Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pop Goes The Writer!

I’ve been reading the biography of Robert A. Heinlein by William Patterson – whom I met at a worldcon years ago and who is a very nice man and a FINE writer – in order to blog the book for

The volume I’ve just finished is Learning Curve, the early years, till the marriage with Ginny.

I don’t intend to go into my impressions of the book here. I’m saving that for, of course. I will say, in passing, that Patterson treats his subject exhaustively, unsparingly and surprisingly gently, for all that.

I am going to say, though, that one of the things that struck me about Heinlein’s early years (and probably his later years, but maybe not) is how much like me he was in how he handled the inevitable tension of a writing career: badly!

Like me, he seemed to direct his tension into illness and came – physically – crashing down so often he might have been a bungee jumper.

This surprised me, because, of course, he was ... well... good. No. Wonderful. How could he have that much tension? Didn’t he know his stuff would eventually sell and sell well?

Of course, as soon as I thought that I realized I was an idiot. (Which, you know, I’ve always been, so it shouldn’t have taken that much thought.) I mean, children, hindsight is twenty twenty. To us – to me – it’s obvious he would sell and become an icon. But it might have been obvious to someone – poor thing – out there that I would eventually sell. To me, it was navigating blind in a pea soup fog. As for “sell well” I’m still here, stuck in the darkness. If anyone sees ahead, they’re better than I.

As Dave has pointed out there are factors way beyond our control as authors that determine if our work sells, how it sells, who gets to read us. Factors we can’t guess much less control. This means we send our darlings out. And we wait. And wait. And wonder.

My dentist says that his free-lance-writers clients are the greatest sleep-teeth-grinders. I could see why. What I can’t see and don’t know, is how the h*ll I can manage tension without making myself ill with raging eczema and/or pneumonia.

I have a book out at several publishers. Haven’t heard a word. And I’m NOT obsessing on it. In fact, I’m making a point of not obsessing on it. Days go by I don’t think about it. Well... not consciously. But my arms are raw with eczema and my voice keeps disappearing which it ONLY does in times of extreme stress. (I used to go through the first week of school mute.) And I don’t know what in heck to do. I walk. A lot. I’m within ten pounds of the weight I can start distance running again. Only between the time I did marathons and now I tore my ACL, (falling down a flight of stairs with a box, while moving, twelve years ago) so this might not be possible. Ever. I seem to remember it helped. I’ve considered a punching bag, but we don’t know where to put it. It would have to be the basement, but we’ll have to try to clear space. And since I’ve never used it, I don’t know how it will work.

So, we’re back to – How do I control stress when I don’t even know I’m stressed? No pills, please. The oddest things turn off the writing.

Other than that, does anyone have ANY suggestions? All suggestions welcome.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, I love yoga. But it's not for everyone.

And I'm like you. I won't even know I'm stressed. It will be done so deep I'll get hives.

Fingers crossed for you on the new book!

Anonymous said...

Dealing with stress is probably a very individual thing. You can _not_ let the stress in, in the first place, or just try to not show it. To repress it.

This doesn't work. I reacted to stress once with hair loss. Took myself off to the doctor thinking I must have ringworm. "Typical stress reaction" Doctor says.

So I analyzed my life and decided what I wasn't going to stress over (immaculate home with kids five and three years old). That's not to say that I quit cleaning, just that I cut back to realistic and persuaded myself that the chaos was a sign of active learning and exploring.

You aren't going to stop writing. But you need to figure out how to stop stressing over the selling part. Not stop *showing* the stress, but really letting go and not letting it in at all. Selling is not your job. Once it is out of your hands, relax. Your job is done.

I suspect a great source of stress is that this part of the whole process is the one you have the least control over. You need to persuade yourself that this is, instead, a relief. Someone else's job, which they no doubt enjoy. Go all yoga and meditative, and persuade your back brain that this is all right. Manuscripts are not children, the police will not be calling about the car crash. This part of the process is _done_. Over, finished, completed. Relax. Forget it, and go on to what is your part of the whole, creating a world and people out of nothing but the chemistry of your brain.


Amanda Green said...

Sarah, you know my response...for me, it's physical labor. As in, it's 0830 here and I've already been outside working on the sprinkler system, finishing the wiring on it, testing it and then burying the two pits that had to be dug to find first the leak and then the broken wiring. And I've taped one room in prep for painting. Why? NOT because I'm a morning person. Far from it -- as you know. But because if I hadn't, that would have been two more hours when I'd have been worrying and stressing over NR. So, here's your invitation. Come de-stress with me. I have trees to trim still, more landscaping related work to do, not to mention everything in the house that ought to be done. ;-)

Mike said...

Don't know if it will help or not, but while waiting for various reviews and so forth when I haven't known where or what was happening, I sat down and wrote pages about (a) what I thought was happening and (b) how this could be done better to reduce the "invisible" tension. Not that I could control the process, but at least I had thought it through, and knew how I would do it if I was in charge -- which made me feel better. Oh, I also did a fair number of "what could go wrong" think-throughs -- so what if some idiot manages to delete the file? What would happen then, and how would I respond? And so on...

Hum -- I guess that's a writing/thinking person's version of "BATNA" -- Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Which was a term that was used in negotiation classes a while ago, referring to figuring out what you would do if the negotiated agreement fell through. Since it takes two people to reach an agreement, there's a certain loss of control in that. But you, and you alone, are in charge of the BATNA. And knowing what your BATNA is gives you a bit of leverage on the negotiation, because you know what the outcome is if the negotiation fails.

Anonymous said...

I usually go shoot some hoops or, finances permitting, go do my newfound love of skiing up at Keystone whenever I'm in CO.

Most of the time I pace... a lot.

Marshall Ryan Maresca said...

Like Rowena, I try to channel the stress into something physical though yoga is not my thing (despite my wife's best efforts to get it to be.) But 30-60 minutes of some form of cardio exercise does wonders. Swimming is a big one for me.

Kate said...

Those who dislike openly emotional stuff should probably stop here and scroll quickly to the next comment.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Okay. I've got - unfortunately - rather a lot of experience in ways to deal with stress courtesy a major breakdown nearly 20 years ago and more suicidal episodes than I've kept track of since.

The first - and absolutely most important - is to learn to recognize what you can affect vs what you can't touch. Then learn to segregate them. Once something is out of your "hands", it stops being "your issue" unless it returns. It doesn't matter whether the something is a book you've submitted, or your kid. There's a point where you can't do anything more, and that's the point where you dissociate unless/until it comes back to your sphere of influence.

The absolute best way to do that is to focus on something - anything - else. My tool of choice is computer games that I have to focus on but are relatively mindless (I may be the only person in the world to place games like Sudoku in this category, but so what? That's how it works for me).

Explicitly SAYING (out loud, until you can tell yourself mentally and believe it) "I've done all I can now. It's out of my hands." helps to dissociate. (If it works better, replace "all" with "the best"). Any time you catch yourself worrying, repeat the exercise.

For the "hidden" stress, there are some useful exercises that you can do to trick the stressors into showing themselves. One is to take two deep breaths, then ask yourself "What bothers me most right now?" The first thing that pops into your head is usually one of your hidden stressors.

Once you've identified what's eating at you, you can start teaching yourself to respond to it differently. It's not easy. But it does work.

Another thing to remember is that when you do go down in a great big heaming screap, it's not a sign of failure: it's a sign of overload. Let it through, let it out, then pick up and move on. If you're in a situation where you can't afford to crash, excuse yourself (have an excuse available so you can give something reasonable), get to somewhere halfway private, and then let go.

The biggest thing in all of it - something the suicidal episodes have taught me - is keeping yourself quarantined from what isn't "your problem". If you can't do anything to change the outcome, it isn't your problem. Your problem is how you choose to respond to it.

Jim McCoy said...

I use one or two methods. One is time out, usually with my daughter, to some type of museum/historical attraction. If I can get my mind on something else, that's helps. My daughter loves to run around in museums and have a grand old time. Our local arm museum has a Degas that she just adores.

In cases where this doesn't help (or possibly makes it worse, depending on my daughter's mood) I usually resort to video game therapy. Sometimes the mass slaughter of fictional creatures give me a way of working the frustration out. I remember before I was married I had a boss that I couldn't stand. I named a spot in one of my favorite games "The Ostroff Camp" and I would go there and slaughter everything in sight for an hour or more to calm myself down after a rough day. It helped. That being said, you've never struck me as being a gamer, but it still might be worth a try.

Jim McCoy said...


If you run out of yard work to do feel free to swing by. I'm sure I can come up with something, because I hate doing it.

Amanda Green said...

Jim, I didn't say I liked doing it. And this isn't exactly what most folks call yard work. This is renovating the 25 year old sprinkler system, repairing parts of the fence, putting in a walkway from the patio to the gate at the side of the house, etc. All mind-numbing, physically exhausting work. Just what is needed for me to deal with tension.

Jim McCoy said... was worth a shot?

C Kelsey said...


I'd offer advice but the sad truth is that the only way I overcame my tendency to stress out was to be subjected to stress so bad that I couldn't get out of bed in the morning and then finding a solution to it. Now nothing is that stressful so it flows off my back like water off a duck. Not a recommended method to deal with it.

What I say is that you and your writing is awesome. I've hooked multiple folks on your works who agree. Don't stress, you rock.

Stephen Simmons said...

Have you ever read Spider Robinson's story "The Caterpillar's Dilemma", from the Callahan's series? I have that exact problem when people ask me about coping with stress. I do it, fairly well -- but I don't know how it works, and I can't explain it. It all comes, I think, from being an adolescent when my father found AA, and internalizing the "Serenity Prayer" bone-deep out of pure self-preservation necessity.

One of the manifestations I have noticed, when I do find myself under a particularly large amount of strain, is that i tend to "talk the problem out" to myself almost the same way I talk through scenes I'm having trouble writing. Maybe that could help you? Maybe if you write about the stress, as a way of acknowledging that it's real and giving it its own "space"?

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks to everyone - I got a lot out of all of this, especially yours Kate. Jim, you are out of luck I can't help with yardwork either:)

Sarah, the first thing that comes to mind is that you probably (along with most of us writers) have a syndrome called Urelenting Standards - i.e. even though you are performing at a very high level, and are successful, you cannot gain satisfaction from this, chasing a very high 'threshold of achievement'.

So - take a step back and review everything you have achieved in your life - in ALL arenas. You are not just a writer. Better still - get someone objective and perhaps even unrelated to do the same. They, ideally, prompt ERVERYTHING you have achieved from you. Write this up on a whiteboard in large letters. Trust me - when you actually see it in black & white, you will begin to realise you have done far better than you think.

The second is what Kate said - learn to let go of what you cannot control.

Now - ifI could only follow my own advice?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I appreciate that, and I might give it another try, but my encounters with yoga have been flops.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


telling myself I'm not going to stress doesn't seem to cut it. Same with telling myself it's out of my hands.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I have a bathroom to paint, an office to set up and a "built in" bookcase to build down the hallway. HOWEVER book must be finished FIRST.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I can imagine with vivid intensity what SHOULD be happening, but that only adds to the stress.

I can try, but...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


LOL. My dad paces. I do too, subconsciously.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I walk for an hour to an hour and a half a day. it helps. I mean, I'm not barking mad. But... Maybe if I amp it up to running it will help more?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Dan uses Soduku for stress relief, as well.

But... well... you know me. I suppose art? I haven't been doing art the last couple of months. Maybe it would help...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


well, I've got this fantasy vacation -- I've been dreaming about it for two years -- in it, I get to go up to Denver and get a hotel close enough to the museum of nature and science (or one with a shuttle there.) In his dream, Dan goes with me, but he has something to do, like he wants to finish a novel, so he's busy during the day.
During the day, I take my drawing pad, go to the museum, and draw dino skelletons, then try to draw them with flesh and feathers. In the evening I come back and Dan and I have dinner together and go for stroll in one of the nice parks. Rinse, ladder repeat for a week. I'm convinced it would set me right except that we never have the time/money/freedom from kids at the same time. So... if it happens it will be when I'm eighty.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


thank you sweetie. Big fat check would SO help believe this! Uh, not from you! From publisher.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


MAYBE worth a try.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

LOL. When people tell me everything I've achieved, I feel like a fraud. Yeah, I know, it makes no sense.

As for the second, it's great advice. I just don't seem to be able to TAKE it.

Mike said...

I'd like to confirm Kate's point - separating what I control or affect from what all those others control is key.

Whose problem is it? And if it belongs to someone else, insist that they take care of it or at least don't try to drop it on you. At least for me, figuring out that the stress people were trying to unload on me ISN'T MINE was a great relief -- although I have had to insist on this at various points in my life rather strenuously.

Or as Stephen pointed out, god grant me the strength to change the things I can change, the serenity to accept the things I can't change, and the wisdom to know the difference.

In short, do what you can, and let go of the rest.

Y'a know, it strikes me that we're all preaching to the choir here -- you know what needs to happen, but for some reason, you're not doing it. So think -- why are you accepting/holding/whatever this stress? Can't believe you're human and not in complete control? Or...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Lots of great suggestions here.

I'm going to add one more.

If your own best friend was going through what you are going through now, what would you tell them to do.

Then do it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


It's more that this particular stress (there are a dozen other minor ones, including the fact the current novel refuses to take proper shape) aims at the center of frustration with myself that has been going on for about ten years. Yes, I know there's a lot of factors going into a book's success, but the fact remains that after seventeen books I have yet to break out. This causes a lot of frustration of the "why can't I be better?" and "Why can't I be good enough?" type.

Anonymous said...

Stresses never come one at a time, do they?

Which makes dropping the unproductive ones all the more important.

Don't tell yourself to not worry about the books that are out of your hands, _order_ yourself. Erect a mental barrier and deflect that stress. The proper recipient is your agent or publisher, depending on where in the pipeline it lays. And stop worrying about where that is, it is not productive, it is not _your_ worry.

Point out to your subconscious that if it would stop looking backwards it could order you around on the next book so much better.

Then look at your current work load and ask yourself if you are being realistic about your work load. How many books do you have under contract for how far in advance? Is this realistic, or would it give Superwoman pause?

Decide what to do about that. Slow down the submissions? If you're writing the first three chapters and outline of all those books, that represents a huge investment of time and creative energy. Can you cut that by a quarter? More?

Ask your agent to space the deadlines out further. You keep hitting deadlines and stressing out over that as well. There are only 24 hours in the day, no matter how much you hope to put your kids through college on your writing.

Speaking of whom, be realistic with them, and have them research scholarships. The library has references. Yeah, most of them are small. But they add up, if you keep applying for them. Loans may be inevitable, but need to be as small as possible. They need to attend a college in commute distance for at least the first two years. Point out the advantages of not having to compete for grades with a whole school full of pre-meds trying for a 4 point oh GPA right from their first day of school. No one cares where your bachelors degree is from. It's the masters, the MD, or the PhD school that people will focus on.

Living at home will cut their expenses in half, for as long as that is practical.


Mike said...

Y'a know, it seems a bit as if there's two things going on here. One is the problem with measuring yourself in terms of things that are out of your control. Sure, becoming a breakout author sounds like fun, but about all you can do is keep plugging away, and make sure you're prepared to grab the lightning if and when it strikes -- you can't realistically make the lightning strike. Although you can sure raise lightning rods and whatnot just to prepare. Not much to say, except you have to somehow focus on the things you can control.

The other one is something I'm wrestling with a bit myself right now. See, having finished something that has been tying up a chunk of my attention for a while now, I'm kind of looking around. Lots of possible "next jobs" to pick up, and there's a certain stress in not grabbing one. Also a certain feeling of "I don't want to jump too fast," so I'm torn. I do know that having a specific project in hand will let me relax -- everyone finds it odd, but having a specific project that I'm pushing does let me relax. It's the in-between times, when I'm flailing around trying to decide which one to focus on, that are stressful for me. And when people offer to help, by taking me shopping, arranging various entertainments, and so on -- I start getting really berserk. Those "socially approved" ways of wasting time make me very antsy. The solution, of course, is to pick a project and start crunching on it. But I really wanted to relax for a while -- but not the way people seem to expect?

Sounds weird to suggest to someone who is complaining of stress that maybe they need to grab a project and dive into it, but... some people enjoy their work?

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

LOL. Mike, actually that's what I've decided to do.