Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Happy New Year!

Boy, it's been a ride.

I'm not sure how useful it is to look back over the whole decade; 34 to 44 is kind of the middle chunk of "adulthood", and the super big changes that seem to be so common didn't happen for me (no children, no major illnesses, no major life crisis). Still, here goes.

In 2010, I managed to jump from "journalist" to "editor" and switched from covering private equity in the DACH region to even weirder financial products: global exchange-traded derivatives. Wrote a few smashing articles (if I dare say so myself) and my first deed at the new day job was literally to call US lawyers and ask them what they made of the Wall Street Act. I'd just bought a house and was deliriously happy about the £5k/pa pay rise that still put me well below London average wage, and there were no benefits and the company was super-toxic with a weekly "name and shame the writer of this headline" culture.

I had a real sense of "growing up" when we moved into our house. I didn't write much that year, but Scorpion happened to me (or rather, I picked that 18k fragment back up and finished it). Finished that year by getting out of that toxic workplace to switch over to my Favourite Job Ever at an investment bank with a massive pay rise, much less stress and a much nicer office. This allowed me to spend money on courses and self-development, which I did. So yeah, 2011 was good, even great, though ended with us all getting fired again. That job gave me a lot of time to write and edit and look at this writing gig seriously, which continued for a few years. I was keeping my head down and focused on writing, meeting good people and other people who proved to be a complete waste of my time and energy, but I did put out a solid amount of work, which was the main investment and payoff. Laid off again from a super boring job in general financial services, and loathing Canary Wharf by that point.

Having dodged unemployment during the actual financial crisis, things caught up with me in mid-2014. Major reorientation; too much time to think, depressed, sleeping a lot, not very productive overall. Hopes I could live off writing. I did work for three months at an insurance magazine in a start-up - main lesson: if a start-up run by a former McKinsey consultant offers you a job, laugh, but not so much that you can't run hard. Miserable three months; holy hell, can office work be awful. Self-published Return on Investment, which did much better than expected - strong sense that self-publishing is the way forward. During ten months of "unemployment", I studied massage in a formalised setting, but worked out I love massage but don't want to ruin my hands/wrists for that kind of pay. Had a seriously mystical experience during massage practice. Finally decided to get Reiki attuned (level 1). Did the NLP Practitioner course after learning TFT and hypnosis. Used my new sharp skillz to get my current job in 2015.

Much of 2015 passed in a blur of work-related stress. Trying very hard to find a new balance between work and life, and failed for 6-10 months, until I slowly clawed back my creativity. 2016 - Witches of London happened when I asked the question, "What should I write and what do I actually know/care about?" and a lingering sense of deep burnout from erotic romance. Decision to let my freak flag fly. That book set me on the path to Asatru and astrology - nothing like writing a book as an offering to a divine entity, and learning astrology so I could work out how Julian thinks (I got things wrong there, but by now I think a lot more like Julian - funny how that works). Got Reiki level 2. Did the NLP Master Practitioner plus hypnosis. Still the question of "What do I want to be when I grow up?", with so many of my former  "dream careers" falling well short of expectations or being actively destructive of things I love and value, though I did work out I love coaching and hypnosis, and am actually great at hypnosis, and people found the coaching valuable.

Life at this point took a majorly spiritual turn; truly a year or two of The Hermit, as I go inside and look at the stuff I find. Meet my coven mates, and finding spiritual people so much more pleasant than my former associations. Deciding to get back into tarot seriously, dabbled in various magickal systems, work out I'm a total intuitive. Past-life regressions and dealing with old karma; conscious decision to "play white"; examined multiple spiritual orders and practices and worked out I'm not a Buddhist but love Buddhism, and occult orders very much aren't for me. Enjoying the writing of weird books, though it's a departure from the easy erotic stuff, though the Brexit referendum is decided and puts a dark cloud over everything.

2017 - getting my stuff back together and refocusing on writing/publishing. Eagle's Shadow gets published, as well as Exile and Shadow's Watching. Mostly I'm busy going through the old backlist, proofing and editing and then re-publishing books while the day job remains intense. I also translate Witches of London into German as a exercise to get my language skills back up and publish that. Part of the language thing is due to the thought that I might have to return to Germany and some translation experience might be good to have, just in case.

2018 - Spiritual questing continues, and I waste too much time following US/UK politics, but in happier news, I re-jig our overall diet towards being more plant-based. Several crises of faith about the day job, but can't seem to find a way out. Reached an agreement to split the rights of co-written books, freeing me to publish some stuff and getting most of my old books back out under the "new" branding after a spit and polish.

2019 - Moonstruck is the last of the old books that don't need major re-writes and gets published in April. Layoffs result in major stress increase at work; months spent trying to work out how to get to part-time lead to nothing. Have multiple job interviews but am not biting. Brexit a major stressor; I'm making more contingency plans in case I can't secure Settled Status. Southpaw (formerly Suckerpunch, formerly Counterpunch, and originally Untouchable) doubles in length and is acquired by Dreamspinner and now called Mean Machine. I waste too much time following US/UK politics. I apply my strong financial background to personal finance and re-jig our finances, putting an actual plan in place to quit the rat race.

Overall, I created a solid body of work and grown tremendously as a person. Financially, I went from really quite precarious to having a solid foundation in place. Struck it lucky multiple times when it came to job changes and salary increases. My partner's been my rock throughout. So glad to have my spiritual and witchy people, and a plan to go forwards. Some of my best experiences in publishing were about working with great voice talent, my foreign-language publishers Triskell and Juno in Italy and France respectively, and my translators, of course. It was great to sign translation deals for French, Italy, and Hungary over those past few years.

I also deeply value my writing friends, editors, cover artists and beta readers - all of those are relationships that happened in those past 10 years and I'm looking forward to taking those with me into the next decade. Some of my happiest times were relating to travel too (Lanzarote, France, Germany, New Zealand especially, though I also went to the US a few times, Russia, Poland, Italy, the Netherlands), and if anything, I want to travel more next year, though places right on the water are really the best for me. And there were so many fun and energising encounters with readers and clients. I'm hoping to make more time for those as well.

2020: 
I've really only set a few goals, and these will be adjusted and reprioritised as time goes on.
- Write/finish 2-3 books and publish them
- Maintain my overall spiritual practice
- Trim down/optimise possessions
- Contribute a certain amount to investments, pension plans and the mortgage
- Do more coaching work and consultations (writing, astrology, tarot, etc)
- Ignore politics unless I can actually do something about it - it's not like there will be many surprises from here

2030:
Just looking back over the past decade, it would have been impossible for me in 2010 to predict or plan for "me" in 2019 - though the seeds were there and the actions were there. I did harvest from work I put in during that time, and the overall trajectory is very much "up". Money, people, writing, spiritual wellbeing are all so much better now.

The one thing I can plan for is financial independence; by 2030 and with current cash flows, I should be able to have quit the day job and do something else. My date for that is 2025. I might work part-time because having a bit of structure helps me.  Maybe the consultation stuff actually pays my bills. It would be great to have found an actual structure/office hours for the stuff I love doing and get paid for it, while I keep writing. I can't tell where the spiritual quest will be leading me.

Saturday, 14 December 2019

The song of the immigrant

With the politics off my chest (#NotMyPrimeMinister), and having spent three years in an anxious  stupor (plus my stressful day job, but that could have been more manageable if I had had more surety about my status), it's enough. I've had enough.

One of my first responses after the referendum was shock and horror as a human being, as an immigrant, and as an artist. See, I came to the UK almost 14 years ago. I intended to stay. I had a lump in my throat during the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony.

I'm not going to talk about how all that has shifted - it's summed up best as an overwhelming sense of alienation.

When the referendum was announced, I was halfway through Witches of London: Lars. If you're perceptive, you can feel the tonal shift of the book between the bit written pre-referendum, and the bit written post-referendum. I've done everything I could to even the caesura out, but I can definitely feel the rift like a scar when I re-read the text. In fact I almost lost that novel because I felt so much horror at Brexit that I could barely bring myself to continue writing about English people - who've been my material and personnel ever since I came over.

But I'm nothing if not stubborn, so I muscled through. I loved the Witches of London premise very much and willfully pushed through both Eagle's Shadow, and Shadow's Watching with Jordan Taylor. Both of those novels found a way around the wound in my mind - the first has a huge hopeful message about how nationalities are constructs and how we're all just humans, and we moved the second novel outside of London and into Switzerland - literally "neutral territory".

But WoL has always been multiple books. It could easily have sustained me for a few years and 7-10 novels. I don't often get a premise that is so flexible and that I care about enough to keep going for so long (I admire authors who can stay in love with long-running series after long-running series and keep pushing forward with those). Lars was easy to write until June 2016.

You might have noticed that I haven't been writing much recently. I'm fed up and disgusted with so many aspects - the rise of UK*P and other authoritiarians, the complete shitshow that is the press, and the political establishment, the cowardly, brazen, nasty, corrupt and frankly incompetent main actors - the daily outrages, the race-baiting, the constant shitting on immigrants, the slander, the childishness and spinelessness.

I know in my mind that lots of British people are still doing the right thing, alas, I've lost all faith in this "mature democracy" on the collective level. All those WWII jokes are getting very old (yes, you bombed my grandparents, turned the city of my birth to rubble, and it's still godawful ugly because of that, well done you, I hope you enjoy). If somebody gave me British citizenship for free, right now, I wouldn't take it. I've been called a "citizen of nowhere" too many times and used too often for target practice. I'm not going to bend the knee to the people who've used me as a pawn and continue to do so. Let me be a citizen of nowhere, then. I have a golden eagle on a burgundy passport that says I belong somewhere at least, if all else fails.

And if the alienation and anger weren't enough, all those small and large insults, fears and horrors have had another effect on a much more insidious and painful level (because writing and stories are my refuge from the world, where truth is still true, where spine and conviction will win out, where determination, faith, and love always win), is it put a glass wall between me and my British characters.

(I dodged all that with Exile by moving things back into space - a book basically nobody has read but it gave me time to come to terms with some stuff, so I had to write it, but yeah, the title is meaningful and telling.)

This year, I managed to write Brook in a new version of Counterpunch, because let's face it, I've known that guy for nine years and he came back to me the moment I told him I was interested, and besides, his story is now very much about Brexit and the pain of alienation, so that fit me nicely. The very diverse cast also helped. Moving the story a few years into the future and half a step to the side from the timeline we're currently on helped me write about the UK, though I was relieved when I could move the story to New York/Vegas - it was respite from the current shitshow. It's also an angry and political book now and should come out as Mean Machine next year.

But I had to come to terms with the fact that the referendum, and the aftermath, have broken my link to my characters. I could have happily written the four or five Market Garden stories that were always planned (even without my ex-co-writer, because she would not have been involved), but the problem is, I can't write about British people boinking happily ever after anymore and the tone would now be so gritty and dark that readers would be unlikely to enjoy the shift from what's largely guilt-free rentboy porn to "sexual exploitation and immigrant bashing with explicit sex". I wouldn't be able to keep my anger out of it - so better not ruin a good thing.

Ultimately, I can no longer inhibit these characters naturally - the same way I feel unnatural and alienated in the UK. In the "real world" I can go through my day - every day - as a "guest worker", knowing I'm here at the sufferance of a government for which I'm just a cost/profit item and barely a human being. But I can't live like that inside my characters.

I can't count how often I've told myself, "Oh, get over yourself", and I've struggled along, stared owlishly at fragments I wrote when I hadn't yet lost my faith in this country. I can't continue. I need to believe in my characters and I have to live inside them, and that means inhabiting their cultures. In many ways, writing about a character who's from a culture that's not my own is a bit of a love song to that same culture (Nightingale has given me a deeper love for the French, for example). I have not enough love or faith left to sing that particular song now. Maybe as a person I'm not strong enough to see beyond that pain.

In many ways it's funny, one of the reviews I'm most proud of, went along the lines of: "Aleksandr Voinov writes alienation like no other". Well, that got dialled up to 11 in 2016 and I've struggled against that since then, and even my stubbornness hasn't helped me win the day - I have to admit that the weight has proven too hard to lift or carry. Time hasn't healed the pain - it has only turned my anger cold - I still don't want to write about those people anymore. I can't. And that's the reason why there haven't been more Market Garden books, even though they were easy money - or more Witches of London books, even though I love that premise and those characters so much.

I've questioned pretty much everything - should I maybe write German fantasy again? I used to love fantasy. Maybe focus on just translating my work into German. Both would help getting my mother tongue fluent again. Allegedly, you can still make a bit of money from books in Germany, which is less competitive. I could team up with my old friends and build something totally new.

If I can't inhabit English characters anymore, maybe write about continental Europeans. I've entertained the thought of writing a very large novel cycle based on German history (I was aiming for one novel per century and then, from 1910 onwards, one every 10-25 years because history feels like it's speeding up there), following one or two families or building a city as a setting and show how it changed. Those would be very much focused on how German history is very much European history (multi-national cast, with "nationhood" something that is being negotiated and may change). There's so much material here that nobody has really touched, especially from a LGBTQ+ perspective. So that's something like 20-30 novels - easily a life's work.

I've thought about writing about the Great Northern War, about August the Strong, Duke of Saxony and King of Poland (and, according to family myth, one of our ancestors because "the Strong" was a monicker about his sexual prowess and he sowed his oats very generously among his subjects - and one branch of my family is from Saxony). I've thought about writing about a wandering alchemist/astrologer travelling Europe during the Enlightenment (the main attraction is certainly the clothes - I can't understand why we ever moved away from tricorne hats). I've also thought about returning to sci-fi and fantasy and write sexy stories about virtual reality (I have a concept and everything). There's a book about a Nazi hunter, and about a guy or two re-building his life among the rubble post-1945. There's a story about a German Afghanistan vet, too, current day, who's rebuilding himself and coming to terms.

I keep circling back to WoL, though, trying to somehow adjust the premise to my changed inner life and structures. I want to finish the series, which has always been about chosen family, but my feeling is that the characters will eventually leave London. Don't worry - they'll be fine. I'm not sure how they can stay together, so the "coven" will get destroyed - it has to if I stay true to the setting - as the witches are scattered to the wind.

Maybe that's the way to finish the series. If Brexit had been called off, I could just have pretended 2016-2019 had never happened on that timeline and continued with a pre-Brexit London, or, more accurately, a no-Brexit London. I could have blithely continued on that path. Well, reality has destroyed that option. The setting those books were set in no longer exists, and I can't pretend that it does.

But maybe that's a good story, too. I will try to finish the stories I have half-written, but I can't promise I can keep my anger out of them, or Brexit, or alienation. I'll finish the fragments mostly because they're really good, and then find a way to write about Europe instead of the UK. That's the song I've been given to sing, the material I have to work with. The only thing I can do is honour that and speak my truth, as always. 

#NotMyPrimeMinister

I've organised my thoughts sufficiently to talk about the UK elections. Firstly, I believe the campaign, driven by shady characters and shady money, is a prelude and a test case for the US in 2020. The tactics, the plutocratic interests, the slogans, even the Twitter troll armies (and Facebook ads) are too similar to ignore. Two of the "great global democracies" have begun their descent into authoritarian, proto-Fascist darkness. Hell, they even use the phrases that were test-driven in another "great democracy" 90 years ago, and proved a huge success. Both are dissolving consensus reality - we can't trust what we see and hear anymore, and, insecure about the facts, we freeze or step back. The good lack all conviction. It surely won't be as bad. Right?

I don't know what it is about humanity that we need these fragile strongmen, every few generations, to lead us towards perdition. Meanwhile, climate change is the ticking clock on the wall. It's dire. BJ is still considered a "buffoon". Well, when that other guy rose, 90 years ago, the politicians and population who weren't his ardent followers (and he had those) considered him a bit of a clown too. People now think that BJ will soften his stance, now that his majority is so overwhelming that he doesn't have to cater to the hardcore extremists.

That other guy, 90 years ago, would "surely mature in office" and "his incidentary rhetoric will surely calm down now that he's Chancellor."

Turned out, he didn't.

BJ even got his "empowerment law" through parliament (those Henry VIII powers are scary, guys).

I hope I'm wrong. But I'm a historian by training, and I've studied the same playbook that these players are using, and am frankly shocked that that shit flies when we have all the hindsight and books dissecting how Fascists and authoritarians and supremacists have done it, in multiple countries.

But that's the cards we've been dealt, and as Mark Twain is said to have said, history doesn't repeat, but it sure rhymes.

I'm still pondering what to do. My immediate future is secured, the Home Office has deigned to grant me Settled Status - which means nothing without a deal, and I don't trust the UK Government to not curtail my rights later when it's expedient. Not only am I for the moment allowed to cast my filthy immigrant shadow on Albion's hallowed soil, poppies and all, they've also told me I can apply for British citizenship, but I find the very thought revolting, to be honest. Firstly, Germany allows dual nationality only with other EU countries (so with the UK leaving next month, that's a very small window of time), and I'd never give up my citizenship, because ironically it'll protect my partner's rights if and when we choose to get the hell out of Brexitannia.

We had that chat late at night after the exit polls showed that the UK has switched the light off. For the moment, we're fine - we are both employed in the City, we make solid money, we stuff money into our private pensions, and we're paying off the house quickly, and we have private medical. As homeowners, we'd be Tory voters (except I'm an immigrant, and nobody in this house will ever vote Tory at any election). I asked whether he wanted to bring our exit plan forward, explaining to him he has every protection in Germany (and, I think, by extension, anywhere in Europe), which seemed to surprise him.

He said: "Yes, but I'm aware of all the people who can't leave, like $godson, and $goddaughter, and for them we gotta fight back."

So that's one thing we'll do. We'll do our very best to fight back. Time is on our side - demographics show that the kids (i.e. people below 40 years) are all right. And the kids will grow up witnessing 15-20 years of Tory cruelty, and seeing the NHS getting sold off, with all the suffering that will entail. The Tories are turning the young generation into activists with political awareness, while their own supporters age out and die off. In the long run, we'll be fine (though climate change might get us before then - but even then, the youngsters have grown up with Tories doing absolutely fuck-all in the face of an existential threat).

In the small details, Dude and I will both most likely join a political party, and help where we can. Our "get out" plan is established and automated - we are ready to leave pretty much within mere months if necessary. I'm pushing even harder our efforts to put money aside (diversified into euros because we'll most likely end up in the EU somewhere, France or Germany), and increase my earnings. On an even smaller level, that'll mean writing more again because royalties will help reach the point where we can walk away from the blazing fire in time and unscathed. Personally, I now consider the government and its agencies hostile i.e. actively xenophobic, racist, supremacist, and unaccountable - I've run out of trust and I'll do my very best to be prepared and stay prepared to leave, while monitoring the power grab and hostile actions in detail, and getting and staying organised.

But for the moment, we stay and fight, for the children of our friends.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

The new Master Plan (the good and the bad)

While I was waiting for my Southpaw edits (the book is no longer called that, by the way), I went down a particular rabbit hole; there've been odds and dead ends and books that led to other books, but in the end, I found what I was semi-consciously searching for. I say semi-consciously, because where I started with my questions wasn't where I ended up.

The question was: when will I have enough money in my pension to be able to say "Cheerio, Ms Sophie" to the full-time, all-out, screamingly mad day job, with the aim to spend more time writing and no longer trying to fit two and a half full-time jobs into my 44-year-old brain, which is seriously getting old. All of that without getting my partner to carry the burden of looking after another human being who'd rather spend time talking to people who don't exist than earn money, and who is very unlikely to "break out" in a tiny genre dominated by author collectives and people paying for Amazon ads while employing a dozen ghostwriters to make a million or so on Kindle Unlimited.

(I write because I love writing, not because I want to make a shiny million running a stable of ghosts.)

And the answer was... complex.

Backing up.

I crunched numbers, ran scenario analyses on various returns of investments, multiple income streams, various cash flows, and then I compared that against a number of budgets. Ultimately, it was "what can I achieve if I hustle" versus "What do I actually need", and then I changed the variables like two dozen times to account for Brexit, being kicked out of the country and having to return to Germany, sterling tanking 30%, etc. I looked into every bank account, every pension fund, every debt, and I read several personal finance books and blogs and sat down with a big sheet that had "assets" and "liabilities" and then "net worth" written on it, and I tallied it all up until I knew to the exact pound how much my partner's worth and how much I'm worth (ie our household worth), and where that value is trending. Also what my pension entitlement is, and how to maximise my partner's state pension.

Then I tracked my budget - how much do I spend on what. I still had the numbers fresh from doing my company taxes, so that part was relatively easy.

That gave me numbers; on the positive side, the numbers are quite pleasing by themselves, but they aren't big enough to do what I've set out to do. The good news is, the income side is pretty generous (thanks, day job), but the bad news is that I was throwing out a lot of money without return for lack of a strategy.

That last part has now been remedied. I have a strategy. It involves a multi-pronged attack on the problem:

1) Save money.
2) Cut back.
3) Invest.
4) Patience.

Point 1 means I'll stay the course and not spend money just because it's there. That should be pretty logical, but the mental habit to break is "I can afford this" or spending as a comfort blanket, and just put the money into the kitty. So that expensive fountain pen I've been eyeing for two years just got cancelled. This will have a direct impact on audiobooks - I don't really make the money back if I pay for them myself (I make maybe £50/month in Audible royalties, meanwhile having a novel produced easily costs £1,500 - so 2.5 years of income go into one audiobook, and I'm leaving out the fact I'm paying taxes on that money, which is another 20% at least, while I could use the money to buy my freedom. Same for author swag - I had some really cool ideas that cost like £800, and those are cancelled too, much as I'd love full-colour printed insulated coffee mugs with my cover art.)

Point 2 entails cutting back on spending that I was already doing. I've cancelled pretty much all subscriptions (gym, Audible, KU, Muso, etc) and I think I had one takeaway coffee last month. The idea is to keep cutting back to reduce my outgoings to the bare minimum. This also involves being super selective about which conference I'll attend. There's no way I can justify the £2,500 to attend GRL (flights, hotel, lost income/value of the holidays), but I can swing the UK Meet and EuroPrideCon, as well as Salon du Livre. If I were super hardcore, I'd cancel those, but the truth is, they refresh my soul. This will also include spending on holidays and restaurants, birthdays, Christmas, etc. I love food and travel, but I love my freedom more. The biggest challenge will be how to fit charitable giving in there, and I'm still working on making sure I'm helping people in some way.

Point 3 is kinda funny and relatively recent. The extra "saved" money is getting invested into a number of assets. I've been in financial services long enough to have a strategy. Even assuming there's a crash, I'll come out quids in. And if the global financial system collapses, and my strategy stops working, well, then I'll likely have bigger problems than retirement, to be honest. But so does everybody else. I've tested my strategy backwards and forwards and plan to beat - at the very least - the guy who's running my pension fund at Scottish Widows. I know an insane amount about finance, so this is the part where I'm putting all of that to work. I've pondered the ethics of this quite seriously and 2020 is the year when I really get going on this. Paying off the mortgage is part of this strategy, so that's happening too. Once the house is paid off, I'm taking a big chunk out of the amount I need to spend just to live, so a paid-off house will seriously help.

Point 4 is possibly even more important than the others. Over the past 12 months, it's become very clear that my day job has a "best before" sticker - it won't be forever, or certainly I won't. I tried to go part-time, but the bank basically said "these are the parameters of your role, take them or leave", and I decided to take them. Based on the numbers I've crunched, I need to stay for anywhere between two and seven years. Two years is "must", five years is "should", seven years is "can", so I'm aiming for five, to be safe and because I don't have money coming to me by way of inheritance, otherwise I could shorten that period.

Thinking five years ahead is a bit of a sinking feeling, but the truth is, I've already done 4.5 there and I can do another stint, because I know what I'm doing it for, and I know to the hundred pound note exactly how much my freedom costs - and that of my partner, because if I'm going to walk free, I'm taking him with me. I already have a headstart in some ways - I'm still healthy, well-educated, I have all kinds of skills, and I contributed to a pension even while I strictly couldn't afford to lose that money. Past me, thank you for every penny you put into that kitty 11 years ago, this is really helpful now.

In 5-7 years, I should get to the point where I live mortgage-free, have some modest income from investments, and greatly reduced need for money (thanks to all the cutting back), and then I can live off writing. Or reading the cards and/or interpreting horoscopes, coaching, or running other people's money - I don't expect I'll ever stop working, but at least I won't have to commute to an office anymore.

That actually leads me to point 5: Learn more skills that allow me to earn some more money from side hustles for the point in time when books are written by computers in thirty seconds each. I'm quite seriously considering getting actual qualifications as a portfolio manager (yes, I'm absolutely going to channel my inner Francis de Bracy for this journey).

The guiding principle of all my planning, as I said to my partner this morning, was that I need to get us to a place where we're both comfortable even if one of us dies, or we separate - and that very much means earning double incomes for as long as it takes, ie a few more years from now, and stash most of the cash and put it to work. It's not a flashy "rockstar" lifestyle, but it'll be sustainable, modest, and safe, and allow me to spend the next expected 40 years of my life doing things I love.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Southpaw is done, reformatting my mental drive

I've finished the book currently known as "Southpaw" and it comes in at 111,000 words, which is the longest I've written since the, oh, 150,000 words of Return on Investment (which were trimmed down to about 112,000, if I remember right). So that's a whopper. It's now with betas because at this stage in the process I can't tell whether it IS actually good or whether I'm too far up my own book to make a judgment.

I'm currently in the process of reformatting my mental hard drive and catch up with some reading and streaming shows, and getting the rest of the year organised. To that end, I've re-read four fragments of books I have and that I want to finish (Dark Heart, Julian, the historical paranormal and what I call the "author romance").

Some of those have outlines/plots, others don't, so I'm now putting together outlines for the ones that don't have any where I'm too vague in the previous outline. I've never been much of an outliner, but I had to do it to get Southpaw sorted, and considering how often I've changed the outline here (it went through at least five very different versions), and the fact that it all still worked out in the end - without constricting me in the slightest but giving me a kind of handrail to move along whenever I need it - I think I'm now pretty much converted to the outliner camp. It seems like the best way to make sure books actually get written, so the payoff is worth it.

Day job remains intense; nothing new there. I have an appointment with an occupational health doc in mid-September, and I'll see where things are going from there - it will ultimately be a test of whether my company actually adheres to its own "Health, Safety and Wellness" handbook or whether all of that is lipservice and I'll be gently encouraged to leave if I can't hack it. The main issue with getting a different job is that most of them pay 20-50% less than I'm earning now and there's no guarantee that I'll work less or have less stress.

Meanwhile, the economy is cooling - thanks to Trump's inane trade wars, and Brexit - so the recession/downturn is on track for late 2019/early 2020. Right now, my options are very limited, so the best thing I can do is suck it up and do what I can with the time and energy I have left. I'd be hoping for two books per year now, but I'd consider even one per year a victory. Ideally, I'd like to publish those 1-2 books a year in the same month/s, to get some kind of regular schedule going and keep myself accountable (it also seems to be how many mainstream authors do it).

It's very much a "shoulder to the wheel" period in my life. Lots of work, very little time for anything else. The payoff is still 2-5 years in the distance, but we'll get there.

Right now, I'm expecting to get Southpaw into shape after the beta feedback etc to hand it in at the publisher at the end of September. Then I'll have two months or so to finish one of my fragments.

Saturday, 13 July 2019

Mid-year update (day job, publishing plans, etc)

I've just come back from EuroPrideCon, which for me is a must-attend event and greatly enjoyed meeting industry people, bloggers, readers, fellow authors and everybody else. I'll absolutely be there again at next year's Summer Solstice in Leiden, Netherlands. :)

So, what have I been up to/what are the big news items?

I've signed pretty much all of my back catalogue with Juno Publishing, except the Scorpion series (which is being translated privately), and Nightingale, which we agreed would be offensive to too many people, and I totally agree with that. It's a super delicate part of history and people didn't necessarily behave heroically or perfectly. Meanwhile, with the rise of Fascism and Totalitarianism across the "western world", I don't think the questions some of those books are asking are really that important anymore. They could be examined in a solidly liberal democratic environment and Zeitgeist, but as that is very under an organized, globally organised siege, the questions must shift to how to defend the freedoms and human and citizen's rights that my generation has taken for granted. I'll be looking at themes of "how to stay sane under totalitarian pressure" and acts of passive and active resistance, as well as the post-totalitarianism fallout, in part because I absolutely believe that the long arch of history bends in the direction of human rights and dignity, despite everything. But it is a long arch. I only have vague ideas so far, but no doubt that I'll return to that period of history.

I'm writing! I signed a contract with Dreamspinner for a book currently called Southpaw (though I feel the name might change again), which some of you may remember as Counterpunch. It's kind of funny how this book has gone through so many titles already. Its working title once upon a time was "Untouchable", then it became Counterpunch at Storm Moon Press and another publisher, then I retitled it to Suckerpunch because that was the name of the sequel and I wanted as clear a break as possible between the "versions" (it's not going to be the same beast at all). Dreamspinner said they'd already signed a book with that title and whether I had an alternative. So I arrived at Southpaw; but by now I think there's a better title in the book and has been for a long time. I'll have to discuss that with Dreamspinner though.

My original personal deadline for Southpaw was 1 July, and I'm now way past that, but there's a reason for it. I did believe that I could tell the whole story by adding around 20,000 words to the circa 52,000 I had left after some cutting and replacing, but I've written about 45,000 words since then and I have another 5,000-10,000 to go, so it'll be a whopper of a book, possibly more than 100,000 words (which is longer even than Moonstruck, and that was a co-written book).

I'm hoping to write the rest over the weekend and this week, so the new deadline is more like 20 July, and maybe end of the month for my first editing/clean-up pass. Dreamspinner expects to publish the book in the second half of 2020. Compared to my previous productivity, that's pitiful, but it's the best I could do with everything going on, and a lot more than I achieved in 2018.

That does mean I'll have five months left in the year to work on a different project, and that will likely be Julian's book from Witches of London, which is half written in any case, so hopefully that'll be a release for early 2020. I'm not going to plan beyond that - there's a pile of books I started and fragments and ideas, but I'll see which one will come through when the time's right.

I'm planning to teach writing again, and will announce the shape and schedule when we (i.e. Chris Ethan and myself) actually have a structure; right now, it's mostly looking at ideas, locations, formats, and how much time we can put into this, since we're both still full-time employed. But I've always enjoyed teaching things I love, so I'll try to do more of that again.

Beyond that, I have opened a dialogue with the bank about going part-time or on a job share. I've had some interviews, but haven't found a job that resolves my main issues, which is the long, intense days and the sense of burnout/exhaustion when I come home, so that's a first step, and I hope it'll lead to a resolution. If I can wrangle a job share, that would mean three days in the office and four days at home/writing, which for me sounds about perfect - I could stay employed on that schedule for a long time.

This whole matter of "balance" and "what am I doing with my life" has become very acute for me. A few days ago, an old roleplaying friend of mine died from leukemia. He was 38. Another friend is terminal and so poorly now that staff at her hospice has advised that visiting her basically makes no sense and exhausts her and makes her anxious. She's deteriorating rapidly, in their words, so I hope she'll pass over quickly without further pain or anguish. I find that the dying are giving us a tremendous gift in that way, reminding us that our time on this planet is indeed pretty limited and might end a lot sooner than we planned. It makes no sense to sacrifice all that time to capitalism and uncaring corporations with the hope to retire and then do the things we enjoy. I know for a fact that I enjoy being a storyteller and teacher much more than being an editing office drone. 

Saturday, 6 April 2019

Long overdue update (includes stuff on day job)

I'm back from Paris, where my French publisher, Juno Publishing, hosted me at their booth at the Livre du Paris. I had a really good time meeting both French (and Belgian) authors and writers, and spend a lot of time chatting with the Juno ladies as well as the Dreamspinner ones.

There'd be much more to talk about, like the food and how Eurostar suffered delays and how I still made it home, exhausted, but happy. It's all good.

Yesterday was my fourth anniversary at the day job. I remember pretty clearly that, two years ago, I was already unhappy there - it had too much of an impact on my writing (let alone sleep patterns),
but they mollified the pain quite well with bonuses and raises, and the financial security is worth something too.

The idea was to build a second income from writing while employed, and once the big debts are taken care of, to downshift in some way. That is, either work part-time or change jobs. The three years of the Brexit process also haven't helped - if the UK applies the same rules to EU citizens as it (shamefully) applies to non-EU immigrants, I need an income of £35,000/year to be allowed to stay (or my partner does, but I've always hated relying on others for basics like being allowed to stay in the country where my house, books, etc are located). If the current UK government has shown one thing then that it's xenophobic, nationalistic and anti-immigrant - the details of their deliberate "hostile environment" are frankly mind-boggling and worth an internet search for stories of people who've been affected.

I'm still hoping I can make better plans once Brexit resolves itself - one way or the other. At this point, I'm prepared to stay, I'm prepared to leave. If I'll leave, I'll need more money, quite clearly, because re-building a life isn't cheap, which is where the day job comes in. If I stay, my status needs to be sorted, so I know what rules apply (how much money do I need to make to be allowed to stay, because I cannot imagine myself taking British, that is, English, nationality). And on the thoughts circle. It's surprisingly draining, certainly emotionally, and it has an effect on my desire and ability to write.

Which has a negative side-effect - with no new books out since July 2017 (which was Shadows Watching), the huge hit from Kindle Unlimited and piracy, the back list sales are dwindling from "breakfast money" to "coffee money", and I can see the trend towards where it won't be even that. At this stage, the money is really only a nice "ego boost", a weird measure of success (and arguably, the most successful thing I've done, Special Forces, never earned me a penny). But way beyond that; as the income stream becomes an income trickle, the door to "becoming a full-time writer" is closing. Were I to attempt to live off writing, I'd be far far below the poverty line. I'm simply not making enough to live off those books, even if my house is paid off. It's scant comfort that even big authors complain about their sales these days - not in public, mind.

The plan of "working this job for a few more years, build a second income from writing, while I pay off my house and reduce my outgoings to the point where writing will support me" and then quit to write full-time (plus some coaching and weird shit) needed to be revised. I have no inheritance coming my way, either, so I don't see any of this changing.

Meanwhile, my work load at the day job has at least tripled since I started there. Brexit has beaten my love of England out of me (I'm even struggling to write in England at the moment because everything is poisoned by what's currently going on) - that had an impact on the Witches books. Which are half-written. We were already barely coping in December, but then the bank decided they needed to make cuts to the workforce and one team member was fired. Since then, it's been a mad scrabbling to keep up. Morale is at rock bottom, as far as I can tell.

Good stuff is also happening - I found a fantastic source for ways to kill people, and will meet him in London in May to discuss a book project (and ways to kill people). The house payment is progressing. Things are steady, but highly pressured and intense. I'm picking meditation back up again because that seems like the only way to cope. They fired some of the worst bankers I had to work with (but hired two more that are... difficult).

I still have book ideas, just no energy/time/emotional capacity to write. I attempted marketing old titles and seems they have no life left in them.

So I had to step back and think. I'm in the "simplify your life" groove now, where I reduce all the processes I have to keep up with (or thought I had). I left Facebook groups, cancelled Patreon subscriptions, other subscriptions, and am running a budget to cut my expenses to the bare minimum over the next few months. I'll have to file the taxes for my company and will see in actual black and white numbers how the self-publishing income is coming along - specifically the drop versus every year since 2014.

There are so many things I want to do - translate my books into German, lay out the print versions, sort out merchandising stuff for giveaways, learn how to do Amazon ads, but the truth is, I'm still behind on the one crucial thing that really makes a writer - writing. I'm not writing in any meaningful quantities.

Turns out, if you edit for 8-12 hours per day under high pressure and add a three-hour commute, the last thing your brain wants to do is work more while staring at a screen. I've thought about mobile solutions, I've bought a million lovely notebooks to write on the go, but even then you need headspace to do all that. I can outline and plan on the go, I can't actually write prose f I can't fall into the book and feel what's going on. I need to see and feel my characters inside or it's just not happening. In other words, I really do need more time, and I don't have the time and I'm already behind on everything. I've tried every time management system and app, and I'm already getting a shitload of stuff done, but it's not enough, because my energy is limited. I've pondered at great length whether I'm depressed, but I don't think so. I'm pretty mentally resilient overall, which is truly a blessing.

I want to write. I have three or four half-written books on the computer that all need just maybe a month of concentrated work each.

I used to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, as it were. Do a few more years at the day job, even if that means sacrificing most of my writing, build an income, pay off the house, and leave. I don't currently see that light anymore. As the day job expands and keeps pushing, the rest of my life simply has to accommodate and retreat. Most of that battle is in my head (and I'm already much better than most of the team at defending my life against the job - I can see colleagues getting eaten by it, bite after bite). I still have to wait for the outcome of Brexit before I know what my legal situation is, and I'll feel a lot better once the house is paid off, which is why I'm cutting expenses and distractions to the point where I can manage them with the energy currently available.

I also need to retrench in terms of writing and publishing - I'm clearly lacking the core skills of the successful indie writer (ads, mostly, but also the willingness to hire cheap ghostwriters to churn out a book per week or form an author collective to share the workload while pretending to be one person).

I don't have the time to manage all that in a way that it needs to be managed, so I'm going back to "hybrid". I'll be publishing "commercial m/m" books with a small press (I'm currently negotiating my first contract in that vein with Dreamspinner, and more will follow), and do the sequels/prequels to self-published books still myself, because switching things up mid-series is just a headache.

That takes pressure off my income - the royalties aren't enough to pay for covers and proper developmental edits, so my day job income would have paid for that, which is totally counter to the plan of building a second income - at that point, writing and publishing would have just been an expensive hobby that I'm financing with the day job. It also means no expenses for audiobooks or translations (they're just not in the budget, for the same reason). I'll keep supporting my self-published books as best I can, but I'll also have to focus on writing new books very urgently at this point.

As to the weird, "non-commercial" books, I'll do those myself as well. I'm not going to compromise on the quality or covers. I have a good level of quality (as a publisher told me in Amsterdam, "I point people at your books when they ask which indie gets the quality right"). The writing will remain slow while I try to find a way through the tunnel and chip away at the budget and mortgage. I'm bracing myself financially and mentally for the incoming recession as well (various economists think we have another 12-18 months, others think we're much closer), so I'm not going to make any radical decisions that would have an impact on my ability to support myself.

Going with a publisher will mean a delay in putting the books out - you hand in a manuscript and it comes out maybe 12 months later. On the positive side, they'll be available in more markets, and I do feel we need to push back against Amazon (Kindle Unlimited is not an option for so many reasons). I can't promise any releases - I'll need to get my grove back, finish the book for Dreamspinner, finish all the others I have half-written. The guy I'm meeting will help me with writing Franco, hopefully. Right now, I'll just continue chipping away and regroup and recover. It's still a marathon and not a sprint, but it feels like they've just tacked an Iron Man onto the marathon I was already running.