(This Scribtotum article is cross-posted with Sonitotum with Matthew Wayne Selznick episode 25. Listen to it, and / or read it here.)
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
That’s a question usually posed to would-be employees by recruiters and hiring managers. It’s lazy interviewing, don’t do it.
For an independent creator and self-employed “knowledge worker” like myself, however, asking yourself that question is useful.
Which is why it’s almost unforgivable that, other than in the vaguest sense, I didn’t have a long term plan until a few days ago.
Scribtotum is for teaching by example from the perspective of an experienced beginner, so I’m going to tell you why I finally figured out The Big Plan.
Since Scribtotum is also a node of my offboard brain… the place, as I once wrote, for “getting to know my own head…” I’m going to share the plan with you. That’s for accountability, too, so be a dear and read on…
“There Is Only So Much Time To Be Alive”
I sang that lyric, from my song “Brian Wilson,” in the band PIGBAT in the early nineties, when I was in my mid-twenties. Here’s the only recording I have of it, from a 1994 rehearsal. Enjoy, or, be amused, or something.
Can you hear the youth? I knew the concept of mortality. Knew it. Didn’t understand it.
Now, I’m in my early fifties. My parents lived into their mid-eighties. I’m in comparatively better health than either of them were at my current age, so I can reasonably expect that I’ve got another thirty-ish years on the planet.
Except… I can’t reasonably expect that, or anything, when it comes to how much time I have left. I might as well have sung, “There is only x time to be alive.”
I’ve mentioned my late colleague P. G. Holyfield at least two times in the last few episodes of Sonitotum with Matthew Wayne Selznick, the companion podcast to Scribtotum. He died in 2014 at the age of 46 with many creative works left unfinished and unrealized, including things we were going to do together.
We were to begin this month.
On October 1st, 2020, Grant died of coronavirus.
Grant was eighty years old. While his contributions as an honored storyteller and ethnographer of the Crow people were invaluable and extensive, he died before seeing his own novel experienced by the world. That’s affected me deeply.
In my twenties, I was still too young to really grok what I was singing. I hadn’t lost anyone other than grandparents.
In my forties, when Patrick (P.G.) died, I had lost a few friends — some of them creators, including Kris Shine, whose guitar playing you can hear on “Brian Wilson” — and my niece. I was starting to get the message, but still, it was abstract.
It’s 2020 as I write this, I’m fifty three years old, and I’ve survived over a dozen friends, colleagues, clients, and relatives. Artists, writers, musicians, many of them. Count among them my mother, who left behind scores of poems, vignettes, fragments, paintings, and other writing, not least of which was her extensive genealogical research.
Okay. I get it.
If a Tree Fell On Me Right Now
I’m sitting in a park, writing this. A strip of bark the size of my torso just fell off a tree and onto the path about thirty feet from where I sit. Nobody was jogging by at that particular moment, and if it had hit anyone, it probably wouldn’t have done more than give them a good scare and a scratch or two.
Still, it was a reminder of the very randomness and uncertainty driving me more and more the last few years.
If a tree fell and took me out right now, I would leave unfinished and unpublished (in addition to this very blog post)…
- Five novels, four novellas, two serials, and an undetermined number of short stories in my Shaper’s World storyworld, plus secondary material like role-playing game setting guides.
- Four novels, five serials, at least two short stories, and secondary material in my Sovereign Era storyworld.
- Three novels and at least two short stories, plus secondary material in my Daikaiju Universe storyworld.
- An unknown number of novels in my as-yet-unrealized pulp / thriller series The Dent Method.
- Three novels, an anthology, a screenplay, and at least three short stories that are not canonically part of any of my storyworlds… “literary” projects, if you will.
That’s at least thirty five projects… not counting any music I might want to make. And I do want to make more music.
The Math Speaks
Thirty five projects. Less than thirty years… how much less, no one knows.
So we have a variable (the time I have left to do productive work) and a real number (the work left to do).
We do have one other number… my rate of production to date.
First novel: 2005. Second novel: 2013. Third novel: 2020.
Seven years between major works.
Clearly, that’s unacceptable. At that rate, I would need to live to be 158 to finish all the planned novels, never mind all the other stuff.
Happily, my rate of production is a variable I have some measure of control over.
There is much to do, and only so much time to be alive.
The Big Plan
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
I’ve got a different goalpost: my sixtieth birthday on July 14, 2027.
By that time, I will be making at least $75,000.00 a year on my creative endeavors alone. I will have phased out my services business and will be a full time creator.
How will I get there?
Here’s the minimal production schedule:
- December 4, 2020: LAUNCH: “The Perfumed Air at Kwaanantag Bay” (Shaper’s World novella)
- July 13, 2021: LAUNCH: Shadow of the Outsider (Shaper’s World novel)
- December 3, 2021: LAUNCH: Untitled Shaper’s World novella)
- July 13, 2022: LAUNCH: War of the Outsider (Shaper’s World novel)
- December 2, 2022: LAUNCH: Walk Like a Stranger: “Passing Through Home” (Shaper’s World serial)
- July 13, 2023: LAUNCH: Thraal (Shaper’s World novel)
- December 1, 2023: LAUNCH: Untitled Shaper’s World novella
- July 13, 2024: LAUNCH: Invasion (Shaper’s World novel)
- December 2, 2024: LAUNCH: Untitled Shaper’s World novella
- July 13, 2025: LAUNCH: The Shaper of the World (Shaper’s World novel)
There’s a lot of padding there. If I can move faster, I will. Remember, my current reality is that I spend 80% of my productive time working for other people. That needs to flip, gradually.
By my 58th birthday, I will have at least ten more titles in the Shaper’s World cycle on the market, plus a freebie serial in the same series, and possibly a few other minor works.
The Projected Result
What does that mean in terms of projected revenue? How will I get from where I am now to $75,000 in less than six years and eight months (as I write this)?
Where Am I Now, and What Do I Need To Get Where I Want To Be?
First of all, where I am now ain’t pretty.
I’m not literally starting from zero. I have one Shaper’s World book published, and I have six Sovereign Era titles out there, and a handful of other things. Thirteen titles (counting novels, short stories, non-fiction… everything) on the market.
My revenue from Amazon in 2019 was… $170.56. I had eleven titles on the market most of that year, so I earned, on average, $15.51 per title.
In 2020, of course, I released a book (and a short story, but it’s Light of the Outsider that’s really made a difference). I also started investing in advertising., and finally, after two months of figuring it out, I’m making a little more than I spend.
I’m projected to earn $514.46 from Amazon royalties this year from thirteen titles. Or, about $39.57 per title, on average.
The reality is, releasing Light of the Outsider and investing in advertising beginning in August (for Brave Men Run, for reasons I’ve detailed elsewhere) had the biggest impact on revenue this year. But let’s keep it really simple: bottom line, adding another book resulted in 2.56 times the revenue.
The objective is to release at least two titles each year — a novel and a novella. If you run some spreadsheet calculations to see what happens if you add two books a year and assume x2.56 revenue per title each year…
Well, you might get pretty excited.
I just did it. It shows me blowing past my $75,000 / year goal in 2025 and bringing in $763,115.45 from 27 titles in 2027.
Reality will probably not match that projection.
Even running the calculations with just one new title each year has me breaking $75,000 / year in 2026, and hitting over half a million a year later.
Seems too good to be true.
Let’s assume it’s not.
I simply don’t have enough data to make an accurate projection.
But the premise is valid. In fact, folks succeeding at this right now have shown, again and again, that the strategy works: more books + advertising = rapid growth.
So… how do I get where I want to be, when (or before) I want to get there?
The answer has never changed.
Write, finish, and ship new titles as often as possible.
Building the Big Plan Life
As the writer, storyteller, and worldbuilder Scott Walker recently reminded me, “You can’t edit (or sell) a blank page.”
The root tactic, the water in the well, or maybe the shovel that digs the well, is to write. Regularly, and a lot.
I only finished the majority of the first draft of Light of the Outsider because I put myself in an environment conducive to writing fiction for a set amount of time nearly every day, and (this is the hard part, if you live with others and / or have others who depend on you) zealously defended that time.
That’s what I’ve been doing, and what I will have to continue to do five or six days a week, until the income see-saw (creative work vs creative work for others) tilts consistently and decisively in the preferred direction.
Building a self-sustaining career as a writer after (let’s be honest) half-assing it for most of my adult life… that ideal is at the center of a web of interconnecting and interactive factors.
Three things are foundational:
- Mental and physical health
On the first item: When I most recently lived alone from mid-2015 until the beginning of 2019, I learned a few things about what I need (ritual, practice, routine, diet, and so on) to be at my best. For the first time, I came to understand myself and my optimum operating conditions.
And then, for a variety of reasons, I let most of that stuff go.
Without question, my creativity and my sense of self have demonstrably suffered as a result. So it’s past time I worked all of that stuff back into my life.
On the second item: I’m not talking minimalism. I mean living a life that serves the first foundational element and facilitates the third. Everything else should be strictly optional and voluntary.
I’m not doing that right now. I have taken on a great deal of personal and professional obligation, and I exist in an environment that is unstable and chaotic.
That will change, although necessity and practicality demand the change be incremental.
On the third item: Two of the biggest things I discovered about myself when I most recently lived alone:
- I am susceptible to situational depression and anxiety.
- I am an introvert.
Now, there have been a lot of anxiety- and depression-inducing elements in my life over the last few years. Welcome to middle age, right? That “situational” depression stretched into “clinical” for a time or two, and I’m struggling with it right now.
Understanding what it truly means to be an introvert, and how to live in service to my nature rather than against it, or, worse, feeling guilty about it, had been integral to my ability to manage my depression and anxiety.
I need solitude, and a lot of it, to be at my best. When I go without considerable, lengthy, uninterrupted solitude at the time of my choosing, the result is escalated levels of anxiety, demolished focus, and a greater tendency toward depression.
Over the proceeding weeks and months, I will make lifestyle adjustments to ensure all three foundational elements are in place as consistently as possible.
Here are some strategies and tactics supporting the foundational elements. All have to do directly or indirectly with time and money, and having enough of the latter to dedicate as much as possible of the former to The Big Plan in a healthy and energized way.
Once upon a time, I wrote a blog post about resisting procrastination and optimizing productivity. In it, I echo the advice of several folks who are much more successful and productive than I typically am: assign focus themes to each day of the week.
For example, Monday might be “client podcast maintenance.” Tuesday might be “new client discovery calls.” And so on. Doesn’t mean that’s the only thing you work on that day… it mostly means you don’t spread those things out, piecemeal, across every day of the work week.
The end result is greater discipline and focus, and less concentration-destroying context switching (multitasking is very, very bad). More done in less overall time means more time to execute on The Big Plan and not go broke. So I’m back to doing theme days.
And speaking of not going broke: I will reduce my personal and professional operating expenses. I’m paying a lot of little monthly fees for this service and that service. While some improve productivity and are worth the cost for the dividend of time, I suspect many can be cancelled or at least consolidated into annual (almost always less expensive) plans.
Additionally, the biggest operating expenses I have right now are related to where and how I’m living. I’m paying far more each month than the environment merits. Fixing that isn’t something I can do right away, but I will work toward it bit by bit.
Saving time and saving money is great… how about making more money in less time, with less work? That’s the definition of passive income.
I will create more passive revenue streams. It’s okay if each stream only brings in a little money… the trick will be to not invest too much initial time / energy in creating / setting up each one.
Yes, indeed, dear reader, writing and publishing is passive income. The Big Plan is the ultimate passive income plan.
That’s why other passive income efforts can’t become a primary focus, or steal time / resources from achieving The Big Plan. They have to be quick-setup projects that lend themselves to automation.
Recently, I made my free fiction serial, Hazy Days and Cloudy Nights: “How It All Got Started,” available exclusively as a free weekly email to subscribers. Every installment — and there are forty and counting — includes affiliate links to my related Sovereign Era titles and other in-context items. It meets the criteria.
I have other ideas I’ve been sitting on for a while, all of which can be automated and won’t take long to organize. Special Facebook pages, newsletters, and even evergreen courses.
I will execute on at least two of them by the end of the year.
There’s one passive income source I’ve had for a long time that I actually just shut down: my Patreon campaign.
Why turn off a source of revenue?
Simply put, the time and effort spent maintaining it wasn’t matched by the income, and the level of patron engagement was negligible. While I’m very grateful to the few stalwart patrons I had there (and I’m making sure they’re taken care of through 2021), I would rather those fine folks remain part of my community of friends and fans as subscribers to my mailing list.
Social Media Moderation
In August of this year, I scaled my use of Facebook back to almost exclusively only using it for my creative and professional needs. I’m barely on Instagram any more. Surprisingly, I’ve been more active on Twitter than perhaps since I joined back in 2007. I’m finding it fun, and not at all the toxic anxiety overdose that Facebook can be. I’m also finding value in Discord, StackOverflow, and even Reddit — all of which have proven valuable in my creative and professional pursuits.
It feels good to have social media serving me once again (or, perhaps, for the first time). However, it does mean I’m not seeing everyday updates from my friends and acquaintances, close or casual.
Now, I need solitude, but that doesn’t mean I want to be isolated, or withdraw to the point that I become a hermit! But any of my friends will tell you I’m not so good at reaching out, or responding when they do.
Recognizing this, I’m going to systematically reach out to folks; a few a week, and, since sitting down to coffee is still ill-advised in this pandemic era, hopefully we can at least get on a call. Some of them are going to be quite surprised to hear from me, I can bet.
Backing away from social media — Facebook, especially — has me more contemplative and productive overall. While there’s still plenty to spark anxiety in my world, at least Facebook’s not adding to it..!
I don’t imagine that I’ll succeed with The Big Plan without the support of my community of loved ones, friends, and fans.
Loved ones: I hope you can understand that The Big Plan is my highest priority. I am committed to developing a lifestyle that allows me to pursue it. Nothing is more important to me, as the fruits of The Big Plan will sustain me, and then, those works will be my legacy.
I don’t ask that The Big Plan be your lodestone. Only that you accept that it is mine. It is not hyperbole to say that it is my life’s work.
Friends: As I mentioned above, you know I’m not always the most social creature. I need you to draw me out now and then; to be the one who calls rather than waiting for me to call. I love you guys. There is only so much time to be alive, right?
Fans: There is no getting around the fact that, fundamentally, the relationship between creator and consumer is a transactional one.
I make a thing, I put it on the market, you buy the thing, the things provides you with a net-positive experience, your purchase puts food on my table and a roof over my head, and we do it again in a virtuous, mutually beneficial cycle twice a year or so.
When I make a thing, I need you to buy it.
I promise to make it as awesome as I am can. The definition of “awesome” will vary from thing to thing, but I can tell you this much: every time I do something, it’s at least a little better than the last time. Stick with me though The Big Plan.
When you buy a thing, please tell people what you thought of it. Specifically, there’s not much you could do that has a bigger impact than writing a review on Amazon (even if you didn’t buy it from Amazon). Reviews really matter.
Beyond graciously writing a review, please tell everyone you know about my work. I make things for people who like the kinds of things I make. Help those people find me.
Share it on social media, recommend it to folks in conversation… you’ll know what to do.
If you love what I do… share the love. One candle can light thousands more.
The Big Plan is For You
I’m dedicating the next seven years of my life to The Big Plan because I want as many of my creative ideas out of my brain and into the world before I die, and I want to make a comfortable income from my creativity that will sustain me in my dotage and keep me out of a state-funded for-profit nursing home. Yeah, that last part is pretty specific, I know.
So sure, The Big Plan is absolutely for me.
Nevertheless, and no less, The Big Plan is for you.
The explanation that follows is full of personal philosophy. It might seem self-important, or even messianic. See it through.
We have very good evidence that reading fiction improves the capacity for empathy in humans, especially fiction that focuses on interpersonal relationships, so-called “literary” fiction. Reading fiction actually makes better humans.
I am a humanist. I have tremendous faith in, and optimism for, the human species. I want to see us, as a species, contribute to the sum of information that is reality. Spend some time unwrapping that… I have, and do.
When you strip away the mutant teenagers and giant monsters and dire cosmic threats in my fiction, what you end up with is stories about people interacting with one another as they learn to face their own internal challenges. Shorthand that as “character-driven fiction,” a.k.a: “literary fiction.”
All of my fiction is literary fiction — not just that one collection you haven’t read.
I write literary fiction to know myself, and so others might see themselves reflected in my characters, and so, challenged by example and proxy, better understand themselves and others.
I write to figure out what it means to be human, and help you figure that out, too.
Camus, in the manuscript of The Stranger, wrote, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” It’s the abyss into which we gaze that reveals itself as a wellspring, not a void, and it’s a mirror.
Many years ago, attending a convention, I met someone in a hotel hallway who told me that Brave Men Run brought them to tears because they saw so much of their own experience in the story of Nate Charters. They felt understood, and seen. Less alone, perhaps.
That’s the idea.
I don’t always want to make people cry. I do want them to feel, and to think, and, along with me, to be better. Succeeding with The Big Plan means more opportunities for all of that.
The Big Plan is for you.
What Do You Think? Do You Have Your Own Big Plan?
As always, I want to know what you think about what I’ve written here. Constructive advice on how best to execute The Big Plan is especially welcome.
Additionally, I want to know if you have a Big Plan of your own, or if reading this has inspired you to craft one. If you’re working your Big Plan now, or about to start, will you share the details? We can all learn from one another, and stand by one another in support and celebration, so don’t be bashful!