Sunday, January 6, 2019

Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (Turn and Face the Strange)

Things are going to be different this year, on multiple fronts, and some of these changes are already in motion. For starters, I have dedicated this entire month of January '19 to celebrating my birthday, as I'm about to turn half-a-freakin'-century old! Maybe it's my age, or just who I am, but I need to reflect on things: putting things into words helps me understand my world better, and be appreciative. And I want to acknowledge these things at the start of the year, not the end.

1) I'm about to be kicked off of Disability. Some of you already know, I had hoped my publishing dreams would allow me to work my way off of federal disability, but it had been my intention to keep my Medicare as a safety net until my career was solidly established. Well, the Social Security Administration had other ideas. Though they declared it a "medical termination" they didn't include a single reason (or doctor, or medical report) to support their claim, and I'm highly suspicious that the SSA is just not on board with my self-employed career as a professional novelist. I've been required to report all of my income, work months, publishing contracts, etc. which has resulted in a shit-ton of confusing paperwork, and I think the SSA has just had enough. But you know what? The frustration is mutual.

I've been providing documentation about every aspect of my life for years, and the entire social service system is set up to feel like a punishment. My first reaction to the Cessation of Disability Notice was horror—I got it just before Christmas, and had only days to file an appeal (over Christmas) if I wanted to preserve my benefits. But after the shock wore off and I got more information (like how much I'd pay for a Silver Plan through my current healthcare provider), I started seeing the upside to being truly independent.

I will no longer have to report—multiple times a year—every aspect of my health & finances to an agency that does not actually care about my quality of life. I will no longer have to endure weeks/months of anxious waiting, fearful about my benefits being cut off or screwed up by the documentation I regularly report. The more I thought about it, the freer I felt! I started to wonder if my health might even improve, once free of being forced to focus on my limitations (which is the constant mandate while proving your worth to receive benefits).

Of course there is some risk involved here, especially since I don't currently have a publisher for my next novel. The re-application process for Disability could take years (there's a mandatory 24 month waiting period for Medicare) if I really can't go it alone. But there is hope, and I'm working hard, and maybe the half-century mark is the time for a whole new level of independence?

2) I'm not a debut novelist anymore. Though BABY TEETH has existed in the world for only six months, I feel the imperative to take the things I've learned in this whirlwind education of becoming a professional author and apply them productively—starting now. In basic ways this means I want to be more involved in my career—making active suggestions when I have projects going "on sub," and consciously developing a relationship with an editor like the one I developed with my agent (which I've yet to have the opportunity to do). In the past year I have often felt like I didn't know what I was doing, or had little control over what was going on: the writer is really not the key member of the team, as life-altering decisions can be made without my input. It makes it even more important to focus on what I can do, actively, in addition to the writing itself.

3) The writer's "team" is other writers. As many authors before me have experienced, it can be very isolating to write books for a living, and not just because you work alone with only your imagination for companionship. Very late in the process the contract for my second novel was withdrawn, and I reached a whole new understanding of what it means—beyond the tax implication—to be self-employed. In a lightbulb moment I understood that editors have other projects, and colleagues—and the support of the company for which they work. And in the exact same way agents have other clients, and colleagues—and the support of the agency for which they work. Sure, we were all disappointed about what happened with my book, but I was the only one who both didn't have another revenue source, and took a direct financial hit.

We writers are encouraged to be secretive about the "downs" of the business (though we're free to trumpet about the "ups")—but what aspect of life doesn't have both ups and downs? The secretiveness felt even more isolating… Until I finally reached out to some writers in my social media circle—more experienced writers, whom I really respect—and I gained a new understanding of "normal." It was very therapeutic, and helped me better assess where I stood—because even though some crappy things had happened, there were still a lot of good things going on. So, the lesson here is that "ups and downs" are inevitable, but sometimes an isolated writer can't sort it out by herself. If such secrecy about the "downs" weren't the norm, I might have been more "c'est la vie" about the rollercoaster all along. Secrecy is not a solution that benefits the writer (though yes, I'm all for diplomacy), and this was another step in learning how to survive this business.

Balance, grasshopper. Good and bad. Private and public. Highs and lows. Solitude and community. Balance, balance, balance.

4) I am 100% Jewish—and always have been. How is this new knowledge? And why is it relevant? Well, because I had a revelation.

I have been torn about certain aspects of my identity forever. Was I half Jewish, because of my mother's family? Was "being Jewish" an acknowledgement of a religion, an ethnicity, a heritage…? I felt a strong pull toward "Jewishness" even as a young child, though I wouldn't have been able to explain what that meant, but I always felt like something of an outsider in the Jewish community around me. There was never any question that I was not Christian, but did I know enough—about anything?—to be Jewish? I always felt that one side of the family considered me too Jewish, and the other side not Jewish enough. And then there was the confusion of my own beliefs, my disdain for organized religion, and my fundamental need to be a questioning person.

So I have long felt a lack of belonging anywhere, while wanting to know where I fit in.

Recently I started reading Judaism for Dummies—and are we surprised that a book gave me my answer? There it was, clear as could be: my mother's ancestry gives me an irrevocable claim to my Jewishness (which I knew, but didn't feel), but it was the section about "defining" G-d and Jewish beliefs that made me feel welcome in a way I never had. The Jewish idea of G-d is more expansive than I'd ever understood. It's emphatically not "human," or gendered, and there is no name or word to encompass it. There is room in the Jewish faith for the possibility of G-d being a forest, or the universe, or everyone. There is room for it to be one thing for you on one day, and something else on another. There is room for you to change your mind, or have doubts. G-d is a journey, an endless conversation—if that's what makes you comfortable.

The more important tenet in Judaism is not the specificity of what you believe, but what do you do as a human on this earth? Orthodox Jews want to fulfill the 613 mitzvot during the course of their daily lives, but there are many ways to be a conscious person, intent on "doing good" in the world.

I had not known before that my wandering and uncertain beliefs—in combination with an ethical imperative that I have always felt—made me Jewish even when I didn't have a name for myself.

So here we go, 2019, I'm a 50-year-old Jewish woman trying to make a stable career as a writer! Learning stuff along the way… Always learning.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Bloody Disgusting and Barnes & Noble "Best Horror" Lists

I am, perhaps, more excited about this list than is reasonable, but... If you're gonna do horror, you want BLOODY DISGUSTING'S seal of approval. So I am thrilled that Baby Teeth was selected for their 10 Best Books of 2018 for the Horror Fan!

And I'm also thrilled to see Baby Teeth on Barnes & Noble's Best Horror Books of 2018 - alongside so many incredible authors! It has truly been an amazing debut year!

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Looking Back on 2018

This has been an incredibly interesting year, to say the least. I think I've documented the many "highs" of my debut year as a novelist fairly well. Even my Post-Publication Blues was not, ultimately, a "low"; it became the climax of my year of feeling weird, where almost every day was a semi-out-of-body experience as I encountered so many new things and "firsts" on my way to becoming a published author. And after the blues went away and the proverbial dust settled, I finally felt fully present in my life again, and acclimated to the new reality of being a professional author—and it felt great. Where a year earlier I was horrified by the very thought of "author appearances," by November I was enjoying them. Where, during the summer, I felt slightly panicked about being a more "public" person, by autumn I was comfortable and in my groove.

I still—and will always—call BABY TEETH my "miracle" and nothing can change that. I had a wonderful book launch, and thrilling months of building buzz before that. When I envisioned becoming a published author (which was a murky vision at best) I never dreamt that my first published book would receive such recognition, from the trades or fans, or that it would spread like it has in the public sphere, reaching readers in distant lands.

Me and my BFF Lisa at the book launch of BABY TEETH

So, without a doubt, BABY TEETH has been the highest of highs. When it first sold, and again when the buzz started building, I recognized that this was something special; what happened with BABY TEETH is not an everyday occurrence. Its trajectory has been so beyond my imagination that I told myself in those early days, "If you never publish another book, or accomplish any other goals, you'll always have BABY TEETH." I continue to be grateful and incredibly appreciative of the people who have found my book, and especially the readers who have reached out or interact with me on social media. It kind of makes a recluse feel a little less alone.

Those who know me well know that I'm a big believer in the yin-yang of life—as it manifests in all things. There is always a balance of the good and bad, the light and dark. There has been a difficult parallel reality going on since January 2018, but due to its unresolved nature it isn't something I can share publicly (though of course my friends and those close to me know). It has helped to have BABY TEETH as a solid source of "light," and I accept that life is never effortless or without its challenges. Perhaps sometime in the future I can elaborate on this more. In the meanwhile…

One of the more challenging, but ultimately helpful, lessons I learned this year has to do with the intersection of dreams and commerce. I think for many of us who are writers—or artists of any kind—we spend many, many years creating alone. There is a freedom in that, endless exploration and experimentation, yet we dream in those lonely hours of sharing our work with the world. When our fortunes change and that opportunity arises, the truth is most of us (me, certainly) have given little thought as to the logistics of having a dream become reality, of what happens when our private creativity meets Big Business.

There are aspects of this intersection that can be difficult, and may vary a bit from writer to writer: working on a deadline; working to meet expectations (of agent, publisher, readers); building a "brand." As those who have published before me know, when the dream becomes business, it isn't simply you in your pajamas anymore. And it can be tricky when you are the one creating the product, but other people seem to have more control over its destiny than you do.

While this is a big change for me, I'm not regretting it. Some of the new sources of conflict in my life have arisen because my work has the potential to make money for other people, and that changes the rules. But I'm glad some of my work has the potential to make money, because lord knows I've written a ton of things over the years, bad and good, that never quite captured anyone's interest. That any of my "weird shit" ever found an audience is something of a miracle, especially as I've always known I was a bit of an oddball. Some people may have wished over the years that I could be more commercial, or at least more practical, in my overall sensibilities. But I can only be who I am, and I know that the way you get a square peg to fit in a round hole is to whittle it down so it's smaller than the hole… Who wants that?

I've been a creative person for a long time and I have an identity of myself—my creativity, my standards, my integrity. I don't know how to be any other way (or any other shape), but I accept as reality that when my "peg fits" it's a confluence of two unlikely things: my weird self, intersecting with a world driven by commerce.

I'm not sure what 2019 holds, but I'm curious to find out. I remember so clearly after BABY TEETH sold and I wondered if I could ever sell anything again: it was Hanna who sold that book. Even if I do write a sequel someday, the seven-year-old psychopath's story is finished. I am emphatically not finished as a writer… but will what I write ever again enjoy the intersection of commerce? Dunno. I have a lot of projects under way, but I know that lightning doesn't always strike twice. There's the elusive Second Book (also horror), plus I've written the first draft of an adventure thriller, and a fairy tale novella, and we're hoping to find a publisher for the children's story within BABY TEETH, My UnderSlumberBumble-Beast.

My dream of becoming a published author was accomplished, so I'm setting my sights on a new dream. Publishing a second book. A third book. The longevity of a career. I have learned never to assume, and the yin-yang of life means that oppositional forces will coexist—but hopefully with a harmonious balance. I certainly desire to share more of my work with the world, now that I've had a little taste of that experience.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

2018 Goodreads Choice Awards

I will happily take my 2nd place finish in the 2018 Goodreads Choice Awards!! Who would've ever thought that I'd be "sitting" next to the Master, Stephen King??!! Thank you so much to everyone who voted for BABY TEETH!!

Monday, December 3, 2018

BABY TEETH lands on more end-of-year lists!

As the year is wrapping up I am thrilled to see BABY TEETH finding its way onto more lists!

Literary Hub gave BABY TEETH one of the best write-ups I've seen in their Favorite Books of 2018 list. Really, this is the kind of write-up that can scare a writer a little... how can I ever again write a book that people will have this strong of a reaction to?? Well, I remain grateful for the miracle that has been my debut novel. It's really more than anyone can ever expect.

BABY TEETH also was the #2 selection on Inquistir's Best Horror Books of 2018 - right after Stephen King's THE OUTSIDER. I am not sure how it's happened that I've written a book that's on the same lists with master Stephen King, but again... extremely grateful! 

My debut year as a novelist has been a wild ride, that's for sure!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Favorite Books 2018

Everyone's making a list, so I'm making one too! Here are some of my FAVORITE BOOKS 2018 -- it's been a great reading year!!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Library Journal: BEST BOOKS 2018

Library Journal has been incredibly supportive of BABY TEETH's publishing journey and I couldn't be more grateful! I'm just ecstatic to be on their BEST BOOKS 2018 in the Horror category! Click here to go to page

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

NY Post Holiday Gift Guide

I was thrilled to see BABY TEETH on the New York Post's list - 33 Books That Should Be On Everyone's Holiday Gift List - and all the more so for being one of only four Thrillers on the list! Just between you and me, I'm not sure if I'd want to spend the holidays with the Jensen family. Between all that trying too hard and that unpredictable kid...? 😉 But, it would be a great book to dive into - blankie on lap - on a cold night when you're tired of socializing and just need some time to yourself! 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Bestselling author Zoje Stage states books are "a necessary magic"

The Chester County Independent might not be the biggest newspaper in the world, but they gave me the opportunity to answer a lot of quite interesting questions - about influential books and authors, my career, my writing process, handling bad reviews, and more. You can read the full interview here.

When I first started doing interviews and writer events it was a little hard for me to believe that people were actually interested in what I had to say. But I decided a long time ago that I wanted to be as honest as possible in my interviews and interactions with people - that aspect is very important to me. After a year in which so many things about my changing life and career felt so odd, I'm happy to report that I feel "present" once again in my own life, and it's no longer an out-of-body experience to think of myself as a professional author. While I have focused on the obvious "ups" in this blog rather than the "downs" I hope some day I can share more fully about what it's like "behind the scenes." There's been a lot to learn, and even with the miracle that is BABY TEETH there have been some quite devastating setbacks. This is not an easy road, but as I stated in this interview, I am a writer to the core. And no matter what else happens - good stuff, bad stuff - the thing I need to do to manage my life, my emotions, my creative energy is WRITE.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

International Editions

The Czech Republic edition of BABY TEETH
The first non-English language versions of BABY TEETH are now out in the world! Hungary and the Czech Republic both released their translated versions at the end of Oct. 2018. And we've now sold to eight international, non-English speaking territories: Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Russia, Turkey, Italy, and Korea. And it's available in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and of course the U.S. and Canada. 

I love seeing these international covers! More to come!

The Hungarian version of BABY TEETH

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

BABY TEETH in the news: The Millions, Pittsburgh City Paper

A flurry of activity this week... This interview I did for The Millions is one of my favorites - and I got to answer the question "Will there be a sequel"!! Read The Millions interview here.

I also did an interview with my local Pittsburgh City Paper, and that was a lot of fun - my first sit-down, face-to-face interview. The physical print edition has a catchier headline - CENTER STAGE - my name's been begging for this, I guess. Read the City Paper article here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Booked Podcast

I might as well commemorate this here -- I did my first-ever podcast. Robb and Livius of Booked did such an interesting and comprehensive review of BABY TEETH that when they asked me to join them for a discussion I couldn't say no... even if I was a little shy about the whole disembodied voices interview thing. We had a lot of fun! You can listen to the podcast here.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Post-Publication Blues

Launch Day for my debut novel BABY TEETH was amazing. My agent Sarah was in town and we spent the day together, and then we joined dozens of friends and family members at the bookstore that was hosting my launch. I've never had a proper graduation, or a prom, or a wedding, or any other large celebratory event and in every way this felt like My Day. It was a victorious culmination of decades of writing, years of querying, and sixteen months of slowly marching from the day we sold the book to the day it would be available on bookshelves.

Me and my agent, Sarah at my Launch Party
Thirty-six hours later I started to feel kind of weird. A bit spacey. A bit lost.

Within forty-eight hours of Launch Day I knew I was depressed, but worse than that, I also felt strangely removed from what was happening around me.

Within days, my confidence plummeted, as did my sense of victory, and the sense of not feeling present only worsened. In short, I felt insane. I think I was having a nervous breakdown. And I had no idea why. Everything that happened with BABY TEETH was a miracle, for which I was so grateful! Why had I come unhinged, and so quickly?

Needing to know if I was being freakishly over-sensitive, I contacted a writer-friend who'd debuted a few weeks before me. She confirmed that she was experiencing the same things, and we swapped notes and commiserating messages. I'd intuited, from cryptic Tweets and whatnot, that some of my other writer-friends were also having a challenge in the weeks and months after their books were published. And then, not even three weeks after another writer-friend debuted she reached out to me, a subdued "How's it going?"—from which I guessed that she might be wondering if she was being freakishly over-sensitive. I just jumped right in and told her: I lost my mind in the days after my book launched, and it took weeks to get it back.

After I started swapping stories with other writers I realized I needed to write about this. It would have helped me tremendously if I'd been forewarned about the quick onset of the Post-Publication Blues, so I'm sharing this in the hopes that other writers will find it, and maybe agents and publicists can even start giving their debut authors the heads-up that this happens… a lot.

The Post-Publication Blues comes with a particular "trap" that makes admitting to it even more difficult than acknowledging other types of depression. We newly-published authors are well aware that we've beaten the odds, and that dozens—hundreds, thousands—of writers are trying to follow in our footsteps. It feels wrong to suddenly accomplish your dreams and then feel like complete shit—who in the world is going to sympathize with that? We certainly don't want to seem ungrateful or unappreciative, and that just compounds the confusion and self-punishment.

In the days after my launch I tried to make sense of what I was feeling, and chalked it up to all sorts of things (and all may have contributed):

- I'd been working too hard for too long, given the nature of my health problems.

- To a certain degree I'd anticipated an anticlimax, but maybe I'd vastly underestimated the twelve-month build-up, where everything is exciting, and then suddenly after Launch Day the whole publication machine seems to come to a grinding stop.

- My agent suggested I was experiencing Imposter Syndrome because of how I kept saying I didn't feel like myself, and I felt so removed from my life. (In fact, in spite of the name, this isn't quite the definition of Imposter Syndrome.)

- I was engaged in another round of revisions for Book 2 during all of this, and I don't know if my lack of confidence/freakout was making Book 2 seem more stressful than it should have, or if it was the other way around and Book 2 was too much for that moment in time.

- My friend Maud suggested "The past few months were overwhelming in every sense, [culminating] in the launch of your book." Which was stressful, even if it was good stress. She went on, "[What you're feeling now is] your body, brain, and emotions dealing with the helter-skelter by dampening every trigger that enters, as there are too many to deal with at the moment. It's no wonder that there is a safety net somewhere in your brain that suppresses [everything] for the moment, until it has calmed down a bit."

Maud's words were tremendously helpful in my understanding of what I was experiencing. I was overwhelmed in every sense—physical, emotional, creative… Fortunately, I didn't have too many publicity events on my schedule in the weeks after Pub Day, but I felt I'd "blown" the ones I had. I kept reporting to friends "My brain isn't working!"—which is an extremely alarming thing to feel, and kills your confidence when you're trying to pass yourself off for the first time as an articulate, professional writer. I knew I needed to do something to try and resolve this situation—it felt career-killing to me. All of a sudden I no longer thought I could handle being a professional writer—either the public aspects, or the writing.

So what did I do?

First, within days of starting to feel "off" I let both my agent and publicist know. I'm sure I sounded bonkers, but I knew something was tipping me over the edge and the last thing I wanted was to be inundated with career responsibilities when I didn't feel like myself. There was only so much they could do, but at least they understood why I couldn't book more appearances or take on interviews. I made it emphatically clear that I needed time off. Right. The fuck. Now. And they were understanding and accommodating; I stopped committing to things for a few weeks.

Next, I took days off when I could—didn't leave the apartment, limited the amount I was online—and in between there were things I had to attend to, like Book 2 stuff, already-scheduled interviews, etc. But I also got very disciplined about not working when I didn't actually need to. I gave myself permission to take every other day off. I slept in. I took naps. I tried to eat a bit better. I made my life as stimulus-free as possible. I laid low. I'm in a fortunate position to be able to do that, but it was also a necessity. And my sister helped me find a therapist, because I was in no mood to slog through another thing.

What can you learn from this?

If you are in your debut year as an author I'd encourage you to have as little on your schedule as possible in the weeks immediately following your launch. If you are an agent or publicist, I would encourage you to tell your debut authors that this could happen to them. If it does, they might not feel so crazy if they have an inkling ahead of time that this is normal. And if they don't experience it then great, they'll feel confident to add things to their schedule once they can gauge how well they've ridden the anticlimax of post-publication.

For writers who are currently experiencing this (and for those who already have), I've noticed some similarities in what we found anxiety-triggering or disappointing:

1) The anticlimax in general. How do I write that noise of a balloon deflating… pffffftthht.
2) Worries about the next book—whether it's a deadline issue, a writing issue, a revisions issue, or some combination.
3) A cessation of the constant emails from your team (yeah, it feels weird when that happens).
4) Numbers. Numbers. Numbers. Let me address numbers…

Within days of BABY TEETH being published I was certain it wasn't selling to expectation. This is ridiculous on so many levels…! First of all, I had no previous expectations of how many copies BABY TEETH would sell, and no idea of what is "normal," and absolutely no one had ever even implied that there was a numbers "goal." This is some weird shit that manifested in my own head!

Part of it was likely a result of "outside influences"—the friends, family, supporters who kept expressing that my book would be on the New York Times Bestseller list any moment. The people who ask—still every few days—if I have a movie deal. The fame-admirers who openly wondered what TV shows I'd be asked to appear on. Personally, I have exactly ZERO interest in being on TV—I'm a behind-the-scenes person! I felt such pressure about some of this that I discussed it with my agent ahead of publication, and she made me understand how unlikely it is for a book—any book—to ever make it on the NY Times list. And then I actively began working on lowering other people's expectations.

Look, we all understand why our friends and family have big ideas for us: they support us and want us to do well, and for many of them the only standard they understand for "how a book does in the real world" is via the New York Times or a movie or TV show. What they may not realize is that many—most?—writers dream in those directions, but reality rarely takes you there. And if it does, it usually requires years of being a published author, not days or weeks.

I think it's been true for many of us that when we hear how many copies our books have sold—in a week, or a month—it sounds… low. But when you factor in that to get on the NY Times list you need to sell about 7,000 (?) copies in a single week, and that most books never accomplish that, it should become more evident that it is hard as shit to sell thousands of books. So one unfortunate consequence of this is the authors are left feeling a little discouraged, and meanwhile our team feels like everything is right on track! Because they know how this business works.

To summarize:

If you are in your debut year as an author try to anticipate the anticlimax, and not set crazy goals for yourself or your book, and try to tune out the specifics of your friends/family buzz. And anticipate needing some time to decompress and regroup after Launch Day. And if you're an author who went through the Post-Pub Blues alone, know that you are not alone—and there's nothing wrong about what you felt.

It took more than a month before I felt like myself again, and I will do things differently now. For one thing, I will pace myself better in general. I'll be more aware of when I really need to take a day off or lay low. The pre-Launch year is full of so many "firsts"—which is exciting, but also stressful. Holy crap have I learned a lot in the last year and a half! I like to think I'm better prepared now. I guess time will tell… In the meanwhile, I'm fine. BABY TEETH is fine. I'm taking what I've learned and moving ahead.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Taxonomy of an Idea: BABY TEETH

I was recently asked to write an article for Amazon, and I went from having no clue what to say to relishing the opportunity to really dissect how BABY TEETH settled in my brain as a story-worthy concept.

I got so into this "taxonomy" - of pinpointing the elements that ultimately influenced my book - that I may very well write similar articles in the future for whatever else I may write.

Where does an idea come from is a very complicated question, but this Amazon article let me dig deep into how BABY TEETH came to be. Read it here.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

WESA Radio Interview

I did my first radio interview this week. I'm not gonna lie - I really wasn't feeling that well and I was afraid I'd done a crappy job. But this, my friends, is why I've agreed to do taped radio/TV and not live, because then they can edit together the best parts. ;-) 

When I read - and listened to - the final product I was pleasantly surprised: it was all just completely fine. Another truth: I tend to be pretty hard on myself, but... So much of this is new, and I don't have other experiences to gauge things against.

So without further ado, this link will take you to WESA, where you can read the article or listen to me talk about BABY TEETH.