Writing Advice – Business & the Writing Life

Collecting posts I’ve written about the writing life and managing a writing career

Writing and the Marketplace

It’s 5:16 on a Tuesday afternoon. The day is starting to cool and I am sitting on my couch without shoes on and I am Youtubing Cure songs as I type this. I’ve written a bunch of words today. I discovered a structural flaw in the novella I’ve been trying to write, which means there’s a bunch of rewrites on the way. When I’m done with this, I’ll be heading off to write a bunch more words.

But for the moment I’m sitting here, on the internet, thinking about the scene from Rob Epstein and Jeffery Friedman’s Howl where Allan-Gisberg-by-way-of-James-Franco says:

In San Fansisco I had a year of psychotherapy with Doctor Hicks. I was blocked. I couldn’t write. I was still trying to act normal. I was afraid I was crazy. I was sure that I was supposed to be heterosexual and something was wrong with me.

And Doctor Hicks kept saying, “what do you want to do? What is your hearts desire?”

And finally, I said, “well, what I’d really like to do is just quit all this. Get a small room with Peter, devote myself to writing, contemplation, and fucking. Smoking pot and doing whatever I want.

And he said, “why don’t you do it then?”

It’s an incredible moment of art-porn, leveraging all the mythology of the artist to catapult the viewer into the next act of the movie. I doubt there is an artist of any stripe who doesn’t hear that and feel a little wistful about what might be.

I’m thinking about this scene a lot because I’ve spent the past few months reading novella after novella. Not intentionally, just by virtue of there being a wealth of books with about 150 pages on my shelves after years where “book” meant something with closer to 300 pages and a lot more time required to read it. Just prior to writing this, I finished reading Warren Ellis’ Normal and I am quietly coveting the talent that went into both the design and the content.

I really like the novella and the novelette as a form. Given my druthers, I would happily write them to the exclusion of all else. But the reality of being a writer with any kind of professional, I-would-like-to-be-paid-for-this aspirations is that you increasingly look at novel-length fiction because it’s basically the stuff that gets decent advances.

For all the mythology around art for its own sake, there are very few writers or artists I know of who have managed to completely disregard the marketplace around art. They may try to leverage it in different ways – some will go for the mass market and rack up sales, others will try to to establish cultural worth and seek funding that surrounds that – but in the back of our heads there are fundamental decisions that get made because the market is there.

Writers are often told they shouldn’t write to market. That they should follow their passion and write the story they want to write. I don’t disagree with that advice, but I do think there are limits to it, because your desire to write is not a singular goal. The stories you want to tell will come up against your need to be read, or earn money, or develop an idea.

And so, if you want to write fiction, you’re going to end up writing books. If you’re going to write poetry, you’ll get used to performing. If you’re going to write theater…well, it’s been nearly two decades since I went anywhere near a theaters script, but I’m betting there is a similar process going on there. If you’re interested in fantasy as a kid in the nineties, you spend a lot of time pondering how to write a trilogy.

We all make concessions to the marketplace, even as people scorn the idea that art and the market go together. Because the marketplace is where we’re connected to audiences, and it’s where we connect with the art we consume.

It’s incredibly hard to separate art and commerce as a creator. I sit down occasionally and ask myself what, exactly, I’d be likely to write if I wasn’t considering where it might be published. What would change on my list of projects I’d like to do one day? What would get re-prioritized?

I’m not sure I can even conceptualize an answer to that, because thinking about markets is so ingrained in the way I write these days. I suspect I would end up writing short, slightly weird stories whose sole purpose is entertaining a half-dozen people among my friends who can provide more immediate feedback on what they like and what they don’t.

How to Become a Writer

It starts with the question you get asked when you’re young, and the answer that comes into your head is something to do with books, maybe?

It starts with being shy, and moving around a lot all through your childhood.

It starts with the trinity of SF from your childhood: Star Wars, Buck Rodgers, and G-Force. It starts with David Lynch’s adaptation of Dune, which you saw far too young because you liked science fiction and there was no home video back then, so it wasn’t like you could just watch Star Wars again.

It starts with hearing your dad read The Hobbit in his classroom. It starts with the soundtrack of your pre-teen years, inherited from your father: Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, Queen singing Flash, the Rocky Horror soundtrack.

It starts with your first William Gibson short story at fourteen and having your mind blown. With Neil Gaiman comics at sixteen, which blow your mind again. With Enid Blyton books all the way back when you first started reading: Mister Galliano’s Circus and The Magic Faraway Tree and The Adventurous Four and The Children of Cherry Tree Farm.

It starts the first time you think consider that mind-blowing feeling and want to be responsible for inducing it in others.

It starts with your mother accidentally buying all seven of the Narnia books, when you were only supposed to be picking up The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, because the bookstore only had them in a boxed set and you didn’t really understand how money worked at nine.

It starts with getting angry with The Last Battle, because you understood allegory at age nine just fine.

It starts with years in country towns, away from movie cinemas and arcades and other distractions. It starts with growing up without the internet. It starts with Dungeons and Dragons, and your halfling getting eaten by a carrion crawler. It starts with picking up Dragon Warriors, ‘cause you couldn’t find a copy of D&D to purchase. In your head, goblins will always be fey, wyrd creatures who stab people with icicles and dance on moonbeams. When you finally run D&D, years later, it’s disappointing to discover that goblins are just smaller, weaker alternatives to orcs.

It starts with moving away, learning to run the game yourself even if there’s no-one to play it with.

It starts with hitting the limits of your school library and deciding there should be more books to read. It starts with your dad tricking you into reading Lord of the Rings at age ten. It starts with seeing artists portrayed on eighties TV sit-coms, that weird blend of creativity, heavy-metal, and punk rebellion. It starts with Nick of Family Ties – not belonging, but slowly accepted. A nice, safe version of being the outsider. You spend years with bad hair and a single, dangley earring your ear because the character of Nick Moore is imprinted on your brain.

It starts with realizing you’ll never be metal, or punk, or an artist, but fuck it – you can create things. You do okay with words.

It starts with realizing there’s something wrong with the world, and the best toolkit you have for reshaping it into a world you can handle living in are all narratively driven.

It starts with Spiderman and Iron Fist and X-Men and the realisation about how little you knew about appropriation as a kid.

It starts with figuring out how to pass IT at school. You can’t code and have no interest in learning, but you’ve grown up with computers since the days you loaded files off tape and you can get pretty damn good project partners by agreeing to write the documentation.

It starts with getting told all the things you’re pretty shit at, which should preclude you from making a career as a writer: you can’t spell worth a damn, and your grammar is fucking horrible. Your handwriting is abysmal, chicken scratch filled with random capitals just because you started a new line of the notebook. You get by in English because you read fast, which gives you plenty of time to bug the teacher with questions. Mostly, about communism, because Russia’s iconography is on goddamn point through most of the cold war.

It starts with reading Wuthering Heights in school and recognizing the metaphorical significance of the hearths before the classes even started, and suddenly you’re hooked on this shit forever.

It starts with wanting to do an arts degree, because you think it will be a place you finally feel at home. It starts with realizing how wrong you are about that, and spending three years avoiding classes because you can’t quite get over your crippling shyness around people more interesting than you are.

It starts with doing okay in some classes, despite your lack of attendance. Poetry, and script-writing, which gets you seconded into a theater to work as a playwright on a project that comes closer to getting you sued than you’re really comfortable thinking about.

It starts with a few years writing poetry, because you need to figure out who you are and being a poet seems safe enough. You win a poetry slam and people pay you. You publish poems and people pay you. You finish your degree. You do an honors year. You write a terrible thesis and a not-quite-so-terrible poetry collection, which earns you a spot as a PhD student.

It starts with slowly realizing there are other people in your degree who are interested in speculative fiction, and having awkward conversations about it.

It starts with getting invited to tutor in your writing program, and having to explain how writing writing to other people in ways that make sense.

It starts with marking assignments. Hundreds and hundreds of short stories and poems and essays which start to illuminate just how much you’ve learned since you were eighteen.

It starts with getting some freelance gigs writing for gaming books. It starts with hitting the point where you can an article published in Dragon magazine. It starts with seven years as in a PhD program, teaching and lecturing and writing things, without ever feeling like you’re any closer to getting published.

It starts with Clarion South, getting locked away with sixteen other writers and a host of instructors who actually know things about making a living as a writer, and suddenly learning that there’s a way to apply all the skills you’ve picked up while teaching for seven years.

It starts when you figure there’s nothing to lose with writing SF, just like you intended to when you first went to uni: you’re thirty years old; your relationship is ending; it’s becoming increasingly apparent that academia is not your thing, not when the other option is getting things published. You write and you write and you write some more, and suddenly the publications appear.

It starts the first time you realize how different a writing career feels from the inside, compared to things other people assume are markers of success.

It starts with fucking up, and realizing that this will not stop you. You’ve built up a profile as a writer once, which means you can do it again.

It starts with starting over. Building from the ground up. Getting back to writing again and again. And it’s not about a burning, unyielding passion for writing – you’re well aware that you can walk away, get your kicks from playing computer games instead of writing stories or books. You can get your kicks out of writing a blog, if that’s really your thing.

Besides, there are plenty of gigs out there that can use your felicity with words. You’ve worked a few of them, over the years, all of them considerably more job-like than the gigs you dreamed about as a pre-teen. You can make a comfortable living, if you’re willing to commit to them.

It starts the first time you think, fuck that, I’d rather be writing the things I want to write about.

It starts right now. ‘Cause, hell, there’s so many starting points. So many things that feel like they’re the thing that really got you started. You can build a nice, clean narrative about what really made you want to write, but you’re painfully aware of the differences between narrative and reality.

Reality isn’t clean. Reality isn’t linear. The moment you start shaping a story, you’re manipulating experiences to generate effect. To make the point you want to make, make the reader feel the thing you want them to feel in that moment.

So yeah, fuck it, it starts now. It starts with writing something, and finishing it, and putting it in front of an audience.

Then it starts when you finish, and move on to the next thing.

Some Thoughts On Writing and Mental Illness

Every night I take 25 mg of Valdoxan before I go to bed, nudging my brain towards a healthier normal. Every morning I start tracking data on my preferred stress, depression, and anxiety management app, marking hours of sleep and minutes of exercise and whether I’ve had contact with the outside world.

Every week I’m learning to pay more attention to the default narrative in my head, and the defence mechanisms set up because of those narratives, so I can better at identifying which are actually useful and which need to be dismantled. Every couple of months I get a blood test to see if the Valdoxan is doing unhappy things to my liver enzymes.

I still have bad weeks. I was in the midst of one seven days ago. My stress responses still need work, because they’re currently front-loaded with the message: for the love of god, procrastinate to the point of self-destruction. I was stressed last week, but I hadn’t even processed that until the stats on my app laid it all out for me and I was like, oh, that’s why I’m sleeping two hours a night and obsessively playing computer games I hate for twenty fucking hours a day. 

There were very few parts of my blogging gig for Queensland Health that felt personal, but working on this one was fucking hard, for the simple fact that I went through every goddamn thing on the list.

It was about this point, last year, that I first realised things were getting very bad.

I did what I thought were proactive things to deal with that at the time. Some of those were good – including the conversation that eventually led to me going back to university on a PhD scholarship – but some where just slapping a band-aid over a gaping wound. I told myself I could just work harder, do better, and everything would be fine.

It would take another four or five months, a shitload more stress, and some pretty insistent friends and family to actually get me to consider the fact that there was something up with my mental health.

The funny thing about blogging for Queensland Health was the sheer amount of time spent looking at data and statistics that I’d otherwise ignore. When it comes to mental illness, the stats I keep coming back to were these:

  • 45% of Australians are going have some experience of mental illness in their life
  • 1 in 5 women and 1 in 8 men will experience some level of depression
  • Only 35% of people with anxiety and depression will access treatment

Stigma around mental illness, and a general lack of knowledge, tends to make up a big part of the 65% doesn’t access help. Given my general reluctance to go see a GP when I needed it, or even recognizing I was going through something where help would be useful, I totally get how that happens.

I had the advantage of knowing multiple peeps with depression and anxiety issues, talking to them about what was going on, and still had myself convinced that it wasn’t something I was experiencing right up until the doctor suggested antidepressants and counselling.

And even after you learn about depression and anxiety, there are all sorts of ways the stigma fucks with you: don’t talk about it too loudly; don’t talk about it too often; don’t talk about it with the wrong people. Don’t bore the pants off people with you and your problems.

And really, fuck that shit, because it becomes part of the problem.

Depression is not a light switch that flicks on and off. It’s not a clearly deliniatied line where you go from okay to not okay the moment you step over. Regardless of how it’s used in clinical settings, depression is colloquially used to group together a whole bunch of mood-related disorders, of differing levels of intensity, that affect people in different ways.

Part of the reason I wondered around without looking for help for so long was the relatively lack of exposure to people whose experiences mimicked my own, or who experienced symptoms at levels of severity I didn’t quite relate to.

Beyond that, I’ll admit to another slice of foolishness: I worried about writing and depression. Not in an I’ll-never-write-again way, ‘cause hell, I got this far, nor in a I’m-a-writer-and-I-cannot-work-if-I’m-not-depressed, ’cause…well, I can tell you how much work I did while depressed and anxious and it pretty much amounts to fuck all.

No, I worried because my brain was wired to worry. I worried about getting treated the same way I worried about that stupid thing I said when I was eleven, or the same way I fretted about saying something stupid in that email I just sent, and the same way I obsessively rehearse conversations with people I’ve hurt or pissed off, as if I’ll somehow be able to make it all okay by taking back that conversation and inserting the one in my head instead.

Which is, I worried to the point where worry filled 90% of my waking moments, because worry felt like control to me.

And when my GP suggested that I was actually not okay, I worried in a what-will-this-actually-be-like-and-how-will-depression-affect-things way that sent me looking for other writers who talked about their experiences. Reading about other writers talking about their shit helped a lot back then, which is why I occasionally pop up and talk about my experiences here.

So let me be clear: Shit went wrong. I got help. I’m still getting help and working shit out. It’s an ongoing fucking thing.

And writing is better because of it.

But I am just me, and let’s be clear, in writing terms I am small beer. Since I’m an rigorous bookmarker of useful links, here the short list of folks who write a hell of a lot more than me (with a hell of a lot more success), whose posts about their own mental illness helped a lot when I went on medication last year:

Note the incredible diversity of conditions, experiences, and coping mechanisms out there. Mental health is not one-size-fits-fucking-all.

For all my resistance to getting help, and my occasional nervousness about medication and frustrations with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, going to my GP and letting them know I might not be okay was the best goddamn thing I’d done in about ten fucking years.

Don’t talk yourself out of getting help if you have even the vaguest suspicion you might need it. It’s really not worth it.

Why I’m Using Scrivener as a Multi-Project Writing Workspace

I am surprisingly tolerant of cluttering in physical space. I take comfort in stacking books around me like a defensive wall, scatter notes across my coffee table along with errant mugs, and pile my laundry by the doorway leading from the bedroom to the balcony/laundry because I’ll remember to actually do it that way.

I’m far less tolerant of clutter in digital systems, to the point where I actually feel excessively uneasy and reluctant to work when my email, RSS feeds, or work folders start to get out of control. Talking to people who leave thousands of emails in their inbox make me break out in a cold sweat, and I will say nothing of tab junkies who just keep opening a new page on their browser every time they want to add something to their to-read list. Dealing with any kind of shared server within a company or organisation, where files are often layered seven folders deep via arcane and confusion logic, is enough to make me weep.

When it comes to writing, I used to maintain a pretty simple file architecture that looked a little like this:

The drafft archive – I never got around to fixing the typo – housed all the half-finished works that I wasn’t currently working on. The current folder housed anything I was currently working on, from story drafts to novels to blogs in progress to PhD applications, while finished drafts sat in the revision folder until they were ready to move on to submission.

It’s a system that served me pretty well for the last few years, but when I started examining my work processes for systems that were no longer pulling their weight, I realised the file architecture no longer suited my workflow. There were, for example, about twenty projects stacked up in the current projects folder. Starting some drafts in scrivener meant that some projects were half-written there, while others were sitting as word files in the draft archive. The revision folder simply fell off my radar a lot of the time, because my focus was now split between short stories, longer writing projects, blogging, essay writing, applications, GenreCon, and more.

The “recent files” feature in word went a little way towards mitigating the effects of clogged-up filing systems, allowing me quick access to anything I’d used recently, but it also showed had the potential to be an enormous source of distraction. My current project would be right there next to notes for my RPG campaign, or that recipe I’d downloaded and saved for my “Cook this, goddamnit” folder.

I spent the last month trying to figure out an alternative approach, but I couldn’t quite come up with an file system that worked for me. Everything involved too much segregation between work spaces (which meant things would get ignored, the same way I’d been ignoring the revision folder) or too much clutter (which meant too many options were present when I wanted to start work).

Then, last week, I remembered Michael Hyatt’s approach to Scrivener as an all-in-one workbench for projects. I’d previously used Scrivener for long-form narrative drafts and found it…well, a mixed bag. I really like it’s wordcount functions, I really disliked the cludginess whenever I needed to change paragraph indents or fonts. It’s ability to facilitate top-level planning isn’t really something I use a lot, outside of some very specific situations.

Ambivalent as I am about its abilities as a word processor, I do have to admit one thing: Scrivener kicks ass as a filing system. It’s what it was built to do, really well, and once you break past the idea of one scrivener file/one project it actually starts unveiling neat little functionalities. I started out replicating Hyatt’s set-up – a workbench for current files in use, and a filing cabinet where things are broken down by writing area – and it took about six seconds to realise that Scivener had one big advantage over ordinary file folders.

This is the view that greeted me every time I fired up my workspace this week, with every part of my writing broken down by category and the current deadlines/priorities listed right there on the front of the folder. I know exactly which files to move up to the Workbench before I start writing, can switch easily between projects without opening a new file, and can use scrivener’s features to quickly snapshot a version before I redraft.

Rearranging the top level cards lets me reorder the priority quickly and easily, which means I can drag Thesis/Uni tasks to the forefront when approaching critical deadlines and ensure I scan those priorities before I check short stories or novels. Keeping rough drafts and redrafts in the same system, marked using scriveners label function, means I can never pretend that the redrafts aren’t there waiting for me while I focus on new words. If I’m ignoring a project, it’s because I’m making an active decision that it is less important than other parts of my writing rather than simply forgetting it needs to be done.

It also eliminates any meaningful difference between the space where I plan work and the place that I write it, in much the same way that my bullet journal does when I’m working analog.

Most importantly, it does the three things I want from any system I set up, regardless of whether it’s a white board, notebook or digital tool:

  • Focuses my attention on what needs to be done
  • Provides necessary context when making decisions about what to do next
  • Decreases the resistance to starting on a project

The next couple of weeks will be spent testing this as a system before I finally bit the bullet and migrate the archives of unfinished work in, but it seems to be working okay as a means of making twenty-odd current projects comprehensible and achievable.

What do my days look like now?

Yesterday was my final day at my blogging gig with Queensland Health, and I am not yet contracted for my GenreCon gig or have the details of my PhD scholarship set in place. I am, technically, unemployed and bereft of income until the two latter things get sorted in the coming week. Even after those are resolved, I will be a student who has a day-a-week contract gig.

I do not know what my days look like now that I do not have to work around a day-job.

Lots of people dream of quitting their job to write or read, but that often fails to take into account there is something comfortable about work that you don’t realise when it’s there. Even if you hate your job, there are decisions that do not need to be made: where will you be on a given day? What will you do? Who are you going to see?

Your obligations as an employee provide an anchor to the rest of your activities, something that can be planned around. It provides context to otherwise arbitrary designations: Saturday ceases to be a day and becomes the first day of the weekend; Monday becomes the start of the working week. You know what success is, because you do your job well or you do not.

All of this affects the way you plan your life, consciously or unconsciously. Work gives you an anchor you can build routines and processes around: write a thousand words before work starts; edit on the weekend, when you’ve got a little free time; plan your write club for your days off.

All through the most recent week, people have been asking me what I’m going to do when I finish work. Write, I’d tell them. Read. That’s as detailed as I got, because the answer is far less exciting.

The first task of being without a day-job is figuring out what your days look like now, and how you’re going to fill them in a meaningful, effective way. What is the first thing, that will lead to the second thing? How will you devote the necessary time to all the things that need doing to keep you moving forward.

It’s harder than it sounds, if you’re not used to it. Ten years ago – the last time I existed in a day-job free state – I wasn’t particularly good at it.

I’d like to think I’ve gotten better in recent years. Now it’s time to find out.

My farewell gift from the peeps at work. Now I must fill them with words…

A photo posted by Peter M Ball (@petermball) on

 

18 Hours, 29 minutes, 16 Seconds

One of my goals for 2016 was gathering data about my writing process, so I could better anticipate what was actually possible in terms of planning my writing time and figure out how to patch the holes where writing hours seemed to evaporate.

A lot of my grander plans associated with that goal fell apart, throughout the year, since one of the big holes in my process was basically depression and insane levels of stress. Gathering data fell by the wayside and I focused on just having a process at all, rather than refining it.

That’s starting to change now, very late in 2016, thanks to the combined effects of antidepressants, a new job, and a restructure of my writing time in order to eliminate some of the temptations that usually distract me from writing. I implemented the goal of devoting 21 hours a week to my writing career a month ago, and started tracking it pretty religiously.

Then, back on October 19, I started a project I originally meant to do way back at the beginning of the year – plan and draft a novella on the PC, rather than a notebook, so I could use RescueTime to get some accurate data on how long it really takes me to write things.

Yesterday, on October 30, I wrote -End- on the rough draft after 28,480 words and promptly hit Netflix to celebrate. Total accumulated work time: 1 hour, 24 minutes devoted to working on the file containing the novella plan; 18 hours, 24 minutes, 6 seconds spent working on the actual draft.

Now, it’s a pretty rubbish draft, and not in a fit state for anyone to read yet, but that’s pretty much the case of all my first drafts. I write pretty spare, skeletal scenes and rely on second and third drafts to flesh them out.

But even with that caveat, I’m both surprised and pleased by the data. I’d budgeted 27 hours of writing time, across 13 days, so this was definitely a little faster than normal for me and gives me an interesting baseline to work with going into November and taking another crack at the 600k year.

Today I started putting together the rewrite plan, which will probably flesh out the novella by another 10,000 words or so, and I’ve set up a new document for it so I can track how long that process takes. With luck, I’ll have a pretty complete set of data that lets me track the actual hours required from concept to publication by the end of this.

And while there were a lot of bullshit parts to 2016, I have to admit that I’m coming around to it being a pretty good year overall as I move into the final few months.

Three Things Writers Actually Sell That Aren’t Books, Really

I keep meaning to sit down and write another extended post about writing and business plans, but the topic is large and tangled and crazy, and my time for blogging is short and controlled and subservient to the task of getting things written.

So I have not written a blog post about basing your business plan off what you actually sell as a writer, not what you think you sell, but I have written 22,000 words of a novella in the space of seven days and stand a good chance of finishing the whole thing over the weekend.

I am comfortable with that trade-off, right now.

But the short version of the long and tangled post that I did not write goes something like this – if you are building a business plan about your writing, you need to forget about the book as the thing you’re selling and start considering the other things.

First, that you’re actually selling permission to use copyright, which means you are leveraging copyright options on everything you write in order to make money. The money in writing is not invested in a single piece of work – it’s in the ability to keep selling work over and over.

That works better when you have a lot of things to leverage, built up over time, than it does when you’re trying to earn a living wage off a book or two. It also changes your relationship with certain parts of writing – I was talking to a friend about writing guest posts to promote a book, and their feeling that it was a lot of writing for free, and my first response was, no, you just haven’t been paid for it yet; you can do a non-fiction collection one of these days, even if you do it yourself.

Honestly, if you do not understand copyright and how writers use it to earn income, do not try to write a business plan yet. Focus on learning this bit first.

So, after copyright, you need to acknowledge that as a writer you have a skill-set that is valuable, and people will actually pay you for it. I’ve made my career out of writing and writing-related jobs for the bulk of the last twenty years, and largely I’ve done it by virtue of having skills, a network, and the ability to apply what I do as a fiction writer to other tasks.

People will pay you to write things that are not fiction. People will pay you to teach them about how writing works. People will pay you to offer your learned opinions on topics, based on your research or your body of work or the ideas at the heart of your fiction.

You skill-set has value, and there are plenty of writers who have leveraged that to earn income outside of their fiction.

Third, and this is the serious one, what you actually sell people isn’t stories or books or even skills. What you sell people is a little slice of identity – tokens that tell them who they are and what they believe in. I’m just going to link to a piece about Vidcon by Jeff Jarvis, which looks at this in the even crazier world of internet content development:

I learned at Vidcon that what we call content is not an end-product. It is a social token. It is something that people make, remake, or pass around to say something about themselves or their relationships with their friends. It might speak for them or it might illustrate their opposition to an idea. It serves their conversations. It is not a destination.

What I Learned At VidCon

Understanding this distinction is serious business in the 21st century, where writers and readers are smack up against each other, engaging one-on-one, instead of having a relationship mediated by booksellers and editors and publishers and agents.

This idea of content as social token is what fuels things like kickstarter and patreon and fan-events and literary festivals, and while it’s getting leveraged in different ways here in the early parts of the 21st century, it’s always been a part of how writers have made their living.

Go read Jarvis’ piece. It’s worth it.

Not all of this will work the same way for every writer. Some genres work better with the folks who really just want to leverage having hundreds of books for sale, some genres work better when it comes to developing the writers who work there into social tokens that festivals consider valuable enough that they’ll pay for their attendance. Some genres lend themselves to blogging, and some people do not.

But those three will give you a framework to start considering how working writers are earning income from their work, and start figuring out where, exactly, you want your own career to go over time.

Business Planning For Writers: The Five Word Benchmark

Hardworking. Prolific. Savvy. Surprising. Great.

I figure I can lay claim to maybe one of these words, if I’m on-point with my writing, on any given day. More often I aim simply aiming for one, and falling frustratingly short.

But as of today they’re taped to the wall, beside my projects list. A reminder of what I’m striving for with this whole writing thing. Not necessarily in the work, but in terms of what I’d like to think when I look back over my career.

They’re not set in stone yet. I’m going to live with them for a few days, stare at them the same way I stare at the active projects list. Ponder whether each word is right, and change it as needed. Savvy was originally smart, for instance, when I wrote the first draft of the list in my notebook. Smart didn’t cut it as a long-term ambition.

Savvy worked better, captured that feeling of knowledge put into practice rather than hoarded for its own sake. You can be savvy about your career. You can be savvy about the genre you’re writing in. You can be savvy about craft, in general.

I want that. Just like I want the other things.

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I backed away from talking about business models for writers last week, but then, I backed away from everything last week. My CPAP machine was broken and I was subsisting on very little sleep. Existing on very little sleep meant the depression meds weren’t working as well as they should, and so my ambition dropped down to sit on the couch, watch TV for sixteen hours, just so I could really get a good bout of self-loathing up-and-running.

At the same time, a whole bunch of people were basically hitting me up on social media and saying yo, more of this, please. And, occasionally, you’re over-simplifying this, yes? 

Yes. Because it’s enormously complex. And blogs don’t handle complexity well, in isolation.

But it did get me to sit down and start thinking through the problems of talking about business planning and business models. And, in particular, the problem of me talking about those things.

I dance along an interesting line, when it comes to blogging. I enjoy sitting down and writing about writing, for the same reason I enjoy teaching writing – it feeds into one of those five impulses that gets me to sit down and write. It lets me display savvy, or talk about process in a way that highlights being prolific and/or hardworking.

Usually, that works as part of my process, but when my sleep gets interrupted or I start heading into particularly negative ruminative thinking, blogging replaces my process. It’s work that feels like moving forward, without actually doing so. It becomes talking about what I want my career to be, rather than actually doing those things.

And this is actually a business planning problem, believe if it not, in addition to me dealing with my dodgy brain chemistry.

If you don’t define success, you can’t achieve it.

And while success seems easy to define – I get a book published, or I earn enough from writing to quit my dayjob – those are false benchmarks. Writing purely for the money isn’t going to make you happy, or even be sustainable

But when you put together half a definition of success – the kind where you’ve identified what you want, but not how you realistically expect to get there – it’s easy to get diverted. You scrambled down rabbit holes and follow false leads. You invest your energy in ways that aren’t the best use of your energy.

I’ve never had much illusion about what I want from writing. I got started as a writer because I was looking for a sense of connection, a way of finding people who liked what I liked and saw the world in the same way I did. I kept writing because I could start seeing career paths that seemed possible and pleasurable – not full-time fiction writing, but I’ve been in jobs that required writing skills and writing practice since I was twenty.

And, over time, I laid goals over the top of that. It wasn’t enough to be in writing-adjacent careers – I wanted to actually write fiction. It wasn’t enough to just write fiction – I wanted to be prolific and I wanted to be good.

People are complex. We rarely distil out motivations down to a singular thing.

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The problem with talking about writer business models is this: there’s a chicken and the egg kind of relationship going on. You can’t figure out what your business model is until you know the kind of writer you want to be. You can’t figure out what kind of writer you want to be, until you’ve looked at the business models and see what’s possible.

One continues to refine the other, and vice versa.

I’ve been particularly confused about all of this recently, thanks to a few years of health and mental health issues. So, over the weekend, I went back to first principles. What kind of writer do I want to be? What kind of words do I want associated with my career, when I look back over what I’ve done.

Hardworking. Prolific. Savvy. Surprising. Great.

Hitting two or more of those benchmarks is the point where I stop feeling like I’m flailing against the darkness and start feeling like I’m progressing towards the kind of writer I want to be.

It might not seem like a list that has a big impact on the kinds of career choices I make, but it affects everything. Those five words are the beginning of the research phase, the high-level strategy that guide everything else.

They don’t tell me what success is, but they tell me how to recognise it.

And I figure that’s a decent starting point, if you’re trying to figure this out. Take the week, figure out the five words that you’re chasing as a long-term description of your writing career. Put them down somewhere, all concrete and solid, where you have to see them often.

They don’t have to be set in stone – shouldn’t be, in fact – but they aren’t a bad foundation to have as you start contemplating everything else.

five-word-foundation

Some More Thoughts on Writer and Business Models: No Plan Survives Contact with the Enemy or Reality

Last Monday, I talked about the need for writers to develop a business model. It’s not the first time I’ve said this and I doubt it will be the last, but it was the first time I’ve said this here on the blog and in such am easily sharable form. That meant people started giving me feedback, which largely came in two camps:

  • How, exactly, do I do this business model thing? GIVE US DETAILS; or
  • Dude, I’ve got a business model, but it’s not working the way I want.

I’ll address both of those eventually, but given that I’m Melbourne today (and I’ve gone three days without medication and CPAP, thanks to poor packing on my part) I’m going to hold off on answering the first. Mostly because I started and it got very, very long.

As for the second: well, I’ve worked for a bunch of small businesses where exactly this has happened. This is the nature of running a small business, particularly one where you’re dealing primarily with other businesses who act as middle men, as most traditionally published authors do.

Many of those small businesses I worked for had plans, but their plans were…flawed. Based on wild guesses and the way they expected (or wished) their customers behaved. Everyone does this. Think about all those small stores and restaurants that crop up, chug along for a few months, then fold.  These are business driven by hope and high expectations, then let down by the realities of their situation.

People put together flawed business plans all the time. Their business models are based on expectations that don’t quite match reality, and they’re either unwilling to change their plan based on the new information or they’re just unable to switch to a new direction in time.

Point is: business plans change. A well-constructed business plan is a living document, periodically reviewed and evaluated to ensure that it’s working the way it should and changed when situations demand it.

For writers, this can be a harsh piece of advice, but the truth is that shit is going to change when it comes to publishing. The genre that you love writing in may suddenly cool, meaning you’re no longer able to sell the work you’ve written; the books you were pinning your hopes on didn’t sell as well as expected, which means your publisher is less enthusiastic about buying more; some guy invents a device that reads ebooks and sells it cheaply, and suddenly the whole business model of publishing is massive disrupted and indie publishing is everywhere.

You adapt, or you die.

This isn’t always an easy thing to do. I’m very much in an adapt-or-die space at the moment. The last few years of sleep apnea and depression were a double-whammy that utterly messed with my writing, and I’ve been adapting my business model on the fly for most of that time. It allowed me to keep from admitting that the apnea and the depression were problems, but it didn’t allow me to make smart business decisions. It’s easy to just lower your head and keep charging, when your business model falls apart, instead of admitting that things are wrong and you need to change.

The one saving grace is this: I was willing to adapt my business model and I was consciously making a choice every time I shifted. It may have been frustrating, and occasionally heartbreaking, but it meant I wasn’t as frustrated as it could have been if I’d just kept plugging away using the same plan I’d set back in 2010.

THE  BIG PROBLEM WITH FIGURING OUT YOUR BUSINESS MODEL

Here’s the bad news: I can’t tell you what your business model should be. There are plenty of ways people become professional writers and the playing field doesn’t exactly start out even. And a lot of the decisions will have a lot to do with the kind of writer you want to be, where you’re willing to compromise, and what other skills you have. I’ve taught workshops on this, and in six hours I still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface.

Take writing out of the equation for the moment and think of it like this: you want to start a business serving food to people. That’s your starting point.

But your business model can’t rest on that alone, because…dear god, the myriad ways you can implement that are staggering. Do you want to run a food franchise like McDonalds? Do you want to be a small local take-away, or a café, or a restaurant? Are you willing to ride around in a food truck, trying somewhere new every day? Do you want to be a catering company?

All of these involve serving people food, but the business models are different. Even if you pick one – say, starting a restaurant – you have to start making decisions about how high-end you want to be and who your clientele are going to be and what you’re going to build your menu around. And, let’s be honest here, a lot of what you can achieve is going to depend on your reputation as a restaurateur/chef, and your ability to generate start-up capital.

Writing is no less complex as an industry, but the lack of information around the business side of things frequently means that people assume that it’s a one-size-fits-all industry.

It takes a lot to start breaking down every single possible business model, even in an industry where the different models are a little more visible. That’s why there is a process to putting together a business plan that looks a little like this:

Step One: put together a rough outline of your plan

Step Two: RESEARCH THE HELL OUT OF YOUR INDUSTRY AND SEE IF YOUR PLAN IS VIABLE

Step Three: Adapt your plan as required.

Talking Writing and Vigil with Angela Slatter

If you’ve been following me for any length of time longer than a week, you don’t need me to tell you who Angela Slatter is and why she’s awesome. She’s a friend, write-club buddy, and force of nature.

For everyone else, here’s what you need to know: Angela Slatter is one of the smartest writers I know. Which would hurt less, were she not also one of the most talented and goddamnned hard-working authors you’re ever likely to come across. She’s one of those writers who pulled off the neat trick of having multiple books out before her first novel, courtesy of multiple short-story collections.  She’s won a World Fantasy Award, a British Fantasy Award, a Ditmar, and five Aurealis Awards, and one can’t help but feel like that haul is just the warm-up.

Her first novel, Vigil, was released a few weeks back. It’s outstanding, and you should buy it. Naturally, when I heard it was coming out, I jumped at the chance to sit down with Angela and pick her brain.

Dr Angela Slatter

So, this writing gig: what first attracted you to scribbling stories as a career?

I always loved hearing stories as a kid. Being told a tale was like having a kind of magic happen to you. The voice of the person telling you the tale took on special significance; there was just something special about the act of storytelling, of hearing the tale, and of then going to bed with things to feed your dreams. When I got older, I started re-working stories in my head, giving them endings I preferred. Eventually I took up the pen. I love making up worlds, making up magic. Now I’m in a position where I get paid for it, it’s even better!

Vigil v4 2Tell us something no-one else knows about Verity Fassbinder.

Aaawww, giving away secrets?  She secretly loves her job but would rather grumble about it. Maybe that’s not such a secret … Okay, how about this? In Corpselight, you find out she’s got a hell of a lot more family than she thought.

What prompted you start writing this book? What kept you going until you finally typed THE END?

Well, Jonathan Strahan read the short story “Brisneyland by Night” in Sprawl (on which Vigil is based) and said ‘That would make a really good novel.’ So I started writing a novel; it took about five years. What kept me going was that I liked the characters and wanted to see what they’d do, I loved writing about Brisbane and seeing how strange I could make it in amongst the everyday stuff, and I had good friends cheering me on. I also knew that doing a full-length work was the next step in my career; it’s very hard to make a living out of short story collections, no matter how much I love them.

What is the worst business advice you’ve ever been given as a writer?

That a writer needs to have a day job, that they shouldn’t be full-time writers. Bullshit, man! Every writer is different. There are so many different ways of writing, of being a writer, of managing your day, and everyone needs a different set-up to make their writing life work. I personally hated having a day job that kept me away from the writing; I resented it. Being a full-time writer doesn’t mean I write every day − sometimes I just do admin all day, or I’m plotting the next move in my career, or working out a pitch for a new series of books, or I’m answering emails and interview questions, some days I’m teaching or mentoring − but I have the freedom to concentrate on doing the job I love, that feeds my soul and my imagination.   

What is the key to your success as a writer, thus far?

Dogged determination coupled with an ability to spell most of the time? Probably that I’ve spent my time practising my craft so I’m writing the best stories I can. I always try to keep learning. I’m really big on networking with other writers and helping out where and when you can. And I’m really big on writers being informed about their industry, which doesn’t mean just knowing how to spell or use grammar correctly, it means knowing about what happens when your story leaves your hands. How to format your manuscript correctly; how to participate in the editing process; how to help promote your book (hint: it’s not by friending other writers on Facebook and then asking them to Like your page − other writers are generally not your audience); how to negotiate the sea of publishers and figured out who’s dodgy; how to know when to be stubborn about something and when to let something go because it doesn’t count in the bigger scheme of things. It’s about knowing that your job as a writer doesn’t finish when you’ve written The End.

I remind myself that I don’t know everything, that I will never know everything, and I do my best to keep learning.

Tell us about the three books you think everyone should read. 

Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase − for the evocation of time and place.

Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time − for a great place to start reading science fiction.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula − for the sheer breadth of its ambition; where it falls short you can still see what he was reaching for and that’s a good lesson for a writer − as Jeff VanderMeer is fond of saying “My reach should exceed my grasp.”

What’s next for Angela Slatter? 

Ah, writing Restoration, which is the third book in the Verity Fassbinder trilogy for Jo Fletcher Books; working out what my next series is going to be; writing the five short stories I’ve been commissioned to do before the end of the year; doing the editing for Corpselight, which is the second Verity book; working on a new picture book with Kathleen Jennings, called Skin; being the Established Writer-in-Residence at KSP in Perth over June-July; going to the UK in August for the Nine Worlds Con and the inaugural Dublin Ghost Story Festival! That’s enough, right?

(Peter’s Note: I asked this back before Vigil was launched – apologies to Perth and UK readers who missed out on Angela due to delay in getting this online)

Finally, finish this sentence: when the creatures of myth get tired of hiding, and make themselves known to the world, I will…

… buy them all a drink and make sure there are enough cupcakes to go around.