This is more of a belated review of the last year in writing than anything else. I’m opening with that sentence because I want to end this blog post before I begin. That said, this post is also going to contain a modicum of resolve.
Looking back on the last year I am compelled to the realization that I’ve been putting the cart before the horse. This despite being a 40-something adult with a load of project management experience and a well developed understanding of how to go about these things. This realization comes on the heals of devising the crux to a story I’ve spent a considerable amount of time developing. I took an interesting idea, drones fighting wildfire, and sort of shoehorned it into a science fiction drama without ever really knowing how I might end the damned thing. Oops!
Clearly there must be a better way to go about this business. Right now my writing process seems entirely too by-the-seat-of-his-pants. And this news is coming from the inside, where it’s likely to go unnoticed until it has become a raging problem.
How did it get so bad?
I need to answer this question before I can see my way to streamlined perfection. Last year was a roller coaster for our family. At the time it felt like I was dipping with the dives, with my hands in the air, and enjoying the corners as much as these things can be savored, but each and every time we had to pack up and move I had to start jumping through my own rear end. Every time there was a change of job I had to pry a wooden shoe from the finely tuned mechanics of my schedule. With each friend that passed I felt like I needed to take a break, let myself grieve a little, before I could move on. When I got off the 2014 roller coaster I realized how sick I felt. That thing was scary, precarious, and it’s something of a miracle I got to the end of it in one piece.
I’ve already identified how important routine is for my little guy. The Holiday season has been ample illustration of what happens when he doesn’t get his nap in the afternoon and what I should anticipate if his expectations are thrown too far out of whack. But what I’ve seemingly missed all this while is that, as a father and a writer, I need that same level of routine. Without it word counts dwindle, projects stall, and this whole writing thing feels more like an expensive hobby than a career decision.
Yes there is an upside. While 2014 was not my breakout year I learned a lot. I learned plenty about the business of genre writing. If I don’t say so myself, I did a pretty awesome job being a Dad. And, I wrote plenty considering the number of lifestyle changes and interruptions we experienced.
Because A-bear demands it, yes my little guy has decreed today is “backwards day”, we’ll review in reverse order. I was able to achieve about 61% of my 250,000 word goal for the year. Yeah, 150k ain’t nothing to sneeze at, I know. I sold a short story to an anthology which you can buy individually or soon as part of a collection. I gracefully backed out of two articles that were going to cost me more to write than I’d make on their sale. And I received a pile of rejection letters which included examples of both the best and worst of their form.
From all this word-smithing I learned a couple of things. First, I need to keep very accurate account of the time I spend writing as well as the amounts I produce per project (a tip of the hat to Jim Hines for the idea). In fact, since July I have been keeping an annual spread sheet of the times, word counts and projects I’ve worked on. The 2014 version of this, even though it only covers a little less than half a year and is very rudimentary, has unquestionably helped me and improved my accountability.
Second, I’ve learned from this accounting that it doesn’t always take me a lot of time to write well. Per the spreadsheet I’ve kept since July, I can see that some of my most productive times weren’t marathon sessions sitting in front of my laptop. Rather, they were brief ten and fifteen minute blocks, usually crammed in on the heals of laundry folding or dish washing, where I had an idea in my head and wrote it down in three to 500 words.
Aral turned four in 2014. I’ve been effectively handling him for the better part of two plus years now, being the stay-at-home-parent and acting the part as much as I am able. Don’t get me wrong, Tess is still an excellent and involved parent, but for the bulk of the workweek I’m the guy A-bear relies on. So I’ll take a bow from the wings of his stage knowing that my work as director has quality.
My big guy Justin, turned 17. He’s been accepted to the college of his choice, has improved his grade point average considerably, and plays a mean blues riff on his guitars. Although I haven’t had much of a physical presence in his life for the last couple of years I still fell pride in his accomplishments and I simply love the time we spend together online.
As far as the business side of writing, conventions played perhaps the most important role in that education. I really loved my time at all the different venues I got to attend. Even more I enjoyed participation at some of those venues. Time on panels felt more like an exchange of information and ideas than a dictatorial lecture. My favorite experience by far was the shared reading session I had with Jim Hines at DetCon.
Add to this, the valuable connections that happened in and out of these convention spaces. Spending face time with my heroes, people like John Scalzi, Jacqueline Carey, and Tobias Buckell lead me to a number of important insights. Even better, it periodically renewed my intention to write more, and write better. It also put me in contact with networks of people supporting these writers. From these people I received valuable feedback, helpful advice, and a couple of opportunities (including interviews, more appearances at conventions, and in the case of Tokyo Yakuza a tip to submit).
In each case, I walked away from the convention feeling overwhelming gratitude; both for the opportunity to hang out with others “in my tribe” as well as for the amazing support I get at home. I’d still be slaving for a soul crushing salary if it wasn’t for my amazing and super smart wife.
So what does this all mean for 2015? So there are the obvious tweaks I need to make to the system to keep writing and working well inside my home. Add to this there are longer term life-goals that I should probably identify so that I can work toward them. Some of these are specific to writing, others are more about supporting or enriching me so I can remain a productive and effective bullshit artist.
These are goals that I need to address in the next six to twelve months. In no particular order:
- Finish outstanding projects. Like Fire Weather, Winter City Above the Clouds and Counterfeit Horizon. I’ve got a lot of time and effort wrapped up in these. If I let them sit, I’ll be wasting all that. FW is nearly done, I’m writing the ending now in fact, and I may try to workshop this piece before I try to publish it. Counterfeit Horizon is big, needs lots of reworking, but has some really cool ideas, characters, and concepts in it. Of all the stories I’ve written this one needs to be done and I’d feel horrible shame if I shelved it for any reason.
- Focus on routine. A-bear and I both need this, so each and every time it is challenged I need to ask myself how a change to it will effect both our interaction as well as my productivity. Nap time, for the time being, is a necessity. Time outside cannot be lost to errands. And above all the laundry must flow.
He who controls the Laundry, controls the universe! – Baron Harkonnen
- Economize, economize, economize! I will continue to sell off or give away things that no longer fit into our lifestyle. Minimization will help, but financial discipline must be the other critical consideration in this equation. Debt only limits us moving forward, we are transforming ourselves into cash-only family.
- Build endurance and health for the long term. At this point I’m very inclined to consider my whole health. Last year I’ve injured myself several times, mostly from overtraining, and as a result I’ve ended up taking two steps back for every one I take forward. So I’m taking advice, restructuring my training plans, and learning much about holistic endurance training. I’m doing this because endurance is key to my success as well as to my happiness.
- Build a great aerobic base. This essential physical and metabolic foundation helps accomplish several important tasks: it prevents injury and maintains a balanced physical body; it increases fat burning for improved stamina, weight loss, and sustained energy; and it improves overall health in the immune and hormonal systems, the intestines and liver, and throughout the body
- Eat well. Specific foods influence the developing aerobic system, especially the foods consumed in the course of a typical day. Overall, diet can significantly influence your body’s physical, chemical, and mental state of fitness and health.
- Reduce stress. Training and competition, combined with other lifestyle factors, can be stressful and adversely affect performance, cause injuries, and even lead to poor nutrition because they can disrupt the normal digestion and absorption of nutrients.
- Improve brain function. The brain and entire nervous system control virtually all athletic activity, and a healthier brain produces abetter athlete. Improved brain function occurs from eating well, controlling stress, and through sensory stimulation, which includes proper training and optimal breathing.-Maffetone, Dr. Philip (2010-09-22). The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing
These are long term goals, they may take years to reach, but getting them out there will help me obtain milestones in the correct direction.
- Continue to develop the Diaspora storyline. Counterfeit is a sort of prequel to what I have already outlined. A technology roadmap for sending humanity out into deep space. I’ve had some new ideas about how I want to spread humanity lightyears beyond our solar system and they’re unique and truly “epic” in every sense of the word. My intent is to make this trilogy large enough in scale as to be humbling for the reader. Someday readers will compare me to KSR, Iain M. Banks and Clark and say, “Thyer? Yeah he makes me feel truly insignificant in the context of the universe.”
- Endurance Athlete. I want to continue my quest to compete in extreme distance endurance sports. At this point I don’t know if this means that I want to be part of organized suffer-fests like the Grand to Grand or if I should focus in more in on independent long distance crossings. In any event I plan on growing my personal endurance.This summer I am still trying to put together an independent bulki hike along the John Wayne Trail and I have a recurring delusion in which I hike all 2600 miles of The Tour Divide.My intent is to reclaim the sensation I used to be saturated in when I was a backcountry guard on the Flat Tops Wilderness. Then again, in 2009, having come to some sort of compromise with my bum leg, when I started running trails a lot more often.
“You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.” – Christopher McDougall
Finally this goal, whatever it’s final outcome may require a COMPEX muscle stimulator, a new WAA Ultrabag 20l, and a competent and understanding endurance coach. As I discharge debt and fix my financial situation I’ll look for ways to invest in these things.
- Collect Rejection Letters. I’ve come to realize that there are only authors. There are plenty of myths roaming around the internets about all the kinds of authors — traditional and independent, take your pick — but my observations lead me to the conclusion that publishing is in too much flux for these to have any lasting meaning. They are are the sort of ridiculous labels that get used to segregate people which doesn’t serve any of my purposes at all, ever.
I want to make a living doing something I’m passionate about. That’s it, that is all there is about publishing that matters. All avenues to publication are open to me. As I write more I’m only increasing the possibility that someone will be engaged. Rejection letters don’t hurt me; they may help, especially when they’re well written and contain hints about the work under consideration. No longer am I a label dependent author.
- Workshopping. Last summer, while sitting across a table from John Scalzi, I had the opportunity to talk to this man that I admire for what he has accomplished with his fiction about what motivates him. At least that’s what I wanted to know about. I’ve heard him say that he writes for his mortgage, but this doesn’t answer the question that’s been bugging me. Why writing? Of all the things a smart, accomplished guy could possible do, why would you willingly choose to enter into the profession of making shit up for a living?It’s a tough gig no matter how lucky you get.I’m not certain I really got an answer from him. John turned my own question around on me and then I was confronted with the surprising realization that I didn’t have a good answer. I know the answer is in part, “because I’d do this even if there weren’t any money involved.” In fact, I have written most of my life starting back when I was a kid. I wrote stories and drew pictures of those stories. But there is more to it than that. Writing is a discourse, an exchange if you will. I really enjoy the feedback I get from the audience that reads my stories. This is important to me as a writer.Since that conversation believe me when I say that I’ve thought on the topic. In September I ran into Ramez Naam at a reading in University Bookstore. At the time I was looking for workshops and writer’s groups and we discussed what role these played in his writing. Turns out pretty much none whatsoever. Mez has a select group of beta readers he relies on before he sends off a manuscript to his publisher.
I’ve tried a bunch of different groups. Writing groups can be helpful, but my experience tells me that this is very rare. They can be clique-ish, some of them are set up to help only the organizer grow as a writer, and I’ve even run into groups that are more about playing games than writing or critiquing manuscripts. Mez warned me away from them, gently suggesting that I was indeed wasting my time.
I heard Tobias Buckell talk about the sacrifices he made to go to school this summer on a panel at DetCon. My takeaway was that he feels four years of college actually delayed his writing more than anything. He found the most value, made the most improvement going to Clarion.
In 2015 I’m not certain Clarion West is in the cards for me. Given the cost and the time commitment I need to answer the question, “can I do this if I’m given the opportunity?” I know I need exactly this sort of immersive experience to take my writing discipline to the next level, but this may have to go on the long range project lists for now.