A Decade to Reflect

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so don't hand Gollum the mapExactly ten years ago I forced my best friend into my car and we drove to Fate, TX. Riding between us was a stack of query letters for my first novel, Turquoise. Nine had been my lucky number for as long as I could remember, so it made perfect sense that I should mail off my hopes and dreams on 9-9-09. I mean, I’d even accidentally stumbled across stamps with a Navajo (Dine) turquoise squash blossom necklace on them and my book was based on…wait for it…Navajo legends. Holy Oxford Comma!! It was a sign and I wanted all the good juju the Universe could hurl my way.

And it worked–sort of. I started receiving rejections via snail mail (we used it much more back in those olden times). Some were form letters saying my story wasn’t a good fit. Some were more personal letters that said that my writing was definitely good enough but that they didn’t think they could sell my story. One letter even informed me that the agent had passed away (there was no website for their agency and I’d apparently found them through an outdated trade mag…oops). But then something magical happened that proved I didn’t need no fancy stamps or dusty town post offices to get what I wanted.

Out of the very few agents you could find on line back then, I’d come across a junior agent at a huge agency and I LOVED her bio. She and one other agent made my top two “dream agents” list, but I only sent a query to Miss Sassy-Pants (the name I shall call her for this). And–AND I got a request for the first 3 chapters. GASP!! Then I got the request for the full MS *sound of my fainting body hitting the ground*

And here’s where my own ignorance and stupidity grabs the microphone and jumps in for some really bad karaoke: My MS wasn’t really, really finished. This is a GIGANTIC no-no in the writing biz. It should not only be finished but be as tight as humanly possible before you even think about typing out a query letter. Even Homer Simpson probably knows this–DOH! But it didn’t stop me so I had no choice but to produce some sort of ending and ship it out.

During the time I waited on the response, I traveled to a writer’s convention where Miss Sassy-Pants was a guest (so was my other “Dream Agent”). I got there and was surprised that people running the convention already knew who I was and that I was with MSP. I was on muthafreakin cloud 9 (see–more 9’s). I felt like I was stalking her when I purchased extra time to sit face to face and pitch her 3 more books. I hung on her every word like it was Gospel and my confidence was up. It was up so much that I forced my shy ass to walk up to my other Dream Agent just to tell her I really admired her and she was who I considered my number 1 (but I was already with another agent). And she was my #1. I’d started with 2nd place Sassy-Pants because I didn’t believe I could get #1. She gave me her card and told me to keep in touch.

When I got home I waited and waited to hear back, damn sure I was on my way to making myself Twilight-famous. Then I got a macro-letter back. This letter tells you all the “big picture” things they want you to fix. They wouldn’t offer representation before the changes were made and wouldn’t guarantee they would if I did. And that letter was really insightful in many ways and out-n-out mean in others (exact quote: This scene made me vomit in my mouth). I was use to harsh rejection because of years of acting and modeling, but this stung a little more. It’s what kicked off my demise.

The criticism made what little self esteem I had pack a bag full of depressants, grab some self-flagellating torture devices, and head into a cave even Gollum would find too dark to dwell in. I didn’t stop moving forward on the changes, but I worked at a snail’s pace because I was weighted down with fear.I was afraid I was wasting my time. I was afraid I wasn’t going to be perfect. I was afraid people would judge me. I was afraid I would make someone unhappy. I was afraid someone would figure out I was a fraud (and not in a “I’m going to be the first Ponzi scheme utilizing YA paranormal literature” kind of way). It was a fraud in the sense that everyone was going to confirm exactly what I already believed- my talents weren’t good enough. I wasn’t good enough.

And after a longer-than-I-can-bring-myself-to-type-out revision that included condensing a story paced for a three-book series down into a one-and-done novel AND hacking 15k words from my original submission–I sent it off.

And it got rejected.

With a nice note confessing that she had been so new as an agent that she actually didn’t know what she was doing or she would have known from the beginning it wasn’t good enough. I was pissed. I was hurt. My fears were confirmed.

But pure defiance made me contact Dream Agent #1 and she quickly asked to read the MS. She had her response to me within days. It was still a “no” but, to her credit, with a lot of constructive criticism and a request for a full MS on a steampunk novel of mine she’d read the first 10 pages of. Through her I became friends with some of her other authors. Through them I was offered opportunities to write short stories (that would be published with a MAJOR publisher). But I only splashed around in the puddle of opportunity and let fear wrap its tentacles around my ankles and drag me off to Gollum’s beach cave. Fear won and opportunity looked for greener pastures.

While I snorkeled around in the murk, my first book was essentially published by another author with a few key changes (it was a 7 figure deal), a children’s book Sassy-Pants rejected was published with only 1 change (a dino in exchange of my dragon), and the plot line of Turquoise was turned into an independent film with the only real change being a character being switched from a girl to boy.

And I was told I could sue because there were parts that were word for word, but I discovered lawyers aren’t free unless they make really loud commercials. So Gollum and I got to be really good chums (I still get the occasional Christmas card from him) while I piddled with writing until I came up with such a ridiculous idea that I knew any judgement couldn’t be taken to heart because it was a parody and they’re supposed to be ridiculous. And so was born Fifty Shades of Puddin’.

And it did pretty well. I’ve even experienced a moment with a somewhat star-struck fan (the fact that she was giving me a bikini wax at that moment is a blog within itself). It made me write some short stories. I won some contests. I wrote some more. I revisited Turquoise. I worked on the steampunk novel. I even wrote a huge romance novel, but all the progress was shoved away when my husband suddenly lost his job and I lost my mom and grandmother all within a few months of each other. Throw onto the pile that I was also diagnosed with an incurable disease (two, actually), and it became quite the raging kegger for me and Ol’ Gollum.

Fear won on all levels of life.

So here I am a decade after starting this blog/writing journey and I’ve made some pretty big realizations that have blossomed into seeds of wisdom. First, fear is an absolute bastard. It will whisper lies in your ear just like Gollum whispered in Smeagol’s ear. And when you believe the lies it will twist you into a hunched, ugly, decaying version of yourself. Do NOT invite fear (or Gollum) into your head. He’s just going to flip some tables and make a damn mess of things. Trust me.

The other things I’ve learned by reflecting back, is that I’m a pretty damn decent writer. I have good ideas or they wouldn’t get published by other people. I wouldn’t win contests or sell books or have people create Twitter accounts of my characters or have a lady squeal when she finds out who I am (even while ripping hair off my nether regions) if I couldn’t tell a story. I wouldn’t have gotten the attention of two agents (even one claiming to have been bamboozled by her own moronic newbie-ness) if I didn’t have some talent. I’m NOT perfect and I NEVER will be. I’m good with that.

The last realization I made is really what has shifted my entire attitude on writing. I realized that by going to convention after convention and taking class after class, I was only feeding my need for perfectionism. I have a well-defined writing voice and that can’t be taught. I’ve learned over the last ten years the important parts of structure (and this blog is not an example of that). I also learned that you can hire these amazing people called editors who can take care of the shit you ain’t good at (like punctuation). And while enduring critique after critique and reading best seller after best seller, the biggest lightbulb of all lit up in my noggin’. I was being micro-critiqued as if I was aiming for a Pulitzer Prize. That’s not my goal. My goal is to sell stories to a bunch of people who just want to be entertained, and I’ve lost track of how many mistakes I’ve found in NYTBS books.

And the big wrap up of this decade long blog (I didn’t edit this for the sole purpose of being imperfect) is that I took one hell of a detour (do not give Gollum the map no matter how much he begs) but I’m back at my desk writing. Excellence is a value I hold, but perfectionism is an insecurity I’m releasing.

I hope I see you at my next book release.

Ash

Ctrl + Alt + Delete

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I want to preface this by saying that I’m anything but a cool, calm, collected soul. Even when my surface appears quiet and still there are troubled waters churning below. I’m a plotter and planner and worrier. It’s all connected to an anxiety disorder coupled with a need for approval. It’s deep-rooted shit grown from seeds planted before I can even remember. I have a tendency to live in the future or the past and keep my present so busy that I don’t have to sit still with it –or myself.

That is, until COVID-19 came knocking on Earth’s door.

It reminded me of when I have way too many windows open on my computer because I’m doing the ADHD bunny hop from project to project. I’m click-clacking along and then—BAM! The computer freezes up and nothing is moving. After cursing and maniacally moving the mouse around as if trying to conjure a tech savvy spirit on a Ouija board, I resort to one of the few computer tricks I know: Ctrl + Alt + Delete. The magic task screen pulls up the list of items  I felt my entire life was revolving  around only seconds ago and I begin the process of ending them one by one until the system can reset.

That’s what this pandemic did to my life, but not in a cursing, violent shake. It was something more peaceful and serene than I’ve felt in a long time. Everything froze and the task pane listed out all the things that consumed my thoughts, my time, my fears, my soul, my life. It was as if the Universe had reached out and hit a cosmic version of Ctrl + Alt + Delete, but it took on a new meaning.

The first key was Ctrl. I looked at all of my active worries and realized how little control I had over them. I realized how little control we have over anything in life, but it didn’t scare me. I let it slip away and I relinquished my desperate need to manipulate outcomes because a tiny virus had just shown all of us how little control we really have. Our bodies, economies, health care systems, and governments proved how fragile things like money, power, status, and health really are.

The second key was Alt. New priorities slipped in to be the alternate for what I had thought important. It was all simple things that I found were tied deep into the well of my childhood. I started planting flowers and vegetables like I had with my mother, grandmother, and grandfather. Some of my very fondest memories were watching plants grow and being sent out into the gardens at my great-grandparents to harvest okra, corn, beans, cucumbers, squash, potatoes, and others. I pulled out my sewing machine and taught myself to sew masks. I found joy in cleaning my home, and reading, and laughing with my kids, and not thinking about projects that didn’t involve my home and those closest to me.

The last key was Delete. I methodically began to hit the delete key whenever fear tried to encroach on my new peace. This meant deleting any thought or action I knew was growing from fear instead of love. That meant projects that I was doing more out of fear that I wasn’t doing enough—being enough—than out of passion. That meant holding onto physical things out of fear that scarcity is lurking around the corner. I let go of the fear of listening to my intuition because it might be wrong (it hasn’t been). I let go of my “freak flag” that I keep at half-mast in fear of judgement. I let go of my fear that my disease is killing me because I realized I was only feeding it by giving it space to live in my thoughts. Delete. Delete. Delete.

And my world unfroze from its state of anxious spooling. The tasks I always had hovering on my homepage disappeared and were replaced with a screensaver that simply read ‘Just be.”

In this lighter version of myself I reflected on the fact that maybe this virus is the Universe’s way of hitting Ctrl + Alt +Delete. Maybe It saw the human race in a constant state of spooling because everyone has a 100 different tabs open, working on a 100 different things and they’re the wrong things. The world is addicted to a toxic state of “doing.” We have to be doing something or we’re nothing, and you can’t don just one thing—there has to be at least a side hustle or two. We have to be running so we can make money and buy things to impress people we don’t know. We have to be so connected to these hustles that we’re oblivious to the people sitting right beside us.

People have been living with their faces in phones for years and it took taking away the ability to interact with others in person to realize how much human contact means to us. We need it at a biological and spiritual level to thrive. Only when our ability to shop as sport was taken away did we look at how much we already had and how few things we really need.

When our ability to do-do-do, make-make-make, and spend-spend-spend (no matter what it cost us or the environment) came to a grinding halt across the globe, what did Mother Earth do—she took a deep breath. She showed us how resilient She is. She showed us that She can keep spinning without us. Smog cleared up in countries that have been choked with pollution for years. Dolphins found their way into the canals of Venice. The birds keep singing and the flowers keep blooming, happier than they’ve been in a long time.

And what did people do? Some pretended it was nothing. It didn’t exist. It was all a farce, and, if it was real, it wouldn’t get them anyway. Others let the fear that already held the reins on their life go full tilt. They became the hoarders with no care for anyone around them. They bought stores out of ammunition because they knew this kind of stuff brought out the worst in people (themselves excluded, of course).

But then there were the others—the majority in my mind. They stood up and looked for ways to help. Whether it was giving toilet paper to a family in need or donating food and money, it came from a place of genuine love and concern. When a call for medical personnel went out in California around 25,000 retired healthcare professionals volunteered within 24 hours. And this happened all over the world. People began finding small ways to connect to people they knew and didn’t know. Companies began making medical devices they’d never made before. Small business innovated new ways to make protective gear. Costume shops, clothing designers, and housewives began making masks. Restaurants began feeding first responders and those in need. Teachers figured out how to continue teaching students. Parents figured out how to work from home and help their kids.

The best of humanity came forward and we all relinquished what we couldn’t control, chose an alternate way to use the time we’ve been granted, and learned to delete things that proved they were no longer important. So many have lost their lives or lost loved ones. We can’t let their loss become a memory that’s simply swept up by street cleaners as we dive back into the exact same patterns we were living before. We need to hold the best of this experience close to our hearts. We need to really enjoy every minute we have with each other. We’ve been handed something so many wish for but are never given—a do-over. We got stuck and the Universe reset the system. Ironically, it was a virus that may have actually saved us this time.

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