream with happiness when you walk into a room and back to private life where you’re just another cog is really weird (to be truthful, I greatly enjoy my anonymity in Ohio, and don’t want it another way, but the dissonance is weird).

Yet this balancing act between public and private life, or public personae and private day job, is something that many thousands of other writers and artists struggle with every day. I was reading that Joe Abercrombie kept his day job for a lot longer than you might have thought (and even then, picked up freelancing jobs until a few years ago), and Gene Wolfe has had a day job his whole career. Most of us have to do this. It’s just… increasingly awkward to find that the fame part comes so much faster than the money part (if the money comes at all). There’s this strange assumption that by being an artist, you have traded away your private life in exchange for money. But what about those of us who never have the money to keep ourselves safe from the fame? I’m reminded of the Charlaine Harris interview where fans showed up at her house one day, and she realized she needed to move somewhere even more remote just to protect herself. Because yeah, sure, those particular fans weren’t a problem, but when you get the number of threats that authors get just for writing a book, well, yanno… you want to stay isolated in your down time (the negative fan reaction to her final Sookie novel actually made her consider getting a body guard for the first time).

I was at the Nebula Conference last weekend, and also did a signing for The Geek Feminist Revolution at Book Expo America (BEA)and it was… weird. At the BEA signing, I expected maybe four people to show up. My longest line ever was at Gencon last year, which was maybe twelve or fourteen people, with another half dozen trickling in later. But at BEA folks started lining up forty-five minutes before the signing, and we were out of books in about forty minutes. That signing was particularly crazy because most folks who came up after were folks who’d seen others with the book, and were so excited by the title that they were like, “THAT IS ME! I AM A GEEK FEMINIST I MUST HAVE THIS BOOK!” The young women managing the lines for BEA even came up once the line had cleared, and asked for copies, all of them totally gleeful to find a book that so perfectly described them. It was the best real-time example of word of mouth that I’ve ever seen.

That experience also put me on notice, because though much of that book exists online in some form, it still has a fairly narrow audience. Launching the full book as a collection of essays always had the potential of breaking out to a bigger audience, and though it’s yet to be seen if that happens, that signing made me think that the possibility was very real that it could either perform pretty well, or scarily well. And yes, sure, we all want that! Big books! Sell lots! But this is a collection of essays. It’s more “me” than even a novel, and though it’s certainly a very curated version of my life containing only those topics I’ve carefully chosen to write about over the years, it’s still putting your life and your choices on offer to a larger audience, and then you have to sit back and watch them savage you, and make assumptions about you, in a way that’s far easier to take personally than in fiction. I was reading a (very positive!) review last night that made a flippant remark about something in my life and I was like, “Oh wow, I need to stop reading all reviews for this book now.”

Living publicly, in any capacity, is an act of bravery. This is especially true if you’re from a marginalized group. I often wonder how I would have handled where I am now if I hadn’t had to do the long slog, and you know what? I’m in a much better place, emotionally, to handle what comes at me now than I was when I was 25 or 26. Near-death gave me a lot of perspective, and age gives me the ability to give no fucks.

Writing is a private act, but publishing is a public one.

People ask me how I persist in the face of public living, and over a decade of online BS. But as I said, there is a dissonance there. You aren’t actually living publicly. Here in Ohio I’m pretty under the radar, so far. I can still go to the beer lounge without anybody knowing who the hell I am. It’s only when I’m actually doing public events that I have to present a public face. But I know that could change at any time, and that I may not have the money to insulate me from that. Yeah, you prepare for it. You get ready. You steel yourself, like you’re getting ready for battle. Because I know there’s a potential for a great battle around this book. And yeah, sure, it could tank! Nothing could happen! We could sell 10 copies! (OK, probably not 10, I don’t know what pre-orders are, but suspect they are larger than 10). But I’m ready for it, the same way I was ready when I wrote that Atlantic article. Get your mute button ready. Prepare your talking points.

Writing is a strange profession because the writing itself is done in absolute seclusion. I get my best writing done when I’m holed up in a cabin in the woods somewhere. But then you have to take it to market, and you must engage a totally different skill. You must batten down the hatches. You must play the part of a Famous Writer. And if you play a role long enough, you know, eventually you start to live it.

I don’t know that public living is fair, but nothing in life is fair. Out here you do what you need to do to survive, and the last few years I’ve come to realize that there is a certain amount of face time that goes into this game. It’s not all words on the page. It’s not all battles on social media. You have to get up to the podium. Book the bookstore event. Drive to a lit fest in Chicago. Say yes to the library. Then you need to get back to writing, and strategizing, and leveling up the skills that actually got you into this profession in the first place.

Artists have always had to sing for their supper. I had just hoped to do less singing in person. That’s why I chose writing over acting. Yet here I am, booking stuff on video and doing in-person events. So much for that.

I know there have been a lot of people following this blog since 2004, back when I’d only published a few short stories and my greatest success was in going to the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop four years before. It was 7 more years until my first novel, God’s War, came out, which was 11 years after Clarion. Last year – 15 years after Clarion – was the first time I’ve made what I would consider a living wage writing. When people ask why I keep the day job, I remind them that that bare living wage will be much less this year, and much less next unless I sell something new or a book takes off. Day jobs give us the stability that the market won’t. This is a long game.

I’m 36 now, and it has been 21 years since I sent out my first short story.

Long game, folks. Long game. Will there be a breakout book? Maybe. Will there be more long slog ahead? Always.

If you are going to play this game, remember that there is a long road ahead. Remember that it’s not always a straight path. Remember that those with the aura of fame probably still have day jobs. Remember that they are still people. Remember that they are dancing for their dinner, just like the rest of us. Remember the slog.

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.

 

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.

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.

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.

We All Drop the Ball

I turned in my copyedits for GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION last night, and a good thing, too, since the book comes out in May. I now have seven days left to finish a big revision on THE STARS ARE LEGION, because we have ARCs going to Comic-Con, apparently (ha ha) and it comes out October 1st, and we are tight on timing, here.

This morning I cruised into the day job and attended our usual all-hands Monday meeting at the agency and noted to everyone that I was going to try and take Thursday and Friday off this week so I could work on my book, but that was going to require me to get a LOT of shit done this week in the lead-up and farm out a lot of work. Last night, my spouse left the house to care for a sick relative, leaving me at home to care for our two dogs, one of whom can’t get onto all four feet without shrieking in horrible pain. He weighs nearly 140 pounds, and let’s just say that the shrieking and the hauling and the care can be stressful. On top of that, I’m driving our second car, which is the one that we paid $2500 cash for and vents carbon monoxide into the car so we can only drive it with the windows open and oh yeah, watch the front tire because every few days it goes flat and so we ride around with an air pump for it.

We are paying out the nose for our dog’s surgery and meds and still haven’t been reimbursed, and we are still about two months out from royalty season. But this week we’re expecting some payments for things, so we are holding our breath about that. So though we feel cash poor right now, yes, relief is coming, but needless to say, there’s a lot on my mind.

All of this is to preface this story of how my dog ran away at noon. So here I am driving back to the house from work in this deathmobile. I get back to the house and my husky dog is jumping and happy to see me and my poor shrieking mastiff with the bum legs has literally not moved from where he was sitting when I left this morning. I heat up some food and do the dishes and I don’t want to move the mastiff for his noon walk because I don’t want to put him in any more shrieking pain and surely he can wait until I get home but hey I can take out the husky!

So I grab the leash and go to the back door and Snax the husky trots up next to me and I just… open the door.

I open the door…. with the leash still in my hand, not attached to anything. And my dog just trots out the door without a leash on and I just stare at her like, “What did I just do?” and then she gets the bottom of the stairs and takes off.

We are all of us imperfect.

I drove around after her in the deathmobile, with my spouse texting me directions on where she was based on info from our dog tracker (great toy, let me tell you). And yes, eventually I cornered her and brought her home and it was fine.

But I kept replaying that bizarre moment of dissonance, when I just… opened the door without putting my dog on a leash, my brain wholly occupied with worry over my dog, my deadlines, and who was going to put away the dishes.

We are, all of us, imperfect. We all drop the ball.

Sometimes when people look at me and my life and how I get stuff done, they compare themselves to it and feel they come up short. But let me tell you. There are days you don’t want this life. Your life is perfectly fine. You are doing what you need to do, at your pace. The pace I’m keeping is not sustainable, and it makes me pretty nutty. You do you.

We forget sometimes what gets sacrificed in order for us to achieve the things that get all the splash and bang online or at the bar or in the media. I sat up alone last night entering copyedits into a PDF while my dog whined downstairs because he was lonely and in pain, and my spouse kept watch over an ill relative. I looked at GRRM’s post about the Superbowl this morning after hauling the dog outside and drinking my coffee and thought about how making deadlines is nice, but I sure would like to be making enough with just one series so that I could miss a deadline for a year or five and have a life and maybe some hobbies and other interests. But you want to be the best at something, you have to work harder than everyone else. I know that, but I also know it’s not sustainable. Something has to go. Something has to break or breakout. Let’s hope it’s a book that breaks out, cause let me tell you, I’m tired of breaking.

Hope springs eternal.

 

Committed to the Drop: Writing Deadlines, the Fear of Success, and Mitigating Failure

There has been a rise in public conversation recently about authors and deadlines since George R.R. Martin noted that the next season of Game of Thrones was now going to be coming out before the next book, as he was unable to meet the publication deadline. Lots of authors have talked about their struggles with life vs. deadlines, including – most visibly – Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss, but it’s a subject that comes up often at the convention bar, because many writers struggle with it. Deadlines are necessary, but they hurt, especially for those of us with day jobs, or for those who are primary caregivers. Readers forget that the vast majority of the writers they read still have other jobs that pay for groceries, and whole lives outside of their books.

In my own experience, I’ve found that it’s not the art-ing part that makes writing at a clipped pace difficult, but finding the headspace in my life that I need to focus purely and intently on a single task. It’s no secret that my life is, by necessity, pretty fragmented. I have a day job as a writer at an ad agency (somebody has to write all those corporate blog posts and web pages). I also have a 150 lb dog with two bad back legs who will be in perpetual rehab and surgery for at least another three months. I have a spouse I would like to have a relationship with. I have promotional events I need to go to. I have two books coming out this year, proposals I need to think about (2018 will be here sooner than you think, and I’ll be out of contract) and swag to order and promotional pushes to plan. I have a Patreon that I’m pushing hard to write a short story a month for this year because, you know, dog surgery and rehab and redesigning a website for promo this year is pretty expensive. Last year was a nutty year of constantly switching day jobs as I leapt from the frying pan into the fire and then back to a better position, but it still required a lot of stress, adaptation, and hustle to stay valuable and stay employed because I’m the breadwinner in the family and you know, we need health insurance.

I turned in three books last year, which was stupid and which I never want to do again, and which I finally paid for, as it pretty much broke my ability to achieve all of this without medical intervention.

This is not a post about me missing my publication dates this year, though, so take a big breath, my reading fans. This is instead a post about what it costs sometimes to make those deadlines, and the fear that follows writers throughout their careers. We think that making stories, for authors, is a simple matter. Pound out 500 words a day and you’re good to go! Just keep writing and you will be a success! Once you sell one book you will always sell books!

But it just doesn’t work that way, and I say that as someone who has prided themselves on making my deadlines because I’m a professional writer. You can’t tell a client, “Ha ha sorry that website copy we contracted to have done in May won’t be done until August” without losing their business or getting dinged at your job. But by golly I have been pushing them out as far as they will go this year, to the point where both my editors finally said, “OK, but no more or we’re going to start missing important marketing dates.” Cue author panic, as I know better than anyone how important it is that everything go right with a release, because there are so many external factors that can negatively impact you. You have to be on point at all times throughout the publication of a book, and even then it takes a lot of fucking luck to make things work. Sure, there are folks with established audiences who can push out dates and still eat and stay top of mind, but I am not one of them. Not yet.

The reality is that I’m working two full-time jobs right now, which became abundantly clear at my day job recently when I realized I had more than forty hours of work a week there and there wasn’t any way I could work extra hours because I had forty hours more of work to do on novels and short stories at home and my god we need some help people because I am not a word machine. It was hard to ask for help at work, but though I can work the occasional long night to hit a deadline there the same way I can put in a 10,000 word, 10-hour writing day for a novel, I can’t put in 60 or even 45 hours at the day job a week without risking my novel career. See, again, the necessity of pushing out those deadlines to their breaking point already, and it’s only January!  So we are getting some freelance help at work, which is great, even if it pains me.

Delegation is the theme of 2016 for me, because I’m simply out of time. I handed off the manuscript to GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION to my assistant so she could check all of the endnotes. My spouse has offered to do a second typo-run through it. In addition to designing games based on my work, he has also taken on doing things like filling out foreign tax forms and doing all of our tax work and packaging up backer and mailing list rewards and getting them all mailed and making sure key stuff around the house like dog care, money management, and grocery shopping gets done because otherwise we’d be living on canned soup right now.

This is not an easy business. It’s about far more than just putting marks on paper for an hour in the morning. You’re a small business, and if you have a day job on top of your small business, it’s tough to make it all work alone. For the vast majority of writers, the first fifteen or twenty or forever years of our careers are what we hack out in the time between those things we do to pay the bills. A lot of the money we make doing this gets fed back into the machine for conventions, promo items, website redesigns, mailing list swag, printer ink, paper, and computers.

On occasion, it’s easy to get discouraged, which is why I talk about it here (I’ve noticed that more pro writers appreciate this than aspiring writers; aspiring writers yell at me that I’m “living the dream” and I should be more thankful and upbeat [when was Hemingway ever upbeat about the writing profession??]. We’ll talk again in a decade or so, caterpillar, when you have a full-time novel writing career that doesn’t pay you enough to pay your bills yet).  At a certain point you just keep going because you can’t imagine doing anything else. Writing novels is all I’ve ever done, and though I can see myself taking a year off here in a few years to rest and recharge my writing brain, I can’t imagine ever quitting for good unless I’m in the ground.

Speaking of the ground, I was working on some research for a day job article yesterday and noted that I had every single risk factor for heart disease. Every. Single. One. As I come from a family that’s suffered heart attacks, this is not a fact that I should take lightly. I need to make some personal health changes and make time for fitness, which was the first thing to go when I started on the deadline treadmill. When you’re working constantly all you want to do when you get done with all the writing is to pass out. I keep revisiting my 2016 personal and professional goals list to try and stay on point. It’s fucking tough. The truth is that you probably won’t be able to write novels full time even when you have enough work to keep you busy full time. You may never make enough. Which leaves us here, trying to balance work and novel deadlines, and still maintain some semblance of a quality of life.

So let’s get back to those deadlines. I have two books out this year, and one book to write. That SOUNDS like it should be fine, but think of it like this: it means having three books in various stages along the writing-editing-promotion spectrum, and that is… a lot. We’re trying to push THE BROKEN HEAVENS out by April of 2017, too, which is going to be… special.

Here’s (roughly) what my dates are looking like:

  • GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION proofs: 2/8 (pushed out from 1/29)
  • THE STARS ARE LEGION draft 2: 2/15 (pushed out from 1/29)
  • ICFA Conference (March)
  • GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION final proofs
  • THE STARS ARE LEGION copyedits
  • GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION release date (May 31)
  • GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION promo (May 30-June 20)
  • Readercon (July)
  • THE STARS ARE LEGION proofs
  • THE BROKEN HEAVENS “draft” due to agent (August 1)
  • Gencon (August)
  • THE BROKEN HEAVENS draft due to publisher (October 1)
  • THE STARS ARE LEGION release (October 4)
  • THE STARS ARE LEGION promo (October 3-24)
  • THE BROKEN HEAVENS copyedits
  • THE BROKEN HEAVENS proofs

If you are one of the people sad about how “long” it is taking to write THE BROKEN HEAVENS, I will refer you to the above list, and also point out, you know, it’s not like I’m doing five years between books WILL YOU LOOK AT THAT LIST HOLY GOD.

This is all on top of everything else that I’ve got to figure out how to get done this year, like the day job, like fitness, like not going insane. Every time I bump into someone at a convention they comment on how great my career is looking and yes, that’s true, things look great! But I’ve done this long enough that I know I need to hedge my bets. I am tentatively hopeful about how THE GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION is going to do, as I’ve run into a lot of people buzzing about it at conventions and I haven’t even really done any promotion or anything for it yet (though really, the blog is the promotion. My whole career is the promotion). And it has a lot of crossover appeal, as there are many folks who read my blog who either don’t read or don’t care for my fiction who’ve been waiting to snap up a collection like this.

But none of this is a sure thing. It’s all about finding the right house for the book, getting the right cover, the right publisher support, pulling off the right promotion, getting it into the hands of the right people, and praying that you pushed it out at the right time (timing is everything with this one, which is why me, my editor, and the whole publishing staff involved in its release has been shepherding it through Tor fairly quickly). This is the same thing happening with THE STARS ARE LEGION at Saga, with folks moving things around and ushering it through, getting covers done, and prepping hard so we can hit our October date. It’s a lot of work to publish a book, and only some of that is mine. So if you wonder why books “cost so much” (especially when many authors are paid so little) I want you to consider both the folks behind Team Hurley and the teams at Tor Books, Saga Press, and Angry Robot Books who are helping me deliver that list of titles to you up there. The work that they do ensures that I can spend more of my time writing than I would otherwise, and ensures you get quality stuff.

There’s no doubt that I produce far more work now with deadlines than without, but I admit the slow grind here is not what even I expected. What I prepared for in my teens and early twenties was for the long slog to get my first book published. I seriously, for real, thought it was all downhill after that. I figured getting published was going to be the biggest hurdle, and I had learned to accept the fact that I might be thirty or forty or fifty before that happened. But getting a book published is not the hardest part, sorry! Obscurity is the biggest hurdle. Achieving longevity. Building a career. And achieving those things is not a one-off act. It’s a process. Just like you can’t run a 6-minute mile once and then expect you can do it again after never running a step for six years, you can’t expect that writing one book puts you in a good place to sell your third book, or your twentieth book.

I was talking to another writer on Twitter recently who said that most depressed people actually commit suicide when they are on the upswing, not when they are truly in the depths of despair (bear with me for this metaphor, because it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot as I write thousands of words about writing that are not the books currently due and trying to figure out what truth I’m trying to get at to break through here). When we’re at our lowest point, we hesitate to do anything at all; depression still exists because we were less likely to get eaten by lions than people who were bounding off into the savannah every morning. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea that your lowest point, the point at which you are in the most peril of losing everything, is actually when you are starting to get better. And it’s that point when you are in the upswing of your career that you really start to panic, because after all this darkness, you start to see the light.

And shit, yeah. After all this time, and all this struggle, here I am with two books coming out this year from major publishers, and they are GOOD books (or, in the case of my draft of THE STARS ARE LEGION, have great potential to be). And I realize that some of the writing here, the fear, the push at the deadlines, the mad scramble for words just ahead of the ax, is me realizing that it may in fact be almost possible that I am coming out of the terrible publishing grind that I’ve been fighting for the last five years. That’s a scary place to be when you’ve gotten so used to living and working just one way. What does your internal story become, then? You face an uncertain future. No, misery and grinding work are not great, but after awhile you just get used to them. What’s funny is that the hardest part of the grind is never, for me, when I’m at my lowest point. It’s here, when shit seems to be paying off and suddenly you’re like well shit, what if I AM great? What if I DO succeed? What if things AREN’T as awful for the next five years?

Sometimes just that idea alone can paralyze you. You see how things can be better, and you get terrified not so much that you could achieve it, even, but that you could come so close to achieving it and then somehow fuck it up and fail again and be right back to where you started.

Writers are always worried about fucking up, and we have good reason. Many a writer has believed their career was just fine and dandy until suddenly editors stopped buying books. A writing career is not always an upward progression. It tends to look far more like a rollercoaster.

And here I am, climbing up another curve on that coaster, fearful of what’s on the other side, fearful of the drop, fearful of failure, fearful of success. But I am already strapped in, and the deadlines will push out no more, and I am committed to the drop.

So here we go. All together now.  Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Traditional Publishing, Non-Compete Clauses & Rights Grabs

DISCLAIMER: I am going to say some tough, true things in this essay. It’s not NEW stuff, but stuff that writers talk about a lot in the bar at conventions on in email with one another. This is not meant to be a jibe at any publishers I’m currently working with (well, except the usual one, and they know who they are). These are general industry issues on the minds of many writers that I think we all need to talk about publicly for newer writers coming up after us. So let’s get to it! 


If you love something, let it go. 

If it returns to you, it was meant to be. 

If it does not return, it means it thought your relationship was pretty shitty and it’s really happy to never see you again.

When you’re a new writer, you mostly talk to other new writers about craft. Once you publish a book or two, though, you’re increasingly talking to your peers about the business of writing and publishing. You talk about contracts and foreign rights deals and rights grabs and the benefits and drawbacks of self-publishing and being a hybrid author.

One of the big issues we’ve been dealing with the last 15 years or so as self-publishing has become more popular are the increasing rights grabs and non-compete clauses stuck into the boilerplate from big traditional publishers terrified to get cut out of the publishing equation. Worse, these clauses are becoming tougher and tougher to negotiate at all, let alone get them to go away. Worser (yes, worser) – many new writers don’t realize that these are shitty terms they should be arguing over instead of just rolling over and accepting like a Good Little Author. What I’ve seen a lot in my decade of publishing is new writers on the scene who don’t read their contracts and who rely on their agent’s judgement totally (and that’s when they even HAVE an agent! eeeee). They don’t have writer networks yet. They aren’t sure what’s normal and what’s not and they don’t want to rock the boat.

I am here to tell you to rock the boat.

#

We’re seeing many publishers turn their backs on nurturing mid-list authors to champion quick-hit books. That’s not new, again. We’ve seen the squeezing out of the midlist for thirty years. It sucks. There’s very little career-nurturing. You have to prove your mettle in the small presses or write something insanely marketable the first go-round just to break through. Folks should note that my career required me to start out at the smaller presses and work my way up. It’s been difficult. I had to prove myself, and I had to have editors who championed my work at the big houses, and a great agent who wasn’t afraid to take it to market. It’s been a slog. It didn’t happen overnight. And I’ve learned a lot along the way. And if this stuff tanks this year, getting up is going to be hard (so buy my book, etc).

This reluctance to nurse mid-list careers is bad news for writers who want to go the traditional publishing route, especially as it’s happening at a time when many editors are overworked and marketing budgets continue to get slashed and advances continue to tumble. If you’re a new author in SFF, don’t be surprised to get a first offer of $5,000 that demands your first-born child and everything you and they will ever write, and if you sell just 3,000 copies, well, sorry, we’re done with you and maybe go back to the small houses or come back to us with some vampire erotica we can sell.

Why does this all matter, though, and can it be fixed? Is traditional publishing just doomed to offer us less and less while taking more and more? What can we do to combat it?

Let’s break this down.

Non-Compete Clauses (yes, really)

Folks in self-publishing lose their minds when they hear about these clauses in traditional publishing contracts, and let me tell you, that was pretty much my reaction when I encountered my first one, too.  Though writers have been seeing these clauses in big house contracts for some time now, we still laugh and hork and yell bullshit at this clause because that’s exactly what it is: complete bullshit.

You should be fighting these too.

Non-compete clauses ask a writer to take an advance of $10,000 or $20,000 or whatever and prevent them from having any other novel-length work come out for a full year (or more!) before and after the book is published by that house. Sometimes this is “only” six months before and after. Sometimes it’s “only” novels in a related genre or can be negotiated to “only” novels in the same world. But it’s always awful and you always have to yell hard about it to get it wittled down to something manageable. In truth, this shit should not be there at all, but know that you CAN rub away at it if you insist.

You can see the huge problem with these clauses immediately, of course. Last year was the first year I’ve made what I’d consider a living wage from writing, and to achieve that I had to turn in three books that year.

Clearly I was able to negotiate this clause in my own contracts because I’ve got two books coming out next year (though note that I’m an established author and the books are coming out in different genres), but let me tell you that I about threw my shit out when I saw my first one of these because when you see something in writing your first impulse is to believe that it’s set in stone and impossible to change. I think these things should be thrown out all together, but until then: fight it.

For authors who write four books, or eight books, or more a year, big houses adhering strictly to this clause while paying advances under $50,000 a book would mean preventing most authors from making a living wage as writers (remove agent’s cut, taxes, and health insurance from that number, and yes, friends, that is what I’d consider an actual living wage, not this $20,000 bullshit).

That’s just a fact.

Also of importance is that this clause makes the sort of unreasonable demands on an author that can only be made of an actual employee. You know, someone who gets health insurance and other benefits. By asking authors not to compete against themselves, they’re skirting dangerously close to moving us into the “employee” category that they want to keep us out of.  I have a non-compete clause in my employment agreement at my day job that prevents me from taking on freelancing work that competes with my day job work, and those hold up (mostly) because I’m actually categorized as an employee.

So are we employees or contractors? I’m actually surprised no one has taken a non-compete clause to court, because I think a serious legal inquiry would be interesting.

If you’re stuck in one of these non-compete clauses, the chances of you ever making a living as a writer of purely fiction are slim to none.

The fact that they want to effectively make you a house author without any of the benefits of being a house author – like multi-year contracts and living-wage advances – is even worse.

They need to go, and we all should be pushing hard at them.

Other fun stuff: I have also heard several authors who weren’t able to write related work – from short stories to novellas – featuring the world or characters in their novels, per the contract. That means short stories, novellas, everything. I know writers who’ve had to go argue up the chain of command just to be able to write work in their own world.

Check for this and get it thrown out. Immediately. WTF we are not writing tie-in fiction! WTF is this doing in ANYONE’s boilerplate, I have no fucking idea.

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Rights Grabs

Oh, sure, the boilerplate at a lot of publishers asks for everything: movie rights, TV rights, theme park rights, you name it. But you can mostly get that garbage thrown out on the first pass (YOU BETTER!).

Lots of contracts also ask for comic book rights. When I saw that one I was pretty surprised. Like, seriously? This isn’t limited to big publishers, either. Look at your short story contracts and how many of them include audio and anthology rights now, too. That was unheard of when I first started sending stories out.

Stuffing contracts full of clauses that give publishing houses every right ever imagined is nothing new, as noted. What’s new is how much more difficult it’s becoming for authors who aren’t in the 1% to get them removed.

I’m successful in doing this a lot of them time, but not always, and I’m pretty hawkish with contracts. For folks less confident, or bullish, even with an agent it’s infinitely harder (I love my agent. I still send her back to negotiate things when I’m not happy. That’s the gig).

You should be pushing on this, too.

 

The Fist or the Open Palm

First: I have some great publishers, and editors who have gone to bat for me to make things work. I have great relationships with the vast majority of them. I know it’s a tough business. I know they struggle with it too.HNCK4310-600x400

But their parent companies see us as widget-makers, and they make it tougher and tougher for editors to hold out the open palm instead of the fist. Goodwill with your editor, or “my editor is so nice!” does not always translate to the nitty-gritty of the contract. A lot of those things are determined by the parent company up high, and are negotiated not with the editor but with people in the contracts department. Having a super nice editor who wants the best for you is great, but it does not guarantee there will be nothing but roses in your contract.

See, the big corp parent companies prefer the fist. They’d like to legally tie you to them, condemning you to live in poverty or keep your day job throughout your contract. But what editors and writers would certainly prefer is that publishers provide you with more value that helps make you and the work a success. Publishers who do things that make you WANT to do business with them are going to win over those who make it tough.

But that takes time, and effort, and resources. And so many editors are so short on those that it’s criminal. The great ones have done a fabulous job of helping us along, but their parent companies don’t always make it easy.

Clearly the parent companies, like many businesses today, are choosing the cheaper solution first. It’s way easier to serve up awful contracts than it is to invest in more editorial and marketing support. Better to just contractually bind authors to you because they have no other choice and are desperate for a sale.

But is it really easier, in the long run?

Because here’s the thing. Ruling with the fist ensures you only ever get people who have no choice but to be ruled by the fist. The minute they break out and have other options, they’ll be gone. Either they’ll go into self-publishing or they’ll leave your house and go somewhere else. Maybe nobody will care by then. Maybe the hope is that they get your one breakout success novel and don’t care about the rest.

As writers become better at running their careers like businesses and publishing companies try and wrest away more and more control for less and less money, the truth is that the control that self-publishing offers becomes pretty appealing.  It’s one reason I continue to self-publish my own short fiction, and if you take a look at Patreon, I can basically write 12 short stories a year right now for $18,000 a year, which – if you take out my agent’s fee – is more than I’ve been paid for any single novel as yet (she makes 15% on everything, so at $20,000 for my highest advance, I actually received $17,000).

When you break that shit down and look at the math, it’s pretty wild.

The argument from publishers is that you know, fewer people are reading books. So we have to pay authors less. And I get that. But paying us LESS while simultaneously asking for MORE rights isn’t fair either. And yes, yes, life isn’t fair, this is business, sure – but from a business perspective we need to start thinking about what it is that we’re signing over, as authors, and what our deal breakers are. I’ve finally gotten to the point in my career where I realize that for some projects, no publisher is better than certain deals. I have a day job, and I can afford to turn work down.

What becomes a problem is when every publishing contract is shitty and inflexible, because then you’re left with selling your soul or giving up your dream of publishing, and that’s not a great place to be. It’s what’s going to turn more and more authors who cultivate fan followings to turn to alternative ways to make money and cut publishers out all together.

This is a shame for a number of reasons, the least of which is that there are great editors out there who are fabulous to work with and amazing art departments and marketing and sales teams that can indeed help you and your books level up (if I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t be doing it). But they, too, are often available for freelancing work, because they aren’t making a lot of money either. They hustle just like authors do. Publishing layoffs and budget cuts mean that if you have the money, you can become an author-publisher and packager and manage this all yourself. You can run your own small publisher for your own work – and there are authors who do that. I’ve talked to a number of self-published writers who got trad publishing deals who – though they appreciated the greater distribution – found that giving up so much control of the process to someone else and then not seeing a massive return was pretty demoralizing.

Championing Books vs. Authors

More and more, editors find themselves in the difficult place of being asked to champion a book instead of an author. While many agents will still sign up an author and work to nurture their career, we’re seeing this far less inside publishing houses whose stakeholders want instant hits, not investments that pay out in twenty years.

What this means is that you see a lot of writers doing what I’ve done: starting out with smaller presses and building sales there before moving to larger houses. It means that a lot of the innovative talent-finding in the industry is done at smaller houses that can call a book a success if it sells 5,000 copies. You see less room for taking a chance on an unknown author at a larger house unless they have an easily recognizable breakout book (and editors who take those chances on people like me are my heroes, but also have to have some strong author hits or cred inside their organization in order to balance the risks they take).

When houses are investing in books and not authors, there’s less impetus to make congenial arrangements in contracts. They are buying widgets, not nurturing relationships, and every widget is a potential golden goose. The trouble comes in when authors break out and want to move on because they were treated like shit in prior negotiations. Even if you work hard to “fix” contracts going forward, authors don’t forget shitty treatment. We don’t forget that you didn’t give us those royalty rates the first time. We don’t forget how inflexible you were when we were no one.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Honestly, I don’t know. As an author, I’m diversifying my income, and I’m working with multiple publishers to see what sticks. The 13-book Scalzi deal was an interesting development in publishing, and one I’d like to see more publishers consider. If you’re going to treat me like an employee, I should have the benefits and stability an employer offers, and a minimum income. Otherwise, we need to find ways to make these arrangements look far more like what they are: licensing agreements, and not indentured servitude.

I, for one, am continuing to monitor my contracts like a hawk and pushing and negotiating as I can. Remember that what you see in a contract is never, ever set in stone. I’m working to improve my sales and my reputation to make investing in mycareer less of a risk and more of sure thing that can help me bring more leverage to the negotiating table. But that doesn’t help writers coming up behind me, and more and more, that’s what I’m concerned about. I don’t want writers coming up behind me to think that what they see in their first or third contract is just normal and we all accept them. We’ve pushed back on and negotiated language in our contracts, and all writers need to be doing the same across the industry, until clauses like these non-competes become contested and thrown out so often that they become moot.

Fight them. Discuss them. Push back against them. If you can, and it’s a deal breaker for you, walk away and build something else and come back when you have more leverage. The more of us push the better it will be for all of us going forward. We can’t talk about creating a business that supports more writers and more voices while simultaneously making boilerplate worse and constraining them and their business choices with increasingly restrictive contract language.

Getting a book accepted for publication is, I’m sorry to say, the second easiest part of this business (the easiest part is writing the book. Sorry!). The truth is that an acceptance is just the first step in your career. To stay in the game you need to make smart business decisions, weigh your choices, partner with the right agent(s) and editor(s) for your work, and get business savvy. That means reading, understanding, and pushing back on your contracts.

These are the worlds and characters you built. Ensure they are doing what they need to do to power your career, instead of constraining it.

On Kindness and Conventions

I want to talk a little about kindness.

We like to think that geeks are kind, that geeks understand what it is to be outsiders, and so we open up our circles and are super inviting to everyone. But what happens more often is that once we find our groups, we jealously defend them to keep outsiders away. Once we’ve created an “us” we work even harder to define the “them.” This is one of the reasons that conventions have always been so excruciatingly difficult for me.

Last year at ConFusion in Detroit I came in when everyone else was already glommed up into their little circles and went straight back to the bar and got a drink with my spouse. He was like, “Why aren’t you saying hi to people?” and I was like, “I’m afraid. What if they don’t talk to me? What if I’m interrupting someone? What if somebody says something mean to me? If people want to talk to me, I will wait for them to come to me, then I know for sure they want to talk to me.”

Yes, for real. Last January.

And that didn’t change for me until WorldCon last August, when for the first time ever, fans literally squee’d and shouted and cheered when I walked into a room. I had folks tearing up and saying, “OMG it’s such an honor to meet you” and “OMG YOU’RE KAMERON HURLEY!” and all of a sudden after slogging away for nearly twenty years writing and submitting stories, people outside a small group of authors knew who I was, and I realized something had changed. I wasn’t on the outside anymore, even if I sure as fuck felt like a nobody.

I have argued with authors for years about the power imbalance between authors and fans. By the very fact that you’re an author, that you’ve had worked published, it puts you in a position of perceived power, even if you don’t feel powerful. And what you do with that power is important. But first you need to realize, and accept, that you have it and people have given it to you.

I went to my first convention in 2001, and had such a terrible time, and felt like such an outsider, that I didn’t go again until Wiscon in 2004. It was at Wiscon that I did finally find my people. And though those first couple conventions were tough, I eventually got to know more folks so that I knew a few people every time I went and usually had some folks to talk to. The icebreaker was generally my blog; people knew me for that. That said, most conventions remained a little cliquish. It’s tough to approach circles of people who all clearly know each other, or to say hi to people you aren’t sure even care about or remember you from the conversation you had the night before. I know how difficult conventions have been for me, and after WorldCon, I realized that I was in a place where I finally knew enough people that I could start to pay it forward. I didn’t feel powerful, but people perceived me that way, and it was time for me to start walking the talk I’d been spewing at authors for a decade.

So this weekend at ConFusion, I did what my spouse suggested I do, which is to wave and acknowledge folks as I passed them, even and especially when they didn’t respond. If someone didn’t wave back, I tried very hard to dismiss it and not take it personally. Most of the time, it’s because they didn’t see me, didn’t remember me, or were tired or otherwise goal-focused. I know I had to stop and turn and say hello back to people who I didn’t recognize at first. There was only one instance where I said hello to someone and I felt like I was ignored on purpose, but that dude is pretty weird anyway.

Most importantly, though, when I was out at parties, or in the bar, I opened up the conversation circle to people. This is probably the most important thing you can do at either of these events. There is nothing worse than hanging on outside the circle hoping to try and get someone to invite you in. Here are these people who’ve known each other for years, and you’ve been told to socialize at the bar because it’s so great to network! and all you’re doing is standing outside these circles of people with a drink, feeling stupid.

I have done that more years that I care to admit.

In fact, another author came up to a circle I was in at a party one night, and I widened the conversation circle to welcome him in, as I’d been doing with others all night, and he looked surprised and said “Thank you.”

“For what?” I said.

“For opening the circle,” he said. “Most people tighten up the circle when other people come up.”

“Are you serious?” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he said.

Unless you’re involved in a heated private conversation, please don’t do that, folks, especially if you’re an author here to meet new folks. Don’t close the circle unless you are seriously meaning to keep someone out who’s a known jerk or something. We’re all at these things to have fun. We have all been that person on the outside of the circle, and you fucking know what it feels like. Don’t do that to people.  I know it’s all terrifying. Just introduce yourself. Encourage everyone else to introduce themselves. Remember what it was like when you didn’t know anyone.

As my spouse often says, kindness costs you nothing. And it means the world to someone else. It’s the difference between having a welcoming and open community and a cliquish, closed community that does not grow and diversify. And if you’re talking the talk about building that better community, then you need to take the tough actions that will help you build that, even if it scares you.

There were, of course, plenty of things I messed up. I made a joke on a panel at the expense of another panelist, not realizing that we had no previous rapport and it might hit him the wrong way. I was saving a seat at a table at breakfast for someone and had to turn someone else away, when in fact what I should have done is pull another table together with ours to make the table bigger.  I can go on. And I did, of course, like we always do, jerking awake from a sound sleep Sunday morning in a panic that I’d committed a thousand social faux pas for which I would never be forgiven.

But, you know: you get up again. You plow forward. You apologize when necessary. You move on. You do better.

I have talked a lot of talk over the last decade. It’s my turn to pay it forward, and to help build the community I’d like to see, instead of just complaining about how shitty things are elsewhere.

Because there is no greater joy than seeing the reactions of people who’ve had their first amazing convention, and who tear up all the way home because in a single weekend they’ve found their people, they feel included, they felt like part of something bigger than themselves.

Be the change you want to see, right? I need to act like the author I always wished I would have encountered when I was twenty-one years old at my first convention. Every time I talk to some new person, especially those at their first convention, I imagine that I’m talking to somebody who is going to come up fighting through here just like me. I’m holding out the hand I didn’t get that first time. I’m opening up the circle.