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. 

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Progress on the writing front - Moonstruck

I've just wrapped up my editing pass for "Moonstruck", which is an old book but had all its names and title changed, so I needed to make sure that it works and that I take out a few lines I didn't like. The fun effect is I ended up liking the new names a lot more than the originals.

I re-read and proofread the bulk of it yesterday, though I don't recommend proofing 60k in one day. In its defense, it was fairly clean. I'm still waiting for beta feedback from a second pair of eyes, but I've scheduled the release for 12 April (I'm just trying to space out books so I have the next one ready or near-ready when a book releases - I've found it's better for troop morale). Below is the amazing cover from Tiferet Design.

Anthony Rawson is screwed. Fans, producers, and his agent are all chomping at the bit for the next book in his wildly popular Triple Moon series, but he’s got epic writer’s block and is way behind deadline. Then he reads Axis Mundi, a fanfic novel by his online friend “SirMarrok.” It isn’t just a great story—it’s exactly what the series needs.

Samir Daoud is thrilled when “Ulfhedinn” wants to meet up after reading Axis Mundi. When Ulfhedinn turns out to be Anthony Rawson himself, Samir is starstruck. When Anthony tells him he wants to add Axis Mundi to the Triple Moon series, Samir is sure he’s being pranked. And when their online chemistry carries over—big-time—into real life, Samir is convinced it’s all too good to be true.

The problem is … it might be. The book deal, the sex, the money—everything is amazing. But fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and Samir is left wondering if Anthony really loves him, or just loves his book.

(This 95,000-word novel has been previously published under a different title.)

For the rest of the month, I'll be expanding another old book, which needs about 20-30k new words, for a release towards the middle of the year, and work on both my "category romance" (which is already not very category at all, but I'll worry about that stuff later), my paranormal historical, and my half-written Witches book - that means I have four books on the go at the same time, but the trick is to pursue all of them at the same time until one elbows the others out of the race. That usually works out. That is why I'm up at 8 on a Sunday with a large coffee in front the computer.