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.

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What To Do When You Realize Your Idea Isn’t Original Part II

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A long, long time ago when I was working on the first book in The Girl In Between series I came across a newly released traditionally published book that shared several similarities with my novel. Of course, I completely panicked and started rethinking everything to the point of almost driving myself mad.

And then I came to the realization that lots of books have things in common–characters, setting, plot, conflict. There will always be an aspect of one of my stories that someone else has attempted to explore before. The difference? Well, the explorer, of course.

No one else has lived my life and therefore no one else has my same experiences to draw on for inspiration. No one has my voice or my perspective. No one is me. And that is how I was able to push through and continue with that series.

But then disaster struck again, only this time my WIP didn’t just share similarities with the traditionally published book I came across. The synopsis for both were practically identical.

Here, I’ll show you…

Rough synopsis for my WIP, which I used to teach my students about stakes & inciting incident during the outlining process:

Maite has just lost her twin brother in a tragic accident. His organs are donated, saving several lives. One of them is Phoenix who’s been waiting for a heart transplant for almost six months. He wants more than anything to meet the family of his organ donor and thank them for their son’s amazing gift but Maite and her parents are still in the midst of their grief and can’t imagine anything more final than hearing their son’s heart beating in someone else’s chest.

Even though they denied a meeting with him, Phoenix manages to find out the identities of his organ donor’s family. He learns that Maite is in his freshmen photography class and even though he knows he should keep his distance, something else, something stronger keeps pulling him in her direction. After partnering up for a semester-long project Maite and Phoenix slowly begin to develop feelings for one another.

Shortly after discovering that she is in love with Phoenix, Maite also discovers his true identity and realizes that he’s been keeping his connection to her twin brother a secret. Feeling betrayed and confused Maite is faced with the decision to forgive her soul mate or lose him forever.

And here’s the synopsis for Tamsyn Murray’s new novel, Instructions for a Secondhand Heart:

Jonny knows better than anyone that life is full of cruel ironies. He’s spent every day in a hospital hooked up to machines to keep his heart ticking. Then when a donor match is found for Jonny’s heart, that turns out to be the cruelest irony of all. Because for Jonny’s life to finally start, someone else’s had to end.

That someone turns out to be Neve’s twin brother, Leo. When Leo was alive, all Neve wanted was for him (and all his glorious, overshadowing perfection) to leave. Now that Leo’s actually gone forever, Neve has no idea how to move forward. Then Jonny walks into her life looking for answers, her brother’s heart beating in his chest, and everything starts to change.

Together, Neve and Jonny will have to face the future, no matter how frightening it is, while also learning to heal their hearts, no matter how much it hurts.

And cue mental breakdown…now.

I was absolutely gutted.

This…this was SO MUCH worse than the first time I discovered another book similar to my own. Because this book is practically identical!

FGHSHSGSNUDH!!!

That’s how I felt in that moment because what choice did I have but to shelve my novel? After having already spent years daydreaming about these characters and learning what makes them tick. After grieving the loss of Maite’s brother right alongside her. After diving deep into existential questions with Phoenix. Like…why do some people get to live while others don’t? And what is our responsibility to those who’ve passed on too soon?

And why, oh, why did the universe plant this story seed inside me if another writer was about the publish the exact same thing?

Did I mention how crushed I was?

But worse than that…I was confused.

I’m a very intuitive person. I’m a strict student of Fate and constantly in pursuit of my purpose. I look for signs everywhere and I usually follow them. So far, I’ve felt like Fate and I have pretty much been on the same page. But now I find myself knee deep in a very emotionally taxing project, which I now have to abandon because someone else has reached the finish line first.

And my only recourse is to CHOOSE to see it as another sign. Maybe that sign is that the next book in my queue, the one I’ve decided to query, MUST be written now. It can’t wait. And the universe had to practically shout it at me before I finally noticed.

So Fate never abandoned me. And just because I’m abandoning this story doesn’t mean I won’t be able to tell it eventually. Because even though it seems identical on the surface, below that surface is an ocean, the depths of which only I can explore.