Shady and I had an adventure with some very good friends from the Netherlands towards the end of 2019. We visited Dumbarton Castle and Auchentoshan Distillery, and at dinner they gave us a ‘verjaardagskalender’—a birthday calendar. They laughingly explained the rather Dutch gift to my American husband:
“You write the birthdays of all your friends in and hang it in the guest toilet, and whenever people go to the toilet at your house they sit on the pot and check to see if they made it into your calendar. So when we visit your house we’ll check if our birthdays are there.”
Shady hung up the calendar as instructed, and he fills out each month as we get to it. May’s picture is of a place I’ve never been: a terrace in Museumdorp Orvelte, in the province of Drenthe.
The thing is, I have been there. Not that specific location, but that sunny afternoon. The cobbled terrace outside a beautiful old building, the bicycles going by, the sound of women gossiping in fluent Dutch. It makes me homesick for a place I haven’t lived in over a decade. Self-isolation makes me long for places less than three miles away—let me walk down a busy street in town! let me sit in a bustling café!—but the curious mix of nostalgia and longing I get when I look at that picture hits like a freight train.
It’s no surprise. The ongoing isolation heightens emotions I’d know how to handle at other times. The whole thing feels like being a teenager again, with that sense that something is fighting to the surface of you and your body isn’t big enough to hold it. Just like back then, it has nowhere to go; there’s just a morass of uncertainty. What will the future hold? It can’t be predicted—not because you don’t know the world, this time, but because the world is changing too drastically for your past experiences to help you.
As if being a teenager once wasn’t enough!
I’m continuing to reach out to people, and my daily life isn’t that different from before. My musician dad does wonderful livestreams on Facebook every Sunday. My grandad sings “we’ll meet again” in the background of my phone calls with granny. I’m grateful for all the ways this isn’t affecting me—but sometimes I sit on the toilet for longer than I need to, and fall into a picture of a sunny terrace in the Netherlands.
I’ve wanted to do a blogpost about how Ash and I collaborate for ages. HOWEVER, we sent in the latest draft of our book last month, and it’s left us at loose ends. We’ve worked a little on our book 2 outline, but neither of us want to get really stuck into anything big while we wait for edits. As a result, for the first time in a while, I’m writing a new project (a short story) solo.
Unlike the triumphant song I just linked you mainly because it has the word ‘solo’ in it and I like it, going solo for me has been hard. Did you know that when you write alone, you have to write everything yourself? Did you know you have to ask other people for help when you need it, rather than having the help supplied without your asking? Did you know I’ve forgotten how to do all that?
Sometimes when collaborating, it sucks. Bad moods happen, and sometimes you get tired of having to communicate well. Both of us are needy for praise from the other, and when there’s no immediate positive response, feelings get hurt. That’s basically the worst part, and I say that as a person who used to HATE group projects.
So read that again: sometimes, in the process of writing hundreds of thousands of words together, Ash and I hurt each other’s feelings without meaning to. In terms of crosses to bear? That is a feather-light cross made of soft, foamy material.
Contrast with the positives. They’re too numerous to count. Built-in discussion partner who is exactly as invested as I am: check. We can joke and laugh about the characters, come up with silly scenarios (that sometimes make it into the book), and whenever one of us feels insecure, there’s a person who can provide immediate reassurance. No, the scene you just wrote doesn’t suck. Here are all the things I liked about it! Yes, this concern you have is valid… I have some ideas on how to fix it.
Do I sound nostalgic? I’m nostalgic. The short story I’m writing is cute, with swashbuckling and magic talents, but motivating myself is hard. I’m no longer used to building momentum alone. I get so tired of my own writing voice, and how often my characters fall into introspection I have to delete later. I can do it—it’s just less fun. Even with Ash reading it and encouraging me, it’s not the same.
I don’t want to lose the ability to write alone. That’s how most people write, and it’s good exercise for my brain. At least some of my reluctance is laziness. It’s hard being alone with your thoughts and wrestling with yourself without someone there to help—but it’s important too. To an extent.
To all you writers doing this solo: I have more respect for you than ever. Well done! To my future self NOT doing stuff solo: you lucky dog. Send me some of your energy; I need it.
* They haven’t gone anywhere I’m just being dramatic.
Despite the title, this blog post is long overdue. If we’ve caught up recently you already know, but it finally happened: Ash and I found our agent! We’d just begun sending out queries for another project, and all of a sudden we got a response on the full manuscript request we’d dismissed as a rejection months ago. The day after the call where this agent offered us rep, we got two full manuscript requests for the other project. I’m glad I wasn’t documenting any of this at the time as my posts would have been just confused, high-pitched screaming. Is this real life? Why is it all happening at once?
The agent was Bobby O’Neil at FinePrint Literary, and we were half in love with him from the get-go—not the least because he liked what we’d begun to refer to as “our problem child”. Aka, book one of a space opera where flashy heroes do spear combat in vacuum with creepy alien parasites who call themselves Shepherds. This is the same book I talk about here in my long post about getting treatment for depression. It’s also not the same book, because we made so many changes, but that’s not relevant here. What’s relevant is that we learned and grew through this book, and generally had a beautiful but hard time with it, and someone came along who appreciated it. (Actually multiple someones—we apparently had a champion at the agency to whom we owe our eternal thanks.) I thought Ash might die when Bobby quoted a line from one of their sections of the book during the call; it was so weird for them to hear their lines read back by someone other than our inner circle.
After the call we had to let all agents with our manuscripts/queries/etc still in their inboxes know about the offer and wait two weeks to see if they’d throw their hat in the ring. It should have been a happy time—we had an offer!—but instead we were both impatient and antsy to sign with the person we felt such a preference for. Waiting turned out not to be our strong suit when something was actually happening.
That was months ago though. Well, two months. It feels like an eternity now. Since then, we’ve revamped the book and sent it back off for Bobby’s approval. I’m really proud of the changes we’ve made, and I think it’s a better book than before—and I liked it before! But I am biased, so maybe I can’t be trusted.
Anyway, that’s the update. I’m not sure about the next step—work on smaller stuff or edit our other project?—but I can’t wait to dig back into the space opera when we get comments back. Wish me luck having patience this time!
“Why would you frame such a non-event like there’s actual news?”
My reason is simple: “because”! Writing/publishing updates seem less interesting than reading updates. The querying process for book one of my space opera with Ash continues to be a waiting game, and we’re working on other things in the meantime. There are thousands of advice posts that can tell you about querying in general, so it feels boring for me to rehash it, even though I’m sure it’s at least mildly interesting for non-writers. The short version is: we’ve had lots of rejections and a few full & partial requests, but waiting on an answer is like waiting for a warm, non-windy day in Scotland. Suffice to say I’m not holding my breath.
This is where anyone reading with a focus on my career should stop reading, as no more progress-relevant details will be discussed from this point onward. My computer scientist husband beta-read this post and said that, while he enjoyed it (which I think he was telling the truth about), it’s ‘definitely a ramble’.
So here’s the actual subject of the post: the concept of being out of your time. Beyond your time. (Not to be confused with the platitude “ahead of their time”.) Does that make sense? You’re right, it doesn’t. Let me try to explain:
I’ve always loved stories about loneliness brought on by displacement. Being alive and a human being is hard, and in fiction—especially science fiction and fantasy—we can see characters we love struggle through a landscape that makes this struggle more literal. A character can leave their home, their loved ones… but they can also leave the time they know, whether they spend years in stasis or walk into a mushroom circle to be transported three-hundred years into the future. That’s what I mean by “out of time”: a character leaves behind the world they know, and suddenly they’re somewhere temporally separated from all the things they care about. You can get a sense of the past that birthed them reaching for them, but that time will never reach them again. The people who were important then may have thought of the character, may have wished to speak to the character again, but those people are only memories now. And in the present, the character may long for those people—but can’t return.
It’s grief and change and the march of time we all experience put in more obvious terms, and no mushroom circles are needed in reality—but SFF dealing with characters “out of their time” gives a vivid illustration of something I know to be true:
You can’t go back.
The trope reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams:
I didn’t go to the moon. I went much further—for time is the longest distance between places.
It’s simple truth, but I love seeing it written into the plot of a story. One story I love that dealt with a character out of her time is Medair, by Andrea K. Höst, which involves a champion who goes to find a mythical weapon that will turn the tide of the war destroying her empire—only to return, weapon in hand, centuries too late. Then there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game, where an outcast in a post-post-apocalyptic world goes in search of her mother and the truth of her society. She becomes a force to be reckoned with in the present, gaining recognition she would have longed for when she was an outcast child, but the search for truth leads her again and again into the distant past, to people she can’t possibly gain recognition from. She can’t punish those who did wrong; she can’t reassure those who hoped they did right. She’s a witness to a story that’s already unfolded, and it’s heartbreaking as well as hopeful as she’s forced to do what she can in the present.
Thousands of non-genre novels deal with the same theme. Characters try to connect with their ancestors and draw meaning from history—but I’m a shallow person who enjoys the shininess of fantasy and science fiction, where this quandary can be brought to the fore in especially beautiful ways.
Anyway, I digress. The nature of reaching for the past and falling just short of it brings us—at last!—to I Capture The Castle and the reason for this rambling post. This classic novel by Dodie Smith isn’t fantasy or science fiction, and doesn’t deal with any sort of time travel. It was just written in the past, which is the relevant point for me today. Smarter and more literary people than me can explain the book better I’m sure, but it’s an exploration of a girl’s adolescence as set down in her journals. She’s imaginative, introspective, given to flights of fancy and melodrama—and in her extremely sincere attempts to get to the heart of what this whole “being alive” thing is about, she has reminded generations of readers of their own adolescence, when they were experiencing things for the first time and filled with their own questions and musings.
And so: a book written in the past, depicting an imagined past inspired by the real past, sends readers back to their pasts. Then we come to what inspired this ramble. After the ending, I leafed back to a random page of the introduction to skim, and read the line “by her death in 1990—” about the author’s life and legacy.
I’ve looked it up: Dodie Smith died towards the end of November in 1990, about 3 months before I was born. There’s always something strange about people whose lifetimes didn’t quite overlap with yours. If I reached out towards the very start of my life, and she reached out to the very end of hers, our fingertips would almost—but not quite—touch. Yet the girl, time, and place she depicted in I Capture the Castle long ago connects with the me existing now and the imagined me I remember from my own adolescence.
The whole time connect/disconnect is a fanciful study in contrasts Cassandra Mortmain, main character and dreamer, would probably like. And the image excites me for all the intersections of past, present and future we get to experience just by being alive and interacting with our environment. Perhaps more importantly for me as a writer, it excites me for the way fiction allows us to connect beyond gaps that seem unbridgeable. Time is the longest distance, and anyway, I don’t want to brush shoulders (or fingertips!) with all the authors whose work I admire even if they happen to be alive today; meeting heroes can be disappointing. Still, it seems like a huge privilege that we get to share these experiences, whether the distance between author and reader is temporal or simply the distance between two squishy, differently wired brains.
Sometimes I look at the length of my to-read list and see it as a chore to be managed instead of an opportunity for the kind of connection that makes art seem worthwhile and life worth living, but I prefer it when it feels like this. All sparkly and full of opportunity.
Today my husband told me he was tired of seeing the otter on my front page. Putting aside the fact that people should never be tired of seeing cute otters, he did have a point: this blog has been gathering dust for a while. Well, let’s change that.
2018 was an incredibly uncomfortable year for me—and also a plain incredible one. It started, as all calendar years do, in winter. I had a good, consistent exercise routine, I endeavoured to eat healthy and write a lot, I was surrounded by people I loved and talked to them regularly… and I was miserable. At the time I put this down to Seasonal Affective Disorder, which didn’t make a huge deal of sense as I’d just spent almost three weeks in Florida celebrating Christmas and New Year with my family, but it turns out that feeling miserable all the time doesn’t leave you a lot of energy for accurate self-reflection.
Thankfully, it wasn’t just me seeing me. My misery was closely tied to my writing, and 2017 had seen me try something entirely new: co-writing a book. My co-author was Ash, a friend I’d met in fandom, and we had no idea what we were doing—but we did it anyway. We raced our way through NaNoWriMo, and then Ash kept going and I stalled out.
It wasn’t writing I hated—I still loved writing fanfiction—but I hated producing original content. It made me feel vulnerable, unqualified, forced to make decisions I didn’t want to make. (This post from July 10 2017 seems, in hindsight, a fairly obvious attempt to conquer those feelings; it didn’t work.) Ash and I had poured ourselves into this book we both loved, with characters we both loved, and I couldn’t stand to work on it. Needless to say, Ash had a few questions… and a few theories.
Eventually, I accepted the idea that I might need help. This became another problem, as my denial turned out to be the only thing keeping me afloat. Once I stopped denying how I felt—and how I’d been feeling for a long time—I became terrified that I’d visit my GP and he’d tell me I was fine. Worse: that this was just how I was going to feel for the rest of my life.
I went to my GP, and he didn’t tell me I was fine. He told me that, given my lifestyle (ie: doing ‘everything right’ yet still depressed), I was a good candidate for antidepressants. An uncomfortable adjustment period followed. The nausea was no joke, but over the course of about a month I started feeling different. It was REALLY odd. Music brought on a storm of emotions. I got angry sometimes, instead of feeling resigned. Colours seemed more vibrant.
Anyway, the ins and outs are too many and too legion to properly discuss in a blogpost that’s meant to be about writing. Suffice to say that, once I had Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors on my side, I had the energy and the capacity to make changes. It’s amazing what a brain can do when it’s not waging war with itself; knots years in the making began to untangle, and my relationship with myself improved. Finally I could relax—and once I could relax I could have fun.
It took time, but original writing became something I loved again, the way I loved it as a teenager before it ever occurred to me to doubt myself. I’ve had more joy in original writing the past year than I did in the five years previous. Being a ‘tortured artist’ helped me about as much in my writing career as repeatedly stubbing my toe would have.
Antidepressants aren’t the solution for every depressed person, but my experiences have given me some insight. I have no patience for people who see antidepressants as a quick fix or a band-aid. For one thing, it wasn’t quick. Every week I stumbled over a new stupid thing I had to change about myself to be happier. For another, so what if people need chemical help to feel happy? Sadness is not inherently more authentic than happiness. It’s just sadness. It feels bad and it drains your energy. It stops you from being able to fix the things that make you unhappy, then calls you lazy to boot.
I’m calling it: you can’t “mind over matter” when your mind doesn’t have the right matter. I’ve spent the past year unlearning all the unhealthy coping mechanisms I picked up in half a decade of struggling to overcome depression without medication; I ought to know. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe The Good Place actress Kristen Bell. She speaks openly about her mental health struggles, and hearing this from people like her—who seem bubbly and successful and like they couldn’t possibly struggle with anything more laborious than picking out cute outfits—should help people realise this isn’t about trying, or weakness, or a person’s community being unsupportive. The worst thing about going on meds for me was the sense that I had all the tools to be happy and yet somehow failed. I’d failed my family and my friends and myself. I’d taken all the love people around me gave, and I’d squandered it by letting myself fall into this pit.
Screw that outlook. Sometimes love isn’t enough. It doesn’t cure Alzheimer’s, and it doesn’t cure cancer, and it doesn’t cure depression. How lucky we are, then, that we live in a world where people are learning to treat these diseases.
I love writing again. I love coming up with characters and pelting them with problems. I love messaging Ash about what would happen if we stuck our characters in a supernatural novel instead of a science fiction one. At the most basic level, I love forming sentences in aesthetically pleasing ways, and letting an image take shape. I love this skill I have that, by my fifth year post-university, I’d learned to resent.
Some things don’t change with the right amount of serotonin. Rejection still sucks. Putting myself out there is still hard—but I’m lucky. I am so, so lucky. And thanks to modern medicine, the NHS, and the people around me, I can finally feel the truth of that statement.
I’ve been meaning to get this blog back up and running for a while now, but going to the Write Stuff event (hosted by the always-wonderful Literary Dundee) was the final push. Here I am again! Since it’s mostly family and friends following me here, I thought I’d do a quick update on what I’ve been up to. Since last we spoke I have:
written some shorter stories that may or may not see the light of day
stopped sending out my sci-fi novel about mind-controlled amnesiac gladiators. It’s shelved for the moment; maybe one day I can salvage it or tear out pieces and Frankenstein a novel from various parts
read a whole bunch. Notable books include “The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison, which really reaffirmed my love for fantasy, and all the great historical romances by Rose Lerner which were so fun and unique (and, I should warn, explicit). Also continued listening to the Vorkosigan Saga on audiobook which is only advisable when you’re not driving as the raucous laughter and sudden tears may affect your abilities as a road user
written another manuscript (my fifth; this one is sci-fi romance but probably not something I’d publish under this name—as I’ve already informed my parents..!)
finished playing Dragon Age 2 and Dragon Age Inquisition… what a ride*!
also finished playing Tales of Zestiria
ALSO started (and finished) playing Fishing Simulator Final Fantasy XV
started playing Persona 5
got a large chunk of a rewrite done on my sci-fi/fantasy novel about a mind-reading girl obsessed with aliens. That’s the draft I mention in this post and boy was I right about it needing work
travelled a bunch. 3 trips to USA, 2 trips to the Netherlands, one trip to Slovenia/Croatia. It was great but exhausting!
So now you’re all up to date. I swear video games don’t take up as much of my life as that list suggests, but when your writing projects tend to be 70,000+ words each there’s not much progress to report on a daily basis. It’s like trying to fill a bathtub but you only get to add a teaspoon of water a day, and sometimes you have to let the tub drain for a bit because something weird got in, and then you’re only allowed to fill it with your tears after that… kidding. Mostly. (Maybe.)
Anyway, hope this post finds you all healthy and happy! Belatedly: happy 2017.
* the Dragon Age series includes no on-screen dragon riding, though players may infer a dragon ride took place at one point
Just a quick update to say I’ve finished the first draft of my fourth manuscript. This one’s a young adult fantasy novel, and it’s been a lot of fun to write. I already know I need to make some pretty big changes before I try to sell it to anyone—basically, I need to spruce up the setting and organise scenes/events better—but I love the characters and their journeys.
I’d like to say I look forward to the rewrite but I totally don’t. I’m going to have to be so organised… there will be lists… ugh, no, I can’t think about this just now or my rough-draft-finished euphoria will straight up vanish. Suffice to say I’ve got plenty left to do when I come back to this draft in a month or two.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to celebrate, I offer up this occasion gladly.
NaNo 2015 is officially under my belt! Despite a visit from my globe-trotting parents, I made it to 50k words this year and—most amazingly—continued to enjoy the story as I wrote it. Having a more fleshed-out plan was an absolute lifesaver, and while I’ve already got my eye on things I’ll need to change, the days of “where the hell am I going with this and who would ever want to read it” seem to be over; I don’t miss them.
The whole process of writing constantly baffles me. Somehow it’s always just as hard as it’s always been while simultaneously getting easier—and yes, I know that sounds like a contradiction, but I’m not sure how else to explain it. It takes just as much discipline and soul-searching as it ever has, but the years of experience do seem to be paying off. There’s the knowledge that I’ve done it before and can do it again… the knowledge that I’ll be able to change things I don’t like… the confidence that there are people who like my writing voice… etc. I’ve come a long way from writing two thirds of a novel then revising and rewriting those two thirds for years. Finishing something is the first step in getting to this point, but it certainly isn’t the only one. I’m reminded of that story about the pottery class where a teacher grades one half of the class on how many pots they make and the other half on their very best pot; without fail, the quantity side of the class makes the superior pots. This analogy probably has limited use, as revision is a necessary skill—one I definitely need to improve on—but I can’t help agreeing with the general premise. I learned a lot more from writing several complete first drafts than I did from polishing incomplete stories to death.
Anyway, the writing process still dips way too close to soul-crushing torture at times, but there’s comfort in knowing I’ve overcome it before. That’s what makes it easier, even when nothing makes it easier. One thing’s for sure, though: I’m gubbed from nano, and taking a break until Monday on that story. In the meantime I’ll be writing the synopsis & query letters for the book I finished in September. Wish me luck!