When you’ve got no money to invest in your self-publishing business, what do you do?
Simple answer: keep writing the books and wait until you do. Store them up ready for the coming season. Hat-tip to Stephen King, I’m thinking of Mike Noonan in Bag of Bones right now, the writer who describes himself as ‘a good little squirrel’ somewhere near the start.
Longer answer: work out a plan to save money from your day job, maybe set up Ko-Fi or Patreon if you think you could make that work, keep talking to your newsletter, find cheap ways to experiment with advertising for the books you already have, and above all keep writing the books.
But what happens when you feel like you can’t write the books, and worse, you’ve even fallen out of love with reading other people’s, and life is just calling you to other things?
Simple answer: now might be a good time to take a break. It feels like it’s come naturally, because it’s not writer’s depression, or depression again at all, this is just happening. Roll with it.
Longer answer that might (and I hasten to put a ‘Your Experience May Vary’ tag right here) just be a solution to everything listed above: diversify.
Okay, not such a longer answer. Except that in my case, that one word covers just about everything I’ve been up to during four months of silence on my blog, no newsletters sent out, and Talent Show Book 4 gathering dust. This article is the great big long answer about why sometimes you have to write something different. Radically different, in fact.
This article is another bravery moment of sorts. By the end of it, some of you will think I’ve gone off my head. Others will be cheering. Others may be curious. Nobody will be surprised. Just remember, this is all to do with fiction, imagination, the world of stuff that isn’t real but sometimes does act as a bit of a mirror for the things that are.
Being a squirrel can take on some pretty cool meanings besides just storing your nuts.
* * *
Let’s take an amusing side-track: I once did actually go through a phase of dressing up as a squirrel when I was a kid. I had a grey tracksuit which I stuck a fabric tail on and I pretended my climbing frame was a tree. I stored my nuts on the top of the garden wall behind it.
Hell, I liked being different animals period. Every trip to the zoo, I most likely drove my parents batshit once it got past the first adorable five minutes. The first trip I can remember, I was a jaguar, although I think I sounded more like a tiger.
When I was eight years old, I got to be an arctic fox in a school Christmas play. Actually, the same costume with a different mask also had me doubling up as a polar bear in a different scene. Two furs in one. It’s a favourite childhood memory, probably up there with the top 10. It’s also the one that makes me wonder if I’ll ever say to my mum ‘Technically, you made me my first ever fursuit.’
I still have it, in a box in the attic.
* * *
I first discovered what a ‘furry’ was back in 2005. My first impression: it was just pretty weird. Guys dressing up in suits that made them look like sports mascots and having conventions for it? Well, I knew the world was a bit of a strange place by then, and what got some people through life might seem bonkers to many others. Understandable enough that maybe some people didn’t grow out of the fun I’d once had pretending to be animals, and dressing up as them. Sometimes on a slightly elaborate level.
Perhaps, I realised, I hadn’t quite grown out of it either.
Because shit, I’d only discovered the furry fandom because I was writing Sonic the Hedgehog fanfiction. For an adult audience no less, with violence sex and cursing and general subversion of what was once just a harmless, classic video game / comic to me. When I first started writing it, I did have those moments of ‘Am I really fucking doing this?’ while staring at my latest 5000 words and thinking ‘Maybe I actually am a half-decent wordsmith’ at the same time. Above all else though, I was listening to that voice that said ‘You’re having fun, and it’s about time, so just JFDI and don’t worry that you tell your friends that all those hours spent in your room are just spent gaming or reading books.’
In the next five years, I actually wrote about 900,000 words of that shit. I seriously think it might brake the million barrier if I added it all up. In 2005, while living in Spain as part of my languages degree, combatting a pretty rotten dose of homesickness coupled with ‘I really don’t fit in here’, I wrote one Sonic story, a war-epic called Heaven’s Rejects, with loads of self-made characters added to the cast, which came out at 360,000 words. I wrote that wordcount in five months.
Despite how much booze I was also rinsing down my throat at the time, I remember all of it. And hell was it fun! I was living out of cheap tapas bars, reading high level Spanish literature, writing my degree assignments, going running on the beach at midnight to offset the guilt of having a nicotine habit as well, and then my writing desk called me the rest of the time.
I know I’ve admitted it before, I’m a writer with an ‘I learned the trade by pounding out garbage fanfiction that I took a bit too seriously at the time’ background, but perhaps until now I’ve never admitted the obsessive extent of my writing between 04 and 09, when I hung up my furry pen and started ‘serious’ writing, and the story that eventually became The Talent Show books.
Bottom line: who was I to make fun of grown-ups dressing up as animals when that was my hobby? Even bigger bottom line: I actually did, in my own bonkers way, fancy trying it sometime. To this day I still haven’t, but the point is, I was willing to admit that being a furry actually did appeal to me. And in a world where it’s all to easy to get depressed as soon as you turn on the news, and one where I’d been through ten or so years where nothing quite felt right about a lot of my life, any coping strategy that harmed nobody else was a good one, no matter how crazy it seemed. Writing Sonic fanfiction? Just do it. Dress up as an animal and go to a convention? Maybe do it, if I ever got up the guts.
Or maybe just eventually shelve that as a passing phase, and lampshade it all in amusing ways in the real-world writing I’d started taking seriously. Yeah, Shadow Hatcher’s name started as a lampshade to Shadow the Hedgehog from the Sonic series, with other meanings behind it invented later. Several of my characters have animal nicknames. Even if my friends haven’t read the Carnathia’s Underground books and found Oscar ‘The Otter’ Murdoch’s story, they’ve probably already jumped to the conclusion that if I’m a furry then I’m surely an otter, because I’ve had an interest in their conservation since my first year of ranger training. (Bzzzt! Wrong, guys! Sorry! But a perfectly logical guess.)
Where was I? I feel like I’ve got a squirrel’s ADHD thing going on here already.
Oh yeah, the world’s a fucking mess. Every day the news makes me want to bury my head in the sand like an ostrich. The UK decided to be turkeys voting for Christmas and voted to leave the EU, America elected that floppy-haired narcissistic fascist wankpuffin, and the human race is still an expert in refusing to understand itself and denying reality, and in a world where we’re all desperate for happiness we’re getting increasingly good at creating the exact reverse. We all need something to cling to. As Chuck Wendig recently said on his blog, it’s fine to be angry. Fine to take a time out. Then get back up and get back in the game.
You’ve guessed it already: 2018 is the year I felt like I needed my furry pen again. And when I finally decided I’d make a Furaffinity account and just have some fun with wherever this went. Because there has to be something worth taking my head out of the sand for.
Not the Sonic stuff again though. That’s stuffs all a ‘cherish the memories and never go back.’ Those stories exist on one CD only now and nobody will ever see them again except me, and most of the time even I shudder at the thought of looking at them. Time for something new then. And one thought kept coming back to me: if I ever suited up for all things furry, I wouldn’t be Grey Squirrel again, or the jaguar from my first zoo visit, or an otter.
I’d probably be a raccoon.
* * *
There’s one author I trade regular tweets with who, if reading this, is probably rolling his eyes and going ‘Shoulda seen that one coming,’ after a comment I made about a year ago. The conversation went something like: Him: ‘You could always get between scenes [in your WIP], jump about and yell ‘I am a lemur’ at your screen, see if it helps. Me: ‘Dafuq, lemur? I’m a raccoon and proud of it!’
This article could get hella-long if I get sidetracked into why I picked a raccoon for my ‘fursona.’ So let’s quickly name a few cool ones: Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy. R.J from Over the Hedge (Sorry Die Hard fans, the coolest thing Bruce Willis ever did was the voice of a raccoon.) Bookshire Draftwood from the Sonic fandom – originally someone else’s well known self-insertion character, who I got permission to use in my own work, and my version of him turned into probably my favourite character from all that writing. (For the fans: the Silverwood family/dynasty in the Talent Show books evolved from this when I turned some of my ff writing ‘realworld.’)
There’s also the dash of USA in me (my father’s side of the family) that somehow pulls me towards an animal that we don’t have in England. My grandmother once told me an amusing story about how she nearly let one into her house in Arizona once thinking it was her black and white cat waiting at the door. (I’ve told many people a version of that story a few times where she actually did let it in, and had to chase it out with a broom. My imagination at work again.) There’s something appealing about being an ‘invasive species.’ Let’s face it, raccoons are a bit of a menace everywhere they go. I often imagine dumping trash onto someone’s drive or lawn and sniggering at their reaction to it. Plus raccoons are actually kind of lazy, and pudgy. I’m plenty good at being that! No matter how much exercise I take, I naturally do have a bit of a gut and handles.
And here’s the clincher: a raccoon who liked sports felt like a bit of a mismatch. First step to a character who breaks the mould, perhaps?
So, I wanted some furry fun on the page, and had made an FA account for my character, so who was he and what was I going to write about?
Actually, it wasn’t quite as mechanical a process as that. Here’s how this whole thing got started: I noticed Aggretsuko on Netflix. A red panda doing death metal karaoke? Totally awesome! I burned through the series in two days, and wound up thinking I kinda wish she’d been a raccoon or a fox, for some reason. No problem, I could write, couldn’t I? There’s a starting point for something fun: raccoon does metal in bars on a Saturday night. Go!
So, why does he do it? Stress relief? From what? Okay, familiar tropes time, and a big dash of familiar ground: what if this guy’s secretly gay? A closeted jock, perhaps. (I use the American term because the species choice made me feel like this should be set in America. Arizona, perhaps, where my grandparents lived.) Perhaps the guy he fancies is a fox. Interspecies…hmm, bit of a diversity metaphor in there as well? Yep, let’s go! My raccoon is Todd and my fox is Colton. Let’s put pen to paper.
(Note to writers: if you ever call a character the latter name, make sure you check your work well for typos, because when you’re typing at speed you will inevitably write Colon. More than once. Another good one to add to Brian and Brain.)
That, quite literally, is how I got this whole thing going again.
Back to that ‘Am I really fucking doing this?’ moment from…oh man, it’s 14 years since I wrote my first Sonic story now! I’m going to turn 35 next month (this was back in May). But thank God, I’m writing again, and it’s fun…the kind I’ve missed while forcing myself to finish the mind-fuck that was Deception Crossing and I’ve just hit again after 50,000 words of The Crystal Ship came so easily, then the giant wall appeared.
Talent Show can wait. So can Citizen Erased, another book I’ve more or less completed and then squirrelled due to lack of funds. I’m having fun doing something nuts, and I can even imagine the advice as a Chuck Wendig style simile: ‘Write about an anthropomorphic raccoon who does death metal, it doesn’t matter, just write something and keep doing it every day until your raccoon’s vocal cords are like a cheese grater in your brain and you’re seeing fur growing our of your keyboard and your friends think you’ve finally flipped your lid.’
Fine by me. I’ve always had that sense that both friends and colleagues and anyone else who ever got to know me approach me with that undercurrent of ‘He’s quirky as hell and a bit of a handful to take, but we like him / love him / wouldn’t find things the same without him / etc’ You get the picture. We all know at least one person like this.
But back to what this was originally about: diversify. Here’s what this long answer about my approach to diversifying my writing life amounts to: after a few sketches with my raccoon, I realised I was putting as much thought, care, time, and sheer keyboard-pounding energy into this writing as I was with all my other work.
Cue the most obvious thought of all: might there actually be a market for this stuff? I’d spent the last four years turning myself into a reasonably experiences self-publisher, I already had an editor who I knew wouldn’t be at all fazed by looking at this stuff…bloody hell, was I actually on to something here? A completely new branch of my author business under a pen-name and marketed at furrys?
Well why the hell not? You only live once and you’re not coming back, so whatever you do, it should be something that makes you happy. What if, actually, I got this stuff into the hands of the right target audience, they loved it, and it turned out they might like my other books too?
What really clinched this for me was when I managed to do exactly that. I posted a 35,000 word story in chapters on SoFurry.com, got some good comments on it, and then admitted in an afterword that I was a self-published SF author. Two of my new fans PMd me asking me my pen-name.
That’s where I almost bottled it. I wrote back to one and said ‘Thanks for asking but I’d rather keep the two readerships separate for now,’ or something like that, which I realised two days later was total BS. If I was serious about this, a fan was a fan, and how long had I been complaining I didn’t really seem to be attracting readers? So I took the plunge and told him who I was.
He bought every book I’ve published and tore through the whole lot in just under a fortnight. It was exactly the confidence boost I needed. Same when another reader also bought one of my books and liked it.
So, the big question: could I get more readers like that?
Maybe even bigger than that: did I want my regular fans to know that I now had a very niche side project going on? That it almost felt like a double life online? What was I going to say about why I never really talked to my newsletter anymore, had dropped out of most author groups online, had stopped reading and posting book reviews? Maybe nothing. Why did anybody need to know?
I had that moment of quiet contemplation where I thought ‘Come on, you came out to your parents and friends that you’re gay, isn’t that the hardest thing you’re ever going to do? What would be so terrible about telling the world you’re a furry? Wasn’t your whole new year’s resolution to stop hiding away so much? You managed to tell that fan who you really are, and it worked out fine. Stop thinking your world will end if everybody knows about this. Sure, it does have this perception that the whole furry thing is all about sex and fetishes, and you’ve been writing a little erotica lately. But who’d be surprised? You’re the guy who wrote Fighter’s Defiance. Remember that scene where a human has kinky sex with a shapeshifter? So the latter was in human form at the time, but bottom line: you already grew enough balls to show the world how bonkers what’s inside your head is.’
So there you have it. On one hand, you have Tommy Muncie, science fiction author. On the other, there’s Athlete Raccoon, or Todd Aldrington, as my new pen-name is going to be – writer of gay furry romance. Both put as much time and effort into each project as the other. Some audiences might be interested in both. Others most definitely won’t, but it’s all good.
So, crunch time: am I going to show you guys what I’ve written so far? Well yes, but I think I’m going to make a separate post for it. There’s nothing self-published yet – I’m currently re-drafting the first novella and trying to find a cover artist. All that’s out there is on one site, SoFurry.com, aimed right at my furry audience, and it’s maybe not in keeping with the brand of my ‘realworld’ site to put links up. You can look me up in the places I’ve talked about with the names I’ve given, just be warned: you’ll need to turn on the adult content option to view my stories if you can find them, and because of the way these sites are laid out you’ll inevitably see some of the adult artwork, and posts to other stories that go a LOT more adult-content than mine do. Some of it, I’ll happily admit, makes me feel totally icky, but it’s a question of ‘It’s a site for grown ups and as long as we keep it legal we can all create what we want and post what we want.’ Disclaimer over, you can all make your own choices about whether to take the lid off that box.
I’ve started a blog for the furry writing and pen name, which aside from a curse-word or two is clean and accessible to anyone: https://theraccoonspen.wordpress.com.
I’m also @athleteraccoon on Twitter. Again, follow at your own choice: although I don’t consider it necessary to label it an ‘adults only’ account for my own tweets, if some of my likes appear in your feed (Twitter seems to be doing this more and more now) then you may occasionally get content you didn’t bargain for!