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Depression

The recent death of Robin Williams has hit the media like a small shockwave. Particularly the implications that he committed suicide have surprised and startled people, along with the revelation that he suffered lifelong Depression. “How could it happen?” we ask. Nobody saw it coming.

Actually, yes, people who knew Williams probably did see it coming. Perhaps they just didn’t want to see. It’s too painful. It’s easier to turn away. And, to be fair, mental illness such as Depression often requires a considerable force of will on the part of loved ones to not turn away, indeed, to not run away entirely. I know this, because I’m there.

I have Depression, along with a couple other potential diagnoses it’s not worth going into. I have been in and out of therapy my entire life and have tried every medication there is to try. Some work better than others, but none of them have had significant, long-term benefit. So I just have to manage it. Let me tell you what that’s like. This is not based on any sort of psychiatric research. It is merely my own perspective. Take it for what it’s worth.

Depression means seeing the worst in things, especially yourself. Depression magnifies every little setback and inflates it to disaster proportions. Depression makes you quit before you start. Depression makes you resent the things that should be helping you, preventing you from reading books in your genre because you are seething with jealousy that this author got published and you haven’t. Depression clings on to every scrap of pain, bringing it back again and again. Things that other people simply “get over,” whether it be the rise of violent content in teen fiction or a polite rejection from an agent who wasn’t even on the top of your list, magnify and stay with you, and every mention brings on just as much anger, sadness or frustration as the first time. It doesn’t get easier with time. Small challenges become insurmountable barriers. Fear and doubt consume you.

Depression is to be your own worst enemy. When you have Depression, you know how you get, and you do your best to control it. Some do so with greater success than others. Success is a key element. Some channel their pain, as Williams did into comedy. This is common. Others write or paint or create music. And some do so to a degree that actually allows them to find real success, again as was the case for Williams. But for the majority, this is not the case.

Success might give you something to use to reassure yourself, a tangible validation, but your symptoms impede success. When you have Depression, you can’t trust your own abilities. You are full of self-loathing. Even when others tell you you are good enough, you just can’t believe it. Eventually they give up, and you see this as proof they didn’t really mean it.

Except it’s not that simple. You do know they meant it, and when that doubt manifested, you wanted to remind yourself that there are people who believe in you. But you can’t help yourself. That’s the worst part: knowing how you get and feeling powerless to stop it.

Now let’s take a moment and address the obvious reply. Those of you who have not experienced real Depression are no doubt saying, “So when you get those feelings, just remind yourself and don’t let them pull you down.” Even therapists offer variations of this attitude. But it’s like telling someone with cancer to just stop having tumors. Or telling an infertile woman to just get pregnant. She can’t. Neither can someone with Depression. You can’t just “feel better.”

But it’s tiring for people who don’t understand that to feel like they have to keep propping you up. They get tired of being encouraging over and over again, only to have you blow it off and keep going on your downward path. They may well take it personally, and tell you your attitude is hurtful. And eventually they withdraw.

But you know your attitude is hurtful. Your pain is increased by the knowledge that it is affecting others. That’s what drives you to pull away, and even to contemplate, or actually attempt, suicide. “They’ll be better off without me,” you think. And that’s based on knowing with utter clarity just how unpleasant you can be to be around.

Even worse, for most of us living with Depression, it may well impede us in reaching our fullest potential, but it’s not enough to keep us from basic function. That’s why people are so shocked when you suddenly take drastic action. “I had no idea,” they say. Because you go up and down. Not in a bipolar way, but simply because some days are better than others. You find those things you can hold on to, that make you feel better, at least for a time. It might be music or nature or exercise or games or any number of other things. Some of them don’t always meet with approval, such as gambling or thrill-seeking or pornography or meaningless sex, but you cling to them as some sort of lifeline.

But inevitably the darkness returns. You can feel it coming back. You don’t want it to. You wish with all your heart that you could keep the tiny positive you had claimed. Even in the depths of despair, there’s a tiny piece of you standing on the outside, begging the rest of you to please stop. Yet at the same time, in some strange, indefinable way, you also almost welcome it back, like a comfortable old friend, albeit a toxic one. You find a perverse pleasure in the darkness. And sometimes you wish it would come on even stronger, strong enough to give you the motivation to overcome your fear and really do something to end the pain once and for all.

But you don’t. So you pretend. To avoid losing what little support you have, you learn to put on a happy face. Sometimes it slips, in bursts of anger or cynicism or dark sarcasm that goes too far. Other times your game face is good, but the pain is still there, and comes out in other ways. Keeping it down doesn’t make it go away, it just increases your sense of isolation, your resentment that you have to pretend, you have to put a lid on your intense pain so that the people around you don’t get slightly bummed. That thought increases your anger at the unfairness of it all. So you let it out in some different forum. Social media has been a real problem, allowing you to say things on line you would not say in the real world.

It’s a cry for help, but it’s an odd one, because it sounds like “The hell with you all, don’t help me!” But you just want someone to understand, so that you don’t feel all alone, and jealous of all the people around you who really are happy. Yeah, you know their lives aren’t perfect, they have their own struggles. But you resent the fact that you know that on some level, they are mad that you keep going on about it. They have a hard time too, but they deal with it and don’t keep acting all miserable, so why the hell can’t you? “None of us have it easy,” they say, “But when you go on about how you’ll never make it, it just makes us feel worse about ourselves. Don’t give us your problems, because we have problems of our own.” True. But one of them isn’t Depression. Again, putting it in medical terms, it’s like trying to climb a mountain while dealing with a collapsed lung. Your companion has no such condition. You are in pain as you labor your way up, but you dare not say anything, because he’ll just say, “Hey, I’m short of breath too, but you don’t hear me complaining!”

Of course, you can reject the analogy as flawed, because someone with a collapsed lung has no business climbing a mountain. But that simply proves my point. A person with a collapsed lung has no business trying to climb a mountain, so a person with Depression has no business trying to _________. What? Go ahead, fill in the blank. Take your time. What do I have no business trying to do? Be happy? Be successful in life? Maintain healthy relationships? Continue to be alive? Guess what, if you said any of those things, the Depressive person will likely agree with you whole-heartedly.

In my case, I have to keep myself from feeling like I have no businesses trying to break into a competitive industry like contemporary publishing. More than one of my fellow authors has told me that, with my negative attitude, I’ll never make it. They are right. The industry has no room for negativity. This wasn’t always the case. Many of history’s literary and artistic giants had psychiatric disorders, making them very difficult people. The internet is full of inspirational anecdotes about people ranging from Lincoln to Einstein who struggled, yet managed to achieve greatness. The long-standing assumed connection between genius and madness has in fact been confirmed by recent research. There is a proven correlation between creativity and mental illness. This is strong enough that there is a rising movement to stop prescribing mood-stabilizing medications to kids with ADHD as it may be destroying the spark that makes them special. A whole meme has popped around Bill Watterson’s Calvin going on Ritalin, with the result that Hobbes ceases to exist.

But today’s publishing industry is all about results. Agents and editors say they want to nurture a brilliant talent, but in fact they want someone low-maintenance, someone who will produce. Even if the results are mediocre, the important thing is that there’s something being delivered. And anyway, all the literary subtleties will get erased when they make the movie.

True, there are exceptions. Veronica Roth suffers from severe anxiety disorders, yet has managed to become very wealthy in her early twenties. But she’s an exception. When agents look up queriers on line to make sure they are stable and happy, how many great talents are they passing over? I’m not saying I’m one of them. My Depression won’t allow me to think that. And it also keeps me from sending out those queries because I’m sure I’ll just get rejected, so what’s the point? A self-fulfilling prophecy. As I said, my own worst enemy. But I’m also cognizant enough to know that, if I do generate interest, if I do get picked up by an agent, if I do get a lucrative book deal, if my book does become a best-seller turned into a series of blockbuster movies, it won’t matter. I’ll still have Depression.

RIP Robin Williams.

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Scorched Earth Revision

“It became necessary to destroy the book in order to save it.”

Okay, that paraphrase of an infamous justification for a Vietnam war atrocity might seem a bit over the top, but, when it comes to writing, there’s a bit of truth in it. Sometimes it really is necessary.

You finished your novel, written, revised, edited, polished, beta feedback, everything you’re supposed to do. But you aren’t done. Some people can dash out a book and have it take off, but inevitably they have other things going for them: a great bio, or a really strong pre-established fan-base, or maybe just the greatest resource of all, knowing somebody in the publishing industry. If you don’t have those things, you have very little chance of getting published. You wrote a book, but so did everyone else. Seriously, the second most popular search on line is “how to publish a book,” second only to “teen sex.” I’m not kidding. So yours can’t simply be good, it has to be great. It has to be beyond great. If you aren’t getting any response, it may be time to start over. I don’t mean writing a new book. Except, I sort of do. It will look like the book you already wrote, but it will be new. You’ll have to destroy your book in order to save it.

That’s what I have done and, although I now need to resume (or really, start over) querying, I think the book I have now is much better than the one I was trying to sell six months ago. So here’s what it takes.

First, you will need to make major cuts. Cuts to the bone. I did this because my word count was way too high, but, frankly, this still works even if your word count is good. In fact, being in a good place with word count is an advantage, but for the moment, you can’t have the luxury of thinking in those terms. You have to cut and cut. To do that productively, you need to hate your book. Really, it will help if you are coming from a very angry, frustrated place. Granted, that’s my normal mode, so it was easy for me, but you can do it, because you are going to have to cut things that you won’t want to.

First, identify the main, central plot line. The book in a single sentence. I hope you can do this, because, if not, you have bigger issues to deal with. Let’s take a huge, complex book as an example: The Lord of the Rings. What’s the main central plot line? “Frodo journeys into Mordor and throws the Ring into the fire.” Beyond reductive, right? But this is important, because it’s the edge of your scalpel. Figure out the main line and start going through your book. Start at the beginning and, as you go through, cut out everything that isn’t directly on that plot line. All of it. All the detail. All the character moments. All the subplots. All the digressions. It doesn’t matter how much you like them, or how they are what really makes the book good. Get rid of it all. But there’s a catch. Keep notes of what you cut. That’s going to be vital.

Now, before you freak out, I agree with you that you are cutting everything that makes your book good, and distinct, and yours. But here’s the thing: as you go through this, you need to be saving the document, and you need to do it with a new name. The old stuff isn’t really gone, and that’s important. But leave that for now. Continue to cut. This is where anger helps, because you are going on a rampage through your book, and if you can take a certain perverse glee, it helps keep you going.

This process may take some time. I tend to be an all-or-nothing-much kind of guy, so I knocked it out in a couple of days. The thing is to keep at it and not look back. When you are done, with luck, you’ve lost at least a third of the book. Now, step away. Breathe. Then look at what you’ve got. Terrible. A shell of a story.

Step two: remember those notes you kept? Go through them. Look at the cuts you made, and decide why. Revise your notes. Seriously. Write it up into an analysis that will likely be several pages long. Write out what you did, and why. “Lost the whole interlude at the tavern. It was funny, but the humor didn’t really go anywhere and this way the characters get into the wilderness faster, keeping up the tension.” Something like that.

Once you’ve written up a solid analysis of your cuts, it’s time to take a break. This is where a good beta reader or crit partner will help. Send your notes to a couple of people who know your story well. Ask for their response. Ask them to tell you the things where they disagree, where they think you cut something you really needed, and also the cuts that made them say, “Thank God he finally got rid of that!” I color-coded my notes, using green to indicate the things that I was hoping to keep, red for the things that I was confident would be gone unless I got a sold argument otherwise, and black for everything else where I was indifferent. I’m not sure that was a good idea, because the beta reader who was able to get back to me basically said, “You seem to have your mind made up so I won’t address that.”

But the point is, get someone else to react to what you have done. You need readers who will make the time to help you, and I acknowledge those can be hard to come by. And it will take time, so, while you wait, you need to perform restorative surgery. This may well be the hardest part. You still have the foundation of the story, but with huge missing chunks there will be enormous problems with transitions and continuity and structure. You need to take what you are left with and make it a readable (if not especially good) story. This will take a while. I spent nearly a week, working on and off. It’s hard because doing this feels like closing the door on everything you cut. Don’t worry. There’s one more part to this.

By now, hopefully, your reader(s) have gotten back to you. Look over their responses, see how they line up with your own instincts. Figure out what’s gone for good, then look at what you want to keep. Time to bring it back, one bit at a time. But it’s not simply a matter of undoing a cut. You will need to take the cut material and work it into the new version of the manuscript. It is essentially like adding a new scene. Make the restoration work in the new structure. That may mean putting the scene in an entirely different place than it originally was (I did that in at least three cases). It may mean the cast of characters changes, or the context is different. But add the “new” material, and then go through and make whatever adjustments are needed elsewhere to maintain continuity.

Look again at your cut list. Decide what else you really need back. If you don’t really need it, leave it. This will be the most labor-intensive part of the whole process, and, if that discourages you from doing more than absolutely essential, so much the better. What’s happening is that, by making all these cuts, you made your story as tight as it could possibly be, much more so than if you tried to tighten while keeping everything intact. Adding material into an already tight story has forced you to keep it tight. You have also probably been forced to make choices you should have made in the first place, organizing events more clearly than they played out when you were making it up as you wrote.

And finally, you are done. Step back, take a look at your much tighter, stronger, cleaner story. Now you can start querying.

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Writing Process Blog Hop

I’ve been assigned by the Planetary Defense Commander to join the Writing Process Blog Hop. The Commander is tasked with defending the planet from bad science fiction, and we’ve never been more in need of his services. Take a look at his site for a rather different approach to reviews. Meanwhile, the idea of the Blog Hop is to get inside the heads of writers, to find out what makes them tick by asking four basic questions:

1. What are you currently working on?

Hmm. Motivation, mostly. I’m still refining Infinity, the novel that got me going on this journey (not counting the two decades I spend collaborating on a ridiculously over-ambitious Blake’s 7 fanfic). I finished the novel nearly a year ago, but since then my query attempts have not gotten me anywhere, so I’ve been doing massive revisions in an attempt to make it more marketable. Some people tell me to stop and just go with what I have, but I do think I keep making it better. Other than that, I don’t have anything on the front burner, mostly because my teaching job eats up a lot of time. I’ve tossed out a couple of short stories I need to revise and shop around, and I have two other novel ideas, one “Young Adult,” the other definitely not, and I really should start working on one of them in earnest.

2. How does your work differ from others in its genre?

That’s a hard one to answer. I’m not particularly well-read, and these days I don’t much enjoy reading. I know, that’s heresy for a writer, but I read so much in my job that it makes it very hard to read for pleasure. Beyond that, I’m so infamously disenchanted with the state of Young Adult fiction that I can only say my book differs in that it’s basically not like that stuff at all. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think all YA is “garbage,” as some people assume. I just think it could be so much better than it is. There’s a lot of mediocrity out there, and readers deserve better. I am sick of all the darkness, and so my book is upbeat and fun, because that’s what I’d want to read. It’s largely free of violence, and what is there has profound emotional and moral consequences. On the other hand, there’s nudity and sex, and I’m trying to present that in a fun and positive way as well, something also uncommon in YA.

My non-YA stuff is, I suspect, right in line with current trends in science fiction, as it’s quite dark, but in what my readers call a “beautifully sad” way. But it’s not particularly violent, and is more about the human condition, and the human spirit.

3. Why do you do what you do?

In terms of writing? The difficulty of the last question makes this one easy. I want to offer something different from all the paranormal angst and dystopian despair. I firmly reject the oft-repeated mantra that says that writers write because they love to write, and that’s really the only reason to do it. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. For one thing, that’s a rather self-indulgent attitude. It also sets a very low bar, if you are only writing to please yourself. I write because I have a story to tell and I want people to hear/read it. My book is nothing without readers.

But more than that, I write as response to the problems I mention above. I want my book to be an instrument of change, to be the vanguard of the rejection of all the darkness, to be a setter of a whole new trend in hope and humor and bringing fun back to teen books. That, I think, is the best reason to write. Great writers write because they want to change the world with their words.

This attitude, by the way, has met with great hostility. The ever-supportive folks on Agent Query Connect responded to my negative opinion of YA fiction by informing me that I was insulting every single writer, publisher and reader of YA out there by not loving it exactly the way it is right now. They couldn’t be more wrong when they accuse me of having “contempt” for YA readers. It’s the publishing industry that’s selling readers short, by assuming they won’t read anything unless it’s about teens just like themselves dealing with experiences that can all be correlated to going to high school and stuff, and I want to offer something better. When I expressed my desire for my book to bring about change within the genre, I was told that that was an extremely arrogant attitude, and that I was doomed to fail. An odd thing for one writer to tell another, don’t you think? It may go a long way to explaining how YA has gotten the way it has, if it’s being written by people who want nothing more than to just contribute more of the same, with no real vision, and no desire to shake things up.

Obviously, I don’t go to Agent Query Connect anymore.

4. How does your writing process work?

I start with some sort of observation, which then ferments in my thoughts for a while while I’m doing other things, until I have a basic story idea. Then I just sort of start writing. I wrote one short story loosely inspired by an old Star Trek episode that got me wondering how a multi-generational colony ship would actually work. Another story had its genesis when I saw a breathtakingly beautiful little girl in the supermarket and found myself wondering how her parents felt about that (and about the fact that I was probably not the only person noticing her). My not-yet-started YA novel Hayley and the Aliens came into being because, on a whim, I Photoshopped a crashing spaceship into a photo of a girl looking out at the ocean, and realized that was the beginning of a good story.

Hayley

Time Passes is a direct response to my opinion of Young Adult fiction, which led me to wonder why we even have to call it a genre. Why we can’t just call Harry Potter “fantasy”; why we can’t just call Divergent “science fiction”; why can’t we just call The Hunger Games “horror”? Why do we have to attach the “Young Adult” label and put it in a special section of the bookstore? We never used to. And why then don’t we target books specifically to thirty-year-olds, or fifty-year-olds, or seventy-year-olds, all of whom have unique perspectives and experiences every bit as profound as teens have. So I set out to write “Old Adult Science Fiction,” with a story that touches on the experience of middle-agers trying to still be relevant in a world that seems to have passed them by. Nothing autobiographical about that.

Once I have the basic story concept, I sketch out the characters a bit, then start writing. With short stories I write the whole thing in one sitting (generally). With a novel, I bounce around, writing anything that has a clear picture in my head. This timey-wimey approach confounds many of my fellow writers, because I can be simultaneously working on chapter four and chapter twenty-seven. But I find this really helps maintain continuity and ties the story together. This only works because I know the end point of the story (although I may no know exactly how I’m going to get there). That’s what’s stalled Time Passes, because the end point is still fuzzy.

That’s surprising because it has my most blatantly autobiographical character, other than the one in a short story I wrote about a frustrated writer who builds a time machine so he can go back and stop himself from trying to be a writer. But the thing is that my characters are real to me, and, as they develop, they take more and more control of the story, sometimes surprising me. I have a key scene in Infinity because one of my characters (the one who’s generally the loudest in my head) insisted. Literally as I was writing, she butted into the dialogue and said, “We have to do this.” The other characters considered, then agreed. And I was sitting there thinking, “Great, now I have to write a whole new sequence.” That’s exhilarating when it happens, but what’s funny is that, in the recent massive rewrite, the sequence got totally restaged, so I no longer have the scene where she insists on doing it. That worked better played out between two other characters. But it was still her idea.

I revise as I go (a side effect of jumping around), so when I’m done with the “first” draft, it’s really already had a fair amount of polish. I bounce ideas off of critique partners and take problem passages to my writers’ group. And sometimes a whole new idea will pop into my head that leads me to make significant adjustments. I’m facing that right now with Infinity. The hardest part, I suppose, is finally declaring it finished. I really thought it was done last fall. But then the query process so thoroughly undermined my confidence that I’ve gone back in, and I wonder if I’ll ever reach a point where I’m happy with it again. I suppose that’s why people say you should just write for yourself; you’re the only one who isn’t going to reject it.

Oh yeah, and I always have my famously eclectic iPod playing as I write, sitting right next to whichever caffeine-delivery system I’m using at the time.

Okay, now I’m to tag fellow writers (and friends):

Cheryl Mahoney writes clever, slightly subversive re-imaginings of fairy tales and classic literature, and her stories are delightfully free of violence and brutality. She’s also as well-read as I am not and offers great insights on that on her website. And she gets most of my obscure sci-fi/fantasy references.

Kelly Haworth, despite being a voracious reader of YA, writes things that are anything but. Dark, twisted stories that challenge your conceptions of identity, especially when it comes to gender. With characters who are all extremely damaged. And Kelly loves aliens (if you know what I mean…).

Andrea Stewart is the closest I know to an actual professional author, her quiet, poetical stories having appeared in legitimate anthologies and landing her an actual agent and everything. She’s prolific to a degree that makes my head spin. And she paints. In the words of Tom Lehrer, “It’s people like that who make you realize how little you’ve accomplished.”

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