This morning I woke up at the butt-crack of not even dawn. Yesterday, my partner and I took an Unplug Day, wherein we avoided our phones, the internet, and outside. We woke up, started a puzzle, made some delicious breakfast (cheesy eggs and french toast sticks with a berry syrup), and spent most of the day doing nothing with screens. We read books. We talked. We enjoyed one another’s company.
And wowee zowee, did I need that. I am not very good at self-care. I’ll say that right now.
This morning, I woke up at the aforementioned butt-crack of not even dawn, and I had A Message! I didn’t check Facebook yesterday, or Twitter. And there were messages!
This one was from a fellow writer asking me how I stay productive, probably since lately I have finished a novel and a novelette and am now onto the next one.
I typed out this long thing, re-read it, almost deleted it, then added another paragraph and sent it anyway. I’ll share it here:
Hey! Thank you! Uhhhhh I will try to answer that. If that sounds bemused it’s only because I’m not entirely sure my lifestyle is A: healthy or B: sustainable? I am neuroatypical and tend toward overwork and get really obsessive, which is part of why I end up finishing things quickly. For six years I worked full time and wrote full time, and that meant if I wanted to write I had to do so either at work or if I wasn’t working. In that time I kind of found that I (with my autism and mental illness — PTSD, anxiety, accompanying intense introversion) could pick from day job, writing, and social life and only two at a time would work. I forgot how to write part time.
These days it’s not as bleak as that; my partner is caring and so supportive I’m not sure he’s not too good to be true. He just got a promotion that will allow him to basically support both of us, and that frees up some of my ability to I dunno…not fret about money for the first time in my life? I probably will anyway. I grew up in a literal barn with no toilet and have a serious desire to escape poverty, and I am kind of pushing as hard as I can right now to have…something happen. For all I appear successful, I’ve been struggling a lot with money this year and basically am giving it another year of full steam ahead before I am going to have to do something else or go mad. (Madder.)
I got intensely burnt out last year and sort of realised I wasn’t writing what I really needed to write. So part of my staying productive this year has been finding what stories I NEED to tell. I’ve had a huge number of professional disappointments in the past few years and I am no able to write for New York’s approval.
I dunno if you know, but I had sold four books to publishers a few years ago (one of them a Very Large One) and in one month of 2014 all my books got orphaned in two very close fell swoops. Since then I’ve been trying to rebuild since my agent left the business two months after that. My new agent and I have tried again to get a P&E (print and ebook) deal for my stuff and I’ve just been no (which is normal and fine) or told (sometimes in coded language, sometimes flat out) that it’s too queer in spite of [all the calls for] diversity.
Sooooooooooooooooooo part of my productivity I think comes from this thought that no one else is going to do this for me and that there is never going to be That One Book that makes it easy going forever. There’s just the stories and the work and a desire to get them in the hands of people who need them. And a lot of an autistic brain that doesn’t let me let stuff go ever. I don’t know if any of this helps…I work an unhealthy amount and am trying to learn proper self care. It should also be noted that because I’m self-pubbed a heap of my work is like…spreadsheets and poking marketing shit with a stick, neither of which are my favourite things to do.
[Also because of being self-pubbed and there still being a stigma about that, I am not eligible for many awards, have to pay for trade reviews — those aren’t free! — and I’m not in bookstores, which means there’s a whole market of non-ebook readers out there I have no access to directly.]
After writing all this I half considered deleting it and writing something more…flat out encouraging? But I don’t think that would be fair and it wouldn’t be really true. The truth is a lot of days I wonder if I’m doing this for nothing. But then I get an email from a fan or a review from someone who just…GOT what I was trying to do, and I feel like I did a Good. And for a while that reminds me why I do it. I don’t know how long this will be sustainable for me; I’m so tired and frayed from decades of living one middle class person’s moderately bad day away from actual catastrophe and homelessness that I need to do something that will alleviate that constant stress. But for a short time at least, my partner and I have a reprieve so I am going to choose to trust him and keep working the way I’ve done for almost ten years now to see if I can make this my life forever instead of having to start over in my mid-30s with a brand new career. I’ve gotten lucky a few times. I’m betting my farm on hard work doing, if not everything, at least something. I figure I have to try.
Anyhow. This was probably way more rambling than you wanted, but it’s six AM and I haven’t had coffee. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask!
So that is…uh….that. We continued to chat a bit after that. I asked if I could talk about our convo in a blog post, and she said yes. I logged into WordPress and saw that I have hit my eight year anniversary on this site. Eight years.
I knew I wanted to be an author when I was in high school. I wrote 130 pages of a horribly derivative epic fantasy novel that I never finished (12 years later, I managed to write an epic fantasy I’m actually proud of, the book 17-year-old me never could have written). I put that aside. During university, I wrote 50 pages of another horribly derivative (this time portal) fantasy novel. I put that aside.
In 2006 in Poland, I wrote 100ish pages of a not-quite-so-horribly derivative (this time urban) fantasy novel. I realised that wasn’t the start of the story. I went back and started the story where it began, with a different protagonist. I moved between three different countries and two different states. In 2008, I finished that first novel. I plowed through half of the second one (the one I started in 2006 in Poland). I started blogging here.
It took me another couple years to finish that second novel. I finished it in 2011, during NaNo. I got halfway through the third. I went to a Writer’s Digest conference in New York. Chuck Sambuchino helped me with my pitch for Novel 1 and told me he liked my eyebrows. I pitched face to face with agents. My first ever rejection was from Hannah Bowman (who is lovely and probably doesn’t remember this at all).
(By the way, she rejected my query for Shrike: The Masked Songbird. She then requested the full of Stonebreaker and passed on that. I’m telling this story because sometimes in this business, the same PERSON will tell you no several times for several different projects. I have MULTIPLE people who have done just that. I picked Hannah because she happened to literally be my first rejection ever, and she’s great and if you’re looking for an agent you should query her.)
At that Writer’s Digest conference, I also pitched to Ginger Clark, who requested pages but told me point blank that she could have sold my vampire-having book four years before, but not in the climate of 2012. She was right! And that book, apart from having vampires, wasn’t ready. Julie Kenner, who is a NYT bestselling BEAST of a writer (BUY ALL HER BOOKS IF YOU LIKE EROTICA), is a friend of mine I met through a blogging class, and she offered to read my stuff. She told me very kindly that it wasn’t submission ready. She was right.
I put novels 1-3 (well, half of three) aside (they were a trilogy).
I wrote Shrike: The Masked Songbird three months later…in six weeks. It was the fastest I’d ever written anything. And it was good. I knew it was good. Or at least better. It sounded like me and not like David Eddings or Joss Whedon (too much, at least) or LJ Smith. I polished that book up and a few months later, I started querying.
And I got a LOT of rejections.
I’m going to fast forward over the next year and a half. That book got me an agent (after 70-odd rejections, during which time I wrote Storm in a Teacup). Those books sold! They actually sold! (They got rejected A LOT FIRST.) I got book deals for them. I signed contracts.I wrote A Hall of Keys and No Doors. Shrike: The Masked Songbird GOT PUBLISHED! I wrote Shrike: Rampant and a non-fiction book, a series of essays about geek feminism. I started writing Stonebreaker (the epic fantasy). I separated from my husband.
…and then in 2014, in the space of a month, one imprint went kaput and the other deal we had to back out of when the publisher made a massive dealbreaking change right when we were supposed to sign the contract. All four books (Shrike 1 & 2, Storm, and the non-fiction book) got orphaned. A couple days before Christmas, I watched my debut novel disappear from sale as if it’d never existed.
Then my agent left the business.
It was January of 2015. I didn’t know what the fuck to do. I had five and two halves of novels completed. A non-fiction book of essays. A seven-year-old blog. I used to blog here every single day, did you know that? Every day. Every. Single. Day. Check the archives if you want.
At that point I had written literal millions of words.
I decided to self-publish, because the idea of trunking five novels made me want to hurl. Two I could handle. Five was…too much. I believed in my books. Jes (my former agent) offered to do the covers for the Shrike and Storm books. So I did that. I put them out in the world myself.
But first, I finished Stonebreaker. And I did the thing you’re not supposed to do and queried 37 agents the same night. (NOT IN THE SAME EMAIL. DON’T DO THAT.) I got seven offers of rep for that book, and I signed with Sara Megibow. Then my books started coming out.
Storm in a Teacup did…really well. To date it’s sold in the ballpark of 7000 copies and has had around half a million pages read in Kindle Unlimited, which probably translates to another few thousand people who have at least picked it up. (Which is a bizarre metric, but I don’t know how else to quantify it since plenty of people download a book and never read it, regardless of who publishes it. *side eyes TBR mountain of mostly Big 5 published books*)
I wrote Any Port in a Storm. I wrote Taken By Storm. I started Look to the Sun. I wrote Eye of the Storm. Sara and I sold a bunch of audio rights, and Audible managed to convince Amber Benson to narrate my books (lolwhat). I finished Look to the Sun. I let my temp job run out last year and have been writing full time ever since.
Am I successful? I’m not sure how to measure that. Self-published authors are usually held to the bar of the nearest Hugh Howey, which is like judging trad published authors on the sales numbers of Stephen King.
Can I pay my bills with my writing money? Uh….I’ll get back to you. I’m behind right now and have a part time job working as a banquet server. Have I won any awards? No. Have I written anything worthy of an award? Fuck if I know.
I’ve written eleven novels, a few chunks of other novels, some novellas, a novelette, and a slew of short stories I mostly write for my Patreon people because they are awesome and I like writing for them.
I have yet to get a print and ebook deal from a big publisher. I’ve sold several thousands of books. I’ve stayed sort of afloat for a year on that.
I still love writing. I still itch to tell stories. I use writing some stories as carrots for finishing other stories when the going gets tough. I remember David Eddings once said that you’re either a writer or you’re not (notice that says nothing at all about “talent,” just the drive to do the thing). David Eddings also said that when you’re writing and the going is good, it’s like reaching up into heaven and pulling down fire. And he said that when it’s bad it’s like trying to give birth to a baby elephant.
David Eddings was a smart guy. I wish I’d gotten to meet him before he died.
So. Success and how to be productive. All these words in here to say that I don’t really know. I am an autistic, unbearably anxious person. I obsess. I am in competition for World’s Worst Sleeper. I have intrusive thought patterns and anxiety spirals. I sometimes self-harm and punch myself when I get frustrated or overstimulated. I am notoriously bad at self care. I sit down and get so zoned that I look up eighteen hours later and don’t even notice the cats tearing the house down around me. I am a workaholic. And some days the thought of opening my laptop still makes me want to pull down fire from heaven and self-immolate.
If you want to write, if you have a story you need to tell, realise that it’s just…it’s never easy. It doesn’t magically get easy. There is no One Book that will catapult you to fame and fortune. There is no sovereign specific that will cure procrastination or mental illness, and you don’t have to write every day to be a writer, for fuck’s sake. I don’t. I have days I write zero words and days I write fifteen thousand words, and I actually recommend the former over the latter, because sometimes those zero word days are days you spend with your love, making an IMPOSSIBLE PUZZLE or reading or playing a video game or sitting quietly with a tree or cuddling a fuzzy face, and art is emotional expenditure, SO THOSE BIG WORD DAYS LEAVE ME SPLATTED.
Sometimes we can’t afford to do it. Sometimes we can’t afford not to.
If you look at me and see success, well. This is what’s behind it. Disability and mental illness, a staunch aversion to leaving the house, a lot of failing, a lot of rejection, a few paid bills, and no health insurance.
Writing is hard. It’s really fucking hard. It’s hard every day, and there are no bootstraps to grab (and fuck bootstraps theory anyway).
I’m not equipped to give anyone advice on how to be a writer. There’s no one size fits all approach to this. There are a thousand rainbow roads that lead to thousand different worlds, and there are glimmers of success to be found on each of them.
So maybe the most relevant thing I can say, at the end of all this rambling, is what is it you really want? Is it commercial success? Getting to slap NYT bestseller in front of your name? Is it to pay your bills? Go on a vacation with book money? Fill a shelf with award statuettes? See your name in Asimov’s or Uncanny or Tor.com? Simply to tell stories? To scratch that writing itch? To remember something in writing or to tell someone something important with a story? To represent yourself when the art out there isn’t? All these things are valid, valid, valid goals.
Productivity, I think, isn’t the goal. It’s a stepping stone.
Ask yourself what it is you want from writing. Really ask, and be honest. Don’t judge yourself. You don’t have to share with the class; just do it for you. Write it down.
You can break it down into smaller chunks if that helps. Don’t if it doesn’t. But ultimately, don’t aim your ship at a planet you don’t want to land on, and you don’t need to aim your ship at somebody else’s planet. There are near-infinite planets out there. Which one is yours?
I write the way I do because of a lot of factors and variables that aren’t yours. You don’t have to write 12 novels a year, or 12 novels a decade, or 12 novels in a lifetime. You don’t have to write novels at all.
The last thing I will say about productivity is that if it doesn’t serve the goal of getting you to your own personal planet, it’s…not pointless, per se (I learned a hell of a lot about writing from blogging every day for two years), but it’s more ephemeral when it doesn’t fill the fuel tanks. There are always going to be writers who are more prolific than you are (there are plenty who are a shit tonne more prolific than I am *waves at Chuck Tingle*), and there will always be writers who are “more successful” than you are.
But there’s only one you. Only one You Brain full of You Stories. Figure out what it is you want. I’ll be over here with my pom-poms (and a kick in the arse if you need one to get moving).
Uh….GOTTA GO NOW BYE
If you like me and think I’m swell, I have a Patreon where you get to see me hiccough for several minutes of a video. Oh, and uh…you also get stories and other magical things.
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