On Learning and Processing

1. Learning Can Be Stressful

Querying is pretty draining. Over the last seven months, at last count, I’ve sent out 64 query letters for both Creampuffs and Ashes. (A query letter, for those who might not know, is like a cover letter, resume, and sales pitch all rolled into one. Almost all the agents I queried were cold, i.e. they did not request my query specifically. They simply had open calls for submissions where I felt that either novel fit their calls. Think of it like looking for work in a field were you do not have experience or contacts.)

I know not to expect success right away, that I would have to be tweaking the format more or less constantly–above and beyond customizing it for each agent. But I had hopes. I did my research and my due diligence and sought out feedback and made changes based on that feedback. But still haven’t received anything better than a “thanks, but not for me!”.

Shortly after I got back from Manitoulin (spent a week up at NerdHaus for Canada Day) I was browsing my Local Neighbourhood FB Writer’s group, when someone posted about their query woes. I lurked in the comments. Someone recommended a site called QueryShark, which is basically an agony aunt for query letters. I’d never heard of it (I’ve prepping and sending for almost a year now–just a reminder that the internet can be a big place). It’s a fairly brusque and stark look at query letters and what people are doing wrong and what they can improve. It’s not a blog that’s out to make friends but to help people improve their careers. All to say, browsing this website shortly before going to bed was not a wise move.

I read; I grew horrified; I kept reading.

I lay awake for a long time.

The next day I did revisions. And drank a lot of coffee. And did more revisions, and felt a little bit better.

The following week someone in my group posted that they wanted to do a query letter critique trade, so I signed up. A lovely woman with experience in the industry gave both query packages (query + synopsis) a thorough going over.

Again, I had thought I was mostly there; but I was not.

It was all good advice; I am grateful she was there to give it; she stressed that she was there to help and wants to see me succeed; and yet it was extremely disheartening.

Like, ‘I may have wasted a lot of good opportunities and work over the past seven months’ disheartening.

2. The Processing

I spent a week being, for lack of a better term, irritated. Everything made me a little crazy. I couldn’t focus on tasks, I forgot conversations two minutes after having them, everything was too loud and too bright. I felt like I was set in permanent spinning hourglass mode. I felt like my internal CPU was busy processing the advice I’d been given and trying to turn it into useful information, and anything that tried to take RAM away from that goal caused me to snap and snarl. It was not a good time to be around or indeed be inside my skull.

I stand at a crossroads: do I revise Creampuffs so that it is more commercial? Do I force it into a rom-com style, and potentially lose everything that I love about it, that I set out to tell? Or do I persist with the manuscript as-is, throw out my query and start all over again, knowing it’s an uphill battle?

And Ashes. My poor baby. I knew for a long time that Ashes is longer than most debut novels, even for fantasy. (There are exceptions, of course, but can I compete with the likes of Brandon Sanderson or Susanna Clarke?) Do I gut Ashes to lose 30,000 words? How do I do that, when even my professional editor could not? Again, do I persist with the story I want to tell, knowing it will be an uphill battle?

I still don’t know the answers to those questions. But at least I figured out why some days it feels like the world makes me crazy.

3. A surprise revelation

I was surfing twitter yesterday morning with my coffee, and I came across:

And I thought it might be interesting, given how much extra trouble I seemed to be having with loud noises lately.

Well.

I went down a rabbit hole. Mia Steinberg was talking about her own lived experiences, and yet she could have been talking about my life, too. I started reading about other people with APD, too, and more scholarly articles and my. mind. was. blown. The irritation with loud spaces. Having to ask new people their names over and over because I can’t pry meaning out of the sounds they’re making. The exhaustion from being in crowded places, parties with friends, having to listen to two or three conversations at once or even just around me. The insane, abrupt rage if people start talking to me before I can pause the TV.

I remember my confusion over the years while trying to learn German, Japanese, and Mandarin, how the reading and writing came easily to me (yes, even the Chinese characters) and yet listening to conversations was an exercise in futility. I couldn’t remember a spoken sentence two minutes later. I couldn’t pry apart unfamiliar syllables (looking at you here, XI and QI sounds). I remember remarking to a classmate that it was like trying to make sense out of a badly tuned radio, and having them stare at me in incomprehension (I, of course, assumed merely that my analogy was at fault).

I’ve never felt so liberated. The freedom that came with knowing that I wasn’t mistaken: all those years of wearing headphones EVERYWHERE, all the crabbiness and exhaustion and jumpiness from parties and open offices that confused others and set me apart, it had a reason. I’m not being weirdly “oversensitive”. There is now a hook to hang all these separate behaviours on. There’s an underlying cause. Nothing has changed and yet it feels amazing.

Am I still going to be frustrated in noisy places while I’m trying to work? Sure, but now I know why.  I no longer have to scramble for words or fail to adequately explain why I look so uncomfortable at a gathering. And I did fail. So hard. “Why are you sitting there with that scowl” was once asked of me at a party and I couldn’t answer. I honestly didn’t know how to answer. I should be having fun, I was playing board games with friends, but the space was SO LOUD and full of people TALKING ALL AT ONCE, and the espresso machine was RIGHT THERE and I couldn’t focus on what we were doing. It was exhausting and painful. But I couldn’t articulate any of that. I think I said I was developing a headache. (Not a lie, but not the real truth, either. I get headaches a lot.)

Now I can begin to articulate why I am uncomfortable. And I can ask for concessions–moving to a quieter room or area, turning off a TV in the background, whatever. Some people with APD on twitter are discussing the earplugs that they use to help focus on only one conversation at a time. It’s amazing.

Maybe I’ll even be able to start going to cons again (don’t get me started on how exhausting cons are).

I feel like there’s a whole new world outside now.

4. Resolutions

I came home yesterday to another revelation: Pitch Wars is still open.

Pitch Wars is where authors trying to find an agent get paired with a mentor who helps them put a package together, or tweak an existing package that’s not working, in order to prepare for a showcase with agents in February. I had several misconceptions about it, namely that it cost money to enter and that the deadline was the end of July.

Both of those assumptions were wrong, I discovered thanks to yet another member of my FB writing group (I love my group so much).

I hadn’t bothered to look to closely at the Pitch Wars launch because I’d been so focused and mired on my crossroads. Like I said–my CPU was maxed out. But after researching APD I felt lighter and had mental energy again to poke around random posts that (surprise!) are actually potential opportunities. Potential solutions.

I still don’t know what I am going to do about Ashes. I have Blackout Odyssey to prep for querying, and Space Crazies to edit and I don’t know if I have the mental resources to fight an uphill battle with four manuscripts.

But at least I now know what to do about Creampuffs. I have to rewrite my query letter from scratch anyway, so why not do so for Pitch Wars? Perhaps I’ll get a mentor who can help me choose a path. Perhaps I won’t (there’s no guarantee you get a mentor; many people are competing for a limited number of slots). But if I don’t, I won’t be any worse off than I am now, and it gives me a course of action to follow for the time being (selection is in October).

Life is always surprising. I’m turning 37 in a month and I just found out I potentially have a disorder that affects my every day life. Has always affected my every day life; I just lumped it under my various weird quirks. But as a friend told me yesterday after I regaled her with my revelations: “You’ve always been good at hacking your life, but it’s a lot easier to hack when you know what the problem is”.

Nothing has changed since last week, and yet, for the first time in a little while, I’m hopeful. I’m still burnt out, I know this, so I am taking August to clear down my plate. I’m going to be saying no to more engagements while I sort myself out. But I hope, come September, to feel a bit more resolved and ready to roll.

See you there. Don’t be surprised if I’m wearing headphones. 🙂

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