I am feeling a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about my writing this week. I’m going to digress here to say: this is not me fishing for external reassurance, nor do I want any. The odds of anyone reading this coming up with something that is helpful that I haven’t already considered are very low; the odds of saying something that aggravates the situation is considerably higher. So please respect the fact that I’m writing this out to 1) process what I’m feeling and 2) let anyone interested know where I am at, and sit on your hands until the urge to say something about it passes.
Back at the start of January—the start of the year, it now feels like it was months ago—I started a new approach to writing that balances my desire to Make All The Things at once with my need to hyperfocus on a single thing to get anything done: Make All The Things, but one at a time, about a week at a time.
My first week test case was extremely successful, and I talked about having a sort of rotating semi-regular roster of projects I would work on one week at a time, getting material to publish over the course of a month or more each time. I got three months’ worth of material out of my first week, and two months’ out of my second one. The idea is that if, with a week of focused production I tend to produce more than a month’s worth of material, I could easily have 3 or more ongoing serial projects with room for side projects (like standalone short stories, game stuff, etc.) and interruptions in the work schedule.
I was coy at the time about what projects I was going to try the experiment with after my test, because I didn’t want to either disappoint people when their favorite long-simmering story wasn’t on the initial short list or get their hopes up by mentioning something that might not pan out. This was, after all, an experiment.
The most concrete example of this is Tales of MU, which I knew back at the start of January would either be the story I worked on during the last week of the month, or it wouldn’t be.
My feelings about Tales of MU are complicated. From the start, I thought of it as a freshman story… a story about people making a lot of mistakes and learning from some of them. At the same time, it was (unintentionally and, at first, unwittingly), my freshman story… a story where I made a lot of mistakes, and one hopes, learned from them.
This year marks the tenth anniversary of when I started writing it. It’s a weird thing to be tethered to a story from ten years ago. I was a very different person ten years ago. I thought I knew a lot of stuff that I didn’t, and I didn’t know a lot of stuff that I think I do now. I was working through some pretty heady issues at the time, and it shows in the writing which includes themes I would have avoided if I’d started it now. But, of course, if I hadn’t worked through them in my writing, I probably wouldn’t be able to say that. Certainly I would have made the campus’s human majority population less homogeneously white if I’d started writing it today, and not been as cavalier about applying stereotypical racial tropes to fantasy creatures. I really didn’t know the difference between “saying something about a thing” and “having something to say about a thing” back then.
Tales of MU grew out of my nostalgic memories of Basic D&D and 2nd Edition AD&D at a time when I wasn’t playing then-current 3rd Edition D&D, and it has a lot of original stuff I put in or changed to make things better or more interesting than the distant source material. Since I started writing it, I got really into 4th and 5th Edition D&D, which makes the nostalgia base of TOMU a lot less emotionally resonant to me.
These things might weigh on me a little less if this were a conventional book series. A long running series of books still has each book as a self-contained volume with their own beginning and end. It’s easier to see the “now” of such a series as being self-contained compared to what came before.
Tales of MU is not like that; the “books” are more divisions of convenience and one of my goals when writing it was to tell a story for people who prefer to live in the middle part of a story rather than the beginning or end.
I’ve done that, and I don’t regret doing that, but the problem is, such a story has no natural ending point.
(This is the part where people want to jump in to tell me what they think the natural ending point is. Restrain yourself. That impulse is not your friend.)
Financially, it’s also complicated. I can make more money writing Tales of MU than not writing it, but there was only a very brief window when I first broke out in the crowdfunded writing scene where it was enough to justify the work it takes to make that money. At the same time, the fact that I didn’t write or publish any Tales of MU during my “fiction drought” around the election hurt my finances more than anything else about that period. The financial benefit is not likely to increase meaningfully, as new material is tied to ten years of previously written material of widely varying tone and quality.
Ultimately, whether I want to and am able to continue writing it is not going to be a financial decision so much as a creative and personal one.
And then we get to the fanbase, which is also complicated. The thing is, I know even as I write this that I’m going to see commentary to the effect of “I knew her heart was in it.” or “It was obvious she’d given up and moved on.” I see those messages all the time. Part of the vicious cycle of trying to keep up an update schedule is that any time it slips—even by an hour, literally an hour—I start hearing “SO I GUESS YOU’VE GIVEN UP WRITING TALES OF MU MIGHT HAVE SAID SOMETHING INSTEAD OF GHOSTING” or “please Ms. Erin tell us what we did wrong”… and honestly, it’s hard for me to explain why both of those messages are so disheartening, but they are.
It’s especially hurtful to have people bruiting about their commentary on my “decision” when I’m wrestling with a story, struggling to overcome difficulties in writing. Imagine you’re buried in an avalanche and you’re trying to dig your way out, and people are standing in earshot debating about whether you’re selfish for deciding to be buried, or if your decision to be buried is valid and must be respected. Even the people defending you are calmly talking about how you decided to be trapped under tons of earth, and blithely assuming that at the very moment you decide to, you will effortlessly shift it away.
The thing is, I do better at things—at any thing—when I can document my process and process my feelings here, butI I long ago gave up writing anything about writing Tales of MU and where I am, because every process post attracts these comments. At one point I made a post saying that conditions were untenable in the home office so I was taking my laptop to a coffee shop to finish the day’s chapter and I received a tweet saying “So I guess you’re saying there’s no chapter today.” Not even exaggerating. I made a blog post about my plans to finish the chapter and someone took it as confirmation that there wasn’t going to be one.
This isn’t even getting into the people who don’t understand that writing is not mechanical labor, that it is not a simple matter of sitting in front of a keyboard and pressing the Make Story Button fifteen thousand times in a row. But that’s relevant, because the cumulative effect of the weight of expectations and entitlement and misguided/errant advice is that it makes the creative aspect of the work harder. It pulls me out of my creative brainspace.
Call me a precious special snowflake with delicate feelings (out loud, preferably, where I don’t have to hear it), but this is the quantum interference aspect of direct author/audience interaction – the act of observing an author at work has ways of affecting an author at work. This is a big part of why I’ve been increasingly distant from my fanbase and hard to reach over time. It’s not even about abusive or obviously over-entitled fans. It’s getting the same advice, having people make the same assumptions about what’s going on in my head, hearing my circumstances or outcomes dissected as decisions, over and over again. I’ve been working on toughening myself up and shifting into a mindset of “If they don’t know me, it doesn’t matter what they think.”, but the catch-22 of it is that it’s really hard to do this kind of self-improvement work while you’re still being peppered with it.
To use a metaphor: it’s a lot easier to repair the shields on the starship Enterprise when it’s not actively taking fire.
Anyway. People have assumed that Tales of MU is over or that I’m “on the bubble” for canceling it many times, often while I was trying to gear up to breathe new life into it. There have been maybe two times I have seriously considered canceling it. One of them was last summer, just before my most recent revitalization attempt.
That attempt fizzled out not just because of the election stuff, but because I got right up to the end of the current storyline and found I had no idea what to write next. Perversely, this made it impossible for me to write the last installment of the current story. I know exactly what happens. I could tell someone the nutshell version of it. It’s not very exciting or important as everything about the problem at hand was more or less wrapped up in the currently-last chapter. The last chapter of the storyline was meant to just be a coda.
It’s just that the weight of not knowing what comes next and the need to continue the story makes it hard to tie off the current one with a bow.
This is the third time I’ve thought seriously about ending the series. I made the decision at the start of the month that I would, in fact, and I have to tell you: it felt liberating. I don’t think I could have written a NaNo worth of a single story in under eight days if I’d had “…but I need to be writing Tales of MU” running through my head.
During my family vacation, I thought about how I would end it, if I would do a “flash forward/montage” of the characters or reveal some of the things that have been lurking in the background, stuff like that. Which got me thinking about the things about the story that do still resonate with me, and made me start to vacillate a little bit.
And so I ultimately decided that this week would be Tales of MU week in my great experiment. I’d write the coda for the current storyline and then see if I could work out What Comes Next and how it goes, writing it out in advance. I could do regular updates if I could summon a week’s worth of enthusiasm for the story every month, month and a half, or so. And recent events have given me more stories I want to tell in the world.
Now that we’re here… I’m less sure I can commit to having a week’s worth of enthusiasm for the story every 4 to 6 weeks. I’m also less sure that I could walk away from it. To tell you the honest truth, when I started writing this post I had one idea about which of the two options I was going to pick, and it switched back and forth a few times as I’m writing this.
This is what I mean by “processing”, by the way, when I talk about how I process things on my blog.
And as this post approaches what I consider the minimum length for a decent chapter, I come to a decision, or rather a realization: when you’re faced with two choices and neither one is palatable, you should ask yourself if you’re really limited to those two.
Are my choices really to commit to an ongoing writing/publishing schedule or to wash my hands and walk away? No, no they are not.
So, to get to the meat of it: I am going to spend this week working on Tales of MU, finishing the current storyline and beginning the next one. I am not going to stop writing it, officially cancel it, etc. But from here on out, I will be writing stories in the Tales of MU universe and posting them to the Tales of MU site when I have something to say, not merely to perform the rote act of filling out a quota or hitting a schedule.
How many years have I been repeating the line about creativity not being a mechanical act? I’m finally starting to believe it myself.
Anyone trying to glean hints about the frequency of updates going forward from this is going to be shooting in the dark. I don’t know. I can’t tell you. It’s possible that the act of unburdening myself from expectations will turn me into a writing machine and re-ignite the spark of passion completely. It’s possible that it will just be a side thing, an occasional dalliance, going forward. Who can say?
I’ll avoid posting more than two chapters a week, for the benefit of the folks on the Tales of MU patreon who are pledged on a per-update basis (the only fair way to proceed, since I’m not guaranteeing production in a given month), though most of them seem to have sensible caps on their patronage based on their monthly budget anyway.
But that’s a best case scenario, not a baseline.
So here is where the post ends. I’ll tack on a caveat – everything I’m doing this month is experimental. This week’s experiment is Tales of MU. If it goes very well, I will tie off the current storyline with a bow and start the next one immediately. If it goes well, I will tie off the current storyline with a bow and begin prepping the next storyline, for when the next time Tales of MU comes up in my informal, shifting rota.
If it goes terribly? Well, that might be the end. I’m making no decisions in advance here.
Either way, a big thank you to everyone for reading… both this blog post, and anything else I’ve written that you’ve read.