Freshness + Maxwell’s Demon

I have several little things to share today. Around here, I’ve been a busy bee freshening things up for the new year. The Decorative Writer and The Organized Writer have both had face lifts. At TDW you’ll find a better, streamlined photo format, plus new photos in both my own office album and in Roni Loren’s office album. At TOW I’ve tweaked the layout and functionality of my documents. Plus I’ve added a Buzz page to my menu, so you can read my happy reviews in one place (eek!), as well as a Store page, which takes you to my new Amazon store. There you can browse and shop for my favorite books and products for readers and writers.

In other news, if you’ve missed it, my poem “Maxwell’s Demon” is out now in Apex Magazine. You can read it for free online.

It’s really easy to overlook a poem, to brush past it. We’re so busy; poems are so short. Often we read them once, glean what’s on the surface, nod along, and move on.

I wrote this poem six years ago. I loved it but thought it was too obscure, too “sciencey.” I set it aside thinking it would never get picked up and that few would ever read it how I intended. Finally, last year, I sent it to one of the only pro markets I’ve found that embraces both poetry and science-rooted work. I was thrilled when Apex picked up “Maxwell’s Demon.”

Still, though, I figured it would get lost in the shuffle of this big, gorgeous issue (80) with names far more prominent than mine.

Then I read a review of my poem by Charles Payseur at Quick Sip Reviews that is spot-on, thoughtful, emotional, appreciative, nuanced, and all of the things a writer scarcely dares to hope for in a reader, much less a reviewer. I can’t tell you how good it feels for my poem to not only have found such a home, but to have found such an audience.

“Maxwell’s Demon” does rely somewhat on knowing what the original reference is, so for anyone who’s curious, here’s the Wikipedia article on James Clerk Maxwell’s thought experiment.

Finally, I’m working on getting new albums of cool writers’ work spaces up at The Decorative Writer (If you’re a writer with a beautiful work space you’d like to share, please email me!), as well as new documents at The Organized Writer. You can look for those coming in the next few months, as well as several more publications I have work in that I’ll share as they’re released.

Last but certainly not least, if you’re looking to get a head start on shopping for Valentine’s Day, last year I pulled together a list of gift ideas for book lovers. ♥ Happy February, and happy Women in Horror Month, too!

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Thoughts on Borges

I recently read Ficciones, a classic short story collection by Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, who’s largely credited with beginning the magical realism genre. Like all literary classics, I went into this with certain hopes and expectations, and I was somehow both rewarded and disappointed in the end. In short, I’m glad I read him, but I won’t be seeking any more of his work.

For those of you unfamiliar with Borges, I’ll give you my general impressions. Borges weaves philosophical exercises with surreal fantasy elements into tight, complex stories that read more like essays. His narrators often come across as the author, and are usually removed from the center of the story by generations, distance, knowledge, etc. His predominant themes are mazes, libraries, dreams, writing, war, time, and religion. I was particularly interested to spot the influences of Bertrand Russell (philosophy) and Edgar Allan Poe (the detective genre).

When I got on Goodreads to mark Ficciones as “read,” I was shocked to see that it has a 4.5 star rating. That’s higher than the works of most classics. Really? I’ll admit that my first thought was, “I wonder how many of those 4- and 5-star ratings were from people who wanted to look smart by liking Borges.”

First I gave it 4 stars, thinking about how pivotal Borges was for both Spanish and fantasy literature, how great a mind and distinctive a voice. But then I went back and changed it to 3, because no matter how much I admire him, I don’t like his work. And isn’t that what ratings are supposed to be? “How much did you like this book?” Well, it wasn’t my favorite. I ended up on 3 stars. I’ll try to break down why.

Likes

Of the seventeen stories in this collection, my favorites were “The Circular Ruins,” “The Babylon Lottery,” “The Library of Babel,” and “The Secret Miracle.” If you read only these four stories, you’ll have an excellent sense of Borges.

Intelligence– One undeniable fact about Borges is that he’s smart as hell. He’s not just intellectual; he’s intelligent (and yes, there is a difference). If nothing else, you’d be hard-pressed to come away from reading Borges and not feel impressed by the man’s mind.

Concepts– I happen to adore many of the concepts Borges explores. Libraries, mirrors, writing, dreams, and infinity are all things I personally write about and also enjoy reading about. I think he has interesting things to say about them.

Sense of humor– This, in my opinion, is actually the best thing about Borges. Plenty of people in this world are smart. Many people are funny. Both together make a special combination. Borges has this wry, understated sense of humor that sort of sneaks up on you. Much of it was highly self-aware, and I found it absolutely delightful. I laughed aloud several times, smiled many, and smirked at a few.

Distinctness– And finally, I appreciate Borges’ fidelity to his own style, concepts, and voice. I might not like everything about them, but I admire that he knows who he is as an author and stays true to that. One of the beautiful things about reading the classics is that even if you don’t like a particular author, you “get to know them.” You hear their distinctive voice and feel their distinct impression left on the literary canon. Borges is such a voice, and I love him for it.

Dislikes

Redundancy– This is a risk you run anytime you read collected works by an author. Most if not all writers have themes and concepts they return to throughout their artistic life, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. In fact, as I mentioned above with distinctiveness, I think it can be a good thing, but in the case of sitting down to read the stories back to back, it can become dull. I found myself predicting the ending to these stories after reading only the first half dozen or so.

Ego– This is my biggest problem with Borges. I felt that he was too in love with his own cleverness. He knows that he’s smart, and he’s a big fan of it, and that’s incredibly off-putting to me. Don’t get me wrong; I adore difficult, complex works. I love House of Leaves, Thomas Pynchon, Kafka, Don DeLillo, and Nabokov, so it’s not that I’m a leisure-read-only person or that Borges went over my head. I followed him; I just didn’t like how pleased he was with where we were going. The best way I can describe it is the difference between a brilliant professor who’s there to teach the students and a brilliant professor who’s there to hear himself talk. Unfortunately, more often than not Borges struck me as the latter.

Lack of story– Another issue I had was Borges’ distaste for story. There’s a reason that you’ll see his works referred to as “essays” as often as “stories.” Many of them eschew story structure entirely. Some of them go so far as to read like philosophical exercises and mental trickery. The characters don’t matter. The plot rarely matters. In some cases, it feels more like playing Sudoku than reading fiction. Some people might love that; I hated it.

Lack of passion and honesty– Which brings me to my final issue: There wasn’t enough meat in Borges’ work. I want to feel moved, not manipulated. Intellect, philosophy, and concept can only take a piece so far. The reason I’m a reader isn’t to exercise my mind or to explore experimental ideas. I mean, I love doing those things, but I don’t need literature for them. I need literature to make me feel. I need literature to make me care. I need literature to be art – or at least entertainment. I want authors to make me feel like I’ve seen a sliver of their soul. I want authors to make me believe that their beliefs matter, not just their ideas. And despite all his strengths and value, Borges withholds himself. He doesn’t leave all of himself on the page – only his mind. And me? I want heart.


I think Borges would’ve been a wonderful man to know. I’d have loved to get him in a room where he wasn’t trying to impress anyone and spend hours talking. But as to his essay-stories? I admire them. I appreciate them. I respect them. But I don’t like them. Give me Kafka’s filial angst spliced with surrealism. Give me Shirley Jackson’s understated intelligence captured in emotionally honest prose. Give me all the fervor, excitement, and passion of Poe. But Borges? Well, at the end of the day, Borges leaves me cold.

Have you read Jorge Luis Borges? What was your take?

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The Quiet Year that Held So Much

When I sat down to write my New Year’s blog, I was wondering how on earth I was going to fill a whole post. I’m big on transitions, reviewing, and setting new goals, though, so I figured I’d continue my January tradition even if the post ended up being a short one.

What I didn’t realize was how incredibly full and wonderful 2015 was for me. With the natural tendency to focus on what needs improvement, I was thinking about how I had a low total word count for the year and that I took the whole summer off writing to reenergize and refresh by getting a summer job as a park worker, so I was looking at it as a slow year for my writing life. Along with taking those months off for the summer job, I also tutored a Spanish 1 student for several months, which was outside my comfort zone, but my student ended up with the highest grades in her high school class. :) And on top of that, I achieved last year’s resolution of becoming more active this year, and am healthier and happier for my yoga and gym visits.

So I was ready to forgive myself for a slow writing year, but boy was I ever wrong! Compiling the highlights and reflections for this year’s writing things took me five times longer than I thought it would, but I’m so glad I did. How else would I ever have put into perspective how very much value and achievement and growth this year held for me?

Looking Back at 2015

There are three traditions I started last New Year’s: filling out a pretty new planner, putting notes of things that I was grateful for, happy about, and/or proud of in my joy jar, and finalizing my earning/expense documents for the year’s taxes. (I’m a party animal, I know.)

Reading through all of the notes in my joy jar was really fun. Most of my notes were obscure and/or personal, but here’s a shot of four of my favorite ones beside the emptied jar:

Joy Jar Highlights

The 6,000 word day was my personal best for drafting. I don’t even remember what “the fear that leads to bravery” was about (but doesn’t that just go to show?). I met Jack Ketchum, one of my favorite horror authors, at World Horror Con in Atlanta, and he signed my treasured copy of Off Season that was my dad’s. And “new plans and fresh starts” sort of speaks for itself, doesn’t it? Of course, there were dozens and dozens of other moments that made me smile, many of which had nothing to do with writing and everything to do with the small moments that make up a full life.

Here on the website, I saw continued growth with many new visitors and email subscribers, thanks in large part to the incredible Anne Rice sharing four of my blog posts with her followers. (Here are the links to her Facebook posts: “The Differences Between Commercial and Literary Fiction,” “Thoughts on IT by Stephen King, What it Takes to Enjoy Horror, and Why I Write It,” “Thoughts on Gone Girl,” and “Introducing My Newest Guilty Pleasure: Bates Motel.”) You can’t imagine how thrilling it was for me to hear such kind words from one of my writing role models! Not to mention how wonderful her fans are. Her support was the highlight of my year.

In March, I went on a fun writing retreat with one of my besties, Kelsey Macke. In May, World Horror Con was an absolute blast and a huge personal success. I got to meet two of my online writing buddies in person; Ashley Davis and Carie Juettner turned out to be even cooler than I’d hoped for. I had two successful pitch sessions, met dozens of new friends, colleagues, and influencers in the field, learned lots of great stuff, interviewed 14 authors I admire, and even found a mentor in the fabulous Horror Writers Association president Lisa Morton!

Over the course of the year, I completed pretty big revisions on two different novels, wrote several new stories and many new poems, and broke my 50-market goal for venues I’ve had work accepted to. :) The Organized Writer continues to grow, with my free documents receiving a record number of downloads.

I had three different short stories come out in 2015, along with five poems, two guest blogs, three interviews, six more columns at Writer Unboxed – which also marked the introduction of the Ask Annie feature this year – as well as two of my stories being favorably reviewed (a quick line about “Honey” in Blurring the Line and a full, fun, cheeky write-up of “Zanders the Magnificent” by Charlotte Ashley on “Clavis Aurea #26” at Apex Magazine). If you missed some of these works, you can find everything of mine that came out this year, sorted by category and listed from most recent to oldest, on my published works page.

Another highlight of this year was being included in two very cool lists: “Celebrating Women In Horror Month” at LitReactor and Ellen Datlow’s recommended list for Best Horror of the Year Volume Seven. I opened up my “Ask the Author” feature on Goodreads to celebrate Horror Week. You can read the four great questions I got and my answers here. I also continued to tweet @AnnieNeugebauer, update my Facebook page, and curate my (NSFW) tumblr inspiration blog. Now, looking back, I wonder how I ever thought of this past year as slow!

Looking Forward to 2016

So, naturally, now I’m thinking ahead and dreaming of the year to come. So far I can share that I have the following forthcoming in 2016: two poems in Apex Magazine (January and March), one short story in the anthology Strange Little Girls by Belladonna Press (February), and one poem in the NFSPS’s prize anthology Encore (July).

I also have two more contracts underway that I should be able to announce soon, plus hopefully more as the year goes on!

And last but not least, here’s my new planner and waiting joy jar set up for another busy, happy, productive year:

Planner and Joy Jar

If you can’t tell in the picture, the new jar label says “Joy lives here.” ♥ So that’s my wrap-up! Many, many thanks to everyone who helped make my year special, whether it was by publishing my work, being a supportive friend, or simply reading this blog.

I’d love to hear all about your own 2015. Feel free to share in the comments below. And here’s wishing you all a wonderful 2016!

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Writing and Mental Health

Last time I blogged about something close to home for me, and I think to many writers: depression. It’s no secret that the book industry is maddening and difficult, and it’s no secret that creative brains have been linked to depression, so it seems logical to me that writers are prone to it. Knowing that isn’t enough for me, though. I want to be proactive.

Thankfully, I’ve made great progress over the years. I still have my bouts, but much less often and for shorter periods. Part of that is luck, part of it is work, and part of it is learning. Everyone is different, of course, and I’m certainly no expert, but I thought today I’d focus on the positive by sharing with you some of the things I’ve learned that help me.

Sunshine

I was honestly shocked when I realized how important this is to my mental well-being. Sunshine, really? But yes, really. I try to go outside every single day, even if it’s only for ten minutes. I take walks, check the mail, water the plants, whatever. I just need to get outside under the actual sun to feel its warmth and soak up its light. If the sun’s in hiding, I use a sun lamp and space heater. They’re not nearly as effective (which perhaps explains my annual winter blues), but they’re still better than nothing. And so is being outside even on cold, gloomy days, when it comes down to it. The great outdoors are a magical thing.

Physical Activity

Sucks, doesn’t it? I’m a writer, not a model or a firefighter; I thought I’d escape that whole exercise thing. Turns out that mental health and physical health are so deeply intertwined that they’re pretty much the same thing. The brain is part of the body, after all. I’m not big on exercise, though. I’m just not. Fun activities like hiking and dancing and kayaking are great, but I don’t have time to make them a frequent part of my life. Yet when you look at the stationary lifestyle of most writers, it becomes obvious that we need to pay special attention to  exercise. For me, a bare-minimum solution is working out 2-3 times a week. Yoga and/or stretching brings me peace and balance. Weight-lifting brings me strength and self-esteem. And cardio brings me energy and endorphins. I can track a noticeable trend in my mood based on my physical activity.

An Ergonomic Space

Again, the body and the mind are intertwined, and writers spend a huge amount of our time sitting at a computer. Having chronic discomfort from sitting wrong can contribute to lethargy, crankiness, and eventually depression. A little over a year ago I took about a week to make my desk space more ergonomic, and my wrists, neck, and back thank me. I bought an ergonomic keyboard and installed a pullout tray for it to sit in under my desk so I wouldn’t be reaching up to my laptop keys. I bought a laptop stand so my neck wouldn’t always be craned down. And I removed the armrests on my chair, which got in the way of my arm hanging naturally to reach the mouse. Add them together, and what a huge difference!

Breaks

The single biggest change in how I handle my depression came when I was in college and I (begrudgingly) joined a group meditation class for depression. As many of you may know by now, I’m very very grounded, and I don’t stomach spiritual-plane type stuff well, so I was ready to hate this class. I really lucked out, though, because the particular type of meditation I was taught was mindfulness meditation based on breathing. My instructors wanted hard results. They didn’t want to talk about feelings or delve into the past; they wanted us to recognize and acknowledge emotions and then breathe. That was it, not a mumbo or a jumbo to be seen. :)

The best thing about (my version of) mindfulness meditation is that there isn’t a wrong way to do it. There’s no time requirement. No goal. All you do is sit back and take stock. How am I feeling? Acknowledge that, and let it go if you want (or hold on). Then breathe, paying close physical attention to your body. Feel your lungs, your feet, your throat, your face. Notice it. That’s it.

If even that seems too much, or isn’t your cup of tea, try taking a different type of break. I use Work Rave to remind me when I’ve been staring at the screen too long. It encourages micro-breaks and occasional longer breaks, and even shows you stretches to help prevent repetitive motion injury. You can download Work Rave for free or you can set a timer and stop every hour or so to stretch, walk around, and change focus. It’s good for the body and the mind.

Social Interaction

Okay, so all of my tips so far have been body-based. Shows what camp I’m in, eh? (Camp Science! Provable results!) But of course, the mind needs tending all its own, too. Aside from general things that all people with depression should consider, writers in particular can benefit from emphasizing social connection. Especially for those of us doing this full-time, it can become a very solitary pursuit. Solitude can be wonderful for creativity, but too much of it breeds sorrow and disconnection. Of course, joining clubs and volunteering and things of that nature are always great options. So is spending time with friends and family.

But for writers specifically, no matter how introverted, I think it’s incredibly important to interact with other writers. Online is better than nothing, but seeing other writers face-to-face on a regular basis is invaluable. Friends and family can be wonderfully supportive, but if they’re not doing what you’re doing, there’s only so much they can understand about what you’re going through. Writing friends get it, though, and the feeling that we’re not alone – that others understand us and are fighting for the same things – is a huge mental boost.

Positivity Games

And finally, what about purely mental things when you don’t have time to go see your fellow writers? Here are some of the writing-related things I do to help counteract depressive tendencies.

I talk about it, as evidenced by this post, many past posts in this category of my blog, and occasional tweets and statuses. I try not to talk about it in mundane, whiny ways, but I speak up when I feel the need to, and I ask for support when I want it. Depression is a very common struggle, especially among writers, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing makes a burden feel heavier than trying to keep it a secret.

I keep a joy jar. This year I’ve been adding notes to my joy jar every time I feel like it – something I’ve accomplished, something nice someone said, something fun I did, etc. Most (but not all) of them are writing-related because I keep it in my office. I plan to read through all of them at the end of the year, but honestly, that’s a bonus. The real gift is in taking time to stop and put weight on the good things.

Likewise, I keep a “brag box” file in my computer. Whenever I get a good review, super sweet comment, or encouragement from someone I admire, I copy-paste it into one long file of kindness. When I feel super low, I go back and read through that file to remind myself how many people believe in me. It’s hard to feel alone or like a failure when you’re swimming in the voices of people who’ve taken the time to encourage your art. ♥


So that’s it for now: the best practices I’ve found to combat my depression. Writers, creatives, and anyone who feels like joining the conversation: Do you struggle with depression? What tips help you? Please feel free to share below!

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