Fuck it, Let’s Talk About Profanity and Blogging

Every now and then I write something that gets linked to a whole bunch and a whole bunch of people hit the site for the first time. Most of them read, nod, and move on about their day. Some of them…

Well, they object to the profanity.

Some even go so far as to email me about it.

I understand this, to a certain extent. I know a lot of people who object to profanity – my mother is definitely not a fan – but I’m a much bigger fan of using it for emphasis. More importantly, I’m a fan of using it here on the blog because all those shits, fucks, goddamns, and mother-fuckers do two very important things.

SWEARING FILTERS THE AUDIENCE

Less than 1% of the blog posts people respond to tend to be actually profanity, and even then it largely depends on your stance on words like goddamn and screwed. It’s not a lot by reasonable standards, but they stand out because certain words are less polite than others.

That’s as it should be. That’s why I use them. Think of those words as a shark’s fin, cutting through the surf, warning you that danger is on its way. Because, if you object to those words, you’re going to object to everything I’ve got published in longer forms.

I once worked out that something like 5% of the word count in the Flotsam series is devoted to swearing. Contextually, its an important thing: the characters in those books are fraying at the edges, breaking down as their whole world falls apart around them. Swearing is going to be as natural as breathing, in those circumstances, and so they swear.

Horn and Bleed aren’t quite that bad, but they’re definitely right up there on the profanity stakes and, one again, we’re talking about a character for whom profanity is a means of holding it together.

More importantly than the words in all those books, there is the content. I don’t write particularly polite books. If you object to the swearing, you’re definitely going to object to the subject matter in those books. The same applies to the majority of my short stories. I mentioned, yesterday, that the beginning of a story teaches you how to read it. They foreground not just the world and the characters, but the narrative style and the tone that will be used.

If you start a story with a single character, walking the street, pondering his troubles, it will suggest a very different kind of resolution to problem than two characters exchanging banter, or an acton sequence. Starting in media res and letting the audience catch up foregrounds a kind of narrative complexity, suggesting that the reader will need to pick up on the subtle clues and interpret things for themselves.

Your blog and your social media aren’t the beginning of a story, but they form a kind of meta-text that surrounds your work. The tone you set there will inform the way in which you’re perceived and read, and it’ll attach itself to the things people bring to your work.

Swearing is a part of that, for me. It foregrounds that I’m not going to be polite about things as a storyteller, and the narrative isn’t going to stay on the side of the street where heroes are square-jawed and willing to help old bunny rabbits across the road. If you object to swearing, you’re sure-as-shit going to lose your mind if you go out and read, say, Horn.

SWEARING CONTEXTUALISES THE ADVICE

More importantly, swearing contextualises me as a blogger. It lets you know where I’m coming from as someone talking about writing, a shorthand that lets you what my interests are and how I prefer to run my career. A lot of the time I’m talking to myself and making the results public, forcing myself to focus in on something that’s been frustrating me and hoping it’ll resonate with the readers around me.

I am always wary of the fact that I don’t know shit about writing and publishing. Over the years, in workshops and writing classes, I’ve recommended all sorts of books about writing and publishing that people have gone off and taken as gospel, even though my advice is generally read this, take this bit, and see what you get out of it. Disregard the shit that doesn’t make sense.

There is a tendency among some people, usually the newer writers, to regard everything they write as gospel and follow advice blindly. Some of them will use it as a tool to self-flagellate, or talk themselves out of writing, and that’s always the danger of putting certain advice out there.

I don’t want to be regarded as an expert on these things. I know some shit, sure – enough to get me through nearly fifteen years where teaching writers has been a significant component of my dayjob – but at the end of the day I’m always aware of just how much I don’t know. I write this blog to throw out ideas, and talk about the things I wish I’d known a decade ago.

I know fucking nothing, and the swearing is your notice to take all advice with a grain of salt.

Some Reasons I’m Excited To See What Happens With Series Fiction Over The Next Ten Years

I started a new story this week, the first in a series of novelettes featuring dinosaurs, time rifts, orangutans, and a ’77 Holden Monaro that has definitely seen better days. It’s the first time in ages that I’ve attempted to write a story without planning it, and the guiding words for the story are “short, fast, pulp, wahoo!” because I’m tyring to focus on establishing tone and structure above all else. When stuck on the plot point, I break out Lester Dent’s pulp formula. Or send a velociraptor through the door with a shotgun.

Here is what I know about this story, beyond those details: not a goddamn thing.

Except that’s not entirely true, because that’s not how writing works. There are structures to the way that stories develop, a rhythm that has built up over centuries of people telling us stories and shaping our expectations. We know that tension escalates. We know that characters attempt to resolve problems. We know there are specific beats that mark the end of the first act. Knowing these things is not exactly the same as having a detail, meticulous map, but it does give you a pretty good idea of how the terrain works and provide you with enough survival skills to muddle through. You may need to backtrack every now and then, figuring out a new path, but you can make it through.

What’s tricky about pantsing this particular story is the decision to make it the first of a series. It’s comparatively easy to pants a stand-alone, because the decisions you’re maing in the text will only affect that text. When you’re pantsing a series, you’ve got a whole new bit of terrain that needs to be considered in the form of every other story you may write in that series.

WHAT COMPLEX TV CAN TEACH US ABOUT SERIES BEGINNINGS

I mentioned David Mittel’s Complex TV in my newsletter this week, and it’s largely the reason I’m attempting to pants this way. He’s got an entire chapter devoted to beginnings – and particular TV pilots – and his breakdown is illuminating and delivers a new set of tools for navigating the series as a form.

Mittel breaks down a number of things a pilot is meant to do: assemble the cast and introduce them to the viewer; provide a blueprint for future stories; deliver necessary exposition about the story world and the characters; provide enough familiarity to draw in viewers who watch a particular genre, but promise enough surprises that they’ll feel like they’re seeing something new done in the space.

More importantly, one of the primary purposes of a TV pilot is to teach the viewer how the program should be read and spur the viewer to keep watching. This is more than just establishing what the viewer needs to know about the world and the characters – it’s foregrounding the style and the narrative strategies at work so the viewer can attune themselves to what’s coming.

This is true of any opening, when you get right down to it. I’ve been known to point at the opening for Charlies Angels 2 as a great thing for writers to study, even though it’s an excessively goofy film and probably not to your taste. What it does do, exceptionally well, is deliver an incredible amount of over-the-top action and characterization in the opening minutes, including a diving-off-a-bridge-and-into-a-helicopter sequence where the laws of physics aren’t so much bent as frozen, shattered, and swept up in a dustpan. This opening is the most ridiculous action sequence in the entire film, the sort of thing most people would attempt at the climax, but they put it up front to teach people an important lesson: Realism and character depth has no place in the Charlie’s Angels film franchise.

Now if you stay, the second film’s opening will turn many people off…but if you stay, accepting the films premise, then it’s told you exactly what to expect from everything that follows.

WHAT COMPLEX TV CAN TEACH US ABOUT SERIES ENDINGS

Mittel also brings up something that it’s worth being aware of when you start a story: the presence of a beginning presupposes that there will be an ending. This is balanced against the fact that many TV viewers aren’t necessarily going to see a pilot episode, particularly in the days before streaming and DVDs, which can mean that the original point lies deep in a program’s history. Further, television has a history of stopping rather than ending; we may get a final episode, but we rarely get the feeling of a story being concluded and a character arc wrapped up. What we tended to get was a whole bunch of character revisiting, and a feel-good moment as people moved on.

The birth of Complex TV – basically, the kind of television that is both episodic and accumulates narrative episode-by-episode until you’ve got a season-long arc – owes a lot to the rise of technology that makes it easier to go back and revisit the beginnings of things and re-examine part of the story. Prior to that, keeping things episodic (and hitting the conceptual reset button at the end of episode) was a much safer bet for retaining viewer engagement, especially in the days when missing an episode meant it was gone forever (or until you caught it in re-runs).

The model of Complex TV offers a number of measures to counteract the ending problem. Stories can conclude at the end of a series, and the next season opener may serve as a re-set for expectations, an opportunity to reiterate and re-educate. New plot elements can be introduced that open up new stories, rather than building the series around the same iconic, unchanging characters and structures (although many shows used to have nd the occasional breach of the series structure, carefully foregrounded to adjust viewer expectations, to serve as a change of pace. See every Halloween episode in which a show takes a detour through horror).

WHY THIS MAKES ME EXCITED AS A WRITER (AND A READER)

Although fiction and television are very different, these concerns aren’t unique to the TV series. I’ve talked about the problems that prose writers have faced with series on this blog before, but the limitations of fiction publishing often mean that series works defaulted to short arcs like trilogies, or retained the episodic model where each book was designed to serve as a stand-alone with a central, iconic character sitting at their heart.

Even if we set aside the writing time required to do a 20-installment series with a cumulative arc, and particularly doing it fast enough that the arc would be easy to follow, the market forces around publishing wouldn’t necessarily sustain it outside of a few outliers. Publishers would often balk at committing to a rapid run of that many novels, and it would be damn difficult to establish any kind of continuity in short-stories unless a venue agreed up-front (the nearest thing I can think of in the short fiction space is Charlie Stross’ Accelerando, which featured three arcs across nine instalments, and Hugh Howey’s Wool series, which was self-published as a series of novelettes before being collected into a novel).

Given those limitations, episodic stories tended to trump writing serialised fiction, or any blending of the two approaches, right up until the rise of independent publishing meant a bunch of writers started using TV as the model, complete with “boxed sets” that brought together a season-long arc as a singular story.

The kindle may be ten years old, but we’re still in the early days of this compared to the speed with which television has been adapting to the technological change (and continues to adapt, now that the streaming model has freed structural concerns based on timeslot and episode length).

I’m looking forward to seeing how series narratives shift and evolve in the fiction space, in light of all this. Over the last couple of days I’ve been reading up on the first waves of people to start making a success out of independently publishing short-story length series instalments (without necessarily serializing), particularly as the practice moves outside of the erotica space where it dominated for a few years.

Right now, the implementation of the model is mimicking television because TV is ahead of the game, but as it grows more prevalent in the fiction space and more people try it out, there’s pretty good odds it will evolve into its own thing (in much the same way that film stopped mimicking the photograph and theatre, and started developing its own techniques).

Let’s Talk About The Ways Money Fucks With The Writing Process

So here’s the thing about writing no-one tells you: the money is going to fuck with you and affect your creative process.

O-ho, there, you may be thinking, foolish Peter, there is no money in writing, and I totally understand why you’re thinking that. You’ve been hammered with that message from day one, ever since you began stringing words together to generate meaning. People will gleefully inform you that writers don’t make a living, and even those who skip that step will imply it by asking the kind of questions that make it clear your options are: a) become JK Rowling and have books in every store every time they walk in, or b) die in a gutter.

And that’s where the fucking with your process begins, because you do not want to die in the gutter. Which means your process is shaped by the perception that making a living as a writer is either a one-in-a-million chance where your craft matters not at all, or by the perception that the only way to make a living as a writer involves constantly delivering at the top of your game because only the very best of the best get to make a living.

You can probably be a competent at most jobs and make a living, but there are few where you are actively told that competence will never be enough. What we get is this: You don’t get to be good at writing if you want a career, you have to be mind-blowingly great (or, worse, you convince yourself you are mind-blowingly great and best-sellers like Rowlings, King, and Childs are merely average, and somehow you cannot make a living because you refuse to dumb your work down because readers are stupid).

You start obsessing about delivering a single book that will sweep the world as a publishing phenomenon, when the reality is that most full-time writers traditionally got where they’re going by building up a backlist and constantly moving forward.Or you assume that you’ll never make money and it can only ever be a bit of fun, and you never pursue it with any seriousness.

The money fucks with you.

Then, assuming you get past that, it keeps fucking with you as your career develops. You may start selling stories or get your first book out. You get advances and write invoices and start racking up a fair bit of bank for your words. You’re still working a dayjob to pay the rent, so that writing money is gravy. A little extra you can throw around and buy some new books, or pick up a new computer to help get that novel written, or throw on the mortgage and knock a few weeks off the end-date of the decades-long loan you’ve taken out to own a house. You’re making good cash, but your dayjob gets in the way. If only you had more time, you could get more done and earn more money.

Holy shit, you think, this writing this is great and I don’t actually need to be Rowling to get paid. Maybe it is possible to make a living with it one-day.

Let’s be clear: this thought is a trap. It’s money setting you up to be fucked with all over again.

Day jobs are fucking magic things, despite the feelings most people have about them. Day-jobs involve a nice, clean exchange of time and skills for cash. You show up for eight hours and do your job and a regular, agreed-upon amount of cash appears in your bank-account from your employer. You know when the money is coming, and how much will be there, and it largely arrives whether you’ve done a okay job or a great job or a fucking brilliant job every week. You can spend your last fifty bucks on Tuesday and know you’ll be okay because Thursday is payday and you’ll make it work.

Also, sick leave. Holy fuck. If you ever want to see a look of bewilderment, take someone who has worked as a gig-economy freelancer/contractor until age thirty and put them in a job where they can call in sick and still pay rent that week.

But this is not a keep-your-day-job rant, much as it may seem like it on the surface. What I’m suggesting here is that the system of regular-payment-for-your-job is ingrained into the way most people think, and the way our culture works. Almost all financial advice is predicted on making saving on your weekly paycheque, starting with the ubiquitous “give up your morning latte and save enough money to buy a second-hand car each year.”

The moment you’re a full-time writer, you are no longer part of that world. You become a small business owner where the payments are irregular and hard to predict, and you cannot assume that your next payday is going to arrive on line. Those big chunks of money that were gravy when you worked a day-job are now have to buy the core meat of your finances, paying rent and buying groceries and getting your car serviced.

You think you are ready for that transition, but I promise that you’re not. Because the writing that seemed so hard to get done working around your day-job suddenly has a new weight added to it, a pressure that says if this isn’t brilliant, you ain’t going to get paid. You find yourself finishing novels and thinking, if this doesn’t sell enough to find another gig, I’m not going to be able to live next year.

Couple that with the fact that you rarely have access to the data that will tell you how your books are doing, outside of a twice-yearly royalty report, and you’re effectively writing blind and hoping it will work out. To say this is stressful is an understatement.

The irregular nature of money means you start taking on more gigs, pushing yourself harder, and even with all that extra time you’ve got by leaving the dayjob behind you’re still going to be in a place where you’re delivering work that starts feeling a little rushed. Your work might not have changed, but it feels different. You’ve lost touch with that thing you really value in your writing, because money becomes the most pressing measure of success that you’re chasing. I used to be great, you find yourself thinking, and now I’m settling for good. Or, shit, am I actually just bad now? You resent the gigs that pull you away from the work you want to be doing, because if you didn’t have to take them just to pay rent, you could go back to being great. Or, at least, put together an elaborate plan to eliminate JK Rowling and slide into her spot.

Then you get sick, or you haven’t had a holiday in five years, and you refuse to take a break and recharge because it no longer matters how long you spend working and holy fuck, all those deadlines. Writers don’t get paid by the hour, they get paid when the work is done and the money is the same regardless of how long it took.

This can start putting enormous amount of pressure on you and your work, and it just get compounded if a gig falls through or a book sells less than expected.

Irregular income is a hard thing to live with and a harder thing to work through, and it just gets worse when everyone you know is still collecting a paycheque and doesn’t understand how your finances work now.

It gets so much worse again when some motherfucker on the internet talks shit about artists wanting to get paid for their art, like it’s some grievous sin, and you aren’t able to shiv said motherfucker in the eye with a fork like he probably deserves.

The money fucks with you, and it fucks with your writing process.

I have no solutions to this, beyond being aware of it. My own response to finding out how badly freelancing fucked with my process was going and getting a part-time job, so I could take comfort in a regular paycheque and still enjoy the things I wrote.

Not everyone wants to make that decision. Many people actively loathe the idea.

Still, one of the nice things about writers talking about money more often is the ease with which you can track down information telling you how to manage things, and that you aren’t alone.

Three Quick and Dirty Time Management Hacks For Writers

I started reading time and project management books a few years back, when it became apparent that my ability to manage my studies was fairly limited. I ramped up my reading in 2011 when I found myself working in an organisation with multiple people for the first time, since I was pretty much used to working on my own or in small groups.

Over the years I’ve tried a bunch of systems and kept stuff from each of them, but this list collects together three of the quick-and-dirty time management hacks that have been particularly useful to me as a writer. All are part of larger, more complex systems that have their own strengths and weaknesses, but I am pretty ruthless about keeping the things that work for me and searching for new options when something doesn’t.

HACK ONE: PRIORITISE THE TASKS THAT UNLOCK OTHER PEOPLE’S CAPACITY TO WORK ON YOUR BEHALF

I picked this one up from Dan Charnas incredible book about chefs, time management, and mise-en-place, Work Clean, and it remains the advice I turn to every time I found myself paralysed by indecision about what needs to come next.

One of the base-lines of Charnas’ approach is simple: the action you take now is infinitely more valuable than the action you take in the future, because the action you take now can trigger next actions. The action you might take later, even if it’s a slightly better call, cannot start follow-up actions until then (and sucks up psychological resources while you manage your own inaction).

In this system, the optimal use of time when all other considerations are equal is doing a task that unlocks someone else’s capacity to work on your behalf.

It’s easy to see the importance of this principle when you’re working in a larger office, particularly if you’ve ever worked in a place where management approval is the black hole where all projects stall and die.

It’s harder easy to grasp the importance when you’re writing, and everything seems equally important in your little office of one, but there is actually hundreds of small tasks that it’s easy to downgrade until you think about them in this way. Here is just a small handful of tasks I’ve noted over the last few years:

  • Reading and signing contracts unlocks publishers ability to work on your behalf, as does filling out an invoice for work done and mailing it off (which unlocks the capacity for people to do one of my favourite things – pay me).
  • Answering an email about taking part in an interview, or responding to a guest-post request, unlocks the capacity for other people to promote you. So does actually doing the work when such things arrive.
  • Researching a new market for that story that got rejected may take ten minutes, but it immediately unlocks the capacity for slush readers and editors to work on your behalf.
  • Filling in grant and scholarship applications unlocks work in all sorts of ways, particularly if it’s the kind of thing where you’re going to need to ask questions. Reading Charnas book is one of the reasons I got a PhD scholarship, ‘cause if I hadn’t I would have left the application process too late to get advice on many of the things I needed help navigating.
  • Editing your existing story so you can submit it will get more people working than writing a new one will. Similarly, getting your story out to beta readers will mean more than the ten minutes you’d gain working on something new.
  • Dragging your feet on a shared project that needs you to do something before other people can do their part has obvious delays built in (although, I’ll admit, I still struggle with this one).

When time is short I used to struggle with prioritizing any of this stuff over creating new words. Now I dedicate a portion of my day solely to the process of unlocking other people’s capacity.

HACK TWO: SPEND A HALF-HOUR PLOTTING OUT YOUR COMMITMENTS OVER THE NEXT THREE MONTHS IN ADDITION TO YOUR PROJECTS

This one is lifted from The Accidental Creative by Todd Henry, and I’d actually recommend doing his whole Quarterly Checkpoint if you’ve got the time and inclination. If you don’t, I recommend this single step as one of the things that helped me start being more in-control of my writing process.

The theory here is simple: it’s easy to overlook the impact things will have on your life and available time, which means you’ll frequently overestimate how much you can get done in the coming three months. Taking a few moments to list the hard and soft commitments you expect to see happening every quarter will shape your expectations in advance, and allow you to plan accordingly.

For example, if I look at the period from November through to January, I can see that I’ve got a series of huge deadlines for the PhD, plus a number of weeks where I’m going to lose work time due to holiday commitments. Even if I don’t take said holidays myself, there will be days where my family and partner have time off and want to spend time with me. January is also heavy with family Birthdays and similar events, which means I’ll need to factor in both birthday celebrations and purchasing gifts during one of the busiest times of year.

If I just planned out my quarterly projects right now, this week, my perceptions would be informed by the fact that I’m largely commitment free and capable of fitting in additional project time. it would be easy to overlook these events and simply assume that the majority of the week will be blissfully free of things that will pull my focus away from work.

Doing this three months out gives you plenty of time to adjust your expectations and plan around the interruptions, whereas a one month window tends to put more pressure on you.

HACK THREE: NUMBER AND INDEX EVERY NOTEBOOK YOU USE, REGARDLESS OF WHAT IT’S USED FOR

This one is straight out of the bullet journal process put together by Ryder Carroll, but it remains the single best idea I’ve seen for keeping track of what’s in a notebook. Even if you don’t intend to use the full bujo method, getting into the habit of numbering notebook pages and indexing their contents saves countless hours of trying to remember what note you’ve put down where. I use this with bullet journals, but also pocket notebooks used for quick notes and shoping lists, larger notebooks where I write story drafts, and the various notebooks I use for tracking what’s going on in gaming.

There are thousands of systems out there for adequately filing your notes online and in filing cabinets, but this is the closes thing I’ve seen to keeping things manageable in books themselves.

What to Do When You’re Convinced You’ve Fucked Up Your Writing Career

Fun fact about writing: it’s going to feel like you’ve fucked up, a lot. There will be days where it feels like things are so fucked up that your career is 100% over, never to be resurrected or rebuilt, and the best thing you can do is wander off and get a job in the fast food industry.

The reasons it feels like you’ve fucked up are varied. Maybe it’s been caused by a decision that seems stupid in hindsight, or a book has come out and done not-as-well-as-expected for reasons outside your control. Perhaps you said something you shouldn’t have in a professional context, or vomited on the first agent you met because you were nervous. It matters not, in the end, because the feeling that settles over you is invariably the same – like someone’s fitting you for cement shoes and escorting you to the nearest pier. You have fucked up, and you are done. Hasta la vista, baby; your writing career is over.

I spent most of last week in that mode. After GenreCon wrapped up a bunch of mangy, you-suck brain-weasels dug their way into my head and started insisting that the con had been a bad cal. Sure, it was successful, but look at the opportunity cost – no writing time, no PhD time, no real gains to speak of. They moved on to whispering dire things about my shoddy work ethic when it comes to writing, then started a refrain about always being the guy behind the scenes instead of actually being a writer. Time to quit, the brain weasels told me. Go find yourself a real job. You’re forty fucking years old and you’re officially no good at this shit.

The nice thing about this being the forth GenreCon is that I’m already prepared for this, and I had projects with non-negotiable deadlines that meant I had to pull my shit together before the week was out. I gave myself forty-eight hours of indulging the brain-weasels, largely because I was exhausted after running a con and needed time to recoup anyway. Then I sat down and started planning a few weeks of writing projects, because the reality is that it’s incredibly hard to actually kill of a writing career stone dead.

It’s just really easy to believe you’ve done it when your expectations and your reality aren’t in sync.

FIRST, SOME PERSPECTIVE: IT’S REALLY HARD TO KILL A WRITING CAREER COMPLETELY, YO

Here’s the bad news: writing is a hard gig, and you’re playing a long game. It’s easy to have a bad year, or feel like you’re achieving a lot without seeing much tangible benefit in terms of income. The message that’s driven into you, from the moment you first express a desire to write, is that the only way to succeed is to be extraordinary. You’re a best-seller or you’re nothing; you are consumed by writing, twenty-four-seven, or you’re destined to fail and die in the gutter.

This will fuck you up, if you let it.

Most writers aren’t going to be best-sellers. Even among the best-sellers, there are aspects of a writing career that they still hunger for, which often manifests itself in canards like genre writers get the money, literary writers get the praise. Truth is, you’re going to spend the bulk of your career being less successful than you’d hoped, but that’s only the death of your career if you accept the premise that less-successful is not-successful-at-all, letting the unmet expectations drive you to quitting rather than re-evaluating.

Here’s the good news: Writing careers are resilient fuckers. It’s actually incredibly fucking hard to truly kill a writing career to the point where you won’t be published or read at all. It takes outright plagiarism or…well, shit, I don’t know, maybe slaughtering a moose at your first writer’s festival and painting the front row with its blood while openly calling all readers morons? Even then, the attention you’d grab would probably help undo some of the damage.

I struggle to think of real, honest-to-god career killers here because publishing will forgive all manner of things if they think they can sell your book. Even Helen Darville got other writing gigs in Australia after the controversy around The Hand That Signed The Paper, and it took a whole new plagiarism controversy around her courier mail column to really shuffle her off the literary radar (and even then, she went on to write for conservative presses and it seems she’s both learned nothing and has a new book coming out).

Odds are, you haven’t fucked up on anywhere near this level. What’s happened is usually something simpler.

SHAKESPEARE WAS A SMART FUCKER

I’m not alone with the brain-weasels. In this year alone I’ve had the maybe-it’s-time-to-quit-and-work-fast-food conversations with three different writers at three different stages of their career. None of them actually did it, to my knowledge, but the desire was definitely there and it usually came down to one word: expectations.

One of my favourite lines in Hamlet is the title character’s lament that he could be bound in a nutshell and count himself a king of infinite space, were it not that he had bad dreams. In a similar vein, I could publish a single short story a year and consider myself a successful writer, were it not for the fact that my goals and expectations aim for more than that.

The brain-weasels give me a list of reasons my career is over right now. When I write them down, there is a recurring theme: I’ve only had two short stories out this year; I haven’t finished enough new work; I don’t have enough readers to justify going indie; I only met a handful of people at the conference and didn’t do enough to expand my network; I haven’t done enough with the opportunities I had this year; I haven’t done enough on my thesis draft, with the deadline looming.

The repetition of only and enough in those phrases is an immediate warning sign for me.

It means that my expectations are not in sync with the reality around me, and I’m prone to second-guessing every decision I’ve made in the last twelve moths and judging each choice a failure. Only and Enough mean I’m ignoring the context that guided all the decisions, or that I’m weighing up what I’ve achieved and measuring against what was achieved in other years of my career (or against the careers of people who have had very different years in the business and different constraints on their work process than I have).

Despite the brain-weasels suggestion that I quit, what they’re actually warning me about is a moment where the things I value about my writing life aren’t currently being met. That’s not a reason to quit, but it is a reason to take some time to figure out how I can match up my practice and my values in the coming months.

THE FEELING OF FUCKING UP LIES IN THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN WHAT IS AND WHAT I WANT TO BE, THE REALITY OF FUCKING UP LIES IN WHAT YOU DO AFTER YOU IDENTIFY THAT DISCONNECT

Herein lies the lesson: if you think you’ve fucked up your writing career, ask yourself what expectations you had that aren’t currently being fulfilled. The line between success and failure is often a matter of perspective, and you will be harder on yourself than almost everyone else. Look for the thing that you want, and figure out why it’s currently missing.

Once you’ve got that, identify the the smallest, easiest things to move you in that direction you want to go. Inertia will fuck with you in ways that movement will not, and keeping your focus on where you want to be instead of what you’re doing now will inevitably rob your process of the joy that sustains your efforts. Stop looking at the horizon and start looking at the very next step, then focus on enjoying what you’re doing here and now.

Not meeting your expectations is disappointing, but it isn’t necessarily failure. At worst, the brain-weasels telling you it’s all over are really just giving you important information about what you really want to get out writing (mine, post-Genrecon, are largely focused on the hit the cultural capital of my work will take once I start indie publishing). They’re a chance to re-align the mental cross-hairs and focus on the work that is meaningful to you and taking you towards your goals.

There is no shame in re-evaluating plans, once you’ve got that information. There’s not even shame in walking away, if you’ve looked at what you’ve wanted and judged it no longer worth the effort, but walking away is harder than it looks when you’re in the throes of the kinds of disconnect that causes brain-weasels to form.

It’s far easier to take a few moments to consider what it feels like you’re missing in your career right now, then take a few steps to plug that gap while following your business plan.

ONCE YOU KNOW WHAT SUCCESS IS, YOU CAN START LOOKING AT PATHS TO GET THERE

There is a great interview from the wrestler, Chris Jericho, where he talks about becoming a main event talent in the world’s largest wrestling organisation. He wasn’t worried about rising to the top despite being a smaller talent than the WWE prefers, because he’d been at the top of other wrestling companies and he knew what it took to get there. He had to learn how to work in the new environment, but once he knew that he’d get to the spot he wanted.

Everything my brain-weasels are whispering to me are things I’ve done in the past, which means I know what’s involved in getting back to the level I want to be at. It will take work, but work that I know how to do.The things I don’t know, I can still learn, now that I know I need to learn them.

If my whole career tanked tomorrow, I could switch to a pen name and start over (which, lets be clear, is a thing that plenty of writers have done).

Quitting is a big, dramatic action. It’s your brain searching for a solution to your frustrations in the clumsiest way possible, because writing is a gig that is built around the mythology of grand gestures and all-consuming genius. Small fuck-ups feel bigger than they should, big fuck-ups feel monumental.

What’s weird is that the best response is usually doing something small. Once you’ve identified the thing that is bugging you, focus on the smallest and easiest thing you can do here and now to start moving you towards it. Take a small step towards bringing your process back into alignment with the values you bring to your craft.

For me, all those brain-weasels were just complaining about feeling a little invisible as a writer rather than an organiser after disappearing into the conference. This says all sorts of things about my ego, but also means the weasels were placated by a little work on The Birdcage Heart release and drafting a couple of blogs posts. This, in turn, freed me up from the anxiety they caused and got me back to the keyboard to start working on the next thing.

The Sunday Circle: What Are You Working On This Week?

Sunday Circle Banner

The Sunday Circle is the weekly check-in where I ask the creative-types who follow this blog to weigh in about their goals, inspirations, and challenges for the coming week. The logic behind it can be found here. Want to be involved? It’s easy – just answer three questions in the comments or on your own blog (with a link in the comments here, so that everyone can find them).

After that, throw some thoughts around about other people’s projects, ask questions if you’re so inclined. Be supportive above all.

Then show up again next Sunday when the circle updates next, letting us know how you did on your weekly project and what you’ve got coming down the pipe in the coming week (if you’d like to part of the circle, without subscribing to the rest of the blog, you can sign-up for reminders via email here).

MY CHECK-IN

What am I working on this week?

I put two major projects to bed recently, courtesy of GenreCon wrapping up and uploading The Birdcage Heart collection to all sales sites in preparation for Nov 30. That opens up a lot of tie to work on other projects, much of which will get funnelled towards the first PhD Chapter (this week’s to-do list: 3 readings and a new chapter plan after my old one was a little too ambitious) and the next Brain Jar Project, Helltrack (this week’s to-do list: nail down the voice and tone I’m looking for, figure out how to write the first race).

What’s inspiring me this week?

I picked up Nic Pizzolatto’s short story collection, Between Here and the Yellow Sea, because I figured I’d need something post-GenreCon that got me inspired to write. It’s definitely delivered on that front – Pizzolatto may be better known for True Detective these days, but I first encountered him through his debut novel, Galveston, and this delivers the same taut, controlled narrative voice. 

What action do I need to take?

I need to schedule some downtime this week, because my system is still in con-mode where I feel like I should be doing everything and it’s really easy to keep rolling with the high-focus panic that engenders. The need to be productive is overwhelming, but the ability to make decisions is minimal.

It’s also a really bad idea to stay in that mode – the last week was hard on my mental health – and I keep trying to over-schedule my week and do everything at once. I really need to sit down and cross half the things off my list, giving myself a chance to focus on a few tasks that will really be important rather than a hundred tasks that aren’t essential.