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When the going gets tough – writer edition

I’ve noticed more and more independent authors complain about all the problems they’re facing.  Blog articles, Facebook posts, e-mails and other avenues seem to be filling up with the dreaded negatives.

  • “Amazon/my publisher/whoever isn’t paying enough.”
  • “My books are selling fewer copies than they did since Kindle Unlimited came out.”
  • “My readers keep on nagging me for the next book in a series, but my creativity well dried up.”
  • “Life, the universe and everything are conspiring to take up all my time and stop me writing.”
  • “I can’t seem to get my thoughts down on paper any more.”

I’m sympathetic to many of those cries of woe.  I suffer from many of the same problems myself.  However, I think there’s also far too much negativity floating around.  It’s all too easy to talk ourselves into a decline.  Therefore, I’d like to share the story of my last three years with you.  They’ve been filled with a lot of pain, and a great many problems – but I’m still here, and as long as God gives me grace (those of you who don’t have any religious faith can substitute your own sentiment), I’ll keep on keeping on.  I’m not writing these words to elicit sympathy, or praise, or whatever.  I’m just trying to point out that things can always get worse – unless we choose to make them better.

I daresay most of you know my journey to becoming a fiction author: I covered it in these pages some years ago. Briefly, since my injury in 2004, I’ve been in pain 24/7/365. On a scale of 1 low to 10 high, it used to hover at 2-3 all the time, with episodes of more severe pain from time to time (including a regular spell every 10 days to 2 weeks where my injured nerve would “flare up”, giving me a severe pain day of 5-6 or higher).

The neurosurgeon had given me a lifetime restriction of not lifting more than 25 pounds, and the increasing pain caused by walking meant that I didn’t go very far except very slowly, with a walking stick. Exercise became almost impossible. As a result, my overall physical health began to deteriorate. I was a smoker, too, which didn’t help at all. I ended up with a heart attack in 2009, followed by a drug interaction problem between my heart medication and the drug regime used to manage my nerve pain. I put on well over 100 pounds in 8 months as a result. My metabolism was trashed, and I’ve found it very difficult to lose that weight.

As a result of all those complications and my weight gain, kidney stones became an issue. During 2015 I was hospitalized twice to deal with them, and found the increased pain from that source, on top of my existing nerve pain, to be almost unbearable. My writing came to a grinding halt until the kidney stones were dealt with. They remain an issue; I still have a stone in there, but the local urologist protests I really can’t be feeling pain from it, because it’s in a location where it can’t be passed. I have news for him! Basically, all I can do is remain well hydrated and keep going. I’m darned if I want them cutting open my kidney!

As you can imagine, the increased pain of kidney stones, on top of the ‘normal’ pain from my damaged back and sciatic nerve, made creative writing almost impossible for long periods of time.  There may be some people who can write through pain without any effort, but I’m not one of them!  My output was drastically diminished.  I’ve managed to publish several books over the past three years (2015-2017), but fewer than I intended. Every one of them has had its price in pain, rather than just time or hard work.  They’ve all taken longer to write than I wanted (usually two to three times as long as my first few), and they’ve all taken a lot more out of me.  After finishing one, it’s been a real problem to make my “get up and go” actually get up (much less go) and start the next book.

I realized earlier this year that unless I did something to deal with the after-effects of my physical problems, I was going to die within the next two to three years. The choice was as simple as that.  Following medical advice, which I’d been doing for years, simply wasn’t working. I had to get rid of my excess weight, regardless of my physical problems and circumstances, because obesity is as sure a killer in the long term as heart disease or anything else. I had no easy choices. If I exercised, I knew I’d face increased pain; but I couldn’t go back on the pain management regime I’d used before, because I knew it would produce a recurrence of the drug interaction and weight gain. I simply had to “bite the bullet” and tough it out.

I discarded my neurosurgeon’s advice, and with my wife’s help, began researching what might restore my “core strength” and get my metabolism moving again. She and I began strength training in July. We’ve both found it very beneficial indeed; we’re already stronger, with better endurance, and better able to cope with our respective injuries and disabilities – and this is just the beginning. After a couple of years of it, I’m sure we’ll be physically in far better shape.  I’m already far past my neurosurgeon’s “lifetime limit” of how much weight I’m allowed to lift.  I daresay he’d have a hernia if he saw me!  (That’s a satisfying thought.)

Of course, this physical progress has come at a price in pain. I’d say my daily pain level is now hovering around 3-4 out of 10, with frequent (every day or two) increases to the 4-5 level, spiking higher in the evening after a long day; and my “bad pain days” every couple of weeks are still a factor. I’m using lower-level pain medication, both over-the-counter and prescription, to try to deal with it. This generally leaves my brain sufficiently “un-fogged” to write, unless I have a bad pain day when I have to take multiple doses; but it’s an uphill battle. I continue to find it very hard to concentrate, and get my creative juices flowing, when my body is screaming at me. Still, I’m persevering.  I hope – nay, I intend – to “power through” this and come out on the other side.

I’m also tackling weight loss through so-called ‘water fasting’ and intermittent fasting, which seems to work for me (albeit slowly) where regular dieting doesn’t (my faulty metabolism gloms on to every calorie that strays within reach, and won’t let go of it).  This is causing difficulties for my exercise program, because (as our coaches quite correctly point out) strength training is designed to increase one’s strength, which means increasing one’s muscle mass.  To try to lose weight while putting on muscle is a contradiction in terms!  Nevertheless, I have to do both at the same time.  It’s a medical necessity.  Therefore, I’ve deliberately scaled back my strength training to a far slower rate of progress than others at my level would normally be able to accommodate. That means I can follow my dietary restrictions, which inevitably impact my muscles as well as my adipose tissue.  I’ll get stronger and fitter more slowly, but hopefully also lighter at the same time.  Some coaches say it won’t work.  I say, given the amount of weight I need to lose, I have no choice. We’ll see who’s right.

I’m noticing mixed effects from the increased pain on my creative writing.  For a long time, it’s been a struggle to write well.  I continue to find that in tackling legacy series;  my military science fiction Maxwell Saga (where I’m busy with Volume 6) and Laredo Trilogy (where the third and final volume is overdue), and my Ames Archives western series (where the publisher is waiting for the third book).  I also have a short story overdue, another one planned, two potential collaborative novel projects (one of which has been really chafing at me for a number of reasons not altogether related to my pain levels, and the other waiting on publisher and co-author input), and a book proposal for another publisher.  The amount of work lined up is enough to keep me busy for the next couple of years… if only I could cudgel my pain-soaked brain into producing it!

In desperation, less than two weeks ago, I tried something new.  Back in 2014, I was stuck on Maxwell Volume 3, “Adapt and Overcome“.  I just couldn’t make it work, and my creative stream had dwindled to a trickle.  In sheer frustration, I sat down one day and decided to write whatever came into my head – a stream-of-consciousness pantser effort that was completely unplanned and unforeseen.  To my astonishment, thirty days later, I completed “War to the Knife“, the first volume of my Laredo Trilogy.  I had no idea where it had come from (although it drew heavily on parts of my own military background).  It was written out of frustration, and somehow it worked.

I decided to try the same thing again.  Last week, on Monday, November 27th, I sat down and started writing with no idea at all what I wanted to say.  I’d just had enough of being blocked!  Well, would you believe it?  Lightning can strike twice in the same place!  I’m currently almost 50,000 words into what looks like it’ll be the first book in another mil-SF trilogy.  It’s flowing like mad, characters and situations and events keep popping up all over my fictional landscape, and I’m haring after them shouting “Stop!  Where did you come from?  Who are you, and what are you doing in my story?  Come back with that plot line!”  I’m having a lot of fun, and for once, I’m able to write through the pain (which is no less than usual).  I suspect someone up there may have decided I needed a distraction.

Despite the pain and other problems, I remain grateful for my blessings. They are many. There are many people who’ve suffered injuries similar to mine, who are now in wheelchairs or bed-bound. I’ve been spared that, and by God’s grace and hard work, I’ll stay on my feet as long as I can. I have an income, albeit currently a rather reduced one, from my writing.  I have a wife whom I love, and who loves me.  She has a job that brings in enough money (allied to my disability and writing income) to pay our bills, cope with emergencies, and plan to pay off our house in a decade, instead of the 15-year mortgage for which we contracted.  We’re in a part of the world where the weather is generally good.  We have friends for whom we’re extremely grateful, some in the same town, others within a few hours’ drive, others several days’ travel from here – but all of them are important to us. We’ve helped to build up a small support network where a number of writers help each other, creatively and otherwise.

There’s so much to be thankful for that I simply refuse to be negative.  Every time I find myself hurting too much, or blocked creatively, or moping about something in my life that could be better, I remind myself that things could be a whole lot worse.  There’s always something, somewhere, for which I can give thanks.  I highly recommend that approach to you, if you’re struggling with life, the universe and everything.  Don’t give up – give thanks.  Be grateful for all the good in your life.

  • If you can’t think of much good to be thankful for, start with your next meal – because right now, in large parts of the Third World, people are dying of hunger.  I know they are.  I’ve traveled there, and seen it for myself at first hand.
  • If that’s not enough, give thanks that you’re not addicted to harmful drugs, shooting yourself up in back alleys, facing an early death through fentanyl-laced heroin or assault from another addict or pusher.
  • Give thanks for positives just as much as negatives.  You have friends?  Be grateful for them.  You have a partner or significant other?  Be glad.
  • Turn around the negatives. You’re not getting out of your job/marriage/writing what you expect or want?  Then ask yourself, “What am I putting into my job/marriage/writing?”  The Biblical injunctions, “As you sow, so shall you reap” and “By their fruits you will know them” aren’t just pious platitudes.  They’re recipes for life… so, what are we sowing, much less reaping?  What fruits are we producing?  If they’re bad or negative, whose choice, whose fault is that, if not our own?

Don’t let the bad times, or the problems of a writing life, or the ups and downs of the world, get you down.  They’re normal.  They’ll be with us until we die.  Instead, be their master, not their slave.  Things could always be worse – so why not choose to make them better instead?

(If worse comes to worst, remember the sage advice of the old-timers in South Africa when I was growing up.  “Is the bottom falling out of your world?  Take a laxative – then the world will fall out of your bottom!”)

  1. John W. Cunningham #

    A very heartening post, Peter! I’m 72 ad in a state of decrepitude, between old fractures, and rising arthritis. I had to stop backpacking 10 years ago, biking 7 years ago, and kayaking 3 years ago. I was. In a head-on crash w I th a drunk driver 2 weeks ago that could easily have killed me. I “lucked out” with 11 broken ribs and a cracked sternum. Major pain but I’m very grateful to be alive. For me now, every day I wake up is Thanksgiving Day!!

    December 8, 2017
  2. I also experience chronic pain, and it cost me my career as well.
    Today, about all I can do is walk, and that’s been enough to effect a great change. I have my last cane hanging on the wall, where I put it on January 29, 2017, with a note celebrating my choice attached to it by a strip of duct tape.
    Just moving around at all was a change for me. I tried to add some light weights to the routine, but my elbow won’t have it.
    I have a friend who is a fellow chronic pain endurer, and on the days when it gets really bad, I know I can drop her a note saying I’m having a really rough day, and that she will understand.
    It’s amazing what that does for me!
    And I found ‘Walls, Wire, Bars, and Souls’ to be a deeply moving read, which refused to fall into the trap of ‘let us only be nice to prisoners, and they can all go free.’

    December 8, 2017
    • Draven #

      and I’m another chronic pain endurer, Peter’s description (we waved as we went by, really, Peter!) was about mine. I feel for anyone else in the same situation and understand wanting to do better. Sometimes i just want a pain-free day.

      December 8, 2017
  3. thephantom182 #

    Peter, congrats on the great progress beating your problems. That is hard core.

    A lot of people have been reporting good results here in Canada with medical marijuana as a substitute for opiates and other pain killers. If it can be had legally in your area, might be worth looking into. Some versions have no psychoactive effects. With a physician’s oversight it might forward your progress. Not all physicians are created equal in this regard, fair warning.

    You said: “It’s flowing like mad, characters and situations and events keep popping up all over my fictional landscape, and I’m haring after them shouting “Stop! Where did you come from? Who are you, and what are you doing in my story? Come back with that plot line!”

    Oh yeah. I got nowhere with my first story for twenty years. One day a friend told me “you have to finish this, right now!” so I did. Characters stopped following my carefully laid out plan and started doing whatever the hell they wanted. Mostly get laid. So I let them. And quickly learned what parts to keep off-stage. Now new people waltz in to the story, other people get their happily-ever-after and retire, I have no idea what’s going on.

    December 8, 2017
    • There is some hinky stuff going on in the States with medical marijuana. Recently, for example, the Honolulu Police ordered all medical marijuana users who were also holders of a firearms permit to turn in their guns. That order has been suspended for review, I believe, but gun people here are urged to be wary.

      December 8, 2017
      • thephantom182 #

        I saw that Honolulu thing, very police state. I expect things like that, I’m a Canadian. Canada pulls that sort of crap all the time. Monthly.

        Something else I saw last year, the VA has been declaring vets unfit and having the cops collect their firearms for a wide variety of reasons, often no reason at all.

        Eyes open, my friends.

        December 8, 2017
      • Peter B #

        This comment is in two parts, one in response to Pat Patterson about marijuana, and one a more general response to the OP.

        I. Cannabidiol (CBD) products made from hemp strains genetically unsuited to produce tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) are legally available in all states.

        The law in this is… interesting. Take a plant product containing, say, 10% THC and 70% CBD plus a bunch of other components. It’s a schedule I drug. It’s illegal under federal law, though can be permitted under state law in states which allow the sale of medical (and now recreational) marijuana. Extract and refine it to the point where you have 0.5% TCH and 90% CBD; it’s still a Schedule I drug.

        Take another plant product from a strain which only produces trace amounts of THC (I think the standard is <0.5% in the raw material.) Extract it and refine it to the point where you now have 0.5% THC and 90% CBD… It's NOT a Schedule I drug, and can be freely sold in ordinary retail channels. For a company to document all of the above and produce products that meet label claims for potency isn't easy and at this point there's only one that I know of that's doing it well.

        Unfortunately, the clinical experience seems to suggest that CBD without more than 0.5% THC isn't as effective, though it does work very well for some people.
        Doses starting at 15 mg/day of CBD might well be worth a try, and I've heard of people able to reduce their doses of other pain meds to more manageable levels with that or higher doses. CBD is not hallucinogenic and while it seems to help in anxiety (especially when accompanied by 1-10% TCH – and all the associated legal issues) it's not very psychoactive otherwise.

        II. As with some of the other comments, I've been dealing with increasing disability and chronic pain for many years (ankylosing spondylitis, an autoimmune arthritis primarily involving the spine, but with extraspinal arthritis as well.) I had a very difficult decade which parallels some of Peter Grant's experience. The image that kept coming to me was that the ceiling above me had been gradually descending. At first I had just had less and less headroom, and now it was beginning to compress and crush me.

        I distinctly remember a turning point. I thought "I've been trying to cure this thing and haven't succeeded. But considering my diagnosis I'm still better off than a lot of other people."

        I then thought: "OK. Maybe I'll never be free of pain. But maybe I can have more function for the same amount of pain. My ability to function will decline with age anyway, it just hit me a lot younger than it does most people." I too began to experiment with strength training, and I too have seen real benefit. It's a constant struggle, there are definitely setbacks (though as I get more experience with training, they are fewer and less severe,) but with consistent effort the ceiling has lifted. I have a lot more headroom.

        Athletic training is a neurological AND a muscular AND an endocrine process, and recovery is critical. It is physiologically stressful. In the right dose, you get stronger and fitter. If you do more than you can recover from in a timely manner, you've just had a setback. A key concept for those who have used their bodies hard is that with injury and age, we may need to redefine "athletic." If all you can do is get up out of your chair and walk across the room and back and it takes you two minutes to do that, pushing yourself to do it in one minute and fifty seconds may well be a real athletic feat.

        Key concepts from the strength training world are progressions and regressions. Progressions are stepwise sequences by which we develop the strength and skill to accomplish a movement which was previously not possible for us.

        Regressions are an approach for dealing with overreach and previously undiscovered weak links: "Oh, crap. When I get out of my chair and walk across the room in 1' 50" I have to spend the next three days in bed. What happens if I get out of my chair, go a little slower than the two minute pace – and then rest until my heartrate is back to 60% of my maximum heart rate, and then get up and go halfway across the room at the same pace and then go back and sit down?"

        There is life and hope in "what happens if…?" With "what happens if" you are actively engaged in your own life. In my experience "what happens if…?" is a much easier thought to think if you have the attitude of gratitude.

        December 8, 2017
        • My husband has been managing chronic pain with CBD oil. On the one hand, he still hurts a lot of the time. On the other, he’s not moving like it, and he’s actually acting like he has mental space to spare for things other than hurting. And he’s not taking megadoses of ibuprofen and other NSAIDs (that weren’t working.) So—yeah. It can be a big improvement.

          December 12, 2017
      • Draven #

        Pat, its not hinky stuff. CA does it as a matter of course, if you come out of a dispensary and they check your MM card, they run it on their computer, which tells them that you own a handgun (yes, it always does, even for traffic stops) and then they book you for having a firearm and marijuana. They will usually drop the charges …

        if you surrender all your firearms.

        And they mark you as ineligible to own a firearm.

        Also, this is why the 4473 was changed to remind people that it is still illegal.

        December 8, 2017
  4. paladin3001 #


    December 8, 2017
  5. You’re probably as tired of hearing this as I am of saying it, but…

    GET YOUR DAMN THYROID CHECKED (this should be done annually after age 50 regardless). *FULL* workup with ALL the tests (including thyroid antibodies), not just the worthless-by-itself TSH test. T3 needs to be in the upper third of the “normal” range, or you WILL have metabolic problems, including intractable weight gain, radically increased risk of heart disease (excess weight is the symptom, NOT the cause), and poor healing of day-to-day wear-and-tear leading to more pain than an old injury would warrant (due to poor protein metabolism. Often treating with natural desiccated thyroid instead of or in addition to synthetic levothyroxin will effect an astonishing ‘cure’ of old injuries, because they finally HEAL at the micro level.)

    And if that’s okay, or if positive for thyroid antibodies, GET A PARATHYROID TEST. Hyperparathyroidism is [as evidenced by recent research that found a 100% correlation] end-stage hypothyroidism following the decline into Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (hence the identical symptom array, except for blood calcium, but both cause calcium robbing — just at opposite ends of the cycle) and if a parathyroid tumor [benign but eventually lethal] has developed, will NOT normalize when thyroid is fixed (or if the thyroid recovers by itself, as happens sometimes). See for diagnosis/treatment info (any doctor not following their procedure is still in the dark ages).

    Exercise helps a little because it stimulates the thyroid, but it will NOT cure the problem, especially age-related decline in ability to convert T4 to T3.

    Get the soy (including vegetable oil) and flaxseed OUT of your diet; both have extremely high phytoestrogen content (flax has 3x as much as soy!), and it is a thyroid inhibitor. Use iodized salt so you get enough iodine for thyroid function, but do NOT eat kelp or other “iodine supplements” (too much iodine can actually destroy your thyroid).

    Brain fog and depression are commonly due to the hypothyroid brain literally starving for glucose (low thyroid messes up insulin). That’s also why carbs and sweets become “comfort food”.

    I can’t emphasize this enough. Thyroid affects EVERYTHING; probably half of all chronic conditions, most of the “symptoms of aging”, and ALL of the health issues associated with obesity are due to low thyroid (or its evil spawn, excess parathyroid, but it’s really all one problem). A full workup should be the FIRST line of attack for any chronic condition, including those due to “age”, not (as usual) the last resort. There’s a huge body of research on this, but 99.999% of it has not filtered down to general practice, and I’ve been astonished to discover that most hasn’t even made it to endocrinologists. (Cripes, the Journal of Endocrinology isn’t THAT heavy of reading…)

    Incidentally, an article by a cardiologist noted that 50% of fatal cardiac incidents proved at autopsy to have low T3 at the tissue level (it even has a name: death by “flabby heart syndrome”) but also pointed out that this will never be properly researched, because you can’t ethically fail to treat the underlying thyroid problem just so you can look at fatal heart attacks.

    December 8, 2017
  6. I’ve had a series of mild Life events affecting productivity as well as fitness the past two months. Like Peter, I gave in to an idea and have a really strange pre-historic fantasy novel unfolding. This in turn shook loose the WIP [Muse: yes, you MUST include the destruction of the Tang aristocracy or ELSE!!!!!] and kicked another problem into colliding with a solution. And pushed me to get off my duff and get back to exercising and cutting down the carbs. We’ll just ignore the mashed potatoes at last night’s party.

    December 8, 2017
    • Orange you going to replace the Tang with something juicier?

      December 8, 2017
      • Not exactly. Unless you count a two-dragon Boss Fight in the last chapter juicier. Messier, I’ll grant that.

        December 8, 2017
  7. I understand and empathize.

    All I can offer is: One day at a time.

    December 8, 2017
  8. Good work, Peter. Keep plugging and thank you for the inspiration.

    December 8, 2017
  9. Yep, one day at a time… That is the best we can do.

    December 8, 2017
  10. I wept that I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.

    Second day of a nasty cold, and woke up to a spastic back this morning. Thank you, sir, for putting those minor ailments into proper perspective.

    December 8, 2017
  11. Migraines. Back injury, knee, and hip joint (different legs). Kindey stones. Joint damage in other places. Heh. And a few other things that might kill me yet, any day now. Pain is distracting, when you want, or need, to be focusing on other things. Ignoring that distraction is hard.

    Keep doing as you are, sir. I’ll enjoy the next book, whenever it comes out, whichever it is- and I’ll like as not be telling my friends to pick it up for their own selves as well. Long as I have eyes to read with, ears to hear, or the touch to feel the braille if it comes to that. *chuckle*

    In another age, I’d like as not be dead by now. Medical care has grown beyond anything I might have imagined in my youth, and folks are having better quality of life for longer than ever before. We are all of is blessed in many ways, not least of which is the company of the sort of people one can respect. Believe me, I appreciate that more than I’ve words to express!

    December 8, 2017
  12. Draven #

    Any chance you’re going to LibertyCon?

    Can we get a headcount?

    December 8, 2017
    • Yes, my wife and I will be there, God willing.

      December 8, 2017
  13. Larry #

    I suffer from chronic, sometimes very frequent and severe migraines, but other than Type 2 diabetes and bouts of severe depression, I’ve no experience daily, long-term pain of the sort you must live with. That said, I agree with your weight-training coaches. Not all weight is equal! You will be far better off building muscle more quickly and not losing much if any weight at first. But each extra pound of muscle combined with the right diet will be burning off fat, and you will reach a point where overall weight will suddenly start dropping significantly. It’s not so much overall weight as the proportion of muscle weight to fat weight. A 300-lb powerlifter is far healthier than a 300-lb blob, so overall weight really is not the issue. Obviously you’re not aiming to become a powerlifter, Peter, but the more muscle you have, the faster the unhealthy excess fat will come off. So I would encourage you to double-check your strategy.

    December 9, 2017
    • Larry #

      And sorry that’s not better said, but that was would’ve been the first draft, but written on a phone. Hope it makes sense, anyway. I’m a fan, a buyer of your books, but not a good book reviewer except for grades. And I never expect anything of good authors except that they will publish when they’re damned well ready to publish — and I’ll be sorry, otherwise!

      December 9, 2017
  14. Well said words. Empathize with you for different reasons. Take good care of yourself.

    December 9, 2017

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