Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Physician, Heal Thyself

In 2008, a doctor prescribed me a medication that triggered Steven Johnson Syndrome and almost killed me. It came after years of trying to find a solution to my TMJ, and by that stage I had tried literally hundreds of other options: specialists, oral splints, acupuncture, injections, medications, etc.

Near death and a whole laundry list of new, debilitating symptoms from the SJS would be reason enough for most people to lose faith and stop trying to find an answer. To just accept how things were, because there was plenty of proof that trying new things made the situation worse.

After all, next time, it could finish me off.

However I never stopped trying to find a solution to my symptoms. If I heard about something new, I tried it. If I read about an obscure medical research experiment that had positive results, I tried it. If someone suggested prayer or meditation or crystals or yoga, I tried it. (Just FYI, most of that stuff is complete shite and you're probably an asshole if you suggest it to chronically ill people.)

I wasn't willing to knock anything until I had tested it. So I have tested a lot of whacked out crap. Some of it was surprisingly effective. Some of it was predictably stupid.

Sometimes I would get one problem under control only to find it was masking eight more. Sometimes I would do a complete re-assessment of treatment by stopping all my meds and going off my carefully controlled diet to check it was really helping. (Also, stopping all your meds is really dangerous. Do as I say, not as I do.) Sometimes a change would require everything (meds, food, exercise) to be completely re-balanced and it would take painstaking weeks of experimentation to get things moving forward again.

The important thing is, I never stopped looking for solutions. I never stopped trying new things. I never stopped researching.

At the end of last year,  a friend who had similar symptoms to me, but a different condition, said he was 'feeling better'. Jealous and curious, I asked how. He told me about a old medication with a new, off label use. Within a week, I was badgering my doctors about it. Took me a month or so to get a script and another month to actually get my hands on the medication itself, which had to be made specially at a pharmacy that did special orders.

The results were profound. They only targeted one of many symptoms, but it was a big symptom. My brain fog and fatigue were almost cured within two weeks. If I miss a dose of the medication, I am helpless again. However most of the time, this medication leaves me at almost normal brain function.

I still have pain, I still can't eat anything, I still get migraines. There are plenty of other symptoms to contend with. However being able to think clearly makes working on those a lot easier. What would have taken me three days to puzzle over with brain fog now takes me about half an hour. My productivity and social life have exploded in joyous ways.

It would have been a lot easier to give up. To accept, at its worst, that my life wasn't going to get better. And there were plenty of days I did. When I couldn't bring myself to keep searching for an answer that just wasn't likely to be there. That doctors kept telling me didn't exist and probably never would in my lifetime.

However it was right there. They just didn't know and didn't give enough of a shit to look for it. You have to do that for yourself. No one is coming to save you. I know that's not fair. It is so unfair it hurts. However fair or not, its true.

If you are chronically ill (I use the term to be inclusive of all chronic conditions, be they mental, physical, addictive, etc) don't stop. Live by the following:

1. Do the things you know you should do.

Take your f-ing meds on time. Drink water. Eat healthy food. Stop smoking and drinking. Stop doing all the shit you know is bad for you. Prioritise your health over other shit. Cooking a healthy meal is more important than answering your emails.

2. Never stop looking for a solution.

It's probably out there. Even if your doctor says there is nothing left to try, they're full of shit. Research and don't be afraid to bring it with you to appointments. Some quack says he cured your condition by having his patient drink and eat nothing but camel milk for two months? You better start gooling camels (true story, did this, yes A2 milk makes a huge fucking difference, no I didn't believe it either until I tried it, no it didn't cure me, but it did expand my diet slightly).

3. Fall off the horse and get back on.


You get to yell that once a day, or save it up for a few weeks and have a 'this is too hard' weekend. Sometimes it's too fucking hard for a minute or two. After my father died, it was too fucking hard for a few weeks. The point is, 'it's too fucking hard' has to be a temporary thing. And that is best achieved by letting it happen, wallowing in it as deep as you can for a short period, then letting it go.

No one is keeping score. Giving up is a temporary state. Its best just to let it all out in a spectacular toddler tantrum and then pick yourself up and move on. Whatever you do don't say: 'oh well, I failed a little, so I may as well just accept defeat and eat three kilograms of these nuts I am allergic to'. Your full body hives will not love you in the morning.

Just remember, there could be a solution out there. A real, honest to god solution, that allows you to have your life back. But you have to keep fighting for it. I did and now I can go to the shops and meet friends for coffee and shit. And that is a goddamn miracle.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

For Love Of Writing

I love writing.

Some writing is harder than others. Depending on the stage of a project, some writing requires more focus and mental power. However I always enjoy the act itself.

Many of you know my co-author Meg and I have insanely high word counts. We love writing together even more than I love writing alone. As a result, we produce a huge volume of first drafts. About 15 last year, I think. More than one a month and most are between 60k-100k. We can do this, because we enjoy it so much.

A few days ago a friend came over and he gave me some excellent advice. He said: 'You need to stop writing first drafts and focus on editing.'

Unfortunately, while his advice was excellent, it was also wrong. He, like most other people in the industry, considered writing a first draft to be part of the work and editing to be another part of the work.

However for Meg and I, writing the first draft isn't work in any capacity. Writing the first draft is something we do for fun. It's like playing video games or watching TV. We would do it even if we knew it was never going to be a book, if it was never going to go further than that first draft. It's pure joy. It's quite literally a game we play.

The suggestion we stop writing first drafts to focus on editing is like saying: 'Don't watch TV, play video games or read, just work all the time.'

I mean, I could do that. It would be a pretty joyless existence. The problem is not that we are writing first drafts instead of editing. The problem is that editing, while I love it, requires a lot more focus and concentration and skill. So it is much slower. It is a 'work' process. First drafts are not.

Slowly, however, Meg and I are changing our first draft processes to make the editing process much easier. So perhaps in future, it will be faster. At the moment, however, while we are very fast writers, we are pretty normally paced editors.

And that is perfectly okay.

It really only causes problems when I am gung-ho and decide I can skip normal human functions like eating and sleeping and edit at the same pace I can write. Unrealistic expectations are not your friend.

I think the barrier a lot of people have with writing, is that they don't let themselves enjoy it. I work fastest when I have no deadlines. The moment I have a deadline, my productivity dies, because I feel the weight of expectation and it's no longer about me just having fun. Suddenly people expect things. People I like, such as my editors.

Imagine you are at the beach with your kids. No one else is there, just a gorgeous, sunny beach with gentle waves and pristine sand. They have their floaties on and sunscreen and cute little hats and they're laughing and playing. You're happy. They're happy. Everyone is happy.

Now imagine a creepy guy shows up and stands nearby watching your kids. It's the middle of the day and he's wearing a trench coat. On a beach. You think he is filming your kids with his camera? Maybe? You're not sure. You're not having fun anymore.

You also see something that might be a shark out in the water. Or is it seaweed. Was that a fin? Then your kid brings you some broken glass and you realise there is a lot of it, hidden under the sand. It's really sharp too.

Are you still having fun? Or are you ready to pack the fuck up and go home?

Nothing bad has actually happened, but the fear of bad things happening, worrying about things, anticipating disaster, sucks the joy out of things, regardless of how lovely they are at first.

If you're thinking about deadlines, what people will think, sales projections or angsting about your own skills, you can't enjoy writing.

You know what though? No day at the beach with your kids is actually flawless and awesome. Nothing is ever perfect. Someone gets stung or sunburnt or you lose something or someone cuts themselves on a oyster shell.

No book is birthed perfectly either. I'm not saying you should be deliriously happy every time you sit down to write. However EVERY book is going to be hard and stressful and draining if you are worried about shit the whole time you're writing it.

I enjoy writing so much, that if I am suck and stressed, my answer is usually to write something else. Often, it's something I think will entertain Meg or Annie. I'll pound out two thousand words, show it to them, they'll laugh and enjoy reading it and I'll feel a hell of a lot better.

Sometimes, if I am struggling to edit something, I will choose someone I want to impress or want to make happy and write the scene to appeal to them. (It's good to choose people who are enthusiastic about your work for this.)

I always turn my writing problems toward a source of joy. I always make joy the end goal. Am I happy? Is this going to make someone else happy? Who is going to smile or shiver or cry over this? I don't angst about it, I'm excited about it. And when Meg and I share our edits, I make a point of actually showing my enthusiasm. (I'm an enthusiastic person, but it doesn't always show on the outside.)

Knowing I am excited and waiting to read more motivates her, in the same way her enthusiasm motivates me. Having people I adore say they are excited to read something I have written is also very motivating.

Most of the time though, my main reason for writing--particularly first drafts--is just for the pleasure of doing it. Just like watching horror movies or playing video games. It makes me happy.

If it doesn't make you happy, ask yourself why. Clear out the negativity. Be joyous. Love the process of writing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

ARRC And Getting The Most Out Of Conferences

The Australian Romance Readers Convention was last weekend (the 24th, 25th and 26th) and I flew down to Melbourne to attend. It was at Rydges, Melbourne, so that's where I stayed, flying in Friday and flying out Monday morning.

It was a fantastic event, I had such a good time and it made me even more pumped for the conferences I am attending later in the year: Genrecon and RWA.

The best thing about ARRC, for me, was the people. Everyone was so friendly. You could approach literally anyone, introduce yourself and instantly feel welcome and have a nice chat. And, if I stood still, even for a second, someone would come over and say hello and I would be in the middle of another fantastic conversation. There was zero snobbery, zero tension and no one was rushing or flustered because of a tight schedule.

The seminars were great too. Bronwyn Parry's session on regency etiquette was fascinating and I would have happily done a whole weekend workshop just on that. It is a READERS conference though, not a WRITERS conference. So there weren't many technical 'how to' topics. Mostly it was discussions about things we love (romance novels and shirtless men).

Someone said to me they rarely go to the panels, they just enjoy walking around talking to people and I think that is an entirely valid approach to many conferences. Networking and talking to people is the highlight for me too.

People who don't attend conferences often ask me why I go with a genuine sort of confusion. I suspect some people think they are like university classes, you go to get some sort of training or education. That's not necessarily untrue, but it's only a fraction of the whole.

Here are the reasons I go to conferences:

1. To network, make new friends and meet people.

2. To learn specific things.

3. To catch up on industry news that is still on the down-low.

4. To find out who and what is popular in genres I don't track very closely.

5. To hang out with my friends, who are often REALLY busy or in other states, so I often only see them at conferences.

6. To increase my own visibility and public profile.

A lot of people also go to conferences to get new books, get books signed, pitch to editors and agents, learn how the industry works, or learn about writing in general. All of those are equally valid.

So if you are going to go to a conference, here are my tips for getting the most out of it:

1. Know what you want.

Out of those reasons I listed, and any others you may have, what is important to you? If you go in with a focused list of goals, you're less likely to just drift from seminar to seminar, awkward and alone.

2. Be friendly.

If you make eye contact with someone, smile. If someone comes over to you and says hello, SMILE. Make them feel welcome in your space. Use open body language. Be polite and don't barge into conversations, but don't be shy about introducing yourself either. Depending on the convention, have a mental list of relevant questions. At ARRC it was:

- Are you a reader or an author?
- What genres do you read?
- What genres do you write?
- Who are you published with?
- Tell me about your blog? (Authors love bloggers)
- Are you enjoying the conference?
- Where are you from?
- What seminars are you excited about?
- Are you going to *insert various extras like dinner event*?
- Wasn't *keynote speaker* fantastic?

A light discussion about those topics will take at least 15 minutes, which is when one of you will usually flit on to someone else.

3. If you are coming to learn, have questions prepared in advance.

Meg and I are working on a sport romance so naturally I went to the sport romance talk. I knew before I even got to Melbourne what I wanted to learn in that session. Several of my questions were answered by the talk itself, and then I was ready to ask the others in the questions portion of the talk. I went away very happy.

However Bronwyn Parry's regency talk was just something I thought sounded interesting and the things I learnt in that session were far more interesting than anything I would have thought to ask about.

4. Wear appropriate clothing. Particularly shoes.

The hotel was air conditioned, which sometimes meant it was fine and sometimes meant it everyone got hypothermia. So a light jacket was a must. You also spent a lot of time on your feet, so comfortable shoes will save you a lot of pain.

The dress code for these events is almost always smart casual. You need clothes you can sit AND stand in for long periods comfortably. And since you are networking with other professionals, you need to be clean and semi presentable.

Conferences are often perfume free events too, since a lot of people have allergies. So plan accordingly. I ended up having to change shirts twice a day and ran out of clothes and had to wash a shirt in the sink for Sunday. I failed at planning.

Also don't wear your favourite pair of jeans which have started ripping all the time, or they will rip at the awards dinner and your editor and a famous author will have to check how much of your ass is hanging out at what is essentially a black tie event.

True story.

5. Remember it's a professional event.

Don't be rude. Don't talk behind someone's back. Don't get drunk. Don't make a mess. Don't be smelly and dirty. Don't cry to strangers about your divorce. Don't disparage the theme of the convention or subsections of the attendees. Don't talk during seminars. Put your phone on vibrate.

Even if you think people won't remember you, they do. I met an author a few years back and saw them again at the conference this weekend. We were introduced by a mutual friend and I said I didn't expect them to recall, but we had met before. Despite me being 15kgs lighter, having 2 feet less hair and different glasses, they still recognised me and recalled the conversation we had.

I know the idea will make some of you very nervous. However if you are friendly and nice to everyone, you don't have anything to be nervous about. If you want to be an author, you WANT people to remember you. That's part of the goal.

Australia has a fantastic writing community. For the most part, people are supportive and open minded. Anyone who is rude or judges you is in the minority and for the most part, can be ignored completely.

Go to conferences, have a fantastic time. I'll probably be there too, though hopefully without a giant, gaping hole in the ass of my jeans.