AAW-Wenchly Secrets for Holiday De-Stressing!

Christmas treeAndrea here, This month our AAW question has to do with stress and the holidays—something I think we all can relate to! So the Wenches are sharing their secrets for dealing with this universal question: With all the hustle and bustle of the holidays, things can sometimes get overwhelming, What do you do to de-stress? Any special ritual or routine that recharges and relaxes? Read on for the answers!

HakeaLaurina1Anne: The holidays here come in summer, so it's important to keep cool as well as stay cool. We don't have Thanksgiving in Australia, only Christmas and New Year, but December is the end of the school and university academic year and the beginning of most people's annual holidays, so there are lots of "end-of-year" events and celebrations. Four weeks annual leave is standard here and many people head for the beach. So between finishing up school, the frenzy of Christmas shopping, closely followed by the new year sales, and trying to balance family commitments with packing for the holidays, it can get a bit hectic. I make sure I schedule time for me. I like to retreat to the garden with a long cool drink and a book, and just sit and read and listen to the birds.  I'd rather say no to a few things and have some quiet time in between. Makes for a happier me, which in turns makes me a more pleasant guest or hostess.


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Ask A Wench–Difficult Books

AAWGraphicPat here with our Ask A Wench for July. Liz Veronis asked: Which was the most difficult of your books to write, because of emotional investment, time demands, editor problems, etc.?
For her insightful question, she wins a copy of one of my books.

From Susan King:
Oh, the difficult books! They're like kids (or cats, dogs, or whatever!) that sometimes need more than the other kids, and you love them all the same. Sometimes it's the story itself if the elements aren't fitting together as neatly as hoped, and sometimes it's outside circumstances that make that book-mountain a little steeper to climb.

One of my biggest challenges was getting past outside obstacles while writing a book that was going very well. When deep in the research and writing of The Stone Maiden, loving the story of my stone-carving Scottish heroine and her English knight, I suddenly needed major surgery with a few weeks to deadline. I set the work aside, got through the hospital stuff and got back to work as fast as I could, with dragging energy and an extended deadline. A couple of weeks later, one of my sisters died Lady Macbeth paperback cover - Copyunexpectedly–I had another hurdle to clear, and no more extensions available. So I shelved the grief best I could and finished the book. I think Stone Maiden was a better, stronger, richer book for the experiences that I went through during its creation.

I'll admit that Lady Macbeth was no picnic to write either — a bigger book than I had ever done, with more demands on me as a writer, a researcher, a historian. But that's the sort of challenge I love, and I was plowing through like a pig in mud…until editorial committee decided their hardcovers that year should be shorter for marketing reasons. Suddenly my nearly complete manuscript of 134,000 words had to come in at around 100,000. Chunks of the story went flying — really I went after adverbs first and weeded through to preserve the story. Yet whole scenes had to go, so if here and there the story takes a bit of a jump — that's probably why! … Lady Macbeth did live up to her reputation as a little bit difficult to deal with…but I love her anyway.  —-

From Mary Jo:

Most difficult book to write?  I can’t come up with just one, because there are different ways for a book to be difficult.  (All books are difficult; some are just more difficult!)
My top three list would include Veils of Silk, which is the longest book I ever wrote, with two tortured characters, and a vast, sweeping plot that included much adventure, several cultures, and subplots galore as my protagonists end up trying to stop an Afghan invasion of India.  Plus, I was late delivering the book and writing in a white hot fever as I tried to reach the end of the !#$%^&! book.  When I delivered, my editor thought it was basically okay, but something was off, and she didn’t know what. 
Nowherenearrespectable150Not a lot of help there!  But a friend of mine who later became an editor read through and said the problem was pacing.  She helped me figure out how to tighten the book, which was a very fine skill to acquire.
Also on my “difficult” list would be my first contemporary, The Burning Point.  I had to figure out how to write in a modern setting and develop a contemporary voice.  (Less description, more dialogue, among other things.)  A first book in a new genre is always a learning experience, but never more than here.  Ultimately, I did find out how to do it, but there were also editor problems that resulted in the book being pulled and later sold elsewhere.  
There are plenty of contenders for the third spot: Nowhere Near Respectable, in which I reached the middle and realized that the set-up totally would not work for the last half of the book. 
Or Dark Mirror, which was another example of the challenges of being the first book in a new genre. 
Or Dark Destiny, out just this month.  As my third YA, I had sort of figured out the voice, but the cascade of deadlines caused by taking on too many books meant that I had a flat three months to write the whole book.  I know people for whom that speed is normal, but me?  No way! 
None the less, the book was completed and delivered about ten seconds before the clock struck midnight, after which I felt like road kill for weeks. <g>  (Moral: do not agree to write books faster than you can write!)
Interesting, some of my books with the most difficult issues for the characters have turned out to be easier to write.  I guess the narrative power of the problems drove the book quickly.
As for the book I’m working on now, Sometimes a Rogue—is it a difficult one?  I’ll let you know!
From Anne:

The books I've had most difficulty writing are the ones I was trying to write while my elderly Bride by mistakeparents were sick or dying — a slow decline, rather than a short, dramatic illness. That kind of stress seems to affect me in one of two ways: either I go dark and intense in the writing, or I go fun and light — pure escapism. I've also been late with several books for family reasons, but my editor has always been supportive. Strangely enough, nobody ever seems to be able to pick the books I've had most trouble writing, which is a relief.
From Nicola:

I've had difficulties with different books for different reasons. My second book, The Virtuous Cyprian, had editorial problems - my then editor took it from me before I was happy with it and I never had the chance to revise it to my Desiredsatisfaction. I found that very difficult. I also find it hard to write when under stress. Some people find that they can escape into writing from other problems that are going on in their lives and whilst I've occasionally been able to do this, most frequently I find that the stress weighs my writing down so that each word feels as though it's been dragged from treacle. I've had quite a few treacle books over the past few years as a result of family illness and other problems. Then there are deadlines. Sometimes a deadline focuses my mind and I become quite prolific; at other times it paralyses me. The most difficult book from that point of view was Mistress by Midnight. I re-wrote it three times because I simply could not get it right and the clock was ticking and I was awake all night panicking about it whilst my editor was ringing me whilst on holiday to try and help! As long as the problems don't show too much in the final book then I'm happy.

From Jo Beverley:

Back around 1990, when I was a new author, I hit a health problem. It started  vaguely and then turned into panic attacks. Having often been accused of being too phlegmatic, this was new, but I put it down to hyperglycemia, and some  instant sugar did seem to help.  

But then I got agoraphobia — the word means a terror of open spaces. If I walked more than a block from my house I would get a full-blown panic attack,  and if you've never had one the main symptom is Scandalous countessthe heart racing at a speed  that no heart should race. Once I turned back toward home, it settled down.

I  thought I was going crazy, and my doctor was beginning to talk about Valium.  Later I realized this was my body screaming, "You're anemic. Your stores of  iron are critically low. Get in trouble that involves bleeding and you will die. Go home, sit in a safe chair and do nothing."  The anemia was due to very heavy periods, by the way, a not uncommon thing as we approach menopause.

Iron supplements sorted it out, but over quite a few  months. The key factor here was not the iron in my blood, which stayed within  acceptable levels through most of this, but my back-up store of iron, which is measured by a blood test for ferritin levels. For some reason doctors rarely do  this test, but it was my ferritin stores that were going down and down until I  had virtually no reserves to call on. Please, if you or anyone you know is  having panic attacks, get the ferritin checked. I try to spread the word on  this, and it's helped a lot of people. 

This problem came on and worked out over the best part of a year, and I was  trying to write The Fortune Hunter then. My problems didn't prevent me from  sitting down to write, but I knew the book wasn't going well. Later, when I was  better and sat to it again I realized how very tired most of the characters  were most of the time!" 

From Joanna Bourne:

The hardest book for me is always the one I'm working on.  And the highest hurdle to overcome is myself.  I'm my own worst critic.  Nothing ever seems right and the further I get into the manuscript the more impossible it seems.
About the middle of writing a story, it's like being inside of some mad labyrinth with no way out and nothing makes sense.

What keeps me going is the characters.  I hate to let them down.  They really deserve to have their story told.


And back to me:

Like Nicola, I can stress over deadlines, so I try to write well ahead of any possible disasters and life interferences. So when I was scheduled for major surgery, I calmly finished the  draft before I went into the hospital and actually enjoyed starting a new book right after. I know, I’m warped. I lost my mother to cancer, but there was nothing sudden about it. I had no choice but to keep writing over all those years. PatRice_TheEnglishHeiress_200pxAnd when she decided she didn’t want to live any longer and quit taking her medication, I was on a huge book tour with half a dozen people. The book had been drafted on schedule, but the last of that tour was a blur. That might have been the one book that wasn’t turned in until the last minute because it was impossible to focus on editing.

So my difficult books are caused mostly by me, and me alone. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, The English Heiress took me a dozen years to edit, revise, and patch together from corrupted disks and old files and yellowing pages because it sat around too long on an editor’s desk and romance had undergone a sea change before it came back to me. The original version was a fascinating mish-mash of Regency and old style historical and a comedy of errors, so I’m rather glad I had the opportunity to make it fresh with the wisdom I hope I’ve gained over the years.

How about you, do you act or react to the hardships in your life? How prepared are you for an interruption in your regularly scheduled routine?

Three Good Things Revisited

Cat_243_dover_23 by Mary Jo   

I've invoking the Wench Classic Clause today.  Partly that's because I'm insanely trying to finish a book so I can transfer the burden from my computer to that of my YA editor.  But also, I wrote this blog four years again and it ran just before Christmas in 2006, so it seemed like a good topic to revisit.  So here goes!

There’s lots of warm fuzzy sentiment in the air just now, most of it generated by the multiple holidays at this season.  (Happy Winter Solstice to everyone!)  There’s lots of gatherings with family and friends, often presents and parties, and waaaaaaay too much unhealthy but delicious food and drink on offer. 


It’s a good season—but for many of us, stress levels are off the scale.  I had my hair done today, and my lovely and efficient hair stylist was dealing with the considerable demands of being a business owner, wife, mother, grandmother, serious church volunteer, providing refreshments for clients and a holiday meal for her staff.  She was two clients behind when she finished me, and it was still morning. Part of this was because a long time client had to be squeezed in because of a death in the family.  My stylist will survive and even enjoy the holidays, but relaxed?  Not hardly!

And there are worse stresses, like the client who had just lost her nephew.  Like the writer friend who posted that her family has just found out that her son-in-law’s return from Afghanistan has been moved further away—and his unit will redeploy there after six months back in the States.   

Holiday tensions in general:

Even with less dramatic circumstances, holidays can be a letdown that don’t live up to our hopes and expectations.  Our nearest and dearest can get on our nerves, and family relationships that are already tense can go into meltdown.  Not to mention the traditional arguments about whose family to visit, and the conflicts in mixed religion households.

Accentuating the positive: 

So I’m here to offer, if not a cure, at least a palliative.  <G>  Jo recently mentioned a study she’d read about that showed that even pessimistic people started feeling happier if they did exercises that required them to write down  positive things in Xmas candle their lives–events and people they were grateful for. Times when they felt good about themselves.  Consciously appreciating and thinking positive even raised their happiness scale six months down the road.

Three good things:

A simple form of this exercise is to relax and think of three good things that happened to you today.  Maybe you can do it when you go to bed, rather than thinking of all the stuff that needs to be done tomorrow.  Only three good things. 

Some examples.

1) Two days ago, I got around to hanging my bird feeder, and all of a sudden I have beautiful birds munching seeds a foot and a half from my dining room window.  This morning I glanced out the next window, and there in the midst of lush rhododendron greenery was a brilliant red cardinal, less than five feet away from me and looking like a Christmas card as he waited patiently for his turn.

Cardinal Actually, maybe he wasn’t patient, maybe he was plotting a hostile takeover of the birdfeeder and a terrorization of finches, but he sure looked pretty!  Often we get too busy to appreciate nature, but even a single image like this can leave me smiling.  Look for nature, and enjoy it. 

Charlottes_web 2) Another good thing: while on the way to my hairdresser, I tuned to a radio show where a woman called in on a rather scratchy cell phone to say that she was a teacher taking her students into Gettysburg to see Charlotte’s Web, and could the DJ play something the kids could sing to?  His voice warm, he said, “Of course!”  Within seconds, the first notes of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were sounding through my car.  The thought of a whole busload of little kids happily singing along put another smile on my Xmas_rudolph face.

3) After I left the hair salon, looking as spiffy as I’m capable of <g>, I had a holiday lunch with a friend.  Most of the restaurants around were jam packed with people doing the same, and offices having holiday parties, so we ended up in a new little Italian restaurant I’d never seen before.  Good food, good company, a good time.

I could go on—lots more than three good things happened today.  (Along with a few not so good, but we won’t go there. <g>)  But thinking of the good stuff makes me feel lighter and happier.

What are your good things for the day

Xmas cat  So that’s your assignment for the holiday.  Think of three good things every day.  Maybe more.  Perhaps that will lift your mood, relieve some stress, and make the holidays—and regular days—easier and more enjoyable. 

And yes, you can count a perfect piece of chocolate as A Very Good Thing!  What good things have happened to you that you'd like to share?

Mary Jo