- EPISODE THIRTEEN In this episode we discuss how to take notes, long-term career planning, and why it is books seem to get more difficult to write the more of them you write. I’ll also be tackling some listener questions, from where to find more gooey biopunk to what I think of writers’ unions . Listen below or on iTunes (NOTE: itunes takes awhile to show new eps)
Posts Tagged ‘The Writing Life’
A recent conversation on Twitter inspired a tweet storm from me at like 2 am. One author asked other writers what was the one piece of advice they would give to debut novelists. The responses were interesting and mostly upbeat, except when they… weren’t. You could pretty much guess how somebody’s first novel experience went by the type of advice they gave.
Unsurprisingly, some folks really hated the depressing, downer advice from grizzled mid-career writers like me who were like, “HA HA you thought getting your first book published was tough! SHIT KID THE WORK IS JUST GETTING STARTED. IT GETS WORSE.”
I always come back with some iteration of this because when I got into the field, I figured that if I could just get that first book published, everything would actually be easier. I wouldn’t be a nobody anymore! I would have a body of work! People would take me seriously! By the time God’s War was published in 2011, I had been writing seriously since… 1992? And submitting stories since 1995. That was a fucking long apprenticeship. If you’d have told me shit got worse, shit got harder, back then… I don’t know that I’d believe you. But the world moves on, and with experience comes insight.
Back before I’d published any books, but after I’d gone to Clarion, I’d heard about a meet up for mid-career writers that new writers weren’t invited to. I felt that was horseshit. Surely I, as a newer writer, would need to know mid-career things?
But now I get it. Most writers three books, eight books, twenty books in, have far different concerns and priorities and most of all, experience, than writers who haven’t been through the grinder. Newer writers want to talk craft. Pros are talking about their first or third career reboot, shitty sales, and how to get out of noncompete clauses and shitty contract language. There are writers whose first book struck gold and paved their career for decades, but most are building a career, a legacy, bit by bit, surviving dead publishing houses, several agent switches, and B&N ordering fewer and fewer books. You really feel the difference in these two types of experiences when you talk to writers. Those who hit it big right off look at bitter midlisters like they’ve been huffing glue, and bitter midlisters roll their eyes at insta-classic debutantes selling hundreds of thousands or millions of copies whose biggest complaint is not getting nominated for awards.
The long slog of building a career isn’t a reality anyone prepares writers for. And it often means that when a writer doesn’t strike gold, they believe they are a failure, and give up, instead of taking the long, slow road. But the long slow, uneven road is the more likely way that you will succeed. Betting everything (including your sense of self-worth!) on a single book instead of building a career means MORE pressure on yourself. MORE expectations, and MORE depression and anxiety if your first, second, tenth book fails to move more than a few thousand copies. I’ve seen this happen to a billion debut novelists. Outsized expectations meeting reality has destroyed a ton of writers (and I include public reception/criticism in all of that. I know way too many people who expected to be heralded for their genius and break out into the mainstream their first run out, and criticism, the reality of Goodreads, Twitter wars, and call-outs, paired with lackluster sales, torpedoed their careers before they even started).
My first series is still in print. That is not luck. That is me not giving up on that series even when the first publisher cancelled the contract, second publisher stole money and ran off to Finland, and third publisher (redacted NDA here). Fans and I have kept that series going. It’s eight years old and just got reissued and I saw it on shelves. That is a goddamn miracle. And because it was so hard, I appreciate it MORE. But I still have a day job. I probably always will, because health insurance.
I hear all the time people would “kill” to have my career. And I get that! Folks love my books! I love my books! But without Patreon I would have made $17k in 2017 on book payments and royalties. That’s the reality of a writer whose career you envy. Be sure you take that into account and plan accordingly.
So yes, I believe in tempering ones’ expectations. Because I’ve had to engineer a career that’s far different from the “breakout hit one million dollar advance movie money!” writing career nonsense that is still toted as a viable career scheme for new authors.
Writing is a business. Authors are entrepreneurs. It’s not about just writing a good book and cashing checks and waiting for a miracle to happen. It’s a business hustle. It means that yes, you DO have to believe in your work more than anyone else, and fight harder for it. You DO have to actively learn about covers and marketing and making good business decisions and finding the right agent and understand how to read contracts, all while continuing to level up your craft. Because nobody else – not an agent, a publisher, your partner, your fans – care about your work and your career more than you do. If somebody’s just writing for fun and doesn’t want to be a career writer fine! But I sure would have done better that first time out the gate if I’d spent a little more time understanding and acting like a business owner instead of a writer.
The truth is that most industries, including publishing, are happy to sign up the newest, freshest, most industry-ignorant talent they can find. There’s always more of it, every year. I know several authors who have literally never negotiated their contracts, and hoo boy I can tell you their publishers LOVE that! Exploiting talent with starry-eyed promises and effusive praise works every time. “Why do you need more money? Why do you need to read a contract? Aren’t you an ARTIST DOING THIS FOR THE LOVE? DON’T YOU TRUST ME?”
No, and… no.
Anyhoo. Bitter midlister rant over. Just remember that even writers who get that six-figure advance, have to make it last for all three of those books they’ve agreed to write over multiple years, and 15% goes to their agent and 30% goes to taxes. Keep that in mind when you see authors quitting their day jobs… or publishing a book and never getting heard from again.
People think I’m all negative Nancy because I want to, like, kick puppies or something. But I share the realities of my publishing experiences because I want people to be READY for that shit. I want them to be prepared, and to think like a business up front. I want new writers to have career goals and positive, collaborative agent relationships. I want them to go in LESS ignorant of the field and its realities, because knowledge is power.
P.S. I have never gotten a six-figure advance, and yet, weirdly enough! my work absolutely deserves it based on sales alone, let alone concept. I value the fuck out of my work. My whole career has been convincing publishing to value it as much as I do. It’s a long road, for me, and I feel much more confident about navigating it now that I understand the realities of the business that I’m in.
P.P.S. I suppose if all else fails, you can hold out for a MacArthur Grant. Hope springs eternal for me on that one! I just need to be a genius. CHALLENGE ACCEPETED.
Despite a lot of deliberate work, I’m running behind on writing THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Much of this, I’ve found, has been me second-guessing myself about… well, everything.
Much of this is simply a mental block, I know. My self-esteem took a hit with BROKEN HEAVENS. I don’t want to turn in another partial/very rough draft. I want something really great. Exceptional. The trouble is, you know – no draft is going to be exceptional. That’s why it’s a draft.
I’ve had a great many external voices in my head lately, which has made writing at length a lot harder, too. Short fiction is all right because I only need a day or two of real concentration to get my shit together. Novels are tougher. I’ll have a few days of really great progress, then read everything over and be like, “Yeah, that won’t work.”
I have failed to follow a lot of my own advice recently about cutting off the outside world when you’re trying to do deep work, too. I’ve been spending a lot of time comparing my career to the careers of others. I’ve been muddling around feeling like a failure. My anxiety has been at an all-time high the last month; it hasn’t been this bad since EMPIRE ASCENDANT came out, before I went on drugs. As I’m already taking quite a good dose, which has increased significantly over time, I’ve added in serious exercise again to help combat this. The best thing to do with excess nervous energy is to run it out (or lift it out, as is the case with doing my morning free weights).
Worst of all – I haven’t taken a social media break in A LONG time. Not since before the election. There are a couple reasons for that, the first being that Twitter makes me feel less lonely. I’ve been fairly isolated here recently, spending more time with my dogs than with humans. My spouse has been out of town a lot in recent weeks attending to some family business, and that means, again – just me and the dogs for days and days. Second, Twitter is my primary platform for promoting the work on Patreon, and I know when I cease promoting said patreon, the numbers go down. I’m relying on that income to help with my immigration process, so… yanno, that’s a concern.
But even reducing my presence on social media simply isn’t enough. It’s time to go cold for a few months here so I can stay focused on my own work – and actually hear my own voice, instead of the voice that says what I have to say not only doesn’t matter, but will be chewed up, eaten and destroyed once it’s out.
We talk a lot about developing a tough skin in this business, but I don’t think it works that way. I had a tough skin going into it, and for awhile, sure, it toughened up. But after awhile, you’re getting hit hard enough often enough that your skin isn’t getting calloused and tough; it doesn’t have time for it. Instead, it’s getting cut and flayed and carved down, and with no chance to recover, you end up with these bleeding, raw patches that make it tough to go on.
As I keep tearing down chunks of this book, I realize that I’m acting from that raw, bleeding place. I’m so tired of all the noise online about who’s bad and who’s good, and what’s good and what’s bad that I can’t even hear my own voice anymore. It’s all just noise.
So to reduce the churn and get back a semblance of sanity, I’ll be getting off social media in earnest again, from February 12 until May 1st. I will have some scheduled tweets in that time, links to the patreon, the tip jar, and re-posts of articles and blog posts. But I won’t be actively engaging there until May. This gives me time to finish LIGHT BRIGADE here in the next few weeks on my own terms, listening only to my own voice, and get started back up on THE BROKEN HEAVENS in peace, too.
I’ve been catching up on Ditch Diggers while working out the last couple of days, and taking to heart some things said there about choosing when to engage with audiences, and of course, managing depression and anxiety. Fans and even other professionals have been asking a lot more of creators, asking us to engage in debates and take positions and “be engaged.” The trouble is that for many of us, the act of creation is simply not compatible with being a manic extrovert. For me, these two modes are absolutely at odds with one another. I can’t do both; I can’t live in my own head in order to create something at the same time I’m living in and engaging fully with the world.
It’s a tough time, in this country, to say you’re going to dis-engage for a few months. With all the bad shit happening, the government being slowly dissolved and the creeping authoritarian state slowly taking its place, the last thing you want to do is say you checked out during that. But among all this bullshit, we have to find time to do our work, and that’s been tough for me for awhile now. I need to take control of it again. I want to live in my own head again, because frankly, that’s where all the goddamn stories come from.
A lot of people think I’m prolific, but just like all of you, I compare myself with others, and where I want to be, and I’m simply not there. I need to write a book a year, and I’ve stumbled with that recently. To have the career I want, I have to get back on track, even if the world is burning. Especially if the world is burning.
I’m enjoying a lot of the work I’m doing on LIGHT BRIGADE (I realized it was sort of an anti-Ayn Rand novel at one point, and that delighted me to no end). But I’m also aware of all of its flaws – real and potential – and the blowback it’s going to get in this current climate. Being aware of that and carrying on anyway is a weird balancing act. I’ve known a lot of writers recently who’ve been paralyzed with fear and indecision and uncertainty. I’m tired of being one of them. I got rubbed pretty raw over the last few years. Getting back into the game, having the confidence and bravery to carry on, is a struggle we all face at one time or another.
But what I’ve found is that these are merely excuses. I have been full of excuses for a long time that break down, quite simply, to fear. Fear of… just about everything. Fear of being nothing. Fear of being something. Fear of giving everything, and having nothing to show for it. Fear of letting people down. Fear of letting myself down.
Yet the truth is that there’s really nothing to fear at all anymore, because I’ve already done all of those things. I’ve already let everyone down, let myself down, given everything and gotten little back. I wrote a fairly frank summary of my writing experience to date (several people thought those were just generalizations. No, that was all stuff I’ve experienced). A lot has been great. A lot has sucked. That’s just… the way it is. And I can let the fear win out or I can do what I am here to do.
And I’m here to write.
The rest is just passing time.
So, I’m off once more into the breach. Because the writing, the deep immersive experience of writing – as opposed to the public butchery that is publishing! – is what I love best in life. And that’s the part I need to be engaging in right now. It’s time to create the world anew again.
|Book payments, royalties, foreign sales, film||16000|
|Self pub royalties||167|
|Short story reprint sales||1750|
Here’s what that looks like in a nice pie chart:
I tell writers often to “diversify your income streams” and this is why. Some years royalties and book payments and foreign sales are better than others. There is more income that will show up on my actual taxes, including Amazon affiliates and Paypal donations, but I didn’t include those here (just as I didn’t include day job income) because I want this to be limited exclusively to writing income.
A couple of observations:
Patreon Saves the Day (But Don’t Count On It)
Patreon has been a godsend this last year, as I’ve been producing a short story every month, instead of every other month or so as I did last year. That said, the shitstorm at Patreon at the end of last year when they were going to up their fees by 40% for folks at the $1 tiers saw me bleeding fans from the platform. That experience reminded me again that this income – though provided by a large pool of 750+ fans, is still reliant on a third party system that could implode and fuck everything at any time.
Self-Pub Isn’t a Magic Bullet
As you can see, I don’t make much money in self-pub beyond Patreon. When I state this, many folks who make lots more there just tell me I’m doing it wrong, and hey! Maybe so. But it’s not where I put most of my time. Self-pub sales primarily come from one-off fiction shorts and collections, not novels. I like to include this revenue here, though, to point out that yes, I do self-publish some stuff, and yeah, no, it’s not a cure-all moneymaking scheme.
Don’t Get Too Excited About the “Film” Thing
Oh, I know you saw that “film” inclusion up there with the royalties bucket. As you no doubt realized, looking at the total it’s mashed up into, it’s not life changing at this point, just interest. I’ve had various Hollywood things stirring around for awhile now, but last year was the first year I made a little money on it due to some slightly more advanced interest. And that could easily turn into 1) Absolutely nothing 2) A little more 3) a lot more 4) Movies! Shows! Lottery tickets! This being H-wood, eh, I just sorta roll with it. Some IP is making the rounds, and people are getting interested, and that’s A+.
This is a Living Wage!
The last 2-3 years, especially with the addition of Patreon, I’ve been making what amounts to a living wage as a writer. That’s pretty cool…. granted, I still need health insurance, and even with my current plan, I have a $10k deductible, so subtract $10k from that just to start. Luckily I still have a day job, which is where that (useless) health insurance and all of my expenses and etc. come out of. The writing income, really, tends to get bucketed back into the writing career itself. I spent some obscene amount last year traveling to various conventions (hence paring down this year), as well as swag, patreon rewards, and various other related business supplies (printer ink is $130 a pop. WTF?). My goal, of course, is to pay off my debts, move to Canada for affordable healthcare, and shift to writing full time – supplemented by freelance income – in the next few years. But, you know – I’m not holding my breath.
Feast and Famine
One thing I’ve learned about this business is that it’s feast for famine. I currently have $8 in my account and three credit cards maxed out… in the next week or two, however, I will have my day job paycheck, $2600 from Patreon, and another $5k payout for Legion. When I finish THE LIGHT BRIGADE, I’ll get another $10k here in the next month or so. Clearly I’m bad at managing these lean/flush times, and that’s something I’m working on getting better at. All of those payments will go toward aforementioned credit cards, taxes, and immigration fees, and then… it’s all gone again. Tra-la. The taxes in particular are a killer in the writing profession. Sigh.
What does this all mean? Well, it means that Patreon both makes being a full-time writer a viable future if I severely cut down on appearances and other expenses and get all of last year’s convention debt paid off. That said, relying on Patreon for 3/4 of my writing income… is not a good business strategy. Take out Patreon and I’d be making like $18k – which, again, with a $10k deductible is not even a poverty wage. I am seven years into this profession and what I’m making on traditionally published work year to year is less than a minimum wage job. Soooo…. keep you day job, people.
Once I clear out LIGHT BRIGADE and finish BROKEN HEAVENS I’ll be working on some new projects, for which I have high hopes. LEGION in particular has done very well, all of my work has earned out, and I’m doing well maximizing what I’m paid for short fiction. Every story is a piece of IP, and thinking of it like that does help me manage it.
Anyhow, folks – that’s what one award-winning author who’s been in the game the last seven years is making. Yes, I should me making a shit brick more (every time I do these one of my male colleagues emails me and is like, “You are really underpaid. There are people selling less who make way more.” And I’m like yes… yes, I know. I’m working on it). We are all working toward leveling up and breaking out. I’ll get there. But if you’re struggling, just remember: there’s often a lot of years of slog ahead. You are doing fine if you are slogging.
All we can do is be honest, and flail onward, and keep this shit real.
For over a year now, I haven’t wanted to feel anything.
Not joy. Not sorrow. Just… nothing. I wanted to feel nothing.
Certainly, there’s an element of depression, there. My doctor kept upping my meds. They would work for awhile, and then I’d just sink into the Nothing again. I didn’t feel depressed, because I still think of depression as feeling “bad.” Instead I just wasn’t feeling anything at all. I was going through the motions.
Depression is a complex state of being. I know we want to try and pretend it’s easy. Just pop a pill, increase your meds, try new meds, find something that works! But there’s also depression caused by external forces, and that’s the sort of depression that you can paint over with pills, sure, but the root of it is still there, like painting over a crack in your wall.
I was already feeling overwhelmed and deflated in the months leading up to the election. I was struggling with the reality that I’d produced three books in a year but still had to function at a day job, and the relentless treadmill of publishing was still going, without the sort of reward I needed in order to maintain my sanity. I’ve talked before about how writing all those books and then promoting books and having a weird dude-bro day job (at the time) conspired to murder me. What we don’t acknowledge is that when you experience that kind of breakdown followed by grief and disappointment, you can’t just… get back up like nothing happened.
The truth is I was operating at the absolute limit of my capacity before the shit hit the fan. Because I was already tapped out, when the shit hit, I had nothing left, no reserves to help me cope. The grief of the election was the grief for a lost future. I grieved for the country, for the future, for our lost stability. Most of all, I grieved because it made me hate my neighbors. They voted for this. They murdered the future. This is the future they wanted. Knowing that – that your own friends, family, neighbors, voted for this bleak future where health insurance is being killed by degrees and all our money is being funneled to the rich – was debilitating. Sorry, it just fucking was. It was realizing I lived in an entirely different reality than those people. Worse was knowing where this sort of vote led a country, historically. Living with that knowledge for months while people fought about how we should “give it a chance” turned me quickly to drink. I was drinking, three, four, five nights a week. I wasn’t even sorry.
I don’t like feeling things. One of the benefits of fiction is that it allows you to emote without suffering through the physical and emotional consequences of the characters. It’s literally a safe space for allowing me to feel things. I can feel them, then go on and out into the world.
But what I found for the last couple of years is that I didn’t want to feel things even in fiction. Even reading certain books or watching certain TV shows was too much. For months, I couldn’t watch anything dark on TV. I stopped watching Jessica Jones. I started reading all 25 of Sue Grafton’s Alphabet novels, because I knew that in that world, the murders were always solved, the bad guys got found out, and decent people did OK. I needed desperately to live in a world like that.
“Be like Leia Organa! Have hope!” everybody keeps yelling.
And I’m like, sure, yeah, OK, but there’s hope and then there’s deluding yourself. Leia and Holdo didn’t didn’t just fly off into the Nothing and “hope for the best” – they had a plan.
I had no plan but “survive.”
And let me tell you – “survive” as a “plan” gets pretty depressing after awhile.
My attempts to numb myself against reality could only work for so long. Eventually, I knew, something had to give.
When we were presented with our “new” “health insurance” at the day job back in December, I was just… done. I’ve been scrambling to keep a day job forever in order to keep health insurance. But the constant erosion of health insurance regulations by the new regime was destroying all of the plans, even those offered by employers. My deductible was going up another $3,500. It was already $7,000. My meds are $1500 a month, which means that for the first 6 months of the year or so, I was shelling out $1500 out of pocket for the drugs that keep me alive. Now I’d be shelling that out for even longer before health insurance covered anything at all. And that’s on TOP of the $400 per month premium.
This wasn’t insurance.
This was a fucking nightmare.
“Survival” on this timeline, the bare-bones plan, was becoming untenable.
Depression is indeed an imbalance. A broken brain. But that depression is, sometimes, a perfectly sane response to a horrifying situation. The trouble is that being depressed isn’t going to get you out of that situation. Being depressed is just going to cause you to keep sinking deeper and deeper into the mire.
So up went the medication.
And up went the alcohol.
The trouble is, combining those two things at once results in… well, a VERY drunk podcast appearance where I’m barely coherent toward the end. That was a bit of a wakeup call. I can’t drink away the world on these meds. I can’t numb all Feelings. It was time to stop relying on outside fixes and make some real changes.
I started looking into 100% remote working opportunities. A colleague emailed with a tip about an immigration lawyer. The lawyer confirmed that my spouse and I would not be barred from immigrating to Canada because of our illnesses. In fact, he said, because I was a writer, we’d have an easier time of getting in. We’d thrown out this thought immediately after the election due to the medical issue. But it turns out that unless you require constant or prohibitively expensive care, you don’t trigger their “medical burden” clause. And in Canada, prescriptions were a fraction of the cost, and health care was paid for through taxes. I would never lie awake worrying about health costs again.
That was all I needed to know.
We scraped together the money for the lawyer, and started the paperwork. This process has also forced us to take a full accounting of our finances, which we hadn’t done since our dog Drake died. We poured an exceptional amount of money into his care, and it’s like it’s just been compounding since then. Last year I kept saying, “We can’t afford X,” and my spouse was like, “We need to do X,” and I just… found ways to do it. And now we have the brutal reality of all those bills and debts. For a year, I just… didn’t care about those debts. I rang them up like it was the end of the world, because it felt like it. There was nothing to look forward to but 30 years of shit getting worse.
I have spent a decade trying to tell myself I could live a mile from downtown, here in Ohio, struggling with health insurance. I convinced myself that I had no other options.
Suddenly I had options. Even if the journey to get there seemed impossible.
I figured it was no more impossible than trying to survive here as things are currently.
Totaling up your debts and taking a hard look at all the shit you’ll need to repair and repaint in order to sell or even just rent out your house, and all the shit you’ll need to sell or pack, and the costs of doing that, and of finding a rental, and going through all the paperwork, and… it looks overwhelming. Moving gets harder as you age because you tend to have more shit. The shit you own does, indeed, end up owning you.
But the stress of holding onto health insurance while the cost of care was becoming more and more unaffordable was unbearable. The dystopic regime contributed to that fact, and added heaps more stress on top.
I want a different life.
It was this, I think, this thought, this emotion, that I was trying so hard to drown. I wanted to be content. I wanted to settle. I was just so tired. Tired of writing. Tired of working. Tired of fighting everything. I also found that I was tired of putting myself out into the world. I was tired of being some constructed persona, a pixel-headed emoticon online. I was so emotionally exhausted all the time that I began to jealously guard all the parts and pieces of myself that fueled the emotional core of my writing. I failed to write a book last year because what I came up with was just somebody going through the motions. I wasn’t feeling any of it. I couldn’t bear to. Things just happened to people, and I said how they felt, but I couldn’t feel them. I’d die, I thought, if I felt them. I was angry that I had given so much of myself to my novel writing and was getting so little back. I was frustrated to be in this place where you have to dig into your heart and lay it bare only to have some rando shit on your doorstep for no fucking reason while you’re paying $1500 a month for drugs to keep you alive.
It was a shitty future. I wanted a different one.
There was freedom in acknowledging it wasn’t going to work. There was freedom in realizing that trying to make it work was literally killing me, that year after year, I was just getting more and more resigned to a life that was taking everything I had and not giving anything back.
I drowned all of this in alcohol, and overwork, and bird food, and dogs, and painting, but it was clear from my inability to write anything of substance that cutting myself off from emotions might feel good in the short term, but isn’t great for helping you overcome your problems. It’s like Luke cutting himself off from the Force. Who are you then? You’re just someone going through the motions. Eventually, you either die that way, or you open up.
I spent two miserable weeks over the holidays sick as a dog, then another week trying to recover. For several of those days, I had a terrible fever and hallucinations, and I thought I was going to die. Near-death has a funny way of waking me up. Here it was, I thought, I’m going to die here in Ohio without finishing my goddamn fantasy trilogy. What have I even done with my life?
And as strength returned, and I took these tentative steps toward changing my life, as I saw these flickers of another future, it became a little easier to turn in work again. And not just work that was going through motions – but work that tapped into the emotions I’ve been struggling with, and the experiences from my past that drive me, and pieces of myself I wanted to hide away at the bottom of a deep, dark well.
I wrote about being broken, about perseverance, about failure, about envy and rage and despair and passion. All those things I didn’t want to feel anymore, I could feel them again, safely, on the page.
And the world didn’t explode. I could stand the tide of it.
I wasn’t drowning anymore. I was swimming, swimming. I still couldn’t see the shore. But I could imagine it. I could hope for it, again. I could hope for it without hurting.
And that was enough.
When I was a wide-eyed baby author, I scoffed at what was known in the business as “the bitter midlister.” The bitter midlister was an established author who had written three or more books but who either wasn’t making a living as a writer, or wasn’t making a very good living, or had seen some success but didn’t feel it was on par with what they deserved (usually this last bit)… and they were very, very, very bitter about it.
We have all met or heard from bitter midlisters. These are the people who publicly rant about how the success of their bestselling peers has nothing to do with quality, but with luck, or favoritism, and how the game is rigged against them. They bloviate on forums and social platforms about how they didn’t get the sort of success they were owed. This is often how you can differentiate the bitter midlister from those simply exhausted by the –isms inherent in publishing. Bitter midlisters feel that they are owed success by virtue of their existence, instead of simply that they understand they need to work harder in a system rigged to favor certain types of books and authors.
They feel owed because they did the work, and it didn’t pay off in the way they expected. They are angry at every new success from some newer author, irate at every million-dollar deal that isn’t theirs. They all insist that it’s not at all the quality of their writing or the fabric of their plots (or lack thereof) that has led to this state. It’s always someone else’s fault. It’s always about someone else “taking” something that they felt was theirs. It’s probably no wonder that many bitter midlisters are from the socio-economic and racial groups that have been privileged in their particular country of origin. When your entire system says you are special, and just need to work hard to succeed, and you do, and you don’t, you get pretty mad.
I get it. I mean, I’m white. I heard that narrative too. I also heard that if a woman “worked hard enough” she could be president.
But I digress.
The bitter midlister tends to write the same sort of book over and over – when they continue writing at all. It never enters their minds that perhaps they need to change their approach, to learn new skills, to write up another lottery ticket in the publishing casino.
Now, there’s a truth to some of these complaints. Publishing is not a meritocracy. Writing great work doesn’t guarantee success. Shitty books, or mediocre books, or a book you personally cannot stand, make many authors a very good living. It may not seem fair that someone was able to change the names in their fan fiction novel and become a mega bestseller, but you know what? They wrote something people clearly wanted to read, and most probably had some big publishing marketing dollars behind them.
Life isn’t fair.
Publishing isn’t fair.
The world isn’t fair.
You aren’t owed anything.
As I creep up here on completing my 7th novel for publication, I’ve increasingly started to notice that bitter midlister voice (BMV™) at the back of my head, tapping away at my confidence.
It’s not fair, the BMV™ moans. It’s not fair that people who wrote one book, or two books, or a single series, are more financially successful than me. It’s not fair that I still have a mortgage payment and a day job and have to take freelancing jobs. It’s not fair that writers who I think are technically less skilled than me are bestsellers. It’s not fair…!
Waaaah waah waaaaah
I sure do sound like Sarah Connelly in Labyrinth, whining about how shitty and not fair it is to be a fucking adult.
But as Sarah learned, unfairness is simply a truth of life. None of us are owed anything, however hard we work, however skilled we become. As adults, all we have control over is the work that we do and how we choose to present that work to the world. This is what I tell the BMV™ over and over again.
I wish a lot of things had turned out differently – in my life, in the world. I wish that God’s War had swept all the awards in 2011 and had become a bestselling classic like The Windup Girl. I wish The Stars are Legion got optioned for a movie I wrote the script for. I wish we were watching a TV series on Netflix about Nyx right now, and I was doing script consulting. I wish The Geek Feminist Revolution had taken off like Bad Feminist did. And on and on.
When you sit around making wishes like that, it makes you realize how futile they all are. Because there are more things I wish on top of that:
I wish I didn’t live in a society plunging into fascism. I wish I didn’t have a chronic illness. I wish I hadn’t ended up in Ohio for the last decade. I wish I had real health insurance. I wish I could visit Mars.
And on and on.
As I come up on middle age, especially in the current economic and social climate, it’s easy to look back at what came before and only see where I’m not, or only see where I could be. This is a ridiculous, but very human thing to do.
When I’m feeling particularly down, I remind myself that there are plenty of (financially successful) legends who just started their careers at the age I’m at now. I’m reminded that at 37 and pushing toward forty, I’m just beginning to come into my powers as an author. Most of us really don’t start to warm up until middle age. Writing is a skill like any other, and it takes decades to hone your craft.
I am just getting started.
When we reach the end of the year, or the middle of our lives, it can be tempting to look back and only see all the things we didn’t do, all the success we didn’t have, instead of be grateful of how far we have come and celebrate the success we did achieve. Worse, when we look at what’s to come, it’s easy to think that all of the adventures and success are behind us instead of ahead of us. It’s easy to think we’ve lost our powers, when in truth, we’re just coming into them.
I have a good many projects on deck, a lot of irons on the fire, and by my own measure at, say, age 24 (before I needed all this goddamn health insurance) I’m doing incredibly well for myself. By aged 24 standards, I could quit my day job and be a writer full time. So shut the fuck up, BMV™.
My greatest realization these last six years as a professional novelist is that no amount of grind is going to get me to where I’m going any faster. Instead, it just takes a big toll on one’s mental and physical health. And in my case, I started to feel… stuck, like I was on this big ugly torture treadmill. That’s no way to live a life where you’re supposedly “doing what you love.” Hell, it’s no way to live any kind of life.
It used to be that when I wrote, I’d be railing against all the outside voices, the supposed gatekeepers, the editors and agents who rejected my work. As I’ve become more skilled, I realize that my greatest enemy isn’t them at all, and never was. My greatest enemy these days is just myself, and the BMV™.
I have a great deal to achieve in this, the second half of my life. The last year of horror had led me to double down on my worst tendencies, to withdraw, to simply endure. But I want the next thirty years of my life to be more than mere endurance. I want to truly thrive. I want to come into my own as a skilled artist, as a novelist. It’s always been my goal to be an exceptionally skilled novelist, the best, and I won’t get there by hiding in my house in Ohio with a pillow over my head and nursing the BMV™.
So today is a new day, and I get up early. I write posts like this one. I crack open the manuscript. I work on my short story outline. I pet my dogs. I count my blessings. I court a new voice, the old voice, the one that got me this far, the one that says:
Just you wait and see what I’ll do next.
I’ve been working on getting better at building good habits and cultivating greater discipline. It’s been far too easy to fall into lazy habits recently. While my doctor did up some meds, and that will surely help me stay on task, I’ve realized that my lack of purposeful habit has a lot to do with one simple issue.
In book after book, article after article, they say good discipline and good habits rely on having a clear, passionate goal that you’re striving toward. For most of my life, that goal was to publish a book. Then to publish a series. Then to make a living writing. And while I can’t quit my day job because I need health insurance, if I wanted to live bare bones and never travel, I could probably survive on my writing money (mainly because of Patreon). So when I gaze into the abyss of the future, I find myself casting about for goals that will inspire me to action.
While I look a lot like my mother, as I get older I notice that I have a lot of my dad’s traits. My dad’s goal in life was to have a family, to be a good dad, and to be able to support them. Once he achieved that and all of his kids were employed and (mostly) out of the house, he confessed to not feeling very motivated any more. He achieved everything he wanted out of life.
Perhaps my goals were too modest. After all, I’ve noted before that I not only want to make a living writing, but to change the world and people’s perceptions of it. I want to have a place in shaping what comes next. But a goal like that is a bit wishy washy, like saying you want to win a bunch of awards or sell a million copies. A lot of achieving those kinds of goals are out of your control.
The goals I succeed at are the ones where I have the most control. I wanted to be a better person, less selfish. I wanted to write a lot of books. I wanted to make a living writing. As I’ve gotten older, things I thought were super important to me became less so.
While I would love to go back to taking boxing classes, and learn how to fly a plane, I don’t find myself overcome by a passionate drive to do so.
As noted, this may simply be a brain chemistry issue. Maybe I’m just depressed? My anxiety is pretty much under control now, which is fabulous. I’m clunking away at various writing projects – slowly, because this is fucking 2017 – but I’m getting in words every day, and that’s something. That said, my inability to be disciplined in my fiction writing has been wearing on me. It’s this part of my life I want to focus on, because I’ve become incredibly undisciplined about it. Writing happens when it happens.
This is the thing with goals. You have to set up a plan to reach them. If I want to produce more work, better quality work, then I need to have a better writing regime. And I need to understand my “Why.” Why do I want to write more? Why do I want to be the best writer? Why do I want to excel? “Just because” or “why not?” don’t seem to be the sorts of answers that generate a lot of momentum on my part.
I’m at that middle-aged crossroads in life where you have had your adventures, slain your dragons, and achieved a measure of small-town success, and now you look out at your dogs running around in your yard and you go, “This is great, but I’m going to try and be around at least another 30 years or so and… what am I passionate about, now?”
It’s easy to stay motivated when you’re crushing yourself against a system. I loved being a young, scrappy writer in my 20’s, speaking truth to “the establishment,” and coming up through the slings and arrows of SFF publishing to claim my space within it. But what happens when you become the establishment? Do you just head off to do the movie deals, to expand your work to a new audience? Do you spend your time mentoring new writers? Do you just blurb a lot of books?
Accepting that I was an established author has been a hard road, for me. There are young people coming into SFF now who don’t know of an SFF without me in it. I’ve been publishing novels for seven years, which feels like a blink compared to my hard road to get here, but plenty of readers have come of age during those seven years, and for some that’s half or a third or a quarter of their lives. I know I have a long way to go, still. A huge career ahead. But I need to find my passion again for why I’m doing this. I have to find the why, or the road just stops here.
And, you know, I realize this sounds like, “Wah, wah, I got everything I wanted!” but I’ve seen how many people get stuck at “good” on the way to great. And I don’t want to just be good. I want to be great. To get to great requires continuous learning, interrogation of what you want, and leveling up again and again. So while I may not have all the steps mapped out to get me to “great” yet… at least that seems to be the place I want to reach. I don’t want to stop at good. I’ve gotten to good.
There are fewer resources for you, to get from good to great. Everyone puts out work and advice for newer writers, but less for old pros. It’s assumed you’ve gotten to the mountain; and of course from a marketing perspective, there are also simply fewer people who get to this place. That means a smaller audience for all that writing advice.
This, then, is my new journey: the one from good to great. The acknowledgement that I am good at what I do, but that there’s a level I need to get to that requires this better discipline, these better habits. Going from good to great takes more time, and the wins are far smaller, almost imperceptible. It’s taken me years to begin to figure out structure, and I still fall into bad habits the vast majority of the time while trying to build new works.
I never understood the whole “life is a journey, not a destination” thing until now, when I realize that you can’t always give yourself a single mountain to climb. For some, that mountain is the right height. For others, they need more mountains, higher mountains, a whole mountain range. They need to be at base camp on another climb, right when death claims them. To stop is to lose momentum. To stop, for me, means to lose my will to be great.
Instead, we go up. We go onward.
When my latest draft of The Broken Heavens came back from my agent with the dreaded, “start over” notes, I felt dejected and exhausted. I had been churning out a great deal of work on that project very quickly. I’d also been doing my monthly stories for Patreon, and of course, writing all day at my advertising job. I was tired. Tired of the release schedules, the deadlines, the failure after failure to hit said deadlines, and most of all, tired of writing novels that were performing well enough to keep me in the game but not well enough to ensure I could do it for a living longterm. I was tired of the grind that seemed to be going nowhere. I wasn’t even getting the satisfaction of feeling like I was leveling up. Even the writing itself, the creative process, wasn’t fun anymore. Just work.
I seriously considered just cancelling the contract for the book and just… not writing anymore. Everything I touched for months before and for some time after just felt like crap. I put out a couple Patreon stories that were like squeezing blood from a stone, and I wasn’t happy with them. I felt like I was churning, churning, churning, but going nowhere. I had two outstanding stories due to markets that I just had no inspiration for whatsoever. I hated writing. Worse, after a couple months of this, I realized I was developing The Fear. The fear that I couldn’t write anymore. The fear that I’d never write anything good again. The fear that this was it, that this was all I got, that my career was over, unremarkably, at 37.
Seth Godin calls this period in one’s career or creative pursuits “the Dip.” The Dip is that dreaded slog between creative breakthroughs where it feels like you’re expending an incredible amount of effort but not seeing any sort of improvement or gains from it. These dips are generally when most people quit their creative pursuit and go on to something else. When you start a new creative pursuit, like I did recently with painting, it’s exhilarating for the first few months or year, because you get so much better so quickly. You can sit back and – in the case of the painting – literally SEE improvement from one painting to the next. I lined up four paintings I’d completed over four different weeks once, each on the same subject, and it was amazing to watch the evolution of my skill. But after about a year or so, my improvements painting by painting have slowed down. When it comes to painting, I don’t mind this, since I’m doing it for fun. Writing, however, is my vocation, my passion, and it’s always been my goal to be the absolute best writer, to be exceptional at my craft. To achieve that means that I need to continually strive to be better, to improve my skills, to level up. I have been grinding hard on this for several years, and it took that book bouncing back to make me realize I truly was in a Dip. Nothing was leveling up. It was just me going through the motions. I hated the Patreon stories I was writing. I hated the novels. I felt like a huge failure, like I’d lost the magic that was my creativity. It felt like I’d reached the end of my potential, and there was nowhere to go from here. It felt like I’d never write anything good again.
Being aware that I was in a dip helped me get through it. I re-read Godin’s book. And then I went back to the library and begin digging up books on subjects I found interesting, in particular books about microbes and utopia; stuff that was different from my usual war-and-plants-and-bug interests. I needed to fill up my brain with something new. I took a lot of notes, skimmed a lot of texts. I wanted to experience the magic of discovery again, the magic of putting together all of these disparate things into some greater amalgamation that nobody had seen before.
I also decided it was time to go back to a series and setting that I enjoyed, that was fun, and so I wrote “Paint it Red,” a novelette set in the God’s War universe featuring my favorite “let’s be bad guys” bounty hunter, Nyx. I let myself wax on in that one about the scenery, the characters, the world. I felt the big set pieces coming together as I wrote. I experienced that wonderful feeling of throwing out the old outline as I came up with a far more exciting and viscerally interesting story as I was literally writing it. Sure, I was still grasping for inspiration. At one point, angry that I couldn’t come up with a better place to rob than a bank, I did a Google search (really!) for “interesting settings” and somehow stumbled on a video of a rat temple in India. That video sparked my imagination, and all of a sudden I had a bunch of shape-shifting parrots bound to a temple and a kid with a key wrapped around his heart that had to be dug out of him with a machete and we were off to the races. Giving in to the creative process is a wonderful feeling; when all your synapses are firing as they should, making strange and exciting connections, that’s when I feel good about the work I’m doing.
For the first time in a couple of months, I was actually having fun with the creative process. I even had time to edit the story before I posted it to my Patreon backers. I was proud of the work I’d done, and most importantly – delighted by the process itself. I also found it easier, finally, to sit down and outline some stories I owed to anthologies. Last week, understanding how burned out I was, I took a real vacation – not just from my day job work, but from novel writing work as well. I put an out-of-office reply on both my work AND my personal email. It meant I didn’t see email from my agent announcing a foreign rights sale and confirming another offer until nearly a week after I’d gotten them. And you know what? The sky didn’t fall. The world kept going. The deals didn’t disappear. I was able to step away from all the deadlines and worries and gnawing-on-my-failures-wank from my life for a whole week. I came back to the keyboard feeling relaxed and refreshed and… genuinely happy for the first time in many months.
The time away – not just from my work, because I’ve been sitting at the keyboard a lot, just not producing – helped me regain my focus. As my spouse points out, much of the time I feel I’m spending “writing” is actually time I spend feeling guilty because I can’t write, or because I feel that what I’m writing is utter shit. That’s not “writing” time. It’s my time with The Fear. So much of my writing time has been taken up talking with The Fear that I couldn’t figure out why shit wasn’t getting done. It certainly felt, emotionally, like I was working REALLY HARD. But arguing with your fear isn’t working. Feeling bad for not working isn’t working. Being angry about not working isn’t working.
So much about this business is being able to forgive yourself while you wallow through the dip and the fear that it unleashes. Many of my writing peers, and many of those in the generation just before me, dropped out of the business because of the dip, and the fear. I know people who got great advances and whose books tanked, and they bowed out. I know people who tanked right out the gate who bowed out. I know people who did well right off but were so fearful they couldn’t do it again that they bowed out. These terrible times in our careers also keep coming. They aren’t a one-off. I had a lot of trouble writing after my first contract was cancelled, and trouble writing when my publisher stopped paying me for my first series. I faced the fear when another book went out of print while yet another publisher of mine went through a sale. And I faced the fear when a book didn’t perform as well as I’d hoped it would. And here I am again, just six years into this novel career, and I’m there again, fearing that I’ll never level up, I’ll never break out, that my whole life, all that remains, will be one big churn.
Fear can be negotiated with and overcome. I know this from dealing with it so many times over the last six years. But it always comes back. It does this because we all know we have a shelf life, an expiration date. After all, we’re all going to die. So every time we face a failure, we think, “OK, this is it. For real this time.”
When writing becomes a job, so much of the joy of creation gets lost in the fear and the failure. What I’ve found is that the only thing that brings me back is the work itself. It’s finding the joy in the process, of silencing my inner critic and just telling myself, “You’re just having fun right now. This isn’t for anyone else.” It’s how I felt when I came up with a cool narrative idea for my next book. The excitement of what I could achieve bubbled up in me, the excitement of the challenge, and then there was the fear, the fear that said, “You can’t pull this off. No one will like it. Your agent will hate it. Your editor won’t understand it. You aren’t good enough to do that.” And that voice, you know, it took the joy out of the idea.
So you know what I did?
I told that voice to fuck off. Because no one needs to see that book until February. And I’m going to allow myself to have fun until then. The fun, you see, is the only thing that I can count on to bring me some joy in all this. Eliminate all the fun stuff, and it becomes a true slog, a teary roll toward a meaningless deadline.
I love writing. I love the creative process. I love the magic of discovery. But the fear comes with all that. The fear never goes away. That’s why, if you want to have a long career, sometimes you have to work through the fear anyway, and trust that you can find the magic again on the other side of the dip.
As I’ve discussed on Twitter and on the podcast, The Broken Heavens mostly-sort-of-done-kinda-partial? draft I sent to my agent/editor was found wanting, and requires a lot of revisions. These things happen. In the mean time, the due date for my next book, the military SF novel THE LIGHT BRIGADE is due to Saga Press on February 1st.
Deadline #2 LOOMS.
Ever since we snuck GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION into our existing schedule a couple years back, I’ve been struggling to catch up on my deadlines. Add in the weird break between the first two Worldbreaker books contract and the third Worldbreaker book contract, with the Saga contract between them (since Angry Robot was sold, they couldn’t buy the third book for like six months or something), and my deadlines got ultra messy. Also, the US descended into fascism, of course, which is bad for everyone’s deadlines.
Anyway. Agent and I discussed these issues and decided it would be best to hit the Saga deadline on time, since I’m clearly not going to get any less late on delivering The Broken Heavens. My agent let my publisher know this just before I left for Scandinavia. The publisher did note that pushing out the date could cancel people’s pre-orders, but my agent forgot to forward me that part, so I was just as taken aback as all of your. These things happen.
Now that I have the heads’ up, well – yeah, cancelling pre-orders is pretty shitty on Amazon’s part. Though shifting the date out to 2019 or 2020 may not have cancelled them? Maybe? Who knows? It’s a thing that can happen, and I’m sorry it did for all of your who pre-ordered through Amazon and I wasn’t able to give you a heads’ up (I’m getting emails, DM’s AT WORK, and notifications of all kinds and I’d rather be writing). Writing is great, but the wheels of publishing can be really shitty sometimes, because there are a whole lot of moving parts and pieces.
Ultimately, the fault is with me for writing a book that’s very late. At this point, as said, I’m trying to save the publication schedule with THE LIGHT BRIGADE since the Worldbreaker timeline is already fucked. Sometimes you can’t force a book. I churned hard on The Broken Heavens, but my agent promised me she’d tell me when stuff wasn’t up to snuff, and she called it with this one. It will get there, but I needed to cut a lot of stuff, and as said – that Light Brigade deadline was getting closer and closer.
So despite what Amazon may tell you, no, the book is not out in 2035 (my on-signing payment for this book was $5k. I would just send it back if that were the case and move on!). It’s still on my schedule, I’m still working on it, but LIGHT BRIGADE has to take priority so I don’t miss that deadline, too. That said, it’s had to come off of Angry Robot’s publication schedule since we no longer have a firm turn-in date (“after Light Brigade” is best I can do), which means we’re not sure when we can get it back in. That will depend on when I can turn it in. And that’s all on me.
That’s the best I have for you! Sorry for the confusion. I like to have a heads’ up before this stuff happens, but there are a lot of players here and I was also traveling for a couple weeks, and sometimes these things get dropped.
You know I love you all, and thank you for supporting these books. Sorry it’s where it’s at and Amazon is weird. It’s not the publisher’s fault.
In the meantime, remember that you can get monthly stories from me via Patreon, and I will let you know when I actually TURN IN A REAL DRAFT of Broken Heavens and the book is back on the publishing schedule.
THAT information, at least, I will know for sure!
My first novel, God’s War, came out in 2011. It sold long before that, in 2008, but due to the vagaries of publishing, came out much later from a different publisher. I started writing it in 2003 and finished it in 2007, when I was 27 years old. This was not, of course, the first novel I’d ever written, but the ninth. And I can’t say there was anything about that novel that made it sell while the others didn’t. In truth, that book was a really hard sell, and almost never made it onto the shelves at all. But unlike my prior work, it had a pretty simple quest plot, which helped keep readers engaged, and I threw in pretty much every great idea I’d ever had – Bug magic! Centuries-long wars! Violent matriarchies! Harsh desert! Colonized worlds! – and just had fun with it.
In discussion with my agent on the latest episode of the podcast, though, I started thinking about what it was that made these books to compelling for people, and why The Stars are Legion (which was, emotionally, the toughest book I’ve ever written) seems to be doing so well. The truth is there are so many things in publishing that are beyond our control that we can’t say, “Well, this one is just a good story!” to explain why some did well and some didn’t. The Worldbreaker books have all earned out as well, and sold more than the God’s War books, but people don’t get as emotionally invested in those books as the God’s War books and The Stars are Legion. People don’t cry over them the way they do my other stuff.
It’s the emotional connection that we make with stories that makes them mean so much to us. On the podcast Hannah mentions how much she loved the Twilight books, not for their clunky prose, but for how well they captured, for her, the experience of falling in love for the first time. That was a bit revelatory to me, because these were books that I never connected with. But talk about The Girl on the Train, and I’ll tell you it’s not only the mystery aspect, but the fact that it’s a woman who drinks too much who’s being (spoilers) gas-lighted. And whoa boy did I ever connect with that whole, “Everyone thinks you’re crazy but you’re actually being set up by a nutty dude,” experience. It’s something a lot of women in particular deal with, and I was wholly invested in her discovering she was not actually crazy because it mirrored so much of my own journey toward discovering feminism. I often think that the reason a lot of YA novels don’t connect with me is that they don’t explore emotional themes that really interest me right now the way that many adult novels do. YA tends to be about finding oneself, about the first discovery that the world isn’t what you were told it was. And I’m past that and on to other things.
This discussion about the bleeding heart of the story led me to ask what the bleeding heart of the story was in my own work. It’s interesting because you don’t always know what the heart of the story is when you first begin to write. It wasn’t until Nyx fell to her knees in the ring at the end of her big fight at the end of God’s War that I knew what the heart of that story was about. Nyx struggled with all sorts of issues related to faith and submission, and independence and dependence. These were issues I, too have and do struggle with. Much of Nyx’s emotional struggle throughout all three books springs from having someone I was in a relationship with say that i was a monster. That stuck with me for a long time. Was I monster? In rejecting the weak person I had been, had I become everything I hated? Good stories tap into the very darkest parts of us, and Nyx was certainly the female Conan I wished I could be, wading out into pools of blood and coming out the other side being just as true to herself before as after. She and Rhys are tangled in the sort of snarky abusive relationship that for many years I’d assumed was love. The way they actually end up shows that I have learned something since then. In God’s War, the entire drive of the narrative is to get Nyx onto her knees in that ring, to allow her to admit to herself that what she would love, more than anything else, is just to submit to God, to fate, to the world, and stop fighting it. But she can’t. She knows she can’t, even as she admits it. The drive in Infidel was always to break them down into their component parts, to have them both lose everything and see what it made of them. And of course, in Rapture, the terrible events that they endure there are meant to break them both down emotionally so that they can have, finally, for the first time, an honest conversation about their feelings and why they can’t be together. The rest of the books: the bug magic, the blood-eating sand, the giant hornets, the bel dames, the assassinations and beheadings – existed to tell that emotional story between Nyx and Rhys.
The Stars are Legion was, famously, a difficult book for me to write because unlike with the Nyx books, I knew exactly what the bleeding heart of the story was going to be before I wrote it, and understood what I would have to write about, and that’s some scary stuff. At its heart, Legion is about women’s control (or not) over their own bodies and reproductive power. It also has not one, but two wildly abusive relationships at its core. I wrote deeply about things that mattered to me, issues related to fertility and bodily autonomy and of course, the monster inside so many of us. Once one has been monstrous, the book asked, is it possible to go back, to repent, to become someone different? Those were the bleeding emotions of the story, the burning questions, and I faced them down in all their cold, stark truth. Those are deep, powerful emotions, and beyond the gooey ships and birthing ship parts and struggling through the spongy center of some world, it’s the emotional stuff that we can all relate to on some level that powers its heart and makes it so unforgettable.
As the saying goes, folks may forget what you say, but they won’t forget how you made them feel. Fiction is very much like this, and it’s another reason I don’t like to tie up my stories into nice neat packages. I want to leave the readers with questions that they can mull over as they contemplate the story itself and how it affected them. There’s a reason I ended Nyx’s story the way I did in Rapture. And it’s not because I’m an asshole. Like the reader, I too, like to wonder what fate Nyx deserved, and whether it was the lady or the tiger stepping out of that bakkie. Nyx has done terrible things, but I understand that it’s not up to me to judge her, after all. Rhys would say it’s up to God; I would say it’s up to each individual reader. It’s not for me to decide. Such are the endings on which much great fan fiction can be imagined.
When I sit here looking at Broken Heavens and the original emotional heart of the story, I understand why it’s collapsed, like a souffle, now that I have a different ending. I had spent a great deal of time in the prior two books setting up a very specific ending. What I had failed to do in this latest draft of Broken Heavens is make it clear what the emotional turning point is for the character here so she understands she doesn’t just have two choices, those two choices I set up so many books ago. I realize that the character needs to have the same kind of emotional moment I did after the election, when my entire conception of my country and where it was headed and who were not only were, but who we wanted to be, got flushed down the toilet forever. I will never forget that moment. How betrayed I felt; how my own people had voted to destroy everything I knew and loved. It was a break in reality, for me, the moment when I felt the whole world literally lurch onto another timeline. It was among the most surreal moments of my life. And I knew I had to accept immediately that it had changed everything I knew, and was going to profoundly affect the future – my own and those of my friends and family and the world itself – in terrible ways.
Those are the emotional turning points we talk about. It’s the moment I got out of the hospital after nearly dying, and had to ask for help cutting asparagus because I was so weak. It was laying out the syringes and medication I would have to take now everyday for the rest of my life, or die. It was that understanding that I was not as strong and robust and invulnerable as I’d always assumed, that knowledge that everything I believed about the world and myself had been irrevocably changed. My future, my expectations of such, were rewritten before my eyes.
These are the emotional experiences, and the emotional moments, that we often use fiction to explore. I may not know what it’s like to chop off someone’s head, but I know what it is to be called a monster, and to wonder if it’s true. I may not have ever given birth to a world, but I know what it is to be at war with one’s body while the world itself tries to control you. We use these emotions as leaping off points, and memorable fiction understands that to endure, to touch people, takes more than explosions. It takes tapping into these very vulnerable parts of ourselves, often the very worst moments from our lives, and translating them onto the page.
This is not to say that there aren’t plenty of bestsellers that don’t do this. I just read a bestselling author who wrote a mystery novel that was absolutely emotionally devoid. I also tossed it immediately into my Goodwill pile to give away and promptly forgot even the names of the characters. But making work that lasts needs to touch people in some way. It must be memorable. It must bleed all over the page.
I get that, and yes, some days it does bother me, because frankly, I don’t want to revisit a lot of my most vulnerable moments. This is likely why I’m a discovery writer, because it allows me to sneak up on these emotions in a very organic way. It allowed me to simply write Nyx falling to her knees in the ring, longing to submit, knowing she couldn’t, and having no idea why that scene felt so powerful to me; why it felt just right. Not until much later.
But as I struggle with the massive backlog of projects I have right now, I realize that I have less time to allow myself the comfortable blinders of pure discovery writing in order to creep up on the truth. I have to face it head on, first thing. Even if it scares me.
Even if it bleeds.