Business Musings: The Popcorn Kitten Problem

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This year, I hurt my writing career by working on my writing career. Okay, that’s not entirely true, but it feels true, which for writers is often the same thing.

Here’s what I did: I had to finish the massive Retrieval Artist project. I was writing a huge story arc, something that ultimately became 8 books. I’d published the first book in 2011, the next in 2012, and I’ve been working on the remaining six ever since.

Oh, that sounds so orderly. Here’s the truth of it: I write out of order, so parts of all eight books have existed since 2008, when I started this project. I’ve struggled to write other projects as well—and often managed it—but about a year ago, I knew I would have to focus on this single project to finish it properly. And by focus, I mean pay attention only to that project, which is not how my hummingbird brain works.

I jettisoned dozens of other projects, said no to some short story assignments, pulled out of a major anthology when it became clear that the short story I was writing was really a novel, and I didn’t have time (or the mental capacity) to try something shorter.

Right there, I probably lost an opportunity or two in the future, because I’m sure that anthology editor won’t work with me again. (Of course, she was shaping up to be totally anal. I pulled out when she said that she would require us all to revise our story three times (without having read any of them), so losing her future invites really doesn’t bother me much.)

I generally write at least one (usually more) stories per year for the Dell Magazines. I wrote a few, but stopped in the summer. I begged off the Business Rusch when it became a distraction (and the news on publishing had slowed down to Hachette, Hachette, Hachette!).

I haven’t written in my other series for more than a year now. I have at least three novels that I started from various short stories that I haven’t been able to finish.

The effect of this writing gap are starting to show. My long-awaited Smokey Dalton novel appeared in March. If this were an ideal world, I should have another in spring of 2015. I haven’t gotten to it yet, although I know what it will be—and the next one after that too.

I wanted to write three Nelscott novels about a character who is not Smokey, and slated that project for December of 2013 (because all three novels had tried to be one novel and failed, so I had 50,000 words of all three), and couldn’t get to it. Which is a good thing, since last week, I figured out that I needed to go back to my very first idea for that very first novel about that side character, but write it from multiple viewpoints.

I haven’t written a Kristine Grayson novel in two (three?) years. I have managed novellas—and I just published one, which I wrote after finishing the Retrieval Artist project. I was going to finish that Grayson novella if it killed me. It’s a holiday novella, and I wanted it out for the holidays, but I wasn’t sure I could get to it. I wrote it in October, and was immediately relieved when my varied beta readers pronounced it good.

That was the first project I worked on since the Retrieval Artist focus, and my brain really had become mush. So I was happy that it worked out.

Now, the Grayson novella finished, two of the six remaining Retrieval Artist novels up for preorder (the other four are in the queue)—and I find myself without a real deadline for the first time in maybe 25 years.

By real deadline, I mean a deadline imposed by someone else, something that I have agreed to.

I’m pretty good at setting my own deadlines. I’ve functioned like that for years before I had my first story published, and I functioned like that in down times when book contracts were scarce.

But this is the first time in my memory where I could actually coast if I wanted to.

I don’t want to. I like working.


I have a Popcorn Kitten Problem. Remember the Popcorn Kittens? My writer friends and I developed the term based on [youtube][/youtube] of kittens popping in front of the camera like popcorn. We use that term to describe how our brains feel now that indie publishing has given us the opportunity to write whatever we want.

I know how to corral Popcorn Kittens. I’ve done it for years. I set a schedule and go.

The problem is that every single project feels pressing. I really want to write those three Nelscott novels. I really want to write a Grayson trilogy about the Interim Fates. I really want to write a bunch of short stories. I want to occasionally put up a business blog of some kind. I really want to write the next Fey books (when I can focus again). I really want to write the next Diving book (after I clear my palate of science fiction—a year in sf was a bit much for me). I really want to write the next book in an as-yet-unpublished series because I want to get that series started. I really want to write the next books after Snipers and The Enemy Within. I really want to…

You get the picture.

Often it helps me to look at all of these projects from a business perspective. Which part of my business do I need to tend to first?

The problem is that I have let almost every aspect of my multi-genre, multi-pen name career go so that I could finish the Retrieval Artist.

The other problem is that I’m a good enough businesswoman to know that the only person who cares about this is me.

Readers and fans will wait until I publish the next book. My favorite short fiction editors will also wait until I send them the right story. They don’t feel a ticking clock.

I do.

That knowledge usually tempers this feeling.

In this instance, it does not.

My usual tricks to corral these kittens aren’t working. Figure out which project is most important? All of them. Figure out which project is ready to be written? All of them. Figure out which project will help my career the most? Gosh, how do I figure that out in the modern era? Figure out some artificial deadlines and go for them? Maybe. Hmmm. Maybe.

Dean suggested that I make a list and take all these projects out of my head. He knows me, so he also told me I can modify the list as need be.

The thing is that I already wrote a list and chucked it. And then I wrote another list and chucked it. And I wrote a third list—well, you get the picture.

Every time I start something new, I think I should be writing something else. Every time I start a list, I write the number 1 and write five things next to it. (Yes, I know, that’s not helpful.)

Whenever I think I should just give up and read and see what’ll happen next, I pick up something I want to read for research.

I’m ready to work: I just have to figure out what’s next.

And I know, I know, I can probably multi-task. Write one thing in the morning, something different in the afternoon, research in the evening. I have some business duties that got piled on me this fall, and I have to do those too, even if they’re fun. And some health things that I can’t miss on or I have days where I’m only able to sit on the couch and watch television. So I must do those.

It’s one of those dilemmas I haven’t faced in years. I know a lot of you face them all the time, especially if you started in indie. I empathize.

I’m heading off to make my list now—and hope I stick to it.

But before I do, let me ask a favor of you: Please don’t ask me to write in your favorite series or tell me which project to do next. That just makes me want to do something else. Because I’m really, really contrary. (I have no idea how I managed to complete book deadlines. I think I filed them in the homework compartment of my brain, which was trained decades ago.)

I’ll get to whatever I get to. I’ll probably surprise myself.

In fact, I’m already surprising myself.

While I’m figuring out the fiction, I’ve been writing blog posts. I’m not coming back every week, but I’ll put up posts as I go along, like I promised when I quit in May. (I put up some in August that you might’ve missed because my RSS feed was down.)

This week, a reader asked me a Spade/Paladin question that has my brain churning. This morning, another reader asked me about a general question that brought to mind yet another series I’ve been waiting to start.

The brain’s working. It’s just full of kittens.

And I need to pick one.

(And as I typed that, my three-year-old self stamped her little foot and moaned dramatically, “But it’s so haaaaaaaard.”)

Wish me luck.

As I mentioned above, I’m back sort of. I’ll be doing business blogs and a few craft blogs when the mood strikes. But that’s the key. I’ll post when the mood strikes. I’m not going to post as often as I did for the first five years.

I will still put a donate button here. I’ve been looking at Patreon, and I wish it existed when I was doing the weekly blog. I don’t think I’ll use it. I want to keep my options open—so that I can go dark for six months, if I feel the need.

But I did miss you, and I hope you come visit from time to time.

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“Business Musings: “The Popcorn Kitten Problem,” copyright © 2015 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.




23 thoughts on “Business Musings: The Popcorn Kitten Problem

  1. Hi, Kris,

    I just reread this post.

    I write out of order too, and I have popcorn kittens. (I feel like this is an AA intro… 😉 )

    I’m wondering how to plan project deadlines. I can’t seem to do it. Unless the book is already done, and I just need to get it through copyediting. That sort of thing I can manage. I can have wishful thinking during the writing phase and try hard to finish by a certain time, but the projects seem more in charge than I am.

    I have a series started and book 2 is in the works. But then holiday short story happened in series. I finished that. Got it out.

    I went back to book 2, but then short story 2 came along, and it felt important. Related to series but standalone. Ah, I thought, I’ll get it done quickly and return to book 2. (Book 2 was wanting to percolate.)

    But short story 2 has turned into a novella has turned into a novel… And it seems it will be done when it decides it’s done. I’m afraid it’s threatening to spin off into its own series.

    This wasn’t a problem when I was just writing for myself and submitting projects to trad publishers that didn’t get picked up. Now I’m indie publishing. And fortunately it’s going rather well.

    Except for the planning piece. And popcorn kittens.

    Do I simply avoid promising anything by a certain date?? My fear of disappointing readers has become a source of block.

    1. Yes, Lena. Avoid promising. Get to it when you get to it. Because your subconscious is having great fun, and probably has some plans for the series that your conscious mind isn’t aware of. Let the subconscious play.

  2. Ooh, how I can relate to your feelings! I got a bucketload of books and stuff I’m working on, fans that nudge me to write something I promised years ago, but what do I end up doing?

    I end up stumbling upon a writer whose fantasy series I absolutely loved years and years ago, found she has a blog and wrote lotsa more books!
    Wohoo, so instead of writing I’ll read your stuff, great!

    About the kitten problem: I faced these situations a lot, and there is one thing which helps me to decide: When I take a timeout, do nothing, just look at the pile for a looooong time it will clear my mind about what to do.
    Of course, usually after a few minutes looking at the pile I’ll start do to something else, forget the decision and will be back at square one soon 🙂

    1. LOL, thank you, Sam. Maybe I should get rid of the piles. 🙂 I’m getting there slowly, working on various things. Thank you for the kind words about the Fey! That’s on my Popcorn kitten list. More Fey…eventually. 🙂

  3. I have been fighting this problem with novel-length material for three years. This, this, this!

    Every time I start something new, I think I should be writing something else. Every time I start a list, I write the number 1 and write five things next to it.

    I can write short stuff. It’s the novels that give me time to back out and grab another kitten.

  4. >Please don’t ask me to write
    >in your favorite series or
    >tell me which project to do next.
    >That just makes me want to do something else

    So now we will all just ask you to write something we don’t want in order to get you to write what we do want.
    Of course you will see thru that and

  5. There are no solutions. You and Dean are always talking about letting the subconscious decide, so maybe you should do some freewriting. Take a blank sheet of paper and write “This year, I hurt my writing career by working on my writing career,” and see where it goes from there.

    Oh, wait.

    Or you could do a collaboration among all your pen names. Prince Charming is attracted to a Mystery Woman, which makes Mellie mad, of course, so she hires a now-elderly Smokey Dalton to investigate, and it turns out — Mystery Woman is a member of the Fey! and so on, until the end, when we find out Kris Rusch is at a convention (meta! the author’s in the story!) and it’s a draft on her hard drive that got all corrupted by a virus. So Spade tracks down the culprit, fixes the problem, and voila! all your books are done!

    Gee, that’s stupid. But it does avoid endless list-making.

  6. So you’re mortal after all 🙂

    I was thinking to myself a little while back about my own popcorn kitten issues, and wishing I dealt with it nearly as well as you do. I am training myself to shore up some skills so I can take a new position (layoffs yet again at work; I want to escape before it’s too late). At the same time I have four novels I’m itching to finish. I keep thinking the responsible thing to do would be to abandon those in favor of the DIY training, but those projects are the reason I get out of bed sometimes. Literally! I wish you all the best of luck.

  7. I was glad to read this new business post.

    Speaking about Hachette, now that the dispute is over, could you tell us which side you chose? Hachette or Amazon? 😉

    No, just kidding. I know that you would advise authors not to take position in that kind of business matter.

    I guess that this Popcorn Kitten Problem is a consequence of having trained your mind to be creative. I’m on the opposite extreme, having trained my mind to stifle these kittens in order to concentrate on one project at a time. Every writer is different.

  8. I am so like you Kris, contrary and caught between a whole pile of worthy projects and which is the more important? I try to choose one and stick with it. Life intervenes but I vacillate on – somehow the dabbling gets books finished. At times I don’t work at all on books, at other times I’m doing 18 hr days.
    I guess it’s best I’m a writer as what other career that semi-pays would allow that amount of weird attendence hours.
    Thanks for posting the popcorn kittens – we have that too… too many ideas and not enough time to write all the excellent ideas.
    wishing you luck and I’ll subscribe again.
    regards Christine

  9. Exactly! I finished a novel last week and for the last quarter of it an unrelated short story kept banging on my brain. Now the novel’s done and I’m ready to write the short story and it’s simply refusing to show up. But there’s another novel whimpering in there. Sigh.
    And I want all those cute kittens too!

  10. Choose the kitten that doesn’t pee outside the litter box. 😉

    You’ve spent so much time in SF that this post is copyrighted IN THE FUTURE!

  11. I’ve missed you, too!

    I was chuckling as I read this because I have my own case of popcorn kittens going on. I think I’ve picked my next project, started it in fact, so hopefully the other three or four will wait their turns quietly. (Ha!)

  12. I am SO glad you wrote this post. I feel EXACTLY the same way. What’s a lowly writer to do? Pick one and stick with it. I think. But then, that other kitten just looks so cute.

    Great to see you around again.

  13. Thank you for this. You’ve exactly described my brain over the last few months, trying desperately to pick a writing/publishing schedule for 2015, by which I mean what projects to work on when next year. Every time I think I’ve settled, I have a “but what about this?” moment, and I start rearranging things again….

    I have no advice whatsoever, obviously, but you have my sympathy. Good luck getting things sorted!

  14. Sounds like it might be time to trust to the gods of randomness. Assemble your list of equals and roll the dice.

    Even if you don’t like the result, it may reveal what you actually want to do next.

  15. Kris,

    Been here, a few times over 13 years writing (not books, but paid freelance writing).

    What worked for me, because I like “working” too, is taking a “slow WAY down to speed up” mentality.

    Give yourself permission to slow WAY down, even stop for a week.

    For me, multi-tasking doesn’t work, because it leads (me) right down the same, exact path of “Which way do I go, George?” 🙂

    So I give myself permission to slow WAY down, then pick ONE thing and do it to completion … shut everything else out.

    Then pick one more thing, and do it to completion; no cheating, don’t answer anything about anything else … just work on this one thing to completion.

    Yes, you have deadlines … I had them to.

    But then I start thinking like Einstein did…

    “Problems cannot be solved with the same thinking that caused them.”

    Take this for what it’s worth, and hopefully you’ll stop “popping kittens.” 🙂

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