To those of you who are scaling Mount NaNoWriMo, I salute you at your three-quarter mark, where the oxygen may be getting thin. Breathe deep! Stay hydrated! Dip into your trail mix! And here, again, is the link for Kitty’s support-and-encouragement forum: I’ve been lurking now and then.

On August 18, 2015, Li’l Ol’ Me wrote, Does anyone have some motivation tips? I get anywhere from 20-60 pages into a story/novel and I just give up after one too many bad scenes. My writing also always seems so, to quote your editor, Gail, “flat.” Same sentence structure, simply awful adjectives and boring characters. Help!

In Writing Magic, I talk a lot about the negative voice that afflicts many of us when we write or do anything creative. In the book, I recommend telling that voice to Shut up! And, nine years after publication, I haven’t changed my mind. Self-criticism is a potion that kills motivation. I’ve written this many times here, but it always bears repeating: we mustn’t sabotage ourselves.

The negative voice masquerades as valuable. How can we improve if we can’t tell whether our work is good or bad?

But the truth is that we will improve if we keep writing. That’s all that’s necessary. It’s just like learning a physical skill. Suppose I want to throw a ball farther for Reggie to chase. I throw and throw. My arm starts to figure things out, and I improve. If I’m dissatisfied, it doesn’t help to call myself a ninety pound weakling (I’m very tiny), but it may help to look online for advice on throwing and to watch videos of, say, pitchers. If I can afford to, I can hire a coach, and I wager she will not say, “Gee, you stink at this. How pathetic.”

Aside from many wonderful books on writing, there are lots of online resources in addition to this blog. But let me mention a few books that I found helpful when I was starting out. I haven’t looked at them lately, so to be safe, I’ll say they’re at the high school and above level. My favorite for dealing with the negative voice is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser. These that follow are more general, but most deal to some extent with self-criticism: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, Writing Down the Bones and Wild Mind by Natalie Goldberg, What If? by Pamela Painter and Anne Bernays, and Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (old-fashioned in tone, but modern in ideas).

So that’s advice for getting rid of or minimizing the buzzkill effects of self-criticism. As for positive motivation, I’d suggest imagining an admiring reader who really gets you, who delights in every twist of your fascinating mind.

Real, live people can help, too, friends who can be counted on to be positive if you say you might be feeling a tad fragile, or siblings when they’re in a good mood. And let’s not forget pets and stuffed animals. We’re looking for approval here!

It can help, too, to set goals, a length of time or page count that you want to accomplish in a day or a week. I love NaNoWriMo for this, and for the support contestants get. But–and this is critical–we have to forgive ourselves when we fail to meet our targets, even when we fail again and again. This is exactly what I do. When I start to write, I note the time. When I stop, I note the time. I may start and stop many times. I’m not looking for time in a single sitting, but over the course of a day. My goal is two-and-a-quarter hour minimum. Usually I make it, but sometimes I don’t, and I forgive myself. If I didn’t, starting the next day would be harder.

I rarely say what I’m about to, but maybe I should. Before I became a writer, I painted and drew, and had the worst negative voice in creation, which I also discuss in Writing Magic. When I started writing, I found that I was kinder to myself. It is possible that if you can’t quiet that negative voice, if you can’t imagine an admiring reader, if you don’t believe the praise that comes in from people who think highly of you (and from your pets and stuffed animals), maybe writing is not for you. Your creativity may be expressed more happily in another way. You can be a great reader; you can esteem marvelous writing–but you don’t have to be a writer yourself. You may be creative in another one of the arts, or in science, or you may be amazingly intuitive about people, which is an art, too. Writing is hard and sometimes miserable, but it shouldn’t always be so. There should be moments, possibly even consecutive hours, of exhilaration.

I’ve written a post about repeated sentence structure, which I won’t repeat. I’m sure I’ve also written about adjectives, basically that we should do without them whenever we can. We should question every one. If, for example, we describe a puppy as adorable, can we eliminate the adjective, and instead show the puppy and make the reader understand that it’s cute? But if we must have an adjective and we’re sick of the ones we use and reuse, the thesaurus is our friend. We don’t have to think up all our words. A thesaurus makes us more successful, not less original. I consult one often, just put the word vexed in a poem, which popped up as a synonym for chafe. I never would have thought of it on my own.

As for characters, I suspect that here Li’l Ol’ Me is being hard on herself, and this might be a good time to ask a sympathetic friend for an opinion. Have him read a scene and ask him to describe the character you want to know about. If he says boring–well, he won’t. But be sure not to prompt him.

Characters and people are interesting because of what they say, do, and think. If we’re having trouble making a character come alive, we can list possibilities. If she has to say something, we can list five possible lines of dialogue. Same with thoughts and actions. Once she comes alive, you probably will find yourself needing lists less and less, but you still may from time to time, which is not a failure.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your MC discovers she’s a character in a book when all action ceases because its author is in the hospital, comatose, unlikely to survive. The story has been halted at a climactic moment. Give her the task of finishing the story, and fill her with self-doubt about the artistic choices she makes. Put her life at risk. (Years ago, I read Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull: Confidence Man–high school and up–which was unfinished because Mann died. If I remember right, the book ends in the middle of a sentence. Very bad for a reader’s health, too!)

∙ For the rest of the week, notice how often people apologize and what they apologize for. Then write a scene for a character who apologizes for inconsequentials. She is always sorry when she’s done nothing wrong. Make her actually do something bad or hurtful. Decide if she apologizes then. Continue with the scene.

∙ Do you think evildoers have high self esteem? Write a story with a villain who has a low opinion of himself. How does that play out?

∙ Now go the other way with a villain who loves herself. How does it go?

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Amazing as always, Mrs.L, this is exactly what I needed right now.
    My MC is the most boring person on the face of this earth. I guess that is saying something because she’s not even FROM this earth! Its silly, but I never would have thought of making a list of possibilities when I’m stuck on what she might say or do. Thanks!
    Anyway, hope everyone is doing great with their writing, have a a happy thanksgiving, and my best wishes to all my fellow WriMo’s this month!
    Got to go now, need to figure out how MC escapes three strong castle guards while an aligator is hot in her heals and a serving maid just dropped a steaming bowl of soup all over her dress…… Yeah, I should probably get to it…..

  2. Butterfly Yulia says:

    I’ve been working like a worker bee on my screenplay this month, and I’ve gotten it done! Now I just have a few questions:

    1. When it comes to character descriptions, I’ve come up with these:
    Nicola Raducova: The current Miss Universe. She is a small, pretty young woman with long brown hair and expressive eyes.
    Anna Helgesson: Nicola’s mother. A stout older woman with coarse gray hair and a Swedish accent.
    Eric Turkowski: Nicola’s boyfriend. A preppy, lean young man with curly blond hair.
    Are those too wordy?

    2. In my query, should I suggest a rating for the screenplay, or will the director decide for himself/herself?

    3. If so, how do I rate it? My story is very clean, but the story is about a young woman with a guilty conscience (she won an unfairly judged Miss Universe pageant) and it’s kind of dramatic. There are several crying scenes, and the MC struggles with self-doubt and jealous people. There’s no iffy language, indecent touching, or violence, so I think it could be G, but I’m not sure if the little kids will get it.

    4. Is it legal to write a story where a famous building (like the British House of Parliament) blows up? Or are there laws about that because it’s a real place? Just curious.

    5. I’m not sure how much action I should detail. I know you guys suggested not to describe too much of the characters’ actions, so I trimmed up a lot of it. Are these scenes all right?

    NICOLA (pushing Mr. Turkowski forward): I have to go.
    MR. TURKOWSKI: Wait up!
    Nicola walks down the hallway. Mr. Turkowski grunts and runs after her. Nicola jumps into her car and drives away. Mr. Turkowski arrives at the curb panting. He sighs when he sees she’s gone.
    Nicola is pacing in her bedroom. Anna opens the door.
    NICOLA (flopping onto her bed): Go away.
    ANNA (walking into the room): I brought supper.
    NICOLA: I’m not hungry.
    Anna sits down on the bed and waves the plate under Nicola’s nose.
    ANNA: It’s your favorite.
    Thank you, and sorry for the length of this!

    • Congratulations on finishing!
      The character descriptions are fine, as well as the actions/movements you’ve included. As far as rating goes, that’s not decided by you or the director, but the MPAA after filming has been done and they screen it for content.

  3. Hey everyone!
    I haven’t posted for years probably. I used to have a Tinkerbell picture if anyone remembers…I have a couple questions about the Rutger’s Conference. What age people usually do it? As in is it strange for people on the young end of the spectrum to attend? Also do you have to have a complete draft of a novel or will a couple chapters do? One last, unrelated question. I believe Gail that you said philosophy isn’t a good major for students interested in writing. What is? I might be completely wrong but I thought English was more about writing research papers. Or is minoring in creative writing helpful enough? I need advice. Thanks!
    Also hooray to those finishing up NaNoWriMo!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I remember you! Nice to hear from you!

      About the Rutgers conference: Most of the mentees are in middle age, but some young people are there, too, and some elderly. BUT most of the editors and agents are young, in their twenties, because that’s the age when they’re doing the most acquiring. Everyone will be friendly, especially including me! If you check the website you’ll see that you submit only a few pages, five, I think, and, if you’re accepted, that’s all your mentor sees. Again BUT the more you have ready by conference time the better, because most of the editors will accept submissions from mentees for a limited time after the conference.

      I said that about a major in Philosophy because the philosophers and critics I was required to read wrote academically, in endless sentences with strings of subordinate clauses, and I felt I needed to adopt the same style in my papers. However, I started college in 1964, so matters may have changed. I suggest you major in what interests you. You may need a day job, too, for a while, so it may be worthwhile to be practical. I am hearing, though, that good, clear writing is a big boost in the job hunt. A Creative Writing minor sounds like a great idea. Of course, one’s experience depends a lot on the quality of the teachers.

  4. Hey Gail –

    So I just read your book, From Writer to Writer, and one of the prompts in it sort of inspired me and I started writing a story and I made a map for the world and I’m really getting into it… I was just wondering, is it okay for us to use your prompts for more than just practice? I mean, I’m changing it a lot, but I don’t want to steal ideas that aren’t mine. Is it okay?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I’m so glad you’ve been inspired! The prompts are for you to use and even publish. You’re not stealing. Of course, an acknowledgement in your book would be delightful!

  5. Chrissa Pedersen says:

    The negative voices inside are so hard to beat back. I imagine Gail telling them to go away and amazingly they cringe back to their dark corners. WRITING MAGIC was an excellent weapon against the negative voices.

    I’d like to add two titles to your list of books. THE WRITERS GUIDE TO CRAFTING STORIES FOR CHILDREN, by Nancy Lamb is a wonderful overview, easy to digest. WORD MAGIC, by Cindy Rogers is full of examples of how to brighten up your prose and explains the ‘why’ behind the rules. My background is engineering and I so wish I had minored in creative writing when I was still in college. But I didn’t, so I’ve made up my own Creative Writing curriculum to learn this new craft. I may never be published, but I’ve decided to enjoy the journey.

  6. I did it!!! I finally finished my NaNo novel! (In terms of word count, at least. I think I still have a few thousand words to go in terms of plot.) After thirty strangely-addicting days of joy and torture at the same time, and quite a few times where I was so far behind that I was afraid that I wouldn’t finish, I’m finally done! This is the first time I won NaNo since starting in 7th grade, and I am incredibly, ridiculously proud of myself. I hope you don’t mind me using this blog comment to brag a bit.

    And now to go study for that test tomorrow that I’ve been putting off studying for the past week due to NaNo.

    And in other news, my name here if finally blue! I decided to set up a website as a reward for myself. It’s empty for now, but hopefully I will be adding stuff in the future.

  7. Once when my critic was practically yelling, I made my character break the fourth wall and complain about the entire book, which effectively shut up that critic! That scene probably won’t make it past the first revision but it helped me to write it.

  8. Butterfly Yulia says:

    First of all, congrats to all you NaNoWriMos! You guys are great!
    (I got mine finished, yay!)
    Now I have a question. I’m writing a story where the women hide under headscarves to make it kind of creepy because you can’t tell who’s who. But I don’t want to offend cultures where that’s the norm. Would that be bad?

  9. Hey, y’all!
    Soo, I finished up NaNoWriMo, and as a winner goody they’re offering a “free” copy of my novel with FastPencil. However, this doesn’t include shipping costs, so I was wondering if any of you have done this before… I just don’t want to waste my time arranging it all and then find out, oh hey, there’s a ridiculous shipping fee. 🙂
    Any replies are appreciated!

  10. Hello, everybody!
    Congratulations to everyone who finished NaNoWriMo! My sister and my best friend’s brother encouraged me to do it this year, and I said I’d try, but it was really only a half-hearted attempt. I ended up with a measly 2,900 words instead of 50,000. :/ I think my biggest problem (besides schoolwork, and all the time-destroying other things I have to get done) is that I’m a perfectionist. I don’t really have an “inner critic,” exactly–I’ve read some less-than-stellar books before, and I figure if people like them, they’ll like mine–but whenever I write something, I always think, “It doesn’t sound quite right,” so I re-phrase it…and re-phrase it…and rephrase it. Getting 350 words in a day is basically a miracle. Anyone have any tips on how I can handle my debilitating writing perfectionism? (Seriously, it took me about an hour just to write this comment…)

    • I think the only way to do this is remembering that nobody can manage to churn out a 50K word story perfectly on the first try. You may need to take a step back and remind yourself that you can fix it later, but you can’t fix the story if you haven’t written enough of it.

    • I can’t remember where I saw this, who told me, but one writer said that rough drafts are basically putting clay on a wheel. You just pile clay/words on. It’s SUPPOSED to be a big messy lump. Then, when you get to an ending, you shape it into something beautiful.

    • This one is for Nessa. Somehow it always seems to disappear whenever I try to post it in reply to her comment (I really hope that this isn’t a problem with my computer and that I haven’t left a whole string of duplicate comments on this site that I can’t see; sorry if that’s the case), so I thought I’d post it as a separate comment.

      I feel you. I had the exact same problem for the first few weeks, until I discovered the various word crawls on the NaNo forums. They are super fun and addicting, and I found myself sprinting a couple thousand words a day and enjoying it. My fav is the Harry Potter one (, but there are plenty of others, from pirate themed to NaNo themed, to Mean Girls themed. The full list of those, and other activities, is here ( Maybe try one of those next year, or even just whenever you want to write. When you’re focusing on getting words down so that you can progress to the next “level” of the game, you’ll find yourself focusing less on the quality of the words, and instead the quantity, which is essentially what NaNo is about. Also, the timed word sprints really help get your pulse and mind racing, so that you’re thinking less and writing more. Especially the fifty-headed-hydra. You won’t have time to even think for that one. They are incredibly fun and addicting, and got me out of a rather large word count hole that I dug for myself after the second week.

      That being said, just because you didn’t meet the offical word count goal and “win” doesn’t mean that you aren’t a winner. You wrote 2,900 words, which is 2,900 words more than you had at the beginning of the month. You developed a consistent habit of writing, and that’s something you should be very, very proud of. This pep talk ( and this blog post ( say so themselves. So celebrate! You’ve still accomplished a remarkable feat, and you should be extremely proud of yourself.

      One more tip: If you’re under 16 right now, and if you decide to do this next year, you might want to consider joining the Young Writers Program ( instead of the normal NaNoWriMo. It lets you set your word count goal instead of the default 50,000. That might help you finish and officially “win” a bit easier if you’re super busy.

      • Hi, Kitty! Thanks so much for the pep talk links and stuff, and the tip about the Young Writers Program! I’m actually 18, though, so I’m too old for that one. I’ll definitely try the links for the word crawls–it sound like they’ll be really helpful. Thanks so much! 🙂

    • I have this exact problem, so I tried handwriting for a bit instead of typing on a computer. It’s so easy to go back and fix things on word processing, I think it magnifies the problem somewhat. It didn’t work out for the long term for me, and I think of it as a temporary fix, but as an exercise in not ending up reworking the same page over and over, it really helped me. (Try it in pen if you’re feeling brave).

  11. Hi Gail, are we not allowed to post links in our comments? I posted two with links to the NaNo website, and one seems to have disappeared and the other is awaiting moderation. Sorry if I broke any rules, I’m not super familiar with them.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      You’re allowed to post links! However, the program doesn’t let a comment with more than one just go through. Instead, it’s “mediated,” which means I get a notice and have to approve it. Melissa Mead has discovered this a few times with her very helpful links. I think the purpose is to stop marketers, who may want to sell blog readers sneakers or sunglasses.

      But are you still missing a post?

      • I’ve tried reposting, but it doesn’t seem to be letting me. Every time I post, it seems to go through and the page reloads, but the comment isn’t there. Do you see it? It’s a reply to Nessa about some word crawls and that I used to get my word count up, with a link to the NaNo forums, and a couple of words of encouragement about how she should be proud of herself for making a commitment to write, no matter if she won or not, with a link to a NaNo pep talk and a NaNo blog post. I’m not sure if there’s something wrong on my side or the site’s. Sorry if I’ve left a trail of duplicate comments invisible to only me or if I did something else wrong.

  12. Butterfly Yulia says:

    Okay, I’ve got a screenplay question again. There is a song that I think describes my character’s life perfectly and I want to use it in a scene as background music. Is it okay to suggest to the director/producer what music should be used in the movie? Or do I have no say on it whatsoever?
    Thanks, y’all!

  13. I do consider all the ideas you’ve offered on your post. They are really convincing and will definitely work. Nonetheless, the posts are very brief for beginners. May just you please extend them a little from next time? Thanks for the post.

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