you’re not gonna die

So some great writers keep stopping by Reddit. This time, Yoon Ha Lee came to discuss his novel Ninefox Gambit (which was excellent and well worth your reading time). The authors who I’ve been asking lately were all later into their careers, and while Yoon has published many short stories, I asked him about his journey to publication. Here’s what he had to say.

I used to have a folder FULL of rejection slips. So yes, I have definitely been there! I know it can get discouraging, but please, keep writing and submitting. Somewhere out there is a reader who wants your story.

For general advice…hmm. I think there are a few big things here. One is perseverance–it’s an emotional skill. Writing is frequently isolating and discouraging, so finding ways to handle that is very important for your long-term sanity. (Personally, I vent to my husband. The stories my husband could tell…) Find other writers: writers who are not yet writing as well as you do, whom you can mentor; writers at your level, for solidarity; writers whom you aspire toward, to be inspired by. Keep pushing your craft. The only way to learn to fly, in writing, is to jump off a lot of cliffs. And the beautiful thing about writing is that when you jump off a cliff in real life, you’re probably gonna die (so PLEASE don’t literally jump off cliffs) but when you take storytelling risks trying new things in writing, you’re not gonna die. The results might be embarrassing, but you’re not gonna die. And you’ll probably learn something new and cool and add techniques to your bag of tricks.

Read–not just the kinds of things you want to write, but read things COMPLETELY DIFFERENT to broaden your horizons. If you want to write epic fantasy, read noir, read baseball match reports, read jewelry catalogues. I promise you that you will learn unexpected things about how to use language that way.

In a way, Yoon answered the question I keep asking. How do you develop toughness and grit? How do you persevere? I like the idea of it as an emotional skill. Perhaps I’ve been treating it too much as something mechanical, like it was something I could learn by repetition. And while I’m sure practice is important, maybe there’s something else to it. Something to ponder, anyway.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
59% Complete
53,137 of 90,000 words

The primary caretaker

Ever since KRH was born, now seven months ago, I have been Dad only part of the time. Which isn’t to say I haven’t always been a dad, but for much of the week, I am busy at my day job. For the most part, when I’m at work I’m not parenting. My mind isn’t in parent mode. In a similar vein, for at least some of the last seven months, while I’ve been happy to be the person taking care of KRH for an afternoon or an evening, I have never been the “primary” parent for a long period.

That’s in part been because of the physical reality, because although he’s started solid food, we were never able to get KRH to take a bottle with any frequency, so until recently he needed Mom at least a few times a day. And in part, my wife has been the one on leave from work, so the vast majority of taking care of the baby has fallen on her, even as she’s needed to recover from pregnancy and birth (a job I think we often underestimate).

Long story short, I’ve never really taken up the full time job of caring for a child.

That’s going to change shortly! Next month, I’ll be starting parental leave, while my wife goes back to work. For my wife, it’s going to be difficult to leave KRH, but we decided we wanted either of us to be able to take care of KRH on any given day, and we decided the best way to do that was to make sure I had time to be the primary parent. So for about three and a half months, that’s going to be my job. I’m really thankful that my wife is willing to give me the opportunity to do it, because I think I’m going to learn a lot and hopefully have great times in the process.

What this probably isn’t going to be is an opportunity to write a whole lot. I’ve already cut the time I’m writing down because I just haven’t been able to keep up lately. I’m expecting, honestly, to get almost no work done while I’m on leave. I’m expecting taking care of KRH, plus doing household things, to take most of my time. If I do have time to write, great, but I don’t anticipate it. So while my writer brain really doesn’t like that and screams about it, I’m getting an opportunity to just spend time with KRH. It helps, of course, that he’ll be as playful and independent as he’s yet been and it’ll be warm and lovely for the months I’ll be on leave. So I anticipate lots of summer walks and trips to the park and the zoo and festivals and all sorts of similar things.

I have a while until this begins, but I can’t wait. I’m sure when it happens I’ll have a lot of things to post about.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
59% Complete
53,137 of 90,000 words

I want it five years ago

I spend a lot of time thinking about personal growth. I think it’s important for us to acknowledge that we are imperfect creatures by nature, and that there is always some way or another we can improve ourselves, be it our health, our personality, our habits, whatever. As a writer, I see how slowly improving my writing techniques and output will eventually yield massive gains and indeed that has been my plan for a long time.

But somehow, I think, my thinking about growth has gotten twisted, or maybe always been twisted. As a society, I think we hear a lot of stories about people who made massive changes overnight. They quit smoking cold turkey or took up a health lifestyle or quit their jobs to write or were one day struck by an epiphany and did something. And I think we tend to idolize those people whose willpower, apparently, is simply enough to sit down and make that massive change.

I don’t think most change comes from that method. If it does, maybe it shouldn’t. Sure, if that works for you, but I can’t off hand think of anything I’ve accomplished through that kind of massive change. And yet, if you looked at my planning document(I use and love my Volt Planner, I’m consistently setting goals across multiple areas for massive change. I’ve gotten better about breaking goals down into achievable bites and strategizing methods, but I’m still often trying to pack big changes into a month.

I think one of the reasons I’ve found the jump to parenthood so difficult is that I somehow expected that it would be a milestone and an opportunity. I thought that since everything would be changing, it would be an opportunity to set all the blocks of my life exactly as I wanted them. I’d eat perfectly after KRH, I told myself. I’d get really good at stealing 15 minutes here or 30 minutes there of writing, so that I’d actually write more and more efficiently than before. I’d get to the gym more regularly, something I only started doing a few months before KRH was born. And so on and so forth.

Does it shock you, dear reader, to learn that none of those massive changes worked out? Even though I had broken things down into achievable bites? It turns out that having a baby was more difficult than I expected, in different ways than I expected. So here I am, six months after KRH was born, and much of my change is still unmade. It doesn’t help, I think, that when I set out to make a change, I want it to happen five years ago, and if not then yesterday will have to do.

Now, this realization is a bit funny because I’ve long mentally accepted the idea of continuous growth. But I think I really need to focus on the fundamentals and try and do less of what doesn’t work. So in May I’m going to do that, and I’m going to pick a few narrow areas to try and improve in, rather than filling my list with to-do things. We’ll see what kind of progress I can make.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
56% Complete
50,197 of 90,000 words

March’s Fuel

What the heck did I do in March? Well, I did spent a week in Mexico. I went intending to do a lot of reading, and while I did do some, it wasn’t quite as much as I intended. Nor did I spend as much time at home as I expected. So this month’s fuel was a little lean, and mostly books. And that’s fine! So what did I read?

The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley. I first came to Hurley via her writing advice, and in fact she gave me some great thoughts a little while ago. So naturally I grabbed this book as it came out. I’d started reading some of her other work, but I admit this was my first completed novel by her. And wow. This was a great book. Really good. It put so many twists on so many sci-fi tropes, and always managed to surprise me. It’s very much worth your time to check out.

You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution by Jeffrey M. Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. So this book isn’t fiction, but an author I’m a fan of recommended it on twitter. So I grabbed it, and I think it’s going to change a lot of things for me. The book is grounded in the idea that, because of how our brains work, we can train ourselves to get lost in emotional sensations sent by the brain. In fact, the more you focus on and think about these sensations, the easier it gets, because your brain is very good at re-writing itself (neuroplasticity). But if you can wire your brain to focus on bad habits, you can also use that power to train it to have good habits. I learned a lot from this one and I’m still applying the 4-step method in my life in a lot of different ways.

The Black Company by Glen Cook. I admit, I try to focus a lot of my reading on more modern novels. I want to know what’s being written now, not what was written years ago. But The Black Company has been sitting in my library for quite a long time, and I decided Mexico was a great place to read it. It was not a book I regretted reading, either. I found it to be written in a very different style than a lot of books I read, but never one that detracted from my enjoyment of it. Anyone into military fantasy will probably love this one.

Meanwhile, I’ve finished with rewriting those rewritten Cloudbreakers scenes. It still needs a lot of work, but it’s still an early draft so that’s to be expected. I feel better about where the novel is going and the overall state of it than I did before.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
53% Complete
47,476 of 90,000 words

Changing everything

So I haven’t been posting my Cloudbreakers status updates lately. It’s not because I’m not working on it, but I have had to pause the rewrite.

I came to a realization a little while ago. One of the three viewpoint characters was wrong. That part of the story follows a group trying to rescue the main character. I wanted a viewpoint inside the group, whose relationships with each other and acceptance of the friend is a major plot point. Each had their reasons to go along with the rescue, but each had different points of impact through the series. By choosing one as a viewpoint character, I was de-emphasizing the others. Worse, none of them had a reason to be a viewpoint character, so their motivations came through rather flat, especially the one I choose.

I’ve been working on this novel since September, and working it over in my brain since I wrote it as a short story back in 2013. Took me this long to realize that the viewpoint problem was right there. Another character accompanies the group, one who’s romantically interested in the main character, and who also manages to betray her. In other words, someone with a whole lot invested in the outcome of the rescue. She also functions as an outsider to the group, being able to comment and observe things. She travels with the group for the whole journey, so she’s in a position to tell the part of the narrative I need to tell. In short, she’s perfect.

Why I didn’t I see this until now? I’m not sure, but I knew from the start that it wasn’t working. I think this is part of the writing process, in which you understand what does work and what doesn’t.  I think a good writer will understand that when they read it, even if they don’t know why it doesn’t work immediately, which is possibly why I felt those scenes weren’t working.

So what do I do about it? That character’s viewpoint is about a third of the book. I’m midway through a rewrite, so this took me back to the start to fix those scenes, which I’m still working on now. I’m confident the result will be a better book, and I’m glad to have this solved on what’s essentially my third draft rather than a much later one, even if it does derail my progress a little bit.

Six months

I knew things would be tough after KRH arrived. I expected it to be. Indeed, I feared never being able to write as a parent. I worried that this was going to be the end of my writing career. I worried I simply wouldn’t have the time. I wondered what I’d give up and sacrifice for this duty of parenthood that I’d chosen. Of course, I looked forward to that duty as well. I had a ton of curiosity about who my child would be, how they would grow up, and what our time together would mean both to me and them. But there was a definite period where fear was one of the things I felt the most.

Six months have passed, as of yesterday. A lot has happened in that time. The stringbean baby has grown up a lot. He has hair and two teeth (and he’s kept the bright blue eyes I love so much). He’s grown so much, and now he’s as chubby as a baby should be. He talks (for a given value of talking). He grabs things (my hair and beard, mostly). He’s happy and healthy. He can roll over onto his tummy. And much, much more. What seems like an eternity is also the merest heartbeat, as near as I can tell.

So where are we? Where am I? Maybe that’s a better question. I don’t think I exaggerate to say that the last six months have been the most challenging of my life. For all that I feared that KRH might be the end of my writing career, I didn’t think having a child would be so hard. In those six months, I’ve run on less sleep than I thought would be possible. I’ve had the foundation of my life shaken deeply just from KRH’s sheer needs and the amount of change going on. I’ve struggled with just what it means to be a parent. A lot of thing have seemed a lot less certain than I thought they would.

Before KRH, I spent a lot of time reading, looking for reassurance that I would still be able to write after he arrived. One of the things that really didn’t allay my concerns was the suggestion that I should give up writing for the first 6 months of KRH’s life. I can’t afford to give up that much of my writing career, I though, and I definitely can’t afford to do it more than once (as my wife and I still plan to have more kids). I decided to ignore that advice, and instead I thought writing through that time would make me a better writer. More diligent and disciplined.

I’m glad I did keep writing through the last six months, but I’ve accomplished a lot less than I thought I would. The hours I’ve been able to spend at the task have been dramatically declining. March was one of the worst months I’ve had, time-wise, since I started keeping track of my hours written. I find it tougher to focus now, and the time I had for myself to write (after I got home from work) is now the only time I have to spend with KRH. That isn’t to say that I’ve accomplished nothing, as I pumped out the first draft of a novel and I’m halfway through a second draft, but I’ve underwhelmed my expectations.

In those six months, I’ve learned a lot. What worked before (writing after work, long afternoons in coffee shops, time to myself for rest and recovery) isn’t the same now. So I need to find different things that will work. I need to learn to refocus and concentrate better than I used to. I need to be able to write on less sleep than I used to enjoy. In short, not at all how I thought this time would go.

I struggle with that a lot. I had a plan for how I wanted these months to be, and instead things have been totally different. I don’t think I understood, in some ways, just how my life was going to change. I’m still not sure I do.

I don’t intend to give up writing. I’m not happy unless I’m chasing this dream. But I think I am going to have to accept spending less time with it than I wanted. I am going to have to adjust my expectations on myself, at least as long as my wife and I have young children. That doesn’t mean give up, but it does mean to adapt and persevere in ways I haven’t had to before. So that’s what I’m going to have to keep doing. But then, isn’t that what we do our whole lives? Yes, this circumstance is difficult, but it will make me better. I think I have to rely on that and have faith in myself.

Like scar tissue

So lately some of my favourite writers have been over on Reddit, dispensing advice and answering questions. At the time, I was struggling with confidence, so I asked Kameron Hurley and Brandon Sanderson the same thing, “how do you develop toughness as a writer?” You can read their answers at the respective blog posts, but they said pretty similar things. You can control the process, not the goal of publication, so do what you want to do.

Chuck Wendig is the writer who, for me, most personifies Dad and Writer. I’ve been following his stories about his son bdub for years, now. So naturally, when he appeared like a swarm of bees on Reddit, I asked him the same question. Here’s what he had to say.

Man, I dunno, it’s like scar tissue. You can’t build up scar tissue without submitting yourself to the slings and arrows of it — you gotta take the hits, you gotta be willing to suck, gotta be willing to take the rejections right on the chin and let it rattle your teeth. In terms of pushing past the bullshit of the world, well, I’ll admit, all the Heinous Fuckery going on in the world makes it hard, but you also have to realize that stories matter. Escapist stories matter. Resonant stories matter. All stories matter, so be a part of that. Commit and contribute. Turn off the news. Turn off social media. Commune with the work and tell the world to fuck off for a little while.

Stories matter. Do the work. As with the past advice I’ve been getting, this was important for me when I received it. I’ve been trapped in a bit of a funk for some time, probably since KRH was born. Not only does the world feel like it’s hurtling toward chaos, I’ve struggled both with the fact that I can’t spend as much time pursing my goal of publication as I used to, and with feeling stuck, like my new project has an uncertain future and that I’m not sure how to take it where it needs to be. I’ve been starting to emerge from than funk lately. This is a good reminder that what I’m trying to do matters. Writing is important. My writing is important. I needed that.

Meanwhile, I also asked Wendig about writing as a Dad. His thoughts.

Well, in some ways it’s easy, because being a writer isn’t like being at a 9-to-5 job — I can come in, make breakfast, make lunch, still be a part of his life and then go fuck off to Imagination Unicorn Karate Land for as long as I need to.

But here’s a few tricks:

a) write early in the morning, before Tiny Human awakens b) forgive yourself and the kid — it doesn’t really start to get easier until they’re 2-3 years old c) it’ll get much easier when they go to school, too d) carve out little pockets of writing time whenever you can

In some ways, it’s a little tough to keep in mind that things won’t get easier. KRH is just 5 months old. 2-3 years old seems like a long way away, and if my wife and I have more children, as is the plan, then it just starts the plan all over again. That feeds into my fears that I’m missing my window, so to speak. But Wendig reminds me that it can be done, (even if I don’t have a magical writing shed). That’s the sort of thing I’m focusing on going forward.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
42% Complete
37,836 of 90,000 words

Getting close to something amazing

Last year, through perseverance, I caught the attention of an agent with the publisher of some of my favourite authors. He rejected two queries from me, but he suggested I rewrite one, Legacy of the Destroyer, and trim about 20,000 words from a 120,000 draft. That would leave me a leaner, meaner, fighting book.

I’d just finished rewriting a different book, so launching into another serious rewrite wasn’t actually what I wanted to be doing. On the other hand, I recognised that he was likely right and that I could probably trim the book significantly. That was a project that took me almost up until KRH was born (that was my self-imposed deadline.) I fired it off to said agent, and waited.

Waiting, I’m told, is a major part of writing and publishing. I consider myself fairly patient, which is a good thing. I only recently received a reply. The agent in question told me that my sample pages zipped alone, that my voice was “solid,” and he liked the premise. However, he had to decline because it was similar to an existing client’s project, because it didn’t speak to him, and because although my writing was good, there was nothing that spoke to him in terms of it being something only I could write.

I don’t like to talk much about interactions with agents, because it feels unprofessional. Also, I firmly believe in being cautious about what’s repeated out of a private email conversation. Still, I wanted to talk about this.

Anyone who’s queried probably knows that an agent has to love your work in order to offer representation. There are a lot of good books out there, but good isn’t enough for publication. It needs to be great, and it needs to speak to the agent in question. Still, the agent signed off by telling me he thought I was close to “something amazing.”

I find this somewhere between encouraging and discouraging. I happen to think both the books I’m currently querying are hecking great (or else I wouldn’t be querying them). But I nurse the fear that they’re not amazing. Unfortunately, the results of my querying so far is that agents agree. So I do find it discouraging that, after all this work, the best I can do is pretty good.

On the other hand, I have received some insincere praise in response to queries, and I don’t believe this was that at all. So if this agent things I’m close to something amazing, then maybe I am. I’m not sure how to get there yet, but I can work toward that as a goal. I will get there. I don’t intend to stop until I do.

Write like you’re on vacation

My wife and I are lucky enough to get to vacation once a year. This year’s destination was Cancun, Mexico. Previous vacations have been pretty good; a lot of time writing, some sun, some good food, a few drinks. Paradise for me.

This is exactly how I pictured my time in Mexico. In fact, I took this picture on the last day while rushing to get ready to go to the airport.

When I have time off work, I like to work. No, really. For me, a vacation is an opportunity to spend time doing things I really enjoy, even if that thing is writing really hard. I see vacations as an opportunity to really get some thing accomplished.

Or, I used to. Christmas, when I intended to make a big end-of-year push to get some work done, turned out to be anything but when the whole family got sick, I was worn out, and it was KRH’s first festive season. But this vacation would be different, I told myself. KRH was 5 months old, not 3. We were going with my wife’s parents, who would babysit! I would get up early before everyone did, so I could get my words in and still spend lots of time with my family.

You can probably guess how that went, huh?

It’s not to say I didn’t get anything done. But we arrived in Cancun already exhausted, because preparing for the first vacation was a lot more work than we expected. The plane trip was good and KRH turned out to be an excellent traveller, but it was still a long day and trip. And between the heat, the new experiences, and us adapting to a vacation schedule with a baby, it turns out I actually got very little accomplished at all.

He is both an exceptionally good and an exceptionally cute traveller.

It wasn’t exactly for lack of trying. I did drag myself out of bed early about half the time. But it was sure tough to put finger to keyboard. And once the day got going? Good luck. There was food to eat, and swimming to do. For a nine day trip, we lost two to travel, one on a tour to Isla Mujeres, and the others sure went fast. And you know what? I don’t regret it at all.

Here’s the thing. This is probably going to be the new pattern of vacations. For a while, they’re not going to be free writing sojourns anymore. Instead, they’re going to be about spending time with KRH and his hypothetical future siblings. That’s not a thing I’ve gotten the opportunity to do enough.

NOW NOW NOW is an ethos I’ve embraced for a long time when it comes to writing. As silly as it is, I feel like my window is slipping away, or that I’m somehow missing my chance to achieve my goals. I worry I’ve already wasted too much time and that my goals are getting further away as I get older, not closer. I fear that I’m falling behind others, no matter that it’s neither a race nor a competition. So a vacation, a solid week to write, is always a treasured opportunity. And although losing that is going to be hard and I won’t stop trying to write while I’m off work, what I will do is stop thinking of them as writing priority weeks. Now, they’ll be parenting priority weeks. We need to have that sometimes, right?

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
42% Complete
37,836 of 90,000 words

The process alone was enough

A little while ago, during an AMA, I asked author Kameron Hurley about becoming tough. A few days later, Brandon Sanderson stopped in for an AMA as well. In terms of both craft and persistence (he wrote a lot of books before he got published), Sanderson is the writer I want to be like the most. I asked him much the same question. “How did you develop the toughness to keep at your craft, when I’m sure there must have been times you despaired about ever being published?” I didn’t get an immediate answer and figured my question had already been answered, so I didn’t lose any sleep over not getting it answered.

However, kudos to Brandon, about 25 days later he got to my question. Here’s his reply.

I’ve told this story before, but the biggest moment for me came right before I wrote The Way of Kings. I was unpublished, with a dozen (as you’ve mentioned) books under my belt–books nobody in the business seemed to want to buy.

The decision to go was very personal. It was an acknowledgement that the process alone was enough for me. I wanted publication, I wanted to do this as a living, but even if I never obtained that, I loved the writing process enough to keep going.

I wrote, and write, primarily for myself. I realize this is cold comfort when I’m able to make a living, and you haven’t yet reached that point. However, my decision was this: If I reached the end of my life with seventy unpublished manuscripts, that would be a better life lived than if I’d stopped writing.

Just like I needed that last reply, I also needed this one. I’ve been slogging on a book that is probably, at my current pace, 10-12 months away. I’m really unhappy with that speed, but I’m not certain how to improve on it with the time available to me with KRH around. I’m also continuing to get a trickle of query rejections (when I even receive those). So a reminder as to why I do this is timely. A life spent in the pursuit of publication is a life I prefer one one where I don’t even try. A life telling stories isn’t a bad one, even if I’m my only audience.

2nd draft

Cloudbreakers
36% Complete
32,746 of 90,000 words