Thursday, March 12, 2015

Guest Post & Giveaway: Ilsa J. Bick on Takeaways from Egmont USA's Last List

Ilsa vs. The White Rabbit (Not Part of the Dream)
By Ilsa J. Bick
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

I had this weird dream last night.

I’m in an office of some sort and there are all these old Star Trek books lying around that someone’s packing away.

Thing is, I know they’re not my Trek books because Spock’s on every cover, and I never wrote a Spock-centered book or story.

Yet I was positive I’d written every single one.

So, as these books are being sealed into boxes, someone—I don’t know who—says to me, “No, you can’t have any. We’re getting rid of these.”

Then I woke myself up and couldn’t get back to sleep. So now I’m here, caffeinating and writing this all down for you.

Now, you don’t need to be a navel-gazing shrink to get the gist.

First off, Nimoy’s death was big news. For a lot of people, his passing marked the end of an era.

I will be honest; I wasn’t devastated. I was sad and his death made me feel very old. You can’t imagine the number of kids these days that have no idea when it comes to Spock or Kirk. But Spock wasn’t the character I really fixated on, and so while I enjoyed the triumvirate of Kirk-Spock-McCoy . . . I haven’t been in deep mourning.

When Shatner goes, that’ll be a different story, I suspect.

Then, too, I’ve been cleaning out my kids’ rooms, purging toys, stuffed animals, books, comics, clothes . . . all that junk your kids leave behind for you to deal with when they move out. I’ve made more trips to Goodwill than you can imagine, and that was only for one kid’s room. The other still remains—and then there’s the horror show of their bathroom.

(A true story: the eldest comes home from grad school for a visit. Spills hair wax gunk all over the inside of her vanity cabinet. Doesn’t tell me. Skips town. Fast forward a half year, and I open the vanity to discover the moral equivalent of the La Brea tar pits, only now not only is this stuff permanently bonded to the vanity, so are bars of soap, a hair dryer, a couple combs. A razor. I still can’t quite decide if this last was the kid worrying I might kill her, or dropping a hint.)

So packing up stuff in the dream makes sense, too, because that’s what I’ve been doing.

But I also recognize that this is about me and writing and Egmont USA’s packing up and closing its doors. I didn’t know this, but when you close up an office, you purge everything: books, furniture, fixtures, the whole shebang everything. Nothing that you were or had can remain behind. You got to empty that place out and make like you were never there.

(Say, if I were a shrink, I might point out the interesting parallels here between what Egmont’s doing and my sudden need to clean the kids’ rooms.)

It doesn’t take a genius—or navel-gazing shrink—to put together that I am feeling the impact of an end of an era. By now, everyone knows that Egmont Last Listers’ story ends happily. We’ve got a new home, and I meant every single thing I said in my PW interview about that.

Nonetheless, this has been a very hard year, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the past couple of months
coming to terms with how successfully—or not—I’ve navigated that, from my very first inklings that something serious was going down with Egmont USA and through my denial, my paralysis in terms of my writing, and all that.

(To be honest, I’m kind of sick of my unconscious and all this navel-gazing. When I was actively in practice, I remember complaining to my husband that I wished I could just react the way everyone else does without having to think through what it all means and how I’m really feeling, what’s really driving me. I mean, honestly, I’m as entitled to a good hissy fit as the next person.)

The problem is that old habits die hard. I’m talking navel-gazing now. This ages me, but it’s something that shrinks of a certain era did an awful lot. This was when psychoanalysis was in its hey-day. If you wanted to walk in Freud’s mocs, you had to be analyzed yourself.

 (This is, I’m sure, still the case today.)

For a little over three years, I spent fifty minutes, four times a week, staring at my analyst’s acoustical tile, listening to footsteps cross back and forth from the kitchen above, smelling whatever luscious meal my analyst would have later, saying the first thing that came to my mind, the whole nine yards.

I never finished the training for a variety of reasons, though the most pressing was I really wanted to buy a house and there was no way that would happen so long as I was funding my analyst’s vacations. So my analyst and I parted ways. She’s since died, but that woman taught me two invaluable and very simple lessons that, most of the time, I practice.

First off: pay attention to that prickle of uneasiness because it will save you from being eaten alive.

Second: Change is hard. Change makes people anxious, and it is the huge, hulking elephant of their anxiety that frequently keeps people from making changes they ought to. Instead, people substitute other emotions that help them feel more powerful and less helpless. For example, many people handle anxiety by getting angry, striking out, engaging in a whirlwind of activity and only circling around but never truly addressing the source of their distress.

To say that I’ve been incredibly anxious over the past year is an understatement. I have written elsewhere about everything that went down, from my first suspicions that something was up with Egmont USA to its dissolution and now our collective reprieve, and I won’t bore you with all that here. Suffice to say, though, that I never addressed my anxiety directly. For a girl who sees her analyst every day whenever she looks in the mirror, I did my best not to engage that part of me. I simply reacted with a lot of activity that, in the end, didn’t do me a ton of good.

So now The Dickens Mirror (Egmont, 2015) is out in the wild, effectively bringing The Dark Passages series to a close.

(Although a fan of the series and I got started on Twitter with the idea of spin-offs . . . like how cool would it be to actually write Tony’s book instead of only alluding to it. Or Rima’s? How about Bode’s, going along with him for the ride as he crawls through those black echoes in Vietnam? Yeah, I know: way cool.)

Carolrhoda, 2014
All my books are now with Lerner, and I am hugely relieved and happy to rejoin the Carolrhoda Lab family.

That means it’s time to take a breath, step back, and take stock of what I’ve learned in the interim. I don’t mean about what I did last year that didn’t help me. I’m talking about what I’ve learned in the past few months, ever since that phone call in late January when I learned that Egmont was kaput.

Well, here’s a biggie: no girl is an island. I know that’s clich├ęd. Doesn’t make it any less true.

You would’ve thought that someone who wrote in her acknowledgements that bringing a book into the world demands a village would have gotten this through her thick head. But I didn’t.

Another Last Lister, Matt Myklusch, and I chatted about this recently—this notion of writer and community—and he and I pretty much feel the same way. We’re hermits, or we’ve been that way.

I think that most writers are. In a way, you have to be because what are you really doing all day long? Right: you’re sitting in a room, by yourself, and writing about four walls.

(Okay, you can throw in a window or two. Plants. Maybe a couple cats.)

Yes, you take yourself away in your mind; you populate that room with characters. But at the end of the day, you are still talking about a relatively limited orbit, moving through a physical space about ten to twelve feet square, though that doesn’t take into account bathroom breaks, tea breaks, and the cats’ insistence that you open the damn can already. I leave the house every day to go to the gym and run an errand or two, if needed. But that’s it.

The thing is, I’ve never complained. I like being alone. I need the solitude. In fact, too much social media-ing around—checking the huge self-advertisement billboards that are Facebook and Twitter, for example—is liable to drive me a little crazy because I then sit there and wonder why the hell I’m not having as wonderful a time or as tenth as successful as this author or that.

There’s plenty of good research to suggest that too much of that isn’t good for folks either. Just think of that last sequence in “The Social Network,” where the Zuckerberg character is fruitlessly refreshing and refreshing and refreshing . . .

I’m also kind of a shy person. I know; most people who meet me don’t think that at all. Three words: practice, practice, practice. Being a shrink has the side-benefit of teaching you how to be silent with other people while asking the right questions that get them talking.

When I was attached to a publishing house and its marketing purse, being reclusive wasn’t much of a problem. Sure, I shouldered a chunk of the marketing burden by doing blogs, maintaining a social media presence and all that.

 (I know that other writers complain about that. But let’s get real. With so many houses feeling the squeeze and struggling to turn a profit—hello, mine folded?—they simply don’t have the resources to mount huge campaigns for everyone the way they might have in the past, and even then they were selective. Since I’ve known no other way, doing my share of the marketing is normal and no big deal.)

That is, when I had a house. When my novel wasn’t effectively coming out DOA.

Which is where what I’ve learned has come into play.

I said in another post that reaching out to bloggers for help feels weird, but not because I don’t like bloggers. I hate begging. It’s a humbling experience, and while it’s not the same at all, I can appreciate how humiliating it must be for a person who’s previously been able to take care of himself to be reduced to handouts, to going to other people and asking for help.

For me, asking for help is very hard. It’s not just about being shy. My parents drilled self-reliance into me from a very early age. To do any less is to fail in some way. So I’ve had to wade through a lot of feelings of personal failure—that I am somehow responsible for this, even though I had zero-zip-nada control over the situation.

My parents also taught me never to toot my own horn. That didn’t mean they didn’t want me to be competitive—they did—but if I did succeed, I should be quiet about it, not draw attention to myself. I shouldn’t become a target. I think I understand my parents’ history enough to know where that’s coming from, and I won’t bore you with that. But keeping a low profile while also being very driven has been my modus vivendi for my entire life.

So you can imagine how uncomfortable it is for me, this shy yet driven person, to suddenly be thrust into a lot of lookit-lookit-lookit me. Because that is, really, what marketing is all about.

Shakespeare wrote, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

I’m not sure if that means misery loves company . . . but if it weren’t for us Last Listers banding together in our collective moment of need, no one would have heard of us, or our books.

As a group, we’ve become a community that may or may not stick together when this is all said and done, I don’t know.

On the other hand , I know that I’ve made “friends” I can count on to try and help because we’ve all been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.

I have also learned that marketing is really, really hard work. I already understood that because I once had to write and/or do thirty-five—yes, you read that correctly; thirty-five—blogs and interviews in only a few weeks’ time. You don’t have a lot of time or energy left over to do other, really important things like write.

I also tend to be a bit of a pit bull when it comes to tasks. Others would use the word "obsessive." "Maniacal" also works. It’s just that I have a tough time not doing everything and this instant. Which means that even if I budget time for blogs or marketing, knowing I have to do either tends to weigh on and preoccupy me. Usually, I just break down and do the darned work already.

Yet that’s not necessarily a good strategy if you are truly going it alone as I kind of am at the moment. True, I do not have to worry about distribution.

But any marketing push will have to come from me, those bloggers who’ve been gracious enough to host me, and my fellow Last Listers’ willingness to lend a hand.

My hat’s off to self-published people who actually succeed (notice I said "succeed") because I don’t know how you do it. I know a lot of the more successful ones hire this stuff out and/or rejoin/enter traditional publishing because trying to shoulder everything is simply too exhausting.

Either way, learning how to do this well is something I must do because you never know if I’ll have to straddle this line again.

My parents, God bless them . . . they were wrong (or maybe I just misheard; this has been known to happen). But I’ve needed to unlearn some bad behaviors. So here is what I would say to myself if I were in their shoes; these are my takeaways.

Yes, Ilsa, be self-reliant but understand that it is okay to ask for help. Not only will people frequently surprise you with how willing they are to do so, you become more approachable as a person.

(Think of your fan’s reaction when you respond to an email, or a Facebook post. Think of the courage it took for your fan to press SEND.)

Yes, Ilsa, be humble. Success is fleeting and so is fame, and life turns on a dime.

Yet it’s okay to share good news. Just remember that nothing wears out a welcome faster than too much me-me-me. That is hard in this age where every social media platform can become and frequently is a billboard.

But, Ilsa, remember: do not ignore warning signs. If you’re uneasy, don’t get anxious. Get active. Suck it up and deal, but also recognize what’s out of your control and try not to obsess.

Just do the best you can. If there’s something you can’t do well—marketing, per se—then learn. Don’t get crazy and fall into despair. 

Get competent.

Most importantly . . . 


Kid, do remember that you are not operating in a vacuum. Spending a lot of time alone is not the same as being alone. There is a community out there, happy to make your acquaintance.

You only have to be brave enough to try.

Sneak Peek
 
 
Cynsational Notes

Ilsa J. Bick is a child psychiatrist, film scholar, surgeon wannabe, former Air Force major, and now an award-winning author of dozens of short stories and novels, including her critically acclaimed Ashes Trilogy, Draw the Dark, Drowning Instinct, and The Sin-Eater’s Confession.

White Space, the first volume of her Dark Passages horror/fantasy duology, is currently long-listed for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a YA Novel. The sequel, The Dickens Mirror, hit shelves on March 10.

Ilsa lives with her long-suffering husband and other furry creatures near a Hebrew cemetery in rural Wisconsin. One thing she loves about the neighbors: they’re very quiet and only come around for sugar once in a blue moon.

Drop by her website for her Sunday's cake and Friday’s cocktail recipes as well as other assorted maunderings; or find her on Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter (@ilsajbick), or Instagram (@ilsajbick).

See also Ilsa J. Bick and Community by Matt Myklusch from The Other Side of the Story Podcast.

Cynsational Giveaway

Enter to win The Dickens Mirror by Ilsa J. Bick (Egmont, 2015). Author sponsored. Eligibility: International.

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