Climbing Mountains

As evidenced by the long gap between my last post and this one (over a year!), I’m not a very talkative blogger. I’m very private, and I struggle with what to say in a public forum, with what to reveal. This month marked a very personal, very private anniversary for me, and I’m finally ready to talk about it.

Thirteen years ago, I developed chronic pain that was eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia. Ten years ago, I was diagnosed with endometriosis, a condition in which the material lining the uterus is found outside the uterus. It can cause horrible pain, but it was not the cause of my horrible pain. I was lucky in that aside from extreme exhaustion that had me struggling to stay awake on my 30-mile highway commute to work, no matter how much sleep I’d gotten the night before, I did not experience any of the typical symptoms of endometriosis. But my doctor, whom I’d only signed on with to undergo surgery to remove a big hairy cyst, assured me that he could treat my endometriosis and all of its pain.

You see, I’d woken from that surgery to discover my chronic pain had gone. I’d spent three years searching for a reason why I had constant, daily pain from my lower back to my ankles. Three years of visiting specialists, of tracking my pain, my activities, my food intake, to try to find a pattern. Three years of no answers and very little help from doctors. Of being told that as we get older, we develop pains. (I was in my mid-twenties!) Of being asked if I didn’t think it was all psychosomatic because I wasn’t loving my job (thanks for that, friend). Of questioning myself: maybe everyone was right and this was normal. But how could it be normal when it ruled my every waking thought and action? No, it was not normal. I refused to accept it. And now here I had a doctor telling me that if I didn’t take this drug for my endometriosis, all of my recently rid-of pain would come back.

I started taking this drug because I’d woken from surgery in a haze of “WTF just happened?” and “how did I get here?” Exhaustion aside, if not for some sharp, stabbing pains in my side three days prior, I never would have needed someone to root around my insides. It had been a wholly unexpected rollercoaster ride, and of course I trusted the doctor to know what he was doing. But once I started researching endometriosis and learning about it from other women who had it—once I started learning about this drug Lupron that I was taking, and experiencing dramatic mood swings of depression and violence and forgetfulness—I knew it was wrong for me. Still, I let myself be fear-mongered into taking another monthly shot. Because I did not want my chronic pain to return.

I cried in the doctor’s office as they gave me that shot of Lupron. It was something that I viscerally rejected. Every cell in me screamed no. But in the contest of fear versus fear, I did what the doctor said. Then the mood swings hit again and I yelled and screamed and shook my fists and feet at the dog, wanting nothing more than to beat her and beat her while she wanted nothing more than to care for me. To this day I don’t know how I managed not to hit my beloved pet. She wouldn’t leave my side, no matter how much I screamed and pushed at her (pushing her away, somehow, rather than hitting her), and she let me hug her when, moments later, my mood swung back and I cried in violent upset over what I had wanted to do to her.

Endometriosis comes back. Lupron is only approved by the FDA for twelve months of use in a lifetime. It was developed to treat prostate cancer, and in women it fucks with your hormones as it puts you into artificial menopause. No menses = no endo pain. But I never had endo pain, and I fired my doctor for his assumptions and his fear-mongering and his persistence in hugging me after every appointment. (It didn’t have a skeevy vibe to it, but dude was an ob-gyn. Of all doctors who should not be hugging patients…)

Through the endometriosis listserv I’d joined, I learned about the Center for Endometriosis Care. They specialize in this condition that most gyns learn about only glancingly in their studies. They review records for free. I traveled with my mother to Atlanta, Georgia, and the CEC for my next surgery. To this day, it remains the most positive medical and surgical experience of my life. The doctors there understand—everything—and they truly care, and it is because of Drs. Sinervo and Albee that I am ten years post-op and have never had more than a glimmer of fear that my endometriosis is back. I went from an 80% chance of recurrence with Dr. Huggy to a 20% chance of recurrence after treatment with a specialist using the excision technique (cutting out the endometriosis lesions instead of burning them away, which only gets at the surface of the problem).

Unfortunately, I woke from this surgery with a huge flare-up in my chronic pain. I also woke with renewed determination to deal with it. I knew it could be made to go away. I just needed to discover the way to make that happen. A few months after my surgery at the CEC, I noticed an article pinned to the board at my Pilates studio. It was about Muscle Activation Techniques, or MAT, which professional athletes were using to help them recover from injury more quickly and effectively. The process looks for where your strong muscles are overcompensating for the weak ones and rebalances the body. I left my first MAT session pain free.

The pain kept returning, but the periods of relief lasted longer, even if they weren’t entirely pain free. Not then. And I started to make connections between flare-ups and my activities. All that tracking I’d done for years finally started to pay off once I knew how my body was inclined to misalign itself. Through my MAT specialist and the insights and exercises she gave me, I became able to “fix” myself temporarily when I experienced a pain flare, although I needed some emergency sessions here and there when I messed things up badly. Regular MAT sessions have, over the course of ten years, finished what began with Dr. Sinervo and the Center for Endometriosis Care. They’ve given me back my life.

My chronic pain and endometriosis are inextricably intertwined. My endometriosis diagnosis confirmed that the chronic pain was not something I was imagining. It was real, and it had a source, and it could be made to go away. I was lucky that my endometriosis was mostly asymptomatic, and I’m luckier still that surgery with the CEC dealt with it. Recurrence can happen, even with excision. For me, excision surgery was the solution, and I’m grateful for all that that has meant in the years since.

Thirteen years ago I developed chronic pain. It ruled my life. In the years of recovery, I have struggled to loose myself of its grip. Only in this last year have I truly started to feel free.

Today my MAT sessions are for regular maintenance rather than treatment of chronic pain. I don’t think twice about what clothing to wear (will tighter jeans make my pain worse?), and while I worried a little about climbing halfway up the side of a mountain on last year’s vacation (huge opportunity for a pain flare), I did it anyway. Pain doesn’t sideline me anymore. I got some awesome photos, and a fantastic experience, and when the pain came, I fixed it and kept going.

I know now the reasons why this happens, and I cannot imagine a time when I’ll become so secure as to let my arsenal of defense dull its sharpened edges. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be climbing more mountains.



Responding to Edits

You wrote a book. You got your first book deal. Your editor has sent your manuscript back to you with edits. After the initial excitement and, perhaps, terror, you settle in to tend to things—and come across suggestions with which you disagree. Among your objections:

  • This isn’t my MC’s style.
  • This isn’t my style.
  • This complicates things later.
  • Oh hell no.

Do you have to do everything your editor has marked up or suggested? No.

Is there some magical formula that determines how many edits you can reject before you become a Difficult Author? No.

Will rejecting your editor’s changes make you a Difficult Author? No. Not necessarily.

My background is in academic publishing, but the process is pretty much the same no matter what side of the industry you sit on. The editor makes suggestions that she thinks will improve the manuscript. As I tell my authors, my edits are suggestions. I may raise questions or ask for changes that the author finds are too tangential or will open up a can of worms that can’t reasonably be dealt with. I expect that this will happen and I flat-out tell my first-time authors that I don’t expect them to apply every query or keep every edit. The key is to let me know you considered the query. A little explanation lets me know you took it seriously and decided it wasn’t the best course. I like when you do that. True, sometimes I’m disappointed when an author doesn’t incorporate a suggestion that I thought would be great. In the big picture, though, it’s not a big deal. Unless it is.

So what about the Oh hell no queries? Those are not automatically the big picture items.

The Oh hell no is an author’s visceral reaction to something he feels will weaken, harm, damage, eviscerate, or otherwise gut and burn his story down to unrecognizable cinders. (Isn’t that what “Oh hell no” really represents?) The editor likely has no idea that this will be the author’s response. The editor may just be tossing it out there. “Hey, wouldn’t it be great pathos to kill this character?” Oh hell no, it would not.

You do not have to kill that character. As you encounter these queries, especially the ones that generate a strong negative reaction, consider whether there’s something behind them. Is the editor trying to elicit more emotion from a character or ratchet up the tension? Maybe. And sometimes the editor’s just off the mark.

Don’t wring yourself into knots of anxiety over edits. If you identify a consistent theme to the queries you hate, ask about it when you return the manuscript. (Edits are often not all resolved in one round.) When there are definite changes I want my author to make, I signal this clearly in a letter. These changes are still up for discussion. I want my author’s buy-in. I want her to understand why I want these changes and to agree that they will make the book stronger. And if she has a different approach to what I propose, I want to hear that as well. Because the editor is not always right. But we do like to ask a lot of questions.

Side note: I once included more than 200 queries, plus edits, in one chapter. At the author’s request, I made a second pass to call out which ones I felt were the most important. She focused on those and still didn’t address everything, and it was fine. Perfection is impossible. The chapter turned out great. I’m pretty sure she threw darts at my picture though.

The Noise that Wasn’t There

Last night I heard a noise. Pretty sure it was mechanical, like a garbage disposal left on, except not quite that. It was coming from upstairs (my neighbor loves to share her radio listening). I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what room it was coming from or even be 100 percent certain it was originating from upstairs (but where else?). I set my ear to my refrigerator, thinking maybe it had developed a new tone to run beneath its usual whirring.

By the time I went to bed half an hour later I’d considered that maybe I didn’t hearing anything new. I’m absolutely certain I did, but it was at just the right pitch, what in other circumstances would be called the sweet spot but for me was instead just shy of the same pitch of my tinnitus. That, fortunately, meant that the mystery noise didn’t prevent me from falling asleep. I’m using to the incessant pitch that sings me a private symphony. But it also made me feel like a dog chasing her tail. Where did it come from? Was it really there at all? I couldn’t localize it because there comes a point at which I don’t know if I’m hearing the noise inside my ears or the noise outside of them, and that’s really weird.

Listening for the mystery sound.

Listening for the mystery sound.

A friend suggested that I need a Third Party Hearer. Yes, please. I can think of several situations in which this would be handy. She also suggested that someone develop an app to help figure out where That Sound is coming from. Again, please, yes, let’s have this. Then, the next time I close my hearing aid into its case with the battery still engaged, I won’t call maintenance to figure out how to make the noise stop. (I used to wear my hearing aid nearly every day, but not that day, and now at work it mostly helps me to hear how much louder the keyboard is, and why bother to with that?)

At the same time all of this was happening—or not happening—the writer part of my brain kept trying to figure out how I could use this in a story. It needs a twist, a reason, and that brought me back to the amnesiac alien in my current Work in Progress. Growing up, I always wished I could ascribe some reason to the ringing in my ears. Alien communications malfunction would be such a better answer than “nerve damage/hearing loss” because shouldn’t I hear less with hearing loss? No need for the special sounds, thanks for the offer and all, but I’m returning them for a refund.

Why Not?

I was talking plot with a writer friend a few years ago. It went like this: “My character has to find a way to prevent an attack that will kill thousands, but I’m writing myself into a corner. I can’t kill thousands of people.” She replied oh so matter of factly, “Why not?”

That response, so rationally given, blew through the limitations I’d unconsciously set myself. The truth is, I can do anything in my writing. How well I do it is another matter, but nothing’s gained by turning away from an opportunity to expand a plot, dive deeper into a character, or push the boundaries of my own imagination.

Why not have the gallant hero make a choice that gets him dirty? Why not write in alternating first person POVs or give first and third a whirl? Make the villain the main character. Break up the couple with the great, fated love. Set off a nuclear bomb.

It might suck. It probably will suck. At first. That’s why we research, we revise, we trunk and try again. It’s not going to be golden the first time out the gate. The first time I tried to walk, I fell down. And the second time, and the third. You get the idea. Why expect to master the first time you try a new writing technique or the first time you write a book?

Fall down. Get back up. Try again.

Blow up the plot. Push a character to be more. Because why the hell not?

Romance Novels: I Love Them

This past week, the Center for the Book at the Library of Congress (LOC) hosted a one-day symposium on popular romance fiction. Kiersten Hallie Krum has accumulated all of the #poprom tweets on Storify.

Whether or not you’re familiar with the genre, I bet the thought of it brings to mind a host of book covers—men sans shirts, well-defined chests on display; women mid-swoon, shoulders bare, necklines plunging. These covers can prompt the unfamiliar to make assumptions about the genre. Romance novels, traditionally, aren’t taken seriously. You won’t find a Courtney Milan or Eloisa James book reviewed by The New York Times. Yet romance sales are among the top in the industry, and I, for one, love them.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the conference. To my delight, it was filled with smart discussion, smart women (and the occasional man), humor, and camaraderie. Panel discussions ran the gamut from what belongs in the romance canon (if there even is one) to the scientific analysis of love, the changing popular perception of love throughout history, and the future of romance publishing in the digital age. I had a chance to meet Eloisa James/Mary Bly after the sneak preview of the fantastic documentary “Love Between the Covers,” and she is kind and gracious. I also spoke with Beverly Jenkins and she is a fabulous lady.

Historical or contemporary, supernatural or space alien, every romance novel conveys hope in finding someone who will love us for the way we are.

Historical or contemporary, supernatural or space alien, every romance novel conveys hope in finding someone who will love us for the way we are.

One of my favorite moments at the conference came during the first panel, What Belongs in the Romance Canon? Ms. Jenkins was talking about African American romance novels and how they only began to gain traction in the industry over the last few decades. To paraphrase, “If you read romances with vampires and werewolves, why not African Americans?” That question made me realize that I hadn’t read any. I’m not often in a bookstore anymore, and their stock overall has declined. There are fewer books available in all sections of my local bookstore. In fact, I think they’re fast coming to carry more stock in toys than books (though I love them still). I don’t think I’ve intentionally avoided this sub-genre of the market, but Ms. Jenkins pointed out an oversight in my own reading that I’m now determined to rectify, and I look forward to it.

I came away from the conference impressed by the attendees and panel members, and admiring the Library of Congress for hosting the event. One Washington Post journalist may have noted that “a remarkable number of passionate readers… also [possess] doctorates,” but those of us who read the genre are not at all surprised to find that these books with their happily ever afters and their messages of hope appeal to women—and men—of all backgrounds.

My very first romance novel was Jude Deveraux’s The Princess. It captured my attention in a way that no book had up to that time (I was thirteen) and started my long-term relationship with HEAs. What was the first romance novel you read?

Stages in the Life of a Book

You sold your book to a publisher. Yay! Awesome! They tell you they want to publish it… a year(+) from now. It took you that long to write it. What’s up with that? There will be differences if you’re publishing a novel versus a textbook, but at heart, the process is the process.

  • Notes from your editor. She may want some changes to your manuscript. You read, absorb, figure out what makes sense to do, revise, submit. And maybe the process repeats. This could take a few weeks or a few months.
  • Copyediting. Yes, a novel can be read in a few days, but you don’t want it copyedited in that same short window. It’s a different kind of reading when you’re paying attention to grammar, punctuation, style, and consistency. Then you review the edits and return the manuscript to the copy editor, who cleans it up and sends it back to the publisher. This will probably take a couple of months. After all, it’s not as if you quit your day job, so you’re doing all of this after hours, in lieu of laundry and dust bunny eradication.
  • Typesetting. Here’s where you get a brief break (to do laundry). The typesetter is creating page proofs, where you’ll see your book set on the page for the first time. It’ll take them maybe two weeks to prepare first pass pages.
  • Proofreading. The proofreader will do his thing, and you’ll do yours. You’re looking for any residual spelling, punctuation, and other errors, and hoping not to find any large gaffes at this point.
  • Corrected pages. The typesetter has corrected all of the markups from first pass and sent a second pass for review. If there are still errors, the book will undergo a third pass.
  • To the printer. Once corrections are final, the book will go to the printer, where it will be printed and bound before being shipped to the warehouse a few weeks later and distributed to bookstores far and wide.
  • Marketing and other fun stuff. While all of the above is going on, there will be cover designs and back cover copy and blurbs and discussions about promotional opportunities. The publisher will be getting the word out about your book because they want it to sell.

None of these stages happen in just a few days. They take weeks, even months, as copy editors and proofreaders and you scour the manuscript for every last errant dangling participle or uncharacteristic exclamation. You will read your book so many times you can’t stand it, but each stage of the process should make it stronger, including when the book hits the shelves.

The publisher will weigh your book against the others that it’s publishing that year, and the books other publishers are planning to publish that year, and will be strategic about when your book can receive maximum exposure and get its best chance in the market. And that is why it takes so long.

What Yoga Taught Me about Writing, and Writing about Yoga

Yoga has seen me through various injuries and a years-long bout of chronic pain, but I don’t maintain nearly as regular a practice as I’d like. The same holds true for writing. I’m writing more now, and more often, but there will be times when I simply hit a wall. I’ve always tried the “one book at a time” approach for fear that allowing something else in would eliminate forward momentum completely. (Yeah, don’t probe that too deeply for logic.) Lately I’ve discovered that I really enjoy having a second project to switch to when I come speeding up to that wall. It’s temporary avoidance, but it gives me space to think without feeling like I’m standing still.

St_Thomas2008Aug 198

A leaf bends in the wind and floats in the air. It goes, unprotesting, with the flow.

If one thing isn’t working in my writing, I no longer beat my head against it. I shift gears.

Lately after a yoga practice, I experience pain flare-ups from an issue I’ve dealt with—and beaten back—for years. The current fix is to change my practice and make it different from what I prefer. I don’t want to do that. I have it in my head what my yoga practice will be, what it should be, and damn it, that’s what I want to do. Except I hurt later, and I am so very over that. I found myself avoiding yoga to avoid the hurt, ending up in less pain but still unhappy because I wasn’t getting all the other benefits of my practice. The solution, I realized, was to shift gears.

It’s time to stop fighting. I need to set aside my idea of what my yoga practice should be and let it be what my body is demanding it become. The sooner I do that, the sooner I’ll feel better. The sooner I’ll get over the honestly unnecessary angst and move on. My body may feel some discomfort, but the true suffering is in my head. Just like when you get to that scene you’ve been waiting the whole book to write and it’s not working. It’s falling flat. Now that you’ve written everything that comes before, it doesn’t fit the way you envisioned. But this is the way you want it! No way are you going to end this book without cramming that scene in The Way It’s Supposed To Be.

Much hair pulling and teeth gnashing later, and possibly a wise writer-friend giving you a verbal slap upside the head, you realize the futility of your resistance. That scene has changed. Your vision carried you right up to it, and then it took flight, altered into something different, something that’s more than a spur to keep going. It’s now a vital, necessary part of the whole. And you’d have realized it a lot sooner if you’d just stopped insisting that what you wanted was still the same thing as what was needed.

There are times when we need that slap to wake us up. And there are times of quiet revelation. However we receive them, we should remember that their lessons can be recycled. Maybe we’ll benefit more from them in the future.