Friday, 30 August 2013

Breathing in

Right now, I'm on the quiet side - or "breathing in", as they say. Usually after finishing a book, I feel everything go flat. I become listless and unable to focus on productivity or even a daily wordcount. If it's one day, that's fine. Two days - all right. It's now nearly a week, and I spent the majority of that time in denial. If only I'll push harder, I'll be able to . . .

Screw that. No writing happening. The well is not exactly dry, but so low as to be functionally dry. My bucket can't reach the bit of tepic, stale water that's still there.

So I'm gorging myself on stories. Reading and watching as much as I can. I'm making a biggish attempt at getting back into the research for the birds book, for one.

I've also read a book on American Muslim Men, to check whether a seculiar Muslim we've been writing is portrayed correctly (he is - or rather, I found nothing that went against what I read in that book). I also read LA Witt's Distance Between Us series, for reasons that will be disclosed soon. Often, in between projects, I fall back on reading about writing, and I enjoyed Scalzi's blog posts on writing and being a professional full-time writer, so I bought his book on that (basically a collection of blog posts).

Right now, I'm watching Secret Army, a tremendous, hugely intelligent WWII BBC series, which is, in turns, rivetting, poignant, sad, underhanded. It's embarrassingly well written. If I ever manage to plot and pace and structure like these guys did, I'll die a very very accomplished (and smug!) writer. Terrific TV, of a quality and moral complexity that's simply no longer being made. It's got everything I found missing in, for example, Breaking Bad, which is also about "good and evil" but by orders of magnitute more slapstick and grotesque. Secret Army has none of that. No humor breaks the tension. If anything, every scene tightens the thumb screws, until the inevitable catastrophe (which can be as "small" as a single death or a mission failure, or the "bad" guy closing in one further step) releases the tension in a gulp of "oh shit, noes!" So, so glad we discovered that.

I'm also reading David Leavitt's "While England Sleeps", which is "literary" historical gay novel that has a scandal attached, as Leavitt borrowed heavily from Stephen Spenders autobiography.

Here's Spender's take on the debate. And here's Leavitt's.

Reading both, I think the interesting point is - how much can we use biographies of existing people as "source material" for our own writing? And, is an autobiography a work of fiction that CAN be plagiarised? (In a way, an autobiography is halfway between fiction and non-fiction, as the artful touch, the refinement and the "making sense of the past through the wisdom of hindsight" puts it at least halfway into the realm of fiction.) And - is adding sex scenes "pornography"? And how strange to see a gay writer accusing the gay/bisexual/ex-gay model for his character of "homophobia".

The mind boggles.

I found the book had some distinct modern bits/places where the voice/sensibility shifts to that of, I feel, a later age, but there are enough gems in it to keep me reading. I'm reading this for my queer book club, and of the three books assigned so far, this is the one I can actually stand and will likely finish. (The others were just dreary.) Should be an interesting discussion, too, considering the controversy, and I'm not sure I'd side entirely with Leavitt, either.

Then I've finally started Liar Moon by Ben Pastor, a gift from my friend Alina. It starts with one of the most wrenching, visceral scenes I've read in a long time, so very much looking forward to reading that once I'm done with Leavitt (who wins purely on account of having to finish his book by next Thursday).

And I've started the second edition of Josh Lanyon's book on writing m/m. I contributed some quotes and an essay on historical fiction to it, but this is the first time I'm reading the whole thing in toto, after I'd enjoyed the first edition. I think Josh did an excellent job, and there are points I'd like to add, so maybe I'll be writing my own version of that book at some point. When I find time and can organize the jumble of thoughts. It's an excellent resource overall and heartily recommended, on account not of my own contribution, but the effort of drawing from dozens of publishers, readers, reviewers and authors.

Writing-wise, I have two chapters (about 5k) of Scorpion3, Lori and I are working on an edit of a new Market Garden book, and we're 90% done with another hot contemporary romance.

Job-wise, insecurity is still very much in the air and we're openly exchanging job leads and job postings among the team. As it stands, I'll likely duke it out and if my job vanishes, I might try for a year to go full-time as a writer, and if that doesn't work out, I'm going back into banking or CorpComms. I'm also considering acquiring a number of skills that go more towards coaching/healing work, which I've been drawn to since I was little (writing combines both, and there's a LOT of overlap). I think it might just be time to open the next chapter and start with a new plotline in my own life.

Regardless, I'm happy to see Capture and Surrender do so well (it went as high as #2076 on, which is my highest ever) and continues to do well. Needless to say, if I end up without a job, every single sale puts me a small step closer to the big goal, so I'm watching all of that maybe more closely than is healthy.

But, yeah, it's a "breathing in" phase. I'm just filling myself up again to get ready to write again.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Motivational quote

Today's motivational quote comes from Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

Like Elmore Leonard and Donald Westlake and Robert B. Parker and oh so many others, I want to die with my boots on, facedown on my keyboard if possible, in the middle of a sentence.


(Yes, it IS inspirational.)

The whole article is more than worthwhile to read for all writers. 

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Stand and deliver

While working from home today, I got an email to attend an impromptu meeting with the head of our part of the business. Those "BE THERE AT 15:00 SHARP - ALL OF YOU" messages never bode well, so yeah.

That was exactly what was coming.

The head dude, let's call him Smarmy, is normally the kind of person who loves hearing himself talk - and whose sycophants know that, so conferences with him are excruciating, while Smarmy throws all kinds of corporate bullshit bingo phrases at us and then nothing actually gets done.

So, I dialled in and put the phone on speaker while I continued doing emails.

But this one was very different.

Smarmy informed us that our part of the business "isn't a strategic growth part" of the business and that there would be an announcement in due course, but that they were "exploring the full spectrum of options". To translate CorpSpeak, our business is now designated as "non-core", which means expendable. When a listed company tries to drive up its share price, it sells or closes non-core activities. Regardless of whether they are profitable or growing (we're both).

The full spectrum of options really boils down to two: sale, or closure.

Knowing the market a *tiny* bit, I don't believe in the sales option. Financial companies are outsourcing and stripping out non-core activities themselves, and it's highly unlikely that one of our competitors or clients would buy us.

I've cast out my CV a few weeks ago and only got nibbles from places that I wouldn't work for even if they paid me properly (which most won't. It's a buyers' market out there for work). No real leads, no interviews. As far as my field is concerned, the job market is still frozen. And there's no way in hell I go back to journalism - which would inevitably kill my writing.

It's all still pretty raw. And I have time yet. By UK law, if they are going to make us all redundant, they'll have to officially put us "under consultation", which is a process that takes about three months. Often, that's just for show - they tell you that they are looking at options, but the understanding is really that you better start adjusting for the inevitable. I fully expect to get to the office tomorrow to get the "you're under consultation" email/meeting with HR.

Funny, this is my second time, so I'm a LOT less apprehensive. The first time was about two years ago and that process left me much better off than I was, all told, though I lost the best team I've ever worked with. (We're still in touch, though.)

Thanks largely to relentless and hard work, I'm in a pretty good place right now in terms of royalties. Not yet in the place where I can replace all of my income with royalties, but enough to not fall back onto social security in any shape or form, or the generosity of the Dude, which for me is really important. In other words, I'll be able to pay my mortgage, though all bigger investments are very much on hold, and I'll be going through my expenses and kill everything I don't need over the next few days.

I'll still attend GRL in October, although that's money I shouldn't really spend if I want to subsist on royalties alone in about three months' time and until they reach the level of my current salary, but everything else is pretty much on hold until I've published a few more books.

On one hand, I feel really uncomfortable about having my plans/schedule fucked with. On the other hand, meh. I didn't much like the place anyway, so seeing it all crash and burn all the way to hell leaves me strangely unaffected. That place was just a paycheck to me, and while I'm given to understand that that's the way for most people, I used to be very different. I got terribly entangled with companies and really actually cared for them. Took me eight years to arrive at the "fuck it all" stage of employee-dom.

Bottom line is, I'll have to do quite a bit of thinking: budget, and what to write in what order to get my royalties up as far and as quickly as possible. It's quite likely this is going to be my only income in three months.

Nothing like feeling the wall in your back to stand and deliver.

Saturday, 3 August 2013


In the last two days, I've edited the next Market Garden book with Lori Witt, so that's off to proofers now.

I'm now picking up the reins again on the Memory of Scorpions series; I have the edits of Lying with Scorpions in the other window and am now going through 306 editing comments from my editor that require a small or large fix. I fully expect to spend the whole weekend doing nothing else. I'm also inspired to write a blog post after having had a good idea for a topic while staring into my cereals this morning. The brain is clearly recharged and raring to go.

This week, I'll be starting on Scorpion 3, mostly because after editing Scorpion 2, the whole thing is fresh again in my head. I'm expecting to write that book in 4-8 weeks, roughly, making allowances for real life catastrophes and other distractions - but it can be done. The plot and characters are gathering momentum, and I'll enjoy seeing it all blow up get resolved.

Putting a four-year project to rest is pretty much its own reward. When I started Scorpion, I was between two journalist jobs, moving from a "reporter" job to an "editor" job. They worked me so hard for those £5k/year more that it's a miracle that Scorpion got ever finished. I call it the book that I wrote despite being in journalism. It was also the book that taught me that I can't be a full-time journalist and a productive novellist. That career damn near took everything I had.

And of course Scorpion was heavily influenced by where I was when I started it. It came to me in Turkey, in June, so in the worst heat, which accounts for the Mediterranean mood/atmosphere/climate of the book. It's a hot and dusty place very much inspired by the landscapes I saw in Turkey and Southern Italy.

So, it's great to wrap that one up. I like completing things. I like series, but I like finishing them even more. A series is like this ueber-novel - it just requires so much more effort and work than a novel and is many times as complex and mistakes can sneak in. I'm not a great record-keeper (ironic for a historian), so I have to be really careful to not contradict myself. My editor already caught a few. Ooops.

* * *

Just spending 2.5 weeks in the same space as Lori Witt has refuelled my confidence and overall energy.

Normally, spending so much time in the company of people has a fuzzying effect on me - sometimes it's exhaustion from being unable to just be and think quietly, removing myself from the overall energy of people. I can be too tuned into a group - until all I process is other people's thoughts and emotions and none of mine.

I've learned more about grounding in the last couple years, but I still prefer to get out of a random group of strangers. (Attending conventions is different - what's exhausting there is the "high pitch" of the overall energy, for want of a better expression. It's like all the copper wires are running hot with all the energy being run - I love it and I'm running on just a couple hours of sleep myself while I do it, but it IS pretty strenuous activity.)

Being with a fellow writer has the opposite effect - it generates a force field that's leading to some interesting effects, such as recharging the battery much faster than I could do on my own. Being among my own kind reinforces very much who I am. No energy is spent on "fitting in" or "functioning in normal-people/non-book-people context". It's goofing off, it's wild, purely association-driven conversation, and every five minutes, some idea hits with force, until that part of my brain looks like a comet-pocked moon surface. Bang - there goes another!

So, getting out of it all was good for Ye Olde Muse and my sanity.

Leaves me with housekeeping. Since coming back, I've done those novel edits, I've edited an op-ed again that'll be run in Publishers' Weekly (yay!), I'm in the clean-up of another novel, and I've written the series blurb for Country Mouse/City Mouse (which will be released in paper and as a bundle at a nice discount soon). I'm now working on the series blurbs for Memory of Scorpions, and Market Garden. (Blurb-writing is an odd kind of torture - I kinda like it, but it's still hard.)

Then I'll have to completely re-think my website. I'm publishing more books than the current format allows to showcase, and I'm not going to stop anytime soon. So I was going to re-do the whole thing anyway, and hence haven't been updating (apart from taking a couple short stories down whose rights have reverted to me). Now it's been more than a year that I've updated the site. Considering that some of the most exciting things for me happened last year, I'm so out of date that people start mentioning it. Ooops. I guess I was just busy. And indecisive.

And then there's a half-written WWII novel with LA Witt that wants to be finished (and the research that goes into it needs some more time, too). I'm also expecting the edits of a 100k contemporary in the next few weeks. And then there's my mainstream-y historical WWII novel that I'd planned to write by 1 May. Well, the MoS series got in the way of that. With the low sales of my historical romance fiction overall, I'm not even sure how many more I want to write of those. Historicals aren't furthering the "quit the day job" plan very much, which is currently an absolute priority for me (it's that, burn-out or the "starving artist" gig, and the latter sucks - I've given that a try ten years ago and was underwhelmed by the glory of it).

It means I might have to push the historicals out further and consider them an expensive hobby. It's killing me a little inside to think of them that way - I have THINGS to show you, STORIES I'm dying to tell. Crusades, WWII, American Civil War, historical urban fantasy. I have stories in my head that don't let me sleep at night. Quips from my smart-ass Russian shaman that make me laugh on a train. I go into any project with the intention that there's ONE reader out there who NEEDS to hear that story I have rampaging inside me. Somebody who's only waiting for it. Triaging my books into "won't sell" and "will sell" kills me. It seems so counter-intuitive - I wrote my best stuff with "fuck sales, this thing is coming through me and there's NOTHING I can do to stop it". Special Forces was written to entertain me. Never meant to be read by anybody. Just a game to pass the time.

I guess that triage is the price I pay for trying to make a living. But once I've quit or part-quit my day job, I can afford time-consuming hobbies like writing arty novels and stuff only five people care about.

I'm looking forward to that.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The long breath (the two writing business models) [essays on writing]

There's an expression in German that's best translated as "the long breath" (der lange Atem). It means having stamina and patience and a great many other things that are useful on the "long distance running" part of our lives. For me, it encompasses mental, emotional and physical qualities. "Breath" is more evocative anyway than the abstract qualities of patience or stamina. One seems too etherial, the other too visceral. Breath is both - it's spirit and movement and muscle. The way we control breath, we can control thought (just ask anybody practicing meditation).

Whenever I get petrified (and it happens), I remember a friend's hand between my shoulder blades, warm and steady, and his voice in my ear: "Breathe." When I'm especially frantic, I remember what he said when I balked at the idea: "If you can't breathe in, breathe out. Your body does the rest."

Breath is a really important factor, especially for an artist.

As a child, I had asthma.

When I have an allergic reaction, I develop allergic asthma to this day. If I take aspirin or any of its chemical bastard children, my bronchies close up and I fight for every breath for a few hours. Anybody who's read my work can see how breath often plays a crucial role when characters hit crisis. This is body-writing. This, I take from life.

Just recently, I read some stuff that very nearly took that breath away. Some days, two snide comments and three bad reviews and five people totally not getting what I want to say, and one person being spiteful and nasty is like a hit of aspirin on my creative system. Too bad I can't control what I read on the internet the same way I scrutinise every pill leaflet for acetylsalicylic acid and every cocktail menu for angostura (goodbye, Singapore Slings, I loved you, but you're bad for me).

The bronchies close up.

I gasp like a fish on land.

I can't breathe. I panic. I question every decision I made. I question trusting my readers' intelligence because of one idjit out there. I question whether it was worth writing the book at all. I question why I spent six months of research and countless late nights chasing up one detail that is then pointed out as "breaking suspension of disbelief" because the reader didn't know that X existed or Y was done, and, unlike me, doesn't even do the research to prove their point. I gasp and flail. It's what the body does.

And being an awful patient, I then get upset at my environment. Thank gods, I have a couple sane people to fall back onto when I'm unable to breathe. (That's the thing about a support network - everybody has freak-outs, but usually not at the same time.) Some of them put a hand on my back and say "Breathe out". Usually translates as "Head down, write the next book". I have some people who bitchslap me and shock me out of my flailing. (My partner did a good thing when he forbade me to read reviews until months after the book is out - basically until I don't feel whatever criticism or spitefulness I may encounter. Sometimes, that takes a couple years. Which is fine. The internet doesn't go away. I sometimes still disobey, but it's getting rarer.)

Of all factors (sales, reviews, success, reception, buzz, etc), I can only control one thing: my breath.

And breath in this market is many things and can manifest in many ways, but of all the kinds of breath I can have, I want the long breath.

I've been writing and selling for more than twenty years. I've seen authors come and go. I've seen them self-destruct, and I've seen them leave the business in disgust, or to take up knitting or gardening or oil painting. All valid choices. I know several authors who are much happier as ex-authors. The level I'm writing at is a result of thirty years of practice, nearly twenty years of self-examination, of wrong and right twists and turns, of my way to see the world. A week, a month, a year means very little in the context of a career. For myself, I define career as "my life". I have ideally another thirty years to go.

Long, long breath necessary.

I see a couple writers (outside the genre, too) publish three books and then doubt they'll ever "make it". I've written something like forty books/stories and haven't "made" it. I've published with Random House and have had two agents and haven't "made" it, not by mainstream standards. I still sell most of my day to a company that barely knows what to do with it. There are writers who've written one book and it's not selling like gangbusters. Writers who've written ten and haven't earned a million yet, then doubt themselves and their craft, their passion, their talent, their destiny (because we all live the lives of main characters of our own epic fantasy novel where we are the Chosen One and destined to marry the prince/princess after slaying all the dragons).

What I want to say to them is that one, three, ten books is just a start, certainly in genre fiction (and we can argue that even literary fiction is just a genre like any other).

Long breath.

Essentially, there are two business models in writing: the bestseller model and the pulp model.

The bestseller model is the one we read so much about. Dan Brown outselling everybody else. JK Rowling. Stephen King. Every book a huge hit, and it takes them maybe a year or two to write. Doesn't matter, really, because even if it takes ten years, selling one bagazillion copies is enough to fund the tropical island paradise lifestyle.

Because we read so much about it, that's the "valid" model. The one that inspires the news crew, the reporter, the interviewer, the masses. It's headline stuff: DEBUT AUTHOR LANDS EIGHT-FIGURE DEAL WITH NYC PUBLISHER! We might moan about how Dan Brown and E L James and Stephenie Meyer can't write, but that's their model. I don't think quality of writing matters in this. Salman Rushdie's likely not hurting for sales, nor was Ian M Banks (his literary works actually outsold his sci-fi).

In our genre, even the absolute bestsellers don't sell a million copies. Some research suggests that 15-20k copies sold is a vast runaway bestseller. The kind of bestseller I wouldn't expect to see more than maybe 1-3 times a year. Hetero romance laughs at those numbers, of course.

The pulp model may sound like a bad thing, but it isn't. We've just come to associate it with bad quality. Dean Wesley Smith killed that "low quality comes from fast writing" thing for me when he ghost-wrote a mainstream genre book for a NYC publisher in ten days, averaging something like 7k a day. His blog series on the topic is almost mandatory reading.

Old pulp writers raked up enormous wordcounts per day, considering writing a thing you just do and fulfilling strict deadlines. Less suffering for art, more telling stories. Considering the small payments of the day, productivity is king. Only a productive writer could make a living at it. Some of these people got very wealthy, others "just" made a living. The key is to write a lot.

This doesn't mean that craft gets thrown out of the window. When a trained writer writes a lot, s/he takes their craft with them. Writing fast doesn't mean you un-learn the tricks of the trade. It also doesn't mean you shouldn't edit, but that's a given. The reason why there's so much schlock out in the market is not speed of writing (or even ease of writing) but lack of editing and lack of training. You can apply high standards to a book you write fast. I've written a couple damn good novels in less than four weeks each.

Sometimes, I read comments where people attack writers because they've said the book came "easy" or "fast". Yes, say some readers/reviewers, you can tell - it's dreadful.

Let's examine that. It's like there's some weird pact that links suffering to quality (oh how very early medieval). Personally, when I was suffering writing, I was fucking miserable more than productive. When I'm fucking miserable, I don't write. I'm too busy being fucking miserable. Some of my best writing was fast. Actually, speed can be fun. It can be a huge rush and the joy actually translates onto the page.

Reading books I wrote "fast" and reading books that took me two years, there's NO difference in the quality of writing. Every book reflects the state I was in and the themes I was working on in my life, and my developmental stage as a writer. That's it. End of story.

Despite the bad press of the pulp model, I'm happy to own it. I'm happy to be a productive writer who aims at 3-5 novels a year and a number of novellas and some short stories (the latter when and if I feel like it, since shorts usually don't sell worth a damn).

Money-wise, it's a different model, too. I accept one basic fact of publishing: You cannot tell what sells. Some books start slow and build, and hold steady for a long, long time (Dark Soul, which is still a good 30% of my royalties every month after two years). Some stories don't sell but get awards and/or critical acclaim (Incursion, Skybound). Some stories are vastly popular, but don't pay my mortgage (Special Forces) in any way. Some stories don't sell enough copies to make a sequel financially viable (Gold Digger).

I could deduce just from that short list that my best work doesn't sell, but that's wrong, because Dark Soul is some of my best work. No rules seem to apply. Gold Digger as a contemporary romance should have out-sold sci-fi and historical and fantasy. It didn't.

A writer drives himself mad with such thoughts.

Long breath.

In the absence of reliable, record-smashing bestsellers every 1-3 years, a writer operating under the pulp model accepts that their readership is limited (aka, less than 10k copies sold in our genre - over the lifetime of the book or author, in my case, thirty or so more years). That's just a couple sales every month.

That said, if every book makes only $25/month (but every month), and you have 40 books out, that begins to look like a living. At 80 books, it is. At 100 books out, every one making a little bit of money, a pulp-model writer is vastly outselling their best-selling peer. Even better: their cashflow doesn't rely on one book or on the ability to replicate the runaway bestseller or even sticking to "author brand" (aka, writing the same godsdamned thing again and again), which, in my mind, is so much more pressure than the Amazon ranking is actually worth.

I admire the hell out of Usain Bolt, but in the absence of a once-in-a-century talent and freakishly long legs, my inspiration are these people. None of them could have lasted on a short breath.

Now, breathe.

If you can't breathe in, breathe out.

Go, write.