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:
Wired Magazine Summer School for Geeks: 11 New Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books
Publishers Weekly’s Best Summer Books 2012
National Public Radio (NPR)’s fantasy summer reading list
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.
Check out N.K. Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology or Inheritance trilogy. Follow her on Twitter!
17 thoughts on “N.K. Jemisin Guest Blog and Giveaway”
I think the part that surprised me most about this is the whole not being able to be a normal reader bit. But the rejection part was comforting. As a beginning writer, it’s sort of nice to know that even the higher ups in the food chain still get rejected, you know? Best of luck with your writing! 😀
Elisa, you’re our winner of a signed book by N.K. Jemisin! Please e-mail me at Lucienne.Diver@ knightagency.net (without the space) with your contact details. I hope you enjoy!
Belatedly dropping in! Sorry, been so busy lately that I didn’t think to check back ’til Lucienne told me there were comments here.
Elisa, it was a surprise to me too, and I’m still adjusting to it. I still do participate in conversations on the web and elsewhere, note — I just stay aware of the power dynamics of the conversation. And that’s also why I have my writing group, and other networks of support populated by other authors within which I can be “just Nora” and not worry about those dynamics. It works out. 🙂 And yeah, that’s why I wanted to share the rejection point, because I had the same misconception before I got published. Glad it encouraged you to keep at it!
So….all five things are negative. How sad. On the other hand, I am enjoying every single moment of my life as a professional writer. All of them.
I’m sorry you saw these things as negative; that definitely wasn’t my intention. My intention was to share things I had misconceptions about before I got published, for which the post-publication reality turned out to be wholly different. Neither good nor bad. Just different. I too enjoy every moment of my life as a pro, and I thought it might help some folks to understand how becoming a pro has changed my life. If the changes to your life have been different, consider sharing that with your readers. As you can see from the comments here, they really want to know!
That last lesson, about no longer being a reader, makes me sad but I think I do understand where you come from. I’ve seen lots of books nowadays that are reimbursed by certain authors which do draw certain readers and attention to that book. The power of having fans is a strong and scary thing! I do love your work though and I hope the lessons you’ll keep learning as a published writer will help you continue to write such unique, wonderful, and astonishing stories like you do!
It’s not really a sad thing. There are pros and cons to it; if I praise a book publicly, I can actually help to bring some additional attention to it and help a fellow author’s career to some degree, which is a nice power to have. But I do have to be aware that this is a form of power, and like any power it comes with responsibility. 🙂
Congrats on all your success!
A friend of mine also hires help so she can have more time for writing. I find it so amazing those who have a full time job and who make time for their writing careers. You go girl!
Lol on the margarita bash. Great idea!!
Yeah, I’ve known writers who had to hire help. I can’t really afford to do that — would never have bought the Roomba if it wasn’t a gift — but like I said, it’s a necessary investment sometimes. I could probably get away with having no day job if I was willing to live someplace cheaper, but I love NYC too much to quit it. And fortunately, I like my day job too.
I would never have thought about the dynamic of no longer being a reader once someone becomes a published writer. Thanks for sharing.
What a fantastic blog! The idea of not being a reader is the hardest part for me, I think. I still read like a reader for the most part, but there is a part of me that looks at things for marketability, timing and more. It’s a sad sad thing. Congratulations on your books!
Cynnara, thanks so much for coming by!
Is it a sad thing for you? I see it as just becoming a more analytical reader, and being aware of things beyond just the text on the page. That’s neither good nor bad, just a different way of engaging with a book.
Well, I, for one, appreciate when you still weigh in. I enjoyed your article on the mechanics of magic a lot, even though I read more fantasy once it became grounded in anthropology than before, magic, unlike society, should be…well…magical. Regardless, I found your perspective on the publication timeline interesting, especially the disconnect between persception and reality for writing.
Glad you enjoyed the post!
My first novel came out last January, and I’m starting to see these same things happening to me. I’ve bemoaned my lack of reading time, but I catch up on it during the summer (since I’m also a teacher). This post is so on-the-nose it’s eerie. It does make me feel better about some of the challenges just by knowing that you are experiencing them (i.e. your own version of them) as well. I am so very grateful for the opportunity to have my books published and “out there”–but as you said there is so much more than simply writing involved with being a writer. The trick (I think) is to enjoy the process, even when it’s stressing you out. My writing goes at a glacial pace during the school year, but when summer hits I become nocturnal and really build up momentum. I’m finishing my third novel right now, and going back to teaching in mid-August. This is a pattern I’ve established for the last four years–finishing a novel every summer. I can’t do all the readings and appearances I’d like to do–so I have to be very choosy. I also am single without children–I can’t imagine how I would do all of this if I had a family to take care of on a daily basis. (Moms & Dads are the true magicians!) I’m also catching up on reading the pile of wonderful books that has been growing all year by my bedside–and I’m using that reading to fuel my latest blog postings–a “summer reading log” so to speak. Like you, I only review something if I really like it, and I try to never cast judgments on works that don’t speak to my tastes. Thank you for sharing all of the above information–you are definitely not alone in facing these glorious challenges. When all is said and done, we come out smiling because, Lord have mercy, WE GET TO WRITE!!! Writing, like teaching, is far from easy. But don’t you just love it? 🙂 Keep those terrific novels coming, N.K.