The Writer’s Guide to Staying Sane

The publishing business is already enough to drive a writer crazy, so why should we make things even worse for ourselves?  Here are some sanity-sparing suggestions that I myself am trying to stick to:


Yep, that means you.  Unless you’re checking the effectiveness of a particular promotional tool (in which case you may want to see how the index responds) you really shouldn’t be looking at yourself on Amazon at all.  In particular, avoid looking at the reader reviews of your books.  Some of those readers are nasty, vicious people, and why do you want to torture yourself by reading a lousy review of your latest book?   Sure, you may find a really great review, and that’ll make you feel good … for about an hour.  But a lousy review will leave you feeling miserable for a week.  You wouldn’t volunteer to get your fingernails wrenched off with pliers, would you?  So why let anonymous readers torture you on Amazon?


For the same reason I told you not to look up your own books on Amazon.  Sure, maybe you’ll find a website that says nice things about you.  But you might also find a site that calls you the spawn of Satan.  So don’t even look.  Because ignorance truly is bliss.


Writers are often told to jump at every chance to promote ourselves.  So we accept every invitation to speak at libraries, schools and writers’ conferences.  We’ll travel a thousand a miles, take three days off from our writing, to smile at a gathering and sell only thirty books.  When you’re starting off and still trying to establish your name, these are probably good investments of your time.  But you have to learn when enough is enough.  Don’t let the gigs take over your calendar.  Don’t let them eat too deeply into your writing time.  As Sue Grafton once said to me, “Don’t be a literary slut.” 


Last autumn, I sprained my knee while hiking down a mountain.  For two months I could barely walk, much less hike.  Stuck at home, I got grumpy and flabby.  Then winter set in, and the roads got icy, prolonging my inactivity.  Finally I got fed up with how listless I felt and made one of the best investments of my life: I bought a treadmill.  It sits right here in my office and it’s my new best friend.  First thing in the morning, I turn on National Public Radio, climb onto the treadmill, and take a brisk uphill walk for half an hour.  When I’m done, I feel pumped and ready to dive into my writing.  And I can stop feeling guilty about my sedentary job.


Indulge your hobbies.  Feed your curiosity.  Life isn’t just about meeting deadlines and seeing another one of your books on the stands; life is also about doing and learning cool stuff.  We get about eight decades on this earth.  That seems like a lot of time, but as I get older, I realize how precious little time that really is.  Although I spend most of the year racing to meet my book deadlines, I’m also learning how to read ancient Greek.  I’m trying to read through my copy of Herodotus, which sits on my nightstand.  I’m trying to memorize a Chopin Ballade on the piano.  Probably none of these hobbies will end up being used in a book, but why does everything have to be about the writing?

27 replies
  1. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    This is all very true. I’ve always wondered if I could handle writing full-time, because I don’t really like being cooped up for long periods of time. One of the things I thought of was keeping a part-time job doing something you really LOVE to do. Because you wouldn’t be working for the money, it would be a time (a SET time) when you could just enjoy yourself and enjoy being around others for a time.

    Then again, if you’re on a book-a-year schedule, that might not be an option.

    How long have you been playing the piano? I always thought it would be great to play that or the violin, until I realized I don’t really have one necessary skill… coordination!

    Have you ever thought of doing a clue/scavenger hunt-esque based thriller? You could use your newfound Greek skills for that, I’m sure!

  2. Craig
    Craig says:

    Now, Tess, you know darn well you don’t have to check your Amazon ranking. You have us to do it for you, on an hourly basis when The Bone Garden was released as I recall.

  3. jenny gardiner
    jenny gardiner says:

    Hi Tess! A friend who is also an Amazon-checker (my novel, Sleeping with Ward Cleaver, and her novel, Unpredictable, just debuted this month) told me to read your blog and you are SO right! I needed to be reminded to not make myself crazy about this! Slow and steady wins the race anyhow, right? Control what you can control and what you can’t, then just ignore it!
    (p.s. I am impressed with your pursuits–I am learning Italian, which is great fun!) Thanks for reminding me not to go overboard wit this all!

  4. Gina Black
    Gina Black says:

    Hahahahahaha! I was so ecstatic to discover I *had* an Amazon index. I’m a recent epub who is having trouble getting attention. (I feel like I’m yelling down to a teeming city from the top of a skyscraper and my words are being carried off by the wind.) But the book is available for the Kindle, and joy-of-joy somebody(ies?) did buy it. w00t.

    And yes. You’re right. I’ll stop looking. 🙂

  5. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    LOL, Thanks for this Tess. I think at times we all need a reminder on things we should do and not to take everything so seriously. Luckily (in certain respects) Im not published however I have seen places where its become an “addiction” for an author to keep checking thier Amazon rank, sales figures, reviews etc.

    The advice has been stored and put to one side for the day I do make it into the published world. LOL

  6. Roberto Nogueira
    Roberto Nogueira says:

    Tess, finally you’re doing it, it was about time. One of the most scariest things about getting older is how time slips fast and when you look, ten, fifteen, twenty years went by the drain and you could swear you still feel young at heart, but you’re not the same person anymore.
    So enjoy your life as much as you enjoy your work.

  7. Mary Duncan
    Mary Duncan says:

    Ah, yes, the pursuit of “where do I stand”. It will make you crazy, and the fact that you’re hard pressed to do a damned thing about it tends to make it worse.

    I do agree with you about finding other non-writing hobbies. I wonder why we tend to navigate towards learning another language, though? I opted for Scottish Gàidhlig (Gaelic) only because I could use it in my books. No one else seems to have chosen that dialect, so it mostly falls on my husband’s ears. Poor guy!

    And exercise is all important. ‘Course, with this winter’s snowfall tallies running over 70 inches, shoveling the driveway is about all I tend to do.

    A question for you, since you attend writer’s conferences. Are there any conferences close to Maine that have agents attending? I’d love to pitch my work direct. I feel it might help obtain one of those illusive creatures (an agent).

  8. Cherlyn
    Cherlyn says:

    These are great tips. When my first book came out, I remember constant check Amazon several times a day to see if the numbers changed. Today, I can say I follow all of the tips you listed and highly recommend it, as it DOES lead to a sane and productive writer’s life.

  9. Tess
    Tess says:

    I’ve been playing the piano since I was seven years old – it’s my comfort activity. And trust me, it’s never too late to learn an instrument. I have a friend who picked up the violin at age 45 and he’s a really good fiddler now.

    Mary — There’s a mystery writer’s conference known as “Crime Bake” that’s held near Boston, and I think agents attend that one. But as far as Maine conferences, I’m not sure there are any with agents. Anyone else know?

  10. wendy roberts
    wendy roberts says:

    Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that the reviews, stats and events don’t make you a better writer. Thanks for the reminder!

    Mary, I believe Maine has an active RWA chapter. If you contact them I’m sure they’d know about any and all conferences in the area.

  11. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Hi Tess —

    First I’m dying to know which Ballade – the fourth is my favorite and I was fortunate enough to get some great fingering from a master that makes the Coda almost playable. (I thought you played the violin, not the piano or am I, as usual, confused?)

    Second, when I’m sick of writing, I practice, or as you’ve suggested, get my daily exercise in. (I have a black lab that I walk every day, only skipping if there is lightning or when the wind chill is minus 20.)

    I find when I switch activities, I approach the other activities with a fresh outlook.

    And sometimes I just veg. It’s a great way to recharge.

  12. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    Chopin, eh? And here I was pleased with myself because, since January, I’ve already memorized the first page of Tom Lehrer’s VATICAN RAG 🙂

    Great post, as always, Tess. Thanks for the reminders.

  13. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    Why is it whenever I read your blog I’m reminded of the wise words of my grandmother (please don’t take offense here, none is given.)
    She told me: If at first you don’t succeed, give up and go onto something else. Or: You’ll never know if you don’t try.
    Tess, you’re right. We need to get up off our asses and do something different for a change.
    I tried to play the piano once, but my lip went bad. (joke intended). I have other outside interests in music. For example, I’m the only one that I know that really enjoys banjo music and I think I want to follow that. I’m no hick or hillbilly, but if anyone out there remembers Earl Scruggs, he was a damn good banjo player.
    Another thing…I agree with Lorra. Sometime you just gotta veg. It DOES recharge yourself and gives you the energy to strive ahead. Hold on, Tess, my grandmother wants to talk to me. That’s strange because she’s been dead for 30 years.
    Thanks for the uplift with every blog. You really DO make a difference in each of our lives. We love ya!

  14. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Hi Tess –

    That’s a beautiful piece of music. There are some tricks that help memorization, but to be honest, the older I get, the less comfortable I am playing without the music – I’ve used in the my last three concerts.

    Anyhow, if you are practicing after a long day of writing, I doubt you will be able to memorize it, i.e., know it both by rote and with a high level of intellectual involvement where you’ve really taken the time to analyze each phrase. The brain has to be fresh to do that. Also, since it is long and jam-packed with a bzillion notes, you need to take very small bites.

    I bet you start at the beginning each time you sit down to play too. Alternate that with starting with the end, i.e., the presto con fuoco, then back up to the meno mosso and play through to the opening of the presto, etc. until you work all the way back to the opening. Trust me. This helps.

    The most helpful method I’ve learned not only hones memorization but guarantees that you’ll identify stumbling blocks and stop just glossing over them. You’ll be forced to fix them. It’s called groups and rhythms. Can’t explain the rhythm thing here, but groups I can.

    With groups, always work on a short phrase and always stop on the first note of the next phrase. For example: on the second page at the sempre piu mosso, the notes are grouped in sixes. I would do nine measures and stop on the first notes of measure 10 where the pattern changes.

    Thinking in sixes, you stop at the end of each group. First group: 1 — 234561 — 234561
    Then: 12 — 345612 — 345612
    And so forth until you are stopping on 6.

    This seems very time consuming, but it will force you to concentrate, really get deep into the music and then you will not only memorize it and refine the phrases, you will really, really KNOW the music in an intellectual sense. Knowing it in an intellectual sense is your only guarantee of not going unconscious from fright if you ever play in public. (Having the music on the stand helps too.)

    I can’t believe I’m writing this on your blog. It makes me tired just to think about it.

    One last word of advice: you can’t learn an entire ballade in a few weeks (unless, of course, your name is Vladmir – and for all I know you are that good.) Think months, possibly a year to really refine it, especially with your writing/promoting schedule – not to mention small things like eating and sleeping.

    Feel free to delete this for being an idiotic, long-winded comment. I get excited when I talk about music.

  15. Marissa Scott
    Marissa Scott says:

    I totally agree with ALL of what you said. I have a friend who is constantly checking her stats on Amazon… she even knows the exact time Amazon and B&N update their stats. She also Googles herself frequently. I find myself saying, “Step away from the computer. It must not be used for evil. It must not be used for anything other than writing.” 🙂

  16. Tess
    Tess says:

    I’m definitely saving what you’ve written about musical memorization! Right now I’m focusing on the difficult spots and trying to get those quick runs impressed upon my fingers.

  17. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Great post, Tess.

    I keep a drum pad and a pair of sticks beside my desk. It’s a great stress reliever!

    For something new, I plan to start learning French soon. Such a beautiful language.

  18. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    “Right now I’m focusing on the difficult spots and trying to get those quick runs impressed upon my fingers.”

    Groups are the best method for that. Do them for a week. You’ll be amazed.

    Glad it’s helpful.

  19. JDK
    JDK says:

    Learning to play an instrument and a new language are two of the mental “exercises” suggested to ward off Alzheimer’s.

    Since I am tone-deaf and almost failed each of the three languages that I took in school, I will be doing other things (crosswords, Scrabble, eating and using my non-dominant hand for eating, using the computer mouse, brushing my teeth, etc.) 😉


    Hi Tess..I have always dreamed of writing a book. I have started one but saddly I have not gotten very far with it. Unlike yourself, I lack the imagination and knowledge to create such wonderful works. Take heart…focus on all the positive, although I understand the negative can be overwelbming at times. You have tons of fans out there who support your writing. Keep up the great work!!

  21. therese
    therese says:

    Dear Tess and all of you. This post is a great present to myself for valentine’s day. It’s uplifting and makes me feel almost as warm and fuzzy as a hug.

    xoxoxox to all!

  22. Douglas Clegg
    Douglas Clegg says:

    Tess –

    This is a great entry — and you’re right on all counts.

    We invested in a good treadmill and a good strong stationary bike (parked in front of the TV so I don’t have to feel like a couch potato when watching a movie or show) and these two things have saved me many times over when stuck in the house and going from office to bedroom…to kitchen.

    Hope you’re doing great, and congratulations on The Bone Garden!


    Doug Clegg

  23. Therese Fowler
    Therese Fowler says:

    Obviously you’ve been looking in my windows AND reading my mind!

    My novel debuted this week, and while I haven’t been checking my Amazon numbers excessively, I confess to looking too often.

    However, as a long-time “student” of your career info and advice, I HAD to watch yesterday to see what effect (if any) my USA Today ad might have. Conclusion: it looks like advertising does work. It makes people aware of the book, which is so much of the battle in a very crowded marketplace.

    As always, thank you for the sage advice. I am going to print this post and read it first thing each day!

  24. Susan Kelley
    Susan Kelley says:

    I really agree about the other hobbies. Even though my writing time is limited, I try to keep up with my running and needlework, and baking and jigsaw puzzles and…

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