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Archive for the ‘The Writing Life’ Category

Career Milestones, Prioritizing Projects

As some people know, the last couple of years have been a little surreal for me. I’ve gone from having a third book in a series that tanked and nearly killed my career, making it nigh impossible to sell anything else – to being solidly mid-list, with a good backlist, some awards, and increasing interest in my work from a variety of editors. I’m being sought out, often, for blurbs, and my agent only tells me when there’s serious Hollywood interest in my work anymore, not just when people request to read something (cause there’s plenty of that). I also recently got an inquiry from a big media company about possibly doing some tie-in work for them, and much to my spouse’s dismay, turned it down. I did this for a host of reasons, but primarily because for all intents and purposes I’m pretty booked here for the next couple of years with both contracted work and original proposals that I’d like to pitch. That’s not saying I wouldn’t entertain the right property, but early 2017 is the earliest I’d consider more stuff on my plate.

One of the things that all this behind-the-scenes stuff has got me considering is how I manage and prioritize projects and make career decisions. Unexpectedly, I find myself in the place where I’m not begging for work anymore and instead have the ability to sort through my options. Another reason I’ve kept my day job is that it gives me the ability to make writing career decisions based on strategy instead of money. In speaking with other writers, what I’ve heard again and again is how they got themselves into tough situations or bad deals because they needed to say “yes” to something they didn’t want to do because they needed the money. That could be signing over a movie option to the wrong partner, or taking on tie-in work that turned into a nightmare, or taking a small advance from a struggling publisher that imploded.

I like being able to keep my options open. I like that when someone says, “Yes, we could pay you $20k for this!” I can step back and go, “OK, great, but does doing this project really get me further to my career goals of building Team Hurley?” And if it doesn’t, I can say no and we can still eat and pay our health insurance. It’s no secret that I got burned out here last summer, aiming to get GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION out the door while doing promo for EMPIRE ASCENDANT and writing THE STARS ARE LEGION, and it about murdered me. Was it worth it? Well, based on the reactions so far to GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION, yes, it was. That book had to get out the door when it did, or it would miss its cultural window. I expect most of my work to backlist really well, but this one is more likely to have just a handful of good years before it loses some of its cultural relevancy. So I know that has to make a splash up front and garner strong sales early, which, again, based on reception so far, I think it can do. But it required a lot of work on my part, and my publisher’s part, to make that happen.

From the outside, all this might look amazing, but inside, there is a lot of overthinking going on. Because with every opportunity you take, you have to turn down something else, and you’re always thinking, “Was this the right choice?” Strategy is great, but there’s an awful lot of luck in this business, and some of that luck can hinge on a single decision. I have watched many writers go from “hot new thing” to has-been in just a few years. Some of that is just that the media loves “newness.” Some of that is that their work stagnates, or never takes off, and they get discouraged. Some of that is making bad business decisions. Some of that is simple burnout. I almost didn’t recover from the Night Shade hell. It’s hard. And I expect more bumps and setbacks along the way.

But in the meantime, I am working at fielding opportunity as it comes at me. Lots of people will tell you to say “YES!” to everything, but when you’ve got a day job and a book to write in, like, four months, this is unrealistic. You have to choose the BEST things to say yes to, and what “best” means is going to vary based on your situation and what you want out of your career. I am very much at work making my own genre over here. I want to write Kameron Hurley novels. I want Kameron Hurley novels to become a genre in and of themselves. As great as a one-off megahit would be, those are harder to achieve than a strong backlist. With every new book, I see a good bump in backlist sales as new readers discover me, and I’m betting hard on drawing in Kameron Hurley readers, not just MIRROR EMPIRE readers, or LEGION readers, or GOD’S WAR readers. I want to see more overlap.

Whether or not I will achieve that in a way that makes it possible for me to write full-time has yet to be seen, but that’s what I’m gunning for. And to do that means investing in particular projects and passing on others. As wonderful as it is to have the choice, tho, let me tell you  – having the choice is almost worse, because you will always worry that it’s not the right one.

Career management is one of those things you can’t make broad generalizations about, because we are all in this with different goals. Whatever your career goals are, though, I advise you to figure them out as soon as possible, as it will make all the other decisions you need to make later on down the line a lot easier.

So How Many Books Do You Sell?

It’s the question every writer dreads: “How many books have you sold? ”

It’s a tricky question because for 99% of the year, those with traditionally published books honestly have very little idea. But two times a year – in the spring and in the fall – we receive royalty statements from publishers, which give a sometimes cryptic breakdown of what has sold where. So for those keeping track here with my “Honest Publishing Numbers” posts, here’s an update.


Sold about 23,000 copies as of December 31st, 2015 (representing about 16 months of sales)


About 7,000 copies as of December 31st, 2015 (note that this book came out in October last year, so that’s only two months of sales. Not bad)

We’ve sold quite a few more e-copies of tME than EA, which I think has more to do with the fact that tME had a couple of KDD sales and a BookBub promotion, and folks are more likely to pick up first books in series from new authors in ebook.

IS THIS GOOD? gwzjowiyfr7rwq8qy6wv

Book numbers are messed up because what’s considered a “success” for one book may not be considered a “success” for another book. It depends on how much you were paid up front and how much your publisher spent. But by comparison, GOD’S WAR, which came out in 2011, is probably at about 15-17,000 or so by now in US/UK (it’s really tough to measure total sales over there because… well, it’s a very long and agonizing writer horror story. But suffice to say those numbers will also be approximate).

So MIRROR EMPIRE got there way, way faster. Once you get up over 20,000 copies on a title within a year or two, it’s more or less considered  a success unless you were paid something crazy for it (and especially if it’s trade paperback and not mass market paperback, as trade, hardcover, and ebook have higher margins – again, the math makes raw numbers talk a difficult measure of success). I wasn’t paid huge advances for these books ($7,500 per) so I’m making royalty money on both already, as well as my three prior titles, GOD’S WAR, INFIDEL, and RAPTURE.

I will say that it’s pretty cool to have all five of my published books earn out already. So thanks to all the fans for that, it’s a big deal.

All that said, remember that powerhouse 1% authors generally sell like 20,000 copies the first week of a release. So. You know. That’s the difference we’re talking about here between the 1% and everyone else.

As someone who was struggling there in the lower-midlist for awhile, I’m pretty happy with this. My goal for something like GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION is going to be far higher, though. I want to move about twice that many the first year or two, in part because I was also paid more. Same with THE STARS ARE LEGION. I did the math on LEGION and I need to sell about 8,000+/- to earn out (hardcover and ebook royalties are pretty good). Even though LEGION is SF, I think we have a shot at doing that as more people learn about my work. My goal is to keep building my career with every title, and so far, so good with that.

As far as making a living writing, I made about $50,000 in writing income last year, all told. But that includes royalties, two new book sales, outstanding payments for existing work, and Patreon. Minus 15% for my agent and 30% for taxes and yeah – not a stable wage that I’d like to live on if I can help it, thanks. But we’re edging up there slowly. If we can keep up this forward momentum I may be able to go full time in five years or so, if I wanted, or at least go half-time at my day job. But that’s if things keep working out, and if there’s nothing else I’ve learned in publishing it’s that you just never know what’s going to happen next, so I will continue to hedge my bets. But… I am cautiously optimistic.

Finish your Sh*t: Secrets of an Evolving Writing Process

It’s certainly no secret that I’ve already completed a shitbrick of work this year. I’m currently finishing up another pass on my draft of The Stars are Legion, which needs to be Advanced-Reader-Copy-Ready in ooooohhh, about thirteen days (not that I’m counting). I’ve also completed two short stories for Patreon readers, one weighing in at nearly 25k and another logging a respectable 12k. Additionally, I committed to finishing up an anthology story which I’m completing this week, and oh, did I mention that the third Worldbreaker book, The Broken Heavens, is due in October?

People often ask how I’m able to do all that work on top of having a day job, and the answer is, most days, I just don’t know. But one thing I have learned in the last three months is that I have a lot easier time completing a draft that has me stuck in the mucky middle if I just skip ahead and write the ending.

I tend to spend a lot of time on the openings of my novels and stories, and it shows. My latest short story for Patreon, “The Plague Givers,” is a good example of this. There’s a very polished beginning, as far as the prose goes, and then it veers off into simplier language for much of the middle, and returns a bit toward the end to the more polished language. I will most likely go back and polish out the other half of the story before finding a home for it elsewhere, but watching how I completed that story reminded me of how I’ve hacked my process the last few months to try and get work out the door just a little faster.

I’m a discovery writer, which means I like to be surprised by events that happen in a book just as a reader would be. That means that though I may write with a few sentences about things that should happen in a scene, I don’t feel bound by it. If the characters veer off course, then I  follow and see where they’ll lead. The trouble is when those small character choices begin to compound over time. As GRRM says of the small changes made in the television version of GoT, those little changes start to snowball, until you find yourself in a far difference place than the one you were planning on.

One of things I knew I’d need to soften up on if I wanted to write faster was some of the discovery writing. I wrote “The Plague Givers” with a fairly comprehensive outline, bits of which I rewrote or deleted as I went, but it helped keep me on track as I wrote hard up to the Patreon payment date cut-off time (I had 90 minutes to spare!). Most importantly, though, once I wrote the end I knew where I was headed. I knew all the character interactions needed to lead me to this place. And though I later went back and tweaked the ending to match choices I’d made earlier, it was a much smoother, faster writing process than it had been before I wrote the ending.

I did the same thing with “The Heart is Eaten Last” and The Stars are Legion, writing the endings about the time I hit the middle and started to flounder. By the time I get halfway on most any piece, I get tired of it and am convinced it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written. To get myself out of that mindset, I skip ahead to the part I write where I generally believe I’m brilliant, and that’s the ending.

And yes, I continue to refine and rework the endings after I complete the whole story, but at least I have somewhere to go. One of the biggest questions you can ask yourself about any story is “What is this story about?” Not what is the plot, or what are the events, not “It’s about a woman who battles snakes to win the throne of the empire.” But thematically what you’re trying to say. A lot of my stories have similar themes “What would you sacrifice to win?” or “All people are monsters” or “Sometimes you have to give up a piece of your humanity in order to save the world.” Knowing the theme helps me figure out how characters drive the events of the stories and why they make the decisions they do and where they need to end up at the end. The Stars are Legion is about knowing when you have to transform yourself to save yourself, and the understanding that however scary that transformation is, adhering to the status quo is going to kill you. When I figured that out, the choices my characters needed to make became much clearer, and it was easier to drive everyone to the ending that I’d written.

I’ve already applied this technique to The Broken Heavens. I’ve written the two opening chapters, the last scene, and the epilogue already. I know where I’m heading, and my hope is that that will make this drafting process a lot easier than the last few I’ve done. I sure as hell hope it works, because as of right now, The Broken Heavens, if I turn it in on time, will be the fastest book I’ve ever drafted.

I’m not one of those people who believes that writing quickly necessarily means sacrificing quality. In fact, what I’ve found is that the longer I have to noodle on a piece and worry over it, the more convoluted it gets. It’s well known that it often takes me months and months just to write the first forty thousand words of a story, but I can write the last forty thousand words in just a couple of weeks, and honestly, I tend to like the last forty thousand words a lot more than the first forty thousand. The most editing I did on The Mirror Empire and Empire Ascendant was on the first halves of those books; much less on the second halves.

Certainly, this mad way of writing doesn’t work for everyone. I don’t like the idea of writing 80% of my book in the last month before deadline either, which is why I’m working on ways to write more efficiently. I don’t believe that taking a year to write a book when you’re actually doing most of the work in the last month makes it any higher quality than a book you write in two or three months where you’re actually writing hard every day and getting shit down instead of dickering around because you have the time to follow characters through endless useless plot meanderings before you finally get to your point. I want to be able to get to my point faster. What I’m finding is that writing the end soon after I write the beginning is helping me stay a lot more focused while keeping up the quality of the work.

In the end, one’s writing process is an endlessly hackable thing. When you get to a place where I’m at where you can’t squeeze out any more hours in the day, you have to figure out how to spend them more efficiently. Making little process changes here and there is the only way I’m going to be able to write at the pace that I’d like. I’m constantly aware of my own mortality, and I have so many, many stories left to write before I go. If you want to be the best at what you do, you have to keep learning, and keep leveling up. I’m never content to stay in one place.

We All Drop the Ball

I turned in my copyedits for GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION last night, and a good thing, too, since the book comes out in May. I now have seven days left to finish a big revision on THE STARS ARE LEGION, because we have ARCs going to Comic-Con, apparently (ha ha) and it comes out October 1st, and we are tight on timing, here.

This morning I cruised into the day job and attended our usual all-hands Monday meeting at the agency and noted to everyone that I was going to try and take Thursday and Friday off this week so I could work on my book, but that was going to require me to get a LOT of shit done this week in the lead-up and farm out a lot of work. Last night, my spouse left the house to care for a sick relative, leaving me at home to care for our two dogs, one of whom can’t get onto all four feet without shrieking in horrible pain. He weighs nearly 140 pounds, and let’s just say that the shrieking and the hauling and the care can be stressful. On top of that, I’m driving our second car, which is the one that we paid $2500 cash for and vents carbon monoxide into the car so we can only drive it with the windows open and oh yeah, watch the front tire because every few days it goes flat and so we ride around with an air pump for it.

We are paying out the nose for our dog’s surgery and meds and still haven’t been reimbursed, and we are still about two months out from royalty season. But this week we’re expecting some payments for things, so we are holding our breath about that. So though we feel cash poor right now, yes, relief is coming, but needless to say, there’s a lot on my mind.

All of this is to preface this story of how my dog ran away at noon. So here I am driving back to the house from work in this deathmobile. I get back to the house and my husky dog is jumping and happy to see me and my poor shrieking mastiff with the bum legs has literally not moved from where he was sitting when I left this morning. I heat up some food and do the dishes and I don’t want to move the mastiff for his noon walk because I don’t want to put him in any more shrieking pain and surely he can wait until I get home but hey I can take out the husky!

So I grab the leash and go to the back door and Snax the husky trots up next to me and I just… open the door.

I open the door…. with the leash still in my hand, not attached to anything. And my dog just trots out the door without a leash on and I just stare at her like, “What did I just do?” and then she gets the bottom of the stairs and takes off.

We are all of us imperfect.

I drove around after her in the deathmobile, with my spouse texting me directions on where she was based on info from our dog tracker (great toy, let me tell you). And yes, eventually I cornered her and brought her home and it was fine.

But I kept replaying that bizarre moment of dissonance, when I just… opened the door without putting my dog on a leash, my brain wholly occupied with worry over my dog, my deadlines, and who was going to put away the dishes.

We are, all of us, imperfect. We all drop the ball.

Sometimes when people look at me and my life and how I get stuff done, they compare themselves to it and feel they come up short. But let me tell you. There are days you don’t want this life. Your life is perfectly fine. You are doing what you need to do, at your pace. The pace I’m keeping is not sustainable, and it makes me pretty nutty. You do you.

We forget sometimes what gets sacrificed in order for us to achieve the things that get all the splash and bang online or at the bar or in the media. I sat up alone last night entering copyedits into a PDF while my dog whined downstairs because he was lonely and in pain, and my spouse kept watch over an ill relative. I looked at GRRM’s post about the Superbowl this morning after hauling the dog outside and drinking my coffee and thought about how making deadlines is nice, but I sure would like to be making enough with just one series so that I could miss a deadline for a year or five and have a life and maybe some hobbies and other interests. But you want to be the best at something, you have to work harder than everyone else. I know that, but I also know it’s not sustainable. Something has to go. Something has to break or breakout. Let’s hope it’s a book that breaks out, cause let me tell you, I’m tired of breaking.

Hope springs eternal.


Committed to the Drop: Writing Deadlines, the Fear of Success, and Mitigating Failure

There has been a rise in public conversation recently about authors and deadlines since George R.R. Martin noted that the next season of Game of Thrones was now going to be coming out before the next book, as he was unable to meet the publication deadline. Lots of authors have talked about their struggles with life vs. deadlines, including – most visibly – Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss, but it’s a subject that comes up often at the convention bar, because many writers struggle with it. Deadlines are necessary, but they hurt, especially for those of us with day jobs, or for those who are primary caregivers. Readers forget that the vast majority of the writers they read still have other jobs that pay for groceries, and whole lives outside of their books.

In my own experience, I’ve found that it’s not the art-ing part that makes writing at a clipped pace difficult, but finding the headspace in my life that I need to focus purely and intently on a single task. It’s no secret that my life is, by necessity, pretty fragmented. I have a day job as a writer at an ad agency (somebody has to write all those corporate blog posts and web pages). I also have a 150 lb dog with two bad back legs who will be in perpetual rehab and surgery for at least another three months. I have a spouse I would like to have a relationship with. I have promotional events I need to go to. I have two books coming out this year, proposals I need to think about (2018 will be here sooner than you think, and I’ll be out of contract) and swag to order and promotional pushes to plan. I have a Patreon that I’m pushing hard to write a short story a month for this year because, you know, dog surgery and rehab and redesigning a website for promo this year is pretty expensive. Last year was a nutty year of constantly switching day jobs as I leapt from the frying pan into the fire and then back to a better position, but it still required a lot of stress, adaptation, and hustle to stay valuable and stay employed because I’m the breadwinner in the family and you know, we need health insurance.

I turned in three books last year, which was stupid and which I never want to do again, and which I finally paid for, as it pretty much broke my ability to achieve all of this without medical intervention.

This is not a post about me missing my publication dates this year, though, so take a big breath, my reading fans. This is instead a post about what it costs sometimes to make those deadlines, and the fear that follows writers throughout their careers. We think that making stories, for authors, is a simple matter. Pound out 500 words a day and you’re good to go! Just keep writing and you will be a success! Once you sell one book you will always sell books!

But it just doesn’t work that way, and I say that as someone who has prided themselves on making my deadlines because I’m a professional writer. You can’t tell a client, “Ha ha sorry that website copy we contracted to have done in May won’t be done until August” without losing their business or getting dinged at your job. But by golly I have been pushing them out as far as they will go this year, to the point where both my editors finally said, “OK, but no more or we’re going to start missing important marketing dates.” Cue author panic, as I know better than anyone how important it is that everything go right with a release, because there are so many external factors that can negatively impact you. You have to be on point at all times throughout the publication of a book, and even then it takes a lot of fucking luck to make things work. Sure, there are folks with established audiences who can push out dates and still eat and stay top of mind, but I am not one of them. Not yet.

The reality is that I’m working two full-time jobs right now, which became abundantly clear at my day job recently when I realized I had more than forty hours of work a week there and there wasn’t any way I could work extra hours because I had forty hours more of work to do on novels and short stories at home and my god we need some help people because I am not a word machine. It was hard to ask for help at work, but though I can work the occasional long night to hit a deadline there the same way I can put in a 10,000 word, 10-hour writing day for a novel, I can’t put in 60 or even 45 hours at the day job a week without risking my novel career. See, again, the necessity of pushing out those deadlines to their breaking point already, and it’s only January!  So we are getting some freelance help at work, which is great, even if it pains me.

Delegation is the theme of 2016 for me, because I’m simply out of time. I handed off the manuscript to GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION to my assistant so she could check all of the endnotes. My spouse has offered to do a second typo-run through it. In addition to designing games based on my work, he has also taken on doing things like filling out foreign tax forms and doing all of our tax work and packaging up backer and mailing list rewards and getting them all mailed and making sure key stuff around the house like dog care, money management, and grocery shopping gets done because otherwise we’d be living on canned soup right now.

This is not an easy business. It’s about far more than just putting marks on paper for an hour in the morning. You’re a small business, and if you have a day job on top of your small business, it’s tough to make it all work alone. For the vast majority of writers, the first fifteen or twenty or forever years of our careers are what we hack out in the time between those things we do to pay the bills. A lot of the money we make doing this gets fed back into the machine for conventions, promo items, website redesigns, mailing list swag, printer ink, paper, and computers.

On occasion, it’s easy to get discouraged, which is why I talk about it here (I’ve noticed that more pro writers appreciate this than aspiring writers; aspiring writers yell at me that I’m “living the dream” and I should be more thankful and upbeat [when was Hemingway ever upbeat about the writing profession??]. We’ll talk again in a decade or so, caterpillar, when you have a full-time novel writing career that doesn’t pay you enough to pay your bills yet).  At a certain point you just keep going because you can’t imagine doing anything else. Writing novels is all I’ve ever done, and though I can see myself taking a year off here in a few years to rest and recharge my writing brain, I can’t imagine ever quitting for good unless I’m in the ground.

Speaking of the ground, I was working on some research for a day job article yesterday and noted that I had every single risk factor for heart disease. Every. Single. One. As I come from a family that’s suffered heart attacks, this is not a fact that I should take lightly. I need to make some personal health changes and make time for fitness, which was the first thing to go when I started on the deadline treadmill. When you’re working constantly all you want to do when you get done with all the writing is to pass out. I keep revisiting my 2016 personal and professional goals list to try and stay on point. It’s fucking tough. The truth is that you probably won’t be able to write novels full time even when you have enough work to keep you busy full time. You may never make enough. Which leaves us here, trying to balance work and novel deadlines, and still maintain some semblance of a quality of life.

So let’s get back to those deadlines. I have two books out this year, and one book to write. That SOUNDS like it should be fine, but think of it like this: it means having three books in various stages along the writing-editing-promotion spectrum, and that is… a lot. We’re trying to push THE BROKEN HEAVENS out by April of 2017, too, which is going to be… special.

Here’s (roughly) what my dates are looking like:

  • GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION proofs: 2/8 (pushed out from 1/29)
  • THE STARS ARE LEGION draft 2: 2/15 (pushed out from 1/29)
  • ICFA Conference (March)
  • THE STARS ARE LEGION copyedits
  • GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION release date (May 31)
  • GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION promo (May 30-June 20)
  • Readercon (July)
  • THE BROKEN HEAVENS “draft” due to agent (August 1)
  • Gencon (August)
  • THE BROKEN HEAVENS draft due to publisher (October 1)
  • THE STARS ARE LEGION release (October 4)
  • THE STARS ARE LEGION promo (October 3-24)
  • THE BROKEN HEAVENS copyedits

If you are one of the people sad about how “long” it is taking to write THE BROKEN HEAVENS, I will refer you to the above list, and also point out, you know, it’s not like I’m doing five years between books WILL YOU LOOK AT THAT LIST HOLY GOD.

This is all on top of everything else that I’ve got to figure out how to get done this year, like the day job, like fitness, like not going insane. Every time I bump into someone at a convention they comment on how great my career is looking and yes, that’s true, things look great! But I’ve done this long enough that I know I need to hedge my bets. I am tentatively hopeful about how THE GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION is going to do, as I’ve run into a lot of people buzzing about it at conventions and I haven’t even really done any promotion or anything for it yet (though really, the blog is the promotion. My whole career is the promotion). And it has a lot of crossover appeal, as there are many folks who read my blog who either don’t read or don’t care for my fiction who’ve been waiting to snap up a collection like this.

But none of this is a sure thing. It’s all about finding the right house for the book, getting the right cover, the right publisher support, pulling off the right promotion, getting it into the hands of the right people, and praying that you pushed it out at the right time (timing is everything with this one, which is why me, my editor, and the whole publishing staff involved in its release has been shepherding it through Tor fairly quickly). This is the same thing happening with THE STARS ARE LEGION at Saga, with folks moving things around and ushering it through, getting covers done, and prepping hard so we can hit our October date. It’s a lot of work to publish a book, and only some of that is mine. So if you wonder why books “cost so much” (especially when many authors are paid so little) I want you to consider both the folks behind Team Hurley and the teams at Tor Books, Saga Press, and Angry Robot Books who are helping me deliver that list of titles to you up there. The work that they do ensures that I can spend more of my time writing than I would otherwise, and ensures you get quality stuff.

There’s no doubt that I produce far more work now with deadlines than without, but I admit the slow grind here is not what even I expected. What I prepared for in my teens and early twenties was for the long slog to get my first book published. I seriously, for real, thought it was all downhill after that. I figured getting published was going to be the biggest hurdle, and I had learned to accept the fact that I might be thirty or forty or fifty before that happened. But getting a book published is not the hardest part, sorry! Obscurity is the biggest hurdle. Achieving longevity. Building a career. And achieving those things is not a one-off act. It’s a process. Just like you can’t run a 6-minute mile once and then expect you can do it again after never running a step for six years, you can’t expect that writing one book puts you in a good place to sell your third book, or your twentieth book.

I was talking to another writer on Twitter recently who said that most depressed people actually commit suicide when they are on the upswing, not when they are truly in the depths of despair (bear with me for this metaphor, because it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot as I write thousands of words about writing that are not the books currently due and trying to figure out what truth I’m trying to get at to break through here). When we’re at our lowest point, we hesitate to do anything at all; depression still exists because we were less likely to get eaten by lions than people who were bounding off into the savannah every morning. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea that your lowest point, the point at which you are in the most peril of losing everything, is actually when you are starting to get better. And it’s that point when you are in the upswing of your career that you really start to panic, because after all this darkness, you start to see the light.

And shit, yeah. After all this time, and all this struggle, here I am with two books coming out this year from major publishers, and they are GOOD books (or, in the case of my draft of THE STARS ARE LEGION, have great potential to be). And I realize that some of the writing here, the fear, the push at the deadlines, the mad scramble for words just ahead of the ax, is me realizing that it may in fact be almost possible that I am coming out of the terrible publishing grind that I’ve been fighting for the last five years. That’s a scary place to be when you’ve gotten so used to living and working just one way. What does your internal story become, then? You face an uncertain future. No, misery and grinding work are not great, but after awhile you just get used to them. What’s funny is that the hardest part of the grind is never, for me, when I’m at my lowest point. It’s here, when shit seems to be paying off and suddenly you’re like well shit, what if I AM great? What if I DO succeed? What if things AREN’T as awful for the next five years?

Sometimes just that idea alone can paralyze you. You see how things can be better, and you get terrified not so much that you could achieve it, even, but that you could come so close to achieving it and then somehow fuck it up and fail again and be right back to where you started.

Writers are always worried about fucking up, and we have good reason. Many a writer has believed their career was just fine and dandy until suddenly editors stopped buying books. A writing career is not always an upward progression. It tends to look far more like a rollercoaster.

And here I am, climbing up another curve on that coaster, fearful of what’s on the other side, fearful of the drop, fearful of failure, fearful of success. But I am already strapped in, and the deadlines will push out no more, and I am committed to the drop.

So here we go. All together now.  Thanks for coming along for the ride.

Traditional Publishing, Non-Compete Clauses & Rights Grabs

DISCLAIMER: I am going to say some tough, true things in this essay. It’s not NEW stuff, but stuff that writers talk about a lot in the bar at conventions on in email with one another. This is not meant to be a jibe at any publishers I’m currently working with (well, except the usual one, and they know who they are). These are general industry issues on the minds of many writers that I think we all need to talk about publicly for newer writers coming up after us. So let’s get to it! 

If you love something, let it go. 

If it returns to you, it was meant to be. 

If it does not return, it means it thought your relationship was pretty shitty and it’s really happy to never see you again.

When you’re a new writer, you mostly talk to other new writers about craft. Once you publish a book or two, though, you’re increasingly talking to your peers about the business of writing and publishing. You talk about contracts and foreign rights deals and rights grabs and the benefits and drawbacks of self-publishing and being a hybrid author.

One of the big issues we’ve been dealing with the last 15 years or so as self-publishing has become more popular are the increasing rights grabs and non-compete clauses stuck into the boilerplate from big traditional publishers terrified to get cut out of the publishing equation. Worse, these clauses are becoming tougher and tougher to negotiate at all, let alone get them to go away. Worser (yes, worser) – many new writers don’t realize that these are shitty terms they should be arguing over instead of just rolling over and accepting like a Good Little Author. What I’ve seen a lot in my decade of publishing is new writers on the scene who don’t read their contracts and who rely on their agent’s judgement totally (and that’s when they even HAVE an agent! eeeee). They don’t have writer networks yet. They aren’t sure what’s normal and what’s not and they don’t want to rock the boat.

I am here to tell you to rock the boat.


We’re seeing many publishers turn their backs on nurturing mid-list authors to champion quick-hit books. That’s not new, again. We’ve seen the squeezing out of the midlist for thirty years. It sucks. There’s very little career-nurturing. You have to prove your mettle in the small presses or write something insanely marketable the first go-round just to break through. Folks should note that my career required me to start out at the smaller presses and work my way up. It’s been difficult. I had to prove myself, and I had to have editors who championed my work at the big houses, and a great agent who wasn’t afraid to take it to market. It’s been a slog. It didn’t happen overnight. And I’ve learned a lot along the way. And if this stuff tanks this year, getting up is going to be hard (so buy my book, etc).

This reluctance to nurse mid-list careers is bad news for writers who want to go the traditional publishing route, especially as it’s happening at a time when many editors are overworked and marketing budgets continue to get slashed and advances continue to tumble. If you’re a new author in SFF, don’t be surprised to get a first offer of $5,000 that demands your first-born child and everything you and they will ever write, and if you sell just 3,000 copies, well, sorry, we’re done with you and maybe go back to the small houses or come back to us with some vampire erotica we can sell.

Why does this all matter, though, and can it be fixed? Is traditional publishing just doomed to offer us less and less while taking more and more? What can we do to combat it?

Let’s break this down.

Non-Compete Clauses (yes, really)

Folks in self-publishing lose their minds when they hear about these clauses in traditional publishing contracts, and let me tell you, that was pretty much my reaction when I encountered my first one, too.  Though writers have been seeing these clauses in big house contracts for some time now, we still laugh and hork and yell bullshit at this clause because that’s exactly what it is: complete bullshit.

You should be fighting these too.

Non-compete clauses ask a writer to take an advance of $10,000 or $20,000 or whatever and prevent them from having any other novel-length work come out for a full year (or more!) before and after the book is published by that house. Sometimes this is “only” six months before and after. Sometimes it’s “only” novels in a related genre or can be negotiated to “only” novels in the same world. But it’s always awful and you always have to yell hard about it to get it wittled down to something manageable. In truth, this shit should not be there at all, but know that you CAN rub away at it if you insist.

You can see the huge problem with these clauses immediately, of course. Last year was the first year I’ve made what I’d consider a living wage from writing, and to achieve that I had to turn in three books that year.

Clearly I was able to negotiate this clause in my own contracts because I’ve got two books coming out next year (though note that I’m an established author and the books are coming out in different genres), but let me tell you that I about threw my shit out when I saw my first one of these because when you see something in writing your first impulse is to believe that it’s set in stone and impossible to change. I think these things should be thrown out all together, but until then: fight it.

For authors who write four books, or eight books, or more a year, big houses adhering strictly to this clause while paying advances under $50,000 a book would mean preventing most authors from making a living wage as writers (remove agent’s cut, taxes, and health insurance from that number, and yes, friends, that is what I’d consider an actual living wage, not this $20,000 bullshit).

That’s just a fact.

Also of importance is that this clause makes the sort of unreasonable demands on an author that can only be made of an actual employee. You know, someone who gets health insurance and other benefits. By asking authors not to compete against themselves, they’re skirting dangerously close to moving us into the “employee” category that they want to keep us out of.  I have a non-compete clause in my employment agreement at my day job that prevents me from taking on freelancing work that competes with my day job work, and those hold up (mostly) because I’m actually categorized as an employee.

So are we employees or contractors? I’m actually surprised no one has taken a non-compete clause to court, because I think a serious legal inquiry would be interesting.

If you’re stuck in one of these non-compete clauses, the chances of you ever making a living as a writer of purely fiction are slim to none.

The fact that they want to effectively make you a house author without any of the benefits of being a house author – like multi-year contracts and living-wage advances – is even worse.

They need to go, and we all should be pushing hard at them.

Other fun stuff: I have also heard several authors who weren’t able to write related work – from short stories to novellas – featuring the world or characters in their novels, per the contract. That means short stories, novellas, everything. I know writers who’ve had to go argue up the chain of command just to be able to write work in their own world.

Check for this and get it thrown out. Immediately. WTF we are not writing tie-in fiction! WTF is this doing in ANYONE’s boilerplate, I have no fucking idea.


Rights Grabs

Oh, sure, the boilerplate at a lot of publishers asks for everything: movie rights, TV rights, theme park rights, you name it. But you can mostly get that garbage thrown out on the first pass (YOU BETTER!).

Lots of contracts also ask for comic book rights. When I saw that one I was pretty surprised. Like, seriously? This isn’t limited to big publishers, either. Look at your short story contracts and how many of them include audio and anthology rights now, too. That was unheard of when I first started sending stories out.

Stuffing contracts full of clauses that give publishing houses every right ever imagined is nothing new, as noted. What’s new is how much more difficult it’s becoming for authors who aren’t in the 1% to get them removed.

I’m successful in doing this a lot of them time, but not always, and I’m pretty hawkish with contracts. For folks less confident, or bullish, even with an agent it’s infinitely harder (I love my agent. I still send her back to negotiate things when I’m not happy. That’s the gig).

You should be pushing on this, too.


The Fist or the Open Palm

First: I have some great publishers, and editors who have gone to bat for me to make things work. I have great relationships with the vast majority of them. I know it’s a tough business. I know they struggle with it too.HNCK4310-600x400

But their parent companies see us as widget-makers, and they make it tougher and tougher for editors to hold out the open palm instead of the fist. Goodwill with your editor, or “my editor is so nice!” does not always translate to the nitty-gritty of the contract. A lot of those things are determined by the parent company up high, and are negotiated not with the editor but with people in the contracts department. Having a super nice editor who wants the best for you is great, but it does not guarantee there will be nothing but roses in your contract.

See, the big corp parent companies prefer the fist. They’d like to legally tie you to them, condemning you to live in poverty or keep your day job throughout your contract. But what editors and writers would certainly prefer is that publishers provide you with more value that helps make you and the work a success. Publishers who do things that make you WANT to do business with them are going to win over those who make it tough.

But that takes time, and effort, and resources. And so many editors are so short on those that it’s criminal. The great ones have done a fabulous job of helping us along, but their parent companies don’t always make it easy.

Clearly the parent companies, like many businesses today, are choosing the cheaper solution first. It’s way easier to serve up awful contracts than it is to invest in more editorial and marketing support. Better to just contractually bind authors to you because they have no other choice and are desperate for a sale.

But is it really easier, in the long run?

Because here’s the thing. Ruling with the fist ensures you only ever get people who have no choice but to be ruled by the fist. The minute they break out and have other options, they’ll be gone. Either they’ll go into self-publishing or they’ll leave your house and go somewhere else. Maybe nobody will care by then. Maybe the hope is that they get your one breakout success novel and don’t care about the rest.

As writers become better at running their careers like businesses and publishing companies try and wrest away more and more control for less and less money, the truth is that the control that self-publishing offers becomes pretty appealing.  It’s one reason I continue to self-publish my own short fiction, and if you take a look at Patreon, I can basically write 12 short stories a year right now for $18,000 a year, which – if you take out my agent’s fee – is more than I’ve been paid for any single novel as yet (she makes 15% on everything, so at $20,000 for my highest advance, I actually received $17,000).

When you break that shit down and look at the math, it’s pretty wild.

The argument from publishers is that you know, fewer people are reading books. So we have to pay authors less. And I get that. But paying us LESS while simultaneously asking for MORE rights isn’t fair either. And yes, yes, life isn’t fair, this is business, sure – but from a business perspective we need to start thinking about what it is that we’re signing over, as authors, and what our deal breakers are. I’ve finally gotten to the point in my career where I realize that for some projects, no publisher is better than certain deals. I have a day job, and I can afford to turn work down.

What becomes a problem is when every publishing contract is shitty and inflexible, because then you’re left with selling your soul or giving up your dream of publishing, and that’s not a great place to be. It’s what’s going to turn more and more authors who cultivate fan followings to turn to alternative ways to make money and cut publishers out all together.

This is a shame for a number of reasons, the least of which is that there are great editors out there who are fabulous to work with and amazing art departments and marketing and sales teams that can indeed help you and your books level up (if I didn’t believe this, I wouldn’t be doing it). But they, too, are often available for freelancing work, because they aren’t making a lot of money either. They hustle just like authors do. Publishing layoffs and budget cuts mean that if you have the money, you can become an author-publisher and packager and manage this all yourself. You can run your own small publisher for your own work – and there are authors who do that. I’ve talked to a number of self-published writers who got trad publishing deals who – though they appreciated the greater distribution – found that giving up so much control of the process to someone else and then not seeing a massive return was pretty demoralizing.

Championing Books vs. Authors

More and more, editors find themselves in the difficult place of being asked to champion a book instead of an author. While many agents will still sign up an author and work to nurture their career, we’re seeing this far less inside publishing houses whose stakeholders want instant hits, not investments that pay out in twenty years.

What this means is that you see a lot of writers doing what I’ve done: starting out with smaller presses and building sales there before moving to larger houses. It means that a lot of the innovative talent-finding in the industry is done at smaller houses that can call a book a success if it sells 5,000 copies. You see less room for taking a chance on an unknown author at a larger house unless they have an easily recognizable breakout book (and editors who take those chances on people like me are my heroes, but also have to have some strong author hits or cred inside their organization in order to balance the risks they take).

When houses are investing in books and not authors, there’s less impetus to make congenial arrangements in contracts. They are buying widgets, not nurturing relationships, and every widget is a potential golden goose. The trouble comes in when authors break out and want to move on because they were treated like shit in prior negotiations. Even if you work hard to “fix” contracts going forward, authors don’t forget shitty treatment. We don’t forget that you didn’t give us those royalty rates the first time. We don’t forget how inflexible you were when we were no one.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

Honestly, I don’t know. As an author, I’m diversifying my income, and I’m working with multiple publishers to see what sticks. The 13-book Scalzi deal was an interesting development in publishing, and one I’d like to see more publishers consider. If you’re going to treat me like an employee, I should have the benefits and stability an employer offers, and a minimum income. Otherwise, we need to find ways to make these arrangements look far more like what they are: licensing agreements, and not indentured servitude.

I, for one, am continuing to monitor my contracts like a hawk and pushing and negotiating as I can. Remember that what you see in a contract is never, ever set in stone. I’m working to improve my sales and my reputation to make investing in mycareer less of a risk and more of sure thing that can help me bring more leverage to the negotiating table. But that doesn’t help writers coming up behind me, and more and more, that’s what I’m concerned about. I don’t want writers coming up behind me to think that what they see in their first or third contract is just normal and we all accept them. We’ve pushed back on and negotiated language in our contracts, and all writers need to be doing the same across the industry, until clauses like these non-competes become contested and thrown out so often that they become moot.

Fight them. Discuss them. Push back against them. If you can, and it’s a deal breaker for you, walk away and build something else and come back when you have more leverage. The more of us push the better it will be for all of us going forward. We can’t talk about creating a business that supports more writers and more voices while simultaneously making boilerplate worse and constraining them and their business choices with increasingly restrictive contract language.

Getting a book accepted for publication is, I’m sorry to say, the second easiest part of this business (the easiest part is writing the book. Sorry!). The truth is that an acceptance is just the first step in your career. To stay in the game you need to make smart business decisions, weigh your choices, partner with the right agent(s) and editor(s) for your work, and get business savvy. That means reading, understanding, and pushing back on your contracts.

These are the worlds and characters you built. Ensure they are doing what they need to do to power your career, instead of constraining it.

On Kindness and Conventions

I want to talk a little about kindness.

We like to think that geeks are kind, that geeks understand what it is to be outsiders, and so we open up our circles and are super inviting to everyone. But what happens more often is that once we find our groups, we jealously defend them to keep outsiders away. Once we’ve created an “us” we work even harder to define the “them.” This is one of the reasons that conventions have always been so excruciatingly difficult for me.

Last year at ConFusion in Detroit I came in when everyone else was already glommed up into their little circles and went straight back to the bar and got a drink with my spouse. He was like, “Why aren’t you saying hi to people?” and I was like, “I’m afraid. What if they don’t talk to me? What if I’m interrupting someone? What if somebody says something mean to me? If people want to talk to me, I will wait for them to come to me, then I know for sure they want to talk to me.”

Yes, for real. Last January.

And that didn’t change for me until WorldCon last August, when for the first time ever, fans literally squee’d and shouted and cheered when I walked into a room. I had folks tearing up and saying, “OMG it’s such an honor to meet you” and “OMG YOU’RE KAMERON HURLEY!” and all of a sudden after slogging away for nearly twenty years writing and submitting stories, people outside a small group of authors knew who I was, and I realized something had changed. I wasn’t on the outside anymore, even if I sure as fuck felt like a nobody.

I have argued with authors for years about the power imbalance between authors and fans. By the very fact that you’re an author, that you’ve had worked published, it puts you in a position of perceived power, even if you don’t feel powerful. And what you do with that power is important. But first you need to realize, and accept, that you have it and people have given it to you.

I went to my first convention in 2001, and had such a terrible time, and felt like such an outsider, that I didn’t go again until Wiscon in 2004. It was at Wiscon that I did finally find my people. And though those first couple conventions were tough, I eventually got to know more folks so that I knew a few people every time I went and usually had some folks to talk to. The icebreaker was generally my blog; people knew me for that. That said, most conventions remained a little cliquish. It’s tough to approach circles of people who all clearly know each other, or to say hi to people you aren’t sure even care about or remember you from the conversation you had the night before. I know how difficult conventions have been for me, and after WorldCon, I realized that I was in a place where I finally knew enough people that I could start to pay it forward. I didn’t feel powerful, but people perceived me that way, and it was time for me to start walking the talk I’d been spewing at authors for a decade.

So this weekend at ConFusion, I did what my spouse suggested I do, which is to wave and acknowledge folks as I passed them, even and especially when they didn’t respond. If someone didn’t wave back, I tried very hard to dismiss it and not take it personally. Most of the time, it’s because they didn’t see me, didn’t remember me, or were tired or otherwise goal-focused. I know I had to stop and turn and say hello back to people who I didn’t recognize at first. There was only one instance where I said hello to someone and I felt like I was ignored on purpose, but that dude is pretty weird anyway.

Most importantly, though, when I was out at parties, or in the bar, I opened up the conversation circle to people. This is probably the most important thing you can do at either of these events. There is nothing worse than hanging on outside the circle hoping to try and get someone to invite you in. Here are these people who’ve known each other for years, and you’ve been told to socialize at the bar because it’s so great to network! and all you’re doing is standing outside these circles of people with a drink, feeling stupid.

I have done that more years that I care to admit.

In fact, another author came up to a circle I was in at a party one night, and I widened the conversation circle to welcome him in, as I’d been doing with others all night, and he looked surprised and said “Thank you.”

“For what?” I said.

“For opening the circle,” he said. “Most people tighten up the circle when other people come up.”

“Are you serious?” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he said.

Unless you’re involved in a heated private conversation, please don’t do that, folks, especially if you’re an author here to meet new folks. Don’t close the circle unless you are seriously meaning to keep someone out who’s a known jerk or something. We’re all at these things to have fun. We have all been that person on the outside of the circle, and you fucking know what it feels like. Don’t do that to people.  I know it’s all terrifying. Just introduce yourself. Encourage everyone else to introduce themselves. Remember what it was like when you didn’t know anyone.

As my spouse often says, kindness costs you nothing. And it means the world to someone else. It’s the difference between having a welcoming and open community and a cliquish, closed community that does not grow and diversify. And if you’re talking the talk about building that better community, then you need to take the tough actions that will help you build that, even if it scares you.

There were, of course, plenty of things I messed up. I made a joke on a panel at the expense of another panelist, not realizing that we had no previous rapport and it might hit him the wrong way. I was saving a seat at a table at breakfast for someone and had to turn someone else away, when in fact what I should have done is pull another table together with ours to make the table bigger.  I can go on. And I did, of course, like we always do, jerking awake from a sound sleep Sunday morning in a panic that I’d committed a thousand social faux pas for which I would never be forgiven.

But, you know: you get up again. You plow forward. You apologize when necessary. You move on. You do better.

I have talked a lot of talk over the last decade. It’s my turn to pay it forward, and to help build the community I’d like to see, instead of just complaining about how shitty things are elsewhere.

Because there is no greater joy than seeing the reactions of people who’ve had their first amazing convention, and who tear up all the way home because in a single weekend they’ve found their people, they feel included, they felt like part of something bigger than themselves.

Be the change you want to see, right? I need to act like the author I always wished I would have encountered when I was twenty-one years old at my first convention. Every time I talk to some new person, especially those at their first convention, I imagine that I’m talking to somebody who is going to come up fighting through here just like me. I’m holding out the hand I didn’t get that first time. I’m opening up the circle.

Yes, We’re All Going to Die

People often ask me why I work so hard at the writing game. I’ve answered that question in long form dozens of times over the years, but the short form is simply, “This is all I ever wanted to do, and I know the time in which I have to do it is limited.”

We share a lot of similarities and life experiences, we humans. One of those is that eventually, all of us are going to die. For folks who have never head-butted death in the face, this is a largely abstract idea. Yes, yes, of course we’re all going to die, we say, just like we’re all going to get old. The healthier and younger you are, the less tangible these concepts.

I spent a week in the ICU when I was 26 suffering the death throes of a debilitating, undiagnosed chronic illness that nearly killed me. The doctor said if I’d have come in ten years before, they simply wouldn’t have had the equipment on hand that they would need to save me (funny enough, the doctor on call was from Durban, South Africa, where I’d lived from ages 21-23, and he told me if this had happened to me in South Africa, they wouldn’t have had the resources needed to save me either. Lucky break, there).

Staring death in the face once is enough to change you. My spouse is a cancer survivor. He has a great, harrowing story that you should ask him about some time that rivals mine. Suffice to say one of things we bonded over immediately was the new way that we looked at life after staring at death. You don’t care so much about what people think of you. You don’t care so much about life’s bullshit. You want to spend life with people you love, doing what you love, because you have seen exactly how brief your time on this earth really is.

Chronic conditions are especially life-changing because you stare death in the face constantly. “If I don’t take this shot, I’m going to die.” “If I don’t drink this juice, I’m going to die.” “If I get stranded without my meds, I’m going to die.” “If I don’t bring juice with me, I’m going to die.”

It’s this knowledge of the ticking clock that keeps me as busy and productive as I am. It helps keep me relentless. Oh, sure, I was persistent before I was sick, but getting sick brought home just how little time we all have. It’s something I struggle with more and more these days as I get older and the days and weeks and months fly by faster and faster. There’s never enough time. I wake up one day and I’m not 26 but 36, and I know that in another blink I’ll be 46 and suddenly 66 and will I make it much past that… who knows?

There are folks who don’t like a lot of the nonfiction pieces I write because I talk about how blah blah writing and life is so hard, and it depresses them because what they want is a rah-rah cheerleader YOU CAN DO IT WE ARE ALL SPECIAL SNOWFLAKES WITH UNIQUE SPECIAL VOICES thinkpieces. And you know, yeah, I admit it – true things can be depressing, which is why it’s not the truth that we want. We want hope. We need hope. We need Star Wars movies.

But I like the truth. I find the truth very motivating, because I’m very motivated by the odds being stacked against me.

I was reading a book recently called You are now Less Dumb about studies folks have done that show that people who are mildly pessimistic and depressive are actually closer to seeing the world as it actually is than most people (note I’m saying MILDLY here. Read the book). Hopefulness and optimism is what keeps people alive through dark winters and terrible strife. The enduring belief that things will be better – despite all evidence to the contrary – is how humanity has survived this long.  It’s why that’s considered a normal state of being, and anything more or less than that skews outside the curve. What that means is that thinking realistically and logically is NOT the default or “normal” human state. If you’ve played the lottery or taken a trip to Vegas, you can attest to this.

But I’ve found a great freedom in knowing that I could die at any moment. I have head-butted death in the face, and though it may be stunned for a while, there’s no knowing when it will recover and come snarling back for me. Perhaps it already is now, and with chronic conditions, yes, this is the more likely scenario. It will come creeping and crawling for me in the darkness, over the long years, until one day I’ll see its great looming face above me, so close and so large that it blots out the sky.

I hope that is years away yet. But I live every day as if it could be tomorrow, or tonight, or an hour from now. Just yesterday I heaved a sigh of relief because I knew THE GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION was in a sufficient state to publish if I died today, and worried over the fact that THE STARS ARE LEGION is not, and I really need to bust that manuscript into publishable shape.

I understand now, maybe, what David Bowie realized when he found out he had cancer, and suddenly time was limited, and there was a mad flurry of last-minute work to do before the end. I first saw David Bowie in Labyrinth when I was 11 years old, and to be frank, seeing a Goblin King dressed like that who still liked women was a revelation to me at 11, and it had a powerful impact on my work and my conception of sexuality from there on out. He was my introduction to genderbending, and the more work of his I listened to and watched, the more it expanded my idea of what people could be. That’s a powerful legacy.

I find myself thinking about The Man Who Fell to Earth – another film I didn’t appreciate or understand until after I got sick – pretty often. It’s a story about how life grinds you down. How even those with the best intentions and the most powerful motivations can find themselves smashed down by bureaucracy, by time, by despair.

I never want to be smashed down.

When people send me emails about how reading my work made them feel less alone, or helped them come out to their parents, or gave them the courage to make a big move or life change, all that work and slog and realism is worth it, though. Even better is when other creators come to me and say that because they read “We Have Always Fought,” they’ve completely changed how they approach writing female characters in their work, and I think, yeah, hey, this is about helping to impact the people who will change the world after me, and that’s what gets me up at 5 a.m. to write blog posts like this one and review contracts and glare at the blank pages of a new short story and spend twelve hours on a Saturday writing 12,000 words.

Stories matter. Our work matters. Our legacy matters. It was reading Joanna Russ’s On Strike Against God at age 23 that completely changed the way I thought about my own sexuality.  So I get it when people come to me and say how much my work matters. I grok it, folks. The power of stories is giving us ideas and narratives and showing us what’s possible. This is what transformative artists do.

I’m not a bajillion-copies bestseller right now. Maybe I never will be. But in looking at the slow, steady growth of my backlist sales, the increasing lines at my signings, and the sorts of people who tell me how much my work matters to them, I get the feeling that my work has an impact on people, on the genre, that I’m not really going to understand for a long time. Maybe it won’t be understood until after I, too, am dead.

The fact that we’re all going to die shouldn’t be depressing or anxiety-inducing, but freeing. This is all made up. We’re all gobs of meat. We may as well enjoy the time we have, and do the work we need to do, and give no fucks along the way.

“How do you persevere?” people like to ask me. “How do you put up with all the hate and vitriol and bullshit?” and it’s just this: it’s the knowledge that none of that matters, that all that matters is the work. The rest is bullshit.

I have no children, no legacy but my work. I have nothing to leave but the work. Nothing to offer but the work. It’s why the work consumes me. Because it matters so very, very much.

Don’t Tell Me I’m Talented

I remember when I used to be really annoyed with John Scalzi’s arrogant swagger about being a good writer. No, scratch that. It wasn’t annoyed so much as jealous of the fact that he had confidence in his writing abilities. This was way back in 2005/6 when I was still working a shitty admin job and had never compared myself to other working professional writers and Scalzi was just that guy who’d sold a book he published on his blog.

I have now spent a decade working with a truckload of other writers across various companies and in many capacities. I have been the middling writer in the room. I’ve been the best writer in the room. I’ve been the new writer. I’ve been the old pro brought in to save accounts. I’ve written email, direct mail, newsletters, radio ads, TV commercials, press releases, media statements, presentations, and hundreds of thousands of words of blog posts and another million or more words of fiction and I’ve been nominated for and won some awards along the way.

And now, you know:

I get it.

Because what all that writing – and, more importantly – working with other writers has taught me is that I’m good at what I do. Am I great? Eh, sometimes. Yes, sometimes I am great. What I do know is that I’m talented, and I’ve known that a long time, since my early 20’s, which is why it’s so grating now for strangers to stumble onto my work and say, “Oh, you’re so talented!” when yes, you know, I make my entire living this way so I’d sure hope so and my god how many NOT talented people honestly last in this game for more than ten years?

Talking about talent is supposed to sound like a compliment, but I haven’t found it complimentary since I was young and desperate for someone to validate my talent who wasn’t related to me.

The first day of the second week of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, Geoff Ryman said the words that all seventeen of us were desperately eager to hear at that point in our careers:

“I’ve read your work. You’re all very talented. If you weren’t talented, you wouldn’t be here.”

And then he said something to the effect of:

“So I’m not going to spend the next week telling you how talented you are. We’re going to work to make you better.”

I admit I gave a sigh of relief after this. It had been said. I didn’t have to work for it. I was here, and it meant I was talented. I’d been validated.

Now I could actually learn to get good.

Like most folks who end up in a writing workshop at the pro level, I was singled out as the “talented” kid in my small town when it came to writing. Writing was all I did. I read a great book recently called Talent is Overrated that pointed out how much more common it was for kids from small towns to end up pursuing a creative or athletic passion to the pro level than those from larger cities because there were fewer people to compare themselves to in smaller towns. They got more attention. It fed their belief that they were special. With fewer peers to compete against, you feel like you must have some natural inborn talent that’s setting you apart. In fact, it just so happens you’re merely working longer and harder at your particular interest than your peers are.

Talent is just putting in the work.

Talent is the bare minimum.

And yes, I have worked. For a long time. I put in the active practice from the time I was twelve years old. Most of talent is just that: it’s working longer and harder than other people. If there are people more skilled than you, they probably started working earlier, and longer, than you did. This is one reason why it’s so difficult (but not impossible) to become, say, an ace violinist if you start at age 40. It’s not difficult so much because you’re old, but because you’re competing against people who have 20, 30, 35+ more years of experience than you do. If you work relentlessly, you can aspire to be as good as an expert violinist is at the age of 30 by the time you’re 75. Note that by that time you’d have both put in about 25 years of active practice by then.

So when people tell me I’m talented, what I’m hearing isn’t “Gee, you’re an amazing writer!” What I’m hearing is that you think I’m 20 years old, when someone having a talent for writing is actually a surprising thing. At 36, with 16 years of professional writing experience on top of my 8 additional years of active study, I should sure be a hell of a lot more than “talented” to have made it this far.

I am not just “talented.” I’m really fucking good at what I do.

Because let’s be real, here. You do not come up through an industry as tough as this one, and thrive in it (especially if you’re a woman) if you’re shit at it. You just don’t. There are too many hurdles in your way. Too many doors closed. Too many people making it impossible to keep on. Sure, I guess you could be well-connected, or rich, or have a one-hit wonder, but even then, keeping on in this business requires a lot of mental toughness that not everyone has. It’s one of the horrors of the business, because we lose a lot of great writers who find the business side deplorable, and it breaks them. I’ve certainly wanted to throw in the towel more than once. It’s a shit part of the job that I wish we could change.

So now it’s me who’s the arrogant little SOB of a writer. It’s me who says, “Yes, I’m good at what I do, and you acknowledging that is cute, but let’s get past the niceties and into the meat, shall we?”

I don’t need to hear that I’m talented. I’ve been talented for thirty years.I’m far more interested in talking about how talented writers become great. I’ve been moving toward that next hurdle – going from good to great –  for a decade now.

So thanks, but don’t tell me I’m talented. I’m not just now getting on the pony for the rodeo, folks.



Team Hurley’s Goals for 2016

However you feel about New Year’s resolutions, hard data backs up the fact that those who write down and refer to their goals throughout the year are more successful in keeping them. I spend enough time reading up on psychology and marketing that I know it works, so that’s why I’m doing it. YMMV.

Note that the list below includes only things that I can control. So I’m not saying I want to “sell 25 stories!” or “sell 85 novels!” or “hit the New York Times Bestseller list!” because these are are things I largely have no control over. Oh, I can certainly help those things along by writing great books and stories, connecting with lots of people, and touring, but down that road lies madness. There’s too much luck and personal taste involved.

So instead I’m going to resolve to complete some things that I do have control over. The rest will follow in time.

One of the big problems I had this year was including time for fitness, reading, and other hobbies besides writing. Writing and the ups-and-downs of the crazy corporate job world and my increasing anxiety made life pretty tough this year. All that’s been pretty much resolved now, though, so I feel confident in striding into 2016 in a far better place that I was in 2015.

And hey, if 2015 was the year I was a total nut yet still managed to write three books and launch a Patreon and write a bunch of short stories, imagine what I can do now that I’m sane!

I’m excited.


  • Complete one short story a month for Patreon backers (create a quarterly short story calendar, much like my day job content calendars, outlining the four stories I want to write each quarter in ADVANCE so I’m not scrambling at month’s end)
  • Finish THE BROKEN HEAVENS by October 1st (revise outline first week February)
  • Outline and start writing my second SF book for Saga Press after October 1st
  • Complete one new book/series proposal
  • Complete and pitch one new novella or novella series
  • Complete one short story for an anthology
  • Get my website updated!
  • Get an accountant
  • Rely more on my assistant to help with projects (create schedule for her first week January for the quarter)

Health & Fitness

  • Exercise for 20 minutes every Monday morning and 40 minutes every Sunday
  • Stand at my standing desk at work for one hour in the morning and one hour int he afternoon 5 days a week
  • Use my treadmill desk for 1 hour every week
  • Bike to work one day a week
  • Stick to eating processed carbs just one day a week (brown rice is OK)
  • Get my A1C back under 7 (it’s at 7.3 right now, down almost a full point from its worst point earlier in the year. Getting a less stressful job and anxiety meds helped more than anything and renewed exercise will help further)

Hobbies and Downtime

  • Read 2 new books every month (preferably one nonfiction and one fiction)
  • Complete 2 new pony mods this year
  • Weed and plant the garden by April 30
  • Weed and mulch flower beds by March 30
  • Take at least ONE vacation of AT LEAST 5 days that’s NOT related to a writing convention
  • Practice French for ten minutes two days a week

Being a Better Human

  • Seek out and promote new-to-me writers in the field (I started doing this a couple years back, but want to make it a continued effort)
  • Check Twitter and schedule tweets for ONLY 20 minutes five days a week (the toughest resolution of all!)
  • Send out holiday cards
  • Send thank-you notes to colleagues when projects drop
  • Invest in paying off more debt (pay off last student loan this year)

So, there it is: my goals for 2016.

I will be 36 this year, which may not sound old to some people, but for me it’s a reminder that I’m on the other side of thirty and headed into my prime. I want to be a better human before the time winds down, so it’s now or never.