Drabble · Life · mental health


I’m drowning.

I’m constantly sinking under the incoming waves. The panicked thrumming in my chest is matched by the shaking of my hands as I try to keep myself afloat. I didn’t want to go swimming but somehow here I am, sinking in an ocean of adrenaline and distress.

I’m not a poet, and I’ll probably never be one, but how else can I explain the heavy weight on my chest, the fear, and the sense of being completely adrift? I’m isolated by my own biochemistry and even if there is someone reaching to me from a life raft, I can’t see them for the water in my eyes.

Every time I drag myself up from the depths of the darkness, I’m only more exhausted, weight down by the seaweed and debris I found at the bottom. It’s not a relief anymore to reach the surface. The air burns my scarred lungs. The blue sky is just a reminder of the work it will take to stay above.

Little white pills like water wings go down daily. But water wings in the ocean only help so much. So you try and build a raft; you try and organize your life to keep too busy to notice the water seeping into your lungs. You try to stop planning in advance to avoid the inevitable failures, but that only tires you more. You try to meditate the ocean away, a drop of a time, to drink it down and accept it. But it is just too much. Always too much until your belly swells and your body collapses.

Being lost at sea isn’t something you can FIX. You can only manage it, float half submerged in it. You can only survive it.

It makes take a deep breath of salt water seed so appealing. The air already feels thick in your lungs, how much worse could the water feel for the few fleeting moments of consciousness?

At least that would be effective.

Others try and help, but most of them are drowning too. You can gaze across the horizon and call to one another, but no one can navigate your ocean but you. Where they have an island, you might have a kraken.

But sometimes, sometimes I get up and above for long enough to feel the sunshine, and to remember what it’s like to actual live with ground firm beneath my feet. I stay above long enough to hear the encouragement from the people in their own oceans, to feel the hands reaching down to try and help me up.

Sometimes I laugh with my husband and mean it. Sometimes I play piano and feel it. Sometimes I write something and actually post it.

Sometimes it feels a little less like drowning.

Sometimes I’m strong enough to swim.

I wrote half of this while half asleep a few days ago in the depths of an extended anxiety attack. The last year’s been rough, but I’ll keep trudging through. Sometimes it’s just nice to get it out in words. (In other words, don’t panic, I’m okay.)

Examining Emotions for Writers · Life · Writing

Examining Emotions for Writers: Love (Part 1)

Almost every story out there touches on love of some kind; romantic, platonic, familial, the list goes on. So today we’re going to examine some of the more nitty-gritty details of love to help burgeoning writers make it convincing! This is part of a new series I’m working on, Examining Emotions for Writers. So lets get going.

Now, the problem with ‘Love’ is that it comes in so many forms. So for this particular examination, we are going to break it down into the four greek types; Eros, Agape, Philia, and Storge. Each of these elicit different physical reactions, and come about in different situations. Today we’ll be examining just one, and we will touch on the others at a later time.

EROS: love conceived by Plato as a fundamental creative impulse having a sensual element

This is the typical first though when people hear about ‘love’ in books. This is romantic, passionate, sexual love. The love someone has for a spouse, or the instinctive ‘love at first sight’. Paris and Helen; Aphrodite, Eros (Or Cupid) were all examples, harbingers, and victims of eros.

Lets look at some of the typical reactions to eros people have.

Physical: Warmth, heightened blood pressure, dry mouth, tingly appendages, increased heart rate, heavy tongue, flushed cheeks, shifting, squirming, leaning towards the object of their affections, craving physical contact, unsettled stomach.

Mental: Agitated, excited, thoughts disappearing, inability to form coherent sentences, anxiety,  obsessively examining interactions, obsessively planning future interactions, constantly considering the other person while making decisions.

Now, these are probably the nervous/excited emotions that you expected. The problem is that a lot of writers STOP here, but emotional responses are wide ranging and change from person to person. So while one person may get tongue tied, another may spout off tirades of facts, or come across as overly charming. Don’t limit yourself to television stereotypes of love. Examine you character!

The other thing that most writers seem to forget it that this type of love doesn’t stay the same. I find this is a big problem in a lot of novels, but also in real life. People expect to feel butterflies every time they see their love. Forever. As someone who has been married for five years, and together with her partner for ten, I can tell you, this is not the case.

This doesn’t mean I don’t feel a sexual and passionate love for my husband. Admittedly we are edging closer to Storge here, but I feel like it’s important to distinguish. Passionate love changes with the length of relationship. You can’t expect your main character to get tongue tied around their partner of years!

So what are some reactions people have to a familiar romantic partner?

Physical: Lowered heart rate, warmth, casual reaffirming physical contact.

Mental: Increased confidence, lower anxiety, affection, lowering of mental/verbal filters.

The key here is comfort. You are comfortable around your partner, and find them and their present comforting.

But wait, don’t you get excited around your partner? Of course I do. He can still make my heart race, and my hands tingle! But that isn’t what I feel all the time. Like I said, this can probably edge closer to Storge, but we’ll discuss that one again later.

Love at first sight:

Alright, welcome to my pet peeve. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike the trope of ‘love at first sight’, it’s over used but fine in certain situations. My issue is when that is all there is to it.

I was commissioned to ghost write a romance novel for a client. Before I do that, I like to dig into their head and make sure I know what exactly they expect. He wanted a ‘love at first sight’ story, similar to Borne Identity. Boy accidentally drags girl into dangerous situation and they fall in love.

So I asked, ‘Why does he find himself attracted to her?’

‘Because it was love at first sight.’

‘So is it just physical attraction?’ I tried to clarify.

‘No, he fell in love with her, it isn’t just sex.’

‘But he is a very practical man, and she’s just a random girl from the southern states. What is it about her that he’s attracted to?’

‘He’s attracted to the fact that he’s in love with her!’

…needless to say the final product was lackluster at best, and horrifically trite at worst. People don’t risk their lives because of ‘love at first sight’. They fall in love with a persons optimism. They are attracted to their body. They become obsessed with a conflicting worldview from their own.

Don’t fall into this trap! There is nothing wrong with love at first sight, and nothing wrong with love based initially on physical attraction. Love is attraction based on qualities; figure out WHY your character is intrigued. Don’t be lazy!

Lastly, lets look at a few quick examples;

One of the characters I spend a lot of time on is a vampire named Morgana. She was abused for a long time, and convinced that love wasn’t something she deserves. This means that when she loves, she compulsively tries to become worthy. She takes care of her partners, brings them gifts, and goes to extraordinary lengths to ensure they have anything and everything they want. She is often upset when they try and return the favor, feeling as though that somehow negates her own efforts. She often looses her ability to understand or notice sarcasm in her desperation to find more things to be able to ‘provide’. This is exacerbated by her vampiristic/predatory nature; she provides for her coven and protects them, to the bitter end.

cynthiaOn the other end of the spectrum is Cynthia. Cynthia is a bard, a performer, and dramatic as all get out. She’s spent her entire life as the center of attention as the daughter of the Countess of a small town. She is talented, gifted even, and adored by her father and many of the locals. She is used to people falling for her charms with no effort. So, when things don’t go her way, her temper is epic. When she’s in love, she expects to be loved in return. This expectation means that she will flare up dramatically when she feels she isn’t the center of her partners attention. She is extremely confident, so when she gives gifts they are often things she has written, or gifts of her time/attention. When she feels she’s been wronged, she expect people to grovel at her feet for her forgiveness. When she is flustered, she doesn’t stumble over her words, she simply becomes a character of herself, pulling pretty speeches from every play and song she’s ever performed.

So, what are some things to note about Eros for writers?

  1. Everyone feels love differently! Don’t go with stereotypes – examine your character and think hard about how they would react and WHY. The why is the most important part.
  2. Love changes! After ten years, your day to day interactions with your partner are different, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still passion.
  3. Examine your past relationships! I bet the love your felt for each of those people was different. Make a list of physical and mental reactions you had to each and compare it. I bet it’ll be interesting.

That’s all for Eros. Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know!


S.J. Penner

Author of the upcoming series #Tyrant, artist, and inveterate dabbler. Creator of #guiltfreeswag for writers and gamers at Coffee Ink where 100% of proceeds go to Red Cross Emergency Services.

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Do Something Unexpected: Three Ways I’m Going Out of My Comfort Zone

I’m not a impulsive person. I’m decisive, yes, and when I decide something I hate wasting time fluttering about. If we decide to paint the walls, it’s done by the weekend. If I want to read a book, I’m done by the next day.

I’m also obsessive. I dive headfirst into things and once I’m set on something it’s rather hard for me to pivot. Ask my collab partner that I mentioned in my last post. He can definitely tell you how ridiculous and all consuming my obsessions can get.

But this means that when I get set in my ways, I get set. Change drives anxiety, growth is terrifying, loss is crippling. So if I spend a week, binge reading/writing…well…there is a good chance that is what I will be doing for the next month, and getting out my front door for a change of pace is a struggle of epic proportions.

These aren’t traits that are unique to me, by any extent. Everyone gets stuck in ruts at some point. Some more often, some less, but we all do it. The last few years I’ve been working really hard to take steps to get out of those ruts, to stop letting them define me, and where I’m going in life. So, here are three things I’m doing to get out of my comfort zone. I’d love to hear what yours are!

  1. Eating New Foods: I have always been an enormously picky eater. Cooked vegetables? Nope. Tomatoes? Nope. Anything mildly smooshy or slimy? Heck no. But over the last few years I’ve been working to change that. I’m taking it one step at a time – I can’t handle sushi, so I started with rice balls. Then rice balls with seaweed. Then rice balls with seaweed and cucumber. Tiny, little baby steps. I have to try everything I get a chance to, even if it’s the tiniest bite. It seems like a silly goal, but surprisingly I find it to be a huge boost in confidence when I can say “Yeah! I’ve tried that!”
  2. SkiingThis summer my husband went to buy new ski boots. He’s been skiing since he was knee high, and I had been all of once in my life. Falling terrifies me, and I am always one to avoid potential injury. But while he was trying on different boots, suddenly I realized my mouth was telling him that I wanted to go skiing with him this year. He was thrilled, and we’ve gone 4 times this season already. It’s terrifying, and amazing, and the views are phenomenal. Every time I go is scary, but I still go, because being at the top of the mountain and looking up after, knowing I made it all the way down, is amazing.
  3. Just Going: We’ve lived in California for two years now, and I’ve barely seen any of it. We’ve been making an effort, but my husbands job is a 9-9 and exhausting, so we really only travel on weekends. But today, just today, I asked myself; why can’t I just go? So I am. I’ve booked a hotel in a little town near a beautiful wildlife sanctuary, I’ve packed up my photography gear, and I’m heading out tonight. It’s absolutely liberating.

So many people tell you ‘not to be afraid’, but that’s bull shit. Be afraid. Be anxious. Be whatever you are. Embrace it, examine it, and face it. Just go out, and do something unexpected.

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S.J. Penner

Author of the upcoming series #Tyrant, artist, and inveterate dabbler. Creator of #guiltfreeswag for writers and gamers at Coffee Ink where 100% of proceeds go to Red Cross Emergency Services.

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Life · Writing

3 Important Requirements for Collaboration

Not everyone writes with a partner. Actually, it seems to be a rarity, and I absolutely understand why. Each person has their own process, and it can be frustrating to work when they don’t align. Or if the other persons ideas of how a character develop differ. Or if they spell it color instead of colour (Yes, autocorrect, I understand you are American, but I am Canadian. I’ll spell it how I want to).

Both of the novels I have finished were written alone, for the most part, but I have a collaboration partner who can definitely take a lot of credit for the fact that they happened. Our first collab was all the way back in high school. We clicked easily, but it was still weird, and awkward, and hilarious.

Now, ten years later, we still work together to develop stories and characters. So I thought it would be a good idea to share with you all the top three requirements for a healthy collaboration.


This one seems obvious, but I think it’s the hardest to actually manage. My partner and I have had more than a decade of friendship, and years of practice. Even now there are things I think, “Will he think this idea is stupid?”

Trust is hard to build, but once you’ve got it, miraculous things can happen. My advice for this one – don’t rush it. Don’t pick some hugely intense, emotionally draining or exposing project for your first collab. We started with a silly project that is still available, though paused indefinitely, Of Passion and Apathy. We loved the characters, and what started out as a light hearted joke turned into a project we still pick away on, almost 11 years later. Don’t be afraid to start light, and delve deep as your grow your trust.

Never. Happened.jpg
(All images are (c) S.J.Penner. Do not repost separate from this blog.)


There is something to be said to sticking to a project, even when you don’t feel inspired by it at the moment. I agree with that, and you do need to realize that writing isn’t something easy, and pushing through is require. But sometimes, with a partner, you need to let yourselves explore a bit further. It’s a way to build that trust we just talked about, and to get a feel for the other persons style and interests.

Our second project is an ongoing BEHEMOTH. At the moment the world we developed has four ongoing novels, a pathfinder game setting, drawings, comics, and a ridiculous amount more. There are tons of different little stories, characters, and ideas that we ran around with, running with some and discarding others. This means that we have a world that is intensely fleshed out, which makes any writing we do within it much more intense and immersive.

So explore together! Find new lands and new characters, even if they aren’t part of your core narrative. Have FUN!


Honesty is integral, as partners. There are two sides of it. You need to be honest in your critique, but also honest about yourself. The first is pretty straightforward.

If you hate a character, or if you think they are reacting the wrong way, you need to say something. Discuss it, let them explain their side and explain yours. If you don’t, your flow will be thrown off, making a long and amazing process slow and painful.

The second is harder. You need to be honest with your partner about yourself. A writing partner (especially a long term one) is almost like a spouse. They will see you excited, energized, and creative. They will see you annoyed, petulant, and frustrated. They will see you at your worst and at your best, and the better they understand WHY, the better they can help you through it.

For example; let’s say they want a character to have been sexually abused in their past. For some people, this wouldn’t be a problem. But for many of us, it can be a touchy subject, either because of personal experience, or because of someone close to us. It might make sense for the CHARACTER, if it happened, but maybe it isn’t okay for you to have to write it.

You absolutely, positively need to be honest. If you have hard lines about things you are comfortable with, you need to tell your partner. They can’t avoid something that they don’t know is a trigger.

Ignorance is Bliss.jpg
(All images are (c) S.J.Penner. Do not repost separate from this blog.)

Writing delves into the darkest parts of humanity, so TRUST your partner, EXPLORE your boundaries, and be HONEST when you reach a line you don’t feel comfortable crossing.

And write. Just write. Collaboration can be hard, painful and frustrating,  but I can tell you from experience, it is also a way to find your best friend.


Writing is so much more fun with friends! Remind yourself with a mug! get a mug? 100% of proceeds go directly to American Red Cross.

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S.J. Penner

Author of the upcoming series #Tyrant, artist, and inveterate dabbler. Creator of #guiltfreeswag for writers and gamers at Coffee Ink where 100% of proceeds go to Red Cross Emergency Services.

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Life · Writing

Why I Gave Up #Nanowrimo2016 (And What I Learned by Doing It)

I’ve completely Nanowrimo twice, as well as various Camp Nanowrimos, and my own personal ‘nanowrimo-esque’ goals. I’ve written and am currently editing two novels, one of them close to 200k words, while writing the second one in that series.

For Nanowrimo 2016 I decided I was going to get through 50k words of the sequel to Tyrant, my 2015 Nanowrimo project. I barely managed 20k.

Now, that doesn’t sound too bad for most people – 20 000 words is still a lot of words! But I am a home maker, and my time is spent either volunteering or writing. Hitting 2000 words a day is,  normally, not a problem. I do that most of the year, one way or another.

But in October, I had begun to struggle. My anxiety had flared up, depression creeping in. My mind was sluggish, my attention span shorter than that of a gnat, and everything hurt. I still fought on. I trudged through paragraph after uninspired paragraph.

Finally, two weeks ago, I snapped. I dragged every last blanket and pillow into my bed and refused to come out the entire weekend. I have no idea how my husband managed to get in there to sleep. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t barely sit up, and everything just hurt.

Now, I’m not one to ramble about my personal life on the internet. I have enough trouble opening up to those who are closest to me. So, this isn’t going to be a post of me blogging out all of my woes. Suffice to say, I was unhappy, and I didn’t know why.

I didn’t want to know why, because that meant I would have to deal with it.

Finally, my writing partner and I were working on a scene between two of our characters, and one of the characters said to her counterpart –

“Fine, go mope. You are the only person I know who feels guilty for making someone feel good.”

It was a blow to the heart. An offhand comment while spitballing ideas summarized the entirety of the desperate aching void I had been fighting against. I fell to pieces. A character in a world nothing like ours, in a situation nothing like mine, and she had managed to shatter my carefully constructed defenses like a catapult stone.

So I stopped. I put everything aside – my writing, editing, everything. I sat, and I thought, and I cried. I confronted the people I needed to confront. I confronted myself about why I had let everything get this bad. I wrote emails, I made plans. I finally feel like I have solid ground beneath my feet for the first time in months.

All thanks to a character that had nothing to do with Nanowrimo.

Now, I love Nanowrimo. I adore it, and I have every intention of trying again next year. I’ll do Camp Nanos, and I will keep writing and editing. But Lord above, I’m so glad I stopped.

My mental health was crumbling, and I was dreading writing every single time I sat down. Writing is hard, and there are times when all I want to do is throw in the towel, but I was hating it, and that wasn’t okay. A lot of people feel terribly guilty when they don’t complete their Nano goals, and I’m here to tell you: It’s OKAY.

Life gets in the way. You can get in the way. But there is always next year. Next month.

Don’t give up on your story just because you had to give up on Nanowrimo. Don’t give up on yourself.


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S.J. Penner

Author of the upcoming series #Tyrant, artist, and inveterate dabbler. Creator of #guiltfreeswag for writers and gamers at Coffee Ink where 100% of proceeds go to Red Cross Emergency Services.

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Life · Writing

Why are writers so afraid to have fun?

The last two years I have delved into the world of writers on the web. There are a lot of us out there, from bloggers (of which I hope to become one), to novelists (of which I am one, though currently unpublished), to researchers, to poets. Every one of us saw the open seas of the interwebs and said, ‘You know, I think I have something to say!’. So we picked up our pens (or pencils, or keyboards, or quills) and we set to work to destroy that horrific white page of nothingness.

Now, the problem with writing is that, well, it’s hard. Writer’s block is a real thing, on top of the fact that most of us only do it as a hobby. Time is against us; families need keeping, food needs cooking, clothes need washing. So when we finally sit down to write, we feel like we have no time to waste. We have important things to tell the world! Intriguing, twisted, and complex stories to tell. So we stare at the Blank Page. And we stare. Then we stare some more.

We’re tired, we’re uninspired, we’re blocked. We’re terrified that what we write won’t be good enough. We haven’t learned enough, aren’t good enough. So we read books on writing, we complain about writer’s block on forums, we chat with other writers on Facebook. We do everything we can do, except actually WRITE.

There are a million gifs, memes, and posts on the difficulties of creative pursuits. People constantly reminding the world that writing is WORK, that it is HARD, and that it comes at a cost. Writing makes us depressed. Writing burns us out. Writing is a burden.

But WHY? Why are we as writers so determined to undercut ourselves? Don’t get me wrong, writing a novel is hard! Of course it is! There are times where you will want to give up the whole, ridiculous endeavor. I certainly had a few of those moments working on the first draft of ‘Tyrant’.

I think, though, that people come at writing the wrong way, nowadays. Everything I read is always about ‘accessibility’, ‘marketability’, and ‘main streaming’. It’s all about giving the audience what they want — or at least what that last book on digital marketing we read tells us they want. We all focus so hard on what will sell that we forget what writing is all about.

We write to share our inner worlds with the outer world. And dammit, whos inner world is really THAT serious, ALL the time?

So, for all my fellow writers out there, here is my proposal; WRITE WHAT MAKES YOU SMILE! Stop worrying so much about whether or not your are hitting your ‘target audience’. Don’t stress about marketability. Don’t panic about what a publisher might say about it.

Does your story make you smile when you think about writing it(yes, evil, maniacal smiles count. We all love to torture our characters)? Because chances are, if it makes you smile, it will make other smile too.

Shut off Facebook. Log off twitter (after following me @sj_penner, obviously). Ignore the inner voice telling your that no one wants to hear what you have to say. Just think of something that makes you smile, andwrite.

If you need a more physical reminder of this particular idea, why not get a mug? 100% of proceeds go directly to charity.

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S.J. Penner

Author of the upcoming series #Tyrant, artist, and inveterate dabbler. Creator of #guiltfreeswag for writers and gamers at Coffee Ink where 100% of proceeds go to Red Cross Emergency Services.

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