Should We Just Be Grateful To Be Here?

The Guardian recently published a piece on the fact that “publishers are paying writers a pittance.” This is true. Traditional publishers made billions of dollars last year while the writers whose books they published worked second/third jobs, pinched pennies, and lived paycheck to paycheck. Traditional publishing has always been exploitative and it’s because of the allure, the exclusivity, the inability for authors to organize against the monopoly, and the expectation that POC writers must show their gratitude for being allowed in that space by being as amenable as possible.

I am not stating this to be critical of other authors. I’m simply acknowledging that in order to be allowed in that majority-white space we have had certain expectations placed upon us. Expectations that include being grateful for a contract, any contract, even if it values the machine dispensing the art more than the human creating it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this last point as I consider what I want to do with my Fantasy WIP. I’d love to query it but doing so will just subject me to the same exploitation. Unless things change. Unless writers start being honest about how they are being taken advantage of and call out their publishers to make it right. Unless writers stop seeing traditional publishers as gods who can subject them to any kind of mistreatment if its in exchange for a book on the shelf of a Barnes and Noble.

This is going to be the hardest part of the cycle to break–our own toxic beliefs that we are not good enough to ask for more. That we are not worthy of a bigger slice of the pie. That we should just be grateful to be acknowledged at all.

Back in 2012 I decided to self-publish because I didn’t believe there was a place for me in traditional publishing. Characters who were not white or Christian were not easy to find and it was clear they were not valued. Which meant that I would not be valued. My stories would not be valued. So I published my stories on my own.

Six years and over $125,000 later, what was once an act of defiance against the inherent bias and racism in publishing, has led me to an even bigger revelation about how it is not just a spot on a shelf that determines a book’s value but it’s how much an author was paid for the rights to that book. The paltry percentage publishers are currently paying their authors is yet another way of saying, “We are in control. You are no one without us.”

It is another way of saying, “Don’t bother trying to get into this profession unless you already possess the wealth and privilege to make it a career.” Which is simply another way of keeping marginalized people…exactly where they are. In other words, the belief that they are lifting up our voices is simply an illusion until the optics match the money in our bank accounts.

So do not be fooled by the celebrations of diversity or even the number of diverse books being published in recent years. Racism has not been eradicated from traditional publishing. It may no longer show up in the lack of marginalized authors on book shelves but it still shows up in the monetary value that is placed on those authors. Which means there is still a lot of work to do and it starts with us not being so damn amenable. It starts with us acknowledging our own worth and then demanding that others do the same.

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Rebuilding

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For about a month I could not write a single thing. Before that I’d spent several more months trying to force out words across two different WIPs hoping that something would spark and I’d be able to get back to my pre-P&X-publication numbers, which were about 2,000-3,000 words a day. For me that is a lot of words. A lot of words I was only able to produce because I’d been working on that version of the novel for about a year. By that point I knew the world and the characters so well. The effort of problem-solving was no longer slowing me down as much as it had in the beginning.

This is the part I always forget—the beginning. And I don’t mean the first couple of days or even the first couple of weeks when you’re so high on the potential of this shiny new idea that you’re writing like crazy, just trying to get it all out. I’m talking about the point in that first draft when you hit a wall and don’t know where the characters should be going or why. Or maybe you do know but you don’t know how to get them there. The initial excitement has worn off and you are now forced to slow down, to think, to figure it out.

I am in that place with my current WIP but instead of panicking that the words aren’t coming fast enough or that the ones I am able to produce are total crap, I am trying to focus on that fact that even one more word is still progress. I’ve been using pacemaker.press (which I absolutely love even though the website is always wonky and takes forever to load) and setting a daily goal for that WIP of just 500 words. That’s a little less than a full page, which means it’s just enough for me to see that this idea is growing into a book but not so much that I feel defeated before I even begin.

During this very fragile rebuilding period in which I am trying to find my confidence again as a writer while also protecting my mental health, these small victories are crucial. As a teacher, I know how impossible it is for a student to take risks, to learn and grow when they feel like the task ahead of them is impossible. I know that setting students up for failure (i.e. an assignment that is too difficult or does not honor their learning style, cultural background, etc.) has damaging psychological effects and can prevent them from engaging in that task/topic in the future. As a creative person with severe anxiety I must also be careful not to set myself up for failure. For me, that means not putting a ridiculous amount of pressure on one WIP. That means finding other sources of income so sliding book sales don’t completely derail my mental health. It means setting goals I can actually reach and still giving myself grace when I don’t.

So, what does that look like? Well, in order to avoid putting all of my eggs in one basket I’m working on a new Fantasy series alongside my current WIP. It’s an idea that’s been ruminating for several years and because of that I was able to outline the first book in the series in just a couple of days. Now, if I’m having a bad day with the contemporary YA novel I can switch gears and still feel like I’m making progress towards the much greater goal of querying at some point in the next couple of years. I know some people discourage writers from following the “shiny new idea” because if you do that every time you have one you’ll never finish anything. But I’ve finished eight novels so finishing is not a problem for me. Doubt is. And that doubt is much less severe when I’m making progress on something, anything.

As for finding another source of income, I’m really lucky that I have the summers off to earn extra money. This year I’ll be teaching both sessions of summer school and a review session for the English end of course exam students must pass in order to graduate. It’s enough to supplement my income until December-ish, which is when I hope to put out the contemporary novel I’m working on. Then I’ll set the companion novel, Pen & Xander, to perma-free and hope that drives traffic to the new book. If that book doesn’t sell then I can always try to teach summer school again next year. It won’t be easy making ends meet without my royalty income but it’s not impossible.

Making sure my daily word count goals are just as possible is another key to the rebuilding process. Right now, my word count goal for my contemporary novel is 500 and my word count goal for the Fantasy series is 350. In total I’m holding myself to about 850 words a day and often I’m able to produce much more. Part of this is because psychologically I’ve tricked myself into thinking the 500 words for one WIP and 350 for another is no big deal. I can sprint that before school starts or during my lunch break. And if I don’t, I’ve written in excess of these goals on so many occasions that I now have a nice cushion for myself on days when I’m too distracted to get something down.

Right now, this is a system that is working for me but it’s taken a long time to find that balance. And who knows? Once I finish the contemporary novel I may not be able to continue writing two novels at a time or I may not be able to keep up my current pace. I may find my current pace too easy. Lots of things can change and part of giving myself grace is allowing myself the time and space to change with them. To be flexible and forgiving. To focus on my health before my art. To remind myself that one cannot exist without the other.

Starting Over Feels Like…

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Staring over feels like wonder and worry and chaos and calm. Sometimes it feels like sitting at the edge of the waterline and sometimes it feels like gasping for air and fighting the waves.

And in the midst of all of that uncertainty I am trying to build a life raft board by board, rope floating off before I can tie it into knots.

But little by little something is coming together.

I’ve created a routine-500 words a day. That’s it. Most days I beat it and it feels good to be making progress even if it’s slow. It feels good to reach a little higher than I expected, to see the finish line in the distance, pulling towards me when I wasn’t sure that was possible.

Maybe tomorrow I will doubt and freeze and not produce a single word. But I’m not as afraid of failure as I used to be. Because even failure is a sign of progress. It means I finished something, that I put it out into the world. It means that I finished. That is all I can worry about right now—finishing. Because finishing the life raft is all that matters. There’s no surviving without it.

 

 

 

 

It is Possible

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I don’t know where to start. Maybe with the last several posts that are snapshots of those brief moments between anxiety spirals when I was trying to remind myself to hope. Or maybe with the insomnia and the fears that almost stole that from me. I don’t know who to show anymore. Do I show the working creative who has written eight novels and who should now be exempt from failure? Or do I show the doubt-filled procrastinator who hasn’t been able to write in almost a month?

Obviously, the last several months have been rough and the time stamps on those blog posts about learning and growing and the fact that the creative process has its own rewards show just how few and far between the good days actually were. While waiting to come out of this, I have written about learning to give up control and being patient and showing gratitude. I have written about finding strength and trusting in a higher being and in myself. Each has not only been a declaration but a set of detailed instructions on how to survive. Because I know I will find myself in the darkness again, no matter how many constellations I’ve left to guide my way back.

I cannot change the way I am wired. I can only change how I care for myself when those wires begin to short-circuit.

Sometimes that means doing something even scarier than staring at a blank page and trying to force out magic. Sometimes that means not allowing myself to write at all.

There was a time when I was selling almost 200 books a day. Now, I’m lucky if I sell 10 copies. This means that if I don’t write and publish something new that number could drop down to 0. It’s such a tangible manifestation of failure, one I’m faced with and consumed by every time I try to write. There is no room in my brain for story, for my character’s voices, for their dreams and fears. I’m too busy wrestling with my own. And every day that I don’t produce something, is one day closer to another gigantic life change that will only hurl me in the opposite direction of everything I’ve worked so hard for.

But if all of this anxiety was stemming from not producing a single word in weeks, what would happen if I didn’t even allow myself to try? What would happen if I forced myself straight into that fear and chose not to write? Would disaster strike? Would the world end? Would I not be a real writer anymore?

The answer is—nothing—not one of these things would happen and I would sleep. I would sleep for twelve hours every night and wake up late on the weekends and my body would reclaim the rest it so desperately needed. Because worry does not just exist in your mind. It lives in your skin and your bones and every part of you that is working to keep you alive. The more you worry, the harder they work until they just can’t do it anymore. And then you must rest. You MUST.

And then you wake up and you start over.

It’s not ideal and you aren’t any less scared of it than you were before. But it is possible.

This is the latest constellation I have left for myself. It is possible. The starting over, the writing, and all of the other work that comes along with creating. I create things from scratch all the time. I can rebuild my career the same way. I can write this new book. I can finish it too. And if no one buys it…I can write something else. I can always write something else.

Plan D

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Plan A was to sell millions of books and become rich and famous, which did not happen. Plan B was to sell a moderate but steady amount of books, which would allow me to be a full-time author. This is no longer happening. Plan C was to go back to school, become a teacher, and write on the side until I struck gold and could stash all that cash away for an early retirement. Now, early “retirement” is slowly slipping from my grasp, which brings me to plan D: Enjoy my life while making art I love.

I can’t think about the money anymore. It’s agonizing and exhausting, and in the grand scheme of things, means far less than my health and happiness. Could the money I was making last year aid me in my quest to achieve health and happiness? Sure, but only because it would bring me peace of mind. But there’s something else that has been giving me peace of mind lately, something that just last week was the source of much of my terror–the fact that, once again, I am making art that matters to no one but me.

How do I know this? Well, because we’re almost five months from the pub date of Pen & Xander and this little, invisible, book of my heart has still only sold 27 copies. And that’s okay. It’s okay because I needed to write this book and because I learned so much in the process.

I learned what it is I want to say and how I want to say it. I learned that I have a responsibility to write these kinds of characters, characters I craved as a kid but could never find. I learned that the creative process is its own reward and that just because this book hasn’t found its audience today doesn’t mean that in a year or five or ten it won’t resonate with someone as powerfully as it has with me. I learned that it’s okay to create something no one else cares or even knows about. Nothing is in vain. This book is not a failure and neither am I.

So, what does Plan D really look like? Well, it actually looks a lot like my old life when I was working 60 hours a week and writing every spare second in between. Only this time I’m not breaking myself in the process. I’m writing because I want to, not because I need to generate more income. I still want to make money and be able to write full time someday. But setbacks in my creative life have shown me that I have a lot of other gifts that are worth pouring into. I’m a good teacher. I’m not ready to give that up.

And maybe that’s why Pen & Xander hasn’t been a runaway success. Because, for the time being, I’m supposed to be in the classroom. I’m needed there, which means I’m fulfilling my purpose there. A person can have more than one. Destiny is not a narrow straight but a winding, bumpy trunk that erupts in a dazzling display of branches. Destiny is messy and full of back and forth, push and pull. Tension. Surprise.

I’m not used to allowing myself to feel surprised. Surprises scare me because they are out of my control. But I don’t need to be in control of every little detail. The minutiae may be messy, but if I stand back and examine it in the light, it is still just as beautiful as I’d hoped it would be. Maybe even more so.