real life

Taking it on the chin

Sometimes, you put your work out there, and you get criticized. As writers, that’s part of the gig. A reader can fail to connect with your character, they can dislike your tone, or not get any of your references, and for them, the story will fall flat. Other times, readers are disappointed because you didn’t give them the end they thought they’d get from the opening paragraph, or because they wanted the characters or plot to be something they weren’t (even if you delivered on what you’d promised.)

It happens. Ask any writer and they’ll probably tell you, “Never argue with a reviewer, kid. It makes them hate you and makes you look like an ass.” Sound advice, and I follow it myself.

But there’s a certain distance between you and the work when you write fiction, that makes a badnegative review a little easier to take. It’s not really about you, it’s about the story. What if you are the story? I recently sent a new story out to a bunch of readers, including my wonderful writing group, and they came back with a lot of similar comments. The short version is this:

A girl with a (favored) younger sister and a single mom goes through being picked on, hit, yelled at, ignored, pushed away, and more – a generally unhappy life – which culminates in her finding someone who does care about her only to lose them again.

There’s more, hints at aliens and an alt-history dystopia, but the core of the story is this girl and her childhood. The comments I got said the writing was clean and the transitions between scenes were great, but no one wanted to see an ending where the girl’s life didn’t get better. They also didn’t see why I needed to put in multiple examples of abuse/neglect, because they “got the point” early on. Basically, it wasn’t believable or satisfying. But it was all true. I picked a couple of moments out of what was a pretty common occurrence in my life, and put them into a piece of fiction, and it’s not believable. How do you take that criticism?

You do. That’s just it. It’s not a critique of me as a person, it’s a critique of a story that I wrote and submitted and want other people to read/buy. To make it marketable, I have to listen to my reviewers and either trunk the story (give up) or change it.

Nothing you ever write will be critiqued as harshly as putting your own life into a piece and having it dismissed as “wrong”. But no matter what you write, if it’s meant to be fiction, it’s no longer a part of you, and that’s how you need to treat it. Pay attention to what didn’t work. Listen to why a story didn’t speak to the people who read it. Decide which of those comments you’re hearing the most often, and which “fixes” you can make without losing too much of what you wanted to say in the first place.

There’s no finished piece of writing without editing, and you have to take a step back when it’s time to cut and revise and clean up your first draft into your finished one. Whatever you’ve drawn from to create the story, it becomes words on the page once you’ve written it down, and if I can give you one piece of advice, young authors, it’s this: let it go.

Slow and Steady

Recently, a great number of loose ends have begun to weave themselves together, and goals I’ve been working on for a year or more are suddenly falling into place. That includes:

Medical

A) I don’t have cancer. After a couple of months of tests and worry, I found out a week ago that my thyroid tumor is not only benign, but collapsing in on itself, so the planned surgery to remove it is no longer necessary. (If you missed the longer version of that story, read it here.)

B) A month ago I started taking medication for me ADHD, after a lifetime of struggling to stay on top of it without help. The process to get medication took several months, and involved starting therapy with a counselor to make sure it wasn’t depression (it’s not), seeing a general practitioner to rule out a different medical problem (it’s not) and finally seeing a psychiatrist to make sure it wasn’t some other psychological problem (not that either), plus a followup to find out if what I’m taking is working correctly and is at the right dosage (it is).

C) All of the above led me to so many medical tests/blood draws/psychological exams that I have now been declared “very healthy”. Yay!

Fitness

A little over 2 years ago, I was a hundred pounds overweight. There were a lot of reasons I got there and kept it on for several years, but I knew I needed to change my life for, similarly, a lot of reasons. I’m not guessing on my goal number–it’s based on a weight I actually was, after high school, after having a child, and even then I was still a little over my medically ideal weight. My real goal is a size/level of fitness, not a number on a scale, but when you’re 100 pounds away from where you want to be, picking a goal number helps you visualize where you’re headed. My plan is to get close to that spot, and decide then if I’ve lost enough fat, need more muscle, or would be more comfortable going down one more size. I’ll never be thin, I’m built on an hourglass shape but, luckily, I love the way I look when I’m healthy.

As of now, I’ve lost 35 pounds. It took two years to lose and keep off the first 20, plus learn how to stop putting it back on. I changed my diet, in tiny ways, changed my exercise (adding more as I got healthier), learned about nutrition and portion control and how to eat enough while not giving up the food I enjoy… and the more I understand all of those things, the easier losing weight has been. The last 15 pounds came off in the last two months, and I’m finally at a place where I don’t overeat, do work out. I can see the rest coming off without too much stress, if I give it a little more time.

Plus, last night I went out, wearing a simple summer dress I’d bought on sale for $9, in a standard size, and I looked good. *grin*

Job Hunting

A) I’ve needed a stable office/administrative day job for a while now, because freelance is too unpredictable when I have a child to care for and monthly bills to pay. Getting there meant having to find after school/summer care for my son, who has autism. Last summer, he wouldn’t have been accepted to a program for typical kids–he just didn’t have enough language and social skills. After a year of being included in a mainstream class (with a one-on-one aide), and then a few months of going to a one-day-a-week after school program for kids with special needs, and getting used to being away from me with our wonderful babysitter, he was finally ready to try being more independent.

It took weeks to find someone who’d even try a special needs child in their daycare; I got him into one program that kicked him out a week later–not because he’d done anything wrong, but because he didn’t always want to play with the other kids, and they wanted to oversee their children in a group, all at once, so they’d be able to run on a smaller staff. After a few more weeks, I got him into a better (but much more expensive) program partially run by the city, and it’s been wonderful. The staff talked to me about their concerns up front, since he wouldn’t have a dedicated aide and none of the other children have special needs, but it turned out to not be an issue. My son is doing great, he follows the rules, plays where he’s told, and the other kids like him. He’ll be going back in the fall.

During the summer he’s going to be at a camp that’s mixed typical kids/special needs kids, and have an aide for part of the day (swim lessons!), and he’s very excited to start.

B) Once I had that settled, I started sending out resumes. I had three interviews last week, and am waiting to hear back. I realized it’s like submitting stories: the longer they hold on to you, the more you hope you got in. It could still be a rejection, but it’s nice to feel you’re getting close to making a sale.

Personal

More than two years after K and I separated, I am finally divorced. It was going to take even longer, but we had a conference last week and settled everything. I ultimately decided that giving up some of what I was owed was worth it if it meant being able to move on with my life. I got stuck with some debt that wasn’t really mine, and didn’t get money I should have, but I also don’t have to try to fight a contested divorce from across the country (he’s in CA). I don’t have to spend more money on lawyers, or more time dealing with this. I can just be done.

Writing

Last month I started finishing up a few pieces I began last year, wrote new flash, and created a page for Free Fiction here. This week I put together my first short story collection. I’ve got ebooks now; the print version is processing, and I’ve submitted the ebooks to other distributors. Tracking my stats all year, staying organized, and writing even when I feel like quitting, helped me keep with it even with everything else I’ve had going on. I feel like I’m finally back to where I was in 2010, when I had a clear idea of where my career was going.

Dagan Books

We posted an update to our schedule, I’ve emailed the authors for Cthulhurotica 2 and our next novella and our first single-author collection; all of those things are now concurrently being worked on. By me. Yeah. It’s going to be a busy summer.

Finance

This is the one dark spot. Medical bills (I got my final bill for both the MRI and the biopsy), normal life expenses, and a month of having absolutely NO freelance work at all have put me behind. Too far behind to ignore.

I’ll need to raise some money for what’s due now, and will post tomorrow with links to buy my work, including signed copies of my anthologies and the new collection. Once this stuff is paid off, and I’m working again, I’ll be able to stay ahead, even put money into future Dagan Books projects, so I can see that very soon, I’ll be okay. I just need to get through this last, very stressful, moment, and move on.

From the outside it looks as if I suddenly have had a change in fortunes. Overnight, my life is better. But really it’s the cumulation of working hard over a long period of time, not letting my stress and fear get the better of me, and not giving up. That’s it. That’s my advice for all of you who’re struggling with the hard things in your lives. Don’t give up.

It can’t get better if you quit.

May 2013 Stats

In May, I:

Read

  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler (for the third time)
  • More of Howard Waldrop’s Other Worlds, Better Lives and Charles Tan’s anthology Lauriat, though I didn’t finish either.
  • the current issue of the SFWA Bulletin

Wrote

Edited

  • short stories for individual clients

Also

  • did a written interview with Charles Tan, where he asked about Fish for SF Signal (1400 words). Read it here.
  • set up a Free Fiction page where you can find PDFs of my stories.
  • got involved, again, in a controversy concerning the SFWA. I’m now assisting with (not on) an advisory committee on solutions. I can’t say more yet, but I do think they’re headed in the right direction.
  • quit an editing job that wasn’t a good fit for me (they wanted me to do a lot of work for what amounted to less than $5 an hour, and no matter how much I need the money, I don’t have time for that).

Overall, I

Wrote 2,700 words of fiction, and about 8,000 of non-fiction. Edited and read much less than I would have liked. Spent most of my time this month on dealing with life stuff: financial, medical, child care, job hunting. Important, and ultimately getting better, but time-consuming. I don’t feel I’ve accomplished much during the last 4+ weeks, which is disappointing.

June will be better, though. I can feel it.

Advice for June:

Get out of the house. Write somewhere new. Library, coffee shop, park bench–as long as it isn’t where you normally write, give it a try. Changing our circumstances changes how we think, and putting yourself into a new place often puts you into a new mindset. I left the house a lot this past month. I walked several miles a week, spent time at a lake and at parks, wandered through our annual summer festival, and you know what? By the end of the month, I’d figured out what I wish I’d known at the beginning.

Looking for past stats? Read January, February, March, and April here.

Life isn’t always “bouncy, bouncy, fun, fun, fun!”

Hey kids, let’s talk about DEPRESSION. Gather round, get comfortable, and I’ll tell you a story.

I wish I’d grown up in a world where kid shows covered things like that. Where we got taught when we’re young how to recognize the signs and symptoms of depression, how to work through it, and how to be good to ourselves while we do it. I’ve realized in the last few days that I’d been depressed for a few weeks now, and have been thinking about how to get out of the place I’m in.

There’s a difference between being depressed because you have bad things going on in your life, which sucks, and can describe most of my 2012 …. and being depressed even though you have good things going on in your life. That’s the tougher one, because while people understand why you’re feeling down when the power’s shut off and your spouse leaves town without you, they’re less understanding when you have a job, and friends, and love, and all the things we generally consider to be signs of winning at life.

I am, in general, winning at life: I have an apartment I like that I can, at least for now, afford; my son is doing well in school; I am loved, and while the details of which are still not up for discussion, it’s going in the right direction. I’ve made new friends recently, including someone who makes me laugh even when he’s being (purposely) obnoxious, and who encourages me to draw … and I’ve gotten back into art and comics, including scoring a column where I get to write about indie comics and share the things I love with other people. I feel like, in that sense, I’ve reclaimed a part of myself that had been on hold for a while, and it feels good.

So, what’s wrong?

Well, notice what got left out of that list. Dagan Books. My own writing. I noticed how little energy I had for work after I had recovered from the flu enough to be able to work, but didn’t actually have the drive to get anything done. I have about 6 hours a days that I can, and should, be spending on editing and promoting for Dagan Books, and writing my own fiction and non-fiction, and in the last week I’ve done … nothing. I was tired, I thought. I was still recovering from being sick (I do have a little cough still, so that’s not completely an excuse), I told myself. People told me to rest more and I’d feel better soon. So I read. I rested. I watched tv.

And I didn’t feel better.

I knew I had things to do and I didn’t care.

I started to think about it and realized this was the same way I’d felt a few months ago, just before Cthulhurotica got noticed by the Vaginal Fantasy Book Club, and I had to put aside my thoughts and deal with the deadlines in front of me. That worked for a while, but eventually the fuss died down, the sales slowed, and the bad feelings came back. I needed to figure out what was wrong, and how to fix it.

The problem with my writing is that I haven’t done any in months. I’ve been so focused on building DB, trying to make it into a profitable day job, because shouldn’t I? that I haven’t been doing the thing that makes me feel like I’m not a waste of space. Writing is the art I spent time on (I love drawing and printmaking and painting and all of that, but for reasons we won’t discuss here I didn’t pursue it, and so I don’t have the 20 years of practice I have with writing). Writing is the thing I think I’m good at. Writing helps me to connect with people and makes me feel like I accomplished something.

And I haven’t been doing it.

And I haven’t been doing it because I was focusing on all of the little things it takes to run a company, and the disappointments that go with it (poor book sales on one title ate up the good book sales from another title, and buying expensive ad space didn’t help) and the angry, stupid, awful people that occasionally go with it. I’ve had enough of people accusing me of not working hard enough, wanting to know whey I rejected a story and then arguing with me, telling me to go fuck myself because I didn’t buy their work, and suggesting that I could be doing better if only I did things their way.

I hate that before every con I go to I have to have a conversation with my partner about which publishing “professional” has been making uncomfortably suggestive comments about my breasts so he can stand between us at the bar.

And, more than anything else, I hate that I’m behind on deadlines I set for myself, that I can’t afford to make books the way I want to, that I haven’t pursued publishing non-fiction like I’d always planned, and that I’ve accepted work/stories/projects I don’t love in an effort to grow my business faster.

Basically, I disappointed myself. Solution? Stop doing those things.

I admit that I thought about quitting all together – just getting out of publishing and going back to writing for myself all of the time – but I have never been a quitter. More than my desire to see this through to the end is the fact that I genuinely love publishing books, and have put out/am putting out some gorgeous work I’m glad to have my name attached to. What I need to do is stop forcing myself to work on someone else’s schedule, stop taking it so personally that I get accused of not being a “good friend” anymore because I only want to publish quality work (in other words, because I don’t want to publish theirs). I need to stop putting out filler projects that I think will get me noticed by this person or that will sell well in that market.

I need to make the books I want, in the way that I want. Period.

Yes, this will mean that I put out less, even though I’m working harder. It will mean sales increase more slowly, and it will take me longer to turn DB into a decent day job. I may have to get a job working for someone else in the meantime, to pay the bills. I’m okay with that. Because in the end I’ll be making beautiful books, I’ll be known for the quality of my work, and people who like my taste can rest assured that I’m giving them something they’ll at least like, if not love. I’d rather build my company that way.

I have to make some decisions about what I’m doing with this year’s books, and I have to get back on track with getting them out. I have writing deadlines too, and that has to happen. I think this is the first step, to say how I feel, to figure out what’s been wrong, and to make a plan for the future. I certainly feel better getting this out there. I know now that if I can take the next step forward, if I can just sit down and write something, get some fucking work done, then I’ll be moving forward again. I’ll get my momentum back.

Maybe tomorrow.

Tin House / Electric Literature Reading at Powerhouse Arena Bookstore – A Recap

Yesterday afternoon I saw a post by Small Beer Press (on Facebook) mentioning that Kelly Link would be reading at a bookstore in Brooklyn and right about there I decided that I wanted to go – no, NEEDED to go – and then suddenly had to figure out how I was going to do that.

I currently live in New Jersey, towards the middle, next to Trenton, which is just over the river from Philadelphia. The bookstore is in New York, the city (and the state) making it a whole other state away from me.

The problem is, though, that I had to go. Not only was it Kelly Link, whose work I adore, but Tin House and Electric Literature (warning, current cover art – posted on their home page – is NSFW), both great markets that are nearly impossible to get into, and it was a chance to adventure into Brooklyn, where I’d never been. It was also possible, thanks to a combination of trains and subway rides, and since I’m due to leave NJ for upstate NY in a few months (where there are no trains) it was a trip I won’t always be able to make. This particular event would never actually happen again. Add to that my feeling that as writers we’re not just supposed to write but also to read, to listen, and to learn from the writers we admire. To not attend these kinds of events is to sit alone in our apartments, only learning from ourselves. (more…)