Archive for writing life

writing life

Taxes and Writers

My taxes are done and mailed. I had a pretty good year, which is a mixed blessing. It’s good to make more money than I expected, but then that means I had to pay more in taxes. Instead of getting a refund, I had to pay a bit more, and that means my estimated taxes for this year went up. That means doing your taxes is an emotional roller coaster. On the Schedule C you do for your business, it’s like “Wow, that’s more than I made in my best year at the day job, even when you factor in expenses!” Then you get to the Schedule SE for self-employment taxes, and then that means you net less than you made in the day job because self-employed people have to pay double the amount for Social Security, etc. Think about the amount that’s deducted from your paycheck, and double it. And then there’s income taxes, but at least you get to offset that with some deductions. I suspect I came out around the same as I did in my best year at my day job this year, but that was more than 17 years ago, and I would hope I’d have had a raise since then if I’d stayed in that career field.

Still, I feel like I’m better off because I’m doing what I love and answering to no one but myself, and it’s hard to put a dollar value on that.

But this sort of thing is why writers explode when readers complain about book prices or pirate books, or even have the gall to ask for free books. Most of us aren’t rich, and the fact that we’re doing what we love doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be paid for it.

writing life

Creativity

Oops, I totally forgot to post yesterday. I slept a bit late (well, more thinking than sleeping, but still, stayed in bed a long time), then went to the library, then got home and got sidetracked on the day’s to-do list and didn’t realize until late in the day when I got an e-mail about needing to approve comments (all spam) that I hadn’t done a blog post. I guess I didn’t have anything I was dying to say.

My brain has been on creative overdrive lately, and thus the lying in bed and thinking in the morning. I keep getting story ideas in dreams, and when I wake up, I have to rerun and ponder everything I remember from the dreams so I don’t forget them.

Last week, I dreamed a title — in the dream, I saw a book and was immediately insanely jealous that someone else came up with such a great title and story idea because I really wanted to write that story. I still remembered that title when I woke up and a bit about what the story was about. It wasn’t quite as brilliant as I thought it was in the dream, but it was still a potentially fun idea. I searched that title on Amazon and on Google, and it doesn’t seem as though anyone else has used it, so that’s one for the idea file.

This week, I had a rather vivid dream that was essentially a story — something about smuggling babies for a resistance movement as a way of helping their parents escape (infants aren’t conducive to stealthy escapes, so the parents had a better chance of getting away if someone else took their babies). The more I thought about it, the more I started to think there was a story there. Then last night, I had a more fleshed-out version of the same dream, with more details, even bits of narrative (it’s possible there was some semi-conscious brainstorming also going on, weaving in and out of the dream). I think I captured it all upon waking, but I really need to write it all down.

The thing is, creativity breeds creativity. That’s why writers are more likely to have more ideas than they can ever get around to writing than they are to run out of ideas. About midway through any book, you’re just about guaranteed to get a brilliant idea for something else. The more you write, think, and create, the more ideas you’ll have. You also start training your brain to find ideas. You’ll see ideas in anything you read, watch, or experience. It may be something totally out of the blue, like smuggling babies, or it may be what ifs based on something you’ve seen, going a different way with someone else’s plot or character until it becomes your own thing. And, eventually, you learn which if these ideas are likely to be viable and how to develop them into something you can actually write.

writing life

Deadline Cleaning Urges

This is going to be a busy couple of weeks for me. I’ve got a proposal to finish and send to my agent, I’ve told myself I’m going to finish the current draft of the current book by the end of the month, and I’ve got a meeting tonight, a conference this weekend, and next week is Holy Week, which is busy when you’re in the choir.

Of course, this is when I suddenly want to clean and redecorate my house. Someone on Twitter joked about starting a service that schedules procrastinating writers to come clean your house, but I’m not sure that would work because it’s only my house I care about cleaning. I tell myself I’ll be so much more productive in a more ordered environment, so really I’m helping myself meet my deadline if I take a day or two off from writing to clean and organize. I usually push through it and make myself write, telling myself that when the book is done I’ll have an epic cleaning day, but when the book is done, I collapse on the sofa with either a book or the TV. I’ve also learned that I fizzle out when I try to do a whole day of cleaning. I do better with a few defined tasks for the day, spread out over a few days.

So, maybe when the book is done I’ll take a couple of days “off,” with cleaning mixed in with relaxing.

I do think the book is close to being done. I’m more than halfway to my target word count, and I like what I’ve done so far. The rest of the book is going to veer widely from the initial draft, which is good because that didn’t work. But it does mean I’m in original writing mode without being able to draw a lot from the first draft. It may be time to break out the Word Count M&Ms.

First, though, that proposal, which also underwent a dramatic change between drafts.

writing life

Origins and Influences: Girl Sleuths

I’m still discussing some of my origins and influences — the things that played a big role in me becoming the writer I am today.

My musical theater phase never really ended, though I did sort of eventually grow out of putting on dress-up clothes and acting out my own stories to soundtracks (now I just put together a playlist and write the book that goes with it). But then I got to the point I could read novels, and I devoured them. I don’t recall paying much attention to authors or genres. I didn’t really think about types of books. It was all about subject to me. For instance, there was the horse phase, during which I’d go down the shelves in the library, checking out any book with anything to do with a horse in the title or a horse on the cover.

Or there was the witches phase, which ended up leading me to Nancy Drew. The witch phase came in second and third grade and mostly had to do with the TV series Bewitched. I moved to a new neighborhood in the summer before second grade, and I noticed that although there were plenty of kids to play with in the neighborhood during the day, the streets got strangely empty after dinner, even though it was still light outside and we didn’t have to be home until the streetlights came on. Eventually, people would come outside again. I learned when I tried to make plans to play outside after dinner with one of my friends that this was when Bewitched came on (in syndicated reruns), in the slot between the local news and prime-time programming. Apparently, this was mandatory viewing for girls in my neighborhood. I got sucked into it, and soon was joining my friends in trying to wiggle my nose to make things happen. That made me want to read books about witches, so I went down the library shelves, reading anything with “witch” or “magic” in the title. I don’t remember a lot of these, and I got derailed somewhat when I got to the K section and found a book called The Witch Tree Symbol. It had a spooky picture on the cover with an eerie symbol carved into an old tree.

Except, it turned out that the book wasn’t about witches at all. It was a Nancy Drew mystery taking place in Amish country, and it utterly captivated me. Not necessarily the story itself, but I wanted to be Nancy. She drove around in her sporty blue car with her best friends and had adventures. I became obsessed with Nancy Drew, reading every book I could get my hands on, from both the post library and the school library. I quickly learned, however, that I didn’t want to buy these books because the good ones were the old ones the libraries had. The new ones were different, and I didn’t like them much. Even if they were the same books reprinted, they had different illustrations that were very 70s, not at all like the 40s and 50s books.

I was far more interested in Nancy’s personal life than in the actual cases. I liked seeing her hang out with her friends, and I was intrigued by her relationship with Ned, though I didn’t understand why he went to college and she didn’t, even though she clearly wasn’t still in high school. For a while, I kept trying to find the last book, to see how things worked out, except it seemed there was no last book.

From Nancy Drew, I discovered other girl sleuths, like Trixie Belden, who was younger, and Cherry Ames, a nurse. When people talk now about needing strong girl role models in books for kids, I wonder what library they visited because I had all these people who allowed me to imagine what being an adult, or at least an older kid, would be like.

Strangely, there were fewer mysteries in adulthood than these books led me to believe.

Anyway, although these books didn’t necessarily spur me to want to write that kind of thing, I do think that intrepid girl sleuth character forms the basis for most of the heroines I write. I did make up some stories about Nancy and the others in my head, though I didn’t know what fan fiction was at the time and never wrote any of them down. I think I also did some mental “Mary Sue” stories, in which I imagined that kind of adventure with me (or a version of me) as the heroine.

And I’m not sure I ever got around to the “witch” books that came after the Ks.

writing life

Origins and Influences: Musicals

Last week, I found myself going down some mental rabbit trails about what got me started in writing, probably spurred by some questions that came up in my online chat with a school book club. Since kids always ask me about that, I thought it might be of general interest, so here’s the start of a blog series about my writing origins and influences — the things I’ve encountered along the way that captured my imagination in a way that helped shape or inspire my writing.

Oddly enough, the first thing that I think led to me being a writer wasn’t books at all, but rather musical theater, along with the Disney musical movies. Long before my reading skills were at a level where I could read books with any kind of in-depth storytelling, I was already into the stories of musicals. We had a lot of Broadway cast albums, and I had all the albums of music from the Disney movies. I remember being mocked in preschool when we were supposed to bring our favorite record, and I brought the cast album for Man of La Mancha.

But back in those days, there was no home video. The only way to see a movie was if it came to the theater or came on television. We also didn’t live in the kind of city that got the big touring productions (I saw my first real professional musical — a touring production of Camelot, with Richard Harris as Arthur — when I was in college). As a result, I hadn’t actually seen most of these musicals. I wasn’t exactly sure what the stories were about. Even with the Disney fairy tale movies, while I might have known the basic fairy tale, I might not have been entirely sure which characters were singing which songs and how that fit into the fairy tale (though I did have a few of the “stories and the songs” albums, which helped).

So, I had to make up my own stories to go with the songs. I wish I could remember some of the things I came up with. I’d either play out my own stories using my dolls or act them out myself, using my trove of dress-up clothes. Sometimes I’d mash them up and use songs from multiple musicals together. I didn’t think of it as writing as the time, since I wasn’t writing anything down, but I was creating characters and telling stories.

One of the few musicals I had actually seen was My Fair Lady, since they used to show that on TV every year, usually around Thanksgiving. When I was four or five, that was my absolute favorite movie, and it only occurred to me in the past week or so when I was thinking about all this that it’s essentially a Cinderella story — we’ve got an impoverished young woman who’s transformed to go to a ball, only it’s a professor of elocution rather than a fairy godmother who transforms her, and the outcome isn’t so romantic.

I’m not sure what influence musicals have on my current writing, other than that I do sometimes use music as inspiration for characters or plot points, and one of my brainstorming techniques is to put iTunes on shuffle and then try to think of how the song that comes up might relate to my story. But music did seem to spark my creativity and make me want to tell stories, and that seems to have had a lot to do with setting me on my current path.

Oddly, even though I’ve dreamed of doing musical theater since I was about three, I haven’t really done it. I was in one locally produced original musical when I was right out of college (the music was good, but the play was absolutely terrible), and I sang offstage backup for the church youth production of Mary Poppins a few years ago, but I’ve never been in any of those musicals I used to act out my own version of when I was a child.

writing life

The Whims of Success

While I’ve been working on ideas for promoting my books, I’ve found myself pondering the nature of fame and success. Quality, fame, and material success, and the trappings of all these, don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

For instance, I know of authors who are making millions with their independently published books, and yet they don’t seem to be at all famous. Their names seldom come up in discussions of those kinds of books. On the other hand, I’ve mentioned how surprised I was to learn that some of the people whose names always come up and who are treated as Big Names in the genre community don’t seem to be making as much money as I am, when I’m mostly unknown in that community.

There are people who started publishing much later than I did who are now big bestsellers and celebrities in the industry, while I’m still mostly unknown, and there are people I read when I was starting out who had really good books that won awards but who have fallen completely by the wayside and seem to have given up writing. I’m sure we can all point to mega bestselling books that really weren’t well written. Some of those mega bestsellers manage to sustain a career, while others don’t seem able to write more than that one story.

But I think this applies to other fields, as well. I was thinking of television series I enjoyed a decade or more ago. When there was an ensemble cast of more or less equally good-looking people, there were some who seemed rather talented and who had a lot of charisma, and I would have thought that those people would have been the ones to go on and become famous elsewhere, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, the least talented person is the one who keeps getting lead roles in TV series and becomes a star while the more talented person with stronger acting credentials ends up relegated to the occasional guest role. There’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to who succeeds and who doesn’t.

The rather annoying thing about it all — and it is annoying because it’s not something you can plan on, create, or control for — is the role luck plays in all of it. It’s all about having the right thing in the right place at the right time. The only thing you can do is produce enough work of sufficient quality that the odds are better that you will have the right thing in the right place at the right time. You also have to have the goods to back up the luck. Getting that one big book deal because you had what they were looking for at the time they were looking for it won’t help much if you can’t write the next book or if you can’t adapt when the market changes.

Strangely, thinking this way makes me feel a bit better. Doing my part can improve my odds, but it’s not necessarily anything I’ve done wrong that’s kept me from going further. It may just be timing — Enchanted, Inc. came at the end of the chick lit wave but before the urban fantasy wave really got going. A couple of years earlier or later and I might have had a very different career.

writing life

Meeting with Readers

Yesterday, I did my very first video chat! It’s like living in the future. I was the guest for a junior high book club meeting to discuss Rebel Mechanics, and since they’re in another part of the state, I visited remotely. It was nice because although I did put on a nice top and did my hair and makeup, I was wearing yoga pants and house slippers and sitting comfortably on my sofa. The sad part was that I couldn’t join the students afterward for tea and scones because they haven’t found a way to instantly transmit matter like that. I did join them in spirit with a cup of tea.

It’s fun meeting with readers like that because writing can be very isolating. Mind you, that’s also one of the things I like about it. I love spending my days at home alone, writing. But it’s also good to be reminded that there are people out there reading these stories, falling in love with these characters. There are often so many layers between writers and readers, and you write to please yourself first, then you may need to get an agent to believe in you, and then you need to find an editor who wants to publish the book. You get feedback from a lot of people who are critiquing the book to try to make it better.

With all that going on, it’s easy to forget that the real point of doing this is for the people who read the book, who aren’t looking at it as a means to make money, who aren’t creating a spreadsheet about what money it may or may not make, who aren’t looking for flaws. They’re reading to enter another world, to experience things through a character, to spend time with imaginary people. It’s nice to be reminded of that because the business can be so overwhelming at times.

It’s especially fun with kids because their enthusiasm is maybe less filtered than you get with adults. They’re not experienced at being fans, like you see at conventions. Meeting a real author is still a really big deal for them, and I get to feel like a celebrity.

But now it’s back to work.

writing life

Why Your Writer Friend Gets Testy

Inspired by some posts I’ve seen some writer friends make recently and a bit of a grumpy mood, I present to you the Reasons Your Writer Friend Sometimes Gets Testy. Publishing is a strange business that doesn’t always work the way the rest of the world works, and that means it can be really stressful to be a writer. Read this, and you’ll realizes how important it is to support writers you love, whether they’re your friends/family or people whose work you enjoy.

There’s no correlation between experience level and earnings.
In the regular business world, you generally expect that when you’re entry-level, you earn a lower salary, and then as you gain experience, you get paid more. That’s not always how it works in publishing. Sometimes it does work that way, with writers gradually getting higher advances and then more promotion so their books earn more. But quite often, a brand-new writer may sign a contract with a huge advance while an established midlist writer will keep plugging away at about the same advance level over time — a level much lower than that new writer starts with. In the business world, new people get lower salaries than experienced people because the new person is an unknown quantity with a learning curve, while the more experienced person has proven their ability, and their experience means it will cost less and take less time to train them. It’s the opposite in publishing. The new person may get a higher advance because they’re an unknown quantity — they could be the next big thing — while they already know what to expect from the established person.

There’s also no correlation between quality and earnings.
I’m sure we can all think of some horribly written, unoriginal books that were smash bestsellers, and some good books that no one’s ever heard of. Sometime, that’s on the reading public, but there are certainly times when publishers pay a lot for and then heavily promote horribly written, unoriginal books while ignoring far better books.

So, authors don’t have the usual ways of improving their earnings. Sticking it out and becoming more experienced may or may not pay off. Working harder and writing better may or may not pay off.

It’s almost always considered the book’s or author’s fault if a book doesn’t do well.
There are lots of reasons why a book doesn’t find an audience. It may not be a good book or there may not be an audience for it. But it might also be because the cover is terrible, the book doesn’t get distributed well, there’s no promotion, or there’s some other, unrelated issue. I know of an author whose book was being carried from the printer to a distribution center in a train that derailed. Those copies were all destroyed in the accident and never made it to bookstore shelves in that region, which meant it didn’t sell in that region. When it came time to negotiate her next contract, the publisher held it against her that this book didn’t sell as well as her previous books. Or there have been cases in which the publicist responsible for a book left for another job a couple of weeks before publication, and no one realized until later that she hadn’t actually done any of the publicity work she was supposed to have done. Still, those poor sales were held against the author. There are a few stories of publishers who admitted that they did a terrible job of packaging and promoting a book and who then made an effort to relaunch that book or author, but it’s possible that these are urban legends.

And it’s not just publishers. Imagine if you will an author on release day, and their in-box is full of messages. You hope there will be a lot of “I’ve started reading your new book and love it” e-mails. There may be a few of those. The rest are more likely “Why didn’t your book download to my Kindle at midnight?” or “I looked for your book at my bookstore, but I didn’t find it. Why isn’t it there?” I’ve asked as politely as I could if they asked someone who actually works for the bookstore, and sometimes the response is “Oh, I didn’t think of that.” I’m not sure I understand the impulse to ask the author where to find something in a store instead of asking someone who works there. This may be why your author friend’s eyes flip to black and their neck veins stand out when you helpfully tell them you didn’t see their book at the store when you checked. You may mean well and be imparting information rather than expecting them to do something about it, but trust me, they’ve already heard all about it.

Sometimes, the author doesn’t get the credit when a book does well.
I know an author whose editor called to excitedly tell her that her book was a bestseller, and then said, “And we just had a meeting to try to figure out what it was about that cover that sold so well.” Because it couldn’t possibly have been the book itself, I guess.

Publishers can’t make a book a bestseller, but it’s hard to be a bestseller if the publisher hasn’t tried to make that happen.
That’s all about print run, placement, and promotion. There are lead titles that are positioned to be potential bestsellers. Sometimes, publishers guess wrong and all their efforts are for nothing (I have to admit to enjoying seeing lead titles from the time my books were published on remainder tables while my books are still in print). For the rest of the list, it’s almost a mathematical impossibility just because not enough books are printed and distributed to make a bestseller list even if every single copy sells. In the days of e-books, that makes a bit less of a difference, so maybe there’s a bigger chance of something being a surprise bestseller, but that would really take a stroke of luck without the promo behind it. Non-writer friends think writers are being pessimistic when they don’t hope for a new release to hit a bestseller list, but the fact is that they probably already know whether or not that’s even possible.

Sometimes, the performance of other books can make a difference to your career.
Imagine if you didn’t get a raise or a promotion, or if you even didn’t get hired or lost your job because someone with a similar job at an entirely different company didn’t perform well. That happens to authors. If books in a similar category to what you write don’t sell well, your publisher might not want more books from you or might give up on books that haven’t been published yet. They don’t look at it as that one book not performing. Frequently, they decide that category has tanked. Ask anyone who got caught up in the chick lit purge, when the industry decided those books were over after sales declined, and authors found themselves without publishers — even if their books were actually performing well.

So, you can see why there are some crazy stresses that come with this job, even if it is fun work that doesn’t require going to an office and having a boss stand over you. There’s a lot of stuff you have to just let go because you can’t control it. The only thing you can do is keep writing and keep trying to be better. That’s no guarantee of success, but it might improve your odds somewhat.

writing life

Writing and Financial Security

Yesterday’s post turned out to be oddly prescient. Not long after I posted it, I got an e-mail from the HOA reminding us that they’d let us know our cable contract was running out, and saying it ended Feb. 8. So, I figured I needed to go out and get an antenna.

The one I got picks up 69 stations, but not the ABC affiliate, which is annoying because that’s the one I watch the most. However, I only watch one program on it. Otherwise, it’s the news, which I can stream live via their app.

And then I realized I was being very all or nothing about the whole thing, resisting any kind of monthly fee. I think that’s one of the bits of emotional fallout from those lean years between the time I was laid off and the time I started selling novels again. I survived those years by being frugal and not spending additional money on things that weren’t absolutely necessary, and it seems that mindset has held over. Even though I’ve been making more money than I did with my old day job, my mind approaches everything as though I might not make any money at all this year. That’s unlikely, but big ups and downs are possible, so I could earn less than I need to live on if things go badly for me. I’ll probably earn most of this year’s income in the latter half of the year, which makes me feel a bit stressed earlier in the year. I’m not sure if I’ll ever feel totally secure and like the next year won’t rip everything away from me. Maybe if I’ve got a five-book contract for six figures for each book and a TV series in development, but otherwise, I’ll probably worry and be afraid to spend money.

But I figured out that there are other possible solutions. I’m going to look into something like Sling TV that will allow me to watch ABC programming in real time, as well as giving me the cable channels for shows I’m currently watching, along with a DVR-like service, and I can drop it after the TV season ends. Then I can figure out what to do next season, depending on what’s going to be on TV. I may be able to bring in that additional channel with an external tuner, by finding a way to place the antenna higher in my house, or by getting a more powerful antenna that I can put on the second floor. Or it may not matter to me then.

In the meantime, I should be thinking more about writing books or I’ll never reach that point of a five-book contract for six figures a book (it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever be at that level, but I can’t get to that level without actually writing the book). But first, I guess this weekend I’ll be watching everything I have saved up on the DVR before I have to return it. Most of it is reference material for books, so it kind of counts as work. I’ll be taking notes.

writing life

Liberation Day

This is my Liberation Anniversary. Sixteen years ago today, I was laid off from my last “real” job. I’ve worked for myself ever since, which is longer than the time I’ve spent working for someone else.

Looking back on the time, I had very mixed feelings then. I was unhappy at work, so unhappy that a week or so earlier I found myself hoping that I’d have a miraculous, magical job offer in my e-mail (the first spark of the idea that became Enchanted, Inc.). I was actually just working part-time — 30 hours a week — and telecommuting, which had been an ideal situation for trying to fit in my writing, but after the bosses who made that possible left and after quite a bit of turmoil in the company, my job had become a lot less fun. My new supervisor seemed to see me as a threat, shutting me out of things. Her shutting me out of a major client meeting resulted in us losing that client, which was what led to me being laid off (that client then hired me as a freelancer). I was already planning to maybe take the plunge and quit my job to freelance, but later in the year when I’d had a chance to get things like insurance lined up. Since I knew we were losing that account, I already suspected what was going on and had already pulled all my files off my office laptop so I’d have work samples. I wasn’t surprised when I got the call to bring my computer and all company property to the office, that that didn’t ease the sting of the way they went about it.

But by about noon that day, I was suddenly unemployed. I’d already planned a reading binge that weekend, starting on Friday (my 30 hours a week were flexible, which meant if I worked a full day Monday through Thursday, I could take Friday off). I’d just started reading the Harry Potter series the previous fall, and had read the first three books, the ones I’d bought in England. The fourth book was only out in hardcover at the time, and my library hold for it had finally come in. I was planning to devote the weekend to reading it. I had the soundtrack for the first movie and appropriate snacks ready to go. But since I suddenly didn’t have to work, I moved my reading marathon up a day.

It proved nicely cathartic. The events toward the end of that book made me sob hysterically, and I think I needed a good cry. I’d been so numb up to that point, so determined to look on the bright side, but there were a lot of hurt feelings from the way I’d been treated. That book also helped with the ongoing development of that idea I’d had about a magical job. I so related to what was going on with Hermione in that book because it was much like my school experience, with the guys I hung out with as friends not even thinking of me as someone they might invite to a big dance because they didn’t think of me as a girl (unfortunately, I didn’t have the star jock from another school to swoop in and ask me). That made me think that I would love to read something like these books, but about adult life, with jobs, friends, etc.

I was putting off actually dealing with thinking about what to do next. I figured I’d get through the weekend and then think. But my former clients who’d heard the news started calling me the next day, offering some freelance work (one benefit of working from home: my clients all had my home number). I’d saved up a lot of money in preparing to someday make the leap, and I decided to wait before trying to get a new job to see if I could get by as a freelancer so I could focus on my fiction writing. That was a bit risky, as I was in the middle of a huge career lull as a novelist, but I had other forms of income and several years worth of living expenses saved up, so I thought it was worth a try.

I still haven’t gone in search of a new regular job. I’m not sure I could find one right now, given that it’s been so long. I wouldn’t want to go back to what I was doing, but I don’t know what else I could do. I guess that means I’d better keep making the writing work.