22 Feb

So I’ve Written 1 000 000 Words and I Feel Fine – OR – My 6-Year Journey from Wannabe to Neo-Pro, a Lurid Tale of Fiction, Finance, and Fatalism

Banner: running in the snow

So I’ve written a million words.

That’s 1 000 000 words.

It’s a big number. If I wrote a word per second, every second, without breaks for eating, sleeping, or watching Netflix, it would take me 11 days, 13 hours, and 35 minutes to write it.

If I did take breaks, it would take me 6 years. Which is what I did.

I’m going to tell you exactly how it went, what I earned, and where I got Kicked in the Shin by Life, Universe, and SFF legend Jay Lake’s Tub. Also, exactly how many rejections I’ve gotten.

Read on.

Since I decided to stop fooling around and make writing something other than a dream, meaning in early 2014, I’ve written 860 000 words of fiction (862 450 to be exact) and 205 000 words of non-fiction.

Back then, I only tracked finished stories. The first one I’ve recorded in my spreadsheet (yes, I’ve kept the same spreadsheet for all these years) is 13 March 2014, “Repeaters”, a 1 100 word flash fiction dealing with a future space-faring dystopia creating ansibles by torturing psychic children. I thought it was a marvelous grimdark tale and couldn’t understand why nobody wanted to buy it.

I mean, who doesn’t like to read about child abuse, right?

That story garnered 16 rejections before I finally trunked it in March 2020, almost to the day six years after writing it. (If anyone is suddenly intrigued enough to publish it, drop me a message. Not that I believe you would, but never self-reject, right?)

But back to my writing. In 2014, I wrote 11 354 words of finished stories, spanning 12 flash fiction and 2 short stories. I covered genres from the previously mentioned dystopia to children’s picture books (Emelina Loses Her Teeth, so maybe there was a bit of dystopia in that, too.)

Four of those stories sold.

One of them, a nano-fiction called Cinderella, sold to Nanoism for a whopping $1.50. It went:

A few years later, Cinderella tossed the broken slipper in the bin and rubbed her sore feet.

I was rightfully proud of that one. I donated the money back to the publication. That didn’t help. Nanoism folded a year later (or so I remember, they seem to be alive again). Their nano-length stories, including mine, are still up on Twitter. You can find them under twitter.com/nanoism.

I sold another nano-fiction to Confettifall. That was my first sale, non-paying. Confettifall folded some time later.

Luckily, Asimov’s didn’t fold.

The Asimov’s. Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. As in Sir Isaac.

OK, so Asimov wasn’t British but American and as such could never be knighted by the queen, but if he’d had been British, he’d surely been a Sir, so he is a Sir to me. Also dead, by the time Asimov’s bought my 5 line poem “Magic in the Air”.

I got five dollars for it, sent to me on a paper check, which I proudly displayed at my local bank, and equally proudly carried home again after finding out that cashing foreign checks cost $30.

I also sold a rather simplistic time-travel-loop story to Jersey Devil Press, which hasn’t folded, either, and is a great for-the-love market to send your stories. They published two of mine over the years.

So, first year of writing: 11,5 k words, 4 sales, 2 paying. Not bad for a neophyte.

In 2015, I started tracking the words I’ve written separately from the stories I’d finished. I now had two sheets in my spreadsheet: one titled “words” and one titled “fiction”. Every time I wrote something, I logged the amount of words in my words sheet. Every time I finished a story, I logged the amount of words in my fiction sheet.

My words sheet logged a hell of a lot more words than my fiction sheet. 21 000 more words to be exact, or 44.3 percent. I was writing, but I wasn’t finishing all that much. It would get worse, later.

But I digress.

In 2015, I sold nine stories. Two to token magazines, which paid me a total of $12. One to a semi-pro magazine, which didn’t pay me anything because they paid on publication and the magazine folded before they could publish my story.

And since the contract didn’t have any reversal clause, or specify what would happen if the publisher didn’t publish the story, they still own the first publishing rights, so I can’t really do anything with it.

But that’s all right, it was a rather banal story about a Jewish family fleeing an alt-history Nazi Britain, for, of all places, Holland. Like Holland could resist the Nazis. But strange are the ways of children and writers. I don’t even remember if the family made it, or where I put the original file for that story. It wasn’t until a year later that I instituted a (somewhat) reliable folder system.

I also sold two stories to pro markets, both of which exist today. Daily Science Fiction was kind enough to buy my Ghost of the Ashwyyds, a love story between a girl and a ghost. I won’t spoil it for you. If you’re interested, all Daily SF stories are available for free online. The link is in my bibliography.

My other sale is also available for free online: There is a Beep, which sold to Nature Futures.

I was mighty proud of that one. At the time, I was working at Linköping University, and Nature was a big thing. All the professors at the Institute of Technology read it. Some congratulated me. Some wouldn’t believe that I’d been published in Nature. They had no idea that Nature published fiction, and I, kind as I was, explained the details to them. Some of them were rather relieved at that. I mean, a measly communications officer getting published in Nature when they couldn’t. Imagine that.

My story was great, in my not-so-humble opinion. It featured physics, neuroscience, virtual reality, and coding errors. My family commented that they didn’t understand it, but they were sure it was nice anyhow. Or maybe I just misheard the last part because I wanted to. To this day, the most common comment my family gives me when reading my stories is “I didn’t understand it.”

They’ve mostly stopped trying, and, mostly, so have I.

2016 was an interesting year. Trump got elected, Obama went to Cuba, Brexit became a thing, and Brazil organized the Olympic Games. Which I didn’t hear about until later, being a good writer and not watching TV. Also, sports. Fun to do, rather silly to watch. Not that I’d know anything about it, haven given up TV to get more writing time.

In 2016, I wrote 92 000 words of fiction, cramming 50 000 of them into finished stories. 29 flash, 7 short stories. Yay, elation, everybody does the wave!

Big elation. 2016 was the year I got paid.

In 2015, I earned $3.50 (at an exchange rate of 10 Swedish Kroner for each American, no-longer-convertible-to-gold dollar; it varies but 10-to-1 is an easy way of counting).

In 2016, I earned $642. With words. Of fiction. Written by me.

Sure, two of the mightiest grossing stories were things I’d sold in 2015, both DSF and Nature paying on publication. But I sold another 4 stories in 2016, including “The Bed of the Crimson King” to Grimdark Magazine. It features an urban fantasy Africa, where an abused witch-child becomes an assassin to further her mother’s revenge plans.

Child abuse is not a theme in my stories, I swear.

But $642 was money. Maybe not capital-M money, but money. Enough that I would have had to pay taxes on it, except that I used it to buy a crap-load of writing software, writing books, writing courses, and almost a mug that said “Writer in Action” on it in big, red letters. I didn’t, though, and I regret that to this day. Most of the other stuff was somewhat to fairly useless, and I still haven’t used all the software I went ga-ga over.

There is a moral in this tale, kids: shiny does not mean necessary, but sometimes the shiniest things are the most necessary. I would have liked to have that mug.

I also wrote 49 000 words of non-fiction. Meaning that I updated my blog a lot, because blogging is a lot easier than creating compelling stories out of your blood, sweat, and tears.

It wasn’t even the most productive year for me, non-fiction wise. I’d written 87 000 words of blog posts in 2015. All of them are there in the archives, and I only feel a slight shame at what they say.

Lesson: write about your passions, as long as you passions don’t include politics, religion, or doing illegal things to small, fluffy animals. Poor womp rats.

2016 ended with me being all positive, aglow in all the money I would make in 2017.

Which amounted to $71.

That’s right. Between 2015 and 2016, my earnings from writing had seen a whooping 18360% increase. Between 2016 and 2015, they saw an 89% drop.

I wrote 123 000 words in 2017, an 33% increase over the previous year.

I finished 40 000 words worth of stories, a 13% decrease.

40 000 usable words out of 123 000. That’s what the professionals call “not good.”

I also saw a huge drop in my submissions. In 2016, I’d clocked up 164 rejections. The year after, I only managed 92.

For 5 sales.

Percentage-wise, that’s an improvement. Money-wise, and production-wise, and self-respect-wise, that’s bad. Very, very bad.

I didn’t have a great year in 2017. In June, I only wrote 800 words. In August, I didn’t write a single one.

I kept trying to force myself to write, but I’d reached a plateau. I wasn’t moving forward with my fiction, I wasn’t seeing the kinds of success I’d seen the year before. Mostly, I was hitting the middle doldrums and feeling the Great Wave of Meh wash over me.

I kept giving up.

Giving up on stories, giving up on the blog, giving up on everything.

Of course, I’d got a baby (well, not me personally, but I had some participation in its making), which goes to prove that Real Life laughs at the best laid plans. But at the same time, I had the time to read 59 books (and abandoning another 30 partway in). So this wasn’t a question of time or energy.

It was about expectations, and activities. I had expected a straight climb from my accomplishments the previous years, and I’d run afoul of Jay Lake’s Tub of Excellence.

The short version goes like this:

Creative careers are like bathtubs. You start to fill them up and you splash about. At some moment, a wave builds that crests the edge, splashing the floor – your first story, your first sale, whatever you choose to define it as. Point is, it’s by accident.

But you come to believe that you’ve managed to do it once, you should be able to do it again.

You flail around in the tub, water splashes, but nothing happens. Floor is drier than ever.

A lot of people give up at this stage. They believe (correctly) that their earlier success was a fluke, and that success is entirely up to luck (wrong) and that they’ll never have it again (doubly wrong). They quit.

The rest of us keep paddling about in the bathtub, while it’s slowly filling up. And at some point, if we keep filling it with practice, knowledge, and craft, we splash the floor again. And again, and again, and again. It keeps happening more often as the tub keeps filling.

Then, there’s another danger point (this one taken from a blog post and book by Dean Wesley Smith): we start to believe that we’ve filled the tub so full that we’ll always splash the floor every time we move.

Not so. The tub has an overflow valve. It never gets so full we can’t fail. Maybe the editor bought a similar story. Maybe we didn’t fit the current theme. Maybe lesbian unicorn vampires aren’t the thing right now. Point is, we fail.

Again, failure leads to doubt leads to giving up.

But the tub is almost full. If we just continue splashing, we’ll succeed again.

In, 2017, I didn’t know that. I’d never heard of Jay Lake’s Tub. All I knew was that I’d succeeded and now I was failing, and failing, and failing. For months, I didn’t send out a single submission. I was giving up.

Then I found 4theWords.

4theWords.com is to writing what Zombies, Run! is to jogging, and prize money is to sports. A way to gamify the experience.

I love games. I love them so much that I’ve stopped playing video games because I tend to be sucked in and not come up for air for days on end.

But 4theWords rewarded me for writing.

I started using it in November of 2017. That same week, I started writing a story in Swedish, that I intended to read to my kids (for once, they wouldn’t say “we don’t get it”, not that they had because they couldn’t read English yet, so everything I wrote was automatically “we don’t get it”.)

I wrote 18 000 words in November, 35 000 words in December, 45 000 words in January of 2018, and I was on a roll.

Then I made the cardinal mistake. I assumed that I couldn’t fail. (Splash, splash goes Jay Lake’s Tub.)

In February of 2018, I wrote only 29 000 words.

I didn’t compare that to the 800 words I’d written in June, or the Big-Fat-Zero words I’d written in Big-Fat-Zero August. No, I compared that to the 45 000 words of the previous month.

Result? Big-Fat-Failure.

In March, I only wrote 22 000 words. I decided that I was slipping, that I had to find the willpower and determination to up my word count, to strive and struggle to Make It as a Real Writer.

Through a punishing schedule, harsh penalties, and lots of self-hate, I pushed my word count up to 41 000 words in April.

Then came May.

In May, I dropped down to 13 800 words, and by the second week of the month, I was fed up.

I hated writing. Hated it with a passion born of not understanding Jay Lake’s Tub. Hated, hated, hated it.

Loved it, with a fierce passion that I’d smothered in statistics overlain by a wet blanket of unrealistic goals and a piss-stained shirt of not understanding a single thing about how my brain works. Especially when coming up with strange metaphors.

I’d even made 4theWords boring. That takes determination.

In June, I wrote 2 000 words, then settled down to between 10 000 and 15 000 a month for the rest of the year.

2019 was worse.

In 2018, I’d written 225 000 words, 149 000 of which were in completed stories (which is a bit of a lie, a big chunk of those 149k comes from my Swedish-language Middle Grade Magic Zombie Thriller Series I’d written for my kids – 33% of them loved it, BTW, which would have made me a J.K. Rowling-esque bazillionaire if I could have extended it to the reading population at large.)

In 2019, I wrote 86 000 words, 38 000 of which were in finished stories. Remember the terrible 2016 above? 2019 was worse.

Money-wise, it was a record-breaking year. I earned $1934 from my writing in 2019 (all of this is from short story sales, BTW, and a commission that I wrote for the Games Workshop Black Library *fanboy squeal*) compared to $1550 earned in 2018.

In total, I sold 16 stories in 2019, another record.

A very dangerous record.

Because I was selling stories I’d written in 2018. Only 4 of the 39 stories (3 short stories and 36 flash fiction stories) I wrote in 2019 sold. Everything else was stories I’d written previously, plus the commission for the Black Library.

So I did what every rational person would do in my situation.

I gave up.

That’s right. I ceded my ambitions, coughed up my dues, delivered myself onto the altar of defeat, handed over my resignation, laid down with the dogs, relinquished my hopes, rendered myself ineffectual, surrendered, turned in, turned over, yielded, tossed in the towel.

Also, learned to use the thesaurus in my writing.

In 2019, I had five months where I wrote less than 5 000 words. It was an amazingly liberating experience, for all it being filled with grief, guilt, and recriminations.

I still wanted to write. I just wasn’t doing it.

Going into 2020, I had little inclination to write, no supply of well-written stories to submit, and bleak prospects. By now, I’d read and listened to a lot of Dean Wesley Smith’s lectures, blogs and books, and the two things he stresses a lot is that writing should be fun, and that you should use streaks to force yourself to the keyboard.

I tried. I wrote around 15 000 words/month for the first five months of 2020. And then came June.

June is to my writing what Kryptonite is to Superman – a time of death. My average word counts for the last six years worth of Junes is 1875 words. Rounded up, because A) I like the number 5, and B) it gives me another word for free.

But something had clicked in my mind. I had just failed to understand it.

Fun. Writing should be fun. If it’s not fun, something is wrong.

Maybe it’s different for you. But for me, if I don’t enjoy my writing, I’ve done something stupid, like trying to shoehorn a character into the wrong action, or run my plot into a wall, or eaten too many chocolate chip cookies.

Scratch that last one. You can never have too many chocolate chip cookies.

But I was being too harsh with myself. I was trying to force something that should flow.

My solution was to create impetus streaks. They work like this:

Every month, I print out an empty calendar. It’s a template I’ve made in Adobe Illustrator, with five weeks worth of empty boxes, and a space where I can stick an appropriately SFF-nal image.

Then I fill in the dates for that month by hand, because I’m not smart enough to set up a template that does it automatically for me. For every day, if I’ve written so much as a single letter, I draw an open book, and fill in an impetus streak number next to it.

If I skip a day, I write a number two lower the next day. So my numbers could go 26, 27, 28, nothing, 26.

It’s enough to get me to the keyboard when I feel a bit lazy, not enough to force me if I’m feeling burned. Enough to get me motivated by the gamified carrot of seeing my score increase, not enough to make me cringe at wiping out my entire streak by a single missed day.

Neither does it invite cheating, like 4theWord’s streaks did (you can restore them by buying magical gems).

I’ve also extended my streaks to walking (every day that I walk outside I get a point) and exercise (body weight exercises – each day, one point).

The change was amazing.

In August, I wrote 21 000 words. September, October, November hoovered around 25 000 each. December went to 36 000, January 2021 to 28 000.

Not quite as high as during my 4theWords binge, but these were completely different words than the ones I’d written in 2017/2018. Those words were motivated by an external, flashy, game. Which, when I hit a snag, demotivated me (I’m one of those glass-is-half-empty type of people.)

Now, when I don’t feel like writing, I don’t feel guilty. I can take a day or two off. All it does, is decrease my points. No big deal, but just enough of a big deal to get me typing. It was enough to make 2020 my most productive year, with 235 000 words written, and 178 000 in finished stories.

So. Lifetime career stats time.

  • 860 000 words of fiction
  • 205 000 words of non-fiction (not counting work)
  • 6 finished novels/novellas over 15 000 words (0 sold)
  • 45 finished short stories of 1 500 to 15 000 words (14 sold)
  • 183 flash fiction finished (31 sold)
  • $5674 earned with fiction
  • 793 lifetime submissions
  • 114 personal rejections
  • 52 acceptances (including a few non-fiction pieces related to my fiction)
  • Longest story sold: 13 400 words
  • Shortest story sold: 8 word (actually 0 words + 8 words of title)
  • Average submissions per sale and genre:
    • Fantasy: 25,7
    • Literary/Mainstream/Non-fiction: 10,9
    • SF: 12,9

In addition to this, I’ve completed four short novels since August 2020, and am almost done with a full-length novel. All of them in a series that I’m now ramping up to self-publish.

Will that be enough to get my earnings up in 2021?

I don’t know. I don’t really care. My goals right now are to have fun while I write and finish reliably, thus building a long-term backlist.

I’ll let you know how it turns out.

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