The last time I updated this blog, or anything on my website, was in December of 2016, just after The Liberation came out. I’ve kept a fairly low profile — both online and in real life — in those nearly five and a half years. Why? What happened? Where have you been, Ian? (I know that in reality nobody cares and nobody is asking such questions. But for the sake of writing this post, I’m adopting the wild narrative conceit that somebody somewhere actually gives a toss.)
What happened? Many things. By 2016, the sinews connecting me to writing had already gone slack, suffering a thousand little paper cuts over a long period of time. By the end of that year, they unraveled completely.
I have been extremely fortunate, with seven traditionally published novels hitting shelves during the period 2010-2016: Bitter Seeds (2010), The Coldest War (2012), Necessary Evil (2013), Something More Than Night (2013), The Mechanical (2015), The Rising (2015), and The Liberation (2016). When calculated according to publication dates, that works out to a coarse average of one book per year for seven years. Of course, the actual writing of said novels took a bit longer than that; I started Bitter Seeds around 2007, and finished a polished draft of The Liberation in late 2015. (Publication schedules can vary for many many reasons, which is why there are no releases in 2011 or 2014 but two releases in both 2013 and 2015. But a gap in the release schedule doesn’t indicate a pause in the effort. I was typing the entire time.)
That’s not particularly prolific, nor is it particularly fast. I know many writers who write twice as many books per year, for much longer than I was producing novels. But writers’ processes differ. So do the writers themselves. And for me, personally, juggling that novel-delivery schedule with a fairly mentally demanding day job, coupled with somewhat long hours (9 hours in the office + more than 2 hours of commuting each day)… well, eventually it got to me.
As I said a moment ago, I’m not a particularly fast writer. In order to regularly deliver novels on a 12-month schedule, I had to be very dogged about it. This meant many, many evenings and weekends spent at the keyboard.
(Forgoing dinner or sleep until the daily page quota has been met, chipping away at the project long after the vicissitudes of daily life have drained every last molecule of creativity from the skull: for professional novelists on contract, this is where the rubber meets the road. If any aspiring writers happen to be reading this, take heed. Being a professional writer isn’t just sitting back and letting your muse shower you with rose petals. Eventually that muse will forget what it ever saw in you in the first place; tell you it met somebody new, and that your relationship has been over for years anyway; and then will pack up and skip out while you’re gone from the house for a few hours, without leaving so much as a forwarding address. Welcome to the dream factory, kids.)
I was psychotically disciplined. For years. Eventually, I burned out.
And, yes, like I’ve said, I know writers who produce more work for longer periods of time without suffering. Some of them do it while raising kids. All I can say is, I’m not one of them. In my defense, many of the most highly productive writers I know do it full time and/or have a partner to shoulder a portion of life’s daily demands. Not all of them, but many. In my time as a writer, I have never not had a mentally draining full-time day job. And for most of that novel publication run laid out above, I was shouldering everything myself.
I say “most of” that run because, in the meantime, I got married (somewhere in the middle of writing The Rising, as it happens). And suddenly I didn’t feel like spending all those evenings and weekends locked in my lonely garret. I wanted to spend that time with my wife. Go figure.
In fact, by the time we became engaged, I had already withdrawn from much of the writing community. (And just to be very clear, this decision was entirely my own and not in any way spurred by my now-wife. She has always been 6000% supportive of my writing.) I’d stopped going to conventions by then. Even my kick-ass local convention. (By this point I’d also come to realize that certain conventions, such as Worldcon, frequently aren’t very enjoyable to me.) I just… needed space. I’d reached the level where my silly little writing side-hobby had become a fully fledged second career, with all the demands and obligations of a second career yet few of the benefits. I mean, don’t get me wrong, having novels published is indescribably wonderful. But I was still working that full-time job, and spending precious hard-earned and sorely needed vacation days entirely in service of more work. I’m very lucky to have a good job; the idea that writing could somehow magically replace it is laughable. That was never the goal. It’s just not feasible.
So, after my editor and I completed the revisions in late 2015, and The Liberation subsequently went into production, I told myself, my wife, and my agent that I needed to take a year off from writing. I’d use one single year, 2016, to recharge the batteries. I gave myself permission to (1) not write, and, crucially (2) not feel badly about not writing. (That was the key. See above regarding psychotic discipline.) Of course I couldn’t completely divorce myself from various authorial tasks; as the final Alchemy Wars novel went through production, there were copyedits and page proofs to review. Additionally, I’d been recruited into the writing team for Serial Box’s (now Realm‘s) The Witch Who Came in From the Cold in 2015, so in 2016 we were hard at work on the second season. I’m proud of the work I delivered, though in retrospect I know my burnout was beginning to show. The
pencil candle was down to a burnt nub by then.
So my one-year hiatus from writing wasn’t a true hiatus.
Meanwhile, in early 2016, my mother — with whom I’d had a very strained relationship throughout my adulthood — was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and given less than a year to live. The diagnosis came as no surprise; she’d been an unrepentant chain smoker my entire life (probably literally, since before I was in utero) and had endured several other cancers in the previous 15 years. But I tried to be a decent human being, so throughout 2016 I spent a fair amount of time traveling back-and-forth halfway across the country to visit mom. I tried to spend as much time with her as I could, drawing up lists of questions about her life, and my life, and recording what she told me. Not to mention making all the legal and financial arrangements ahead of time, to prepare for her passing: reviewing her will and living will, making certain I knew where all of the crucial documents were stored and that I had access to them, reviewing her budget, making multiple trips to various banks with my mother… All the fun stuff you have to do when somebody is dying. (I will say, to mom’s credit, that she did make every effort to lay the groundwork before she died. That was a lesson she’d learned in the wake of her second husband’s passing, 15 years earlier — man oh man was that a shit-show.)
So my vacation from writing wasn’t much of a vacation.
Then came November of 2016.
Suffice it to say, the beginning of that month pushed me — and many, many, other people around the world — into a rather profound depression. I became a bitter nihilist. I still am, frankly. It’s very difficult to find a reason to write pointless frivolous stories about robots punching each other in the junk when people are suffering all around you, and your efforts to stem the wildfire of suffering is about as effective as pissing into a volcano, and you suddenly see, with a searing actinic clarity, that nothing fucking matters.
Almost simultaneously with this, mom stopped answering her phone. A neighbor doing a wellness check found her delirious on the floor of her house, having suffered a terrible fall. My wife and I basically ran out the door in the middle of the night, traveling all day to arrive just barely in time to reach mom’s hospital bed before she passed away.
A couple of days later, the (truly excellent) local attorney I hired (thanks, in-laws, for the recommendation) to help me navigate the legal processes spinning out from mom’s death discovered an error in the legal documents drawn up 15 years earlier. Mom’s attorney at that time — since deceased — had made some fundamental mistakes, essentially negating much of the preparation we had done prior to mom’s death. So, despite everything, her “estate” would still have to go through probate court. (I’m an only child. We figured this would be a slam dunk. I’m really not kidding when I say that mom’s final testament basically said, “All of my shit goes to my son, and I don’t give two farts what he does with it. Peace out, bitches.”) So I became the executor of my mother’s “estate”.
(I put “estate” in scare quotes because, let me tell you, reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 left me with a severely distorted picture of what it means to be the executor of an estate. There are no mysteries to solve, no secret societies to infiltrate, no secret histories to navigate. You hear “estate” and you think, “Oh, dear me, who will get the summer house in Provence?” but the reality is, “I wonder if the food bank will take this unopened package of paper plates that reeks of cigarette smoke?” [They did not.])
A few days after that, my final novel came out. I had to tell my amazing editors and publicist at Orbit that I’d just had a death in the family, and that this would make it difficult to put much focus into promoting the release. They were amazingly compassionate and understanding. Honestly, I have no memory of The Liberation‘s release. There were no signings, no parties, no book launch events. In fact, if I’m being perfectly honest, I tend to forget that book exists. There’s a hole in my memory where the publication of my (to date) final novel should be. Which sucks little bit, because I worked extremely hard to cap off the Alchemy Wars trilogy with a fitting conclusion.
So at the end of 2016, I was still just as burned out, writing-wise, as I had been at the end of 2015. My one-year writing hiatus had achieved nothing. And now I had a ton of shit halfway across the country to deal with. A good chunk of my “down time” in 2017 went to dealing with the estate.
Anyway. You get the idea. Time passed. My one-year writing hiatus became a two-year hiatus, then longer still. One unintended (and slightly alarming) consequence of all this was that my strict routine and psychotic writing discipline, developed over many years, went right out the window. Overcoming that loss of discipline and recovering my writing work ethic took a great deal of focused effort. But I eventually managed to fight my way free of the Sarlacc pit before it digested me completely.
At the point in 2015 when I decided to “briefly” put writing aside, I had a pair of unfinished (barely started) stories on my laptop. I’m glad for this. Completing those stories was the ideal project — gentle, low-stakes — for getting my writing legs back under me. They not only provided a means of waking up my dormant writing brain, but they also gave me a desperately needed confidence boost. Each of those pieces sold to the first market I sent it to (“Come the Revolution” went to F&SF, while “When God Sits in Your Lap” went to Asimov’s), and each was subsequently acquired for reprinting in two separate Year’s Best anthologies. So by mid-late 2019 I was selling things again.
And then 2020 hit.
By and large, my wife and I were very very fortunate; our situation during the depths of the pandemic was better than what many people endured. We stayed healthy and so did my wife’s family. But. The abrupt radical shift from commuting to a job every day to doing all of my work from home completely obliterated any notion of work/life balance. The first year and a half of the pandemic was extremely productive for me, day-job-wise. I worked the equivalent of an extra two months during that period, earning raises and a promotion. But all the surplus time and energy I funneled into my day job came at the expense of writing. The Sarlacc pulled me down again.
In the past, I’d always been pretty militant about maintaining separation of my day job and my home life. A strictly enforced work/life balance had always been crucial to my ability to maintain a regular writing schedule. Well… as you might imagine, the pandemic torpedoed that under the water line.
Even so, I was trying to get back into the swing of things. Before the pandemic hit, I’d begun toying with some ideas for new novels, even writing short portions of them to test the waters. I was actively discussing these potential projects with my agent, Kay McCauley, who was happy to know that I was emerging from my cocoon. We started strategizing about what I might write next, and how she would approach editors.
Until, suddenly and unexpectedly, she passed away.
I’m very lucky that I wasn’t orphaned; I continue to enjoy excellent representation. But Kay’s passing was yet another emotional setback — everybody who had the privilege of knowing Kay absolutely adored her. She was truly one of a kind. The Sarlacc pulled me down again. Back to square one.
There are more details. But, big-picture, that’s pretty much where I am today: re-emerging from the Sarlacc pit, bruised, battered, and acid-stained, for the umpteenth time.
Despite everything, the past several years have taught me something valuable. In late 2015/early 2016, I honestly did not know if writing still had a place in my life. I didn’t know if I wanted writing to be a part of my life any longer. Answering that question took far longer than I would have liked, but I did eventually discover — to my genuine surprise — that I do. I don’t know what form that relationship will take, or what my future projects will look like, or even if I’ll write another novel. And, if I do write another novel, I don’t know if it will ever see publication. My life, the industry, and the world have changed a lot since the last time I signed a book contract.
In the meantime, while I figure out what I want to do and how I want to do it, I’ve taken steps toward rebuilding the writing part of my life. Starting with a complete revamp of this here website. As much as I loved it, and I did, my old site had fallen into disuse and disrepair long before I went on hiatus. So now, thanks to my friend Richard, I’m starting over with something a little simpler. We’ll see how well I do at keeping it up to date.
TL;DR Ian-the-writer isn’t dead. But he was in a deep coma for a good few years.