Tag Archive for The business of words

Lost at Uni & Sad News about Clarion South

Yesterday I taught my first tutorial at the University of Queensland. Quite fortunately, no-one threw things, and I started to remember all the things I actually quite like about teaching and talking to aspiring writers.

I’d never really been to UQ before this. I visited once or twice about fifteen years ago, back when I was trying to work out where I was going to go to university and UQ was my more-or-less second choice due to the lack of an actual undergraduate writing program and my parents informing me that I’d spend my first year living in an all-boys Christian college. I went back once again for a friend’s art show, but that only required me to find a building very close to the car park, right on the outskirts on the campus. Apart from that, it was unfamiliar territory.

Turns out it’s quite big, and they’re very fond of stonework. Also, when printed, the campus maps have very titchy numbers that are hard to read after dark.

I made it to the initial meeting okay, whereupon I met with the other tutors and lecturers, and I got to follow them to the lecture theater, and then I could more or less follow a cloud of students to the class. It wasn’t until after the first class, when I said man, I’ve only got an hour between the end of the dayjob and tomorrow’s tute, I should probably figure out where it is now to save time that things became a problem.

I checked my map. I figured out where I was. I traced the path with my finger, using those landmarks I knew to figure out where to turn. It all looked very simple, so I set out full of confidence and  energy.

An our later I was lost and taking wrong turns, keeping a wary eye out for roaming minotaurs, while the skies merrily opened up and dumped rain on the campus.

Eventually I found my way out, drove home, ate take-out food, and wrote five hundred words before crashing into a comatose slumber.

I have to find the same tutorial room again today. If you don’t hear from me over the weekend, assume I’m wandering the campus , subsisting on vending machine chocolate. Or that the minotaur finally caught up with me, ’cause I’m pretty sure they’ve got one.

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Today the word went out that Clarion South was on indefinite hold, largely due to the loss of an affordable venue that could hold a motley crew of seventeen aspiring SF writers for six straight weeks. The full story has been posted on the Clarion South website and the vast majority of the Australian speculative fiction email lists, should you be interested in the details.

To say this is a loss to Australian SF is something of an understatement.

I count Clarion South as one of the single most useful things I ever did as a writer, largely because it’s relatively easy to find resources that will tell you how to write better, but significantly harder to find places that will give you good advice on how to be a writer.

Which is not to say that Clarion South won’t make you better at writing – it will – but for me the true value of the experience came from being exposed to six writers, all of them either neo-pro or pro, and finding out how they approached their careers.

And it came from being around seventeen other writers who were determined to move their career forwards, writing every day and cheering each other on, many of whom I’m still chatting with every week and cheering on as best I can in my own grumpy way.

For someone who’d been tucked away in the academic system up to that point, working in creative programs, it was the kind of revelation I needed to get me working and moving forwards.

Chris Lynch has recently posted a list of publications and other achievements my Clarion South year has achieved in the last four years, and it includes over 170 short stories, plays, poems, novellas, award nominations, and other entries. Which, when you consider that 3 of the seventeen attendees don’t have entries for various reasons, averages out at a whole bunch of work being put together and submitted.

The Great Bookshelf Reorganising of 2011

Reorganised Bookshelf

On Saturday night, around 4 am, I started reorganising bookshelves. It seemed like the thing to do, since I’d been studiously not-sleeping for five hours after going to bed.

Bookcases are one of the places where mess accumulates in my flat, largely because there’s so many of the damn things and I’ve developed a bad habit of taking things down, reading a couple of paragraphs, then putting them back somewhere else. What starts as a workable system quickly devolves over time, and every couple of years I have to start from scratch and reorganize the entire system.

The whole process tends to start around 4 AM, ’cause insomnia is my response to doing to much and thinking too much and generally feeling like things are out of control. Reordering shelves is my way of figuring out what is and isn’t important in my life, and everything goes on from there. It’s a mental reset, fighting back against my natural tendency towards entropy.

So far I’ve got two shelves down. There are many, many more to go.

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I mention this primarily because my friend Alan, and possibly my dad, were interested in knowing when the issue of Weird Tales with my story in it was available. And it now seems as though Weird Tales #357 is out in the world, and when all your friends are Lovecraft geeks this is about as cool as it gets.

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This has been doing the rounds of twitter and facebook recently, but for those behind the curve: a guy tries to sell “a story to topple Star Wars and Harry Potter” on ebay with a starting bid of $3,000,000.

There’s also a pretty good take-down of his sales pitch over at Bleeding Cool, but essentially what’s going on  is a new iteration of an old conversation that goes something along the lines of “oh, wow, you’re a writer? I’ve got a great idea, let me sell it to you and we can split the money it earns once you’ve written it.”

For those of you out there with a great idea: please don’t do this. It irritates writers and perpetuates the myth that ideas are somehow all it takes, rather than work and persistence and the occasional stroke of luck

Most writers will reply with something along the lines of “ah-huh, great, but I’m a little busy right now,” after which the writer walks away and mock you with their writer-friends, who understand that ideas are the cheap part of the equation and worth very little until someone builds a book/movie around them.

When you try to sell your idea on ebay for large sums of money, it just means you’ll be mocked in public. The internets are like that, sometimes. So are writers, really. I suspect we’re subconsciously bitter about the fact that our career is so frequently undervalued, both socially and monetarily, that the three million asking price is like a red cape to a bull.

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I tweeted this a little earlier this morning, largely ’cause I suspect there’s more gamers following my twitter/facebook feeds than there are following this blog, but just in case I’m wrong: RPGnow is raising funds for the NZ Earthquake victims. Folks who donate $20 get a bundle of over $320 RPG/gaming  ebooks donated by gaming publishers.

This is, as they say, a good cause worth supporting and the RPG ebook community has been very successful with such things in the past (and a tip of the hat to Melinda, who comments here occasionally, for giving me the heads up).

Writing, Budgeting, and Shame

My primary activity at the moment is not doing things, which is not conducive to exciting bloggery. For example, I’m not succumbing to the temptation to renew my Locus subscription; I’m not rushing out to buy the passel of books I really want to buy; I’m not going on online shopping sprees to celebrating the moment of parity between the Australian dollar and the US*. In fact, I’m not really leaving the house much for anything, really.

All of this takes considerable mental energy on my part, because the impulse is there to do all of them and in some cases (say, Locus) I can even partially justify why I should do them. Such are the realities of paying off credit card debt in my current circumstances – I’ve trimmed my budget to focus as much as possible on paying off the accumulated debt of the last year, and even then the realities of credit interest meant I’m only dropping the debt by $5-$20 a month. Eventually that will change – the payments will knock down the debt, the not-using-the-credit-card will keep new debt from accumulating, and thus there will be less interest as the months go by – but that day is a ways off . At the moment the best option available to me is getting used to not doing things, even if it’s hard and depressing and largely un-fun.

So the question becomes: why am I blogging about this? Well, call it a lesson in the psychology of being a writer (or, at least, this writer).

Like most people, I’m not actually terrible with money. I’m not great with it, but my bills get paid and my rent goes in on time and I’m rarely without food. Between post-graduate studies, a tendency towards casual employment, and a focus on writing as a long-term career, I’ve gotten used to living on not a lot of money. Most days I’m okay with the trade-off between earning much less in order to do the one thing that I’m really good at doing in the hopes it’ll pay off in the long run. And until about five years ago, I either avoided my credit card like the goddamn plague or kept it paid off when it was seeing regular use.

But, like most people, there were gaps in my budget that leaked cash like a sieve, and when I stopped doing sessional lecturing gigs a few years back the outlet for those became the credit card.

My first budgeting blind-spot largely came down to purchases justified under the aegis that I “needed them for writing.” Stuff like printer ink cartridges would get charged to the card on the weeks that I didn’t have the ready cash for them, or I’d look at a magazine like Locus and rationalise the subscription. Or I’d celebrate a story sale by hitting the bookstore, working off the theory that I’d pay things back when the cheque came in, and somehow never did. Yes, this is thoroughly stupid, but I suspect many people are stupid with their credit cards in much the same way.

And, honestly, it’s far less stupid than my second blind-spot. ‘Cause my second blind-spot is largely summed up as “shame.”

There are hundreds of small purchases on my credit cards that were primarily driven by shame:  petrol for the car so I could make it to social events without saying “sorry, I’m broke;
last-minute grocery shopping for when people where coming around so they weren’t exposed to my regular diet of hot-dogs and baked beans; pizza on those nights when the writing seemed hopeless and my life wasted and the only defense against the lingering spectre of shame was spending money on the simplest of luxuries. Birthday presents I wouldn’t have been able to afford under ordinary circumstances. Christmas. Meeting people for coffee. Simple things, ordinary things, that I just couldn’t bring myself to admit weren’t in the budget. It was rarely a lot of money, only ten dollars here and twenty dollars there, but it quickly added up.

And to be fair, this probably wasn’t needed – my friends and family have always been pretty good about understanding when I say “the money’s not there.”  The problem largely came down to me. Doing those things were a way of bolstering my self-esteem rather than taking the hit of saying “I don’t have the cash”, and it was a way of warding off the sinking feeling that maybe I just wasn’t good enough to do better. For years I warded off that feeling with the excuse of “post-graduate study”, but when I left the degree behind a few years back I no longer had that defense, and thus the credit card stepped in to pick up the slack.

I may well be alone in this, but I suspect this is the real danger when budgeting as an aspiring writer without a full-time day job: it’s hard to keep your eyes on the future and accept that you’re doing without now, especially if you’ve been doing without for a while . Writing is one of those careers that doesn’t have immediate payoffs, may never have a payoff at all, and doesn’t get a hell of a lot of respect in ordinary society. When you pick writing and you aren’t making a success of it, odds are there’s going to be a moment of shame somewhere in your future – the culture virtually demands it. You’ll feel it in your gut the first time you tell someone “I’m a writer” and they respond with the handful of usual response that statement gets. It’s one of the best reasons I can think of to listen to writing books when they say stuff like “don’t give up your day job.”  Hell, it’s the reason why I was much more productive when I had a damn day job and I really miss having one. It’s much easier to be proud of your work when you’re not wishing it’d earned you the discretionary cash to buy a new book, meet a friend for coffee, or afford a McDonald’s burger.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I was so interested in blogging this budgeting/credit card process, and it largely came down to the idea of writing without a net (ie, putting my process out there, warts and all) and a desire to just admit to the shame so I could stop worrying about it so much (cause, honestly, I don’t see it going away). A writer far smarter and more successful than I (probably John Scalzi) once blogged that writing is a career for people who enjoy being in a constant state of panic. I think that’s probably true, but it’s a mistake to think that all the panic is going to come from deadlines and late cheques and wondering how you’re going to pay your rent next week. Slowly, inevitably, some of that panic’s going to come from not moving as fast as you want to be, and some of it’s going to come from fear of failure, and some of it’s going to come from the thought that “maybe this is as good as I’m ever going to be.”

And based on my conversations with people who are further along the food chain than I am, I’m not sure that ever goes away. Somehow you have to figure out how to handle it and keep writing anyway.

L’esprit de L’escalier live at Apex Magazine

So the latest issue of Apex Magazine is now online and features my story L’esprit de L’escalier about a guy, and endless staircase, and the things you think about during the descent. There’s already some discussion about the story taking place over at I09 which has left me thinking, among other things, “wow, I really do need to read House of Leaves.”

And since we’re talking Apex, I’m going to take the opportunity to re-post something that the Apex Chief Alien Jason Sizemore put up on their blog recently. It interests me for two reasons: firstly, because Apex has been pretty good to me as a writer. This is the third of my stories they’ve published, and the first two have managed to sneak onto the occasional recommended reading list and awards shortlist, but I was a fan of the magazine long before I was published there. I subscribed, back when they were a semi-pro hardcopy magazine, and I’ve signed up to be a minion now that they’re a pro-level online market.

But the second reason this interests me is simple: the internet is changing the way people read and consume, and all too often it’s easy to forget this. The internet increasingly makes us passive in our consumption – these days I rarely even go looking for specific websites, since the combination of Twitter, Facebook, and my RSS feed pushes more information at me on a daily basis than I can process. And as a reader of short fiction, I’m acutely aware that passive consumption without thinking about the means of production will inevitably lead to less short fiction for me to enjoy. When I first read Jason’s post it immediately make me think about the relationship I have to many of the short fiction venues I enjoy, and hopefully it’ll give you a moment to pause and reflect as well.

And if you choose to drift over to the website and click on the big alien headed “become a minion” on the bottom of the page , well, that’d just be icing on the cake.

Becoming an Apex Magazine Minion
(Originally posted on the Apex Blog by Jason Sizemore)

One of the most common questions I receive has to do with Apex Magazine and where do I find the money to keep it operating. They see that we pay five cents a word. They see that we buy great art each issue. They see that the published products are polished and edited. You’ll find few typos in our stories (and if you do, feel free to call us out on it, I’d prefer fixing it than leaving it for the world to see like some ugly cold sore). They want to know how do I fund Apex Magazine.

The answer is simple. Straight from my pocket.

How much is this exactly?

It doesn’t take a math wizard to get a close estimate of how much money is spent running Apex Magazine. Copy and pasting Nick’s story into Word gives us a value of approximately 2100 words. Doing the same for Theodora’s story and you’ll get around 7200 words. That alone is $465 in author expenses. The poem was $5 and we paid $25 for the VanderMeer reprint. All told, $495 in author expenses.

I’m not going to divulge what we paid the artist, but I can give an honest estimate of $50 per issue for the art.

Each issue costs on average $500-$600 to produce.

Even with my prior post asking our readers to consider becoming a minion, the magazine has earned $122.36 this month through donations, minion memberships, and digital copy sales. And this is an exceptional month. Most months the amount is $40-$60.

I love financing and producing Apex Magazine. But I sure could use an assist. Even if the amount earned was just half the cost to produce it would be a great help.

I don’t ever foresee me ending Apex Magazine. I love working with writers, artists, and editors too much for that to happen. Yet, painful concessions would have to be made eventually. Our word limit would decrease. Pay would drop below the professional rate. No more beautiful art to adorn each issue. Fewer reprints. No poetry.

This isn’t one of those patented Internet ultimatums: ya unappreciative bastards pony up or I close the show. This is me asking for some financial aid to help Apex Magazine remain a top-notch pro publication. I know it can be done because I know our site visit numbers. Since June, 2009, they have doubled. Over a 30 day span, a single story on Apex Magazine receives an average of 2000 unique visitors (and draws about 10 a day as long as it’s available).

Being a minion grants you benefits and rewards. You will receive each issue (in seven different eBook formats) a week before the content is posted online. You get a discount code for the Apex Store. There are a number of other benefits, as well. Check them out here.

If you’ve made it this far, well, thank you for your kind attention. But shouldn’t you be clicking the link above to become a minion? Get to it, already!

The follies of the past week

1) I signed up for NaNoWriMo

There’s plenty of folks among my circle of friends who do this every year, but for me it’ll be the first attempt at the nano-madness in seven or eight eight years. I primarily signed up because I miss the rigor of the public daily wordcount and it’ll be nice to have somewhere to put one without boring the hell out of everyone reading the blog. Should you be interested in watching me change the totals on a wordcount meter I can be found under the name PeterMBall on the nano site. I also promise there will be minimal wordcount updating on this here blog. Honest.

2) I started writing short stories again

And it’s been a while, I tell you. I took a break from short fiction around the middle of the year with the goal of getting a novel drafted. After that I took a break in order to focus on getting the draft of Claw done. And after that, I stayed on a break while focusing on getting the novella that replaced Claw done. And now it’s October and I’m looking at the pile of unfinished, awkward stories and wondering if maybe it’s time I get back to them. ‘Cause, at the very least, when writing short stories I can pretend I know what I’m doing.

3) I paid off my credit card debt

And for a breif, glorious period I allowed myself to feel happy and at peace with the world. Then, five minutes later, I did the math on how I’m going to buy groceries and pay bills over the coming month and the giddy high of being free of the soul-crushing debt wore off. So it goes, folks, in the lands of unemployed writerdom. Please don’t try this at home 🙂

4) I started reading the collected works of HP Lovecraft*

After years of playing the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, revelling in the critical commentary that surrounds his work, and collecting more Lovecraft anthologies than you poke a stick at, I finally broke down and started reading the short stories of Lovecraft in what I hope is their entirety.

5) Write Club Returned after a long haitus

There was merriment . And wordcount. And chocolate.

For those who may be curious: the Lovecraft reading will be the third male writer I’ve read since asking for recommendations for female writers a few months back and the first that’s not work-related. This puts my reading total at about 4 books by male writers to 38 books by women over a period of three months. And I’m working on another blog-post about that project once I’ve got some free time in my schedule.

Transition Periods

It’s weird – the business side of writing always creeps up on me and mugs me while I’m not looking. And it’s not because I never thought I’d need to paying attention to this stuff, just that I always thought the process would move a little slower than it does.

Over the last couple of months I’ve had to set up two new spreadsheets in my writing folder. The first, originally set up a few months, is your basic quarterly profit-and-loss data – what’s coming in, what I’m spending, etc. I’d been avoiding doing this for a long while, but the realities of my working situation (heading into a year of long-term unemployment, albeit broken up by some short-term and part-time contracts) have made it necessary if I wish to continue paying rent and avoid some unpleasant conversations with the local social security office.

The second spreadsheet, and the most recent to be created, is designed to keep track of what rights are where for stories that have already been published – something that I was first told was worthwhile about two years ago, but never really seemed necessary until a few days ago (reprints, after all, were things that happened to other people). This was one of those things I figured I could get away with not doing for much longer than this – after all, I could just go check contracts when the questions came up – but what I thought was a stray question about the rights of a particular story quickly got followed by a couple of others and after I spent a week not-replying to an e-mail because I was in the midst of reorganising the files…

Yeah, well. Yet another moment where I realise that I’m slowly drifting away from being the guy who just writes and submits stories and started becoming a guy whose running a slightly wonky, badly administrated and marginally profitable small business.

Talking Dirty: Why Writers Should Focus on Being a Business

Over the weekend I headed out to a Professional Writing Seminar held by Marianne de Pierres which covered all sorts of ground that’s common at such things, but also hit a few key points that I hadn’t come across before. Part of what she talked about during the seminar was taking responsible for your own professional development (and, well, your career in general), and as someone whose done a lot of development (as a student) and developing (as a tutor, and a lecturer) it got me thinking about the gaps in my own skill set.

I’ve done a lot of stuff to develop my skills as a writer – undergraduate and post-graduate writing programs, workshops, six-week courses like Clarion South – but more and more I’m starting to feel like I’ve got the writing part down (kinda) but still need to work on the day-to-day business side of things: dealing with page-proofs, handling contracts, and taking care of what little money I make via writing.

We Treat Money Like a Dirty Topic in the Arts

Writers, as a general rule, don’t really talk about handling money in any meaningful way. There have been some good instances of it recent years – it seemed like John Scalzi’s words of advice for writers about money went around the internet in a matter of moments – but as a general rule it’s still a taboo topic once you get past “writers don’t make money; don’t quit your day job.” This is probably why Sean Williams’ post about the taxation, accounting and effective record keeping seminar he held at the South Australian Writer’s Centre fascinates me. He doesn’t really hit the details of the seminar in any meaningful way, but there are some very colourful graphs that give a rough outline of where his deductions come from and where the money he doesn’t get to keep is going.

I’ll be honest; I would have killed to be at that workshop. What advice there is out there is often vague, or slanted to a different tax system, and I think there’s a need for that kind of stuff to be out there and accessible. People spend so much time getting together the writing skills they need to become professional authors that the other stuff tends to get overshadowed.

It’s a lesson that all writers should embrace: think about the business side of things – especially the money management – real early in your career. You’ll be surprised how quickly you find yourself wishing you had those skills down.