Raise your hand if you have trouble getting asleep and staying asleep.
But I just turned around my entire sleep experience, and I'm going to share it with you. Now, let's remember that despite this nice lab coat, I am not a doctor. And let's also recall that everyone's unique chemistry is totally weird, so what works for me might not work for you. So check with a doctor or at least the Drug Interactions page on drugs.com before suing me, mkay?
My main problem has always been that I have trouble getting my brain to quiet down at night. I'll just lie in bed, listening to my heart beat increasingly fast, pretty sure I'm about to die while running through story ideas, wardrobe changes, and to do lists in my head. Then I wake up at 2am and can't get back to sleep. And it sucks.
So here's what I did:
1. Wean yourself off sleep meds.
For a long time, I've taken Unisom Sleep Tabs, about half of one a night and a full one at cons. It allowed me to catch up on all my sleep debt from having kids, but as time went on, I felt increasingly addicted to it while knowing that it wasn't good for me. So I weaned myself from a half to a quarter, and now I'm going from a quarter to an eighth. So remember that if you use meds to sleep, you won't want to go cold turkey.
2. No writing/art after 5pm.
Yes, if I'm on a hardcore deadline, sometimes I have to break this rule. But now that I wake up between 6 and 7, I have two extra hours of sharpness in the morning. Point is, even if I allow myself to check email or surf social media sites (which I'm also trying to cut down on), I don't save the writing work for nighttime. It just spins up my brain, and then I can't shut it down on my own.
3. Listen to binaural beats.
I think this one is the game changer. I downloaded an app on my phone called Brain Waves, and it has several sessions of binaural beats related to things like relaxing, creativity, focus, and, hallelujah, sleep. You just get your headphones or earbuds, listen to 15 minutes of weird tones, and it lures your brain into sleepy brainwaves instead of letting it stay keyed up on creative ones. You're supposed to meditate while you listen, but that made me feel like a cat trapped in a box, so I watch The Great British Baking Show reruns on mute with subtitles.
I listen around 9pm with plans to sleep around 10.
4. Go to bed at the same time every night.
At 10pm, I'm in bed and ready to go. I haven't lasted past 10:30 since I started this regime, which is a wonder.
5. Wake up early.
So I used to try to sleep in until 9 or 10 every day to make up for my massive sleep debt. But now I pop awake at 6 or 7 every morning and get going. If I was sleeping until 10am, no wonder I was staying awake until 2am, right? Bodies generally want around 8 hours of sleep. Duh.
6. Get bright light in the morning.
When you wake up at 6 or 7, it's usually not bright and sunny, so I sit in front of my SAD light for half an hour or more. If I'm working, I'll keep it on all morning. Turns out I'm solar powered. Who knew?
7. Try relaxing supplements (of the legal kind).
It turns out that there are several herbs known to have a calming, anti-stress effect. Lemon balm, passionflower, chamomile, skullcap, rhodiola, to name a few. I read a book on adrenal fatigue that basically described my life and decided to work in some rhodiola in the morning and lemon balm in the afternoon. I don't know how much it contributes, but the whole thing seems to be working, and teas are nice.
I also pay attention to my magnesium intake and will drink Natural Calm or take an epsom salt bath every night.
8. Cut out caffeine.
Again, maybe don't go cold turkey. I'm super sensitive to caffeine, and if I have any after 11am, I'll be awake until 2am. These days, I don't do any caffeine unless I'm at a con. Even a cup of green tea with 50mg caffeine will make it harder for me to fall asleep. Screw you, caffeine. Oh, and if you still need something hot at breakfast, try Crio Bru. It's made of cocoa beans. I drink it every morning and love it.
And I'm not drinking alcohol a lot, either. Chemicals, man.
9. Get the buy-in of your housemates.
It's kind of weird to decide one day to make sleep a priority, and you need to let the people around you know what you need. Having a new schedule has been a big change for me, but I'm loving it.
10. Don't beat yourself up when you fall off the wagon.
At a con, forget all this. If you get more than 4 hours of sleep, you're doing fine. It's also going to get messed up when you're sick, on deadline, or struck by a story idea. That's fine. Just get back on schedule when you can.
These days, I go to sleep at 10:30 with none of the ol' frantic, panicky thoughts. I wake up at 2am and go right back to sleep. I pop awake between 6 and 7 feeling refreshed and ready. I can't believe it took me this long to get the equation right. And I haven't had a single nightmare.
I want that for you, too.
Sleep long and prosper!
One of my most popular workshops is on Writing First Chapters. I've taught this topic at Surrey International Writers Conference, I'll be teaching it at GenreCon in Queensland, Australia this November, and I most recently taught it at Star Wars University at Star Wars Celebration Orlando.
And here's the cheat sheet!
Note: You'll get a lot more out of it if you take one of my classes, but hopefully you'll find this little slice of my personal rulebook helpful.
First Chapters (CHEAT SHEET!)
1. First of all, RELAX. You do your best writing when you're calm, nimble, and not afraid to mess up.
2. Be aware that the first chapter is often the writer making notes. It might get cut. That's normal.
3. Start with action, character, and conflict. Don't info dump.
4. Figure out the instigating factor and rewind one scene. That's where to start.
5. Know the things that literary agents claim will get your first pages rejected.
Including: dream sequences; a character looking in a mirror to describe themselves; the most boring day ever or the most action-packed battle ever; a character waking up; a gross bathroom scene; an overtly sexual scene; a cliché for that genre; beginning with an interesting character and then killing them off to focus on the actual hero.
6. Skip prologues. Agents hate them. If you need one, add it after the book sells.
7. Your opening line must be awesome. Read great opening lines that set the tone for their books.
8. Know that you can break the rules, but it's only going to work if the book is genius.
9. Got a great first line? Good. Write a great second line. Keep compelling them.
10. Avoid using cheap tricks, cliches, and tropes. They won't work on a literary agent.
11. Make each chapter its own little story. Beginning, middle, end. End on a cliffhanger or question.
12. Remember: the first chapter is the hardest to write. Just get it on the page. Fix it later.
13. Give us strong character and voice from the first sentence.
14. Make the first chapter represent what to expect for the entire story.
If you're interested in having me read and critique your first chapter, you might want to sign up for my upcoming Worldbuilding Crash Course workshop at LitReactor, which happens entirely online.
1. Pre-order CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS before 10/11, when it launches.
E-book or hardcover is great!
2. Email a mailing address to whimsydark (at) gmail (dot) com
International is welcome!
3. I will send you a signed bookplate (bottom left) all this rad paper swag, temporary tattoos, and a SPECIAL, EXCLUSIVE packet of MURDERDUST, a spectacular mineral eyeshadow made by Sweet Libertine, who recently debuted a line of eyeshadows called Wicked as They Come and based on my Blud books. As you can see if you click the link, Murderdust isn't available on their site yet-- you can only get it by pre-ordering. It's one of my favorite colors in the line and makes a spectacular smoky eye, especially paired with Magic Dust.
4. We are all happy, and you get to read Conspiracy of Ravens next Tuesday!
Spread the word! Let's sprinkle Murderdust on EVERYONE! <3
Sometimes, the light slips through your fingers.
Truth: When I received an email encouraging me to participate in #HoldOntotheLight, I immediately closed it. I didn't have enough spoons to read that much, to see so many actions I needed to take and hashtags I needed to use and social media badges that I had to spread around. Here it was, a great idea that would help people like me, maybe help people feel less alone, and it seemed like an impossible hill that I just couldn't climb.
That's the thing about depression and anxiety. It lies, and it can keep you from doing great things.
I've blogged on depression, on suicide, on my own origins story, which I also wrote about for my essay in Last Night a Superhero Saved My Life. At 38, I've accepted that I'm never going to be normal, that I'm going to spend every day fighting to stay afloat. I've learned the signs that predict when I'm headed down a dark path and the concrete steps I can take to get back on track-- exercise, yoga, meditation, medication, getting away from the computer. I know all this-- and yet it still gets me. I still fall into that deep, dark, cold hole where I feel helpless and worthless.
But I'm fighting.
The day I received that email, I closed it and walked away. And this morning, waking up to a sunny day that smells like fall, I had the energy and focus to open it and see the good it was doing. I knew what I needed to say, and I had the spoons to say it.
It got better. It always does.
The most important thing I can say on this topic is that whatever you're dealing with, whatever monsters you're fighting: You're not alone. You're not weird or terrible or crazy or sick. There is no normal, no perfect, no brain that's happy all the time. Especially if you're an artist or a writer, the flip side of creativity's coin is often a brain that has trouble calming down, quieting, regulating, sleeping, self-loving.
We're here, with you, fighting.
Look, I'm sometimes a mess. I wrote my first book in 2009 at the age of 31, and it sucked. By 32, I had an agent. By 33, I had a book deal. Writing has become my antidepressant, the obsession that pulls me through dark places and lets me dissect pain and rage on the page. But even having a successful career I'm passionate about isn't enough. There are some days I wake up and can't write a word and just flop around in bed and eat coconut milk ice cream, and there are days that I type 12,000 words and lie awake until 4am, pretty sure I'm having a heart attack and will somehow forget to breathe if I stop counting breaths. This is my reality. This is my cycle. I know that in February and June and August, I'll have a hard time. I know that sometimes I have to take Unisom to sleep. I know that I have to travel with my anxiety medication, just in case. But I know that I can succeed despite whatever my stupid brain throws at me. I know that what's to come is worth the fight.
I'm holding onto the light. Sometimes it's slippery and hard to grasp, but just reaching for it when things get hard feels like victory.
I live in my head. I live in stories and possibilities. I live in the moment. I don't like nostalgia, and I don't often listen to music from my youth, and I don't like dwelling on the past. Likewise, I can't see very far in the future and am all too aware of how many different twists the road could take. Therefore, I live right here, right now.
The downside of living in my head is that I often forget I have a body, at least until it defies me. I walk into doorknobs, hit my head on cabinets, and forget to do important things like drink water or take pills. The sad truth is that I often neglect my body until something goes horribly awry, and then I settle into it like a whiny child into a hard chair, unable to function because everything feels so wretched. I don't like exercise, I don't like sports, I hate running. My body is a glorified bread box.
You can see why this is not a healthy way to live. Much like a house, a body requires constant maintenance and tidying if it's not going to fall apart around you. For the last several years, my body's weekly maid service has been trail riding on my horse. When I'm riding, I'm in flow, in the moment, grounded in my body and working my muscles and seeing and smelling and hearing new things. My senses come alive and my thighs ache and I come home feeling that groggy, cool, kind deliriousness you feel when abject pain is relieved by narcotics. But when my horse came up lame after Thanksgiving, I no longer had a way to connect my wayward brain to my neglected body, and I started to stagnate. And that's when I started yoga.
On my mat, I found that same mind-body connection, that same buzz I used to find on horseback. I spend an hour being in my body, touching my own weaknesses, and working working working toward alignment. They call it "your practice" for a reason: It's all practice.
I felt the click as my instructor assisted me into a more true expression of each pose, and I read and studied and learned how many of my ongoing physical issues were also mental issues. I had breakdowns during hard poses as my hips opened up. I had breakthroughs during the final savasana that helped me process my father's death. I learned to use breathing to stall or reroute my panic attacks. Yoga became the open chat window for my body and mind to connect. I realized that I am not my thoughts-- I am so much more.
As writers, our brains are constantly hunting around for the worst case scenario, both so we can more effectively torture our characters and when looking at our own lives. If you give your thoughts too much power, they become magnified. Every mistake is a catastrophe. Every rejection is a death knell. Someone else's triumph is a condemnation. Your brain is powerful, but your brain can lie. Yoga-- or meditation, or running, or painting-- can get you out of your head and into perspective about what's real, what matters, and what can be let go. Yoga helps me defrag and recalibrate.
That's why this year, I decided to enroll in a YTT 200 Yoga Teacher Training program. And because I tend to be good at the new things I try, and because I'm fairly smart and have teaching experience in the arts and in writing, I thought I'd automatically be great.
And I'm not.
My first month of YTT left me feeling like a child in a new country where I don't speak the language. I was expected to read extensively, to write papers, to practice at home, to journal, and to stand up in front of people with vastly more yoga experience and attempt to teach them poses I am far from mastering. When I taught my first sequence, I could feel my heart beating in my temples and hear the question mark at the end of my every sentence. I fumbled for words, forgot to be assertive, didn't use non-violent communication. In short, I was a hot mess, and I felt like a complete fool.
I came home that first weekend and considered quitting.
I wasn't good at it. Not good at yoga, not good at teaching yoga. It was too much all at once. The other students were so much better at me, at the positions and the teaching. It was a waste of money. I couldn't see myself ever having the knowledge and competence and confidence to lead a class.
But I kept on. Kept going to as many yoga classes as I could as a student. Kept doing yoga at home, whether through online videos or by myself on the porch. I tried to teach my daughter. I helped my husband with some restorative poses. Kept reading. Kept stretching.
Still, every month, before YTT, my feelings plummet. I get scared. I should quit. I'm not good enough.
Every month, I still go.
And the simple truth is this: I'm getting better.
There have been little breakthroughs along the way. The first time I got into Crow Pose and literally felt like I was flying. The first time I adjusted my daughter and heard her say, “Oh!” when she was perfectly aligned, her face alight with understanding. When I adjusted my husband during a stretch and heard him sigh in relief. And, finally, this past weekend, when I made my first class playlist and realized that if I simply looked at each class like a short story, I could succeed.
Putting together a sequence was the hardest part for me. I simply didn't have the vocabulary to lead a flowing series of poses--it felt like being asked a prepare a twelve course meal when all I had were flour and butter. After three intense weekends of teaching, I finally feel empowered to find my voice. I start by making a playlist of songs geared toward the time limit, then I look at the songs and see what kind of feel or theme they have-- just like I do when making a book playlist. Then I consider what I want as the peak pose we work toward-- just like when I figure out what the climax of the book will be. Then I feel out the introduction/intention (beginning), the portion of the sequence where we build heat in the body (escalating action), the climax, the cooldown (denouement), and the closing (ending). See? It's a short story, told through the body and tied together with a theme and soundtrack.
Suddenly, it all clicked. I just had to find a way to apply what I'm best at (writing) to something that I found nearly impossible (teaching yoga). I found my voice and my purpose.
I want to write about this for several reasons. For one, if you think traditionally published authors have all their shit together, WE DO NOT. If you think that being great at one thing means you deserve to be automatically great at everything, IT'S NOT TRUE. If you're thinking about quitting something because it's hard, DON'T. You just have to find your way, your path, your voice. Succeeding at something that frightens or intimidates you is the only way to grow. Nobody levels up sitting at home being complacent.
Writing is wonderful, but don't let it be your everything. Get out. Be in your body. Take a shower and put on clothes that make you feel alive. Have new experiences. Take classes. Suck at stuff. Try harder. Get better. Level up. It will help your writing.
Repeat: IT WILL HELP YOUR WRITING.
Part of my goal in training to be a yoga teacher is to help writers. Not only to unhunch your shoulders and soothe your aching back and stretch out those typing fingers, but also to find the space you need to let in new ideas. Yoga helps me find that space. Yoga helps me say Yes. Yoga helps me open up, heart and mind, to possibility and to remember that there is light inside me.
If you're a writer, I highly recommend finding the right yoga studio and putting on those raggedy old leggings and getting on the mat. No one cares what you look like. No one cares if you know what you're doing. No one cares if you have trouble getting into poses. That's what's so great about yoga: everyone is so busy being in their own body that they're not looking at yours, much less judging you. It's pretty much the opposite of Twitter.
So there's your advice of the day: Writer, get out of your head.
So I'm reading FURIOUSLY HAPPY by Jenny Lawson, aka The Blogess, and it's making me feel lots of things because her crazy and my crazy are kissing cousins. I've put off reading this book forever because she's funnier than me and her books sell better than mine and she has more taxidermied animals than me, and I consider all of that deeply insulting. Still, the book is resonating, and so I want to tell you a story that her book reminded me of.
A few months ago, I was in Denver, Colorado for Anachrocon. This is exciting because I've believed for many years that Colorado didn't exist. I mean, come on. A perfectly rectangular state full of huge mountains and elk? Impossible. I had daydreams of my plane landing on this big blank smudge, like, Whoops, it's not real. You were right! But instead, the plane landed in the weirdest airport in the world that's probably above a secret apocalypse bunker for the president and Beyonce and other national treasures. Seriously. Google “Denver airport conspiracy theories” and look at that mile-high, red-eyed, blue-skinned murderstallion standing proudly out front and tell me this place was not built by the Illuminati. Or, more likely, the Masons, because that is literally what masons do.
Anyway, I had an amazing week hanging out with my buddy Kevin Hearne and then I went to stay at the con hotel for Anachrocon, which is a great fan con run by fabulous people. It was a lovely hotel room, by which I mean there were no bedbugs (YES, I CHECK EVERY BED AND EVEN UNDER THE MATTRESS), and the pillows were nice and flat and the mirror made me feel pretty in part because it made my eyes look like the eyes of a goat on ecstasy. I was very fond of that hotel room and went there often to decompress, because like Jenny Lawson, these events use up a lot of my spoons and I eventually have to go take meds and drink vitamin powders and commune with my friends on Twitter without worrying about sucking in my stomach or having weird stuff in my teeth.
So the thing about me and hotel rooms is that when I have one to myself, I keep it pristine. I put everything exactly where I want it, and I fold myself into the bed like it's a crisp new Trapper Keeper folder, and when I get up in the morning, I fold that little triangle of the bed back and POOF! The bed is made. The first thing I do (after checking for bedbugs and goat eyes) is to put their Do Not Disturb sign up because I'm terrified of people knocking on the door. The hotel room becomes my fortress of solitude, and I don't want strange people coming in and rearranging my earrings and touching my shoes. Or, even worse, I don't want them to bang on the door so that I'm forced to explain why they can't come in. The hotel staff doesn't seem to understand the word NO, or the words NO THANK YOU, or even NOT NOW PLEASE; I'M NAKED; YOU CAN GO AWAY.
On my second day, I got dressed and double checked my schedule and the con map and my outfit and my bag of swag and all the various things that make me feel like I have my shit together, and I made sure the DO NOT DISTURB sign was up. Unfortunately, the housekeeper was right outside my door. I noticed this when I looked out the peephole to make sure the hall was empty, and I timed my exit for when she was in another room so I wouldn't have to speak to her because I am terrified by speaking to people in this dance of WHO IS IN CHARGE HERE WHAT DO YOU WANT EXCUSE ME EXCUSE ME. So she goes into another room, and I dart out the door, and she must hear the teeny tiny click my door makes as I gently shut it because she lunges out of the other door as I hightail it down the hall and says, “I can clean?”
So I turn around like a deer in headlights and say, “No, thank you.”
And that should be great. She should be able to mark that down on her log in the “Freaky weirdos” category and take ten minutes to play with someone else's jewelry. But that is not what she does.
SHE PURSUES ME.
AFTER I SAID NO THANK YOU.
“I can go clean now you are gone?” she asks, and she looks very forbidding, like a teacher who doesn't like me very much and wants to double check my backpack for a jar of spiders. And I wish I had a jar of spiders to throw, because she is now Terminator-walking down the hall toward me, and I can't figure out if she's going to tackle me until I promise to remove the DO NOT DISTURB sign or if she wants to clean out my ears for me or something.
And I realize that if I don't put a stop to this insistence on invading my personal space, she's going to wait until I'm in the elevator and go in there and probably put on my earrings and use my perfume, and that thought makes me want to burn everything I own, because DON'T TOUCH MY STUFF, so I turn around, fidgeting my fingers like a nervous hamster, and I don't know what to say, and she's still stalking toward me, and I'm afraid she's going to touch me or yell at me or something, and I'm a grown-ass woman of 38 quaking because a housekeeper is frowning at me, and what comes out of my mouth is the honest-to-God truth.
I shouted, “PLEASE DON'T GO IN MY ROOM BECAUSE I DON'T LIKE IT WHEN PEOPLE TOUCH MY STUFF AND MATCH UP MY EARRINGS AND YOU'RE MAKING ME REALLY, REALLY UNCOMFORTABLE RIGHT NOW.”
And before I could see how she reacted to that for-shrinks-only confession, I ran into the fire stairway and down three flights of stairs because I didn't want to stand in front of the elevator pushing the button repeatedly like some dumbo in a horror movie as she continued to T2 toward me with increasing rancor.
My heart was racing, and I was filled with panic, and all the while, I was very aware that this was in no way an actual big deal or a problem. Like, a woman who wanted to do her job asked if she could just go and do her job like she was supposed to do, but it just so happened to be the straw on this introverted camel's back, and she was probably just standing in the hall trying to figure out where my nurse was and when I would be given my proper medicine, because it's not normal to shout at people not to match up your earrings.
A housekeeper did that once, and I still have nightmares. I had them all in a jumble in the little cardboard box I travel with, and she TOOK THEM OUT and LINED THEM UP on a HAND TOWEL, and I felt like I was in Sleeping with the Enemy. So you can see why this is one of my fears.
That's what anxiety does to you. It can take some perfectly normal situation and ratchet it up to an 11 on the scale of Normal Things That Are Okay, and suddenly it's not okay. I doubt this woman had any idea that I had to huddle down in that emergency stairwell and dig in my purse and take anxiety meds because of a simple question. When I mentioned the interaction on Twitter, I got several responses along the lines of, “Wow. Yelling at housekeepers. Privileged much?” And I just want to shout back, DID YOU JUST START FOLLOWING ME BECAUSE I AM A SMORGASBORD OF WRONG REACTIONS TO NORMAL SHIT. I can give myself a panic attack by hearing the wrong Pink Floyd song or deciding that an ingrown hair is cancer. Being verbally confronted in a strange place is bound to mess me up.
The takeaway here is that FURIOUSLY HAPPY is making me feel better about being a cornucopia of neuroses and ailments, and that it's normal to be slightly crazy. We all have something that pushes our buttons, and we all do our best to stay functional. I went down those three flights of stairs, put on my Public Extrovert Happy Face, and did my best to be a great con guest. My hope is that no one who talked to me or came to my panels knew that I'd had an anxiety crisis in the hallway and was secretly terrified to return to my supposed fortress of solitude and find a death threat written on the goat-eye mirror in someone else's blue sparkle toothpaste above a skull made of my own jewelry.
Depression lies, and anxiety is an asshole, but you should never shout at someone who uses a Do Not Disturb sign. They've made it pretty fucking clear what they need to be okay: Do not disturb them.