Returning to my first love

And now, an update on what I’ve been doing lately. (Which, as you will see, also ends up recapping the last 24 years of my life.)

In December, I finished my contract at Health Canada. I was asked if I’d be interested in returning some time in the new year, but I declined in a not-right-now-thanks kind of way. At the moment I’m not actively looking for another contract; having said that, if a good one came along, I’d have a hard time turning it down.

What I’m doing instead: I’m taking time off to write. And when I say write, I mean write science fiction.

I’m not sure I’ve told you about my lifelong love affair with the genre, and my furtive attempts, since I was 14 years old, to write science fiction stories. (As a teenager, I even sent manuscripts to Asimov’s, which naturally bounced them. They were as dreadful as you can possibly imagine — I mean Eye of Argon dreadful. Maybe not quite that bad.) When I was 14 or 15, I was writing stories all the time, and I suppose that if I had kept at it with the same intensity, I might have gotten good and produced something publishable quite some time ago.

But, as it so often does, life interfered — and continued to interfere, through high school, university, grad school and my on-again, off-again relationship with public-sector employment. Every so often I’d get an idea, make an attempt at a story, determine that it was crap, and give up in frustration. I couldn’t give myself permission to take the time needed to get good at it. I had degrees to finish, an academic career to work toward, a job to find, bills to pay, debt to get out from under, websites that needed attention — and, above all else, health problems that kept stealing away my strength and energy, pushing me further and further behind. I didn’t have the time to practice, the space in my head to think through the writing problems, or the energy to squeeze it in in the brief moments I did have.

At the same time, I was unfulfilled. For eight years, I was focused on a single goal: to become a history professor. When I came down with ankylosing spondylitis in 1997, that goal was put at risk. If I’d had a supervisor who was willing to help me get through my Ph.D. program despite my illness, I might still have muddled through; unfortunately, I didn’t, and I left the program in 1999. At that point I needed to find work fast, and since I was by that time in Ottawa, I ended up working for the government. Well-paying work, the sort that someone with my education could slip into easily, but deeply unsatisfying. I had traded an aspirational career for a series of jobs. Correcting government writing pays the bills, but it doesn’t feed the soul. I saw myself doing it for the rest of my life, and became profoundly depressed. I left.

I needed a plan B.

For a while I thought that my plan B would be blogging. It was a lot more fun than government work (most things are, unless you’re lazy), but it wasn’t very remunerative. The vicissitudes of Google AdSense are such that there is no direct correlation between work and income: from one month to the next, I can work twice as hard for less money, or take it easy and make more. And my websites have this annoying habit of making demands of my every spare moment: I always have too much material to blog about, and I never, ever feel caught up.

I also have a hard time getting over the feeling that I’m just marking time — that this is something I do between contracts. (Indeed, The Map Room was started after I quit my one permanent government job, and I wrote the first season of DFL while I was waiting to hear back after a job interview.)

I took on a series of contracts, and thought long and hard about returning to the workforce full-time. Once the debts were paid off and my bank account filled up, I started to ask myself where I would go from here.

In the meantime, story ideas kept popping into my head. Good ones. It came to a head during one contract in which I had literally nothing to do, and in a workplace whose Internet access was strictly limited, especially for contractors. In my utter boredom, I began taking notes for a novel. To my surprise, it didn’t sound bad. More notes followed, pages and pages of them.

So it occurred to me that this is the perfect time to take a serious crack at writing science fiction. It’s cheap to live out here and I’ve got money in the bank, so there’s never been a better time for me to take time out to work on this. Patrick Rothfuss’s advice to new writers is to live somewhere cheap. Because I already do, I can afford to do this, at least for a little while.

Because the bottom line is that writing science fiction is really what I want to do with myself. I’ve wanted to do it since I was 14, and now I’m 38. I’ve let other things distract me for too long. It’s time I returned to my first love.

And frankly, if I don’t start now, I probably never will; if I keep taking contracts, we’ll have enough money for a down payment on a house, and then I’ll have to keep working to pay the mortgage. Because of my health issues, I can’t write and work full-time at the same time — I just don’t have the energy. It’s now or never. We can afford to do it now.

So now it is.

I started by clearing the decks. I’m easily distracted and easily overwhelmed, and I have a tendency to add projects and commitments until I crash hard. And, as I said, I have limited energy. To create some space for writing, I needed to prune my overloaded life.

DFL went on hiatus during the Vancouver Olympics and will probably never return. Though I haven’t formally announced it yet, I’ve discontinued work on Ankylose This! as well. I’ve fired myself from volunteer commitments I could no longer meet. I’ve shelved plans for a self-published garter snake handbook; I’ll limit my garter snake writings to my website instead. And something hard but necessary: I’ve had to cut loose friends who weren’t, in the final analysis, healthy for me to be around.

As for actual writing, I’ve done some of that too. So far, I’ve sent off one 4,800-word story — a funny (I hope!) little piece called “This Is Great News,” based on an idea that has been circulating inside my head for a decade. I submitted it in February, but probably won’t hear back from the magazine’s editors until next month; if they reject it, there are a couple of other markets I can send it to. (It’s pure CanCon, so has limited appeal.)

I have more stories in the queue that I’m actively working on, but I’m not sure how much I should blog about my progress. I think it’s probably sufficient to announce when I’ve finished a story, but not to report on the number of words written in a day (I’ll probably leave that for Twitter). Nor do I think it’s necessary to report on every rejection slip I get, because I expect to get lots of them; sales, of course, are completely blogworthy.

I’m also wary of announcing goals, because I regularly miss my targets, but I think I can say that I hope to accomplish the following modest milestones this year:

  1. Get all the shorter-length story ideas written and submitted to paying markets. (At the moment, that’s two short stories and a novelette.)
  2. Get at least one personal rejection letter from an editor, rather than a form letter. (It’d be nice if I could sell something, but I’d rather be realistic.)
  3. Make a start on the novel I’ve been taking notes for.

We’ll see how I do. But I can’t begin to describe how excited I am to be doing this.

Now if I could just find a way to minimize the time spent blogging …