Approaching Cons as a Professional Writer

I just returned from a fabulous Sirens, where this year I was reader, presenter, writer, and staff, a new intersection of roles for me. As always, I’ve returned with a lot of thoughts, more a coalescence of ideas accumulated over years of cons rather than a response to a particular experience. (Which is to say, if you think I’m talking about you, unless you know I think of you as a scholar and a gentleperson, you’re probably wrong.)

I’ve had a chance to attend a variety of cons over the last few years before traditionally publishing, which has given me time to realize I have opinions not just on what kind of writer I want to be in the sense of storytelling, but also on what kind of public professional I want to be. I hear writers talk regularly about their public internet/social media presence, but less about the way they approach con-going. Professional writers go to different cons for different reasons, those broadly being:

  • Networking/Meetings
  • Learning craft
  • Selling books
  • Being with friends who get you

Attending a con will usually involve some combination of those goals, but some cons are better for particular priorities. Big cons–like book expos or comic cons–are the best way to get books in front of lots of fans. A tiny regional con or workshop is a better bet for craft. A genre establishment con–WFC, Nebulas, RT–is going to have a high density of pros, which is ideal for scheduling meetings with a lot of publishing professionals.

A con is also an investment: of money, and of time. In general, writers are paying their own way to these events, and they’re events that take time away from writing and editing. More than that, they’re exhausting, physically and emotionally. It’s hard to be “on” all the time. Add to that, a lot of professional writers are introverts. Being social, in public, with people we don’t know, is hard.

But writing is also a job. Cons are, ideally, rejuvenating in a personal fashion, but for a professional writer, they’re also work. I think it’s important to consider what writers get out of cons, and what they want to get out of them, and what that means in terms of approach.

It’s possible for writers to only talk to people at cons they already know–whether because they have many people to catch up with after years of attending a con or years of being away, or many meetings scheduled, or overwhelming shyness and enormous relief that they’re no longer fighting to break in, that they have their group, that they don’t have to put themselves in awkward social situations anymore.

It’s not only possible, it’s easy. It sometimes takes more effort to not end up only talking with people I already know, and I’m glad I’ve had the chance to learn to be aware of that so I don’t, because I think it’s a huge missed opportunity. If I only wanted to talk to friends, I could schedule a retreat, or set up a private group chat. Part of the value of cons is not just bringing together people I already know, but people I don’t already know.

When I go to cons, I want to make deep connections–in ideas, and in relationships. I always want to learn, grow, and make friends.

And not just with other writers and publishing professionals. Readers are smart. Some of the most insightful story craft and emotionally supportive discussions I’ve had were with people who will never type a word of fiction in their lives.

I do also want to make friends with people in my field, but the idea of “networking” without friendship fills me with unease–the kind of hollow foundation it implies in my head is harder for me to navigate than the prospect of demonstrating sincere interest in people and knowing them better. That I don’t have to fret about how to do well, because I am interested–if anything I’ll have more trouble keeping my interest in hearing absolutely everything contained.

So here it is: if I go to a con you’re also at, I want to meet you. No matter whether you’ve been in the industry for decades or never been to a con in your life, I want to hear what you’re excited about, and I want to have a conversation about it and not just small talk.

That’s a choice, and every choice has consequences. I know it means I won’t sleep enough in favor of talking with people, and although I’m an introvert I won’t spend much, let alone enough, time alone. I know it means I’ll need to compensate for the sleep deprivation with making sure to eat extremely healthily, which is often complicated at a con. I know it means I need to stock up on introversion before and after a con, that I’ll lose another day to get my body and mind back in working order. I know it means I need to schedule time at the con, not just to see my friends, but to make sure I have time to see people who aren’t already my friends. I know it means I’ll end up in conversations I want to flee, and I’ll miss visiting with some people I care about.

But I’ll also make new friends, and I’ll have conversations and thoughts I couldn’t have had otherwise. That’s the goal, and that’s the reward.

Cons are a balance, and for every person that balance falls differently. Selling books isn’t currently a top priority for me, for instance–but even once it is, I don’t think my choice on this will change much. One of the professional benefits of putting effort into a public presence is to help readers feel personally connected to writers, which encourages them to buy books and spread the word, and in my experience conversations are way more likely to establish connections than listening to someone sitting up on a panel pedestal. For another, everyone has different mental and physical health needs, but I’ve had time to learn how to balance mine in a con setting. Not everyone can make the same choice I do, nor should they necessarily want to.

But I know how much I’ve valued the people over the years who have taken the time to be patient, to listen, to take me seriously, to engage with me earnestly and thoughtfully, to see me when I’ve been alone. How much it’s mattered, and how much I’ve learned. And I know that’s the kind of professional writer I want to be.

So the next time we’re at the same con, I hope we get a chance to talk. I want to hear what you’re excited about.

experiments in defensive fortifications

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when there is too too much

Sometimes there is just too much. You have already condensed and prioritized and cut out everything but what absolutely cannot be cut, and there is still too, too much.

I can marshal my resources and dig my heels in and get through when things come to a head. Oh, can I push.

The problem is when the rough time isn’t temporary. When the “too, too much” doesn’t have an end in sight—or at least not a near one. When everything promises to be too much for not just days, or even weeks, but months, or longer.

Friends, I have been running over capacity since at least May. Life happened: I was already full up, then was thrown a few big things I couldn’t afford not to catch. But there are only so many unplanned and enormous commitments I can accommodate.

It’s taken me four months of pushing myself to the breaking point over and over to admit this isn’t just a matter of “if you just work hard enough you can do everything.” I can’t. I hate that, limitations are infuriating, but I don’t enjoy being slow on the uptake, either, so here we are.

This post is part confession, part reminder, and part promise. How do you get through overwhelming commitments when they’re not a sprint, but a marathon?

Pacing.

I’m still learning that, pacing. I expect I always will be. It’s clear I’m better than I used to be, or I wouldn’t have made it this long, as over capacity as I’ve been. But just as clearly I have more work ahead, or I would’ve realized months ago how this could only unfold, the way I’ve been going.

Cutting yourself some slack.

I’m… extremely bad at this. Ha. My self-worth gets tangled up in my productivity, and when it’s impossible to be productive enough, it makes it harder to do anything at all, let alone everything, let alone well. When life is calmer, I’m better at untangling this. When stressed, old habits of thinking rear.

Letting go.

I’m always going to expect more from myself. I’m always going to reach for it. I try to set the bar slightly out of reach, but sometimes I miscalculate, and then I keep expecting myself to be able to somehow fly to reach it anyway. Which is a lot of wasted effort for a faulty goal I shouldn’t even be trying to reach, but the lure of how great it would be if I were superhuman is sometimes ridiculously hard to shake.

But these are the things I need to do to pull myself together, and I’m doing them.

The work I care most about needs me to be in a better mental place in order to meet it. So do the people in my life; so do I. So I will. Please be patient with me, and each other, as I work on being patient with myself.

Take care out there.

synchronized sunbathing naps

Choosing Reads

A few weeks ago, I realized I didn’t want to read, which is a huge red flag for me. I’d had a stretch of books that either weren’t great or required more emotional bandwidth than I had handy. Since “not wanting to read” is pretty antithetical to who I am, it was time to employ emergency measures:

I picked a book to re-read. A book I already knew I loved, and a book I was sure would be exactly what I wanted.

A sad consequence of doing most of my reading on an e-reader is that I don’t re-read as often as I used to, because I can’t wander around my shelves and wait for a moment of yes, THAT’S what I need to read right now in quite the same way. But even scrolling through the e-reader library, I have that aha moment when I pass the right one, and it occurred to me that moment itself is telling.

I know there are people who never re-read, but it mystifies me. For me, choosing a given book to re-read says a lot about my mood, for one thing, and what my brain is working on—particular questions of identity, grappling anew with themes addressed in a work, a reflection of the mood I’m experiencing or feeling the lack of. And re-reading these books is a way of reaffirming myself, what matters to me and who I am, and I find re-reading to be an immensely clarifying, cleansing, and centering experience.

(Also I can skip to my favorite bits.)

In this case, the books I re-read (five novels and three novellas from Meljean Brook’s Guardians series, for the curious) underscored a trend not just in what I’ve been drawn to in re-reading, but also the kinds of books and writers I’ve been reaching for.

My to-read pile of books that are denser, require more time or thought, and especially ones that I know will require more emotional bandwidth (hello The Fifth Season, which I’ve started and is AMAZING and is also still waiting on my nightstand) are piling up. I’m in a state as, I think, many are, where I’m just about at my capacity to deal with all the awfulness going on around me. I have about as much challenge as I can stand, and I want more escapism.

Which is not to say I’m reading books that don’t deal with serious or complicated issues; I have perhaps less patience than ever for books with, for instance, unacknowledged sexism, or books that are fundamentally stupid or depend on me pretending to be. But one reason I realized I’ve been picking up book after book by Martha Wells is that I can trust I won’t be smacked in the face with unanticipated sexism when all I want was a transporting read.

These days the books I’m craving, the books I’m reaching for, aren’t just good, nor are they just thoughtful or inventive, as if those weren’t already rare. They’re comforting. They have optimistic outlooks and happy endings. They contain deep personal growth and beautiful friendships, adventure and exploration of worlds and ideas, and I don’t have to worry about being side-swiped by sexism, racism, queerphobia, ableism. They’re warm, welcoming, fun, and if not precisely light, then at least not grim. They’re hopeful, at a time when I could use more hope.

And they’re hard to find, because that’s a tall order. I’ve developed my own list of authors and books I trust, and no doubt yours won’t look the same, because we all pull different things from stories and need different things at any given time.

But, as I’m not just a reader but also a writer, it seems only logical that I should be writing the kind of stories I want to read, because maybe other people need them, too.

I’ve been vague-tweeting about a Secret Project for a few months now, but I’m nearly ready to share it with you all. So look for more details here next week… =D

Introvert’s New Year’s Eve

Christmas has always been an Event in my family with much to-do. As I get older the days surrounding Christmas involve increasing amounts of not just travel, but also socializing. Which I enjoy!

But I’m an introvert, and intense periods of socializing, for days on end, is the most exhausting thing ever. By the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, I’m done in. I’ve been hiding, inhaling books, and clawing my way back to adequate brainpower for days now.

At this point I’m mostly caught up on to-do lists, but the prospect of seeing a group of actual humans makes me shy away into a dark corner and start hissing. Watching the ball drop and toasting with champagne aren’t traditions I’m personally attached to, so I don’t feel particularly concerned about missing out.

So this year, I’m opting out of New Year’s Eve festivities. It’s not the first time I’ve done this, and when I do, I mark the occasion in another way. My introvert’s New Year’s Eve tradition, after the occasion of Christmas, which is historically super disruptive to my writing work.

On New Year’s Eve, I take some time to recalibrate alone on what actually matters to me. And I begin the year the way I mean to go on with it: devoting my time to writing a novel I’m passionate about.

However you plan to celebrate tonight, I wish you all a happy new year. =)

Flexibility and Strength

I’ve been doing physical therapy for the last couple months. Long story short: I twisted my ankle a while back, and when it failed to heal as quickly as I thought it should, I mentioned it to my doctor. I explained how I used to twist my ankles on a regular basis during adolescence, which is why I had a metric for what recovery should be like, and she looked at me in horror and recommended me to a physical therapist.

So I made an appointment, and on the way to an examining room my new physical therapist confirmed that I was there about repeated ankle sprains. After about a whole minute in my company, she said, “We’ll do a couple tests, but just by looking at you I think I have a pretty good idea what the basic problem is.”

“What do you mean?” I asked from where I’d sat casually on the exam table, propped up on my hands.

She pointed at my arm. “Your elbows are hyperextended. Also, your wrists are bent past a ninety-degree angle. I’m guessing all your joints are unusually flexible.”

I glanced down at my arm askance, as it of course looked and felt perfectly normal to me. I’m a dancer, and I’m aware that my muscles are flexible. My joints, though — perfectly obvious in retrospect that they’re unusually flexible, too. But while my muscles are naturally flexible, I’d consciously worked to increase their flexibility to do things like the splits. Not so with my joints; they just came that way.

Further tests revealed, unsurprisingly, that my ankles have a much wider range of motion than normal human ankles really should.

As we worked through exercises, my physical therapist explained, “It’s not that your ankles are weak,” which is what I’d long thought. “It’s that because of their ridiculous flexibility, you need corresponding strength to control their movement. We have to work with the body you have. We can’t decrease your joint flexibility, so we need to increase your strength even further. ”

At any rate, I love my physical therapist (which is INCREDIBLY rare for me with doctors), and this process has been both a hilarious discovery of things I didn’t know about my body but also working.

But what occurred to me while I was doing my first set of PT exercises today is that there’s a loose analogy to the writing process — and life — here. (I know, I know, of course this is where I’m going with this. Bear with me?)

Greater flexibility necessitates greater control.

As my writing craft improves, I have more skill to do more things with words and stories. But what should I do? That’s the crux of the difficulty with receiving critique, especially when readers suggest solutions: plenty of people have good ideas for what I could do with a story, but they’re rarely in line with what the story needs.

In my experience, a lot of writers new to receiving feedback (myself included, back in the day) get caught up in the feedback from people who are excellent writers or editors in their own right and lose track of what their story needs. It’s easy to get blown off course. And sometimes you need to be to find the right course, but learning how to tell the difference is hard. Learning what your artistic instincts are even telling you is hard, let alone learning to trust them.

There are endless ways a story could go. What makes it my story is not just where I choose to go with it, but how I choose to go there, and that choice matters. As writers we learn what our strengths and weaknesses are, and we learn to work with what we have, the artistic cards we’re dealt, be it a natural gift for or tendency to rely too heavily on voice or story structure or one of the myriad other tools in the writing craft box, and we learn to improve what we can.

The more I level up, the greater narrative control I need, the stronger I need my vision to be for what my story really is at its core. There will always be people who wish for something different from a story. In the end, though, if I’m the author, the onus is on me to make sure I’m writing my story, the way I think is right. And the ability to do that is a skill, and also, I think, a form of artistic strength.

Now, back to the editing mines.

Emergency Process for Extreme Stress

Today was one of those days where I had blocked enough time, I thought, that I could really dig down into getting things done, things I’d been putting off in favor of other, more immediate concerns. The things were all manageable things, but the list was long, and as soon as I would start to work on one I would think of another. It’s the kind of mental state I get to where I have so many things to do that I get overwhelmed; I know I need to break things down into manageable chunks or just start doing anything, but everything seems equally important and I’m not in the mood and I don’t want to and I don’t know where to start and I’m too deep, too close to all the details and facets to keep track of to figure out even how to start.

The mental paralysis and internal loops are never as obvious inside my head as that makes it sound: I have gotten things done for hours or days sometimes, often flitting between tasks or spending more time on the least important of them before I figure out I’m not working efficiently.

This is how stress manifests for me mentally: I’m working, but I’m not at my best.

Extreme stress also manifests for me physically in the form of my body noping out of the whole business, but that comes at a later stage, one that causes huge problems if I haven’t headed it off at the mental stage.

So it’s important that I have a process in place to address high levels of stress (distinguished from normal levels, where I function), because once I’m at that point it’s hard for me to even tell that I’m stressed, let alone to figure out what to do about it.

The idea is to figure out what cuts stress level in times of less stress. When I’m very stressed, I won’t believe anything can help besides buckling down and getting shit done, but I can’t effectively do the work when I’m very stressed. But if there’s a system in place for Thing To Do When Experiencing Extreme Levels of Stress, I can break the cycle.

Sometimes my solution is different. Sometimes I need to take a walk or get myself to an emergency dance class. Sometimes I need to call my mother or a close friend and just chatter about nothing of substance with someone who loves me unconditionally.

Usually, the solution is to read a novel. A novella will do in a pinch, but a novel is better.

It seems counter-intuitive. My brain always argues about it. Like, if I’m already stressed about how much time I have to do all of these things, how can I possibly justify taking three or four hours to read a book?

But for me, the act of reading, of absorbing a story that has structure and intention in a way that life does not, helps me internalize that organization to impose on my own thoughts and life. It forces me out of my head, away from the problems at hand, so that when I step back to them I’m coming from a place of distance that affords clarity.

I read a book, and balance is restored. I can do All The Things efficiently and easily. It’s mind-boggling, the difference it makes every time.

Sometimes the strategy changes. The important thing is that what always changes is me.

One Year On

It’s amazing the difference a year can make.

Around this time last year, I’d finally reached a breaking point and decided to quit my job because I was imploding. 2013 was in many ways a transitional year, but I was terribly unhappy. I also didn’t manage to complete a novel draft the entire year, for the first time since I started writing seriously in college.

My life wasn’t working, so I took some drastic steps.

This year, I wanted to restructure my life to support my writing, rather than trying to fit my writing in around my life; make writing the priority; learn how to write consistently instead of in binges because sanity matters; finish projects.

It’s taken me months to sort out how this balance works for me, the dance between writing much and consistently without overwhelming myself, between also having a social life (leaving my apartment and talking to friends is beneficial to my emotional well-being! madness, I know) and working part-time and going to cons and finding myself in a committed relationship for the first time in my life (it’s been 9 months now, which also seems like madness).

But it’s working. Finally.

Because I track my fiction-writing productivity like a crazy person, here are some statistics:

– In the last year I’ve completed the first drafts of three novels and completed edits on two novels (only one novel is in both of those categories).
– I’ve written more than 250,000 words of fiction for novel drafts — that is, not counting edits, background work, or submission packets (nor blogs, reviews, beta feedback, etc.).

That’s more productivity on writing than I’ve ever managed before, and I’m getting faster. The better I understand my process, the better I can structure my life to maximize my time.

I’m not done settling into this new balance. My work and living situations are both going to have to change, for instance, but now I know what I need from them both. It’s a work in progress, but it is progress. It’s so much progress.

Because what the statistics don’t say (unless you’re a writer and understand that how you feel about the novel affects your mood for Everything Else), is that I’m happy. That’s the most important change. Happiness for me is tied inextricably to my writing, but there are a lot of other pieces, too. And it’s taken months to get to a place where I don’t feel like I’m having to claw my way out of a hole every day, but I’m there. Or getting there, closely enough that I can breathe.

Flying Trapeze

Last year, I talked about figuring out how to fly, every day. In the figurative sense, I’m learning how to flap in the wind. In the literal sense, I’ve decided to make flying/adventuring a yearly pre-birthday tradition: something I do on my own, for myself; something I’ve always wanted to do that I’m now going to actually do.

Last year, it was skydiving, jumping out into the sky and falling. This year, it’s flying trapeze — something that’s always fascinated me (hanging upside-down while flying through the air, why wouldn’t I want to do this??). The hardest part was climbing up the ladder, but once I was on the trapeze, well, flipping upside-down has always been easy for me. Some stutters, sure, but I kept flying, or I got back up and flew again. And I also learned that it is very easy to do trapeze here, so I could even make it a habit, a sustainable hobby.

Last year I jumped; this year I learned how to fly. Maybe next year I’ll soar.