- EPISODE THIRTEEN In this episode we discuss how to take notes, long-term career planning, and why it is books seem to get more difficult to write the more of them you write. I’ll also be tackling some listener questions, from where to find more gooey biopunk to what I think of writers’ unions . Listen below or on iTunes (NOTE: itunes takes awhile to show new eps)
Archive for the ‘The Writing Life’ Category
As The Light Brigade takes the world by storm, I’ve heard from readers who want to know more about the “complicated graphs” I mention in the acknowledgments. These are the graphs that Dr. Joshua Bowman created for my agent, Hannah Bowman, and I to run The Light Brigade characters through to ensure there was narrative logical sense in all the time jumps.
Josh was kind enough to put together the graphs and explanations in a shareable form and gave me permission to post them here. All graphs are (C) Dr. Joshua Bowman.
WARNING: Spoilers below! (really. Read the book before you jump into the graphs and outlines!)
My CHRONOLOGICAL Writing Outline
It may seem ridiculous, but it wasn’t until Hannah was like, “Well, we need to know how the events happen chronologically before we can determine how they need to be broken up” that I realized I should… um, have an outline? I hate outlining, but in a novel this complex, and with how quickly I’ve been producing work, it had to be done.
After getting to the 40k mark and getting stuck, I took a step back and created a Linear Timeline of events for the novel. This outline was very spare, and did not include my interrogation breaks. I knew those would need to get parsed in later once I figure out the way all of the events flowed.
But is it Logical?
Having a linear timeline to reference was great, but now came the tough part: how to jumble it all up and still have it make sense. That’s where the math came in.
As Hannah explains it: “Hurley, I knew that you hated making the science in your books make sense, but in this case, I just knew that readers would only buy into the concept if the continuity was rock solid.”
She GETS me!
According to Josh: “We have a wall in our hallway that is painted with whiteboard paint. One day I walked through while Hannah was drawing a timeline on the wall. She started complaining about how difficult it was to keep track of the jumps back and forth in time. After she had explained more of the premise, I drew two rows of dots, one above the other, and suggested they model the timeline as a bipartite graph, and just consider jumps between the two rows. We started adding arrows to the picture, and within a few minutes the usefulness of the model became clear as the earlier frustrations melted away.”
Here’s how that looks in practice:
Deitz Experiences Dissonance
Once they had the graphed lines, it was a matter of plotting all of Dietz’s drops:
Assuming you’ve read the book (!), you know that the Dietz who surrenders, defects, and is captured in Saint Petersburg then goes back in time to cause the Blink.
But is that logical? One of the things I’d wanted to do initially was have Dietz take her squad back in time with her. This was the graph that pretty much told us that wouldn’t work with everything else we’d set up. Instead, Dietz would need to leave her squad on Mars during M1 (Mission 1); she couldn’t simply take them all forward to M6 (Mission 6), which was how I’d originally written it. The whole thing fell down when I tried to do that.
So this is what we settled on:
My Writing Outline – Events as Experienced by the READER
Logic sorted, I now had to WRITE the book. The outline below is the primary one I used while writing.
At every stage of Dietz’s journey I needed to know 1) who was alive/who had just died or been hurt, where the team had last been, and where Dietz had last been. Note that I also tried to track the marks on the bed (we ended up making these longer blocks of time).
Whenever I had a question about chronology, I would go back to the simpler chronological timeline above to fact-check myself (I did this often!).
Time Travel is COMPLICATED
I have no idea why I thought it would be great fun to write a time travel novel… Ok, yes, I do know, and yes, once we got to the WRITING part, it WAS fun, but wow, getting there was a fucking team effort, and I would never have finished this one without help from my agent, Hannah Bowman, and Dr. Joshua Bowman. When we talk about how writing books is often a team effort, this is the sort of thing we’re talking about. This doesn’t even include the heavy lifting from the editorial team at Saga Press (so much copyediting required!) and help from my assistant, Denise Beucler, who was plugging in copy changes at lightning speed to help me reach deadline.
Some books are easier to write than others. What was great about this experience was that we did all the heavy lifting very early on in the process. While that part was excruciating, it took a lot of pressure off the actual process of writing. Many of my writing sessions were just delightful, even if I wasn’t writing the book quite as quickly as I’d written in the past. If only I could finish what I’d started in the future…
A recent conversation on Twitter inspired a tweet storm from me at like 2 am. One author asked other writers what was the one piece of advice they would give to debut novelists. The responses were interesting and mostly upbeat, except when they… weren’t. You could pretty much guess how somebody’s first novel experience went by the type of advice they gave.
Unsurprisingly, some folks really hated the depressing, downer advice from grizzled mid-career writers like me who were like, “HA HA you thought getting your first book published was tough! SHIT KID THE WORK IS JUST GETTING STARTED. IT GETS WORSE.”
I always come back with some iteration of this because when I got into the field, I figured that if I could just get that first book published, everything would actually be easier. I wouldn’t be a nobody anymore! I would have a body of work! People would take me seriously! By the time God’s War was published in 2011, I had been writing seriously since… 1992? And submitting stories since 1995. That was a fucking long apprenticeship. If you’d have told me shit got worse, shit got harder, back then… I don’t know that I’d believe you. But the world moves on, and with experience comes insight.
Back before I’d published any books, but after I’d gone to Clarion, I’d heard about a meet up for mid-career writers that new writers weren’t invited to. I felt that was horseshit. Surely I, as a newer writer, would need to know mid-career things?
But now I get it. Most writers three books, eight books, twenty books in, have far different concerns and priorities and most of all, experience, than writers who haven’t been through the grinder. Newer writers want to talk craft. Pros are talking about their first or third career reboot, shitty sales, and how to get out of noncompete clauses and shitty contract language. There are writers whose first book struck gold and paved their career for decades, but most are building a career, a legacy, bit by bit, surviving dead publishing houses, several agent switches, and B&N ordering fewer and fewer books. You really feel the difference in these two types of experiences when you talk to writers. Those who hit it big right off look at bitter midlisters like they’ve been huffing glue, and bitter midlisters roll their eyes at insta-classic debutantes selling hundreds of thousands or millions of copies whose biggest complaint is not getting nominated for awards.
The long slog of building a career isn’t a reality anyone prepares writers for. And it often means that when a writer doesn’t strike gold, they believe they are a failure, and give up, instead of taking the long, slow road. But the long slow, uneven road is the more likely way that you will succeed. Betting everything (including your sense of self-worth!) on a single book instead of building a career means MORE pressure on yourself. MORE expectations, and MORE depression and anxiety if your first, second, tenth book fails to move more than a few thousand copies. I’ve seen this happen to a billion debut novelists. Outsized expectations meeting reality has destroyed a ton of writers (and I include public reception/criticism in all of that. I know way too many people who expected to be heralded for their genius and break out into the mainstream their first run out, and criticism, the reality of Goodreads, Twitter wars, and call-outs, paired with lackluster sales, torpedoed their careers before they even started).
My first series is still in print. That is not luck. That is me not giving up on that series even when the first publisher cancelled the contract, second publisher stole money and ran off to Finland, and third publisher (redacted NDA here). Fans and I have kept that series going. It’s eight years old and just got reissued and I saw it on shelves. That is a goddamn miracle. And because it was so hard, I appreciate it MORE. But I still have a day job. I probably always will, because health insurance.
I hear all the time people would “kill” to have my career. And I get that! Folks love my books! I love my books! But without Patreon I would have made $17k in 2017 on book payments and royalties. That’s the reality of a writer whose career you envy. Be sure you take that into account and plan accordingly.
So yes, I believe in tempering ones’ expectations. Because I’ve had to engineer a career that’s far different from the “breakout hit one million dollar advance movie money!” writing career nonsense that is still toted as a viable career scheme for new authors.
Writing is a business. Authors are entrepreneurs. It’s not about just writing a good book and cashing checks and waiting for a miracle to happen. It’s a business hustle. It means that yes, you DO have to believe in your work more than anyone else, and fight harder for it. You DO have to actively learn about covers and marketing and making good business decisions and finding the right agent and understand how to read contracts, all while continuing to level up your craft. Because nobody else – not an agent, a publisher, your partner, your fans – care about your work and your career more than you do. If somebody’s just writing for fun and doesn’t want to be a career writer fine! But I sure would have done better that first time out the gate if I’d spent a little more time understanding and acting like a business owner instead of a writer.
The truth is that most industries, including publishing, are happy to sign up the newest, freshest, most industry-ignorant talent they can find. There’s always more of it, every year. I know several authors who have literally never negotiated their contracts, and hoo boy I can tell you their publishers LOVE that! Exploiting talent with starry-eyed promises and effusive praise works every time. “Why do you need more money? Why do you need to read a contract? Aren’t you an ARTIST DOING THIS FOR THE LOVE? DON’T YOU TRUST ME?”
No, and… no.
Anyhoo. Bitter midlister rant over. Just remember that even writers who get that six-figure advance, have to make it last for all three of those books they’ve agreed to write over multiple years, and 15% goes to their agent and 30% goes to taxes. Keep that in mind when you see authors quitting their day jobs… or publishing a book and never getting heard from again.
People think I’m all negative Nancy because I want to, like, kick puppies or something. But I share the realities of my publishing experiences because I want people to be READY for that shit. I want them to be prepared, and to think like a business up front. I want new writers to have career goals and positive, collaborative agent relationships. I want them to go in LESS ignorant of the field and its realities, because knowledge is power.
P.S. I have never gotten a six-figure advance, and yet, weirdly enough! my work absolutely deserves it based on sales alone, let alone concept. I value the fuck out of my work. My whole career has been convincing publishing to value it as much as I do. It’s a long road, for me, and I feel much more confident about navigating it now that I understand the realities of the business that I’m in.
P.P.S. I suppose if all else fails, you can hold out for a MacArthur Grant. Hope springs eternal for me on that one! I just need to be a genius. CHALLENGE ACCEPETED.
After a relatively quiet 2018 (comparatively), this year is warming up to be a busy one, with THREE book releases and at least one, probably two Big Book deadlines, and ongoing Patreon story deadlines each month as I continue to build a legion of heroes on Patreon.
Here are the big new releases you can look forward to!
- March 19: THE LIGHT BRIGADE. THREE starred reviews already! My time-traveling Starship Troopers with time travel novel.
- July 21: MEET ME IN THE FUTURE: STORIES. My “best of” short story collection, featuring all your favorites from the last decade. Cover reveal soon.
- November 19: THE BROKEN HEAVENS. The FINAL, CONCLUDING volume in the wickedly wonderful Worldbreaker Saga.
My focus, of course, isn’t just on promotion related to book releases but also finishing up NEW work. I have the rest of The Broken Heavens to finish this year, with a hard cut-off of March 1st if we want to get it out in time for the November date.
My next project is a LITTLE up in the air, still, as we are waiting on some contract paperwork for my Genderbent Die Hard in Space novel (I already have a title! But I’ll save that for the official announcement). If that falls through, I will likely be writing my next novel on spec (which means writing a whole novel but not having a contract for it), for either that or my Weird 80’s Murder Mystery novel. I’d like to line up a few more years of contracts, going forward, now that I’m nearly done with my second trilogy obligations.
I also plan to start work on repurposing a lot of my Patreon stories, getting them reprinted for a wider release and putting the older ones up as singles on Amazon. I don’t make much on self-pub titles, but that shit does add up. I’d also like to get back into more long-form blogging. Certainly, my time is better spent creating things than consuming them. The allure of so many social media sites has been that it’s a wonderfully passive way to feel as if one is “doing” something. Alas.
I’ve also put more time into the care and feeding of the Kameron Hurley Workshop, where I have signed books and paintings for sale. I’m always telling writers to diversify income streams, and while the store doesn’t bring in a ton of money (neither does my self-pub) I’m playing the long game here, and again – it adds up over the long haul.
This focus on work means I’ve ratcheted back my travel plans for the second year in a row. As of right now, I’ll be at ConFusion in Detroit, MI later this month and POSSIBLY London Comic-Con in May (this was planned before the shake-up at the publisher sponsoring it, and I’m waiting to verify that this is still on). Aside from that, I’ll be doing my yearly family trip to ABQ, but that is IT.
Hunkering down and DOING THE WORK is my motto for 2019.
One of the things I was reminded while working on THE LIGHT BRIGADE earlier this year is that I honestly enjoy writing. I know, wild, huh? But in the wider world of publishing, it can be easy to lose sight of the work while getting tangled up in business and promo and sales concerns (oh my!). I cherish the times I’m able to shut out the publishing noise and just focus on the work itself. In the case of THE LIGHT BRIGADE, I think that really paid off.
Mid-career writers spend an awful lot of time complaining about publishing woes and less than we should, probably, about reinventing our careers, leveling up our craft, and writing a breakout novel (if that’s our goal). I found that setting a career goal early on helped me focus on projects and – most importantly – helped me say “no” to projects that didn’t fit with my overall career goal. I want to the absolute master at what I do; I want to change the world, I want to create a career legacy that outlasts me. If your longterm goal is relevance as opposed to quick money, that… can be demoralizing sometimes (you are always second-guessing your choices), but it does mean spending more time investing in a career and less in treating the novel writing like each one is a work for hire or freelancing opportunity. Instead, I view each book as building on the overall body of work; they are all in conversation with one another. I’m creating a body of work, not just singular titles.
That also means folks who come to my novels at any point and are fans of one book tend to really enjoy the others, too. That helps keep my backlist shuttling along (and keeps stuff like my God’s War novels still on the shelves after eight years!). Come for one, stay for the rest, because while they may be different genres and sub-genres, they are likely to all feature badass women (and no women are sexually assaulted!), morally gray choices, war and rebellion, and complicated frenemy situations compounded by incredibly dense and weird worldbuilding of the sentient plants, magic bugs, and parallel timelines variety. Basically, if you dig the shit I’m personally into, you will find that same shit in all my books – one way or another.
In talking with some other writers, I’ve pointed out the importance of career goals and project management, for me. It can be very easy to get overwhelmed out here, trying to just write something sells, or just some other random idea that pops into your head. Being strategic about my projects and career (and having an agent who is actively engaged in and involved in those discussions) has been a really vital part of coming back from overwork a few years back. I realized that my problem was I was churning out book after book expecting the “next” book to be the breakout book… and when it wasn’t – again, and again, and again – I realized I didn’t have anything left to get me to the next book.
It’s like that scene from Gattaca (which I LOVE, coincidentally) where the brothers are always competing to see who can swim the furthest, and the older brother asks the younger brother how he always won, and the younger brother says, “Because I never saved anything for the swim back.” This was my fucking MOTTO for YEARS and… alas, if you never start swimming back it turns out you do eventually drown. Ooops!
What I was starting to realize was that if I burned out all my energy swimming in early books, I wasn’t going to have the energy to keep going once I had, you know, become a technically more proficient swimmer. You need to know when you’re making progress and when you’re just allowing yourself to get strung out and exhausted. Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint.
So 2019 is the year we get back to basics. We write good books. Focus on launching these excellent titles. This year we don’t get distracted by bullshit. This year we become a more technically proficient swimmer, instead of JUST a persistent, bull-headed one.
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.
|Book payments, royalties, foreign sales, film||16000|
|Self pub royalties||167|
|Short story reprint sales||1750|
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here we are nearing the end of 2017, and if you’re reading this, congratulations:
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.
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 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:
- The Hysteria of Anson U.
- The Fisherman and the Pig
- Crossroads at Jannah (will appear in Apocalypse Nyx)
- Garda (will appear on B&N SFF blog in Jan, 18)
- The Madness of Memory
- Paint it Red (will appear in Apocalypse Nyx)
- When We Fall (will appear in Escape Pod in Jan, 18)
- Sister Solveig and Mr. Denial
- The One We Feed
- Untitled Nyx Story (forthcoming)
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.
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.
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.
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.