Last month I had made up my mind to not accept any new projects for a while. I wanted a break. It had been a rough summer and I was burnt out. I had a few obligations I was wrapping up and then I just wanted to step back and read a book. Then, as happens, I got an offer I could not refuse, so I’m actually now busier than ever. It’s a good thing—a great thing, really, but I realize I still need to re-evaluate stuff. It has me thinking a lot about how to do this creative life thing long term, how to take on a good amount of work while keeping my balance.

There is this romanticised image of the dedicated artist that I’ve held up as my ideal: the creative individual sacrificing everything for their art. Times past when I got a huge ASAP project I put everything else in my life on hold while I dove in and swam up stream to the finish. But I think if I’m going to make this be a long term thing in my life, I have to make the time to take the dog for a walk to the park. To help my kid with his homework. To be present for my partner (who takes a good deal of the load at home when I have a heavy project bearing down). I need to make sure I’m getting enough sleep. Plus, I signed up for another marathon, so I need to make sure I am getting the necessary exercise to prepare for that. I have wondered if things like training for a marathon are luxuries (ha ha) I can no longer afford, but I’ve learned how much I need those physical outlets for my mental health, so I’m keeping them on the table.

If it’s not obvious by now, I am a work-a-holic, more comfortable with a task than with socializing. So I need to pay special attention to taking care of my friendships and my loved ones. The other night, we went to dinner and a movie with friends and it was hard for me to turn off the radio station in the back of my head, telling me I shouldn’t be there, that I should be at home working. My online life is reduced to retweeting an occasional thing of interest and liking a few status updates. I miss my online life. It’s a balancing act I’m still figuring out.

Something else I’m working on: letting go of my fear of failure, the horror that I won’t be good enough. Here’s an interview with comic writer Kelly Sue Deconnick that’s worth listening to for a lot of reasons, but one of them is that right in the middle of it (at 33:24 minutes in to be precise), she says this about deadlines: “the month is going to come regardless of if you are ready, and sometimes you will not get it as all-together as you hoped, but you move on and do better next time.” That really gave me pause. It reminded me of something that artist Donato Giancola told us at the Illustrations Masters Class this past spring, something I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: “Occasionally, I have turned in less than top quality work. I am not proud of that. But it happens. You then keep working so that next time is better.” Those two comments made an impression on me, not as an excuse to do less than stellar work, but as a reminder that sometimes you are on your game, sometimes you are not, and you don’t let that keep you from moving forward.

So that’s what I’m trying to do. Work hard. Keep breathing. Find the right balance. Take care of my loved ones. Be a bit more gentle with myself. Stuff like that. I hope this all makes sense—I am writing it on my lunch break before I dive back into that offer I could not refuse.

So here, if you’re interested, a few people who have said it a bit more eloquently:  Lillian Cohen-Moore discusses how to deal with burn out. Then, Damian Walters-Grintalis talks about writing when you are broken and John Nakamura Remy talk about how he learned to stop worrying and love his goals. Finally, Amy Sundburg discusses priorities and social media.

Okay, that’s all. Time to get back to work.

What’s in a Name?

We name the world around us. As children we name our toys and imaginary playmates. As gamers and internet users we name our accounts and individual avatars. As writers we agonize over the name of each character.

It’s no wonder so many writers give themselves a name. I liked the idea so much I gave myself two—a different identity for different genres and points of view. My guess is that a good portion of the readers here use one as well.

There’s a lot of reasons to rename yourself. For Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights he imagines seeing his name in big neon lights—perhaps no different than many of us picturing our name on the cover of a book. “I want a name, I want it so it can cut glass, y’know, razor sharp.” Razor sharp. Or maybe we just want something more arresting—simplified if we have long names, more floral if your real name is too common; dark, mysterious, comedic…unique.

Some may hide behind a pen name to protect their real identity or their professional career. Others may want to create different names for different genres—it might be prudent for a writer of erotica to create a pen name for their foray into children’s lit. Stephen King came up with Richard Bachman so that he could publish more than one novel a year, and his son—Joe Hill—turned away from his celebrated family name so that he could work and succeed on his own merits.

Creating a pen name allows us to create a new identity, a new character that may or may not look like us, live where we do, or do what we do. It’s a new layer, a new story to tell.

It might also be a new complication.

As a writer, artist, or creative professional in any medium, your promotional efforts are your own blood, sweat and tears. In this highly-connected world we live in, one of the truest paths toward successful self promotion is through social media channels. Attempting to create a name for yourself that is not your own poses many problems. Suddenly, you have an identity that is not you—at least not directly – and if you’re already active in these circles you need to start making choices. Do you create a new Twitter handle or Facebook account? Do you keep the pen names quiet? Tie them to your real name? If you’re already promoting yourself through a blog, do you want to set up another site for your pseudonym?

What about conventions and other “real world” events? Will you answer when that pen name is called out? Are you ready to sign that made-up name when people ask for your autograph? Are you robbing them of an opportunity to meet the real writer behind the words?

You also can’t sign contracts with a fake name. If your goal is anonymity you will need to seek out legal advice to somehow prepare this aspect before you’re confronted with a sale (which leads to contracts, which leads to exposing your real name to the editor and publisher).

If you’re highly inventive about your pseudonym’s life and experiences be prepared for some backlash. It’s very possible you can create confusion by the story you tell about your fake identity, and you may turn readers—or worse, editors and publishers—off with your fake personality.

These are all manageable concerns, but I suspect most of us spend more time thinking about what the name should be than how having one will affect your career. Don’t ignore this aspect—it’s possibly the most important consideration.

I recently made the decision to switch away from my pen names and publish under my own. A number of factors played into this: not giving each identity enough promotional time; seeing that publishing credits for one name meant very little for the other; realizing that most of my connections on Facebook (with my real name) had no knowledge of my pseudonyms; and not knowing if I should tie my personal artistic efforts to a pen name or the real one.

But it took another artist to laugh at my assorted names for it to really click—I was not doing myself any favors. He also pointed out that my real name was infinitely more memorable than the others. I can’t argue with that. In the end, isn’t that what really matters?

Hello, my name is Bear. Who are you?

A Life of Writing, James Gunn Interviewed

James Gunn is an award-winning author, editor, anthologist, scholar and educator. His long career has spanned more than sixty years, during which he has authored twenty-six books, edited eighteen, and published nearly one-hundred stories. Additionally he is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas and the Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In 2007 he was awarded the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by the SFWA.

I met James Gunn in 1993 as a student of one of his writing classes. At the time I had no idea of his successful career, and still kick myself for not taking advantage of the opportunity to get to know him better. Being able to interview him has been a pleasant step toward correcting some of that mistake.

On Writing and Publishing:


There’s a lot of talk about the death of books or the end of publishing during your long career – how often have you heard this or a variation on it (with the rise of television, etc.)?

It’s true that book publishing has been in trouble for some time now, but when I got started in 1948 (my first novel was published in 1955; my second, too) the publishing business was still strong and still expanding. The slick magazines (The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s…) got killed when television captured most of the advertising revenue and then some of the audience. The book industry didn’t come under attack until the rise of the book-selling chains and then digital publishing, which also attacked the chains.

How has the publishing industry changed since you’ve been involved with it?

The main change has been the growing influence of the sales force and then the accountants. When I was starting, the editor decided what was worth publishing and the salesmen sold it; now the editor has to get the sales force (which hasn’t read the book) for an estimate of how many copies it can sell and the accountants have to agree that the book can make money. Maybe the small publishers, who sprang up to market the “mid-list” books that the major publishers stopped publishing do things the old-fashioned way.

What has changed for the better?

Digital publishing means that the built-in costs of returns and remainders have to be reconsidered, and, also, that every author has a recourse. It isn’t clear yet how the author is going to get fair compensation that will support a writing career, or even motivate a part-time writer, or how readers are going to select what is worth reading out of a plethora of choices.

How has the pay changed (when what’s considered pro-rate – $.05/word – hasn’t changed forever)?

There a lot more opportunities to get paid for writing, some of them remunerative. There is more room at the top; more writers are writing full-time, and the best-sellers make out quite well. The short-story doesn’t have much of a market, and those that exist have not kept up with inflation. The magazines once were important, even critical, to a writer’s development and career; now the book market is where the action is.

If you were a writer just starting out now what would you be doing differently? Do you think you’d still be a Sci-Fi writer?

My interests have always been in idea-fiction, and I’d be an SF writer today. But I’d probably focus on the novel, even though my love has always been the short story.

What makes good writing today, versus what you saw previously?

We and my predecessors were motivated amateurs, more interested in story than technique. Today’s writers, often graduates of MFA writing programs are more interested in technique than story. The writing is marvelous, but the stories are usually not as involving.

How have the tools (word processors, writing software) changed the market and the craft for better or worse?

Anything that makes the process easier is good. I know that some writers still write by hand or typewriter, and think that they write better because of it. I used to think I was the same until I tried a computer and found I could get my thoughts into language almost without effort, as well as all the other advantages of revision, transmission, etc.

What should the writers of tomorrow be reading today?

I’d still read the magazines, and support them with subscriptions (because if the magazines go the center will not hold). But I’d read the better novels and the reviewers you trust (I’ve always depended on reviewers for guidance and insights).

What elements of style are getting better or worse?

Language and sentences are better because writers focus on them. Imagery, too. Story, not so much. The avoidance of a good story, like artists avoiding representation, is a fear of being found out.

What makes a good story today?

The nature of story has changed from the obvious (“shoot the sheriff in the first scene”) to subtlety, but the reader must care for the characters and what happens to them. John Ciardi once defined fiction as “interesting people in difficulties,” and that’s still true.

You started out using a pen name? In hind sight would you have still done it?

No. Then I was under the illusion that I would save my real name for scholarly works, but I merely lost some name recognition.

On Science Fiction:


What is it about Sci-Fi that has drawn you to it?

I’ve always been drawn to idea fiction and how to make readers emotionally involved in them. And, I think, in how present decisions lead to outcomes. And, maybe, by SF’s Darwinian belief in human adaptability: people, like the rest of the animal kingdom, are shaped by their environments, but, unlike the rest, humans can recognize their conditioning and decide to do something because it’s the right thing to do.

How has Sci-Fi changed over the years? What is better now, and what is worse?

SF has changed because many of its speculations about change have been realized. As Isaac Asimov once said, “We live in a science-fiction world.” SF has had to move on, and the world today is more complex and harder to predict. Science is less certain and technology is more pervasive. SF reflects that.

Sci-Fi has been a very forward-looking enterprise, but has it become more reactionary to scientific discovery and less innovative?

SF has always drawn upon scientific speculation and technological possibilities, beginning with Hugo Gernsback and his early 20th century serials in Modern Electrics.  Today once conservative scientists are far bolder in their speculations (see quantum theory, dark matter, dark energy, etc.) and SF writers seem less innovative unless they keep up and even out-imagine the scientists.

Sci-Fi has often been about optimism. Do you think that has changed, that there’s more darkness in the recent past?

Science fiction has always had a pessimistic element (see H. G. Wells’s scientific romances) to balance its optimism (spaceflight, solving our problems through science or technology), but two World Wars made optimism seem sentimental and even solution-oriented fiction tends toward greater realism and ambiguity.

What do you think about the prospects for space with the changes at NASA and a public that seems generally uninterested in further exploration (or at least the costs associated with it)?

Clearly the promise of the moon landings have not been realized, to the dismay of many of us who nursed our early dreams. I don’t think we’ll get that back for another decade or two, but I think we will regain our love of adventure and discovery and move on.

How do you feel about seeing classic science fiction and fantasy making it to the big screen? How well do you think Hollywood handles these stories?

Hollywood has not done well by SF, with a few exceptions (Things to Come, 2001: A Space Odyssey, a few others), including my own novel The Immortals. One keeps hoping. What usually happens to produce a successful adaptation is someone involved in the production who knows SF–like Arthur C. Clarke–and someone independent of Hollywood mythology and control–like Stanley Kubrick.

What other sci-fi/fantasy stories should be adapted to film?

There are so many. For personal reasons, I’d like to see Jack Williamson’s work reach the screen (The Humanoids?) and A. E. van Vogt (The World of Null-A?) and in more recent times William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars (and sequels).

You’ve recently sold some new works – anything you can talk about?

Tor Books will publish my new novel, Transcendental, probably in 2013 and probably along with my 1955 novel with Jack Williamson Star Bridge. Both of them are space epics, but of different kinds and they provide kind of bookends to a career, with Transcendental a commentary on and a tribute to the category itself.

Failing, To Begin With.

Carrie Cuinn is a writer, editor, small press publisher, computer geek, and amiable raconteur. In her spare time she reads, makes things, takes other things apart, and sometimes gets a new tattoo. She has an impressive collection of published fiction and non fiction and has been a guest on SF Signal podcasts multiple times. Her website is and you can follow her on twitter @CarrieCuinn.

When I was asked to write for BookLife, my immediate reaction was to wonder what I could possibly have to offer. I am a published author, and editor, and own a small press publishing company, but I spent most of 2011 (and the beginning of 2012) dealing with personal issues that kept me from accomplishing many of my professional goals. I’d started off with the production and publication of a great anthology, Cthulhurotica, which was very well received, but what did I do after that?

To put it simply, I failed.

People fail all of the time. We make plans based on exciting new ideas that we actually don’t know how to accomplish. We have family emergencies, or relationship issues, or illnesses, that take up our time and energy. We have financial troubles. We face job losses and sudden moves and starting over in a new town. We fear turning down new opportunities, even when we’re overburdened, because we’re not sure that we’ll get those chances again. When these things happen, our goals and dreams become unfulfilled hopes, unmet deadlines, and disappointments.

In my case it was a combination of almost everything I mentioned above. While different obstacles rose up, and were met with revised plans and a determination not to fail, it was the emotional aspect of failing that threw me the most. I was afraid of letting down the people that were rooting for me, of losing my friends’ respect, and of disappointing the people who were beginning to consider themselves my fans. I should have stopped trying to manage everything all at once, cut back on my production schedule, a long time before I actually did. Eventually I didn’t have a choice; my life got so complicated it ground to a halt.

I felt as if I’d ruined everything. My one chance to be an author and to make books and to become part of the writing community was gone, because I’d screwed it up.

It turns out that doesn’t really happen.

I got my feet under me again and focused on my immediate needs first: I took care of my son and myself. I kept the power on, I kept us fed. Over time, I began to add in the things I felt I could handle: organizing my finances, sorting out school, and getting rid of a lot of things that I didn’t need (both household objects and sources of stress). I started writing again, and sold a few things. I got over my fear of my own contributors and began to let people know just how badly I had failed.

No one hated me. No one thought I’d missed out on my “one chance”. I got support, I got advice, I got offers of help.

“It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to put a book out,” I was told. “It matters how good the book is once it’s out.”

I started to look at my company from the perspective of making the business work, instead of focusing mainly on how exciting it was to work with great authors and artists, or how many ideas I had. I realized that for me, publishing will be about making the best book that I can, not about producing the largest number in the shortest amount of time. I slowed down our schedule, let people know I was sorry but there would be delays.

Now my 2012 books are coming together, and they’re beautiful. It may another year before I’m completely caught up with where I want to be, but I can see now that I’ll get there. In the end, I didn’t lose anything except my own expectations, and I learned a lot about the reasons we fail. I can’t say that I won’t make any mistakes from here on out, but I know now that I’ll learn from them, and that no amount of failure is permanent. There’s no reason to quit trying.

Five things to remember when it seems like everything is falling apart:

1. Know the rewards: each thing you do has a cost and a payout. This can be financial, it can be an amount of time, it can be personal or social. Part of getting your life back on track is knowing how much it’s going to cost you to get the life you want, and whether you can live with what you end up with. This means knowing, for example, that you’ll need to spend 30 hours of work to write a story which will net you $80, but that publication will get you into the SFWA, a goal you think is worthy of the time spent. It’s knowing when a certain deadline or event will mean that you can’t see your significant
other next weekend, or that you’ll need to order takeout for dinner on Friday because you won’t have time to cook (which means, of course, that you’ll be paying for your lack of time now with having to spend more time making money to cover the cost of that take-out).

2. Prioritize your life: there are always more tasks than hours in the day, but some of them are more important than others. Make a list of your deadlines, write to-do lists. If you know what has to get done vs. what you’d like to get done, you know where to start cutting when you only have time or resources to accomplish some of your goals.

3. Learn to say no: One of the biggest problems I had was that I would accept every bit of volunteering that was requested of me, whether it was critiquing stories, doing line edits, or writing guest blog posts. It meant that I wrote fiction for token or non-paying markets. It meant that I helped other companies with their publication projects. As much as I’d love to keep doing all of these things, it contributed to my inability to get everything done, which led to me failing. I still do help out as much as I can, but I have a much better idea of when I can say “yes” and when I have to say “sorry, I can’t right now.”

4. Communication keeps people informed: Tell your coworkers and your family and your friends what’s going on. No one likes it when you just drop out of their lives, and sometimes we take that personally – it can feel like we’re not important if you’re suddenly blowing off deadlines and become impossible to find. Letting people know why your life is upside down may feel like you’re complaining or you’re weak, but in reality, it lets them know that they were on your mind. It tells people that the way you’re treating them and their projects isn’t personal. It’s much easier to work out a new deadline when you’re keeping people informed than it is to try to rebuild those relationships later.

5. Take it one step at a time: when you have a dozen missed deadlines and a handful of future projects, the moment you start as if you can peek your head up again, you’re buried under work. It’s impossible to fix everything all at once, so don’t. Pick the most important thing, based on your analysis of cost and payout and priorities, and do that. It can be reestablishing your social network, it can be quietly finishing a short story or editing job before anyone knows you’re back in the saddle. Whatever it is, do that one thing. Then do the next thing. After that, you do one more thing. It will all get done, and by learning to work as much as you can but not more, you’re learning how to make sure that you don’t overload yourself again in the future.

After all, everyone fails, but the goal is try to only fail in the beginning.