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I read this essay by the movie reviewer Hulk Smash (it’s interesting, but it is also super, super long, so fair warning), and I thought, oh, I should blog about despair. Because it seems to be going around lately. I know a lot of people who have been having a rough time personally, and then there’s been the whole GamerGate thing, and the global warming impending apocalypse thing, and the posting nude pictures of actresses thing, and a bunch of other things. And, well, it’s not a huge stretch to think that some people are experiencing despair right now.

Despair is a difficult experience to live through. It comes with its own built-in gravity well, in that once you find yourself in that despair place, it is not always obvious how to move forward or through it. So there you sit, in this incredibly painful state, feeling like really important things are broken and there’s nothing you can do about it.

And then I read my friend Damien’s post about Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly, and you might remember I adore Brene Brown and think the work she’s done is really important. And reading through the list of strategies she talks about, I think they are somewhat applicable to dealing with despair as well as living a wholehearted life. So that’s one resource that’s out there.

But really I want to talk about what I do when facing despair, because that’s what I know. As usual, take what seems useful and discard the rest.

  1. Self care, self care, self care. If you are feeling despair, then you are going to need to self care the shit out of yourself. Beyond the basics (eat, hydrate, sleep, exercise/move), this includes giving yourself alone time or people time depending on what you need. For me, I often want lots of time with Nala. This also includes allowing yourself to be distracted or take a break from the despair. I don’t care how a big a problem it is or how big a realization you’ve had; being in full-on despair mode 24/7 is simply not healthy. Dealing with it is great, but not at the cost of complete burn-out. Finally, this covers allowing yourself to disengage and set boundaries as needed.
  2. Focus on the present moment. Sometimes despair involves things that happened in the past or things we’re afraid will happen in the future. And those things are important and provoke strong feelings and need to be grappled with. But to pull myself out of the despair, paying attention to right now right this second instead can be helpful.
  3. Baby steps. Despair requires patience, because maybe you’re beginning to feel better and then something happens and you fall right back down the well. But if I can think of even one tiny positive thing I can do to help my situation or take care of myself or reframe, then I am better off than I was before.
  4. Vent. Or cry. Or both. Sometimes I just need to let it out, and if I have a safe space in which to express myself, it can be extremely helpful. This one requires judgment because it totally backfires if the space turns out not to be safe after all. But you can do it alone or in writing (or with a pet) too.
  5. Try to stand apart from your emotional reality. Or in other words, try to call yourself on your black and white thinking. Despair can be overwhelming, and it can feel really, really big. For example, if you have been experiencing a lot of really bad behavior from other people, it can begin to feel like all people are awful, or all people are going to betray you, or whatever universal your brain has decided to come up with. But while your experience of that feeling is real, that doesn’t mean it necessarily reflects the external reality. So to pull out of it, you can think of one person who has treated you well. Maybe you can even text them or message them or call them or whatever it is you do to communicate. Or you can just think of a nice thing they did or said that one time. Then think of another person. Then another. Look at data if you need to: pull up a nice text or a nice email someone sent you.
  6. Don’t give up on yourself. Even if you really feel like it. You can give up on everything and everybody else, especially if you’re having a nice venting session, but hold onto that self-esteem like you’re in space and it’s your oxygen tank. YOU WILL NEED IT. GUARANTEED.
  7. Find a reason to hope. It can be a dumb reason, like the fact that ice cream exists or Nala is consistently adorable. That’s okay.
  8. Remember: everything changes. I don’t know if anyone else finds this idea comforting, but it has been my fall-back in hard times for at least ten years, maybe longer. If none of the above works, or if it’s not possible at the moment, and you’re wrapped up in the stifling blanket of despair, knowing it won’t go on forever and ever because that’s not how the world works gives you something to hold onto.
A reason to hope.

A reason to hope.

Hang in there, my friends. Or, as Theodora Goss said:

Revising a Novel

My friend Danielle suggested that I write a post about my novel revision process, and since I just completed revising my most recent novel, now seemed like a good time. And while I’m at it, I’m going to talk about the submission process too. And then you will understand more about how my life works.

I revise very little while I’m writing my rough draft. My main goal is to keep writing and finish the draft. Occasionally I’ll go back and fix some little thing because it’s distracting me. And if something major breaks, then I might have to do more (like add a few scenes or even start over). But in general, my rough draft is not revised as I go.

Once I have the rough, then I print out the entire manuscript and read it to see what I’ve got. While I’m reading, I make a new chapter-by-chapter outline of everything that happens and how many pages each chapter is. (I do this when I’m reading a novel for critique as well. It makes it so much easier to keep track of everything.) I also take a lot of notes. I’ve also probably taken a lot of notes while I was writing the rough draft of things to check on and things to change. So I take care of all those notes and clean the prose up a bit (enough so it won’t be completely embarrassing) and that’s draft 2.

This is the point where I give it to my first reader. He reads for larger scale issues; he is a structure genius, and he also reads for plot, character, world-building, theme, voice, etc., etc. I use his notes to generate a third draft.

Then I hand it to a few more readers. They too read with the big picture in mind, although they also give me more scene-scale notes (and sometimes even smaller scale stuff). They also sanity check how my changes worked out between drafts 2 and 3, which is super helpful since I can’t always tell if I’ve gone too far or not far enough with changes (or nailed them, which does occasionally happen). From their notes, I plan and execute draft 4.

If I’m feeling unsure of draft 4, I will give the novel to a few more readers and make more changes. Once I am confident about the strength of the book, I do final clean up. This involves a novel-wide search for adverbs and another search for the word “that.” I sometimes search for other overused words as well. For this novel, I read the entire book out loud to assist my search for errors and check rhythm, especially of dialogue.

While I’m doing this last clean-up pass, I’m also starting my query letter and my synopsis. The query letter is basically a sales pitch of the novel, sometimes similar to what one would find on the back cover of a book, one page or less. The synopsis summarizes the entire novel, also ideally in about a page. I’m also updating my agent spreadsheet.

Once I am finished with the novel, the query, and the synopsis, I begin querying agents. This means I email my query package to agents (which depends on the agent’s guidelines, but usually includes a customized query letter and perhaps some sample novel pages and/or the synopsis) and keep track of submissions and responses. Depending on how things go, I could spend many months doing this. At the same time, I am beginning my next novel project, generally by doing whatever work I need to do to select the project, and then brainstorming, researching, and outlining.

The length of time all of this takes can vary a lot depending on the length of the manuscript, the extent and number of revisions, the schedules of readers, and how smoothly the rough draft goes. I do have some target dates in mind by the time I begin a rough draft, based on the premise that the project will go fairly smoothly. And since I don’t write a huge amount of words every day, I can generally adapt as I go when there are snags. A lot of my writing time is actually spent thinking.

So this is my writing, revision, and submitting process. Each writer has their own process: some revise a lot as they go, some have readers as they go, some use a lot more readers in the revision process, some use less. The important thing is figuring out what works.

If Not Me, Who?

Once upon a time (last week, if you want to get particular about it), I wasn’t in the best mood. I’d slept poorly, so I was very tired, and I’d just gotten my flu shot, so my arm hurt, and I’d been feeling socially disconnected and it didn’t seem to be getting any better, so I was grumpy.

I was perusing Facebook that afternoon, and I saw a friend’s status message. It was obvious she was feeling as disconnected as I was, and that she was dealing with a lot of hard emotions. I made a comment about my own desire for a tribe and left it at that.

Later that evening, she made a long, clarifying comment on the thread. It was a pretty long thread at this point, with many of her friends offering love, support, Skype time, etc. And I thought, she still sounds pretty upset. Maybe I should call her.

I immediately thought of lots of good reasons why calling her was a terrible idea. It was almost ten p.m., and I’d be putting her on the spot, and I hadn’t phoned her up in years (mostly seeing her at group events), and some people hate talking on the phone, and I was tired, and it might be weird, and she obviously had all these friends from this thread who were offering support, so she didn’t need mine. Who did I think I was, anyway?

But then I thought of Emma Watson’s UN speech on feminism, which I had watched earlier in the week. She’d talked about how she questioned why it was her standing up in front of the UN talking about feminism. And then she’d asked herself these two questions:

If not me, who? If not now, when?

Photo by Amy Sundberg (Hey, that's me!)

Photo by Amy Sundberg (Hey, that’s me!)

Those two questions echoed in my mind. They aren’t particularly original, perhaps, but more importantly, they are pertinent and simple. If I wasn’t willing to reach out to my friend in need, who would? And what did that say about me? And did I really think some vague Facebook comment was sufficient support?

I was afraid of looking stupid and awkward. But was that fear really what was important? I didn’t think so. And I picked up the phone and called her.

I was the only friend that day who did so.

If not me, who? No one, that’s who.

I hope the conversation we had helped my friend, but it ended up being exactly what I needed. It got me out of my head loop and back into reality.

Here’s what I learned or was reminded of:

  1. Appearances can be deceiving. Just because a person looks like they have a million and one friends does not mean they’re getting the support they need. Just because a person looks happy does not mean they’re doing great.
  2. Active reaching out matters. When we’re in a state of overwhelm or emotional overload, sometimes even picking up the phone and deciding who to call or text can be really hard. Making an offer to support a friend is great, but following it up with something concrete is better. (Especially something concrete that can be easily refused, like with a phone call that the person doesn’t have to answer.)
  3. Sometimes helping someone else is the best way to help yourself.
  4. Connection takes courage. I’ve been feeling unsafe in some of my usual social spaces. And it’s so easy to allow that feeling to leach into feeling unsafe in general. And feeling unsafe is such a deeply icky experience. But at some point, I needed to open myself up to the possibility that not all connections will lead to a lack of safety, and to trust in my own ability to deal with inappropriate circumstances should they arise.
  5. Conversation is a give and take. My friend really wanted to hear about similar problems I have been experiencing. Me being willing to be open and vulnerable with her helped her to do the same with me, and vice versa.
  6. Connection starts with me. I can’t expect meaningful connection in my life if I’m not willing to take a risk and give what I wish to receive.
  7. Connection is a state of mind. That phone conversation cracked me wide open, and then I could more easily appreciate all the connections I’m so happy to have in my life.
  8. If not me, who? If not now, when? 

I’ve been very tired lately, so it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that I’ve come down with a cold. I’m taking it easy for a few days, and I don’t have the brainpower to tackle the post I wanted to write today, so instead it is obviously time for some adorable dog photos.

Nala shaking my hand.

Nala shaking my hand.

Nala is a very food-motivated dog, so the main problem with doing tricks with her is that she gets so excited, she has trouble focusing enough to figure out which trick I’m asking her to do. Instead she tends to wave her paws wildly in the air and/or wag as fast as she can. But with a little bit of patience, she is happy to shake hands.

The Nala blur.

The Nala blur.

I know this isn’t a great photo, but I love it because it captures how excited Nala gets. She just can’t stay still. This is a different trick in which she grabs my hand with both paws.

In other news, it seems like fall has come along with my cold. When I took Nala outside today, I shivered and realized I’d have to wear heavier clothing if I actually had the capacity to leave my house today. It’s getting dark earlier, and the time change is less than two weeks away. I’m wearing boots again, and the house has held steady at 80 degrees Farenheit today without any A/C. (Yes, I live in a very hot location in a very hot apartment. Who knows what this experience may have done to my already poor temperature regulation abilities.)

I generally dislike cold weather, but for the first time in my life, I am so ready for winter.

I’m also going to take this opportunity to opine on this year’s general disdain towards all things pumpkin spice. I guess it’s supposed to be funny? Are peppermint, egg nog, and gingerbread flavors funny in December? Personally I think they’re tasty, just as I’m happy to be able to order my favorite pumpkin spice chai at the coffee shop again. I’d order that drink all year if I could. As it is, I limp along with the occasional vanilla chai in the spring, but it’s not the same.

Anyway, is the pumpkin spice hatred because of ridiculous marketing? Occasionally I feel like there’s this whole slice of American culture that I’m missing out on because I don’t watch television commercials. I’m pleased to miss it, but once in a while I have a conversation in which I have to plead ignorance and change the subject. In any case, I have trouble seeing how pumpkin spice marketing could reach anywhere near the ridiculousness of Christmas marketing, but I suppose stranger things have happened.

And now it is time for me to rest some more. Until Thursday, my friends.

Life is going forward at a breakneck pace, and I’m feeling kind of tired. So let’s talk about Star Trek today, shall we?

I have very little exposure to Star Trek in my past. The original Star Trek series aired right after the Brady Bunch when I was quite young (maybe around six?) so I saw a few episodes, which didn’t make much sense to me. At some point in my childhood, I also saw the Star Trek movie that has whales in it. In college, I saw a few episodes of Voyager. And this was the extent of my knowledge until the movie reboots came out, at which point I also took it upon myself to watch The Wrath of Khan movie.

Yes, I’ve always been a Star Wars person.

My sparse Star Trek knowledge came up at a party this summer, and a few friends and I hatched a plan to expose me to Star Trek: The Next Generation. Since the beginning of September, we have watched the highlights of Season 1 and are now a few episodes into Season 2.

And suddenly I understand! I’ve heard about the world of Star Trek before, but I’ve never seen a replicator in action. With the little bit of Star Trek I’d been exposed to, it hadn’t really sunk in that it was set in a post-scarcity society. I didn’t know this Enterprise could break into two different ships. I hadn’t thought carefully about the implications of the Prime Directive. I knew Wil Wheaton from Tabletop.

And now that I know them, I’m beginning to notice the references being made to Star Trek around me. They were probably always being made around me and just flying right over my head. This week I met a guy who described what he’s working on as being like the communicators in Star Trek. Before I would have nodded but not really had any image of what he was talking about, but now I know! Someone else referenced some characters from the show, and I got all excited because I knew who they were talking about! It’s like a whole new world of cultural references has been revealed to me.

(And I can’t wait to see Galaxy Quest again because I’m sure there were so many references I completely missed.)

I was afraid I wouldn’t like TNG because it’s pretty much episodic (at least so far), and I tend to enjoy shows with larger arcs. And, um, the plotting (at least so far) is not really all that. It’s pretty predictable, problems are generally solved pretty easily (which, I mean, of course they are because there’s only forty minutes to do it in), and for most of the episodes, I don’t feel a lot of plot-driven tension.

But I reckoned without the characters, the ideas, and the general tone. I don’t know if these are the reasons why other people watch this show, but they certainly are my reasons. Because it is optimistic, and that’s nice to see. And sometimes it’s ridiculous and random and silly (any of the Holodeck episodes, pretty much), and I enjoy the characters’ enjoyment even while I appreciate the absurdity. I love Captain Picard’s speaking voice because how can you not enjoy that diction with that dialogue? It is simultaneously wonderful and hilarious.

And I’ve completely fallen in love with Data. I would watch The Data Show, I really would. I love his expressions, I love his idiosyncracies, I love his desire to understand humanity and become more human himself. It is pure joy to watch him.

So yes, I’m more than twenty-five years late to this party, but even now it’s a great party to find.

I’ve been writing about death a lot. Since my friend Jay died at the beginning of June. Then writer Graham Joyce died about a month ago, and I wrote about that.

Then writer Eugie Foster died a few weeks ago (also from cancer, all three of them from cancer), and I didn’t write about it. Because I felt like I’d been writing about death death death, and also I’d never met her. But her novelette Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast was one of the first pieces of short fiction that I completely fell in love with after starting to write short fiction myself. It was one of the stories that made me realize how powerful short fiction can be. And also, the title! (Also you can totally go read it right now because it is super good.) So I felt a real sense of loss.

And then a few days ago, Zilpha Keatley Snyder died. I was trying not to write so much about death and grief, but I mean, I have to write about this. So. I tried. And this is what you’re getting.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder was the author I wanted to be when I grew up. She was one of my first author crushes. I loved her name; I loved how dignified it sounded, how I’d never heard the name Zilpha before, how it had three parts instead of only two, and how I could never shorten it because otherwise it didn’t have the right ring. I loved that she lived in the same county that I lived in, which meant writers were real people who lived in real places and I could be one of them someday.

Below the Root, how I love you!

Below the Root, how I love you!

And most of all, I loved her work. I devoured her work. I shared her work with my mom; I’m pretty sure my mom read The Velvet Room out loud to me at some point, and maybe also The Egypt Game, but I can’t remember. I loved the Below the Root series so much, it was one of the books I tried to copy in my own young writing, along with The Wizard of Oz and Anne of Green Gables. I spent about a million hours playing the impossible adventure computer game based on Below the Root. I never beat it, but I got pretty far. Well, at least I thought I did at the time.

And then, just when I might have been getting a little too old to be completely enamored with Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s work (I was probably around 12), I found Libby on Wednesday, which I read repeatedly. Because it was about a girl like me, a girl who was too smart for her own good and didn’t really understand the social maze of middle school and, most of all, wanted to be a writer. I loved that book so hard.

My collection of Zilpha Keatley Snyder novels.

My collection of Zilpha Keatley Snyder novels.

I never met Zilpha Keatley Snyder. But her books meant, and still mean, the world to me. They are a crucial element of my personal book collection. They influenced me both as a writer and as a human being.

I will miss you, Zilpha Keatley Snyder. And I still want to be you when I grow up.

I received a good reminder earlier this week, so I thought I’d share.

If you aren’t familiar with the website Meetup.com, it’s a website where people put together activity groups. So you can join and then find groups in your area that host events that you can attend, and if there isn’t any group in your area, then you can start one yourself! There are hiking groups, book groups, parenting groups, board game groups, support groups, and on and on.

Meetup.com is a website that comes up often in online advice about how to make new friends. The idea is that you can meet people while pursuing your interests and hobbies that you want to do anyway. And you instantly have something in common! I personally know a few people for whom this strategy has worked quite well.

However, I myself tried a Meetup group some years ago now, and I was not impressed. I went to one event, and I didn’t click with any of the people present. It was hard to get there, and then it was all small talk, small talk, small talk, and someone suggested we should arrange meetings to all work out together at the gym, and I threw up a little in my mouth. (To be clear, there is nothing wrong with having a Meetup to hang out at the gym; it is just really not my thing.) I was relieved to go home, and ever since then, I’ve thought, “Oh, Meetup. That totally doesn’t work for me. At all. The end.”

But I still get their emails because I am lazy about getting myself off email lists, and a few weeks ago, I saw a new Meetup group that was exactly my thing. Of course, the first Meetup group I’d tried had also seemed to be exactly my thing and look what happened there, but this was maybe even more so. So I decided I’d try it out.

My first meeting was on Monday evening. I was nervous, and I kept thinking of all the ways in which it might be uncomfortable or boring or plain obnoxious, and I kind of didn’t want to go. But I’d RSVP’d and I’d spent considerable effort preparing for the meeting, and this felt like one of those times I needed to ignore my brain and push myself to go anyway. So I went.

And it was FABULOUS. It was interesting and informative, we had a wide-ranging conversation about topics that I want to learn more about, the people were respectful and articulate and insightful. I was so glad I went.

Nala used to hate her kennel, but now she wants to hang out in there all the time. (Yeah, I might be reaching a tiny bit, but...cute dog photo!)

Nala used to hate her kennel, but now she wants to hang out in there all the time. (Yeah, I might be reaching a tiny bit, but…cute dog photo!)

So here’s the reminder I took away from this experience: Just because you’ve tried something once doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t try it again. Generalizations can sometimes be a useful shorthand, but when they’re formed with too little information and without being aware of variation, they can be inaccurate and potentially harmful.

Also, sometimes brains are overly negative. And sometimes we have to do our best to ignore them until we can prove them wrong. Being able to tell the difference between a real threat or issue and unfounded negativity is an incredibly valuable life skill.

And Meetup.com can sometimes be awesome! Good to know.

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