Month: April 2015

Author Wages

Median earnings of professional authors fall below the minimum wage

It’s not easy to make a living as a writer, particularly as a novellist.

I’ve known this for a long time. With writers like Charles Stross, Kameron Hurley and Jim Hines posting regularly about where they make their money, if not their actual authorial income, it’s pretty apparent that switching to making a living wage from fiction away from making solid money as a software developer is a fantastical idea.

There are two broad themes to write about here.

Firstly, the market is changing: it is getting harder to receive a living wage from established channels, and newer channels aren’t necessarily lucrative either.

Secondly, how on Earth do you plan around that?

I’m going to focus here on the second point, because that’s what I actually understand.

A good friend saw that piece in The Guardian and asked me, if median wages are so low amongst professional authors, how could any responsible adult take up writing as a career? And by “responsible adult” he was particularly thinking of someone with children.

To be clear, I don’t think writing has ever been an easy gig (absent Terry Pratchett’s remark that it’s indoor work with no heavy lifting) – it’s always been hard to break into a publishing deal, or to get paid your due for the work put in. Part of the difficulty with getting paid for writing and for creative work in general is that people do it anyway: expressing yourself creatively is a tremendously important part of being human. Still, it’s always been difficult to transition from creating as a hobby to creating as a job. The creative industries and audiences are fickle and tend to squeeze the means of production rather than the publication infrastructure.

This question of responsibility has arisen for me before. I’ve mostly been working at start-ups for the last decade or so but when I first started doing that another friend asked me how I could do work for a start-up when I had a young family. The answer I gave then was that jobs at large companies were actually no more stable than those at start-ups: I’d been laid off recently at that point, and since then almost all of my friends in the technology industry have either been laid off from apparently  stable companies or jumped before they were laid off.

Of course, technology start-ups pay better than writing.

My main hope with that survey is that the respondents including a lot of hobbyist authors like myself, who write because they want to write and take any actual income as a bonus. At least that survey covered UK authors who have access to healthcare whether they are earning or not: that particular glory is not available in the States. However with the limited time available to someone working a full time day job, the choice is to write well or to write prolifically.

And that really is my plan: to write as well as I can in the time I have, and to look for opportunities to publish that work when it is good enough. It would be nice to have the money to spend more time writing now, but that is not likely to happen any time soon*.

So, back to making stories.

[*] see myriad resources on what the stock market has done since 2001, and the functional collapse of household wages since the 80s.

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Crack of Dawn

Restarting A New Dawn reminds me of how ingenious and committed my players are.

The session started with the characters being told to take a couple of weeks off. I wanted to lay down a thread of disquiet and mentioned that the homeless population seemed to be lower than it had been – no one in the party had long-standing links to any dispossessed, but they all swung into action to try and ascertain the cause.

Within five minutes they had:

  • interviewed staff at homeless shelters
  • set up a surveillance network using traffic cameras to watch for disappearances
  • talked to homeless people to see if any of them had any idea where their comrades had gone

… and this was before I’d even briefed them on the information that they needed for the adventure.

It’s so cool to have such an energised group.

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In My Defense…

So now it’s Thursday and it’s not looking like I’ll get a Wednesday post up either. Indeed, Friday is looking pretty dubious too.

I’ve been working on the novel outline a lot, and not getting enough sleep which tends to muck up my blog schedule.

Anyway, I think I am going to declare this a de facto week off.

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Binge Watching

Television is consumed much differently now than when I was growing up. In those distant days before pervasive home video recording, if you missed a programme* then you just had to hope for a repeat. You watched one episode at a time, and you often ended up missing episodes because it was not always possible to be in front of the magic glowing box at the same time every week. If you had a video recorder you could time-shift a bit, but watching a film at home involved going to a video rental store – the only realistic way to own a copy of anything was to record it off the telly.

But now? Now it’s not just films you can find on video but entire boxed sets of a series. Programmes are available online after broadcast so you can catch up even if you don’t have a recorder to help with the time shift. Seeing every episode is the norm rather than the domain of the obsessive**.

Now we can binge-watch entire seasons in a weekend.

Here are a few suggestions for the next time you have a weekend to kill.

Doctor Who

I wrote about my long-standing relationship to Doctor Who last year, but in short…

Thanks to a bout of stomach flu last year, I went from having seen almost none of the new Doctor Who episodes to having seen most of them in just a few days. Each episode stands alone (usually), but there are some impressively long-lasting story arcs across this series.

Battlestar Galactica

I am talking here about the recent reboot rather than the 1980s show. I enjoyed the original show when it was broadcast, but this the newer one is incredibly addictive television. I remember borrowing the pilot from a friend and watching the whole three hour presentation in one evening and just not being able to stop.

That addictive quality continues on for a good part of the run. It lost the intensity a bit in the third season, but watching this in a binge is the perfect way to get past the slower parts.

Game of Thrones

We do not have cable and therefore could not watch any of these as they were first shown: we buy the DVD set and then inhale it over a few short nights.

Although this post is about binge-watching, we actually try to limit our consumption to just a couple of episodes at a time so as to spin out the new material for as long as we can. Once they are all done, though, we’ll be watching all of them again in one go.


This is a show original to Netflix, and it’s a doozy.

Forget everything about the Daredevil film. The basic premise of the character is the same, but the way the story is told and the topics that it deals with are so much grittier and more engaging than the glossy story anchored by Ben Affleck’s rather wooden portrayal.

The storytelling is beautiful too. There are origin details scattered throughout this telling, but they are dropped in like seasoning and add to the tension in the now.

What series do you recommend to binge watch?

[*] computer program, but television programme. That’s my usage anyway. Feel free to correct me in your head.

[**] which, in fairness, I was.

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GM Styling

I enjoy running roleplaying games, but I get stressed about it too. Part of this stress is the energy required for me to prepare the game*.

The thing is that I am a high prep GM because of the stories I want to tell – the setting and overall story arc for A New Dawn generates stories pretty quickly, but sewing together the threads which connect those stories takes time. Then I want to have a decent idea of the layouts for the battle scenes, and the stats for the opposition**, and character traits for any NPCs which the players will interact with directly. Without a lot of these details I do not feel ready to operate a game.

Not all GMs are like this. Another GM in our group is much more free-form in his preparation. He has ideas of what should happen, but the settings he uses tend to be looser. I don’t know how much time he spends preparing, but I’m willing to bet it’s less than me. And there are many articles online about improvising roleplaying sessions, or prep-free GMing.

All of these are instructive, but don’t really seem to help me with my story-driven prep. I have the tales to tell, and I have the intertwined narratives that don’t want to be mis-tangled, .

In other words, I am making it difficult for myself because I have specific stories I want to tell when I run a game, and I want those stories to line up.

I think of A New Dawn as being structured like a television show***: an evening’s play is one episode, and the set of episodes in one run as a GM is a season. When a new season starts I spend more time than usual on prep because I am working on the theme for that season and the events to be related. I’m also trying to think of likely hooks at the end of each episode – not so much cliffhangers as bridges from one episode to the next.

So what I am working on right now are the details of the first session’s play. I’ve got the large scale content sorted out, but I’m trying to finalise the specifics of what the characters will see when they are plopped down in the world.

A lot of this is transferable to writing stories – the world building is similar, the story structures can be related to each other. And of course it’s fun.

Telling stories is fun.

[*] the other part is the stress I feel because I am not working on my novel when I am doing this prep, but that’s a separate discussion.

[**] I should be preparing battle tactics for the opposition too, but if anything falls off the end it’s this aspect.

[***] a concept I borrowed from some of the Savage Worlds settings, particularly Slipstream

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Breathing In and Breathing Out

I am not always a person in perfect equilibrium. I sometimes feel scratchy and irritable, unable to settle on tasks or finding little to enjoy in what I’m doing.

I usually attribute this to not writing enough, but I think that sometimes it is because I spend too much time with the figurative pen in hand, and not enough consuming the raw material needed to make stories.

Sometimes I breathe in, sometimes I breathe out.

This weekend has been a prime example of that. Saturday was productive, a quiet weekend with good time spent on plotting and machinating, but Sunday was… well, I was not in a good mood, and I failed to take proper advantage of the time I had for any task. Some of that could just be tiredness, but I had a solid night’s sleep so that shouldn’t really be a factor.

Then we watched a film – The Empire Strikes Back – and my equilibrium returned. I felt less scratchy, less off-balance. I felt like I could do good work on something.

I come back again to figuring out how to spend good time on my writing: the work I do at the day job soaks up so much of my effective creative energy, but then not all of the time I spend creatively should be in staring at the same words on the page.

I’ve not been reading enough lately. Maybe once the Shapes outline is done I should spend some real time on consuming books instead.

The well may be running dry. Time to refill it.

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Dawn Light

It’s time for my roleplaying campaign, A New Dawn, to kick back into gear.

Just as a quick summary, this campaign is a superhumans setting. The player characters woke up having no memory of the previous ten weeks or so. It doesn’t take them long to realise that they are now able to do bizarre things – fly, turn invisible, stretch, blast foes with radiation bolts…

They have become superhumans, if not superheroes.

The group is confronted by a bank robbery featuring other superpowered characters, and from there they are recruited by a government agency which has been charged with monitoring and employing superhumans to protect the country from others of that ilk.

They’ve had numerous adventures, mostly in Portland, but the state of play right now is that they are aware of at least three other groups of superhumans (one defeated and another which claims to be friendly), they have a bad guy in custody, and there appears to be some connection with an ancient cult.

The job now is to write plots for the next season. The ideas are coming thick and fast, I’m glad to say.

Bwa, as they say, hahahahaha.

Best get back to it. Evil plans don’t make themselves.

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Being Civic

There are many things that can be complained about in the States, but fundamentally it’s a nice place to live. There are some responsibilities to be discharged in that society, however: voting, paying taxes, and serving on a jury.

Paying taxes (or at least filing tax returns) is something I’ve done since before I worked full time, and I’ve voted fairly consistently when I’ve had the opportunity (apart from a few years in Britain when I lived in places where the sitting majorities were overwhelming) but jury service is something I had not able to do until this week.

I was eligible to serve in Britain for fifteen years, but I was never called. When I moved to the States, even before I gained my US citizenship, I was called twice* – of course I was not eligible and was excused. So when I received the juror summons a few weeks ago it was with a sense of it having caught up with me at last. I’ve never been in a courtroom before so the notes here are necessarily to do with the US system in general, and the Oregon system in particular.

The trial process is called “deliberations” for a reason – it’s careful, and there are no shortcuts. The judge made it clear that there would be breaks regularly, but that if a potential juror needed to take a necessary break then the proceedings would be suspended until they returned – there are rules about everything in the court being performed in front of the entire panel.

I was in a selection pool for a fourteen person jury, called out from the waiting area in the first batch of jurors for the pool, and after twenty jurors were excused for schedule reasons we finally started the actual selection fifteen minutes before breaking for lunch. We took turns answering a set of standard questions, then individual questions of the pool members took up the rest of the day until dismissal and continued the next morning.

There were three lawyers who asked questions (one for the plaintiffs, two of the three defendants’ representatives) and so the questions were not completed until half past ten on the second day. At that point we were told to take a long break, then to wait in a neighbouring room while the juror selection itself was made privately.

I was not selected.

I will not pretend that I am sad about being excused. The trial was scheduled to take two weeks, and although this was specified as a possibility on the summons (two days service being required) I can ill afford two weeks away from the day job at this time.

And yet, and yet… the brief glimpse I had was very interesting, and the majesty of the setting was impressive. I think it would have been an involving case had I been selected.

I was glad to be able to serve in some capacity, and that I was able to hear the stories my fellow jurors told of their lives – or at least those parts the lawyers asked about.

It’s an important part of the society we live in. I hope to be able to serve again at some point in the future.

Have you ever been on a jury?

[*] they use the driving license records to select juror candidates, it transpires.

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You Can Say That Again

You Can Say That Again by Marcia Riefer Johnston is a toothsome book, ideal for lovers of, as the author puts it, “foibled language”.

I’ve written before about Johnston’s last book, Word Up!, which I enjoyed enormously, and much of the same humour and playfulness infuses this volume.

You Can Say That Again is not a heavy book by any measure – it’s a whimsical collection of tautological expressions, whether they are repetitive noun phrases, duplicative adjectives, or verbose verbs. It’s pointed out that sometimes tautology is appropriate for emphasis or even necessary to make sense, but also that flabby tautology does a lot to put readers off – perhaps even to the point where they abandon reading entirely, what amounts to a fatal to the effectiveness of your words.

The main part of the book is a largely alphabetical listing of these unnecessary doublings, and that is also where much of the humour can be found. Who hasn’t despaired of being asked for their PIN number (or even their personal PIN number)? * As someone with a soupçon of French, I was appalled by “with au jus sauce”, but did not know how duplicative “challa bread” was until now.

Fundamentally, this book appeals to the colossal pedant in me. I very much enjoyed the phrases collected.

Whether you are amused by mis-steps in language, or wish to be alerted to where these faux pas might creep in in your own writing, I would definitely recommend You Can Say That Again.

[*] network NIC card is another one that makes me shudder, but since most folks don’t need to worry about installing such things these days it doesn’t turn up very often any more.

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