NaNoWriMo Wrap-Up

If you follow me on social media, you already know I participated in #NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. I swear I thought I had written a blog about my decision to do this, but I looks like I didn’t. In case you’re unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo (or just “NaNo”) stands for “National Novel Writing Month.” It’s an event that falls every November, not just in the US but around the world, in which participants set a goal to write 50,000 words over the course of the month (50K being the minimum length for a book qualifying as a novel). People don’t always stick to the novel idea. Some write essays, or poetry, or short stories–whatever takes their fancy. The only stipulation for “winning” is that one write 50K words of whatever.

Short story:

Print

I hit 50K last Friday. For me, this word count doesn’t represent a finished novel. At the moment, it looks like this is going to be a shorter work, more along the lines of She Moved Through the Fair than A Maid in Bedlam. So I have maybe 30K more to write to round out the plot. But okay: I did it.

As I said, I’ve never participated before. I don’t think the reasons for this are important. I went back and forth about participating this year, and eventually elected to do it because my writing process needed a boost. I’d spent over a year muddling around with book 7 of the Caitlin Ross series, tossing plot after unworkable plot. All of them stalled out at about 25K; I got bored, or the book didn’t move, or some weird shit took control that detracted from the story. I think it’s possible that any of those stories could have been made to work with time and effort, and I’ve kept a lot of my notes. But I’m not good at making progress when I feel like I’m dragging a ton of bullshit behind me. Even though my brain said, “Just get through it and fix it in edits,” and even though a couple times I asked for outside (meaning not my husband) opinions and heard “It’s fine!” I couldn’t follow through. I kept going back to the beginning, over and over again, fiddling with the opening chapters and trying to pull them into some kind of shape that excited me. After doing this a number of times, I got lazy. I hate using that word–it has triggering connotations for me–but it applies. I used any excuse at all NOT to write: “Oh, I’m just not in the space,” or “I kind of don’t feel well,” or “I have to wash my hair.” And while I’d like to emphasize that ANY of these is a valid reason not to write and no creative person is obligated to be creative at any time, I recognized that, for me in this situation, they weren’t doing me any favors.

So I started over with NaNo, and I got through. The last few weeks of October I took some time to noodle around and rediscover my protagonist’s voice, which I’d lost. I found a plot I felt more passionate about (“more” being the key word here; my ability to feel passion for anything remains lower than I’d like). I wrote every day, even when I had a minor headache, even if it wasn’t any more than a couple hundred words. I passed the 25K disaster mark and went on. I relearned how to let the story unfold and how to keep out of my characters’ way. I stifled the urges to prove my worthiness through promoting a political agenda and write a bunch of tripe that served little purpose but to show I’d done my research on things I haven’t personally experienced.

What kept me going more than anything was the event website (and I hope next year, if I participate again, they have an app, because really). In the same way Weight Watchers has hooked me in the past with its charts and tracking widgets, NaNo hooked me with the ability to earn badges and chart my progress. I liked updating my word count every day. I liked posting my running totals to the Twitter hashtag. I have a more competitive nature than I like to own, and the website helped me compete with myself and push past all the little foibles that I’ve allowed to stand in my way.

I didn’t feel a lot of community support, but I think that’s mostly about the way I work. I didn’t participate in any events or frequent the forums. Trying to write in public, like at a write-in, distracts me. And when I’m working a plot, I prefer just to focus on it.

Before I started, I heard a lot about “You’ll feel so great when you hit your goal!” and “The sense of accomplishment is worth it!” I don’t feel either of those things. Some of that is because I simply don’t feel a huge amount of excitement or accomplishment about anything. When I do something, even something others think is amazing, at best I feel, “Okay, I did that.” It doesn’t seem any great cause for celebration. (And yes, this is something I’m trying to address in therapy.)

Right now, what I feel is tired. I worked on my new book every day for a month. I have a fair way to go. I’m not really looking forward to it. A few days ago, I saw a post to the Twitter tag that said (in essence), “The lesson of NaNo is not just that you can write every day one month out of the year, but that you can do it ALL THE TIME!” Um, yeah, for me not so much. As I said above, NO creative person has an obligation to be creative every day–in fact, I think the idea that we must create every day in order to justify our creative identities is harmful. I did learn that I can do more than I usually assume. And I also acknowledge that doing so takes a lot out of me and I need time to recover.

Was participating worth it? hard for me to judge, but on the whole I’d say yes. I’m closer to finishing an actual book than I’ve been in over a year. I need a day or two off, I think, but I’ll get there. Will I participate again? No idea. Depends on what’s happening this time next year.

For today, I’m resting on my laurels.

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-Square

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4 Ways the Publishing Industry Promotes Ableism

CW: Ableism, Mental Illness

I am afraid to write this post.

I’ve been thinking these things for a long time, years even. I want to talk about them. And I’m afraid. I’m afraid because the Publishing and Literary community is small, small, small. Even when you include self-publishing and small presses, it’s tiny. You’re always running into the same people. And it’s easy to be seen as contentious, a problem, for your reputation to be damaged. Which, in turn, damages your career. I’m afraid because the things on my mind are hard to talk about, and because I am certain there will be people out there keen to invalidate my concerns. It’s difficult not to invalidate my own concerns in this arena, tell myself I’m not doing it right or not trying hard enough. And as much as I tell myself these are messages I’ve internalized because of ableism, the questions remain: Am I whining? Am I seeing a problem that doesn’t exist and using it to rationalize my lack of success? Am I simply “not good enough?”

I’m afraid to write this post, and I’m going to write it anyway.

Last night I stumbled on this article on Everyday Feminism. It’s an article about “Inspiration Porn,” which is also known sometimes as “Disability Porn,” and why it’s harmful to people with disabilities. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, “Inspiration Porn” is a class of memes that feature an image of a person with a disability–a double amputee with prosthetic legs, a person in a wheelchair, etc.–accomplishing something popularly assumed to be impossible for a person with a disability. Crossing the finish line at a marathon, accepting an honors diploma. Like that. The text points out the disability: “So and so lost both legs in a tragic accident,” and lauds the achievement: “and went on to place in the top five in the Boston Marathon!” The meme closes with some variation of “What’s your excuse for not achieving stuff?”

You’ve seen these memes. I’m sure you have. If you want to understand more about why they hurt people with disabilities, read the article.

The information and analysis weren’t new to me. I read a lot of these types of articles. I read them not to learn about topics I have no knowledge of (although I do often gain new knowledge, and I always want to hear about other people’s experiences). I read them for validation, to see how others cope with problems I face, to get some reassurance that the problems are real, not just figments of my imagination. With this article, I got more than I bargained for when, toward the end, the author started to rant about ableism in literary circles (again, read the article). This is a subject near and dear to my heart, and I have never before heard/seen someone address it in public. If it gets talked about at all, it’s in whispers and private messages. Because, as I’ve already said, the publishing industry is small, and it’s easy to be labeled a malcontent and a malingerer if you challenge the way things are done.

Hey, time for me to give my disability cred! It sucks that I don’t feel like I can continue this post without doing so–and I think that’s probably another kind of ableism–but I do feel that way, so here it is: Chronic Migraine Disorder. Complex PTSD. Social Anxiety Disorder. General Anxiety Disorder. Bipolar with Chronic Depression. All these are currently “managed” as well as is possible for me. Please note that “managed” means I can “function” and/or appear as “normal” to a certain degree about three-quarters of the time as long as I am diligent about self-care. And there are still days when one or the other of these disorders flares without warning, and all I can do is initiate the routines that keep me from jumping in front of a train and wait it out. (N. B. If you think the “jumping in front of a train” part is hyperbole, IT ISN’T.)

Let me also take time to point out that all the above disabilities are INVISIBLE. I don’t need mobility aids. (Actually, aside from the migraines, my body is in pretty decent shape.) I’m not deformed–unless you think fat is a deformity, and some do. I am not missing any limbs. I do not match the picture of “disability” most able people carry in their heads. My disabilities are nonetheless real, and they have a profound effect on the way I live my life.

Good gods, if I could only communicate to you how difficult it was to say “my disabilities are real,” and how loudly the voices in my head rose in protest. When I talk/write about this stuff, the struggle to articulate is constant. I’m sure everyone has their moments of self doubt. I am equally sure that if everyone had my brain process, nothing would get done anywhere, ever.

So, publishing. Over the last year or so, as I’ve said elsewhere, the publishing industry has expressed an interest in being more inclusive and putting out more “diverse” books–meaning books written from perspectives and including characters other than the usual white, cis, het, able-bodied, neurotypical, standard-religion-having ones that comprise 90% of what gets published (no, this isn’t a hard percentage). Agent and editor wish lists solicit submissions from People of Color, LGBTQ+ people, and disabled people, and look for stories featuring the same. This is great. I support it! I can’t be enthusiastic enough about the trend!

And yet. Speaking as a person with mental illness–several of them–I have this to say: Despite the inclusive words, the actual practices of the traditional publishing industry promote ableism in that they require people with disabilities to jump through hoops they are not capable of jumping through, and often fault people with disabilities for not performing “professional writer” to an able standard. I’ve believed for years that my problems with the practices of traditional publishing were all on me, signs of my intractability and unwillingness to comply with the “norm,” maybe born out of a weak will and lack of dedication to succeeding in my chosen profession, or maybe from a flawed personality and sheer orneriness. Reading the article last night was literally the first time I allowed myself to believe, “Hey, maybe this isn’t just me. Maybe the flaw is in the system.” I’d thought it before, but I always dismissed the idea.

Here are four ways the publishing industry promotes ableism. For the purposes of this list, I focus on invisible disability and mental illness, because that’s where my personal experience is. Also, there may be other ways the industry fails to accommodate disabilities. These are the first that came to my mind.

#1: Reliance on Social Interaction/Networking

How many times have I read the acknowledgments page in a book by a new author and seen some variation on the words: “Thanks to (INSERT WELL-KNOWN AUTHOR) who encouraged me and recommended my manuscript to his agent”? Or seen (traditionally) published authors suggest that newcomers “get to know” people in the industry, either in person at conferences or on social media? Enough that the message sticks. It’s not a bad message, in and of itself. All businesses rely to some extent on networking, because human beings are social animals. A huge number of people seem, for reasons incomprehensible to me, to want to be authors, so making a personal connection with people in the industry who might be of use in advancing your career is almost a no-brainer. You want agents and editors to remember you.

The reason this is ableist: For people with anxiety disorders, this advice is akin to recommending an extended vacation in the hell of their choice. This goes double if the person is a natural introvert. Some people find it easy to make connections and interact with others. Some find it difficult. For people with anxiety disorders, it’s nearly impossible. Even in a managed state, my daily anxiety level is so high that I almost never leave the house outside of the company of my husband or another person I trust implicitly. I’ve been to one writing conference in my life–and, by the way, suggesting people attend conferences is also classist–and it was so overwhelming I had regularly to retreat to my room to recoup. I managed to engage a few other writers, but I cannot imagine trying to pitch my work in that kind of environment. Putting your heart and soul project on display is hard enough for able people. For people with anxiety disorders, if getting through the meeting is possible, recovering might require days.

I try to perform normative body language, but I know my anxiety often makes me appear stand-offish. I don’t make eye contact. I turn away and cross my arms over my chest. I fidget. All of these are apt to make a negative impression on an able person.

Connecting on social media is somewhat easier, but not much. Frankly, I am exceedingly uncomfortable with all but a small circle of people. Every tweet to someone outside that circle is agony. If the person responds dismissively, or worse, not at all, I am convinced of my utter worthlessness and stupidity. Most of the time, making an overture isn’t worth the expenditure of energy. This isn’t something I can control. It’s the way my brain works. I can tell myself over and over that nothing is personal, blah, blah, blah. And it helps. But it doesn’t alter the process.

For a person with an anxiety disorder, every social interaction requires weighing possible benefit against probable distress and need to recover. Publishing’s focus on social interactions doesn’t take this into account.

#2: The Query Process

I’m pretty sure everyone hates querying and faces it with some mixture of fear and resignation. Most of the writers I know manage to do it anyway. Even I’ve managed to do it. It’s THE WAY THINGS ARE DONE. So how is it ableist?

Okay, I’m going to come out and say that it’s my belief that the whole idea is fucked up beyond belief. I get the need in the industry for some kind of filtering process. I really do. The slush pile is essentially a thing of the past. Big publishers don’t take unagented submissions, or take them very rarely. Agents read submissions in their “off” hours, because they spend their days working for their clients–which is proper. And it’s not uncommon for an agent to get several hundred query submissions in a day. I get that. And I still believe that judging a 100,000-word manuscript by what a writer is able to convey in a 250-word query is incredibly problematic, and points to what I see as flaws in the industry as a whole.

The ability to write an effective query isn’t one that I think comes naturally to many people, and acquiring the ability isn’t easy. You can attend workshops, both on and off line, and these are difficult for people with mental health disabilities for many of the same reasons I cited in point #1. Some websites devoted to writing have forums where you can post your query and get critique. My experience with those is that they are NOT a good place for people with anxiety and trauma. I frequented several when I first started trying to understand the query process, and found that constructive feedback was rare, while demeaning and downright abusive critique abounded.

I have Complex PTSD from abuse and trauma sustained over a long period of time. I know most of my triggers, but that doesn’t stop them from being activated. For me, the entire query process triggered me to a point where I stopped writing at all because I could not perform this necessary task, and if I couldn’t learn it, writing was pointless. I had severe anxiety attacks even trying to learn the skill. Nothing about it is accessible to me. I did eventually learn it, but I had to take the lessons in fifteen-minute doses over the course of several years. If you want to know what that was like for me, imagine choosing to be flayed alive, not just once, but over and over for years, with no expectation of gaining anything by it and no control over the process. The first time isn’t so bad. But with each successive flaying, the terror and the anticipation increases because you know what to expect and how much it’s going to hurt. Yet you force yourself to do it anyway, time and time again. As soon as you heal enough to stand without pain, you invite flaying one more time.

That’s the closest I can come, and it hardly encompasses the intensity of the terror and the determination necessary. Bottom line: The query process isn’t mental health-friendly. It needs to be changed to be more accessible to people with anxiety and trauma if they ever want to see people like themselves represented in print.

#3: Standards of “Professionalism” are Geared Toward the Able and Neurotypical

This one encompasses a lot of different things, like the ability to meet deadlines and engage in  marketing activities like book tours, as well as expectations of acceptable ways of performing “up and coming author.”

Most writers I know are writing all the time, on something or other. When they finish one manuscript, they start another. They go back and forth between projects, rotating writing, revising, editing, and querying. Most of the writers I know also have “day” jobs (I’m including “full time mom” in this category). Having a paying job to support your writing is a necessity for all but a few, because most books don’t earn out their advances. When you have a contract, you have to keep your deadlines. There’s some wiggle room in these, but once a book is on the publisher’s schedule, things can get pretty tight. If you’re lucky enough to have an extended contract, you’re expected to turn out a certain number of books within a certain time frame to fulfill your contractual obligations (I remember one popular cozy writer mentioning her relief that her new contract allowed her eighteen months between books, rather than requiring a book every year.) Some writers juggle multiple contracts at once.

After your book is published, you’re expected to engage in promoting it. This might mean doing interviews, writing guest articles, going on a book tour, attending conferences to represent your publisher, and more. All of it is part of the job. If industry professionals doubt your ability to keep up, your chances of landing a deal go way down. To quote the article that inspired this post:

“Agents have actually said things to me like, ‘I don’t know if you can handle having a book’ or ‘I don’t know if you can promote a book.’ They mean because of my epilepsy, bipolar, and PTSD.”

I mentioned earlier in this post the need to be diligent about self care. I have to maintain constant awareness of my physical and mental states. If they look dicey, say, if I recognize migraine prodrome or aura, or if my thought processes go haywire, or if a bodily sensation warns me of a change in brain chemistry that heralds a mood dip, I HAVE TO do the routines I have learned will keep me on an even keel. This might look like eating a lot of protein, or it might look like retreating from the world and watching Netflix for two days. If I get a migraine or go into a depressive cycle anyway, all bets are off. I am non-functional at these times. Anything that was on my schedule gets canceled, no matter how much I wanted to do it or how important it was. My health comes first.

This isn’t appealing to the people whose job it will be to book your speaking engagements and need some assurance that you will be able to show up. They’re likely to want to represent a client who is less high maintenance and more dependable. And while that’s understandable, it’s also ableist as hell.

My need to be diligent about self care also makes the very idea of deadlines problematic. Sometimes I can write and sometimes I can’t. That’s just the way it is with my brain. It’s not because I’m not dedicated or I don’t want to do the work. I ALWAYS want to be writing. Doesn’t mean I can. When my brain chemistry is on a high, I can churn out two or three full length novels in as many months. When it’s not, I might go months when getting out of bed is the most I can manage in a day. Writing is about as possible for me as walking on the surface of the sun. In between the highs and lows, I have to pace myself. Even with medication, my capacity to stay on an even keel mental health-wise is limited. I am easily overwhelmed. Pushing too hard because of a deadline or an expectation is an unfortunate part of my trauma. When it gets activated, I invariably plunge into a depressed cycle. So there’s no question of “pushing through” or forcing myself to produce X number of words when the energy isn’t there. It isn’t something I can do and maintain good mental health.

My brain chemistry means I can’t perform “professional writer” to the expected standard. As a consequence, my opportunities in publishing are limited unless someone is willing to make accommodations.

#4: Prominent Voices in Publishing are Able Bodied and Neurotypical

This is the one that bothers me most, to tell the truth. I have read about one or two conference panels where authors talked about their struggles with anxiety and depression, and I follow several authors who speak openly about it on social media. (It occurs to me just now that the latter group rarely, if ever, mention how their anxiety and depression impact their careers or state whether they need accommodation, or what it looks like.) However, the most prominent voices by far are those of the able, and those able people are the ones who most often engage in telling the rest of us “how to do it.” The ones saying “write every day” and “don’t make excuses” and “the only way to write is by writing,” and other things they can say and believe are true because their brain chemistries aren’t fucked up. I’m older than most of them, and I know my process, thank you. And I STILL agonize over it when my brain tells me it’s not a good time to write. I ask myself constantly whether I’m trying hard enough, or whether I’m avoiding writing because it’s hard, or whether I’m being lazy WHEN I KNOW THAT ISN’T THE CASE. The messages we hear from able and neurotypical writers damage those of us who are neither. They promote the view that there’s only one way to succeed, and it’s inaccessible. And they reinforce the idea that we’re flawed, that the problem is in US rather than the system.

A frustrating addition is, I know people with mental illnesses and invisible disabilities who have managed to jump through the hoops and get representation and traditional contracts, enough that you can point to them as evidence there isn’t a problem with ableism in the industry, not at all. It makes me question my experience even more.

Right now, as I try to wrap up this blog post, a number of thoughts are running through my head. The top layer is dismissing the entire conversation as flawed, and therefore worthless. Everyone gets overwhelmed. Everyone is nervous making their work public and afraid of rejection. I have no reason to believe I feel these things more intensely than anyone else. No reason, except that I believe the professionals who have diagnosed me with several mental illnesses.

(Aside: It’s the feeling of being overwhelmed, of not measuring up, that’s worst for me. I’m not actually nervous about putting my work out, because I believe in my work. It’s myself I find wanting, and my fear is that my work might meet rejection because of personal qualities or deficiencies everyone sees but no one will tell me about. And because my various disabilities influence my interactions and behaviors the way they do, I see this as a very real possibility.)

When an entire society and its business models are built on mental and physical ability, it’s almost impossible to address the issue in a single industry. Everyone expects workers to be on time, to follow through, to be presentable, not to take too many sick days. Not everyone is suited to every, or any, job. Unfortunately, in the US in particular, personal worth is most often viewed through the lens of being able to fit into corporate culture and “earn a living.” There is almost no flexibility for people who don’t fit this mold. In fact, most often “flexibility” is something required from workers, who need to be available to meet the needs of employers. I’ve rarely seen it the other way around.

Not everyone who writes is going to succeed at it, whether able or not. It’s a tough and highly competitive industry, and no one is entitled to a place on the bestseller lists, or seeing print at all. Still, there are a few things traditional publishers could do to support people with disabilities. First and foremost, publishers could devote more time to on the ground marketing of more than their top authors. Several years ago, I attended a panel on marketing strategies, where all the panelists were from what used to be termed the “mid-list” — authors who sell steadily, but don’t have the clout of a Stephen King or a Nicholas Sparks. Every author on that panel stressed that their publishers left marketing up to them. In fact, a few related that when they inquired about marketing plans, representatives of their publishers actually laughed. This is not okay. It’s not okay in any case, and for people with disabilities like mine, it’s abhorrent. In most instances, the worst part of social anxiety is making first contact. For example, I can show up to an interview or a reading. I can’t set them up. I can’t cold call booksellers and ask them to take a look at my work and consider stocking it. This is something that publishers should do for everyone far more aggressively than they do at present.

Another thing that would help is simple recognition that not everyone functions the same way. Some authors can manage back-to-back engagements. Some can’t. Some can spend twelve hours at a time “on form,” interacting with the public at a convention. Some can’t. Offer of a contract should not presuppose the former. In fact, agents and editors shouldn’t even be considering a potential client’s stamina, or whether they can “handle” having a book. The only reason a disabled person wouldn’t be able to “handle” it is that they might be required to fit into an impossible model. Instead of wondering whether we can “handle” it, a better use of energy would be adjusting expectations and working out ways “handling” it would be possible. Frankly, wondering “if” rather than asking “how” is insulting. Disabled people know what we can handle. If we didn’t think we could handle a situation with proper accommodation, we wouldn’t try it on. Many people in publishing do have an intellectual awareness that people are different. More work needs to be done, to put this intellectual awareness into practice.

The query process could be made more accessible with a very simple adjustment: Stop requiring that queries come from authors. I’ve often joked with other writing friends with anxiety disorders that “I need an agent to get me an agent!” I know people think that they can better determine a writer’s skill if they write their own queries, and I believe this is a flawed assumption. Determine the quality of the writing from sample pages. Let people who are able to engage in marketing do the marketing. I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that some writers privileged enough to have assistants already delegate this task, because everyone hates it. All kinds of professionals delegate, dictate, and/or cooperate on tedious business correspondence. Why shouldn’t writers be able to?

Because of the progress that’s been made in digital publishing, and the lessening of stigma against self published authors, people with disabilities may choose an independent path rather than a traditional one. I did, and I was glad of the opportunity to do so. I also know that self publishing entails many of the same problems as far as networking and marketing. So it’s not a perfect solution.

In speaking of the ways ableism in publishing affects me personally, I haven’t even touched on the ways it limits opportunities for people with other chronic and invisible illnesses. People with lupus, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, schizophrenia, and all the rest have the same or greater need to practice self care. Many do not have my “advantage” of qualifying for government-sponsored disability support, or an understanding partner willing to undertake the bulk of the bread-winning, and have even more limited resources and energy to devote to pursuing writing on a professional level. And they also have stories. I see a great many people in publishing expressing a wish for manuscripts dealing with recovery rather than onset, or simply including disabled characters because disabilities exist. But I have to wonder, when being in recovery means sleeping for days and numerous doctor visits without clear narrative resolution and more tedium than excitement, how would those stories be received? And if the industry doesn’t address its ableist bias, will disabled people believe it’s a good use of their time and energy to write them?

I don’t think so.

 

 

 

Banging my Head Against a Wall, and Other Fun Hobbies

A little over a year ago, I released the sixth book in the Caitlin Ross series, Demon Lover. As you might know if you interact with me on any kind of social media, I’ve been trying to write book seven ever since. It’s not going at all well.

I had an idea for what came after Demon Lover. Six chapters into it, I realized it wasn’t working.  I got another idea that interested me more. I tried that idea. Couldn’t make it work. Went back and tried it another way. And another. STILL couldn’t make it work. Tried another idea, which ALSO didn’t work, and another, and another. Every time, I got 200-odd pages into it and didn’t feel right about it. Nothing worked.

I got another idea. This time, I thought I really had it! But it got harder and harder, and yesterday, after only 100-odd pages this time, I took a good, hard look at it. I realized a couple of things about it, the main one being I didn’t have a believable conflict. I had a bunch of semi-interesting events, but they didn’t build or lead anywhere.  My antagonist wasn’t doing anything evil enough, or even problematic enough, for my characters to get involved. So I lost interest.

I think this has been the problem all along. Michael says I’m usually good at conflict (which astounded me, because I feel like I’m terrible at it). But I’ll tell you, when you have a world view as out of the ordinary as mine, it’s hard to get riled up about any of the major ones. Murder, okay, I can do that. I’ve done human trafficking and involuntary possession and breaking magical rules in a way that has disastrous consequences. But drug dealing? I don’t think drugs should be criminalized at all, so I can’t get into a lather about it. Breaking THE LAW? I’d have to look at circumstances. I can’t even bring to mind other kinds of BAD THINGS.

A helpful–I mean this non-ironically–person on Twitter just suggested “Give the character a goal and stick an obstacle between him and the goal.” This is great advice. I can’t come up with a goal for any of my characters, either. What do Caitlin and Timber want right now? Since they had a baby in the last book, I expect what they want is to settle down and live a relatively normal life for a bit while they adjust to being parents. This is not the stuff of epic storytelling. In one way, literally anything I came up with that interfered with their lives would be a conflict. In another, it still has to be believable that they’d give two shits about it. And I’ve already established that a happening has to be pretty big for them to get involved. Or have personal significance. Preferably both. But I feel I’ve tapped out the personal significance vein. I’ve got three more things I plan to do in the series arc, as far as that goes. I don’t think any of them happen yet. So I’m stuck.

Part of the problem is Timber (male protagonist, for those of you unfamiliar with the series). He went through some traumatic shit in the last book. Truth be told, he goes through a LOT of intense shit.  Sure, he’s a hero, but that kind of shit leaves a mark. I don’t think I’ve given enough attention to the affect it may have had on him. I don’t WANT to. But it keeps coming up, even when I don’t intend it to. I don’t want to spend another book dealing with Timber’s trauma; that was the whole plot of book 3, and I can only play that so much. In order to skip it, though, I have to advance the series timeline about a year and a half. This is something I intended to do anyway, AFTER book 7. I’ve been giving Caitlin and Timber two adventures a year, or thereabouts. The result is, the series timeline lags six years behind real life time at this point. I don’t like this because it becomes increasingly difficult to work with as certain issues of the historical past become more and more irrelevant and difficult to keep track of. I want to catch up to real time better, so the series doesn’t become unbearably dated.

So one question on my mind is, will I be doing a disservice to the characters, and to my readers, if I skip over the personal consequences of book 6? This is something I worry about, because a critique I often see of serialized entertainment is, “You put so-and-so through this awful thing in the last episode and then next episode it’s like it never even happened!” I’m loath to do that.

Speaking of things I worry about, I’ve also developed a tendency to self-censor more than I have in a very long time. I can trace this difficulty directly back to following and interacting with lots of writers and people in the publishing industry. Now, the writing community is mostly great and I’m glad I found it. But it can also be strident and divisive. This sort of thing affects me. I wish it didn’t and I try to have strong boundaries, but the truth is, I don’t have a strong sense of self and I really, really want people to like me. So I often absorb other people’s opinions more than is good for me. For at least the last year, there’s been a lot of talk about how the publishing industry needs more diversity. Yes, great, I’m all the way down with that! I’ve looked at my work in that light and found I could do better. At the same time, however, some people have an issue with authors writing characters from marginalized populations when they are not, themselves, a part of that population. And as a writer who isn’t part of a few marginalized populations I’ve been trying to write about, I’m always second-guessing myself, wondering if I’m doing it right, or at least right enough. Plus, in the writing attempts of the past year, I’ve included some characters who are Native, or LGBTQ+, or PoC, because they might as well be those things as not. But then, I have to devote a huge number of words to explaining that. I mean, if you want two male secondary characters to be gay, you kind of have to point out that they are in order for it to have any relevance. Otherwise, they’re just two guys, because that’s the default in most people’s minds. But if the story isn’t about their gayness, then devoting so much verbiage to secondary characters actually detracts from the story. Or, at least, this has been my experience over the last year.

I kind of wonder if I should table the diversity issue for this series. At least, not try so hard at it. The main characters of the Caitlin Ross series are a het, cis, white couple. So sue me. I have other ideas for other books with different kinds of main characters. I have secondary characters already who are Bi, and Gay, and Lesbian, and PoC. Maybe I don’t need to go out of my way to include more. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s enough, and the second-guessing is doing a disservice to my getting actual words on the page.

On top of all this–and what follows is mostly a rant I need to get out of my system, so bear with me or not–almost everyone I know on Twitter is sharing today’s blog by a popular author/blogger about how you shouldn’t sit around waiting for motivation, because writing creates its OWN motivation. Which is just this kind of thing I want to read when I’m sitting around feeling blocked and unmotivated. I have mixed feelings about this author/blogger on the best days. Often he has good things to say. I can’t stand the way he says them. He adopts this tone that I guess is supposed to be funny, but to me it reads as a weird mix of authoritarian and condescending, like some kind of inspirational drill sergeant. I often feel alienated when I read his stuff, because so many people think it’s so great and I want to scream, “Yes, and you’re a heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical DUDE!” who treats this obvious stuff as some huge revelation. Kind of the same feeling I get when well-meaning people say, “But haven’t you tried…(Insert alternative healing method) for your depression/migraines/whatever?” Like, “Oh, gee. in forty years of dealing with this I NEVER ONCE THOUGHT OF THAT THANK YOU SO MUCH!” If simply sitting and writing created motivation for me, I’d never run out.

So, anyway. This is stuff I’m dealing with. Thanks for tuning in.

 

 

Apathy

An author I follow on Twitter posted this today:

(Dear WordPress: Why must block quotes be so abominably large? Is it something about the theme I use?)

Anyway. The statement rang particularly true for me today, because I’ve been thinking about happiness, or rather, my lack thereof. For the past few years, since I found a medication that works on my depression, I haven’t considered happiness. The relief of not being depressed was so great, and such a difference from most of the rest of my life, that it seemed too much to ask for more. And, in fact, when I was still going to county mental health for regular med checks, I wasn’t encouraged to ask for more. The few times I did, the person I saw actively shut me down. “You might have to accept that this is as good as it gets.”

For a long time, that was enough. Being able to function, albeit in a minimal fashion, was enough. Now it may not be, and I don’t know what to do about it.

A close friend refers to depression as “a disease of motivation.” This makes sense to me. I have highs and lows, but those aren’t depression. Depression is the grey place where nothing happens and nothing matters. When I’ve had suicidal thoughts during a period of depression they’re not about escaping pain, because pain, like every other sensation, is blunted. They are, however, about escape. Escaping that grey place.

I think of depression like a waiting room in an uninteresting dentist’s office. There aren’t any magazines to flip through, not even old ones. There’s no art on the walls, not even bad art. The color scheme is bland. And after you’ve waited long enough for the dentist–he never does appear–you begin to lose your terror of the root canal, or whatever procedure you came for. But in its absence, there isn’t anything to distract you from the fact that you’re stuck in this boring room. You can’t barge into the depths of the office, but you can’t really give up and go home, either. After a time, you realize that the office is empty of anyone but you. There’s no receptionist, no hygienist. There’s only you in your uncomfortable chair, staring at the walls. Probably for a while you hope someone will show up and that your name will be called, and that prevents you from leaving. But in the end, you just accept that’s where you are and that’s where you’re going to be. Until you figure out that you cannot endure staring at those walls one second longer.

When the antidepressants kick in, it’s like the staff finally showing up. You go on and have your root canal. That part, starting to feel after not feeling for a long time, can be dangerous. It’s why sometimes people suicide after the antidepressant starts to work: all the pain comes back. (Which makes me wonder if depression might not be some kind of neurochemical defense mechanism for people prone to strong feelings. If you’re in pain, or in an impossible situation where you’re helpless to act, depression, not feeling, being distanced from your experience, can be a good thing for a while.) If/when you get through the root canal, you can go home. And then, you might experience an extended period of activity, cleaning and arranging your house, taking care of the chores that got neglected because you were stuck in that waiting room.

But after the chores are done, after the initial energy spurt wears off, maybe you find out you brought a piece of the waiting room with you.

This is where I am, I think. I’ve only just begun to look at it, so I can’t articulate, quite yet, the whys and wherefores. The way it manifests, though, is apathy. I’ve been going through a period of intense apathy (yes, I know: oxymoron) the past few weeks, and it’s made me look at how much apathy infects my everyday life. I remember being a person of strong feelings, once. I remember having passions and desires, and I remember those passions and desires influencing my actions. Like, “I don’t want my house to be a pit of slime, so I’m going to clean and mop every week.” Or, “I’m sick of the way my body looks; I’m going to get more exercise.”

Since the antidepressants, I don’t care so much about things. I haven’t mopped the kitchen since the 4th of July. I see the spot where I spilled coffee on the floor and I think, “Huh. Guess I should do something about that some day.” Then days and weeks pass. Or I notice that I get out of breath walking three blocks to the clinic. I don’t really like it, and I know that I could probably get in better shape with regular exercise. But it doesn’t bother me enough, and it doesn’t impact my life enough for me to take action. I don’t care enough. I don’t miss interacting with people in real life enough to go out of my way to leave the house. I don’t want anything enough to do anything about it. I don’t even care much about the book I’m writing. A couple of times a week I have a good day and I churn out a piece of a chapter, but it doesn’t compel me. Whether I finish the book or not doesn’t really matter.

There are probably a lot of factors that go into this. People do complain that being on antidepressants interferes with their creativity, so that might be part of it, at least as far as the writing goes. Since I’ve had some excellent writing experiences while I’ve been on antidepressants, I remain skeptical. Some of it, I’m sure, is old programming. I was thinking yesterday about how, so often in my life, things that make me happy or bring enjoyment have been derided, or taken away, or invalidated, to the degree that engaging in them was a real danger to my mental health. So maybe I’ve learned that the experience of happiness and enjoyment is dangerous.

But maybe some of it is left over from that damned waiting room.

A lot of those Internet quizzes you see have a question about “What one word would you use to describe yourself?” I don’t often see the word that would be my first choice: Survivor. For whatever reason, I am capable of doing whatever it takes to survive. (I can think of only one time in my life when this survival instinct shut off, and that’s when I was anorexic.) So, when that last, long, severe depression gripped me, I did what I had to do to survive it. I developed patience. Tolerance. I let go of hope. I stopped expecting things to get better. I existed.

(This, by the way, is why I purely HATE the dogma that to achieve happiness one must let go of expectation. For me, letting go of expectation implies I have no hope anything will improve. Why in the world would that be a path toward happiness?)

I’ve learned detachment, but without attachment, where’s the need to care? Even when I turned to Michael and said, “I can’t live this way anymore; I need help,” I had no investment in it. It was a thing I saw. I recognized my survival was threatened and did what I had to do to survive. But I didn’t really care.

Now I think it would be nice to care about some things and I don’t know how. I think sometimes that my capacity for caring got worn out by caring so much about so many things beyond my control, and now all I have left is this atavistic instinct to endure. If something isn’t an immediate threat to life and limb, I can’t muster the energy.  I don’t know how to be attached to events. I don’t know how to care that smoking cigarettes is bad for me, or that I’ve gained so much weight that I don’t fit into my favorite clothes. I don’t know how to care about whether or not I’m healthy, as long as I’m not totally miserable. Misery, I know what to do with that. Once I get out of the misery, though…not a clue how to go any farther.

Or maybe I do have a clue. The other night, a show we were watching had a song in the soundtrack (it was “Rocket Man” by Elton John) that really affected me, hit me in my gut. I felt something. This is also an uncommon experience for me. I used to find music very affecting, but now it’s mostly just background noise. Anyway, this song affected me, and I thought of how a good combination of film and music is almost always affecting. So yesterday I sat down with Spotify and IMdB and started tracking down songs I’d heard in TV programs and thought, “Wow, that’s a great song!” It’s something I’ve meant to do for a while and hadn’t done yet, because while I can think of doing it in the moment, the idea dissolves as soon as the moment has passed.

I have a 90-song playlist, which I am playing as I write this. From time to time, I have stopped to listen, when a song catches my ear. I have a fleeting interest. Maybe it will grow into something. Maybe not.

I’ll let you know.

Seven Lines

Okay, I’ll bite. There’s a Twitter game going around, #7Lines. The rules: Go to page 7 of your current WIP (page 7 of chapter 1, for those of you who, like me, start a new document for each chapter). Count down seven lines and post the NEXT seven lines (i.e., lines 8-15). Then tag seven writers to do the same.

I went a bit over, just for context. But here are seven lines from page seven of The Mist-Covered Mountain.

“What kind of trouble?”

My steps had faltered and my stomach had dropped into my toes as his words caused the past months’ vague unease suddenly to manifest. I’d prayed it never would. He’d been doing so well.

“What happened last winter…it’s preying at my mind, ken. It’s gnawing at my soul.”

I’d noticed. In the six months since our daughter’s birth, he’d grown less spontaneous, more meticulous, as if making plans and following them to the letter reassured him.

I tag Jennie Davenport, S. A. Hunt, Louise Gornall, Krisitne Wyllys, Marie Hogebrandt, Luther Siler, and Katie Bailey.

I Complain About Stakes

It’s common wisdom for writers that an effective story contains three things: Character, plot, and stakes. A person risks something to accomplish something. An author works hard to make queries, pitches, and blurbs reflect all three in the least number of syllables. For example, “When (Character) discovers (Plot Point 1) she must (Plot Point 2) or else (Stakes).”

I’m going to come out and say it: I hate working with stakes. As far as my technical ability goes, it’s probably the thing I understand least and do the worst job of. For a long time, I thought I was worst at plotting, but I was wrong. A plot is simply what happens. It can be any sequence of events: “I went to the store, and the store was closed, so I got on the bus and went to another store. I bought some orange juice, because I like orange juice.” That’s a plot. But it’s not a very good one, because there aren’t any stakes. As far as we know, there is no risk to the narrator. There would be no consequence of NOT getting orange juice, except, possibly, mild disappointment.

I have a hard time with stakes partly because of my world view and partly because of my writing process. For me, writing is an attempt to express a gut feeling or mood; at least, I began that way. I usually start with a character and try to put them in a situation that evokes the mood for which I’m aiming. In my teens, I wrote a lot of pieces–I suppose they might qualify as prose poems–that spoke of smells and sounds and sights and memories without anything actually happening. When I branched out into longer fiction, I knew something had to happen, but for the most part I inserted random events that seemed like they would be “cool” without being able to link them in any coherent fashion. Or else, I stole plots from other authors. I generally ended up with a bunch of still slides of emotional high points, through which my characters moved without much rhyme or reason. Stuff happened because I said it happened. But my characters didn’t make a journey or evolve.

In fact, it wasn’t until much later, when I started querying and pitching, that I ever heard anyone refer to stakes. It gave me a kind of “slap my head” moment: “Oh, of course, that’s the hook. Duh.” But then, when I considered my work, I couldn’t find the stakes to save my life. I thought they were there, but they often were very subtle and only rarely did I articulate them in any coherent way. Sometimes I did all right. “Unless she finds a way to heal him, both will lose their souls.” Those are pretty good stakes (in my opinion). Other times, not so much. “Unless she interferes, the world will be changed.” Um, okay? Mostly I think, “So what? Why is that a bad thing?” And I have a hard time answering. Especially in a 140-character pitch.

I even have a hard time finding the stakes in other authors’ works. Or caring about them. “If he doesn’t make the basketball team, he won’t get the girl.” So? Why don’t you find another girl who doesn’t require you to become someone you’re not? Which is another novel altogether, I suppose. Maybe choosing between trying to change yourself to suit someone else and learning to accept yourself and eventually find the way to happiness would make a good story, but what are the stakes there? I don’t get it. How would you turn that into a hook?

In Fantasy–in other words, in my genre–stakes are often huge: Death, Dismemberment, Apocalypse. I have a hard time caring about those standard tropes. Everyone dies, and the world as we know it won’t last forever. I’m interested in smaller things: personal trials, family problems, past trauma. Okay, maybe those aren’t categorically SMALL, but it’s hard to convey them in a few words. You have to care about the characters FIRST. THEN you’ll care about their experience. This is a difficult thing to express in a pitch or a blurb.

An early reader of She Moved Through the Fair told me she didn’t think Caitlin had a good reason to get involved in the plot because she wasn’t personally attached to the murder victim. There wasn’t any threat to her if she didn’t personally solve the murder; in fact, getting involved created the threat. I thought about that for a long time. Caitlin got involved because magic was the murder weapon and she was the only person aware of that fact. If she didn’t look into it, no one else would. In the end, I decided that was good enough. Her character, her sense of responsibility toward others within her particular field of expertise, was enough. Besides, the book isn’t really a Whodunnit. It’s about a load of other things, like wishes, and consequences, and desire.

I get tied up a lot because I don’t like making antagonists EVIL. Usually they have valid desires of their own; it’s their methods that are problematic, or they make stupid mistakes that put people at risk. The one time I invented a really evil antagonist, the whole time I was writing the book I kept thinking, “This is so stupid.” It’s my most popular novel so far.

A lot of authors take positive delight in doing horrible things to their characters. I don’t. I’ve gotten good mileage out of traumatizing my male protagonist, but I can’t keep doing that forever. I know I need to so something awful to a secondary character people care about soon, and I don’t want to!

I still haven’t found the stakes for book seven. I have a vague idea of something I might do, but once again a part of me is thinking, “It’s so stupid. I can never pull that off.”

Maybe that means I’m on the right track.