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Archive for the ‘The Writing Life’ Category

Once More Into the Breach: We Ride, We Ride, We Ride

Despite a lot of deliberate work, I’m running behind on writing THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Much of this, I’ve found, has been me second-guessing myself about… well, everything.

Much of this is simply a mental block, I know. My self-esteem took a hit with BROKEN HEAVENS. I don’t want to turn in another partial/very rough draft. I want something really great. Exceptional. The trouble is, you know – no draft is going to be exceptional. That’s why it’s a draft.

I’ve had a great many external voices in my head lately, which has made writing at length a lot harder, too. Short fiction is all right because I only need a day or two of real concentration to get my shit together. Novels are tougher. I’ll have a few days of really great progress, then read everything over and be like, “Yeah, that won’t work.”

I have failed to follow a lot of my own advice recently about cutting off the outside world when you’re trying to do deep work, too. I’ve been spending a lot of time comparing my career to the careers of others. I’ve been muddling around feeling like a failure. My anxiety has been at an all-time high the last month; it hasn’t been this bad since EMPIRE ASCENDANT came out, before I went on drugs. As I’m already taking quite a good dose, which has increased significantly over time, I’ve added in serious exercise again to help combat this. The best thing to do with excess nervous energy is to run it out (or lift it out, as is the case with doing my morning free weights).

Worst of all – I haven’t taken a social media break in A LONG time. Not since before the election. There are a couple reasons for that, the first being that Twitter makes me feel less lonely. I’ve been fairly isolated here recently, spending more time with my dogs than with humans. My spouse has been out of town a lot in recent weeks attending to some family business, and that means, again – just me and the dogs for days and days. Second, Twitter is my primary platform for promoting the work on Patreon, and I know when I cease promoting said patreon, the numbers go down. I’m relying on that income to help with my immigration process, so… yanno, that’s a concern.

But even reducing my presence on social media simply isn’t enough. It’s time to go cold for a few months here so I can stay focused on my own work – and actually hear my own voice, instead of the voice that says what I have to say not only doesn’t matter, but will be chewed up, eaten and destroyed once it’s out.

We talk a lot about developing a tough skin in this business, but I don’t think it works that way. I had a tough skin going into it, and for awhile, sure, it toughened up. But after awhile, you’re getting hit hard enough often enough that your skin isn’t getting calloused and tough; it doesn’t have time for it. Instead, it’s getting cut and flayed and carved down, and with no chance to recover, you end up with these bleeding, raw patches that make it tough to go on.

As I keep tearing down chunks of this book, I realize that I’m acting from that raw, bleeding place. I’m so tired of all the noise online about who’s bad and who’s good, and what’s good and what’s bad that I can’t even hear my own voice anymore. It’s all just noise.

So to reduce the churn and get back a semblance of sanity, I’ll be getting off social media in earnest again, from February 12 until May 1st. I will have some scheduled tweets in that time, links to the patreon, the tip jar, and re-posts of articles and blog posts. But I won’t be actively engaging there until May. This gives me time to finish LIGHT BRIGADE here in the next few weeks on my own terms, listening only to my own voice, and get started back up on THE BROKEN HEAVENS in peace, too.

I’ve been catching up on Ditch Diggers while working out the last couple of days, and taking to heart some things said there about choosing when to engage with audiences, and of course, managing depression and anxiety. Fans and even other professionals have been asking a lot more of creators, asking us to engage in debates and take positions and “be engaged.” The trouble is that for many of us, the act of creation is simply not compatible with being a manic extrovert. For me, these two modes are absolutely at odds with one another. I can’t do both; I can’t live in my own head in order to create something at the same time I’m living in and engaging fully with the world.

It’s a tough time, in this country, to say you’re going to dis-engage for a few months. With all the bad shit happening, the government being slowly dissolved and the creeping authoritarian state slowly taking its place, the last thing you want to do is say you checked out during that. But among all this bullshit, we have to find time to do our work, and that’s been tough for me for awhile now. I need to take control of it again. I want to live in my own head again, because frankly, that’s where all the goddamn stories come from.

A lot of people think I’m prolific, but just like all of you, I compare myself with others, and where I want to be, and I’m simply not there. I need to write a book a year, and I’ve stumbled with that recently. To have the career I want, I have to get back on track, even if the world is burning. Especially if the world is burning.

I’m enjoying a lot of the work I’m doing on LIGHT BRIGADE (I realized it was sort of an anti-Ayn Rand novel at one point, and that delighted me to no end). But I’m also aware of all of its flaws – real and potential – and the blowback it’s going to get in this current climate. Being aware of that and carrying on anyway is a weird balancing act. I’ve known a lot of writers recently who’ve been paralyzed with fear and indecision and uncertainty. I’m tired of being one of them. I got rubbed pretty raw over the last few years. Getting back into the game, having the confidence and bravery to carry on, is a struggle we all face at one time or another.

But what I’ve found is that these are merely excuses. I have been full of excuses for a long time that break down, quite simply, to fear. Fear of… just about everything. Fear of being nothing. Fear of being something. Fear of giving everything, and having nothing to show for it. Fear of letting people down. Fear of letting myself down.

Yet the truth is that there’s really nothing to fear at all anymore, because I’ve already done all of those things. I’ve already let everyone down, let myself down, given everything and gotten little back. I wrote a fairly frank summary of my writing experience to date (several people thought those were just generalizations. No, that was all stuff I’ve experienced). A lot has been great. A lot has sucked. That’s just… the way it is. And I can let the fear win out or I can do what I am here to do.

And I’m here to write.

The rest is just passing time.

So, I’m off once more into the breach.  Because the writing, the deep immersive experience of writing – as opposed to the public butchery that is publishing! – is what I love best in life. And that’s the part I need to be engaging in right now. It’s time to create the world anew again.

Writing Income: What I Made in 2017

In my continuing series related to what I actually make writing fiction every year (see 2016 here, 2014 here2012 here, and I know there are more, but can’t find them).

Book payments, royalties, foreign sales, film 16000
Self pub royalties 167
Short story reprint sales 1750
Patreon 29179
 TOTAL $47,096

 

Here’s what that looks like in a nice pie chart:

 

I tell writers often to “diversify your income streams” and this is why. Some years royalties and book payments and foreign sales are better than others.  There is more income that will show up on my actual taxes, including Amazon affiliates and Paypal donations, but I didn’t include those here (just as I didn’t include day job income) because I want this to be limited exclusively to writing income.

A couple of observations:

Patreon Saves the Day (But Don’t Count On It)

Patreon has been a godsend this last year, as I’ve been producing a short story every month, instead of every other month or so as I did last year. That said, the shitstorm at Patreon at the end of last year when they were going to up their fees by 40% for folks at the $1 tiers saw me bleeding fans from the platform. That experience reminded me again that this income – though provided by a large pool of 750+ fans, is still reliant on a third party system that could implode and fuck everything at any time.

Self-Pub Isn’t a Magic Bullet

As you can see, I don’t make much money in self-pub beyond Patreon. When I state this, many folks who make lots more there just tell me I’m doing it wrong, and hey! Maybe so. But it’s not where I put most of my time. Self-pub sales primarily come from one-off fiction shorts and collections, not novels. I like to include this revenue here, though, to point out that yes, I do self-publish some stuff, and yeah, no, it’s not a cure-all moneymaking scheme.

Don’t Get Too Excited About the “Film” Thing

Oh, I know you saw that “film” inclusion up there with the royalties bucket. As you no doubt realized, looking at the total it’s mashed up into, it’s not life changing at this point, just interest. I’ve had various Hollywood things stirring around for awhile now, but last year was the first year I made a little money on it due to some slightly more advanced interest. And that could easily turn into 1) Absolutely nothing 2) A little more 3) a lot more 4) Movies! Shows! Lottery tickets! This being H-wood, eh, I just sorta roll with it. Some IP is making the rounds, and people are getting interested, and that’s A+.

This is a Living Wage!

The last 2-3 years, especially with the addition of Patreon, I’ve been making what amounts to a living wage as a writer. That’s pretty cool…. granted, I still need health insurance, and even with my current plan, I have a $10k deductible, so subtract $10k from that just to start. Luckily I still have a day job, which is where that (useless) health insurance and all of my expenses and etc. come out of. The writing income, really, tends to get bucketed back into the writing career itself. I spent some obscene amount last year traveling to various conventions (hence paring down this year), as well as swag, patreon rewards, and various other related business supplies (printer ink is $130 a pop. WTF?). My goal, of course, is to pay off my debts, move to Canada for affordable healthcare, and shift to writing full time – supplemented by freelance income – in the next few years. But, you know – I’m not holding my breath.

Feast and Famine

One thing I’ve learned about this business is that it’s feast for famine. I currently have $8 in my account and three credit cards maxed out… in the next week or two, however, I will have my day job paycheck, $2600 from Patreon, and another $5k payout for Legion. When I finish THE LIGHT BRIGADE, I’ll get another $10k here in the next month or so. Clearly I’m bad at managing these lean/flush times, and that’s something I’m working on getting better at. All of those payments will go toward aforementioned credit cards, taxes, and immigration fees, and then… it’s all gone again. Tra-la. The taxes in particular are a killer in the writing profession. Sigh.

In Summary

What does this all mean? Well, it means that Patreon both makes being a full-time writer a viable future if I severely cut down on appearances and other expenses and get all of last year’s convention debt paid off. That said, relying on Patreon for 3/4 of my writing income… is not a good business strategy. Take out Patreon and I’d be making like $18k – which, again, with a $10k deductible is not even a poverty wage.  I am seven years into this profession and what I’m making on traditionally published work year to year is less than a minimum wage job. Soooo…. keep you day job, people.

Once I clear out LIGHT BRIGADE and finish BROKEN HEAVENS I’ll be working on some new projects, for which I have high hopes. LEGION in particular has done very well, all of my work has earned out, and I’m doing well maximizing what I’m paid for short fiction. Every story is a piece of IP, and thinking of it like that does help me manage it.

Anyhow, folks – that’s what one award-winning author who’s been in the game the last seven years is making. Yes, I should me making a shit brick more (every time I do these one of my male colleagues emails me and is like, “You are really underpaid. There are people selling less who make way more.” And I’m like yes… yes, I know. I’m working on it). We are all working toward leveling up and breaking out. I’ll get there. But if you’re struggling, just remember: there’s often a lot of years of slog ahead. You are doing fine if you are slogging.

All we can do is be honest, and flail onward, and keep this shit real.

The Year I Drowned My Emotions

For over a year now, I haven’t wanted to feel anything.

Not joy. Not sorrow. Just… nothing. I wanted to feel nothing.

Certainly, there’s an element of depression, there. My doctor kept upping my meds. They would work for awhile, and then I’d just sink into the Nothing again. I didn’t feel depressed, because I still think of depression as feeling “bad.” Instead I just wasn’t feeling anything at all. I was going through the motions.

Depression is a complex state of being. I know we want to try and pretend it’s easy. Just pop a pill, increase your meds, try new meds, find something that works! But there’s also depression caused by external forces, and that’s the sort of depression that you can paint over with pills, sure, but the root of it is still there, like painting over a crack in your wall.

I was already feeling overwhelmed and deflated in the months leading up to the election. I was struggling with the reality that I’d produced three books in a year but still had to function at a day job, and the relentless treadmill of publishing was still going, without the sort of reward I needed in order to maintain my sanity. I’ve talked before about how writing all those books and then promoting books and having a weird dude-bro day job (at the time) conspired to murder me. What we don’t acknowledge is that when you experience that kind of breakdown followed by grief and disappointment, you can’t just… get back up like nothing happened.

The truth is I was operating at the absolute limit of my capacity before the shit hit the fan. Because I was already tapped out, when the shit hit, I had nothing left, no reserves to help me cope. The grief of the election was the grief for a lost future. I grieved for the country, for the future, for our lost stability. Most of all, I grieved because it made me hate my neighbors. They voted for this. They murdered the future. This is the future they wanted. Knowing that – that your own friends, family, neighbors, voted for this bleak future where health insurance is being killed by degrees and all our money is being funneled to the rich – was debilitating. Sorry, it just fucking was. It was realizing I lived in an entirely different reality than those people. Worse was knowing where this sort of vote led a country, historically. Living with that knowledge for months while people fought about how we should “give it a chance” turned me quickly to drink. I was drinking, three, four, five nights a week. I wasn’t even sorry.

I don’t like feeling things. One of the benefits of fiction is that it allows you to emote without suffering through the physical and emotional consequences of the characters. It’s literally a safe space for allowing me to feel things. I can feel them, then go on and out into the world.

But what I found for the last couple of years is that I didn’t want to feel things even in fiction. Even reading certain books or watching certain TV shows was too much. For months, I couldn’t watch anything dark on TV. I stopped watching Jessica Jones. I started reading all 25 of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet novels, because I knew that in that world, the murders were always solved, the bad guys got found out, and decent people did OK. I needed desperately to live in a world like that.

“Be like Leia Organa! Have hope!” everybody keeps yelling.

And I’m like, sure, yeah, OK, but there’s hope and then there’s deluding yourself. Leia and Holdo didn’t didn’t just fly off into the Nothing and “hope for the best” – they had a plan.

I had no plan but “survive.”

And let me tell you – “survive” as a “plan” gets pretty depressing after awhile.

My attempts to numb myself against reality could only work for so long. Eventually, I knew, something had to give.

When we were presented with our “new” “health insurance” at the day job back in December, I was just… done. I’ve been scrambling to keep a day job forever in order to keep health insurance. But the constant erosion of health insurance regulations by the new regime was destroying all of the plans, even those offered by employers. My deductible was going up another $3,500. It was already $7,000. My meds are $1500 a month, which means that for the first 6 months of the year or so, I was shelling out $1500 out of pocket for the drugs that keep me alive. Now I’d be shelling that out for even longer before health insurance covered anything at all. And that’s on TOP of the $400 per month premium.

This wasn’t insurance.

This was a fucking nightmare.

“Survival” on this timeline, the bare-bones plan, was becoming untenable.

Depression is indeed an imbalance. A broken brain. But that depression is, sometimes, a perfectly sane response to a horrifying situation. The trouble is that being depressed isn’t going to get you out of that situation. Being depressed is just going to cause you to keep sinking deeper and deeper into the mire.

So up went the medication.

And up went the alcohol.

The trouble is, combining those two things at once results in… well, a VERY drunk podcast appearance where I’m barely coherent toward the end. That was a bit of a wakeup call. I can’t drink away the world on these meds. I can’t numb all Feelings.  It was time to stop relying on outside fixes and make some real changes.

I started looking into 100% remote working opportunities. A colleague emailed with a tip about an immigration lawyer. The lawyer confirmed that my spouse and I would not be barred from immigrating to Canada because of our illnesses. In fact, he said, because I was a writer, we’d have an easier time of getting in. We’d thrown out this thought immediately after the election due to the medical issue. But it turns out that unless you require constant or prohibitively expensive care, you don’t trigger their “medical burden” clause. And in Canada, prescriptions were a fraction of the cost, and health care was paid for through taxes. I would never lie awake worrying about health costs again.

That was all I needed to know.

We scraped together the money for the lawyer, and started the paperwork. This process has also forced us to take a full accounting of our finances, which we hadn’t done since our dog Drake died. We poured an exceptional amount of money into his care, and it’s like it’s just been compounding since then. Last year I kept saying, “We can’t afford X,” and my spouse was like, “We need to do X,” and I just… found ways to do it. And now we have the brutal reality of all those bills and debts. For a year, I just… didn’t care about those debts. I rang them up like it was the end of the world, because it felt like it. There was nothing to look forward to but 30 years of shit getting worse.

I have spent a decade trying to tell myself I could live a mile from downtown, here in Ohio, struggling with health insurance. I convinced myself that I had no other options.

Suddenly I had options. Even if the journey to get there seemed impossible.

I figured it was no more impossible than trying to survive here as things are currently.

Totaling up your debts and taking a hard look at all the shit you’ll need to repair and repaint in order to sell or even just rent out your house, and all the shit you’ll need to sell or pack, and the costs of doing that, and of finding a rental, and going through all the paperwork, and… it looks overwhelming. Moving gets harder as you age because you tend to have more shit. The shit you own does, indeed, end up owning you.

But the stress of holding onto health insurance while the cost of care was becoming more and more unaffordable was unbearable. The dystopic regime contributed to that fact, and added heaps more stress on top.

I want a different life.

It was this, I think, this thought, this emotion, that I was trying so hard to drown. I wanted to be content. I wanted to settle. I was just so tired. Tired of writing. Tired of working. Tired of fighting everything. I also found that I was tired of putting myself out into the world. I was tired of being some constructed persona, a pixel-headed emoticon online. I was so emotionally exhausted all the time that I began to jealously guard all the parts and pieces of myself that fueled the emotional core of my writing. I failed to write a book last year because what I came up with was just somebody going through the motions. I wasn’t feeling any of it. I couldn’t bear to. Things just happened to people, and I said how they felt, but I couldn’t feel them. I’d die, I thought, if I felt them. I was angry that I had given so much of myself to my novel writing and was getting so little back. I was frustrated to be in this place where you have to dig into your heart and lay it bare only to have some rando shit on your doorstep for no fucking reason while you’re paying $1500 a month for drugs to keep you alive.

It was a shitty future. I wanted a different one.

There was freedom in acknowledging it wasn’t going to work. There was freedom in realizing that trying to make it work was literally killing me, that year after year, I was just getting more and more resigned to a life that was taking everything I had and not giving anything back.

I drowned all of this in alcohol, and overwork, and bird food, and dogs, and painting, but it was clear from my inability to write anything of substance that cutting myself off from emotions might feel good in the short term, but isn’t great for helping you overcome your problems. It’s like Luke cutting himself off from the Force. Who are you then? You’re just someone going through the motions. Eventually, you either die that way, or you open up.

I spent two miserable weeks over the holidays sick as a dog, then another week trying to recover. For several of those days, I had a terrible fever and hallucinations, and I thought I was going to die. Near-death has a funny way of waking me up. Here it was, I thought, I’m going to die here in Ohio without finishing my goddamn fantasy trilogy. What have I even done with my life?

And as strength returned, and I took these tentative steps toward changing my life, as I saw these flickers of another future, it became a little easier to turn in work again. And not just work that was going through motions – but work that tapped into the emotions I’ve been struggling with, and the experiences from my past that drive me, and pieces of myself I wanted to hide away at the bottom of a deep, dark well.

I wrote about being broken, about perseverance, about failure, about envy and rage and despair and passion. All those things I didn’t want to feel anymore, I could feel them again, safely, on the page.

And the world didn’t explode. I could stand the tide of it.

I wasn’t drowning anymore. I was swimming, swimming. I still couldn’t see the shore. But I could imagine it. I could hope for it, again. I could hope for it without hurting.

And that was enough.

What Comes Next? Everything

When I was a  wide-eyed baby author, I scoffed at what was known in the business as “the bitter midlister.” The bitter midlister was an established author who had written three or more books but who either wasn’t making a living as a writer, or wasn’t making a very good living, or had seen some success but didn’t feel it was on par with what they deserved (usually this last bit)… and they were very, very, very bitter about it.

We have all met or heard from bitter midlisters. These are the people who publicly rant about how the success of their bestselling peers has nothing to do with quality, but with luck, or favoritism, and how the game is rigged against them. They bloviate on forums and social platforms about how they didn’t get the sort of success they were owed. This is often how you can differentiate the bitter midlister from those simply exhausted by the –isms inherent in publishing. Bitter midlisters feel that they are owed success by virtue of their existence, instead of simply that they understand they need to work harder in a system rigged to favor certain types of books and authors.

They feel owed because they did the work, and it didn’t pay off in the way they expected. They are angry at every new success from some newer author, irate at every million-dollar deal that isn’t theirs. They all insist that it’s not at all the quality of their writing or the fabric of their plots (or lack thereof) that has led to this state. It’s always someone else’s fault. It’s always about someone else “taking” something that they felt was theirs. It’s probably no wonder that many bitter midlisters are from the socio-economic and racial groups that have been privileged in their particular country of origin. When your entire system says you are special, and just need to work hard to succeed, and you do, and you don’t, you get pretty mad.

I get it. I mean, I’m white. I heard that narrative too. I also heard that if a woman “worked hard enough” she could be president.

But I digress.

The bitter midlister tends to write the same sort of book over and over – when they continue writing at all. It never enters their minds that perhaps they need to change their approach, to learn new skills, to write up another lottery ticket in the publishing casino.

Now, there’s a truth to some of these complaints. Publishing is not a meritocracy. Writing great work doesn’t guarantee success. Shitty books, or mediocre books, or a book you personally cannot stand, make many authors a very good living. It may not seem fair that someone was able to change the names in their fan fiction novel and become a mega bestseller, but you know what? They wrote something people clearly wanted to read, and most probably had some big publishing marketing dollars behind them.

Life isn’t fair.

Publishing isn’t fair.

The world isn’t fair.

You aren’t owed anything.

As I creep up here on completing my 7th novel for publication, I’ve increasingly started to notice that bitter midlister voice (BMV™) at the back of my head, tapping away at my confidence.

It’s not fair, the BMV™ moans. It’s not fair that people who wrote one book, or two books, or a single series, are more financially successful than me.  It’s not fair that I still have a mortgage payment and a day job and have to take freelancing jobs. It’s not fair that writers who I think are technically less skilled than me are bestsellers. It’s not fair…!

Waaaah waah waaaaah

I sure do sound like Sarah Connelly in Labyrinth, whining about how shitty and not fair it is to be a fucking adult.

But as Sarah learned, unfairness is simply a truth of life. None of us are owed anything, however hard we work, however skilled we become. As adults, all we have control over is the work that we do and how we choose to present that work to the world.  This is what I tell the BMV™ over and over again.

I wish a lot of things had turned out differently – in my life, in the world. I wish that God’s War had swept all the awards in 2011 and had become a bestselling classic like The Windup Girl. I wish The Stars are Legion got optioned for a movie I wrote the script for. I wish we were watching a TV series on Netflix about Nyx right now, and I was doing script consulting. I wish The Geek Feminist Revolution had taken off like Bad Feminist did. And on and on.

When you sit around making wishes like that, it makes you realize how futile they all are. Because there are more things I wish on top of that:

I wish I didn’t live in a society plunging into fascism. I wish I didn’t have a chronic illness. I wish I hadn’t ended up in Ohio for the last decade. I wish I had real health insurance. I wish I could visit Mars.

And on and on.

As I come up on middle age, especially in the current economic and social climate, it’s easy to look back at what came before and only see where I’m not, or only see where I could be.  This is a ridiculous, but very human thing to do.

When I’m feeling particularly down, I remind myself that there are plenty of (financially successful) legends who just started their careers at the age I’m at now. I’m reminded that at 37 and pushing toward forty, I’m just beginning to come into my powers as an author. Most of us really don’t start to warm up until middle age. Writing is a skill like any other, and it takes decades to hone your craft.

I am just getting started.

When we reach the end of the year, or the middle of our lives, it can be tempting to look back and only see all the things we didn’t do, all the success we didn’t have, instead of be grateful of how far we have come and celebrate the success we did achieve.  Worse, when we look at what’s to come, it’s easy to think that all of the adventures and success are behind us instead of ahead of us. It’s easy to think we’ve lost our powers, when in truth, we’re just coming into them.

I have a good many projects on deck, a lot of irons on the fire, and by my own measure at, say, age 24 (before I needed all this goddamn health insurance) I’m doing incredibly well for myself. By aged 24 standards, I could quit my day job and be a writer full time. So shut the fuck up, BMV™.

My greatest realization these last six years as a professional novelist is that no amount of grind is going to get me to where I’m going any faster. Instead, it just takes a big toll on one’s mental and physical health. And in my case, I started to feel… stuck, like I was on this big ugly torture treadmill. That’s no way to live a life where you’re supposedly “doing what you love.” Hell, it’s no way to live any kind of life.

It used to be that when I wrote, I’d be railing against all the outside voices, the supposed gatekeepers, the editors and agents who rejected my work. As I’ve become more skilled, I realize that my greatest enemy isn’t them at all, and never was. My greatest enemy these days is just myself, and the BMV™.

I have a great deal to achieve in this, the second half of my life. The last year of horror had led me to double down on my worst tendencies, to withdraw, to simply endure. But I want the next thirty years of my life to be more than mere endurance. I want to truly thrive. I want to come into my own as a skilled artist, as a novelist. It’s always been my goal to be an exceptionally skilled novelist, the best, and I won’t get there by hiding in my house in Ohio with a pillow over my head and nursing the BMV™.

So today is a new day, and I get up early. I write posts like this one. I crack open the manuscript. I work on my short story outline. I pet my dogs. I count my blessings. I court a new voice, the old voice, the one that got me this far, the one that says:

Just you wait and see what I’ll do next.

Where Do We Go From Here? 2017 in Review, Honest Look at 2018

Here we are nearing the end of 2017, and if you’re reading this, congratulations:

You’ve survived.

Surviving this year took a lot out of me. Like many of you, I feel tired and beaten down, consumed by anxiety by the government’s continued totalitarian direction. It turns out that being ruled by someone who is clearly cognitively impaired is pretty stressful. That’s the overall context for me this year.

Travel

Maybe that’s why 2017, for me, felt so much like a year in which I was barely able to do the minimum I needed to in order to survive. From the outside, it was an amazing year of travel. I was Guest of Honor at Swecon in May, went to the Hugos in Finland in July, survived a Florida hurricane with my family in September, did a client conference in Anaheim in October, and saw my sister-from-another-mister in ABQ in November.

But every one of those trips took a toll, not just financially, but also emotionally. Traveling is stressful. My spouse insisted we do the Hugos; it’s important to my career, but man, that trip just about wrecked us. The Florida trip? My family lives on the west coast, and I hadn’t seen them in more than two years. When I finally buckled down and paid the down payment, I got a really nice note from my dad saying how much it meant to him to see me. My parents are getting older, and my dad, in particular, is not in great shape. I worried I might not have much more time to spend with them.

I ended up cutting several career-related trips in order to make the family trips work: I didn’t do Gencon this year. I backed out of several appearances and deadlines. The year tried to swallow me whole.

The Work

THE STARS ARE LEGION came out in February. Yes, that was THIS year. I had to literally look up the date because it felt so LONG ago. It feels like we have survived SIXTEEN WARS SINCE THEN. Even as I typed that I thought, THAT CAN’T BE RIGHT IT MUST HAVE BEEN A YEAR AGO. The book did well, and people seemed to love it. So, I’ll take that as a win.

But there were a lot of setbacks, too, some I shared, and some I didn’t. I wrote 90k of THE BROKEN HEAVENS that… just wasn’t working. My agent and I decided to table it and get started on writing THE LIGHT BRIGADE, my next contracted book, instead so we don’t miss that deadline too. tLB is due in February and… whew. We’ll see. Every time I open up the manuscript I feel this wave of despair come over me, this DON’T FUCK THIS UP HURLEY OR YOU WILL BE A LOSER voice, and yeah… it’s hard to make words.

That means this is the first year in some time that I haven’t completed and turned in a book. That said, we were able to fill the gap next year with Apocalypse Nyx, a collection of novellas from my GOD’S WAR trilogy. Sometimes you have to forgive yourself and just move on and make the most with what you have. It’s been a shit year for many of us.

When it comes to short fiction, however, I killed it this year. I will have completed 12 stories this year for Patreon subscribers, one each month. Those stories are:

What I like about completing so much work is that there are many avenues in which I can sell it. Story collections to publishers, audio rights to various audio publishers, sales as Kindle singles, and H-wood money on occasion for options and etc. There’s lots that can be done with them. Which makes a nice segue to…

Patreon, and Diversifying Income

So Patreon recently screwed up by charging massive fee increases to those pledging at lower levels (a 40% increase to backers at the $1 level). It caused a huge bleed off from patrons (rightly so) and made me decide it’s time to look for other avenues for creating content. I’ve come to rely on Patreon not only for the income, but for the fact that because I’m so money motivated, it induces me to CREATE stuff, even during this terrible year where I mostly just wanted to lay in bed with my dogs and never get up again.

Kickstarter has a competitor, Drip, that will be launching publicly early next year. It’s also possible that I can do something that’s fully integrated into my website (which I’d prefer!). So that’s on my list for January, once we see how things shake out. Overall, I know I need to put more effort into consolidating all of my stuff onto my own website. I want fan forums, a public wiki, all sorts of things. I am also looking into merchandising for next year, something I haven’t done anything seriously with.

This is also the first year a got a small amount of money from H-wood, though nothing to get excited about. Just deepening interest in shopping my work, which is great. I finally got to sign a piece of paperwork this year. Amaze.

I also launched an Etsy store for select paintings and signed books. That said, I haven’t put much time and effort into stocking and promoting that venue, and looking at 2018… I need to get serious about that shop if I’m going to make life work.

Health Considerations

Last year my doctor cautioned me that in addition to continued weight gain, my blood pressure was now rising for the first time in, like, ever. I was stressed the fuck out post-election, and drinking too much on top of all the other bad habits I’ve gotten into since I started the publishing roller coaster. I knew that if I wanted to stick around (and fit into airplane seats for all the traveling I needed to do this year) that it was time to make some changes.

All of my changes have been small, but they are working. I have dropped about 20lbs, enough to ensure I was able to fit on a plane, even if not comfortably. My blood pressure is also normal now. I still have a lot of work that needs to go into this – getting more regular exercise, continuing to stick to the meal plans that ensure I don’t keep gaining and gaining (the constant gaining was getting scary, honestly). My doctor has also adjusted a few of my meds, which means the anxiety issues are no longer there except when, you know, our president threatens nuclear war and etc. You know, the normal anxiety one experiences living under a totalitarian-lite regime.

Mainly, I realized that writing full time and doing Patreon full time and doing my day job full time was killing me; the regime change was the last nail in that coffin. I couldn’t do everything and stay sane. While it felt like, to me, I took a rest this year with the writing, after writing about my work, above, I realize it was just… comparatively restful. I wrote a lot, but… I didn’t churn.

Going into 2018, I’m more hopeful about my health. After six years of grinding at the writing work, it’s time to prioritize it again before it’s too late. I’m on the right path with this again.

Ongoing Health “Insurance” BS

Speaking of health, well… there’s the cost. Like, the actual financial cost of keeping me and my spouse alive, and I won’t lie: it’s becoming untenable.

While my day job is great, and gives me a lot of flexibility I need, it had its stressors this year, too. There were a few months of nail-biting there waiting on a big contract renewal. And our already shitty health insurance plan increased it’s deductible another $3,500 to a whopping $10,400. Yes, that means I’m paying $10,400 on TOP of my month $300 premium BEFORE the insurance actually pays ANYTHING for me.

With meds running $1500 a month, I go through this fast, sure. But… it means coming up with $1500 every goddamn month. I can do it because – multiple income streams! – but it’s not fun, friends. That means that $1500 isn’t being used for other stuff, like paying down debt, or going into savings, or retirement. It means I’m shoveling like $2,000 into the overpriced, bloated maw of the healthcare machine every fucking month just to survive. On top of that, my insurer continually refuses to pay for drugs that my doctor recommends, so we have to go through like 2-3 alternatives that are cheaper, even when the one that works best is name brand, and even though I’m paying the first $10k out of my own pocket! It’s… nightmarish. I hate this fucking health insurance.

What this made me realize, finally, is that our country’s health insurance nightmare not only isn’t getting solved any time soon, but that just having an employer isn’t enough to protect me from the health insurance racket. The regime made some terrible executive orders this year that destroyed the market for everyone – employer or no employer – and I’m not confident it’s going to get any better. It’s fine and good to say, “Wait for 2020!” but the reality is, a lot of us won’t make it that far, and to be dead honest – the current regime is pulling us further and further right. What we consider a “moderate” candidate is going to be, like, a Regan. I’m not convinced we’ll see real, affordable care for at least a decade.

Where Do I Go From Here? 

It’s been a rough week for me, personally. On top of deadlines I’m struggling to meet, my house was broken into, I got that shitty news about the health insurance, and I maxed out the last credit card with anything on it to buy glasses because my insurance benefit expires at year end. We have a massive amount of traveling debt from this year – not unexpected, and it’s the choice I made by booking those trips, but it still hurts, and I’ll be spending all next year paying it off. Yay 2017!

But if there’s one thing that all this stress and the backing-off of my dead book taught me, it’s that I need to stop churning and start figuring out what the fuck I want to do with my life.

When the regime came into power I said to myself, well, shit, I’m never going to be able to be a full time writer now. It had been my goal to quit by the time I was 40 and write full time. I had this whole goal in mind. In some ways, I think all the traveling and debt pile up this year was also just me going, “What if we all die in nuclear fire tomorrow?” and “What the fuck else do I have to spend money on, it’s not like there’s a future.” And lo, she drank, and ate at Taco Bell.

Despite my rallying cries, most of the time these days I don’t feel like I have a future. Not one worth investing in, anyway. Why save money for retirement when your own government wants you dead? And not just them… honestly, it was this:

When we got hit with that extra $3,500 deductible at work, we were all offered the option to pay an extra $35 a month in premiums and go back to the old deductible, or pay the same as last year and get this much larger deductible. There was an informal poll at work on which we should do. I chose to pay the $35, obviously, and I’d like to think I’d choose to pay the $35 even if I wasn’t sick. Because this is what health insurance is: we all put money into the pot so that if something shitty happens to one of us, we’re covered.

Turns out I was alone in that. I was out-voted, and we got the extra $3,500 deductible. Or, rather, I did, and anyone else there who has a catastrophe this year.

I cried a little about that.

I cried because it reminded me that as things get worse, we may no longer be able to rely on each other. I’ve been hearing a lot of people I felt were in “the middle” making arguments for the regime now. They’re spewing back the same talking points. I’m reminded, again and again, of the Milgram Experiment. I’m reminded that my friends and neighbors all have terrible monsters inside of them, waiting to be unleashed.

I worry they’re already being set free.

Oh, Canada?

A colleague of mine reached out recently and recommended an immigration lawyer. They said the lawyer had helped them get into Canada. I had thought my spouse and I were barred from Canada due to our medical issues, so this had never been a serious consideration for us. But after talking with the lawyer, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Our conditions aren’t severe enough to trigger the “undue burden” medical clause, and being a writer, I’m in a business class that is actively encouraged to move there.

Simply applying for this isn’t cheap, of course, let alone retaining the lawyer. But… healthcare here isn’t cheap either. I look at my $2,000 a month in medical costs and I’m like… it’s cheaper, in the long run, to move for that single reason (the primary meds I take are $500 here… and $65 in Canada. SAME MEDICINE. Even having private insurance until Canadian healthcare benefits kick in, I’ll be paying less because their system is simply better regulated and more efficient).

After talking with my spouse, we decided it’s worth at least trying. The process takes 6 months/2 years, so it’s better to start sooner rather than later. That also means the costs will be spread out, which might make it possible. If we’re accepted, we still have a year to decide if we want to go through with it.

This wasn’t a cost I wanted to stare down right now, with the looming credit card bills, but royalty season comes in February, and it does give me a greater sense of urgency to finish those outstanding books. I realized that, for the first time in awhile, I had a tangible idea for a future I wanted to work toward. One that was possible. One where I didn’t feel I needed to be drunk all the time in order to endure it.

The more I look at my country, the less I see a future here for me. Again, not just because of the government, but because of the people. I look at my illness and I know I’m on the List, not “just” for being a woman, or liberal, or queer, but highest, above all for this: for this terrible thing that happened to me, over which I had no control, the very thing that health insurance was supposed to be for. And no one here is going to have my back, when the trucks comes.

What I see here instead of a future is a long slog of endless horror from my own government, of mounting anxiety, of skyrocketing medical costs, of working until I fall over because I don’t have a retirement, of never having savings, of never getting out of debt, of staying chained to that old Conan torture wheel forever.

I saw that future, and you know what?

I remembered my own words. I remembered my own heroines. I don’t have to just sit here and take it. I don’t have to fight it from here. I can work for another future in a place where I’m more likely to actually have a future.  I may still end up here, we may still get denied, or it may be too much money in the end, to go. It’s hard, and expensive, and we simply may not be able to do it. But at least now I can see a glimmer of something else at the bottom of my whisky glass. I can see something to work toward that isn’t this awful nightmare future where all paths lead to a black hole.

That realization was a heavy one. I’d become myopic, resigned to this increasing horror show of begging my government not to kill me. I was in some terrible abusive relationship with my own government, my own future.

Yes, there’s a better future on the other side of this one. But I have to survive this one to get there.

In the end, fascism is likely to eat Canada, too, but maybe I’ll have a few more years there.

Creating the Future

Having a goal in mind for the next few years that isn’t just “survive” is helpful. It makes me focus, again, on creating those additional forms of revenue, of paying down debt, of being smarter with travel and alcohol. Being able to see, again, a future for myself where I can actually become a full-time novelist someday – even if it means I have to move to another country – is giving me a little more life. I didn’t realize how dead I’d felt because of that, after the election. There were so many awful things all at once that that one personal one barely registered.

No wonder I drank away the last two months of 2016.

Now, I’m working to take that dream back. It’s not going to be easy, or cheap, but at least it’s a goal beyond survival. It may turn out it’s not even possible. But if 2017 has taught me anything, it’s that it’s worth trying. It’s worth doing whatever you have to do, to ensure that you can get out of bed in the morning and do the shit that needs doing. I’m tired of being afraid to believe in the future.

I don’t accept the future I was given. I’m going to keep working toward another one, even if I never get there. It’s 2017, and I’m used to disappointment.

But goddammit – I’m not dead yet.

And we have another banner year on deck.

Let’s Talk About Creativity and the Fear of Losing the Magic

When my latest draft of The Broken Heavens came back from my agent with the dreaded, “start over” notes, I felt dejected and exhausted. I had been churning out a great deal of work on that project very quickly. I’d also been doing my monthly stories for Patreon, and of course, writing all day at my advertising job. I was tired. Tired of the release schedules, the deadlines, the failure after failure to hit said deadlines, and most of all, tired of writing novels that were performing well enough to keep me in the game but not well enough to ensure I could do it for a living longterm. I was tired of the grind that seemed to be going nowhere. I wasn’t even getting the satisfaction of feeling like I was leveling up. Even the writing itself, the creative process, wasn’t fun anymore. Just work.

I seriously considered just cancelling the contract for the book and just… not writing anymore. Everything I touched for months before and for some time after just felt like crap. I put out a couple Patreon stories that were like squeezing blood from a stone, and I wasn’t happy with them. I felt like I was churning, churning, churning, but going nowhere. I had two outstanding stories due to markets that I just had no inspiration for whatsoever. I hated writing. Worse, after a couple months of this, I realized I was developing The Fear. The fear that I couldn’t write anymore. The fear that I’d never write anything good again. The fear that this was it, that this was all I got, that my career was over, unremarkably, at 37.

Seth Godin calls this period in one’s career or creative pursuits “the Dip.” The Dip is that dreaded slog between creative breakthroughs where it feels like you’re expending an incredible amount of effort but not seeing any sort of improvement or gains from it. These dips are generally when most people quit their creative pursuit and go on to something else. When you start a new creative pursuit, like I did recently with painting, it’s exhilarating for the first few months or year, because you get so much better so quickly. You can sit back and – in the case of the painting – literally SEE improvement from one painting to the next. I lined up four paintings I’d completed over four different weeks once, each on the same subject, and it was amazing to watch the evolution of my skill. But after about a year or so, my improvements painting by painting have slowed down. When it comes to painting, I don’t mind this, since I’m doing it for fun. Writing, however, is my vocation, my passion, and it’s always been my goal to be the absolute best writer, to be exceptional at my craft. To achieve that means that I need to continually strive to be better, to improve my skills, to level up. I have been grinding hard on this for several years, and it took that book bouncing back to make me realize I truly was in a Dip. Nothing was leveling up. It was just me going through the motions. I hated the Patreon stories I was writing. I hated the novels. I felt like a huge failure, like I’d lost the magic that was my creativity. It felt like I’d reached the end of my potential, and there was nowhere to go from here. It felt like I’d never write anything good again.

Being aware that I was in a dip helped me get through it. I re-read Godin’s book. And then I went back to the library and begin digging up books on subjects I found interesting, in particular books about microbes and utopia; stuff that was different from my usual war-and-plants-and-bug interests. I needed to fill up my brain with something new. I took a lot of notes, skimmed a lot of texts. I wanted to experience the magic of discovery again, the magic of putting together all of these disparate things into some greater amalgamation that nobody had seen before.

I also decided it was time to go back to a series and setting that I enjoyed, that was fun, and so I wrote “Paint it Red,” a novelette set in the God’s War universe featuring my favorite “let’s be bad guys” bounty hunter, Nyx. I let myself wax on in that one about the scenery, the characters, the world. I felt the big set pieces coming together as I wrote. I experienced that wonderful feeling of throwing out the old outline as I came up with a far more exciting and viscerally interesting story as I was literally writing it. Sure, I was still grasping for inspiration. At one point, angry that I couldn’t come up with a better place to rob than a bank, I did a Google search (really!) for “interesting settings” and somehow stumbled on a video of a rat temple in India. That video sparked my imagination, and all of a sudden I had a bunch of shape-shifting parrots bound to a temple and a kid with a key wrapped around his heart that had to be dug out of him with a machete and we were off to the races. Giving in to the creative process is a wonderful feeling; when all your synapses are firing as they should, making strange and exciting connections, that’s when I feel good about the work I’m doing.

For the first time in a couple of months, I was actually having fun with the creative process. I even had time to edit the story before I posted it to my Patreon backers. I was proud of the work I’d done, and most importantly – delighted by the process itself. I also found it easier, finally, to sit down and outline some stories I owed to anthologies. Last week, understanding how burned out I was, I took a real vacation – not just from my day job work, but from novel writing work as well. I put an out-of-office reply on both my work AND my personal email. It meant I didn’t see email from my agent announcing a foreign rights sale and confirming another offer until nearly a week after I’d gotten them. And you know what? The sky didn’t fall. The world kept going. The deals didn’t disappear. I was able to step away from all the deadlines and worries and gnawing-on-my-failures-wank from my life for a whole week. I came back to the keyboard feeling relaxed and refreshed and… genuinely happy for the first time in many months.

The time away – not just from my work, because I’ve been sitting at the keyboard a lot, just not producing – helped me regain my focus. As my spouse points out, much of the time I feel I’m spending “writing” is actually time I spend feeling guilty because I can’t write, or because I feel that what I’m writing is utter shit. That’s not “writing” time. It’s my time with The Fear. So much of my writing time has been taken up talking with The Fear that I couldn’t figure out why shit wasn’t getting done. It certainly felt, emotionally, like I was working REALLY HARD. But arguing with your fear isn’t working. Feeling bad for not working isn’t working. Being angry about not working isn’t working.

So much about this business is being able to forgive yourself while you wallow through the dip and the fear that it unleashes. Many of my writing peers, and many of those in the generation just before me, dropped out of the business because of the dip, and the fear. I know people who got great advances and whose books tanked, and they bowed out. I know people who tanked right out the gate who bowed out. I know people who did well right off but were so fearful they couldn’t do it again that they bowed out. These terrible times in our careers also keep coming. They aren’t a one-off. I had a lot of trouble writing after my first contract was cancelled, and trouble writing when my publisher stopped paying me for my first series. I faced the fear when another book went out of print while yet another publisher of mine went through a sale. And I faced the fear when a book didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped it would. And here I am again, just six years into this novel career, and I’m there again, fearing that I’ll never level up, I’ll never break out, that my whole life, all that remains, will be one big churn.

Fear can be negotiated with and overcome. I know this from dealing with it so many times over the last six years. But it always comes back. It does this because we all know we have a shelf life, an expiration date. After all, we’re all going to die. So every time we face a failure, we think, “OK, this is it. For real this time.”

When writing becomes a job, so much of the joy of creation gets lost in the fear and the failure. What I’ve found is that the only thing that brings me back is the work itself. It’s finding the joy in the process, of silencing my inner critic and just telling myself, “You’re just having fun right now. This isn’t for anyone else.” It’s how I felt when I came up with a cool narrative idea for my next book. The excitement of what I could achieve bubbled up in me, the excitement of the challenge, and then there was the fear, the fear that said, “You can’t pull this off. No one will like it. Your agent will hate it. Your editor won’t understand it. You aren’t good enough to do that.” And that voice, you know, it took the joy out of the idea.

So you know what I did?

I told that voice to fuck off. Because no one needs to see that book until February. And I’m going to allow myself to have fun until then. The fun, you see, is the only thing that I can count on to bring me some joy in all this. Eliminate all the fun stuff, and it becomes a true slog, a teary roll toward a meaningless deadline.

I love writing. I love the creative process. I love the magic of discovery. But the fear comes with all that. The fear never goes away. That’s why, if you want to have a long career, sometimes you have to work through the fear anyway, and trust that you can find the magic again on the other side of the dip.

 

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.

 

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).

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you trying to achieve?

 

Writing Income: What I Made in 2016

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

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

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

 

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

     $38,602

 

And here’s how that looks visually:

 

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

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

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