Quick note before I introduce the amazing N.K. Jemisin: Faith Hunter was kind enough to host me over on her blog this week, so I didn’t want to miss out on sending y’all over there as well. I’m talking about the writing life. And now, without further ado….
When I think new and innovative in epic fantasy, I think N.K. Jemisin. Last year with her debut novel THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, she was up for about every major award in the genre, and this year her new Dreamblood series (THE KILLING MOON and THE SHADOWED SUN) is already making lists of most anticipated reads:
and inspired Kirkus Reviews to a compile a Top 10 Female-Penned Fantasy novels/series
I’m so pleased to have her here giving away a signed book to one lucky commentor and sharing her knowledge of:
Five Things I Now Know About Being a Professional Writer (That I Didn’t Know Before)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, my first novel, was published in February of 2010. My fifth novel, The Shadowed Sun, just came out this month. Now, I know how it looks — two years, five books — but that’s deceptive. Anyone who knows anything about publishing understands that it’s icebergian: the part of it that’s visible to the public is miniscule compared to the stuff that led up to it. For me this whole saga actually began a couple of years before the first book’s publication, in 2008 when I sold my first novels to Orbit. Or maybe it really started a few years before that, in 2004 when I got Lucienne as an agent. Or did it start in 2000, when I first resolved to buckle down and get serious about becoming a published writer? All this leads me to the first of my Things:
1) Everything takes longer than you think.
Ten years from resolution to publication is nothing. It took longer than that, really; I’m not counting the preceding ten-plus years I spent writing “just for fun”, because I was convinced that there was no real point in my trying to get published. It just seemed too difficult. A lot of aspiring writers feel this way, I know. Some of them resort to self-publishing, not because they genuinely think it’s a good publishing model for them, but because they aren’t willing to keep at it and they don’t think they can break in any other way. Some of them can’t. But some of them could, if they put in the time and effort. Persistence is the key.
Then there’s the matter of timelines. I’m on deadline again right now, working on the first of a new fantasy trilogy. I have a year to finish each book, so I’m pacing myself, doing 1000-1500 words per day. In theory this should mean I’ll finish each novel in about four months — but in actual practice I know it’ll take much longer. For one thing, I’ve got to plan around a day job. I work in education; the month of September is to us what the month of April is to accountants. I probably won’t make my wordcount goals that month. And I’ve got periods of heavy travel and promotion to consider. Since The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun came out very recently, I’ve had a steady spate of readings and guestblogs and convention appearances and signings… so I haven’t made my wordcount goals lately, either. And sometime during the year I’ll need to take the time to read through the published versions of both books to try and catch typos before the mass markets come out. Once I’ve turned in the first book of the new series, I’ll have to plan in time for edits and second edits and copyedits and first pass edits while I’m working on the second and third books. When the first book comes out — probably while I’m still working on the third book — I’ll also have to slot in time for promotion again.
And that’s if I don’t decide to scrap what I’m working on and start over. Did that several times with each book of the Inheritance Trilogy. Sometimes I make my wordcount goals, but they’re the wrong words.
So it will probably take me close to a year to finish each book — and that’s if no major family emergencies, employment emergencies, etc., happen in the meantime. I’ll aim for four months anyway. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
2) Robots are a good idea. (Or help of some sort.)
I am not blessed with children. This is a sad thing, because according to my mother, children are darn handy for doing chores.
In lieu of children, I have invested in technology: a Roomba and a countertop dishwasher. I have also chosen to pay for certain services that most people would do themselves: drop-off wash & fold laundry and (occasional) grocery delivery. I bought the dishwasher out of my first advance check, and I deduct the laundry when I itemize my taxes, per an accountant’s advice. This is because I’m specifically investing in these services/devices as a way to make time for writing. The four hours I would otherwise spend doing it myself at the corner laundromat is time I can use to hit my daily wordcount goal, or write a guestblog post. In fact, because I’m paying for it, I find myself more motivated to get the writing done — because otherwise I’ve wasted an investment in myself.
Which leads me to my next realization:
3) Time-thieves are everywhere. And they love you.
I have relatives and friends. You probably do, too. And one of the problems I continually have with my relatives and friends is that they want to do things with me. I know, right? Terrible! How could they.
Professional writers need to have lives. Writing well depends on lived experience; none of us can be single-minded worker bees cranking away on wordcount all the time. But what I didn’t understand before I got published was how much time I would have to spend on tasks that aren’t writing. Before publication, all I had to do was write, and occasionally do some writing-related networking. After publication, I travel to conventions. I do readings. I do research. I do blog posts and guestblogs. I do interviews. I check copyedits. I write jacket copy. I read and sign contracts. I do mailings. I fill out foreign tax forms. I still do lots of networking, now in person. Oh — and I write, too.
What I also didn’t understand before publication was how hard it would be to get all this across to my friends and family. They still think all I do is write. They still think writing isn’t hard. They still don’t understand what I mean when I say that I have two jobs (I have a day job too). I’ve tried to explain and most of them just don’t get it. So I have to say “no” a lot, and I have to repeat myself a lot, and sometimes even when I don’t explain I simply have to put my foot down and let them know that my writing time is sacrosanct. As a result of all this, I’m not the most popular girl on earth… but I make my deadlines.
4) I still get rejected. Lots, in fact.
I used to be in the BRAWLers, a Boston-area writing group. They had a great tradition that I recommend to all writing groups: they celebrated rejections. At 50 rejections we went out for a beer. At 100 we had a full-on margarita-and-mojito bash. Nobody got to 150 while I was in the group, but I imagine if we had, the party might have involved strippers. Just speculating.
Rejections are part of being a writer — yeah, even for a pro. Before publication I thought that once I had some novels out, it would be easier to sell short stories — and to a degree this is true. My submissions go to the head of the slushpile at some markets. I get a lot of invitations to write for anthologies and magazines that otherwise I would never hear about. Even so, they don’t always buy the work they’ve solicited. That’s because not everything I write is good enough to publish. Of course not; this is art, and some art sucks.
So, in part because of that old BRAWLer tradition, I treat each rejection as a badge of honor — a sign that I’m continuing to improve and grow as a writer. In fact, I’ve kept every rejection letter I’ve ever gotten. My first novel rejection is framed and hanging above my writing desk. My short story rejections are in a box; I’m planning to wallpaper my bathroom with them, once I buy a house.
5) I am no longer a reader.
This one’s hard for me, because I still think of myself as a science fiction and fantasy lover who happens to write. But this is no longer true. The instant my name appeared on a book spine, my status changed; I am now part of “the establishment.”
What that means is that I need to remain aware at all times of my power in the community, relative to readers. Sometimes it’s laughable to think of myself as powerful; unless they’re mega-bestsellers, writers are pretty much at the bottom of the hierarchy in the publishing world. But the fact remains, we have more influence than any individual reader. We have — and it’s hard for me to even say this word, because it still feels kind of egotistical to think this way — fans. And ultimately, if our work gets enough attention, we have the power to change the genre itself.
So I stop myself, now, from jumping into discussions that once upon a time I would’ve eagerly joined. Reviews are a great example. I view reviews of my work as useful critique. Maybe it’s the years I’ve spent in writing groups, but whenever I see a review (good or bad), I desperately want to ask questions of the reviewer and see what I can learn that will help improve my writing. I did this a few times after my first book came out — until I realized that some reviewers and readers are genuinely creeped out when the author pops up in the comments. Even if the author doesn’t behave badly, the author’s presence inhibits and skews the whole discussion; people who would otherwise talk freely become concerned about (or intent upon) hurting the author’s feelings, and it’s just a big mess. By the same token, I also avoid reviewing other authors’ works if I don’t like them. I used to. But now I know that I might meet this author at some future convention or event. It’s hard to have a civil conversation with someone if you’ve publicly declared their work to be utter dreck, and if they remember you said so.
I also miss the power that I had as “just a reader”. Once upon a time I could rage publicly about something an author had written or a publisher had done, without consequence. Once upon a time, I could influence cover art and content merely by writing a blog post — something I can’t do now without substantial risk to my career.
I still choose to do these things sometimes — sometimes the risk is worth it — but it’s rare now. I pick my battles. And I have more power to change things through my work, so I spend the bulk of my energy on that.
So that’s it. I’ll revisit this article in a few years, I think, and share any new things I’ve learned in the time since.