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Posts Tagged ‘the full-time writerly life’

Being green

Apropos of my earlier post — really, what I need are more environmentally friendly ways of doing the developmental stages. I had some very productive thinking time while showering, and more while driving to and from the city, but I can’t just do those things on a whim to make my brain work!

I genuinely think that my job got harder when I switched over to writing full-time, but not for the reasons that usually get cited: when I was in college, when I was in grad school, I spent a fair bit of my life walking to and from class. That was excellent thinking time. But these days . . . yes, I realize I could just go for walks. It isn’t the same, though? Walking just for the sake of walking feels like it’s me trying to hide the fact that I have scheduled this period for Thinking About the Book, which isn’t effective. It works better when I’m walking for some other purpose. Like errands — but a combination of pandemic + foot problems means I haven’t even done as much of that lately.

Maybe I should take up gardening. 😛

No really, it’s work

In all seriousness, one of the trickiest things about writing as a line of work is the part that doesn’t look recognizably like work.

I’m currently in progress on a background project, and I’ve had to accept that as much as I would like to be charging ahead and putting words down on the page, doing that right now stands a high chance of producing material I’ll just have to cut later. I need to think. I need to figure out plot beats that will be lively as opposed to merely getting the job done. I need to make sure I intend to stick with my current idea about how magic works in this setting, because I’ve already tweaked it once, and you know what’s not fun? Invalidating a chunk of narrative because things don’t work that way anymore.

This is necessary work — but it is also work that does not lend itself to metrics. It is the opposite of effective for me to set a timer and say, okay, for the next hour I am going to Think About the Book. Nor can I really set a goal where by the end of the week I need to have a clear sense of a particular character and how they’ll get involved with the plot. Trying to set that kind of goal is a really, really good way to make my brain freeze up and produce nothing at all.

And even when the ideation does happen . . . at what point am I allowed to kick back and say, okay, done for the day? I can set a baseline for drafting: for me it’s usually a minimum number of words, but for other people it’s a certain amount of time at the keyboard. Either way, when you hit your goal, you’re done. (If you want to or have to be. There are days when I hit that goal and keep going just because I’m on a roll; yesterday was one of those days.) Thinking, though . . . how do I decide that I’ve made enough intangible progress, and now it’s okay for me to slack off and watch TV? And even if the answer is that I should do more work, how do I do that when the best way for me to think is to be doing something else? Only certain kinds of something else count; TV isn’t a great one. Neither is reading or playing a game. Showering’s great, but we’re in a drought here, so I can’t just take three a day and see what happens.

I dunno. I’ve been doing this stuff for years and I still dunno. I have a good plot bit, though — something that will introduce a bit of action and set up some complications for my protagonist. I still don’t know much about one of the characters involved in it, which is bad because they’re supposed to be moderately important to this story . . . so I guess I have more thinking to do. Eventually.

Maybe tomorrow, when I’m in the car.

Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull ass will not mend his pace with beating

Earlier today I posted to Twitter about how I’d been beating my head against a plot problem for about an hour, decided to give up and try again after dinner*, and then five minutes later my brain gave me a usable idea at last.

*The last week or two, I’ve been writing in the afternoon instead of my usual late-night stints. No, I don’t know why.

Naturally, several other writers have chimed in to confirm that yep, that’s often how it works. Of course the difficulty is, that isn’t always how it works; ignoring a problem is not a surefire solution for dealing with it. We’ve got abundant evidence from psychology that doing something else can be a good way to activate the problem-solving parts of your brain . . . but sometimes walking away is actually just you procrastinating. And half the time, you can’t really tell which one you’re doing until afterward.

For all that my job has many awesome aspects, this is not one of them. When I worked at a bookstore or on a Christmas tree form, it didn’t matter too much how enthused I felt on any given day. Sure, the job was more fun when I was into it for some reason, but fun or not, I could get it done. All it really took was the discipline of “you won’t get a paycheck if you don’t show up for work.”

Writing does also require discipline, of course — especially when you’re writing a novel, which is very much the “endurance sport” end of the job. I have long since lost count of how many days I didn’t particularly feel like I was in the zone, but once I sat down and made myself start, it actually went just fine. But the thing is, discipline will only get you so far. If you’re staring down the barrel of a scene like today’s, where I knew what it needed to accomplish but not how to make it do that, a scene I’d been kicking down the road for days already without ever clicking over into a concrete plan to make it go . . . you can’t just will the ideas to happen. Ideas are like cats. Some days you have to coax them out with treats and feather wands. Other days they start walking over your face at three a.m. demanding attention, and no, sleep is not more important than they are. And some days they just want none of it, no matter what inducements you offer.

After this long at the job, I have plenty of inducements. I know the value of things like associating particular music with a particular project, so that sometimes I can jump-start the creativity by putting the music on. I can sit down and logic my way through the structural elements surrounding the question marks, or I can get in the shower and hope for the magic inspiration juice that’s in the water to make things click. (Yesterday that resulted in a second session of writing, even though I’d already written enough for the day, because I had ideas and didn’t want to lose them.) But sometimes . . . sometimes the answers just aren’t there, and they just won’t come.

(I do want to note, by the way, that I’m talking specifically about being empty-handed on a bit of story, not being empty-handed more generally. I had a spate of that latter issue around this time last year, and it’s a different kind of scary. It’s the fear that not only will the solution to this plot question never come, but nothing at all will do so, ever again. That one is obviously much worse, and the solutions to it require you to dig deeper to figure out what the source of the difficulty is.)

I’ve been a writer for long enough that I don’t actually fear that I’ll be stuck forever on a plot problem. Sooner or later I’ll figure out a baseline functional answer, even if it’s not as good as I would like. (Sometimes that’s what revision is for.) But when you’ve got deadlines, you often need “sooner” rather than “later,” and the longer a stuck patch drags on, the more stressful it becomes.

And when you’re a full-time writer . . . in many ways this is a dream job, and I know it. But let me tell you, the part where you kind of need your creativity to perform on command in order to get your paycheck is not its best feature.


It’s always been weird to me that in the modern United States, we will readily tell our friends and even totals strangers about our medical problems and our sex lives . . . but talking about how much money we earn? How crass.

Well, there’s a hashtag trending on Twitter, #PublishingPaidMe, that’s aiming to examine whether there’s systemic bias in the industry against writers of color. You can certainly quibble with the methodology there — are you getting a representative sample? — but let’s face it, we know the answer is probably “yes,” because the alternative would require publishing to be some magical place that escapes the systemic bias permeating our society, and that seems unlikely at best. And since every past look at the stats of who gets published, and even what kind of characters the published ones are writing about, has revealed that bias is alive and all too well, I think it’s safe to assume the same is true here.

Having said that, transparency is good. My agent once went about seventeen rounds on my behalf with a publisher, fighting against a confidentiality clause that would have prohibited me from talking about the terms of my contract; in California (where I live) that kind of thing is illegal in employment contracts, and while a writer selling work to a publisher is not an employee, the underlying principle holds. Barring the people being paid from talking about how much they’re being paid — or any other terms of their contract — is a move that only benefits the company, never the individual. So it makes me sad to see how many writers posting to #PublishingPaidMe have at least one contract where they can’t disclose the advance; it means that poison is threaded through the industry much more deeply than I thought.

Anyway. I posted my numbers to Twitter, but if you missed that and/or want a less cryptically concise version of them, here’s what the life of this particular full-time writer looks like, with footnotes:

  • 1st contract (Warrior and Witch): $5000/$6000 [1]
  • 2nd contract (Midnight Never Come and In Ashes Lie): $6000/$6500 [2]
  • 3rd contract (A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire): $25,000/$25,000 [3]
  • 4th contract (A Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents, Voyage of the Basilisk): $12,500/$12,500/$12,500 [4]
  • 5th contract (In the Labyrinth of Drakes, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, Turning Darkness Into Light): $30,000/$30,000/$30,000 [5]

After that, as I noted on Twitter, things get squirrelly in a variety of ways. For Born to the Blade, for example, I was paid on a per-episode basis, and each episode is basically a novelette’s worth of words, plus there was payment for the weekend where we all got together to hash out the story and break it into those episodes for writing. Driftwood, being a fix-up of short stories with additional material and also coming out from a small press, had a lower advance ($5000), which is entirely to be expected. For The Night Parade of a Hundred Demons I’m pretty sure I would be in the clear to name the advance, but since that contract does have a confidentiality clause (not unexpected when you’re working with existing IP and proprietary information), I’ll play it safe and say that it’s on the lower end of my range, but not the bottom, because Aconyte is just getting into those particular waters and nobody’s quite sure how things will play out. The Rook and Rose trilogy is $30,000 apiece for three books, but that’s split between me and Alyc — they’re buying the book, not the authors, so they don’t pay extra because there’s two of us.


[1] These earned out in no time flat, and in fact went on to be the Little Novels That Could; they stayed in print for nearly a decade and earned me roughly ten times their advances in the long run. In case you are wondering, this — not a huge advance — is often how you make a living as a writer.

[2] Although I put the book titles there for clarity, in fact this contract was signed for “two books TBD” on the basis of how well the Doppelganger series was shaping up to do. So it had no bearing on the nature of the books themselves, which wasn’t decided until much later. They also earned out quite rapidly.

[3] This was where I shifted from what had been Warner Books and was by then Orbit to Tor. To this day I’m astonished my agent managed to get that much of a hike in my advance when I was moving in the middle of a series.

[4] I could have had $15,000 apiece for two books, but I accepted a lower per-book advance in order to make it a three-book contract. My reasoning was that I really, really wanted to make sure I’d get to finish the series, and getting Tor to commit to three books gave me more time to build enough momentum to make that happen. (Which wound up being completely unnecessary, as I seem to recall they offered for the rest not long after the first one came out, but I don’t regret the decision.)

[5] Technically the third book in this contract wasn’t Turning Darkness Into Light. It was originally “book TBD,” but I wanted to make sure I had at least a tentative agreement with my editor as to what the third book would be; said tentative agreement wound up being written into the contract, which didn’t stop us from swapping it for something else when we agreed that what I originally had in mind wasn’t the best direction to go in next.

If you’re wondering how I feed myself on an income like this, the answer is threefold: first, the advances aren’t the whole story. Many (though not all) of these books have earned me royalties, and/or have had separate audio deals or translation deals that bring in additional money. Second, I do other things like my Patreon and short fiction and the stuff I publish through Book View Cafe, none of which is earning me money comparable to those advances, but it does add up. And third, I have a husband who works in tech. For the last several years I’ve been bringing in enough money that if I lived somewhere cheap and didn’t mind a bit of financial uncertainty in my life I could probably survive on my income alone — but I live in California. So yes, like most full-time writers, I pull it off in large part thanks to the cushion of a spouse with a stable and lucrative job.

I don’t know how the numbers crunch for marginalized writers, except to repeat that I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that they don’t do as well on average. We won’t get properly analytical results from a Twitter hashtag — but even so, I think transparency is good. So here’s my share of it.

Deferred rewards

One of the things that makes a writing career difficult is that all your payoffs are deferred.

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. Each day, or whatever schedule you work on, you add some more to the pile of words. Go you! But if you’re not someone who lets people read the draft in progress (I’m usually not, though there have been exceptions), then you do that work in a void. And it’s a long, long road to having a completed draft, so you’re in that void for quite a while.

Then you finish your draft. Go you! Now maybe you let somebody read it. But you know, in your heart of hearts, that this isn’t the end of anything; it’s just an intermediate stage. There’s revision, and that’s before the novel even heads out into the wide wide world.

Ah, but surely you get payoff when you sell the novel, right? Go you! Except . . . what “selling a novel” actually looks like is generally that your agent sends you an email saying “here’s what they’re offering,” and you say “that sounds great, let’s do it!” Whereupon your agent haggles for a while, because that’s their job. Or maybe this is the next book in a multi-book contract you already signed, at which point this stage doesn’t even really happen, because it happened years ago.

Assuming it’s a new deal, eventually somebody sends you a contract to sign. This comes probably weeks after the offer you said yes to, if not months. Is this the payoff? It doesn’t feel much like a payoff. On the one hand, you kinda sorta sold the book a while ago; on the other hand, you haven’t been paid yet, much less seen your book in print.

Some number of days or weeks after you signed the contract, money shows up. This used to be in the form of an actual check, but these days lots of people use direct deposit instead. So instead of a Real Live Check, you get an email saying “hey, we’ve deposited this money in your account.” Is that the payoff? Literally, yes; emotionally, no.



Page proofs.

Somewhere in here, you get a cover. Awesome! It mostly has nothing to do with you, since at best you got to offer some ideas that your publisher may or may not have listened to, but at least it’s shiny! Meanwhile you’re busy with something else.

And then, one day, FINALLY, months after you got paid, months after you sold it, months or maybe even years after you wrote the book . . . it’s on the shelves! Everybody is so excited!

Except for you. I mean, sure, you’re happy. I’m not trying to say that it isn’t cool to hold your very own book in your hands and see your name on the cover. But . . . as a payoff for the long marathon of writing the thing, it isn’t much, because it comes way too late. By the time it arrives, you’re already doing something else. You’re in the void of a different book, probably, and when people talk about “your new book,” you have to remind yourself which one they’re talking about. To them, the one that matters is the one they can buy. But that’s not the one eating your time and attention anymore. And psychologically speaking, a reward that’s massively deferred from the behavior that earned it is pretty much useless.

This is why I’m coming around to the opinion that it is hugely important to set up some kind of ritual for yourself — in whatever form works for you — that celebrates the milestones. Two years may go by between finishing the rough draft and seeing the result on a shelf, but if you’ve done something meaningful to mark the achievement of that draft, or the other landmarks along the way, then you won’t run as much risk of the job starting to feel meaningless. If the way the circumstances work isn’t going to reward you in a timely manner, then you’ve got to do it yourself.

Moderation in all things

The more time passes, the less patience I have with the notion that “a real writer writes every day.”

Try subbing in some other words there and see how that sentence sounds. “A real teacher teaches every day.” “A real programmer programs every day.” “A real surgeon performs surgery every day.” These are all patently absurd. The teacher, the programmer, and the surgeon are all better at their jobs for not going to work every day. For taking some days off.

I wonder if what’s going on here is a weird collision between the romanticization of ~art~ and the #@$*%! “Protestant work ethic.” On the one hand you have this sense that writing, or any art, is a ~calling~. And if it doesn’t call to you every day, why, then, you’re not a real writer, are you? On the other hand you’ve got Max Weber frowning over your shoulder and questioning whether what you’re doing is Real Work — so you have to silence him by keeping your nose to the grindstone every day, without respite, because otherwise clearly you’re just a good-for-nothing layabout.

(I’d like to pause and appreciate the value of the tilde for indicating a kind of vaporous awe around a word. Italics just don’t convey the same effect, and neither do quotation marks.)

Writing is Real Work. It may be fun work (a thought that would probably horrify the Calvinists Weber had in mind), but it requires effort, concentration, hours of your life. Some days it’s easier than others. But it’s also weird work, in that sometimes the most vitally useful thing you can do is go for a walk or wash some dishes, because while you’re not looking, your brain sneaks off and figures stuff out. When people ask me how many hours I work each day or week, my response is to give them a baffled shrug, because there aren’t clean boundaries around it; I’m definitely working while I’m drafting a story or answering emails or going over page proofs, but I also may be working while I’m vacuuming the rug or brushing my teeth or reading a book. Which means that days in which I’m not at the keyboard may still in some fashion be work days — but thinking of them that way is pernicious. If an idea comes to me, awesome, but in the meanwhile I’m going to have a life.

Because contrary to what corporate America wants us all to believe, we can have lives outside our jobs, and we should. We will not just be better employees for the time off; we’ll be better people, too. And that’s just as true of writers as it is of anybody else.

Thanksgiving Advent, Day Two: My Colleagues

Continuing the post-WFC theme: I don’t exactly work with anybody, per se — writing being a fairly solitary task and all — but man, my fellow writers are pretty damn cool people.

Sure, not all of them; some are boring blowhards or unrepentant jerks. But the percentage of them with whom I can have cool conversations is remarkably high. It’s a function of the job, really: writers in general, and sf/f writers in particular, are prone to knowing random nifty things, and “random nifty things” is one of my favorite things to talk about. As mrissa and alecaustin and zellandyne and I were commenting at lunch on Sunday, we don’t do the small talk thing very well; introduce us to somebody new, and if we get our way, within five minutes we’ll be riffing on archaeology or exoplanets or historical methods of smallpox vaccination.

I may go months at a time without talking to any of them in person, but I look forward to those occasions when we all get together.

Two arrivals

The mail brought lots of exciting stuff yesterday. First:

That’s right, I gots me a shiny, shiny ARC! A whole box of them, in fact, about which more anon. But before I get to that, the second thing that arrived is my new desk!


After some consideration, I did indeed go ahead and buy a GeekDesk. It comes with a little motor that will, within a few seconds, move the desk between sitting and standing height (the latter going high enough to be comfortable for kniedzw, who is 6’3″). I’ll deliver a review once I’ve had more time to settle in with it, but my initial impression is definitely positive. My one complaint off the bat is simply that it doesn’t come with a keyboard tray; the one you see in those photos is taken from my old desk and screwed onto the underside. (The drawers are also from the old desk, and will be replaced soonish, since without the old desktop there’s nothing to cover the upper drawer.)

Anyway, in celebration of both book and desk, I’m giving away an ARC! Tell me in comments what your ideal work environment is: coffee shop and a pad of paper? Lying in bed with a laptop? Floating on a raft in the middle of a swimming pool in the tropics, while well-muscled young men bring you grapes and cool drinks? (It doesn’t have to be your actual work environment, just one you like the sound of. So feel free to be creative.)

(Also, if I previously promised you an ARC (because you made me an icon or whatever), feel free to ping me with a reminder, marie [dot] brennan [at] gmail [dot] com. I’ll be going through my records and making a list, but the notes are scattered and I don’t want to miss anybody.)

You didn’t *really* need that sleep schedule, did you?

I was about ready to head off to bed at 3 a.m. last night (my usual time, for those not aware).

By the time I actually got there, it was nearly 5.

The reason? I was working on revising “And Blow Them at the Moon” last night, which requires at least two pieces of heavy lifting, completely replacing a pair of scenes. The first one was like pulling teeth, and I’m not sure what percentage of that was the difficulty of the scene, what percentage was me just not committing my brain to the task. But I finished it. And then, of all things, a Facebook application handed me some motivation: I was very close to regenerating enough stamina in this little monster-killing thing to go kill monsters one more time before going to bed, so I told myself that while I waited for that to be ready, I would poke at the second scene.

Then it was nearly 5 a.m. and I’d replaced both scenes.

And I think, more than anything, this is what I love about being a full-time writer. They say, and it’s true, that you can’t wait for the muse to strike if you want to have a career (full-time or otherwise) — but sometimes it does strike. When it does, having the freedom to say, “eh, I can just sleep in tomorrow” is a glorious thing. There was a point at which I knew I could kill monsters and go to bed, but I didn’t want to; I wanted to keep writing Magrat doing something very brave and rather stupid, and so I did. (Whoever knew Facebook could be good for productivity?)

Of course, that meant I slept until 1 p.m. today — which is still only eight hours, but some of them are at a time even I don’t consider to be reasonable for sleeping. So now I go eat something (god, I haven’t had food since about 9:30 last night), and trundle through the requisite 50 pages of my page proofs for Star, and then probably read more about the Underground.

And hope I can go to bed at a reasonable hour tonight.