Sign up here to get info on new releases and giveaways!

Archive for the ‘Tippery’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you trying to achieve?


Do Pro Writers Really Not Know if their Work is any Good?

So I wanted to talk about this phenomenon that I and many other writers experience right before a book drops. I felt this most when I wrote RAPTURE, and I’m here again with EMPIRE ASCENDANT, because these were books I wrote and rewrote massively right before deadline. It meant I didn’t have time to sit back and look at them from a great distance and get an objective look at them. With GOD’S WAR I literally had years of waiting between draft revisions as the book was shopped, picked up, dropped, and shopped again. With MIRROR EMPIRE I’d written so many versions of the story over so many years I honestly wasn’t sure what had gone in and what had been taken out.

Funny enough, it’s the books I worked on longest that I was over-confident about, and the books I worked on for the shortest amount of time that I sweated over more. I suspect some of this has to do with the compression of the process of I’m a genius!/I suck! that one goes through with every draft. You never have time to come back round to “I’m a genius!” on a short timeline because you’re scrambling furiously in the last six or eight weeks before the draft goes out to address all the things that need fixing. You spend this compressed amount of time, right there at the end, only looking at the bad parts of the book.

This is literally all you see of it. You skim right over the parts that are working and get right to the places where your editor or agent has notes, or that you had noted down earlier as something you wanted to come back to. As far as you’re concerned, there are no redeeming qualities to your draft, and I, for one, start to question why it was anyone bought this pile of words in the first place.

When a book goes out, all I remember is everything that’s wrong with it. Maybe this is why so many negative reviews don’t get to me the way they do a lot of writers. Either a negative review is from someone who the book just really isn’t suited for (this is too dark! It has too many women!) or they mention things I already know are challenges that I just couldn’t or didn’t want to fix (it’s confusing! These characters aren’t nice!). Genuinely critical reviews that unpack problematic stuff can be very valuable, but as a general rule, I know a lot of what’s wrong with my book it book drops: I just can’t figure out how to fix it. I write books to the best of my ability, but the reality is that what goes out the door is literally the very best book I am capable of writing at that time in my career, for better or worse.

Sometimes that book is OK. Sometimes it is not. Ultimately, once you kick it out the door, it’s not up to you to decide that. But as a writer I want to get better at being objective about my books and their technical skill. The trouble is, the more writers I talk to, the more I realize that this objectivity about the “goodness” of one’s books actually gets worse as you level up, not better. That’s because as you become a technically more skilled writer, you’re able to see more of the things that aren’t working.


For example: when I first started writing fiction in my late teens it didn’t occur to me that there was no plot in them and people just wandered around. I literally had these little “plot” cards for when I got tired of the people just sitting around and talking, and they were stuff like, “The cart falls off a cliff,” and “someone dies.” Sure, those are things that happen, but they are not character-driven plot. Now that I can see when things are wrong, it doesn’t always mean I can fix them, though.

EMPIRE ASCENDANT had some incredibly tricky narrative/timeline shenanigans that I did my best with, but it was super challenging, and I won’t know if I pulled it off until the reviews come in from folks who are more objective than me.

So though from the outside it may seem bizarre to see an award-winning author crying into their cornflakes about how they’re not sure their book is any good, this isn’t always pretentiousness – it’s the reality of being a writer, no matter what stage you’re at.

Now that I have some distance from my prior books, I can look back at INFIDEL and RAPTURE and say, “Hey, yeah, those were pretty good books.” (GOD’S WAR is still, objectively, a narratively hot mess). But I’m always going to have trouble with whatever it was I finished last. I’m too close to it, and I’ve spent too long tearing apart and rebuilding the worst parts of it to know if the good parts are any good, or even if there are any good parts.

Newer writers who are, perhaps, expecting to gain some objective wisdom as time goes on, well, I’m sorry to burst that bubble. Yes, you will (probably!) learn to write better books, but it’s becoming a better writer that will make you more critical of them, and less able to be objective.

This is one of the reasons it’s so important to surround yourself with people who will tell you the honest truth about your work. What’s good, what’s bad, what still needs work (my agent’s telling comment on an early draft of EMPIRE ASCENDANT was: “Make every chapter like chapter 42.” [for those following along, in the final version, it’s chapter 33 now, a Zezili chapter, which I wrote once through with no changes]). Knowing when to take criticism, and when to ignore it, is an incredible skill to learn, and takes a lot of vision and confidence. I was able to go back and read that chapter, note the conflict and urgency, and then go back through the rest of the draft and look for ways to beef those things up in the other chapters.

But I had to trust that my agent was right, and that I was right to agree with her (it was also one of my favorite chapters). Getting any kind of critical feedback is like that: you have to take what helps make your vision clearer and toss what doesn’t. If I were to get feedback that was like, “Kameron, I really think this should be a book about goats and happy people,” I’d ignore it, because that has no bearing on what the hell I’m doing. There’s nothing objectively useful to be found in, “This should be a happier book” when you’re writing a book about genocide.

And maybe that’s the real crux of how to survive writing books, and editing books, and wading through criticism: you have to know, deep down, what the fuck it is you’re trying to say, and disregard anything that doesn’t help you say that thing more clearly, more concisely, more entertainingly.

That involves a lot of confidence in and of itself, and a lot of introspection. Because though I may not know, when it goes out, if I wrote an objectively good book, what I do know is that I wrote the book I wanted to write, to the best of my current ability, and at the end of the day, when the book’s due to the printer, that’s all you can do.


On Being Too Smart and Assertive in the Workplace

I’ve been blessed with some pretty great bosses in my time, folks who recognized that having somebody smart on the team who got things done made them look good, and meant they did less work because, you know, I was doing it.

But, being a woman in the workplace, it was inevitable that some boss, somewhere, was going to go after me for being smart and assertive.

In truth, being smart and assertive has gotten me into a few pickles, it’s true. I once told the President of a company I worked for exactly what I thought of an executive decision he made, all detailed in a rather brutally honest email (when a leadership team invites open communication, I’m open). He was pissed about it, but after I ground out an apology for my scathing honesty at the behest of my supervisor and we both cooled off, he brought me into a meeting that was basically, “Are we good?” and me, “We’re good.”

And then a few months later I got a 40% raise.

There are bosses out there who recognize when they’re getting good feedback, and that if they can find people willing to be honest and give it to them, those people are gold.

Every boss I had for years appreciated what I did, and gave me outlets for venting “honesty” inside the team. Once we’d hashed out a plan of action, I stayed the course, and we got some exceptional work done.

This worked out for me because I was great at what I did and people understood that. If they didn’t want to hear from me, it was pretty easy to just say, “Kameron, we’re not looking for input on this one. Just grind it out.” And I’d do that. But if you ask for my opinion of your project or your management style, I will give it to you. That’s who I am. I did learn to give my opinion once and not press the issue, because if I started pressing it was viewed as “not being a team player.” So I was able to make that concession. You hired me for my professional opinion. I’ll give it once. If you don’t follow it, no skin off my back. It’s your project.

But I did finally run into a boss who had had enough of my honest opinions at one point. They tried to coach me endlessly on my “tone.” And encouraged me to ask questions, and not come off as being so “smart” and “assertive” and “aggressive.” It was like listening to someone in grade school giving me dating advice, “Boys won’t like you if you’re too smart and assertive!”

It turns out there are plenty of people in the world who like me just as I am, who like me because I’m smart and assertive, including every other job I’d ever had, so it was a bit like living in the Twilight Zone. It was like walking into one of those many studies I read about online, where women are constantly told to step back and let others shine, to reign in their ideas, while guys are praised for the exact same pushy and gabby behavior – and rewarded for it with raises.

Here I was, another statistic.

After the first go-round about this, I went back home for a visit and listened to my dad on the phone with some of his managers. He’s a Regional Director for a national restaurant chain. And let me tell you, I get my management style from my dad – where is this? Why did you send this? Why didn’t you meet this week’s goal? And how are you going to fix this? Followed by clear, blunt, honest statements about performance – good and bad. When you are managing multiple stores across a region there is no time for bullshit. You get right to the point. And when they did well, when they hit numbers, there was praise and high fives all around, but if you aren’t performing, you aren’t performing, and there’s no use suset-your-limitsgar coating it.

If something is not working, if a company is tanking, I have no interest in hiding behind niceties and girlish laughter. I’m paid to see the landscape for what it really is, and create marketing and advertising campaigns that turn things around. If I pretend we’re in a market position we’re not, I’m not going to create the right work. End of story.

After a while, I started “softening” my emails at that job by putting “Thanks!” (note the exclamation mark) at the end of each email. And though I knew the ubiquitous smiley face emoji was what everyone really wanted to see from me, the smiley face that’s on every fucking email from every fucking woman in middle management who’s ever been called “too assertive” I wasn’t going to stoop to that. It would be like ripping off my own face.

Eventually I was able to find a new position and put that instance of madness behind me, but to be stuck in the “too smart and too assertive” nightmare land where every competent female employee has spent time was agonizing. I can only scrub out so much of myself before I erase everything I am. And if you erase me being smart and forthright, you erase me being great at what I do, too. And I’m paid because I’m great at what I do.

The good news is that what a couple people said in grade school or what one boss in a dozen says is true is not absolute truth at all. There are plenty of people out there in the world who love smart, assertive women to pieces, and plenty of employers who appreciate us too.

I’ve said before that being in a bad job is like being in a bad relationship, and it’s true.  When you’re in it, you forget that there’s a sane world outside it. And you don’t know how bad it was until you leave.

If you’re stuck in one of these places, and you think being too “smart and assertive” is something you will get at every workplace, so you just put up with it, like there’s something wrong with you instead of something wrong with the fit between you and the company, I want to encourage you to explore your options. It’s true that the studies are bad, the statistics suck, but not every workplace is looking for a drone. There are places that are more than happy to pay you for your expertise, your honest opinion, and your exceptional work.

The truth is that nobody ever changed the world by being stupid and passive, no matter what gender bucket society tossed them in. And that’s what we’re all here for, right? Don’t let the fuckers get you down.

Keep up the good fight.



Who cares? On the importance of banter and character-driven narrative

I’ve been dutifully churning through episodes of Leverage, a sort of modern-day Mission Impossible where a bunch of thieves go about righting wrongs caused to individuals by The Man (big corporations). But though I enjoyed the concept, I just wasn’t getting into the show. I just didn’t care enough about the people involved in it. They didn’t seem to care much, either. I didn’t get any of them had anything better to do, anyway.

After the first episode, the show seemed to forget that it was about people, and just spent a lot of time engineering elaborate heists and double-crosses. I love a good heist as much as the next person, but if I’ve learned anything as a storyteller it’s that nobody cares how great your heist is if they aren’t emotionally invested in it, and they have no reason to be emotionally invested in it unless your characters are.

I asked Twitter if the show got any better, and Michael Underwood said it took him about six episodes to get into. This was way more episodes than I usually give a show, but because it wasn’t actively punching me in the face with overt sexism/racism/bullshit and I had no other shows queued up to watch, I figured I’d give it the six episodes and just put it on in the background while I was surfing the internet or doing line edits. I desperately wanted to fall in love with these characters the way I had the Firefly crew, but they just weren’t clicking – individually or as a team.

I know the moment the show shifted, because it was the moment I actually looked up from Twitter and gave the show my full attention. It was episode 5, and the team was working toward the retrieval of a child a family paid $120k to adopt and then had taken away from them. The hardcore thief of the group, about whom all we knew at this point was that she 1) blew up her house as a child because her dad was a jerk 2) liked money made some savvy observations about the kid’s behavior which confirmed he was an orphan. This was spoken the way it’d be from a foster kid who’d grown up in the system, and for the first time in 5 episodes I actually considered how, indeed, she’d grown up after blowing up her house. Ah, foster kid. This also ended up being the first episode where a character went off the plan for an emotional reason – the thief goes back to save all the orphans who’re being used as pawns in the huckster’s scheme, against the wishes of the team leader.

Ah, I thought. Here we go.

By the next episode, the writers had indeed remembered they were writing about people, not just heists, and suddenly there was witty character banter, and old enemies from their past showing up at weddings, and little emotional outbursts of affection for one another. Even my spouse, who’d been wandering in and out of the living room the last few days I’d been watching, actually looked up from his phone and watched the last half of the episode and said, “Wow. This is finally getting good!”

Here was the magical episode 6 where it finally all came together. It was almost eerie how abrupt the change was. It wasn’t like I watched 5 episodes and slowly started to care about them, it was all pretty much packed into an episode and a half of character banter and emotional decision making.

This shift got me thinking about the importance of character-driven narrative and banter in fiction. Very few readers are going to give you the equivalent of six episodes to get them to care about your characters. I often think the reason it took a lot of folks 50 pages to get into my first book wasn’t just because hey, weird world and bug-powered cars, but because it’s not until after the first 50 that the whole ragtag team of scoundrels comes together. That’s when you get to settle into the more familiar position of figuring out how they all love and hate each other. And oh yeah, do they let you know…

The setup for the other two books always started with figuring out the conflicts all the characters on the team had with one another – this person is Ras Tiegan, and this one hates Ras Tiegans; this one’s a drug user and this one hates drug users, etc. The snarky banter and often violent altercations and tension all sprang from those internal, character-driven conflicts I set up from the start.

I actually started to pay attention to character banter after attending Clarion  with Patrick Weekes (whose first book is out now, BTW), whose day job is writing for BioWare, most notably for the hugely popular Mass Effect series (BioWare games tend to be famous for the high quality of their character banter). At Clarion, he wrote astonishingly entertaining character banter that made you care. When I went back and looked at my own writing, I realized I was spending all my time trying to be a Serious Writer, and sorely neglecting all the humor and snark that makes life itself bearable. It was the revelation that maybe I should be spending more time figuring out snarky dialogue and fight scenes that eventually led me to write God’s War the way I did.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in something else – worldbuilding, or plot – that we forget about the people, and we forget that the world exists to make the people the way they are and the plot only exists because the characters move it. I did exactly this when I wrote the first pass of my latest book. I was so preoccupied with writing a well-plotted book (for once!) that I completely neglected character banter, then wondered why on earth it felt so flat when I’d so completely nailed the plot (finally!). Turns out focusing so hard on plot had given me a severe case of novel myopia. All I could see were the plot machinations, instead of the conflict and tension between the characters.

So I went back and teased out all the tensions between the characters. And I let them make fun of themselves, and each other, because let’s face it – you need humor most when the world’s ending. You can have the coolest plot, the coolest heist, in the world – in the universe! – but if your characters don’t care, or I don’t care about your characters, what’s the point? It’s just a bunch of strangers arguing about somebody else’s football team on the train.

What’s funny is that if folks do this right, you don’t notice it. You only notice it when it’s not there.  And then you just change the channel, or pick up another book.

Series and franchises work because you fall in love. I think one of the things we struggle with, as creators, is understanding what it is, exactly, that makes us fall in love. We think it’s about perfection, or beauty. But it’s not. It’s adversity. It’s passion. It’s watching somebody struggling to achieve something they care passionately about; somebody who’s not perfect at all, but who perseveres anyway. It’s watching people who are hurt, who are down, who get up again and go another round.

It’s people who care about the world, and each other.

Because if they don’t care about the plot, or what becomes of their comrades (good or bad) why should we?



On Sticking to Your Guns When the World Wants Posies

It’s no big news that I write a lot. Like, a lot. I’m attached to 400-600 projects a year at the day job. I do freelancing work for a couple of clients – blog posts, press releases, that sort of thing. Then I picked up an adjunct position at a local design school teaching copywriting (if you want to figure out your process and do a deep dive/study in copy, I recommend trying to teach it to other people. You learn a lot). Then there’s those pesky fiction books, which is the type of writing everybody wants to ask me about, even though it only makes up about 10% of my income in a good year.

And that’s the rub, there. I do a tremendous amount of work. About 80% of it is what I think of as “high churn” work – stuff that is pretty easy to get knocked out because I’ve done it so much and the folks asking for it are so specific.

When you do a high level of churn work, writing fiction is a real treat, because in my fiction I don’t have to please anybody but me. I can write what I want. Tell the stories I want. I can be as weird and brutal and disgusting as I want (I just had somebody come back on a project and tell me I couldn’t use the phrase “Get Lucky” because it was a double entendre. Well of *course* it is. That’s why it was interesting).

Big book deals and movie deals and tv deals are the stuff that writing dreams are made of, and I can’t help but see them all the time in the media, even knowing that they’re not exactly a good indicator of what happens for most of us. But when I look at what’s being picked up for that stuff, I can’t help but notice that it isn’t for the type of stuff I write. There’s a market love for YA right now, and… I don’t write YA (though it has drawn some excellent writers, further enhancing the genre’s appeal). And now houses are clamoring for BDSM Twilight knockoffs.

I can’t help but sit down every night at the keyboard, staring at this bizarre opening I have with this sentient plant life devouring a city while magical radiation rains from the sky and think: holy hell crap nobody is going to buy this shit. There is no market for it. There’s this part of me that feels this incredible pressure to both be weirder and better and crazier than GOD’S WAR while somehow creating some kind of perfectly palatable market-likey thing.

But I’ve been in this place before.

I was in this place when I first started writing. I read all these sword and sorceress stories, you know, like those ones in the Marion Zimmer Bradley anthologies, and I tried so hard to write stuff just like them. I tried to make my stuff sound exactly the same as those stories.

And you know? I hated every gut-slicing minute of it. I despised everything I read and everything I wrote. I wrote it because there was a market for it. Not because I loved it.

Writing fiction was the churn for me, then. The way that would surely deliver me from my boring life so I could travel, so I could be on my own, so I could actually live an interesting life.

But now that I make a living writing a lot of churn, I can’t bring myself to come home and write more churn. I can’t bring myself to write something I hate. Because readers can smell that a thousand miles away. There are people who love love love to write sexy alpha male erotic fantasy, and readers eat it up because they love it too. Love + love = sales.

I don’t want to be the writer somebody puts in a box. I don’t want somebody to put a stamp on my book that says, “Just like Author X!”

But I have to remind myself of this. I have to remind myself a lot. Because we see and know what’s currently “hot.” Because it all sounds so fun and glamorous. Because when you compare yourself to what other people do, you despair.

What I realized early on is that I didn’t start selling stuff – really selling stuff – until I started writing the sort of angry brutal women war atrocity fiction that I found interesting.  GOD’S WAR and its ilk are – Prime knows – a hot, hot mess. But they are mine. And nobody else could have written them but me.

It’s hard to hold onto that. It’s hard to watch the success of people you know, and have your family ask you about why you don’t have a movie deal, or more awards (is two not enough?), or why you haven’t signed with a “real” publisher or sold 100k copies, or why you haven’t quit your day job yet. It’s hard. I won’t lie. It’s hard for every one of us. Because there’s always somebody more successful. Somebody who sells more. Who’s loved more.

But I don’t want to be the writer that gets put in somebody’s box. I want to be the fucking person who CREATES a category. I want something unique. Something I own . Something that’s mine. I don’t need to ride on coattails and fads and chase what’s hot purely because it’s hot. I need to love it – the way so many people love the stuff they’re writing right now that just so happens to fit that niche.

There was this person who told me once in regards to a place I worked, “If you’re in a race and your goal is to keep up with the person in front of you, you’re going to lose the race every time.”

Yet most of us spend our lives this way, desperately trying to catch up, running after other people’s success, running in circles, wondering why we aren’t going anywhere; why we’re not getting ahead.

I’m not in a race on a track. I’m flailing around in the darkness, treading through brambles, screaming and shouting at clouds like some old dude, wondering what the fuck I’m doing trying to hack out my own path where there are plenty of paved ones all around me.

It sucks. It’s hard. I fucking hate it.

And you know, sometimes I find myself wading back toward that well-lit road, cursing and sobbing, I wander back, I crawl toward the light.

Then I stand up. I wipe myself off. I suck it up. And I turn away. I go back the way I came, machete in hand, and resolve to get just a little further this time.

Because if I can’t do it, I can’t very well expect anybody else to.

And I think this is what we need. As writers. As creators. We need this intense desire and courage to go someplace that nobody else thought of, or believes in. Because those things nobody believes in? Sometimes – only sometimes – they end up being the next big thing. They end up being the stuff that other people strive to imitate.

The rest of the time, of course, you die cold and alone in the woods.

But at least it wasn’t while you were churning out something you didn’t love with all your insane, squishy little machete-mangled heart.

What It’ll Be if You Listen to Them All

I just read something this week from somebody who said their goal this year was to write something that would “win some kind of award” next year.

See my head explode.

If you are writing books to get awards, you may want to rethink your priorities.

I hate awards seasons. I hated awards season even during years I didn’t publish anything. It’s kind of starting to look a little  ironic that I hate awards seasons, I know. But here’s why I do:

When I first started writing stories for publication, I wrote a lot of characters studies where people sat around and talked to each other a lot, with maybe the occasional cockroach. I remember one of the editors at Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine scrawling across the top of one of my stories, “Cockroaches put me off lunch.”

So after a half dozen of those dismal rejections, I tried to write stories that I saw in the magazines.  At the time, that meant I wrote a lot of sword and sorcery knock-offs. They lacked actual plot, which was, you know, a problem. But worse than that – they were kind of boring to write. But here I was, spending the entirety of my pre-teen and teenaged years hunkered over a keyboard transcribing work from dozens of notebooks I’d scrawled stories in during class, just so I could write something that I hoped was syrupy enough for somebody to like it.

Oh, sure, I get it – this is basically what writing and publishing are about. Being “published” in the traditional sense means that somebody liked your stuff enough to invest in it. That’s flattering. It’s nice.

But it shouldn’t be why you write. Because unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re going to be spending the vast majority of your life engaged in some kind of pursuit that makes you utterly miserable. Life is too short, folks.

It wasn’t until I kinda went, “Fuck it” and decided to write the kind of book I wanted to read that I had some success with it. I think it’s easy to forget, looking back, that GOD’S WAR was the third novel I actually shopped, and the ninth one I’d written. I’d also argue that it wasn’t the most ambitious book I tried to write, either. I’d gotten hip deep into a sweeping epic fantasy saga originally outlined as fifteen books. The first in that series was over 200,000 words. There were some clever locusts in that book, and magician-priests, but I didn’t have the technical skill to pull it off.

Even GW is kind of a wreck, especially when it comes to plot and structure. Some of this is because I’d actually written the opening fifty pages just to get a handle on the world and the character, and then I sort of backfilled a plot in around it.

GW had a rocky road both in its writing and its publication. I wrote it during the year I was dying from what turned out to be an incurable chronic illness (go me!), and spent several years in revision during which time I lost my job and became homeless and moved to a new state. Thus began a series of temp jobs, sad and broken personal relationships, medical debt, and other fun stuff. The book was my therapy. Building a world of shit that was shittier than my failed life really helped put things in perspective. Writing about somebody who had the pure strength of will to get up after being punched down repeatedly was pretty satisfying, too.

It really is true that when you have nothing to lose, it’s easier to give yourself permission to do anything. So that’s what I did. Bug magic? Sure. Bisexual heroine? Why not? Matriarchy? Of course! Non-white protagonists? YES! Old-school biblical violence? You betcha! Also… aliens and spaceships and sword fights and organ dealers and boxing, oh my! BECAUSE I’M DYING AND LIFE IS SHIT, PEOPLE, SO WHO THE HELL CARES?

Now, don’t get me wrong. This book was a tough sell. Shoving all that crap in there made a lot of publishers nervous (“How will I market this??”). And once it was published, it put a lot of readers off. But I wrote the book for me first. I wrote it because I wanted to read this book, and nobody else was writing it. Where were my scary heroines and organic tech? Where were the matriarchies that were just as unbalanced and effed up as the patriarchies? And wouldn’t ancient Assyrian/Babylonian terror tactics go really well with a Mad Max future?

Ultimately, sure, I wanted to see this book published. But I don’t know that I ever wrote anything with the idea of hoping it would “win some kind of award.”  Why? Because that’s the road to madness, right there. Because if I’d sat down to write this book worrying about what everyone else was going to think about it (and at the end of the day, awards are based on the opinions of, you know, people),  then I never would have finished it. Or, worse, it would have turned out like some of the other books I wrote before it, where I’d dip my toes into some weird stuff, freak out, and then go back to the safe little “Gee, haven’t I read this before?” stories.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not a very good writer, or even a very imaginative one. I’m just a very persistent once. Writing INFIDEL was much more seamless than GW, mainly because my life wasn’t so wonky when I wrote it, and I’d learned how to recognize severe pacing problems. I may have thrown out the original second half of that book and rewritten it from scratch, but I knew where everyone had been and where they needed to be, and I wasn’t trying anything fancy. Inaya’s chapters got folded back into that second half just like whipped cream in a cake, and I was surprised to realize how much stronger the pacing was for it.  Did I worry about what people would think of it? Sure. But I worried about that after I turned it over to my publisher, when there was nothing else I could do to fix it.

And the reason I did that is because I knew what that kind of pressure would lead to. People talk all the time about how difficult it is to write a second book, especially when the first garners a lot of attention (lucky for me, INFIDEL came out just six months after GW, when not a lot of people had heard of it). You start thinking more about what people think than you do about what should actually happen in the story. So before you know it, you’re missing deadlines, playing softball with characters you meant to kill, and deleting all those references to burying babies.

Maybe that will help win you some awards. Maybe it will help you sell a lot more copies. Or maybe it won’t.

Maybe you’ll have totally eviscerated your story for fear of what other people will think.

When I went to Clarion West back in `00, we were asked to revise our story from week two in week six. My week two story had gotten a lot of strong reactions from people, including one of the instructors, who said he found it “personally offensive.” The responses freaked me out so much that I basically gutted everything the least bit offensive from my story, and there was no more bloody abuse and a much softer heroine and softer setting. I figured that this was it. This was SURELY the story I would take away from Clarion and have published, now that I’d smoothed off all the stories edges.

But instead of the cheering back-slapping I expected, I got person after person telling me in rather low, sad tones that that not only had softening the story not fixed what was wrong with it, but I’d managed to scrub it completely of the compelling elements that made it worth reading in the first place.

It’s likely no surprise that creating that revised story wasn’t nearly as satisfying as the original for me, either.

Clarion was good for me for many reasons, but that was the biggest writing takeaway for me. You can’t please everybody. And if you try and please everybody, you’ll please nobody. Including yourself.

At the end of that critique session, Patrick Weekes, one of my Clarion classmates (and now one of the incredible writers working on the Mass Effect games for BioWare) drew up a little doodle that neatly summed up the lesson from this critique. I framed the original copy and now have it hanging on my wall, to reference every time I start to lose my nerve.

I’ve recreated it below for your reference:

 That was as true then as it is for me today as I finish up my draft of the third and final of my Nyx books, RAPTURE. It’s a book that won’t be for everybody. It will piss some people off. But at the end of the day, I’m writing the book I want to read. And for me, as somebody who knows how short and brilliant life can be, that’s really all that matters.


12 Ways to Eat Diabetic-Friendly On a Budget

Most food budget tips will tell you to stock up on cheap fillers like rice, potatoes, pasta and canned beans and soups. The canned beans might not be so bad, but if you’re a fickle diabetic like me, you want to stick to a low carb diet. This reduces the amount of insulin you take every day, improves your numbers, and ultimately, results in a consistent weight and clear head.

One of the biggest obstacles to figuring out a doable budget for me was creating a reasonable food budget without the help of the handy rice and pasta fillers that Steph and the Old Man are able to use. It’s been a brutal learning period.

Here’s some tips I’ve come up with for how to eat low-carb on a budget:

1) Buy cheap vegetables. Forget those pre-cut bags of broccoli and cauliflower. Cabbage is 50 cents a head (prob’ly cheaper in other places), and it’s really filling. There are also a million ways to cook it. It’s a poor person’s food. People have been creative. Carrots and frozen peas are some other great low-cost filler vegetables (brussels sprouts aren’t bad either, but they aren’t the cheapest thing on the block).

2) Buy your meat in bulk. Go to Sam’s Club or Costco, if you can, and buy those big packs of chicken breasts for stewing meat. Divide them up into individual bags when you get home and freeze them. Take them out the night before to defrost for your chicken stir fry the next night. No more pre-cooked meats. You’ll thank yourself later when you’re making an offer on that new house.

3) Breakfast doesn’t have to be a full-out affair. I was used to the eggs and bacon routine from my Atkins days, so when I got diagnosed, I just ported that over. But it ended up taking up too much time, and bacon (even turkey bacon) isn’t exactly cheap. Plus, I could only stomach it with cheese and mixed veggies, and that meant going through more cheese every week than my pocket was comfortable with. I buy frozen blueberries in bulk and defrost a cup of those, dust them in Splenda, and eat them in the morning while I’m catching up on blogs.

4) What about that Splenda? Buy it in bulk, too. It always feels like a major expense, though I don’t go through a lot of it. When I buy it in bulk, I’m spending maybe $5.99 a month on it. Buying it at the store means I’m spending $7.99-8.99. This may not sound like a huge difference, but that’s 2 or 3 iTunes songs you get to download every month now, or a pair of socks (I have learned how to mend my socks. I like iTunes more than I like buying new socks).

5) Low carb tortillas are a must. They’re expensive: $2.99 for a pack of 8. But they do replace all of your bread products, and with that 90-per calorie count and 9-per carb count, you just can’t beat them. I buy Tam-x-ico’s Low Carb Tortillas. I buy two packages per week. That’s a whopping $6 on bread products, but if you think about it, I’m not buying bread, pitas, bagels, chips, crackers or any other type of snack food of a similar variety. So $6 a week on bread products really isn’t that bad.

6) Speaking of tortillas, since this is your only bread product, you’re going to want to get creative with them. Use them for sandwich wraps for lunch, grilled wraps for dinner, fajitas, nachos or chips (cut them up and fry them or bake them in your toaster oven), quesadillas, and etc. Get your $6 worth.

7) Yogurt is great… just choose the right kind. There’s a great low-carb yogurt called Fage that has like 9 carbs a serving, and a very reasonable calorie count. You can use this as an additional breakfast item, add it to your whole-wheat pancakes, or mix it with frozen berries and Splenda for a great sweet treat. Thing is, Fage is a tad on the expensive size. For just over a dollar less, you can buy Trader Joe’s Greek Yogurt. Fewer carbs (6 per serving), and cheaper price. It’s your best bet. Like the Fage, opt for the 0% fat version. They taste exactly the same as the full fat, but have something ridiculous like 1/3 to 1/4 of the calories.

8) And, what about berries? The highest cost item on my food bill every week was fresh berries. What can I say? I was addicted. Don’t buy them fresh unless it’s the time of year where they’re in season, and it’s cheaper to buy fresh than frozen. Otherwise, buy your low carb blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries frozen. Seriously. You’ll save loads.

9) Watch the cheese. This is my biggest weakness. It’s the best no-carb snack on the planet! Stick to low-fat string cheese (in my opinion, it tastes better than full fat) and some kind of extra sharp cheddar cheese for your sandwiches, fajiitas, and the like. If you must, you can buy feta or blue cheese for your salads, but at $3-$4 a week, it’s not always a worthwhile expense for me. Some weeks, I’d rather buy socks.

10) Don’t shop hungry. Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard this before as a great stupid “weight loss” tip, but let’s think about where it’s really hitting you: your budget. Nothing looks better than $4 packages of pecans and $5 cheese and spinach pre-made quesadillas when I’m shopping hungry, and the urge to add “just one more thing because I’m so cool!” to the basket quickly becomes $20 worth of “just one more thing”s.

11) Only buy thing’s you’ll eat. This might sound obvious, too, but if you’re buying three packages of spinach a week for your lunch salads and only using 2 and throwing out the other one, that’s $1.99 in the hole. You could have bought some SnapPea Crisps or a dark chocolate bar instead. If you only drink half a gallon of milk a week, don’t buy a gallon. Unless it’s something you’re buying in bulk and freezing, only buy what you’re going to use that week. Waste not.

12) No incidentals. No magazines, no books, no string, no plants, no random greeting cards. You can buy these things out of your fun budget when you’re out on a different trip, to have fun. Make grocery shopping about grocery shopping. If the budgets are separate (for me, my fun budget and grocery budget are very much separate), then separate them in your head. Piling things on and figuring you’ll sort out the costs later means no headache now, but a nasty realization later when you sit down with the recipes and realize you blew half your monthly fun budget on a Bob Greene book, an Oprah magazine, some notebook paper, and a handful of pens.

If I stick absolutely to my “rules” every week, I still probably spend $70-80 a week on groceries (this also includes toiletries – razors, face wash, soap and the like). This might still sound really high to people used to living on rice and pasta. The best I ever did on groceries was $50 a week… eight years ago. I did that by drastically reducing my food intake (two eggs and mixed veggies separated into two portions: one portion for breakfast, one for lunch, and mixed veggies, brown rice and sausage for dinner. String cheese to snack on. That’s it. It was wicked tight, and not the funnest thing I’ve ever done).

$70-80 a week will be annoying, but comfortable. You’ll still get snacks and a variety of sugar-friendly food, and you won’t have to go without soap.