Writer Worry; Tone; Breathing

“Writer worry” is something many of us deal with. I have in the past, and switching genres from science fiction and fantasy recently created new writer worries.  I dove into the KZB archives and again found gold. Today’s first Words of Wisdom excerpt is from a 2009 post. James Scott Bell lays out his approach to dealing with writer worry.

Getting the tone of a novel right is an issue I have spent a lot time thinking about, since I went from writing the thriller-esque urban fantasy Empowered series to the lighter Meg Booker mysteries. Especially since I am aiming to hit the right notes in a specific sub-genre. An excerpt from a P.J. Parrish 2014 post tackles this challenge.

The last selection is from December 2019. Sue Coletta discusses the calming power of breath to help with body and mind. “Belly breathing” is something I learned while practicing yoga. Sue dives into how it works and how it can benefit us.

As always, full posts are linked from the date provided at the bottom of each excerpt. It is worth reading the full posts. Please let us know what you think about any or all of these topics

Call this my own, personal modus operandi for dealing with writer worry. It will work for you if you follow these steps:

  1. Take a moment to note the benefits of your worry. You are engaged. You are alive. You have blood coursing through your veins. You are not a chair.
  2. Remind yourself of the truth handed down by a wise Jewish carpenter, who once said, “Who by worrying can add one cubit to his span of life?” IOW, worry does absolutely no good regarding future outcomes and you know that.Tell yourself over and over until it sinks in.
  3. Now, figure out what’s the worst thing that can happen if you don’t get your desired result. Let’s say you’re waiting to hear about a submission to Penguin. What’s the worst? You get rejected by Penguin. That’s it. (Do not let your imagination run away with you. The very worstthing that can happen is that the acquisitions editor is so angry at your abuse of literature she hires a hit man to take you out. I mean, be reasonable).
  4. Next, write down all the ways you can come back strong if the worst thing happens. You got rejected by Penguin. How do you come back from that? You can a) submit elsewhere; b) prepare another project; c) rework the current project according to feedback; d) schedule a talk with your agent; e) study some aspect of the craft you’re weak on. And so forth.
  5. After going through steps 3 and 4, tell yourself that you can live with the worst thing.If it happens, it’s not going to debilitate you. It’s not going to stop you. Determine to accept the worst if it happens.

James Scott Bell–December 6, 2009


Tone is so important. And it’s not really the same as mood. Tone is the narrator’s attitude toward the subject — be it playful, ironic, dark, hardboiled, romantic — whereas the mood is what the reader feels by virtue of the setting, theme and voice. And I think tone is something often overlooked by some beginning writers. You, the writer, have to know in your heart what kind of book you are setting out to write. And then you should bend all the powers of your craft to that end. Poe called it Unity of Effect and wrote about it in his essay “The Philosophy of Composition.” He believed that a work of fiction should be written only after the author has decided which emotional response, or “effect,” he wishes to create. And once that was decided, everything else — theme, setting, characters, conflict, and plot — should serve the effect.

We do this via the countless choices we make as writers. What words we use, what imagery is in play, what the sentence structure is, what details we put in (as well as those we leave out). Here’s a visual.:

Both are photos of the Everglades. I’m choosing them because I also went on a “swamp walk” hike in the Corkscrew Swamp this week. The first photograph is by Susan Schermer. The second is by Clyde Butcher. Schermer’s is lush and color-saturated, with emphasis on the birds and setting sun. Butcher’s is desolate, empty of all apparent life and in stark black and white. The first is somewhat sentimental; the second almost existential. Both artists made choices about what details they wanted to include — or leave out — in their work, how they lit their landscapes, the types of trees, the quality of the water.

Same subject, different tones. Each is successful in its own way. But you can’t mistake one for the other.

So what’s my point? I’m not asking anyone to buttonhole their work. It isn’t necessary to try to psyche out editors and the folks who shelve the books at Barnes and Noble. (Is this neo-noir? Is it chick lit? Is it teen dystopia? Do we even care anymore?) I’m not even talking about all the sub-genres we tend to impose upon crime fiction. Some of the best stuff being written in crime fiction right now crosses so-called divides and genres.

What I am asking for, I think, is consistency. And honesty. Be honest with your readers. I don’t mean be predictable. Being honest means finding a tone for your work and sticking with it so that the reality you create on your pages is believable and satisfying. If you want to write romance or romance suspense, go for it and do it well.

P.J. Parrish—March 25, 2014

When chaos starts shaking the to-do list in my face, I close my eyes, lean back, and breathe… It’s amazing what a few deep breaths can do. There’s a running joke in my family that I’m so chill, I’m practically a corpse. It’s true! My blood pressure rarely, if ever, rises above 110/60, even under stressful conditions. And you know why? Because I take advantage of the most powerful and the most basic gift we have — the ability to breathe.

It may not sound like much of a superpower, but controlled breathing improves overall health. Controlled breaths can calm the brain, regulate blood pressure, improve memory, feed the emotional region of the brain, boost the immune system, and increase energy and metabolism levels.

The Brain’s Breathing Pacemaker

A 2016 study accidently discovered a neural circuit in the brainstem that plays a pivotal role in the breathing-brain control connection. This circuit is called “the brain’s breathing pacemaker,” because it can be adjusted by alternating breathing rhythm, which influences our emotional state. Slow, controlled breathing decreases activity in the circuit while fast, erratic breathing increases activity. Why this occurs is still largely unknown, but knowing this circuit exists is a huge step closer to figuring it out.

Breathing Decreases Pain 

Specifically, diaphragmatic breathing exercises. Ever watch an infant sleep? Their little tummy expands on the inhale and depletes on the exhale. They’re breathing through their diaphragm. We’re born breathing this way. It’s only as we grow older that we start depending on our lungs to do all the work.

Singers and athletes take advantage of diaphragmatic breathing techniques. Why not writers? If you find yourself hunched over the keyboard for too long, take a few moments to lay flat and concentrate on inflating your belly as you inhale through your nostrils. Then exhale while pulling your belly button toward your core. It takes a little practice to master the technique. Once you do, you can diaphragmatically breathe in any position. The best part is, it works!

Count Breaths for Emotional Well-Being

In 2018, another scientific study found that the mere act of counting breaths influenced “neuronal oscillations throughout the brain” in regions related to emotion. When participants counted correctly, brain activity showed a more organized pattern in the regions related to emotion, memory, and awareness, verse participants who breathed normally (without counting).

Sue Coletta—December 16, 2019


There you have it: steps to deal with writer worry, tips on getting your book’s tone right, and diaphragmic breathing to help with your body and mind.

  1. Do you have any writer worries? How do you deal with them?
  2. Have you ever struggled with a novel’s tone while writing? Have you ever stopped reading a book that was “tone-deaf?”
  3. Have you tried breathing to help with focus while writing, managing stress, discomfort, etc.?

22 thoughts on “Writer Worry; Tone; Breathing

  1. Excellent post, Dale. I missed JSB’s 2009 article, so thanks for digging it out of the archives. Superb, timeless advice from both Jim and Kris.

    May you have a worry-free holiday season, my friend. xo

    • Thanks, Sue. And thanks for giving us some terrific facts and advice on the value of breathing.

      Hope you have a wonderful, worry-free holiday season as well!

  2. Great selections, Dale. Very helpful.

    1. Writer worries: I worry about everything. One approach that has helped me is learning to expect failure the first three times. “I have to do it three times to learn how to do it right.”
    2. Excellent discussion of tone and mood. I need to remember the difference and keep them in mind while writing. I love Poe’s advice.
    3. Breathing, yep, that’s important. From Lamaze classes to the new RESPeRATE to lower blood pressure, breathing works both ways – it can control/affect physiologic functions, and it is controlled by physiologic activities. Nice discussion, Sue.

    Wonderful smorgasbord of advice today, Dale. Thanks!

    • Thanks, Steve. Thanks for your comments. That’s a great point about expecting failure the first three times when learning something. That’s been true in my experience. Training our brains takes time.

      Tone is something I’ve been trying to pay more attention to as well.

      Thanks for bringing your medical perspective to the discussion of breathing. Makes great sense to me that it would work both ways.

      Have a wonderful weekend!

  3. Yoga breathing has helped a bit with my insomnia. Haven’t tried it for writing issues.
    Interesting post about tone. I think for me, it’s always “me” in there, but that might be voice, which adds yet another dimension.
    What? Me worry? … I don’t really have ‘writer worry.’ Chalk it up to coming into this gig late in life, more for “Can I do this?” than, “I need to make a living and I want to do it by writing.”

    • Good to hear yoga breathing has helped with your insomnia. That’s something I haven’t tried. Next time I have a sleepless night, I will.

      Attitude and expectation can be factors, in my experience, in whether or not you have writer worry. Having some experience can help with it as well.

      Thanks for your comments!

  4. Great selections, Dale! Thank you for sharing your archival discoveries!
    I enjoyed JSB’s calming words on worry: “I mean, be reasonable” made me chuckle, and I found “Determine to accept the worst if it happens.” very much aligned with my own mode of thought.
    Those visual examples of tone are superb! That’s a difficult subject to explain. Well done all around, Kris.
    I’m excited to share Sue’s piece on breathing with a friend who needs the advice. I’ve often employed focused breathing myself, but I didn’t know about “the brain’s breathing pacemaker,” Fscinating!

    • Thanks, Cyn! I’m glad these selections resonated.

      That JSB quote you led with gave me a chuckle as well, and nicely put things in perspective. A friend, also an author, just the other day was discussing accepting uncertainty, which can be difficult for a lot of us, but can also help reduce worry, in publishing and in life.

      I wanted to be sure and include the photos from Kris’s post, because they vividly illustrated tone.

      Glad your friend will be able to read Sue’s advice. Thanks for sharing!

      Have a wonderful weekend.

  5. I’m a worrier, so I figure if I’m going to worry about something, it’s more productive to worry about my writing. LOL!

    Common writer worries:
    * Will I ever finish this project & be satisfied that it’s done?
    * (regarding books in a series): What will I do if I publish the first book too soon & realize there’s a big change with the character or scenario that I didn’t plan on when thinking through the series initially?
    * What if I can’t figure out the solution to that critiquer’s feedback on my story?

    RE: Tone–to me it’s something that you just have to develop naturally as you write. Of all the writer worries, that’s one I spend less time on.

    RE: Deep breathing: A free and easy technique I don’t utilize often enough.

    • Thanks for weighing in BK! I’m a bit of worrier myself, so I can relate 🙂

      One thing that has helped me is to trust that my future self will find a way to fix a problem in the writing or in the series, and hopefully will find doing so a creative challenge that helps me grow as a writer.

      “Free and easy” is a wonderful description of deep breathing.

      Hope you have a great weekend!

    • 694th! WOW!

      Hats off to you and the TKZ team. I don’t ever want to take for granted all the work that you all put into creating content for this site that helps writers so tremendously.

      And that’s actually a point that offsets the notion of writer worry–we as writers may have our worries, but we can be grateful that writers are some of the most generous in sharing their thoughts and ideas & wisdom. More so then any other discipline that I have experienced. I think that’s pretty doggone cool.

  6. Poe had the advantage of only writing short stuff. Absolute control of tone isn’t so easy or so necessary in novels. As long as we hold the general tone throughout the novel with nothing jarringly opposite, a bit of lightness or humor during or after dark events keeps our audience awake. Even Shakespeare included the drunken porter scene right after the horrific murder of the king in MACBETH. His trick was not to use Macbeth and his wife in that scene which would have been too jarring and off tone.

    Humor can go very wrong, however. I read the third book in a slapstick comic mystery where the author made the grave mistake of murdering the ditzy heroine’s closest friend then proceeded to throw in slapstick through the whole thing. Nothing like kneeing some guy during the funeral visitation for some fun times.

    • Thanks for the insightful comments, Marilynn. FWIW, I agree–it’s more about avoiding a jarring switch in tone or mismatch, like Kris’s example. I have to admit that your example of mismatched humor still made me laugh, but in a cringeworthy sort of way. If it had been someone more distant to the heroine, it might have been more slapstick funny.

      Hope you have a good weekend.

  7. All three posts are great. As for worry, I don’t worry about anything–1) most things people worry about never happen, and 2) if they do, then is the time to worry. 3) If you worry and it never happens, you’ve wasted all that time; 4) most things people worry about can’t be changed–which reminds me of the Serenity Prayer:

    God give me the serenity to accept things which cannot be changed; Give me courage to change things which must be changed; And the wisdom to distinguish one from the other.
    I’ve been doing Pilates for 19 years and learned a long time ago that deep breathing fixes a multitude of problems.

    • Thanks for your comments, Patricia. Very good points about why not to worry. The Serenity Prayer provides much needed perspective.

      Have you ever seen the Tom Hanks film, “Bridge of Spies”? A Russian spy in the film, who becomes friends with Hanks’s character, is repeatedly asked if he’s worried about being jailed, being prosecuted etc. His answer is always, “would it help?” That’s become a favorite phrase in our house.

      Hope you have a wonderful weekend.

  8. Great selection of posts, Dale!

    I love Jim’s advice on worrying. Really, worry takes time and energy — not a good idea when you have work to do! Also enjoyed Sue’s reminder about deep breathing. Sometimes a simple solution does the trick.

    Kris’s article on tone struck a note with me. I’ve completed the first draft of my WIP, and I like the plot and scenes, but I want to convey a certain overall tone, and it’s hard to read my own work to see if I’ve achieved that. I’m hoping my editor will have some feedback on this.

    • Thanks, Kay! Tone can be tricky to get right sometimes. Glad you are getting a second pair of eyes to look at your WIP.

      Hope you are having a wonderful weekend.

  9. More fine choices from the past, Dale.

    Jim’s question of what’s the very worst that could happen is a good way to put worries into perspective for one’s own life.

    It’s useful for writing, too. When I get stuck in a scene, I ask what’s the very worst thing that could happen to the character right now? That usually gets the story romping along.

    • Thank you, Debbie! Love how you’ve got Jim’s “what’s the very worse thing that could happen” doing double-duty, both for the “light” (positive) side of one’s own writerly outlook, and the “shadow” (negative) side for one’s characters, who always need to be run through the wringer by the author 🙂

      Hope you are having a fine weekend!

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