change in the house of books

In exactly four weeks, I’m leaving my day job.

Gahhhh, it’s official! Well, blog-official. It’s been work-official for a month and a half because I always give excessive notice, and it’s been life-official for more months than that because I am the queen of agonizing over change. In the end, if you’re lucky enough for life to present you with options, you’ve got to pick something and stick to it. Time to move forward… the samtastic way!

This decision came with a lot more agonizing than usual. I love being an archivist. I love organizing old documents, learning useless local history trivia, and helping researchers find answers. Every day is full of little mysteries! I’ve made people cry with joy! I’ve been spontaneously hugged! (Sidenote: don’t spontaneously hug your archivist.) And I only ever made it into one book acknowledgement page, dangit.

But, barring financial emergency, the archivist career is going on hold for a few years and I’ll be focusing on the home front. The hubby’s been working the night shift for about eighteen months and will now be moving to a day shift, so hey, I might even see him once in a while! And though childcare is far more intensive than my day job ever was, I’m going to eagerly embrace the chunks of free time I do get to focus on the writing career. And, you know, enjoy my babies.

Since I’m a hopeless workaholic, you know I’ve got a battle plan, not least of all the recently mentioned Plan of Agent Attack. (Note to agents: not really an attack.)

To Do List:

  • Finalize the Grand Agent Submission Spreadsheet
  • Finish polishing Book Submission #1, a.k.a. my western/fantasy mashup full of cowboys and mermaids and a living earth that chucks people loose if it doesn’t like them, generously peppered with observations about cultural identity and commitment.
  • Put it on submission!
  • While that’s on submission, polish up Book Submission #2, a.k.a. my more conventional fantasy full of winged warriors, a working class rebellion, and the difficult process of overcoming a long-term manipulative relationship.
  • If Submission #1 fizzles out, go back to the top of that spreadsheet with Submission #2.
  • Start working on the next book!

The next book has been on my backburner for two years. It had a pretty solid outline from the get-go, but it was narrowly edged out by the winged warrior tome last year and now I’m impatient to get back to it. This one is a weird portal fantasy about the forest where lost things go, full of bow women and taxidermy and all the different ways that people process grief. But don’t worry, it still has some laughs!

I’ve got a couple other projects bubbling in the pre-outline stage, i.e. loads of unorganized notes that are rapidly taking on the shape of plot. One is an epic fantasy involving an army of golems versus an army of the dead, and mothers who will do whatever it takes to make sure their kids are the ones who survive. The other one is a Mad Max-ish dystopia taking place on an Earth that’s been partially terraformed by aliens, following an unlikely duo who’ve been cast into the wild and are trying to break into a human colony to obtain desperately needed healthcare. (That second one has suddenly become…too real.)

Even less well-developed, but no less niggling at my brain, is a knight-in-shining armor fantasy based on medieval French romances, which lemme tell you, were full of cross-dressing and social commentary and magicians being dicks, all of which is sadly left out of the average Arthurian screen adaptation.

And that’s not all!!

Gah, why can’t I just abandon sleep entirely and work an additional eight hours per day? I WANT TO WRITE ALL THE THINGS. SPECIFICALLY, ALL THE VARIOUS SORTS OF FANTASY THINGS.

Anyway. That’s what I’m going to be up to for the next few years. What’s on your docket?

returned from the pit: spreadsheet madness

Whoops, I didn’t realize quite how long I’d ignored the blog. I’ve been busy, busy, busy in work and life and writing aspirations, though a great big scheduling toss-up is coming soon that’ll change the equation.

You guys. I’ve entered a new phase of Sam’s Grand Writing Plan. I’ve entered… agent research hell! Next comes query hell. Then comes the great unknown (probably still closely related to hell). I’m excited, but also a little nervous. 16-year-old Sam is aghast that it’s taken me this long to reach this step. 31-year-old Sam is older and slightly wiser and knows this step could take anywhere from a couple months to ETERNITY OF FAILURE.

(Before any helpful suggestions are made: I do not, at this point in my life, have the skills, knowledge, or money necessary for effective self-publishing. I’m going to exhaust the traditional route first before reconsidering.)

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been scouring reputable agent listings and cross-referencing them against industry sites to generate a list of legitimate professionals with recent sales in my genre. I’ve also been doing scavenger hunts for names in books I like, and next I’ll take a broader look at recent and upcoming releases by publishers I like.

Woooo spreadsheets.

No, really, spreadsheets are my jam! My years of cataloging and organizing information have come to personal fruition. I’m going to scour the print and web worlds until I have a list of 75-100 suitable agents. Then I’m going to agonize over my query package. And then it’s go time! AKA hours and hours of prioritizing lists and tailoring the query to a bunch of different specifications and updating my spreadsheets with the results.

I figure if I get rejected 75-100 times, then that project is simply not meant to be (yet), and I’ll start back at the top of the list with the next book. I’ve got two books I think are suitable for shopping around, and I’ll be working on the next one during the long months of waiting for rejection. (Or, dare I say it… not rejection!?) My hopes and dreams aren’t ever pinned on just one thing.

I’ve already spent many hours at work on the Great Agent Spreadsheet. It’s been a royal pain in the ass to compile, but it will save me a lot of headache later.

And… that’s what I’ve been up to lately. Thank you for joining me on this self-pep-talk of a post. This is my way of marking the writing timeline on my blog and also telling myself: oh wow, I’m not just reading endless industry blogs for fun anymore, I’m honest-to-goodness ready to embark on this ride.

!!!!

“what hapend march ninth!!”

Have I told you this story before? I probably have. Even if you’ve never met me, I probably found some way to bend time and space and relate this anecdote about how I wrote my first short story. Because everybody wants a cool origin story, and this one doesn’t involve dead parents or women in fridges.

In an infamous incident that my older sister (likely to her regret) will never be allowed to forget, a head injury was caused which would symbolically shape my life.

It was a fine March day when I was 7 years old. At the time there were only 3 children in what would become my brood of siblings, and all three of us were playing outside in a small kiddie pool full of water. Also it was Southern California, which means March is plenty warm enough to start playing in pools again (sorry, places who have “seasons”!).

Do you remember Squeeze-Its? I think they’re called Kool-Aid Bursts now, but I don’t know a single child who drinks them anymore. They were liquid sugar crack for kids, available in thin plastic bottles with small holes at the top. You know. So you could squeeze them when you drank.

Well, my brother and I were allegedly filling old Squeeze-It bottles with water and then squirting them at our older sister, and allegedly laughing and refusing to stop despite her repeated and increasingly angry demands that we desist. And then maybe, it’s possible, we took our torment too far and in a fit of pique she decided to scare us off by threatening to throw a rock. And then maybe we still wouldn’t stop, and she threw it, but she didn’t know her own strength and instead of landing menacingly at my feet the rock hit me in the head.

Blood! Everywhere! Mom running out to screams! Paramedics summoned! Horrified sister hiding in the house, fearing maternal murder! 4 year old brother washing blood off the bricks with a Squeeze-It bottle!

After being declared non-life-threatening by the paramedics, I was driven off to an emergency room to await stitches. I don’t know how long we actually waited, but in child time it was definitely months. Months of sitting in a hard chair with my mom pressing some cloth to my head. X-rays that had to be conducted twice because the first time I hwas wearing a hair tie with a metal piece and it looked like metal was embedded in my head. And then! I finally went in! And the doctor gave me six bright blue stitches along my hairline while I was staring right at him!

It was the most exciting and traumatizing adventure of my young life. On the one hand, it was the beginning of a lifelong fear of needles. And on the other hand, it was an Interesting Story. The average 7 year old has nothing interesting to say. Trust me, I’m a former babysitter! It’s not their fault. They’ve got no stories yet. But now I had an exciting tale to babble to anyone who would listen. And on top of that…I was a first grader! I knew how to write! I COULD PRESERVE IT FOR ALL TIME.

And thus I wrote my first autobiographical short. And it was so exhilarating, I wrote more stories. And more. I still have a stack of construction paper stories Written and Illustrated by Sammy that I will share with the blog some time because they are works of art. I’ll even heartily acknowledge: it’s possible this wasn’t the first story and childhood memory fails me. But it’s the first in my mind, and in my mind I was hit in the head with a rock and that knocked something creative loose, so I’m a writer because of a childhood head injury.

I didn’t even mention the final injustice. That rock was my special rock with one big flat side, upon which I had crappily painted a hideous landscape scene! AND MOM TOOK THE ROCK AWAY!

Without further ado, since this is the version I know you’d all really prefer to read, I present: WHAT HAPEND MARCH NINTH!!

Translation of first grade spelling errors posted below.

what-hapend-march-ninth-1

 

what-hapend-march-ninth-2

 

what-hapend-march-ninth-3

I was playing in the pool, and when my sister came out I wetted her, and after I wetted her she got mad at me, and then threw a rock at me and then, I had a one and a half [inch] hole in my head, and I went to the Emergency Room and I had to wait a lot and then, they made sure that it was not too too bad, and it was not too too bad. I went to the place that I got the x-rays. I got two x-rays and then when they were ready to take the last one they noticed that I had something in my hair that had a metal piece on it so they had to do it all over again, and then I went back to the place where the bed was and then we had to wait some more then when the doctor was back I got six stitches. I went home and I got undressed then I watched Cheers and Married With Children!!!!!! I went to sleep! The End!

 

Truly, the beginning of a legend.

2016 in review: writing edition

All right, writing process nerds! You and I are the only ones who care about this post but let’s get it down for posterity.

In 2015 I started to track my daily word counts in a spreadsheet (like you do!), so this is the first time I’ve had concrete data for comparison. My general goal is to write a book a year (achieved), but what about the fine print?

2015:
Number of days on which I wrote anything: 94
Total word count: 114,537
Average word count per writing day: 1,218
Projects: 3.5 short stories, one book completed and edited, one book begun and temporarily set aside, and two weeks spent frenziedly rewriting an old book before realizing I was zonked out of my mind and it was fine the way it was.

2016:
Number of days on which I wrote anything: 197
Total word count: 180,544
Average word count per writing day: 916
Projects: 2 short stories, one book completed and edited, one book halfway done and continuing into new year, no wild diversions.

Okay, okay, a couple things going on here! In March 2015 I had a baby. The vast majority of my writing days took place between January and June–aka, the final pre-baby months plus my maternity leave. After being cracked out on sleep deprivation during the first baby month I was actually able to get a good routine going. Newborns nap every few hours, so I’d get a bit done then, and once a week I’d leave the house for 4-5 hours and write in a coffee shop, just to get some fresh air and 4-5 hours alone.(4-5 hours was the max time I could leave without my breasts exploding, if you were wondering.)

Once I went back to work, writing took a nose dive and I only managed sporadic attention to those short stories. It didn’t help that in those months I was: packing up all our belongings and moving to our first house; promptly unpacking everything in order to host holidays at said house; and working part-time and breastfeeding, which meant being up half the night 7 nights a week and rising early 7 mornings a week (either to work my job or handle baby so husband could work his). I stopped my weekly coffee shop trip out of guilt: the baby was stressed enough with me being at work 4 mornings a week, I couldn’t leave on the weekend, too. Anyway it was a madhouse 6 months!

By January 2016 I was a complete sleep deprived mess with a baby who still wouldn’t sleep through the night. BUT. I decided no time like the present, get writing again or give up on life! (My pep talks are very harsh, I swear I don’t really mean it.) I wrote any time I could: at 4 a.m. after the baby woke me up and I couldn’t fall back asleep; at 8 p.m. after baby fell asleep and I had half an hour before my eyes slammed shut; those precious naps on non-work-days; and finally meal times, as baby learned to eat by hand. Around April, the miracle combo: baby finally slept through the night, breastfeeding wrapped up, and desperate mama could drink coffee again.

Day count comparison: I wrote for twice as many days in 2016, about 2 in 3 instead of 1 in 3. I’ve found that the more days I write, the easier it is to hop in and out of story without wasting time reviewing where I’ve left off. Since I might get anywhere from 15 minutes free to 1.5 hours at a time, I need to be able to jump in without looking back. This has definitely affected my process. I am much more reliant on a detailed outline to keep me moving forward, and on the prose level I write with more abandon, waiting to clean up during edits rather than agonizing over each sentence as I go. I actually think it’s an improvement.

Word count comparison: I’m happy but also slightly disappointed because I’m a hopeless goal-setter! In 2015 I cracked 100K. At some point in 2016 I realized it was possible to crack 200K and immediately this became my goal. I was absolutely on track all year–and then November depression + December holiday madness completely derailed me. I staggered down to a couple days a week, a couple hundred words a day. Ultimately I hit 180K, which is still respectable. Anyway, it gives me a goal for next year, right?!

Word count averages: I wrote more often, but averaged less per day, courtesy of the aforementioned fractured times available to me. I’m actually surprised I averaged over 900 words a writing day in 2016. I had a lot of super productive weekends making up for a lot of painful 300-word weekdays. I think this is bound to be my new norm. I can’t have mega-marathon Saturdays like I did in the good old days of working 3 jobs during the week and doing all my writing on the weekend. If I want to get things done now I have to glean bits and pieces in between baby responsibilities. The kid is happily playing with his blocks for 20 minutes? DON’T DICK AROUND ON TWITTER, GRAB THAT LAPTOP AND GO GO GO.

Projects: Again, I successfully completed my book for the year…but had a slim chance at writing TWO books in a year and was therefore disappointed not to make it. Since I’m entering 2017 with a half-finished book underway, however, there’s good odds at writing THE END a second time this go-around. The factor holding me back: I write monster 120K fantasy tomes which I then have to laboriously strip 10-20K off during edits. I’d look so much more prolific if I was writing novellas.

The final lesson: None of this was possible without giving up basically every other hobby I ever had. At some point, you have to decide what your priorities are, and I made writing one of mine. Baby, work, writing. That’s about it. I kept my book club, basic holiday/birthday parties, a monthly movie night/dinner club with friends, a weekly-ish blog, and the most minimal errands necessary to keep my household alive. Sometimes I even see my husband, in between our alternate work schedules. But bye bye Etsy shop, bye bye arts and crafts, bye bye sewing lessons, bye bye majority of television programming, bye bye Tumblr, bye bye physical fitness (I hardly knew ye), bye bye spontaneous outings with friends or coworkers. I’ll see you all again one day. Proooobably when I’m done having kids and they’re all in school.

Anyway, I think that’s plenty of naval-gazing word count for the day (especially because blog posts don’t count for the spreadsheet! fiction words only!) My kiddo is napping and I am off work for Observed New Year’s Day, so back to the WIP! POSSIBLY FOR AN ENTIRE HOUR!! GO GO GOOOOOOOOOO–

Happy New Year, all. Next time on The Adventures of Mr. and Mrs. Cat: the slightly more disappointing Reading Roundup!

the abyss part 2: return of the abyss

I’m doing it again. I’m forsaking all other commitments in favor of writing time.

Okay, not all other commitments. Mostly the blog has gone silent, the floor has gone un-vacuumed, and I’m appearing at fewer events than ever. But it’s the only way to get anything done, and my self-image is closely tied to my ability to get things done!

Contrary to what some suffering artists™ say, writing doesn’t have to be your #1 priority in order to be productive. I saw an eye-roll-worthy essay going around recently from a writer saying he was a bad father when his kids were young, because writers are by necessity also bad fathers. Well, no, not really. You just chose writing over your kids. If that’s your choice, that’s your choice, but own up to it. (And if you decide not to have kids at all and focus on your career, writing or otherwise, good for you, you knew what your priorities were going to be.) (And also, writing moms tend not to get the option to lock themselves in a study and leave baby-rearing to the spouse, so suck it up, dad, the Great American Novel can be written after bedtime.)

Writing doesn’t have to be #1. It just can’t be #10, or even #5. I work weekday mornings. I take care of my baby weekends and weekday afternoons, and I don’t like giving him up to babysitters on my off-time because I’m already gone ~30 hours a week including commute.

But everything after that is a toss-up. If I want time to write, I’ve got to give up something else, and “something else” includes, but is not limited to: keeping up with television shows, going out to happy hour with coworkers, sewing my own costumes, casual arts and crafting, and often: sleep.

(Aside: I’m lucky to be healthy, so I’m not also battling a mental or physical obstacle to writing other than my perpetually poor sleep. I’m aware that everything I’m saying here comes from that perspective.)

If you want more time to write, you meet your adult responsibilities and then give up some other hobby. If you love writing, you won’t even mind very much, because you enjoy writing more than those other things. If writing is an absolute chore, and you constantly procrastinate, and you always choose other activities first, and then sigh and say you just don’t have enough free time…well, I don’t know, maybe reassess what you’re writing for.

All of that said, I know I take things too far. I get fixated on finishing projects, but since writing projects take months I descend into a workaholic craze for months at a time. For example, right now it is 9 a.m. on a Sunday and all I’ve done is make breakfast and tidy up the kitchen and write this blog, and I’m already feeling anxious and unproductive because I didn’t get up an hour before the baby to write. This is DESPITE KNOWING my husband is running around with the baby this afternoon and I’ll have plenty of time then. Because that’s bonus time, which I could have had on top of my morning sprint.

Here is how I fit writing around a job and a baby: write while baby eats, write while baby naps, write a few sentences at a time when baby feels like playing by himself, before he notices I’m on the laptop and runs over to oust me, at which point maybe switch to a notebook and type it in later. I have to keep my current project in mind at all times so that if a 15 minute gap in my schedule appears I can take advantage of it without dawdling the 15 minutes away refreshing my memory with what I did last time.

Anyway, don’t go full Sam. Never go full Sam. Find your work-life-writing balance and embrace it. Just, you know, make sure you’re actually including work and life and writing.

*hyperventilates*

This is not a drill, you guys. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Okay, my writing blog is going to be ESPECIALLY writing-y until I settle down into my next long-slog project, because at that point it would be too boring to blog “yup, wrote more words, still got a lot to go.”

Until then, deal with my flailing panic because I’m even more of a nervous over-thinker between projects than I am during one. (I’m a wonderful person to live with, I assure you.)

I recently finished the rough draft of my western fantasy about ghosts and mermaids and a wild land that definitely takes sides. I set it aside to cool because lemme tell you… the first draft was a hot mess. The second draft drastically improved matters, but I’ve got a couple more tweaks to work on before I send it to my long-suffering beta readers.

To take my mind off the western, I outlined my next book (a third world fantasy about the rise and fall of a winged mecha-warrior in a city where the gods may or may not be gods). It’s the easiest I have ever outlined anything in my life. I know the structure and basic action of every chapter. And hallelujah I even learned my lesson from the last couple books and planned out the plot reveals instead of assuming I’d figure it out on the way.

(Silly Sam. You never figure it out on the way.)

I wrote the first chapter and loved it. THEN I got suspicious. Why so easy? I better let the outline cool off a bit and look at it with a critical eye, just to make sure I’m not missing something.

To take my mind off the western rough draft and the mecha-warrior outline, I wrote a short story (a scifi bit about a first contact mission going wrong, and also about the regrettable lack of female crewmembers in classic scifi). It might be good but it also might be a mess, as you can imagine at this point I’m just throwing my hands in the air because I need some sleep!

Okay but that’s not the end of my mania. I’m going to clean up the short story because editing 10 or 15 pages isn’t so bad. And I am on the verge of conquering the western edits, so I feel good about that.

But to take my mind off the western rough draft and the mecha-warrior outline and the scifi short, I paused to read a book this week. A recent award-winning book by an author whose other books I have greatly enjoyed.

And.

You guys.

The structure is alarmingly similar to the book I just outlined (following multiple timelines, when the main character is younger and training versus older and jaded). And the character naming convention is similar (based on your location and work). And one of the relationships is similar to that of my secondary characters.

*HYPERVENTILATES*
*FALLS OVER*
*TELL MY SON HIS MOTHER MEANT WELL*

There are obviously major differences in the character building, plot, setting, and themes. And the latter couple things are superficial enough. But I keep agonizing over those structural similarities because as a reader I would go “uh huh, somebody really liked Book Title by A. Better Author.”

I know it’s silly to compare. There are loads of books with dual timelines (though most seem to be historical fiction and therefore timelines about separate characters, according to my Googling). I think the first one I read was IT by Stephen King and it blew my 11-year-old mind. And that’s a whole cast of characters embarking on a parallel nightmarish mission as children and as adults, so yeah, it’s doing the “follow the same people before and after” thing.

Which is all to say: I’m calming down. I’ll write the book anyway, because I really want to and I think it says a lot. It was just bad timing that I read this one this week. In the very slim hypothetical future in which I sell the book and readers draw comparisons, I will cringe but still be happy I sold it. If nothing else, I’ll console myself with the fact that, in terms of the themes and styles that are currently top of the SFF market, I’m only a step or two behind the big leagues. In the end, it all boils down to execution anyway.

*BREATHING SLOWS*
*WISDOM PREVAILS*

Now. Back to edits.

diversity in fiction

There’s been an ongoing discussion about diversity in fiction for years. I’ve been following along, taking notes like a good little researcher. I’m invested in the SFF field in particular, but I catch ripples through the blogosphere when something blows up in realistic fiction, which is frequent.

I saw one going around this week about a blogger who (very politely but very stubbornly) insisted that diversity is cool and all, but it’s not cool to ask writers to diversify their casts if they don’t want to, because they should write whatever they want and it’s better to leave people out than write them poorly (oh and also if anybody tried to debate her she’d auto-block them). This kind of statement crops up a lot, and I think I even had a knee-jerk reaction like that when I was a teenager and first tip-toeing into writing discussion boards (“but what if I do it wrong!!”)

But then I read more about it. And also I grew up.

Fiction writing is a weird profession. Unless you are writing solely for yourself with no intention of publication, there is always a second party invested in your work: the audience. So as a writer you’ve got to be totally passionate and put your heart and soul into your work… AND you’ve got to be willing to let it go afterwards, to calmly assess criticism, and, if you want to appeal to your target audience, to listen to what they want.

I see some writers getting up-in-arms defensive about the lack of diversity in their work, but if you took away the political climate surrounding race (you shouldn’t, it’s important, but if you did), then what makes this different than any other constructive criticism? Are you opposed to all writing advice, or only writing advice about character-building? It’s a very odd blind spot, to me.

Consider this way of couching the same critique: “All of your characters are very similar and it makes for a bland read.” This should concern you. It is very lazy writing. Everybody in your book shouldn’t sound the same and have the same background. If you’re intent on improving your craft, one of the vital areas is characterization.

This applies to both realistic and fantastic literature. Your book takes place in New York City, but everyone is white? Um, unlikely. Your book takes place in Georgia and everyone is white? Come on now! If you can research the geography and the food and the history and the sights, you can spend some time researching who lives there. I guarantee it’ll result in a more engaging, authentic environment.

As for fantasy, you can make up whatever you want! You aren’t even in the situation of respectfully portraying a real culture, so all you’ve got to do is have basic awareness of the tropes surrounding color and then be a good creative writer and use your imagination to come up with something else. “Be creative” is basically the job title, after all. You actively choose every element to include or exclude.

And if you understand all of this, and you go out of your way to set your story in a very specific time and place that has an isolated white population that never interacts with anybody else–well, okay, that is definitely your prerogative. But maybe ask yourself why you’re going to so much effort to set up a situation in which, oops, it would be “unrealistic” to include anyone else.

This is how representation begets representation. I’ve never heard a female author whine that she doesn’t like to write male characters because she isn’t a man and doesn’t want to portray them incorrectly. There aren’t panels about how to write three-dimensional men. Why? Because there are already so many examples to mimic. Anybody who reads books can cobble together a male character without breaking a sweat, simply by mix-and-matching characteristics they’ve seen before and then adding a little backstory. What makes diversity challenging for some is that it means extra effort, extra research, extra reading.

When people say they wouldn’t know how to do it, so why do it at all, to me that’s code for “Not only do I never write outside my comfort zone, I never read outside my comfort zone.”

And if we’re not doing this because we like reading and we want to contribute new stories for other people to read, what’s the point?