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.

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