On Being Stuck

The subtitle of this post should be: thoughts on how to regain forward motion.

Here’s the thing. In the last year, I’ve finished two books with my co-writer Irene Preston and a novella set in that same world. Before I edited this paragraph, the line read “I’ve only finished…” but I took the “only” out, because a novel and two novellas are definite accomplishments. In fact, you’re probably thinking I should be happy with three completed projects, and I am.

It’s just that I could have done more.

 

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In between the finished novel/novellas, I sliced and diced an old project, trying to make it work better, and began two other stories, only to stall out every time.

That’s a lot of crap, lemme check Facebook to see if I can shake something loose.

Those stories I fizzled out on? One is almost 200 pages long, and the other is just over 100 pages. (That’s double spaced, 12-font TNR, ~ 300 words a page.) The old project I fiddled with is even longer. My point is, I’ve invested a fair amount of time, creativity, and emotion into each of these and I don’t want to see all that energy go to waste.

Any time you’re doing something creative, false starts are part of the game. I’ll get an idea, slap it down on the page, and see what comes of it. I’ve got several of those; two or three thousand words sketching out a main character along with some bullet points regarding the plot, the kind of thing I can throw together in an afternoon, then set aside to see if anything roots.

But you figure if – at best – I write 5000 words a week, it probably took me 3 months to get to 200 pages. That’s too much for me to toss aside, and while I’m one of those writers who loves the process of editing, I can’t fix what isn’t on the page.

So now you know a couple of my dirty secrets. I give up too easily and then whine about it.

Oh, and to complicate matters, I’m doing Camp NaNo this month, the abbreviated spring version of NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month. I committed to writing 20,000 words in the month of April. I’m at 17,600 words with three days left, which means I need to get one of these projects moving again.

 

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Basically I made this post in the hopes I’d find a way out of this pickle.  I did a google search for “how to get unstuck fiction writing”, and in the interest of helping others in the same situation, I want to share some of what I learned.

The author of an article on The Center for Fiction website said her blocks usually come from not knowing the characters well enough. She recommended doing some free writing from the main character’s point of view, asking them why they’re so pissed off. (That’s not as crazy as it might sound. Jump HERE for the full post.)

An article on the website thinkitcreative.com also recommended focusing on the characters to move the plot forward. The author here suggested working on the backstory to get insights into what could happen next. One of their ideas involved going to an online dating site to get a list of questions for the characters to answer, which kind of cracks me up, but just might work. (Jump HERE for the complete post.)

I also liked an article on the Writers Digest website, because it recommended brainstorming “what could happen next”, then choosing the option the reader is least likely to expect. The article’s second bullet point was even more succinct:

Kill someone.

Heh. Yeah. That’d definitely shake things up.

Finally, they suggested meditation, to let your mind go quiet and see what ideas wander in.  “Stillness is the native language of creativity, yet it’s astonishing how we try to avoid silence.” (Jump HERE for the full article.)

So yeah, maybe I’m not really stuck. Maybe I’m just giving my ideas more time to blossom.

Or maybe I should spend less time on Facebook, and more time exploring. I’m going to go walk the dogs and see what I can come up with. If you’ve got ideas for how to move through a block, share them in the comments. Would love to learn from you!

 

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Write With Your Nose

A fellow writer recently shared a pretty hilarious online word generator, called “What Does Your Hero Smell Like?” When you enter the name of a protagonist or love interest, it automatically generates a unique smell just for them. Some gems for my characters included Sunder, who smelled like “meat and luck” (ewwww), and Rogan, “clean sheets and wreckage” (I…kind of…like that one). The generator is obviously supposed to be humorous, but it got me thinking a little more critically about how I use the sense of smell in my writing.

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If you’ve been writing for long, you’ve probably heard advice about how to write with all five senses. But in my experience, not all senses get top billing. Sight is the obvious leader, with hearing, touch, taste and smell trailing somewhere behind. Every sense deserves to be explored to fully paint a picture of whatever story you’re trying to tell, but in my opinion, the olfactory senses hold a special place in a writer’s arsenal.

Due to the anatomy of the human brain, smell is actually closely linked to memory, more so than any other sense. (Here’s an interesting article in Psychology Today about the effect, if you’re interested to know more!) Smells are basically encoded onto our memories, so that revisiting certain smells can directly trigger those precise memories. “Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences,” author, poet, and naturalist Diane Ackerman writes in her book, A Natural History of the Senses. And, for better or for worse, odors also elicit the emotions buried within those specific memories. A smell can just as easily bring back a happy memory as it can trigger something traumatic.

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So, how can you use this in your writing? The possibilities are endless, so be creative! On a  basic level–and in conjunction with the other four senses–observing ambient smells in a story can flesh out the setting. But go a little deeper. Smells can be a fantastic way to introduce flashbacks for character development–anything from the whiff of an old lover’s cologne to the scent of wood-smoke on the air to a grandmother’s dryer sheets can bring back important memories. Smells can also evoke different places and different times for POV characters, introducing the possibility of foreshadowing and/or parallel structure. When employing the objective correlative, the odors noticed by a character in a certain situation can reflect how they themselves are perceiving the world around them.

And finally, although most of us modern humans go out of our way to cover up our natural scents with deodorant, perfume, and cologne, individuals do have individual physical scents. And whatever that odor might be–nasty or nice, pungent or pleasant–finding a way to describe your fictional character’s personal smell can go a long way towards accentuating their personality, and defining their place in the world.

Please, just don’t let it be “meat and luck!”

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English Majors Unite!

The other day there was a bit of a kerfuffle on Twitter. I know, quelle surprise!

A very successful writer was asked for a bit of advice from a young fan as a new English Major.

The writer’s response? English Major = “Do you want fries with that?”

I mean.

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She told the fan to get a degree in something that would get them a lucrative job and write on the side.

Yeah. Sure. Some people totally do that. But to completely belittle the fan’s already chosen path while also tearing down the service industry? REALLY?

You won’t be surprised to find out that I, myself, was an English Major. I have a loverly BA in English with a concentration on Creative Writing. A major I created myself because it didn’t exist at my school at the time. I was very lucky that my adviser was also the department chair at the time so getting it approved wasn’t quite the battle it could have been.

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I am damn proud of my degree. I have both dyslexia and dyscalculia. Believe me, getting dyslexia under control has been much easier than my dsycalculia–there was no way I was going to be a math or science or business major. But guess what? As a self-published writer, I am running my own business. My husband also runs his own business, but I also help with that. I run the office for both of us. And my degree helped me, believe it or not.

English degrees teach you critical thinking, creative solutions, and so much more.

Now, do you need an English Degree to be a writer? Of course not. I know many writers who are also something else. Writing isn’t paying the bills just yet for them. But it might some day.

Did I need an English Degree to be a writer? To be a good one, yes.

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I can say with a little confidence that I had “raw talent” when I was younger. When I got to be creative with my English assignments, I always did well. I actually remember my senior English AP teacher writing “I can’t wait to see what happens next!” on a paper I turned in. It was an amazing feeling. I really thought I could write. I thought I was a good story teller.

Then I went to college.

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I had professors who were published novelists and playwrights and poets.

And they let me know raw talent wasn’t enough then and it wouldn’t be enough in the future. They tore my papers apart. I had one professor (the aforementioned adviser) who knew I was turning in the first drafts of papers and would automatically deduct a full letter grade because of it. I went to him, demanding to know why I kept getting B’s on my papers and he told me. He told me even if the paper was an A on the first try, that just told him the second try would be that much better.

My poetry was ridiculous. It was flowery and vague, like I didn’t want my reader to know what I was talking about. My professor shredded my poems until I learned to paint a damn picture that he could see.

I am the writer I am today because of the lessons those professors gave me. It was well worth the time and money. Maybe I would have gotten to that point as an English Minor, or just taking a couple of classes for fun, who knows? But I know being an English Major changed my life and I am damn grateful for it.

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Do you need to be an English Major to be a successful writer? Of course not. Or maybe you do. None of us are the same. Some of us need the instruction, some of us don’t. Some of us will write a NYT bestseller in our 20s and others will do so in their golden years. You are special and different and need to decide what is right for you. Don’t let some random person–even if they are a NYT bestseller themselves–tell you what is the right path for you.

Oh, by the way, I was a waitress all through college. It was the most thankless, degrading job I’ve ever had and I worked in insurance after college. Never tear down the service industry. Customers are assholes and service industry people are overworked and treated like shit every day. Everyone should have to wait tables on Mother’s day, or run a cashier over the holidays. People would be far, far nicer and learn some damn manners.

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Now. Thanks to that English degree, I’m putting out my 16th novel (under this name), and it is up for pre-order now! If you were a fan of my Ash & Ruin Trilogy, this is a companion novel, maybe you’d like to take a peek?

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Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon CA | Kobo Smashwords | Barnes & Noble | ibooks

 

My Muse: New Orleans

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Last week we had an adventure. (“We” meaning me and the family.) We spent the week in New Orleans, and I’ll tell you what, I love that city. I love the history. I love the people. I love that there are so many layers and nooks and crannies and things to play with – especially when it comes to writing.

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Urn at Lafayette No. 1

Plot bunnies are easy, you know? I pretty regularly stumble over ideas that could make a decent story. Some you’ll get to read, but most never get off the dream list. The tricky part is figuring out the right setting, the one place that’ll make the story pop.

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Paddle wheeler on the Mighty Mississippi

I have to really know a place before I can write about it. (Ask me how much fun I had writing the swamp scenes in Bonfire since I’ve never spent any time in a swamp. Or maybe ask Irene how much fun she had *correcting* my misapprehensions in those scenes. There are no hills, or rocks, apparently.) I have to be able to capture the truth of a place, or some facet of that truth, to make the story believable. To do that, I tend to set my stories in one of three cities: Seattle, Los Angeles, or New Orleans.

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This house in the Garden District inspired Thaddeus Dupont’s First St. house.

Seattle’s a no-brainer because I’ve lived here for most of my life. Maybe because of that, I take the romance of the place for granted. That said, I have an upcoming super-secret project that’s set here. (More about that later!)

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Ready for a parade on St. Charles Avenue last week!

I choose Los Angles for stories because, like New Orleans, it has all kinds of angles I can work with. I don’t think anyone could capture all of L.A. in a single sentence, or even a single book. Because of that, it’s unfortunately possible to set a story there and turn it into Anytown, Anywhere, USA. It’s just so much better if you drop in a few details to bring the place alive.

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Staircase to choir loft at St. Mary’s Church – Ursuline Convent – NOLA. Imagine climbing those steps in a nun’s habit…

My sister lives in L.A., so when I need some nitty gritty factoid to get to the truth of a story, I’ll try and plan a visit. And if I don’t have the time or money for travel, she’s awesome about brainstorming-by-text. She works in The Industry, so she’s very understanding about my creative craziness.

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French Quarter courtyard.

FWIW, I didn’t have the same kind of connection with New Orleans when I started setting stories there. I’d never visited, didn’t know anyone who lived there, and tbh most of my experience with the place came via Ann Rice’s novels. That’s changed now! Last week was our second visit, and “subletting a French Quarter condo for six months” is now on my bucket list.

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You meet all kinds of people during Carnival!

Thank you for exploring NOLA with me. We had a blast last week, and if you’ve never been to New Orleans, you really must visit someday! Or, you know, you could check out my newest release, Change of Heart. It’s a historical romance set in the French Quarter in 1933, a distant prequel to the two Hours of the Night novels I co-wrote with Irene Preston. I’ll put the blurb and buy links below, just in case. Happy travels!!

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Preacher always said New Orleans was a den of sin, but of course Clarabelle had to see for herself…

A body reaps what they sow, and Clarabelle’s planted the seeds of trouble. The year is 1933, and not much else is growing in the Oklahoma dirt. Clarabelle’s gone and fallen in love with her best friend, so she figures it’s time to go out and see the world.

If she’s lucky, she’ll find the kind of girl who’ll kiss her back.

Clarabelle heads for New Orleans, and that’s where she meets Vaughn. Now, Vaughn’s as pretty as can be, but she’s hiding something. When she gets jumped by a pair of hoodlums, Clarabelle comes to her rescue and accidentally discovers her secret. She has to decide whether Vaughn is really the kind of girl for her, and though Clarabelle started out a dirt-farming Okie, Vaughn teaches her just what it means to be a lady.

Change of Heart is an Hours of the Night story, an early prequel to Vespers and Bonfire. It’s not a paranormal, but a certain vampire may have a role…

Find Change of Heart on Goodreads HERE

Available for a special pre-order price of $0.99!!

Amazon  /  Barnes & Noble  /  Kobo  /  iTunes  /  More Stores

AND, make sure you enter the giveaway to celebrate Change of Heart’s release!

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Doppelgängers

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Picture this: you’re standing in front of the mirror, brushing your teeth. Your reflection stares placidly back. A whistle from the kitchen startles you–you turn to look into the kitchen, and you see the noise is just the kettle going off. You turn your gaze back to the mirror, and in that instant, out of the corner of your eye, you are certain that your reflection has not moved. You lock eyes with yourself, but your reflection seems suddenly wrong. Are your eyes really so dark? Your chin so sharp?

But no. You tell yourself you’re just being stupid. Of course that’s what your reflection looks like–it’s you, after all. Isn’t it?

Maybe. Or maybe it’s your doppelgänger.

Although the German word doppelgänger, translating literally to “double-goer,” is a relatively recent addition to the vernacular, the concept of an alter-ego or shadow self appears frequently in the mythology and folk-lore of many world cultures. Although a physical lookalike or double of the person in question, a doppelgänger often takes the role of a darker counterpart to the self. In many cultures, it is said that to catch a glimpse of one’s doppelgänger is a harbinger of bad luck, and potentially an omen of one’s own death.

How They Met Themselves, by Dante Gabriel Rosetti
How They Met Themselves,
by Dante Gabriel Rosetti

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the ka was a tangible “spirit double” possessing the same memories and feelings as the physical counterpart. In some myths, the shadow double could be manipulated to perform tasks or duties while acting as their physical counterpart. In Norse mythology, a vardøger was a spirit predecessor, a shadowy double preceding a living person in location or activity, resulting in witnesses seeing or hearing a person before they actually arrived. And in Celtic mythology, a fetch was an exact, spectral double of a person, whose appearance was ominous in nature, often foretelling a person’s imminent death. The fetch could also act as a psychopomp, stealing away the soul of their living double and transporting them to the realm of the dead.

The concept of a dark double appears frequently in literature and pop culture as well. Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” explores the idea of a doppelgängers with a reversal on the traditional “evil twin” story–one of the doubles is amoral and debauched, yet his wicked schemes are always being unmasked by his virtuous identical. Charlie Chaplin’s seminal film “The Great Dictator” also explores the idea of evil twins, where Chaplin plays both the good, simple barber and the megalomaniacal, Hitler-esque dictator. Even the modern show “The Vampire Diaries” has a doppelgänger story-line; Elena Gilbert’s vampire double Katerina is everything spice to Elena’s nice. Katerina is sexy where Elena is pretty, violent where Elena is gentle, and traitorous where Elena is loyal.

But why is the doppelgänger myth so prevalent in folklore and modern culture? What makes us so frightened of our shadowy doubles?

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Myself, my shadow self

In Jungian psychology, the “shadow self” refers to the unconscious or less desirable aspects of the personality that the conscious ego does not identify in itself. In other words, the shadow self is a vehicle and receptacle for our deepest secrets and darkest fears, living in the darkest corners of our souls. And, no matter how much we reject them, these dark doubles are ultimately our own worst selves reflected back at us.

Perhaps the myth of the doppelgänger arose from this sense of shadow and darkness lurking within everyone. We are our own evil twins, spectral doubles confined to one body. Perhaps that is why, when we catch a glimpse of ourselves in a darkened mirror or a pane of glass, we feel unsettled, reverberating with the echoes of familiarity and yet, unfamiliarity.

Perhaps, in the end, we are all haunted by the ghosts of ourselves.

Do you have a favorite doppelgänger or evil twin story? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Willpower Savings & Loan

I recently attended a workshop on building motivation, and while it wasn’t specifically targeted at writers (who make up a good portion of our audience here), it was so relevant, I wanted to pass on some of the wisdom I picked up.

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Studies have shown that we human types only have a given amount of willpower to spend in a certain day. Think of it like story points you’re given in an RPG — your character is allotted a certain number based on their characteristics and skills, and the GM can award you additional points for good behavior. You can then spend the points to give yourself a boost or alter the story in some way that benefits you.

Well, willpower points are a lot like that. You use your points throughout your day, making decisions big and small. Do you wear the blue shirt, or the purple one? Do you have toast for breakfast, or go to the drive-thru? Do you work hard, or do you check social media every ten minutes? What are you going to make for dinner? Every time you have to expend mental energy, you use up some of your willpower points.

On a given day, I wake up in the morning, I get dressed, I choose breakfast, I decide what to work on in the morning, how hard to work, what to have for lunch, what to work on in the afternoon, what to have for dinner, and how to spend my leisure. And that’s just big picture, not accounting for small decisions about how to do my work and whether or not to eat a granola bar in the late afternoon. It’s no wonder so many people come home, eat a frozen dinner, and then collapse on the couch to watch whatever is on TV: they simply don’t have the willpower left to do anything else.

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When you’re self-employed or trying to work as a writer after your day job, it becomes even harder, because it takes more willpower to come up with tasks and then drive yourself to do them. At work, we often have tasks assigned to us and don’t need to spend our willpower points to choose what to do. But if we don’t have a boss giving us direction, that’s one more area where we have to expend mental energy.

So how can we ration our willpower points in order to actually get stuff done when we’re exhausted from that annoying thing called LIFE?

  1. Make some decisions for yourself in advance. Choose what you’re going to wear to work the night before. Make your breakfast/lunch ahead of time, or limit your options. The fewer decisions you have to make early in the day, the more willpower points you’ll have to spend at night.
  2. Make lists. No joke. When you know what tasks you need to get done, write them down and prioritize them. Making the list won’t take many points, and it’ll reduce the need later to make decisions later, because you’ve already told yourself.
  3. Don’t try to start building multiple disciplined practices at once. Upping your word counts this month? Don’t start a diet. Building a new workout regimen? Don’t give up caffeine at the same time.
  4. Capitalize on the power of habit. Once something becomes habit, you no longer have to spend willpower points to do it, so it’s useful to do the same thing for lunch or breakfast every day, or wear the same outfits on rotation. Plus, once you build a habit, you can work on a new disciplined practice.

But if you’re like me, you’re not bad about sticking to the list above, and you’re still exhausted and completely drained of willpower at the end of the day. That’s fine: we poor humans are not wired to make a million decisions every day. Happily, there are a few ways to rebuild your willpower supply:

  1. Sleep. This should be a no-brainer, but many of us sacrifice sleep in the interest of getting stuff done, and it’s actually hugely counterproductive. The best way to completely reboot your willpower points is to get a full night’s sleep, stress-free. Try to make it happen. (But in a pinch, naps help some people get a few points back!)
  2. Take a break and do something that refreshes you. This is very personal, so it’s hard to offer specifics, but you’ll know what it means for you. On your lunch break, read a book. Look at Pinterest. Take a walk. Don’t even make this a choice: do what you WANT to do.
  3. Meditate or something. Allegedly this can help, but I suck at meditation. Your mileage may vary. You may achieve a similar effect from other activities: participating in your spiritual practice, if you have one, taking a soothing hot bath, doing yoga, or even quietly sitting on your back porch and having a beer. Let your mind detach for a little while.

These suggestions are just skimming the surface of the existing research that surrounds motivation and ways to build it and maintain it. How do you ration your willpower points? What methods of willpower regeneration work for you?

Conventions 101: I Forget How to Human

For the last five years, I’ve been trying to attend one convention every year.

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but for someone with nearly debilitating social anxiety, it’s a huge achievement and a measure of my commitment to my work. This year, I’m attending four cons of various types, including one for fiber artists, one for pagans, GenCon, and World Fantasy. That’s a record for me, and I have very mixed feelings about it.

Cons are great. They’re a chance to meet people, to learn things, to get new ideas, to see individuals we look up to, to enrich friendships and connections we can now make over the internet. But they’re also expensive, exhausting, and stressful, at least for someone who has actual sobbing meltdowns when she has too much social interaction.

When I say I have near-debilitating social anxiety, I don’t mean I get butterflies about going to parties. I mean my hands shake when I call to order pizza. I mean I once rode a bus its entire route because I needed to interview the driver and I was too scared to talk to her. I mean I cry when my friends want too much of my time. Talking to people I don’t know actively frightens me.

I’m not playing around when I say I’m introverted and shy. I’ve come out of my shell a lot in the last decade, primarily because I worked as a reporter—which, in retrospect, was not a brilliant career choice—and I had to talk to people if I wanted to do my job.

So, for me, going to cons is a bit of an endurance test. Over the years, however, I’ve learned a few things about how to do it without inducing nervous paroxysms of overstimulation.

  1. If you’re attending with a friend, explain to them that you may need breaks. Hell, even if you’re not attending with a friend, if you need a break, explain to your companions that you need some time to yourself. Most humans understand that other humans need rest.
  2. Actually get some rest. Parties last all night, and most of the fun that’s had at cons is had at those parties. But the human brain mends itself or something while we sleep (ask a scientist if you want details), so even if you’re sleeping during the day, make sure you’re getting some sleep.
  3. Don’t feel like you need to do everything. Not really all that interested in “Underwater Basket Weaving in Ancient Civilizations” or “Flax: From Plant to Garment”? Well, you can skip those panels. Yes, I know you paid for the con, and that includes all of the panel topics, but you really don’t have to attend every single session.
  4. Remember that other people are people, too. For every terrified soul like myself, there’s at least one extroverted person who will introduce herself and take you around to meet all her friends. And really, if you introduce yourself to a terrified soul like me, I’ll introduce you to my friends, too. I’ll just be quaking in my boots while I do it.
  5. Learn your triggers and your warning signals. Does loud music stress you out? Maybe cut out of the dance party early. Do you get a headache when you’re reaching the breaking point? Time to bail. This one is tough, and it takes some trial and error, but you have to know yourself to be able to take care of yourself.
  6. Finally, learn to say yes—and no. If you’re not at your limit, saying yes to a random invite may just set you down a path to meet your new best friend. But if you are at your limit, saying no can keep you from having a bad con experience when you could have had a great one.

Honestly, if I can survive four cons in one year, anyone can do it. And remember, if you are a person who enjoys making new connections, reach out to someone you don’t know—your act of friendliness may save one person from a terrible, lonely experience.

Do you work the con circuit? What are your survival tips?