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Posts Tagged ‘The Writing Life’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s HERMIT TIME.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To sum up: 2017 IS GOING TO BE EPIC.

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Being a Writer is an Exercise in Cognitive Dissonance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To which I respond, well, it depends.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, the grind.

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

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

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

We fall down seven times. We get up eight.

We get up.

We get up.

We get up.

 

 

 

What About Me? Dealing with Professional Jealousy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Real Publishing Talk: Author Expectation and Entitlement

Despite all of my real talk about publishing here, I can get caught up in The Publishing Dream just as easily as anyone. I still see my peers getting the six and seven figure advances. I see breakout books happen to folks who were previously midlist. I still get excited when one of my books drops and the buzz wagon starts and people get super excited.

And I still feel the big letdown when I realize I still have a long way to go to get Dreamy.  And I look at the work, and the numbers, and I gnash my teeth and whine and cry about it, and then I get back to work.

In this business, you must have a lot of hope. It’s the hope that the next book, or the next, will breakout or build steam or lead to a great deal that keeps you going. But the moment you expect a breakout, the minute you feel entitled to it, is the moment you will crumble under the weight of all your expectations when the real world comes knocking.

This industry is built on hope, on possibility, on the long game, on the gamble. I’ve had Hollywood come knocking about various projects, too. As with publishing, I have learned how to temper my expectations there, as well. I am entitled to nothing. I expect nothing.

As I’ve had more interest in my work, and more opportunities have come my way, I’ve also learned how to say no to things that aren’t furthering my ultimate goal of building my work into its own powerhouse. This is another reason I still hold onto the day job, because it means I don’t have to take every deal or every opportunity. Still, it’s hard to say no. You’re always concerned about opportunities drying up. What if this is the best it ever gets? What if I don’t get an opportunity again?

And then I look at my career and I go, “We are just getting started.”

And it is this, this hope, this rally from the depths of doubt and despair, that keeps me going. You must believe in the future. You must believe you can create it. You must believe that endurance, and hard work, and persistence, will carry you through.

Like all beliefs, of course, it doesn’t make what you believe any truer that something you don’t believe in. But it does help you get up again. It does help you move on. It helps you write again, and complete the next project, and pursue your next goal.

I’ve built a life on the back of shattered expectations. I may not be thrilled, as a Left Coast Liberal ending up in the Midwest, but in looking around at the shattered economy and soaring housing prices, it’s currently one of the few places in the U.S. where I can live as well as I do on the money I make. We are carving out a little, affordable piece of something out here. But it’s certainly not what I expected.

My novel career, too, is not what I expected. I figured I’d be writing novels for a living by the time I was in my mid-twenties. I didn’t realize I was both writing ahead of the market and trying to get published just before it imploded. Luck plays a part in success, and I have scrambled through a lot of rough patches of poor timing and awful luck.

And not a single minute of that scramble entitles me to anything. It’s this knowledge that I have to struggle with time and time again, though I know better. My parents raised me with that good old white working class promise “Work hard and you’ll succeed.” The truth is that how hard one works doesn’t entitle one to anything at all. There are no guarantees in life. A truer statement might be, “Put in the work and hope for the best.”

This is where I’m at now as I work on the next book. Here I am, one book released just two weeks ago, another heading out to reviewers, and a third that I’m currently drafting, all at the same time. When you work, all you should expect is more work.

Hope exists for the rest.

Llama Llaunch! Rules of the Road

Hey, hey folks, my first essay collection, The Geek Feminist Revolution, drops TOMORROW, May 31!

In anticipation of its release, here are some things you should know that I know and some things you should know about how I’ll be comporting myself online during the launch:

  1. Some people (the vast majority) are going to LOVE this book. LOVE IT LOVE IT LOVE IT. That’s not me being puffed-up. I’ve already seen this happening. It’s cool! We’re all happy! Some folks will find it not to their taste, or find it’s not for them, or will critique it mindfully and vigorously, and that, too, is great! Happy! Good! This is what we’re here for. This is what it is to publish work and be part of a conversation far bigger than you. Debate and conversation is healthy. PLEASE respect other people’s views of the books, and don’t troll people who have a different opinion of the book. We WANT conversation. Do not stifle it in a misguided attempt to ensure that everyone loves everything just like you do. I love you all! And actual differences of opinion, real engagements with the text, are good for the genre and the world, etc.
  2. Some people (the minority, but oh, what a vocal minority!) will HATE this book, even and especially those who’ve never read it and have never heard of me and have no idea what it’s actually about. I fully anticipate several pile-ons. I expect lots of garbage in my social feeds. But fear not! All of my email is screened, I’ve muted the majority of the worst accounts and keywords on Twitter, and buttoned up other things to ensure this goes as smoothly as possible. I WILL BE FINE. CHIN UP.
  3. This leads us to THIS point, which is: NO WHITE KNIGHTING. All I ask if there’s a pile-on is for you to NOT tag me if you argue with trolls. My troll policy is mute and ignore. I’ve found that very effective. You are, of course, free to argue with whomever you want on the internet, but as a courtesy, I ask that you keep me out of it, or I’ll have to mute you too, and we don’t want that! In related news: DON’T POINT ME TO BAD REVIEWS or TELL ME TO READ TERRIBLE COMMENTS. I mean, unless you’re a troll? But I don’t think you’re a troll. Like, I mean, for real, folks? I never, ever, read the comments, and I’m not going to be reading bad reviews, even funny ones, for months yet. Thank you.
  4. I’m also likely to mute folks who come up into my mentions asking sea-lion questions, so don’t ask them, even ironically. Sea-lions are pretty easy to spot these days. Also, again: keep in mind that “ironic” sexism will also likely get you muted. Remember that I’m going to have a lot of noise coming at me, and adding to that noise is not recommended.
  5. Don’t draw fire. I promise, I’m good. Don’t argue with or RT trolls if you don’t have the emotional resources to deal with the fallout. I get that sometimes arguing with trolls is a fun procrastination tactic for some people, but again: don’t draw fire on my account. I’ve been doing this since 2004. I’ve been prepping for this book to drop for a year. I’m good.
  6. Finally, for the love of all that’s good in the world, use your platform for good. There is enough garbage in the world without you RT’ing every troll. How about RT’ing every awesome feminist? Every heartwarming story about humanity not sucking? The best gift you could give the world on Llama Llaunch Day (BESIDES BUYING THIS BOOK OF COURSE FOR YOU AND ALL YOUR FRIENDS AND FAMILIES AND NEIGHBORS AND DOGS AND…) is to share the good stuff in the world, and remind everyone that there are people out there worth changing the world for. The Geek Feminist Revolution, at its core, is a book about how yeah, sometimes the world can be a trash fire, but we can change it. So be part of that change, folks. Kumbaya, etc.

Let us go forth, then, and gird our fabulous loins, and have a fabulous llama llaunch together, folks!

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.