Taking Stock

As a project comes to a close, it’s time to take stock of what you want to do next. By putting aside all the technical bits of everything between you and the finish line, you can think about something just as important.

Where are you going after this project? What comes after this novel, transmedia project, comic book, radio drama, non-fiction collection?

And where do you want to go next?

Maintaining a healthy booklife takes more than producing quality work and hitting your deadlines. Regularly take stock of your career to this moment. Observing the directions your completed projects can take you. If something brings you a feeling of dissatisfaction, examine that critically. Were you unhappy with the last book because it felt rushed? Did you co-author a project with someone you weren’t well-suited to work for? Dissatisfaction can tell us a lot, not only about what we don’t want to repeat, but what we want to pursue.

If you’re not sure about where you want to go next with your booklife, taking a moment can help you pick a direction. If you just finished a mystery novel but want to experiment with a new genre, maybe it’s time to try that science-fiction story you’ve had in the back of your head for the past few years. Experimenting with genre and form is good for you as a writer, even if those projects are never published. Finishing a project provides that meditative moment to assess your feelings and goals.

If you started a publishing career as a horror writer but want to switch to non-fiction, nothing says you can’t. But it’s helpful to determine why you want to make the switch. Are you dissatisfied with horror? With the type of horror you’ve written? Or did you hit a place where your urge to tell horror stories has been satiated?

Determining the genre and form of our next work is one component of taking stock. But the moment isn’t complete until we assess our goals from here. Every writer has their own unique career path. No one is the next King, Plath, Poe, Gaiman, Spillane. But if your goal is to achieve a widespread audience, your path after you take stock is different from someone who wants to publish only with a small press. If you’re working against what you thought were your goals, step back and look at your actions. If you’re self-sabotaging, you have to find the root and pull it out.

If you’ve changed interests or direction without realizing it, that’ll impact your booklife. It’s better to realize that and account for it, then let that change create unwanted complications. You might be afraid that if you dramatically change direction now, your audience won’t follow you. And that’s perfectly valid, because some are all of your audience may not make that change with you. Write books that make you unhappy for an audience you want to appease, or switch directions and see what happens next?

Taking stock isn’t about self-examination you’re going to ignore. It’s about consistent, regular assessment of you and your goals. Self-knowledge is a key to a healthy booklife. You don’t have to wait till the book is complete to sit down, and figure out where you’re going next.

Do Not Skip the Panels

I could just leave it at the title, but seriously. If you go to a con, whether as an attendee or as a pro, don’t avoid panels. Programming exists for actual logical reasons.

  • To help you connect with people making work you love.
  • To provide you with information you might not know.
  • To expose you to the work of people you don’t know.
  • To explore things you’re intrigued about.

Panels are an opportunity to pick up new information, meet people, find out what many of your friends look like in person, and feed your imagination. With luck, you also pick up new professional information. When many of us were starting out as writers and editors or artists, or whatever role(s) we inhabit in publishing, lots of folks starting out devoured panels. Made the effort to meet people and introduce themselves. Raised hands even when anxiously awaiting some sort of verbal tongue lashing just for asking a question. When new to our craft, we put out incredible effort to build our skills and our networks.

I see a number of folks I know, myself included, not always carrying that same energy to cons further down the line in their careers. Cons lose all sense of joy, fun, mystery or appeal. They become a daunting chore, full of travel and meetings and an abundance of stress. You don’t have to try to approach cons again with a sense of childlike glee or even the flavor of newcomer’s terror. But getting more out of cons starts with something simple, like hitting some panels. Though the beginner panels may seem less interesting to you now, even panels for new writers and editors can be worth going to. So many problems we have in our careers are about that phase of our work, but some of them are eternal. Communication, getting past anxiety, becoming better at tracking our tax info.

You might not feel like you need a panel on getting out of a slush pile, but practical intro panels may hold information you never got the chance to learn. The people running those panels? Fellow publishing professionals, who are either in your peer group, or likely great people to meet if you’re unfamiliar. Attending those panels? It’s possible those bright, sometimes anxious faces are future writers, editors, agents and art directors. We’re a social industry, and it doesn’t hurt to mix with people at every phase of their career path, as well as yours. New friends, co-workers and audience members are inside those panel room doors. Information you don’t know yet is behind that long table, lined with microphones. We’re not wasting time if we go to panels, we’re spending our time in pursuit of new knowledge and experience, things we can’t grow our careers or our lives without. So don’t skip the panels, and consider being on some in the future. Whole new worlds might open for you if you open that conference room door.

The Time Management Triforce

It’s rare, the author who doesn’t have to pad their schedule for extra time. They do exist, and they know themselves intimately. Their health habits, productivity foibles, available time and intended schedule. Though they too can be felled by unintended life and schedule changes, the rest of us often operate on a less clear picture of ourselves or not too distant futures. Unpredictable health—ours or that of family—further complicate our ability to navigate our schedules with a clear head. Writers have to be a lot of things to themselves, and project manager is one of them.

There’s a strong temptation to take on projects for money, to continue publishing regularly—and while those aren’t inherently bad they can lead to unpleasant consequences. Getting locked into a contract for a product or publisher we end up disliking, taking far under what we’re worth, or doing it ‘for the exposure’ are things that qualify as unhealthy for our careers.

People, as the saying goes, die from exposure.

So how do we prioritize what to say yes to, and what to say no to? Half our careers are about making spinning plates look like something a toddler can do.

I bust it down into a few things.

  • Payment (monetary or otherwise)
  • Bandwidth
  • Impact


Payment might be monetary, trade, or even a favor. Monetary payment scales—for charities or for certain markets I will accept substantial rate cuts or even do it for free. I’ve done some projects as a trade, editing something because I’d later get graphics help on a project of my own. When it comes to magazines, news outlets, or fiction, payment breaks down into it being about what I get out of it in terms of monetary/trade gain, and platform. I’ve sometimes blogged for highly reduced rates or for free because the platform afforded to me by the publisher was valuable enough to equal out the loss in money or bankable favors. I don’t recommend piling your plate with platform not payment assignments, but consistently doing them over time around your other projects becomes one more way to build your audience. Great platforms and poor paychecks can create readers that follow you to other projects. Won’t be all the readers, but a few dedicated fans can go a long way.

Bandwidth is all about my emotional, physical and time limits. If I say yes to something, from a one-off blog post to contributing thousands of words to a roleplaying game text, it’s going to hit all three. Writing’s fatiguing, and it takes a lot of time. If I say yes, I have to have the time to do it. Preferably with a long enough lead time to build in some padding for unexpected events, but I’ve done short stories in under a week, and proofed a 65,000+ word manuscript in under a day—the literary equivalents of making a turn on a dime. How’s the rest of my schedule, both personal and for work? What about my boyfriend’s schedule? I want to keep my own scheduling needs in mind, but if you have a partner, or a family, you also have to consider what time you can sacrifice versus what time you want to see them. In a crunch, I know we won’t see each other a lot during some of our projects, but building in room to see and connect with your loved ones is a big deal. If you book yourself too solid, you wipe out your bandwidth in every way, and that hits you harder—because it hits everything including that project. I can write an eight thousand assignment in a day if I have to, but I’d like to never do that again. Keeping bandwidth concerns in mind protects your ability to produce quality work, not make yourself crazy, and prevents driving work between you and your partner as a wedge of obligation.

Impact is at least in part a long game, career oriented concern. Does this assignment have any impact, positive or negative? Does this build my skills, challenge me, or expose me to an audience that may not know me? Will I learn from people I admire, something that ties closely into payment concerns. Will the name of this anthology follow me forever, and can I own that? If you’re afraid of the impact of a possibly controversial publication, weigh in with yourself on whether you can own that decision. Do you have the ability to turn jokes or rage around on others? To defuse others, or just deflate them? Sometimes a project isn’t worth the potential negative impact, long or short term. But the stomach churning days of hate mail as a journalist make me far more prepared for rejections and negative reviews. You don’t have to do projects you’re reluctant about. But a good way to step up your game is to say yes now and then to the stuff that might make you—or others—a little uncomfortable.

Payment. Bandwidth. Impact. Keep the three in mind, and you’ll be a better project manager for yourself. Expertly managed time means a better use of the opportunities we say yes to.

So go get ‘em, tiger.

To the Story, Be True

When people write something about women, multiracial families, Jews, or journalists—all groups I belong to—I expect them to screw it up. I try my best to be hopeful, that the writer will show me a world that makes me nod my head and yell “THAT! YES!”

When they screw up, it hurts. It’s frustrating. And I am deeply angered. How dare they, I vent to a friend. How dare they do this. My anger makes no exceptions in its first flush. Accident, bad informants, didn’t know better, my anger doesn’t care. I don’t care. Because in that moment I feel betrayed. Even when the anger fades, the sting of that betrayal may linger, always.

When you write about someone outside your experience, you’re doing something amazing. You have chosen for whatever reason to step outside your own life, the things you know, and write about the world from someone else’s view. When it comes to people whose story has rarely been told, you have sent up a signal flare. You have said “I will tell you a story about you” and they are watching. Waiting. Hoping that you will do right by them, by other readers, and do as best a job as you can. that you will tell a good story, even if it is painful.

When people get writers wrong, or parents, pet owners, people from your hometown, think about how you feel. That someone who should have known better did so poor a job. The media we consume helps us define the world, even fiction. Especially fiction. All the times a story, novel, comic book, got you wrong, and it hurt. That experience, that a writer got it wrong and hurt people, anyone can feel that. That’s something that happens across lines of race, religion or creed. It goes across all life experiences, ages and economic classes.

It is important to talk with, read stories by, learn about people who are different from you. To widen your worldview as much as it is to make your writing better. To give your  words melody and colour, not settling for them to ring gilt edged and hollow. There are countless articles, books and workshops on how to write people who you may consider or see as Other. The thing I’m trying to say is not a how-to. It is a feeling and belief.

Everyone deserves a story, no matter how fictional or fantastic, that feels true. That taps into their experience, their culture, that may even bring tears to their eyes because someone who is from the outside got it right. Someone knew they needed a story where they could see themselves for once.

Everyone deserves to read a story that at least once, makes them say “Yes.”