It’s All On You

Tracy Barnett is a new writer who loves fantasy of all types, especially the kinds that mash up genres. He has the temerity to call himself an author and it working on funding his first novel, Sveidsdottir. A Norse fantasy mashed up with giant stompy dwarven automatons and the skeletons of dead giants. Oh, and inclusive as all get out. Tracy got his start writing tabletop RPGs, and has published two of his own. Tracy thinks that typing in the third person about himself is weird as fuck.

You see that bio up there? I had no idea what to write for it. I mean, I’m new at this. Fresh-from-the-garden, still have that ‘New Writer’ smell on me new. As those clumsy words above state, I’ve written tabletop RPGs and am now working on my first novel. The difference between how you write those two things is night and day. I’m not sure how many readers here have done RPG work, but I think it’s interesting to compare the two. At the least, you’ll get my take on the novel writing process. Let’s do this thing.

When you write an RPG, you’re essentially building someone a playground. You’ve got some kind of premise (Ninja Pony Assassins!) and that’s the open plot upon which your playground equipment will go. You’ve got your game mechanics (we need to incentivize the interpersonal relationships between the Pony Assassins and their targets, oh and we want to use target numbers and a shit-ton of d6s) and that’s like the paths that lead from one fun thing to another. And you’ve got plot points, world details, and maybe an adventure or two (the Ninja Pony Assassins must defeat their nemesis, the Dark Lord Horsington to save the world!!) which are like the actual equipment that people play on.

Still with me?

That’s the kind of writing I’m used to doing. Whether I’m making a new game of my own, or preparing for a session on a Friday night, I generally build a playground and then ask other people to come and climb all over it. They do what I call The Hard Work. They make characters, they interact with the world, and they move the story forward. I have the luxury of responding to all of that. Everything I do once I build the playground is in response to what the people playing on it do.

Novels are different. So very, very different. With a novel, I still have to do all of the above things (minus the mechanics part because, really, are you going to ask your reader to bring dice with them while they read? … hmm, Choose your own adventu- Ugh. Back to my point). So, I do all of those things: I clear a space, I put down the equipment and then I am the one that has to go playing on it. Yes, I know that people say their characters take on lives of their own and maybe Miss Hester the Protagonist will decide that she’d much rather play on the slide than use the jungle gym. But it’s still me doing all of The Hard Work that I usually get to divide between the brains of the 4-8 people I have at my game table.

That difference was daunting at first. And then I remembered something super-important: this is my goddamn playground. I built it, and I know which parts are the best. I know that Hester really does want the play on the jungle gym (eventually) and I know that Johnny Plot-Point will be perfect over by the monkey bars. AND, if I don’t see a place for Bernice the Badass Villain, I don’t despair and I don’t change Bernice. I change the fucking playground.

There’s a freedom in novel writing that, if you’re not careful, can paralyze. Instead of having to craft things to fit the gamers at your table like in an RPG, you can to change things to suit your vision. You are the god of your world, the god of your story. Don’t let that paralyze you. Own it. Slip into the skin of your characters and dance around for a bit. Hop on the merry-go-round and then take to the balance beams. It’s your world and the world is your playground.

Just, whatever you do, don’t install a climbing rope. No one fucking likes those things.

Don’t Listen to Your Peers

This is, of course, a hyperbolic statement. Perhaps a better title would be Don’t Always Listen to Your Peers, or rather Sometimes Listen, Sometimes Really Listen, and Occasionally Stop Listening Completely.

There are a number of good reasons why you should listen to your fellow writers—you can learn from their experiences, many know what they’re talking about when it comes to writing skills and the publishing world, and if you like their work you’ll know where to find more of it. Those are all valid, direct benefits from listening to your peers.

But that’s not what this article is about.

No, sometimes, you really should not listen to your peers.

First, writers love to tell other writers how to write. Overall, this is a good thing, but it’s hard to sort fact (or accepted style guides) from opinion. If you read a lot of writing advice you’ll discover that there’s often contradictory information out there, and some that’s outright bad (I’m not naming names, and please don’t go to my blog…). Beginning writers are often the worst offenders, probably because of the you must blog! attitude, and what better topic than writing about writing?

But there’s reasons to be skeptical. Just because something works for one writer—even a very successful one—doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Find the sources that ring true to you and listen to them. Develop your own skills and practices that keep you producing. Occasionally listen to dissenting views, see if there’s something to it, and forget it quickly when it doesn’t pan out.

The bigger point of this article is envy.

In certain ways, writers are like gamblers—when a gambler wins, everyone hears about their big payday. Likewise, writers toot their own horns when it comes to their publishing successes. Some writers are prolific, and good, and publish frequently—and they often announce new sales. We all tweet out a congrats, and cheer them on, and do it again for the next writer friend a few hours later. Everyone is selling something, somewhere, and we’re all happy for all of them.

But some of us have other thoughts, too. Dark thoughts, maybe even hateful thoughts. That should have been me, these thoughts whisper. Or they’re not that great, I could do that. Sometimes these thoughts take aim at your own abilities. I’m crap, they say, or worse—give up now.

The first kinds of thoughts are competitive, though in a negative way. Sure, when you get down to it, writing is competitive—there are only so many spaces in a magazine or anthology, and each publisher will only publish so many books in a given year. But the real competition is not with each other, but with ourselves—to do better, you need to write better than you have in the past.

The second kinds of thoughts are defeatist—self-doubt will keep you from doing things. Too much of these, and you’re done. Hang up your writer’s hat, and start asking people if they like fries with that.

I could go on about how to work through this—you will need to, it only benefits you—because there will always be someone better than you. Someone will always sell more, earn more, produce more—except for one person, and this article isn’t for them anyway. This is how the word “better” works.

But there’s another easy option that brings me back to my overall point—don’t listen to your peers. You don’t have to know what hundreds of writers have done in a given day. Ignore the “new sale!” announcements or the #amwriting wordcount updates. Limit the amount of time you spend on social media outlets.

Writers write—a lot. They tweet, they post, they blog. All. The. Time. You don’t have to read everything, and in fact you don’t have to read anything. Sometimes it’s just good for your own productivity to tune it all out. Focus on your own efforts first. Take whole days—or weeks—away. Really, you won’t miss much.

(Also remember that those who do sell a lot still get a lot of rejections—just like gamblers who never talk about all of the money they’ve lost, writers rarely talk about how often a story is rejected, how many times they’ve submitted to a particular magazine, or their sale-to-rejection ratio. But that’s a different article…)

So there you have it—don’t listen to your peers. At least, don’t listen to them all of time, and maybe even most of the time. Of course, this applies to me, too—hell, you probably shouldn’t listen to the advice in this article. Really, stop reading now.

That’s better.

Lines in the Genre Sand

Science fiction, fantasy, and horror are playmates in the genre sandbox, but there are clear lines that divide and define the genres, right? Spaceships=Science fiction. Magic=Fantasy. Ghosts=Horror.

How would you define Ray Bradbury? Was he a science fiction writer? A horror writer? Many of his stories blur the genre lines. There Will Come Soft Rains is the story of an automated house going about its usual tasks of cooking and cleaning. After a time, it becomes clear that humankind has been destroyed by nuclear war. At face value, it’s science fiction. Except for the burned-out images of the family on the side of the house; except for the dog that returns to the house to die; except for the house itself unable to prevent its own destruction when fire breaks out.

The story has always felt like horror to me. Science fiction flavored horror, sure. Much like the movie Alien which is basically a haunted house story, with a xenomorph and a ship instead of a ghost and rotting rafters.

I think writers often limit themselves genre-wise. They define themselves (or are defined) with a genre label and then write only things that will fit within that box. Maybe you’ve written ten science fiction stories and call yourself a science fiction writer, but what happens when you have a great idea about a magician? Are you going to decide not to write it because it isn’t science fiction? If you choose that path, I ask why?

Sometimes exploring another genre will open you up to new storytelling methods or new ways to twist the familiar into something else. And you don’t have to follow clear cut genre definitions; the Genre Police will not come and slap on the cuffs if you add a pinch of magic to your horror or a bit of horror in your science fiction.

If you feel your career will be best served by keeping your published work in the same genre, you are still not bound by a set of invisible rules when it comes to writing. Sometimes you just need to write for yourself. Warm up the word machine with tidbits of an epic fantasy or science fiction or horror. Indulge in a literary vignette.

If Stephen King had decided to write only horror, there would be no The Shawshank Redemption, no The Body (filmed as Stand by Me). If Justin Cronin had decided to remain a literary writer, there would be no The Passage. Same with Colson Whitehead and Zone One.

Write the stories that are in you. Let other people decide the genre.


A final caveat: My debut novel, Ink, was released last year from Samhain Horror, but if you ask me if I’m a horror writer, I’ll probably answer, “I’m not sure.” Most of what I write is dark, but is it all horror? I’m content to let others decide.

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.