Writing Advice – Business & the Writing Life

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

One Year of Writing (And Procrastination) Data

I’m a big fan of gathering data about my processes and productivity, particular when it doesn’t require any particular effort on my part. That’s why I pay for a yearly RescueTime subscription, giving me a week-by-week (or mont-by-month) snapshot of how much of my computer time is actually spent working versus goofing off on various projects.

This year RescueTime rolled out a feature that gives me an entire year in review, breaking down my computer and phone usage across the entirety of 2017 based upon a number of categories.

I know that I logged 1,496 digital hours across 2017 (that’s out of a possible 8760 hours available in a year), which means I’m spending about 4 hours on average logged onto a computer or using my phone.

Of that 1,496 hours, 416 have been dubbed Productive, which is how RescueTime logs any computer or phone usage in which I’m working in Word or Scrivener. It’s not a purely accurate list, given that I also use that software for non-writing purposes, but I can get those breakdowns and pull them out if I want to get more specific. My goal for 2018 will be getting that up – from 1/4 of the hours spent at-the-computer being productive to 1/2 of my at-the-computer hours

I also logged 292 Distracting hours, which is generally a measure of how long I spend on social media or playing computer games. This number is much lower than normal, and mostly social media driven, as I acquired a playstation at the start of 2017 for the expressed purposes of removing Netflix and Computer Gaming from the machines where I do my work. This means that I’m still clocking up a bunch of screen hours that aren’t logged on RescueTime, but also means that they tend to be intentional rather than “oh, look, I logged on to my work computer and actually started watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine instead of working on a draft.”

Fun as these are, they’re just numbers – what I’m really looking at is the section of the report that breaks down my screen-hours by month. By and large I’m pretty consistent here, but there’s a definite pattern in my yearly report where March and June are low months – the report gives me a chance to go back and look at my bullet journal to figure out why (and, more importantly, whether I need to start incorporating something into my forward projections and adjust my work expectations accordingly).

Patreon, Tools, Tactics, and Strategy

Patreon announced a change in its fee structure this morning, which has prompted an outpouring of tweets from a number of writers I follow who have been using the platform and want to process the implications. The change is being framed as a good thing for creators, ensuring they will take home exactly 95% of every pledge, but it does so by pushing the processing fee onto the donator and this has subtle knock-on effects for the assumptions surrounding the service. Passing the fee on to the pledger means a series of $1 pledges every month actually ends up costing a buck thirty-seven or so.

Multiply that out over a year, and you’re looking at an extra $4.44 a year to kick a little change to the creators you patronise. This might not seem like a lot, but for a platform that is built itself on the concept of huge numbers of people making micro-transactions, that’s a pretty big shift.

There’s a couple of general themes and concerns running through the discussions online. First, that this is a move to drive away the small, consistent donors and make supporting creators at higher rates more appealing; the second is how the fee will be applied to people who are supporting multiple creators, which Patreon has traditionally bundled into a single change; the third is what are the other options, with a recurring theme of people setting up paypal buttons in response to the news.

I’m intrigued by Patreon, but I have no real skin in the game. I looked at the possibility of setting one up earlier this year, for a very particular fiction project, then figured there were ways to montetize what I wanted to create that better suited my circumstances.

What intrigues me about this is that I’ve seen this process before. When it comes to monetising creative work on the internet, this Sturm und Drang kicks in about most digital tools and tactics as they start to mature.

I watched it happen in the gaming industry around 2005, when the platform that made digitally publishing RPG books changed the fees it charged for the first time. Another round followed not long after, when a viable contender to the reigning heavyweight platform emerged, and they changed policies to secure their business (and encourage people to stay exclusive to their store); then again, not long after, when they sought to move the smaller presses with a handful of products out of a crowded marketplace in order to make their site appealing to the major players.

I’ve watched it repeatedly, over the last few years, as Amazon rolled out tools like KDP select, then began altering the ways in which the payments were determined.

Heck, I’ve watched it in publishing generally, where the venerable tools for getting a book out there and connecting with readers started opening up and asking people to think about what’s the best way to achieve what you want to achieve in writing. Prior to ebooks and the internet, that was barely a question.

ON TOOLS, TACTICS, STRATEGY, & DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGY

In 2009’s BookLife, Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding book on the strategies and survival tips for the writing life, he breaks down the basic problem between tactical and strategic thinking:

Because writers often work organically and hate doing mechanical things like detailed novel outlines, they sometimes also shy away from creating actual lists of long-term and short-term career goals. Instead, many of colleagues have daily, weekly, or monthly “to do” lists that help keep them focused but also keep them stuck thinking in tactical mode, which makes it hard to engage strategic thinking. Yes, you know what you want or need to do for the next thirty years, but what about for the year? What about for the next five years? How do your daily/weekly/monthly tasks feed into a short-term goals, and how do your short-term goals feed into your long term goals?

In really simple terms, strategy is the overall vision of what you’re trying to do and tactics are the plans you use to get there. The latter should be in service of the former, but a good strategic vision means you’ve got a level of flexibility in how you’re getting there. It’s a similar insight offered by by Neil Gaiman’s conception of goals as a distant mountain you keep moving towards, rather than a map, and one of the reasons I advocate people getting out of the habit of assuming publication is their goal.

What’s interesting about living in the age of digital disruption is the tendency for people to produce tools that make new tactics viable. There is nothing particularly new about Patreon’s core strategy – going out to you fans has always been a tactical method of monetising art, as seen by the history of patronage and the existence of professional street performers. What limited that idea, in terms of making a viable amount of money, was access to enough fans with sufficient wealth and desire to support your work. The internet has made that access possible, and the crowd-funding model that Patreon built off meant you needed a large number of people willing to donate very little, rather than a handful of people willing to donate a lot.

This same thing is true of the ebook boom, and kindle unlimited borrow payments, and any number of other digital tools. Even something as simple as “create an online author platform.”

All tools evolve: once upon a time we hammered shit in with rocks, then someone invented the hammer; after everyone used the hammer, someone invented the nail-gun. The problem with the emergence of a new tool, which opens up a previously unviable tactic, is the ease with which it becomes assumed that it’s an unchanging, long-term strategy. One’s approach to making an income becomes tailored to the toolkit they’re working with, and it feels like the rug is pulled out from underneath you the moment the tool changes.

I’m yet to come across a tool aimed at creators that hasn’t changed and evolved as it matured. They’re all owned by people and companies looking to make their organisations viable, pursuing their own long-term strategies and applying different tactics. Patreon is four years old, and the last twelve months has seen significant buy-in from creators on every level, so it’s not a surprise that they’re adjusting their focus (although, looking at their rhetoric around the change, I’m surprised by the choices they’ve made in conveying that).

Good tools are seductive. Good tools built by people who are looking to monetise work on your behalf will always present themselves like long-term strategies because, as VanderMeer notes, they’re working with creative-types who don’t excel at strategic thinking and just want to get through the next ten minutes instead of the next ten years.

Moreover, the people building the tools are very good at encouraging it: having delved on the indie side of things for the first time in a while, I’m consistently impressed by Amazon’s ability to make it look like the upload process isn’t really finished until I’ve broken down and put my books on Kindle Unlimited. Similarly, while I ultimately decided against a Patreon, I’m consistently impressed by the way they sell their services to those who have expressed an interest.

It’s hard not to get suckered in, particularly when there are early adopters who are doing great and the approach feel revolutionary. I’m pretty sure every creative has one experience with it – I learned it the hard-way in my RPG ebook publishing days, when the consequences of building my tactics around the habits of just one sales site bit me in the arse just as I got my press established – but the response is the important part.

Railing at the folks who changed the tool feels great in the short-term, and may even have results and get things reversed for a time, but even if that happens it’s never quite the same. You’ve just seen the shift in their thinking, and you find yourself fretting about what happens if it changes again. The people engaging with that tool have just seen the same.

You no longer get to make tactical decisions on autopilot, which means folks either learn to think strategically and adapt, accept that they’ll do what they’ve always done and there will probably be less, or give up because it’s just too hard to keep going.

Only one of those is a truly sustainable option, but it’s also the hardest of them if you’re not used to thinking in those terms.

 

What’s Really Going On At A Successful Book Launch Event

Tonight I’m off to the Brisbane launch of The Silver Well, a short story collection by Kim Wilkins and Kate Forsyth. There will be wine, readings, finger food, book signings, and an evening spent celebrating two awesome writers who have done something new.

Some time tomorrow, depending on the timezone the various sales sites are using, my short story collection The Birdcage Heart & Other Strange Tales will be available for sale.  The launch will consist of a blog post, a handful of tweets spaced out over the last few weeks, and me going back to work on my next project for Brain Jar Press.

Today I’m going to talk about why.

WHAT NEW WRITERS THINK BOOK LAUNCHES ARE ALL ABOUT

New writers look forward to their book launch, but they don’t always understand how they fit into the publishing ecosystem. In the five years I spent answering phones at Queensland Writers Centre, the calls where people asked “how can I get people/the media to come to my book launch and sell books?” were among the most frustrating and difficult to answer because the disconnect between what people expected from their launch and what launches actually do were incredibly wide.

The misconception largely comes about because writers see their book as a big event, a milestone on par with getting married or having a baby or turning twenty-one. The book is the culmination of years spent toiling away at their craft, navigating the publishing landscape (whether traditional or indie), and it becomes an object loaded with hopes and expectations.

And just like getting married, or having a baby, or turning twenty-one, publishing can book is a milestone worth celebrating. It’s a chance to gather together family and friends who are invested in your success and feting all that effort.

The thing that warps expectations is the assumption that, unlike a wedding or a new child or a twenty-first, the release of the book is big news for people they don’t know.

New books, by and large, aren’t that big a deal. There are several hundred thousand new titles published every year, and all of them are competing for eyeballs and attention. While some are big news, it’s usually got very little to do with the fact that they’re being released and a whole lot to do with who has written them.

WHAT BOOK LAUNCHES ARE ACTUALLY ABOUT

The advice I always gave people over the phone, at QWC, was book launches are just a celebration for family and friends. They don’t draw in new readers (or the press) on their own. The reality is a little more complex than that, but it’s incredibly hard to convey it over the phone.

Here’s the truth: in some circumstances, book launches will sell books and they will sell books to people who don’t necessarily know you personally. They just tend not to happen if it’s your first book, and they definitely don’t happen if you’re looking at holding a stand-alone event just to generate sales.

If you strip back the advice I delivered over the phone to its heart, it’s really a simple idea: book launches are an opportunity to trade social and professional capital into sales and profile. A critical mass of readers picking up your book and talking about it is a good thing, as it transforms the release into a conversation and attaches it to social networks. In a world where the most prevalent reason for picking up a book is familiarity with the author, and the second-most-prevalent reason is recommendation from a trusted friend, these conversations can be critical.

The problem for most new writers is that their social capital is  pretty low – the people invested in their careers are largely the same people who are invested in other major life milestones. 

MODES OF CAPITAL AT WORK IN BOOK LAUNCHES

There are ways around this if you’re a new writer, most noticeably trading on other people’s social capital. The first time I had an actual wine-reading-signings kind of book launch was way back in 2009, when Horn was launched at the National Science Fiction conference in Adelaide.

I was a new-to-SF writer at the time, attending my second-ever conference, and away from the network of friends and family I’d built up in Brisbane. This meant I had a handful fo social connections at the conference to entice people along, but they were pretty small. What made that launch work was the social capital developed by Twelfth Planet Press as a small publisher doing interesting things in the SF space, and the general community capital that exists at science fiction conferences where dedicated readers who truly love the genre are looking for something new (and where you will find people who take a chance on new writers/works ‘for the good of the community’ more often than not).

Similarly, when you look at the Wilkins and Forsyth event I’m attending later tonight, they are two writers with a bunch of connections. Both are award-winning novelists deep into their careers, with over 60 novels between them. They’ve won awards, hit best-seller lists, and have an established pool of readers and professional connections spread around the country. Their launch is an opportunity to leverage social capital through personal networks, professional networks, and reader networks, and the associated prestige they both hold within the genre they’re working can also sway genre fans attached to those networks.

Their book launch may not be big news within the wide community in the way that household names like Stephen King or Stephanie Meyer would be, but for fans of SF and Fantasy the status of the writers (and the fact that it’s released through a small press) makes a collaborate book a noteworthy thing.

THE QUESTION TO ASK: WHAT ARE YOU TRADING THAT CAPITAL FOR?

Book launches can be costly events, even when they’re relatively small. Not just in terms of the social capital and goodwill they trade upon, but also in terms of hard costs (which, contrary to the ideas most writers have about the industry, aren’t always covered by the publisher). If you’re going to leverage your social capital and actual, hard cash on a launch event, you also want to a pretty good idea of what you’re getting in that space.

While there’s a definite ego-boost inherent to launching a book, you’d want to keep costs low if that’s all you’re going to get out of the exercise. The secondary concern is the illusive idea known as buzz – the value of the launch lies not in the immediate sales you get, but in the way those sales spiral out into social media conversations and reader recommendations over the weeks that follow. The most valuable thing about a launch is not that it’s a place where books are sold, but that it’s an event that sees your book talked about.

A few years back Goodreads did a study on how readers discover new books they want to read, By far the largest reason was they already knew the work of the author, followed by recommendations from trusted friends. They also discovered that it takes between 6 and 12 ‘touchpoints’ where a potential reader hears about the book before it actually converts into a sale/readership. The stronger a touchpoint (such as a friend recommending it directly, or mentioning it on social media, or getting a review from a trusted source), the fewer the touchpoints that were needed.

(If you’ve ever picked up a really popular book that’s outside your ordinary reading habits just to see what the fuss is about – say, The Da Vinci Code or Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight – then you’ve seen the power of touchpoints in real time. The book is so prevalent, so talked about, that it’s overriding your usual buying habits)

So a good book launch has ripple effects in the form of touchpoints – first people talk about being at the event on social media, then they talk about the book afterwards, then they talk to people who weren’t at the event that they expected to be there. The one-to-one relationship that’s built up by signing a book and talking to an author helps too, as we’re more likely to talk about books where we feel like there’s a meaningful connection to the author.

Book launches are particularly useful in the traditional publishing space, where building up buzz early is important due to the short sales cycle (about two to six weeks) that will see the book on store shelves. If you look at the launch and marketing cycles of most traditionally published books, they’re all about packing as many touchpoints as they can into that six weeks, from launch events to reviews to interviews and marketing.

Good buzz – even in small circles or dedicated communities – is a valuable thing for a book. It’s why picking up launches at events where communities are already gathering, like cons, is a really useful thing; the event is already generating conversations and your book becomes part of it. It’s why it worked particularly well for me, as a new author back in 2009, where the more sensational aspects of Horn’s ‘unicorn porn’ reputation generated a good amount of conversation before and after the launch.

SO WHY AM I LAUNCHING THE BIRDCAGE HEART IN SUCH A LOW-KEY MANNER?

If we’ve established buzz is valuable, let’s talk about the reasons I’m basically launching The Birdcage Heart and Other Strange Tales with a blog post rather than an event.

There’s an obvious answer in the fact that it’s ebook only at the moment, with the print version lined up for mid 2018, but that’s only part of it. Even if I was doing the print version straight off, I’d still be launching with a blog post and getting on with the next thing on my list – a physical launch is not an efficient leveraging of capital at this time.

One of the great advantages of indie publishing, and in particular the ebook side of things, is the space for books to find their audience. Rather than expending effort and capital to generate as much buzz as possible in the first month that the book is available for sale, the book can build sales over time as part of a perpetually-available backlist.

A good book launch leverages your social and community capital in order to get the best result you can for the book you’re trying to launch, but the metrics you use to measure that will be dependant on your business model.

Early buzz is at it’s most valuable in the traditional model, and in particular in the traditional model where only a handful of books (and thus, only a handful of attempts to leverage social capital) are released by the author every year. The indie author has less need to generate buzz about a book, and more need to generate buzz about the author and the press. This is less reliant on launch events and more reliant on other things the press/author is doing – regular releases that allow readers to touch base with the writer more often; ongoing engagement with dedicated readers throughout the year rather than drawing in general readers for a one-off bust.

This doesn’t mean early buzz isn’t valuable – it would still be great if people acquired the book early and talking about it in whatever venue they feel comfortable – but it isn’t one of the measures that will allow a book to sink or swim the way it will when there’s a short sales window. My metrics of success for the book have a lot more to do with how many copies are selling in 2019 and how many people find their way to my newsletter, not how many I’m selling by the end of 2017.

 

 

On Taking Processes of Autopilot

A lot of the advice for newer writers involves hacking the basal ganglia in order to make writing easier. All the old favourites about setting a regular schedule, picking a specific place and time where you invite the writing process in, is really about setting up triggers and associated habit loops that help you to overcome the initial resistance to writing (particularly when you know what you’re doing isn’t up to the standard you want). It’s one of the reasons I recommend Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habits as a foundational how-to-write book, even though it has nothing at all specific to the writing process.

The thing about setting up new routines, though, is that they’re often the solution to a very particular problem. Those early time/space triggers are great when you’re starting out and desperately trying to carve time out of your busy life to get work done, but they can be far less effective when your career starts to scale up and you find yourself trying to process more mail, or suddenly have to find editing time for your first draft while still attempting to write a new thing.

Context matters, when it comes to habit, and automatic activities are sensitive to changes in context. The writing habits that served me well when I went to an office regularly no longer work for me when I’m working from home, because the triggers that made them effective (going to work, coming home) are now absent. It’s why so many writers who suddenly go freelance find themselves struggling to work or match their output from the days when they worked around dayjobs.

Basically, solutions to problems that no longer exist – or automatic habits that no longer serve our needs – can be as big an issue as the original problem. It’s why it’s worth spring-cleaning your habits every couple of months, taking a look at what you do without thinking and figuring out whether it’s worth hacking or altering the habit.

I tend to throw my habit review into my Quarterly Review, picking an aspect of my life and taking a close look at the associated habits to see how I can make them more effective.

I’m tackling two at the moment, although only one has something specifically related to writing: a few months ago I removed the Facebook and Twitter apps from my phone, hoping that the momentary hesitation would result in me using the phone for more productive things during “distraction times” like sitting on public transport or queues. I could still access social media, but I’d do it using the phone’s browser.

This worked really well for a while, but it frequently resulted in me leaving a social media tab open in the browser and defaulting to it every time the browser opened. Since the browser was the central logo in the tray at the bottom of the screen, alongside the icons to get my messages and email, it resulted in me opening Chrome with the kind of pavlovian regularity that the Facebook icon used to incite.

Earlier this week I started hacking that habit – I took the Chrome icon out of its central position and moved it onto a secondary screen, hidden away behind a folder that would require me to engage the conscious thought in order to find it. In its place, I put the logo for my kindle app, figuring that if the habitual spot I triggered while waiting for something involved a book, I’d probably spend some additional time reading instead of surfing social media.

It’s been three days now, and I open my Kindle app a lot more than I used to do. I also read a lot more, because the moment an ebook pops up instead of a browser, my conscious brain kicks in and I make a choice. Sometimes I do still go back and check social media instead, but I’ve made a conscious decision to do be there instead of defaulting to it out of habit. The net result has been more reading, which in turn gives me more stuff I can use for writing.

Taking processes off autopilot every now and then means giving yourself a break to look at them objectively, figuring out where you can be more efficient or make changes that get you closer to the person you want to be.

The other habit I’m hacking? Making the bed every morning, after breakfast, and using that as a trigger for further cleaning and tidying. This has nothing to do with writing and everything to do with the fact that a) I’m a dude who now lives with another person; b) mess and clutter has an adverse affect on my mental health, and c) as a dude I habitually see mess and cleaning as someone else’s problem, and therefore point where I feel like I’m doing enough in terms of household chores falls way shorter than an equal distribution of domestic labor.

Sometimes taking habits off automatic is a chance to rethink who you want to be, instead of who you default to being.

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.

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 Shortcut Only Works When You’re The First to Find It

A thing I’ve been thinking about this week.

It’s tempting to say there are no shortcuts to becoming a published writer. The default published writers tend to give is simple: write a lot, keep improving your craft, submit a lot, keep going. This is how many of us got our start, and its how many of us keep our careers going, year after year.

It’s tempting to say there are no shortcuts, but it isn’t exactly true. Every now and then people do find a work-around to the old ways of getting published. They wrote a novel and published it to their blog, only to have it picked up by a publisher. They launched their backlist as ebooks after years of being rejected, and suddenly they had a massive career.

There are people who fanfic on Wattpad that got picked up, or they cultivated a project on social media, or they podcasted their story, or they did an early iteration of crowd-funding. There are dozens of stories about people who found their way around traditional publishing’s gatekeepers, and those stories tend to get repeated in every news article or review that springs up around their work.

None of these things are necessarily shortcuts, as they still require work and effort. They just took a different path to publishing, because publishing likes it when authors show up who can write, possess and audience, and come with a ready-made marketing hook. These people get talked about because their path into traditional publishing were exceptions to the rule. They are news because they remarkable, usually because they’re the early adopters who took a chance just to see what would happen.

The first person to capture an audience by blogging their novel was doing something unique; the hundredth person to do it will find that the shortcut was only faster because it was so rarely used. The thousandth person is basically throwing a penny into a wishing well and hoping it pays off. We’ve seen this trick before, and unless you’re doing it better, it’s not going to be the same.

Even if you possess the same level of skill and talent, it’s almost impossible to recreate that success by taking the same path the trailblazer followed. The more a path gets used, the greater the diminishing returns for the work put in.

What You Deliver, What You Sell

The folks over at Writer Unboxed recently put up a pretty good post about what going to a writers conference really buys you. As someone whose in the thick of organising a major writers conference myself, it’s always good to see these things discussed and get some idea of how other people are placing value on the conference experience.

It’s also a useful reminder of something that’s been true ever since I first started working with writers: writers will map their future success onto some pretty weird-ass things. Which means there’s a big difference between the things that will have the most benefit for attendees, versus the things you actually have to sell in the marketing to get them at the conference.

I make very little secret about my personal belief that networking and discussion between writers is the most valuable thing an event like GenreCon can offer the writers who attend. Attending a course or panel where you learn something important is great, but the long term benefit of having a broad pool of other writers who are aware of your ambitions and your work is significantly greater.

Your network is a source of advice and support, and it can be an incredible source of work if you’re engaged and active in the community you’ve built up. I’ve sold a novella because of my network, and first got my gig at the writers centre because of it. I’ve had blog posts turn into paid work, taught workshops, and landed freelance gigs. And I’ve learned far more talking to other writers over lunch or drinks than I have in the vast majority of the workshops I’ve attended, because workshops trend towards the general out of necessity and your friends can be very specific in their advice

But the thing about networking you keep in mind as an organiser is this: it’s not sexy. It appeals to no-one, particularly among a community with more than it’s fare share of reclusive introverts who prefer not to talk to people. It doesn’t have the immediate appeal of, say, pitching your work to publishers or doing workshops. You spend a lot of time focusing on those things when selling the experience, knowing that they’re thing that will get people through the door.

And every time someone contacts me, stressed out about the details of pitching or workshops, I find myself having to hold my tongue. They’re often freaking out because they see these as the big opportunity, a chance to get discovered and have their work launched into the big time. I just want to sit them down with a cup tea and say, stop stressing about the pitching, just focus on talking to people about things that aren’t your work all weekend. 

The idea of having your work discovered is strong, particularly when the wall between you and editors feels impossible to breach, and no-one likes the idea of networking. It feels too much like business cards and cynical interactions, nothing at all to do with art.

Networking, done right, is none of that. It’s just taking a deep breath and forgetting what you want for a while, focusing on finding out about others. Spending fifteen minutes talking to an editor about the books they love will do far more for your career than a short, five-minute pitch. They’re going to hear a lot of pitches over the weekend. They’re going to have significantly fewer conversations about how awesome Georgette Heyer is, and it’s not like they’re going to be unaware of the fact that you’re a writer when you meet at a writer’s conference.