The Break And The Healing

So, Judith Tarr has been doing a series of posts at Bookview Café which struck a deep and resonant chord in me.  One of them is The League Of Shattered Authors and the other one (calls itself) a post on the block, called Blocks and Breakage.

I disagree with her characterization of the second.  I’ve experienced both block and breakage, and they’re different things.  I’m not, myself, sure that writers’ block as described by most people exists.  This is the stuff that beginner writers talk about under “I want to write, but my book is too vague.”  At which point you say “Just start, and the plot will come” and nine times out of ten, it will.

This is the stuff that  somewhat more experienced writers say “I wrote the story to this point, and then it stopped, and I don’t know what to do now, because it’s dead.”  And nine times out of ten the answer is “you’re too inexperienced to know where you went wrong or even that you went wrong, but your subconscious is telling you that you did.  Go back ten, twenty, fifty pages and try again.”  And nine times out of ten, that fixes it.

This is the stuff where more experienced – and incredibly neurotic – writers like me experience when they’re so insecure they write 245 first pages to the same novel, trying for the perfect one.  Letting go, admitting there’s no perfection, finishing now and revising later will et you through that.  “It doesn’t have to be perfect, it has to be finished” will do it.

But then comes that breakage.  That’s major.  That’s definite.  That feels like part of your soul has been torn asunder.

None of us is prepared for that.  Very few of us, on embarking on a writing career get told “you’ll never be secure, never.” Or “Disaster can strike at any time” or even “your success and failure will be completely out of your hands, except for a slim margin.”

And that’s where we break.  Though some break easier and some harder, and some much harder.  And some of us recover, and some of us don’t.

I think perhaps there will be fewer writers who shatter permanently – but I’m not going to promise it – now we have more control.

I’ve told this story before but six (?) years ago, the last time I cracked badly, I figured what I had was burnout, and I got a book on the burnout.  It said people burn out under three circumstances: they’re overworked, they’re underpaid or otherwise undervalued, they have no power to change their circumstances or their destiny.

They said fixing just one of those circumstances could pull you out.  At that time, I couldn’t change any of them.  This will, hopefully, get better with indie.  For me at least, just knowing I have options and some control makes things better.

The first time I cracked was when my Shakespeare series came out and … torpedoed.  I mean, not really.  Not if you look at the raw numbers.  Look, I sold 5k books in hardcover, according to the statement, on a book that came out the month after nine eleven.

But what I was told was that the book had done very badly. They’d publish the other two and then I was done.

I’d done everything “right” according to what I’d been taught.  I’d written he book that the publisher showed enthusiasm for in the way she had hinted she wanted.  I’d done my research.  I’d slaved over my editing.

This after sixteen years of studying writing and the market, and selling pro short stories.

I’d done everything I was supposed to, and then, partly because the house wasn’t particularly invested, partly because of the circumstances completely out of my control, it was all gone and it seemed like I’d never have a career.

I think what saved me there, what allowed me to claw back a little, was that those books weren’t heart’s blood.  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed writing them, and Shakespeare is a mini-obsession of mine. But they weren’t what I’d dreamed of writing since I was little – that was space-opera.  This was literary fantasy.  It was important, and it looked like my career had sunk with it, but it wasn’t the be all, end all.

And I started clawing back.  I refused to die.  It was hard – that year was very hard.  Sometimes I felt like I was locked in a stone room and had only a tiny little hole in the stone, through which I could push out writing in segments no larger than the papers in a Chinese fortune cookie.  The stone was the silence that enveloped me and my mind.

Then I got lucky.  I sold Draw One In The Dark to Baen, and Toni Weisskopf saw something in it (who knows what) that made her give me a conference in the Baen bar.  In those days, before facebook, before blogs, this gave me a connection to real, live fans.  I could put stuff up on my conference, and people liked it… they really liked it.  It gave me the confidence to try other stuff, to start writing again.  People were waiting for my words.  That alone was healing balm, after being told that my first book was just not good enough to sell.

The second time I shattered was more difficult, more complex.  Part of it involved murder most foul.  I have no other explanation for why the Musketeer mysteries were more or less allowed to go under, to vanish.  It has everything, including the horribly look-alike covers (first and third) followed by the two titles that don’t say “Musketeer” which had most readers (and sellers) thinking the series had ended.  It had the second book coming out when the first wasn’t shipping – it didn’t ship again for six months, at which point it had lost momentum.  Oh, it was murder right enough, or maybe manslaughter.  At that point, it didn’t matter much.

Part of it involved the strain of working with houses-other-than-Baen (it really is very much more difficult) and part of it involved the nightmare sixth grade of the younger boy replete with bullying and officers who rolled over for the bullies and punished the victim.

Part of it involved my health going seriously haywire.

I never went fully silent, but it felt like I just lacked the strength to write.  I would have the story in my head, I wanted to write it, but it couldn’t be pushed out, because I had no strength.  I started getting sick more an more.  And it wasn’t just the writing.  I pretty much didn’t want to do anything.

It has been a long slog back from that, and I’m still not fully back.  But I’m working on it.  I was talking to a writing friend who can out himself or not on this, if he wishes, and he was telling me he’s still battling it, too.  For similar reasons he had a very difficult period, he broke – shattered – badly, and he’s slowly, very slowly clawing back.  But he feels like he has no energy and trying to do the indie, too, alongside the traditional, sometimes is a mountain too far.

I can’t swear that either of us has the full solution on how to get back yet, but I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing  that seems, for now, to be working.


If you hit the wall, if you shatter, if you are there because your career (writing or otherwise) broke on you, this is my prescription:


1-      Try something different.  Not just because it might not go wrong this time, but because, frankly, your brain will flinch away less if it’s not where it got hurt before.  If you had a job doing something and it went away, try something else you’re qualified for.  If your fantasy crashed, write a mystery.  If you normally wrote at night, write early morning.  Shake it up as much as possible, maybe something will shake loose.

2-      Find someone who’ll read, or listen, or whatever.  Psychology studies swear that just talking to anyone is as effective (sometimes more) as the talking cure.  Validating your experience, saying, “it wasn’t all my fault” helps.  Sharing your work with people who’ll appreciate it helps too.  In my darkest days, pre-Baen, I put up fan fic for free in the Austen site.  No, the comments I got weren’t the most informed literary criticism.  But that’s not what I wanted or needed.  I needed people who said, “Wow.  When can I read the next chapter?”  Even if it was only ten or twenty of them, it was enough to start me again.

3-      Forgive yourself.  Even though you know it’s not your fault, part of you will be spinning the wheels of “could have/should have/must have” – this is true whether what broke was your art, your career or your marriage.  I’m here to tell you that you probably couldn’t/shouldn’t/didn’t have to.  At least if it was traditional publishing and – in this wonderful economy – even if it was any other job.  It is only in books that you always deserve the terrible things that happen, at some level.  Real life is not that well plotted.  Take a deep breath.  Interrupt the self recrimination with “what’s done is done.  Can’t change it.  Now, what can I do?”

4-      Give yourself time.  Coming back from this sort of crackup isn’t instant, and the more you push, the less able to fix it all you’ll be.  You have to learn patience, do what you can, take your time.

5-      Do things that bring you joy.  You’re like a little kid whose toy broke.  You’re like someone who lost part of himself.  You’re hurt.  You’re recovering.  Like convalescents will sit in the sun, bask in what you enjoy.  Go read old favorites, even if they’re hokey.  Go for a walk in the park.  Find happy places in the middle of the day and then enjoy them fully, thinking about nothing else.

6-      Cherish those who cherish you: fans, writing friends, family, even your cats.  Take pleasure in their affection, concentrate on making them happy.  The rest will come.

7-      Never believe it’s over.  My career has come back from the dead twice now.  While you’re alive, there’s hope.  Keep trying, and something will give.  While you’re breathing, there’s a chance.


Over my desk I have a framed saying by General George S. Patton “Success is how high you bounce when you hit the bottom.”  Never forget that.  If you never shattered, you don’t know how strong you are, nor what you can come back from.

Shattering is just another tool to learn about yourself.

Pick up the pieces.  Take all the time you need.  That thing about getting right back on the saddle is for people who don’t understand the level of tumble you can take.  Yes, you have to stay near the stables and sort of keep trying.  But you don’t need to get right back up and go galloping.  Just take your skittish writing’s reins.  Write a little plot here, an outline there.  A paragraph.  A few lines.  Curl up with a good book.  Dream up the story again. It will come back.



  1. “I wrote the story to this point, and then it stopped, and I don’t know what to do now, because it’s dead.”

    At that point, my experience was that I was about to hit a scene with stuff I didn’t know how to do. This is why my advice is that if a number of stories die on you, you should sit down and re-read all of them. At worst, you waste a lot less time than you spent writing them.

    1. That is part of it. Also, most stories die halfway through. But there was this peculiar period in my career, and I see it in my fledgelings’ too, where you just did something that should have worked, on outline, and, in effect, broke the story.
      If it remains dead, it goes in a drawer. I have a dozen stories that I thought were dead, dead. I couldn’t figure out how to fix them. Well, when I’m ill but still feel like I should be working (if that makes sense. It happens a lot) I take those out and read them. You’d be shocked how many of them now just shout at me “this is wrong with it, dummy.” Sometimes it’s the setup from the beginning, but often it’s one misstep.
      What you describe is a problem of more mature writers and it’s not even, sometimes “I don’t know how to do it” but “this scene scares me.” It could be too close to you emotionally, or a type of scene you hate. (I can write paint-the-room-red stories. I just can’t proof them. How stupid is that?)

      1. Editing requires a certain detachment that is difficult to establish with something you’ve just created. Back in the day the suggestion was to print out your work and either tilt the paper at an odd angle to make reading it more work or to read it backwards. Both are useful techniques when doing a simple spelling and grammar check.
        For structure, plot, and flow a cooling off period of days if not longer is essential. And first readers that you trust and are able to receive criticism from are precious beyond price.
        Of course most of my experience is with tech manuals and crew procedures for astronauts, so always season my remarks with a bit of salt.

  2. “Success is how high you bounce when you hit the bottom”.
    There is wisdom in that. I can attest to that from my own life.

  3. “they’re overworked, they’re underpaid or otherwise undervalued, they have no power to change their circumstances or their destiny.”

    I think this is a good description of what leads to Learned Helplessness in some. Others won’t give up unless they die.

    You shouldn’t have to put your life literally on the line to write, but it seems as if that’s the old publishing model.

    Not all born storytellers are strong enough to survive the cost. Glad you are.

    1. On that last — I almost wasn’t. It was quite literally killing me by inches. which is why in 2011 if Kris hadn’t said “Just come to our workshop. Just come. No, listen, if you ever trusted me, come to the workshop this September” I’d have walked away and never looked back.

      1. From what you’ve written, what was killing you was not fitting neatly and quietly into traditional publishing, with its ridiculous payment structures.

        All that work – and little reward – that’s what’s amazing about your survival. I get that you owe Baen, but as a complete newbie, I don’t get why you stay when even their royalties can’t be as good as indie rates on Amazon. They’ve treated you fairly – within the old structure. I haven’t followed your ouvre as a whole – maybe you have some novels with Baen, and are now publishing everything else indie?

        1. Sorry got distracted by GPS. I intend to do. Some series with Barn, some on my own. Besides my loyalty to them, And of all publishers, this one has a following that helps me. Also right now, money upfront doesn’t’ t hurt.

  4. I have just spent since June 4th wrestling with a single scene, a little reaction/transition scene that should have been practically a throwaway.

    It brought me to a complete halt – and it turns out that it SHOULD have brought me to a complete halt, because it is a pivotal scene (who knew?) that has ramifications and implications that reach to the very end of the THIRD book in the trilogy.

    Obviously, it wasn’t going to let me get through it until I realized all that.

    I just kept asking questions, of myself, of each character. The pov of view character had a LONG interview with a psychiatrist (she would never go to one). Pieces were cobbled from all over.

    It had to have a timeline written down to the minute.

    It has been a total pain – and I’m not done yet.

    But it is so exciting I can’t stand it.

    Maybe that’s where the stuck part is – where you have to stop and pay attention.

    1. Don’t you hate it when your subconscious goes on strike–and then proves that it knew what it was doing.

      I’ve done Black Hole Burnout, but it wasn’t on writing. Writing was my cure.

      1. I used to hate it. Now I trust the subconscious – kicking and screaming and whining – but I trust it. The process isn’t pleasant, and the results may not be visible to all readers, but there doesn’t appear to be any way to negotiate with it. So I go along – and write it all out until it does make sense.

        So far I’m ALWAYS happier with the new version.

    2. I get stuck when I haven’t figured out the interpersonal conflict. I get going with my Great Idea but I don’t always have it worked out from the people side. I know who they are, but I don’t know their interactions right away.

  5. Forgive yourself.

    That reminded me of a video by zeFrank. It’s actually called “an invocation for beginnings” and is meant to encourage people who are trying to start a new project. In the middle, he talks about forgiving oneself when falling short of perfection. I’d link directly to that point in the video, but the whole thing is worth watching.

    Warning for bad language:

  6. I’ve been in some degree of burnout for a while – it’s a combination of things, putting heart and soul into a project, believing it is good… and watching teh stupid and teh your-ideas-are-anathema do their best to sink it, battling to pay bills, stress, the health side-effects, and just the sheer demands of doing it all over again… Battle fatigue I call it. Blockage is usually a sign of ‘something is wrong, and quite a different animal.
    Best I have found for the former probably winning the lotto. Alas, I haven’t been able to try it. But good friends -especially ones who have been in/ are in the same situation make a huge difference. So does the support of readers – a fan letter gives me a lift for days. Being me I have also found clearing my head out helps. If I can’t find a big enough shovel and clothes-peg, I settle for my desk and doing something to give me perspective (for me that is somethng life-threatening. YMMV). Remove the distractions – avoidance behavior – switch off the net…
    And sometimes just writing anything is good.

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