In 2013, after fifteen years in the underground dance music industry, I got serious about writing fiction and made a real commitment to learn the craft. Since then I’ve worked on short stories or novels every day (either outlining/brainstorming, writing, or revising). Starting in late 2015 I started sending out short stories, and in May of 2016 my first published story appeared in Strange Horizons.
That’s the narrative I’d like you to believe, that I had good run making house music, running a record label, and being a nightclub promoter and then boom, I switched over to writing fiction and sold a story at a professional rate almost immediately.
The truth is messier, with lots of overlap, and many false starts.
I took fiction and nonfiction writing courses in college, at one point even trying (and failing) to transfer from UC Davis to UC Santa Cruz as a Creative Writing major. After graduating from UCD, I taught myself how to write code and manage databases, and eventually landed a job as the Senior Database Administrator of the San Francisco Symphony (while working on electronic music in my spare time). I quit that job in 2001 to pursue screenwriting. I wrote an epic science fiction screenplay with the following logline:
A physicist dies in a car accident, but is brought back to life forty years later to tip the scales in a war in which his children are on opposite sides.
I got a couple of Hollywood producers to read it. One kind of liked it, but took issue with the long paragraphs of expository dialogue. Another really liked it, but wanted to change it in all kinds of ridiculous ways. Nobody wanted to buy it. I wrote another screenplay about the reincarnation of Vlad the Impaler as a high school student. I wrote a third screenplay inspired by Charlie Kaufman films (I can’t even remember the plot, or if it had one).
By 2004 I was fed up with screenwriting, but a new music collaboration started to blossom. I threw myself back into music production (as Momu, with Mark Musselman), and recommitted to making Loöq Records a great music label with Spesh. Moderate success followed (tens of thousands in sales and licensing revenue, a few tracks from that era considered classics, at least by some). Writing fell by the wayside.
Then, in 2008, Kia and I had a kid. Almost immediately, my interest in writing was revived. For one thing, I couldn’t really see the producer/DJ thing working out with being a dad. I wrote about some of those lifestyle contradictions in this post. In addition, having a child enhanced my own sense of mortality. Life begins and life ends. If I ever wanted to be a writer, I had better start writing.
I wrote (and even submitted) a few short stories that year. But what I really wanted to do was write a novel. So I did. I actually finished it, and revised it a few times. I still love the characters and ideas in that book. The friends and family I shared it with enjoyed it. But the story was fatally flawed; the characters didn’t significantly change, and the many plotlines didn’t weave together coherently. I called it A Falling Forward Motion, and the title described the essential problem with the book. The characters suffered from inertia and a lack of volition.
I also started this blog. My very first post was about writing. Slowly but surely the blog gained popularity, and I found it rewarding to write whatever the hell I wanted, to share my thoughts and experiments, and to immediately publish my work without any gatekeepers. Publishing is easy. You just click the “Publish” button.
But I didn’t want to take that path (self-publishing) with fiction. I still don’t. As hard as it is to get published, that’s a hurdle I want to have cleared. Not just once, but many times, in multiple ways. At the moment I don’t think I know better than experienced fiction editors. At some point I’ll self-publish some stories here on this blog, but for now I’m taking the traditional route.
After a break from writing, in 2010 I wrote another novel, The Yew Tree, a kind of alternative anthropology sci-fi/fantasy/murder mystery. Once again, readers liked it, but one of my most perceptive readers (my wife Kia) pointed out some major logic and continuity problems that could have been avoided had I started with even the loosest of outlines. Looking at the amount of work required to fix the damn thing, I put it in a drawer and left it there. Trunk novel #2.
What did I do in 2011 and 2012? Those years were mostly fallow in terms of writing. I read a lot, wrote posts for this blog, released a new Momu album that had a good initial splash but didn’t take off, and had my hands full with being a dad, husband, brother, and son. Not to mention freelance work to pay the bills. I filled up my remaining free time with videogames and some great Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
Those two years slipping by with nothing written scared me. I realized I couldn’t be a writer and take breaks from writing. There are always excuses not to write. Writing is time-consuming and taxes willpower and brainpower. There are opportunity costs to writing; when you’re writing you’re not cleaning up your house or doing work for your clients or spending time with your family. Some authors go as far as to say that writing is stealing time from your family. I don’t buy that–I don’t begrudge anyone in my family some quiet time to fill as they please, and I expect and receive the same consideration. But I didn’t use that time for writing in those years. And I got out of shape. My fiction writing muscles got soft.
So in 2013 I committed, both to myself and publicly on this blog, to writing everyday and becoming an author. You can hear me gearing up to it in this late 2012 post.
In 2013 I researched, outlined, and wrote the first draft of what I hope will be my first published novel, The Sky Woman (many readers and four drafts later, I finally submitted it for publication, for the first time, just last week).
In 2014 and 2015 I revised that novel and wrote its sequel, The Guardian. I had so many ideas and I was so invested in the characters that it was easier to just keep going than to switch to another writing project.
In late 2015 and all of 2016 I wrote and submitted short stories for publication in professional markets, with the aim of being an SFWA Active Member. I averaged about a story a month. So far I’ve only sold one of those stories (“The Beef“). That one acceptance and twenty-three personal rejection notes (as opposed to form letters) tells me I’m not too far off. I got quite a few rejections in 2016, but many of those were long foul balls that weren’t far from being home runs (or at least base hits).
Here’s what I’m planning to do this year to increase my chances of success:
- Keep writing every day. I’ve got a good habit going and I don’t intend to let it lapse.
- Get a better idea of what markets are buying. I’ve recently subscribed to three of the publications I’d like to publish in, in addition to the stories I read online and the copies I buy at Issues, my local magazine store.
- Get more rigorous early feedback. I’ve recently started a writing group with none other than Rob (of hair regrowth fame). We owe each other 2500+ words each Tuesday, with a critique call each Thursday.
- Write longer short fiction. I’m not ready to dive into a new novel yet, but I’m going to experiment with some novelets (10-15K words). Quite a few of the stories I enjoy in Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and other similar publications are of this length, and I always feel cramped trying to keep my stories 5K words or under (which is what almost all the magazines say they prefer).
- Take more time researching, brainstorming, and outlining before I dive into prose. The two novels I did this for, The Sky Woman and its sequel The Guardian, are the two pieces of fiction I feel are my strongest (with similar feedback from readers). Both started with detailed, scene-by-scene outlines. Both stories deviated heavily from the outlines, but the initial structure helped my storytelling. I want to get back to starting with more structure. Many writers feel stifled by outlining, but I’m not one of them.
- In short, write more exciting stories, with bigger ideas, and more fascinating characters.
I wish I had more success to report, but it takes time to learn this craft. I’ve been at it earnestly for four years now. Initially I promised myself I’d give it at least five years (2013-2017), but at this point I see it may take significantly longer to get where I want to be (having multiple stories and novels published, and hopefully widely read).
If I don’t see more success in the next few years, will I keep going? I think as long as I find ways to keep improving the quality of my work, I will. I can’t see any downside to becoming a better writer.
What about music? At this point I spend maybe a half-day a week working on music or the record label. I’m not actively pursuing music production or label running as a career. At the same time, I love making music with my friends, and it’s fun to have a label where we are the gatekeepers (though there aren’t any real gatekeepers anymore in the music world; anyone can put out their music immediately on SoundCloud or Bandcamp, and that’s a good thing). I don’t think my writing would benefit from giving up my music time, nor would it benefit from giving up my consulting work and primary source of income. I don’t want to be sitting in a room by myself eight hours a day, stressed about money, looking at a blinking cursor, trying to be creative. But I also don’t want to try to pursue two creative careers at the same time. I may be a multi-class character at heart, but at this point I’m pouring all my XP into writing levels.