I don’t necessarily like to go back and revisit things, but today I thought I’d take a look back at four previous Fantasy Author’s Handbook posts and see if I’ve managed to take my own advice, correct my own shortcomings, or keep my own promises.

That isn’t always easy to do, but I’ve never been a big fan of “do what I say, not what I do”-style advice, so in the same spirit of actually trying my own writing exercises, let’s see how I’ve done on four points, working my way back from the most recent.

On July 5, only six weeks ago, I wrote about . . .


In that post I bemoaned my own lack of progress on a couple projects and also did some research on the origin of the eight-hour work day and how many hours real people actually work. At the end of that post, I set myself the goal of increasing my work day from that less-than-four-hour low to six hours.

So how did I do?

It bears repeating that this is time spent actively working, not including lunch, errands, talking on the phone with friends, taking the dog out for a walk, yelling at my kids to take the dog out for a walk, and all the other things that intrude on the work hours of someone who works from home in the same way that meetings, “water cooler chat,” the day’s commute, and other distractions and time-wasters intrude on an office worker’s day.

Since I post these on Tuesday and wanted to make an immediate change after July 5, I added up my weekly hours as though a work week ran Wednesday-Tuesday. In the full five weeks of this modified work week since that initial post I’ve averaged out to 4.75 hours per day, an average increase of .9 hours per day. So, haven’t quite made it to six hours, but I’m headed in the right direction. And more importantly, running behind on nothing.

This shows that by gathering data, thinking about it, comparing it to the experiences of others, it is possible even for a middle-aged gentleman like myself to change his evil, or at least slovenly ways. Looking at this week’s to do list, if I keep my eyes on that prize, I’ll be getting to six hour work days starting . . . yikes . . . today!

On April 5 I blamed myself for a series of . . .


The back pain only got worse, and after a solid year went by since the first jolt of breath-stopping pain turned into lingering chronic agony, I finally had to try another doctor—anything to figure out what the hell this was, especially with some other really scary symptoms including numbness in my arms and legs suddenly showing up.

Finally, finally, got a doctor to look at me for more than a few seconds, take blood and x-rays, and . . . drum roll please . . .

Osteoarthritis of the thoracic spine!

We have a winner.

What causes this? I suppose my crooked posture photographed in that post might not help but it’s looking like I’m just too God damned fat. I’m tall, at about 6’3”, but 360 pounds is just way, way too many pounds.

Don’t believe me? Try this:

Get a hundred pounds of sand and strap it to the front of your abdomen. Carry that around everywhere, always. Sleep with it. Wake up with it. Go to bed with it.



Stop being so fat.

I’m now into week three of no processed sugar, very little if any fat, very much less meat, and regular aerobic exercise every week day including stretching exercises and Wudang Five Animals Qi Gong. I already have more almost pain-free days, and will get back to the doctor in the next couple weeks to see if there’s something else I can be doing.

I’ve lost weight before and if you’ve never had to attempt it, you have no idea how hard it is. I use food as an anti-depressant and it can be just as hard to kick as any drug. But strangely, I’ve found that I have no sugar cravings at all, don’t miss the afternoon salty snack, and can walk away from the third serving at dinner—even seconds!—without the withdrawals. I think I managed to get my body to such a damaged state that my brain actually recognized that it’s more painful to be this fat than it is to go without ice cream. Fingers crossed, we can get this thing beat in a year.


. . . was a promise I made on January 12 when I realized that most of the books I was reading at any given time were older than me, and I’m pretty old.

I started off by adding the recent Elvis Costello autobiography to my “currently reading” shelf and . . . just finished reading it last night.


It’s a pretty long book, but really? Eight months?

I blame the New Yorker, which just keeps coming.

Every week.

Week after week.

My non-New Yorker reading really dropped off the first half of this year.

But thanks in large part to spending half an hour on the exercise bike every day, I’ve started reading more in general, so let’s see if I’ve managed to read more newer books . . .

My current books are:

Essential Doctor Strange, Vol. 2. Marvel comic book reprints from the late 60s. Not new.

Black Legion of Callisto by Lin Carter. Early 70s sword and planet series. Pretty much the same age as the good doctor.

A book from 2015!

A book from 2015!

Space Wolf by William King. A Warhammer 40,000 novel from—hey, not that long ago: 1999. That’s only a year older than my son. I think I said I wanted to read books that were less than eighteen months old but what the hell, it came from my random science fiction grab bag box, and I’m diggin’ it, so, whatever.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver, mostly from the 80s. Raymond Carver is a national treasure, so . . .

And replacing Elvis Costello for my current non-fiction read: The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow from 2015! Hey!

So, yeah, at least there’s nothing from before the time of Christ.

Baby steps.

But my favorite of all . . .


This one I’ve fully embraced right from the get-go.

I love this.

You really need to do this.

One thing I’ve added to it is to mix up the prompts more. Some didn’t really help me, and I had a couple other ideas, but just today my Calendar told me to strike the superhero pose and I did, and it always makes me feel better.

This month includes prompts like “fix something that’s broken,” “Read Dr. Strange,” and “Tweet about someone else’s book” that just stops me, gets me doing something else, clears my brain, maybe gets me moving, and otherwise not just wallow in the to do list.

You might not have a hundred pounds to lose, you might already be reading new books or don’t agree that new books have anything to offer, and might not be entirely in control of your work hours, but if nothing else, try this.

I’ve come to look forward to those little reminders and try not to look ahead at them so I can be surprised.

When was the last time you were pleasantly surprised?


—Philip Athans



About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. I have to do baby steps myself. In most of the areas, you’ve mentioned. I’m trying to change some of my habits as well. I eat when stressed. I also need to work on my story time. Lately dr. runs have been eating them. I do read newer books, though. It’s actually harder for me to read any classics as I am crunched for time. I have bookshelves overflowing with books and could start my own library, lol. I’ll get to them.

  2. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…8/22/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  3. patriciaeimer says:

    Baby steps with the habits. We’re all weak when it comes to our bad habits. Just know that we’re all rooting for you!

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