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Writer’s Remorse

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245It’s a cousin to Buyer’s Remorse, which my friend and constant companion Google defines as an emotional response to a purchase. Feelings like regret, fear, depression, or anxiety. You know—the letdown that grabs the buyer by the throat immediately after he’s spent a pile of money on something he just knew he wanted more than anything.

But the feelings accompanying what I’ve dubbed Writer’s Remorse go beyond those just mentioned. Although depression is definitely part of it, the feeling is more of—as Peggy Lee crooned in the golden oldie of the same name—Is that all there is?

Regardless of what it’s called, I’ve been suffering from it.

After working for six years on my novel—six years, during which I thought about it constantly, jotted down snippets of overheard conversations to pepper into the dialogue, basically lived, breathed, and showered with it—the thing is suddenly finished. I’ve polished, rewritten, edited, and re-edited, and then found a beta reader who was a professional editor in a past life. It’s the best I can do.

But just as with the sudden cessation of any other perpetual activity, the completion of my novel left a void. I just didn’t know what to do with myself.

So I checked in with my online chat group of writers. I told them of the unexpected feelings of loss that have accompanied my novel’s completion. I poured out all my writer angst, certain that what I was going through was an anomaly. And a little fearful for my sanity. (Okay, maybe a bit melodramatic, but I was concerned.) I wondered if Stephen King had ever struggled with letting go of one of his twisted babies.

The responses that came pouring in from my colleagues boosted my morale. One savvy writer said that I have a case of what is basically empty-nest syndrome. She said I’m missing my characters. That they became an integral part of my life, and now I’m grieving their loss. And that feels about right.

Having raised three actual children, I must admit that the feelings I was experiencing were akin to those of giving birth, raising the child, and then watching her walk away to seek her fortune in the world without so much as a backward glance. The whole process was accompanied with the bittersweet knowledge that it’s all part of the beat of life—that once you’ve done your job, your services will no longer be required.

After all, I spent over half a decade scheduling my life around my writing time. I’d waken early, hurry to eat breakfast, and then happily lock myself away into my writing space—what author Elizabeth Sims calls getting into garret mode. I closed myself off to the here-and-now, completely immersed myself in a different dimension, and then for the next couple of hours I alternately dug through the darkness and marveled at the brilliant nobility of our human nature.

And then I was stricken with an energy-sucking ennui. I walked aimlessly around the house in search of something—I didn’t know quite what. Judging by the way my husband took to surreptitiously watching me out of the corner of his eye, I suspected my behavior verged on something clinical.

So I again approached my writer friends—much cheaper and less time consuming than therapy.

Within minutes, commiserations flew back across the ether and into my waiting arms. I wasn’t alone. Other writers had suffered the same feelings.

Several of them told me to get back on the horse and start another novel. Others said I should take a break and do something totally un-writer-like for several weeks before rolling up my sleeves and giving myself over to the birthing pangs of a new story.

I decided to do both. First, with unwavering determination, I powered down every piece of computer hardware in my house that could even remotely be used for word processing. And then, with an unexpected sense of freedom, I accompanied my husband on a road trip to Mount Rushmore.

The glorious scenery that flew past our car windows, the rest stops where I overheard people speaking about everything from ingrown toenails to saving wild horses, all sparked dozens of ideas, which I verbalized into the tiny digital recorder I’d snuck into my bag. I know, I know, I cheated. But the change of scenery was like a cool drink of water on my parched writer’s tongue, and I was overcome with a renewed joy in my chosen field of endeavor.

Once home, I replayed and then transcribed my recorded observations and comments. What if… and Yes, and then… cavorted and tumbled elbows over arse through my electrified imagination. I made more notes.

But I still didn’t have the heart to begin a new novel. At least, not until this morning.

Today I awakened to my Protagonist’s index finger tapping me on the forehead. She was yammering away about a woman who just moved from South Dakota and into the house across the street.

“She’s having trouble sleeping because of weird noises coming from her basement,” said my Protagonist around a mouthful of leftover welcome-to-the-neighborhood brownies.

“Aha,” I said. “Weird noises coming from her basement? That’s good. Then what if…”

And we’re off.

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the March 2014 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

The Writing Life: Finding the Fight and the Fun in Your Work

by Sherri Burr


Recently, fortune blessed me with the opportunity to watch live tennis at a high-level tournament in Ohio. As I observed tennis star Serena Williams fight back after losing the first set to win the next two sets and claim the match, I thought about how much we writers can learn from her determination to succeed.

Just as tennis players face the constant threat of losing points, games, sets and matches, we writers often confront rejection. Author Gregg Levoy (This Business of Writing) once told a SouthWest Writers audience that if you are not constantly receiving rejection letters, you are operating too far into your comfort zone. I initially thought this harsh as no one wants to receive rejection letters. But his larger point resonated. If you constantly put out work that gets accepted, perhaps you are not challenging yourself to go to the next level. Are there higher levels of publications that you have not submitted to for fear of rejection? This is like the tennis player who only plays players who are worse than they are. Where’s the test? Where’s the opportunity?

By daring ourselves to query top book and magazine publishers, we increase our risk of rejection but we potentially set ourselves up for great rewards. Tennis players know that if they want to win the big tournaments, the Grand Slam events, they have to constantly improve their games. This requires honest assessments of weaknesses and strengths. Do they have an accurate serve, which allows them to claim free points? Or a weak serve that leads to double faults? Do they have a lightning-accurate forehand, or one that constantly sails long? Is their backhand hit with power, or does it soft-land on the other side of the net and permit the opponent to hit a punishing return?

For writers, do we write articles with humor, or do our attempts fall flat? To predict an audience’s reaction requires test driving the material. This is where critique groups that require writers to read their submissions can be absolutely critical to writer success. As you deliver your words out loud, you can obtain an instant reaction as to whether the material is hitting the intended emotional cues. If your critique group members react by laughing out loud or crying, then you know you are hitting the right level. If there is no reaction, then you know you have to go back to the drawing board.

This is why I prefer critique groups whose members read the material compared to those who pre-send the material by email and then discuss it when the group meets. In the former, you can instantly see the reaction. In the latter, the person might tell you they found something funny but you won’t know how funny. Were they falling out of their seat with laughter or did a bemused look cross their brow?

Similarly in tennis, a speed gun measures the serve. Players don’t have to guess how fast a serve was, they know. After Croatian player Marin Cilic won the 2014 US Open, he was interviewed about his suspension for four months during 2013 for having a banned substance in his urine tests. Cilic used the time to practice his serve and to work on finding the enjoyment in his game. Others might have spent the four months in “woe is me” mode. Instead, Cilic used it as an opportunity to improve.

When life gives an opportunity to remove ourselves from the normal and reassess, take it as a golden opportunity to improve. Examine weaknesses and strengths. Find the fun in your work. That’s where long-run success lies. That’s where the willingness to fight in difficult moments arises. At the Ohio tournament, Serena Williams battled from a set down to win the semi-final match against Caroline Wozniacki. She won her next match in straight sets and the U.S. Open for the sixth time by beating the same opponent in the finals. Williams took note of her earlier struggles and improved her game.

For writers, progress can come from reading and writing daily, as well as signing up for writing courses. When writing is fun, abandoning your life’s work never enters your mind. You commit to fight until the last letter is struck on your keyboard. Writers don’t retire; the ideas keep flowing until they take their last breath. Challenge yourself to submit to different publishers. The successes may surprise and amaze you.

A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter SouthWest Sage.

This article was originally published in the October 2014 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

The Writing Life: The Good Fight

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245

The current economy has become a tough sparring partner for those of us who dream of seeing our stories in print. Many budding writers, after having been rejected for the umpteenth time, are tempted to crawl off into a corner and lick their wounds while hugging their latest manuscript to their bosoms. After finally getting a bellyful of rejection, a friend of mine—a published playwright with two sold and performed plays under her belt—has permanently packed away her storytelling persona. That’s not only sad, but it’s a loss to our culture.

It’s not that I can’t relate to my friend. I can.

More than one agent has responded to my email query with words decrying harsh fiscal realities and suggesting my story might be marketable in less turbulent times. One soft-hearted agent actually apologized for turning me down. She offered words of comfort, saying her refusal did not mean my writing was not good; in fact, she’d spent a great deal of time in making her decision, but she could only accept authors who were a “surefire” sell.

So, where does that leave those of us who are not of the J.K. Rowling ilk? What are the options available to those of us who would be thrilled just to have our work out there, and hopefully, being read—even if our readership might not number in the tens of thousands? The good news is that there are still some avenues open to today’s writers.

Many authors are opting to self-publish, shouldering the task of marketing their own books. This approach can not only cost a great deal of the author’s up-front money, but is heavily contingent upon the amount of time the author is willing, or able, to put into selling herself.

Other writers have put their stories online, selling them for 99 cents a pop as Ebooks. This tactic has potential, especially when there are so many folks willing to risk 99 cents on a virtual book rather than spend eight dollars for a paperback.

Some shop their books to small publishing houses in hopes that having one published book will lead to heightened marketability for the next. But a small publisher often does not pay an advance, much less an advance for future books. I know one writer who was thrilled to have her first book published by a small house, but had to start all over again when the publisher went bankrupt.

One thing for sure, the art of writing has metamorphosed into a completely different creature from what it was 50 years ago. Or perhaps the art itself has not changed so much as has its audience. People whose lives are scheduled in five-minute increments simply don’t have the time, or the patience, to slog through an initial ten pages of description before getting to the meat of a story. For those of us who feel it necessary to bring the reader up to speed on characters and their pre-story lives, this presents a challenge. At what point in the story should we describe our protagonist’s physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional attributes? How much detail should we offer about the setting?

Having spent hundreds of dollars on how-to writing books, I’ve found one golden thread that connects them all: if I want my fiction to be published, I must adopt a marketable style of writing and I must know my audience.

But isn’t writing merely to sell prostituting the craft? That depends upon one’s perspective, as well as one’s goals. Every writer comes to a fork in the path and must make a choice: she can stubbornly stick to her style and be satisfied with the superlatives offered by friends and family; or she can sharpen her technique so that complete strangers will not only want to read her stories, but will pay to do so.

As for me, my storyteller’s head may be bloodied, but remains unbowed. To give energy to the thought of hanging up my writer’s crop and jodhpurs is anathema to me. Because the escapism of fiction brought me through a difficult stretch in my life, I will continue to find time to close out the rest of the world and catapult my senses into other times, other places, and other dimensions. I will continue tweaking, refining, and querying. I will continue to pay my subscriptions to various writers’ magazines, I will enter writing contests, and I will continue to connect with other writers at meetings and conferences. But most importantly, to paraphrase Winston Churchill: I will never, never, never give up.

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the June 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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