3 years ago on May 14th I opened a new Word file, called it Ailen's Song (the first title for Siren Suicides) and started typing. "Have you ever met a siren? No, not the kind you read in books about. Not the one with fish tails, sweet voice and green hair sitting on a rock somewhere in the ocean, luring in fishermen. No, a real siren. The one with white hair and skin. I think it’s called “albino”, you know, with red eyes and stuff. Have you seen one like that? Of course not. Cause if you did, you’d be dead. I know that for sure. My name is Ailen Bright, I’m sixteen years old, and I’m a siren." I typed another paragraph after this one and stopped. I have picked up typing the next day, May 15th, and that is the day I mark as the start of my writing full-time.
I have started and stopped working on this story 3 times, first in 2008 (5K words), then in 2009 (13K words), and finally in 2010 (20K words). On May 14th I happened to run into a friend who asked me when I would finish it. I came home and decided to give it one final try. This was try number 4. I didn't think I'd last more than a month.
I lasted 3 years.
The 1st draft of Siren Suicides came to 101K words. The last one to 261K and had to be broken into 3 books. I have decided to continue writing and started on Rosehead, then on Irkadura, and then story ideas started pouring out of me so fast, I began writing them all down into a separate document and filing them for the future. That was how The Badlings started. And TUBE. And about a dozen more that I have planned.
And it's only been 3 years. I can't believe it. I feel dizzy.
Over these 3 years I have managed to support myself financially and self-publish 6 books (1 trilogy, 1 book of quotes, and 2 novels). But this last year was particularly illuminating. Here is a post from 1 year ago on what I learned from writing for 2 years. Note the tone of it. I have calmed down since then dramatically. Here is a post from year before that, an excerpt from the 1st draft of Rosehead. I almost don't recognize it as my writing anymore. This makes me excited about this coming year. I'm sure on May 15th 2016 I will look back at this post with amazement.
Here are 20 things I learned from writing full-time for 3 years.
1. Don't give a fuck.
All this worry over what people will think about me or my books (or my tweets) was only sapping my creative energy. The more I wrote, the calmer I got, the better work I produced, the fewer fucks I was giving. It felt liberating. And it freed me from this beginner angst that didn't let me unfold into the artist I am. Why should you give zero fucks? Because people who care about you and your writing will understand you without you explaining anything, and people who don't care about you are not worth your worry and time. Hint: haters will hate just because they can.
2. You know nothing...
...John Snow (couldn't help myself). I was determined to "learn" how to write, I wanted to do it right, until it finally dawned on me that nobody really knows what they're doing. For some writers one thing works, for others another. There is no formula, it's impossible to predict what will happen to one or another book, but because we want to feel more secure (and pretend it's not random) we share tips and tricks. They work, to some extent. Then someone comes up with new tips and tricks. It's endless. I learned to focus my energy on writing instead of trying to find "the right way to write."
3. Take into account other people's perspectives.
I was ignorant when I started, ignorant of many things, especially of how people perceived me. I spoke to people out of my head when I wrote blog posts or tweeted or met people in person. I failed to step out of my shoes and step into theirs to see how it could come across to them. So when I shared something that worked for me (You must write 2K words a day!) , I was blissfully unaware that instead of helping I might have frightened those who took my advice as something they "must" do, tried, failed, and felt horrible. There is no right way to write. Write the way you write. Write slow, write fast. Only keep writing, because a writer who doesn't write quickly turns into a sad hollow creature.
4. Don't take breaks.
I used to break on the weekends for chores and family stuff and whatnot, and I used to dread Mondays. Mondays were the worst. It took me up to 2 hours to get back into my story. I stopped breaking (I break for several weeks between drafts but not in the middle), and writing became smoother. In fact, I now dread days when I have to break. In the ideal world I'd write all the time.
5. Give yourself ample time.
Rushing produces poor writing. I have seen this on the example of The Badlings. I had to rush the last draft to make it on the train for Amtrak Residency, and I'm paying for it now by spending twice the amount of time it would've taken me if I just slowed down and didn't rush. I had no choice. The trip had to be scheduled. I had to predict the dates and I didn't predict them very well. I have learned my lesson.
6. Every book is different.
Some books you gleefully complete in a few weeks (I wrote a first draft in 2 weeks before), others you drag across a year or two like an overstuffed trash bag. I'm exaggerating, but the idea warrants an exaggeration to illustrate the comical effect. Imagine a writer who after finishing a book in a few months (me) decides that all other books will be the same. Wrong. Every story has its own rhythm. I have learned to let them be.
7. Thinking time saves editing time in the future.
I think the above example about The Badlings confirms this point. I used to not allow myself to think, charging forward like a crazed cow stung by a bee. This cost me dearly later.
8. It will never be perfect, and that's its perfection.
We are imperfect. Our stories are imperfect. It's part of our humanity. In a chase to make my writing the best it can be I often forgot that good is good enough. I would fret and fidget and worry and analyze and fret some more, exhausting myself and those around me. No more. It's okay that it's not perfect. It's fucking written. Move on, Ksenia, you did good.
9. The right sentence will come, just give it time.
Do you notice a pattern here? Time. I have learned to give myself time. A year ago I wasn't sure that the right sentence would come and I was anxious to the point of sickness (I felt my stomach twist physically, I'm not kidding). Now I am sure. Now I know it will come. Now I battle a new frustration: impatience. I want it to come faster. This is why editing The Badlings is taking me so long. I wait for the right sentences (or words) to show up. And they do.
10. Money will follow.
Money is the source of my constant agitation. Will I make enough money? Will I survive? Many months I came very close to having nothing in my checking account and not knowing if I'd have enough to live on the next month. And some money always found me. A little bit here, a little bit there. I'm still not making much on book sales alone, but I was astounded to learn that the number doubled. It was about $200 per month last year. It's about $400 per month this year. It's a very small number, but it doubled.
11. Sales spike with every new book release.
When you publish a new book and people buy it, if they like it, they come back and buy all your other books. This works like magic. This is the reason I try to produce as many books as I can, as fast as I can. When there is a large enough pool of them, I will finally get to the point of making a living with just book sales.
12. By not accepting praise you're hurting your readers.
This I have learned by watching Amanda Palmer sign her books when she came to Seattle. She accepted praise and love from her fans with grace. I typically squirmed when someone told me my books are awesome. I don't squirm as much anymore and thank people, because I understood that if I refuse their compliment, I refuse their love and in that I hurt them.
13. The world doesn't die if you spend less time online and more time writing.
You probably noticed that I have drastically reduced my time on social media. Guess what. The world is still standing. I was creating my own whirlpool of communication in which I was drowning. Lately I'm pouring this energy into writing, and I also don't feel the need to assert myself anymore as much, only share things worth sharing. I have seen little things eat away my time, and I have become very protective of it. Think about time in terms of money. We're conscious of saving money, but we give out our time to strangers and squander it on nothing when we could be spending it on making art, on doing something we always wanted to do. Once you see it, I guarantee you, you will never want to go back to wasting this precious thing your life has given you: your time.
14. There will be those who will hate you simply for trying.
When you announce to everyone that you're a writer, you are breaking the rules of those who consented to living in misery and gave up on their dreams. They will hate you for reminding them of this. It's inevitable and there is nothing you can do about it. It took me 3 years to arrive at the state of calm I'm in, which is still paper-thin. I hope in 10 years I'll be as calm as Dalai Lama.
15. 3 years of writing full-time is nothing.
Big things start happening when you've done it for at least 10. Or so I keep reading about people whom I admire. It seems like most of them have been at their art for a decade or more, before they got where they wanted to get. Got it. 7 more years to go.
16. Don't freak out when famous writers start talking to you. Be normal. You're being watched.
This was a funny revelation. I used to do emotional somersaults when the "big" ones would talk to me online or in person. Those are the people who watch you closely before they engage. Their time is scarce, and they have met many idiots who wasted it, so they're cautious. I'll never forget how I held it together when Stephen King answered my tweet. He is one of my idols. I even joked in response. Of course, he answered me at random. I just got lucky. But at that moment I nurtured the idea of being special and an hour later lost my cool and shared the screenshot everywhere. I'm still laughing about it now.
17. Your words are important. They have impact.
Don't write lightly. Don't write carelessly. Write it in such a way that if you had to read it on TV to the whole world, you would stand behind your words and be proud. I didn't see this until I started getting letters from fans telling me what my books meant to them. I still write for myself. I will always write for myself. Writing is the most supreme act of egoism. But I'm now aware of the impact my words have. I wasn't aware of it before.
18. Self-deprecating doesn't do anyone good.
I have almost stopped beating myself up for all kinds of things. For not writing enough words in a day, or for not knowing something. It doesn't do me good, and it doesn't do you, my readers, any good. I have noticed that makes you apprehensive and uncertain and worried. I still do it out of old habit, but I think I'm getting better at stopping when I want to publicly berate myself. Thank you for showing me the way.
19. Silence and numbers mean nothing.
This one was hard for me to see. The fact that someone didn't answer my message (tweet, post, comment, email) doesn't mean anything. There could be a million reasons, and most of them have nothing to do with me. The number of comments I get on a post (tweet, Instagram picture, whatever) doesn't equate to my writing being good or bad. There are a ton of factors in play, and I won't ever know all of them. The key thing is to continue writing, even if it's writing into what feels like a void. People will come back if they know that no matter what happens, you will be always there, doing what you said you would do.
20. A good team is everything.
A good editor, a good formatter, a good cover designer, good beta readers. The people who help you make your book readable are very important. You might write a brilliant story, but without an editor it won't shine. Without a formatter it won't look good in print. Without a cover designer it won't entice people to pick it up and leaf through it. I was lucky to get connected with amazing people who got me where I am now. I wouldn't be here if not for them. Thank you, me previous editor Colleen Albert and my current editor Sarah Grace Liu, my formatter Stuart Whitmore, my daughter and cover designer Anna Milioutina, and to all of you who beta read my drafts and send me your feedback. You rock.
I want to close this long post by saying this.
A huge part of me being where I am today is you, guys. My readers. Without you I wouldn't have managed to stay afloat for so long. Thank you for reading my books. Thank you for believing in me. Thank you for supporting me. I love you.
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