Archive for writing life

writing life

Making Plans

Apologies if I alarmed anyone yesterday. I think our culture has some unhealthy attitudes toward negative feelings, so that expressing them is seen as some kind of danger sign. I’m actually feeling really good. I’ve had so much of that negativity simmering beneath the surface for so long, with me refusing to acknowledge it, so being able to say that this is bad and I’m unhappy about it and going to do something about it was a rather positive thing. I feel like I’ve taken back control of my life.

If I were working for someone else and my pay kept getting cut even though I was doing the same amount of work and even though my work was generally considered to be of good quality, and if I kept having new duties added to my work that weren’t in my original job description, and if I never got promoted and I was ignored or forgotten when it came to getting assignments or opportunities, I’d definitely be looking for another job, even if I liked what I was doing. Why not allow myself the same consideration when I’m working for myself?

I started thinking about what I’d want to do if writing fiction was off the table, and I think my dream job using my existing skill set would be to do communications work for a non-profit, some cause I could believe in. That’s where being able to find and tell a story using narrative structure can really help. Spouting statistics doesn’t get much of a response. Telling a story about people we can relate to does. And as soon as I put that out there, I got a response from someone who wants to talk.

That gave me the idea of maybe starting a business doing this as a consultant to smaller organizations that can’t necessarily hire a full-time staff member but still need some help. Sometimes just helping them find their story and developing their talking points and then maybe creating some brochures and web site copy is all they need to get them going, and they can take it from there. That way, I’d still have the flexibility and freedom I enjoy now, but I’d have another source of income and something else going on in my life to give me a sense of accomplishment and purpose. That would lessen the sting from all the ups and downs of a writing career. And I might still be able to write — if I didn’t have a lot of work, I could do some writing, or if I had a writing deadline, I could back off on work.

I may still need a little time away from the publishing world just to get my head back on straight and find the joy in it again. I’m feeling pretty beaten up right now and need a new perspective. I guess I’m still looking for a sign that I should stay in it.

But it’s amazing how good it feels to have a plan. You can’t have a solution to a problem unless you acknowledge the problem, and that can mean facing some negative things. But once you analyze the problem, you can start coming up with solutions. I hadn’t realized how long I’ve been living in a constant state of worry, hurt, and misery, and it feels like a huge weight off my shoulders to get it out of my system. I wonder if some of my health problems may even have been related to this eating away at me. Now, in the immortal words of Elsa, I can Let It Go!

writing life

Moving On

I had kind of a rough Monday in which a lot of things that had been simmering below the surface came up all at once, which forced me to look at some things in a different way, with the result being that I actually let myself acknowledge some issues, and that may end up leading to some big changes.

So, there’s a good chance that I’m going to quit writing for publication this year. I’m essentially moving backwards, selling fewer and fewer books, making less money, being less known. When I got upset about not being invited to cons, not being considered as a special guest, not being included as a workshop speaker, I tried telling myself that it didn’t really matter, that it was just my ego being bruised. But the fact is, if you’re not known in this business, you’re not selling books. You have to have a certain amount of visibility to get fame, and you have to have a certain amount of fame to get visibility. I’ve had a few times when I seemed close to cracking into that cycle, but it never stuck, and now, after 14 years of being published in fantasy and 14 books, I’m farther away than I ever have been. I’ve done what I can to promote, and now am at the point where making it anywhere is going to take something bigger than me, beyond what I can do, something I can’t control or make happen — a movie or TV series based on one of my books, a celebrity discovering my books and talking about them, going viral in a good way.

Otherwise, maybe this isn’t where I need to be. My work may be lacking whatever “it” it takes to break out. People like it, but it doesn’t seem to generate the kind of passion that makes something take off, that makes a publisher give it a push, that creates an active fandom that gets noticed. There’s also the fact that I really hate being my own publisher. I don’t like having to deal with and negotiate with people to do editing, art, and design. I’m currently in the middle of a weeks-long panic attack about contacting an artist about cover art. I was doing this through my agent, and she handled that stuff, but she got out of that and now it’s on me, and I’m not very good at it and don’t enjoy it, but publishers haven’t been all that interested in me lately, and I don’t have the numbers to get them interested. I like writing, but publishing is getting to me. Meanwhile, I’m making less and less money with each book, and it’s no longer enough to make a living. That means I need to change careers.

I can’t quit right away, since I still have editorial revisions to come on the book for Audible, and I have some other commitments, so I can’t even start looking for a job until May. I’m going to keep working on the book I’m currently writing, and maybe it will be something publishers are interested in and that will make me change my mind. There are things that can happen between now and then that may change the way I feel — if my sales go up, if Enchanted Inc. 9 does really well and gets a lot of attention, if something happens to give me hope that things will get better. I’m just giving myself permission to quit and move on if I still feel the way I do now.

The ninth Enchanted Inc. book will still come out (if I can make myself arrange for cover art). I don’t know beyond that. I may still end up writing in my spare time because that’s what I like doing, but if I go back to a full-time job, I’m not going to force myself to spend my spare time that way, and I may not worry about dealing with publication. I’m so used to working at home that an office job will be a huge adjustment. If it takes a while to find a job, I may work on Rebels 4 in the meantime. Or something wonderful may happen that gets me going again and this will have just been a down phase in my career that makes me appreciate the good things. But at the moment, I think it’s been fun, but I’m ready to move on instead of constantly worrying and struggling and feeling bad.

I’m sorry if I’m leaving any series incomplete or disappointing readers, but I can’t afford to essentially work for below minimum wage and keep taking pay cuts, and I’m just not emotionally up to everything that comes with publishing. I need some financial security and to not have what I’m doing so tied into my self-image.

writing life

The Quest for Hot Tea

I got the first chapter of the new book written yesterday and got so caught up in it that my tea got cold, even though I’d put it in a travel mug. That reminded me of my struggles with tea over the years.

When I first started working at home, I continued my old habit from my office job days of making my morning breakfast tea with a tea bag, then making a mid-morning cup with another tea bag. I got an insulated travel mug when I got tired of my tea getting cold, so that I had to go downstairs to the microwave to reheat it. I used loose tea to make my afternoon tea, probably carrying over the habit from my working days of just making a quick cup in the morning, but then having loose tea as a treat on days when I was home in the afternoon. Eventually, it dawned on me that I could have a pot of proper tea whenever I wanted now, so I started making loose-leaf tea for breakfast. The only problem was keeping a pot of tea hot. Even a tea cozy didn’t do much good.

The solution to that was a large thermos. I brewed my tea and strained it into a thermos so it was hot all day long, and I could top off a cup to warm it up, so I put the travel mug aside (since tea didn’t seem to taste as good from it as from a ceramic mug).

My next struggle was to find a way to carry hot tea with me for cold-weather hikes. First I tried a supposedly leak-proof travel flask. It wasn’t leak-proof, and it didn’t seem to keep anything hot for more than a few minutes. Then a friend gave me a small insulated flask that worked pretty well, but it only kept things hot for a little while and you couldn’t drink directly from it. It’s a pain to have to pour tea into a cup when you’re hiking. I found a small thermos that kept things hot longer, but had the same problem about drinking from it. It did work well for bringing tea with me to church when I had to sing in the early service and wanted tea between services. I finally found the Hydroflask, which keeps things warm a long time and is nicely spillproof. That’s become my go-to for hiking and for bringing tea with me to events. I should probably consider it for long working sessions, as well, now that I think about it.

At this point, I have the big thermos, two small thermoses, two insulated travel mugs and two Hydroflasks, so I’m covered for hot beverage containment. I also have several cups/flasks for keeping cool beverages cool that I use in the summer.

Meanwhile, my tea drinking habits have shifted lately. I don’t drink as much black tea these days. I still like having a hot beverage while I’m writing, but I’m drinking a lot more herbal tea and am building up quite a collection of hibiscus-based teas. What I like to do with herbal tea is to leave the tea bag in the mug and keep topping it off with hot water as the tea gets stronger and colder. But I hated to get out of my writing or reading nest and interrupt the flow to get up and go get more water from the kettle. A couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that I could fill one of the thermoses with hot water from the kettle when I first make the tea and then keep it at my side for topping off my mug. That works wonderfully.

I tried the supposedly leak-proof travel flask yesterday and remembered that it also didn’t keep things warm, so that one may get donated. I’ve seen ads for a bluetooth mug that you can program to keep a beverage a certain temperature, which seems like overkill. There’s also a gadget that’s basically an electric coaster that keeps mugs warm.

I know this seems like a lot of thought and effort being put into having hot tea while I write, but this is the fuel for my creativity. I’ve seen a thing going around about how writers take magic beans and turn them into stories, but since I don’t drink coffee, in my case it’s turning magic leaves (and petals, bark, and fruit bits) into stories.

writing life

Ready to Start!

I believe I’m finally ready to start writing. I have strong mental images of my characters, their homes, their villages and cities, and the way they dress. I haven’t drawn a map, but it may be a couple of days before I get to a point when I need that. I’ve written out my ideas of what the world is and how it works. So, after lunch I will dive in.

It’s fitting that I start with Daylight time because that’s when my body really seems to click into gear. I think my body clock is in that zone. Yesterday, I got up earlier for church than I usually do and actually felt alert instead of groggy and yawning. This morning I woke up earlier by the clock than I have been all winter, though I didn’t get out of bed right away because it turns out that the one clock I forgot to reset was the thermostat, and it doesn’t automatically adjust. It was so warm on Saturday that the house was still warm on Sunday morning, and I didn’t notice it, but this morning was a lot cooler after a cool day, and without the heater kicking on to warm up the house in the morning, the house was awfully chilly. I started to get out of bed and quickly retreated under the covers until the heat finally came on. That clock is now set properly, so tomorrow morning should go better.

The development phase of a book is my favorite part of writing because it feels like play. It’s a big game of what if. The moment I start putting it into words, it becomes more challenging, and that perfect idea in my head becomes an imperfect draft. But as I tell myself, it doesn’t do anyone any good in my head. It has to become a book before it can entertain anyone else or make me any money.

I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself or on this story. I realized that with the last thing I was working on, the book that got shelved, I had this underlying sense that this needed to be the book that would relaunch my career, the book that was Too Good To Ignore that publishers would fight over. I caught myself thinking like that with this book and decided to stop it. I’m going to treat it like I’m writing fan fiction, something I do mostly for myself because it’s fun to make up stories. I’m going to indulge myself and amuse myself and have fun. Then I’ll worry about making it marketable.

writing life

If I Weren’t Writing …

The housework thing worked! I realized as I was cleaning the kitchen and later folding laundry that my original plan for the plot was the right one and I didn’t need to downgrade it. Instead, I managed to come up with something even bigger that I could do in later books. Since what I want to do with this book is make something too good to ignore, that will make publishers sit up and beg and then remember that they’re publishing me, I don’t want to leave anything in reserve. I need to go as big as possible in book 1, then top it in book 2

So, now I have a plot and a moderately clean kitchen and lots of clean laundry.

There’s still a bit more subject matter research to do to fine-tune the plot, and then a bit of hands-on research. And my living room needs a bit more tidying.

Someone asked the question on Twitter yesterday, what would you do if money was no object and you had six months without needing to write? I figured I’d spend the first month getting my house in order — finishing all the decluttering and organizing and tackling all the home improvement projects I’ve been putting off so I could have my environment just right. Then I think I’d spend the next five months alternating between travel and digging into various arts/crafts activities. I don’t like being away from home for extended periods, so I probably wouldn’t have a trip longer than two weeks, and then I’d want a few weeks at home before traveling again. During those home times I’d sew, dig into music, maybe do some local exploring, and spend a lot of time reading. Writing would still probably happen, but it would be nice to be able to just write when I wanted to and when an idea struck me rather than spending all my time feeling like I should be writing. It’s like being in school and always feeling like I should be studying.

If I wasn’t allowed to write at all during this sabbatical, I suspect I’d be eager to dive back into it when the time was up because I’d be drowning in ideas.

But since a six-month sabbatical isn’t in the cards for me anytime soon, off to write I go.

writing life

More About Quitting the Day Job

After writing yesterday’s post, I had more thoughts about the do/don’t quit your day job argument and why I have such mixed feelings.

One big thing that I don’t think most people dreaming of being a full-time writer realize is that having more time to write probably won’t result in making more money from writing (with some exceptions). That’s because you’ll be fortunate to get one publishing slot a year, which means that if you can write one book a year while having a full-time job, you’ll be able to write as fast as they can publish you, so writing more won’t do you much good. Maybe, if you’re really lucky/good/successful, you might get two slots a year, like if you do a spinoff series (which requires the initial books to be successful), or if you write two different kinds of books, like adult and YA. The big exception is category romance, where the top writers can get four or more books a year published. And, of course, with self publishing you can publish whatever you write. Otherwise, don’t count on being able to boost your writing income by all that much by quitting your day job and having more time to write.

The main reason to quit your day job is for physical, mental, and emotional health. You may be able to keep up with the publishing pace while having a day job, but once you’re writing for publication, writing-related activities will eat up more time, and that time will have to come out of either your free time or time you previously used for writing. There are editorial revisions, copyedits, galley proofs, reviewing cover copy, researching ideas for covers. When the book comes out, you may be asked to write guest columns or blog posts and do interviews. You may be asked to read books to provide promotional blurbs. At some point, when you’re having to devote most of your waking hours to either your day job or your writing job and you’re even using your vacation days for writing conferences, conventions, travel to booksignings, or writing when you’re on deadline, something’s going to give. Your relationships may suffer. Your health may suffer if you’re not getting enough exercise or sleep.

And your work may suffer. That, I think, is the main argument for quitting a day job. You can’t write well when you’re burned out. If you’re not able to live life, if you don’t get to read for pleasure or do anything that isn’t work-related in some way, your creative well may empty and not be refilled. When you’re pressed for time, it’s harder to dig in as deeply as you probably should. For instance, right now I’m reading an entire book to research the backstory for the heroine of the book I’m plotting. Most of what I learn may not even show up in the book other than in the first few pages (the “ordinary world” part of the story), but I think it will help me get into that mindset and flesh out the character. Writing full time, I can get through this book in two days while also doing other work. If I were fitting this in around a day job, it would be a week’s worth of reading. It probably wouldn’t be worth a week of writing time to read this book. That might not make a huge difference in the finished book, but I think it will be richer from having done this.

Leaving the day job means that you have time for a life in addition to work, and you aren’t as pressed for time to work, so you can dig into your work to make it even better. You can also deal with more of the business stuff without sacrificing writing time.

But you can’t relax and enjoy the benefits of not having a day job if you’re worried about finances, which is why it’s not a step to take lightly. It’s also not an all-or-nothing situation. My last two years of my day job, I worked out a deal with my boss to telecommute and work semi-full time (I still counted as a full-time employee for benefits, but I was working 30 hours a week, and being paid part-time meant I had a hard stop on the number of hours I could work, so it drastically cut my working time). I had reached the point of burnout because my job had become something like 60 hours a week with a lot of travel, and I wasn’t able to get any writing at all done even though I had publishers asking to see something from me. I broke down in tears in a staff meeting when we were allocating client work and it came down to me being scheduled for more than 200 billable hours in a month. I actually tried to quit then, but my boss talked me into staying and worked out a way for me to stay but also have time to write. Something like that is worth a shot. Depending on your commute, just getting to telecommute a few days a week could free up hours of time. If you’re making money from publishing, you may be able to afford to take a pay cut in exchange for cutting a day of work a week or going to part time. There’s also freelancing, temping, and contract work.

Mostly, it boils down to what allows you to be both sane and reasonably financially secure. I guess my measure of when to quit the day job would be when you’ve got at least two years of living expenses saved up and when you feel like something has to give — when either your day job doesn’t allow you the time you need to write or you have no life other than work and writing. It’s a very individual thing and will depend on your family situation, your degree of introversion, how much you love (or hate) the day job, whether continuing that career is a viable thing, etc. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to quit to have a career, but don’t let anyone scare you away from making a move that might save your sanity.

writing life

Quitting the Day Job?

One of the big discussions going on in author Twitter, aside from the editor-turned-author who apparently faked his resume, the deaths of his entire family, and cancer in order to boost his career, is about something another author has said about authors needing to take the leap and quit their day jobs if they want to get ahead or write well, or something like that.

As a writer who hasn’t had a day job for 17 years, I have thoughts about that. My career probably falls into the category of “don’t do it this way” and isn’t at all typical.

In my case, quitting my day job wasn’t really a choice. I got laid off, and since at that time just about everyone in my field was getting laid off, the odds of me being able to get another job were slim. There were a lot of people competing for a very few available positions. One of my colleagues laid off on the same day took a couple of months to get a new job that was a step down from where she’d been and then got laid off from that job and the next job before she had to move to another city to get the next job (I think she’s on about her tenth job since then). I was in a terrible position to try to become a full-time novelist, since I hadn’t sold a book in years and the category line I’d been writing for had folded. I had an agent, but the book she’d submitted hadn’t sold and there had been no response on the follow up book (I later learned that she may not have actually submitted it, since editors she supposedly sent it to had no idea what I was talking about when I met them later, but that’s another story and I have a different agent now). I’d just come up with the idea for the book that became Enchanted, Inc., but hadn’t started writing it and had no idea whether there was even a market for it.

On the other hand, I’d already bought a house and had a relatively new car that I’d paid cash for, so I didn’t have to worry about being able to show employment for a credit check. I had a freelance writing gig that pretty much paid my mortgage. I had no other debts. I’d been saving money all along. I’m generally pretty frugal, so as I got raises, I maintained my old lifestyle and put the extra money in savings. I had my direct deposit set up to automatically put a chunk of my paycheck into savings. All the freelance money and any royalties or book advances went straight into savings. I’d been working for a division of my company that had previously been a company bought out by my company, which meant I got some profit-sharing bonuses as part of the buyout agreement, and all that went into savings. When I factored in my severance payment, I had about three years of living expenses saved up, not even counting my regular freelance gig. The day after I got laid off, before I’d even made any decisions about what to do, I started getting calls from former clients wanting to hire me as a freelancer. I had my first interview for a freelance assignment the Monday after I got laid off on Thursday. So, I didn’t really quit my day job to be a novelist. I got laid off from my day job and decided to freelance as a marketing communications writer to give myself the chance to try to be a novelist.

I did taper off on the freelance work after I started selling books, but I was able to keep that steady gig for the first ten years or so of freelancing. There have been years when I dipped into my savings, and there have been years when I added significantly to my savings. I’m lucky that I got a health insurance plan soon after I got laid off that’s grandfathered. It doesn’t contain all the ACA benefits, but most of those are benefits I don’t need and it’s significantly less expensive. We won’t even get into how ridiculous it is that healthcare is tied to employment. That’s an entirely different discussion.

That’s how I’ve made it work financially. How has it worked creatively? I don’t know that I write significantly more than I did when I had a full-time job. My daily word count when drafting is about double, but I don’t make myself work weekends now, while I did spend most of my weekends writing when I had a full-time job. Mostly what I gained was mental and emotional energy. I’m on the extreme end of the introvert scale, and going to an office where I spent the day around people utterly drained me. I would come home from work and fall asleep on the sofa even before dinner if I wasn’t careful. When I started writing seriously, my social life dwindled to nearly nothing because I didn’t have the energy to see people in my free time and still be able to write. Writing full-time gives me the chance to do something other than work and write. I still don’t have that active a social life, by choice, but I get out a fair amount, just due to choir, church, several social groups I’m involved in, etc. I have time for music, to read for pleasure, to exercise, to cook. I think I’m a lot healthier than when I was working all day in an office, then coming home and sitting at my desk after microwaving something for dinner. Not having a day job means I feel like I can breathe.

I do think that writing full-time improved the quality of my work. I feel like I have the time to dig deeper in developing stories and in editing/revision. I don’t think I could have managed what I do now with things like reading the last draft out loud. It would take me about a year or more to write a book like Rebel Mechanics if I had to do it part time because there’s just so much research involved. When I’m doing research for a book like that, I’m spending hours a day just reading. I suspect that if I were having to do it part-time, I would skimp on the amount of research and preparation. I can devote my brain all day to my story and characters, even if I’m not actively writing, and that’s something I couldn’t do when I spent the day at the office.

I don’t know how anyone could do the kind of promotion that’s necessary today with a full-time job. My books published while I was working were category romances, so they were only available for one month. There might have been an intense month of booksignings and message board posting, but then you were done once the book was off the shelf. Now books stay out there, and there’s social media, blogging, and all that. It’s nice not having to take vacation days to go to conventions or to travel for book events. I can accept gigs to speak at schools and libraries without fitting them into a work schedule.

I really don’t think I’d have the writing career I have today if I’d gone looking for — and found — another job instead of deciding to give writing full time a shot. I might never have written the books I’ve written. I’m not sure I’d have actually stuck with writing because I was so discouraged then that I was on the verge of giving up. Realizing that I had to make it work before I ran out of money was wonderfully motivating. I loved my freedom so much that the dread of going back to an office job made me very determined. I think it would have been easier to just give it up, work full-time (if I could have found a job), and use my free time for fun. I’d probably be more financially secure now, but I might also be utterly drained and unfulfilled. And then there’s the issue that there really weren’t jobs in my field and I hated my field. I probably would have had to try to change careers and start over in something else at a lower level and work my way back up.

What it boils down to is what works for you. Every person’s situation is different. Everyone’s tolerance of uncertainty is different. I know of a lot of people who have been far more productive — and successful — than I have while holding down demanding day jobs. But then I’m not sure I’d have managed to keep writing at all, other than maybe as a hobby, if I’d gone looking for a job when I got laid off, so I’d have been even less productive and successful. Then there are things you don’t control that can change your circumstances or alter your decisions. No one can say “you must do this!” and have it apply to everyone. I disagree with the guy saying you must quit your day job, but then I also disagree with all the people saying quitting a day job is a bad idea.

writing life

Learning

I’m getting close to the end of my week of proofreading, and my voice is getting tired from all that reading out loud. I think this may have to be a quiet weekend, and fortunately the choir isn’t singing Sunday, other than the usual hymn-type stuff. Then I’ll be done with editing for a while and can be creative again.

There’s nothing like having something tedious to do to really spark creativity. It’s like your brain is tempting you away from what you need to do. But I will prevail!

I’m already seeing the movie of the next thing I want to work on in my head. I’ve got the opening scenes more or less mentally written. I have a lot more to figure out, though, before I’m ready to start work. I suspect I’ll really fall into a research rabbit hole because there’s a lot of stuff I have to learn about to make this work, and the trick is to be honest with myself about what I really need to know for the book and what it’s just fun to learn about. I may be on the verge of developing a new hobby I don’t really need.

That’s one of my favorite things about this line of work. There’s always something new to learn about and explore. For my books, I’ve learned about business, about the history of various locations, lots of folklore, a number of areas of history where school barely scratched the surface, clothing, technology, philosophies, various historical figures, etc. I’ve read a wide variety of novels that I might not have read otherwise. It’s almost like each book is a new advanced degree.

And that’s not counting the stuff I try to learn in general, like psychology (for character development), personality (ditto), writing craft, business practices, marketing, etc. I’m currently trying to figure out Excel. I’ve been doing my bookkeeping using tables in Word, which you can use like spreadsheets and wondered if I’d get more function in Excel, but then I discovered that Excel is a big battery hog. My laptop was draining a lot faster, and a diagnostic pointed to Excel (and battery life went back to normal after I shut down Excel). So maybe that’s not something I want to spend a lot of time learning. It’s probably overkill for my needs.

I do think that a certain degree of natural curiosity is essential to being a good novelist. If you don’t like looking things up and learning, you’re either not going to write something vivid and realistic or you’re going to hate doing what it takes to flesh out your characters and your world.

writing life

Tidying up the Books

Book Internet has been all abuzz lately with furor over Marie Kondo’s advice about clearing out books. I haven’t seen her TV show, since I don’t do Netflix (too busy reading), but I have read her book, and I suspect that the people getting upset about her advice haven’t read her book because I thought her advice made a lot of sense.

For one thing, she never says you should have just 30 books. She says that as you go through the process of deciding which of your possessions truly “spark joy,” you’ll start to get the sense of the ideal number of possessions for you, what makes you feel happy and peaceful. For her, she’s realized it’s about 30 books, but she recognizes that some people, particularly writers, will need more.

The thing that I suspect is really getting to people is her idea that you shouldn’t have a lot of books you haven’t read, that if you don’t read a book soon after buying it, you probably aren’t all that interested in reading it and don’t need to keep it.

That actually makes some sense to me, but I don’t really have an ordinary To Be Read pile in that I didn’t buy most of my books. For someone who reads as much as I do, I don’t buy a lot of books. For the most part, I buy a book when I want to read the book, and it’s only traffic laws that keep me from reading it on the way home from the bookstore (I don’t even like Amazon because when I want to read a book, I want to go to the store right then and buy the book, not wait for it to be shipped to me). I’m actually more likely to get books from the library, so the books I buy are the ones I already know I’m going to want to keep, or they’re books I’ve already read and know I want to have my own copy of. The exception is my friends’ books that I buy to support them, usually at conventions or booksignings, and then they may or may not be something I want to read NOW or even something I’m super interested in reading. I don’t do a lot of book-buying sprees of buying random things that look kind of interesting, other than reference books at library book sales.

Most of the books in my Strategic Book Reserve are books I didn’t buy. One of the lovely things about being a writer is that people want to give you books. Writers read a lot and talk a lot about books, so a good way to get a book talked about is to give it to writers and hope they’ll talk about it and spread some buzz. If you go to writing conferences, you frequently get given a tote bag of books. Publishers may host signings where the books are free. At my first few conferences, I kind of went nuts with all the free books, but then I learned that I wasn’t likely to read them all. Now I’m very selective and only take the ones that really interest me.

But I still have a lot of books I haven’t read, and I’ve started sorting through them, being brutally honest with myself about whether or not I have any interest in reading them. Most of the ones I’m getting rid of are romance novels I’ve had for more than twenty years, and getting rid of those has been a weirdly emotional process because it means really facing my own goals and my choices.

My ambition has always been to be a fantasy or science fiction writer. I got sidetracked into romance during the summer after I graduated from college, when I was stuck on a farm while I looked for a job. There was no library in town, and the nearest bookstore was at least 15 miles away. Not that I had the money to buy books or the transportation, since my car had become unreliable and I had to borrow one of my parents’ cars to go anywhere. So, I read what was handy, which included my mom’s stash of Harlequin and Silhouette romances. I liked a lot about them, but didn’t ever find one that had me saying “yes, this is it, this is what I like,” so I had the common wannabe writer reaction of “I could do this better” and set out to try. When I did get a job and moved to the city, I looked for writing groups and stumbled upon a Romance Writers of America chapter. It was about the only really substantial writing organization that taught about the business and the craft. That strengthened my career goal of writing romances. The problem was, I hadn’t realized the difference between “I like this thing, and I think I could do it better than some of the people who are doing it” and “I like some things about this but don’t really like it, and I want to write it the way I like it.” I had some success, but I’m a classic overachiever, so I managed to power through and actually do it in spite of not liking it and not being all that suited to it, but it was a massive struggle. It was only when the romantic comedy chick lit books showed up that I realized that what I actually liked wasn’t genre romance. Then I got the idea to add magic and remembered that what I’d really wanted was to write fantasy.

Facing all those romance novels I’d amassed during that time when I was trying to be something I wasn’t meant facing the fact that I might have delayed my own career by sticking to the wrong thing for so long. It meant addressing my dishonesty with myself, my sense of failure, the sense of letting people down. It meant noticing the friends I’d had and lost when I drifted away from that world and the hurt that came from realizing that they didn’t seem to have missed me at all. But then it felt really good to be able to just hand those books over to the Friends of the Library for their sale and get all those old reminders out of my house. Clearing out the To-Be-Read books I will never read has made it easier for me to see and keep track of the books I might read, the more recent fantasy books I’m getting at conferences now, the ones I carefully choose out of all the ones in my tote bag.

Meanwhile, I’m going through my bookcases and rearranging the shelves, which means sorting through my old books, and I’m trying to be honest with myself about whether I’ll really re-read something, whether having that book makes me happy or whether it’s just taking up room on my shelf. I know I’ll end up with many times more than 30 books, but I think I’ll be much happier when the books on my main shelves are all things I’ve read, loved, and want to read again and when the To-Be-Read shelves are manageable enough that I don’t feel oppressed by them. I think that’s all Marie Kondo seems to be trying to teach people, so maybe we could ease off on the cries of “monster!”

writing life

Feeding the Muses

I’ve been trying to use my time more productively, so even if I’m procrastinating, I’m still doing something worthwhile. As an alternative to clicking around on social media while I’m putting off doing something, I dug into my files and found a bunch of online courses I took about a decade ago. Some of them, I actually remember taking, but I’ve changed and my career has changed, so my answers to all the homework assignments are totally different. Some I don’t even remember taking. If I really don’t want to do whatever it is that I should be doing, at least I’m reading this material and doing the exercises, which is moderately helpful. It’s also been good this week since I’ve spent much of the week waiting on a plumber. I had an appointment on Wednesday, and when the appointment window passed with no word, I called, and they thought my appointment was Thursday (I’m almost certain it was Wednesday because I took the first open slot after the holiday). Then Thursday they called and said one of their trucks broke down, so could I reschedule for Friday. Now I’m waiting yet again. I can’t really focus on writing when I’m waiting, so doing these courses is a good way to spend the time.

Anyway, one of the courses was on finding and nourishing your “muses.” I’m not sure why I have these materials because I’ve never been that big into the “woo woo” side of writing. I haven’t named my muse, I don’t talk about “the girls in the basement” or anything like that, so I doubt I would have paid for this course. It must have been a bonus offering or something that came with a writing group membership. But the theme of the year is exploring, so why not?

The course encouraged us to really visualize our muses — the creative part of our subconscious — and then that will allow you to figure out how to feed and care for them so they can be even more creative and you can learn to listen to their input. I’ve never really thought of my creative side other than as The Voices (as in “the voices in my head said I should do this”), but I decided that if I have muses, they’re a group kind of like the Inklings, that group at Oxford that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I imagine a group of professors hanging out in pubs and tea rooms, chatting about fantasy by the fire over cups of tea, or else they take long rambles around the countryside, making up stories as they go. Feeding these muses would involve going to libraries and bookstores, sitting by the fire with a cup of tea, or taking long walks.

Since it was a cold, dreary day yesterday, I decided to take “feeding” literally and made crumpets and tea to have by the fireplace (my fireplace is filled with candles so I can get the warm glow without the hassle or mess). I don’t know if it sparked any creativity, but it was a fun break in the day and I still met my working time goal (the crumpets have to rise for about 45 minutes, which put a nice timer on a writing session).

crumpets and tea
Now I’ll have to make time for other things my professors might enjoy.