Business Musings: A Year in Thanksgiving
Every year since 1863, the United States has celebrated a federal holiday named Thanksgiving. We celebrate on the fourth Thursday of November. Canada, which also has a Thanksgiving holiday, celebrates on the second Monday in October. Both thanksgivings started as harvest festivals—thanks for the bounty, that kind of thing—and lots of other countries still maintain their harvest festivals as well.
But the festival in the United States changed during the American Civil War from a harvest festival to a time for giving thanks for all we have—not just food (although this is our most food-centric holiday) but family, friends, and anything else that we treasure.
I find it fascinating that the official celebration has its roots in conflict. Because periods of conflict are the time when we’re most likely to forget the good parts of life. Periods of conflict are also the time when we need to acknowledge those parts the most.
I got reminded of this in the past two weeks. As I mentioned in “Third Quarter Blues,” the American retail economy (including book sales) always takes a hit during an election year, especially in the weeks before the election. Then things pick up.
For me, things picked up with a vengeance after the election. Projects I thought long dead rose from their shallow graves as someone gave them new life. Hollywood came calling. One of my favorite editors ever returned to edit short fiction (instead of books), so when she asked me if I could write for her, I happily said yes. Other great things happened, some of which were personal and some had to do with finances, and some had to do with writing projects I can’t yet tell you about. I even hit most of my outside deadlines, and more appeared.
Then, on a Friday night, a traditional publisher I’d been fighting with for years, threw in the towel and reverted the rights on three books without the protracted legal fight I had been expecting. I’m still a bit gobsmacked by that one. (Of course, as I write this, the ebooks are still for sale from them, but that’ll change in a week or so…)
All of these things change the way that I’ll be doing business in the last month of 2016 and into 2017. Planned projects might get moved aside to make way for some projects that should really get done now. Some particular editions need to get put together and, of course, I have more outside writing to do than expected.
I’ve also spent quite a bit of time with what an indie writer friend of mine calls “admin”—emails, phone calls, negotiating, meetings—than I had before the election. (Of course, all of this meant I got behind on the promotion stuff, which I thought I was going to have clear sailing to do. Whoops.)
I realized, though, that all these great things had happened in my career, and some other great things had happened in my life at the very same time, and I hadn’t taken the time to appreciate them. Yes, other outside things brought me down emotionally. While those things (as well as those emotions) are valid, they shouldn’t stop me from living day to day.
I’ve been through success during emotional down periods. (The weirdest was the day my father died. I had moved in with Dean that afternoon. Then I got the news my dad died. More news followed an hour later. Turned out I had won the John W. Campbell award for Best New Writer—very prestigious in sf. I still remember the emotional confusion. Very strange.) Most of the others were more personal than this one. In other words, the down stuff was family stuff or my stuff, not outside stuff. This time, it’s coming from the world itself.
I decided I needed an attitude adjustment.
So, I decided to look back at some of the good things in my writing career, in the writing business, and in the craft, as preparation for the day of feasting that I’ll be enjoying while those of you outside of the States will go through your usual Thursday routines.
In no particular order, here’s what comes to mind:
In 1997, I wrote a short story about a wizard with very little magic, dealing with the death of his familiar. I had just lost one of my cats, and I put the grief into the story. The story, “Familiar Territory,” sold to an anthology called Wizard Fantastic. Three years later, I got invited into another anthology called Spell Fantastic, and that wizard showed back up, along with his new familiar. That was when I realized that Winston and Ruby were series characters, but because they only appeared in short fiction in scattered anthologies, no one would see the entire series. Ah, well. I was writing the stories for me.
I wrote a few other stories in the series, and then when the new world of publishing came around, WMG published them, along with my entire short story backlist. As we did with all my short fiction series, we labeled the stories according to their series.
This month, I published the first new Winston & Ruby story in years. I wrote it because of another project that I’ll discuss below—the Uncollected Anthology—which chose familiars as its topic this quarter. Of course, I had to write Winston and Ruby for an anthology dealing with familiars.
Imagine my shock to discover that, with no advertising, no prompting, and no announcement (yes, I’m behind), the new story, “Un-Familiar,” sold better than any of my previous Uncollected stories. I got fan mail, both here and on the Free Fiction I’d put up (an older Winston & Ruby story), from people who mentioned how much they loved Winston & Ruby.
I hadn’t realized that, because of this new world of publishing, Winston & Ruby were developing a fan base. People could get all of the stories in the series—and more importantly, people were buying them. They weren’t searching for old stories in dusty anthologies or hoping for a collection. They could download the stories one after another as soon as they discovered my rather timid wizard and his outspoken familiar.
I’ve been getting reader comments on some of my other series as well, but it wasn’t until this month—this particular event—that I realized the short story series have become more than something I do for me. They’re accessible, so everyone who enjoys them can find them.
I know, I know. For many of you, a well-duh. For me, a revelation. A nifty one.
I’ve always written exactly what I wanted to write in my short fiction, even when I was responding to an invitation-only topic-based anthology. I didn’t always do that with my novels in the old day, but that was an economic thing, which means little nowadays. Now I write what I want even with the novels.
Dean wrote a couple of blog posts on this just a few days ago, and they’re spot-on. I’ve written about it before as well. We now have the freedom, as artists, to do whatever we would like to. That’s both good and bad. I still have major attacks of Popcorn Kittens (so many projects, so little time!), but they’re not quite as debilitating as they once were.
Because I have artistic freedom, the things I mentioned at the front of this blog—the things that revived this past few weeks—all came from me writing what I want to write, not what someone told me I should write. Sometimes it’s incredibly overwhelming to realize that what I want to write has an audience. That idea so goes against the old training we all received as writers.
But it does make me happy, particularly when I’m sitting at my desk, making things up. I’m entertaining me, and that’s the fun of it. The fact that I happen to entertain others as well is gravy. Or maybe pie. (Yes, I’m baking pies as I type this. I’m responsible for the dairy-free pumpkin. There will be four by the time this evening is over…if I don’t eat one of them.)
Back in the day when I was writing both for myself and to earn an almighty dollar, there were times when the writing was a real nightmare. Dean mentions this in those blog posts I wrote above. Because I never wrote to market 100% of the time, I burned out slower than I would have if I had written to market all the time. But I was burning out. I was getting angry at the writing.
I had made a rule that I wouldn’t write anything I didn’t enjoy. I loved Star Trek and Star Wars, and all of the other tie-in projects I did. But about fifteen years ago, I was working on a tie-in project for a series that I loved and the producers were assholes. I mean true assholes.
I wrote a book for them, based on an outline they had approved—and they didn’t want to keep any of it. Not the plot, not the characters I had made up, not even the settings. I reminded my then-agent that they had approved the outline. If they wanted a brand new book for the (compared to Hollywood) peanuts they were paying me, they could contract for a new book.
Guess what? I got paid in full, and the book never appeared. In fact, the publishing company dropped that tie-in series entirely because the Hollywood producers were unclear on the concept of tie-in novels. These weren’t scripts to be treated like throw-away garbage.
I’ve had that problem working with Hollywood types before, but that was the second-worst. The worst was on two different short stories I wrote for a very famous writer who is a friend and who got his start in Hollywood. He approved the outlines too, wanted the stories in my series, and the proceeded to do exactly what that producer above did—try to change everything.
I pulled the stories from the anthologies, and he, in a fit of pique, promised to never invite me into one of his anthos again. I smiled when I read that email. Because I had already decided not to work with him ever again.
I have done things like that throughout my career, even when it was the only way for me to make money.
But here’s the fun thing—the cool thing: His little tantrum didn’t ruin those projects for me, like it might have in the past. Instead, I published the stories elsewhere. One got picked up for a best-of-the-year and one became a novel series. And I had fun writing them.
Just like I had fun this past week, writing a story in another series of mine. I was down, as I mentioned, and I asked my subconscious what it wanted to write.
It started to speak to me in the voice of one of my series characters and I had to run to the computer to take dictation. That’s when writing is the absolute best.
Because I’m not on any real deadlines, I can do that. I can write whatever I want whenever I want. And since I needed fun, my subconscious served up a whole dose of it. That was great.
Mixed in with the fun is the ability to experiment. I can explore sides of my craft I wouldn’t have been able to do in the past, without a new pen name and a secret career. I was moving into literary fiction when the entire publishing world collapsed, figuring I would need yet another pen name so that the snobby literary editors would think I was new and untried rather than someone who wrote (gasp! horrors!) genre fiction.
Instead, I write my literary short stories, not really caring if they sell to the literary magazines or not, because if they don’t, they’ll end up getting published anyway.
I’m experimenting with all kinds of things—genres, voices, styles—and seeing what I like and what I still need to work on.
And that’s fun too.
The thing I didn’t expect from this new world was that it would convince me to return to editing. I’m a series editor on Fiction River, and I do the occasional volume. But I got inspired to do Women of Futures Past, and I have several similar volumes up my sleeve. I really do love short stories and I love compiling them into volumes of all kinds of things. I’ll be announcing new projects in 2017—none with open submissions (sorry)—and I’m thrilled with all of them.
When I’m not working for anyone but myself, I have an absolute blast. Maybe I’m the ultimate introvert. Or maybe the ultimate control freak. Who knows? I just know that the writing world is my oyster at the moment, and I’m enjoying the heck out of it.
They seem to be everywhere—particularly this week. Hollywood nibbles on projects I thought no one had noticed, new anthologies and bundles that I have yet to tell you about. (Next week, I hope!) Writing books one blog post at a time, like I just did with the contracts book.
Figuring out how to revive these books that I just got back from the major publisher. Exploring podcasting, audio books, and playing with video.
Writing for some old friends. Writing with friends, like I am in the Uncollected Anthology and in another project that you’ll hear about early in 2017.
All kinds of nifty creative stuff—and learning all the new programs that, in theory, will make my writing life easier. I’m doing that too, albeit slowly. And I’m enjoying that as well.
I love the reader contact. The mail from folks who like certain stories. The crowd-funding opportunities. The interactions here on the blog when I’m writing a book one blog post at a time. Those interactions only make the book stronger.
The real-time response to a new project. The surprising responses to a decades-old project that people are discovering anew. The fact that everything can and does live on, if I chose to let it.
I can’t tell you how thrilling it is, and how much I appreciate it.
And So On
Well, I just put myself in a better mood by typing this. And I’m only halfway through the list I started with. I’m not going to continue with the blog, though, because the house smells like pie. Pumpkin pie. Yummy, cooling pumpkin pie.
I have two more pies to make and maybe I’ll follow that with pumpkin bread. Thanksgiving dinner with writers friends and family tomorrow, and then…back to work.
Only I hesitate to call writing work. Because it’s not work. I’ve been thinking about that too, today.
Thirty-six years ago, my beloved grandmother tasked me with baking pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving. You have no idea what a responsibility that was for twenty-year-old me. My grandmother, who was eighty-nine, was an excellent baker (she couldn’t cook, but that was another story). She had finally decided someone else needed to bake the pies. She divided them up between me and my cousin. My cousin made apple.
I was scared to death, a feeling that was only made worse by the fact that I had one day off from my two jobs. I was the resident manager of an apartment building, and I worked at a craft store. I was also a college student, but we had a Thanksgiving break. I left my craft store job at 9 that night, and had to be back at 9 on Friday morning.
My grandmother lived almost two hours away. Two hours there, two hours back. I was up late baking my first-ever pumpkin pie—and somehow managing not to screw up the crust—which she declared delicious. I don’t remember it tasting bad, so I must have done all right.
I’ve made pie ever since. And each time I do, I think about where I am. For many years, a weird assortment of apartments and day jobs. One year, right after Pulphouse collapsed, Dean and I could barely put two feet in front of the other. The year Bill died, Dean had a stroke around Thanksgiving.
There are good memories too—the time everyone got rained in at our complex on the coast. Twenty (I think?) people who were unable to drive out of town because the roads had washed away. We were able to give them all a place to sleep.
I don’t think I’ve ever had as much opportunity on a Thanksgiving as I do this year, so many good things pending in my work life. My personal life is going well, also.
I have much to be thankful for.
Including all of you.
Thanks for listening.
Normally, I would just end there. This blog has said it all and more. But, I’ve instituted a new policy that still needs some explaining.
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“Business Musings: “The Year in Thanksgiving,” copyright © 2016 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © 2016 by © Can Stock Photo / billberryphotog