When the Game Changes

I am — and always have been — a planner.

I was that kid who started drawing up ideas for my November birthday in February. (Hmmm, I turn 31 this year. Nice prime number. I should do something snazzy.) I floundered writing as a pantser until I got some weird externally-bestowed permission to plan out my books, and then I just ran with it.

(Sidebar: we are not amused with Stephen King’s assertion that outlines are the crutch of bad writers who wish they were writing a master’s thesis. Not everyone needs to spend 20 years reinventing the wheel, Stevie-boy. *grumble* Everybody arts their own way, and more power to them whatever it is. Good day, sir.)

Over the last few  years, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to plan my writing career. Anyone who’s ever tried that knows its sort of like herding fish in the open ocean armed with nothing more than a flimsy bit of slimy seaweed. (Not that I have much experience with that.) Ultimately, when it comes to traditional publishing, there’s really not much you CAN plan for. You don’t know if your manuscript will snag an agent or an editor, and if it does, how long either of those things will take or what they will mean when they happen.

I’ve seen people go from query to agent to book deal in literally a week and a half. I’ve also seen people query for 4-5 years and not get an agent. Or get an agent and not get a book deal. Or the agent turns out to be not so nice. Or the book deal falls through. Or the agent has to leave for whatever reason. Advances are huge. Or they’re tiny. Or they’re non-existent. Or they’re somewhere in the middle. They arrive on time. Or they arrive after eight months of OH-MY-DOG-BUT-THE-MORTGAGE.

I’ve seen people who had agents squabbling over them not sell, and I’ve seen people who sell huge flop.

Essentially, you can’t plan this shit.

Sometime last year, the unthinkable happened for me. I sold four books. Three to a major publisher. And then in the space of three weeks in September-October, my imprint closed and the other pending book deal with a different publisher floundered, and we backed slowly away after someone changed the game without telling us. This is the first time I’m talking about this publicly. Suffice it to say that it hurt. A lot. THE MASKED SONGBIRD came down from sale the week before Christmas, and I was a hurty ball of mess.

The game changed. It changed fast. It changed hard.

At that point, I had already been making other plans though. I had started self publishing my little Eva Jamieson smexy books. I had planned to self publish STORM IN A TEACUP, the book that had the deal fall through.

So when the book came down, I already had ideas lined up — once my rights reverted, I’d self publish my urban fantasy and submit the epic I was working on to editors. I’d go full hybrid steam ahead.

But the game kept changing.

Let me just say: for a planner like me, it’s really, really hard to stay grounded when everything is shifting beneath your feet. Where do you stand? How do you walk straight? Are you DRUNK? What is happening, and why do I have glitter in my hair?

Samglitter

STORM came out at the beginning of this month, and it became my anchor. It was, for the first time, something I had control over. When everything was shifting, ironically enough, it was a book called STORM IN A TEACUP that gave me back something I’d been lacking.

Looking ahead, things are still changing — and very quickly. Within a month I’ll have probably two big crazy sets of news.

The important thing for me, regardless of which path of publishing you choose (traditional, indie, hybrid, self), is to find the things over which you have power and do the best you can with them. There are no guarantees regardless. Books sometimes surprise you, and that can happen in the self publishing world as easily as the traditional publishing world. Ultimately, you have the power over your craft, to keep bettering it with every book you write. You have control over that. You can keep pushing yourself.

You have control over how you handle setbacks. Maybe not how you react to them (Dog knows I’ve spent plenty of time in the fetal position crying into my cats in the last year — and anxiety isn’t something you can just flip the switch on), but how you respond to them. How you care for yourself, and how you press on (whatever pressing on means to you).

You have the power to decide each day what it is that will help make things better, even if it’s only a teensy bit better. Some days that might be outlining a new book or writing a few thousand words. Some days it might be watching your favorite episodes of Buffy with an entire pizza and a Big Mac and a double Filet-O-Fish and a carton of cookies and cream and an entire bag of jalepeno Cheetos and NO YOU DO THAT NOT ME SHADDUP.

Some days it might be doing a Whole Other Thing.

For me, it was a lot of those things (ahem). It was also finding out that I could set a schedule for self publishing and work to grow my career that way while I worked on things I felt were more suited to the traditional market. It was figuring out what it was I wanted most from my career and setting out goals, specific goals. Like a motherfluffing business plan or something.

It could be any number of things for you. The crux of this is that the game will always change. If there’s anything I learned in the Year That Will Not Be Named, it’s that the game will keep changing. At all stages. Pre-agent. Post-agent. Pre-publication. Mid-contract. Sometimes those changes are hard and scary and painful and feel like someone’s pulled the whole ground out from under you. I had several of those moments last year.

But if you keep stringing ropes from tree trunk to tree trunk and rock to rock, if the ground falls away beneath you, at least you’ll have something to grab on to.

On Being Adaptable

ADAPTABILITY_TO_CHANGEIf I’m learning one thing as a pre-published author, it’s that you have to learn to be flexible in this industry. And I don’t just mean in being able to take edits, although that’s a very important skill as well.

In the last year, I’ve seen writer friends get agents, leave agents, get new ones, take contracts, cancel contracts, get dropped by their publishers, succeed beyond their wildest dreams and have to adapt to all manner of situations in between.

In that same year, I’ve written several books, been on submission, experienced the acquisitions board and been both baffled and inspired by publishing houses and editors. I’ve started projects that I thought were pure genius, only to put them on hold to focus on those that have a better likelihood of selling in the current market, and I’ve rearranged my whole TBW (to be written) list more times than I can count. And you know what? I’ve learned to be okay with that.

You see, market trends influence the business side of our craft more than we’d like to admit. When it comes down to it, what we do is art; what our publishers do is business. We meet somewhere in the middle to bring books to our readers. Publishers have to acquire stories that fit what people are buying or there is no profit in the deal for them. And their success is what pays us and enables our careers, especially when they have to take a risk on newbies like me and many of my friends. From an artistic point of view, it sucks. But from a business perspective it makes total sense.

As writers, we have to learn to see it from both sides. I’m not advocating chasing trends. You have to write what it is that calls to you. But you also need to be aware of other opportunities that may be out there. I recently opened my mind to a later period in history and, even though that’s not “my thing,” have found three lovely stories to tell, golden opportunities that I otherwise would have missed. So what if my planned books have to wait? It’s not like they are going anywhere.

But I didn’t get to that place of peace – and dare I say excitement? – overnight. I wailed (privately) for a while before I ceased the pity party, put on my big girl panties, and accepted that in order to succeed, I would need to be willing to change.

This is the tough stuff that no one tells you when you enter the big, wild world of writing. And I’m kind of glad they don’t. If I would have known six years ago that how good my story is isn’t the only thing taken into consideration by a publishing house or that I may not get to write books in exactly the order I want, I don’t know if I would have bothered to get started. This is the stuff that weeds out the hobbyists from the career writers. Those of us who are meant to have long careers learn to adapt, rather than give up, no matter how tempting it may seem.

Now, having started research on one of those three stories, a novel that has so much potential for cultural relevance and impact on women, I can hardly believe that I almost bull-headedly passed up this chance to stretch myself.  Beside the ability to weave spellbinding stories, create compelling characters and market ourselves on social media, adaptability is one of the most powerful tools in the tool box of any writer. Our careers, not to mention our mental and emotional health, may depend on our ability to use it, so it shouldn’t be undervalued or dismissed. In this changing world in which we live, it may just be what gets us through with our sanity intact (or at least not any more damaged than it was before.)

 When have you had to be adaptable? Do you have any tips?

Transition and Creative Lives

Nature, caves, stalactites, stalagmites, spelunking, rock formations, rocks
Photo credit: JS Nature Photos, CC license.

I read recently that there is a difference between change and transition. Change is something inevitable that happens to you and around you. It can be a surprise or it can be something you seek, but it’s the external impetus that stimulates internal shifts. Transition is a whole other beastie.

Some of you are already aware that I’m going through a divorce. I recently separated from my husband and moved out with my two adorable kitties. Change.

I have a book coming out in less than three weeks. Change.

I now have a thirty minute commute to work instead of ten, though I have my car back after two years. Change.

Those are a lot of big things. Some are positive. Some are at best mixed.

In periods of intense change, it can be really difficult for your mind to adjust. For the past two or three months, I feel like I’ve been running on a hamster wheel. Spinning through copy edits, tangoing with Craigslist, every day a welter of emotions that range from ecstatic joy to complete bewilderment to rage to grief to hope to relief to overwhelming sadness to terror.

That’s one of the hallmarks of transition.

I’ve found myself thinking at least once a week (often once a day or more) that I just have to get through this week. I just have to get through today. I just have to get through this month. Next month. This summer. This hour.

Transition, ultimately, is coping with change.

There are many ways to cope, and for creative people, change and periods of transition can have several different effects, all of which fall into the category of “normal.”

1. Creative constipation.

Sorry, I couldn’t help the alliteration there.

Sometimes when life is in upheaval and your mind is struggling to keep up with the influx of stress and various stimuli, your creative battery gets depleted. Things you normally do as an outlet may not come easily. Which is to say that they may feel like you’re chasing a dragon with a pair of pliers in an attempt to remove its molars.

This can be compounded if you do something creative professionally and have to contend with deadlines.

One way to cope could be trying something else to get your brain working in a creative fashion. If you’re a writer, draw or paint something, even if you think you suck at it. Build something. Hell, open up Paint and scribble. Bead. Knit. Crochet. Macramé. Weld something (probably take a class or so first).

2. Creative catharsis.

Sometimes you’re able to funnel stress through a creative lens like a sunbeam through a magnifying glass. Making your art can become a coping mechanism in and of itself, helping you work through feelings and emotions, problems and solutions.

Or you might have tried the above suggestion and found a new love of weaving or chain mail manufacturing. Sometimes just finding a focus in the midst of chaos can be enough to sustain you through a difficult time.

3. Creative chaos.

You want to write a D&D based novella. And paint a picture of railroad ties. And sculpt a life size Misha Collins. Maybe you want to take up dip candles. Or beeswax rolling. Or blacksmithing.

Yeah, that is a lot to juggle.

When there’s a lot going on in your life, sometimes the creative part of your brain can take a cue from the outside world and make you temporarily curious about ALL THE THINGS until you have a half dozen unfinished projects scattered around the house and Gorilla Glue stuck to the bottoms of your feet and you can’t remember what project you were even USING Gorilla Glue for.

Take a deep breath. Make sure you’re not under water first.

4. Creative cutoff.

It can help sometimes to do something uncreative, a completionist task that allows your brain to see one thing through from beginning to end that will have an objective sense of beginning and end. This could mean washing the car or other mundane jobs that might seem tiny, but sometimes it helps just to know you can finish things. That life keeps going even when each text message makes you cringe and you want nothing more than to bury yourself in your comforter and eat gelato all day.

There’s no one way to transition when change shifts the fault lines of your life. Most people don’t even have one set thing that happens. You might bounce back and forth from catharsis to constipation to cutoff to chaos — that’s just part of your mind coping.

The only real catalyst to transition is time and a healthy sense of cognizant engagement with whatever is going on in your life. Time plus sticking your head in the sand does little but prolong the process. Time plus engagement means you can rejoice in the small victories each day while recognizing that there will be setbacks. The important thing is to allow yourself to hear your own needs and listen as much as you can. You won’t always have the ability to take a week off and hide in the woods. But you can take a few hours and go to a park to sit and recharge.

And if that fails, maybe throwing pots can help — on a wheel or at a wall.

Just try to make sure there aren’t any people between you and the wall. 😉

 

Five Ways to Refuel Your Tank

torch, flame, creative commons
CC Image by panther40k.

We all get a little drained sometimes.

Sometimes work or life or circumstances can take a deep toll on your psyche, your creativity, and your energy in general. Another way of putting it that’s a little less New Age-y is: stress sucks.

There’s not much we can do to completely avoid stress. Some things are out of our control, and even things that are within our purview to change can sometimes cost us energy and focus. The best we can do sometimes is to deal with it. As I’ve been going through a bit of a time of stress in the past few weeks, here are a few ways to recharge your inner battery.

1. Spend time with a friend.

Even as an introvert, sometimes the best thing I can do for myself is get out of my own head and spent time with someone who really gets me. With the internet, it’s even possible to do that long-distance, with Skype or Google Hangouts. When I doubt myself or need to remind myself of who I am, I look to the people closest to me. In fact, my long-held tradition of long-distance movie nights with fellow Scribe Kristin McFarland are one of my best secrets to dissolving stress.

Whether it’s a day out of the house or a night on the town or an afternoon in pajamas, spending time with friends can help you relax, recharge, and get back to yourself.

2. Do something for you.

Been eyeballing a spa day? Dreaming about seeing a certain band? Sick of telling yourself you’ll go to that museum? Or hell, maybe you need to go to the shooting range and blow off some steam.

Whatever activities make you happy, do one. Or several. I’m not going to judge anyone for going to the shooting range before they go to the spa and the opera.

3. Block out some quiet time.

This can be a good exercise for introverts and extroverts alike. Giving yourself a set block of time where you will leave your problems outside can be a challenge. Curl up with a book or take a bath. Escape into another world for a few hours. Give your brain the time to breathe away from the constant stimulus of stress.

4. Make something.

You don’t have to be Martha Stewart, but creating something from scratch, be it a new meal or a painting, can help you feel a sense of accomplishment. Maybe you haven’t picked up your knitting needles in a while. Or you feel like returning to the joy of macaroni art. Or you want to build a birdhouse. When the stress in your life feels nebulous and out of control, doing something creative is a task you can finish and admire. Creating something uses different parts of your brain, and when you’re done you have something tangible. Plus, if it’s food, you get to eat it.

5. Sweat.

Exercise is good for a lot of things. It releases endorphins, helps your body, and can help clear your mind. It’s also another thing that can help your sense of accomplishment and adventurousness. When life is doling out things you can’t immediately conquer, taking to the treadmill or lifting some weights is a small thing you can do to take control. You’re only competing against yourself, and if you feel like adding another layer to it, picture that stress coming out through your pores as you sweat. Each burn of the muscle burning through an obstacle in your life.

None of these ways are magic elixirs that will restore you to 100% mana and health; unfortunately those tend to be limited to video games (video games can also be great stress release!). But making sure to take care of yourself and recenter yourself in times of stress can allow you to get through a day at a time with a little more woo-sah and a little less frazzle.

How do you refuel your tanks when life gets you down?