New month and new update. I reworked the look of the site. Pulled some things out and added a few items. Check out the link at the top of the page for three new short stories: Necromancer, Center of Attention and Sunrise. Sunrise received an honorable mention from Elegant Literature for their May 2002 writing contest.
Of note, I'm going through a number of writing courses: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy via Udemy, Brandon Sanderson's 2020 BYU course, Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Dan Wells Story Structure, both available on YouTube. Sanderson's insights are mind blowing. Being naive and new to a craft is exciting. There is so much to learn and every new insight is a revelation. That is my glass half full approach. When I'm grumpy, I keep slapping my forehead and go, "How the hell did I miss all this stuff before?" I have never taken any writing or critical reading courses and the depth to which you can subject a creative work astounds me, even though I know it should not.
The simple take on the intro to Raider of the Lost Ark as a means to set tone and make promises to the audience, a contract with them to both demand their attention and promise them a specific experience over the course of the movie, left me speechless. The first ten minutes of the film encapsulate the arc of the entire movie and character competence and seen in this light show me the brilliance of Spielberg and Lucas. Yes, I am going out on a limb here and letting you know those two are going places. In other news, water is wet and the sky is blue.
I am working on my second novel using the new insights of the courses and attempting to incorporate the structure and processes laid out by Wells and Sanderson. I have two other novels that I was writing using a discovery method and found that process was not working for me. I did not have a name for the process at the time but in hind sight, it makes sense I was falling into the traps inherit in that style of writing. I need to read Stephen King's on writing and see what he has to say on his process.
Well, June went by fast. A collection of personal and professional items kept me from writing and posting. I submitted two stories to sites in May and got responses back in June, both rejections of a sort. I'm not as devastated as I assumed I would be and to some extent was rather excited that anyone had taken time to read my fiction. Again, my base assumption has been that my first forays into fiction writing will be terrible and that what I most need is feedback and practice. Write more, as it were.
I keep coming back to needing a mentor or at the very least finding a class format that will get my content read and critiqued. I picked up a class on Udemy which looks promising but still lacks the format to have my stuff read and reviewed.
I do at least realize that I don't have the time to focus on short fiction (to get it published). The amount of churn that is required is more than I have the time for, since my goal with this endeavor was to write and enjoy the writing process. So the end result is I will be posting my writing projects here on this site, starting this week.
I also plan on showcasing some of my other work here (links to game projects I've written, pixel art I've done) just to have a central place to record my creative endeavors.
Continuing from my previous post, I went looking at book royalties for authors and stumbled on some great articles, like this one. The linked article covers the data gleaned from the US Authors Guild 2017 survey of writers. It is all self-reported data. The 2019 survey appeared to have better data, according to a few articles I've read as it purported to cast a wider net, but the trends in 2017 are similar to 2019 and the article I linked is a good overview. The Author's Guild takeaways are here. The quick summary follows:
Which leaves me with the conclusion I reached in my previous post. Most writers are writers AND something else. They do a side hustle or depend on a partner's income to keep them afloat while they produce. There does not appear to be a healthy market for "mid" level authors. You get a few folks that become household names and do well for themselves and the rest toil in obscurity drowned out by the volume of content being produced.
Surprisingly, this does not leave me disheartened. It takes the pressure off to be honest. I would wager that most truly successful authors are exceptional writers and have experienced some form of luck during their career that got them noticed and started the ball rolling. How many exceptional writers are out there still languishing because they did not get that same lucky break? Who knows? Critically, the only thing you can control for is the quality of your writing. Then you hope to get lucky and put yourself in the best position possible to capitalize when the opportunities come. This means you need to write and write and write. That I can do.
It just means I'll be a writer AND, which doesn't bother me in the slightest.
I took the plunge and submitted my work to two different publications. My goal in this pursuit isn't to become famous or land Brandon Sanderson money. That kickstarter campaign is mind blowing by the way. For the moment, I just want to write and I'll take care of the making a living via other pursuits.
Still, it was really eye opening for me to see the reality of writing full time as a freelancer trying to get short fiction published. Given the rates most sites pay for original fiction, about 8 cents per word on average, I can see where the starving artist trope comes from.
I come from twenty years in IT. In general, it pays well. It has its own quirks and warts (don't even talk to me about 24/7/365 on call rotations), but it usually comes with a steady paycheck depending on your location and the skill set you bring.
Doing the math for freelance writers shows some real challenges that need to be surmounted. Let's make some assumptions here. Your average publication wants fiction in the rage of 3000 to 5000 words and takes 90 days to review your work. Let's assume you submit a story at 5000 words and are good enough to get published. Congratulations, you just raked in $400.
Average cost of living in the US is about $3100/month according to Expatistan.com. This seems in the ballpark given the quick survey I did of other sites, but I'm more interested in the basic math here. This means you need to pull in $37,200 from your writing a year just to cover the most essential costs. That's 93 stories a year, or 8 stories a month, that you need to get published so you don't starve to death or go homeless. Realistically, not every story will be a winner, so you probably want to double that to 16 a month that are getting sent out for review hoping half get picked up. I have no idea if the 50% hit rate is reasonable. I would guess current freelance journalists would tell me that is way too high.
That means writing 4 high quality stories a week, about 20,000 words, that you then have to polish and edit. I'm doing this in my spare time and find 1500 to 2000 words a day is about the best rate I can hope for and that is just writing. Editing is much more challenging and takes twice as long for me.
So in this numbers game, you have a writer that is spending 6 days a week, 8 hours a day in this pursuit. Creating around 3200 words of great fiction and then also editing them each day. Doing this every day, no vacations, no sick days, to make just under $40,000/year - and this isn't covering health insurance. Just food, rent, internet and the occasional coffee or dinner out.
I completely understand why so many artists end up being part of the AND crowd. I'm a writer AND I wait tables. I'm a dancer AND I do office work. I know this isn't a news flash for anyone reading this. Still instructive for me to think through.
Of course I left out the part where your stories are in the hopper for 90 days while you wait for an answer. This means to get started, you either find another way to make money while you "bank" three months of stories priming the pump while you wait for your first check or you go hungry.
All in all, this seems quite the puzzle. Next week, I'll talk about why I'm not sure the above math works is even realistic given the size of the market.
It's important to get feedback. That is true for any skill or pastime in which you want to improve. I know these are earth shattering revelations. The kind of insight that keeps you reading these posts. Next week, look forward to my water is wet post.
Feedback in IT circles tends to be immediate, the program either compiles or it doesn’t. The patching worked or it didn’t. Feedback is hardwired into the process. Specifications for a piece of code will come in ahead of time, so it is rare, though sadly not unheard of, for a coder to finish their project and release it to find out it is all wrong. Most of the time you have a very good idea of what you are building, and the computer is the arbiter of success. Feedback is quick and clear.
Writing creatively is a whole other beast. I’m still sitting on the first draft of my first book and will likely not edit it until I’m done with the first draft of book two. I’m confronted with extended periods of little to no external feedback about my writing. I find this very uncomfortable, and it has taken an extreme force of will to avoid descending into a mire of self-doubt. I imagine this is typical for many writers and I understand how quickly you can become self-critical and defeatist.
Hopping into the next book, in many ways, has helped me from brooding over the first. When I finally come back to it with fresh eyes, I will likely change much, but my hope is I’m still positive about the experience. For the moment, I’m still waiting for my primary alpha reader to have time enough to read the short stories I’ve written. I still need to format that using the Shunn specification, which is an exceptionally well-done guide and example all rolled into one. As nice as the guide is, the thought of doing the copy editing is not exciting, so I’ve focused more on the new book as an escape.
Life has been unusually hectic these last two weeks, all for purely mundane reasons, so while I’m glad I’ve added two more chapters to the new book, my wife has had exactly zero free minutes in her day to offer her opinion on my work. Hopefully she can carve out some time this week. I’m eager to see what she thinks of the short stories. Then I will have to force myself to take the time and format the manuscripts for submission.
Growing up, my father and I would have these long discussions about nerdy topics like Star Wars, Star Trek and Isaac Azimov (my dad's favorite author). I credit my dad with my love of reading and specifically the fantasy and science fiction genres. I grew up with Heinlein, Azimov, Herbert, Anthony and Eddings. These all had profound impacts on me and to this day I still use the word grok occasionally (which I have to explain to anyone under 40 that isn't a Heinlein fan). My dad wasn't an author, just a gregarious nerd that knew what he liked. He did have a prescient way of getting to the heart of why he liked what he did. I remember vividly one discussion where he told me that a hero is only as good as the villain they oppose. I'm sure others have said this. On its face, it is a simple and, in some ways, obvious statement. Why it struck me as profound is the example he used to illustrate his point. Luke Skywalker is an average hero elevated by an amazing villain. I won't bury the lead here. This post is really about Darth Vader and how he elevated Luke to the hero he became in the original trilogy.
For context, I got to see Return of the Jedi in theaters, having just missed Empire and the original Star Wars. I watched those on VHS tapes. Remember, be kind and rewind. I couldn’t look away, sitting in the theater transfixed by the moral dilemma Darth Vader faced as his son was being tortured by the Emperor. The mask didn't emote but the direction of the back and forth as he looked at the Emperor and then at Luke and back again let the audience imagine the anguish he was going through. Turn away from what he had worked for his entire life or reconnect with a son once lost to him. At the time, we had no real idea who Anakin Skywalker was, and our imaginations were left to fill in man behind the mask. He was a vessel for whatever the audience wanted to put into him. Finally, once revealed, he had had his redemption and could pass on knowing he had done one final good act. At this point we had no idea what kind of Jedi Anakin really was, nor did we know the story that George Lucas had in mind for him.
Crucially though, Darth Vader elevated Luke from a whiney, backwater farm boy to the hero he became. Once he finally took his stand against the Emperor and threw down his lightsaber, he was no longer Luke, simple farmer, but a Jedi, upholding the values of a dead order and striking back at their greatest foe. To redeem Vader and help him turn back to the light demonstrated how far he had come. In those first three movies, Vader is an enigma. Dark, terrifying and all powerful. He became the yardstick to measure Luke by. Campbell’s heroic journey on full display.
Before I continue, I want to be crystal clear. None of this will be a criticism of the story that Lucas eventually told, his vision for Anakin Skywalker. I have nothing but admiration for the universe he and his team created. Star Wars shaped a large part of my life and their creative influence impacts me today. These are just my thoughts of redemption and Anakin Skywalker makes and interesting example. More importantly, when his story changed, Luke’s did as well.
So what happened with the prequels? We discovered who Anakin Skywalker really was and learned why we should care about his redemption. The stories humanized Anakin. He was a slave, separated from his mother and then raised by a cloistered order that demanded he set aside all emotion while struggling with puberty and young adulthood. He falls in love with the first woman in his life not his mother, someone far older than him, a troubling power dynamic. When he discovers she is in danger, his fear at her loss is manipulated by a trusted mentor leading him to betray his current masters that forbid his love. His story is tragic and his redemption in Jedi is very personal. I would argue it is the only moment in his life where he gets to make a choice on his own. You could argue that it is the only choice he ever makes in his life that isn’t manipulated by an outside force. The audience is left to judge whether this one act at the end makes up for the pain and suffering he caused throughout the series.
Here's the issue I struggled with when I watched the prequels. Darth Vader is no longer a towering enigma, terrifying, an unstoppable force of malevolent evil. He is a broken old man, bitter and emotionally damaged. Angry, complicated, and ultimately pathetic. He follows the Emperor because that is all he knows after everything he had was destroyed. The destruction made even more tortured because he was complicit in it. He was woefully unprepared to deal with most of his life emotionally. All of this made him a more interesting character but, I would argue, does a disservice to the hero narrative of Luke. Luke is now reconciling with an aged, bitter parent. He was not defeating an unknowable, ultimate evil. The measuring stick we compared him to shrank.
It was a trade off in the end. The story of Anakin fleshed out the character at the expense of the earlier movies character arcs. I struggled for years to understand why the choice bothered me. Ultimately it came down to cognitive dissonance. I already had Darth Vader’s story, his rise and fall, written in my head. It did not matter that it was not my story to tell. When confronted with Lucas’s vision, I recoiled. Anakin wasn’t right. It took a long time for me to put aside that narrative I had written for him and take what the creator of the character had given me.
I don’t have to lose those ideas I put aside. I can write my own story, about a character’s rise and fall, that tells what I’ve had written in my head. Lucas’s has inspired me, like Azimov, Eddings and Heinlein. For that I am eternally grateful.
I did a thing.
Specifically, I started writing.
I started at the end of February and wrote everyday. My goal was five hundred words per day. Most days I surpassed it, writing for an hour or more. When I looked up on April 9th and took a breath, I had finished the first draft of a book.
58,000 words. Barely a novel, but I had done it. So now I ask myself, what's next? In truth, I don't know. What I have figured out so far, from reading and researching online, is the following:
I have quite the hill to climb. I take it as a given I'm no Hemingway or Chaucer.
I did learn something critical in past month. I learned that I love writing. It was all I wanted to do. I set aside my usual pursuits to get in just a few more minutes to put words to page. Telling the story in my head and getting it out on paper was my sole focus. Turn it into something real. I found that the more I wrote, the more other stories would spring forth, demanding to be put to the page as well.
I have notes now for four other books and I've written two short stories, another 8,000 words.
My plan then is to keep writing and navigate the publishing process, learning along the way. I will document the journey here, updating once a week. Everything I learn I will save so I have a record to look back on and hopefully share with others to help them in their writing journeys. Why repeat my mistakes, right?
Next steps will be:
If after six to twelve months I have no luck with traditional publishing of the short stories, I'll be posting them on this site.
The publishing process will force me to learn manuscript formatting and get me comfortable exposing my work to actual criticism. I'm going to need a think skin. After 30 days or so, I plan on revisiting the first draft of my novel and begin cleaning that up.
I will also start working on my second book, which I am extremely excited about. I'm thrilled to share this process with you.