What Escape Rooms Have Taught Me About Life

by Linda Budzinski

I may have mentioned previously on this blog that I’m a big fan of escape rooms. I adore all kinds of puzzles, and my favorite games are almost always cooperative activities, where everyone works together to win rather than competing against one another. Escape rooms combine both puzzles and cooperation … what could be better?

I’ve tried out several escape rooms and even recently created one for my church youth group, and in addition to providing hours of fun (and sometimes frustration), they’ve taught me a few things about how to approach life out here in the real world:

If one thing’s not working, try something else. It’s easy to convince yourself that your solution to a problem is the one-and-only perfect solution. But sometimes, no matter how many times you do the math, your solution will NOT open the freaking combination. Unless you want that bomb to go off and yourself and all your friends to die, maybe just maybe you should accept that it’s time to try something different. As they say, one definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Don’t overthink everything. I tend to be a big overthinker, worrying about every little thing. Pretty sure it’s because I’m a Virgo. But often the solution to your problem is right in front of you. Things really ARE as they appear. You just need to take a deep breath and trust yourself and trust your gut.

Two (or three or four or eight) minds are better than one. I’m always a little worried when I go to an escape room that everyone else is going to figure out all the puzzles before me and I won’t get to experience those “aha” moments that make solving so fun. But it always turns out that solving them as a group, figuring out little pieces and putting those pieces together, makes the “aha” moment even more rewarding. Different people bring different perspectives, and that’s a good thing. Especially when a bomb is about to go off.

‘Tis better to have tried and lost than never to have tried at all. You win some, you lose some, as my husband and I have learned. Sometimes you walk away with all the cash, and sometimes you … well, you suck.

And that’s okay. Sometimes trying, having fun, and working together, win or lose, is worth more than the end result.

Teens are super smart. Okay, I already knew that, but man, did I relearn it this week. As I mentioned, I constructed an escape room for our youth group. The puzzles had, I thought, the perfect mix of difficulty, misdirection, and fun. When I tried them out on some of my adult friends, they struggled and stumbled in all the right places before figuring them out. The teens? ESCAPED IN FOUR MINUTES. I still have no idea how that happened. They are brilliant, y’all. Next time you go to an escape room, think about taking a teen!

Have you ever done an escape room? What did you think? What did it teach you?

The Secret to an HEA

Welcome to the October edition of Ask the Sweethearts! First, congratulations to Sioux Trett, winner of our September giveaway. She receives a Sweetheart book of her choice, just for being a subscriber. Thank you to all of our wonderful subscribers! xoxoxo

This month’s question: If you had to pick one thing that is key to a “happily ever after” relationship, what would it be?

Karole Cozzo: Being on the other person’s side. I think the need to be on one another’s sides manifests in hundreds of different ways, often daily. It means recognizing their needs when they’re different from your own. It means having their back against problems or people or the world at large. It means supporting their interests or ambitions even if they don’t interest you or involve you. It means nurturing when nurturing is called for, or realizing you need to step back when you can’t fix a problem or they don’t want you to. It means celebrating a person’s accomplishments or recognizing their strengths at times when you might be experiencing struggle or defeat. Recognizing as a couple that you’re on the same team, even when you have your differences and arguments, and truly wanting for the best for the other person…. I think that’s one of the most critical components of a happily ever after, in fiction or reality.

Robin Constantine: One thing I think is key to a happily ever after is a sense of humor. Humor is such a personal quirk — there’s nothing quite like sharing a good laugh with someone to realize how well a person “gets you.”  Making the object of your affection laugh (with you, not at you, although I guess under the right circumstances that would be okay too!) is one of the best feelings in the world. If you can keep a sense of humor through the tough times, you know you’ve got someone you can count on.

Erin Fletcher: The one thing I think is key to a “happily ever after” relationship is happiness. Okay, okay, maybe that’s cheating, but hear me out. Happiness means joking and laughing together. It means not taking the other person (or yourself!) too seriously. It means spending time doing things you both truly enjoy. It means brightening the other person’s day and savoring every second when they do the same for you. With happiness, there’s no room for sweating the small stuff. There’s no room for anger or jealousy or other challenges. See? Happiness leads to happily ever after. Simple but true!

Linda Budzinski: As Aretha Franklin says, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. (And more than just a little bit.) Because if you’re together long enough, you’re going to hit a rough patch or two or twenty, but if you respect each other, you can get through it. Respect isn’t enough to get through everything, but it’s essential to get through anything. Without it, you don’t stand a chance. The tough times will tear you apart.

Darcy Woods: Ever read or attend a workshop by story master Michael Hauge? If so, my answer’s going to have a ring of the familiar. (If not, I can’t recommend him enough!) The key thing that makes for enduring HEAs is when two characters connect at their essence. Sound too New Agey? Don’t worry, you won’t need a mystical satchel of crystals to understand. This is basic human psychology, folks! Because we each believe ourselves to be a particular kind of person. We lead entire lives fulfilling this narrative. This is the face we show the world, but not necessarily the full truth of who we are. Our “essence,” or core, is who we are when you peel away all the defenses and limiting self-beliefs. It’s our purest self. Now, think about some of your favorite literary couples and what’s the common denominator? They almost ALL share this innate ability to see something in one another that the rest of the world does not (or doesn’t see with quite the same clarity). This is the person they fall in love with — their truest, most unfiltered self. And how can you not hardcore swoon for a love so deep?

Stephanie Scott: While in romance books it’s often true that opposites attract, in real life you need at least some common interests — a shared sense of humor or similar way of looking at the world. I do think a little bit of opposite interests helps so each person maintains his or her own identity and strengths. Being able to value each other’s unique interests is key to the “ever after” aspect of happy.

What do you think? What is the key to an HEA? Tell us in the comments! xoxoxo

Contest: Subscribing Has Its Privileges

For our September giveaway, we’re saying “thank you” to our subscribers. If you subscribe to our posts, you are automatically eligible to win! If you don’t yet subscribe, it’s not too late. Simply use the “Subscribe” button on the sidebar. Bonus: You’ll never miss another Sweethearts post or contest! 🙂

We’ll pick a random subscriber on October 4 and announce the winner on the 5th to win a Sweethearts book of your choice.

Good luck! xoxoxo

Jenn Nguyen: No Regrets

Our September guest is Jenn P. Nguyen, whose debut novel, THE WAY TO GAME THE WALK OF SHAME, came out in June 2016 from Macmillan’s Swoon Reads. Named a 2017 Quick Pick for Reluctant Young Adult Readers, this YA rom-com is about a straight arrow who wakes up after a party next to a bad-boy surfer dude and decides that the best way to silence the inevitable gossip is for the two of them to pretend they’re actually dating. What could go wrong?

How many books have you written, and how many have seen the light of day?

I have written six novels. THE WAY TO GAME THE WALK OF SHAME is the fifth and only one to be published. I’ve queried all the others, but now as I look back on them, I can see why I didn’t have any bites. And why they’re now buried on my bookshelf. But I don’t regret any of it at all. With each book, I learned a bit more about the writing and querying process, which ultimately led me to publishing THE WAY TO GAME.

Well then, it was all totally worth it, because this book is adorbs. Through all that, what was your biggest query mistake?

Oh, boy. My biggest mistake in querying was just diving straight in and not doing my research. For my first novel, I queried a 150k YA time travel. Yes, you read it correctly. 150 thousand words. That started with a prologue AND a dream. Plus I queried every agent who accepted YA. I’m actually surprised that I even got a partial request on that novel. So my advice to everyone is research, research, research. Research your writing techniques. Research how to query. Research who to query. Almost to the point where it’s borderline obsession because you want to give your book the best possible chance out there and sometimes you only get one time to make an impression.

How do you manage to stay positive and keep at it when you’re dealing with rejection and/or critical reviews?

When you’re a writer, you basically have to deal with rejection and criticism all the time. From critique partners, to agents, to editors, to readers. I’ve been querying for years and I thought I had pretty thick skin. Ha, silly me. Then my book was published and those reviews were a whole different ballpark. And just as scary. When I was querying or editing, I took in all of the critiques and tried to figure out how to make my book better. But when it’s published, there’s basically nothing you can do and then reading the negative reviews does more harm then good. So now I try not to read them, and if I do happen to catch a bad review, I just try to remember that it’s a matter of opinion and taste and my book isn’t for everyone.

OK, onto the fun stuff. Kissing scenes: easy or tough?

Oh, gosh. You would think that since my favorite genre is YA contemporary romance (to read and to write) that I would love kissing scenes. Which I do. But I CANNOT write them. Well, obviously I do because there are several kissing scenes in THE WAY TO GAME THE WALK OF SHAME but it is so hard for me. Usually when I write, I imagine the scene unfolding like a movie in my head, but when it comes to kissing scenes, there are so many bloopers and takes. I have trouble figuring out the emotions and where all the arms and legs go. Thankfully YouTube is a great source of inspiration for that, but then sometimes I end up binge watching a Korean drama or Gossip Girl.

Tell us about your most memorable fangirl moment. Who did you meet?

This is really embarrassing so it’ll just stay between us. A few years ago, I went to the Romantic Times Convention and met Stephanie Perkins. The Stephanie Perkins. She had been my writing idol for ages and I met her after her panel. Of course she was amazing and sweet which just made her even more amazing and I was pretty sure I was the emoticon with the heart-shaped eyes the entire time we talked.

Now, tell us about the first time someone fangirled or fanboyed over you.

I was blessed enough to meet a bunch of readers at Romantic Times last year, but the first time someone fangirled over me was in an email a month or two after THE WAY TO GAME THE WALK OF SHAME. They just wanted to let me know how much the book meant to them and how happy it made them, which made my week. Writing takes so much energy and time that sometimes it becomes exhausting and disheartening. But to know that you’re somehow making someone’s day a little brighter makes it all worthwhile.

That’s so awesome. Stephanie Perkins, watch out! And with that … we’re on to the speed round!

  • Alpha males vs. sensitive types: Definitely sweet sensitive cuties
  • Morning glory vs. night owl: Used to be a night owl, but now that I have a baby, I’m just a wilted morning glory. 🙂
  • Wizards vs. vampires: Wizards for the win!
  • French fries vs. cookies: Fries
  • High heels vs. flats: Flats all the way!
  • Friday night vs. Sunday morning: Friday nights with the weekend ahead

 Thank you for stopping by and sharing! Here’s where readers can find Jenn:

Website * Twitter

Jenn Nguyen fell in love with books in third grade and spent the rest of her school years reading through lunchtime and giving up recess to organize the school library. She has a degree in business administration from the University of New Orleans and still lives in the city with her husband. Jenn spends her days reading, dreaming up YA romances, and binge watching Korean dramas all in the name of “research.”

Embracing Imperfection

by Robin Constantine

A few months ago I attended a local Paint Nite with my sister. If you’re not familiar with Paint Nite, the skinny is this: A group of people get together at a local restaurant/bar & grill to drink adult beverages and follow along with an instructor to paint a masterpiece of their own. Sounds kind of fun, right? To be honest, my inner teen rebelled at the idea. Organized frivolity? Um, totally cringey. Older, wiser me wanted to simply create without judgment and chill. Something I rarely, if ever, allow myself to do.

On the Paint Nite website, you can type in your zip code and find events near you that feature paintings of varying degrees of difficulty. My sister and I agreed on a picture called “Let Your Light Shine” and paid our entry fee. We arrived about half an hour early, ordered up some sauvignon blanc from the bar and picked out our work space. Two seats, close to the front, so we could have a good view of the painting we were going to recreate.


Easy, right?

Once we figured out how to tie our green artist aprons, we were given small palettes with splotches of red, blue, and black. (White and yellow came later.) The instructor turned up the classic rock, picked up her thickest paintbrush and launched right into masterpiece creation 101. Staring at my own blank canvas was daunting. I hesitated before committing to mixing a background color. I’m a perfectionist, so I really wanted to match the color of the original, even though the instructor was all about putting your own stamp on it.

We all know what perfection does to creation, right? In the words of the inimitable Ginger Spice … (via Brainyquote.com):

Yep. Paint Nite was bringing out that creative demon that relishes reminding me my work is, well, imperfect trash. This was supposed to be fun, and there I was fretting over “getting it right.” I took a sip of wine and forged ahead. We only had so much time for each section of the picture before we had to wave our canvases over our head in time with the music to help the paint dry faster. (cue inner teen eye roll) My background wasn’t exact, but it would have to do … then onto the branches.

Again, I fretted about the color, the thickness of the branches, the shape of the leaves. Who did I think was going to see this? It’s not as if I was gunning for The Frick Collection, but to that part of me that has trouble letting go and enjoying the process, it felt like I was. At one point, while the ladies next to me enthusiastically belted out “Living on a Prayer” and painted with a careless fervor I secretly envied, my fist clenched with artistic angst.

Why am I so uptight?

It’s a question I ask myself all the time during first draft. I envy those writers who say first draft is their favorite part of the process. Mine is revision — that’s when I play. For me there’s something very freeing about having words on the page. First drafts make me nervous — a blank canvas. Instead of getting excited about all the possibilities, I focus on the million different ways I could screw it up. Older, wiser, l’artiste moi, KNOWS it’s about the journey. That part of the fun of creation is the discovery. When had I lost that playfulness?

This is what no one tells you.

Under deadline, it’s difficult to be playful and appreciate the journey.

It’s not impossible, of course. I’ve done it — hit that gorgeous time-bending sweet spot when the writing comes effortlessly and you look up and four hours have passed. Some days, though, it feels like a race against the clock to hit a word count. I know that sounds clinical and devoid of joy but sometimes it’s also necessary. While the creative demon of perfectionism can be oppressive at times, it fuels me to produce, makes me strive to work harder, take risks, and meet deadlines. There’s a fine line between being driven by your demons and being defeated by them. I’ve learned to embrace the struggle, but it’s an ongoing process. I didn’t think it would rear its gnarly head at Paint Nite though.

I’ll admit to gritting my teeth as I tried to get the exact curvature of the hanging mason jars. The final touch was the words on the jars and the fireflies surrounding the trees. The instructor encouraged us to use a different phrase or names of family members. I had to take a few deep breaths, allow myself to relax — going off book? Gah!! I liked the simple “Let Your Light Shine,” so I stuck with that. After I was finished, I peeked at the canvas of one of the women who’d been singing and laughing while she painted. It looked nothing like the original picture. The colors were off. The mason jars were ROUND! She’d put her kids initials on each jar! And yet, it was still beautiful and most definitely her own.

Here is my finished product … be nice. 😉

On our way out of the bar, we passed a table of people who were just finishing up their dinner. They were curious about all the laughter they’d heard in the back room and wanted to see what we’d been up to. Some of us passing by held up our canvases. We were greeted with polite smiles and nods. No “Nice” or “Great work.” Just … amused looks. Maybe it was the wine, or maybe it was that feeling of having created something just for enjoyment, but their lack of a positive response didn’t bother me.

In spite of having to tamp down that perfectionist voice several times during the night, I actually had … dare I say it … fun. I like to create without worrying about its worth, to lose myself in play. I had started with a blank canvas and turned it into something that kind of resembled three mason jars hanging from a tree.

A friend of mine once talked about admiring a certain piece of pottery because she could really see the “hand” of the artist in it. I’d never thought of seeing art that way. It turns what might seem clumsy to the eye into something more profound.

Imperfection lets you see the hand in the handiwork.

Imperfection is what makes creative work unique.

Imperfection is you.

Are you a perfectionist with your creative endeavors? How do you deal with it?