Stress, Health, and Self-Monitoring

Being a writer is somewhat stressful. Whether it’s word count, editing, contracts, publicity, sales numbers, or reviews, we have so many ways to stress ourselves out. And this is often in addition to the other stressors we have in our lives, such as family, day jobs, and whatever day-to-day maintenance we have to do to keep our lives in order, like feeding the cat and keeping tea in stock.

Considering we all typically have very busy lives, sometimes it’s hard to recognize when we’re stressed, or what stress looks like. We easily fall in the trap of “Once [thing] is done, then I can relax,” often ignoring that once [thing] is done, [another thing] is just going to drop right into our laps, demanding our immediate attention. And so we go from project to project, never taking a breath and checking in with ourselves.

It may seem like a no-brainer to some, but stress has a huge impact on your health. But even those of us who are aware of this fact may not know what the symptoms are, or how to identify them. Difficulty sleeping is obvious, but what else? There are many common symptoms of chronic stress (and elevated cortisol levels, a result of chronic stress) such as lowered immune function and wounds becoming slow to heal.

In my case last year, it was “gastric distress,” which resulted in my eating a primarily-vegan diet. At first I thought it might be H Pylori, or some genetic issue, or age, or any other myriad of reasons for a strange and sudden illness. It wasn’t until recently, when my fourth doctor suggested I examine the stress in my life, that I am even able to eat meat/dairy without sudden and disruptive illness. (Note the use of “sudden” and “disruptive” — I still can’t eat meat or dairy, but at least I won’t lose half a day to migraines if someone sauteed my onions in butter instead of olive oil.) Looking back now, symptoms had been piling up, but I was too distracted to notice.

Stress triggers an adrenal response, that famous “fight or flight mode” we talk about. When you are stressed, your body slows or stops anything it considers non-essential. The problem is, the things we deem essential are not what our body considers essential, not when its overall survival is felt to be at risk. Proper digestion stops, healing stops, various maintenance functions stop, fighting off disease stops. And sure, if we’re being chased by a bear, fighting off a virus seems like small potatoes. But unfortunately your body can’t tell the difference between the stress of a bear chasing you and the stress of being called into your boss’s office to discuss your performance.

We as writers live in our heads a lot, and I suspect many of us also have day jobs that require us to live in our heads as well. As a result of this, we may not notice the signs of building stress until it impacts our health so much that it gets in the way of our daily tasks. So I would encourage all of you to look at the stress in your life, and to research the ill-effects of chronic stress. Stressors, stress symptoms, and stress management vary from person to person, so I don’t really feel comfortable suggesting resources other than “research” and “a trusted physician.”

However, you should periodically step back and do a self-evaluation. Think about your body, your nutrition, your sleep patterns. Are you having difficulty focusing? Do you drop things more than you used to? Are you sore a lot? Mysterious weight gain even though your diet has remained the same? You might be dealing with chronic stress. Your mental and physical health should be a priority. Making this deadline matters, but what matters more is being healthy enough to make the next one as well.

NaNoWriMo and How It Worked Out for Me

You may recall I wrote previously about how NaNoWriMo could be a useful tool for pros, and wasn’t just something for amateurs. Well, I did it. As of November 23, I had written 50,000 words.

Apparently while Scrivener counts hyphenated words as two words, NaNoWriMo only counts them as one. That took the wind out of my sails!

Apparently while Scrivener counts hyphenated words as two words, NaNoWriMo only counts them as one. Sure took the wind out of my sails!

So here’s how it worked out for me.

I had been stagnant in writing, unable to get words out or finish a story. I was stuck, and it had nothing to do with writing itself and everything to do with my stupid head. Fear of writing poorly kept me from writing at all. But with NaNoWriMo, the point isn’t to write well. The point is to write and worry about ‘well’ tomorrow. Forcing myself to sit down and write 2,000 words every day (with an extra push on that last day, as you can see by the image, in order to beat NaNoWriMo so I could go to a party the next day) was the right way to go to fix this problem.

The first few days were easy. I had ideas of what I wanted to write, and where the book was going to go. The first 10K poured out naturally, barely any struggle. But, as expected, a few days in, somewhere around the 15K mark, things began to get difficult. It’s like any kind of training: easy at first, but once you burn the reserves of energy you have, the real work begins. Like lifting weights or working your way up to running some length of marathon.

However, as days went by, a sick realization crept up on me: this book wasn’t working. At 15K, things slowed down. At 20K the words finally left my mouth. “This isn’t working.” (A lot of swearing followed that phrase.) It was at 25K when I finally bit the bullet and said no, absolutely not, this scifi book simply wasn’t going to work. Not the way I’m writing it, not the way it’s going.

From there, I was left with a dilemma: do I push on with a not-working book to see if I could make it work? I did that for awhile, after all; that’s how I got from 20K to 25K. Or do I accept the book isn’t working, scrap it, and start over? Ultimately, I chose the latter, and it was for the best. And thankfully, due to the intense writing schedule I’d established, I hadn’t wasted months of effort on a book that wasn’t working. Just two weeks. In the grand scheme of things, I felt like I hadn’t wasted much to discover a book wasn’t working and to shift to a new project.

So now, it’s December. What am I left with?

I have 20K of a usable new manuscript (horror, apparently) that is working (at least for now) and another 5K in notes for where the book should go or where I misstepped in the draft and need to go back and rework it. I’m not writing at my breakneck 2K/day speed, because it’s December and the holidays make a stringent writing schedule challenging. But I’m still working at it, and still making notes about fixing what exists and what should be done in the book. And I don’t know that I’d be here without having done NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo: Not Just for Amateurs

It’s that time of year again! When we find ourselves inundated with a bunch of non-writers deciding they can write! And will turn the publishing world upside-down with how awful everything is! Or something. I’ve never been particularly clear over the hand-wringing that surrounds NaNoWriMo, where it appears to be open season on any amateur writer who decides to bang out a rough draft in a month. (Special reprieve given to the agents and publishers who receive a flood of queries in December for these unedited projects — y’all deserve to gripe about that.)

For those unaware, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, wherein participants take on the challenge to produce 50,000 words of new content over the month of November. It’s described as “a month of literary abandon” and it pretty well is. 50K in four weeks is fairly impressive, but in order to make it happen many people typically wind up writing garbage. That’s all right. That’s sort of the point. Just let go and write words.

But there are a lot of haters. Every year, a flood of criticism citing NaNoWriMo as the end of literature, as some sort of ploy to convince anyone they can be a professional writer so long as they can bang out 50K in 30 days. And surely these collected works of hastily-written thinly-veiled fanfic will flood the market, drowning out all the “real” writers who dedicate their life to the craft. Or something.

Personally? I support it. If people are having fun with writing for thirty days, who am I to hate all over that? I know that there exists those people who believe that what they’ve written during NaNoWriMo deserves to be shared with the world, without taking even a moment to pass a critical eye over what has been written — but I’ve never met those people. Most everybody I’ve spoken to sees NaNoWriMo as a way to bang out an idea and see what happens. Nothing serious, but with the potential for something serious to come out of it.

I support it. In fact, I’m going to participate this year.

Every writer has their own method of getting their work done. Some people outline extensively, attacking every problem before it can possibly arise while writing, until the only work remaining is prose. Some people feel burdened by an outline, and need the freedom of the blank page to get their work done. Some are slow and meticulous, writing 100 words a day and editing them into submission. Some are fast and sloppy, leaving the editing for a later date. And some people write differently for every project, having no set method to how they get their work done.

In this vein, I see NaNoWriMo as another tool in our writing arsenal. There’s a hopeful energy surrounding it, a bit of cheerleading internal to the community that can be helpful, depending on what kind of writer you are. I’m giving it a whirl because it’s another potential tool and I like to experiment and try new things. I’ll use it as long as it’s working for me, and discard it when it’s not serving my craft. Just like anything else I might try in order to write a good book.

So November is going to be National Novel Writing Month. And then December is likely to be National Oh God What Have I Gotten Myself Into Month. Happy writing!

Seeing the Other Side: Publishing, Kerfuffles, and Empathy

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” — The Great Gatsby

Another day, another crisis in publishing. Feels like that sometimes, anyway. Authors behaving badly, publishers behaving badly, fans behaving badly, event organizers behaving badly. There’s always something to blog about.

Sometimes the issues seem pretty clear-cut. An author has said some vile thing at someone else, publicly. Or a publisher isn’t paying their authors. Or an agent has absconded to Tahiti and now the IRS is making some phone calls. Whatever it is, there’s typically more than one side to the story. And when you’re an observer, it can be easier to see all the sides to the story, as you read blogs and tweets and facebook posts and watch the story unfold.

But obviously not everybody’s an observer. The crisis has to come from somewhere. There are often many parties involved, with several sides to take. And when you’re in the middle of a crisis that is directly impacting you, it can be difficult to see any viewpoint other than your own.

I would venture to say one of the more important characteristics for a writer to have is empathy. The ability to understand how someone without your particular background, beliefs, and attributes might react to something, and how the situation might appear to them, is critical in writing rich and varied characters. For instance, if you are white, and you have a black character in your story, it behooves you to be able to understand how race can impact one’s experiences and shape one’s character and judgement. Otherwise you’re likely to write stock characters, cliches that don’t reflect anyone’s actual experiences.

Which is why I find myself sometimes surprised by the lack of empathy in some of these kerfuffles, especially from writers. I’m surprised that people find it difficult to understand that the circumstances they find themselves in are not universal, and that others may hold differing opinions as a result.

Say an issue came up where there was what appeared to be an obvious moral high ground. Stand tall, do what’s right, perhaps take a bit of a hit for it, but you know in the end you did the right thing. Sure. That’s a fine opinion to hold. Moral high ground is a good place to be. And sometimes the opposite of the moral high ground is getting a cheque, and how great are you for sacrificing money in the name of what’s right? That’s great. I’m sincerely glad you’re able to stand tall on that issue.

But when you’re documenting your stance on the issue, consider including judgement of others in that statement. Not everybody has that same luxury. Most people, I’d wager, would like to remain on the moral high ground, but that can be challenging when a cheque means food on the table, or back-taxes paid, or finally getting to handle that costly medical procedure. Are they horrible and morally unsound simply because they took the money out of sheer necessity? Not everybody has had the same advantages that you’ve had.

I certainly understand that if you’re caught up in your own concerns it can occasionally be difficult to see the other side. But that’s what we as writers are challenged to do — to see viewpoints beyond our own. And we should challenge ourselves to really consider the experience of others. So the next time you’re putting your two cents in on the newest kerfuffle, take a breather before you post, and consider what the other side is seeing.