We need to stick together

Matthew Shepard was murdered in Wyoming when I was fifteen.

The following spring, I was sitting outside a McDonalds in my home town after dark with my best friend when a car full of men in their early twenties drove by, real slow. 

They did a U-turn so they could drive by again.

They rolled their windows down. 

“Is that a girl or a boy?” one of them yelled, referencing my best friend; she was looking butch as always, with her baggy 90s grunge look, her figure lean and rangy. Laughter pealed from the inside of the car.

I can’t remember what else they yelled at us, and I’m sure my best friend yelled back some choice insults. 

But I remember that, until they finally drove away, I couldn’t stop thinking: 

“This is how it starts, this is the night my parents find my body beaten beyond recognition, left tied to a fence post to die. Just like they did to Matthew.”

The men finally left. We went home. And I added the experience to the extremely long “Reasons I want to move to Seattle” column in my mind. 

By the time Matthew Shepard was killed, my friends and I already knew how dangerous it was to be different in a small town. 

I ran with the theater and band nerd crowd. I had friends who were openly gay, and friends who were closeted. We experimented with goth and punk looks that made us stand out. 

We were ridiculous, we were fun, we were weirdos. 

We were kids. 

And every single one of us had a plan to leave our home town and find a place that felt safer to be ourselves. 

A lot of things have gotten better since I was in high school. 

My friends in the US can legally get married now. There’s a lot more representation for LGBTQ role models in media, and a lot more resources and acceptance for kids to learn to love themselves. (Even so, LGBTQ youth are still more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers. Source: The Trevor Project.) 

I figured we were — overall — on a positive path toward being a society that cared for and protected everyone in it, regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

I bet you can see where I’m going with this, especially if you’ve been following US politics lately.

Tennessee just became the first state to ban drag shows and, effectively, trans people from performing at all. Trans authors are wondering if that means doing book readings is now against the law there — I’ve heard several folks talk about pulling book tour dates in Tennessee to be safe. 

Iowa lawmakers just introduced a law that would ban same-sex marriage, effectively dissolving families who don’t have the resources to move out of state. 

Dozens of states are looking at bans on gender-affirming care for youth, and a handful of these laws have started to pass. Oklahoma proposed a bill banning gender-affirming care for adults under the age of 26. 

It’s always been scary to be a kid that doesn’t fit in — and even scarier if you’re openly gay or trans. But the attack on LGBTQ kids at a legislative level is absolutely horrifying. 

My heart breaks for kids in states where the adults who are supposed to protect them are actively pushing legislation through that will deny them healthcare and basic rights.

(And you know the rhetoric those adults are spewing just increases the amount of harassment their own children are facing on a daily basis.)

Families are trying to protect their kids. A friend of mine in the south told me recently he’s planning on moving because he has two daughters and he’s worried about raising them somewhere that now restricts healthcare access for women. 

But not everyone has the means to move to a place where their kid will be safe — and not every kid has a family that’s willing to protect them, even if they did have the means. 

I don’t know what to do about any of this, except to make my voice heard in favor of trans rights and gay rights. 

This blog post isn’t even a “First they came for” attempt to speak out, because, hey. I’m a cis woman and they’ve already come for my healthcare and autonomy in the United States. It’s a “I see my trans cousin and trans friends and trans fellow authors under attack and I’m heartsick for us all” sort of post.

I don’t know what to do.

One thing I do know is that you’re a sci-fi reader, which means I’m probably speaking to the choir. 

Since I left my hometown at the age of 18, I’ve found my community primarily in the world of science fiction readers and writers, and I know what a welcoming bunch you are.

Science fiction is all about exploring how we can be better as a society, from Ursula Le Guin to Star Trek. It’s about learning to build empathy with others, from alien races to our fellow passengers on the Starship Earth. 

We may not all see eye-to-eye politically — who does! — but most people I know in the sci-fi community identify more with the book-reading weirdo in the corner than the aggressive bully.

And dammit, we weirdos need to stick together.

Now more than ever. 

If you’re looking for a way to help, I recommend seeking out and donating to organizations in your area that support LGBTQ (and especially trans) youth. Whether or not you’re in the US, I’m sure the kids in your area need to know people care about them. The Trevor Project is a good place to start.

If you’re looking to boost your empathy superpower in this area (yay for reading!), Book Riot has a fantastic list of recent sci-fi/fantasy books with trans characters. I can also heartily recommend Lila Bowen’s Wake of Vultures (weird western shapeshifter series) and my friend Neil Cochrane’s The Story of the Hundred Promises, a lovely fairy-tale retelling. 

Let’s not let this next generation of ridiculous, fun, incredible weirdo kids down. 

Orchids and remembrance

(Edited July 13, 2021 to add photos of Doug’s greenhouse that I took while watering it for grandma a few days ago. He used to have two full greenhouse of orchids, but donated many of them to the orchid society a few years back as he started to downsize.)

I write stories like a male bower bird builds its nest: by picking up whatever shiny object attracts my eye, and placing it just so.

A twig of memory here, and overheard fragment of conversation there, a dash of a scent that reminds me of a favorite location, a half-remembered line from a poem.

Most times, I don’t remember where those bits and bobs came from by the time they make it into the fabric of the story. Other times, I remember exactly what inspired me.

Today I want to talk about the hobby of one of my favorite Bulari Saga characters, because I want to talk about my grandma’s husband, Doug Corpron.


Julieta Yang, my main character’s mentor, is an avid gardener and lover of orchids. Why? Well, because in the first chapter of Double Edged, I needed her to deliver some troubling news to my main character, and I wanted her to do it in an interesting setting.

When I sat down to write that scene, I had just come from a tour of Doug’s incredible greenhouses. The experience was so vivid in my mind that I decided to give Julieta a greenhouse of her own.

It became the perfect setting for the opening scene.

Julieta could keep her hands busy pruning, while Jaantzen, a desert city creature, would feel hemmed in by the plants and uncomfortable in the humidity. It was the canvas for tiny details to put the reader subtly on edge: Julieta snipping off a jadau clipping the length of a thumb, the constant drip of the sprinkler system, the cloying perfume of the flowers.


My grandma married Doug — a doctor, traveler, and avid orchidist — less than 10 years ago. In her eighties, she’d found someone who could keep up with her, and more. Together they travel to Germany and to China. They flew all over the US to visit scattered family members. They took road trips up and down the west coast.

Doug was always joking, and always keen to understand how other people saw the world. You never walked away from a conversation with Doug without a long reading list of fascinating books and articles.

But my favorite thing about Doug was the way he made my grandma light up whenever he walked into the room.


Doug went home to his creator yesterday, at a ripe old age and surrounded by loved ones.

I honestly don’t know how to end this post, except to say that I’ll miss Doug, I’m glad I got a chance to know him, and some little piece of him will always live on in a greenhouse on a desert planet in a faraway star system. <3

What I Learned in my 7th Year as a Freelance Writer

Photo by Carl Cerstrand on Unsplash

Seven years ago this week, I was snowed in, stir crazy, and fighting off the certainty that I’d just made a huge mistake.

And now — sans snow — I’m struggling with that fear again.

(But more on the changes afoot here in a minute.)

That snowy January seven years ago, my husband and I had just moved to Portland, OR. I’d worked my last shift at the Elysian Brewing Company, said goodbye to all our friends, and hung my shingle as a full time freelance copywriter.

I was terrified.

One year earlier, I’d worked my way out of my full time catalog copywriting gig by freelancing on the side until I was too busy to do both.

I’d gone down to part time at the catalog company, then picked up shifts at the Elysian and a local Mexican restaurant (the excellent Fonda La Catrina in Georgetown) to bolster my shaky freelance income.

Working three jobs on top of being a freelance writer was exhausting — and, more critically, it was hindering my ability to grow my freelance business.

But letting go of that steady income?

I couldn’t do it.

Not on my own, at least — not until my husband got a job in Portland, and I had to cut my safety net loose and trust my writing business to support me.

I remember checking my dwindling business bank account, wondering if I’d made a mistake.

“If this doesn’t work, you can always go back to waiting tables,” I’d said to myself.

And I got to work cold-calling potential clients.

A new transition point for this freelance writer

“You can always go back to waiting tables” was my mantra for years.

Every time I lost a client, every time a dream gig fell through, every time I found myself checking a near-empty bank account.

And in seven years, I never did.

My hustle in those early years paid off. As I slowly gathered portfolio clips and confidence, I grew from charging $50 for a blog post to charging $500. I gathered a stable of reliable, well-paying clients I loved to work with. I said no to projects that weren’t a good fit for my goals, or a good use of my time.

In the back of my mind, I’d always known that as long as I kept relying on my waitress shifts for cash, I wouldn’t take the risks and pour enough energy into the freelancing.

And now?

Now I’m in a similar period of transition with my fiction business.

A deer standing on a mountain bike trail, captured on camera so that a perfect tiny rainbow seems to be shooting out of its forehead.
Apropos of nothing, please enjoy this photo of a magical unicorn deer that my husband took while mountain biking this summer. Photo by Robert Kittilson.

A focus on fiction

I’ve been diligently working to write and publish books while still keeping up with the freelance writer hustle, terrified that if I pull the plug on that regular income, my fiction income won’t sustain me.

It can’t — not now, anyway.

But what if I gave it the same full-time energy that nurtured my freelance writer career in those early years?

What if I trusted myself to work the fiction hustle as well as I worked the freelance one?

After all. I can always go back to copywriting.

Learning to say no

Of course, there’s a key difference between quitting waiting tables and quitting copywriting: I like copywriting. I find most of the work I do incredibly fulfilling, and love my clients.

Waiting tables, on the other hand? For all that I loved my coworkers, that job gave me stress nightmares almost every night.

In 2020, I started learning to say no to the work that no longer fit my goals, and opening space both for writing fiction, and for more of the work I do want to take on.

Going into 2021, I’ve set myself clear guidelines around the type of work I can say yes to as a freelance writer — and those guidelines are incredibly narrowly defined.

It’s terrifying to say no to money when you don’t have a big project on the horizon.

It’s terrifying to invest weeks and months into writing books on spec, rather than putting those hours under contract to a paying client.

But after seven years of watching my income ebb and flow, after watching myself build a business out of scratch, to succeed past every setback, I know I can do it again.

What I learned in my seventh year as a freelance writer

All that to say, welcome to my seventh annual reflection post. Changes are obviously afoot in Kwakland, and I’d like to talk a bit about how I got through 2020, what I learned along the way, and what I’m taking into 2021.

As always, my goal is to be transparent about my business and my struggles to help out freelancer writers who are earlier on their journeys than I am.

(And if that’s you, I’d love to hear from you! Drop me a line: jessie at jessiekwak.com).

Read about Year 6 (2019)Year 5 (2018)Year 4 (2017)Year 3 (2016)Year 2 (2015) and Year 1 (2014).

So…. 2020.

Jessie photo: white woman with short bleach-blond pixie cut shaved on the side with stripes cut into it.
2020 was the year that I let my husband cut my hair. He’s been playing a lot of Cyberpunk 2077 and FIFA on the Playstation….

2020, amirite?

This past year turned me (and many others) from a homebody into hermit. I forgot to leave the house for days. Honestly, I barely left my office.

It was a year of extremes. Some times I was so busy with freelance work I could barely breath. Other times it was crickets, and I used the lull to work on fiction. Some days I was laser focused on my work and goals — other days I could barely manage to find the energy to scroll Twitter and try not to scream.

I was used to working from home as a freelance writer, but I wasn’t used to my husband being constantly at home with me, and our forced co-captivity surfaced some issues we needed to work through. (As well as making our relationship even stronger.)

We all have our 2020 story, and I’m grateful to be in a place where I could weather last year’s storm relatively painlessly.

But, wow. I’m looking forward to the coming vaccine.

As for how COVID-19 impacted my freelance business, it’s hard to say. At the beginning of the pandemic, I took on a couple of COVID-related projects, such as an ebook about pivoting your business during the pandemic for Microsoft.

But as the uncertainty stretched out, marketing budgets froze and projects for Jessie dried up. I still had a few regular clients, but new work just didn’t seem to be coming in.

I used the time to finish the last book in the Bulari Saga and begin planning my next series, the Nanshe Chronicles — but as I watched my bank account drain, I started to worry.

Fortunately, I landed a few big projects at the end of the year that brought my income back up to par with what it had been in 2019. But October and November were probably two of the busiest months of my career, and I was perilously close to burnout by the time December rolled around.

But that’s a freelancer’s life, right?

Gif from Toy Story: Jessie the cowgirl saying "Jessie never gives up. Jessie finds a way"

Income analysis: How I made my living as a freelance writer in 2020

I had some shifts this year, but overall the makeup of my freelance income stayed on par with 2019. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, it’s a bit hard to break down by project since I sometimes do different types of writing for the same client.

The big change is that I had fewer clients overall. Whereas I did work for 16 separate clients in 2019, last year I only billed 10 clients — and two of those were for single projects that took less than a few days to complete.

I spent 2020 slowly shedding clients in an attempt to free up more time to focus on writing fiction. Going into 2021 I have only one monthly blogging client, and an ongoing relationship with one main client that feeds me regular content marketing work.

I’m still open to new work — particularly ghostwriting —  but I’m in a position where I can be very choosy about who I work with and how it fits with my goals.

Here’s my income breakdown for 2020:

  • Content marketing (ebooks and such): 60%
  • Business blogging – 18%
  • Ghostwriting – 8.5%
  • Copywriting (website copy) – 8%
  • Fiction – 5%
  • Knitting product copy – 0.5%

Content marketing and ghostwriting are my favorite types of work, so I’m glad to see them making up a good chunk of my income for 2020. I’m also excited that my fiction income held strong at 5% — especially since I had planned to do several big in-person book events that got canceled.

Growing a fiction writing business

A photo of my office wall: a grid laid out for 9 books with post-it notes for plot points and characters, etc.
Plotting out a nine-book series with post-it notes and tarot cards.

I mentioned that I’m paring down my client list to free up time to write fiction. The hope being that by pouring energy into writing and marketing that side of my business this coming year, that income will grow to a level that actually is sustainable.

Currently, my plan for that is to launch a new series (probably in fall of 2021), and re-launch the Bulari Saga with new covers (sometime next month).

My goal is to get these books in front of new fans, but also to double down on my core fans. To that end, I’ve started a Patreon, where I’m documenting my journey of writing the new series (the Nanshe Chronicles), sharing behind-the-scenes information, and posting sneak previews.

I also had a chance to go on the No Shelf Control podcast and talk about the Bulari Saga with authors Lindsey Fairleigh and Lindsey Pogue. It was an incredible amount of fun! (Listen to the interview here.)

A year of Chaos and Creativity

A selection of Instagram posts from fans of From Chaos to Creativity

As well as fiction, I’ve been growing the nonfiction book side of my business. From Chaos to Creativity came out at the end of 2019, and I spent part of the summer of 2020 writing a followup book about the writing process.

While I couldn’t travel to do events like I did in 2019, I did have a few fun virtual opportunities come up to talk with people about creativity.

The first one was in May (remember May?) when I got a chance to chat with Lydia Rogue from Microcosm Publishing about pandemic productivity, and how to be gentle with yourself. (You can watch it here.)

The second amazing opportunity was with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn podcast. (Listen here.) I’ve been a longtime fan of Joanna’s podcast, so it was a complete thrill to get to come on the show!

Finally, I was invited to give a presentation on productivity for writers at the virtual Willamette Writer’s Conference in August. There’s no recording of the event, but it was an incredible honor to get a chance to speak with everyone there — and the organizers even managed to build in some networking time where I made some new friends. (Difficult to do over Zoom!)

What’s coming up in 2021?

2020 gave us all a bit of whiplash. And I don’t think I’m alone in my newfound reluctance to make big plans at the moment.

But my main goal is to double down on fiction, refining my process and focusing my time in order to grow this part of my business like it deserves. If you want to stay up to date on that, join my newsletter.

Enough about me now. I’d love to know — what are your plans for 2021? How did your 2020 go?

Leave me a note in the comments.

And here’s to a fresh start and an amazing new year!


[Podcast] No Shelf Control

Between my day job and my current book project (a non-fiction book about the writing process), I interview a lot of people.

It’s one of my favorite things about my job — getting a chance to chat with interesting people about things they’re passionate about: adaptive learning software, the college experience during COVID-19, cybersecurity, digital asset management software, writing and revising novels.

So it’s always a bit weird when the table gets turned and someone starts peppering me with questions.

That’s happened a couple of times lately. If you’ve been curious to learn more about me and my books, check out these two interviews.

No Shelf Control Podcast

No Shelf Control Podcast: Books, Booze and Banter. Episode 11 – Interview with Jessie Kwak (the Bulari Saga)

I sat down virtually with Lindsay Fairleigh and Lindsay Pogue to chat about productivity, how I name my characters, world building, and my choice to include a deaf character in the Bulari Saga.

Oh — and of course we chatted about what we were drinking during the show. Mezcal (neat) and soda water and a splash of orange bitters for me, in honor of Phaera.

Find the episode here.

Snowflakes in A Blizzard

Snowflakes in A Blizzard: Double Edged

I’ve had a book featured in Snowflakes in a Blizzard a couple of times before, and it’s always a fun experience. The interviews are a great way for readers to find new indie authors and explore new books they might want to try.

In it, I talk about my inspiration for Double Edged and the Bulari Saga, and reflect on what it’s like to wrap up the series with Kill Shot.

Read the interview here.

Introducing Space Cocaine: an Anthology Reading

TL;DR version:

What: A reading with Jessie Kwak, Grá Linnea, Andrew McCollough, and Mark Teppo
When: May 17th at 7pm
Where: Belmont Books (3415 SE Belmont St, Portland, OR)
Why: Because it could be done

A couple of months ago, my local sci-fi writer-friend mastermind group (the Tiara Club) decided we should do a reading.

Mark Teppo, an overachiever, decided that we should produce a physical collection of the short stories we’d be reading in order to sell at the event.

He started coming up with poignant literary covers. They were lovely.

But I was starting to get a little nervous they would give readers the wrong idea about, well, how high-brow the stories were.

“I wouldn’t want people to get confused when they read my story about space gangsters and space pirates fighting over space cocaine,” I wrote on Slack.

And Mark came back with this:

Space Cocaine anthology cover: Image is a dramatic dragon breathes fire behind a hooded sorcerer standing on a mountaintop with a glowing orb in his hands. The title reads Space Cocaine.


Introducing Space Cocaine. From the back cover:

It’s not literary. It’s not a themed anthology. Though, it definitely staggers across all sorts of interstitial slip-streamed speculative fringes.

Look, there are space pirates. There’s cocaine. There might be dragons. And stuff blows up.

You’re welcome.

On May 17th, the four of us (me, Grá Linnea, Andrew McCollough, and Mark Teppo) will be doing a reading from this ridiculous collection at Belmont Books in Portland.

(My story is from the Durga System universe — it’s titled Rogue and is currently only available to newsletter subscribers.)

The anthology will be available to purchase at the event.

Will it lead to other, equally ridiculous anthologies?

Don’t tempt us.

See you there.

How to Woo Me

(A version of this post originally went out to my newsletter. Photo by Katarzyna Pe on Unsplash)

My sophomore year of college, my boyfriend at the time surprised me with a sweet Valentine’s Day evening. He invited me over for a home-cooked meal, and he rented a couple of movies:

Serendipity, and Brotherhood of the Wolf.

Brotherhood of the wolf and Serendipity movie covers
One of these is a proper Valentine’s Day Movie.
One was the proper Valentine’s Day Movie to pick out for me.

Serendipity was one of his favorite movies, a charming romcom about the surprising little moments that can bring two people together.

He wanted to share that movie with me — but he also knew I hated romcoms.

Hence Brotherhood of the Wolf.

Now, Brotherhood of the Wolf is my kind of movie: Ridiculous king-fu fight sequences, gory murders, dark secrets, religious cults, werewolves, gritty French period costumes… 

Bring it on.

Over the years my stone cold heart has softened to appreciate a romantic storyline. I’ve voluntarily watched romcoms since. I’ve picked up — and loved — romance novels. 

And, to the horror of my younger writer self, I’ve even written romantic subplots into my books. 

(To everyone who’s read Negative Return and said you want to know what happens to Manu and Oriol, you’ll see plenty more of them in the upcoming Bulari Saga.)

But I still like my romance a bit weird. And with speculative elements.

For example: Behold the One-Minute Time Machine, a short romantic comedy (existential horror?) I could watch again and again.


How about you? 

Given the choice between Serendipity or Brotherhood of the Wolf, what’s your pick? Or do you have another fave?

Let me know in the comments.

Nerds for the Holidays — Space Christmas Tree Edition

I’m unabashedly a fan of the holiday season.

The fire department putting wreaths on their fire trucks. People who decorate their bikes with antlers. The cheesy fake snowmen in peoples’ yards.

I love it.

My family celebrates Christmas, and each year since I was a kid, we’d get this ginormous Christmas tree to go in the dining room. We’d go up into the mountains and cut down something ridiculously tall, then bring in a ladder from the shed to decorate it.

Some years, my mom got us to craft ornaments for a themed tree. (Which was quite the undertaking with a tree that big.)

I remember the year of the corn husk angels: glittery ribbons and glue guns and pearl beads scattered around the family room while we tied corn husks into shapes.

I probably complained (sorry mom), but the final effect was beautiful.

This year, my husband was the one who wanted a themed tree.

But he wasn’t looking for a cozy farmhouse angel tree.


He wanted a space Christmas tree.

Christmas tree against an orange background, all the planets and most of the moons of the solar system

We spent this entire past Sunday painting the largest bodies in our solar system.

The planets, of course, but also their moons, in as much detail as we could manage.

Here are my three favorites of the moons I painted. They’re Jupiter’s (top to bottom): rocky Ganymede, icy Enceladus, and fiery Io.

Close up of the ornaments: Swirly red Jupiter, blotchy gray Ganymede, blue-streaked-white Enceladus, ugly-ass Io with green-red-white splotches

Jupiter's moons: gray-splotched ganymede, white and blue Enceladus, red, white, yellow Io
Jupiter has 79 identified moons (we painted eight). And they’re some of the weirder moons, due to the effects of the planet’s immense gravity, and the effect of the moons’ gravity on each other.

(After all, Ganymede is larger than Mercury, and Io is larger than our moon.)

The immense gravitational web of influence shifts and tears at the moons, creating the sulfurous pits of Io, the rusty chasms of Europa.

The other fascinating thing is Jupiter’s four largest moons have fallen into an orbital resonance.

Check that out (and hear some strange music inspired by their orbits) here.

It was a very enlightening craft session.

One more photo!

There’s Jupiter with its red eye, Saturn beyond, and all their moons surrounding them.


What’s that hiding behind Jupiter?

That’s no moon.

Jupiter, Saturn, and the Death Star hiding behind