The As-If Principle: Conquering Burnout

Holiday_lazinessWhen it’s time to write, I look at my laptop with dread. It’s been a long day at work, and I’ve taken care of a lot of loose ends since I got home. Not to mention a couple of kids’ squabbles to referee.

By the time the family heads for bed, I’m tired, I’m burnt out. There’s no creativity left in me. Nope, not one spark. The recliner’s looking awfully inviting. And the remote’s not far away.

The thing is, I’ve had too many of those nights lately. It’s not just writing. I edge past my closed Bible, sure that if God has anything to say to me, my foggy mind won’t be able to hear it. Instead of taking my evening walk, I handle some bit of trivia that could wait.

So this time I make myself sit down. I stare at the blank screen. I manage to type out a painfully bad sentence and another. I delete a word, edit a phrase. And a strange thing starts to happen. The words start coming to me, slowly at first, but then a little faster. By the time I’ve knocked out a scene, I feel like a different person. I’m a writer. I’m energized. I can handle this writing gig.

It’s the as-if principle. If you want to get to the other side of burnout, you have to act as if you already have.

Too tired to write? Write anyway. The creativity will come.

Too tired to pray? Pray anyway. God will show up, and eventually so will you.

Too tired to exercise? Do it anyway. The endorphins will pump in, the oxygen will get where it needs to go, and you’ll feel far better than if you’d unwound in front of the TV.

Depressed? Smile more. We think we’re supposed to smile because we’re already happy, but smiling increases your happiness all by itself. Try it and see.

What else would you do if you weren’t burnt out?

Instinct tells me that when I’m tired I should rest. And sometimes that’s the right choice. If you’ve put in a lot of hours or life has just thrown more at you than any reasonable person can handle, a nap or an evening on the couch with your family and a good DVD might be just what you need.

But more often, moving past the exhaustion is the better option. It’s as if nature rewards those who are contributing in some way – building something, creating something, helping someone even if that someone happens to be yours truly.

Once in a while, taking the night off is great, but I’ve found that if burnout persists, the cure isn’t sleep or a vacation. It’s to live as if I were fresh and full of life. And it’s to fill my time with the things that count even when I’m tired.

I’m a writer, so writing is what counts. It invigorates me, even more than eight hours of sleep. That’s why, full of energy or exhausted, motivated or cranky, once the kids go to bed, you’ll find me at the laptop.

Editing Tips

 Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it… Michael Crichton

The workshop leader looked over the group—a motley crew of aspiring and published authors seeking to learn. She arched her eyebrow and said, “The purpose of your first draft is to get the crap out. Then you can go back and write the book.” Okay, I thought, that’s an interesting way to look at it. And it actually freed me to write better.

I’ve also learned that each draft has crap in it. The goal is to have less and less in each revision. Even today, I’ll pick up my published novel, Journey to Riverbend, and see things I would change. And the published version is the eighth draft.

ScissorsOver the years, people have asked me, “What’s the best way to edit?”

I don’t think there is one best way to edit. Each writer will develop his own way of editing, mostly though trial and error.

My editing process has evolved as I’ve written more, studied the craft, and learned to test approaches and keep the ones that work.

When I write, I begin the day by reading what I wrote the day before. I look for typos, adverbs, passive tense, glaring POV issues, and grammar. This also helps me get back into the flow of the story.

On Saturday, I print out the pages for that week and do a deep edit of the week’s writing, polishing and refining, cutting scenes, re-working dialogue, correcting inconsistencies from the plot or character.

I use critique partners and group as I’m working on the story, incorporating their input as I Writinggo along.

Once the first draft is finished, I put it away. For a minimum of three weeks. If any thoughts come to me about the book, I put them in a folder until later. I send the story out to beta readers. At this point, I find I need at least two people to read the entire book and give me feedback to specific questions.

After three weeks, I pull out the manuscript and have my computer read it to me. And then I rewrite the story, incorporating input from the beta readers.

The second draft goes through almost the same process as the first, generally more quickly. And then it gets rewritten.

Editing is kind of like washing your hair—lather, rinse, repeat. Over and over.

There are two books I think are immensely helpful in this process: Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. And, Write Great Fiction: Revision and Self-Editing by James Scott Bell.

What techniques have worked best for you in your editing? What resources would you recommend?

Already Loved: Encouragement for This Writing Life

file9431319827916Another rejection. My agent gently relayed that though my dream publisher had said “yes” to a proposal all the way up the chain of command to the last committee, they finally decided to nix it.

As I hung up the phone, tears spilled down my cheeks. Two years of canceled book contracts, low sales figures, and repeated “thanks but no thanks” emails had left me discouraged, frustrated, and confused. Writing—and the marketing tasks necessary to be a professional writer—now seemed like drudgery, not play. No matter how many marketing rules I tried to follow, my efforts failed.

I felt like a failure, too.

I still believed God wasn’t through using me. But I couldn’t help but wonder, Will I ever get another book contract? And what happens if I don’t? Is God trying to tell me something?

Later that day, I sat at my desk, playing a computer game with my three year-old son. As Jackson sat in my lap, I kissed his ear and inhaled his little-boy scent; a combination of milk, grime, and chocolate. Nearby sat a copy of my first book, which I had referred to earlier in the day for a radio interview. Jackson looked at the illustration of a frazzled mom on the cover and asked, “Is that you?”

“No, sweetie,” I said, “but I wrote that book. See, mommy’s name is on the cover. It says, ‘by Dena Dyer.’ “

“Oh!” Jackson said, grinning up at me. “I love Dena Dyer!”

Stunned, I blinked back tears. “I love you, too,” I murmured.

After a few minutes more at the computer, I found a quiet corner and prayerfully pondered Jackson’s simple expression of love. He didn’t care if I published books or not. He simply loved me for me. He loved me the way God does.

In all my disappointments, I had thought more about selling books than surrendering my heart. It was painful to admit that somewhere in the midst of trying to serve Jesus, I’d become goal-driven instead of God-driven. I seemed to care more about what the publishing powers-that-be thought than what my Heavenly Father thought.

Satan is crafty. He takes our God-given talents and twists them into temptations. Gradually, my calling had become an idol. Who I was became less important than what I did.

“Lord, I’m sorry,” I prayed, crying for the third time that day. “My heart is so full of sin. I know you couldn’t care less how many books I sell. You just want ME.”

In the weeks and months to come, as I asked God to help me believe the truth of His unconditional acceptance, I began working freely and joyfully again instead of writing just to be published. God continued to close some doors, and another book proposal was rejected, but He gave me other opportunities–ones I hadn’t even known to pursue.

The truth is, though, I will probably always have a tendency to think I must perform to be loved. So I’ve ask God to whack me upside the head (as we say here in Texas) before I get too far off track.

If experience is any teacher, He’ll be faithful to do just that.

(This article first appeared at The High Calling. Used by permission) 

His Words, Not Mine

Insecurity was a daily battle for me as Book One slowly unfolded. Sentence by sentence, page by page, the words and story poured from me. I tasted fear with my characters, laughed at their jokes, cried in their heartbreak.

You never write a book without pouring yourself into every facet. As Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” It’s a lot easier said than done, isn’t it? My insecurities constantly surfaced: You can’t do this. No one will want to read this. It will never get published. Just stop now.

But I had a story to tell.

So I began every writing day with this prayer: Your words, Father. Not mine. And slowly, red turned to black on the page until I typed the final words: THE END. Sweetest thing ever written.

Insecurities equal self-focused writing. It was time to refocus. But before I could do anything, I first had to remember that this was not my story to tell. In Exodus 4:10-11, Moses receives a command from the Lord to go and speak to Pharaoh. His insecurities came out full force, and he complained to the Lord. I mean, Moses literally gave every excuse in the book. “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”

I love the Lord’s response in the next verse: “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.’”

Who made your mouth, writer? Who gave you hands to type, eyes to observe, and a brain for creative thinking? Wasn’t it the Lord? What idea can you claim on your own? What dream has come to fruition without His hand in the midst of the journey?

Write in faith, knowing that the Lord will use it for His glory if He has truly called you to this career. Success as the world defines it is rarely success as the Lord defines it, but He will use this gift in ways you will never see and understand. Your job is to be obedient. Write.

Every time your hands hover over the keys, remember Who made your mouth. Get your heart right and commit every word to Him. As the words flow onto the page, remember the One who stirred the stories in your heart and the characters in your mind in the first place.

“…for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” Luke 6:45b

As writers, we pour ourselves into every story, but they are stories we ultimately can’t take credit for. When I finished my first book, I looked back at the journey and couldn’t believe the result. 85,000 words. Countless hours. So much prayer. I have no idea where it all came from, but He Who called me to this field is faithful.  I will be faithful to do this as long as He allows. All the credit goes to Him. I never could have finished alone.

As I begin the next book and the next, I will continue to pray the Lord gives me the words that others may need to hear, the stories that will tell of the hope, dreams, and adventure that come from following a good God. Will you join me as we commit our writing journeys to the master Author?

“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” Psalm 19:14

Writing Life: Taking Time Out

A high-altitude tyre blowout and series of unf...
Photo credit: Motographer

When you have a flat tire, you must stop long enough to change it. (Dan Jordan)

When life sends us a “flat tire,” it forces us to take the time to stop and deal with it. If we don’t, it might destroy the tire and the rim. Then, we will have an even bigger problem.

Flat tires. The “flat tires” of life are different for each person. You may discover another problem with your car, like a strange knock in your car’s engine. Or you might find a virus on your computer. But you’d better not ignore them.

My husband manages a lot of the business problems at work. And when people get computer viruses, they often tell him that they don’t have time to deal with them. But he usually goes straight to the root of their problem. He reminds them that if they don’t stop and take care of the virus issue, eventually it will corrupt their work and shut their computer down.

Health.  It’s hard to just stop what you’re doing at times, right? Even if you experience a health issue, like chest pains, a back injury, the flu, or an allergic reaction to something? In fact, I almost killed my husband with my guacamole once—he had an allergic reaction to some overripe avocados. So, we both had to stop in the middle of our dinner to deal with his unexpected breathing problem.

I’ve learned that I can’t ignore symptoms of health problems, especially as I’m getting older. But even if you have a newborn infant, you can’t ignore some symptoms. My youngest grandson experienced a bout with the RSV virus. I’m so grateful that his mom didn’t ignore his first symptoms—he might not have survived without her intervention.

Spiritual. You can apply the same truth to a spiritual problem. Sometimes, I refuse to stop and seek God for guidance. But God’s Word encourages us, “Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at me, your High God … above everything” (Psalm 46:10 MSG).

Work. So, when I complained about some work-related problems to my husband recently, he just repeated his “famous” statement to me. “Karen, when you have a flat tire, you must stop long enough to change it.”

Honestly, I had ignored Dan’s advice earlier, and my “flat tire” had put me out of commission for awhile in my work. And for me as a writer, that meant totally laying down my work and seeking God for new direction. But I still struggled with the decision, since I knew that I couldn’t explain my decision to everyone. “What would people think? I’ve made all these commitments!”

Then, I remembered a promised from God’s Word:  “Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don’t worry about missing out. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met” (Matthew 6:33 TNIV).

I hope you remember to stop and check out the “leaky tires” in your life. Don’t wait, like I did, until you’re stranded in the middle of a busy highway, without a car jack or any help in sight.

Photo/Motographer

Do you see a problem that you need to take care of today?

Four Ways to Untangle Your Writing Life

Image/FreeDigitalPhotos.net There’s something about chaos in my home office that infuriates me.

As I attempted to help my husband install a new computer, the jumbled mess of wires overwhelmed me. Lying on the floor, flat on my back, reaching under my desk, I needed more than a flashlight and my glasses to see where to plug in the cables. I wanted something to calm my frazzled nerves.

At times, I also find myself overwhelmed with the tangled web of my writing life. I have so many projects going at once that I can’t focus on the most important ones.

So, how do we unravel the emotions and confusion of our writing lives?

Stop and take inventory. As I inspected the knotted wires behind my desk, I saw that each wire needed to be threaded back through a narrow space under my desk and poked through a small round cutout in the desktop, before I could connect my new PC. I took a deep breath and thought about my angry reaction to my husband’s request. We had purchased the new computer for my writing needs, and he needed me to crawl under the desk because of his old college knee injuries.

Since I tend to overreact at times, my routine frustration over my harried writing schedule serves as a warning sign for me to stop and reassess my priorities. I try to remember to seek God first for guidance. Have I made too many commitments again? Do I need to redefine the boundaries of my work and my everyday life? 

Make some space. After we pulled the computer desk away from the wall to allow space to work, I found that the electrical supplies to my paper shredder, stapler, hole-puncher, and phone charger complicated my task. I unplugged all of them and moved the equipment, so I could focus on just the computer wiring.

Sometimes I also need to back away from my writing life to gain perspective, especially before making new commitments. My other activities, projects, and life issues contribute to my inability to manage my time. I’ve considered enrolling in the course, “Managing Multiple Priorities,” but I could never find the time.

Sort through the maze. Before I unplugged our old computer, I decided to tag each cord at its connection to each device. Then, I sorted the cables and bundled the wires with plastic ties. 

Prioritizing my writing projects requires more than plastic cable ties. The process motivates me to evaluate my passions and interests to see if each project meshes with my overall plans. My impulsivity often leads me astray. And someone else’s requests can produce unnecessary and avoidable stress.

Go forward. After installing my new unit, I expressed my appreciation to my husband for his help, and I thanked the Lord for giving me the patience and the helping hands I needed.

The writing life offers temptations and distractions daily. I’d prefer to believe that I have my writing life in order. But with every new task, I experience a learning curve. I’m well aware that I’m still a work in progress.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith …
(Heb. 12:1 NIV1984).

Writing Life: Facing a Spiritual Battle

Have you ever been annoyed about someone else’s bad attitude? Then later, you look into the mirror and think, That’s me!

How do we abandon destructive attitudes and thoughts?

The other day, I found myself at my wit’s end—in one of those brutal, self-deprecating moods. I felt depressed and frustrated about being isolated in my home office, even though I needed solitude to work on my writing projects.

Through the years, I’ve struggled with the seclusion that being a writer brings. And often my frame of mind distracts me or tempts me to go back into the workplace for more social interaction and close relationships.

A spiritual battle. This particular day, I decided to pray about how to win this battle, instead of dismissing it. I knew it was a spiritual battle—an attack from the enemy of my soul—trying to discourage me. So, I decided to revisit a familiar passage in the Bible.

I thumbed over to Philippians 4:8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (NIV).

As I read the passage, my mind focused on the word “lovely,” and I wondered, How on earth can I find something “lovely” to think about? I wasn’t feeling “lovely,” and nothing around me seemed “lovely” either. But I continued to focus on the scripture, even questioning God’s purpose in leading me to this specific verse.

A way of escape. Struggling with my angst, I carted my portable office outside to our backyard patio (a benefit of working from home). I hoped this scripture could possibly help me refocus—away from my negative thoughts.

As I sat down to read again, a rustle in the branches of our Bradford pear tree distracted me. Two squirrels, playing tag, tumbled from the tree and scampered up the wooden fence, as a large blue jay drove them from his territory.

I enjoyed God’s creation, surprised at nature’s battle right there in my own backyard. The leaves rustled in the breeze, and the sun peeked through the branches, casting moving shadows. Surrounded by shades of green, I settled into my lawn chair.

Lovely. I thought, “This” is lovely!

A lovely thought. The word “lovely” swept across my mind again like a stirring wind. In a sudden and unexpected way, a calm settled in on me, and everything seemed right with me once again.

Then, blessed by the “lovely” moment—bathed in the shades of green and focused on God’s Word—I returned to the peace and solitude of my office to begin my next writing project.

How do you win the spiritual battles in your writing life?

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Five Ways to Handle Stress in Your Writing Process

Are you overwhelmed with stress in your writing life? The book of Lamentations offers a clear word on how to deal with stress. “When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions: Wait for hope to appear” (Lam. 3:28-29 MSG).

1. Go off by yourself. Solitude often seems impossible for me, even with an “empty nest.” But Jesus knew the importance of spending time alone with His Father. When He needed to listen, He would pull away from everyone. Matthew 14 says that after Jesus fed the 5,000, He “climbed the mountain so he could be by himself and pray. He stayed there alone, late into the night” (23).

2. Enter the silence. When we seek God in silence, often the accuser (Rev. 12:10) tries to distract us with fear, like in the story of Hannah (1 Samuel 1). Hanna’s husband had two wives—talk about stress! And her husband’s other wife taunted her year after year, blaming and accusing God for Hannah’s inability to conceive children. Then, when Hannah prayed, her spiritual leader misunderstood her. “Hannah was praying in her heart, silently. Her lips moved, but no sound was heard. Eli jumped to the conclusion that she was drunk” (13).

3. Bow in prayer. Prayer can be as natural as talking with a good friend or as intimate as sharing a secret whisper. It can occur any time of day, no matter where you are or what you are doing. God promises that if we call on His Name, He’ll listen. “And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours” (1 John 5:15).

4. Don’t ask questions. My questions often interfere with my communication with God—I’m talking, instead of listening. When Jesus taught His disciples, He asked them on several occasions, “Are you listening to this? Really listening?” (Matt.11:15).

5. Wait for hope to appear. Waiting rooms seem to bring out the worst in me, like my impatience or frustration. But waiting does not have to be hopeless. The psalmist speaks of “waiting” in Psalm 40, “I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened. He lifted me out of the ditch, pulled me from deep mud. He stood me up on a solid rock to make sure I wouldn’t slip” (1-2 MSG).

Reflection: Matthew 6:30-34 advises, “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (MSG).

So, remember, “When life is heavy and hard to take, go off by yourself. Enter the silence. Bow in prayer. Don’t ask questions: Wait for hope to appear” (Lam. 3:28-29 MSG).

Photo/KarenJordan

What helps you handle the stressful times in your writing life?

 

Stuck in a Corner

Photo by Keith Lyndaker Schlabach

There’s a kind of fear most writers have that can inspire a clammy feeling even faster than waiting to hear if a book’s been accepted by an agent or a publisher. It’s the blank mind, particularly when there’s a deadline looming just ahead. Some people call it writer’s block, as if there’s something sitting in our heads that stands between our keyboard and creative brilliance.

It happens to all of us, no matter how long we’ve been writing or how successful we’ve become in our writing careers. However, I have learned a few tricks to remove the blocks and get going so that I don’t go sliding past a deadline and just make myself, and everyone else, feel worse. Even better, occasionally a reader will point out that very spot in a book as their favorite, and I marvel, once again, at how important it is to just keep going without expectations or attachments.

First Tip: Be gentle with yourself. Berating, digging around in your past for reasons, imagining a bleak future, or even waiting for the muse are not helpful. A walk might be, though. Also follow the HALT rule. Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Take care of those first and then get back to work.

Second Tip: Pull out your character descriptions you hopefully wrote out before you started the book, whether it’s fiction, nonfiction or a memoir. Reintroduce yourself to all the idiosyncrasies, some of which you’re not even using on paper, and even add a few if you feel so moved. If you haven’t done this, do it now. We’re the driver on this literary trip, and we need to know all of the passengers in order to see where it’s going.

Third Tip: This one has gotten me out of more than one corner. Write the words, “Once upon a time,” and then let your imagination go. Write whatever comes up and follow the trail. You can delete those four little words later along with anything else you needed in order to get the left side of your brain going again. Most of us were read a fairy tale or two as a child, and those words can often create a sense of wonderful anticipation of what might be coming next. Our brain recognizes that too.

Fourth Tip: Pull out the description you have, however brief, for the arc in the story. That’s the place that’s most climatic, where everything changes. Is the arc still satisfying? Does it need beefing up, more research, more details? Is everything still pointing to that arc? That may be why you’re stuck. You’ve gone a little off course and need to delete some, add some more, so that you’re once again heading toward a big moment. Stories usually have several smaller arcs on both sides that can be used as places to aim toward as well till you’re driving for the ending.

Fifth Tip: Read the last portion you got down on paper to a trusted friend, preferably another writer that you respect. Hearing it out loud may help you hear what comes next. A brief conversation about what you’re writing and where it’s headed next may do the same. If you have to call more than one or two friends, though, you’re serial dialing as a distraction and not to help the writing. That usually leaves me overwhelmed.

Keep in mind that every job has its down days, and even though we love being writers, some days we’re bored or anxious or frustrated. That’s okay, but we have to also keep going because this is a business as well as an art form and someone’s made plans with that deadline in mind. So do your best, hammer out what you can and come back tomorrow. This too shall pass.

Q: What do you do to get out of a literary corner?

The Long View of Getting Published

Photo by Michael Hirst

There are two distinct parts to my career as an author. Part one, when I saw myself as more of a lone wolf and part two, when I finally started admitting I don’t know everything.

The second half where humility has played a lot bigger part has been more rewarding in every way, particularly financially and spiritually.

Funny little thing I’m learning about life is that when I stop trying to force my will and realize I may not get what I want but I can still be of service, more of what I wanted all along shows up. However, to head down that path the first few times took a lot of courage and hope because I didn’t have any personal proof. Fortunately, I had worn myself out trying things my way. I became willing.

To be an author, whether it’s as an independent or through the traditional venues takes more people and therefore a lot more willingness. The independent route sounds like it would be easier to stick to your own common sense and that would be more than enough, except for the occasional question. But publishing a book is a process that requires a lot of hands.

Besides, I was more arrogant than that anyway, running down the traditional path and still telling everyone how I saw things.

However, when I stopped listening for just the small kernel I wanted and expected to hear, dropped any agenda and not only took in the information but gave it time to sink in, things really began to move in a better direction. That opened things up even more.

What if I even followed through on some of the suggestions to see if other people who are actually the professionals in their slice of the publishing game were right? Perhaps my part in the entire process is to be a team player, be open to all of the information that’s coming in and just do what’s been suggested.

Some wrong turns are to be expected and even that’s okay because  the last tool I keep close by is the one that makes all of it okay.

I am powerless over the outcome but there is One who has His hand on everything, loves all of us beyond our ability to understand and has a plan that includes everyone. This is the most important part to me and makes it possible to relax and go back to the day I’m in when I’m worried about how book sales will go or if a book will get published at all.

The answer is, maybe it will, maybe it won’t.

In the past I couldn’t live with that answer so I tried harder to fix things. That just didn’t work and I wore out others as well as myself. Doors closed.

Now, I ask myself if I’ve done my part? Do I trust the professionals I’m working with on this book? What’s in front of me to do? How can I go be of service?

I know, all of that sounded really contrary to becoming published to me too, at first. But I had tried the lone wolf gig and only gotten mediocre results, at best.

I became willing to try a new tack. God is everything or God is nothing and I wanted, maybe even needed God to be everything so I started listening with a new ear. I asked for help and admitted when I didn’t know something. I grew more patient and less ‘helpful’ with suggestions. I did what was asked of me, on time and nothing more, allowing others to do their job without my interference. I became willing to change structure or style and see what happened.

And on the days when my anxiety still sits on my chest like an angry gorilla, I go pray, turn it all over to God and ask for peace of mind and heart. Then I get back to my day, do what’s right in front of me and keep going. As a result, more of my publishing life has fallen into place and my relationships in that area are a lot stronger.