A Trick That Will Tame Your Crazy Writing Stress

by James Scott Bell

Some time ago the astute Kristine Kathryn Rusch posted about what she calls The Popcorn Kitten Problem. It’s based on the video below. Take a look at a bit of it:

Now that is what an indie writer’s mind can often feel like. So much freedom! So many things to write! And yet so many marketing hats to put on, and a ton of petty tasks that seem to repeat, over and over again.

Lest ye think this is just an indie conundrum, it’s also increasingly a picture of a tradpub author’s brain, because so much of the marketing onus now falls upon the writer. Publishers are insisting upon “platform” before they offer contracts. When a book is released the harried in-house publicity person (if there is one) has little time for any single author. So you better be out there doing a hundred different things…every day!

If you don’t watch out the resulting stress might grab your good endorphins like an amped-up Conor McGregor and slam them to mat.


Enough of that and you could end up tired or with a chronic case of the blues.

Here’s how a typical popcorn kitten scenario might play out:

You’re writing your WIP, an essential scene where your protagonist has to apply for a new job. In your pre-planning you decided that job would be as a hairdresser. Or, since you are a notorious pantser, you came up with that on the spot.

You don’t know all that much about the hairdressing business. If you are a wise writer, you put a mark in your manuscript that will tell you to do the research later. Then you’ll write as much of the scene as you can, based on what you know about human nature and job interviews—and if you don’t know about either of these, you should quit writing and join the Navy. Then get out and write a novel about the Navy.

Instead, you decide to leave your WIP and jump on the internet for some “quick” research. As you look at search results, you see a book called What Every Writer Needs To Know About Writing Hairdresser Interview Scenes, and you click over to Amazon to check it out. Seems reasonable at $2.99, but just to make sure you don’t spend your discretionary Starbucks money like a fool, you download the free sample.

But while you are on Amazon you see a recommendation for a mystery series about hairdressers. You know the author. She’s someone you met at Bouchercon. You hop over to the book page and see 125 five-star reviews and a rank of 1,286 in the paid Kindle store. At a price of $4.99. What? Your self-published stand-alone mystery is only $2.99 and it’s ranked 423,679.

You wonder what this other author has that you don’t. So you look at her Amazon author page and check out her covers. Wow. Great! Your cover was done by your cousin Axel, a budding commercial artist who lives with his poet girlfriend, Moonglow. Well, you admit, you got what you paid for.

You do a little more research and find out who did this author’s covers. You check out the artist’s portfolio online and what he charges. Whoa! That’s a healthy chunk!

So you do a little research on how to judge the worth of a book cover. There are many blog posts on this, and you read a few of them. Something else catches your eye on the last one. It’s about the importance of book description copy in selling a book. You recall that when you did yours you had a nagging suspicion it was rather plain vanilla, but you were anxious to get the book out because everyone in your critique group was making money self-publishing and you didn’t want to be the chump standing on the dock as the ship took off for the Bahamas with all your friends.

You go back to Amazon and find a book called Book Description Copy for Former Chumps Like Yourself, and you download that sample. You read that sample, and from the Table of Contents figure out some of what your own description was missing, so you open up a new doc and start writing afresh.

Ten minutes into that a thought pops into your head. You don’t want to have your protagonist apply for a hairdresser job. No! She should be an insurance investigator!

So you hop back on Google looking for “How to become an insurance investigator.” Lo and behold, there’s a book called Insurance Investigation for Former Chumps Like Yourself. The author has a website. You go to the website and see he has a blog. Gold!

Which reminds you, you were going to try to do some guest posts for various blogs when your book came out. That’s publicity! Where was that list again? You search for it … you need to send out some emails!

You look at the clock. Uh-oh, it’s almost time to pick up Lydia from school, and what have you done on your WIP? Fifty-seven words! The last word you typed was hairdresser

I’m sure you can relate. Just as a Molinist theologian can contemplate an infinite number of contingent realities, so you, the writer, have an infinite number of ways you can get distracted, going off in different directions based upon a single pop of a cerebral synapse, one little soft-pawed frolic of a popcorn kitten.

So what’s the cure?

Here is a simple trick that can change your life. All it requires is some paper and a little mental discipline.

I call it Nab, Stab and Tab.

First step is to nab that thought. Recognize it for what it is—a siren’s song to leave whatTenniel-Cards you’re focused on and slide into Alice’s rabbit hole. You might even say it out loud. “My crazy mind wants me to go on Google right now!”

Next step, stab. You want to nail the thought to your desk so it doesn’t hop around in your head. You do this by writing it down. That’s all. I have scratch paper nearby for just this purpose. So in the scenario above, if I suddenly remembered I want to explore guest blogging, I’d write guest blogging on the paper.

Then I immediately forget about it and get back on task! This is the key moment, the forgetting. Get back to work on your WIP!

Finally, when I come up for air and have some time, I’ll give each thought a tab—I assign it a level of importance, using the A, B, C method (which I detail in my monograph, How to Manage the Time of Your Life).

A is for highly important, must-do.

B is for what I’d like to do.

C is for items that can wait.

If there is more than one A item, I prioritize these with A1, A2. Same with any Bs and Cs.

Next, I estimate how much time each task will take. I use quarter hour increments. So a task might take me .25 hour or .5 or a full 1 or 2. Whatever.

Finally, I put the A tasks into my weekly schedule in priority order. If there’s enough time, I’ll put in the Bs. The Cs I usually put off.

This may sound complicated, but it takes only a few seconds to nab and stab. And only a few minutes to tab and schedule.

Yet the benefits are profound. Less stress, more focus on you primary work.

The kittens will start to purr, and then they’ll go to sleep.

And you’ll sleep better, too.

So can you relate to kittens bouncing around in your mind? How do you usually handle it?

TEN Simple Relaxation Techniques & Stress Relievers for Writers

By Jordan Dane

Recently I served on a panel at the Romance Writers of America annual conference on the topic of “Care and Feeding of the Writer’s Soul.” Below is only a fraction of the empowering presentation put on to a full house by Ellie James, Trinity Faegen, and yours truly. I had no idea how important our message would be to the attendees who found us afterwards and hugged us with tears in their eyes. So my message today is to take care of YOU.

1.) Meditation – Meditation isn’t about chanting “Ohms” and contorting your body. ANY repetitive action can be considered meditation—walking, swimming, painting, and knitting—any activity that keeps your attention calmly in the present moment. When your mind is at rest, the brain can be stimulated in a creative fashion.

2.) Visualize Being Relaxed – Imagine a relaxing setting away from your tensions, your perfect dream spot. This could be a vacation spot or a fancy luxury spot where you are pampered. Visualization could also include something you touch to trigger that feeling of calm—a silk robe, warm water, or a cashmere sweater.

3.) Breathe Deeply – Relaxed breathing is deep, not shallow. Get in a comfortable position and let out all the negativity in a deep expelled breath through pursed lips. Drop your shoulders to release the tension and imagine your core as the powerful place of your strength. Keep your mind focused deep into your power spot and consciously expel the stress with each breath. Breathe in the new and expel the negative until you are renewed. Believe it and make it so. Do this TEN TIMES and feel your body relax more with each step.

4.) Take a Look Around You – Something an author should do anyway. Keep your mind focused on one thing. No multi-tasking. Stay in the moment and focus on one thing or activity. Staying in the present can help promote relaxation, without all the clutter the mind can generate. If you are outdoors, focus on a bed of flowers or the sound of the birds. If you’re in a mall, keep your attention to one window, maybe one pair of shoes. Focus on how it was created, examine the details. Tell a story about that one object. As long as you focus on one object in the present, stress will take a backseat.

5.) Drink Hot Tea – Make a moment in your day to have a cup of tea. Go green. Coffee raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body, while green tea offers health and beauty. Chamomile tea is a traditional herbal favorite for its calming influence. Any black tea is a stress reliever too.

6.) Show Love – Cuddle your pet or give an unexpected hug to a friend or family member. Giving a hug is like getting one back. Snuggling is good too. Snuggle that spouse who supports your writing. Social interaction helps your brain think better. Ever try a hug or snuggle for writer’s block? Physically showing affection—like stroking your pet—may actually lower your blood pressure. It can’t hurt.

7.) Self – Massage – If you don’t have time to visit a professional masseuse, try giving your neck a rub with both hands or use one hand to massage the other arm and alternate. The act will increase your blood circulation and be part of your newfound ritual to take care of yourself. Reward yourself with this each day when you’ve hit your word count. Make it your ritual of caring.

8.) Take a Time Out – When you sense stress happening or too much is bombarding you, take a time out. Walk away. Go to your happy place. Don’t let stress win. Find a quiet corner or room and decompress. Listen to your breathing and your heartbeat. Slow everything down. Remember that time is always on your side.

9.) Take a Musical Detour – Maybe with your afternoon tea, add music. If your mind is focused on the beauty of each note, this can also accomplish relaxation by keeping you in the present, away from your stressers.

10.) Take an Attitude Break – Believe it or not, THIRTY SECONDS is enough time to switch from stress to relaxation if you make the time. To do that, engage your mind in positive thoughts. Do this by anything that triggers a positive feeling in you—picture your child or your spouse, imagine your pet doing something cute, or picture wearing your favorite jewelry or shoes. Whatever that image is, it will slow your breathing, relax your tense muscles, and put a smile on your face. Your heart rate will slow down and a feeling of peace will follow.

Share what gets you through stress. You have any good tips?

To close, I’d like to share another secret with you: the outrageous benefits of Laugh Yoga. The technique is simple and can be done at any time, including five in the morning in Mumbai.

If you have trouble with this video, click on the link HERE.

How do you top the “Bestselling Novel of All Time?”

by Michelle Gagnon

A few days ago, I saw this announcement on Shelf Awareness:dan brown

The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown’s long-anticipated follow-up to The Da Vinci Code, will be published September 15 by Knopf Doubleday. A first printing of five million copies is planned for the book. The New York Times noted that “fans and the publisher have been waiting a long time for Mr. Brown to finish the new book. It was originally scheduled for a 2005 delivery. The Lost Symbol will again feature Robert Langdon, the protagonist of The Da Vinci Code.”

At long last, a little more than six years after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, Brown is back. “Waiting a long time” is understating it a bit, don’t you think?

I remember first hearing about the next installment in the series shortly after DVC sales rocketed into the stratosphere. The story (last I heard) was to be set in Washington DC, involving the founding fathers and the Freemasons (can you just imagine the expression on Brown’s face when the film National Treasure came out?)

DVCAnd then the years passed…and as they did, to be honest, I started to feel for the guy.

Granted, he’s insanely wealthy and successful, one of those few among us who became a household name. He managed to write a thriller that captured the public imagination so completely, there are actually plaques mounted on famous Parisian landmarks rebutting some of the claims in the book (it’s fiction, people. Fiction). And sure, without ever penning another sentence he could still probably buy an island in Fiji every year without worrying about eating dog food in his dotage.

But just for a second, put all that aside. Imagine the pressure. Brown could not possibly have known how successful his book would become (sure, he probably hoped–let’s be honest, we all hope. In my dreams I’ve whiled away many an hour on Oprah’s couch). And when it became the bestselling novel of all time, spawning a torrent not just of similar thrillers but tie-in products and books, charter tours, specials on the History Channel, a film with a horribly miscast Tom Hanks wearing what appears to be an otter on his head…wow. Sure, he’s no longer under the same deadline pressure as the rest of us, his editor isn’t sending nasty emails asking where the draft is (although I’m guessing some fairly pleading/begging missives have passed between them). tom hands

But how do you follow up on that level of success? You know the critics are out there, sharpening their knives. The fans have huge expectations, and a significant number of them are bound to be disappointed. And with every passing year, those knives have just gotten sharper.

For the past few years I’ve envisioned Dan Brown holed up somewhere, naked and filthy à la Howard Hughes, pacing and muttering to himself while a laptop blinks relentlessly from a dark corner. Typing a chapter, erasing it the next day. Worrying over every plot twist, every word choice. After all, deep down nearly every writer is a bundle of insecurity; it’s impossible to have distance from your own work, and I’m guessing we’ve all had that, “this is the worst crap ever written” moment as we review our latest manuscript.

Would the stress be worth it?

Hell, yeah.

But come September 15th, I figure Brown will be sitting alone somewhere, drink in his hand, heart pounding, stomach churning, waiting for the verdict. And I’ll most likely be sitting somewhere else, responding to a chiding email about a missed deadline. And I’ll feel a little sorry for him. Then I’ll pick up a copy of The Lost Symbol, snort, and say, “Not nearly as good as his last book.”

On principle. You know.


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, Alexandra Sokoloff, James Scott Bell, and more.