Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.43: Sequencing Your Career Genome

Your Hosts: Howard, Mary Robinette, Dan, and DongWon

Let’s talk about career planning. It’s a lot more than just launching a career by selling a book, and in this episode we talk about the kinds of things we want to be thinking about and preparing for beyond simply selling our next book or project.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Bert Grimm at WXR 2018, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Identify an author whose career you’d like to emulate. Research their career timeline, including the release dates of their books, and possibly the order in which things were written and sold.

Thing of the week: This is How You Lose the Time War, by Max Gladstone, and Amal el Mohtar.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: What do you do after you sell the first book? Or what do you do when the series did well, but… then there’s a slump? You can’t predict exactly what will happen. Look for decision points. At least have a sense of if this happens, I’ll do this. Good or bad things! Know when to change approaches. You can stop and take time to plan! Think about multiple exit routes. You may want to balance several things, not just do one thing full-time. Think about careers you might like to emulate. Take a look at self-publishing, freelancing, write-for-hire. There are many outlets. Think about income streams. Know your bandwidth! What are your limits, both up and down. Don’t get locked into one genre. Think about production schedules, think about lifestyle. What is your creative throughput, and how do you want to use it?

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 43.

[Howard] This is Writing Excuses, Sequencing Your Career Genome.

[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Dongwon] And we’re not that smart.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Dongwon] And I’m Dongwon.

[Howard] We’re going to talk about the sequence in which you do things to plan your career, based on the kind of career that you want your career to grow up to be. I shortened that into something that sounds all science-y, but we’re not going to break out the CRISPR in order to… 


[Howard] Bacterially inject your career with pieces of my [immune?].

[Dan] Oh, man. I wish you would, though. That would help me so much.

[Mary Robinette] That would be so much easier than actually trying to think about what I wanted to do.

[Dan] Yeah, genetically engineering a career instead of raising one from birth.

[Howard] I think Dongwon’s headband… We wear headbands to keep these microphones on our head. Dongwon’s headband actually has some of Brandon’s DNA in it.

[Mary Robinette] Actually, no. I’m wearing Brandon’s.

[Howard] Oh, are you wearing Brandon’s headband?

[Dan] Oh, okay.

[Dongwon] We’re really just going to Frankenstein into one large monster by the end of this.


[Howard] So, Dongwon, this is an episode you pitched to us. How does an author, new or established or even old, make these kinds of career plans? 

[Dongwon] Well, career planning is not a thing that we talk a lot… Talk about a lot in the industry. Especially, I don’t hear it being discussed at writing conferences, and especially for new writers. In part, because you’re so focused on how do I find an agent, how do I sell this first project? But the thing that I always see happen is once you sell that first book, then there’s immediate pressure to have a second book. Since you spent the first 10 years of your life… Writing life, writing that first novel, now suddenly you have to produce a second book in a year. Everyone panics and runs into a very common problem, which is the second book in a series or sequel is not as good or is a much more painful process than writers really want it to be. So one thing I really like is if authors can start thinking about what they want their career to look like in the early stages. Then you can start planning for not only this book but what’s next, and then what’s going to come after that.

[Dan] Career planning is something that I wish I had known more about when I got started in this process. Because I feel like I did a pretty good job of the first one. I had a series. My second series actually hit the New York Times list. I thought I was doing pretty well, and then hit a slump. I had not planned ahead for it, I had not planned for it, creatively, emotionally, or financially. If I had had… If I had known then what I know now about how to plan ahead and look further into the future, it would have been so much easier to avoid that, to avoid kind of just relying on the publishing industry to stay consistent, which it never does. I know now that, okay, if I have more irons in more fires, and branching out into a… More forms, more mediums, more outlets for my fiction, then it would have been so much easier at that time to kind of navigate that when it happened.

[Dongwon] One thing I want to sort of reinforce as we talk about this is this isn’t about having perfect predictive abilities, right? It’s not about clarity about what exactly is going to happen when you publish your second book or your second series or your fifth series or whatever it is. It’s the fact that the publishing industry, like many businesses, but especially media businesses, is extremely random. What happens from one book to the next book could be affected by anything from… I think Mary’s talked about this in the past. Your book coming out the week of a disastrous election result, or there could be natural disasters, or I had a recent issue where one of the publishers ran out of paper, which I didn’t know was a thing that could happen.


[Mary Robinette] What?

[Dongwon] These are apparently things that could happen. I mean, this has been resolved, it’s fine.

[Howard] That’s the last time he prints a book on the skins of small children, but… 


[Dongwon] But that’s how you summoned the demons, Howard, and the demons are how you make mon… Anyway, sorry.


[Howard] Alex, we’re [templating] this.


[Dongwon] So, keep in mind, career planning isn’t necessarily about here’s I’m going to do A, then I’m going to do B, then I’m going to do C. Career planning is looking at decision points. In two books, I’m going to have to make a decision. Do I stay with this publisher or do I go to a different publisher? Do I stay in this genre, do I go to a different genre? Do I write a sequel to this series or do I come up with something new? What you want to do is have some sense at least… You don’t have to have a super concrete plan, but some sense of okay, if this happens, if the good outcome happens, here’s what I’m going to do. If this book tanks and nobody ever buys it, here’s what I’m going to do. In part, having a plan in place when you hit the wall, when the bottom falls out of something, means that you’re not also going to collapse with it. You’re going to have a plan in place, or at least an outline of a plan, and be able to recover and continue to build to something new. Or, on the flipside, when your thing blows up and there suddenly 10,000 people clamoring for your attention, you’re not going to panic and die, because you’ll have a plan. You’ll have already started that next book in the series that suddenly has a huge demand and a huge audience for it.

[Howard] I have two examples here, both from my own life. One when we first started going full-time with Schlock Mercenary. We established a trigger point at which Howard was going to go look for a day job. The trigger point was when we have paid the bills for two months using credit cards. Because that is the point at which we are no longer realistically financially planning things. We are living on the blind hope that some payday is coming down the road, and we have failed to bring the money in the way we meant to, and we must now do something else. I can’t… I cannot overemphasize that to you. Knowing when… Quit is the wrong word, but knowing when to get off this bus…

[Mary Robinette] To change gears.

[Howard] To change gears, to take a different route. That is… It saves lives. The second… When we did the Schlock Mercenary challenge coin Kickstarter. It funded in like a minute and a half, and overfunded through the first two stretch goals within 15 minutes. What I posted was, “Wow. Thank you for your enthusiasm. We are flummoxed and flabbergasted, and Sandra and I are now going to take 24 hours in which to reconsider our plans for the rest of this project, because you want it more than we expected you to. Forgive us for being silent during that time. We don’t want to dampen your enthusiasm, but we also don’t want to fail to deliver after having funded.” That’s the mistake that most commonly gets made. That thing that I said got quoted dozens of times through the Kickstarter marketplace as people realized, oh, my gosh, they ran up against something they didn’t know how to plan for, and they told us that they were going to go plan. That is so smart.


[Dongwon] There’s the old saying that when a door closes, a window opens, or something along those lines. It… In my experience, it really helps if you go and make sure that the window’s unlocked and maybe put a stick under it so that it’s propped open.


[Dongwon] So when that door slams shut, you have another exit route. Right? Like those… So, belt and suspenders is a really useful thing. If you start thinking about what are your exits from this room, then you won’t end up trapped in it forever.

[Mary Robinette] One of the things that I find is that a lot of writers think, “Oh, someday I want to write full-time.” This is when we’re talking about career planning. Is that something you want to do? Because writing full-time means being a freelancer. So that exit strategy thing… That’s something that I’ve had to do for my entire adult career. My goal has been to be able to turn down the gigs that I don’t want to do. That is… When I reach those cusp points, it’s like, well, I can write this. But it’s a project I don’t want to do. Is that going to push me down a path where I’m going to have to keep doing that kind of project, because I am now reliant on that income stream? Or do I pick this other path which will allow me to find different income stream sources? So I feel like… That’s when you’re talking about not just the door shutting, but it’s like, do you want to go out the window? What are the choices you want to be making to get closer to the career you want to have? Like, I don’t actually want to write full-time. I want a career where I’m balancing puppetry and audiobooks and writing. Because I enjoy all three of those. But I want to do the audiobooks I want to do. I want to write the books I want to write. I don’t want to have to go do ghostwriting just because I want to be a full-time writer.

[Dan] Well, we’ve actually had that conversation about Writing Excuses as well. The four core podcasters sitting down to say, “How big do we want to let this thing get?” We’ve actually made some decisions where we turned down opportunities because it would have taken up too much of our time, and therefore too much of our lives, and kind of locked us into a path that took away some of our freedom to do other things.

[Howard] I will make very, very different decisions if I’m trying to be a full-time podcaster versus if I’m willing to let Dongwon be the smart one. Not that that was a choice that I was making.

[Howard] On that subject, we’re talking about, in part, scheduling and time. Dongwon, I think you have a book to pitch for us that has time right in the title?

[Dongwon] I would, and it does have time in the title. I would like to pitch This is How You Lose the Time War, which is a book that is co-written by Amal el Mohtar, which you guys know from the podcast, and Max Gladstone. They wrote this book together as a… As an epistolary novel, so it is letters exchanged from one character to the other character. The two characters are rival agents in a war that is fought through time as the title implies, and they both represent two possible futures. They are trying to affect things that happened down the threads to make sure that their future is the one that wins. It is slightly possible that these two characters, as they engage in this brutal, bloody battle that sets civilizations on fire and conducts massive battles in space, that they might start to have some feelings for one another, and maybe that will go somewhere. I’m just saying it’s a possibility.


[Howard] This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal el Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

[Howard] So. What are some careers that we’ve seen that we would like to emulate? I think… Well, one of the ones I think of is… I panned one of his books because it wasn’t actually one of his books. James Patterson, who writes everything. But I haven’t actually done any research to find out how he made that work. My kids love the Maximum Ride books. But that isn’t all that he does. Are there authors whose careers you’ve looked at that you love?

[Dongwon] One of the first questions I ask, whenever I’m looking at signing a client… I like to have a phone call with that writer. The question that I asked them, and it stymies them about half of the time. But it’s always an interesting conversation, is, if you could have the career of any author in the marketplace, whose career would you want? I’m not asking what do your books… What kind of books do you want to write, in terms of the craft or the style. But, in terms of the publishing cycle, how many series they do, who their books are bought by like who their audience is? That answer’s going to be really different if that person is Neil Gaiman or Seanan McGuire, even though they write in some ways very similar things about magic in our contemporary world. But their careers look extremely different.

[Dan] I want whichever career means I don’t have to work. But still get paid for it. Whose career is that?

[Dongwon] I mean, that’s a really important question. Mary was talking… Mary Robinette was talking about this a little bit earlier, in terms of do you want to write so that you don’t have to have a day job? If you’re not going to have a day job, that usually means you’re going to have to publish more frequently or publish… Or get bigger book deals than you would in another situation. So, the way you get bigger book deals involves a slightly different strategy that if you want to publish once a year in a sort of a series-oriented format. Right? There’s different ways you can optimize. You take bigger bets. You take wider shots, or longer shots, than you would if you had a reliable income and you wanted to be doing something that had a reasonable readership, but not necessarily needing to shoot the moon on every book.

[Dan] As you’re thinking about what kind of career you want as well, almost everything we’ve been talking about in this episode is traditional publishing. There’s so many more options than that outside of it. There’s so much self-publishing stuff. There’s so much… And we have talked about freelancing, and write for hire. There’s so many outlets for you to find work in. Choosing which one of those you want to use, and if you are saying no to an income stream, can you afford to say no to it? Are you willing to put in the work to rely on the other income streams? Making these decisions ahead of time so that you know what you’re getting yourself into and how to make it work.

[Howard] There’s a…

[Mary Robinette] I was going to say, that’s one of the reasons that I don’t self publish. Because I don’t want to be a publisher, which is me turning down a gig I don’t want to do. That’s not anything about whether or not it’s a… That’s a personal choice about where I want to be spending my time and energy.

[Howard] There’s a writer, illustrator, teacher who I… Whose career I admire. Jim Zub. He studied animation, went into like project management and sales for a company that was selling art cycles to the big three comic publishers to say we can take over on this issue for this title so you don’t slip your dates. Then they kind of became their own publisher. He went from that… He did a web comic for a while. He went goo goo over… Or gaga, I guess, over Neil Gaiman when he accidentally met him at a party and Neil said, “Hi. My name’s Neil. I’m a writer.” Jim was like, “Oh. That’s what I want to be. That’s… I want that level of humility that is absolutely not required because I’m that guy.” He now writes, I think, half a dozen titles per month for Marvel plus some of his old work, and is regarded by many people as one of the hardest working writers in comics. When I met him as a web cartoonist, that is not the career plan I envisioned for him. That’s not my job. I don’t know how much of this he planned, but he kept his job as an instructor at Seneca University, because, like Mary, he wants to have more than just the one thing.

[Dongwon] One thing that’s really important, though, is you need to have a really clear self-assessment of what your bandwidth is. Right? What I see so many times, and you’re describing someone who is very hard-working, but he also has the capacity to do that. A lot of people simply don’t. It’s okay if you only write 30,000 words a year. Right? It’s okay to write a novel every two years, three years. You can still build a career out of that. What you can’t do is build a career of somebody who writes a book a year when that something you’re not going to be able to do. The more you can be aware of what your limits are, in both directions. I’ve also seen writers take on writing 500-600,000 words a year, and really skirt that line of burnout and risk not being able to deliver on a number of deadlines, which would be disastrous for their career. So, what you need to do is have a really clear-eyed sense of what can I actually do, and then experiment within that to make sure that those are your limits, or maybe you actually can write more than you think you can. Or, oh, this feels like too much, the quality is starting to slip. I need to back off of that little bit. Those are all really important questions you need to ask yourself, and have a really clear sense of what your process is. Then you can build a career around it. There’s no wrong answers to that question. Some might be easier than others, but the most important part is you are realistic about what your goals and what your bandwidth actually is.

[Mary Robinette] The time to do this is when you are early in your career. Like, a very deliberate choice that I did make with my career was that I wrote in a bunch of different genres. Because I had seen often enough a friend sell a book and then get locked into that genre. It just happened to be the first book that they sold. Like, the book that I wrote before Shades of Milk and Honey was a science-fiction murder mystery. The book that I wrote after Shades of Milk and Honey was an urban fantasy. But Shades is the one that sold. After that… We finished that series, the decision that Tor made was we wanted to have me try a bunch of standalone to see what hit. So when you’re thinking about what kind of a career do you want to have and who do you want to emulate, you’re not thinking about the genre that they’re writing in. What you’re thinking about is their production schedule, you’re thinking about the lifestyle that they live. That’s the kind of thing you’re thinking about, not the genre.

[Dongwon] Often, how many careers are they maintaining at once? Are they a comics writer, a YA novelist, an adult novelist, and a screenwriter all at the same time? I know people who do that, and they do it very well. That may not be you, if you have a really demanding full-time job, or you just don’t have that much creative throughput in any given day.

[Howard] That brings us around beautifully to the homework. Identify an author whose career you would like to emulate. Research their career timeline, including the release dates of their books. That’s pretty easy. Possibly, the order in which these things were written, and maybe actually the things, the order in which these things were actually sold. Who were their editors? Who is their agent? Look at all of this, and try and give yourself an accurate picture of what goes into that thing that you want to be or have. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.