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Once upon a time I was talking to someone about my writing. And this person said to me, “Yeah, but if you don’t succeed in a year or so, you’d probably quit and try something else, right?”

And I thought to myself, “Wow, we are really not on the same page here. In fact, we are so far apart I don’t know that there’s anything I can do to change that.”

So when I recently read an essay by Matthew Weiner, the creator of Mad Men, I was happy to see the following:

“The most defeatist thing I hear is, “I’m going to give it a couple of years.” You can’t set a clock for yourself. If you do, you are not a writer. You should want it so badly that you don’t have a choice. You have to commit for the long haul.”

I don’t know about the “should” in that statement, but for me, the sentiment is true. I’ve been a writer since I was seven. When I wasn’t writing prose, I was writing music and lyrics. This impulse to write is so deeply buried in who I am, I don’t have the first idea how I’d extricate it. Nor would I want to.

Because commitment matters. As Elizabeth Bear says, “…to succeed at a thing–a job, a relationship–in the long term, the thing is: You Must Commit, even though commitment is scary.”

I used to joke that I had commitment issues because I like to take a bit of time before I commit. I’m a “stick my toe in the water to test the temperature” kind of person, and then I hesitate at the first step or two of the pool, thinking about how cold the water is and wondering if this is actually a good idea, and then suddenly I rush all the way in, and I’m done. I’m committed.

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I even hesitated a little bit about adopting this cutie.

But the reason I like to take my time is because once I commit, I AM COMMITTED. And I will put everything I have into whatever it is. So being a little cautious at the beginning is an important protective measure.

Do I think this means I make better decisions? I have no idea. It’s part of my temperament, more than anything else. And I still make mistakes, and I still have failures, and I still make commitments I wish I hadn’t made, not because of failure so much as because the price I paid was too high.

Ultimately I think commitment requires a lot of trust: trust in whatever or whoever you’re committing to, yes, but perhaps even more importantly, trust in yourself. Trust that you can be there–really show up–for yourself. Trust that you can brave the storms and survive the failures. Trust that you can keep learning, that you can keep adjusting, that you can keep in touch with the things that matter to you. Trust that you can leave old commitments behind if it is time. Trust, even, that you can keep trusting instead of clamming up so tight it will become impossible to function in an open-hearted way. (Or, if that’s where you are, that you can figure out how to begin opening that heart back up.)

And finally, trust that we can’t always know and yet we must act anyway. None of us know what the future will bring. We can do our research and collect data, we can try things out, we can discuss the pros and cons, but ultimately, at that point of commitment, there is a LEAP. That leap is unavoidable. And it is terrifying. And it is glorious.

So if I had actually answered the question this person had asked me instead of being polite, I would have said, “What? No, are you kidding? I took the leap to write seriously years ago, and so far it has been a fabulous decision. It’s not always easy, by any stretch of the imagination, and I don’t know when or if I’ll succeed in the way I want. But NO REGRETS. On the contrary, I feel incredibly lucky to be doing this at all. And I really doubt I’ll stop in a year’s time, whatever happens. I kind of doubt I’ll ever stop. I guess we’ll find out.”

Here’s to that glory.

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On Retellings

I’ve been thinking about retellings.

A few years ago I wrote a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, and I’ve recently started a new novel that is also a retelling. I’ve done a few short story retellings as well.

So yeah, my sample size isn’t all that big. But just large enough to give me food for thought.

Anyway, what I find in retellings is that things tend to get dark. And I’m inevitably a bit surprised when this happens. Originally I meant for the Beauty and the Beast retelling to be on the light side, maybe even a little frothy, which blows my mind now, because that is not how I’d categorize that novel at all. It is, in many ways, a dark book, and in order to write it, I had to explore some pretty dark places. In fact, before I’d even started writing the rough draft, I realized it was going to be really dark, which changed some of my plans for the story.

And now, with this new retelling, I am finding some similar darkness. Not as much, I don’t think, but again, this wasn’t supposed to be a dark story at all.

Now, you might be saying, well, maybe it’s you, Amy. Maybe you are drawn to making your stories dark. And that is a valid point.

But I also think I don’t recognize the darkness at the beginning of working on a retelling because the original story is familiar. It doesn’t feel dark. It feels like the way the story goes. It feels normal.

And it’s only when I delve further into the story elements, when I start weaving them into a logical world and a logical story, that I began to realize that something in the story that I am accustomed to is actually pretty messed up. And even when I’m working with something like Beauty and the Beast, which doesn’t take a lot of analysis before its dark side shows up (Stockholm Syndrome, anyone?), I find more dark sides underneath the obvious one that I wasn’t necessarily expecting.

Photo Credit: alfamosa via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: alfamosa via Compfight cc

This is like real life. When we’re used to something, we are less likely to interrogate it. We are less likely to realize it might not actually be normal or that it might not actually be okay. It’s just the way things are, right? And the weirdness or the darkness or the dysfunction becomes invisible, or at least really hard to see.

We see this effect all the time, both personally and systemically. We see it in dysfunctional families when the child doesn’t realize there’s any other way for a family to be. We see it in learned helplessness. We see it in all kinds of dysfunctional interpersonal relations and in thought patterns as well.

And we see it in broader strokes when we look at the way racism and sexism and classism (and other kinds of prejudice) shape American society today. We see it in the myths that allow these institutional injustices to be perpetuated, stories that allow people to ignore the underlying violence that leads to such inequality. We see it in the things we notice on our own versus the things we need pointed out to us.

But just like in writing, through interrogation and empathy, we can challenge what we think we know. And through retelling, we can see other sides of the same old story.

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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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It’s the time of year when I get particularly reflective and spend more time than usual considering what has happened in my recent past and looking at where I think I’m heading.

So then, 2015, what am I thinking?

Overall, 2015 was a wonderful year for me. After quite a few mixed to not-good years, this was an extremely welcome change.

Writing:

I completed four drafts of my YA London novel, thereby breaking my streak of writing a novel every other year, so that was very satisfying. But of course, the big news of the year was signing with my agent Kirsten Carleton, a goal I’d been working towards for several years. The blog had its highest traffic day of all time this year, and I sold my first piece of paid nonfiction. So yeah, on the career front, this was an amazing year.

Travel:

I did the least amount of writing-related travel I’ve done since I began attending retreats and workshops and cons. I think I needed a break! I went to ConFusion in Detroit last January and the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat in Washington in February, and then I stayed home for several months. Luckily several of my writer friends happened to be in town this year, and between their visits and my local writer friends, I was able to have enough writer talk to keep me happy.

For fun travel, I spent two weeks in Bali this fall, which was an extremely positive experience. And I popped over for a few days of Disneyland before the end of the year.

Entertainment:

I kept myself very busy this year! I read sixty books, which I talked about a few weeks ago. (Yes, I got to sixty! Whee!) I saw sixteen movies in theaters. My favorite, excluding Star Wars because that is kind of its own thing, was probably The End of the Tour. I also saw TWENTY-FIVE plays and musicals, which I’m pretty sure has never happened before. I think my favorite was Mr. Burns at ACT. Or maybe If/Then. And I saw fourteen concerts, and I don’t think I can choose a favorite, given they included The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie, Hardwell, Marian Hill, the Crystal Method, and Muse.

I played perhaps fewer board games this year, but I still had several favorites. And last week I got to try two new games, both of which I enjoyed: Dead of Winter and Mysterium. In TV land, I continued my first watch of Star Trek: The Next Generation (I’m now halfway through season five, so two and half seasons to go!), re-watched some Gilmore Girls, saw half of the most recent season of Game of Thrones before konking out, really enjoyed Sense8 and part of Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, and have been catching up on The Office, which I never saw while it was airing.

Dancing:

I am giving this its own sub-heading because that is how excited I am about it! 2015 is the year I started dancing again, and my ankle cooperated, and my knees cooperated, and I am very very happy. Granted, I had to take several months off when I sprained my toe this summer, but the toe is finally feeling much better, and I am very much looking forward to a lot more dancing in my future.

Social Stuff:

A good barometer of how happy I am with my social life is how little traveling (relatively speaking) I did this year. I continued to meet many new people, but also spent a lot of time settling in and spending quality time with the friends I have. They are great. I really like them. I feel very lucky. Perhaps particularly heartening was that my social life didn’t dry up and disappear after I sprained my toe and was laid up for several weeks. I also threw a big birthday party for myself this summer, and then finally got over my planning burn-out and arranged several group game days and movie outings.

And of course, I began dating the Boyfriend in the summer, and we’ve been doing many exciting and fun things and learning a lot from each other. And Nala has been doing well too.

Other Firsts:

I went to the Walt Disney Family Museum for the first time. And also the Sutro Baths. I ate at the French Laundry! I did my first escape room. I drove a Tesla. I went to my first dancing convention. I went to Cars Land at California Adventure for the first time, and got to ride on a Star Wars-themed Hyperspace Mountain. I got my arm signed by the famous Ferrett Steinmetz. I watched a Terminator movie for the first time. I tried star fruit for the first time. I found out the Japanese market down the street from me sells divine cream puffs. I did blues dancing on the beach at night. A monkey crawled up my leg, and a baby sea turtle touched my finger. I went to my first comedy festival. I brought a vanilla chai into a shop at the mall and they didn’t yell at me. I got to hear Margaret Atwood speak, which was a real privilege.

Yes, I really liked this year. Which is why I decided to give my 2015 photo book this title:

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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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I like to tell people that one of the most important parts of being a writer is learning how to deal with the emotional baggage of writing, whatever your particular flavor of that is. And part of doing this, for me, is protecting the mental space I need to write.

This protection has been an interesting shift. Certainly when I was a music teacher, there was no need for me to defend certain mental and emotional territory in order to be an effective teacher. But writing is different. It’s tricksy. And the longer I write, the more I recognize how important it is to have boundaries in place that hold a space where I can be productive.

Focus. Photo Credit: Rein -e- Art via Compfight cc

Focus. Photo Credit: Rein -e- Art via Compfight cc

And the more adamant I become about maintaining those boundaries. If I recognize that something (or someone) is having a negative effect on my writing, ameliorating that effect jumps to the very top of my list of priorities.

For me, this manifests in several different ways:

Time. I guard my weekday daytimes with my life. What are those times for? My work. Also some life maintenance. What are those times rarely for? Lots of socializing. Granted, sometimes I have a lull in work and I have a little more spare time during the day, but when I agree to spend time with someone during the day on a weekday, that usually means I’m making them a massive priority. And I don’t do it all that often.

Explaining Writing to Me. When someone, usually a non-writer someone, decides to explain writing to me, whether it be the craft, the process, or the business, I pretty much never want to talk to them about writing again. This can sometimes put a damper on things since I care more about writing than almost anything else.

Dating. If I am dating someone and I start to feel badly about writing because of my interactions with them, I stop dating them. End of story. This is often because they want to explain writing to me (in spite of the fact that most of them are not writers and I haven’t asked for advice or feedback). Sometimes it is because they don’t think writing is valuable, or they want to tell me how some other medium is more valuable. (Like games. Don’t get me wrong, I think games can do interesting narrative things, but, um, I don’t write games so I don’t really want to talk about how they’re better.) Or we have different expectations of how my writing career should go, and then I get really stressed out even though I’m meeting all my goals and deadlines. Or they’re not even remotely interested in my writing, which is fine for a while but ultimately kind of limiting.

Talking about Writing. I tend to be somewhat careful about with whom I will seriously talk about my writing. This is one reason I find it extremely valuable to have trusted writer friends. The thing is, there are many things about writing that a person might not automatically know or understand. Like what the common emotional experience is (rejection is constant, occasional discouragement is par for the course), or what the timeframe is (sloooooow), or how the business works, or what the actual interesting parts of it are. And while I don’t think people should automatically know these things, I do find they often leap to conclusions and are more interested in telling me stuff or sharing unrealistic expectations than in learning how all these things actually work. And managing these responses takes emotional energy that, quite honestly, I’d rather spend elsewhere.

Here’s the thing about being a writer, at least for me. I have to maintain a paradoxical belief in myself and my ability to create. Paradoxical because writing typically requires a long apprenticeship that involves a great deal of rejection and failure and learning and experimentation. And no one can chart a course through that morass except me. I sit alone for long stretches of time, working on projects that are sometimes emotionally taxing to create and which no one sees for months. NO ONE. And then when someone does see it, it is for the purpose of tearing it apart so I can make it again, better. And then there’s a cycle of rejection that typically also takes a long time. Rinse and repeat. And once you get published, you’re exposed to market pressures and more criticism of your work.

In the face of all of this, a writer must hold fast to the belief that what they’re doing is worthwhile and possible. That they will improve. That someday the rejection will turn into the acceptance. That they have something to say. That their work matters.

This is not always easy. Actually, it is usually not easy. Hence the boundaries. It’s hard enough to write without dealing with other people’s baggage around it. And having a clean and safe mental space in which to do the work is invaluable and indispensable.

Of course, protecting this mental workspace is one of the things writers need to learn how to do during their apprenticeships. And over time, I’ve found it has gotten easier as I have gotten clearer.

I need these boundaries in order to write. It’s that simple.

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