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Before this last weekend, I hadn’t attended a convention in a year. And the last convention I attended was somewhat memorable.

Before I left for ConFusion last week, I told myself I had to take it easy. I had been sick for much of the three or four weeks preceding the con, and in addition to that, I’ve been a bit burned out, which seems to mostly mean I’m more tired than usual and have less social energy. I’ve been forcing myself to go out some, but wow, am I much more of an introvert than I usually am.

The perfect time to go to a con!

(Cue maniacal laughter.)

I’ve found it difficult to explain the experience of attending a con as a early-career writer to people who have never been to a con and are not writers, but I will try now. It is incredibly intense. It is both one of the best times ever and an enormous amount of work. It sounds like a big party, and it kind of is, but you never forget you’re there because of writing, which is one of the most important things in your life, and therefore everything that happens at a con has the tendency to take on an overinflated importance. It is difficult to avoid some feelings of being judged, and this doesn’t seem to go away even for many seasoned pros.

The entire con experience is laced through with an undercurrent of PRESSURE. Pressure to make good use of the time because you spent a bunch of money to be there. Pressure to sound intelligent and not say anything incredibly stupid or offensive. Especially on a panel or when talking to a writer you particularly admire. Pressure to smooth over social awkwardness. Pressure to find someone to talk to at the bar. Pressure to prove yourself. Pressure to find an interesting topic to discuss or be on Twitter more or make sure your opinions have some actual thought behind them. Whatever your particular pressure poison is.

Lest you begin to get the wrong idea, the con experience is also jam-packed with amazing moments, fun excursions, and stimulating conversations you’re still thinking about long afterwards. It’s a pressure cooker of mostly awesome.

I had a wonderful and tiring time this weekend. Everyone was very kind to me. There was no running off to cry in public bathrooms (always a plus). Three of the four panels I was on went extremely well, and the fourth one wasn’t a train wreck or anything, I just thought it was kind of boring. I got to spend lots of time with Ferrett, along with many other friends and acquaintances, and I met several new people who I liked a lot. While I heard stories from other writers about stuff that went down at this con, I personally had a very positive experience.

Yay!

Yay!

But I did notice a difference.

I took a lot more time alone in my hotel room. I’d reach a lull in my schedule or have no companions at the bar, and instead of pushing myself to seek out THE BEST USE OF MY TIME, I’d go back up to my room and play Splendor on my iPad and relax. However, this self-permission turned out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, having some quiet time was really nice. On the other hand, I definitely felt like I was using more willpower than I normally do because eventually I’d have to force myself back out into the thick of things, and the expenditure of that extra willpower took away some of the gains of taking the quiet time in the first place. So that was one unexpected thing that happened.

The other thing I noticed was that I cared less overall about what other people thought. The main result of this seemed to be that I circulated less. I pushed myself less to be a flitting social butterfly moving from group to group. I moved some, but not as much as usual, and I had pretty much zero concern about thinking about whether I should be mingling more or considering with whom I should be talking more. I’d see a group of people I kind of knew and think about joining them, and if that seemed like it might cost me a lot of work or energy or awkwardness, I didn’t care enough to do it. Because I realized it didn’t really matter; I already can’t remember the specific cases when this happened. Instead I spent my time more organically; I didn’t work to engage people but talked with people with whom the engagement came naturally.

Interestingly, I met plenty of new people this way (although it’s hard to say if this was less or more than previously), and the general quality of conversation seemed to go up. Usually at cons I spend a lot of time having almost the exact same conversation fifty times or more. This time there was a lot less of that, and the increased variety of topic was something I deeply enjoyed. At various times I had really quality conversations about music, dance, various books, social justice, female friendships, transmedia, psychology, relationships, cooking and food, story ideas, theater and musical theater, television, the film industry, economics, several panel topics, and more. Of course, good conversation is a hallmark of most cons, but this time there was simply MORE of it, which is an unalloyed positive as far as I’m concerned.

Even so, the pressure was still present. I simply wasn’t allowing it to shape as much of my time or determine as many of my actions. Even in the face of pressure, there is often a choice: what do I value the most here? And in my case, it was allowing room for moments of significance and connection, and also, perhaps the biggest change, allowing myself room to do what was good for me.

Photo by Al Bogdan

Photo by Al Bogdan, 2016

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Today is a travel day for me, so without further ado, here is my schedule for this year’s ConFusion science fiction convention in Michigan.
Saturday 4:00:00 PM SFF At Your Fingertips
The online world has fundamentally changed how we find, discuss, and pass on the books that mean something to us. How has unfettered access to many authors changed the discussion around their work? What about the ease of finding like minded communities that only reinforce an individual point of view?
Jon Skovron, Andrew Zimmerman, Amy Sundberg, Jonah Sutton-Morse, V.E. Schwab
 
Saturday 5:00:00 PM LOLCats, Wols, and Watch Me: Pop Culture in SFF?
Pop-culture is ever evolving and fiction often hides behind a desire to be “timeless”. However, pop-culture is an increasing influence on our lives, particularly among young people. How can these modern phenomena be used to make science fiction and fantasy more relevant to today’s readers? Why don’t we see more created popular culture within invented worlds?
Ferrett Steinmetz, Amy Sundberg, Michael Damian Thomas, Sunil Patel, Adam Rakunas

Saturday 7:00:00 PM Emotive and Ebullient: The Young Adult Narrator
Huge films like Hunger Games and Divergent have created renewed interest in beloved Young Adult fiction. However, the intense emotive first person narratives driving many Young Adult novels don’t shine through on the big screen. What is lost in translation and how might this impact readers coming into Young Adult for the first time?
Kelley Armstrong, Courtney Allison Moulton, Amy Sundberg (M), V.E. Schwab, Jon Skovron
Sunday 12:00:00 PM The Business of Rejection
Writing is a business built around rejection. Almost every writer in the industry has experienced it at some point, and many experience it constantly. Come learn how working writers deal with rejection, move past it, and embrace it for what it is.
Amy Sundberg, Kameron Hurley, Greg van Eekhout, Dave Robison (M), Gwenda Bond
I have to say, I am super excited by the LOLCats panel, not only by the topic but because I’m been waiting some years now to be on a panel with my bestie Ferrett, and it is finally happening! With my good friend Sunil to boot! On the same panel! Never has their been a more exciting to me panel lineup.
I predict The Business of Rejection is going to be particularly kickass too.
Have a great weekend!

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I tend to be a very organized person. I like to plan. I enjoy the process of planning, and then I enjoy having everything be smooth and fun and efficient because I planned well. I’ve never had to pull an all-nighter. In college, if I stayed up all night, it was either because I had insomnia or because I was having a good time. The good time often involved playing bridge or hanging out with a cute boy. Both seemed totally worth the sleep deprivation.

I even plan when I’m not going to plan. If you plan that you’re going to be spontaneous, are you still being spontaneous? I’m not sure, but that is totally me. When I purposefully have no plan, I lower my expectations instead, and then it usually all works out very nicely. I’m also usually aware ahead of time of backup plans and which plans are super important versus which plans can be changed without it being a big deal. I don’t even do these things on purpose a lot of the time; my brain does them automatically.

Enter the Creative Process.

There are many parts of the creative process I can plan too. I can plan uninterrupted writing time. I can make daily word count goals, or scene revision goals, or what-have-you. I can make lists and notes and world building sheets. I can outline until the cows come home. I almost always know within a week or two when I’m going to finish a draft. I know what scene I’m going to write tomorrow.

But to my infinite discomfort, there are aspects of my creative process that I cannot plan. Novels, it turns out, are complicated; they consist of many interlocking parts, and sometimes the parts don’t interlock the way I think they’re going to. Sometimes either my planning or my execution is imperfect, and things aren’t set up properly the way they were supposed to be. Sometimes I come up with an idea that is ten times better than what I originally planned to do.

And sometimes ideas simply aren’t ripe. This sounds kind of woo-woo, and that annoys me, but for now, for me, it also seems to be true. Some ideas aren’t ready to go when I want them to be ready. They have pieces missing, and I can sit and think and think and think, and the pieces don’t always fall into place. And then I can’t write the rough draft because I don’t understand the novel well enough to start putting down words. I don’t know who all the POV characters are, or I don’t really understand what I’m trying to say, or I don’t have a solid structure to hang everything from, or my world doesn’t make sense yet.

And then suddenly, in its own damned time, a piece or two or three will fall into place, and the novel idea is ripe, and I can contemplate writing it and maybe even make an actual plan.

I find this both annoying and exhilarating. Annoying because I want to be able to plan further ahead, and more reliably, and I want my ideas to always cooperate with me. Exhilarating because there is nothing like that feeling when a few pieces DO fall into place, and suddenly I’ve got something where before I had nothing at all.

Anyway, I’ve been pounding my head against a novel idea for the past few months, and it wasn’t budging. So finally I turned my head to a different, older idea, and a few pieces fell into place, and maybe I’ve found my novel project for 2016. I certainly hope so.

Because I’m usually happiest when I have a plan, and I can work towards it.

This is an otter. It is very cute and otherwise has nothing to do with this blog post.

This is an otter. It is very cute and has nothing to do with this blog post.

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Yes, I have signed with a literary agent: Kirsten Carleton of Prospect Agency. And I am very happy and very excited and a little beside myself.

And now I get to tell you the story of how it happened!

I began querying agents with my YA novel Beast Girl in late October of last year, so the entire process took about a year. I’d made a deal with myself: that for each novel I queried, I’d send ten more queries than the novel before. I’d sent out fifty queries for Academy of Forgetting, so my goal for Beast Girl was to send sixty queries. I finished with sixty-one queries by the beginning of May.

Yeah, sixty-one queries. I didn’t take any shortcuts; instead I relied on persistence and my belief that all it would take was one person who loved the book to move onto the next step. I queried Kirsten because I read on Manuscript Wishlist that she was interested in stories with characters coping with mental illness, and so I thought Beast Girl might be good fit for her.

But by September, I wasn’t thinking about Beast Girl anymore. I’d reached my query goal, and I’d sent out a lot of fulls (complete copies of the manuscript). After most of a year, I didn’t think anything was going to come of it, and my focus was on this year’s and next year’s books.

Well, and my trip to Bali.

It was our first full day in Bali. We’d settled into our beautiful resort and gotten some sleep, and I was moving a bit slowly the next morning. I decided to get the wifi set up on my phone so I could check my email and make sure everything was going okay with Nala. My heart sank a little when I saw an email with “Query: BEAST GIRL” in the subject line. I knew it was a rejection, and I thought to myself, “Really? I had to get another rejection on the first day of my vacation?” I almost didn’t even open it, but then I decided to go ahead and get it out of the way.

But. It wasn’t a rejection. It was THE EMAIL. The one where the agent says they love your book and they want to talk to you on the phone.

THE EMAIL.

I couldn’t believe what I was reading. My brain started sputtering, and I wondered if I’d entered some kind of alternate Bali reality, or maybe I was confused because of jet lag, or something else because what was happening made absolutely no sense to me. I re-read the email. Probably more than once. And I started saying “Oh my god” over and over again.

Not surprisingly, this got the attention of the Boyfriend. Once I’d told him what was happening and showed him the email, things began to seem a little more real. I was completely beside myself with excitement. And the Boyfriend took this picture of me being so beside myself I couldn’t even handle posing for the camera.

Amy beside herself

Beside Herself Amy

I had a great time in Bali, but every time someone asks me what the best part of the trip was, I think, “THE EMAIL.” It’s pretty tough to compete with THE EMAIL, even when you’re Bali.

Between my trip and various logistical matters, seven weeks have gone by since then. And now I am finally allowed to talk about this very exciting news!

Here is a photo of me before the phone call. I was very nervous.

 

Nervous Amy

Nervous Amy

And here is a photo of me after the phone call. I was very happy!

Happy Amy!

Happy Amy!

And here is a photo of me having celebratory ice cream after the phone call.

Celebratory Amy!

Celebratory Amy!

And here is a photo of Nala on the day I signed the contract.

Signing a contract is serious business.

Signing a contract is serious business.

And here is a photo of me on the day I got to share the news with all of you!

Grateful Amy

Grateful Amy

Yes, I took a lot of photos, because this is a very big deal! I started working seriously toward this goal almost seven years ago, and I’m very happy to have reached another milestone. And yesterday, as the congratulations poured in, I felt so lucky to know so many people who I like so much and who have been rooting for me all this time.

So now I have an agent. You all know what this means, right?

I have some more writing to do. :)

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My revisions weren’t going so well yesterday. To put it mildly. I took Nala on a walk, but that didn’t help. So then I started chatting with a friend:

Me: “My life is meaningless and full of pain. Being an artist sucks. I mean, it’s obviously better than anything else. But right now it sucks. Why can’t I just write a decent novel???????”

Him: “Ah yes. This is one of the best parts of the creative process: crippling self-doubt.”

At which point there may have been a few tears, but they were relieved tears because putting a name to an emotional experience and having somebody who understands is infinitely better than mucking around in the dark.

Crippling self-doubt has this insidious way of expanding. First, I doubted one issue in my book. Then I doubted the whole book and thought maybe I should throw it all out. Then I doubted my overall writing skills and my ability to ever write a novel. Then I spun around in the fail well for a while.

Then it spread further. Maybe I shouldn’t go to the UK and Iceland in the fall anymore! Because that was partly for research, and maybe I don’t actually need to research and therefore should go somewhere else. Like Bali! Or Italy! (The fact that this train of thought actually might have some validity, in that it’s true I don’t need to take the research trip, did not help.) Then my brain went absolutely haywire and I decided maybe I should go to Antarctica. Never mind that I almost certainly cannot afford to go to Antarctica right now.

Then it sent a few questing tendrils out to the rest of my life. Maybe things weren’t going as well as I thought in general.

This is the point where I put my foot down. I felt I’d been very generous with my crippling self-doubt. I’d allowed it some free rein and let it make me very unhappy for an hour or so. But enough was enough.

The most ridiculous thing was, I already had a plan. A good plan. I knew I would finish this revision, come hell or high water, and then I’d send off the book to some readers. It is perfectly obvious I’ve lost any shred of objectivity I might have ever had about the book, which means it’s a perfect time to seek an outside perspective.

Plus this is what I was planning to do anyway, and when faced with crippling self-doubt, I find the answer is usually to carry on with your plan. The plan you made when you weren’t reeling from a stressful emotional experience.

In the meantime, though, I also had to gently talk myself down from my unhappiness, by reviewing the following points:

  1. Finishing is the most important thing right now.
  2. Nothing had actually changed from the day before, when I had been working perfectly happily on my revisions.
  3. There will be another book after this one. And another book. And another book.
  4. Even if this book crashes and burns and is an utter disaster, that doesn’t mean all the books I ever write in my entire life will do the same.
  5. It doesn’t matter what other people think about my writing career.
  6. Yes, even that one thing that one person said that one time that made me question the fact that I’m writing at all and seemed to call my very self-worth into question. That one doesn’t matter in particular.
  7. Some writers write at least TEN books before they get one published, which means I still have several to go before I should start really freaking out.
  8. Meanwhile, I can eat some cheese.
  9. And work really hard on this book.
  10. And maybe try to decide where I actually want to travel this fall.
  11. And think about Disneyland.
  12. And snuggle the little dog.
  13. And remember my emotions do not necessarily reflect reality accurately.
  14. And regain my sense of humor.
  15. And feel grateful I have friends to whom I can send a melodramatic sentence like “My life is meaningless and full of pain,” which is very satisfying to do, and still have them be sympathetic and insightful.

And now the crippling self-doubt, while not eradicated, is at least behaving itself with a bit more decorum.

What do you do when you’re suffering through a bout of self-doubt?

One of the best cures for self-doubt: the little dog!

One of the best cures for self-doubt: the little dog!

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Five years ago today, I published this blog’s first post.

Five years. FIVE YEARS.

And this is my 516th post. Can you imagine? I have sat here typing like this 515 times before this time.

*

Let’s think about this blog for a minute. Why do I do it? Why have I sat down every Monday and Wednesday for the past five years of my life and written a post?

It’s not a wildly successful blog, after all. I don’t get thousands upon thousands of hits. This is no Whatever, no Bloggess, no MarkManson.com. I don’t get nominated for awards for my work here. Sometimes I write what I believe to be an important post, and it sinks to the bottom of the pond without leaving a single visible ripple in its wake.

I make no money from the blog. I don’t run ads that give me a kick-back. I don’t participate in marketing schemes. I don’t even have an affiliate Amazon link.

And yet. Five years. For five years I have shown up.

*

The blog is not always easy on a personal level either.

Occasionally, people believe it is okay to discuss personal and private issues they have with me in the public comments section of a public blog. (Note: This is not okay.)

Occasionally, I use an anecdote to help illustrate my point, and people I care about get worried they might have inadvertently hurt my feelings. (Note: I probably wouldn’t have chosen that anecdote were that the case.)

Occasionally, people in my personal life read a post of mine and think I am talking about them when I am not. Or they think I am talking specifically TO them, and I am not. Or they make a personal choice I may or may not agree with, and say, well, I did it because of what you said on your blog. And I look down at my open hands, and I think, I don’t want that kind of power. I want to make you think, yes, but then the decision is yours.

Occasionally, people misunderstand me. Sometimes this is because of projection. Sometimes this is because I didn’t do a very good job writing my post. Sometimes it is both.

Sometimes I don’t know where the line is. I don’t know what to write about and what not to write about. I don’t know what to tell you and what not to tell you. Sometimes this confusion ends up leaving you confused too.

Five years.

*

So then, why? Why am I sitting here struggling over these sentences?

Part of it is that I believe in creating for creating’s sake, and art for art’s sake.

But perhaps more of it is because I believe in my One Reader.

My One Reader reads my post and has an Aha! moment.

My One Reader reads my post and feels less alone.

My One Reader reads my post and decides to go on fighting another day.

My One Reader reads my post and loves herself a little bit more than she did before.

My One Reader reads my post and thinks about something in a new way.

My One Reader reads my post and feels a little lighter.

My One Reader reads my post and thinks, I thought that was just me! And a little bit of the guilt or shame or self-disparagement dissipates.

My One Reader reads my post and later on when he is lost, he remembers it and he comes back and reads it again, and it is a small light in what might have otherwise been complete darkness.

My One Reader gets a kick out of seeing yet another Nala photo.

20150626_165241

My One Reader reads my post and a connection is created, and maybe we see each other a little more than we did before.

I don’t know who my One Reader is on any given day. But I believe he or she is out there. And I believe he or she matters.

*

Five years. Here’s to you, One Reader. And here’s to the Practical Free Spirit.

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I get asked this question all the time: What is your blog about? Inevitably I flail about, stringing words into somewhat coherent sentences that may or may not have any actual meaning. Sometimes if I’m standing next to someone else who I know has read my blog, I ask them to answer the question instead. It is ultimately more entertaining to watch them flail about trying to explain my blog than it is to do it myself.

I know, I know, I’m terrible (or possibly simply hilarious). But really I keep hoping someone will have a good answer and I will learn something. This has, however, only happened one time, and then I promptly forgot the answer. I tried to get him to repeat it, but somehow it didn’t sound as good the second time, so I think he might have forgotten it too.

But given how much time and effort I give to this blog, it is high time I do my best to answer this question.

During my senior year of high school, a new class was offered by the Senior Honors English teacher Mr. Skinner. It was called Ways of Knowing, and it was an advanced class about philosophy. I didn’t take this class. I’d heard stories of how difficult a teacher Mr. Skinner was, and due to a turbulent home life, I’d barely gotten through my junior year of high school. In fact, I’d ended the year hospitalized for pneumonia. So I was past the point of caring about the philosophy class all the other smart kids were taking. I did, however, hear a lot about it during fourth period independent study AP French Literature, during which my two fellow students were always doing their Ways of Knowing homework while I…read French literature.

When I think about what my blog is about, I often think about this Ways of Knowing class. I wouldn’t say this blog is about ways of knowing. But I would say this blog is about Ways of Living. And these two ideas are linked in my mind.

Nala's Way of Living

Nala’s Way of Living

It has been the work of my life thus far to study and consider Ways of Living, and the roots of this driving interest go back to that time in high school, and even further back. Knowing things is all very well and good, and I was always a curious student, but what I most wanted to know, surrounded by misery as I felt myself to be at that time, was how to live. How to be happy. How to be fulfilled. How to be an artist. And in a world that didn’t seem to value art. How to create connection even though circumstances had left me completely isolated. How to deal with emotions that arose from extreme situations beyond my control. How to deal with that lack of control. How to create meaning, to live it, in a chaotic world.

This is what I write about.

As I got older, I added some interests. How social structures contribute (and sometimes detract from) ways of living. How personal identity plays into both larger structures and personal interactions. The intersections between technology and society and how we live or can potentially choose to live in the future. The question of expression. How the past, and memory, coalesce into identity and how to work with that. The lessons of narrative. How to initiate (and survive) transformation.

This is what I write about.

And always people. When I escaped to college, I began asking questions. So many questions. Here are things I always want to know: Are you happy? Why or why not? What are you afraid of? What gives you joy? Who and what do you care about? What are you looking for? How do you create your own personal meaning? How do you deal with suffering? What do you say you want, and how is that related to what you actually want? How are you connected with the outside world? Who are your friends, your families, your communities, and what do these relationships look like? What did you used to wish you would be doing as an adult, and how do you feel about that now? What is your relationship to work? What is your relationship to the past? How do you see the world? Who do you think you are?

This is what I think about. This is what I write about.

Ways of living. Yes.

This is what I want to know.

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