Rewriting the story of me, the writer

Normally in this season, I’m taking stock of the year that’s been, and looking ahead to the year to come. In 2019, I’m finding myself getting hung up on the first part of that process.

2019 was a wild year. A recap:

January: As the year begins, I am deep in the drafting of The Magician’s Workshop for Choice of Games, and working on a first draft of a new novel. I have every intention of finishing this novel by the spring. This will not happen. In fact, it will not be anywhere near finished by year-end.

February: Armed in Her Fashion is a finalist for the Crawford Award. I am not a writer who gets nominated for awards. This is weird. Then, it gets weirder. Alice Payne Arrives is a finalist for the Nebula Award. The Road to Canterbury is a finalist for the Nebula Award. I get the call in the Chapters in downtown Ottawa. I feel like a fraud. Every hour of every day, I’m trying not to think about the book my agent has on submission, a book I have rewritten several times, and which I am worried will not sell.

March: Alice Payne Rides releases! It picks up the threads from the first book and does interesting things with them, I think. I’m proud of myself for writing my first-ever sequel in a way that works, artistically, anyway, even though it doesn’t land with the splash of the first book.

May: I am a guest at the Ottawa International Writers Festival. And Armed in Her Fashion is a finalist for the Locus Award in the First Novel category. I go to the Nebula awards in Los Angeles. Neither of my nominated works wins in their category, but I am over the moon nonetheless and have a great time.

June: Armed in Her Fashion and Alice Payne Arrives are finalists for the Aurora Awards. My agent hears there is interest in my book on submission. A few weeks of crossed fingers and keeping secrets ensue.

July: My agent and I accept an offer from Harper Voyager UK for The Embroidered Book. I begin what will be the fifth major revision of that book, excited but daunted. I set aside the other novel I had started. I keep working on the game. After a long dry spell in short fiction, I sell my two favourite pieces of the year, “Chameleon” and “A Cut-Purse Rethinks His Ways”, within 24 hours of each other. Armed in Her Fashion is on the shortlist for the Sunburst Award.

August: I go to WorldCon in Dublin, meet my new editor, have a wonderful time, sign my contract.

September: I get a cover for what I think will be my next novel, The Humours of Grub Street. The announcement goes out for The Embroidered Book. I am behind on the book. I am behind on the game. I am behind on everything. Teaching starts for the semester.

October: Armed in Her Fashion doesn’t win the Sunburst. I go to Can*Con and the Aurora Awards. Alice Payne Arrives doesn’t win in the novella category, as I expected. But Armed in Her Fashion does win Best Novel. My kid is there and I’ve never seen his face light up like that. I’m 42 and it’s the first time I’ve ever won anything. I give a maudlin but heartfelt speech based on a few scrawled words on hotel stationery. I’m not sure what to do with myself. I come home with a trophy and there it is and I’m still not sure what to do with myself. I expect edits to land on The Humours of Grub Street any day. They do not.

November: I start writing for a videogame, which is cool (the details are secret). News breaks that my publisher for Armed in Her Fashion and The Humours of Grub Street has been treating a lot of people very badly. I ask for the rights back to both books.  For more than a month, my agent does not get a final response from ChiZine on this question.

December: The Magician’s Workshop publishes. The semester wraps up, and I get all my grading done. I realize I have no short fiction in my on-submission stack for the first time in seven years; I’ve barely written short fiction this year. But I finally have time to focus on finishing The Embroidered Book. I get the rights to my ChiZine books back. Two months after winning the Aurora Award, Armed in Her Fashion starts to become unavailable for sale. The Humours of Grub Street, the first book I signed with my agent on back in 2014, is cancelled.

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So many things have changed that I find stock-taking this year to be an overwhelming exercise. I don’t really know how to feel, most of the time. It’s unsettling.

One of the odd things that happens, when you start having even a little success or recognition, is that other people rewrite their narratives about you almost immediately. I’ve had the weird experience a few times this year of fellow writers making affectionate jokes in the vein of “of course Kate will be on all the awards ballots” as though that’s just natural law, when I know it’s anything but. I have been publishing short SFF fiction regularly and professionally since 2013, and I’ve been writing a lot longer than that. I have been living the story of myself as “the sort of writer who plods along in obscurity” for a long time and sure, I didn’t love that story but I knew how to be in it. I knew how to get the work done, inside that story.

The thing is, both narratives are superficial, ephemeral, not very useful. Awards are about the work, not the writer, or at least they should be. Whether I think of myself as “the sort of writer who gets nominated for awards” or not is irrelevant; all that matters is the next book, and how good it is. It’ll get nominated for things or it won’t. It’ll sell well or it won’t. The publishing industry will do all the wonderful and terrible things that the publishing industry does.

But those things are not part of my identity, the story of me. The story of me is not a branding exercise. The story of me is, has to be, the story of a woman sitting in her sunroom writing a book. That’s the beginning of the story and that’s the end of the story. The story of me is in the present tense; it is the action I take.

I know all this, but my brain is struggling a bit.

The theme of 2019 in writing-career stuff for me has been that good stress and bad stress are processed by my nervous system the same way. It’s all “stuff is happening; does not compute” to my brain, which got used to its comfortable default of “nothing is happening; carry on.”

The only way I can see to deal with “something is happening” is the same way I dealt with “nothing is happening”: make good art, as Neil Gaiman says. Write the damn book, and then write the next one. That was the job before; that’s the job now.

So I guess, looking ahead to 2020, what I really want to achieve, what I want to get better at, is being able to handle “things are happening.” To live within change. To find ways to compartmentalize, integrate and process, without losing valuable working time by staring into space wondering how I’m supposed to be feeling about things, trying to rewrite a story of myself that doesn’t need to be rewritten.