I made a discovery

Far out! You can make the first letter of paragraphs huge! Did you know you can drop cap here? Because I didn’t. This is awesome. Super writerly. Very posh. I’m seriously considering doing this at the beginning of every post from here on.

Uh oh. You can do it to every paragraph.

Cannot believe they did this. Because it’s ridiculous now. No longer posh. Not remotely professional. Who put this power in the hands of the common human, so prone to making terrible decisions and wasting everyone else’s time?

Koala.

I like writing in cafes

Definitely a cliche.

But it’s like having an office. Not a home office, but a proper office. Proper offices have noisy people moving about and stuff going on and people interrupting occasionally to try and get you do something. Only it’s much nicer to be interrupted by a sales pitch for another cup of coffee than by a plea for help unjamming the printer.

This probably sounds like a weird thing to appreciate, since a universal human experience seems to be hating offices, but I don’t have a real workplace. I don’t have a day job. I would like a day job. No, I would love a day job. It would take the pressure off making this writing thing work out, allow me to demonstrate my competency to myself and boost my self-esteem and, you know, give me a bit of cheeky spending money for those fun, luxury items such as bills and food.

But my chronic illness makes a traditional job unfeasible, and (since I have a partner who has a decent enough job to keep a roof over our heads) I sit at home all day doing the best I can between crashes with pens and a keyboard.

Pre-pandemic, my workplace was me and my cat. But there’s a really, really good cafe just over the hill, so about once I week (if I was feeling up to the walk) I would take my laptop over there.

Sometimes I would go to the cafe to change scenery. I find that really helpful for thinking. Just changing what’s around me can jostle things loose.

Sometimes I would go because I was struggling to focus, to trap myself in a place where I had nothing to do but write and drink coffee.

Sometimes I would go to get away from my cat. Don’t get me wrong, I love my cat, but he’s an entitled stage five clinger who will fight my laptop (And my arms. And my legs) to get my undivided attention. When he’s having a particularly dick-ish day, it’s good to be somewhere else.

Sometimes I would go because I needed to be around people. Not because I was lonely, per say. It wasn’t to have D&Ms with the baristas. It was just to see and hear people. To have their noise around me. To smile and say ‘hi, how are you?’ and say ‘yeah, good’ when someone asked it back even if it was a massive lie.

Before the pandemic, I don’t think many people would have understood why I needed that. Maybe you do now.

I really missed it this year.

Fortunately, things are looking good where I live. My state has had no community transmission for at least a month, and the few cases it has had have all come from overseas or interstate and been in quarantine the whole time. Our measures seem to be working. Because of my chronic illness (plus asthma, because I have that too), I’m still extra cautious. But the situation has remained steady long enough that I trust the measures to hold. Or, if they don’t, that they’ll give enough of a heads up for me to hide before covid gets absolutely everywhere.

So I’ve started (occasionally and while slathered in hand-sanitizer) to work in the cafe again.

‘Hi, how are you today?’

‘Yeah, good.’

Massive lie.

Bliss.

In a twist surprising no one, my own worst enemy is my brain

Editing something novel length is different to editing something short.

At least, that’s what I’m finding.

My work on Silence Killed the Dinosaurs means I’m pretty familiar with editing shorts*. I like to think I’m good at it. I certainly enjoy it. Sorting through the mess of a first draft for potential and patterns and then pulling them out to make it good is just so deeply satisfying. It’s the feeling of finally getting a nasty splinter out**.

But my process has always been simply to read through and make it better.

That hasn’t been working for my novel. A novel is different. A novel is big. It just doesn’t fit in your head all at once. At least, it doesn’t fit in my head.

If I try the old ‘read through and make it better’ method, I get bogged down on the first thing I stop to tweak. Like wearing a scarf that gets caught under a lawn mower. I get dragged right in, my brain hyper-focuses***, and I’m lost to the wider world. I can spend hours like that without noticing. But then when I manage to pull back, to read through what I’ve done, I realise that while the new stuff might work well in that precise scene, it doesn’t work with the book as a whole. Maybe I’ve shifted a character’s arc so it no longer flows nicely into the next chapter. Maybe I’ve reused a clever description that has to sound fresh later. Maybe I’ve accidentally announced a bunch of stuff that’s supposed to happen in a different part of the book.

In short, I lose track of the big picture.

And it doesn’t seem to be optional. I don’t know how to mentally hold myself back, keep that distance, to not give 110% of my attention to whatever small thing is in front of me at any given moment.

This is just the way my brain is. Sometimes it’s helpful—e.g., I don’t get distracted easily, I am very thorough and detail-oriented, and I’m weirdly great at rote learning—but not always. I struggle to take breaks, routinely working well into headaches or backaches and almost never remembering to stop for lunch without someone to prompt me (and I’ve had people say they envy me this, but no, trust me, it really is a bad thing, particularly because I have a chronic illness and if I don’t look after myself in these small ways it flares up and destroys me completely for a week or more). I waste so much time on tasks that simply do not require it. I can’t multitask. Cannot talk to people while I work, not even slightly (my partner can confirm this—I just stare blankly for a moment, possibly grunt, and then return to what I was doing, immediately wiping the incident from my memory). If I hyper-focus on anything at all after about 7pm in the evening, I will not be able to shut my brain off in time to fall asleep before 5am.

And, apparently, I struggle to edit novels.

It’s no use trying to force my brain to be different. I’d probably break it trying. Instead, I’ve been finding ways to approach the problem that suit it better.

Between drafts, I found the trick was to make it visual. I got index cards, wrote key points on them, added sticky notes, colour coded various things, and then pegged them to a line and moved it all about until I was happy. I needed it set out like that, to see it all at once, all together, for my brain to grab on properly.

But I’m in a different place now. I’m polishing an existing draft, not totally re-writing it. I don’t need to majorly shift scenes around, just play with their colour, intensity and expression.

What seems to be working for me has been to start with a pdf copy. I read that, made as many notes as I wanted on it, but could not change the actual text. This let me keep moving, which in turn let me get the big picture. When I’d read through the whole thing (several times. There’s really no changing me), I made big picture edit plans to work with the book as a whole.

Then, when I had both a plan and a document covered in notes, I started using them as a map to edit the draft.

Which is what I’m currently doing. I’m still hyper-focusing and getting carried away by small-picture tweaking, but as long as I keep checking in with my map, it stays harmonious with the whole.

And it’s going much better.

So far.

(If you also have problems like this and know any tips for dealing with it, please let me know).


* Maybe this is news? The odd conversation has made me realise that some people assume I just type through something linearly, knock out a few comics in an hour or so, then immediately hit publish. This might well be how some blogs are written, but please do not confirm this for me as even the theoretical possibility of this creation method causes me mental anguish. (For context, I’m trying to be a bit looser on this blog, and I still re-wrote this from scratch three times, edited it for a whole afternoon and then put it aside for a day while I eyed it suspiciously in case it I changed my mind about anything [sentence written: 11/9/2020]. Scratch that, a whole weekend [14/9/2020 11:30am]. WAIT NOPE I’M GOING TO EDIT IT AGAIN [14/9/2020 11:50] … … … maybe I should talk about this whole other thing as well? NO. Jeez, Lucy, that would require a whole rewrite. Just do another post about that another time. [11:52]. Now I’m just googling stuff in case it’s relevant [12:16]. OH SHIT IT’S RELEVANT [12:21]***)

** I was actually going to say like popping a really big and awful pimple, but I thought it might be too gross, so only you footnote aficionados get that image. Enjoy.

*** Holy shit. I’ve always thought of this as ‘hyper-focus’ because that’s just what it feels like, and I just googled it there’s a legit psychological thing actually called ‘hyperfocus’ and from what I can see it is the exact thing I experience. I’m not just … weird? This is … actually a lot to process.

Really expected to have finished editing by now

I also expected to be writing mostly amusing, light-hearted, non-whingey posts for this blog.

The problem has been that I have had both a depression crash and a chronic fatigue syndrome crash.

That is to say, I had a week where I was so emotionally flattened that my only achievement was the world’s longest existential groan, and then I spent the very next week filled with soup instead of muscles and a brain. Since then, I’ve had days where I’ve been physically capable of getting things done, and I’ve had days where I’ve been emotionally capable of getting things done, but they have rarely overlapped.

Of the two, depression has been the bigger problem for editing.

To plan the more significant, big-picture edits, I read through my book. And it was total, unfixable, crap. Just limp and unfunny and terrible and I should hide under a blanket for the rest of my life to spare the world from myself.

However, I could not give a reason why something was a problem. Things just felt bad in a general sort of way. Nor could I deal with the problems. Any fixes I could come up with felt just as bad, possibly worse. Most incapacitating of all, I could not imagine the book finished. And I could not work towards a goal that did not exist in my mind.

But the depression lifted as I read, and things changed. I started liking everything more and more. By the end, I was happy. There were things to fix, sure, but I was pleased with what I had achieved and had ideas of what to do to get it where I wanted it.

So—partly because I was curious to see if the experience would be different, and partly because I had generated no useable editing notes for the first half of the book anyway—I read everything from the beginning again.

It was different. Very different. Surreally, jarringly, nightmarishly different.

My first official depression diagnosis came in 2009 (though I believe I was depressed long before that). Since then, I have consistently seen a therapist, majored in psychology, and even briefly trained to work on a suicide hotline. Through all that, I have never had the effects of depression made this obvious to me.

I don’t think I can explain how weird it was to see, really see, that certain thought processes are completely shut off when I am depressed. To understand that depression changes the way my brain operates. To wonder how many things I deeply, genuinely, and incorrectly believe I dislike simply because I tried them when I was depressed. To realise the depths to which I cannot trust what my brain tells me about my own feelings and reactions to the world.

Perhaps a decent analogy is to imagine you’re flying a plane at night through clouds. You can’t see anything out the windows—not the horizon, not the stars, not anything. Under these circumstances, your inner ear is not enough to tell you if you are flying level with the ground or even which way is up, and you know this. To fly, you must pay attention to what your instruments say about the outside world and your plane’s position in it. But this is normal. You fly like this all the time. It shouldn’t be a problem.

Now imagine the air traffic control tower calls up, mid flight, to tell you your instrument readings are wrong. Not all of them, and not all of the time. But they can’t tell you for sure which ones are feeding you faulty information.

Or, worse, imagine the tower never calls up at all. Imagine you just kept believing everything the instruments told you was the complete and perfect truth.

It’s a lot.

So I’m just going to ignore it and deal with a practical problem. Which is that I strongly suspect the bout of depression I just had was triggered by medication I was taking for those couple of weeks. And although I will not be on this medication constantly, I will need it for the odd week or two-week period over the coming months.

In fact, I’ve just started taking it again.

You know that feeling when you get strapped into a scary ride and you realise that, actually, this isn’t going to be fun at all and why the hell did you pay for it to happen, but it’s too late, the ride is moving, and you’re just going to have stick it out until it’s over?

Yeah.

I hope that just knowing to attribute any worthless, hopeless, flat feelings to the medication will help me remember it’s all a lie and there’s a reality beyond just waiting for me to come back. I hope I’m wrong that the medication caused it.

Just in case, I wrote myself a letter.

Dear Depressed Lucy,
You probably feel like your book is too much, too silly, not fixable. Finishing it feels overwhelming, impossible. You don't even know where to start. 
Right?
Wrong. None of that is true. It's the depression lying to you.
Right now, you like your book. Finishing it feels possible. You know exactly where to start.
Look through the notes I've made. The green notesbook, the pdf--there are so many notes. Shouldn't be hard to find something small to sort out.
Look through the plan I wrote. There are key editing tasks, all laid out in a good order to tackle them. 
If you still can't, that's okay.
You'll be me again soon, and I know what to do.
Just look after yourself.
Love,
Not-Depressed Lucy

(Yes, my handwriting sucks)

It would probably be more professional not to say any of this hey

The way I got myself through my first draft was to tell myself over and over that it was allowed to be terrible, many people refer to first drafts as Vomit Drafts*, the point of them is to just get the basic framework down, there’s plenty of time to make it perfect later. No pressure.

But that just put it off until the second draft, and when I got there the pressure threatened to crush me. To dodge it again, I told myself, chill, this almost certainly still won’t be the final draft. And, okay, some friends might end up seeing this one, but you have about 90k words to get through before you have to commit to that, and anyway it will just be close people with similar taste in books who already know plenty of embarrassing stuff about you. No pressure.

Again, the pressure loomed for my third draft. But I had practise this time, I knew the drill. I told myself, look, okay, we’re getting further along in the process, I acknowledge this, but there’s still editing. Perfect is Future Lucy’s job. And yeah, you’ll probably want more people to read it, but before edits it will still just be people you know and no one laughed at you or disowned you for your last draft. No pressure.

Things were starting to look pretty real when I realised I was up to editing, so I said OKAY BUT THIS ISN’T THE FINAL EDIT BECAUSE OBVIOUSLY THERE’S HEAPS TO FIX CALM DOWN CALM DOWN NO PRESSURE IT’S GOING TO BE OKAY DON’T EVEN THINK THE WORD PERFECT THAT SHIT IS STILL FUTURE LUCY’S PROBLEM NO PRESSURE OKAY.

This is a long, winding way to say fuck you, Past Lucy.

You knew you had a perfectionism problem. You could have worked on it as you went. The first couple of drafts could have been for developing a healthy acceptance of flaws as part of a never-ending learning process. The final draft would have been a great time to challenge where your idea of perfect came from in the first place. Why do you think it’s valid? Is it even possible to reach? What’s the worst that would happen if you don’t? Edits should have involved setting realistic project goals and cut-offs. And through everything you could have eased yourself into the unavoidable truth that not everyone is going to like what you write. I mean, goddammit, your book has puns, talking animals, and a deliberately absurd magic system with ambiguous rules. You know what you did. You know it will never be everyone’s cup of tea. You know you’re going to have to live with that.

But no. You put it off, piled it up, fed it with the promise of one day, next time, so that it grew into an impossible monster and hit me, Once-Future Now-Current Lucy, in one overwhelming avalanche of paralysing, soul-smothering anxiety.

Please, please, please, do not do this to me ever again. Especially not during a pandemic, after four miscarriages, and when you know we have a chronic illness that blocks us from having any other job to give us a sense of self.

You really need to work on yourself.

(Editing is going super well, by the way.)


* although why they do this when Barf Draft is right there, I will never understand.

Wakey, wakey

You know that nightmare where there’s a bad thing and it’s coming for you, but you can’t move fast enough? Your joints rust up, the air turns to syrup, you can’t even open your mouth to scream?

That’s what my last week has been like.

My body has been dragging me down, pulling me into naps and tying me to the couch or even my bed. My head has been stuffed with clouds that swamp my thoughts, decisions, feelings. My partner had to mute the TV any time he said anything because I couldn’t follow two things at once, and even when he did he still had to repeat himself often, give me a second chance to follow his words without them falling out my head before I could process their meaning.

This happens sometimes. I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), sometimes also referred to as Myalgic Encephalomyealitis (ME). I’ll never be healthy. I’ll always have crashes like this, always have bad days (weeks, months) where I can do nothing but give my body a chance to recover.

It’s frustrating.

Which is a horrendous understatement. There isn’t a big enough word for how it feels to be held down and forced to watch time tick by, life trickle through the hourglass, everyone else rushing around, getting things done, making progress with their lives.

When I first got sick back in 2014 it was so bad I could barely move myself around the house. Study was impossible. A regular job was impossible. Preparing my own food was impossible. I desperately wanted to throw myself into writing, but that was only a hair away from impossible too. I tried anyway. Through trial and error I felt out that hair of wiggle room. If it was a good day, if I half-lay on the couch or in bed propped up with pillows, if I did nothing else, then I could write for about 45 minutes before my brain was squished in the vice of a week-long migraine.

45 minutes, non-negotiable. 45 minutes and STOP no matter how I was feeling in the moment because it would catch up in a few hours. 45 minutes, only on good days, or I’d lose a whole week or more.

I will never say CFS was worth it, but it sure did wonders for my time management.

Last week’s crash lifted over the weekend, downgrading from sick-tired to normal-tired. The kind of tired a healthy person might feel if they’d been busy and slept poorly. The kind of tired that is manageable, so long as I respect it.

Every time I crash, it feels permanent. It feels like it will never end, that huge chunks of me are lost forever.

But I’m back.

I’m back.

I’m back.

It should be a glorious awakening, like a butterfly emerging in kaleidoscopic colours or a necromancer rising from the dead, laughing manically amid a storm of power. But this is reality, so it’s just regular old me with extra dark circles oozing out of bed and dragging myself across the floor while zombie-moaning ‘halp, coffee, pls.’*

But whatever it looks like, I am back. I can think. And I would like—please, please, desperately please—my 45 minutes so I can put as much distance as possible between me and the bad thing, scream as loud as I want, and make a mark on my life. (And I’m really hoping ’45 minutes’ is a metaphor for functional time between crashes and not literally only 45 minutes because I just used all that time and more writing this and I kind of hoped I’d get more done today).


* which doesn’t do anything for this kind of fatigue, but does forestall the inevitably caffeine-withdrawal headache by another day. Plus, I just like coffee.

Can we kill the tortured artist please

When I was a child I told an adult that I wanted to be an author, and in response they told me that only people who had suffered before they turned ten could write good books.

This worried me.

See, I was about eleven or twelve at the time, and I hadn’t done much suffering. Not only were both my parents still alive, they weren’t even divorced. In fact, they weren’t just together, they were good together. They role-modelled a healthy, functional relationship founded on mutual respect. To this day, I have never heard them speak to each other in a hurtful way. And although my siblings and I sometimes annoyed each other in the way siblings do, I knew it would be a reach to claim they caused me suffering.

So I hoped desperately that the bullying I experienced at school and the complete social failure that followed would be enough and that the universe would not begrudge my career choice simply because this had started a few months after my tenth birthday rather than before it.

It was a silly thing to worry about, but it felt very real at the time.


The reason I struggled to launch this blog and to write an announcement post on Silence Killed the Dinosaurs was that every time I tried to tell my story of writing, I would find myself getting caught up in my miscarriages. And now when I try and write a blog post—just a normal, standard blog post—I’m still tangled. So let’s get it out of the way, and then maybe I will have brain space for other things.


Over the last four years I have had four miscarriages. It was traumatic, both physically and emotionally. It is still traumatic. It has sent me to hospital five times: three times for day-surgery, one time for medicine-based treatment, once to the ER for gushing blood and fist-sized clots. The last time I was in hospital, I started sobbing as they put me under. I felt so silly for it, but I just couldn’t stop. They moment I woke up, I was crying again. The nurses called my husband and got him to come into recovery and sit with me because they didn’t know how else to help.

I think, by anyone’s standards, this counts as suffering.

Before all this drama began, I had just started writing my novel seriously. In many ways, having something to write, having another world for my mind to inhabit, has helped me survive this trauma. But the trauma has not helped me write.

For me, writing has always been a game. It is fun. It is somewhere I can let my brain run like a dog off the leash (so long as I am willing to go around after it and scoop up its poop). It is also hard and frustrating and never perfect the first time or maybe ever dammit, but even then, it still comes from playfulness. The more of that I have, the more ideas I have, the more expression I have, the more I can write.

Conversely, the less of that I have, the fewer ideas I have, the less expression I have, the less I can write. And suffering does not make me feel playful. It makes me doubt myself, makes me waste time forcing myself to get started, makes me stare emptily at the wall. Having miscarriages has slowed down every aspect of my life, but especially writing.

And I feel guilty about that.

Here I am, all this juicy suffering handed to me on a platter, just waiting for me to turn it into something wonderful. After all, that’s what writers and artists do, right? That’s what I’ve always been told.

If someone tried to sell me the Tortured Artist Myth now, I would not buy it, would not even take it for free. But it’s too late. I accepted it a long time ago and held it tight for too many years. It’s a hard thing to let go, but I want it gone.

Because here’s the thing.

Even if there was an alternate version of me who was spurred on by horrible things, who could spin sadness into hilarity and pain into beauty, I don’t think that would make it worth it. I think that version of me would still wish all the blood-soaked heartbreak undone, even if I had to give back the creative mastery along with it.

My happiness is worth something to me. I am more than what I can produce. And so are you.

(Also I use humour as a defense mechanism when I feel vulnerable)

My psychologist tells me I am avoidant.

The latest reason she has told me this is because I wrote a novel.

And, look, I’m not a professional psychologist, but surely the correct response to that is, you have been very persistent and worked hard and it has paid off, amazing, here is a certificate stating you are inner-demon free, which you may trade in at any point for a fun hat to wear and a swimming pool of cash to recline in while anyone who has ever doubted you even in very small ways about totally different things all line up along the edge to apologise and tell you how great you are.

I’m being flippant.

I have great respect for my psychologist, and she didn’t tell me I was being avoidant for having written a novel but for, once it started to look frighteningly finished, ignoring it for months in favour of a new project.

I said, look. There are steps. This is a process. It can take a lot of time. And actually, the novel still needs some polishing, so it’s not finished finished. Also, I’m still waiting on some reader feedback. Plus I need to double-check some things with my sword guy*. Also, before I do anything official, it is necessary that I start a Proper Writer Blog so I can complain about writing, procrastinate and meet other writers so we can all complain about writing and procrastinate together.

And she calmly complimented me on having a list of things to get done and asked if I planned to start working through it any time soon … and was that really the most accurate use of the word necessary? And I have to say, she had me there.

I kept the Proper Writer Blog on my list anyway.

So, ta da.

(In my defence, other people are very scary).

* while it is 100% factual for me to state that I have a sword guy, it would also be 100% factual for me to state that I have a cousin who does medieval sword-fighting as a hobby and was nice enough to bring his swords up to my place one afternoon and let me swish them around a bit. But one of those statements makes me look a lot cooler than the other.