Underachievement: A Gut Punch

Clawtank by Wan Amirul Adlan

Recently I caught a social media share from Samuel Peralta. He cross-posted a blog post from Monica Byrne, which details her plans to make a living wage from her writing via Patreon. An idea I have been pursuing with no small amount of enthusiasm. Who wouldn’t want to transform the bulk of their labor into a self-sustaining relationship with the people they service?

Other names in our genre are pioneering this new economy which, amongst many other things, makes their short fiction a viable creative effort. Kameron Hurley, N.K. Jemisin and Wes Chu — to name but a few — are all bringing in respectable incomes writing short stories at their own pace.

Since shifting to writing full time in 2013, I’ve struggled with many challenges, perhaps none as significant as my own obscurity. Finding fans, getting my stories in front of anyone willing to read them, has been a persistent difficulty. And the one thing all these examples have in common is an existing fan base.

Byrne’s introduction is a TED endorsement from Neil Gaiman coupled with a laundry list of traditional publishers and awards. Hurley’s introduction is equally littered with awards and publications. She has 433 supporters. And then Jemisin’s introduction opens with “Update: Folks, thank you. As of July 1st, I’ve quit my day job and started full time writer life. Let’s see how this goes!” She has 885 sponsors.

What does this mean for me? Honestly, I’m more than a little jealous, but let me be clear, I’m glad to see other’s achieving this kind of success. Since I finished Big Red Buckle in 2013 all I’ve been able to complete is a series of short stories for small and independent press. And make no mistake, I love writing short works. Watching as others figure out ways to make these words pay, even a little, is a vital sort of pathfinding and so I’m paying attention.

Right now I have two writing projects on my table. The first, Plague of Contentment, is a novel and hasn’t been anything other since I dreamed it up. As we get closer to the start of Kindergarten, I should be able to leverage more writing time and consequently more progress on this project. But PoC is clearly not well suited Patreon or similar platforms. It’s a thriller that requires careful consideration as put down each and every word.

Last spring, on a whim I started writing an episodic with the working title of Vex. A coming of age story about a brutal alien war fought on the ground by a small crew of gritty and broken soldiers who sacrifice their humanity to save humankind. This story is going fast, and it’s structured so that it can easily be broken up into pieces. Recently, I’ve brought an editor on board to help me polish before I make it available and I’m looking for an artist for cover work and other “rewards.”

I understand that my only way out of the obscurity in which I operate is to continue to write. More, more, more! Production is the only first step, but I have a sizable and growing collection of words that aren’t doing a damn bit of good for me. Many of them are short stories that won’t ever find a traditional market. So understanding this harsh reality is also, I believe, critical to my success as a writer. Traditional markets don’t buy short fiction and when they do it’s drastically undervalued.

Patreon offers me two potential benefits. First, it provides me a way to monetize my labor. In my short experience, income from my writing is as variable as the time I have to have to write it. Finding new fans of my fiction who are interested in supporting me as I write will help stabilize this aspect of my career behind the letters.

Second, the Patreon platform gives me a way to interact with these people, not just their pocketbooks. More than money right now, I believe interaction is what I need. Of the short stories that have gone to Peralta, I don’t see any mention of what I’ve written until months, six on average, after the publication date. And I’m not complaining, but I can see that people aren’t buying these anthologies to get the next story from me. That much is obvious. For stories I’ve published on my own, the interaction timeline is even longer. Finding reliable beta readers has become a bit of a chore.

So, right now I’m building a schedule and beginning to manage entry into Patreon with some very modest financial goals in mind. A hundred bucks a month is still a better per word price than what I’ve been able to bring home to this point. In the meantime, I’m researching. Learning how I might bring new people to my table. I need to learn how to be a more effective self-promoter while continuing to develop my bibliography. That’s going to change.

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