Trying not to stress out about book / career stuff

revisingLike everyone, I get stressed about stuff. I worry. I try not to, but it’s difficult. I’m trying my best to just accept the stress. Like, yes, maybe my book will flop. Maybe I won’t be able to sell my MG novel. Who knows? These things happen. Because the alternative is to go around and around and around in circles, trying to convince myself that the possible is actually impossible, and that’s simply not productive.

The annoying thing, though, is that it sometimes works. If worrying never made anxiety go away, then no one would do it. But sometimes–every once in awhile–I do manage to worry hard enough and examine enough alternatives that, in the end, I feel like I’ve planned for every eventuality and that the worst cannot happen. It’s an illusion, of course, but it’s a comforting one.

And giving up on worrying means giving up on that possibility of relief. It means, on some level, accepting that the anxiety that’s seated in the skin of my arms and on the base of my spine isn’t really going to go away. Or at least I’m not going to be able to MAKE it go away. Instead, it’ll just be with me–not predominant, it’s true, but sitting there in the background, hour after hour, until, for some mysterious reason of its own, it finally dissipates.

So far, that’s the only real solution I’ve found. Not to fight the anxiety, but to avoid giving in to it. Not to suppress anxious thoughts, but to avoid arguing with them. I know this is really banal advice, because the first thing anyone says whenever you’re anxious is that you should just be mindful and accept the thoughts. But I never understood, until very recently, that acceptance wasn’t a shortcut. Acceptance isn’t like the 3rd act of a movie, where a hero faces his deepest fears for like a second, and then is able to use that power to vanquish the bad guy. No, acceptance means realizing that the bad guy is never going to be vanquished and that your fears will never truly be overcome–instead they’ll just stay with you, day after day after day.

I do not use shame and anxiety to motivate myself

So, it looks like November is going to be my least productive month of this year*. In fact, unless I make some kind of push over the next three days (don’t worry, I’ll make it), this is probably going to be my lowest-productivity month since January of 2011, which was the month that I left my job in DC and moved to Oakland and kicked things up a notch, productivity-wise.

It’s okay, though. Each year is going to have a least productive month. And it’s not like I don’t have good excuses. My trip to California kicked my whole system out of joint for a week and then my wisdom tooth extraction killed another week. I’m only just now starting to regain my equilibrium.

I mean, I don’t want to write off a whole month as unproductive. That was still a month of my life. I met new people and went to new places. I wrote my first book review (to be published in Strange Horizons sometimes in the next few weeks). I got serious about driving traffic to my blog and creating a social networking strategy. I started strategizing for my next novel. Things happened in November. It was not a bad month.

And, when I look back on it, I can see that I’ve even written a fair amount of fiction. I’ve made slow and steady progress on revising my novel (I’m a third done). Nowadays, even a low-productivity month is more productive than most of my months were in 2009 or 2010. But, I definitely could’ve worked harder.

Still, what can you do? Obviously, I believe in hard work and discipline, and I don’t really believe in things like breaks or vacations. You can always find a reason for going easy on yourself. And no one’s ever going to blame you for going easy on yourself. But, at the same time, there’s no reward for having a good excuse. I know that my dreams for myself can only really come true if I push myself.

And yet, at the same time, I also believe in forgiving myself. You know, there are whole years when I did barely any work. Some writers push themselves monomaniacally, like, age 14 onwards. If I’d done that, I’d probably be publishing novels by now. But I had other things to do; at age 14 (or 18 or 22) I wasn’t really capable of working like that. The last decade of my life has basically been about learning how to do the work that I need to do. And that’s not a terrible way to spend a decade. It’s the kind of journey (guys, I used to be sooooooo lazy and apathetic) that not many people get to experience.

And in the course of this journey, one of the major things that I’ve learned is that shame and anxiety are not very useful emotions. People use them as a goad to motivate themselves. But, for me, they are not very good motivators. They’re all stick and no carrot. A cessation of anxiety feels like nothing; there’s no pleasure there except for the absence of pain.

Furthermore, shame and anxiety drive people into these defensive postures. People quit pre-emptively, in order to drop that daily load of anxiety. People set insane, impossible goals in order to make up for having been unproductive in the past (and then feel shame because they fail to meet those goals). People don’t submit their stories because it’s easier than the anxiety of waiting for a rejection.

I just don’t see the point of punishing yourself. Punishment is something you level upon dogs and children, because they’re amoral, irrational beasts who have no sense of what is good for them. But there’s no need to do that to yourself.

Shame is for people who don’t really know what they want: people who are just sort of bouncing through life without a clear sense of where they want to go or what they need to do.

For myself, I found that once I started to enumerate clear and achievable goals for myself, then my sense of shame dropped precipitously. There isn’t (and shouldn’t) be any shame in not meeting a goal. If you don’t even come close to meeting it, then it means you need to set a more achievable goal. If you come close to meeting it but don’t quite make it, then you just need to try harder next time.

So, yeah, next month I am going to try harder.

*In contrast, I was super productive in October: I wrote for about 61 hours in October, as compared to 20 in November (thus far)

Status Anxiety and the Semi-Successful Writer

My first pro sale was just about four years, to Nature. Then I didn’t sell anything else for the better part of two years, until I sold a story to Redstone in March of 2010. Since then I’ve been selling stories at a gradually accelerating pace. And that’s been pretty nice, actually. But it’s also led to at least three bouts of fairly severe status anxiety.*

The first was in November of last year, when I looked back on the year and thought, “Yes, I’ve sold a number of stories…but still nothing to match that sale to Clarkesworld way back in June of 2010”. That bout of status anxiety was assuaged by sales to Clarkesworld (on December 20th) and Apex (on January 1st).

The second was earlier in 2012 (late Jan to mid-March), when I felt sure that I wasn’t going to get into any writing programs and when I kept wondering why I hadn’t sold any stories lately. My status anxiety was assuaged by good news from grad schools and by sales (within the space of ten days) to Redstone, IGMS, and Diverse Energies. At its apex, that bout produced this blog post about worst-case scenarios.

And the third outbreak of anxiety was in May-July. It began  when I started a long-planned novel and just as quickly abandoned it. It continued as I wrote another novel. And it reached its apex as I struggled to write some stories that might be suitable for submission to my MFA workshop. Oh, and then there was a lot of stress about moving that was ladled on top of all that. Fortunately, no triumphant success arrive to break me out of this well of status anxiety. It just kept deepening and deepening. I worried about whether I’d ever be able to produce something a work that was really great. And I kept waiting for a glittering success to alight upon my shoulders and drive away my fears. But it did not come.

I’m sure it will come eventually. In Fall of 2011, I wrote a string of six stories that I thought were quite good. I was sure that they represented a breakthrough for me and that they were better than anything I’d ever written before. Recently, I had an acceptance and when I went to input it into my spreadsheet, I realized that I’d sold off the last four of that string.*

It made me realize that the stories I’m writing now (which I think are more subtle and interesting than anything I’ve written before), will probably also sell. But when that happens, it also won’t be particularly satisfying.

Oh, it will be nice. And it will make me happy for a week or two. But it won’t change the world. The day after you sell a story is almost exactly the same as the day before you sell a story. Nor does the story’s publication matter much. When a story appears, it will usually receive a few reviews. And those reviews will be nice to read. But they’re just words. The weft of my life is largely unaffected by story sales.

Of course, my life is subtly different now that I’m a person who has sold stories. I have higher status now. My parents have accepted my writerly ambitions. I can present myself to my friends as a writer without feeling silly. I can hold my head up in gatherings of SF writers. But that only affects maybe an hour out of every week. Mostly, my higher status all just hangs in the background.

There doesn’t seem to be much of an inverse to status anxiety. There’s no “status joy”. Or, if there is, it is a very momentary and specific feeling. The only joy that you can get from high status is freedom from status anxiety. But even that freedom is only very temporary (as illustrated by the diminishing amount of time between my bouts of status anxiety).

I mean, when you think about it, none of us in the writing world should feel status anxiety, because our pyramid is so incredibly broad. There are literally millions of people out there who want to be writers but haven’t done the first thing about it. They’re clueless. They scribble aimlessly. They’re terrible and they’re probably never going to get better. They’ll abandon their dreams just like people abandon their childhood dream of becoming a rockstar or an astronaut. ALL of us have higher status than them.

But it doesn’t matter. Because we always look above us on the pyramid and never below. I’ll always compare myself to people who are doing better and never to people who are doing worse. As such, no amount of success can ever free me from status anxiety. I mean, Neil Gaiman is a fantastically successful SF writer…but he’s never going to have Stephen King’s sales. And Stephen King is never going to have Michael Chabon’s accolades (and it’s clear that King desperately wants them).

I mean, this is pretty basic stuff. All your life, you get told that money (and, by extension, worldly status) can’t make you happy. But your own heart tells you otherwise. If high status can’t make us happy, then why do we experience this stab of hatred whenever one of our peers acquires higher status than us?***

I dunno, the brain is a quirky thing: it doesn’t always care about our best interests.

But you only need to chase status for so long before you realize that it’s not going to get you anywhere, and I think I’m starting to reach that point. Reordering my thought processes hasn’t been particularly easy, but I think it’s starting to bear fruit. Nowadays, I spend less time thinking about which of my stories might possibly sell at which market. And I don’t worry about rejections as much.**** As far as I can tell, the solution to status anxiety is to just try not to think about it.

I don’t know what the future will bring. I’m not sure how high my status will go before it starts to sink. I do have a sense that I’m eventually going to achieve more, as a writer, than I currently have. But nothing I’m likely to achieve, at least in the next few years, is likely to shake the contours of my life. There are no lottery tickets for me. No matter what, my next thousand days will involve waking up in relative obscurity and doing a little reading and a little writing (and, now, a little teaching). And I think I’m well capable of being satisfied with that.

*Status anxiety is that feeling you get when you worry that other people who basically started from the same place as you are now doing much better than you are, and, hence, that more deserving of respect than you are. When this feeling centers on a specific person, it’s called “envy.”

**”An Early Adoption” and “Tomorrow’s Dictator” have already appeared. “Man-Eater” will (hopefully) appear in an issue of Nameless Magazine. The fourth story has been sold to a market that’s asked me to remain silent on the subject for now. Oh, and the first (and best) story in the string of six, “A House, Drifting Sideways,” was one of my MFA application stories.

***This stab of hatred is amusingly illustrated by this venomous article in Salon.

****It’s crazy, for years I didn’t care about rejections at all (I have 857 of them, after all), but once I started selling, they actually started to sting a little bit…

I’ve gone one full year without missing a day of writing

I’m not really sure what I did on July 6th, 2011, but I can definitely tell you that I didn’t write or revise any fiction. However, that was the last day on which I made that particular mistake. It was sometime in November of 2011 or so that I realized that I’d gone a significant amount of time without missing a day of writing. Ever since then, I’ve tried to make sure that I write something every single day, even if that just means 100 words of free-association. This means that as of yesterday, I’ve gone a full leap year (366 days) without missing a single day of writing. That’s one birthday, one Christmas, one New Years, several visits by my parents, one three-week trip to Spain, six (or perhaps more like eight or ten) transcontinental flights and perhaps an equal number of road-trip days. That’s nights spent in tents and on strange futons.

I’m not saying that I’m some kind of monomaniac. If you look at the frequency distribution below, you’ve seen that on 46 days out of the past year I wrote less than 250 words (which generally takes less than fifteen minutes).

Wrote Less Than # of Days
250 46
500 16
750 13
1000 27
1250 34
1500 35
1750 45
2000 33
2250 16
2500 18
2750 14
3000 18
3250 12
3500 11
3750 4
4000 9
4250 5
4500 3
4750
5000
5250
5500 1
5750 1
6000
6250
6500
6750
7000
7250
7500 1
7750 1
8000
8250
8500
8750
9000
9250
9500
9750 1
10000 2

But I do think there’s value even in those 50 or 100 words (when I didn’t have my computer with me, I sometimes composed using the text message box on my phone). For one thing, there were a number of occasions when I set out to just write 100 words and ended up writing 1000 or 2000 or coming up with a pretty good story idea. Some days are always going to be unproductive, but there are a certain number of seemingly-unproductive days that can be salvaged.

Furthermore, I think it’s just productive for me to get into a mental space where I’m thinking–every single day–“Okay, when am I going to do my writing?” There’ve been a number of very productive days where I did my writing first thing in the morning after I realized that the evening or afternoon would be packed with distractions. The knowledge that I _need_ to make time for this every day has given me better time-use habits.

Finally, I’m no longer as scared of the blank page.  There are definitely still moments of terror–days when I think, “My god, I have nothing at all to say and this is the last thing that I want to be doing right now.” But they’re increasingly rare. Two or three years ago, I used to begin every writing session with this sort of anxiety. Now these kinds of fears almost make me feel a little nostalgic. When they come upon me, I think, “My god, I used to feel like all the time.” It’s possible that I am mistaking the direction of causality here (i.e. perhaps a reduction in fear is what caused an increase in writing days), but I think that, to some extent, repeatedly subjecting myself to the blank page (and not allowing myself to escape from it) has worked to desensitize me to this sort of prosaic writing anxiety.

Coming to grips with the worst-case scenario for my writing career

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about worst-case scenarios. Any reader of my blog has to have noticed that I’ve had a fair amount of writing success lately (and there’ve been other great things that I haven’t mentioned, like a revision request from an editor; an invitation to submit to a closed anthology; and another super awesome thing that I will hopefully post about in a few days [not, unfortunately, a novel sale]). And all this success has been great!

But it’s also seriously stressed me out. Before, I was pretty sure that every submission I sent out was going to end in a rejection. Now there’s this constant uncertainty! It could sell! It really could! Recently, I had a submission at The Magazine of Fantasy And Science Fiction for 90+ days (I even queried by email at sixty days and was told that Gordon Van Gelder was really considering it for real and everything). Now, that’s awesome. A year ago, I’d never gotten anything but form rejections from F&SF. Now, they’re thinking about buying a story from me? It was really awesome. But also very nervewracking. Since I know that Gordon is pretty much the only editor who accepts stories by snail mail, the hope that I’d sell to F&SF was alive and well until pretty much the moment that I opened the envelope.

Well, I didn’t sell that story to them. It wasn’t so bad, but the whole thing did take a very real emotional toll on me. And this is the same emotional toll that I suffer from every near miss. When I had no success, I felt like I had nothing to lose. Now, I feel like I am putting my reputation on the line with each submission. It’s definitely better than being uniformly rejected, but I had learned to deal with uniform rejection, and I haven’t yet learned to deal with this.

Which is why I recently read Dale Carnegie’s self-help guide How To Stop Worrying And Start Living. This book has a lot of good advice (although I think it might work better for people with a less morbid disposition than myself), but one thing that I took away from it is that when a person is worrying about something, he ought to clearly outline the worst-case scenario. Without a clear worst-case scenario, the dread is very generalized and all-encompassing. But once we have a worst-case scenario, we realize that it’s not that bad.

With my writing hobby / vocation / career, the worst-case scenario is surprisingly bearable. Under the worst case scenario, I suffer a few years of declining success (i.e. I recede from my current high point) and realize that this isn’t really going to happen for me. I slowly downsize my writing commitment and start producing just a few stories a year. I go to graduate school and major in something practical (like Economics). I get a solid public policy or private sector job. I start looking for ways to achieve success in my job (rather than my current strategy of downscaling job commitments to focus on writing). And, as a side benefit, I get way more time to catch up on my video games.

It’s definitely not what I want, but it’s also not something that I need to be terrified of. And that’s good. I think that in some cases terror can be a goad to greater effort and productivity. But I also think that terror really has the potential to kill off my creativity. Right now, I’m still trying to find the right mindset with which to approach my neo-pro status, but I have confidence that I’ll figure it out eventually.

Coping with my own desire to always be in the midst of writing a totally awesome story

So, I haven’t completed a story since the 3rd of March (two whole weeks ago!) and that one was just a flash fiction. I haven’t completed a story that I really felt good about since February 14th (five weeks ago! An eternity!) What’s more, right now I don’t really feel like writing more stories. I don’t have any ideas for stories. Whenever I try to start a story I immediately feel so totally over it.

Luckily, I don’t really need to write new stories right now. I’m sitting on thirteen unrevised stories (the oldest of which date back to this time last year), which all need a few days of loving before they can be lobbed onto slush piles all across the country. I’ve been steadily working through this pile for a few months now, and I’m looking forward to cutting it down to zero (my to-be-revised pile hasn’t been at zero since the fall of 2009).

In fact, I often find that an unwillingness to work on new stories is a result of having too many stories in my to-be-revised pile. It’s hard to get excited about a new story when I know that there’s a good chance it’s not going to get submitted for six to twelve months.

The problem is that  my back-brain doesn’t know this. My back-brain is loading me down with killer anxiety about not having produced a new story in awhile. Whenever I go even five weeks without writing a story that I feel good about, I start to wonder whether I’ve lost my mojo. I begin thinking that I might never write a good story ever again!

Usually, I combat this by dropping everything and doing my best to squeeze out a new story (which is how I ended up with thirteen unrevised stories in the first place). But not this time! This time the anxiety can just take a back seat! Until I feel like writing new stories again, I’m going to be content to just do a month or two of revision.

I’m trying to learn to trust my subconscious a little bit more. I think that my subconscious gives me stories at its own pace, and while there is some benefit to pushing myself, I think it also makes sense to listen to the messages I am trying to give myself. Ugh…but it’s not easy. I’ve been doing this for eight years, and I still have pretty much no idea how I’ve managed to write a single word.

The gift that I recently received from my horrible writerly anxiety

I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety lately about my writing. I’m not sure whether it’s actually worse than normal or if I’ve just had an unnatural ten month or so cessation of my usual writerly anxiety. Either way, I really dislike this feeling. I hate staying up at night, worrying about what some editor thinks of my story, or about whether I’ll ever be a good enough writer to achieve the things I want. Sometimes, the anxiety is so bad that I fantasize about quitting writing entirely. But this blog post is not about overcoming anxiety. Instead, it’s about the gifts that anxiety can give you.

For me, the things I am anxious about are usually the things that I can only somewhat control. Things that are entirely out of my control don’t tend to worry me. And things that are fully within my control also don’t worry me. It’s the in-between things that are horrible. That’s why one of my biggest fears is getting into a car crash (because it’s something that can only be averted by constant vigilance and constant suspicion).

Similarly, good stories are built out of blind intuitions that are ruthlessly subjected to second-guessing. For long periods of my writing career, I haven’t practiced the rigorous quality control that was necessary. A few weeks ago, I wrote a story so bad that it made me ashamed (luckily, no one has, or will ever, see it). It’s not that the story would’ve burned out the eyes of an editor, it’s that the story was worse than what I could do, and there was no reason for me, at my skill level, to have written something of that quality. Halfway through the story, I could sense that it was not what I wanted it to be, but I finished it anyway, out of momentum.

Now, most writers would say, “Don’t worry about writing a terrible first draft. You can fix it in revision.” But I know better. For me, once a story is done, it’s done. I can cut it down in revision. I can tamper with its balance or heft. But I can’t reinvigorate its rotten core. Revision, for me, can bring out only limited quality improvements.

So I lay awake that night, thinking, “What can I do to avoid writing stories that are this awful?” And while I was lying awake, I came up with what I think is a truly great writing process.

For years, I’ve been hearing about how typewriter-era writers were so great because they had to physically retype the entirety of each draft and, in doing so, transform every sentence and paragraph of it. For a time, I even experimented with doing the same thing, but I found it to be of limited worth since I would just stare at the last draft in another window and slavishly retype it (except for changes in a few places). It was not a transformation, the changes in the end amounted to nothing more than what I would have done during a normal revision.

But my new writing process was a simple variation on this typewriter style redrafting, except instead of looking at the previous draft while I retyped, I would start fresh, and just start writing the story again. The previous version of the story would be nothing more than a very detailed outline held entirely in my memory. As I wrote, I would be actively re-imagining every word of the story.

So far, I’ve written two stories using this method. For the first, I wrote the first 1000 words of the story. Then on the second day (without looking at the first day’s production), I started over and wrote the first 2500 words of the story. On the third day (with only small glances at the first day’s output), I started over and wrote the first 4200 words of the story. On the second day, I started the story in a different place. On the third day, I made fairly major adjustments to the main character’s motivation (and in doing so, changed the expected ending). On the fourth day, I was so ridden with the anxiety at starting over again that I just started off where the previous day had left off and wrote straight through to the end (another 4000 words). However, I was extremely pleased with the story that resulted.  I ran it through a critique group, and found that it won’t need that much revision.

For the second story, I wrote 500 words the first day, then started again on the second day and wrote the first 1900 words. Then I started over the third day and wrote 2500 words in order to complete the story. Again, my conception of the story changed significantly during each rewrite. Yesterday, I revised that story and sent it out. Again, I felt that it was about as good as it could be.

It’s an interesting technique. Oftentimes, I would struggle to recreate a passage from the previous draft, and feel that in the current draft I had produced a much-inferior replica. However, after comparing drafts, I usually found that the newer passage was better.

In the finished stories, I didn’t have the sense of gappiness that I often get from my stories, where some initial conception of the story was abandoned halfway through and then the hints of that conception were excised in a way that left scars. Oftentimes, I’ll feel (in my revised stories) that the paragraphs don’t transition smoothly, but I won’t know how to fix it.

I also feel like I am finally treating my subconscious with some level of respect. In a previous entry, I wrote about my writing process (writing dozens of beginnings in order to find one story worth writing). But I had never felt satisfied about how I would spend days writing these terrible, boring story fragments and then, when  I was finally presented with something worthwhile, I’d blow through it in one or two days. Now I feel like I spend the right amount of time and effort on these stories. Maybe there is a puritan strain in me. Maybe I just feel like if I don’t suffer to produce something, then it’s not worthwhile.

And there is a kind of suffering to this process. Oh, it’s not breaking rocks in the hot sun, but it is harder than what I was doing before. When writing a story straight through, it gets easier after about halfway through. I know how it’s going to end, and I just need to get there.

When rewriting from memory, it gets harder. It’s hard to struggle to write something that came easily the day before. It’s hard to keep forcing my imagination to work, long after it feels like it should shut down.

But it’s worth it.

 

So yeah, those are the kinds of rewards that anxiety can give you. Sometimes I read a blog post like this excellent one by Tobias Buckell (which approaches writerly anxiety from a different angle), and think, “Man, I need to stop worrying about all these carrots and sticks. I need to just sink down into the adventure of the writing process. I need to focus on saying what I need to say, and just getting it down there. The destination is less important than the journey.”

And that’s fine. But the destination influences the journey quite a lot. If all I cared about was writing for fun and companionship, then I would just put everything up for free on the internet. I wouldn’t care about quality. I’d probably write terrible fan-fiction or something.

If all I cared about was writing for myself, then I wouldn’t subject myself to even the possible of rejection. I’d write in my journal. It’s worrying about the reaction of that wispy, near-fictional reader–someone like you–that drives me to produce something that might be worth reading.

But…I am going to keep trying to find a way to internalize that voice in a less physiologically and emotionally destructive way. Sometimes I think that what I need to do is think of writing in more spiritual or abstract terms. I am not trying to please an actual reader. I should instead try to conform to some Platonic ideal of quality that can only be approached asymptotically. Then this writing gig would not be a struggle to please an actual person; it would be an internal odyssey. It would be entirely under my own control, and hence less nerve-wracking.

Yeah, sometimes I think that, but then I gag on on the New Ageyness of it. Still, though, that’s probably what I’ll end up believing, someday.