Sunday, April 22, 2012

Q&A, AMA and Other Letters

I recently did an AMA on reddit. Those of you who don’t already understand what that means, and are likely wondering what language I’m writing in, allow me to translate. Reddit is a social news website, (self-described as the Front Page of the Internet) and AMA is text-speak for Ask Me Anything, a one-day event where people can write in questions and I tried to answer them. I’ll be doing another in a few days in the fantasy section. The last one was held in the writing section. While it was Ask Me Anything, most inquiries were—not surprisingly—about writing and publishing.

There were lots of questions.

Several of the questions were from people I'm guessing don’t read this blog (not surprising, I'm sure few do) as I’ve discussed many of the topics before here. There were questions like: How do I go about outlining? What training have I had?  When did I start writing? This got me thinking that you fine folks, who haven’t read the AMA on reddit, but have read some or all of my blog might have similar questions. So I thought I’d revisit a few of the AMA questions here and provide a bit more detail.

How did you get over writers block? How do you get motivated?

In reading these questions, and others like them—this isn’t the first time people have inquired about the difficulties of motivating themselves to write—I realize I’m different from a lot of people. Questions about writer’s block I find baffling to some extent. I wrote eight full-length novels before I even thought I might want to be a novelist. I wrote—and still do—write novels for fun. I’ve needed about as much motivation to write books as a teenage boy does to have sex. I love creating stories, and I would continue doing it if the only person left on the planet to read them was my wife. Now, I’m not saying that if you don’t feel this way you can’t be a writer, but it sure helps. To be honest, now that I am being paid, now that I cover the bills through my writing, I do find writing just a tad less fun, nothing too serious but because I have to do it, it has taken on the persona of work. Now I’m not considering what I do “work” in the most traditional sense—not by a long shot—but it has lost some of its “my fun time” atmosphere. I find myself having to actively block out the pressure to make money and to please readers and just focus on the fun of writing. Perhaps writer’s block comes from people putting too much pressure on themselves to succeed.

How do you not let the voices of self-doubt drown you out? Are you any good?

I still suffer from self-doubt. I suspect all authors wonder this throughout their whole careers. I am of the mind that any praise I’ve received is just a big hoax, and that no one really thinks my books are any good. My wife has tried to corner me on this question before. “But I know you think your books are great, so of course you must think you are a good writer.” What she failed to understand is that while it is true that I think my books are fantastic, I don’t think anyone else would think the same. My books were written to please my personal taste—why wouldn’t I love them? I hope to never come to the conclusion that I’m a great writer. Once I think I’m great, I no longer have reason to try to improve and that would be greatly disappointing to me.

Did you face any criticism from your peers or friends when you decided to go the route of self publishing? I've been curious about doing it, but every time I bring it up, I face ridicule and I'm told it's taking the easy way out. You've proved it's viable, but did you face scrutiny in the beginning?

Concern about criticism is something that you’ll need to come to grips with if you are going to do write for a living. Life as a writer is filled with criticism—lots of criticism. Every writer needs to form a thick skin or you’ll never survive. I don’t mean that you have to become so hardened that a scathing review won’t affect you at all—they will, but the key is to make sure that the opinions of others never affect your decisions. The day I alter how I write, or how I publish, based on what others think, is the day I might as well stop writing. I’m not saying I am immune. I have had had my own share of struggles.

In my case it came long before I had been published. When I was a young man, recently married and living off my wife while I watched the kids and wrote books. My family didn’t see that as a proper path for a man, and my friends didn’t lose a chance to ridicule me (humorously of course, but always with a touch of truth, and pain). My solution—it wasn’t really a solution so much as just what happened—was to move halfway across the country to a place I didn’t know anyone. No more family and friends to get in the way…just me and my wife, and she supported me in more than just income. Perhaps I’m arrogant in this way, but I never care too much what others think. As long as Robin believes in me, the rest of the world doesn’t matter. Perhaps that’s the answer. All you need to do is find one person who you respect above all others who believes in you. On the other hand, that might be harder than getting published.

Was there ever any tension about your wife "supporting you for years"? Any stories where you felt pressured to go ahead and get a day job?

This is funny since I actually did give up writing and got a day job, but it wasn’t because of tension or pressure about money. I just got tired of working toward a dream that didn’t seem like it would ever materialize. After twenty years of writing and ten years of trying full-time to get published, I just knew the whole idea was futile. But getting back to pressures during the time before and after that when Robin was the sole breadwinner…sure, I felt pressured, but that always came from me, never Robin. I felt I wasn’t pulling my weight, and any innocent comment about money getting tight would bring on the guilt. I’d suggest that I get a “real” job and she’d talk me out of it. Robin’s salary was always substantial, and we didn’t mind making some sacrifices here or there to live on one income.

What is your opinion on hobby-writers, that is, writers with different jobs who just write in the evening for a few hours. Can they make them self a name or are they doomed to the side shelves?

Technically I was a hobby writer when I wrote the Riyria Revelations. When I sat down and banged them out, it was entirely for the fun of it—a pointless, time-wasting hobby since I had no intention to publish those stories. But I didn’t have to try to squeeze in my writing around someone else’s timetable.
Last year I met the successful N. K Jemisin author of A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Nominated for the Nebula, Hugo and World Fantasy Awards) at the Nebula Awards and learned that she had a day job as a career councilor. The fact is most authors—successful authors—have day jobs. Some might enjoy their day jobs, (which is likely the case with Jemisin) but most can’t afford to write full-time. When you realize the percentage of money per book that a traditionally published author gets, (often less than a dollar a book) and that an author is considered quite successful if they sell as many as 25,000 books a year...that’s a yearly income of less than $25,000. If you can live on that, then you’re fine, but these days mortgages, health and car insurances, heating and cooling bills often add up to more. I know several who have to decide if living in near poverty is worth the extra time to write. You can be a rock star at a convention and then go home to a fridge with little more than pickles and stolen ketchup packages. For more commentary by other authors on the topic check out this article.

Do you agree that if you want to be a novel writer, you should write novels and that writing short stories/flash fiction/etc. is a pointless exercise? And vice versa, that novel writing is pointless for someone who writes short stories?

On the AMA I agreed with this because for me it is true. I can’t stand writing short fiction. I don’t like doing it, and I don’t feel I’m good at it. Writing novels and short stories are very different from one another and require different skills.  This being said I should clarify that for educational purposes, for learning the craft of writing, I think short stories can help if you engage with critique groups to get feedback. The fact is that people can fully digest and comprehend a short story, but it is truly pointless to have a chapter of a novel critiqued. There can be no meaningful comments addressing the plot, character arcs or setting as the reviewer has no idea if this came before, or will come later, and it simply takes too long for most people to read a full novel. Trying to read a full manuscript by a novice writer can not only be a burden of time, but also quite painful. You shouldn’t put anyone through that until you’re confident that reading your manuscript isn't akin to torture.

A short story also teaches brevity and focus. If you are forced to constrict your writing to less than 4000 words, you’re going to learn to spend those words wisely. Likewise, you won’t waste as much time getting to the point. These are good lessons to develop even when writing novels. But as I said it’s important to realize that novels and short stories are very different animals, and if you plan to write novels, you’d best write them to get familiar with the pacing, distance, and the span of arcs and such. So yes go ahead and write a few short stories on occasion and let others critique your ability. It can be a good way to gauge your progress without making your friends and loved ones hate you.

What is it like being a full-time author? Do you get a lot of free time to yourself? Is the pay consistent or based on production? How do you manage your day?

 I’ve covered these topics a couple of times here, but if you followed that link above about day jobs you’ll see it paints a pretty bleak picture. I feel compelled to explain that, at least as far as I am concerned, life isn’t so miserable as described there. Maybe I’m an exception, I don’t know, but my life as an author is great. In the article Jason Quinn Malott explains: This is why when we say, “I’m going to quit my job and write full-time,” it sounds so romantic and idyllic. It carries images of getting out of bed late, drinking large mugs of tea or coffee, sitting at a desk in your pj’s, staring at the trees through the window, and playing with your muse… But if we match the language to the reality, the phrase would actually read this way: “I’m going to quit working and work full-time.”

While Jason clearly feels that his description is false, his fantasy vision is damn close to my own life. The only difference is the wearing of pj’s. I’ve never seen writing as work. It’s what I do for fun, and as a full-time writer, yes, my time is my own, even more so now that I’m supporting the family. My wife happily makes certain I am not bothered by distractions like making dinner or grocery shopping. My writing time is mine and my choice of profession is highly respected now.

So in the morning I’m usually up around 8 am and I read a couple of newspapers, and/or perhaps a chapter of a book (as of late it has been Under the Dome by Stephen King.) Then I start writing at around 9 am. I do in fact drink a large mug of coffee while sitting at my desk and often stare at trees through the window while playing with my muse. Actually to be honest, it’s a lot more fun than that. I have looked out the window at the trees in thought, but for the most part I stare at the computer screen which quickly disappears and I’m in another world, often with Royce and Hadrian having wild adventures. It isn’t always great, sometimes I get stuck, but then I go for a walk through the woods and by the time I get back I usually have the problem solved. By lunch time (which varies depending on how fast I am writing that day) I’ll have about 2,000 words written, or have gotten through about 5000 edited. After that, the rest of the day is free, which is to say I can visit Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, write blog posts (which I am presently doing at 9 pm) respond to fan mail, do research on future books, run errands, and spend time with the family. In the evening I try to get some more reading done. I’m presently working on five books, two non-fiction as research for my next works, as well as three other fiction books by Glen Cook, Saladin Ahmed, and David Dalglish, in addition to King’s mammoth tome. 

And as to income it’s sporadic based off of the contracts signed. It comes in the form of checks from my agent relayed from my various publishers around the world (all of it in the form of advances as I’ve yet to “earn out”). Self-publishing produces a more steady income with payments coming in each month from books sold 60 days previously. So traditional publishing is a little scarier because I have no guaranteed pay check coming in, but then again—does anyone these days?

So there you have it. I hoped you enjoyed this rambling Q&A, and perhaps you’ll want to visit the one I’ll be doing April 24 at 7pm CST. I can’t vouch for the topics as, after all, it’s called AMA. I hope to see some of you there to keep me company. Even if you don’t have a question, stop on by and say hi.


  1. Hey Michael,

    I'm bummed out that I missed your Reddit AMA. I was wondering if you would be willing to share your "single compelling paragraph" that you used for Riyria when you were sending query letters to publishers? I'm mainly curious to see how you managed to condense the essential story to a paragraph.

    The way I see it, you can maybe condense character growth/motivations to a paragraph, or you can condense the plot to a paragraph, but being able to talk about both and having it as a single paragraph would be a daunting task.

  2. Michael,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share your experiences and things you've learned in your journey. As a new writer, I've found your thoughts very enlightening and they help reinforce my goal of getting my stories down for others to read (and hopefully enjoy).

    In regards to your comments on short stories, I agree that they are different monsters, each with their own ways to be slain. I'm glad you noted that fact though, that writing short stories is a good way to make progress on prose. I also think it's useful in helping an author find their voice.


  3. Thanks for doing the AMA, it was very informative, inspirational and fun to read.

  4. I'm full time writing for the next few months and so far, it's pretty much PJs and coffee with a lot of writing thrown in. Not dreadful at all. I'll take it over telephones.

  5. Nice article. I often feel like people glamorize writing on one hand because they don't understand it, and dismiss it on the other hand because it's just "telling stories." The discipline it takes to sit down and write every day makes it a job. And it is just telling a story. So, they are both right and wrong.

    I think we don't even understand it as writers because we have to do it.


  6. Intrigued by your brief description of Winston Stewart. It sounds really interesting and just my style of read. When do you plan for this to be out?

  7. Ender...I'll get back to you.

    Thanks Beatbox.

    And fun to do Von.

    Libby, that means I'll need to introduce you to Wednesday author outings of coffee shop musing and pub research, designed to remind you there is a world beyond your computer screen and avoid burning out. The key is that now that you aren't bound by the restrictions of a clock, you can learn the joys of avoiding crowds by acting in the off hours.

  8. So true, Splitter.

    Tyler, Winston Stewart won't be let out of his cage for sometime as I will have to over-haul his personality. Early reviews pointed out a design flaw that will require some substantial reconstruction.

  9. Is it too late to add another to your list of questions, Michael?

    I'd like to know how you handle cutting characters- particularly ones you might really like, but just don't fit with the story or bulk it up unnecessarily. What's the line? Is there something you can point to that tells you 'this one needs to go?'

    Glad to finally be commenting publicly. ;D


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.