Category Archives: Writing

A Job You Love Is Still a Job

“Choose a job you love, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.”

This platitude gets repeated over and over again. And as someone who turned my childhood dream into a career, I can tell you that there’s not a bit of truth to it.

When you do something as a hobby, you probably only do it when you feel like it. It’s what you do for fun, or to relax. I remember when I wrote purely for fun, before I was even thinking about publishing anything. I remember writing thirty pages in a day in a rush of pure inspiration, and waking up the next morning with an idea for a new story I loved even more. I remember dreaming up endless details for stories that never got put to paper, because the dreaming was the fun part.

When you start doing that same thing as a job, you do it every day, whether you want to or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re not feeling inspired. It doesn’t matter if there’s something else you’d rather do. Or maybe you really do want to write (or draw, or whatever else) but what you want is to work on that new idea that came to you overnight, not the overdue project that you’ve been stalled on for the past week. That doesn’t matter either. You have to write, or the book won’t get written.

It can be a difficult shift to adjust to, especially given the expectations around working a job you love (see the above platitude)—particularly creative work, and particularly if you’re self-employed. I’ve seen more than one person who turned a hobby into a career talk about how it ruined the thing they used to love. They say that’s why you should never try to make a living doing something you love, and should instead ruthlessly separate work and play. They end up quitting writing entirely, or art, or programming. For some, that’s the right decision. But for others, I suspect all they really need to hear is, “That’s normal. You didn’t ruin it, you just started doing it when you didn’t want to do it. Nothing is fun all the time when you do it on demand. That doesn’t mean it can’t still be fulfilling.”

Yes, writing is less fun for me now. I still have days when inspiration runs through my veins like lightning, and I can’t sleep because of all the ideas circling through my head. I also have days when my unfinished draft feels like a weight pressing me to the earth, and I don’t want to get out of bed because it will mean sitting down at the computer again and trying to wring words out of my brain for That Awful Book again. Most of the time it’s neither of those things. It’s just the thing I do every day. It’s a routine. It’s work.

But work isn’t a bad thing. Writing is less fun than it was when I only did it when I felt like it—but fun isn’t my number one goal in life. Everyone needs fun, including me. Sometimes I need a day off to just play video games all day and not think about the stupid book. But I’d feel better after a week of beating my head against a wall over a project that matters to me, and getting that much closer to sending it out into the world, than after a week of nothing but video games. I suspect most people would.

It’s not about fun. It’s about fulfillment. It’s about spending my life doing something that matters to me—and however I feel about the writing process on any given day, telling stories still matters just as deeply to me as it did when all my writing was for fun. Maybe more, because my years spent improving my craft have given me a deeper appreciation for what goes into a well-told story and what it can mean to a reader.

I didn’t ruin writing for myself. I don’t even want to go back to how it used to be. I finish my projects now instead of walking away when they’re not fun anymore; I do the unsexy work of revising and editing to make my stories into what I want them to be; and regular practice—however unwilling at times—has improved my skills enough to let me write a book that begins to approach how the idea looked in that initial burst of inspiration, instead of a pale reflection. I sit down at my desk every day and add something to the world that did not exist before. I have no regrets.

And I have friends who looked at what it took to be a professional writer and decided they only ever wanted to write as a hobby. As far as I know, they also have no regrets.

I’ve seen a lot of backlash lately against the idea of following one’s passion. I don’t agree with it. I think a lot of the people who turn their backs on their dreams to go for the smart choice are going to wake up thirty years from now and wonder why they didn’t even try. I believe in doing something with your life that matters to you, insofar as that’s possible, whether it’s how you make money or not. Which means, yes, I believe in chasing your dream and following your passion.

That is, I believe in following your passion as long as you know what you’re getting into.

Just don’t go into it thinking you’ll never work a day in your life. Work you love is still work—and that’s not a bad thing.

Summer Update

Now that 2015 is more than half over, just a quick update to let you know what I’ve been up to writing-wise:

With the Internal Defense series completed, I’ve been working on the start to my new YA series. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on the blog before, but you may have seen me talking about it on social media from time to time. I can’t say much about it yet – talking about a writing project before I’ve finished it is the quickest way for me to kill the project – but this is what I wrote about it on the Infinite Ink blog last year:

The new series will be longer than Internal Defense (think Harry Potter), and its futuristic world will be very different from the scarily-familiar bureaucracy of Becca’s dystopia. But it will involve a lot of the same core themes – tough moral choices, survival in a grim and dangerous world, finding hope in hopeless situations, and a heroine learning her own kind of strength.

(Oh, and parents who kill people. That too.)

I’m intentionally going slow with this project – the Internal Defense series brought me to the edge of burnout, and I want to make sure I stay mentally fresh while throwing myself into a project as big as this one. But I’ve been working steadily on it, and although I can’t give details, I can confirm that it’s going well.

If you’re interested in learning more about the new project as I work on it, I post periodic updates on my Facebook page… or if you just want to find out when the first book is ready, join my mailing list to get a notification when it’s available for pre-order.

After the Fire

When I first heard about the short-story contest and anthology that the moderators of Holly Lisle’s writing community were putting together, I almost decided not to submit anything. The theme just didn’t speak to me. “The Adventure of Creation” – it sounded much too light and fluffy for me, like I should be writing about somebody frolicking with the Muse. I have nothing against light and fluffy, but I can’t write it to save my life. The last time I tried to write, I ended up with a short story about some poor girl who was barred from the afterlife and didn’t know why. I shudder to think what Muse-frolicking would have turned into.

But it kept niggling at my mind. So I thought about it in the background, and tried to find some way to make it work, even though I knew it probably wasn’t going to happen.

And then I remembered something. I couldn’t remember the exact quote, or who had said it, but it was something along the lines of, “An adventure is someone a safe distance away from you having a miserable time.”

That was more like it. Yes. Maybe I could do this.

So I started thinking about creation. What was the opposite of creation? Destruction, obviously. So… what made the two different?

The answer to that made me realize that, just as with “adventure,” “creation” wasn’t so light and fluffy after all.

It also got me my story.

And that story not only made it into the anthology, it was a semifinalist in Holly Lisle’s contest. 😀

“After the Fire” is available now as part of the anthology The Adventure of Creation. It’s neither light nor fluffy, and there is no frolicking to be found, but it does explain what creation means to me – and adventure too.

See the Beginning of The Torturer’s Daughter Through Raleigh Dalcourt’s Eyes

A quick link for you: If you want to get a peek inside Raleigh Dalcourt’s head, you can read a scene  I wrote from her perspective here. It’s from the first chapter of The Torturer’s Daughter, where you meet Raleigh for the first time and Becca confronts her about what happened to Heather’s parents. (Don’t worry, there’s no actual torture in this scene!)

Readers and Writers

I’ve noticed a strange animosity towards readers in writing communities lately. Writers complaining that readers are greedy mooches who just want free books, or sneaky mooches who wait for a book to go on sale before buying it. (As if we haven’t all waited for something we weren’t sure about paying full price for to go on sale at one point or another.) Grumbling about readers who don’t write reviews, or saying that readers have no taste and just want to read something that doesn’t make them think.

Even when there’s no animosity, there’s still a divide. Writers spend countless hours fruitlessly trying to figure out what readers want and how readers discover books. I see writers talking about how sites like Goodreads are useless because they’re places to talk about books you’ve read, not places for writers to promote their books. It’s common, it seems, to talk about readers as elusive prey, with writers the hunters trying to capture them.

It can be easy to slip into that kind of thinking. All writers want more readers, and once you start thinking about how to get more people to read your book, it’s easy to start seeing readers as maddeningly wily creatures to be hunted with your release schedules and your marketing plans.

It can be easy to forget that you’re a reader too.

But writers are, presumably, readers. At least I hope I can make that assumption. After all, if you don’t love books and reading, why write a book in the first place?

I’m sure there are a few writers out there who don’t love books, not even their own – who see their books simply as a vehicle for their entrepreneurship. I don’t want to read these writers’ books. I’m of the opinion that these writers should go write for a content site (that plague of the internet) and stop pushing their soulless novels on unsuspecting readers. But I doubt this type of writer is common. I think it’s more likely that the divide comes both from a misguided marketing mindset and from the idea some people seem to have that you can either be one or the other. if you’re a writer, you’re not a reader, because you’re a writer.

But that idea is wrong.

I’m a reader as much as I am a writer. Being a writer doesn’t make me less of a reader. I didn’t start loving books any less the day I started writing, or the day I started writing stuff that was actually good, or the day I published a novel. My writing would have suffered if I had. My writing is built on a foundation of reading, the way all writing should be.

So I won’t draw the line between readers and writers that so many people do. I won’t stop thinking of myself as a reader just because I’ve published a book. If I did, I would be denying the very thing that makes my writing possible.

 

Finding Hope in the Darkness

Love and hope and the better parts of human nature aren’t the first things people think of when they think of dystopia. But I believe they can be an important component of the genre – and, if done right, these things can come across more strongly in dystopian fiction than in lighter and happier stories. Today I’m over on Justine Graykin‘s blog talking about hope in the midst of darkness and what makes it so powerful. Come read the post and share your thoughts!

The Little Things

A couple of years ago, a friend mentioned to me that when he got married, changing his Facebook status almost made it feel more real than signing the official documents did.

I thought back to that last night, when I told Microsoft Word to start using curly quotes.

Several years ago now, when I was first starting to think about getting published, I was researching manuscript format and learned that if you’re going to be submitting manuscripts online, you need to turn off curly quotes in Word. Otherwise the formatting could go wonky on the agent/editor’s end. I dutifully told Word to stop using them, and I haven’t seen a curly quote in any of my manuscripts for years.

But I’m not submitting anywhere now. And the things I’ve read about ebook formatting say that you should make sure curly quotes are turned on, so that they appear in your final book.

So I turned them on. Because that’s what I’m doing now. I’m not trying to get published; I’m creating ebooks. It took about thirty seconds to change the setting… but it felt surprisingly momentous.

Sometimes it’s the little things that make something feel the most real.

Stop Protecting Your Main Characters

I think I’ve discovered my new pet peeve in fiction.

I’ve read two books in the past two weeks – different authors, different genres, one self-published and one traditionally published – that both bugged me in the same way. It wasn’t until the second book that I was able to put my finger on exactly what the problem was. In both books, the main character was reluctant to kill, and ended up in situations where killing was necessary… but were saved from having to make the choice because someone else stepped in and did the killing for them. This didn’t happen just once, either. Especially in one of the books, it became an ongoing theme.

I don’t have a problem with a character who finds it difficult to kill, or even completely refuses to do it. In general, I prefer it – although of course it depends on the character. But what I don’t like is a main character who doesn’t have to make any hard choices, because someone else does the dirty work for her.

It doesn’t have to involve killing, either. I read a book a few years back (said book was highly successful, and I actually liked it a lot except for this aspect) that centered around a moral dilemma – a dilemma that was then rendered meaningless by the book’s final pages. Suddenly, the choices all the characters had made no longer mattered. The characters no longer had to worry that they had chosen wrong, that their decisions would lead to consequences they couldn’t handle. And the book lost a lot of its power.

It makes things easier on the characters, certainly. It’s easier if, in the end, their choices turn out not to mean anything. It’s easier if they don’t have to make those choices at all, because someone steps in and does the hard thing for them. But that’s exactly why it robs the book of its power. Writers shouldn’t make things easier on their main characters. Writers should push their main characters to their limits, and then beyond. That’s what makes for a compelling story, one that sticks with you after it’s done. That’s what makes me get tangled up in a character’s life to the point where I don’t want to put the book down.

The dynamic I mentioned earlier can be done well. Another book I read in the same two-week timeframe is a good example of this. The main character didn’t want to kill. A secondary character had no problem with killing. This disparity in values caused problems, both internal and external, for the main character; it didn’t protect her. It increased the tension, and therefore the power of the story, rather than limiting it.

I want to see characters tested, pushed to their limits. I want to see them struggle, and fail, and succeed by the skin of their teeth. I want to see them make the hard choices. I don’t want to see someone else saving them from the consequences of their decisions, or saving them from having to decide at all.

Stop protecting your main characters. You’re only weakening your story.

Writers, do you find yourself tempted to protect your main characters? Readers, have you ever noticed this happening? Does it bother you like it bothers me, or do you have a different pet peeve?

Revision, Worldbuilding, and Staying True to the Story

There’s one primary rule I keep in mind when I’m not sure whether to include/delete/change something in a story. I imagine a reader complaining about whatever the story element is, and I think about what my initial reaction would be. Would I think, “Okay, that’s fair; people are always going to dislike something or other. But I stand by that story element; I’m glad it’s there”? (Or possibly, “Whaaat? How could someone so thoroughly misunderstand my book?”) Or would I want to tell this theoretical reader, “Yeah, I know, that really shouldn’t have been in the book. But I thought readers would expect it/my writing group thought it would be good/I was worried the book wouldn’t make sense without it”?

If it’s the former, I add it (or keep it in, depending). If it’s the latter, it goes. This is how I stay true to the story.

And I’m honest with myself. I know the difference between “This wouldn’t be true to the story” and “But I don’t want to do all that work!” The story has to come first – it has to come before laziness, and it has to come before the insecurity that might cause me to make changes that aren’t right.

Ever since I wrote the original version of The Torturer’s Daughter... no, ever since I first started writing in the world The Torturer’s Daughter is set in… I’ve struggled with the worldbuilding. I knew I wanted a dystopian society. I knew the type of dystopia I wanted – the feeling, the tone, the style of oppression. I knew I also wanted it to feel a lot like the real world. But I didn’t know the specifics. I didn’t know how the world had gotten that way, or what the government was like, or what their relationship to the rest of the world was.

I  answered some of those questions for that first story, but it just… never felt right, somehow. It never stuck. In The Torturer’s Daughter, both versions, I pretty much ignored the question entirely – mainly because I was so wrapped up in the story that I forgot about that part. When I did remember, I told myself I’d do it later. Until a couple of months ago, when I was reading through what was almost my final draft and realized, with a feeling of vague bewilderment, that I still hadn’t pinned down the answers to those larger questions about the world. How had I managed to get that far without something so crucial?

I came up with a few possible ideas. But when I tested them against that hypothetical reader’s criticism, the answer was always the same. None of them were true to the story.

I went deeper. Took a harder look at the story, at the world I wanted, at why none of my ideas fit. And what I realized was this: No matter what answers I came up with, they wouldn’t be true to the story. Answering those questions wouldn’t be true to the story.

The story isn’t written from the perspective of, “Such-and-such change happened, and it altered the world like so.” It isn’t written from the perspective of, “If such-and-such real-world trend continues into the future, these bad things will happen.” It’s written from the perspective of, “This is our world, but with a totalitarian overlay.” The more specificity I give the world, the more I define its relationship to our world and its identity separate from our world, the more it weakens the world’s central purpose. The more it becomes “The world after such-and-such happened” or “The world x years in the future,” the less it’s “Our world, but totalitarian.” That kind of specificity also brings the world into the foreground more (and gives it more of a sense of change), and thus creates the expectation that the story is about changing the world. It’s not. The story is about Becca and her changes, and so that’s where the focus should stay.

(That’s not to say I’m ignoring worldbuilding. I’ve made sure the world has internal consistency and abides by its own logic, and I’ve got plenty of specifics – on my head and on the page – about how, for example, Internal Defense works. Few things will pull me out of a story faster than a world that doesn’t make sense, and I’m not about to make the same mistake with mine. It’s the bigger things – the the history, the global context – that would be problematic. Glossing over the little things would actually be just as problematic, because I’m not going the stylized-and-allegorical route with this dystopia. I want the everyday-life aspects to feel as realistic as possible.)

This realization makes me nervous. Will it look lazy? Will people be unsatisfied? Dystopias are supposed to be set in exotic stylized worlds, and they’re supposed to be about fixing those worlds, and some people even argue that a book can’t properly be called dystopian unless it’s trying to get some sort of message across, and now here’s this dystopia that doesn’t do any of those things.

But the story comes first.

Incidentally, I intentionally didn’t tell my writing group about any of this when they started reading the story, because I wanted to get a sense of whether readers would find the way the world background was handled to be jarring. I waited for them to ask. And… they didn’t. As best I can remember, I haven’t gotten a single comment saying the book needs more information about the world.

I think that’s a good sign.

Why I’m Choosing Self-Publishing

I always assumed I would go the traditional-publishing route with my books. Until recently, after all, it’s been the only viable option. Yes, people self-published, but if you were writing fiction, it wasn’t considered a way to have a legitimate writing career. Now, though, things have changed. Not only is self-publishing is a valid means of putting your writing out into the world, I believe it’s the best option for me.

I came around to the idea of self-publishing gradually. As soon as I started looking into what it takes to be a professional writer, I heard all about why self-publishing was a terrible idea, and although this isn’t the same world it was back then, those prejudices are hard to overcome. At first I thought, “These people are naive and delusional.” Then, “Okay, this might make sense for other people, but not for me.” And then, “Well, why not? Why doesn’t this make sense for me?” And then I had to face the idea that maybe it was traditional publishing that didn’t make sense for me.

I started the querying process for The Torturer’s Daughter shortly before my hiatus from writing. The original plan was to essentially let the universe decide; I planned to send out a hundred query letters, and if by that point I still didn’t have representation, I would self-publish. And then my doubts started growing. With each new query, part of me started hoping not for an acceptance, but for another rejection to bring me closer to 100. I stopped when the doubts got too loud for me to ignore. It took a lot of time after that for me to decide – if you looked up the opposite of impulsive in the dictionary, I’m pretty sure my picture would be there – but a few months ago I made my decision. I won’t be pursuing traditional publishing with The Torturer’s Daughter; it will be self-published, as will – barring some huge shift in my thinking and/or the publishing landscape – my future novels.

I’m not trying to get rich here. I’m not looking for fame, either. If it happens, I’m not going to turn it down – who would? I think anyone out there would be thrilled to be the next J.K. Rowling. But that’s not what I’m aiming for, and that’s not what success looks like to me. What I want is a solid, established, long-term writing career. I want to spend my days writing, and I want to find readers for my books when I’m finished with them. I could get there by either publishing route, I think, but the way things stand now, I think self-publishing will get me there more effectively.

The average traditionally-published author (at least, one who is published by a major publisher; with a small press the lines blur a lot more) will get more readers than the average indie author. The book is out there in bookstores, and backed by a publisher, and those things are going to get more people to read it. And what author doesn’t want as many readers as possible? This is an advantage of traditional publishing.

But with traditional publishing, you’re under time pressure. You have to succeed in a certain amount of time, and maintain a certain amount of success, or your publisher will drop you. Or maybe just suggest that you write something different, something that will sell better. With self-publishing, there’s no time limit. If you publish a book, and a year later you’ve sold exactly one copy (to your mom), you’re exactly where you started. No more, no less. You haven’t lost anything except some confidence.

Traditional publishing also places less emphasis on finding the right readers, and more emphasis on appealing to as many readers as possible. It’s true that you have more of a chance of finding the right readers if your book is in front of more people – but in traditional publishing, finding the readers to whom your book is best suited isn’t the primary goal. Selling a lot of copies is the primary goal. Not that I would ever object to selling a lot of copies! But if there’s a conflict between finding a lot of readers and finding my readers, I know what I would choose. And this kind of conflict does exist; it comes up in how your book is edited, in how it’s marketed, in what you write next.

And then there’s the issue of selling the book before you write it. Before self-publishing was even on my radar, I knew that this part of publishing simply doesn’t work the way I work. In traditional publishing, although there are exceptions, after you’ve sold your first book you generally sell your next books before they’re written. You present your idea/proposal/outline to your agent, and your agent works with you on it, helps you figure out how to tweak it, and works on selling it to a publisher. I have serious doubts as to whether I could do that. I don’t even like to talk about my projects as I’m writing them, for the most part. It dissipates the creative tension, the energy that makes me want to write the story. If I worked with an agent and editor on a story concept before the book was even written, I suspect the project would be dead before I wrote the first word.

Self-publishing is a lot of work, and it takes a long time to get going. This is okay with me. I’m in this for the long haul, no matter which route I choose, and with the current state of both self-publishing and the publishing industry, self-publishing seems more designed for the long haul. I’m okay with working hard; this is what I want to do with my life, and if I wasn’t okay with working hard at that, something would be wrong. I’m okay with gradually building up momentum; I prefer that to being under pressure to succeed quickly, and giving someone else the power to end my career.

Choosing self-publishing isn’t about avoiding rejections. You still get rejections when you’re self-published, only now they’re in the form of reviews posted on Amazon for the whole world to see, and they’re usually a lot harsher than your standard form rejection. Besides, I’ve only gotten a handful of rejections on this project, plus a folder’s worth on another; it would take a lot more before I was ready to give up. (Who am I kidding? I would never be ready to give up. We writers are masochistic creatures.)

The prestige of traditional publishing does have an allure, I admit. If a publisher takes you on, your gains a sort of cultural legitimacy; it becomes official. You’re a published author. If you tell people you’re self-published, there’s a good chance the first thing they’ll think of is vanity publishing, and in any case, it just doesn’t have the same officialness to it. Do I want that officialness? Of course I do. I’m a writer, and I want to be recognized as one. But I’m not writing to “become a published author.” That’s never been the draw for me. I’m doing this to write, and to have my books read. That’s what comes first – how to accomplish that in the way that’s best for me and my books. Anything else is peripheral. Irrelevant.

I still have twinges of doubt, and I imagine I always will, just like I would always have twinges of doubt if I  decided to go with traditional publishing. It’s not easy to walk away from an option without knowing where it would have taken you, and it’s not easy to take the path that is seen as the easy way out, the failure’s option, even if you know better. But I think I’m making the right choice. Underneath the doubt I feel the solid foundation of rightness.

I was at the bookstore the other day, browsing the YA books like I usually do, and it occurred to me that my book would never be there on the shelves with them. I expected to feel doubt or disappointment. I didn’t. I felt relief – because that life isn’t what I want after all. This is what I want. I’m doing the right thing.