Keeping On Keeping On

Before the post, this is a good time to mention the annual writers’ conference (in the fall) from the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature (RUCCL), which I think is the best, most helpful one-day writers’ conference in the–galaxy! (Alas, you have to be at least eighteen for this.) Here’s a link: The FAQ page is especially helpful. Be sure to take note of the deadlines, the cost, the scholarships, and the fact that the deadline for scholarship applicants is earlier than for people who can pay full freight. What’s so great is that it’s a mentorship program. Mentees are assigned mentors, who are usually either agents or editors and occasionally authors, like me, who go almost every year. Your mentor reads up to five pages of your WIP and meets with you about them for forty-five minutes to discuss them. There’s also a session of groups of five mentees with their mentors to discuss the industry and answer questions. Plus a speaker and a panel. I highly recommend it–and I can meet you. We can have lunch together!

When I appealed for questions, Raina came through with several great ones. Here’s the first: How do you deal with writing burnout, and how can you tell if it’s really burnout or something different? I’m on my 5th draft of my story and at this point, part of me is thinking “I don’t want to look at this anymore” and part of me is thinking “I need to be disciplined and just get it done.” I do have a problem with self-discipline and procrastination, so I’m a little wary when I feel like I can’t/don’t want to write at a given moment. On the other hand, maybe I actually do need to take a break, but I honestly can’t tell if I actually need to take a step back from the book or if that’s just an excuse I’m giving to myself.

On a similar note, is dealing with this different when writing is your job, as opposed to a hobby? Right now I can take a break (or even stop working on a book altogether) when I want, but a professional author writing under contract wouldn’t be able to do that.

Melissa Mead wrote back, I can totally relate to these questions, and I’m itching to hear the answers.

Gee, Raina, I think you have this. A couple of posts ago, you wrote about your method of keeping track of your writing time, which is very much like my method. I’m thinking your method doesn’t apply as well to revision for you. I’ll write about that, as well as the more general problem.

Melissa Mead, I’m not sure if I have answers. I just have thoughts.

Two years ago when I was seventy, at my annual checkup, my (now retired, younger than I am) doctor predicted that I’d be healthy for another thirty years. If his crystal ball is right–as it may not be–I’m mid-career, since I started writing (not being published) thirty years ago. Yippee!

And yet, I wake up some mornings wondering if I could start another, different career at my age.

Is this burnout? I don’t know. I know I had trouble deciding on my present project, about the Trojan War. Everything, including this one, seemed too much like what I’ve done before. But I love Greek mythology, and now I’m into it. And I have an idea for another historical novel after this one.

The point is, writing is hard for many writers, including me. We keep learning–forever!–which may be the best thing about it, but new challenges always crop up, and what worked for the last book probably won’t be helpful on this one.

I’ve written about this before here, but below are some strategies that enable me to continue writing:

∙ I have a daily writing-time minimum goal of at least two and a quarter hours. The goal is a goad.

∙ If I don’t meet the goal, I forgive myself. This is super important. If I don’t forgive myself, it’s harder to start the next day.

∙ I’m especially kind to myself when I’m just beginning a book, because that’s the hardest part for me, so I cut myself some slack. Raina, you may do the same for revisions, which may be the time for you for a little coddling. Praise yourself for as much as you do manage.

∙ I don’t allow myself to make global judgments about my work. No, This is so cliche. No, Nobody will want to read this. No, This stinks. Even, This is great is prohibited, because it’s too likely to lead to, What if I mess it up?

∙ I steer clear of thinking about how monumental the task ahead of me is. A novel is big and daunting. We should concentrate on the task at hand.

A couple of weeks ago I shared my WIP so far with my friend, the writer Karen Romano Young (whose marvelous contemporary fantasy and paean to libraries has just come out–A Girl, A Raccoon, and the Midnight Moon), and she shared hers with me, both in the early stages. The critique was super helpful, but equally helpful for both of us was the deadline. I wrote hard to have as many pages as I could to give to her. We’re going to meet again later this month.

So a critique buddy, a writers’ group, beta readers can help us keep going. The advantage of an exchange with other writers is that we’re all equally vulnerable. You see how imperfect my draft can be, and I see how not-ready yours can be. Neither of us feels stupid, or we both feel equally stupid.

What can we do to make revision more tolerable if we hate it?

∙ We can take small bites, as I do when I’m starting a new project. Half an hour of revision may be tolerable, followed by working on a shiny new story.

∙ We can think ahead of time about what we’re going to tackle and set a limited goal, like today I’ll work on the argument between Jeff and his brother. Or, more generally, today I’ll concentrate on dialogue.

∙ Thought control is especially important here. No, It isn’t getting better. No, How many drafts will I have to go through before I’m satisfied, if I ever am?

∙ This is general, but it may apply especially to revision: No book is perfect. Mine aren’t. We strive to write the best book we can, which is all we can do. We can expect to get better over time, but we’ll still never write a perfect book.

As for knowing whether it’s burnout or something else, well, do we ever finish anything? Or is it just this book that has us stymied?

If we never finish, maybe we should try a different kind of writing, like plays or short stories or poems. Or maybe we should try other art forms. Or we can figure that we’re not in a finishing frame of mind and write as far as we can and then start something news. Then we’ll have lots of threads to return to.

If it’s just this book, then maybe we should put it aside until we’re drawn back to it.

As for writing when writing is your job, having a contract does help. I make my deadlines as far in the future as I can get away with, because the idea of being late horrifies me, so I suppose that’s a goad, too. So does not knowing what I would do with myself if I stopped writing.

By now, happily, finances aren’t an issue so much. I get a small pension from my job before I quit to write full-time, social security, and royalties, and they all add up to enough. I’m not sure if finances were ever a factor. Earlier, I figured that if I wasn’t earning enough from writing, I would find a job. After all, I did have a job and write before I got published.

Curiosity helps me. If I don’t keep writing, I won’t know what I’ll come up with next. If I give up on a story, I won’t find out what it will become. Same for if I stop revising–I won’t discover how it will be after the umpty-ump draft.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has done something terrible, which she regrets and feels ashamed of. What her dreadful deed is is up to you. The do-over wizard arrives and gives her a chance to repair the past. After she’s gone back, matters are different but not better. Write the story with at least seven do-overs until a solution is reached that satisfies her. Have her make discoveries about herself along the way.

∙ Cinderella’s stepfamily are portrait painters. Cinderella is expected to be one, too, and she wants to be! But nothing she paints is good enough, and the art exhibition is coming up. Her stepmom and stepsisters tell her that her work isn’t ready to be shown. Write the story.

∙ The miller’s daughter has to spin straw into gold, and Rumpelstiltskin doesn’t appear, and the king will execute her if he doesn’t get his gold. In your story, have her do whatever it takes to stay alive–figure out how to do that spinning, or something else. Give her a happy ending, but it’s up to you whether it goes well for the king and the miller.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Not particularly relevant to the post, but I wanted to ask. I reread “The Princess Test” the other day, and I wondered how you managed to write so many different characters that were relatable. Were any of them harder to write than others?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Thank you! The Princess Tales were fun to write! Except for Trudy (who has a lot to put up with) and the crocodile princess, everyone in THE PRINCESS TEST means well, even if they’re very odd. I think that makes them relatable. I don’t remember any character being particularly hard. The only book that gave me trouble was THE FAIRY’S RETURN, because “The Golden Goose” is a good story without any help from me.

  2. Thank you! And yay for limited goals. I’m finding that focusing on “I’m going to solve the problem of how Malak knows about X” or “I’m going to work on this scene,” rather than “I’m going to work on The Second Book Of The Trilogy” is helpful.

  3. Thanks for answering my question, Gail! I especially love your advice about sharing with a CP and setting small goals.

    The timing of this post is perfect, because I’ve actually just gotten myself out of the slump that I was in when I asked the question. If anyone’s interested and wouldn’t mind me sharing about my personal experience, here’s what happened:

    I was struggling with some big picture aspects (characters and theme, mostly) of the story that weren’t working as well as a specific scene that just wasn’t fitting into the story like I wanted to no matter how many times I rewrote it. (3 times for this specific revision, 5 times total throughout all my drafts). I was getting overwhelmed by the big picture stuff since I felt like I had to fix it in one continuous swoop, and getting frustrated with the specific scene because things just weren’t adding up and fitting into its surroundings no matter how much I tried, like a puzzle piece in the wrong shape.

    Ultimately, what helped me with the first one was writing down each character’s arc/the book’s overall thematic arc on a piece of paper, so I could isolate that particular “variable”, so to speak, so I could see it in its entirety without any distractions from other elements of the story (plot, setting, prose, etc.). That helped me a lot in seeing the big picture in one piece. I re-plotted the character arcs from scratch (but thankfully they all more or less matched up with the plot I already had) and ended up having to experiment with multiple iterations until I finally found one that felt right. After I had my character arcs replotted, I went through my book scene by scene to implement the changes according to the new overall arcs. My main takeaway from this is that a big picture view helps immensely when it comes to spotting problems and coming up with a solution, but breaking things down into chunks like Gail suggested is necessary for actually implementing the solution without getting overwhelmed.

    For the scene that wasn’t working, I started out just replotting and rewriting it again and again, hoping something would feel “right” eventually. It was a very frustrating process because nothing was working, and it felt like I wasn’t getting closer to a solution. To use an analogy, while some parts of editing feel like doing algebra, which is difficult but relatively linear (in that you can solve the problem step by step, there’s a clear protocol, and you know you’ll solve it eventually if you go at it long enough), this felt like doing one of those brain teaser puzzles where you have to arrange four lines into an impossible shape or something. You can try to go at it methodologically and maybe get a bit closer, but it takes a spark of inspiration to jump the big gap between “eh, I think I’m on the right track?” and “solved!”. (Psychology nerd tangent: these two types are known as non-insight and insight problems; there have been super interesting studies about this topic). Ultimately that happened when I came up with a line of dialogue that ballooned into a few paragraphs jotted down in my notes, and I knew I’d finally found the solution because after I finished writing those notes, I couldn’t wait to go back and write the entire scene. To sum up, my experience with this was pretty much continuing to shoot in the dark until I hit something. Which isn’t very practical advice, but more of an encouragement that it *can* happen.

    Whew, long rambling! To wrap up, I just want to say that it felt SO SO good when the solution finally clicked into place. I was on a writers high and excited to write the scene, and though I’m still editing the book, I know that the overall framework is sound. I’ve no doubt my book still has problems, but right now I can feel in my gut that I’m happy with my story, because after MANY trials and errors, I know that the story on the page finally matches the one in my head and nothing was lost in translation. Which I think is really the best you can do as a writer. Get the story in your head onto the page in a form you’re happy with, and let the world take it from there.

  4. Such a great post. I especially like your encouragement not to make general statements about your writing. I’m very guilty of that. I’ve also found that small goals helps. For me, setting a page goal rather than a time goal helps, so I try to write 2 pages a day during the week, but I do more on the weekends.

  5. Samantha Pixley says:

    This post really got my head buzzing. Here are a list of questions that were sparked by reading the post and the following comments:

    What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map? My current WIP is a lot of great ideas that aren’t coming together well – 100 pages in, I’m daunted by the idea that my story isn’t capturing the right feeling that I’m after and I might have to scrap it and start over. I feel almost like I’m losing the essence of my story. Any thoughts on what I should do?

    How do you deal with wordiness? I’m 100 pages into my WIP and not even half way through the plot. Besides this, I keep getting lost in the words instead of letting the story GUIDE the words. I’m floundering in a swamp of words! I’m talking too much and saying nothing!

    You said “Curiosity helps me. If I don’t keep writing, I won’t know what I’ll come up with next. If I give up on a story, I won’t find out what it will become. Same for if I stop revising–I won’t discover how it will be after the umpty-ump draft.” Do you ever have the problem where you daydream about your stories instead of writing them and does it help or hinder your story? On that note; as a published, well established author, do you ever find yourself missing the characters or the world of an already completed story and getting the craving to go back and write more? Is that what happened with The Lost Kingdom of Bemarre (one of my favorite books of yours)!

    Do you ever go back to a story you wrote a while ago or already published and go “Igth, that isn’t nearly as good as I remembered!”? I do that all the time! I think part of this is because I’m guilty of never really editing that much and so my stories just aren’t that pristine. Another reason might be because I am very much a new writer – I’ve only really been writing for about four years, so I don’t consider myself all that ‘seasoned’ in the process. Is this something that only I do, or do other people go back to their already finished works and say “Ight!”?

    • I’ve been writing for about the same amount of time as you have, but I can take a shot at your third and fifth questions. First off, I totally daydream about my stories. Sometimes I even sleep-dream about them. (Although, given how nonsensical my dreams are, this doesn’t help as much as you might think.) And what I’ve found is that sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s just annoying. For example, I am totally obsessed with my current MC, and spend a probably ridiculous amount of time figuring out her backstory and random scenes from her life. Sometimes it’s useful, like the sudden realization that her teacher’s motivations made a lot more sense if they were related, and sometimes it’s not, like the fifty bogillion ideas for a scene I might never write. So, I would say there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming, so long as you start writing eventually.
      As to the fifth question, I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. I edit something to within an inch of its life, feel really happy, and come back to it a year later and absolutely loathe it. Two stories have been so utterly unusable that I ended up rewriting them without even a glance at the original. Others I’ve just given up on because I don’t want to go to the time and effort to fix them. The only good thing I can see about this is that at least I recognize that they’re terrible, and the fact that I recognize that is a sign that I have grown as a writer. Or, at any rate, that’s the way I choose to think about it, even if it’s not entirely true.

    • I’ll take a shot at “How do you deal with wordiness?”, and maybe a little “What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map?” too.

      The first place I sold stories to was a magazine with a maximum word limit of 600 words. I’d write stories of about 1,000 words, and then cut, and tighten, and distill, until the story fit. It usually got more intense and focused in the process.

      So for your first draft: Go ahead! Write anything that strikes your fancy. Let it ramble all over the place. If a new character or side quest pops up, roll out the welcome wagon.

      Once you’ve got a finished draft, put it away for a while, maybe a week, while you do something else. Then go back to it with an editorial X-acto knife in hand.

      Re-read the story. If something’s boring, or distracting, or just not right for that story, cut it out. (I keep a “cut file” for books and long stories. That way you can tell yourself that you can always put it back if you really want to. 🙂
      Then cut, and polish, and cut, and polish, until your gem shines the way you want it to.

    • About daydreaming, I do it all the time. I don’t have a lot of time to actually sit down and write, but I can still think about my stories and write the fun scenes in my head. I often figure out details this way, and get a sense of where I’m going in the story, and get excited about upcoming scenes. Often, there are scenes that I’ve written out in my head many times over. It probably doesn’t work this way for everyone, but I love writing those scenes. It’s almost like finally performing a well-rehearsed play or piece of music. I also daydream a lot about things that I know won’t make it into the story. I don’t see this as a waste; it’s fun and it’s helpful for world building and character background.

      • I do that too! Sometimes when I get stuck I’ll sit the characters involved down for a conversation and listen in. Or mentally stroll around the setting and look around for things I need to make a scene work.

        • My problem with getting the characters involved in a conversation is that when I’m stuck, it’s usually because I’m procrastinating, so the characters start talking and never stop. I’m facing that right now in my WIP, as well as the general “I need to put something in the middle of this story but I don’t know what.” Essentially, I have a busy day, four fairly boring days (although there will probably be an exciting scene or two), and then it gets interesting again. Any advice?

          • I would try to be as brief as you can with the boring parts. You have to describe something in order to let the reader know that time is passing, but try not to go through the motions with what you describe. Something I do sometimes is be brief but still go through a day chronologically, by giving short descriptions of everything that happens. Then I realize that a bunch of the stuff wasn’t necessary, and I only kept the interesting things. So if the little descriptions don’t give us something that’s at least kinda useful, don’t feel bad cutting it. I think that the reader can fill in the blanks. For letting dialogue go on and on, you might want to just write it when you feel like you need to or want to and then go back and look for any useful or interesting or funny little parts. A lot of the time, in a bunch of dialogue, there will still be really good parts even if it’s overall unnecessary. If the whole thing doesn’t fit, then try to put the good parts somewhere else in your story.

    • I have a couple thoughts about these:

      Story all over the map–I’ve struggled with this too, and it’s one of the main reasons why I lose momentum on a project. What’s helped me is to spend some time thinking about and writing down the “heart” of my story. I like to think of this concept as how I would answer “what is your story about?” It can be a theme, a character, a feeling you want to capture, anything. For example: “My story is about an Unchosen girl who chooses herself. My story is about finding adventure even when it’s not handed to you. My story is about the side characters who get left behind, who aren’t special enough to be the Hero but say screw that and make their own story anyways.” Whatever the heart of your story is, write it down and keep it close. Whenever you feel like you’re losing direction, look back to it. Remembering what you first loved about your story, why you’re passionate about it, and what you want it to be is a fantastic motivator to make it a reality on the page.

      Daydreaming–I do this a lot too, but I think it’s a GOOD thing as long as it doesn’t take the place of actual writing. Daydreaming is an awesome place to develop new ideas, test new directions, and flesh out your story more. If you want to feel more productive, it can help to write all of that stuff down. An idea for a character, a snippet of dialogue, anything. That’s what I do. Every single story-related idea I have that’s worth remembering/expanding upon, I write down so I’ll have a reference later. (I use an app called Trello, but you can use a notebook, post it notes, anything) And for me, at least, that stuff really comes in handy later when I’m going to actually write the story.

      Looking back at old stories–I sometimes look back at old stories, and a lot of the time the quality is worse than I remember/what I have now. Sometimes I’m surprised, sometimes I’m not. But I see that as a GOOD thing. The fact that I can now see problems means that I’ve learned as a writer. The quality gap between my old work and my new work is how much I’ve improved as a writer since then, and to me, at least, it feels pretty nice to see the difference. I try not to judge my old work; I’ll either leave it be as a memory of my state at the time, or use everything I’ve learned since then to polish it up into something I’m proud of now. Occasionally I’ll even see something that’s actually pretty decent–a line, a turn of phrase–that I’ll feel proud of myself for thinking of at the time.

  6. Pleasure Writer says:

    Does every writer go through the motions of having doubts about what they’re doing?? Sometimes I don’t even know why I write, then I come back to the conclusion that I love to create and tell people’s stories. Writing is also the messiest thing I do on a regular basis. I always have to tell myself that this will all come out fine in the end…but I really wonder sometimes. Have you ever regretted or worried about exposing your creativity to the world??

    • Who doesn’t? In my experience, showing your work to someone in person is about fifty gazillion times scarier than showing someone online. I’ve never regretted showing someone my work, but worried about it, definitely.

    • Worried about, yes. regretted, no. Of course, I’ve generally only shared my work with a few people. I co-wrote, made, and illustrated a physics picture book last fall. I was reluctant to show it to people outside my family, but the people I did show it to loved it. So I would advise showing your work to a few people you trust and see what they say, and if they like it, feel free to share it with others.

  7. Lauryl Fischer says:

    My name is Lauryl Fischer, and I’m a current graduate student at Simmons University, studying Children’s Literature and Writing for Children. I’m also a devoted reader of your work (you were actually the first author I ever met when I got my copy of Writing Magic signed; I was only 11!) and so when I was assigned the task of writing a paper on the ‘publishing story’ of a children’s literature text, I knew I wanted to do Ella Enchanted.

    I’ve been gathering resources for weeks now, using archival material from the University of Minnesota and reading old reviews, as well as reading this blog. But I would love the opportunity to talk to you about Ella Enchanted’s journey, with a special focus on your editorial relationship with Alix Reid. If you’re interested, please email me! I am happy to send questions over email or conduct a phone call if that’s your preference.

    And also– thank you so much for your stories. Ella Enchanted, the Disney fairy books, and Writing Magic have all been integral to developing my own style and my passion for writing for children.


  8. Dancer and Writer says:

    I love all of those prompts. They sound really fun to write. I guess I can do a basic plot fast.
    Cinderella has been preparing for a contest between her stepsisters and herself for painting portraits. But she’s nervous. So when her father sits down to be painted by Cinderella and her three stepsisters, Cinderella gets nervous and doesn’t know where to start. When her time is almost up, she starts to frantically paint. When her father comes around to see how they all did, all he sees from his favorite daughter is a cartoon like sketch and is very disappointed with her work. His wife (the stepmother) wants him to send her away. He doesn’t want to, but he does.
    Cinderella practices for years, and one day, she’s ready. She returns home. Her father is so happy to see her, and when she shows her skill, she becomes the family painter.
    The End

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