Lessons From an Over-worked Author: The Two-Fold Path

Cthulhu Abides. Green Arrow pint glass is optional.
Let me start by saying that if you know an editor, I’d like you to take a moment right now and go give them a hug. I mean it. Chances are, they could use it. A glass containing hard alcohol might also be appreciated.

Before this summer, I had edited one anthology: Cobalt City Christmas. It was a small affair, just a few stories written by me and four friends. Timeslip was a bigger anthology, but by then we had formed Timid Pirate Publishing, and the gifted Caroline Dombrowski edited that book. Then along came the Dark Carnival, and like the candy-colored-chaos of its namesake, this anthology is threatening to take my soul, leaving me a broken, sobbing wreck.

Now, before you call the authorities and have me shipped off to the Hemingway Home for Literary Wrecks, know that it isn’t as bad as all that. I’m not one of those “a writer must suffer to create” types, but I do know my limits, and I’m not there yet. I can see the rocks up ahead and I’ve eased back on the throttle.

Because if it were just the anthology, I’d be fine. But it’s never just the anthology, or the novel, or the new story. And this is where I discuss what I call the Two-Fold Lesson that is essential for success and sanity as a writer. Are you sitting down? #2 pencil at the ready? There will be a test afterwards.

In a nutshell, the Two-Fold Path is this. 1) When you say “Yes,” to a new project, bookkeeping to make sure you have the time to deliver is crucial. 2) Learn when to say “No,” to new projects and don’t be afraid to say it.
Let’s break that down a bit.

If you’re a creative person who consorts with other creative people (and if you aren’t I’d love to hear how you found this blog), then you are going to get ideas coming at you like Randy Johnson fastballs. (For you non-baseball readers, that’s real freaking fast. It’s also just about the extent of my baseball knowledge, so you’re safe to continue.) Every party, ever chat over coffee and donuts, every drunken Twitter chat, you’re going to hear or come up with an idea that you’d love to write. That’s excellent. It’s also a trap.

Did you know that ancient cultures used to make javelins out of lead? The reason was two-fold. (Coincidence? Damn right!) The tips would dent, making them impractical to throw back at the original attackers. But most importantly, they would get stuck in armor or shield of their opponent, weighing them down. New projects can be like that. Get enough stuck to you, and you’re as good as dead.

But if you track everything VERY carefully, you’ll be surprised what you can accomplish. I use a little pocket notebook and an online calendar to keep deadlines in mind with reminders of interim checkpoints. The real trick is to allow for extra time. Just because you blocked out four hours on a Saturday to write, doesn’t mean you’ll be inspired to write on that particular project. You might not be able to force anything worthwhile out of that time. It happens. And that story you thought you could knock out in a weekend turns into a half-finished piece that drags down your shield for a month, demanding to be finished.

A trick that I’ve used with some success in the past is to prioritize the projects. That way if you have to scrap something, even temporarily, you have some clear options. That neat idea about ghost bicycles that you want to write for a semi-pro market might have to wait while you focus on the story for the high-profile anthology with a hard deadline.

And this factors directly into learning when to say “No.”

Write down the idea for that ghost bicycle story. It isn’t going anywhere. Put it somewhere that you can find easily, and if another idea or two comes to you, something to tack onto that, put it in there as well. At some point it might take on an inertia of its own, but until then, a good idea is just that—a good idea and not the obligation to turn it into a finished project. Some projects have deadlines. There’s no way around that. But even that shouldn’t equal an automatic “Yes.” One of my heroes, Guillermo del Toro had this to say about big projects earlier this month at San Diego Comic Con:

“A lot of people who tackle big properties, they tackle them for money or career. But they don’t tackle them because they have a boner for it. I think you have to. You have to get a chubby to tackle. I think it’s very important to do things you absolutely love.”

And he’s absolutely right. Don’t agree to submit to an anthology just because you were invited to it if you aren’t jazzed about writing for it. There will be other anthologies, and if you got invited to this one, you’ll likely get invited to another. And if you try to force a story that you just don’t give a shit about, you might not make it into the anthology anyway. And you would have been banging your head against a wall for something you didn’t believe in. But if your reasons for wanting to write are along the lines of, “Holy crap lions, I have an idea that would be perfect for that! And I’ve been wondering what to do with it for months!” Well, that’s an entirely different kettle of fish, isn’t it?

By saying “No,” we free up our creative energies to work on the projects we really WANT to be working on. Even if there’s no market for that story. Even if it’s something you just need to write and put in a drawer for a few years to ferment. Ultimately, that will make you a better writer in a way that forcing something that takes you four times as long and isn’t as rewarding.

As for my own projects, I’m very excited to bringing Cobalt City Dark Carnival to completion soon. And I’m genuinely happy to be working on the other projects as well. Just today I received unexpected reminders that hard work pays off. In the space of a few hours, an interview I did with the wonderfully talented Angel Leigh McCoy went live, I found out that the Cobalt City Adventures Unlimited podcast made the finalist list for the Parsec Awards, and I secured a surprise guest blogger on my Fringe Candy post for Wednesday. Oh, and Sauza liked my Twitter-posted recipe for the Cthulhu Abides (1 oz Sauza silver, sour mix, 2 oz Kraken dark rum floater), so that’s a lovely surprise.

Most importantly, I finished a story last night just because I wanted to finish it. And tonight, I’m going to take it easy and celebrate my first year as a publisher. There’s always tomorrow to be busy.

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