Things That Scare Me

It came to me last night, as I was composing that careful, tepid post about selling my book – about achieving something I have wanted my whole writing life, more than forty damn years, for Christ’s sake, and I make it sound like I won some cookies at a bake sale – that I am afraid all the time. I’m afraid of what I have to lose. Aren’t we all, really? If something goes badly in life, we spin how much worse it could get. If something goes VERY badly, we imagine that happening all the time. If something goes well, we think about how easily we could lose it, or how we could screw it up.

Everybody does this, right? It’s not just me.

And it’s stupid, of course, because I have a blessed life. I have had luck raining down on me from the instant of my birth, a loved little girl in a comfortable suburban family in this wealthy little country of ours. (There’s a fear: fear of insufficient gratitude.)

When I write a novel, I don’t generally know up front what it’s going to be about. I don’t mean the plot, or the characters; but what it’s conveying about my larger perspective on the world. All of that is subconscious, and only when I look back on it when it’s finished can I say “Oh! I’ve been writing about that!”

The book I’m writing about now is about loss, and how we deal with it. And a lot of how we deal with it has to do with fear.

This – for me, at least – has more to do with control over anything else. For example, one of my big fears is flying. I acquired this fear as a young adult, long before 9/11, and I still don’t understand why. I flew all the time when I was a kid (part of my blessed life included both parents being private pilots, and being dragged to lunch on Nantucket now and then just on a whim), and even in my twenties I flew to the Netherlands a few times a year. Now I am flat-out hyperventilating terrified of flying, and most of that comes down to powerlessness over my fate. Yes, I understand that statistically I’m safer in the air than I am driving to work each morning; but my lizard-brain says You are in control of the car. In the air, it says My, the ground is a long way down.

I worry about my job. Some of this is that my previous workplace was something of a horror show when it came to people being dismissed for reasons unknown. Management by fear was the default ideal. Where I am now is not like this. Unlike on an airplane, at my workplace I have some control over my fate. But there is this fear that I will say one wrong thing, or miss the wrong meeting, or forget to smile at the wrong person, and that will be that.

I worry that this would not bother me. But I have worked at a steadily-paying job since I was in high school (although – blessed again – not when I was in college, apart from long vacations). Lack of a steady paycheck would freak me out. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t even matter if I need it.

I worry about aging. College seems like yesterday. “Twin Peaks” seems like yesterday. The hip I injured last January that is still complaining reminds me that none of that stuff was recent. I have my health, still. My slow hip is slowly healing. But I am angry that it’s injured in the first place. (I’m also not too pleased with the orthopedist who said breezily “Yeah, not uncommon for women your age.” She was maybe 35. Karma will get her. Eventually.)

I worry that I’ll never be able to work out again. I worry that when I can, I won’t. Inertia feels so comfy sometimes, and while the rewards of physical fitness are huge, they are also incremental and easy to rationalize away.

I worry how my daughter will take it when one of our cats dies. We have lost cats, but not recently. She will be gutted. We learn things when we survive loss like that, and I shouldn’t want to spare her the lesson. But it’s physically painful for me when she’s upset.

(One of the characters in the book I’m working on worries about this with her own children. She knows she has to let them experience loss, but she’s not happy about it.)

And yeah, I worry that my book won’t do well enough. That I will shortchange it somehow with my mildly enthusiastic blog posts. It is a thing of wonder to me that someone bought my book. The only thing that has been constant in my life has been writing, and now someone is going to pay me for it. That is tremendous. And worry will get me nowhere, except publishing boring blog posts.

The world is not a happy place right now. I am cynical about every spot of good news I read, and more and more despondent about the bad. There are things I can do to work toward change. I try to do those things. I try to raise my daughter to make the world better as well. Such a small drop in such a huge bucket; but what else are you going to do?

(One of my characters says, at one point, that she knows she may not be able to change anything. But it’s worth it to her to try, to keep fighting. The fight alone is worth something to her, even if she doesn’t win it. I am pretty sure she is stronger than I am.)

But there are small moments, every day. The fact that it’s 4:23 right now, and still kind of light outside. Those times when our skittish rescue cat is willing to climb onto my lap. My kid giving me a hug just because she feels like it. My spouse lighting the fire, even though he’s more than warm enough, just because he knows I like it. Small moments keep me going. Small moments make me recognize that fear – the kind of fear I deal with – does not help. It gets you nowhere.

Better to shrug it off, change what you can, and celebrate success when you find it.

(Is it weird that one of the first things that went through my mind when my agent told me the book had an offer was Now I’m going to have to figure out Schedule C? No matter how frustrating taxes are – that will be the loveliest return I have ever filed.)


So I have this nice, established blog here, and I haven’t written about the fact that my book sold.

Wow, look at those words: My book sold.

I was not expecting this to happen quickly, but it did. This is due entirely to my agent, who a) was both cheerleader and slave driver, and made sure the book was in good shape for submission; and b) knew who might like it. I find myself in the position of not having any idea how to sufficiently thank someone for what they’ve done for me. I understand that’s her job; but my goodness, she does it awfully well.

There are two things going on for me now: one, I’m working on the sequel, and writing to a fairly firm schedule. This is new to me. When I was revising for my agent, I had rough dates to work toward, but they were all self-imposed. I didn’t hit all of them, but I don’t think I was off by more than a few weeks for any of them. While there may be some wiggle room in the dates I have now, there is probably less – and they are more important to me, because if I hit them I get more time to revise.

I broke down the work I had left and set interim milestones, and so far I’ve met them. I’m a bit ahead, actually (don’t tell anyone). There is still a lot to do, but it’s possible that this forced organization really is allowing me to work more efficiently. I hesitate to say this, because I am fundamentally a terribly superstitious person. If I’m optimistic about the dates, I will hit some plot-destroying black hole in what I’m writing, and I’ll have to scrap the whole thing and start over.

Which brings us to the second thing that’s going on for me: I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen, and that is freaking me out.

One of the things I recognized when I was in Querying Hell was that being pessimistic didn’t make rejection any easier. The proper lesson to take from that is to be an optimist: it’s much less stressful, and the disappointment is no worse. But that’s a lifetime of habit that isn’t going to change just because I apply logic to it. The upshot of this is that I’m realizing that self-promotion is going to be rough. Someone bought this book. Someone thinks it’s good enough that it might earn them some money. Therefore…maybe the book is good.

Insert huge paragraph of qualifiers here. Because it is bad luck, you see, to say out loud that the book might be good. I mean, I’m rather fond of it. Parts of it I enjoy reading myself. And there is no such thing as an objectively good book: some of the books I love are books other people have hated. (I ranted about this fairly recently.) I really hope that lots of people like my book. It seems safer to have that hope than to say maybe the book is good.

There have to be ways to promote without actually saying something like that.

I can write about what the book is about: Mystery! Intrigue! Spaceships! I can write about writing the sequel, and what it’s like to learn about new characters as I keep channeling old ones. I can write about research, and inspiration, and why I made some of the choices I made. And it’s not about being conceited or pretentious. I know I can string words together. I know I’m not too bad at it. I know I can write entertaining stuff. But saying straight out maybe the book is good feels like calling for the thunderbolts.

When I would look in on my daughter when she was an infant, I wouldn’t leave her room at 13 minutes past the hour. As a kid, I never stepped on sidewalk cracks. Even now, my bedtime routine is identical every single night: the same things in the same order. (Okay, that’s maybe obsessive-compulsive rather than superstitious, but still.) My rational mind knows all of these things are silly. But my irrational mind has this little whisper: Just in case.

So I won’t say maybe the book is good. I will only say that holy toledo, strangers liked it. They liked it enough to buy the right to publish it. This suggests they, at least, think some people will like the book. And you know? I like the book. It was fun to write. (Torturous to revise, but so incredibly worth the effort.) The sequel is fun to write. These people chatting in my head are pretty good company.

I suppose there are a few things I know will happen: the book will get published. I will finish the sequel. (I’m pretty close at this point – and then, of course, there will be revisions.) And there will be lots of bits and pieces of this whole project for which I will be completely unprepared, and which will freak me out.

And I’ll get through them, because I am surrounded by tremendous people.

I decided, back in early 2013, that I would give myself six months to find an agent, and if I couldn’t, I’d self-publish. Contingency plans, as always. I am not really sure what I expected: this, and not this. Hope, but no assumptions. Which is probably not a bad way to proceed at this point, either.