Where on earth did February go already? I spent much of the month fighting the demons of depression and head fog, organizing a change of health insurance, and submitting my first application for national disability. Most days have been left as a vague blur in my memory, and the mood tracker I have on my phone reflects that. A lot of blues and greens popping up, which indicate bad mental days. Both Jan and Feb have been rough, more than usual, and I went into a planned workshop/conference in Vegas with a mountain of frustration. What was causing my head fog and pain? Just the weather? A bad downturn in hormones? Were the antidepressants not working anymore? My sleep has been rough for over a year, did it finally come to a head? Would it ever end?
I don't have answers to any of those questions, but driving inland to Vegas helped get my head out of the rain clouds and into the first direct sunlight I've seen in months. I know the weather has a direct affect on my mood, so I like to drive up to a cafe one town over to get away from the marine layer here on the coast. But when the winter storms come through, all I can do is hunker down and wait it out. Vegas' dry air and sunlight brought me out of a lot of that weather-induced depression, leaving only the body ache, anxiety, fatigue, blood pressure, tachycardia, and hypersensitivity to juggle. Despite an array of doctors and specialists, there's still no sign of something "wrong" with me. Nothing to diagnose and manage. Just symptoms.
But I was happy to get out of the head fog enough to take full advantage of my week in Vegas. I avoided the worst of the casino smoke and spent most of my time sitting with editors and authors both new and familiar over lunch, dinner, and after. I was able to connect with Kris Katherine Rush, who has forgotten more about science fiction and genre writing than I'll ever learn. I had a great lunch with her husband Dean Wesley Smith who gave me invaluable encouragement and advice on my 52 stories in 52 weeks project--because he's done it before! I connected with Leah Cutter, an author, editor, and publisher who has found ways to manage her own chronic conditions.
The anthology workshop is put on every year by Kris and Dean at WMG Publishing in order to solicit and purchase short stories (6k or less) for their Fiction River and Pulphouse magazines. With few exceptions, this workshop is the only way to get into these magazines, and many people have been attending for years. They pay pro rates (.06 per word +) for each story, and seek enough stories to fill 7 or 8 anthologies--the roster of magazines for the upcoming year. That means 70 or 80 short stories are purchased in one week, selected out of ~300.
More than that, though, the workshop is an in-depth look at how an editor goes through the submissions for a magazine, makes decisions on what fits or doesn't, and why some stories are chosen or rejected. I have a massive spreadsheet now correlating 5 different editors with their specific opinions on 300 different stories. I know their likes and dislikes. I know what anthologies they purchased for and when a story didn't fit the theme. I even know when a story was shortlisted but didn't make the cut because it was 1k words too long and the 3000 word story hit the anthology limit instead. Sometimes stories don't make it because the editor hates harps. You never know. Four editors might love the story but the one buying didn't follow the plot so it misses the mark.
When people tell you that your story is good but it just didn't work for this anthology... it could mean anything at all!
I came away from these critique sessions both emboldened about my skill, but with a LIST of practical areas to focus on to better my craft. Point of view, setting, voice, and framing are all important, and sometimes good writing can mask the lack of skill in other areas. Now that I've made so many notes I want to go back into that spreadsheet and pull out the stories that stood out in these areas. I read the whole group for the workshop, but that was a matter of volume, this is a matter of value. There are amazing pieces in this collection worth studying.
While I didn't sell anything at the conference, I was able to expand on my network of friends, coworkers, and mentors. My facebook page is a little more active now, and I've discovered some people worth checking in on regularly. I learned a TON. Thankfully Dean and Kris have an array of online and in-person workshops I can work my way through to level up over and over again.
Thanks to the advice I gleaned from so many amazing people, I know for sure this 52 stories project is exactly where I need to be. Most will be posted here on Patreon first, especially as I'm building up the stack of stories. If I write something I'm particularly fond of, I may send it to a magazine first on the chance they'll take it, but I don't intend to keep fiction out in circulation for very long. One magazine, maybe two, then it'll go up here to be read. As I produce work I'll publish themed collections, and this year I want to do more illustrations, so I may paint my own covers for some short stories! Ultimately I've come back to California inspired, refreshed, and energized--all things I haven't felt since late last year and worried would be long out of my reach.
I've made three big changes since I've been home. The first is adopting the Autoimmune Protocol Diet. This is an elimination diet process meant to identify inflaming and reactionary foods, even if those reactions are mild or unusual. Step one is reducing the variety of things consumed: no grains, dairy, soy, nuts, or legumes. No nightshades, spices, or anything processed. Nothing but fresh veggies and animal meat (no eggs) for at least two months. This first step is meant to reduce body-wide inflammation and allow any reactions currently in progress to subside. Reactions can be anything from rashes and itchiness, to exhaustion and pain! If there's a food that causes (or exacerbates) my head fog, depression, body pain, and other symptoms, this is the most effective way to find out.
After 2 months I'll start reintroducing foods one at a time and tracking my reactions (if any). If I have soy sauce dressing on my chicken and veggies, do I feel bloated or tired the next day? If I have tomatoes on my salad greens does my pain sensitivity shoot up? Each food (I have a list) is tested for three or four days in isolation, which allows the body plenty of time to react, if it's going to. Food that cause problems will be struck off my list for good, while foods that don't can be safely included in my diet. It'll take well over a year to test all these variables, but if it means my symptoms are lessened (or eliminated!) I'm willing to put in the work.
The second big change I've made has to do with scheduling. I've always tried to prioritize my writing time, and I tend to put everything I do in a calendar so I don't double-book myself, but for some reason I've never put writing in my calendar. That changes now. Monday through Friday my day now starts at 9am (though I'm often up sooner). I have scheduled breakfast, the dishes (a chore I'm determined to master), followed immediately by two hours of writing time. I break for lunch, then combat the afternoon slump by getting out of the house to walk (the third big change). When I come back it's time for some administration work unless I'm feeling inspired to write, which always comes first. By 5pm my spouse comes home and it's time to Stop Working, which is just as important as getting things done! My weekends are lighter, with more chores and free time to schedule with friends and for hobbies. I do have a 2 hr block of time reserved for art on Sundays, as I'm giving more of my attention to that this year.
The third big change is walking. I'm generally resistant to exercise. I'm usually in pain and even minimal exercise will cause even more pain every time. It also takes me several days to recover from muscle pains. Possibly related: I bruise very easily. So despite knowing that I need to be more active, I haven't made it a priority. I just hate causing myself pain! Well, not moving enough has started to impact me in other ways and I either address the problem or stick myself in a wheelchair. My wheelchair would be an awesome machine if I had one, but being mobile is better. ;) Anyway, the second issue I've been struggling with is sheer boredom. I could go outside and walk around the block but... that's dull. I want to wear earbuds and listen to something on my phone while I walk (like a podcast!), but nothing fits inside my baby-sized ears. For now, the solution is a pair of skull candy buds with the pads removed, but even the plastic housing on the speaker is too large, so I hold them in with a beanie. Once the weather warms up, though, i'm not sure what I'll do. Suggestions on this problem are welcome!
tl;dr Depression sucks, Vegas conference was awesome, Life changes in motion, Go Team.
I'm excited to see where this year takes me with writing and life. I'm not going to let my health control my happiness, though sometimes I don't win that battle. As long as I move forward, I'm making progress.