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Posts Tagged ‘the full-time writerly life’

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.

State of the Swan

I don’t have to report for jury duty today — yay! So here’s an update on where I stand work-wise, in the wake of the India trip and A Star Shall Fall.

1) I do, of course, have to deal with copy-edits and page proofs for Star. Not sure yet when those will show up, though, so for the time being that work is in limbo.

2) Next after that one is the Victorian book. Due to the vagaries of my last few years, this, the fourth Onyx Court novel, will be the first one where I’ve had more than a month or two of lead time in which to do my research before I put words on the page. You have no idea how wonderful that feels. In order to give myself more time for the actual drafting, I plan to start that at the beginning of April, but that still leaves me five months for a leisurely, low-pressure campaign of prep reading. Look for various “help me o internets” posts as I figure out what I want to pick up first.

3) Writing full-time means I need to hold myself to a higher standard of productivity than I did while teaching or taking classes. Ergo, I’m also starting work on a pure spec project. For those not familiar with the term, writing “on spec,” i.e. “on speculation,” means you’re doing it on your own time, without a contract promising money when you’re done. This project, code-named TLT, is a just-for-me novel; if I don’t finish it, or if I do finish it and then decide it isn’t really for publication, then that’s okay. I’m doing it because I want to, because I think it’ll be fun. And “having fun” is an important part of this job, for the preservation of sanity. Anyway, the plan for this is to aim for 5K a week, with weekends off, and if I don’t make my goal then I won’t beat myself up over it.

4) I also have another sekrit projekt on the back burner, code-named FY. No wordcount goals for this one; I just want to play around with it and see what happens.

5) Short stories. I’m beginning to accept that short stories aren’t likely to happen while I’m drafting Onyx Court books, but the result is that my pipeline of stories has gotten fairly empty at every stage — very few upcoming publications, because very few sales, because very few submissions, because very few stories prepared, because very few stories awaiting revision. Between now and April, I’d like to make some progress in fixing that. The tentative goal is to finish both Edward’s untitled story and “Serpent, Wolf, and Half-Dead Thing” before the end of the month; we’ll see if I can manage it or not.

Now I head up to the city for errands and the Borderlands signing tonight. India pictures later — hopefully tonight or tomorrow.

Excitement! Of a furnishings sort!

This is what a thousand bucks looks like:

Which, by my standards, is a grotesque amount of money to spend on a chair. But I’m trying to think of it less as “a chair,” more as “an investment in the future of my musculo-skeletal system.” (And probably some nerves, too.) Good office chairs are ‘spensive, and good office chairs with cervical support? I’m lucky the one I liked best turned out to be the cheapest one I was looking at.

I need to take care of my health, and that means putting an end to this chronic shoulder tension and increasing problem with lumbar stiffness. I should have made a purchase like this years ago, honestly — it isn’t like grad school doesn’t involve equally large amounts of time at the computer — but it was the full-time writer thing that made me finally bite the bullet. No more cheap chairs scrounged from used furniture stores. This is new, and well-made, and about the only thing it doesn’t do is give me a massage while I work*.

And man, you know you’re kind of a geek about your work life when the purchase of a new office chair is a really exciting event. <g>

*Though I do have one of those Homedics pads.

Apparently I’m justified?

Delayed Sleep-Phase Syndrome.

I’m dubious of the value in labeling everything a “syndrome” or a “disorder” or a “condition,” but it’s a pretty apt descriptor of my habits. I can wake up at earlier hours, if I have to. But going to sleep before midnight is hard, unless I’m truly exhausted. And that’s been true for years, now.

And I rather liked this Achewood comic, which (while not exactly my attitude) does to some extent encapsulate my irritation that society treats sleeping late as somehow morally weak — nevermind how many hours of sleep you’re actually getting.

(Diagnosis and comic from toddalcott and comments therein.)

Break’s over; back on your heads.

Saturday night, I was feeling very cranky and unproductive and generally not desirous of working on the Still Untitled Novelette/a of Doom. And I was sitting at the computer trying to flagellate myself into getting started (at about one-thirty in the morning, naturally), and then it occurred to me:

It’s Saturday. I don’t have to write.

This was, after all, the plan I laid down when I started thinking about the full-time writerly life. When not noveling, I can have weekends off. Provided, of course, I’ve done at least 500 words a day during the week — which I had, several times over. I can write on the weekend, if I feel inspired to. But I don’t have to.

Mind you, that rule should probably break down if it’s getting to the end of the month and I haven’t finished the story I’m working on. Astute minds will notice that is the case here; I’m going to have to haul tail pretty fast these next few days to get it done. But in my fiction-writing life (as well as other things), I’m addicted to the opposite of the all-nighter: I tend to drive myself halfway into the ground in order to make sure I finish before deadline. This is a habit I could benefit from breaking. Let’s recharge for a couple of days, before charging onward.

It’s a nice theory. We’ll see how it works out for me this week.