Awards, the Engines of Anxiety

If you were trying to come up with a system specifically meant to drive a set of writers mad, you couldn’t do a hair better than to set up a major industry award and then tell them they’re eligible this year. Every step of the process is beautifully calculated to create misery and self-doubt. Every one.

We’ve apparently begun talking about what we’ll be nominating for various genre literary awards next year — the Hugos and the Nebulas, most notably. Best of Year lists are going around, and never mind that we have several weeks of new releases to come. Starts earlier every year, doesn’t it? Just like Christmas.

I say to you with no exaggeration that I want to hide under a warm blanket and not come out again until it’s all decided.  I know from experience: no good can come of participating in this conversation, as someone who, in theory, has skin in the game.* Not for me, and not for many of my colleagues — maybe even most of them. 

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that writers are not the most emotionally stable and healthy group of human beings around! A lot of that is because of the nature of the work itself. The process of writing is incredibly personal and isolating, and the link between the work and any recognition is so small and tenuous that it may as well not even exist. Criticism of your creative output can feel like criticism of your deepest heart. It is the worst. It’s no wonder so many of us have various degrees of depression and anxiety.

Awards are, in theory, one of the ways to make up for it. We offer glory to those works we feel have extra merit, in order to encourage writers and honor their achievements.

The casualties, though, are not low. 

How Much Do They Love You? 

The emotional turmoil that awards cause begins early, as soon as the lists begin circulating. (Or, honestly, even earlier — since there are running reading lists kept up all year.) Let’s say that you, dear reader, have written a story this year, or perhaps a novel. Perhaps it was well-received. Perhaps one or two people have even said the A-word in talking to you about it.

Well, it’s only human to wonder if your work has made it onto any of those lists after all, and so perhaps you peek at a wiki or a spreadsheet or a reading list to see if your name is there on any of them.

Writer friends, never do this. Never. No good can come of it. There is no outcome from this action that leads to excellent mental health in the months this process takes.

But you look anyway (and by you, I of course mean me). Maybe your name is on one or more of the lists, and a seed of hope begins somewhere in you, that this could be your year. This hope is small and bright and hot, and you’re afraid of it, because you know that the more you hope, the greater your disappointment will be if it doesn’t come to pass. So you try as hard as you can to snuff it out and persuade yourself that really, truly, you don’t deserve it. You’re not worthy. It will never happen.

If your name isn’t there, that disappointment starts right away — because your brain lies to you in a hundred different ways at once, and somehow this omission becomes a proxy for your work not mattering, and how nobody loves you, everybody hates you, obviously your output is amateurish and weak, and my goodness, wasn’t it arrogant of you to even dream for a second that you might have produced a real contender? How dare you hope. How dare you look.

Then, when nominations come out, the same cycle repeats. The hope gets brighter and hotter and more frightening if you’re actually nominated; the disappointment is fiercer, here, if you were on those lists, and if you did think you had a fair shot at being recognized, but your name is nonetheless missing from any ballot. 

Winning and Losing

Let me tell you a secret. I’ve won a fair share of professional awards for my non-publishing work — more than fair. And yes, losing when you were so close is a grave disappointment.

Winning, though? That can really mess you up. (Especially if you’re very early in your career, and not yet accustomed to losing.) Because those lies your brain tells you when your name isn’t on a list are a faint shadow of the ones that happen after you win.

Suddenly the award means that from now on, people will expect a certain benchmark from you, and any future work that does not win as many awards is a step down — a grave disappointment. Never mind that it’s impossible to win every award for every work you write. Or perhaps you convince yourself that it was just a fluke — and again, people will be disappointed with you moving forward, when they find out what your work is really like ordinarily. Or perhaps it means that your best work is now behind you, and all you can look forward to is a sad decline into obscurity, no matter how hard you work.

I know this from hard experience. Many years ago, I worked on a non-publishing project that won buckets of awards. It was thrilling! ...Until I tried to start something new, and was buried under a false sense that it had to mean something.

This is a difficult problem to talk about, because it can sound like ingratitude for your recognition; a weird sort of complaining about a problem that other people wished they had. So you can’t really talk about it, or bring in your usual support networks to help you cope with it.

But. It was at least a year before I was able to work again without intense anxiety.  A year.

Does this mean I am against awards and don’t want to win one ever again? HA HA HA no, I wish I was so evolved, but I’m not. I am absolutely a mercenary careerist, and awards genuinely help your visibility and marketability forever. That’s part of the whole pernicious problem. If awards truly were meaningless, it would be much easier to ignore them. But they do mean something. That sweet, addictive external validation matters to your future prospects. 

So I want it. I won’t lie. I want it a lot. And no, if I get a nomination, I’m certainly not going to decline, be it this year or another year. But in the meanwhile? The best thing to do, for me and probably for you, too, is to step away from the whole conversation. You can’t control it. All you can do is try to keep working. Better and healthier to focus on that.


 * As I write this, I’m in the position of having written an eligible work that, yes, I think could be a contender this year. Or at least it was widely read and very well received? But I’ve spent months trying to argue myself into believing it’s impossible. Even saying “yes, I hope,” feels like unforgivable arrogance. Awards, man. They really mess you up.

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android

Where to Find Me at Confusion 2017

I'm going to be at Confusion 2017 again this year, in Novi, Michigan from Jan. 19-22. And I'm gonna be on programming, too, so woooo!

I don't have a lot else set up yet beyond this, but I'd really love to put a couple of meetups for drinks or coffees on my calendar. So if you're going to be there and you might want to hang out, drop me a line?

And without further ado, here's my schedule so far:

All Your Data Are Belong To Us

Saturday, 4:00 PM. Room: Petoskey
What is "the internet of things?" How smart do we really want our devices to be? What will society look like when whole systems of objects talk to each other to shape our lives? And who controls the data our things collect?

Group Autograph Session (5 PM)

Saturday, 5:00 PM. Room: St. Clair
Come meet your favorite authors, artists and musicians and have them sign things! (Please limit your signing requests to 3 items per person.)

Reading: Max Gladstone, Mur Lafferty, Andrea Phillips

Saturday, 8:00 PM. Room: Saugatuck
Authors read from current or forthcoming works

Pantsers Rule! (Or So They Tell Me)

Sunday, 10:00 AM. Room: Interlochen
No plan! No safety net! Writing by the seat of your pants is the best, most effective writing strategy. Well... at least for some writers. What are the strengths and weaknesses, and what might be some alternatives, other than outlining?

Writing is Fundamental

Sunday, 11:00 AM. Room: Isle Royale
Some of the fundamentals of prose storytelling have evolved over time, and some vary wildly between genres. What has changed since the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres came to be as we know them, and how have genres like mystery, romance, and YA diverged?

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android

Revision Cover Reveal

My debut novel, Revision, now has a cover and preorder links and a release date! The date is May 5 of 2015, you can get preorder links from Fireside Fiction, and the cover is... well.... let me just show you.


Meanwhile, I've gone through a very complicated reaction to the cover design process, and I thought I'd share it with you. The original cover designs were very much like this final cover; basically we combined the visual treatment of one with the text treatment of another, and BAM. Magic.

This is a very serious cover, I think. This is the cover for a book that lays a hard claim to being a science fiction novel. And that's what I wanted -- in fact, my most heartfelt addition to the cover brief was "no girl cooties." Revision is indeed a book upon which you could put an engagement ring on the cover and it wouldn't be... entirely misleading. Except that it would mean I couldn't get the kind of attention for this book that in my secret heart I want to get, because hahaha chicklit amirite?

And yet, and yet, I had a bit of panic at the idea of having such a serious cover for this book. When I drilled deep down into my psyche, I found fear, as one always does, and this time the fear took this shape: "What if they find out this is a GIRL BOOK about GIRL THINGS and they get angry? Because this is not a serious book."

Let's unpack this a little.

"This is not a serious book" is something I tell myself so it won't hurt if people dismiss it, but under the snarky, funny candy shell, this is to its core a book about privilege, about human nature, about trying and failing and trying again. It's not a serious book in that it's not The Handmaid's Tale, but it's not NOT a serious book, either. So why am I afraid of presenting myself as a serious author?

It's because we've created a false dichotomy where a book about a woman, where the core relationship is a friendship between women, where the most important plot drivers are to do with relationships and trust -- everything else falls away, and suddenly that book can't be serious. I can't be serious. So that cover is misleading.

In the interests of feminism, I've decided to stomp the hell out of that voice telling me it's too serious, too misleading -- because Revision is no more nor less serious a book than, say, Wool is, and I don't blink at that equally serious cover for a second.

But I doubt, and I worry. The fear is always there. Because that's what it is to be a woman author; to always be threading the needle between "woman" and "author." Let's hope this time we got it right.

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android

Let He Who Is Without Sin

Let's talk about Jonathan Ross and the Hugos. He was announced as the host of the Hugos at Loncon3, there was a Twitter uproar, and then he stepped down, all over the course of a few hours. This incident has left many people uncomfortable, and I'm one of them. 

I woke up one fine Saturday morning to discover that Farah Mendlesohn, a member of the Loncon committee, had resigned because a misogynist, racist, all around offensive fellow had been tapped to host the Hugos. (That would be Jonathan Ross.) I read her post (which has since been removed). I did a bit of light double-checking. I saw his controversies section in Wikipedia. I saw the Mirror article of his top ten most controversial moments.

Now here's the thing: when this began, I didn't know Jonathan Ross from Adam. I'd never heard of him before and had zero cultural context for understanding just how controversial he might be. Given the outcry, I assumed that must be pretty awful. I prepared to join that general outcry.

Within moments, my friend Naomi Alderman reacted to this question with utter bafflement. She's in the UK herself, and familiar with that media landscape. She's also as staunch a feminist as I know; indeed, she's habitually more sensitive to these issues in media than am I, and can't watch or read some things I enjoy because of their misogyny. Other UK friends soon corroborated: Ross was not a controversial figure in the UK, no more than Jay Leno. 

I found myself searching for reasons to defend the outcry. He must be an inappropriate choice, I thought. The internet had told me so. A bad fit for the event. Nothing to do with genre. We didn't need yet another white dude. And anyway look at how pissed off he is at all of these people calling him a sexist douchebag! Nail in the coffin!

It's important to recognize what happened in my head right there, and probably in others' as well. I, having no direct knowledge of the merits of the matter at hand, heard an accusation that appealed to my politics and sense of justice. And I leapt to a conclusion. I was willing to go to the mat for that conclusion. It turns out I might've been wrong.

Ross is married to a Hugo winner, so I'm thinking he knows the magnitude of the award. He's spoken at other genre events before. He's a steady advocate for SF/F in the mainstream. He's said some off-color stuff from time to time, to be sure, but looking at the grand arc of his career, it doesn't appear to be characterized by raunchy humor and exploitation.

People make mistakes, and the truth is often more complicated than something as straightforward as "Ross is a misogynist, homophobic, racist jerk." Ross has spent a lot of time in public life. He's going to screw up and say the wrong thing from time to time. I can't help but notice that most of those wrong things he's said happened several years ago.

For lo these many moons, we in SF/F circles have been fighting the good fight against all of the -isms. And we've made great progress, I think. As a community, we've become much more sensitive to offering perceived affront. Our literature is becoming more diverse, more representative, and richer and broader for it. It's been a good and necessary effort.

But meanwhile... I've seen a lot of discomfort from the SF/F men in my Twitter stream the past few days, a reluctance to talk about this issue in public.

I can't blame them. Suddenly we've created an environment where a high-profile individual saying the wrong thing at the wrong time risks being devoured alive, with no judge or jury. No benefit of the doubt. No pause to step back and measure the magnitude of the offense. Forget the ridiculous Truesdale petition about censorship -- but there is a real chilling effect going on here. People are afraid to disagree with what happened.

Fear doesn't make for good discourse.

Even saying "Hey, I think the accusations against Ross were overblown and ultimately wrong, we should chill out a little bit," could risk a dude losing friends or fans because suddenly they can be cast in the light of anti-feminism. Even good men, strong allies, active feminists. 

But you know what? I think the Ross-Loncon3 situation is a sign to us that maybe we should chill out a little bit.

...Because this isn't how I want my community to be. The shift from "this person is doing something objectionable right now and we have to stop it," to "this person said some objectionable things some years in the past and so he's not welcome among us," is one that gives me great pause. You know who else has said some objectionable things in the past? Me. You know who else? You.

I'd like to be in a community that practices forgiveness, that educates instead of excoriates. A community that gives second chances. That says, "Hey, that was wrong, you should apologize and this is how you can do it better next time," and not, "Don't let the door hit you on the ass on your way out." 

I'd especially not like to be in a community that says "You've screwed up before, so you're definitely gonna screw up again next time. Get lost, asshole." Which looks to me like what ultimately happened in the Ross situation.

I am by no means suggesting we stop advocating for equality, for representation, for moderation in public venues. I want these things to continue, and in spades. We want to create a safe space for all people. We want to discourage hateful speech and action. 

But we can't demand perfection. There are no perfect people. If we can't allow room within our community for people to screw up and get better, or for people to thoughtfully disagree, then eventually all the flawed people will be gone. And nobody will be left at all.

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android

So How Was 2013?

It's the time of year when the idle mind drifts toward the past year's accomplishments and failures. This has been a strange year for me; I feel like I've taken enormous leaps forward in some respects, and lost ground in others. I guess that's fair, since 2011 and 2012 were both pretty big for me. They can't all be big.

So call this a fallow year, perhaps, getting the spirit ready for new growth in the new year. One can hope.

I Did Some Projects

It's no secret that the curious intersection of games, story, community management, and marketing in which I do most of my client work has had a shaky year or so. That's been visible in my pipeline of paying client work; the flow of work dried up unexpectedly at about this time a year ago and never fully recovered. It's been a pleasant break from always doing four projects at once, to be sure, but a little rush of when-it-rains-it-pours would be welcome for my bank account right... about... now.

That said, I'm pleased with the client projects I did in 2013. For one, I made forays into the fashion industry this year -- I helped out the Diesel Reboot project which was nominated for a Mashable Award. And I got to do a little workshopping at Glamour, which was lovely.

My biggest project for the year, though, was probably The Walk -- a co-creation of Six to Start and Naomi Alderman, for which I had the joy of doing storylining, character creation, early drafts and additional writing. The game will launch in just a few days, and I'll have a little more to say about it once that's happened.

A project from 2012 finally launched, too: the GE Wonderground project went up in the spring. (...But seems to be gone already. Ephemerality, eh.)

Which moves on to my next point: this was another big year for evaporating projects and unsuccessful pitches. Early on, a simply marvelous project in the beauty industry that had seemed like a sure thing -- even to the point of sending across a deal memo for me to sign -- fell through at the eleventh hour. And a pitch for an extension of a TV show I desperately wanted to work on wasn't greenlit, either. I have regrets; both of these projects would have been stellar if they'd been built out. Alas.

Well, there's always something else, right?

Indie Work Ahoy!

I've been saying for years I want to focus harder on making and shipping my own work. That's the silver lining in that slow pipeline -- this year I finally started to follow through. To that end, Lucy Smokeheart is my flagship accomplishment for 2013. Not in terms of money, really (though $7700 in Kickstarted funds is nothing to sneeze at, as far as publishing goes!) But I feel those creaky wheels start to turn. You cannot build an audience without shipping work.

Lucy has been tremendous fun to write. It's also been a difficult project for me, as far as setting my own expectations at a reasonable bar. I'm used to working on a scale of audience a couple of magnitudes bigger, so while Lucy's been a success by the benchmarks I set myself up front (earning about as much as a genre novel advance in Kickstarted funds) I haven't really seen the steadily growing flow of additional sales I'd hoped for.

The readership also hasn't formed much in the way of a cohesive community, and by and large hasn't been especially excited and talkative about the project (at least not anywhere I've seen). This leads me to the conclusion that it is simply not as awesome as it needs to be. I am of course committed to finishing the Lucy project no matter what, but I'm newly riddled with insecurity regarding whether I got what it takes, etc., etc. 

In other independent work: you may or may not remember my talking about Felicity throughout last year. At the beginning of the year, my agent was shopping around Felicity, and apparently got some interest -- but editors wanted to see a complete manuscript before biting. To that end, I've started writing from the outline. This is going much more slowly than I'd prefer, but publishing is a slow game and requires nerves of steel.

Appearances and Speaking

I made a conscious choice to do much less punditing this year. In total I only appeared at five or six events, and only attended a couple more on top of that. I feel like speaking about transmedia and marketing has been actively taking away time and energy from doing the work I want to be doing, and from spending time with my family. I don't want to become the person who talks about stuff but never does it anymore.

Some of the engagements I was getting were increasingly making me uncomfortable, too. The applications of transmedia in a B2B situation? Not what I'm here for, not what I'm good at, and trying to squeeze into something like that was starting to make me feel dishonest.

...That said, it's plausible that my pipeline was thinner this year because I did less speaking, so I may have to reconsider that for 2014. 


I started a podcast called The Cultures this year with dear friends and colleagues Naomi Alderman and Adrian Hon, so that was nice! It's been a lot of fun to carve out a space each week for thoughtful conversation about religion, science, art, how to live a good life, and so on. I'm delighted to do it, delighted we have some listeners, and in general it's been a lovely experience all around.

I'm doing a little goofy eBay art project called Letting Myself Go, just... because.

I redesigned my website. Isn't it pretty?

Oh yeah, and I had cancer this year? So that happened. I have some thoughts regarding that, but... I think I'm going to put that into another post.

For 2014

So what do I want out of 2014? What are my plans, what are my wishes?

On the practical front, I have a client project in the works right now, but the time commitment and time frame are still a little up in the air. So I might need to hustle. Now my kids are both in grade school, I'm contemplating whether the timing is right for me to finally get a real actual job; a little predictability would be pleasant, and I'm absolutely dying for a project where my involvement is measured in months, not weeks. I'm not convinced, but at the very least I'm much more open to that conversation than I have been in years. Either way -- if you'd like to work with me, as always, drop me a line

For Lucy: I keep on keeping on; I'm even working on a secret proposal for a thing related to Lucy which will hopefully come to fruition at about the same time Lucy concludes, in May or June. (Though we'll see; writing time and scheduling being what they are, it may hit end-of-year instead.) I'll let you know more once I'm a little more confident it's going to pan out.

That vanishing beauty industry project also left me with a story concept I love to pieces, and I may try to get an animated transmedia series produced. A huge undertaking, but I do really, really love the story, so... I just need to get the ball rolling, for right now.

Finally: I parted ways with my agent a few months back, so now I'm officially looking for representation for SF/F genre work. In particular, I have that novel about The Wiki Where Your Edits Come True I'd like to sell. If you are an agent or you're on good terms with an agent and you'd like to introduce me, by all means, reach out. On the other hand, if I've done an honest job of shopping and haven't found an agent by, say, June, then I'm going to find another way to get it out there.

Annnnd I guess that's about a wrap on 2013. A year marked by uncertainty. Here's to being sure of ourselves in 2014, eh?

Like my blog? Buy my books!

Get the Serial Box App for iOS | Android