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Posts Tagged ‘The Writing Life’

The Bleeding Heart of the Story: Reflections on a Career in Fiction

My first novel, God’s War, came out in 2011. It sold long before that, in 2008, but due to the vagaries of publishing, came out much later from a different publisher. I started writing it in 2003 and finished it in 2007, when I was 27 years old. This was not, of course, the first novel I’d ever written, but the ninth. And I can’t say there was anything about that novel that made it sell while the others didn’t. In truth, that book was a really hard sell, and almost never made it onto the shelves at all. But unlike my prior work, it had a pretty simple quest plot, which helped keep readers engaged, and I threw in pretty much every great idea I’d ever had – Bug magic! Centuries-long wars! Violent matriarchies! Harsh desert! Colonized worlds! – and just had fun with it.

In discussion with my agent on the latest episode of the podcast, though, I started thinking about what it was that made these books to compelling for people, and why The Stars are Legion (which was, emotionally, the toughest book I’ve ever written) seems to be doing so well. The truth is there are so many things in publishing that are beyond our control that we can’t say, “Well, this one is just a good story!” to explain why some did well and some didn’t. The Worldbreaker books have all earned out as well, and sold more than the God’s War books, but people don’t get as emotionally invested in those books as the God’s War books and The Stars are Legion. People don’t cry over them the way they do my other stuff.

It’s the emotional connection that we make with stories that makes them mean so much to us. On the podcast Hannah mentions how much she loved the Twilight books, not for their clunky prose, but for how well they captured, for her, the experience of falling in love for the first time. That was a bit revelatory to me, because these were books that I never connected with. But talk about The Girl on the Train, and I’ll tell you it’s not only the mystery aspect, but the fact that it’s a woman who drinks too much who’s being (spoilers) gas-lighted. And whoa boy did I ever connect with that whole, “Everyone thinks you’re crazy but you’re actually being set up by a nutty dude,” experience. It’s something a lot of women in particular deal with, and I was wholly invested in her discovering she was not actually crazy because it mirrored so much of my own journey toward discovering feminism. I often think that the reason a lot of YA novels don’t connect with me is that they don’t explore emotional themes that really interest me right now the way that many adult novels do. YA tends to be about finding oneself, about the first discovery that the world isn’t what you were told it was. And I’m past that and on to other things.

This discussion about the bleeding heart of the story led me to ask what the bleeding heart of the story was in my own work. It’s interesting because you don’t always know what the heart of the story is when you first begin to write. It wasn’t until Nyx fell to her knees in the ring at the end of her big fight at the end of God’s War that I knew what the heart of that story was about. Nyx struggled with all sorts of issues related to faith and submission, and independence and dependence. These were issues I, too have and do struggle with. Much of Nyx’s emotional struggle throughout all three books springs from having someone I was in a relationship with say that i was a monster. That stuck with me for a long time. Was I monster? In rejecting the weak person I had been, had I become everything I hated? Good stories tap into the very darkest parts of us, and Nyx was certainly the female Conan I wished I could be, wading out into pools of blood and coming out the other side being just as true to herself before as after. She and Rhys are tangled in the sort of snarky abusive relationship that for many years I’d assumed was love. The way they actually end up shows that I have learned something since then. In God’s War, the entire drive of the narrative is to get Nyx onto her knees in that ring, to allow her to admit to herself that what she would love, more than anything else, is just to submit to God, to fate, to the world, and stop fighting it. But she can’t. She knows she can’t, even as she admits it. The drive in Infidel was always to break them down into their component parts, to have them both lose everything and see what it made of them. And of course, in Rapture, the terrible events that they endure there are meant to break them both down emotionally so that they can have, finally, for the first time, an honest conversation about their feelings and why they can’t be together. The rest of the books: the bug magic, the blood-eating sand, the giant hornets, the bel dames, the assassinations and beheadings – existed to tell that emotional story between Nyx and Rhys.

The Stars are Legion was, famously, a difficult book for me to write because unlike with the Nyx books, I knew exactly what the bleeding heart of the story was going to be before I wrote it, and understood what I would have to write about, and that’s some scary stuff. At its heart, Legion is about women’s control (or not) over their own bodies and reproductive power. It also has not one, but two wildly abusive relationships at its core. I wrote deeply about things that mattered to me, issues related to fertility and bodily autonomy and of course, the monster inside so many of us. Once one has been monstrous, the book asked, is it possible to go back, to repent, to become someone different? Those were the bleeding emotions of the story, the burning questions, and I faced them down in all their cold, stark truth. Those are deep, powerful emotions, and beyond the gooey ships and birthing ship parts and struggling through the spongy center of some world, it’s the emotional stuff that we can all relate to on some level that powers its heart and makes it so unforgettable.

As the saying goes, folks may forget what you say, but they won’t forget how you made them feel. Fiction is very much like this, and it’s another reason I don’t like to tie up my stories into nice neat packages. I want to leave the readers with questions that they can mull over as they contemplate the story itself and how it affected them. There’s a reason I ended Nyx’s story the way I did in Rapture. And it’s not because I’m an asshole. Like the reader, I too, like to wonder what fate Nyx deserved, and whether it was the lady or the tiger stepping out of that bakkie. Nyx has done terrible things, but I understand that it’s not up to me to judge her, after all. Rhys would say it’s up to God; I would say it’s up to each individual reader. It’s not for me to decide. Such are the endings on which much great fan fiction can be imagined.

When I sit here looking at Broken Heavens and the original emotional heart of the story, I understand why it’s collapsed, like a souffle, now that I have a different ending. I had spent a great deal of time in the prior two books setting up a very specific ending. What I had failed to do in this latest draft of Broken Heavens is make it clear what the emotional turning point is for the character here so she understands she doesn’t just have two choices, those two choices I set up so many books ago. I realize that the character needs to have the same kind of emotional moment I did after the election, when my entire conception of my country and where it was headed and who were not only were, but who we wanted to be, got flushed down the toilet forever. I will never forget that moment. How betrayed I felt; how my own people had voted to destroy everything I knew and loved. It was a break in reality, for me, the moment when I felt the whole world literally lurch onto another timeline. It was among the most surreal moments of my life. And I knew I had to accept immediately that it had changed everything I knew, and was going to profoundly affect the future – my own and those of my friends and family and the world itself – in terrible ways.

Those are the emotional turning points we talk about. It’s the moment I got out of the hospital after nearly dying, and had to ask for help cutting asparagus because I was so weak. It was laying out the syringes and medication I would have to take now everyday for the rest of my life, or die. It was that understanding that I was not as strong and robust and invulnerable as I’d always assumed, that knowledge that everything I believed about the world and myself had been irrevocably changed. My future, my expectations of such, were rewritten before my eyes.

These are the emotional experiences, and the emotional moments, that we often use fiction to explore. I may not know what it’s like to chop off someone’s head, but I know what it is to be called a monster, and to wonder if it’s true. I may not have ever given birth to a world, but I know what it is to be at war with one’s body while the world itself tries to control you. We use these emotions as leaping off points, and memorable fiction understands that to endure, to touch people, takes more than explosions. It takes tapping into these very vulnerable parts of ourselves, often the very worst moments from our lives, and translating them onto the page.

This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of bestsellers that don’t do this. I just read a bestselling author who wrote a mystery novel that was absolutely emotionally devoid. I also tossed it immediately into my Goodwill pile to give away and promptly forgot even the names of the characters. But making work that lasts needs to touch people in some way. It must be memorable. It must bleed all over the page.

I get that, and yes, some days it does bother me, because frankly, I don’t want to revisit a lot of my most vulnerable moments. This is likely why I’m a discovery writer, because it allows me to sneak up on these emotions in a very organic way. It allowed me to simply write Nyx falling to her knees in the ring, longing to submit, knowing she couldn’t, and having no idea why that scene felt so powerful to me; why it felt just right. Not until much later.

But as I struggle with the massive backlog of projects I have right now, I realize that I have less time to allow myself the comfortable blinders of pure discovery writing in order to creep up on the truth. I have to face it head on, first thing. Even if it scares me.

Even if it bleeds.

How Pro Writers Deal with Pro Criticism

When I started my my job at a new local ad agency, the account manager for our largest client pulled me into her office to discuss a piece I’d written. She started out with something like, “So, uh, this is a really good overview of (X)! It’s well-written, it’s –” and I held up a hand and stopped her and said. “Let’s not mince words. Give it to me.” And she laughed and proceeded to tell me that I’d misunderstood the purpose of the piece, and written it with the wrong audience and call to action in mind, and needed to scrap it and rewrite it. And I was like, sure, no problem. Because, like, getting this shit right is literally my job. These are just words. If the words are wrong, you write them until they are the right words that work for the account manager and ultimately, the client.

This is literally the job of a professional ad writer. 

A lot of writers, even professional writers at ad agencies and, of course, novelists, are not good at taking criticism. Hence the circular roundabout I sometimes run into when getting feedback on pieces. It’s meant to soften the blow, but it often just means stuff takes more time, and because we aren’t communicating honestly, projects drag, and then no one is happy.

There is the opposite of this, of course. I once had feedback from an account manager at another job whose feedback was, “This is just a jumble of words,” which is not only incredibly unhelpful, but, frankly, an insulting thing to tell someone who makes words for a living. It’s like telling an architect that their plans are “Just a jumble of lines.”

That kind of feedback says more about the comprehension of the account manager than it does about your work. Oftentimes, they say stuff like this because they don’t know how to articulate themselves. Other times, at larger companies, it can be a political thing, as all the feedback comes in writing, and they want to cover their butts if a piece doesn’t perform. I dealt with marketing managers all the time who blamed low-performing pieces on “the creative team” and of course, as the creative team, we often blamed the marketers. The blame game suits no one, though, and my best writing is always done when I get clear and concise feedback, even if it’s painfully honest. Even better is when I have actual data regarding what messages have worked in the past, which allows me to further fine-tune my pieces so that they perform progressively better over time. The truth is we are all making this shit up, and we have to work collectively to make the work that best achieves the clients’ goals.

I have been a professional copywriter for more than ten years now, and I admit that it’s helped me take criticism about my books a lot more easily, too. Instead of sitting around after an edit letter or critique going, “I’m the worst writer ever and I’ll never amount to anything,” I shrug and say, “Well, that sucks, but clearly the words aren’t right, so I’ll continue working at it until they are.”

That’s not to say I don’t still have moments of despair, but they are fewer.

So when my agent got back to me about the latest word dump that is The Broken Heavens on a call yesterday, I had ten years of experience to fall back on when she basically said I needed to scrap large chunks of it. I had followed the outline that we’d agree on, trying to get all the characters to the right place at the right time. The trouble with this sort of outline – as I felt during writing and as my agent confirmed on reading – is that it created a plot-driven story instead of a character driven story, and as my agent noted, the “plot” such as it was, was basically “lets get all these people where they need to be” which was just… a lot of traveling. So the “plot” per se, wasn’t terribly compelling either, just lots of traveling and lots of meetings where there wasn’t much tension.

When you hear criticism like, “hey, this book actually starts in the fourth act, and only about 20% of what we have may be salvageable” after you’ve spent a year working on a book and the last several weeks crunching on it, and it’s already a year late, it can be demoralizing. But good feedback is always about the work, not about the writer, and you have to remember that when you’re getting feedback, it’s not about you, or what you meant to write, it’s about the work that’s on the page. My agent and I don’t agree on everything, of course. One of my favorite characters, Meyna, is pretty much her least favorite, and I think if it was her book she would have killed that character long ago. But when my agent does her book-doctoring magic, it does mostly jive with what I know is, intuitively, the right thing to do for the story.  We spent a lot of time talking about other fantasy books and reader expectations for a third and final book. I agreed with what needed to happen and how we needed to actually start the book. Yes, it involves throwing away a lot of words, but sometimes you need to pretty much write the whole back story before you write the book itself.

Sigh.

So I’m starting some stuff over, but hoping that I can make significant progress very quickly, as I need to leave for Helsinki August 3rd and I want the next draft in by then. I mean THAT’S THREE WEEKS PEOPLE EASY PEASY RIGHT?

Sometimes the words just aren’t the right ones. This is another reason that paying writers by the word or by the project just isn’t reflective of the amount of work that goes into something. I have written books in a few months, and written half a book in a couple weeks. And then there are books like this, where you literally write the whole thing once, and then write the whole thing a second time (or a third or fourth time, in the case of The Mirror Empire). God’s War was tinkered with endlessly before it finally came out, and I tossed out the entire second half of Infidel and rewrote it from scratch at one point. For awhile there, Empire Ascendant – with its weird sky mechanics and alternating POV’s that needed to line up in a coherent way – was the hardest book I’d ever written. With Stars are Legion, coming up with the actual backstory was the hard part, but the writing itself was fun, and I wrote half of it over a long weekend.

I seem to be back to basics with this book, which has proven to be even more complex than Empire Ascendant, and the current political climate sure as hell isn’t helping any of us be coherent or productive in any of our work. But, you know: we are fucking professionals, and this is what we do. So.

You write until the words are the right ones.

So if you think that leveling up as a writer means that nobody ever critiques your work again, or every word you shit will be gold, here is your reminder: it doesn’t get easier as you go. The bar gets higher. You need to jump further, climb higher, level up. If you didn’t make a million out the gate your first time, welcome to the long slog toward the breakout book, where you constantly have to stay on top of your game or fall down and start over again.

I have heard from many writers that I was “lucky” to make it out of the implosion of my first publisher with a relatively high profile (if not high $$, though Legion sales are steady af) career afterward. The best writer career path is, frankly, to have a “hit” right out the gate and build on that success. While it’s VERY possible to get a break out later (I can think of several writers who had written anywhere from 4-11 books before their breakout book), it sure does seem easier, from the outside, to build on that success than to take the long way up like I am, slowly, slowly, selling more and more books with every contract.

But here’s the thing. I’m well aware that to write a breakout book, I have to level up my work. We like to pretend it’s ALL luck with a breakout book, and sometimes that’s true (the “Hollywood bought it!” phenomenon), but sometimes it really is about skill, about writing a story that connects with more people, a story folks can’t put down, a story that everyone goes, “You have to read this trilogy because it’s great and OMG the third book has THE BIGGEST PAYOFF AND MOST EPIC THIRD ACT.” That part isn’t luck, it’s writing a good story. And to write that good story takes consulting with other professionals and working to make the story the best it can be. You will always be the ultimate owner of anything that you write (Meyna is staying in the book!), but you have to learn when to be able to take constructive feedback for what it is and when to throw out stuff that doesn’t work with your own vision. That’s a tough skill, I admit. I struggle with it all the time. Being able to sort through feedback to find the right way through takes a lot of practice, and it’s this, too, that makes you a pro.

I have gotten plenty of feedback that I didn’t agree with, including some stuff where an editor wanted me to cut a whole chapter (I kept the whole thing) and perhaps tone down some grossness (I did not). In the second instance, that is the scene that pretty much EVERYONE who reads Stars are Legion comments on (“OMG CHAPTER 14,” they say).  My agent wanted more politics there in the opening of tSAL, and I didn’t, because I wanted to get to the gooey underbelly of the world faster, so that’s what I did. But when someone points out that there’s an emotional story missing, and the plot is just traveling, and the whole second half of the book probably needs to be composed of what you just get to in the fourth act, and you take a look at that and find yourself nodding along, well…. then you know you have a lot of work ahead of you.

Most importantly of all, when you hear that and sigh and go, “Well, it is what it is” instead of “I am a failure as a human being,” then you know you’re really leveling up your pro writer game, and congrats to you (and to me).

Now….

Get back to work.

 

Carrying the Weight of the World

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about being “visibly invisible.” A lot of folks complain about being overweight, and talk about how much they hate themselves for it, but frankly I enjoy the invisibility of it. I don’t like getting hit on by strangers, harassed in the street, or even complimented on my looks by folks who aren’t my close friends or spouse. While being fat doesn’t end these things by any means, being fat and older has reduced these instances by a large margin, for me, and I love it. It’s reduced it enough that I’m often surprised when I realize I’m being hit on or followed by some creep. Like, really, don’t you have something better to do?

Being so very visible now at conventions and online means that I value being invisible elsewhere all the more. I’m an introvert, and I don’t want to be stared at or sized up. I just want to be left alone in the world to write my books and live my life. I’m already under a lot of pressure when I’m online, which is, frankly, exhausting. As someone in a monogamous relationship that we both dig, I also dread those awkward conversations at cons when you get tested out about whether or not you’d be interested in a threesome or something. And I just want to yell, “LEAVE ME ALONE WITH MY DRINK!” like 800% of the time (I still remember a weird conversation at a convention years ago in which I told an inquiring mind that “S&M really isn’t my scene” and the look of SHEER DISAPPOINTMENT on his face was priceless. My work is fiction, people!). While I also now get less of those, they haven’t totally gone away, either. Being fat doesn’t “protect” you from people any more than being skinny or awkward or whatever. But it makes me FEEL better, I have to admit, to be outside of norm.

And when I AM noticed in the wider world it reminds me that weight as a cushion against the world is no better than shelling off weight to fit “correctly” in the world. My drinking in particular had gotten rather out of hand after the election last year, and it’s taken some time to curtail that. Eliminating the drinking also helped me lose a few pounds, which to be dead honest, has become necessary for me to continue flying coach on airplanes. I’ve dropped about 20 pounds simply to make it easier to fly. The world does not like fat people in it; everything is designed around you fitting into a narrowly defined box.

Releasing that weight did get me back into healthier habits, and led me to consider why I found the weight itself so comforting in this uncertain world. I’ve put on about 100 lbs since 2011, which is also, COINCIDENTLY the same year my first novel, God’s War, came out, and I started a super high stress but well paying day job. This is a rough business, and you’re continually wondering what it is you’re either doing wrong or will do wrong. Sales are fickle. Your audience takes decades to build but can be lost overnight with one dumb tweet. Add in the fear and anxiety around losing health insurance if I was laid off, and honestly, being fat feels like a suit of armor most days. And fuck knows I feel I need it. It’s like I’m carrying the very weight of all of my responsibilities around with me. The weight of my health, my need for health insurance, the mortgage, the need to save for retirement, the tax bills, the novel deadlines, the credit card bills, the medical debt, the word deadlines, the commitments I’ve made to conventions and anthologies and other writers for various things. Literalizing that weight feels right, to me. It’s heavy.

I have been plowing forward full steam ahead with my novels and day job and patreon, and that doesn’t leave time for much else. But I’ve taken tentative steps now, at least, to stop numbing the world so much. This also means understanding when to say no to opportunities and travel. I had to cancel a few more things this year and early next because it just wasn’t healthy or realistic for me. My doctor had started making concerned noises the last year or so, as my blood pressure was going up for the first time (it has since come down) and my blood sugar was suffering (it has since gotten better). Bad habits pile up, and if I want to be around to write more books, I need to alter those habits… and stop carrying around so much of the weight of the world on my shoulders. However safe it feels, it’s an illusion, just like the drinking.

Traveling to Sweden at the end of May was a lovely trip, and I found myself relaxing, eating and drinking reasonably, and walking endlessly, just enjoying the incredible weather and the wonderful people. I imagined what it would be like to live in a country without feeling like so much was weighing me down. Imagine knowing that your healthcare is paid for, and you’ll have enough care in your old age. Imagine having six weeks off a year, and sick leave. Imagine all this weight you’re carrying, all this fear and anxiety, being mitigated.

Certainly every place has its downsides, but getting outside our bubble here for the first time since 2013 was really valuable, to me. It reminded me that there are other ways to live that aren’t the hard grind of the American system, the one that encourages one to overwork until you fall over. I’ll never forget an old boss of mine telling the story of a coworker who was literally still working on things as he was hauled out on a stretcher by paramedics because he’d had a heart attack. This wasn’t told as a horror story, but a story of grit and persistence. A very American story. But that’s the story that results in us dying a lot sooner than people in other Western countries. And I’m not keen on dying for a long time yet. I have a lot of fucking books to write.

I want to learn to work smarter, not harder, the way that I know is possible. I don’t want to carry as much of my fear and anxiety and disappointment around with me. I want to believe in a better life. I know I have to build it, sure. What’s tough is in realizing that sometimes building that life means that you do nothing. You rest. You sleep. You paint. You walk. You laugh. You take your time. And that, the doing nothing, is the toughest part, for me. When you do nothing, you must feel everything.

 

Gasping for Words: The Pro Writer Life

As those of you who pre-ordered The Broken Heavens likely already know, the release date has been pushed back from October to January. I know that seems like a lot because that extra month there at the end pushes it into 2018. But I promise the book is coming along! Alas, my usual “write a book in a week in the woods” strategy didn’t work for this one, so I’m still slogging along every week. I’m also writing a little most days on it to try and keep the momentum going instead of just binge writing on weekends. I have another book backed up behind this one (which was pushed out to 2019 for internal publisher list reasons unrelated so yay I’m doing fine!), and then I’m free to write something on spec. What that thing will be, I don’t know, but I’m already looking forward to writing it.

While authors aren’t pleased to push back release dates either, the truth was I simply didn’t have a book. Like, if I’d had 100k or something, that would be something… but. I didn’t. I barely had enough words to count as a novella, let alone a novel.

Like a lot of folks, I lost a couple months last year adjusting to this new, very surreal timeline. My day job suffered in the same way, with me barely able to scrabble along. But even then, based on my writing schedule and the amount of words I can churn out when I need to, I still had time. When I spent my week in the woods between day jobs pounding out the words and assisting with the last transitional stuff for the old day job, I re-read Rachel Aaron’s “2k to 10k” trying to figure out why I wasn’t making word count like I usually did.

There were two big issues: the first was that I had no excitement whatsoever in the writing, scene by scene. Some of this is because my agent and I had to aggressively outline this one to keep all the timelines (and worlds!) straight. I’m a discovery writer, and I found myself plodding through the scenes going, “OK, this happens, then this happens, then this happens,” which was drudgery. The second was something that both Aaron touches on in the book and something my agent mentioned, which is that maybe there was something broken in the book that my subconscious knew but I didn’t. I’ve gone back already and painfully rewritten several scenes from different POV characters, because I’d broken the golden rule of telling a scene from the POV of the character who had the most at stake in the scene.

I write for a living at my day job, so I know I can crank out any old thing to deadline if I have to. But I don’t want my novel writing life to be like my day job. While writing will always be work, I want to at least feel some joy and excitement about the work sometimes, and frankly – I haven’t been feeling anything but panic for a couple years straight now. Even the money wasn’t super motivating this time. You start to wonder why you’re doing something you don’t love now that all your basic needs are met.

And, of course, the word that kept bubbling up whenever I’d talk about this with other writers was the one whispered often in writer circles, and that word was “Burnout.” This is the eighth book I’ve written since 2011. Since last year, I’ve also started putting out a short story every month. And I’ve done that all while holding down a job in marketing and advertising. While I don’t consider that to be super prolific compared to some of my peers putting out two, three, five(!) books a year, the writers who do that are generally fulltime authors. I’m not. Keeping up with all of this has been difficult, and I’ve known for some time that my pace just isn’t sustainable. In conversation with a colleague sometime back, they noted that I was showing all the classic signs of an imminent burnout.  “Something has to push,” they said. “Writers where you are either quit their day jobs or take a couple years off or drop out all together.” I, of course, didn’t want to do any of those things.

I recently read about a writer who took five years away from their day job while their spouse worked and wrote a novel that then broke out and hit the bestseller list. This story made me irrationally angry, because it’s the story of a lot of full-time writers I know, and it’s just not an option in my situation. I do like what I do at my day job, and I’m very good at it, and I’m compensated appropriately. For better or worse, I carry a lot of weight doing the money generation, and while it’s cool to have marketable skills, in practice it means you are working all the time. I was up at 5:30 a.m. again today to work on this post, and up at the same time yesterday, and last week, to review contracts, work on Patreon stuff, revise Broken Heavens chapters, etc. etc. You get really tired of working and all you want is to take six months off and go hike the PCT.

This was a big reason I pushed out The Broken Heavens the first time – I wanted to take a couple months away from the grind and recharge. Alas, those recharge months happened at the same time as the election, and of course, I was simply going from two full time jobs to one, not actually doing nothing. So much for recharging.

As I told my agent, I’ve been churning hard the last two or three years in particular because I kept feeling like a breakout book was just around the corner. I could feel it. The Geek Feminist Revolution had a ton of amazing buzz and huge reactions when I’d do events. It did OK! It even got nominated for a Hugo! But: not a breakout book. You hold your breath every time a novel is released, giving it everything you’ve got to get it to earn out, and hopefully break out. The Stars are Legion is selling well, getting great reviews, and yes, the audio book is now finally out! But again: it’s not likely to save me from having to work full time and have a simultaneous novel writing career either. I like money, I like health insurance, and our society – especially the current one – is not set up to support that long-term for novel writers. I can’t rely on health insurance that’s constantly in danger of getting yanked away by a regime change.

So here I am, writing 1100 words at 6am, now, that’s basically just, “Hey, sit tight, the book’s pushed a bit,” and “hey, audio book is out,” and “hey, I’m still making lots of great stories, including one that was just accepted by Apex Magazine!” and “hey keep writing, because we could all die in nuclear fire tomorrow!”

Living the dream, my friends.

Adjust your dreams accordingly.


POSTSCRIPT:

I realize that a lot of the reason I haven’t been blogging as much here is twofold (threefold): I just came off writing a lot of articles for the Stars are Legion tour, and do most blogging now on Patreon for $10+ backers. The second is that, frankly, the sorts of “problems” one has at this level as a pro writer are the sorts of “problems” that I WISHED I had as a n00b, and I’m fully aware of how it comes out to hear, “Boo hoo so many people want me to write books for them I can barely keep up!” and “Boo hoo I just want to sit on the porch and drink!” (doesn’t everyone? etc).

 

 

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.

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.

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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