It’s a Sarahbration!!

February is a big month for me.

First, my birthday is this month! Or as I like to call it, the Sarahbration. I have been known to dance around the house singing “Sarahbrate good times, come on! Woooo hooo!” I turn 33 this year–which has some significance, so stay tuned.

But birthday time isn’t the only reason it’s a Sarahbration….

I got a book deal!!!

A REAL BOOK DEAL!!!

For those of you who follow this blog (first of all, sorry for not posting in a while!), you’ll know that this has been a long time coming. I’ve been working toward this goal for years. 7 of them. Well, longer than that if we get technical–this has been my dream since I was four. But 7 years ago is when I wrote my first complete manuscript. A terrible, horrible, shall not be read again manuscript. However, that bad manuscript led to another, which led to another.

Which led me to my agent. I signed with my agent on the third manuscript I completed. We then went on submission to editors–an exciting and entirely nerve-wracking experience. Even more so because it’s shrouded in secrecy. But here’s the deal (in case you aren’t aware because of all the cloak and dagger of submission).  Each publishing house is broken down into imprints that publish different sorts of books (YA/MG, Mystery, etc). Each imprint is basically run by editors. These are the people who agents send your manuscript to when you “go on sub.” They, and sometimes their interns, read all the submissions, then the editors either fall in love with your book, or they don’t and send you a lovely rejection as to why. “Lovely” meaning everything from “sorry, this isn’t for me” to lengthy explanations of why it isn’t for them. And there’s a myriad of reasons why. Everything from they didn’t connect, to they loved the voice and writing, but couldn’t get past a plot point, to they loved it, but the publisher already has a similar title and yours might compete.

If the editor loves it, they let other editors read it to get their thoughts. Then comes another round of rejections, or, if everyone loves it, it goes to acquisitions. The editor provides comp titles, and profit and loss statements, and how they’ll market the book, and generally tries to convince the acquisitions board to buy the book. If they’re not successful, you guessed it, more lovely rejections. If they are successful, well, then you receive a glorious thing called an offer! Just like with an offer of rep from an agent, your agent will give any other editors with your book a chance to make their own offer. For some people, this results in multiple offers and bidding wars (“auction”), and for others it results in editors bowing out. Then your agent and the editor negotiate the terms of your contract and boom, you have a book deal!

SO, my agent went on sub with one manuscript. Didn’t sell. I wrote another. I got closer with this one. It made it to the additional read stage. Even made it to acquisitions. Then more rejections. I wrote another. My fifth book, and the third to go on submission.

Here’s where the significance of my birthday comes into play. I’m not superstitious or anything, I just think it’s cool how some things work out. I turn 33 this month. I signed with my agent on the 3rd manuscript that I wrote/queried. And I finally sold to a publisher with the 3rd book on submission. Some additional cool numberage: my favorite number is 5 (it was my grandfather’s baseball number, and my dad’s, and mine), and this is the 5th book I’ve written. AND I was married on the 17th, and the book is scheduled for publication in spring 2017. Take that how you will. I’m possibly more attuned to number coincidences because my OCD causes me to count everything. (Speaking of which, if you read my OCD post, you may be wondering how I feel about all these odd numbers. Well, I can rationalize with the best of them, so 3+3+5+17= 28, which is even, so it’s all good).

There’s something I want you to notice, other than the numbers syncing up in a cool way: it took a while to finally get a book deal. Those numbers represent 7 years of learning and growth and improving my writing skills. 7 years of rejection. Over 120 rejections, counting from my first query to my book deal. That’s a lot of rejection! There were a lot of tears, a lot of days when I insisted I wasn’t good enough, when I wanted to give up. But I kept going. Stuck in there, determined to do everything I could possibly do to accomplish my dream.

The takeaway here is this. If I could do it, so can you. To all of you out there dealing with rejections and self-doubts, don’t give up. Don’t stop striving until you reach your goal, whatever it might be.

Okay, without further ado, here are a couple links:

The Publisher’s Weekly Rights Report Announcement: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/69310-rights-report-week-of-february-1-2016.html

Here’s where you can add it on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28936307-devils-within?ref=ru_lihp_up_rv_0_mclk-up2890048380

And some news: I’ll be setting up a new author website (ahhhh that feels so good to write!!!). I’m not sure if I’ll be able to merge this blog in with it, or just link to it, or what, but I’ll be sure to post an update here.

So that’s it! I’m an author!!! WOOOOO HOOOOOO!!!!!!

 

I Am Not A Fly Fisher

This past weekend I did two things I’ve never done before: 1) took a writing retreat; and 2) fly fished. Let’s just say neither turned out quite like I’d hoped, but the weekend wasn’t a total wash.

In my previous post, I talked about my current WIP and how difficult it is to write. I’ve been stuck in a particular spot for the last couple weeks. I know where the story goes, what happens, how everything goes down, but the words wouldn’t work. They kept coming out all wrong and nothing I did made them any better.

I planned writing nights to focus solely on working through the problems, but life kept intervening. A conference call at work that ran hours over. A meeting at church. A run away dog. Hang out time with friends. Every time I wanted to write, something came up that took me away from it. Every time I finally got to sit down with my manuscript, the coffee shop would be loud and packed, or the words wouldn’t budge from my stubborn brain.

So I figured a writing retreat was just what I needed. I found a cabin a few hours away on one of the best trout fishing rivers in the country (or so the internet proclaimed). One that was nice and secluded, with a good kitchen so I could cook and not have to leave all weekend. Hubs loves fishing, so he loaded up on fly-fishing gear and came along. Just us, the river, and words.

Or so I thought.

A couple things I hadn’t planned on happened. Upon arriving at our adorable cabin–which was as promised, nice kitchen, hot tub, riverfront, and so secluded I thought the car was going to slide off the sketchy one-lane dirt road and down the extremely steep hill to the side–we learned our section of the river was below a dam. Meaning the water was prone to random rapid rises. Random, because even though the folks at the dam posted a schedule of when they would be releasing the water, they never stuck to it. And rapid as in within ten minutes the water rose several feet and the current sped up enough to sweep everything–people included–down river. Suffice it to say, this made for a bit of a nerve-wracking fishing trip for Hubs, and for distracted writing time for myself. Every time he’d don his waders and pick his way to the center of the river, we had to choose a reference point to keep an eye on in case the dam released. Of course he was distracted by trying to fly-fish (did I mention he’d never done it before? We stayed up the night before watching instructional videos online. Yep, we’re professionals, ha!), and I was nervous he wouldn’t notice the water rising until it was too late, so I ended up down at the dock writing long-hand and watching a seam on a rock.

Further complications were my fear of getting hooked by an overeager cast (which almost happened once and made me understandably fearful), the enthusiastic four-wheeler riders at the cabin down the way, and the fact that all the trout the river was supposed to be teaming with were nowhere to be seen. Frustrated, Hubs found a public park/hatchery a little ways down and talked me into going with him the next day.

Despite all this, I managed to get words down. Four-wheeler-ers aside, the woods were pretty quiet. Not to mention a large part of my WIP occurs in the woods, so being right in the thick of it inspired a couple new scenes. By the end of the day I’d typed up what I’d written and was feeling so good I decided to treat myself by hopping into Hubby’s waders and getting in the water. The dam had released by this point, so I didn’t wade out into it or anything. I stayed on/by the ladder on our dock, but it was a neat experience.

So neat that the next day I decided to give it another shot. We went down the park Hubs had found, only about a five minute drive once we got off the steep, sketchy dirt road. Hubs fished for a couple hours while I sat at a picnic table continuing the scene I’d been working on the previous day, still writing long-hand. The words came a little, but it was still a lot of [insert action here] and [write something along these lines], and I was grateful when Hubs said he’d had enough. Nothing was biting and our stomachs were grumbling. Before we left though, I wriggled back into the waders and slipped into the water, fishing pole in hand, ready to try this fly fishing thing for real.

Like I said at the beginning, I’d never fly fished before. I had, however, watched all the instructional videos. I knew what to do. I confidently strode through the water and tugged the line out to the right length. I locked my wrist, whipped the line back and forth, and released, expecting the line to float out over the water.

Nope.

It wrapped around my wrist and went absolutely nowhere. I tried again. Nothing. Over and over. Finally it went a little ways, but nothing like the smooth cast in the videos. Hubs had struggled the first day, but he picked it up pretty quick. We’d watched the same videos, I had my hand in the right place, moved the rod like I was supposed to, surely I’d get the hang of it too, right? Wrong. I fought that line the entire time, and the more I fought, the more frustrated I got, and the worse things went. When I finally gave up and waded back to shore, Hubs showed me a video he’d recorded.

Holy crap, I looked goofy! Arm raised like the Statue of Liberty. Rod extended way behind my head. It was terrible. You can actually see the moment I realize it won’t work and give up. My shoulders slump. I turn to the shore and shrug. Then hang my head and wade back–not even gracefully gliding through the water like I thought. I clomp over the rocks like a little kid dressing up in their parent’s shoes (the wading boots were a men’s 11 and I’m a women’s 9, so not sure why I thought I’d do anything but clomp).

So fly fishing is not my thing. I tried and failed. Gloriously, I might add. That’s one video no one other than me and Hubby will ever watch. But I did realize something: I’d been fighting my story the same way I fought the fly rod. I was struggling against the story, so the story wasn’t flowing.

Sometimes your story gets away from you and you have to wrangle it back in. The line gets twisted around the pole and doesn’t flow out when you cast. You wrestle with it and fight it and sometimes it’s like it takes on a mind of it’s own, determined to make your life miserable.

That’s when you stop.

I bet if I watched a video of me trying to write over the past few weeks, I ‘d see the same thing I saw when fishing. I’d literally watch myself get dejected and give up. I’ve been struggling, trying to make the story do what I wanted it to do instead of letting it work the way it’s meant to work.

There’s a key difference between fly fishing and spinner fishing. I’ve always spinner fished, where you let the reel do all the work. It controls the line, you just flick your wrist. Fly fishing is a completely different world. A fly reel is basically a line holder. It’s up to the fisher to make the line work.

I am not a fly fisher. I’m a spinner fisher through and through.

When we returned to the cabin that afternoon, I stopped trying to fly fish my story. I stopped struggling against the words. I paused and let the story turn in the direction it needed. And for the first time all weekend, I felt like I had the perfect cast.

Sometimes you just need to stop trying. Take a breath. Listen to your story. Like a spinner reel, let the story do all the work and just go along for the ride.

Hubs finally caught a fish on our last night, and I finally caught my story again. So overall, I think my little retreat was a success.

My Writing Process Blog Hop

The awesome Jamie Dodson has chosen me to participate in a blog hop on my writing process. Jamie writes these excellent books on a teenage pilot set a few years before World War II. His post on his process, and his Nick Grant books, can be found here, so check it out!

As for the hop, I have a few questions to answer, so here it goes:

1. What are you working on at the moment?

I don’t like talking about WIPs much. I guess I think I’ll jinx it or something, but I will say this much. Right now I’m writing a dark YA contemporary. And when I say dark, I mean dark. When my MC, Nate, was fourteen, he shot and killed his neo-nazi father in self-defense. Now he has to live with the repercussions of his decision and figure out how to move on. This has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever written. Both because of the research, which makes me feel so skeezy (of all the topics I’ve researched for stories, bruising patterns, torture devices, etc., this has been the only one coffee shop internet has banned the sites) and because the things I have to actually write. As difficult as it is to write, though, I feel like it hits on some important topics.

2. How do you think your work differs from other writers in your genre?

Oh man, this is a tough one because I don’t stay squarely in one genre. I’ve flitted from MG adventure, to urban fantasy, to sci-fi, to contemporary thriller, to dark contemporary. The only really consistent theme is that my writing gets pretty dark and is very fast-paced but descriptive. (In fact, I’m having to really focus on slowing the pace in the WIP). I also like to throw in weird twists. I came up with a more typical contemporary plot several months ago. When I told Hubby the story idea he made a face and said “that doesn’t quite sound like a Sarah book.” I tried writing it and he was right. It was too straight for me. I need little unexpected curves and turns at the end, or it just doesn’t work.

3. Why do you write what you write?

I write the stories that pop into my head, which is apparently a kind of twisted place. My favorite books growing up were mysteries, ghost stories, scary things. Agatha Christie and Carolyn Keene and Stephen King and R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Thirteen Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey. These are my influences, the twisty, less-than-normal, mysterious stories. These are the types of stories that stuck in my head and affect the way my own words come out. I tend to write the things you don’t see, the world’s underbelly, the things that happen in the dark. Hidden worlds and thieves and secret government torture chambers and hackers and hate. I’ve mentioned that I’m afraid of the dark, so I like to draw the dark things out of their corners and bring them into the light. Shapes have a way of shifting in the light. I like exposing the monster that’s really just a coat hanging from the door.

4. What is your writing process, and how does it work?

My process breaks down into eight steps that I like to refer to as the Rinse and Repeat cycle.

1. I get an idea. A vague premise. My WIP idea came from an actual news story headline. I tuck these ideas in a folder in Evernote and come back to them when I finish whatever manuscript I’m working on when the idea hits. I take each vague idea and think about how the character got to that place and where they’re going and why. If an idea grips me and won’t let go, I write a query. I like to write the query first, when the plot is simple, before it gets muddied with side plots and secondary characters. Now that I have an agent, this has become a critical step. If I feel strongly about something, I’ll just send that one with a “hey, this is where I think I’m going next.” Otherwise, I write queries for a few ideas and send them to her for her thoughts. Last time, she really liked two different ideas. I couldn’t choose, so I decided to give them both a shot and see what stuck. The first is the story I mentioned in question 2. It didn’t work, so I moved on to the next one.

2. When I settle on an idea, I start with a synopsis to figure out what actually happens. I know “synopsis” is a frightening word. Trust me, I know. But mine isn’t meant for other eyes. Half the time I don’t even have a character name, it’s just “girl” or “dude.” I’m not a plotter, but I need something to provide structure to work from. The times I’ve taken off without any sort of guide ended disastrously. And that’s all this is, a loose structure that I typically end up deviating from when I start writing.

3. Then I write the first chapter. If the story and the character’s voice grab me, I keep going. If I hit 5,000 to 10,000 words and still love the character, I keep going. If it’s not working–the voice is inconsistent, or the story doesn’t flow–I stop and move on to the next idea. Seriously, I have too many ideas to waste time on the ones that aren’t working.

4. I have an amazingly awesome CP who I’ve been working with since my second manuscript. We swap a few chapters at a time as we write. So I’ll write a chapter or two, send it to her, she’ll critique and I’ll edit, then move on to the next chapter, rinse and repeat. I’m in a couple other critique groups that work this way too. I’ve learned I don’t do well with waiting for feedback until I finish the whole manuscript. I tend to get overwhelmed at the amount of work I have to do, and I get locked in on certain things I’ve already written, so it works better for me to edit as I go.

5. When I hit about 15,000 words, I’ll send it to my agent. She’s very editorial, which I love and is one of the main reasons I wanted to work with her. Her ideas are brilliant. I like to get her input before I get too deep in the manuscript because, like I said, revisions are hard. When she read the beginning of my previous WIP she thought it started in the wrong place and wouldn’t get seen in the current market, so I revised and ended up with a much stronger book. If I’d waited, I would’ve had a lot of extra work ahead of me. As it was, I just had to re-do the beginning and the rest flowed from there.

6. When I finish the whole thing, I get it printed at a local shop (300 some odd pages is a lot to print at home! It’s $15 and the print shop lady is super sweet). I read things differently on paper than I do on a computer. The tangibleness of paper makes the story more real. I edit on paper, type up the changes, and send to a couple beta readers. At least two. If they’re opinions are consistent, I revise, if they’re different, I get a third reader, then go with my gut. This is done as many times as necessary to get the best book I can write. Rinse and repeat. I print again, make any final minor tweaks and send to my agent.

7. My agent reads and lets me know if she thinks anything else should be added/removed/changed, we talk through the changes, I edit, and resubmit.

8. Final step, take a day or two to breathe and recharge, then start all over. Rinse and repeat.

If you want to read more about my process, how I find beta readers, how I tweak, etc. I wrote a couple other posts on these specific topics: Is Your Manuscript Ready? 10 Tips to Help Figure it Out; Beta Relationships; and Who’s Your Critic?

So, that’s it. That’s my process! I’m supposed to pass this along to two other writers, but I only have one because I’m a rebel.

Jill Van Den Eng is an author and journalist with a keen interest in the extraordinary tales of ordinary people. She earned a BA in journalism and returned to her hometown of Kaukauna, WI as a city news reporter. The city with a river dividing it left an impact, inspiring the setting in Van Den Eng’s debut YA novel, DIVIDED MOON.

In addition to writing, Van Den Eng enjoys reading YA and popular fiction, running, solving puzzles and getting outside. She is a master gardener who keeps an herb and vegetable garden outside her home office and a novice astronomer with a really big telescope.

Van Den Eng lives in Wisconsin with her husband, three sons, two lazy cats and one evil hamster. Check out her blog and read about her process at Jilly’s Book Blog.

The Persistent Widow

There’s a parable in the Bible about the persistent widow. She wants justice–it doesn’t ever say what for–but the judge won’t listen to her. Every day she begs him for justice and every day he ignores her. On and on until eventually the judge can’t take it anymore. He gives in and gives the woman justice so she’ll leave him alone. (The parable can be found in Luke 18 if you’re interested). I don’t talk about my faith much on here, partially because I don’t want to be construed as pushing my beliefs on other people, but mostly because I try to keep this blog focused on my writing (although I’ve deviated with a couple personal posts lately). This parable has been bouncing around in my brain, though, not just in the context of my faith, but in the context of writing too.

Everyone knows publishing moves at a glacial pace. You learn that the first time you look at agent response times to queries. I’ve talked about trying to be more patient, but patience isn’t all you need if you want to make it in this business. Persistence is also key.

I’ve been thinking about persistence mostly in the terms of my faith, which is the focus of the parable of the persistent widow. The very first line says Jesus told the parable to show how you should pray without giving up. So every day, multiple times a day actually, I pray an editor buys my manuscript. Maybe that sounds silly to you. Sometimes it feels silly to me, but I still do it. I pray persistently. Like maybe I’ll eventually annoy God like the widow annoyed the judge and He’ll give in. I’ve always been such a Debbie Downer. I’d get a rejection and come home and flop on the bed with a giant sigh and bemoan “it’s never going to happen, I should just give up.” I’d wallow for a day or so, then get back up and started writing again. No matter how badly the rejection hurt, I couldn’t quit. I finally culled that urge to throw a pity party by remembering this parable, and instead of whining that it won’t happen for me, I say a prayer that it will.

Like I said at the start, though, it’s not just about prayer. For me, this parable is a reminder not to give up, period. That holds true no matter what you do or don’t believe. You have to be persistent if you’re going to achieve your goals, whatever they may be. My goal is to be published. To have my books on shelves in stores across the world. For strangers to read my words and invest in my characters. I could’ve given up dozens of times. After my first agent rejections, after my first bad critiques, after my first editor rejections, after a previous manuscript was shelved, after I got frustrated while writing another manuscript. But I didn’t. With each rejection, or bad critique, or writer’s block, I’ve pushed forward. Rejections and negative feedback will always sting, but it would be worse to stop there, for that negative response to be the last input someone has on my writing. So I keep going. I’m persistent. Even when I feel like Sisyphus, struggling to push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down and have to start over, which is often.

It would be so easy to quit writing. To say “I tried” and throw in the towel. But if you’re serious about this business, you can’t call mercy. You have to dig deep and keep going. Got a rejection from an agent? Okay, move on and query the next agent. Got some tough critiques on your manuscript? Revise and do another round of betas. Decided a manuscript just isn’t going to work? Trunk it and start another. A plot snag is holding up your story? Brainstorm, talk it over with friends, write an outline. Suck it up.

You’ll never reach your goals if you quit. I never would’ve gotten an agent if I’d stopped after my first rejection. And I’ll never be published if I don’t keep writing new stories and improving my craft. It has taken me a while to get to this point. I’m not exactly an optimist (Hubby says I’m a pessimist, I say I’m a realist). Honestly, my outlook on writing and the publishing industry changed because of this parable, which is why I wanted to share it with you, regardless of your religious leanings or even lack thereof. I have to make an effort remember the persistent widow and keep that lesson in the back of my mind every day. If you’re not religious, so what? That doesn’t negate the point of the story. The point is to keep at it. Whatever it is you’re doing, whatever you’re after, keep at it until you achieve it. Don’t even think about the worst case. Don’t think about failure.

One of my favorite stories of persistence is Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help. Here is a snip from an amazing article on her journey to publication:

In the end, I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? Three weeks later, Susan sold The Help to Amy Einhorn Books.

Five years of writing. Three and a half years of rejection. And she kept going. Her persistence paid off. One day, I want to be able to tell the world my persistence paid off.

I can’t sum this up any better than Kathryn did:

The point is, I can’t tell you how to succeed. But I can tell you how not to: Give in to the shame of being rejected and put your manuscript—or painting, song, voice, dance moves, [insert passion here]—in the coffin that is your bedside drawer and close it for good. I guarantee you that it won’t take you anywhere. Or you could do what this writer did: Give in to your obsession instead.

 

You Is Kind, You Is Smart, You Is Important.

Six years ago tomorrow, I got married. For a lot of people, most I dare say, this isn’t that big a deal. But it is for me.

I never wanted to get married. In fact, I said I was never getting married. Protested it. I was independent. Strong. A loner.

Truth is, though, I wasn’t. In reality, I was scared. Afraid of committing my entire life to someone and then being left or betrayed. Afraid of losing my independence, of relying on someone else and being let down. I think deep down, it wasn’t marriage that scared me, it was marrying the wrong person, and I didn’t trust my judgment to find the right person.

With good reason. Before my husband, I was in a terrible relationship. I’ve talked a bit about it before, but I didn’t tell the whole truth. The whole truth is terrifying, but I think I can finally say it. It’s hard to admit this, even now, nine years after I dumped the guy. Especially since I know my family reads my blog and there are things I haven’t told anyone except my husband and my brother. I think it needs to be said, though. There are people who need to hear it. Women, in a particular, who need to stand up for themselves. This isn’t directed at anyone specific, but at anyone who has ever let someone else take part of themselves.

The guy I dated for three years, the majority of my time in college, just about broke me. He was abusive. Mostly emotionally, telling me I was worthless and lucky to have him because no one else would ever want me. He would yell and cuss and threaten to leave. He threw things at me. Beer bottles and silverware. He’d kick his cat. He’d grab me hard enough to leave five oval bruises on each arm and shake me until I thought my head was going to fly off, until I became so dizzy I couldn’t stand.

He was an alcoholic. A couple years later I learned he’d developed a prescription drug addiction and went to rehab. I don’t know if it worked. He tried to kill himself a couple times. He always put it on me. His problems were my fault.

It suffocated me. I spent those years believing him. He ran off all of my friends. My parents thought I was just a bad roommate. I guess they thought I was selfish, that I chased my friends away. I never corrected them. It was better for them to think I was the bad person than to think I had terrible judgment. (Poor logic, I know). Part of me also feared my dad would kill the guy if he ever found out, and I didn’t want to put Daddy in that position.

I found freedom in a couple places. One, my friend Sam. We were in the same major. We started out studying together, then hanging out. I told my boyfriend I was studying, then Sam and I would go hear a band or something. Sam had this neighbor, this annoying, irritating neighbor who developed a crush on me. The guy drove me crazy, but later, I realized he sparked something within me. Confidence. Defiance. I learned my boyfriend was wrong. Other people would want me. Did want me.

I also found freedom in Paris.

My mother teaches high school and every couple years she’d take a group to Europe. For every x number of students who signed up (I don’t remember how many), the group got a free trip. So my senior year of college, a month after I turned 22, I got to go to Europe for free. It was there, in the piazzas in Florence, the train to Monaco, the shops of Nice, that I started to feel unbridled. One morning, winding through the streets of Paris, just outside Notre Dame, I realized I hadn’t bought my boyfriend a souvenir. I’d been in Europe almost ten days and hadn’t thought to get him anything. Hadn’t thought of him much at all, actually. I paid a couple Euro for a pen and ink drawing of the cathedral–one I wish I’d kept to be honest–and then forgot about the guy again. Until the plane ride home. Then the thick blanket came over my head again.

By the time I reunited with my boyfriend, the blanket became a plastic bag, killing me. Over the next month I tried to figure out a way to end it without destroying the guy. Even after all he’d put me through, I still worried about him. Isn’t that ridiculous? This was before his suicide attempts, before the pills and the rehab, but I knew how fragile he was. I still look back on that time and wonder if I should’ve said something to his family. There’s a twinge of guilt when I think I could have warned them. Not stopped it. Nothing could’ve stopped this guy’s path of destruction. But I could’ve warned his parents. His dad–who was a genuinely nice person. Realistically , though, I know it wouldn’t have mattered. They probably wouldn’t believe me. The guy had to hit bottom first, and, unfortunately, he still had a long way to fall.

Without me.

The end came one night when Sam and I were listening to a band downtown. I couldn’t stand it anymore and blurted “I’m single.” I wasn’t. Not yet. But saying it aloud meant I had to do it. Sam’s neighbor had showed up, and soon as he heard I was single, he attached himself to me like a leach. Badgered me into a date. I finally agreed so he’d leave me alone, and because I felt bad saying no. Dude was irritating, but sweet. And the date actually was amazing. Awkward and uncomfortable at times–seeing as how I still had a boyfriend–but amazing.

Something clicked. For the first time in years, a guy was enamored by me. He treated me with respect and deference and made me feel special. It’s like I’d been trying to unlock a door with the wrong key and suddenly all the tumblers fell into place.

I dumped my boyfriend. It took two days. He mostly cried. Squalled like a little girl. He’d been planning to propose after my college graduation ceremony–the next day. While it hurt him terribly, I felt a rush of relief. The bag had been removed from my head and I could breathe fresh air again.

Three years later, the neighbor and I got married. He loves me and respects me and honors me more and more every day. He is the reason I’m a writer. I recently realized, with some measure of shock, that I didn’t write a single word while I dated the other guy. I’d been writing all my life and he killed the words. My husband brought them out of me again. He pushes me to be a better version of myself, but loves me where I am. He patiently discusses plot ideas and character development and sits across from me at coffee shops when I know he’d rather do something else, just so he can spend time with me while I write.

Marriage is nothing like I’d feared. It’s not always easy, but it isn’t the smothering loss of self I thought it would be.

We have this tree in our front yard, a crepe myrtle. It was huge! Way bigger than a crepe myrtle is supposed to be. In the spring, the branches would get so heavy with leaves and flowers they’d almost touch the ground. The leaves were so thick, they formed a canopy across part of the yard, almost completely blocking the sun. Last summer, Hubs and I got tired of it. We attacked the branches, hacking them with saws until only the very top remained. Air can swirl through the yard again. The sun can reach the grass. It had been stifled for years, but now it’s finally growing again.

I’m growing. And I have a wonderful man growing with me.

I’m writing all this now for a couple reasons. The ex popped up on LinkedIn the other day. I saw his profile on my screen and felt…nothing. Not the anger and pain and sadness I’ve felt for years. Not the reminder of the time I wasted on him. Just nothing. I have finally healed. The wounds he caused are still there. That pain and hurt changed me, and I will never regain the innocence and naivety that he stole. But the wounds no longer bleed, they no longer hurt. They’re scars. So small now, they’re barely visible. I still know they’re there, but you have to look closely to see them. Like the tiny white line on my knee where I gouged it on a metal ladder in middle school.

The other reason is because there are others like me. Those who let other people dictate their self-worth, who tell them they’re not good enough, that they aren’t worth love. I’m not better because my husband loves me. I’m better because he helped me learn how to love myself. Self-loathing and depression runs high in writers. I struggle with self-deprecating thoughts every day. It’s easy to let others define your sense of self-worth, especially in this business. But it’s important to distance yourself.

I am not defined by my rejection. I am not defined by my success. Other people’s opinions don’t dictate who I am inside. Even when I get down on myself, I remember, I am worth something. You are worth something. Whether you’re in an abusive situation, or you’re just depressed, or you’re drowning under the weight of rejection or criticism or bad reviews, don’t forget that. And if you’re in a bad situation: get out. Now. Don’t think about it. Free yourself. Find a support system, a kind shoulder, a group, a therapist, a friend, someone and get out. Trust me, it won’t hurt as much as you think it will, and you deserve better.

I leave you with the words of Kathryn Stockett, from the mouth of her character Aibileen Clark in “The Help”: You is kind. You is smart. You is important. 

Don’t forget that.

Confession Time: I Might Be Crazy

A few weeks ago, I wrote about fear. It’s a funny thing, fear. It, and that lovely fight or flight response that comes with it. Personally, I’m a big fan of flight. For example, (I might have mentioned this before) I’m a bit afraid of the dark. Yes, I’m almost 31. Don’t judge. It’s creepy when I’m home alone and the house is all dark and something could be lurking in the other room waiting for me to pop my head out so it can chop it off. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been that person who clicks off the light and leaps into bed. Literally. I scurry across the room as fast as possible.

Lately, I’ve also been afraid of posting this post. I’ve had it written for a while. Just sitting here in my draft box. Judging me every time I click on my blog. I’ve been running from it. But now it’s time to face it. To put this very personal piece of myself out there. By the end of it, you may think I’m crazy. It’s okay. I feel crazy every single day of my life. Crazy and depressed and neurotic and anxious and…obsessed.

Have you ever heard someone say “Oh my gosh, I’m so OCD. I hate it when my *insert item* is messy, or things aren’t organized.”? Or something along those lines? I hear it constantly, and every time I do I want to scream. But I’m too introverted for that. Instead, I quietly yell in my head “You have no idea what you’re talking about!!!” Because that’s not OCD. Not even close.

People throw that term around way too often, but most fail to realize it’s not just a case of being neat freak. It’s a mental disorder. You don’t hear people casually remarking “Oh my gosh I’m such a Lupus freak,” when they don’t have Lupus. (No, that sentence doesn’t really make sense. Cut me some slack, I’m terrified right now. And yes, I might have thought of Mitch Hedberg when I picked a disease to put there). It’s a failure of our society that mental disorders are not put on the same level with physical. Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean a person isn’t suffering. It doesn’t mean they aren’t waging a battle every single day.

Although sometimes, if you look close enough, you can see it. You just have to pay attention.

Attention is one of the things I avoid. I hide in corners and beside walls. I work to blend in, for people to glance over me like I’m a ghost and keep moving. Because I’m afraid of what they’ll see if they look too hard.

My OCD. Real OCD.

Not like the stereotypical OCD they put in pop culture like “Monk” or “As Good As It Gets.” It’s not all hand-washing and flicking light switches, although those are some people’s obsessions. OCD is way more than that. It can be crippling. It can reduce someone into a ball of anxiety and fear and nausea and tears. And everyone isn’t the same. In fact, I finally got the strength to post this thanks to another YA writer who wrote about her struggle, which is different from mine, but yet, kind of the same. (I still can’t believe I’m doing this, and I’ll admit, even now I’m tempted to turn back.)

See, like I mentioned, it’s a lot about anxiety as well as compulsions. A lot of my anxiety stems from social interaction. I’m a natural introvert, but it’s worsened by OCD. I’m always afraid of being a bother, of putting people out. Growing up, I used to write “thanks for putting up with me” on every birthday card to my best friend. For like 14 years. I even said it at my wedding. (She was my maid of honor). I get nervous just being around a lot of people (not so much concerts and festivals, but places like malls. I cannot do Black Friday. The one time I did, I was reduced to tears within minutes. In the parking lot. Of the first store. Yeah.) I also get really nervous around people period (small talk is horrible), because I’m afraid I won’t say the right thing because I never say the right thing and they’ll look at me like I’m crazy, which I am, which means they’ll see me, and they’ll notice my compulsions, and then they’ll know I’m crazy, and they’ll be afraid of me and I’ll turn into that rambling lunatic on the street who doesn’t bathe and thinks the world is ending. These thoughts are irrational, and I know they’re irrational, but it’s what goes through my head pretty much whenever I talk to people. So, yeah. Hello, I’m awkward!

I’ve never been one to care what people think of me. I don’t give in to peer pressure. I’m not “cool” or “fun.” People don’t clamor to sit at my table. In online forums and on Twitter, I’m kind of a thread-killer. That’s okay. I do my own thing. But that’s on my terms. OCD isn’t. OCD is on my brain’s terms. There’s a difference between wearing hoodies and tennis shoes when everyone else is wearing dresses and pointy toed heels, and turning in a circle before I can get in the car. One makes me feel comfortable in my own skin, the other makes me feel crazy. And when I feel crazy, I get anxious. Which is all the time.

Not that you would know it just from meeting me. Or even hanging out with me for a while. That’s what scares me so much about posting this. The only person who really knows the extent of my compulsions is my husband. We’ve been together almost nine years counting dating, and he didn’t even know until a few years ago. That’s how good I am at hiding it. Most of my friends just think I’m “quirky” or “particular.” Some think I’m selfish because I have to have things a certain way, and I talk about myself more than I ask about them (which is really because I have no idea what to say to people, or how to relate to them except through my own experiences. Social anxiety, remember?) Some may even think I’m being difficult when I insist on sitting in a certain spot. They have no idea what’s going on inside my head. They don’t know that if if I don’t sit against the wall in a restaurant, facing the door, that my heart becomes an angry caged gorilla trying to get out of my chest. Or that I almost come out of my skin every time I hear a noise behind me because I’m afraid of being attacked. They don’t know that if I have to sit somewhere beside my spot, that fight or flight response kicks in with a spiteful burst of adrenaline. Those tears aren’t from me being a whiny baby who isn’t getting her way. They’re because my body is literally in a panic that I can’t control.

Yes. It’s silly. It’s irrational. It makes no sense. I know this. I know someone isn’t going to attack me from behind at a restaurant. I know that I’m not going to fall apart if I turn in a complete circle, or if I don’t even the pressure on the other side of my body after I’m touched or poked. I know. But my brain doesn’t. My body doesn’t .I can’t remember I time when I wasn’t this way. It’s gotten worse over time, and much worse after my dad died. Apparently, stress amplifies OCD. At least that’s what the psychiatrist I saw said. I’m not sure how much I believe her, though, to be honest. She tried to medicate me. I forget now what the drug was called–I tried to put it out of my head–because I wanted to kill myself while I was taking it. I mean that quite literally. I smiled and looked happy, but all I could do was lie on the couch and think of ways to end my life in order to stop feeling so miserable. The psychiatrist told me to stick with it a few weeks so it could get in my system. I didn’t think I’d be around a few weeks at the rate I was going. So I quit taking it, and I quit seeing her.

Other friends who suffer from anxiety, friends who are in med school, have told me about different therapies that help OCD, but I’m scared to try them. OCD can be debilitating. I had to leave church one Sunday because my seat was taken, and the only open pew made me feel constricted, like my skin was too tight. I couldn’t sit still, my foot started bouncing, then my knees, then my whole body shook. I thought I was going to throw up on the nice lady’s hair in front of me. Then the tears came. I was close to a full blown panic attack (yeah, if all that wasn’t full blown, imagine what it would be like), when Hubby took my hand and led me outside. As debilitating as it is, though, I don’t know who I am without it.

And that sounds craziest at all. What it boils down to, is I’m terrified of what would happen if I didn’t carry through with my compulsions. I guess therapy would address that, but I’m not there yet. The last lady who tried to “help” is still too fresh. Besides, I’m coming to discover that once people are educated about OCD and my compulsions, it gets a little better. I don’t have to hide. I’ve let little pieces of it out to friends over the last few years and instead of chasing me away with pitchforks and crosses, they actually, kind of, accept me a little more. They’ve tried to understand what I go through, and if I can shed some light on OCD and the problems sufferers can face, then it’s worth opening up about, I suppose. Even though as I type I have this a ball of panic in my stomach and my brain keeps yelling “no, no! shhhhh!”

So, here’s a run down of some of my compulsions:

  • My biggest thing is evenness. Even numbers, even feelings, even everything. The radio/tv, etc volume has to be on an even number. You’ll notice I only tag my blog in even numbers. I eat food in even numbers, for example two M&Ms at a time. If I can’t have two, then I don’t have any. Or, if I have no choice but to eat one of something, then I keep track in my head and I’ll eat one of something else to make it balance. Most people I know who have OCD are pretty good at rationalizations like that. Part of this is that I can’t turn in a complete circle, or my equilibrium is off–which makes slow dancing kind of hard. If someone touches me on one side of my body, or if I bump something with one arm, I have to even the feeling on the other side. Even if I hurt myself. A lot of it has to do with pressure. I don’t have to injure my other side, but I have to create the same amount of pressure. I hate being poked. Because then I have to slyly poke my other arm, etc in the same place, for the same amount of time, with the same amount of pressure. It’s incredibly frustrating, and can be hard to get it right. Often times, I’ll have to go back and forth between sides until I feel even. The hardest part is I have to touch each side the same number, an even number, of times.
  • I hate being touched. A quick way to make me panic and cry? Hug me. Constrict me. Being constricted is the worst. Next to someone touching my ears. I knew I loved my husband when his touches and hugs didn’t bother me. Of course, my OCD wasn’t as bad back when we met. He still can’t touch my ears, though. Not ever. *shudders* *shudders again*
  • I have a thing with counting. This is one I’ve worked to break. Really “not think about” is more accurate. It goes hand in hand with the evenness thing. I used to count words, and kisses, and steps. I knew how many steps it took to get everywhere. I also counted stairs. My grandfather worked in different courthouses doing title research. I’d count stairs while he worked. I knew the number of stairs in every courthouse in Northeast Alabama.
  • Test anxiety. I don’t mean I got nervous before tests. I mean if I didn’t go through my routine before an exam, I’d have a panic attack. The routine started by having to use my lucky pen–a Pilot Dr. Grip that my dad bought me in ninth grade. By law school it had gotten much worse. Law school has one exam for each class. Think about it, each class lasts a semester and you get one grade. That’s enough to give anyone anxiety, but for me it was almost debilitating. Here’s the process: Arrive at the classroom two hours before the exam. Sit in the same seat (four rows up, four seats over). Study until fifteen minutes before the test, not talking to anyone. Go to the break room and get a Reese’s cup and a Diet Dr. Pepper from the vending machines. The exams were all essay, and I typed mine, so there was no writing on them with my lucky pen–yes, the same one from the ninth grade; I kept it for twelve years of schooling. We were, however, given scratch paper, which had to be turned in. At the top of the first page I’d write, with my pen, “Please God let me pass.” Every time. I even did this on the Bar exam. Once the vending machine ran out of Reese’s cups and I freaked out. Cold sweat, tears, shaking. For the Bar, I had to pack my own Reese’s and Diet Dr. Pepper. One for each of four sessions. For three days.

There’s more. So much more. But I can’t type them, because that would be more than four points, and I can’t end on an odd number. Fours are great, because they break down into twos. Six is terrible, because it breaks into threes. Yeah, it can break into twos, but it’s three twos, which doesn’t work.

OCD is exhausting because my mind is constantly going, thinking about everything. The only time I can get a break is when I let my mind wander. I focus on not focusing, which sounds like an oxymoron. When my mind wanders, though, I don’t think about alternating which foot steps over sidewalk cracks and parking lot paint lines. I don’t count the number of times I kiss my husband. I don’t realize he’s been holding my right hand without holding my left.

I think of stories.

And in these stories, my characters are free. They don’t have compulsions. They don’t suffer anxiety. And when they do, I’m in control. For the first time in my life, I’m truly in control.

It’s one reason I love writing so freaking much. Unlike conversations in real life, or even on Twitter, where I have to think of something quick, I have time to mull over what I want to say, how I want to phrase things. I can’t delete my words once I say them aloud, but I can delete them on the page and rewrite it until I’ve said it just right. (Off the cuff I’m not so hot, but believe it or not, I rock speeches! Once I get past the initial nerves that is. I was even on the mock trial team in law school. Because I got to plan what I was going to say ahead of time. Trust me, I was always the most prepared person in the courtroom. I planned every question, and every single possible answer so that I wouldn’t be caught off guard. Yes, it took forever, haha, but no, I didn’t lose).

Writing is my release. My outlet.

I’m not entirely sure why I’m letting all this out now. I guess partially because I’ve heard so many people claim to be OCD lately that I had to speak up, partially because other writers have come forward about their OCD and anxiety issues (there’s even a support Tumblr called Shrinking Violets), and partially so that if I ever meet any of you in real life–if the dream comes true and a book of mine is published and I go to a conference or whatever–you’ll know why I’m standing in the corner, trying to look small, and why I absolutely suck at talking, and maybe you’ll give me, and others like me, a chance.

A big reason I’m writing this, though, is because I’m learning that putting myself out there can only help.

As I’ve mentioned before, I help lead youth at church. At first, I was, as always, terrified of them. New people. Eek! But once they figured me out, learned about my “quirks” and understood that I’m just awkward and OCD, we all clicked together. I even had one of them tell me not too long ago that I’m “fun.” Me. Fun. Ha!

So, hi! I’m Sarah. I have pretty bad OCD. Not as severe as some, worse than others. It’s real. It’s a disorder that I can’t control. But I’m learning to deal with it. After almost 31 years. Maybe you have friends with it. Hiding in the shadows, seeming “difficult” or “selfish.” Maybe you’ll look at them in a new light. Maybe you’ll talk to them about it. If you do, approach with caution, and love, and let them know they’re not alone or crazy.

And if you have OCD? Welcome! Come sit somewhere in my vicinity and chat. Just please, don’t touch. : )

The Fear

The longer I write, the more I try to make this a legit career, the more I realize one important thing. It never stops being scary.

Writing wasn’t that scary when I was younger. Those short stories and attempts at novels that failed before they ever got off the ground were all warm-ups. They were laps around an empty track. They were throwing a softball and shagging fly balls behind the house with my dad.

The first time I sat down with a book idea and actually began to write it in earnest, that’s when it got real. Committing an idea to the page and investing ninety-something-thousand words in it is a scary thing. At least, it was for me. Letting someone read it made me really nervous. (Later realizing I let them read that many words of crap embarrassed me to no end). Reading it in front of a critique group for the first time petrified me. I was no longer hidden in the back yard, I was on the practice field with the whole team.

Writing the second one wasn’t any easier. The writing improved, but that manuscript came with a new, even scarier step. Sending it to agents. Querying. Oh my gosh, querying. All of a sudden, I went from the practice field to a game. People were watching. What if I messed up? What would happen then?

A fair amount of tears, it turned out. Rejection. To be honest, the first rejections weren’t as scary as the requests for fulls. Knowing an agent had my work was ten times more frightening than the critique group reading it.

Each step in the writing process has come with a new fear. The fear of committing to a new idea then discovering it sucks. The fear of someone else reading my words and thoughts. The fear of rejection. Of judgment. Of revising and doing it wrong and having to do it all over again but still not getting it right. Of letting down my family and friends and agent and myself.

It doesn’t stop. It’s an infinite roller coaster that you never get off.

I just finished my fourth manuscript. I love it. SO. MUCH. This is a big deal. It’s uncharted territory. Don’t get me wrong, I usually like my writing, and there are always passages and phrases that I love in each manuscript. But upon finishing my final read through before I send it off to my agent, it hit me that I’ve completely fallen in love with this book.

Loving a book isn’t that different from romantic love. Before my husband, I had several boyfriends, each of whom I thought I had a deeper connection with than the last. It wasn’t until I found my husband, though, that I realized what true love is. Those feelings for those other boys all paled in comparison. I still like my other stories, and I still harbor a deep affection for my last manuscript. But I didn’t know true book love until this one.

And that scares me more than anything else has so far with my writing.

When I went on sub with the last book, it was pretty nerve-wracking. I made my standard color-coded spreadsheet. I jumped at every new email. I prayed someone would want it. The first rejections came and, even though I’d steeled myself, they stung. I cried. I wallowed for a bit, then I brushed myself off and moved on. I’d already starting writing another one–and I’d already started falling for it–so I had something to keep me preoccupied. Each rejection was a little easier to deal with. When six months went by and the list of editors with my sub dwindled, I was prepared. I knew we weren’t giving up on the book, just putting it aside awhile until the timing was right. It was hard, but I’d seen the writing on the wall. Instead of fretting, I threw myself into finishing the new book, and despite trying to keep it at arm’s length, I fell head over heels for it. So much so, that sending the final draft to my agent was the scariest thing I’d done.

Falling in love with your writing is a dangerous thing, and I really felt that danger for the first time when I submitted the draft. The more you love something you’ve written, the harder it is to tear it apart. “Kill your darlings” isn’t just a cliche. Writers can get so swept up with something small that sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve never had a problem cutting into my writing. My agent signed me after a massive revision in which I reworked the entire story. She’s hands-on and editorial, which I love, and I know she knows her stuff. But I didn’t want to see this story carved to pieces. If she’d come back and said it needed major revisions, I would’ve heard her out and given it a shot, because I trust her and I know she sees things from a different vantage point, she sees the whole forest. It would’ve been hard, though.

Fortunately, she loved it too. No major changes, no ripping my baby to shreds. I was thrilled (and shocked, haha). Now it’s time for this one to go on sub. It should be old hat this time around. I’ve been here before. I’ve played a game under the lights in front of a big crowd. This time, though, I’m naked. I’m terrified to sub this. I actually cried when I found out it’s time to send it.

I’m not ready. I’m not ready for this manuscript to get rejected. I love it too much.

When I started writing seriously, I thought I would eventually reach a point where it isn’t scary anymore, where I’d be comfortable. There is no comfort in writing. Each step is just as terrifying, or more so, than the last. If the impossible happens (which I can hardly begin to hope for) and this book doesn’t get rejected, if someone wants it, then I have the fear of it getting ripped apart again. The fear of the whole publishing process. Of readers not buying it, or worse, hating it, or not caring at all. Of never selling another book.

It never stops. Just because you reach that next step in your journey, doesn’t mean it gets easier. Rejection doesn’t hurt less, you just get used to the pain. Fear doesn’t lessen, but you figure out how to cope (at least not until you get into Stephen King/John Grisham/John Green territory. I bet they don’t feel the fear anymore. Although, who knows, maybe they do?). I’m, obviously, still working on that coping bit. Maybe I’ll get the hang of it one day, but until then, I’m going to build my color-coded submission spreadsheet, eat some chocolate, wait to pounce on my phone when I get an email, and write another book to fall in love with.

Because regardless of how scary writing can be, I love it. I can’t imagine not doing it. Fear and all.

(Also, this is the song (Lily Allen “The Fear”) I’ve been humming while writing this post. It will get in your head. You’ve been warned).