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.

Someone is wrong on the Internet

Yesterday I had a banner day. I easily wrote 2,500 words in the space of a couple of hours and even better the words were good enough to keep. And that was just the opening of a memorable day because then the sun came out and my little guy and I got outside for some play time with the kids in the neighborhood.

This morning, while waiting for another awesome sunrise in Cloud City, I was thumbing through Facebook posts (apparently, my frist mistake) when I encountered this beauty. Just as the sunshine started to backlight the volcano, painting the clouds magenta and orange, I’d become engrossed. So much for my “No Internet Rule.”

Now, as the morning wears on I’ve got to get this crap-heap off my chest so I can salvage the possibility of more productive writing. Someone is wrong on the internet.

Brent Underwood’s snide stunt doesn’t demonstrate that traditionally published works are better than their independently published counterparts. It doesn’t diminish the accomplishment someone should feel when their sales inch up past the fold, and they get a “best seller” icon painted on their cover. Not even for a moment. And it doesn’t say a god damned thing about the quality of work that passes through either exclusive traditional channels or the democratic overworld of independent publishing.

And that’s why this article pisses me the fuck off. Because that’s exactly how so many ideologues will see it. They’ll see it as an indictment of self-publishing, demonstration that their competition is wrong and that their good ‘ol boys club is somehow better. Coke is better than Pepsi. Crest beats Colgate. Toyota v. Nissan.

This experiment demonstrates two things only. That Amazon’s expansive and unmonitored categorization scheme is vulnerable, and that snide commentary is a mainstay of the meta surrounding the publishing industry.

“We have important rules at my company about the projects we take on. We don’t work with authors whose books we wouldn’t read ourselves, and we don’t guarantee best-seller status. We say no to more work than we say yes to, but these principles help us avoid the gimmicky, one-hit-wonders who aren’t looking to write great books but instead are looking to trick people into thinking they have.”

-Brent Underwood, “Behind the Scam: What Does It Take to Be a ‘Best-Selling Author’? $3 and 5 Minutes

Clearly Amazon needs to address the former: if the can stop or even slow the creation of books about Brent Underwood’s foot they will simultaneously improve the quality and credibility of their lists while at the same time eliminating much of the negative press (which in their case constitutes lost revenue). That’s on them, they’re a big company full of smart people, and so it’s entirely possible they can and will do something about this problem.

As far as the snide commentary which perpetually lumps all independently published works into the garbage bin of literary criticism, insinuating that we’re all lazy, scammers trying to slip one by all you gullible readers, there’s little I can do. I’ve already written plenty, I will continue to write more. Each word will be loving linked the last and my craftsmanship will improve. But beyond these things I am powerless. You, the reader, have all the power.

Buck Up, Buttercup


Peak Chronicles Effect – end of 2015

I took this screen capture near the end of December. What you’re looking at is a combination of things, but that huge spike — from relative obscurity to in-genre notability — is the primarily a product of inclusion in Samuel Peralta’s Galaxy Chronicles. I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking on this, how it affects me and my plans, what it should mean to me moving forward.

From the peak (around #70 for science fiction authors) I have since declined. I’m fairly certain that if you asked any reader, even Chronicles regulars, “Who is Matt Thyer?” they’d be hard pressed to place my name. So besides that singular moment of self-gratification which the anthology provided for me, I’m uncertain how much good it did for my career as an author.

Still I am reluctant to view this one moment, in what I hope will be a long and eventually prosperous career, as an indication of anything. I have another short story coming out in February, and I’m particularly proud of this one. Early readers have given it kudos; specific kudos, in fact, the best kind. And Samuel has been hard at work, developing even better ways to promote the collections. This most recent peak and the eventual fall in popularity is simply a false bluff on my way to a summit.

Still I wonder, am I making wrong decisions? Instead of publishing through small and independent electronic presses should I be seeking an agent? A traditional press? Should I feel proud at being featured as an Amazon Best Seller or should I hold onto my stories until Big Ink finds me and pushes me to the top of the traditional lists?

The industry of storytelling is significantly disrupted, yet I feel an unmistakable current of hierarchy within my end of the creative process. The writing between the lines is that unless you publish via the traditional route, your works lack validity within the market.

This morning Hugh Howey took a break from gallivanting around the Caribbean aboard his catamaran and posted The State of the Industry. He talks about several salient points specific to today’s publishing industry, but, in particular, he writes the following:

As a writer, the new publishing industry brought an infinite increase in fulfillment. And I don’t mean with income, as I never sat down to write my first novel in order to earn a penny. In the old world of publishing, my stories would have gone unread. There wouldn’t have been a blog to post them to, social media to share them by, or email to send to friends and family. There was no Kindle store to upload them to, or print on demand service to make a real book. No ACX for audio. My voice didn’t exist.

I realized something vital when I read this. In the bad old days of publishing, my stories and my voice would have gone utterly unnoticed. Had I been born a mere generation earlier it’s entirely possible that I’d have a drawer full of manuscripts labeled “Frustration and Disappointment.” When they laid me to rest, perhaps they’d tuck all these stories into the box with me so that so that I’d have something to work from in my next incarnation.

As it is, literally thousands of people have read some of my work. Wow! Let me repeat that, thousands of people have read at least some of my stories. That’s a pretty incredible artifact when I unpackage it.

I started keeping journals interspersed with made up stories back in the 80’s on long trips into the backcountry, on volunteer stints building trail with the SCA, and while working in the kitchens at Anderson Camps. I kept on writing in college, throughout all my experiences in the Army, and thereafter as a “professional.” I didn’t write any of those words because I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t write these words because I wanted to be a best seller, or famous, or even because I wanted to bathe in a J.K Rowling-sized pool of money.

I never expected that anyone would ever read any of it, and the fact that a couple of thousand people have tickles me endlessly.

Sure, since leaving Microsoft and those golden handcuffs, I’d like to turn my words into money. But more important I love to tell stories, so the opportunity of combining my vocation with my passion is truly revolutionary. Many thanks to Hugh for pointing this out! Many thanks for Samual for giving me this opportunity.



Yesterday evening, while attending my local writing group, the advice started pouring. A perfect storm of what I needed to read, who I needed to follow, in order to write a breakout novel. What I needed to do in order to achieve my goals with DISTANCE. Everyone was well-intentioned, no doubt, but once I got home and started going over my notes, I felt randomized. Like a few wheels had slipped the track somewhere down the line, and my train was dragging to a halt on under the strain of the extra drag.

Later, I spent some time talking with a friend, mostly about the first couple of chapters. His advice was concrete, easy to understand, and given the arc and direction of the story made sense. It was specific, and it advanced DISTANCE further down the tracks because it was a simple matter to integrate it into the writing process.

I’ve concluded that writers need feedback during the development of a work. I certainly do. We write alone, but we refine in a public crucible. This is one of the few professions I can think of where other people’s early opinions prove critical to the development of the final product. I’m drawing an image in mind’s eyes’ of others so it is useful to know that my sketches cross the void that separates us from one another. Engineers, on the other hand, design something THEN test that thing. While they’re hunched over the draft board, however, they’re not interested or concerned about what anyone thinks of their process. In fact, it’s likely outside inputs may destroy their eventual effectiveness.

Given the above, I’ve become very discerning when I get outside inputs. Like most writers, I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of what I want to do. Even good, pertinent counsel can distract from my end goal.

So it goes, that last night, I came to another realization. Writing a “breakout novel” is not my goal. This sort of encouragement is nudging me off the rails. Knowing this, I can easily disregard well-intentioned advice which seeks to push my work in the wrong direction.

Yeah, having a breakout novel would be great. And, while I acknowledge that some people enter into the writing process with this as an end goal, it has nothing to do with the story I want to tell. Much like winning an award or holding a lottery ticket with all the right numbers the “breakout” is a potential end benefit.

I’m sticking to the plan.


Keep me believing: A writer’s plea

The Son of Man, René Magritte

I had a long day out, in the city and away from my island, today. The result was that I had plenty of time to contemplate some words. It’s the end of another year, and I’ve been mulling over what I did, and did not accomplish this past annum. Added to this I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to work on next year.

When I got home, I knew I needed to return a couple of emails. My story contribution to Doomsday Chronicles has been passed along to the editor and consequently there’s some work to compete. I’ve also spent a lot of time stewing over DISTANCE and workshopping FIRE WEATHER. So, as soon as I was able, I opened up ye olde laptop and dug in. Emails off, plot points recorded, I noticed a post from Django Wexler, Myke Cole, and Mark Laurance.

Turns out an aspiring author named EC Williamson sent Mark a short collection of questions that can be summarized “Share with me the secret of your success.” His questions — addressed on Mark’s blog by the aforementioned authors — segue nicely for me.

Hello Mark,
This is not something I would typically ever do, but I’m just really frustrated. And I apologize for cold messaging you like this. Really, I am.

I’m just getting discouraged, because I’ve been writing for 25 years, and I’m starting to lose belief in myself that I will ever be able to be fortunate to make a living with my writing. Not even an “uber successful” (even though that would be pretty cool) life, but just a comfortable living.

Without the usual cliche of “just keep writing” – do you happen to have anything at all to keep me believing. Writing is, and has ALWAYS been one of the most sacred things that I have had, to lean on in life. It’s the one thing I love to do, and at 43…I’ve been around long enough to know what I want, LOL. Telling a story, sharing the story or journey of someone for others to enjoy, is a great feeling.

It’s easily one of the hardest things to do, successfully. And I don’t think writers get nearly enough of the due respect they deserve for what it takes to be a writer.

Again, sorry to bug ya. If you have a moment to respond, that would be cool, and really appreciated.

If not, no problem there either. Just figured I’d try.

EC Williamson and I seem to share a couple of traits, so this is as much advice for him as it is for myself. And while I haven’t nearly the notoriety nor the publishing history of the three authors that have already responded, I do have a plan for making more success from my words.

  • Understand my place in the changing market: This is not a market prognostication. I’m just not smart enough or sufficiently well connected to know where literary markets, genre or otherwise, will go in 2016. Extend that timeline to 2021 or 2026 and my “roadmap” looks more like a crayon drawing done while having a seizure. And frankly, as much as I read about what reader markets are doing, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change either vector or velocity.Put another way, given the storm that constantly rages around me it would be foolish for me to take either hand from the boat or the wheel. Shaking fists at the maelstrom or giving up because the waves won’t stop pounding my pilot house is pure folly.

    Next year I plan on plotting a better course, I want to take advantage of those close reaches near the edges of the hurricane, so I get to my desired destination as easily as possible.

    This year I published some shorter works. With the publication of Ser Pan Comido in Galaxy Chronicles, I finally got my first taste of something that felt suspiciously like success. Based on these data points I can triangulate a better course toward a more fulfilling goal.

    My advice to EC? Better understand where your position. Do you have representation? Do you have a stack of saleable manuscripts ready to send out? Do you know people at publishing houses? Do those people know that you write, have they read anything you’ve written? Do you have a stack of rejection letters? If the answer to any or all of these is “no” then perhaps you need to take a couple of moments to understand better your orientation within the market. You might be trying to sail into irons or against a strong current.

    There are many, many ways to publish, but if you’re only trying to publish one way you’re passing up opportunities.

  • Develop your voice, perfect your platform: If you’ve spent any time at all at conventions or workshops you’ll hear this one often. Usually, it pops up after you’ve made your way through the standard string of banalities. “Just keep writing.” “Work harder” or “work smarter.”It took me a little while to realize what this means.

    Consider if you will, one John Scalzi. Arguably, one of the most prolific authors in our sector of the universe. He understands that regular feeding and proper grooming of his fans is the critical component to his success. And he gives the people that love his work a routine amount of kibble.

    First, he writes stories that people want to read. This is important, and it’s one of those things we can all use as a model. If I find the magic munchables that will bring many new readers into my herd then I will write that story a million times and then sideways to keep them begging for more.But Scalzi was never content to stop there. He’s made it a routine to take the witty dialogue that anyone might find in his books and send it out into the internets as often as possible. His blog, his twitter feed, his public appearances — all of those things are chock full of the words you might expect to read in any of his stories.

    Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an act. I believe that this is his voice, both within his storytelling and in his routine life. The fact that so many people find his banter compelling while entertaining is exactly what we all want. He’s built an impressive career in words just by being himself.

    In 2015, Ser Pan Comido did okay. I felt it was an okay story too, but in the days running up to its release I started to wonder if this was my voice. Would my words dazzle in just the right way to win me a bigger audience?

    Right now, it feels like most people read it because they’re doing me a favor. That’s not what I want. That’s not how I want to build this beast. If I were sitting next to a blazing fire telling that story tonight, I know it would come out differently. Perhaps I needed more time with it?

    GOAT, on the other hand, I know is a better story. I was moved to write it; I anticipate it will move some readers too. This is how I think and talk. It’s based in my experience, events and adventures that moved me, so the hope is that it will do the same for some of you.

    In 2016, I’m going to examine what I can write that works and why. Then incorporate those lessons into the new collection of words I will produce. It is about building trust with the readers you have so they know what to expect from the words you’ll soon write.

    My advice to EC? Pay attention to the way people react to you when you’re talking. Figure out what works and what doesn’t because the way you relate to other people in person is almost certainly embedded in what you write. Your voice as a person and your voice as an author are conjoined and if the former doesn’t do the job, the latter will fall flat. Look for ways to build trust with your readers. They want to trust you, so don’t let them down.

  • Read more: My final personal goal of 2016 and last piece of advice, read more.I came across this bit from a 1935 Esquire article written by Hemmingway and I believe that it’s an excellent writer’s rule.

    “The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can’t do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That’s how you make it all of one piece.”

    My plan? Read what I’m writing in exactly this manner. In fact, I do this already. But to be able to “correct” as I go along most effectively I’ve got to give other people’s work the same degree of criticality.

    Understand what does and does not work. If I learn to discern adequate writing from truly inspired and memorable prose in other’s manuscripts, my writing will consequently and effortlessly be improved.

    This last year I had the privilege to read a number of books and works in progress. And in that hairy mess of words and imagined moments, there was this one perfect hook that haunts me while I write.

    “Despair could never touch a morning like this.
    “The air was cool, and smelled of sage. It had the clarity that comes to southern California only after a Santa Ana wind has blown all haze and history out to sea — air like a telescopic glass, so that the snowcapped San Gabriels seemed near enough to touch, though they were forty miles away.”

    “Pacific Edge”, Kim Stanley Robinson

    When I read this I knew that I wanted to approximate the truth of that first sentence in something I’d write. I hold it up and compare words I’ve written against its precision. I measure myself against its impact.

    Advice for EC? Read what you write, read it until you like what you’ve written. Read it, rewrite it, until you’re certain it’s as good as, if not better than, your favorite writing.

Look, I’m 43 years old too. I’ve been writing for a long time although presumably I haven’t been trying to make a living at it as long has you have. But listen, I understand your despair. I too, from time to time, toy with the idea of quitting.

We both know that the genesis of quitting is the bastard child of a mutual frustration with our own personal limitations coupled with the mean anxiety of obscurity. It stinks being a featureless member of the crowd. But it is a far worse fortune to languish in a life devoid of story, lacking even clumsy expression.

That is why I write. I want to create something new, special and completely my own.

Words shouldn’t be written for a profit, notoriety, or even recognition. Those are all potential fringe benefits; possible consequences of publication in an increasingly democratic marketplace. If you need something to believe in then consider the notion that you might write some true words, you might be able to relate a moment of emotion with a stranger and have them utterly understand, you could dream up the world’s funniest joke, or describe a sunset that invariably provokes people to shed tears of joy.

All of these things are only possible if you believe in yourself and then write solely from that faith.

NaNo Buddies


Well wow! The first week of November is coming to a close. I haven’t grown a mustache or a beard, but I have completed 10k words for NaNoWriMo. In case you don’t know what that means, it’s an annual program where writers pull their hair out over the course of a month trying to complete a novel. National Novel Writing Month, although it is clearly International and the 50k words necessary to win tends to be my average per month rate of writing.

Honestly, as November got closer, I wasn’t completely certain I was going to attempt it this year. We’ve got family plans at the end of the month. I’ve got house duties I need to attend to. Things will get in the way, but this year, although I began quietly, I’ve been consistently meeting the bar. I’m still not certain I’ll make 50k words by the end of the month, but it is a lot of fun trying.

So, here, a week behind schedule, is my annual request for either your time or your money. If you’re writing something, even if you don’t plan on finishing before the end of the month, come be my buddy (my NaNo username is saguache). Or, if you’re the kind of person who’d rather support creative activity belly up to the donation bar and donate a couple of clams. In either case, you’ll be doing plenty to help me, and many other writers, write something amazing.


Finally, like the sniped internet meme says at the top of the post, a request for a little signal boost. The Big Red Buckle is still on e-sale. It’s cheaper than a cup of coffee. And, in fact, sales of this book are immediately rolled over into my personal caffeination. Maintaining adequate levels of coffee induced euphoria is a constant struggle for writers. You’ve got to help me fund this habit.

Seriously, I’d really appreciate your reactions to this one. We’re only a couple of weeks away from the release of Galaxy Chronicles, and I’m hoping to leverage the potential success of that anthology to find new readers. Get in early, become a fan of my fiction now. You’ll be one of the few who will be able to say that you knew me and read me before I was popular.

Don’t Forget to Dream

D.S.I Helium 3 Transport Vehicle by Adam Burn

I’m sitting in the coffee shop; A-bear is playing his heart over at preschool, and I’m just not getting into it this morning. Derp move number one, I’ve been tugging at my chin hairs while I read from the ever expanding athenaeum of “Advice Offered to Writers on Writing and Stuff.” The truth of the matter is that I’m not sure what I’m going to write next, and my Twitter feed has once again delivered up this highly distracting narrative in which I willingly participate. Hunched over and fuming, once more, it occurs to me that this is not a good way to live your life.

More importantly, it doesn’t seem like a very productive way to spend your precious writing time.

It’s probably not helping that the new baristas have changed up the music, and I’ve since had to plug my headphones in and crank up the subtle white noise of Coffitivity. Yeah, that’s right, I’m listening to “Morning Murmur” — a recording of a coffee shop while sitting in an actual cafe drinking coffee — how’s that for bathos?

“So what, precisely, is the problem Matt?” you ask.

Well, I started with this blog post from the esteemed and successful Chuck Wendig: Peaks and Valleys: The Financial Realities of a Writer’s Life. Realize, in no way is this me jumping onto his current cluster event. Rather, it’s me taking a critical look at why I seem to come away from his advice posts feeling defeated and ready to quit.

This post and the advice it references are just one member of a distinguished lineage of columns I’d like to label “The Stark Reality Collection.” I’m starting to wonder if it’s even possible for authors, especially those in the SFF community, first to begin making a living from their work and later not tell the world how hard it’s going to be. Often I come away from reading this stuff convinced I’ve done everything wrong. I live in the wrong place, I know all the wrong people, I didn’t go to the right school, or workshop, I write the wrong things, and I put my pants on the wrong way — that’s how wrong I feel.

Defeated before I begin, my options seem limited. Maybe I should just take Wendig’s intimation and “move on to more stable ground.”

Here’s the thing. Fiction moves me. Let me say that again. FICTION MOVES ME. I love a good story. Terry Pratchett’s farewell piece The Sheperd’s Crown recently reduced me to a blubbering mess more than once. And I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from my recent readings of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Wild Shore Triptych.

I know that I’ve discovered my earthworm. I know that my stories are good enough, and my writing is compelling and entertaining. And yes, I love doing this, even when it’s fucking difficult.

Standing up to assert these strong feelings of self-determination and conviction I rip the headphone out of my computer and nearly dump hot coffee all over my lap. “But really,” I say to myself taking a calming breath. “I don’t need anyone to tell me how hard it’s going to be.”

Want to help successful-author-making-a-living-from-your-words? Stop telling everyone about the big pile of shit we can look forward to wading. That’s the thing about piles of crap; they’re apparent. Everyone knows that they’re there, usually because, much like yourselves, we’re busy trying to clean it off our shoes.

Better, tell us what moves you. Why did you stick with writing even when you weren’t sure when your next meal was coming? What do you do in the morning to warm up for writing? What inspired some piece of fiction we can’t put down. How do you deal with criticism fro your readers or even your editor? Writer’s, especially the good ones, I’ve realized have developed strategies to exceed the piles of crap life leaves on our paths.

I write a lot, I don’t sell a lot (yet). I know that I’ve yet to develop a “real” audience. The numbers necessary to lift me out of this valley just aren’t there yet. This is the sole reason I keep looking into the Library of Stark Reality. I’m looking for feasible ways to grow my audience as I get ready for near term release dates. Want to help? Tell me about the concrete things you did to expand your audience.

And while I acknowledge that it won’t always be easy, this morning I’m resolved that as I build my author platform and find more readers, I will endeavor to imagine with audacity. The boundaries that limit me aren’t worth talking about except when exceeded.