Being a Better Writer: Handling Stress

Welcome back readers! To the first Being a Better Writer post of 2021! Which … almost didn’t happen today. And not just because of the computer (which I’ll update you all on in a moment). No, because of the other event that happened last Wednesday in the US. You know, the big one where a bunch of rioters stormed the US capital in an attempt to forcefully change the election results.

Yeah. That one. There will be a post about that. But just in case any of you were wondering, I’m firmly among the opposition to what those people did. It was outright rebellion. And I would have said something on it immediately, save that my computer was down, and incapable of making a post of the length this topic deserved. I almost wanted to push Being a Better Writer back a week and use today to talk about it, but … One way you beat individuals like that is by proving that they ended up having less of an impact than they wanted. So I’ll talk about them later this week (assuming my computer holds up), but for today? BaBW is still on!

Now, about that computer. Yes, I’m at my keyboard again. And while it’s not 100%, it’s functional enough for me to finish the print requirements for Axtara – Banking and Finance.

So what happened? Well, it was a two-fold strike. The first hit was that … Well, let me explain the parts first. For those of you not in the know, everything on a computer goes through a central processing unit, or CPU. It’s like the engine of a car, only more so. You can’t push a computer along if a CPU goes out. CPU’s generate a lot of heat in operation, so there is a cooling apparatus set on top of them, and a thermal paste between the two that helps conduct the heat into the cooling system.

Well, problem #1 was that my thermal paste had largely dried out over the last few years of living in a desert. And as a result, it wasn’t transmitting heat evenly or well. So when the computer went under a sudden load, such as with a hefty game … the CPU could trip the warning heat sensors and the computer would shut down out of safety (don’t want a valuable CPU melting, which will happen otherwise). Until the heat cooled, it wouldn’t restart.

So that was problem #1. Cleaning off the old concrete-like dried thermal paste and replacing it with new, fresh stuff fixed that problem. A complete diagnostic scan of the CPU showed that no damage had been done, thankfully (yay safeguards). But then there was issue #2, and the other problem: my secondary hard drive was failing.

Explanation: Computers can have a number of internal drives to store information and move it around. I have three. My primary, and boot drive, only for windows. A secondary that was cannibalized from older builds that held my music and various things, and a third that is much larger I acquired a few years ago.

That second drive? Around 15 years old. Most drives last 5-10. And Windows was using it as a page file (basically spare ram), meaning any time there was a lot of data being moved around, Windows would read and write on the drive. Plus, my listening to music … the drive was wearing out and going bad. And SATA (the tech used to access the drive) panics when it encounters bad sectors.

Basically? The moment a bad sector came along with the computer accessing that drive, down the system went down hard.

So is it fixed? Well … mostly. As I have another drive, I can rip the old one out. However, Windows may have put some vital files on there, so doing so may cause me to need to repair my copy of Windows, which is always dicey. So before that happens, I’m going to get the print copy of Axtara proofed since right now I can do that. In the meantime (and how I’ve avoided the problem), I had Windows do a checkdisk on the bad drive, and it’s identified the currently bad sectors and won’t touch them. Won’t stop new ones from occurring, but I’ve also moved everything that was using that drive off of it and onto the other larger one. For now, this will have to do, and I won’t be letting this computer do any heavy lifting until I get that drive removed and things smoothed out (no gaming on this PC for a while, which is killer).

So, that’s where things stand right now. I’d like to replace the dead drive with an equal sized SSD, but that’s not explicitly needed and budget right now is tight, as one might guess. But the computer is up and running, and I checked to make sure that everything was backed up (and nothing book-related was on the old drive anyway, just so you know).

All right, so that’s the news. Today, once this is done, I’ll be sizing the cover for the print proof of Axtara. Exciting stuff!

Anyway, with that all said … let’s talk about today’s topic, shall we? Which I felt was extremely topical given the last week. I’ll start with a question: any of you want to guess how much sleep I lost last week trying to figure out the source of my computer problems so I could get back to work?

If you guessed “a lot” then you’re right, and that’s all the answer you needed. I stayed up until past 5 AM diagnosing things more than once in the last few days because, well, what I was trying to solve was important. My computer is my lifeblood for my work: with it down, I’m locked out.

As you might imagine, this was a particularly stressful week. Not the first, nor will it be the last. But being an author, or even just the act of writing, can produce a surprising amount of stress.

Which might sound odd to some of you. After all, writing is an exercise in creativity, right? How can that cause stress? It’s just “making things up” all day? Right?

Well … no. And yes. Writing, like anything else, is a lot of work. Writing is just “making things up” the same way working in a machine shop is just “hammering tools all day.” Sure, anyone can walk in and smash a hammer against a sheet of metal with no idea of what they’re doing. But ask someone to build a boat, and there’s going to be a lot of thought and effort involved.

So it is with writing. Writing isn’t just hammering keys on a keyboard until something appears. It’s building a setting, world, and characters, then detailing their interactions, experiences, and whatever else goes into your story. When it goes smoothly, and everything slots into place, it’s a lot of fun.

But when something slips out of place, or catches you by surprise? Well, suddenly that can become a stressor. Throw deadlines, expectant fans, and finances into the mix, and suddenly what seemed like a relatively carefree experience can become a stress-filled one that can compound exponentially in a short amount of time.

This, by the way, is why so many people who write prefer to write “for fun” and stick to things like fanfiction where there aren’t nearly the same stakes. They want it to stay fun and relaxing. Much like the people who enjoy a spot of basketball at the gym to relax, but wouldn’t want to go even semi-pro because they’d rather just have the fun of the game without any of the outside pressures.

Now, that isn’t a bad thing. We shouldn’t look down on that as shameful, and that’s not what I’m trying to point at, so if you’ve gotten that impression, I apologize. It’s the opposite: It’s smart. Because people need things that help them relax. Those that write for the fun of it, well that’s fine. They’re likely using it as a relaxation from other stressors.

But writing past “for fun?” Writing for an income? To sell a book? This can become stressful quickly. You’re working along, and you’ve promised your readers a book by the end of the year, when suddenly a chapter just stops dead. What you had in mind isn’t meshing with the development and personality of the characters, and that’s going to mean major changes. You’re fairly sure you can handle it, but now you’re not sure where things are going next, and that deadline is suddenly in doubt.

Then it gets worse. For no reason you can discern, sales go dead. Now you’ve got three things to worry about: the characters, this unexpected new direction, and bills piling up while your income is mysteriously truncated.

Oh, and this book is a sequel, so the fans are super pumped for you to deliver, and you’re well aware of that. But will you? You’re really trying to … but what if you can’t?

Any of you readers feeling anxiety for this scenario yet? This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a million other things that can pile on top of that. Maybe one of your characters is a mechanic. Now you need to do a bunch of research so you can get their job right and not have any mechanic readers scratching their head. Oh, and they’ve got a culture and speech style that you need to learn and emulate as well. So that’s more research, and making sure you get it right, plus checking that you’re staying in line with the character development from the last book …

I think by now you get the point. Even if some of these stressors are small, they have an alarming capacity to pile up in rapid sequence. And stress can be a bit like snow. A little bit of it rolling down a hill is normal, and healthy to see. But as more and more of it packs on, you start feeling a little tiny at the other end of it and realizing you’re in an avalanche zone.

And that’s not good. Especially if it all comes crashing down on you.

This happens to authors. Both in regards to the avalanche of stress sweeping over them to the point that they’re overwhelmed, or to the point that the looming threat becomes so massive that they simply step away and leave, setting aside a book, series, or even writing altogether.

Okay, so the stress snowfall is a very real thing. But as you might have noticed from the title of this post, we’re supposed to be talking about handling stress, not just that it exists. So then how about we get to that segment of the post?

To start with, I’d like to point out that it’s “handling” and not “erasing.” Simply put, it’s not possible to remove all the stressors that come with writing. Some of them, yes, but many of them are simply inescapable without doing as we noted some do and leaving writing altogether. There will always be the worry that we’re not writing a character properly, or that we’ve not done enough research. Or that a scene won’t have the impact that we want it to have.

These are, again, inesacapable. They’re part of the process. You can’t avoid them. What you can do, then, is manage them.

Which, I find, comes in two varieties. There’s the management of how many stressors the job creates, and then there’s the management of how much pressure the stress puts on you.

So let’s talk about the first one for a moment. Despite what it may sound like, many of the stressors that come with writing by default can be managed, albeit carefully. Some can even be removed … but not all of them should. Going back to the snow analogy, we could remove all threat of an avalanche by getting rid of all the snow, sure. But then we couldn’t ski, snowboard, or whatever other winter activity we wanted to do.

Point being, we want to have snow, just like we want to work with writing (which will create stressors). But we don’t want enough of it that we bury ourselves or setup an avalanche risk. Ideally, anyway (sometimes it’s unavoidable). But we can mostly control exactly how much “snow” we shovel onto our “mountain,” aka how many stressors we open ourselves up to. For example, we can give ourselves more flexible deadlines, letting our readers know that a deadline is a “goal” but that for certain reasons, we’re prepared to let it slip. We can, when faced with something that upends our projected work (like characters taking the story in another direction), step back and break things down to manageable levels. Rather than tackling everything at once, we can tackle smaller things one at a time and lessen the amount of stress we face at a single instance. It might mean doing something like leaving ourselves a note to “fix this in Alpha” or taking an extra week to get something right, but being able to break a problem down into a series of small “snowslides” that won’t overwhelm us can be vital.

Sometimes, handling the problem can even mean tackling a stressor head on before it becomes a larger problem or piles with others, even if that means taking a blow like missing a deadline. In the real world, ski resorts often use dynamite and cannons to set off avalanches early, rather than wait for them to pile up. Likewise, if you can see something coming in the distance that’s going to be a problem, rather than waiting for it to arrive and become something that needs a solution right this instant, you can choose to step ahead and tackle it in advance, before it becomes a huge problem, even if that means letting it crash down on you.

A deadline you’re certain you’re going to miss, for example. Or a rework of a plot element you’re growing increasingly positive will come. Sometimes it’s better to step back, look at the looming problem that’s coming closer and building with each day … and tackle it headon in advance, when you can afford to set other things aside, and the problem hasn’t grown to a crisis yet.

Now, the exact details of this, I leave up to you. I simply can’t provide answers for every stressor that may arise in writing because so many of them will be so specific to you and your position. As far as management of stressors goes, I can offer advice and suggestions, but that’s about it.

But what about management of pressures? Well, here I can be a bit more specific … but I still have to be a bit vague. In the end, you know you, and when it comes to pressure release, you’re the one who needs to find out what your “valve” is.

Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself with a new analogy, so let me explain. Earlier we talked about snow, with the pressures piling up. Well, now we’re going to imagine that all those stressors are creating a pressure inside you. Each of us is like a pressure cooker, a sealed container that, each time it interacts with a stressor, builds up a little more steam inside. Some steam is fine; we need that pressure to function. But too much? The “cooker” can warp, or even have the top blow off. If you’ve never seen a youtube video of this happening, well …

Now imagine that in a kitchen. Those lids can go through floors, and I’ve seen more than one picture of the equal and opposite reaction pushing the other part of the pot through the stovetop.

Basically, this is very bad. However, it can be prevented by simply keeping the pressure at a manageable level. How? Pressure release valve! Before the pressure reaches unhealthy levels, the valve is engaged, and that pressure slips out.

Now the few of you who didn’t see the analogy earlier are seeing it. Some stressors are unavoidable, and even productive. But no matter what, too many of them without a “release” will simply build up to unhealthy levels, even without an explosion. After all, “cooking” with a pressure cooker invites the right level of pressure. Too much or too little won’t let things cook right. Use of a release valve and heat keeps things at the right level.

So it is with us. Without a release valve, the stresses of writing will simply build until we explode and very likely burn out. We manage what stressors we have in our lives as best we can, but since that’s often an inexact science and not completely under our control, we need to use a release valve, or valves, as well.

What are these “releases?” Well, that’s up to you. They’re things that make you relax and destress. For me, it’s things like going for a bike ride or playing a video game. For others, it can be working in a garden, painting, listening to music, driving … it can be a whole host of things! These pressure releases are vital to functioning properly, and we should never forget that they’re just as important to our function as anything else.

Of course, we can help manage pressure in other ways too. Getting enough sleep and exercise, for example. It won’t remove stressors, but it will strengthen the “walls” of our “cooker,” allowing us to contain our stress with more control. Exercise too can help, though I acknowledge that during the current pandemic, this can be a little tricky. Same with socializing. So be mindful.

Point being, however, that whatever these methods for managing stress are, we both acknowledge and make use of them, working to keep ourselves in balance and the “pressure” in the right place. Sometimes this means acknowledged a lack of control over new stressors and adjusting accordingly so we don’t burn out. Or moving up a deadline to keep ourselves in a “good spot” but being flexible enough to move it when things go wrong.

Now, there’s one last thing I want to talk about, and that’s burnout recovery. What do you do if you didn’t manage and handle your stressors properly, and things blew up?

This is tricky, as for some it can appear to be a career ender. A stress explosion damages the psyche in the way a pressure cooker could a kitchen, and that can leave a lot of scars. If you’ve suffered a complete avalanche that’s buried you, it can appear bleak. But there’s one thing you must immediately do, no matter what anyone says otherwise.

You must not expect to immediately go back to work like nothing has happened. There are people that will tell you to ignore the dented, caved in stovetop and the hole in the ceiling, as well as the water and shrapnel damage everywhere, and just get “right back to cooking” like it’s nothing. “Get back on the horse now,” they’ll say, without any acknowledgement of the damage around you.

That said, it isn’t the end. Such damage is catastrophic, yes, but you can recover. Piece by piece, one bit at a time, you can reassemble the “kitchen.” You can put everything back together and free yourself from the avalanche a limb at a time. Then, once that’s done, you can examine what happened so that you don’t make the same mistake again. Plan so that when similar stressors arise in the future—and they likely will—you can react in advance and prevent the same problem.

You don’t quit, no. But you don’t charge in headlong and put a damaged cooker back on the destroyed stove with snow burying the windows (I’m enjoying mixing these two analogies). You pick up the pieces, fix everything up, examine what went wrong, then start again with a better eye towards managing what caused the issue in the first place.

All right, so let’s recap. Stress with writing is inevitable, and even in a way needed. Handled and managed appropriately, it can be productive without being disruptive. It’ll crop up regardless of what we do, so we should be prepared to do our best to handle what stressors arise and when, as to not bury ourselves in undue amounts. However, because we don’t always have control over where the stressors will come from (like my computer failure), keeping a lifestyle that enables us to release that pressure through other activities is a must. And on the rare occasion that we’re overwhelmed and ‘blow up?” We don’t dive right back in. We fix and examine first so that we’re better prepared against the stress in the future.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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