Pitch Wars #PimpMyBio: “Coming Out” About My #OwnVoices Book

I’m late to the Pitch Wars #Pimpmybio party, which is odd, because I usually have a bad habit of showing up way too early at most parties.

I just this morning resolved to enter the contest. This will be my third time entering Pitch Wars, and I’ve entered with a different manuscript each time. The first time, I entered the very first novel I’d ever completed, the first in a series of seven YA urban fantasy novels. I’ve since put that series on the back burner; it needs serious editing with my now-more-trained eye before I pitch it again.

The novel I entered last year, The Other Place, is an upper YA/NA contemporary magical realism novel. It’s about a young man with schizophrenia trying to make it as an artist, find love, and find his place in the world. This book was released by Limitless Publishing on 7/5/16.

Yes, I know. I’m a published author, and so I feel a little shy entering Pitch Wars. I know (from experience, unfortunately) that some other contestants are likely giving me the stink-eye, wishing I’d step aside to give the less fortunate a chance. But I don’t have an agent, and really want one; my books are getting great reviews, but I’m a marketing doofus and I think I could get wider exposure if I had an agent on my side, holding my hand and cheering me on.

This competition brings in some of the best aspiring authors in the English-speaking world, and I know I don’t have any more talent or chance of being selected than a lot of the unpublished entrants. The fact I’m published and others aren’t, isn’t a measure purely of talent, but also of hard work and persistence. In fact, no matter how awesome I think my manuscript is, I don’t have a ton of hope it will be chosen. That isn’t the real reason I’m entering this contest. I’m entering because, in past years, I’ve made so many great friends in the Pitch Wars feed, and I’d love to make some more. I’m also entering because I’ve had so much going on in my life lately, both good and bad, so I’ve not been doing much querying. Pitch Wars will make me focus on trying to find this book a home.

The book I’m entering this year is entitled True Story. It’s a diverse YA romance. The main character is a seventeen-year-old Native American foster girl with the unusual name of Mike Charley. She isn’t trans; she was named after her grandfather by her bipolar mother, who thought Mike was his reincarnation.
This is an #ownvoices book. I’m not Native (though I have family in the same tribe Mike’s mother was from), but Mike has bipolar disorder with episodes of psychosis, like her mother did…and like I do.
I’ve been hesitant about pitching True Story as an #ownvoices book, though I know it might make some people more curious about it. I only recently “came out” about my neurodiversity, and it has definitely been a mixed bag. I’m lucky that my diversity isn’t visible; most days, I seem like a perfectly normal, if maybe somewhat eccentric, person, so not a lot of people knew about my neurodiversity. Since I opened up about it, I’ve gotten such a wonderful outpouring of support, but I’ve also suffered a lot of negative and hurtful comments.
Bipolar is a condition that comes with many misconceptions. People either think you’re a howling nutjob, or that you’re being attention-seeking: “I get mood swings, too, and you don’t see me crying about it.” I’m not a howling nutjob on most days, nor am I particularly attention-seeking. These stereotypes are hurtful.
When I wrote True Story, it wasn’t my intention to “educate” the world about bipolar disorder. I was just telling a cool story about a wonderful girl. But now that the book is written and edited, and steaming up the windows in its boisterous urge to get on the road, I really do want to find a wide audience for it, to show one insider’s perspective on living with bipolar.
I also think it’s important to have YA novels with bipolar and otherwise neurodiverse main characters. After my first episode of psychosis when I was 15, I was terrified. I thought my brain would completely desert me; that I might lose control of myself and hurt people. That’s what most people think “psychos” are, after all: homicidal maniacs. Most books reflect these misconceptions, and portray psychotic characters as killers or otherwise evil antagonists. At best, characters with psychosis are often complete wastes of space, objects of nothing more than pity and contempt, and are there only to be somehow “saved” by a neurotypical character.
Because I’d swallowed all those stereotypes, it was decades before I had the courage to admit even to a doctor that I’d suffered psychotic episodes. Instead, I got pretty good at managing them myself. I tried to avoid the situations that might trigger them, and I self-medicated. A lot. When I was in my late teens, I discovered that heroin made my brain chill out, and eased my crushing episodes of (sometimes suicidal) depression. It took me years and a trip to prison to kick that habit, but I eventually found healthier ways to deal with my symptoms.
But those ways don’t always work, especially when you’re like me and don’t even try to control your episodes of mania.
I love being manic. My last manic episode started in the summer of 2013. That’s when I first started writing in earnest: I finished seven novels in a year, and another five in the year after that. However, the episode coincided with a huge shift in my marriage dynamics and caused it even more strain. My husband became very insulting about my inability to “grow up and act right”. His behavior felt very abusive to me, which triggered both my bipolar disorder and my PTSD and made my behavior even more erratic. I ended up having a psychotic break last summer (my first one in more than a decade), and a few close brushes with suicide, before the relationship finally ended for good.
My dream with regard to True Story, and my other books (and other authors’ books) with neurodiverse characters, is that people will read them and be less afraid to talk about their own experiences with neurodiversity. I want people with mental illness to know that they aren’t “less” than neurotypical people; they’re not dangerous or creepy, or in any other way unfit to take their rightful place in society. Then maybe they won’t have to go through some of the stuff I’ve gone through.
So I’m standing up (with somewhat trembly knees) and proudly declaring that True Story is an #ownvoices book. I know my admission that I have a serious mental condition might make some agents leery of working with me, but I console myself that they might not be a good match for my work anyway. When I finally do get an agent, that person will see my value, and will believe in me and my writing. They won’t buy into the negative stereotypes about bipolar disorder or PTSD. They’ll know people like me can be productive, professional, intelligent, and easy to work with.
So, that’s why I’m entering Pitch Wars: because I deserve to; because I believe in my books; and because I believe in myself and others like me.
Thank you for reading this. I’d love to hear your comments and get links to your blogs, as well. Like I said, making new friends is one of my main goals in entering Pitch Wars.
Good luck to everyone!

Signing at Inklings Bookstore on September 10!

I’m happy to announce that I’m going to have a signing at Inklings Bookstore in Yakima, Washington on the afternoon of Saturday, September 10th. I also landed an interview on KIMA TV news. I’ll have more info soon, and hopefully more dates! I hope to see you all there.

The Other Place is Available for Preorder!

After a long and daunting struggle, release day for The Other Place is almost here. You can preorder the book in either Kindle or paperback format, and read the story of Justin, a young man with schizophrenia trying to find his place in the world.

It’s not easy being a person like Justin, but I think you’ll find a lot of beauty and wisdom in his life, and in the way his mind works.

I hope you read and enjoy this book.

Kindle Preorder

Paperback Preorder

Magical Realism and Realistic Magic: How Stories Come Alive and Keep Us Alive

The three books in my Other Place series are magical realism books. The reason for this, technically, is that the main characters experience shared dreams and sometimes foray into psychotic states.

I have a hard time calling that magical realism. Shared psychosis is real. I’ve seen it, and I’ve experienced it; not at quite the level my characters do, but pretty close.

The part of the series that seems magical to me is the overarching story. Many plot events are larger-than-life and fantastical. All the elements in the “real world” and the “dream world” fit together perfectly in a way that makes sense and is orderly.

That’s because an outside power is organizing them (me), and because there are a limited number of characters in the plot to affect events. If your life starts having a plotline that coherent, it’s either time to get your medication adjusted or go to church: the meddlesome Old Testament God is back and he’s got his eye on you.

Human beings create order where there is none. We constantly tell ourselves stories about the world in order to simplify and make sense of it. This process is what keeps us alive.

Our need to create order stems from an animal need for survival and procreation. We build houses, plow the earth into neat rows for crops, and comb our hair in order to get laid and have a safe, hospitable place to replicate our genes.  However, our need for order has far outstripped what is needed for those basic purposes. We essentially are in a battle against the unknown: we’re trying to organize the chaos into something we can understand and manage. We’re trying to build walls to keep out death.

That is because man cannot survive on bread alone. We have self-awareness and the ability to reason. Without claws and fur, we need to figure things out to survive. We do that by making connections between events and outcomes. But we make a lot of connections that don’t necessarily exist in a physical sense. Those false connections can take on such meaning in the context of a culture, however, that they affect human behavior a lot more than physical stimuli. Sometimes this results in whole groups of people being organized out of existence, because there’s no place for them in someone’s scheme of things, but often they work to our advantage.

These ethereal connections are based in our survival instinct, also, and in many ways they keep us alive. Our laws and moral sense—all of them stories about what is acceptable human behavior and what isn’t—make us feel safer and more comfortable, more in control of ourselves and surroundings, and can keep people from acting too much out of fear or anger. We also have rituals to help us through grief, trauma, and loss. This helps us make sense of the weirdness of life, so that we don’t go insane.

Most of us lose the thread of our cultural story sometimes, though. We look around and wonder WTF is going on in this crazy world, and why anyone even bothers trying to survive in a place that’s so messed up. Other animals don’t have to worry about this existential shit—this is our gift for being conscious, self-aware creatures. Happy birthday.

After those moments of angst, however, the great majority of people are able to pick up the common thread again and move on. Some of us have a harder time with that.

I’ve been diagnosed with all sorts of fairly insane-sounding disorders. If you ask me, my mind just works a certain way, and usually the only major disadvantage to that is how it can bring me into conflict with others’ story about the world.

On good days, I trundle through as well as anyone else, laughing at mindless television shows and finding beauty in the little things. I still feel like I’m a minor character in someone else’s story, but I can play along well enough.

Other times, everything most people see as reality seems to me like it’s a movie projected on a thin veil that could be ripped away at any second. Life seems so weird that I figure I must be missing something, because the ways people act make no sense to me. I can’t suspend disbelief well enough to participate in my cultural story very well.

On bad days, that veil gets ripped completely away. All those stories we tell ourselves to keep ourselves alive and procreating cease to have meaning. I have to struggle to even maintain the basic-survival notion that I need to stay alive for my kid. The sense I’m missing something that others have, or failing to understand something that they do understand, is much stronger. I figure that’s why they keep living when it is so pointless to do so. I think most people reading this can identify with that feeling on some level.

Here is where I lose most of you, though. On the very worst days—few and far between, thank God—all those stories we tell ourselves disappear so completely from my consciousness and my poor brain starts making up completely new stories to make sense of my surroundings. That means that you and I could be looking at exactly the same thing but our brains would interpret it in completely different ways, so it’s very hard for me to effectively communicate with anyone. My brain making up these stories is a survival technique because, like I said, these stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world are how we are able to function. The stories my brain makes up are actually generally no more ludicrous than the ones supposedly sane people make up, but they are inconsistent with our cultural narrative and so make me vulnerable. My brain’s survival technique makes it more likely that I’ll be hurt or killed—written out of society’s plotline because there’s no part for me.

Psychotic people are much more likely to hurt themselves than others. We are probably less of a threat, on average, than non-psychotic people. But we are much more likely to be hurt or killed by others than non-psychotic people are. You all know, I trust, your propensity to shy away from psychotic people under the (almost always false) impression that they are dangerous. I’m a five-foot-tall female, so people rarely consider me dangerous, but I’ve been taken advantage of, physically and emotionally hurt, and abandoned because of my propensity to believe my own story. Those people thought they were justified in their behavior: they thought they were helping me, or protecting themselves. They were the delusional ones, in my opinion, but to each their own.

My friend/partner Phoenix, who has schizophrenia, is six-foot-three and well-muscled, but as gentle as they come. He has been beaten into a coma just for talking what other people saw as “nonsense”. He’s been arrested for having a nonviolent psychotic episode in his own yard. And he’s been nearly shot by police, simply because his brain lost the thread of the common narrative and started making up a different story, even though he posed no credible threat to anyone.

As soon as Phoenix and I walked into each other’s lives, I felt like I’d finally found another human being on a deserted planet. Even when I think I’m dead and that everyone else is a spirit trying to guide me into the afterlife; or that everyone else knows something I don’t; I know Phoenix is real and that he’s usually living in the same story I am. And that makes it a lot easier.

This is what is called shared psychosis.

Anyone who follows me on social media knows about Phoenix. I wrote him into a novel after having a short conversation with him, and ended up extrapolating what little I knew of him into a well-rounded character—Justin, from the Other Place series. Justin isn’t Phoenix, but when I felt the compulsion to seek Phoenix out again (after the novels were already drafted) there were spine-tingling similarities. And, after I knew him, the similarities in character seemed to extend to similarities in plot.

These connections, real or imagined, form a more coherent plotline than I usually see in real life. It seems at times our lives are intimately connected with my writing. In fact, Phoenix gets mad if I write about something that would cause harm to either of us if it came true. For his benefit, I try to loosely correlate those plot points with stuff that’s already happened, or else write about characters so wildly different from us that the connection is harder to make. Or I just don’t tell him my plotlines, because I don’t think the connection between them and our lives is as close as he does. Or I usually don’t, anyway.

Once, when I lost the thread, I began to believe I could make my dreams reality through the force of belief, and that I had the power to completely organize our lives through my writing. I thought that I was meant to write the Other Place series in order to give people a window into what it’s like to be psychotic, so people like us would be more acceptable to society. I might make some money off of my stories, too, so Phoenix and I could have something to survive on.

I believed that, like in the books, the physical world and the world in our minds were orderly, and fit together seamlessly. Essentially, I believed I could write us into society’s narrative.

Just as further illustration of how deep shared psychosis can go, I also thought, during that episode, that Phoenix and I could hear each other’s thoughts—that our connection in the real world was as intense as in the books. He says that part was true, but I can’t remember what we said out loud and what we thought, so I can’t call him on his bullshit. I do know that we’re often able to follow one another’s thoughts without speaking, and start conversations in the middle; we pick up on cues from each other that other people completely misunderstand. Other people do this, too. If you know someone well, you can follow their plotline well enough to gauge their thoughts even at a distance, at least at times. Telepathy isn’t too far off. My story isn’t much crazier than most.

Unfortunately, the physical world intrudes into our plotlines more in reality than it does in books. We’re not the only ones in control of events, and the story isn’t just about us as individuals. I, for one, do believe there is a coherent overarching plotline, but one of the ways almost sure to drive me over the edge to one extent or another is trying to figure out what it is and how it works. It’s too big for my brain to understand completely, so it cuts it into bite-sized pieces. This can result in some fairly out-there plots.

Maybe the Other Place series will create some order in my personal narrative, though. Maybe I’ve captured enough of the truth within our human experience to make my books compelling to people. I do know that this belief has been a driving force in my life, and makes me work hard to gain more control over my personal plotline. It’s made me feel like I have purpose, and like there might finally be a comfortable place for me in society’s narrative. Whether I’m ultimately called crazy, or just a heavy dreamer that made her dreams come true, all depends on how my life story goes from here on out.

The first book in the Other Place series, entitled The Hustle, released on 5/31/16. The second book, The Other Place, releases on 7/5/16. The third and final installment (Synchronicity) is in the process of final revision.

Find The Other Place Series on Amazon.

 

 

 

Writing Through Adversity: The Story of the Other Place Series

About a year and a half ago, I was living in my little ranch house in the tiny (like no-stoplights sort of tiny) town of Shandon, California.

I’d moved there with my husband and child for my husband’s tenure-track job as a biochemistry professor. He and I had been together for eight years, very happily, but once we moved to California our marriage started to fall apart.

I didn’t work outside the home, and so had time for writing when we moved. A year and a half ago when this story starts, I had just finished a series of seven YA fantasy books. Book one of that series was the first novel I’d ever completed. I’d been completely engrossed in the story, and I’d written all seven books in slightly less than a year. It had been part of the way I’d dealt with the myriad of stresses of moving to California.

That writing took up a lot of my time. I cooked and cleaned, sure, but everything else was  writing. I only left the house to go to critique groups, and about 99% of the conversations I had with anybody, including my husband and kid, revolved around writing and the querying process.

My husband was really frustrated with me. He wanted me to quit writing and get a job—not because we needed the money (we didn’t) but because he told me I was miserable.

I wasn’t miserable at all. I was the happiest I’d ever been, because I’d finally found what I was put on this earth to do, if you believe in that sort of thing. Writing fit completely with my personality. It helped me organize my sometimes racing and random thoughts, and I could do it in the middle of the night (I have a habit of waking up at 2 a.m.) I didn’t have to try to act professional or worry about the wrath of my boss. And it was the most fun I’d ever had. Sure, it was shitty sometimes, but isn’t anything?

My husband is a differently-minded person, though. He doesn’t understand feelings the way most people do, so he tends to construct an emotional model for people. If your description of your own feelings doesn’t fit in with the model, he dismisses it as an outlier.

I could find no way of communicating with him about our relationship problems, and we ended up in a lot of brutal fights. He called me immature, selfish, and lazy; told me he’d lost all respect for me, and he was done with me.

We were like two mentally-odd ships passing in the night, firing randomly at each other in the darkness.

Anyway, when I finished my YA series, I was plunged back into the real world without my characters for companionship. A new character had arrived shortly before I’d finished the series, but she wasn’t very good company. Her name was Liria, and she was a somewhat languid and depressed junkie. I’d quit heroin almost twenty years ago and I didn’t feel much inclination to be pulled back into that world, so I kept telling her to slouch back off from whence she came.

She wouldn’t leave, though, in that way characters do. I started writing her book.

It was a bit horrifying. I hadn’t worked through a lot of the issues from that period in my life, and Liria brought them back pretty vividly. I’d been diagnosed with PTSD—I didn’t really know what that meant at the time, but I guess a symptom can be that you run away and/or have an overblown emotional reaction when confronted with reminders of your trauma. That was me in spades. Writing the book made me even freakier, and my husband didn’t have the resources to deal with that. When I tried to talk to him about the stuff from my past that was bugging me, he’d tell me to get over myself. He said, “Having a baby is worse than getting raped, but you’re not complaining about that.”

When my husband and I fought, I started closing down completely. I’d turn into a screeching banshee when anything even resembling a slight left my husband’s lips. Sometimes I’d get in my car and end up hours away without a very good notion of why I was there.

Add that to the fact that, when I brought chapters of the book to critique group, some people said, “There’s nothing likable about this character. Why would anyone want to read about someone like this?” To them, Liria was nothing but an object of contempt, fear, and pity. They’d never thought of someone like her as a real human being, with a rich and complex inner life. Liria had a lot of me in her, and so those critiques felt like rejections of me as a person. I was already getting enough rejection from my husband and agents. I didn’t need more.

I tried to quit writing, but I couldn’t. It was an addiction as much as the heroin had been, and I got anxious and morose if I didn’t do it.

I was sitting in the local park one day during this time—I’d taken a temp job running the food bank’s summer lunch program—when this guy walked up to me.

“I like your shoes,” he said. “They’re red, white and blue, like Captain America, or like my house, which is red, white and blue, also. It’s the Captain America house.”

We talked about his workout routine and his muffin pancake recipe. He was the coolest guy in the world. I couldn’t get him out of my head after that conversation, and he ended up in Liria’s book. I named him Justin.

Unlike Liria, my critique partners LOVED Justin. So did I, but I was pretty sure he would be one of the darlings I’d have to kill. I didn’t see how he played into the story.

Except he did end up playing into the story. Justin wove himself in and out of Liria’s dreams the way the kid from the park wove through mine. I created a well-rounded character based on that half-hour conversation about my shoes and the coat rack exercise.

When I finished Liria’s book, Justin’s character kept talking to me, so I started another book.

Justin’s book was even more brutal than Liria’s. The kid from the park had obviously been schizophrenic, and so was Justin. I was terrified of schizophrenia. I’d spent a lot of my youth worried I had it. I didn’t talk to people about it much, but I’d had some pretty severe episodes of psychosis in my life, and putting myself in that mindset was even harder than being in Liria’s shoes.

As I wrote the book, though, I realized I wasn’t scared anymore. Justin was a wonderful person. His episodes of psychosis didn’t mean he was bad—that was just the way his mind worked.

Justin’s book had a sequel, and I was almost done writing it when I decided I had to talk to the kid in the park again. I knew he wasn’t Justin, but I felt like getting to know him better would help me get Justin’s character right.

I hadn’t talked to him in more than five months, and wasn’t sure where he lived—the “Captain America” house not being what you’d call a precise address—so I went down the park for lack of other options.

He walked in just as I did. “Hey, it’s you,” he said. “I was looking for you.”

The kid in the park’s name is Phoenix. He isn’t much like Justin, but he still helped me to round out Justin’s character in a very big way.

Phoenix became my new obsession, my new best friend, and my new way of avoiding the increasingly horrible fights with my husband. When things progressed to my husband telling me to get the fuck out of the house, Phoenix was the shoulder I cried on. That summer, when my kid was visiting her dad, Phoenix lived with me in campgrounds and my car for quite a while as I looked for jobs and tried to put my life together. When my husband finally asked me to come back home, though, I went. All I wanted to do was write, and the only way I could see to do that was to try to repair my marriage; being a single mom working two jobs wasn’t a recipe for success as an author. Besides, I still thought my husband would eventually realize he still loved me. I thought he’d change. I’d been in abusive relationships before and knew I was being naïve, but things always look different when you’re in the midst of them.

Meanwhile, I eventually got tired of trying to break into the publishing world with one of my bizarre novels populated with unlikeable characters. I wrote a romance with the idea of pitching it to small publishers so that I could establish myself, and maybe have an easier time getting my other stuff published. That romance was Love or Money—it was still bizarre and populated with unlikable characters, but it got published pretty easily. Soon after, I signed a contract on Liria and Justin’s series—the Other Place series.

A few months after that, my husband gave me divorce papers.

I tried to stay in the house so my daughter could finish the school year. It was a complete emotional shit-show. It wasn’t long before—you all saw this coming—Phoenix and I were in a relationship.phoenix n me

I ended up moving out before the end of the school year, because it was just too hard. I renovated and built onto a cabin on my parents’ farm, and I’m living here rent-free, trying to get my writing and editing career off the ground.

I had to leave Phoenix behind, but I think about him every day. I’m headed down to visit him today, too.

Phoenix and I have a sort of shared psychosis. It’s not an easy relationship, but the strength of the connection is more epic and magical than anything I’ve ever known. It’s the connection of two people living in a world very different from the world of those around them. After all, the definition of psychosis is a belief in things that aren’t real, and that aren’t consistent with their society and culture. Everyone is psychotic, but Phoenix and I are just psychotic in a slightly different way.

Yes, perhaps I destroyed my life by writing the Other Place series, but I think it might have been a good trade-off. Even if the series completely flops,my divorce was probably for the best. Writing this series taught me who I am, and that it’s okay to be that person. It’s not much use for me to try to change to make someone happy.

I hope the series doesn’t flop, though. I hope all of you read it and learn to love the unlikable characters in my books. I hope you’ll also take a second look at the unlikeable characters in your real life.

My books on Amazon.

My website.