For The Writer Who Is Exhausted

In my opinion, there are two types of exhaustion.

Actually, there are probably more than two types, but this is not a medical opinion, so we are going to say there are two types of exhaustion.

The first is physical. You worked too hard, didn’t get enough sleep, or, if you are the awesome kind of person that does this sort of thing, you wore yourself out lifting weights or running or some other kind of exercise. Your feet hurt, your muscles ache, and what you really need is a good night’s sleep, or a hot bath, or just an hour or two to lie down and read a book or binge watch Netflix. Maybe a foot rub is in order. Or a glass of wine on the couch. Whatever spices your tea.

The second type is mental exhaustion.

This one is a little harder, and it’s the kind that writers deal with on a daily basis. Mental exhaustion is harder to identify, harder to explain, and—in most cases—harder to recover from.

We’ve all been there at one time or another. You sit down to write and stare at your computer screen for three hours without hashing out a single word. Or you force yourself to conjure up a sentence, or a paragraph, or even a full page if you have a lot of stamina, but it all goes into the trash anyway. Your ideas are flat and refuse to come to life, your characters haven’t spoken to you in a month, and there’s a deadline looming.

When writers are mentally exhausted, their stories lose their magic, the job they love so much becomes a drudge, and all the creativity that writers are supposed to have in unlimited fountains runs dry. In the end, we’re left with empty pages, a headache, and a mountain of frustration at our inability to just do the work we’re supposed to be doing.

So how do we creatively refuel? It’s a little hard to tell your brain to put its feet up and take the evening off. In my years as a full-time writer, I have had to come up with a different list of ways to give my brain some time to reset itself. Hopefully they are as helpful to you as they have been to me.

1) Give yourself time.

This is the hardest one for me. I like quick solutions, an extra hour of sleep, a dose of caffeine, some new vitamins, and off we go!

But mental exhaustion isn’t like that. It doesn’t clear up overnight. In my experience, for the writers that are well and truly burned out and fully emptied, the best thing to do is to just stop.

Just stop.

Stop writing, stop thinking about writing, stop working on plot points or trying to envision scenes or build settings.

Stop everything.

Three days in, you will have a tiny creative spark in the back of your mind. If you jump on that spark and try to write with it, you will kill it.

I’ve done this. It sets you back.

So just leave it alone. Take walks, do life, get coffee. But don’t write. Don’t think about writing. Don’t talk about writing. Give it a week before you even look at your manuscript again. More, depending on how burned you are. I’ve given it a month. Sometimes more.

2) Have adventures.

“Would you like to have an adventure now, or would you like to have tea first?”

~ Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie

Your brain needs story fodder. It needs something to feed those wonderful, brilliant ideas that you pour into your writing, or it will starve. So take it adventuring. Take it to the beach, and walk barefoot in the waves. Look for seashells. Watch the gulls. Draw in the sand.

Go to the zoo, and sit on a bench and watch the tigers for a few hours. Or the turtles. Or the monkeys. Watch the people who are watching the monkeys.

Go to a new coffee shop and sit in the corner to watch the world go by, or go for a walk in a park that you’ve never been to. It doesn’t have to be expensive and it doesn’t have to be quiet—or crazy exciting, like a theme park—but it does have to be different.

Your brain needs something new.

A change in routine. A breath of air you haven’t been breathing for the last six months. Get away from your computer, get away from your office, or your bedroom, or your living room, and have an adventure.

3) Cut out the caffeine.

Caffeine gives your body a boost of energy when it is physically exhausted. It might help you stay awake through a six page college essay that’s due tomorrow morning.

It will not help you be creative, and it will not fill you up when you are empty.

4) Do not jump straight back into your writing routine.

My house is heated by a wood stove. When I build a fire, I build a frame with kindling and paper and tree bark, and light that. First a spark, then a little flame, yes?

And if I dumped a huge log on that flame as soon as it was big enough to get hot, it would die.

Instantly.

The same is true for that little creative spark you feel after three days. It needs time to become a flame, and then to grow a bit. Don’t dump a fifteen hundred word count goal on it, because I promise, it will probably die.

Start with small things.

Journal with your characters. Write a character sketch, or a setting description. Build up over a week or two. Start with a hundred words instead of a thousand. Ease into it, and take the time to remember why you love this story, these characters, and this plot line.

5) Refuel.

You cannot pour from an empty jar.

That’s just the way it is, dearest writer. You cannot give when you yourself are empty. So be willing to take the time to refuel your creativity and your mind.

Read wonderful books with characters that haunt you.

Sit down with your friends, or your family, or someone from work or church, and have the kind of conversations that go deep.

Put on music and dance. Sing at the top of your voice. Worship, read your bible, and talk to God about nothing and everything. Pick flowers, collect seashells, bake cookies to share with a friend. (Or eat them all by yourself, because I will not judge.) Cook good food, learn a new skill, and find joy in your life that does not revolve around words on a page.

The words will come. You are not washed up, your stories will not be empty forever, and you will find that spark of creativity again. Until then, find what brings you life, find what fuels your soul, and spend time counting the stars.

That, too, is part of writing.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

How I Will Probably Die

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I find the bookshop on 47th and Willow, sandwiched between a pawn shop with a broken lamp in the window and a jewelry store selling fake pearls. The windows are shuttered, and a black cat is lying on the doorstep. She arches against my hand when I reach down and pet her, and when I step over her and go inside, I half expect her to follow me.

She doesn’t, even when I hold the door for her. I guess she likes it outside better.

A silver bell rings when I come inside, but there’s no one at the counter. A dusty book is lying open beside the register, and there’s a kitten asleep in a basket under one of the tables, but no people. No customers, no employees.

But there are books. The walls are lined with shelves that reach right up to the cracked ceiling, and the books that don’t fit on the shelves are stacked neatly in the corners, or arranged in rows on the creaky reading desks in the center of the room. I browse through, finding a few titles I know and some I’ve been looking for. I can’t find any price tags, but since some of the books are pretty battered, I figure they’re mostly second-hand, and the owner has a standard price that she—or he—keeps by the cash register.

The kitten is following me. I clump down a few steps into another room, this a little more messy, a little more scattered than the last. Big, sprawling plants are growing in pots in the corners, and the books are double-lining the shelves. Some of them have real leather covers, their pages so old that they crack when I open them. The writing is nearly illegible, faded by dust and years, and I’m tempted to buy a few to keep in my library, maybe on display. I’ve always liked old books.

Another cat is sleeping on the books, a big orange tabby. He yawns as I pass by, and I scratch him on the ears and under the chin. The kitten is rubbing against my ankles, purring as loud as if he hasn’t had any kind of attention for years. I pick him up, letting him rub his face against my cheek and chin as I venture into the next room.

It’s bigger than the last. I didn’t think the shop was so big. From the street, it looks like a one-room corner store, with maybe an upstairs room for extra stock. But I can’t find any stairs, and the rooms keep getting bigger as I go along. Several ferns and a few leafy vines are growing on the tables, and one of the shelves has Venus Flytraps growing next to the books. They’re bigger than I thought they would be, although I’ve never really grown any. Maybe they feed on book moths, or something.

The books are all leather now. I pull one off the shelves, and it’s so heavy that I have to set it down on a table before I can open it.

I can’t read the writing inside. It’s hand-lettered and smeared, and definitely not written in English. I put it back on the shelf, feeling a little funny, and go back through the door to the room with the orange tabby.

At least, that’s what I meant to do. The door was the same, or looked the same, but the orange tabby is gone, and this room has a bare wall with hand-drawn maps pinned to it and an old writing desk, with quill pens and an ink bottle with dust on it in the corner. The kitten is gone, and the books are chained to the shelves, like they were in the Middle Ages. I pull one off and open it up, and the pages are lined by painted illustrations that make my stomach turn.

I go back through the door I just left, thinking I’ll find the kitten and the right door, and go home without buying anything, at least today.

But the Venus Flytraps aren’t there, and the room isn’t the one I left. Three or four more doors, and I begin to realize that I’m very, very lost.

Either that, or this bookshop is playing games with me. A few hours, and the way it toys with me starts to feel very alive. As if it’s confusing me on purpose. The kitten appears a few more times, but I always lose it again.

It’s weeks before I give up. The bookshop seems intent on keeping me alive, whatever else it has in mind, like one of its cats. I find plates of stale cookies and lemonade set out for me, or sometimes a sandwich and a cup of milk. At night we have tea in the room with the squashy armchairs and the fireplace, and the kitten finds me.

It’s not so bad, once the panic wears off. Who knows? Maybe the last owner got eaten by the Venus Flytraps or made it outside, and the shop got lonely without them. I don’t think it likes to be alone, and someone has to take care of the books and give the cats the attention they need.

So why not me?

Miss Honey

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Today’s post is not a book review.

Well . . . it is, but it’s not.

If you take my meaning.

You see, I’ve already written a review about Matilda, by Roald Dahl. Quite a long time ago, in fact. And it would be very odd to review the same book twice on the same blog. After all, there are so many brilliant, wonderful books that I haven’t even mentioned to you yet.

So please, don’t take this as a sign that I have run out of books.

I haven’t.

Still, today’s post is not a book review. It’s a character review. Because I think this particular character is worth raving about, despite the fact that in my previous review I didn’t have time to praise her at all.

I am talking, of course, about Miss Honey.

Miss Honey, for those of you that are not familiar with Roald Dahl’s classic, is Matilda’s teacher. She is the second person to recognize what an extraordinary child Matilda is, and the only one to do anything about it. Upon realizing that Matilda is much too advanced for her regular class, she immediately appeals to the school’s headmistress to have her bumped up to another level.

When the school’s headmistress, Miss Trunchbull, refuses to listen, Miss Honey immediately marches on to Matilda’s parents to open their eyes to the wonder that is their daughter.

Naturally, they also fail to listen.

What follows is an example of how powerful teachers can be in the lives of their students. Miss Honey, despite being told repeatedly to treat Matilda just the same as all of the other children, allows her the space and the resources she needs to continue growing. Books, time to herself, and, eventually, a positive, nurturing friendship that is unlike anything Matilda has experienced anywhere else. In short, she becomes Matilda’s saving grace, because no matter how smart a child is or how many books they have read, they cannot get along without someone to champion them.

Matilda is, of course, the heroine of this story, but I believe that Jennifer Honey doesn’t get enough recognition or acknowledgment, and I am going to tell you why. Besides being an exemplary teacher, Miss Honey has her own set of problems. A dead father, a legacy—and a paycheck—that is stolen week by week, and an abusive aunt that doubles as her immediate boss. She has been trampled on and hurt and, as of the moment when Matilda appears, she has no way out of the situation.

And yet, for all her trouble, Miss Honey continues to weather her storm with an amazing amount of quiet strength. She doesn’t lash out at her abuser as today’s heroines are wont to do in fits of anger. She is kind and patient with everyone that she meets, from her bitter and constantly angry aunt to the smallest child in her class. Instead of folding to her situation and allowing the abuse, she seeks out her own solution—despite having to live on an almost nonexistent paycheck—and removes herself from it, establishing what boundaries she is capable of. (A very, very hard thing to do for someone who has been consistently battered from childhood.) She scrimps and goes without, living mostly on the school lunches so that she has the freedom to make her own choices. And yet, in the midst of all of this, she is still able to see past her own problems and be a comfort and support for Matilda.

Amazing.

Roald Dahl’s masterpiece is very much a children’s book, with a child’s heart behind it, but looking at it through the eyes of an adult, I found the character of Miss Honey to be incredibly true-to-life and inspiring. Her sacrifices and immense strength took this beautiful book from an interesting and lasting read to a classic for me. If you haven’t picked it up, I would absolutely recommend it to you, no matter your age.

“There is little point in teaching anything backwards. The whole object of life, Headmistress, is to go forwards.”

For The Writer Who Is Overwhelmed

Five Healthy Ways To Cope With Too Much CompetitionWe live in a competitive world.

Nowadays, there is heavy competition for just about everything. Especially for writers. Jobs are highly sought after, agents are overwhelmed by the number of queries in their inboxes, publishers refuse to even look at your manuscript unless you’re represented, and blog views are scarce simply because there are a million blogs and one you.

It’s rough.

For some people, the competition is exhilarating. They enjoy the challenge of making their voice heard and attracting attention in a crowded room. They have a knack for making people laugh and for presenting themselves in the best possible light. If that’s you, more power to you!

I, however, am not one of those people.

My problem is that I am not at all competitive. I can play a hundred games of chess with my father, lose all but two of the games, and simply enjoy the fact that we were spending time together. Promoting myself as the best option for prospective readers, agents, and publishers is very hard for me.

And yet, for those of us determined to present our stories to the world and reach our readers, it is incredibly important.

Books are powerful. Stories are powerful. My book, We, the Deceived, which is currently being pitched to agents, was birthed from my time in Cambodia working with women escaping from prostitution. It’s a hard hitting, impacting story of redemption, the realities of slavery, and the worth in a single soul. I’ve put nearly seven years into this book, and I fully believe in it. I want to get it into the hands of a publisher, and even more, I want to get it into the hands of the readers who need it.

So, I keep pushing, despite how overwhelming the competition can feel.

But sometimes, just pushing doesn’t feel like enough.

We all know that feeling, don’t we? That moment when all of the hard work we’ve done feels pointless, and we feel like the last person in line. The runner who gets to the finish line when everyone else is gone and the volunteers are cleaning up.

Discouraging, right?

I have walked through moments like these. More than I care to remember, and yet, I’m still walking. Discouragement is never the signal to put an end to a project or a dream, and I have learned a variety of ways to keep myself sane and moving when it begins to feel impossible. Hopefully they will help you as much as they have helped me!

1) Breathe.

Realize that there is no deadline to your dream. If it takes months instead of weeks, or years instead of months, it will not lose its value. There is no hurry. Agents will not stop accepting new authors after 2019. Publishers are not going to stop printing books. The world is not going to stop reading.

So breathe, dearest author. Take a moment, calm your anxiety, and breathe.

2) Do the next thing.

Waiting around, bewailing our inability to ‘make it happen’ is not going to get us anywhere. And neither will grinding to a halt because we’re so overwhelmed by the huge obstacle in our path.

Take one step. Just one. Focus on that one step, and don’t worry about the next one until you need to.

Finish writing the book. (If you haven’t already.) If that’s still too far off for you to even think about, write the next chapter.

Add one social media account with your official author name.

Draft a query, or jump online to find some instructions on how to write a professional query.

Get feedback on your book, and adjust accordingly.

There are a million little steps in the long journey toward holding that book in your hands, so take the next one in front of you. Do the next thing. A little progress goes a long way toward fighting off discouragement.

3) Celebrate the victories.

Pop that champagne cork. Or open that bottle of wine. Or sparkling grape juice. Something. Don’t save all your celebrating until you hit that mythical moment of ‘success’. Because honestly, that moment will keep being pushed back. It will change depending on where you are in your life, and if you don’t celebrate your wins now, you never will.

So do it. Take yourself to dinner, or to that movie you’ve been wanting to see. Get your nails done, or buy that game you’ve been wanting. Celebrate your milestones. They might feel small now, but when you add them all up, they’ll be the ones that got you where you’re going.

4) Don’t make important decisions while you’re discouraged.

Just don’t. Tossing that manuscript in the trash, deleting your blog or social media accounts, or blowing up at the people who are supporting you might feel satisfying in the moment, but you will always, always regret it later. If you really are considering throwing in the towel, wait. Talk to people you trust. Give yourself time to change your mind, and to think it over when you’re not frustrated. The worst decisions are always made in a hurry.

5) Do not tie your value to your work.

Dearest writer.

You are not more or less important because of the number of hits you have on your blog.

The likes on that one post do not define you.

The rejection letter that agent sent you is not a rejection of you. They do not hate you. They do not think you are stupid, or worthless. They have simply decided that this particular project is not right for them at this particular time.

You are waiting for your book to be published, or your blog to make money, or to land a job as a writer.

You are NOT waiting to be valuable.

You are NOT waiting to be loved.

And you are NOT waiting to be important.

So whatever the problem, whether it be a rejection letter, or a scathing review, or simply a day of not being noticed, remember that you are still an incredibly brilliant human being with endless potential and a mind that cannot be replaced.

Good luck, dearest writer! May your tea be hot and your dreams wild.

FREE BOOKS: Last Day!

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Hello, my friends!

Friendly reminder that today is the LAST DAY that my books, Of Mice and Fairies and The Birdwoman, will be FREE on Amazon.

Of Mice and Fairies is a charming collection of fairy tales written by a forest witch, in the form of a series of letters to her niece. They spin tales of the adventures of her little forest friends: a fairy, a gnome, several mice, ducks, and, of course, Quiggly S. Minster, a troublesome troll with a greedy, grumbly sort of temperament and a nasty temper.

The Birdwoman is a collection of my short stories, spanning several genres and each only a page or two long. The stories feature, among other things, a runaway boy on a slave hunter’s ship, the child of a returning soldier, a mentally ill woman adjusting to her asylum, and the last refuge fleeing a dying city.

I hope you enjoy both of these books! The giveaway ENDS at midnight TONIGHT, so get your copies now before it’s over!

Happy reading!

Crows

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They wait for me in the graveyard. I see them when I pass by on my way home from school, hopping about on the gravestones, pecking at the gravel paths. Their black feathers are ruffled by the wind coming down from the mountains, and we can hear their cawing from the schoolyard.

My friends are sure they belong to a witch. Crows, they tell me, are always signs that a witch has moved into the village. We spend most of recess passing tales around about why she sends them to the graveyard every morning. Tommy Mitchell thinks she sends them to collect souls from the gravestones. Janet Fletch says that’s stupid, and that they’re only after the worms in the garden beds.

I play along, sometimes. When they ask me to. I say that the gravekeeper likes the way they look, and he hired them from the witch to stay in his graveyard and scare away visitors, because they trample on his flowers.

None of the others liked that story much, but I thought it sounded plausible.

More likely than their being sent to collect souls, anyway.

I am always the last one to leave the school. I’ve gotten pretty good at making up excuses lately. There’s always one last question I need to talk over with the teacher, or a library book I forgot to return, or a bathroom pass that I forgot to use and need desperately. Whatever the reason, my friends are already halfway home before I trot down the steps, and I never make much of an effort to catch up with them. They’re all headed home to switch on their televisions, but I’ve got other things on my mind. Things that can’t be hurried.

I walk past the graveyard slowest of all. The crows are playing when I pass, so I have to whistle a time or two before they hear me. They aren’t after souls, really. Or there to frighten anyone else away. They just like how cool and shady it is, how the gravestones line up like a stone maze. They have to play somewhere while I’m in school. They wouldn’t have any fun otherwise.

The Baron is the first to hear me. He likes me the best, I think, and he’s always listening. He comes winging out of the trees to land on my shoulder, and the rest follow him. I stroke his breast and his shiny head, and he nibbles at my ear to tell me that he missed me. We walk home together like that, with him on my shoulder and the rest flying after me, and I take the back road behind the church so no one sees us.

When we get home, he and the others fly off to my workshop, and I leave my backpack and my school books in my room and follow them outside. The old shed in the back garden isn’t much of a ‘workshop’, but it’s the best I can do for now, and no one will bother us. The Baron sits on my shoulder as I fiddle with the old radio we found in the dump last week. It should work—eventually. The Baron cocks his pretty head, watching me with one eye and then the other. He’s very interested, more so than the others. They perch on the back of my chair or on the shelves and flutter about, squabbling over beetles and which of them is allowed to sit higher than the others. Sometimes they get too loud, and I have to scold them and send them outside to play.

Not the Baron, of course. He’s always quiet, and if I’m missing a tool, I’ll send him to find it. He’ll hop around the room with his bright eyes and his funny gait, and if he can’t find it here he’ll go looking in my father’s shed. I’ve never sent him to the graveyard after souls, but I think if I asked, he’d try his best. He’s obliging like that.

As a reminder, my book, The Birdwoman, is still available for FREE on Amazon. Enjoy!

Also, I would like to thank @BringeGloria for inspiring this story with her tweets. Check her out on Twitter, she is the best of the best and I adore her!

Woodpiles, FREE Books, and Snowy Mornings

My house has a wood burning stove.

It’s beautiful. I love it. In the evenings before I go to bed, I light a fire and turn off all the lights and watch the firelight flicker on my wood floor and let all the heaviness of the day slid off.

Then, if it’s cold enough, I wake up every two hours in the middle of the night to keep the fire burning.

Because if I don’t, I will freeze.

Correction. I will not freeze. My cat would never allow that, simply because if I freeze, she’s going to freeze too, and that would be a tragedy of epic proportions. If I miss the alarm, she screams at me until I wake up, because I have the responsibility of keeping her warm.

I love her so much.

Thus, my wood burning stove, and, consequently, my woodpile is very important. I spent a good part of my afternoon yesterday chopping wood, and because I am kind and love you all, I did not take pictures.

You do not want to see me chop wood. It’s embarrassing. I do it because it must be done, but I do not claim to be good at it.

So now, my woodpile is stacked high, and life is good. We are not going to dwell on the fact that I had to run outside in my shorts and snow boots this morning because it was snowing rather hard and the wind had knocked the tarp off the wood. Wet, freezing wood is no good to anyone.

But, as I said, we are not going to dwell on that.

So, because it is snowing—and I love snow—and because today is Saturday and the weekend, and because I have a full woodpile, I would like to remind all of you lovely people that my books—Of Mice and Fairies and The Birdwoman—are both FREE on Amazon this week. I cannot invite you all to my house for a cup of hot chocolate in front of my wood burning stove, so this will have to be the next best thing. Brew a cup of tea (or coffee), snuggle up with a good blanket, and enjoy one of these books on me.

Happy Saturday, my friends! Stay warm!