These are unusual times. Despite warnings from epidemiologists we were overdue and unprepared for a pandemic, I didn’t think about it unless writing post-apocalyptic stories.
Okay. I suppose I’ve had more practice thinking about this stuff than most, but very few of us prepared for a pandemic to happen.
When the first few cases of COVID-19 were reported in Washington State, I wasn’t too worried. The infected had flown in from China. When word got out a nursing home in Kirkland reported their first case without contact with a person who had traveled, the time to worry had arrived.
The virus is among us, uncontained.
My husband and I are shrinking further into self-imposed isolation. I’m “high risk” with my psychotic immune system, and despite people’s jokes that the time to weed out the weak is here, I’ll do what I can to thwart Darwin’s theory. We stocked up on non-perishables, grocery shop online, and rely on kind friends willing to run errands and leave stuff on the doorstep.
All of this isolation means ramping up self-care and finding novel ways to socialize.
Stick to a Routine
It’s tempting to sleep in, forget to brush your teeth or shower, and reach for the most comfortable clothes possible. You’re not seeing anyone in person, right?
One hallmark of depression is a lack of self-care. Mental healthcare professionals push patients to re-establish a routine for a reason. It helps. Try to keep a normal(ish) routine and don’t give in to the temptation to let things slide.
Your activities may need to be adjusted. Commit to waking up at the same time during weekdays, swap out jogging and YouTube exercise for going to the gym, maintain your hygiene, and eat on a schedule. Many churches hold live-streaming sermons, and some offer live chat so community members can connect.
If you’re one of the many people new to telecommuting, consider designating a specific area of your living space for work. Use your camera in remote calls as much as possible. Don’t apologize for being interrupted by pets or children. And for the sake of all that is good and holy, don’t use the bathroom while you’re on a call.
Break for lunch to take a quick walk and clear your head. Get up at least once an hour to refill your drink. Define work hours and try to adhere to them. It’s easy to get sucked into work and put in sixteen hours.
Embrace the Internet
Working remotely with clients requires video conferencing, frequent email communication, and adopting their internal chat tools. Now I these same techniques to socialize with my friends.
I use my Zoom account for virtual face-to-face time with family and friends. I’m coordinating a virtual book club with friends, so we have more to talk about than COVID-19. My grandparents are in their 90s, and technology is a little confusing to them, but they enjoy being able to talk face-to-face.
My husband and I also video game with my brothers and friends. We play Gears of War 5, which I prefer over Fall Out or Left4Dead.
I cut myself off social media for Lent, and the timing was perfect. Many people use Facebook to share incorrect information or a meltdown. While I’m all for venting one-on-one, avoid social media diatribes.
Exercise Is Essential
One of the best mood boosters is exercise. According to a recent study, you don’t need to do much exercise to feel the benefit. They suggest high-intensity exercise, such as running, for fifteen minutes or lower intensity exercise, such as walking or mindful yoga, for an hour.
As long as you following social distancing recommendations, outdoor exercise is best.
For those of you new to the world of outbreaks, the social distancing definition recommended at the moment by the CDC is avoiding gatherings and maintaining at least six feet from other people. Because COVID-19 can be transmitted through coughs and sneezes in the air, this is a smart policy. Note that six feet of space are not helpful if you’re in a poorly ventilated building.
Consider practicing meditation or yoga.
Try apps for meditation such as Calm or Headspace. I use Insight Timer. They offer a ton of free content, so you can find the technique or person’s voice that works for you. I recommend Andrew Johnson’s recordings on Insight Timer, which range from three minutes to an hour.
If you’re trying yoga for the first time, MBSR yoga is a great way to go. Mindful Hatha yoga instructors frequently remind students to listen to their body and skip anything that doesn’t feel okay. You can sit in a chair while you practice. Here’s one of the two versions I use.
Thank God for Nature
In the morning we walk up to four miles with our dog, Kevin. We move at a fast clip. Between the hills and the stairs, I don’t always pay attention to the beauty around me. But sometimes it hits me.
Earlier today, we walked across UW campus and took in the cherry blossoms from a distance. Despite the craziness going on in the world, nature is still doing her thing. Spring is here, and the signs of new life spread warmth through my chest.
Annie is of a more dignified age, and we walk her closer to home. Crocus blooms, daffodils, and cherry trees are around every turn.
I suggest hiking because the investment in equipment is minimal. Check out your state’s online resources for hiking, such as the Washington Trails Association. One of the few benefits of social distancing is it’s a nice excuse to go for a ride and immerse yourself in nature.
Don’t Eat Like a Teenager
Food cravings are normal, particularly in times of stress. Cortisol increases cravings for fatty and sugary foods because they’re cheap fuel for periods of flight or fight. Unfortunately, we can’t run away from a pandemic. Sugar actually increases cortisol, we remain stressed out, and a vicious cycle ensues.
Eat plenty of fresh vegetables, try offsetting sugar cravings with fresh fruit, and eat whole grains as part of your balanced diet. Treats are fine occasionally, but try to resist the impulse to binge.
I recommend avoiding caffeine (exacerbates anxiety), alcohol (a depressant), and other substances (for obvious reasons).
If you’re stuck avoiding people because of personal illness or because you’re a caregiver for someone who is high risk, you’re not alone! I hope you find these tips helpful and find creative solutions to connect with your community.
You spent precious years on your novel. Sometimes it feels like your child. At other times it's your enemy. Your story is a part of you in every sense of the word.
Then you had to edit the damn thing so much you considered printing it out to burn it.
Having a billion edits under your belt, you're certain your novel is ready for scrutiny.
You're so confident you envision an agent opening your manuscript and crying tears of joy because you presented them with the book they've waited their entire life to find.
Slow your roll ... As the kids say.
Your job is far from done. Now you get to fumble through the art of selling, which includes getting very familiar with the sting of rejection (probably over and over again). And it all begins with the query letter.
After sitting through several agent panels (and happy hours) and listening to their cautionary tales, I developed a list of the top ways to shoot yourself in the foot.
Ignore the Fine Print
An agent or editor who takes the time to give you detailed instructions for submission on their website does this for two reasons:
Think of a query as an interview. Put your best foot forward by showing you can follow simple instructions.
Details like “only send the first 10 pages” and “be sure the sample is double-spaced” are the first things agents look for. If you decide your story is more well-rounded at twenty pages, the agent has every right to reject your query before they read the first line.
Don't give them a reason to think you're difficult to work with.
Use the Same Query Letter for Every Submission
Your query letter is your first, and sometimes only, introduction to the agent.
Don’t waste your chance.
Writer's Digest provides exceptional examples of successful query letters. There are also coaches and editors out there who can help you make a great first impression. Learn from the best, and sweat the details.
Putting the wrong person’s name in the intro line is more than embarrassing. It’s a query killer.
Query Multiple Agents at the Same Agency
Coworkers talk, which means if one agent at the agency isn’t looking for your kind of story, but knows someone down the hall is, they’ll pass your query along.
It also means they’ll know you queried multiple agents at the agency. Trust me. It irritates them. A lot.
Use a Non-Traditional Font
It may seem like an opportunity to flaunt your uniqueness, but using an unusual font will get you as far as dressing up in cosplay for your in-person pitch session (in case you’re wondering, that’s almost as bad as following an agent into a bathroom to pitch your novel).
Using uncommon fonts also makes your submission harder to read.
Periwinkle blue may be the color of your character’s hair, but it’s not legible against a white background.
Tell me this color is a good idea. I dare you.
The whole point of a query is to make the agent or editor want to read your book. Do your research, use common sense, and don't forget to treat this like an interview.
These faux pas were tailored for a cold query submission, but apply to warm submissions after an in-person pitch.
Are there lessons you learned while enduring the query process?
I got started young. My first memory is watching my uncle play Asteroids on the Atari. Not long after, I was toddling around with a Duck Hunter gun. When I was eight, we were lucky enough to have a generous great aunt who had heard about computers on the radio and insisted on setting us up with one of the early PCs. At such a young age, navigating the DOS prompt felt like hacking and I thought I was pretty cool. I couldn't wait until computer time at school--I was a Number Crunchers and Oregon Trail ninja.
I didn't think of PC games as "gaming." The games we played were educational. Where in the World is Carmen San Diego was a favorite and is the only reason I have a decent knowledge of geography. I memorized the names of bones and organs on an early, very pixelated bio game.
My girl friends played by talking, imagining different complex scenarios to play along with, or watching television. None of them had any interest in console gaming and couldn't understand why I liked playing Street Fighter or Double Dragon. I got judged pretty harshly for my interest in conflict and violence. Honestly, I'm not sure if my interest was atypical, or if other women shied away from gaming at a young age because of the gender roles impressed upon us at a young age. Women are supposed to resolve conflict, not start it, right? They don't battle with swords.
I suspect the answer is complicated, but it's likely a combination of gender bias and individual preference. I know I'm atypical. I reveled whenever I beat my extremely coordinated younger brother at anything. I'm competitive and drawn to technology. When PCs were evolved enough to support graphic game play, I was all in.
When I got to college and found another woman who enjoyed games, we were instant best friends. We set up our towers in the boy's dorm and reveled in kicking butt and taking names. Most of the guys thought it was cool, but many changed their minds when they lost. I still run into problems with a vocal few when I beat them, so I game with people I know. Life is too short to listen to some dork threaten physical harm after I blow his head off in combat.
Who is a Gamer?
Gaming is more popular than ever, but how people define "gaming" always leads to debate. I maintain that anyone who spends time on a digital device killing time by leveling up--whether it's lining up fruit, growing vegetables, or killing orcs--is a gamer. There are scores of time management, puzzles, and multi-player games for our phones. Pokemon took the streets by storm, causing me to mutter under my breath when people suddenly stopped on downtown sidewalks or wander into our office. Even my grandfather spends time on the PC playing solitaire.
There are console and PC gamers who would scoff at this definition, and if you are one of those people, you need to take yourself a little less seriously. Even those of us who have spent hours on a game of choice will reach different points in our life where it's not practical to fall into the ranks of a hardcore gamer, and that's okay. I feel that some of us can take being a geek to extremes, finding ways to exclude others because they don't follow our brand of fandom. Those of us who grew up as geeks before it somehow became trendy should remember that similar behavior made us feel different and excluded.
So knock it off.
Don't knock the Wii. My nieces and nephew love it.
When I talk to people who want to game but aren't sure if they have the time or resources, I start with basic questions:
Smallest to Largest Time Investment
VR is the lowest time commitment out of necessity. The visuals are just sketchy enough that nausea is a common complaint. If you're a high-roller who likes to be on the cutting edge, go for it.
If you have kids and a job and really only want to kill time while on public transit or while cheering on a soccer game, there are plenty of apps available for download on smartphone. I, for one, won't judge you if you want to be a fashionista who designs for the runways or shoots birds at blocks from a slingshot (as long as it's digital and not IRL). Handheld gaming devices by companies like Sega and Nintendo are also an option. At this point, I wouldn't recommend 3D, just because the technology isn't quite where I'd like to see it yet.
At this point in my life, I work 10-12 hour days and spend my spare time writing and promoting my books. I have a couple hours on the weekend to spend on gaming, and I also enjoy starting a game up when I'm sick to take my mind off whatever physical ailment I'm battling. I prefer first person shooters and open world role playing games. Back in the day I played online more, but I no longer have the time to level up to the point where I can hold my own in a face-off. I stick to playing with people I know who are in a similar situation or go against AI teams.
My favorite game and gaming buddy when I can clear a few hours.
I maintain that PC gaming is your largest investment. Not only do you need to spend the time in your chosen game, but you also need to get ready to do some research on what to buy. There are a few laptops on the market with the visual cards and power necessary to game, but PC towers are still the most robust options. Several companies will piece together your computer for you after walking through a build tutorial. You can also go hardcore and research the top of the line components. There are tons of articles and opinion pieces to walk you through building your gaming tower.
The other reason I have PCs under the most time consuming option is because this is where the biggies like World of Warcraft and Guild Wars live. If you want to play on teams in these games, get ready to invest a lot of time building skills in order to qualify as an attractive contributor.
Smallest to Largest Financial Investment
If you already have a smartphone and a decent data plan, you're looking at your most cost effective option (if your data plan sucks, make sure you're on WiFi). Consoles run around $500 to start while PCs start around $700 and you'll spend more time researching your options. Laptops will run higher. Virtual Reality is going to come in at the highest point unless you try to hook up a shell to your phone, and I'm telling you right now you will get very sketchy results.
Some additional options to consider are purchasing used consoles/video games, and renting games. Rental quickly becomes less attractive if you've found a game you'll play for months at a time, but it is a great way to test drive before making a commitment.
Genre & Skills
Determining which games to play can be the biggest challenge. If you're not comfortable going to a local video game store like GameStop for pointers, there are several reviewers online. I would recommend finding a reviewer you like and going through different articles until you find a match. I also recommend going to YoutTube and watching screenplay. There are many people out there who just record themselves going from level to level, and plenty of video game reviewers have their own channel. I don't have a favorite--I'm usually online only if I'm stuck on a level.
Finding People to Game With
If you are headed down the path of PC gaming, this likely won't be an issue. Console games also have online options that automatically pair you with people around the same skill level. Meetups, conventions, and even the workplace (especially if you work in Tech) are great places to meet fellow gamers. There are also a lot of online gamers who hang out at tabletop game stores.
Additional Resources for Women
Visit my Geek Girl Con co-panelist's website! Ally Bishop is a talented editor and writer who also has a lot to say about gaming.
There are conventions out there for just about anyone, and they’re a wonderful place for people to share their excitement and learn about their favorite thing. I have friends who love Emerald City Comicon, Norwescon, Sakura Con, and PAX. I even know some coworkers and friends who go to the more...um...niche cons. Speaking of which, my husband and I inadvertently walked into the Rainfurrest convention. The amount of time people spent on their costumes was amazing. We walked into the hotel as the social hour ramped up and discovered the term “scritching” for the first time. I may have gaped a bit at a bird with an articulating beak.
I digress. But it was quite distracting!
Geek Girl Con and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA) conference are two of my favorite cons, and this year I couldn't use my new day job as an excuse to skip. All too often I forget how important conventions can be in keeping motivated. This time I had the honor of presenting two workshops with my friend and co-ex-Booktrope author, Tiffany Pitts. Not only do I enjoy her writing (she features a nanobot enhanced cat that is hilarious in her Thanatos Rising series), but she is also an excellent co-panelist and roommate. She’s the unicorn squirrel of convention friends. We competed with pitch blocks and hangovers, so we had a small crowd. However, that led to some truly interesting conversations. My favorite parts of the presentation were when we went completely off script and helped brainstorm the ideal position on a space sled to avoid making oneself a larger target and the likelihood of data-linked companies being hacked.
I had my own convention “a-ha” moments as a writer. While I'm wading through the middle of a book, I tend to forget that the simple things are the most important. I was reminded that a single question is often the inception of a story (and the basis of a logline, which comes in really handy when you’re trying to explain or pitch your book). “What would push a woman to take revenge on their stalker?” was the question that kicked off a series of additional questions that formed the scaffolding of All the Pretty Bones. This reminder helped me understand the underlying motivation of my science fiction project. It’s funny how something that seems so small can have a prolific impact.
My friend, Eliana West, gave a wonderful closed-door workshop on writing diversity. She created an environment where people felt comfortable asking questions they’d normally never feel comfortable bringing up. Eliana shared many of her own experiences to illustrate a perspective, and I watched a few key moments when people sat back in their chairs in realization. It’s a really cool thing to watch when it’s happening as a collective. I was so excited to hear she has been invited back next year to give a master class.
Cherry Adair had me in stitches throughout her workshop on backstory and I’ve put into play her tip on picking and birthdate and using Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs to choose characteristics. If your character doesn’t fit the sun sign, make up a backstory for why they’ve broken away from the mold. I may lose a little of my enthusiasm after choosing one particular sign for my current project’s main character. She has a doozy of a backstory, so I’m optimistic it will work out for the best.
I owe people the slides on our technology and science workshops, but I’m afraid I’ll need to beg off for a week or two. In addition to some great motivation and new connections, I also walked away from PNWA with pneumonia. My doctor and I caught it early and the initial X-rays look good, but it’s taking time to improve. I’ve been fortunate that lupus doesn’t impact me for the most part, but every once in a while I get walloped with a big reminder. It’s so easy to take breathing for granted until you feel as though you’re being forced to breathe under water. Annie has been a wonderful nap assistant, which is saying something when I’m sleeping sixteen hours a day.
It’s going to take a while for me to get back to normal, but I know I’m feeling better because I’ve been writing a little. In the meantime, I’ve also been listening to It on Audiobook and reading Cherry Adair’s Stormchaser. On the non-fiction side, I recently finished Forensics by Val McDermid and Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter.
Do you have any book recommendations?
I had an interesting conversation with the CIO of my last company several months ago. He knew my words had stalled and it frustrated me. His recommendation? I should write a female protagonist in IT. Perhaps I could imbue code with magic if I needed a paranormal slant, but he knew I had enough material from my years in tech. He was right (except for the bit about magic infused code--it didn't strike a chord for me), and I've been developing a science fiction novel. When my friend contacted me asking if I'd be interested in speaking at PNWA, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. Since I was elbow deep in research for my story, the topics I proposed were tech related and appealed to a coordinator looking for science fiction workshops.
When I research a book, I read just about anything I can get my hands on that is reliable. I've studied human and animal anatomy, aging theory in terms of genetics, and various forensics developments for The Hunted series. A small fraction makes it on the page (I find it interesting but my husband yawns when I go into detail), but because I'm breaking the common vampire tropes, I believe it's important to provide rational reasons and stick to my own rules. I've grown frustrated with series I've read in the past because the author either forgot or broke a rule for the sake of convenience. I also want to consider people in the professions represented in my writing. Would they think my scenes are passable or get frustrated and abandon the book?
My day job typically lands me either in one of a company's operations departments or with their IT department. I manage business applications that are used by different parts of the organization. I've supported sales people, support, and marketing organizations. On top of having a technical job, I live in the largest tech mecca outside of Silicon Valley. Since leaving college, I've worked for various companies that reside in the technology industry. My coworkers are highly intelligent and tend to be voracious readers. I get my best book recommendations from my fellow tech nerds, and I get to hear their rants when they stumble onto a book that defies established science.
My first workshop on Saturday (July 22nd) is "Technology and Science: Write it Right." I'm presenting with a writer I met through Booktrope, Tiffany Pitts. Tiffany has a history in the sciences and also has a passion for research, creating logical rules, and sticking to them. Our goal is to give a baseline for writers to use when reviewing their work. We want them to ask questions like: What would an expert think if they read this? Did I do my homework? Does this make sense?
The second workshop, also presented with Tiffany, is "Technology's Impact on Society." While I find this topic very interesting, it was hard to structure because of how strongly I feel about representing realistic experiences across demographics. I think many of us can quickly list off positive impacts of technology: greater efficiency, medical breakthroughs, better forensics, etc. But what about the hostilities many of us encounter on a regular basis? I can think of a few examples of science fiction I've read recently that present an "always wired" network as a utopia. What happened to the harassment, threats, and other hurdles we face online?
If you're attending PNWA, I hope to see you there! Otherwise, look for more content on these topics in the coming months.
This weekend I helped man a vendor booth with my friends at Norwescon, a science-fiction and fantasy convention that has been running for forty years now. Many people stopped by (I think we can credit Tiffany's lucky rancor and kick-ass crayons for a great deal of interactions). There were quite a few veterans, some newbies, and a lot of really cool costumes. Michael G. Munz, Tiffany Pitts, and I had several conversations with attendees related to Sherlock, Doctor Who, Supernatural, iZombie, Fallout, Star Wars, Firefly, and Star Trek. The noticeable missing segment of fandom was the anime crowd, but that wasn't a surprise with Sakura-Con running the same weekend. As welcoming as the fellow vendors and customers were, I struggled and it took me a while to figure out why.
I get really uncomfortable when it's time to sell my books. Like it or not, our culture has some gender based idiosyncrasies, and I'm still working through my internalized biases. After a long Friday, I went home and did a lot of thinking. I finally figured out my problem. I view talking up my work as bragging, and that makes me feel gross. This is not a female-only phenomenon, but I hear more women authors express their struggle with talking about, pitching, and straight-up selling their own work.
I did exactly what I coach women in corporate not to do. I under-sold my work. I forgot that representing my novels to their advantage is simply smart business. I didn't give myself enough credit. It's hard to get published, and I managed to get a book contract with a publisher. This is a big accomplishment. I'm also thoughtful about what I put in my books. Like many authors who strive to constantly improve, I'm hyper-critical of what I've put out in the world. My series evolves with each book and will continue to do so.
I need to stop internalizing every little critique and look at the big picture. My reviews are strong. I can write. And doggone it, people like me.
I can't tell you how many interviews I've sat through trying to pull out a woman's experience with certain technologies or processes. Too many times I hear the words "I'm not an expert" only to uncover enough examples to prove the interviewee is more than qualified. If you've worked in tech long enough, you know that a certificate is nice, but not always indicative of aptitude or expertise in real world applications. The men I've interviewed don't usually have the same issue with sharing their prowess, but it does happen.
How can we separate "bragging" and accurately representing a skill-set? Where is the line between the two? There's a difference between confidence and over-confidence, but how do we get better at embracing one without crossing over into the other?
All three of us expressed discomfort with pitching our work, so the first two days at the convention we stepped in for one another. I loved what they said about my series and found the repeated line "Seattle vampires that actually kill people!" entertaining. Friday night, I verbally let go with my husband, expressing my frustration and confusion. This led to an epiphany. I would embrace the conference vibe and have more fun. Most importantly, I would be proud of my hard work and represent myself with pride and honesty.
I have a series featuring a woman who evolves from a victim to an apex predator. The Hunted features vampires with bite and delves into diverse mythology, introducing a different take on demons, sirens, berserkers, and more. If you miss the vampires of the 90s and like women's adventure, we'll get along just fine.
In addition to not being shy about my accomplishments, here are a few more learnings from this convention:
Do you struggle with selling your work? If not, what advice would you offer to authors who do struggle?
I've been reading and video gaming to fill up a sudden influx of spare time. Where did those hours come from? I gave up on myself as an author. I did the one thing that marks an author as a failure. I quit believing in myself. There were a lot of forces contributing to my epic burn out, but there's always that *one* moment that pushes a person over the edge, and that moment happened when someone gave me the wrong feedback at precisely the right moment. My increasingly fragile grip on my writing career shattered into a thousand pieces.
I don't blame that person because that moment was equivalent to a match falling on the trail of gasoline leading up to an already impressive bonfire. I already had problems. Lots of them. That extra gasoline took off my eyebrows and made me realize that it was time to walk away from the blaze for a while.
Magical Thinking has been a topic on this blog. As a perfectionist, I have a habit of setting unrealistic standards. I know this about myself, but I persist in this silly, damaging habit. The expectation that my first novel would hit the best seller-list was one of my most epic unrealistic goals. Once it became apparent I had to keep a day job to maintain a decent standard of living, there was a period of adjustment (read: disappointment). Burning the candle at both ends took its toll. The more challenging my day job became, the less I wrote. But there are so many unpleasant things writers face (particularly women, non-white, and/or LBGTQ) that it wore me down.
There are two things you need to be an author: Persistence and Empathy.
Persistence almost outweighs empathy in importance. An author must somehow handle a metric shit ton of rejection and criticism. Even the best authors are gleefully shat upon. You've seen J.K. Rowling's rejection letters, right? If that isn't enough proof, go to Goodreads, look up your favorite author, and read the reviews. I swear there's some kind of cult that rewards experience points for the most scathing reviews. I can hear them now. "I'm a level 28 cyber troll. I specialize in depressive potions and explosive commentary. I've been known to cause optic blood vessels to spontaneously burst in authors foolish enough to read my reviews." Goodreads reminds me of the movie where the angry mob gathers for a hanging. No matter how terrible the criminal is, the eager expression reflected in the collective gazes of the crowd makes my stomach clench.
Empathy is necessary to create realistic characters, particularly if diverse representation is a focus. I've known writers who create vivid worlds with interesting events, but the elemental spark necessary for the reader to make a connection to the protagonist is missing. The people in their worlds are two dimensional, and although at times I can't point to any one thing that is wrong, something is off. It's like today's scary artificial intelligence robots. They look almost real, and that narrow gap between fake and real is what makes them so fucking creepy. It's almost right. But not quite. That "not quite" turns out to be really important.
By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA - Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=389170
Empathy is not my problem. I'm one of those people who maybe has a little too much. I've been known to cry during toilet paper commercials.
I had a major persistence fail.
Kameron Hurley is my new hero. I've been reading Geek Feminist Revolution and she had me hooked in the first paragraph of the first chapter (if you're a writer or a geek and consider yourself a feminist, GET THE BOOK). In the first three paragraphs, she succinctly boiled down each of the pressures that had combined to blow the lid off my operation. Negative feedback, a preoccupation with perfection, and a paralyzing fear of contributing to the damaging stereotypes that saturate fiction. I mistakenly believed that the spin on each of these factors was unique to my situation. It turns out there are a lot of writers who share my pain.
I've already mentioned Goodreads and rejection. Negative feedback comes in a lot of forms. I write vampire fiction, and people tend to try to squish me into a neat little box labeled "Paranormal Romance." I enjoy paranormal romance. I struggle with the tired tropes, but that doesn't mean I don't like the genre. The thing is, I don't write it. I like action, mystery, and high stakes. There are relationships in my books because humans (and non-humans in my universe) are social animals, but it's not the foundation of my work. In fact, I've had to recruit my good friend, Eliana West, to coach me on key scenes. Even though I'm as romantic as ludefisk, inevitably there's that guy at writing conventions who rolls his eyes and explains to me what I write and why it sucks, which is why I have a lot of empathy for romance writers. Their novels have just as much value as the next, but too many times they are treated as a sub-par category of writers. It's bullshit.
Because I write about vampires, even my family has expressed disappointment. I'm talented, but it's wasted. When am I going to write something better? Perhaps I could crank out a romance or focus on something I know. Instructional manuals on how to improve existing Salesforce configurations in growing companies perhaps? (On the upside, that's actually a book that would sell.)
With all of that disappointment and disdain swirling around, it didn't take long for me to join the bandwagon. You see, my first book was far from perfect. I'm lucky that people like it, but I was so intent on writing the story that I missed all of the stereotypes that snuck in there. I take full ownership and can list them off for you. In the second book, I had fun with the stereotypes and revealed the characters to be more complex than first glance. In the third book, I introduced some diverse characters I love. While writing the fourth, I got stuck in a hyper-critical loop that broke my brain. Ever heard of analysis-paralysis? I'm here to assure you it's real.
Combine all of this valid and not-so-valid stuff with the knowledge that gazillions of people have published books to compete with and a lot of them are better, and I shut down like an introvert in a rave. I needed to spend a few months rocking in the corner and plugging my ears. And video gaming. My Skyrim character is fricken' awesome. But thanks to Kameron Hurley, I've finally figured out I'm not alone. I will get better at writing. I just need to persist.
It occurred to me that even the most social among us share only a fraction of ourselves. The truth is that we barely know the people we work with, the people we love, and the people who raised us. The only people we know are characters in books because every thought and motivation is portrayed on the page. We all have secrets and we will all be surprised by the people closest to us. Do you remember the first time a parental figure came crashing off that pedestal?
I sure do. I found it devastating.
My perception of that family member was the egg.
It didn't end well for the egg.
I would estimate I verbally share only 2% of what runs through my head. I'm on the quiet and introspective side of the spectrum. I view myself as socially awkward and can be very shy, although I've learned to be a bit of a chameleon when necessary (conventions, day job, work functions, interviews, etc.). That change only came about because my shyness was often interpreted as snobbery (and still is when I give in to it), and I feel terrible about giving the impression that I'm snubbing other people for some perceived shortcoming. When someone first told me they interpreted my shyness as me not liking them, it blew my mind. I didn't engage with them because I had already assumed they wouldn't like me. My point is that so much of our thoughts and emotions are censored that it's impossible to really know one another.
In some ways, this secrecy is a very good thing.
Public perception versus privately held complexity reminds me of
The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde,
which I'm sure was the author's intent.
While I generally live by the saying "honesty is the best policy," I think Charlaine Harris did a good job of conveying the damage that would be caused by hearing the snap judgments and anger of others in her Sookie Stackhouse series. There have been times when I've been irritated with someone's behavior only for them to surprise me by doing something kind. In an instant they went from someone I couldn't wait to run away from to someone I would be proud to know. My husband can drive me up a wall (and I know the feeling is mutual), but my love for him far outweighs the few moments in our ten year relationship when the temptation to storm out of the house, get in my car, and keep driving popped into my head. I've always had an inclination towards the dramatic, even in my daydreams.
Judging people in a split second is a survival mechanism that is especially prominent in those of us who have been abused. I don't mean buying in to the illogical fears that fuel misogyny, racism, and homophobia. I would posit that those fears are taught and fueled by people who either fan that flame for their own gain or have bought into the rhetoric hook, line, and sinker. Humans exist on a spectrum, and an asshole is an asshole no matter the race, creed, or gender identity. The survival mechanism I'm referring to is the ability to read body language and facial expressions that we've all been developing since infancy. Accurately judging the mood of a person or crowd helps us determine intent and avoid injury. Verbal interactions can help balance out or fuel initial perception.
This makes the words we choose to share all that more important.
Whether you're an author or interacting with another human, your words have a lasting impact. Delivery is equally crucial of course, but your words are what you leave behind. They are what people share when remembering you after you are gone.
In the U.S. corporate environment, the expectation is that we behave like a bunch of unemotive robots. This applies to all people. I've heard women classified as bitchy or shrill if they are passionate about a topic while men are...well, just passionate. I've heard men referred to as weak if they didn't defend their work. Sniping at one another is fine as long as no one cries or yells, and if you get defensive, the sharks will scent that blood in the water and bait you for the fun of it. Don't cry in public. Ever. Body language is key. If you appear flustered or nervous, you're not knowledgable and your opinion is worthless.
The corporate environment is like a parade of social norms on steroids. I figured out early that confidence is key to gaining trust, I suck at maintaining a poker face, and closed up body language (crossed arms, lack of eye contact) puts people on the offensive. I'm very logical and direct, and I'm still learning to lead people to a conclusion because it goes over much better than just telling them they're wrong. There are people who play the political game and people who shoot themselves in the foot by navigating the social structure poorly. I will tell you that my ruthless honesty has led to several foot wounds.
What we say is what we are judged by at work. What we choose to share with other humans is how we are remembered. All of us carry invisible burdens. If someone is having a hard day and says something cruel, I will forever know them as the asshole who snapped at me on the bus. I will never know that they're worried about a child or lost their job that day. When someone unleashes on me, I try to remember that they have a secret backstory. They're reacting to more than me. But I will always remember them for the words they chose to share.
Hate is very popular right now. If you haven't noticed, I'd like to know your trick so I can unplug on occasion. There have always been bullies, but in today's world you can't leave them behind at school or work. They're everywhere, and it's more in your face than ever with social media. The perceived anonymity of the internet has led to people attacking anyone who makes them feel different. It doesn't take a psychologist to see that this is probably because they perceive themselves as unaccepted in the real world. People have made lucrative careers out of trolling, and we're saturated in hateful commentary. As any of us who have dared express our opinion on the online video gaming culture or give off a feminist vibe (sometimes just saying the word 'feminist' sets people off) know, the trolls are restless and hungry.
As messed up as I think it is that we have to squash emotions in the corporate environment, there are rules and people play by them. I don't like all of the rules, and many of them need to be changed, but I know what to expect. The internet removes that pause I see people take face-to-face to censor themselves. Very few people want their real name and face associated with bullying behavior even if they lack the empathy to hold back for the sake of others' feelings.
On the other hand, snark has been popular for a long time, and meanness is a fallback crowd pleaser. When a comedian's joke falls flat, they often turn to making fun of specific members of the audience. Sometimes ripping apart the audience is *the* shtick. It's funny until they turn on you, and then you're forced to laugh because in that moment you hate what they're saying and that you took joy in laughing at someone else. Mean is a defense mechanism used by people who lack confidence and can't handle criticism. We've seen it a lot this past year in particular. When a certain very public figure was accused of doing something wrong, he deflected the focus onto someone else by either drawing attention to physical flaws or maligning their character. It reminded me of every bully I witnessed in school, but what scared me was how effective the tactic is.
Humans are fragile. It's impossible to know whether a moment of thoughtless or calculated cruelty is the final kick in the ass over the edge of despair. Kindness is hard. It takes more energy at times. It can feel weird. It's not popular. It's something I still have to consciously work towards. But a kind word at the right moment can be life saving.
Hug your loved ones and remind your friends why you chose them over all of the other humans who surround you. Life is fleeting and the words we choose to share with others are our legacy.
How do you want to be remembered?
I had high hopes for revived word count production this month. In the past, magic happened for me in November. A group of friends and I make an annual effort for NaNoWriMo, meeting every Sunday to split our time between writing and talking. We take turns participating in a running conversation, putting on headphones and typing furiously when we have nothing to add to a topic only to jump back in later. Somehow, it works for us.
Alas, this is the first year I fell on my face during NaNoWriMo. The typical mojo escaped me. Unfortunately, I'm far from the only person in my group to experience creative abandonment. The last few weeks have rarely involved writing, and when I do write, it's somehow wrong. Between struggles at work and concerns born of our current climate, I can no longer wander through the dark worlds I have created. At least not right now.
While my words evade me, I have taken comfort in worlds created by others.
The All Souls Trilogy
Deborah Harkness can certainly write. I set down her books several times, impressed by how quickly I fall into the world she created. Her descriptions and pacing are spot on. The second book in the series, Shadow of Night, is a combination of historical fiction and the fantastic. I can't imagine how much research went into the piece and found the details fascinating. I often find an excess of description tedious, but she struck a balance.
I do struggle with a large element of her work. The relationship between Diana and Matthew is fraught with violence. Matthew is persistently on the verge of giving in to the blood rage that boils beneath the surface. His love for Diana brings out every protective instinct him, diminishing his control. He's even destroyed at least one woman in his past. The character, Diana, devotes a large portion of page time to rationalizing her true love's behavior, trading control for passion. All at once she loves and fears him--for good reason. In typical vampire fashion, he broods and attempts to scare her away for her own good, which only stokes her urge to fix what's broken in him.
Sure, Diana's own temper is fiery. My problem is that her superhuman lover teeters on the razor's edge between loving and destroying her. The dynamic is very typical of the genre, and I wonder why we accept it so readily. A supernatural monster devoted to a woman to the point of destroying everything around her seems to be okay as long as he also protects her from an external physical threat. The mounting violence he feels towards the heroine is channeled into fighting others. The main character even fears him, knows that if she runs he will hunt and hurt her. His instincts are too strong for him to be predictable if she caves into her fear and flees.
The romantic relationship is very reminiscent of Twilight, but the writing is stronger. Despite my issues with the trope, I enjoyed the series.
I have been known to read everything from literary fiction to erotica, but when I saw the title and cover for Lady Pirate, I suspected I would find it rather ridiculous. I was pleasantly surprised! This book is witty and smart. Laughing out loud happened several times. I enjoyed the main characters, and there were mysteries and mishaps to balance out the miscommunications between the love interests that are typical in romance. I finished the book in a day and highly recommend it despite a questionable scene on a beach...
Big Little Lies
Liane Moriarty is my new favorite author. She captured my attention from the outset with an Audrey Hepburn/Elvis Presley costume party, an old woman who converses with her cat, and a murder. That's just the first chapter! I simply adored the ending. I can't wait to see how HBO handles the content (plus Alexander Skarsgård #TeamEric). If you enjoy Gillian Flynn but wished for a little humor to balance things out, you'll love this book.
Movies and Books continued
If you haven't seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, I highly recommend it. My husband and I went with the nieces, and I fell in love with the character Jacob Kowalski. Because I found the movie delightful, I've finally caved in and purchased the Harry Potter series. I know, I know. Every time I confess I've never bothered to read the series I get a chorus of horrified proclamations (my favorite being my niece's reaction: "HOW COULD YOU???"). I'm halfway through book two, and I'm beginning to see why so many people fell in love with Rowling's world.
I'm always looking for new books to check out. Let me know in the comments what you thought of any of the books above or if you have a recommendation of your own.
I have a confession to make.
I hadn't written anything of substance for months. MONTHS.
The occasional idea percolated. My ability to throw ideas around during dialogue with friends hadn't declined. But when it came to putting my butt in a seat and cranking out word volume, I sucked. Rather than staring at a blinking cursor, I dove into the wormhole that is YouTube as a distraction. Somehow writing had become a chore. I no longer needed it. Hell, I didn't even want to.
I didn't have writer's block. I had writer's abandonment.
It's normal for me to slip into a rut after releasing a book. It takes months to write a first draft and then turn it into something consumable. The back and forth with beta readers, the editor, and the proof reader also takes months-- culminating in a feverish sprint of marketing activity. My typical pattern involves finishing the first draft at the the end of November and launching in May. I use the summer to recover and plot the next book (sometimes I crank out a book for fun that will likely never be published).
This year was different for a lot of reasons. I switched gears with my career and took on more challenging work. Somewhere around March I realized that I had trouble reaching people at my publisher. I knew something was off, but I was still surprised to receive official notice that Booktrope had decided to shut its doors. Instead of launching a new book, I spent the month of May negotiating contracts with the people who helped produce my finished novels and readying the content for relaunch. I pushed my team to complete work on my new novel, Visions and Bones, in June and launched in early July. Another month passed before I realized my typical malaise had morphed into something heavier.
A lot of factors fed into my decision to disconnect from social media, blogging, and the news (without risking a polarizing comment, I think it's safe for me to say this election year has been particularly vitriolic and damaging). In my darker moments I've considered pulling the cord and removing my books from sale altogether. I allowed my insecurity to overshadow the tremendous accomplishments I had achieved.
Now that I've had a couple months of recovery, my temptation to blow up what I've created seems silly. I don't regret withdrawing from writing and focusing on self care. I'm back to running every other day and lifting weights on days I don't run. Physically I feel better than I have in a couple of years. I still struggle with finding balance at my day job and come home with just enough energy to eat and decompress. I don't know how I used to come home and spend hours writing after a full day of work, but a few hours a week seems reasonable. I finally feel ready to participate in a scaled down version of NaNoWriMo.
The minute I pulled into the parking lot of Third Place Books, I knew meeting up with my writing group had been the right decision. Eliana West, our resident ambiance official, pulled out all of the stops. The table in the middle of the food court was a thing of beauty. Six women showed up to encourage one another and discuss the issues we perceive in our projects.
There's a kind of magic that happens in a really good writing group. People committed to cheering one another on doesn't happen often. Perhaps the collective creative energy also fuels word count. The thing that blew me away today was the realization that each of us has benefited from one another's experience. My writing has improved because a member of our group challenged my way of thinking or called me out for relying on tropes.
In the corporate environment, the best bosses realize that diversity provides tremendous strength. People from varied backgrounds tend to approach problems from different angles and offer unique insights critical to strengthening a product. Our writing group is no different. We have writers from romance, sci fi, fantasy, horror, and thriller genres. Our religions and lifestyles vary just as much as our genres. As a result, I can offer my friends plot devices to increase tension and conflict. At that same table, I receive advice on upping the romance between characters (which I need!). While I don't like hearing my fellow authors are also struggling, it is a bit of a comfort to know I'm not the only one dealing with insecurity.
Perhaps joining up with my writing group sooner would have sped up my recovery, but I think I needed the time away. The words flowed today, albeit slowly. It may take me a few more months to finish book four in The Hunted series than usual, but I no longer doubt my ability to keep going.
How do you get out of a writing rut? Do you have a writing group that works for you?
Freelance writer and Dark urban fantasy author featuring vampires with bite.