Fear was always the biggest challenge.
I keep a Fear Journal. Every time I can’t write fiction, I process the feeling by figuring out which of the fears are getting in my way today.
Up until I got a chronic disease, I worked for and trained to be a research physicist, a job I was executing at the Princeton U. Plasma Physics Lab. I had planned to write fiction when I retired—mysteries.
Even while ill, I was able to begin the required learning, and to write a whole mystery novel set (of course) in the physics world, with a young Mexican American woman engineer as my detective. That was relatively safe in terms of the exposure a writer feels when creating characters and stories.
But when the mainstream trilogy I’m writing was vouchsafed to me, complete, in 2000, and I realized I would have to kick my writing ability up many levels to do it justice, the fear of not being up to the task became omnipresent.
Steven Pressfield identifies this as Resistance, and provides tools in his books on writing to help you manage it, but I found the best tool was to write about the fear, the Resistance, the obstacle in my path.
Writing Myself Out of Fear
Over time, I found that I could write myself out of the fear(s) of the day by being honest to myself about what it was each time.
The Fear needed to be acknowledged, validated, but it yielded to either realizing it was exaggerated, or to being used to identify something I needed to learn before proceeding.
And over time I realized the fears I wrote in the Journal were getting rather repetitive, and I could get through the process much more quickly: but it has always required the acknowledgment that it is legitimate.
I need to do this rarely now, because I got over Impostor Syndrome by doing the work, putting in the hours, identifying the source of the writing problems, and dealing with them.
It’s taken me twenty-five years.
The fear is always right: there is something I haven’t addressed, something I need to learn, something wrong. It can be crippling to progress when I don’t have the energy to do the required digging, stopping me for days. The work is arduous and time-consuming. But the results are always stunning.
I have learned to not fear Fear.
Knowing I Had Lost Everything I Needed to be Able to Do My Job Was Terrifying
As a writer, my biggest physical and mental challenge is the inconvenient fact that I have ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), and have had it for over thirty years, since that Annual Meeting of the Division of Plasma Physics of the American Physical Society where I picked up something, came home with a raging fever, and never did physics again because I can’t.
Having no energy, no stamina, and not even being able to drive to work without having to take a nap on arrival; not being able to stay coherent in meetings; being unable to contribute to the Lab’s work; trying to do high level computational physics with brain fog; and knowing I had lost everything I needed to be able to do my job was terrifying.
I had two small children, and another on the way. I was doing the dance all working mothers do, and then I couldn’t. Short term disability and rest did nothing to solve the problem, and I had to abandon the plan for a lifetime, which up until then had its wobbles, but was on track. And the contribution I had planned to our family and our finances suddenly became impossible. If it hadn’t been for the University’s long-term disability insurance, we wouldn’t even have stayed middle-class.
With Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, All You Can Do Is Adapt
ME/CFS is crippling because there’s nothing you can do to make things better. You can’t “work your way back to health.” You can’t exercise. You have difficulties with every thing you used to manage, because you’re now trying to do it with 5-10% of the previous energy.
All you can do is adapt, learning pacing and staying in your energy envelope—because there won’t be more. Ever. You can’t catch up. Every day you get further behind. Even when you drop every possible item from your to do list, you can’t do it.
Even with me at home, the stress on the family was tremendous, and increasing, because three young children is a huge load for a healthy mother.
I came up with an accidental and creative solution: I homeschooled the kids. My husband took a leap of faith. We managed in a couple of hours a day to do anything educationally challenging. My energy did NOT go to supporting a school, a lunchroom, homework and paperwork and lunch and bus and teacher conferences and the annual bake sale.
At home we had books supplemented by a trip to the public library in Hamilton, NJ, every two weeks to come home with a hundred books. We went to the children’s room when no one else was there, became well known to the librarians, read. Mommy could handle English and math and physics at that level; the local community college eventually supplied chemistry and physics and labs.
A nanny came every day at first for three hours, and asked, “What do you need me to do today?” Laundry. Kitchen. Take the youngest two to the park. Read to them. Bathe one. Best investment we ever made: help.
The Whole of the Novel Came to Me as a Complete Story
And when they were old enough for dad to handle three by himself, I looked for the next creative solution: a course at our local community college on “Writing the Mystery Novel.”
Eight Monday evening sessions with Mary Elizabeth Allen, who told us we were adults and didn’t have to do the homework, but if we did, we’d end with a complete outline for a mystery, characters, and the first chapter, and she’d critique our work in class.
I did the homework somehow.
Bits of time added up. The mystery used a lot of both my graduate school days (for a setting and a mystery and our dead body) and my upbringing in Mexico City from 7 to 19. I tried the submission route, got actual hand-written notes from agents: “Not for us, but send us your next one,” figured it’d eventually find a home.
And then several threads coalesced in my brain: my illness, a blockbuster movie I almost didn’t go see, and the common fascination with the question of “How do famous people sometimes meet and marry common people” and “how does that marriage of very different people work?”
And I had the whole of Pride’s Children come to me as a complete story, from beginning to end, and I couldn’t put it down. The mystery series would have to wait (that was 2000; it’s still waiting).
I Now Understand Only I Could Write This Story
I USED what I had. And I realized that I had to make the very improbable real. Added to that, I discovered it’s common to have a disability in a character, but how that’s handled has many dead ends. Literally.
The character dies, freeing up their caretakers for a normal life. They tidy themself away via suicide so as not to keep affecting the normals. They are a minor character. They are a plot device. But very rarely are they a main character, and if they are, very rarely are they allowed the same hopes and dreams as healthy people, and they even more rarely are allowed to achieve their goals. To win.
I have plenty of data on the physical and mental symptoms of the character I created (no, she’s not me). But there was so much more to learn about everything from writing a Revolutionary War battle to how to make a villain believable.
I published the first volume of the trilogy after fifteen years, in 2015. I’m half-way through the second volume of what will eventually be a half-million word trilogy (about as long as Gone with the Wind). And I understand only I could write this one, and I want it finished.
It gets me through the days when the body won’t, or the mind doesn’t. I’m in that writing retirement now, still trying to write every day, still fighting to use my brain.
Writing is What Keeps Me Sane
Nothing medical has helped with the illness over the years, but I have learned to get the best I can out of myself, and I don’t worry about the rest. What’s the point?
I do the best I can with daily life, and writing is what keeps me sane, what has given me a measurable goal, something special still. The commitment, the pleasure in the results, the sense that I have been given lemons and am doing the Great British Bakeoff with lemon meringue wedding cake. The shy pleasure in having fans who say things in reviews that make me blush!
Lack of sleep is a problem—I can’t write sleepy. Carbohydrates cause pervasive brain fog and constantly hunger. Liquid B12 extends my functional time a bit, but at a cost.
I’m experimenting with low-dose naltrexone, which doesn’t improve my energy range, but gives me slightly more time at my highest functionality. It’s a delicate balance, upset when I eat anything, and the blood diverts to digestion instead of brain capacity. Those times it’s best to take one of my many naps.
These little tricks are all I have that works after thirty years.
I Won’t Choose Not to Write
Every time I consider NOT writing—something I reevaluate periodically—the answer is both “What would I do with my life?” and “I can’t not write.”
I think about it seriously, especially when the Resistance and the Fear have been getting to me, but the whole thing goes away when I solve the problem that’s bugging me, and it’s back to writing the next scene.
Some day I won’t be able to write, but I won’t choose not to write.
I Get More Reviews with a Personalized Approach to Reviewers
The one thing that has gotten me reviews is a personalized approach to someone who has written other reviews which attract my attention by their intelligence and careful analysis.
It takes a while to investigate enough about someone to consider them a potential reader/reviewer. I have a couple of touchstones beyond their written reviews, such as them liking Jane Eyre or The Thorn Birds, or even them knowing the later Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels of Dorothy L. Sayers, which have embedded one of the most romantic love stories I’ve ever read, starting with Strong Poison, when he saves Harriet Vane from the gallows, and ending with Busman’s Honeymoon.
Since she started him off as a supercilious prig of a monocled Englishman, there was a long way to go! So when I find a reviewer who shares my literary history (which also includes Dune, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and The Lord of the Rings), I take the time and make a case for them to read Pride’s Children Purgatory, and especially value the fulsome reviews from older men on Amazon.
I write mainstream and have learned to design a novel to appeal to both genders, and I’m always delighted when I do.
I’m in several Facebook marketing groups for self-publishers. Occasionally tips work for me, but most require that you publish many books, which I can’t.
My primary competition is literary and contemporary novels from traditional publishers. My target audience is literate readers with strong classics backgrounds. Unfortunately for me, many of them won’t consider self-published novels, preferring to have their reading material vetted by traditional methods.
These readers often buy on Amazon, but don’t use Amazon search algorithms to find books. I haven’t figure out how to reach them yet. I’m working on it—when I have energy; it will be easier when the trilogy is finished and I concentrate on marketing.
Writing Comes First Every Day
I’m lucky here: I’m retired. We moved to a retirement community in California so we don’t worry about a house and garden that were becoming too much; I lost the ability to help much several years ago, but I still miss our gorgeous perennial garden in New Jersey.
Writing comes first, in principle, every day. During the pandemic our opportunities for exercise are limited and available only in the morning, and it has been very difficult to maintain without losing entire writing days because I can’t recover from the energy expenditure.
Before, I could choose to take a dip in the pool in the late afternoon or evening, after the day’s writing was done.
Advice for a Young Writer: Determine Whether You’re a Plotter or a Pantser
I suggest beginners locate themselves on the spectrum between plotting and pantsing.
Plotters need to know the ending—they don’t like losing lots of words on tangents. Pantsers lose interest in the writing when they know the story end; they write to find out where the story is going.
I’m an extreme plotter: for me, the structure is the steel in a skyscraper, and the design for the plumbing and air-conditioning. Once that’s designed, I can build high complex stories because their structure is on solid principles, and I can see the connections for threads, creating and polishing the individual scenes that tell the story.
I write linearly, finished scene by finished scene, because that’s all I can keep in mind at a time. My beta reader provides feedback about anything she doesn’t think works. Scenes are edited and proofread before I move on. I don’t suggest newbies write that way—it can be paralyzing. But I found out the hard way that a plotter trying to learn writing from pantsers is a disaster, so I suggest choosing your teachers and guides by style.
It might have saved me years—and made that mystery need less revision now. My variant of “know thyself” is not trusting someone who says, “This is how to do it,” because odds are they’re not your style.
The other thing I advise new writers is that reading doesn’t make you a writer; you actually have to learn the craft. Read, and read lots of books on writing. Always keep learning new things, and the further they are from your experience, the more reading you may have to do (if that’s how you learn).
Fear tells me I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes—which means I have to go find out. I must have read ten books and countless blog posts when I had to have [my character] Andrew survive and control a bar fight!
Then don’t use all you learned, or you get the dreaded info dumps. Just use what you need to write that bar fight as if you were there, to make your readers feel the same.
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Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt is hard at work on the second novel in the Pride’s Children trilogy, NETHERWORLD, scheduled for publication later this year.
She’s published traditionally in short story. She has devoted the past twenty-some years to learning to write to the standards of the early classics she was steeped in, as she believes that messages in fiction must be surrounded by the utmost in quality entertainment, and that fiction is the most powerful tool we have for slipping through the barriers we put up around our hearts and our minds.
A voracious reader, she had always intended to write fiction, and, now retired, dedicates her whole life – when not spending time with her husband and family – to exploring the concepts of integrity in relationships, and the psychological questions of why people do what they do and make the choices they make, including their life partners.
Pride’s Children: Purgatory: Reclusive ex-physician Kary Ashe transmutes personal tragedy into beloved best-selling novels. Actor Andrew O’Connell revels in the enviable status of leading man, with a reputation for perfectionism, an Irish temper, and broken hearts in his wake. Reigning Hollywood princess Bianca Doyle fears she’s already past her peak, and schemes to cement her position in the pantheon with Andrew as mate.
When Kary appears on a NY talk show to support a cherished cause, and becomes obsessed by fellow guest Andrew, movie star, she thinks she’s safe because she will never see him again. While Bianca, watching the show from far-off LA, is confident she can offer Andrew her own coveted insider rank.
But his next movie is filming near Kary’s Sanctuary, with Bianca as costar. Can Kary risk friendship with this intriguing man? Or will Bianca seduce him and meld her star to his? And will either ultimately satisfy Andrew’s twin lusts for fame and love?
Available on Amazon.