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Archive for the ‘The Writing Life’ Category

Yes, You Can Say No to Your Editor(s)

So there’s been much hand-wringing lately in internet writing circles about getting experts in a particular lived experience to read your novel looking for ways you may have gotten said lived experience wrong. When we’re talking about someone checking your science fiction novel for math and physics mistakes, we call this an “expert” reader, but for lived experience, the term “sensitivity reader” is being bandied about, and receiving a lot of eye-rolling and generating a lot of (w) writer tears. No one did this when I said I had a doctor friend look over all the guts and gore in my God’s War series. Weirdly enough!

Listen. I’m going to tell you a secret, which you should already know if you’re a pro writer, but is especially useful for new writers to hear. Nobody tells you what to write in this business. They may say, “Hey, I’d like to see a space opera from you,” or “Hey, you know, the gay guy dies here and that’s not a great trope. Sure you want to do that?” but no one will make you change anything. I mean, if you really can’t come to an agreement, you can publish that shit up on Amazon tomorrow, easy peasy. I know writers who actually argue with their copyeditors in the manuscript comments, and this always makes me roll my eyes. Why are you arguing? You’re the author. It will say in your contract, if you and your agent are diligent, that no changes can me made to the manuscript which you don’t approve of. That’s a pretty standard clause that has been in all of my contracts. Now, if you’re like, “I totally want to load a bunch of typos in this book!” you could also, even, do that for stylistic reasons! I know, it’s amazing. One of the reasons I prefer writing novels to writing ad copy (tho the ad copy pays way better) is that I’m in charge of the novel writing. Nearly any other type of writing you do is subject to a million other people’s opinions. Everyone has to have their 2 cents. Screenwriters are often at the very bottom of the H-wood hierarchy. In ad writing, there are times I’ll see the copy exactly once – in my first draft – and by the time I see the final it’s been touched by so many different folks that it’s barely recognizable. Novel writing isn’t like that. You will get suggestions from editors, but it’s only that – suggestions. If you want to write cliched, shitty characters that make people upset because they perpetrate the sorts of dangerous stereotypes that can get them killed, you go right ahead! You own that. Have fun. Sleep well.

But don’t fucking complain when you get called out on it like you’re a clueless fuck when a bunch of people offered to help you.

There are times when I’ve chosen not to take editorial suggestions. I had an editor want to cut a consensual sex scene, and, in fact, a whole chapter that was my favorite chapter in the book. I just ignored those comments. My agent once told me “Empire Ascendant” was not a great title for the second book in my Worldbreaker Saga, and we should do something related to “Mirror” for all three books. I didn’t listen, and I regretted it as soon as the book came out, because no one can spell “Ascendant” and she was right: there were way too many other books with “Empire” in the title. But I made that choice and I owned it. Most recently, my editor for The Stars Are Legion suggested that I tone down some of the gore during a scene with a recycler monster in the belly of the world. I giggled and just deleted the comment. And lo: yes, I’ve had multiple people already who are like, “HOLY SHIT THAT IS GORY WTF IS THIS?” And I giggle similarly. He was right that it’s super gory, but that’s the way I wanted it. My agent and I sit down and plot out books all the time. Most of the time I take her suggestions. Sometimes I don’t! Because I’m the author, I write the worlds! Ultimately, I’m the one who is responsible for those words. I will get the praise and the heat. It’s like being the director of a big budget movie. Everything that’s brilliant and everything that’s fucked up will be attributed to you, so you better fight for what you want.

I have been called out for all sorts of problematic shit in my books, like this. I’ve had readers point out that I’m not doing a whole lot with gender in The Stars are Legion. That’s a fair thing to point out! While I had Plans, I ran up against a deadline wall, and I chose to kick the book out the door to keep the publication date instead of going back in to do more world building layering That was my choice, and I have to live with it.

Nobody can make you do anything in this business, really. I mean, the worst I’ve ever heard is an author yanking back his book because his editor was like, “This is not publishable” and yeah, you have to really have turned in shit to have that happen, or your editor has to be unhinged (which happens!) and even then, you usually get to keep some of the advance and… post it on Amazon! The only time I ever felt compelled to make any changes was when I was doing legal review for Geek Feminist Revolution with a lawyer who was like, “If we phrase it this way, we’re less likely to get sued for libel,” which sounded super reasonable to me! But even then: these were phrased, always, as suggestions.

The truth is you are never going to write the Perfect Book that will be Universally Loved by All. What you can do is work with experts and editors to get as close to writing the book you want to write as possible. That’s it. If your editor recommends a “sensitivity reader” you can be like, “HELL NO FUCK THAT I WILL WRITE THE UGLIEST RACIST TROPES I WANT” and they’ll be like… uhhhhh OK? Because hey, if you want to die on that hill, you go for it. And yes, sure, an early reader may be like, “Hey! I told this writer there were problems and they didn’t listen!” and share that with the world, the same way you shared your book with the world! That could also happen! And you know what? That isn’t censorship either. That’s people saying true things on the internet. Which happens rarely enough these days that we should just celebrate any sort of truth telling at all.

So, hey, is your book offensive? If you don’t care, don’t ask. But if you want to write a book that is as true to life as you can make it, why wouldn’t you call on experts to help you make it that way? This sounds like a gift to me, not a curse.

But maybe that’s just because I’m dedicated to being the very best writer I can be, writing the clearest and most deliberate prose possible. If I’m going to write something awful, I want to have done so deliberately, and I will own it (I have written awful things! I own them, for better or worse).

What are you trying to achieve?

 

Writing Income: What I Made in 2016

Hello, folks! It’s that time of year again, when I say: don’t quit your day job!

Below is a breakdown of how much money I made writing in 2016. This is a very ROUGH estimation (take note, IRS!) which I’ll be finalizing here soon, but this is fairly comprehensive.

Note that this does NOT include the income from my day job. If you wonder how I afford health insurance and convention traveling expenses and rent, it’s because I have a decent-paying day job. And this is why:

 

  $25,400 Royalties, foreign sales, advances, audio
  $11,100 Patreon      
  $1275 Magazine articles and columns 
  $630.51 Story sales and reprints   
  $196.62 Self-pub sales     
TOTAL

     $38,602

 

And here’s how that looks visually:

 

If we had no debt and some other way to get reliable health insurance, I could probably go full time. That was the hope before the government started to repeal the ACA, that I was about 3 years out from being able to become a full time writer and just live nimbly instead of traveling all the time. Realistically, though, this isn’t going to happen anymore. So I consider my writing a big part of my retirement income.

This is also a good reminder that your favorite writers are not rich celebrities. We’re just people who are hustling like you are. So do please remember that. And keep on hustling.

Also: don’t quit that day job, because this varies incredibly from year to year. It wasn’t that long ago when I cleared a whopping $7,000 as a writer. You just can’t rely on income that’s this variable.

Let’s Talk About Writing and Disappointment

There was a huge amount of buzz around the release of The Geek Feminist Revolution last year. More buzz than I’d seen for any book I’d ever written. People were telling me on Twitter that they’d bought three or four copies and were making all their friends read it. I heard from booksellers that the books were flying off the shelves. We went into a second printing almost immediately. I did a book signing in Chicago that sold a bunch of books. The reader response at BEA was surreal. It was magical.

This, I thought, is what it must feel like to have a book that’s about to hit it big. This was it. This was going to be the big one. It was going to take off. I gnawed on my nails and watched as big magazines picked up articles from it and it got reviewed favorably in The New York Times, and I waited for first week sales numbers.

I expected to see at least twice the number of first week sales for this book as I had for any previous book. The buzz alone was two or three times what I was used to. This had to be it….

But when the numbers came in, they weren’t twice what I usually did in week one. They were about the same as the first week numbers for The Mirror Empire.  And… that was…. fine. I mean, it would keep me getting book contracts.

But… it wasn’t a breakout. It was a good book, but It wasn’t a book that would change my life, financially.

Reader, I cried.

It’s been strange since then, because everywhere I go, people come up to me and congratulate me on the release of the book. It has the best reviews of any book I’ve ever written. People come up to me and burst into tears at the head of the signing line and thank me for writing it. It’s a transformative book for people. It’s a manifesto. It’s a book that’s even more relevant now after the election. It changes people’s lives. I’m very glad I wrote it, though it nearly broke me to do it.

But it’s not making money hand over fist, I’m not quitting my day job, and while yes, it’s selling steadily and well, this is not the breakout book I was tentatively expecting it to be (not this year, anyway). It will likely earn out by the end of this year, based on what I know (though we’ll see. I’ll get royalty statements soon). But it’s hard to say this out loud to people when they congratulate me about the book. Lots of people would love to have a book that’s sold as well as it has. But that’s the sixth book I’ve had in print, and you know, you get tired of the emotional rollercoaster in this business after so many years of it (only five years! But egads, I feel that I’ve lived a lifetime of publishing bullshit in that time).

I was thinking about this again because my agent noted that it was in June last year when I started to have trouble writing my next book, and needed to push out the deadline not long after. And you know: June was when I got my first week numbers for GFR. These things, I realized, were not coincidental. I took a lot of time off at the end of last year to regroup, physically and emotionally, after the letdown. Then the election happened, and we all lost a month to readjusting to the new reality.

It’s difficult to say these things out loud to new writers, that most of the books you write will mean a lot to some people, but that they won’t make you rich. They won’t even pay enough for food and health insurance. You will have to work two jobs, novels and day job, until you retire. And maybe even still then. We want to talk about the six or seven figure book deals, the breakout hits, the fairytale stories. But the majority of writers face only this: writing the next book and the next book and the next book, building an audience from scratch, from the ground up, hustling out a living just like everyone else does, cobbling together novel contracts, Patreon money, day jobs, and freelancing gigs.

Life is pain, princess, and publishing is just another part of life. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. No reward but the emotional squee of fans and the passionate fan letters. Those rewards will need to be enough, for me, for many of us, for a very long time.

I will not give up hope for the breakout. I mean, you just can’t. I’m barreling into my launch party month for The Stars are Legion gearing up like it’s going to be the next space thriller hit. You have to. I’m reminded of something a colleague once told me about creative work, which is that you must care intensely and personally about a thing and then somehow be able to let it go, and then do it again and again. Writing novels is like that. Believing every book is your best book, the book that will be read by millions (or at least hundreds of thousands!). You can’t give that up. It’s what drives you forward. And it’s how I plan all of my book launches.

Certainly, any of my backlist books could still breakout at any time, but I need to acknowledge the emotional cost of that rollercoaster of hope and despair. We are all of us just working to put food on the table and revolution in the mind, working, and working, until death or the apocalypse or both.

There’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

But sometimes it’s painful, princess.

Christmas 2016 & Ruminations on the Future

I love Christmas. It’s my favorite holiday. I start listening to Christmas music in October. I decorate the house, whenever possible, the day after Thanksgiving (and only that late because my spouse insisted many years ago: No Decorations Until After Thanksgiving, which is fair). We like to get the tree the first week of December, so we can enjoy it through New Year’s week. It’s a lot of work to put up a tree that’s only up for a week.

But this year has been a tough one, as it has been for a lot of people. We both got sick just before Thanksgiving, and though we had a great trip out to see family and friends in Albuquerque, it meant it took us even longer to recover from being sick. Since this summer, my spouse has also been being treated for some health issues, which culminated in a lot of tests and doctor’s appointments and hospital visits in December (he is OK). Last week I realized I was just too tired to get a tree and decorate it this year, and neither of us had the energy to put up the Christmas lights. I managed to get up the Christmas village and hang some bulbs on the trees outside, but that was it.

We burned through all of our savings and too much credit earlier this year trying to save our dog, Drake, who finally died in July of an antibiotic-resistant staph infection. We had some checks we anticipated getting this month (including reimbursements from pet insurance) that haven’t arrived, so things are tight here, and it’s not the usual blow-out extravaganza of presents I like to do, but we do have cash flow, so it’s not like we’re poor, just… not the usual holiday. We cashed in our Chipotle Chiptopia reward of catering for 20 and ate that all last week because we were both too tired to cook and hey, it would save us on groceries! So that gives you an idea of our energy levels.

The exhaustion and political horror of the last couple of months can sometimes mask the fact that good things happened this year, too. The Geek Feminist Revolution came out in May (May! Feels like a lifetime ago, and a whole other world ago) and is selling OK. Reader reactions to that one have been amazing; it’s got the highest rating of any of my books on Goodreads. I also finished writing The Stars are Legion back in… March? And now that review copies have gone out, reader reactions are coming in, and it’s blowing people’s minds in just the right way (a lot of people didn’t believe it could possibly be a book with ALL WOMEN in it. Ha ha it’s a sci-fi world! There’s even a sci-fi reason! See, writers can do anything! Your own worldbuilding excuses are invalid!).

I continue to have a stable job that doesn’t eat my soul, provides health insurance for me and my spouse, and gives me the flexibility I need to stay sane. In 2016 and the years to come, this is pretty rare, and something to celebrate. Before the election my goal was to move to writing full time by the time I was forty. Now, without access to affordable health insurance through the ACA in the next few years, that’s not going to happen (“access” to health insurance is not “affordable” health insurance. I’m sure the new admin would be happy to let me pay $50k a year to get covered and call that “insurance access for everyone!”). The ACA was a cool dream. The dream is most likely over, so I’m adjusting my future goals accordingly.

As for my own health, a series of poor test results (increasing blood pressure, increased A1C, another weight jump) led my doctor to try a few different drugs this year to see if they could help. We seem to have hit on one that both helps my body process the insulin I have to inject for the rest of my life and reduces appetite dramatically. I no longer think about food all the time and I admit I keep wondering, “Is this how skinny people feel all the time?” After I dieted back in 2012 to drop the 30 lbs I gained after God’s War came out, my hunger came back with a raging vengeance, and it’s been nigh impossible to stop the uptick, to the point where I thought there was something seriously wrong with me, metabolically. Don’t crash diet, people. Seeing the scale number jump significantly backwards for the first time in many years, I find it ironic, once again, that weight gain or loss is still considered a moral matter in this country, like you’re somehow better if you can be thinner, when there are in fact all sorts of hidden bodily reasons that people stay thin or fat. Our Puritan idea that we must suffer hunger and toil, and that a slender body is the outward manifestation of this, is just bizarre. Let me tell you, with the raging hunger I’ve had for the last four years, it took some suffer and toil to be only this size. If this side effect to my meds continues, don’t think I’ve got some secret later this year when you see me and I’ve lost weight. There’s no secret. There’s no magic. It’s just that bodies are weird. I’m the same person at every weight. The dissonance I’ve felt inside my weirdly messed up body does bleed over into my fiction a lot. I am very aware of being a gooey sack of meat.

In other news, I’ve also joined the local YMCA, which is just $30 a month and which is just down the street from my day job, so I can swing by there a few times a week for some quick cardio (not suffering and toil. Quick cardio!). I’ve been writing a shitbrick of articles this year for the day job about health and wellness, and there are two things that all of the research agrees on: people who exercise 20 minutes a day and eat green leafy vegetables tend to live longer and in better health. Oh, and smoking is bad. But that should be a given, these days. That’s it. So I am getting back to moving again, for actual health as opposed to toil, and that should help solve the blood pressure issue, too. 2017 is no time to die of a heart attack. I mean, the Resistance will just be getting started…

As I look ahead to the next year, I see a lot of uncertainly, like many people. I have the final book due in my Worldbreaker Saga, The Broken Heavens, in April (wait until you see the cover! Squee!). I also have another stand-alone SF book due to Saga Press at the end of next year as well. Those are the last of my contracted books, so I’ll be working with my agent this year on a few other projects. We also have many other irons in the fire, some with the God’s War books/possible spin-offs, a possible story collection, and one pilot script project that’s spinning its wheels. We’ll see what happens.

My motto for this year and perhaps the next few is going to be “Survive.” That is my goal, really, to dig ourselves back out of dog medical debt, to write some great projects, to persevere, to survive. Thriving would be great! But sometimes you have to be OK with survival, and this year, of all years, I’m OK with survival. I admit this means I have no pithy hopeful statements about the future (though I find the idea that I’ll survive into the future pretty hopeful!). Instead, I have only the guarantee that I will do what I can to survive, and that I will stick it in here beside you as I always have.

As I’ve told some people, one of the tricks I’ve manufactured to get myself through the relenting badness that is the news these days (besides reducing time on Twitter) is to imagine myself looking back at this time from a point far in the future when things are much better. I had this striking dream of myself as an old woman on this timeline, living in an adobe house in the desert, opening the door to some young kids who’d brought copies of Geek Feminist Revolution and who thought I was some kind of ancient seer. They had come to talk about the past, about the world I lived in that spawned that book, and all the books that came before and after it.

That sort of dream may not seem very powerful to you, but to me it was. With my shitty health the last few years and all the political turmoil, I was honestly worried about my chances of making it to old age. That dream gave me the vision of some other timeline, a vision I could use to plot my way forward through the coming years, which may be rough in order to get me to wonderful. We all need a story to see us through the darkest times. Do you need a story of that hopeful future? Write yours, too, and cling to it tightly. We’ll need them.

NaNoNoNo

I’ve been largely absent from the noise and social hubbub of the world lately, and for good reason. I’ve been fairly burned out. This was clear to me in July when I went out to do a cabin writing retreat to get some work done and found I could barely squeeze out 500 words when my goal was to produce 20k over the long weekend. Talk about an epic brain freeze.

While writing hasn’t been all that fun in a couple of years, it was, at least, still flowing. But after I finished The Stars are Legion all in one epic race earlier this year, the words just sort of left (in fact, I worried a lot that I’d botched this book. I’ve never once read it all the way through in one go. Really. And it’s at the printer. But the reviews so far are amazing, so clearly I did something right that writing weekend).

Last night, though, I finished a SUPER rough Nyx short story for the Patreon, and felt like some of the old fun was coming back. Some of that has to do with simply revisiting these characters. Writing these stories is like writing my own fan fiction. I’ve known these people for so much of my life now that they feel like family. It was nice to do something fun and finish it, even if it’s rough and needs some work.

What it did do is kick loose the part of my brain that’s been seeing all writing as a deathless slog the last year and change, and that’s great. It felt like I’d shoved past some massive mountain that was standing in my way. Finally, I was able to sit at the keyboard, in the dark, with a beer and a skull candle, and just completely inhabit another world. In my mind’s eye I was surfacing back in Nasheen again, running around a contaminated desert, dodging bursts and bombs, and trying not to care about my companions too much because the world had already ended and living was so very glorious. That’s the sort of writing experience I crave, when you feel like you’re not making things up so much as dictating a story as you’re living it in your head.

As I’m finally feeling better, I decided to take advantage of the glorious madness that is November to knock out some word count on The Broken Heavens. Revisiting the Nyx gang made me realize I was ready to start putting down some serious word count with my other gang of outcasts and weirdos as they try and save the world(s). As everyone who read Empire Ascendant can attest, that was a dark, dark, book, and I needed a break before really settling in to finish.

Here’s to hoping for a good writing month for all.

 

5 Years a Novelist: A Retrospective on the Writing Life

In January of 2011, about five years ago now, my first book, God’s War, was finally published after being bought and sold and sold again, since about 2007. That was a long and exhausting time, that publishing carousel.

But God’s War will always have a special place in my heart, as selling that series twice enabled me to get out of the poverty hole I’d been in, pay off the three credit cards I’d been living on for a year, and move out of my friends’ spare bedroom into my own apartment.

Five years later I have published six books, with two more coming out next year. I own a house and make a decent salary, so decent I was able to pay an unimaginable amount of money in an attempt to save my dog. Which is… something I could not have ever imagined doing five years ago. Five years ago I couldn’t even pay my own medical expenses.

I have experienced the best and the worst that publishing has to offer, in those five years. I had a bankrupt publisher (that still owes me thousands!) sold to another crappy publisher, and another publisher sold off that stalled the reprint of another book. I have won some awards. Critical acclaim! Great reviews! Drinking with authors! Blurbs!

It’s a bit astonishing to look back and realize all that has happened in just five years. I mean, shit, no wonder people drop out after a decade. Just five years in the business feels like a thirty-year career.

Last year was the first year I made what I’d consider a living wage via novel writing and Patreon dollars alone. This year, I made much less, which is why I still have a day job. The writing life is, as ever, fickle. You never know what the year will bring.

It’s very strange to meet newer/younger writers who look up to me these days, or who think I’m an established pro. Because even tho, gosh, I guess I am, if you look at the year count here, I’ve only been publishing novels for five years. Hardly a lifetime. But maybe that IS a lifetime, in publishing? The thing is, I spent fifteen years prior to that just working on craft, writing other novels that didn’t sell, publishing short stories, trying to break in. So even if I only start the publishing clock at “novel published” I’m really twenty years in.

I know so many writers who don’t make it past a debut book, or a debut series. And I don’t blame them. There’s a lot of disappointment in this industry, mainly driven by flawed expectations. To be a novelist is to be a glorified freelancer, with all the benefits and drawbacks of that type of life. You write and license your content to third parties. If you’re lucky, the content makes you some money beyond the initial advance. If you’re really lucky, it takes off and becomes your lottery ticket. But most books do just well enough to get you the next deal. The next shot. The next step in your career.

Whenever I get frustrated at the grind, I remind myself that I’m just five years in, and it’s going to get tougher. Oh, certainly, some aspects are more fun, as well. Conventions are better, now that I know more people. My writing is better, even if it doesn’t come any easier. And I know myself and what I want much better, which makes negotiations and expectations better, too. I’m learning more about structure, and more about what a “Kameron Hurley” novel really is. I have a lot of ideas for future work.

When I was a teenager, I expected to be making a living writing by the time I was 24. Today I do make a living writing, and actually have been doing so, since 27. Just… not as a novel writer. As a marketing writer. It’s not a bad gig. But it’s certainly not what I expected. The novel money is the gravy. The novel money gets me to conventions. Helps pay off debt. Pays those vet bills. But it’s still not what covers the mortgage or the food.

And, you know, maybe that’s better, five years in. Five years in, I still get to write the books I want. I think about the market, but I don’t worry about it, because if I have a book that tanks, I won’t starve. Maybe that is the freedom one gets, freedom one doesn’t have later unless one has already written that one-book wonder that pays the bills forever.

For now, I am redoubling my efforts to focus on the writing itself. It’s easy to get discouraged by the business, far too easy, to the point that you forget about the work. When you realize that the money from the work saved me from a deep hole of poverty just five years ago, you can see how it can be hard for me not to worry about the money. But to worry over that is to give up one my true north, and what I’m here for. To worry about that is to worry about something I can control only marginally. Readers do the rest.

So here’s to the next five years of the writing life. I expect them to be just as exhilarating, horrifying, hilarious, disappointing, and hopeful as the first five.

And yes, I intend to be here for them. Thanks for coming along for the ride.

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.