The Blahs

On December 22, 2019, viola03 wrote, Hi y’all, you may have noticed that I haven’t been as active on here lately, and that’s because I haven’t had a lot of time for writing because of school (I’m a high school sophomore). I’m hoping to write some over winter break, but I’ve run into a serious lack of inspiration. I do really want to write, but I’ve found that the inspiration for all of my WIPs has just ground to a halt. Any tips?

Melissa Mead kindly wrote, Welcome back! Gail’s posts have some great prompts.

And Writing Ballerina wrote, I get this sometimes too. You have a few options:
1) You can let them sit for a while until you feel refreshed. (Be careful with this one – I do this and then have the tendency never to feel refreshed. If this happens, let them sit until the details are fuzzy, then read them over with a reader’s eye and you’ll probably get excited about them a bit.)
2) You can add something random to spark things up and get the ball rolling (something like a green sea monster obsessed with raspberries or a random cat). (I did this a few times during NaNo.) This will help you write something, anything, and then the momentum of that writing (that will inevitably be cut later) can help you move on to the next plot point.
3) You can skip to a part that does excite and inspire you. There’s no rule that says a book has to be written chronologically.

And future_famous_author wrote, Read!!! Read a book that’s written really well. Read a scene from your favorite book. Watch a good movie. Or re-read something that you’ve already written.
Scroll through Pinterest. Look at the character inspiration pictures, and just keep scrolling. I got a really good idea for a story based on a picture that I found on Pinterest.

These are great suggestions! I don’t use prompts much for fiction, but I often do for poems.

Just yesterday, I finished teaching my annual writing workshop, on Zoom this year. Reversing the usual order of things, here are three prompts that I gave the kids that I don’t think have appeared here:

• Imagine the people who lived in your house before you did. Think about who they might have been, how they might have furnished it, what their hopes were. Put them in a story and use the house.

• In this version of “Sleeping Beauty,” the prince is the main character. His father, the king, has been captured by the evil Baron Von Roten. The ransom the baron requires is the pillow on which Sleeping Beauty has been resting her head for a hundred years. The prince has fought his way through the thorny hedge, but when he enters the castle, he discovers that it’s haunted. Write the final scene.

• Write the first scene for the prompt above.

Here’s a which-is-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg question: Which comes first, inspiration or writing?

I guess it depends on the writer’s process. But I’d wager writers get more done if writing comes first and inspiration follows. Here’s what I do:

• If I have to leave my WIP, when I go back to it, I reread the last chapter or two to see where I am. If I wasn’t in deep trouble when I put it aside, that’s usually enough to get me going.

• If I was in deep trouble, I’ll probably read from the beginning to see when my enthusiasm begins to wane. That’s the spot I need to focus on. What’s the problem there? Do the later scenes solve it? What else can I do? I’m always sad to cut lots of pages, but I do it if I need to. Getting to the root of the problem makes me happy enough to want to soldier on.

• When I can’t figure out how to fix a story, then I’m unhappy and distinctly uninspired. I write notes. I’m kind to myself about my daily writing time, but I do keep on with notes, dozens of pages of them sometimes. So far, I’ve always been able to get my story going again.

• If I suspended work for a month or more, I’ll also read from the beginning, because I’ll have forgotten too much. Rereading (and revising, because I can’t help myself) will start me up again.

(As an aside, I just wondered, since we have the word revise, was there ever a verb vise? My Oxford English Dictionary–OED–says yes! There was a verb vise with several meaning, having last appeared in print in 1587. How does that happen, for the do-over meaning to survive and the first-time-around meaning to bite the dust?)

Inspiration does come to me eventually. Over the many years, I’ve developed ways to find my stories, and I’ve talked about the ways here, but maybe not all of them.

• While I’m working on a novel, part of my brain is auditioning ideas for my next project. Usually, by the time I finish my WIP, my next book is in the wings, waiting for its cue.

• While I’m working on a novel, I read books connected with what I think may come next. Lately, since I’ve become interested in history, I’ve been reading history books. Both Ever and A Ceiling Made of Eggshells came out of reading.

• I maintain a state of receptivity to inspiration, so in a way I’m always trolling for ideas.

• I’ll leave my WIP, briefly, to write notes about a new idea that may sail through my brain.

• I save my ideas so that I can go back to them. I’ve mentioned more than once several fairy tales that intrigue me but I haven’t figured out enough to make them into a novel. Sometimes the gestation of an idea can take years, but I keep the germs on ice in my computer.

When I’m uninspired, I write anyway. My daily time goal goads me into it. Sometimes I don’t reach it, and then I forgive myself, but it’s there waiting for me the next day.

However, unless you have a deadline, unless you are absolutely committed to writing, I don’t think you should do it in misery. And even if you are absolutely committed, I still don’t think you–or I–should do it in misery. Take a vacation! Read a book! Swim the English Channel! Play solitaire!

Dip your toes back in the writing waters when you feel refreshed. Then see what happens.

I finished writing this blog yesterday, but today, in the shower, a relaxing place for ideas and inspiration to drop in, I started to list what I do and don’t like about writing.

Here goes, starting with the negatives:

• The isolation.
• Lacking a shared enterprise. My publisher puts out lots of books.
• How difficult writing is. I wish there were a potion to make it a little easier, one that wouldn’t rot my liver and didn’t contain eye of newt.

The positives:

• I tell myself stories. This is the most important one.
• I love my stories to be read. And my poems. On the poetry side, I’m satisfied if only my poetry critique friends see them.
• I get better. There’s always more to learn about writing.
• I learn about whatever I’m writing about–the Middle Ages, Mesopotamia, ancient Greece.
• Contact with readers and other writers.

There’s no contest. For me, writing is much better than not writing. And that’s inspiring.

Try the three prompts above and/or this one: Write the circumstances surrounding the death of the word vise. Who was there? Was its end deliberate? Was there a trial? Did it plead for its survival?

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. “Imagine the people who lived in your house before you did.” I met them, or at least the wife and kids. But according to the documents, before that, my house was a radio station. Hmm!

    I love the thought that the Prince has some reason OTHER than Sleeping Beauty herself for breaking in.

    Funny you mentioned Mesopotamia! I made a leek recipe from there the other day. It was good.

    • I like that idea too! All I know is that the family who lived in our house before us had two girls and a boy, the same as our family. My sister and I met the boy who was around our age but I don’t remember much because we were very young. Now I’m starting to imagine what kind of kids they were… hmm…

      Thanks for answering my question Mrs. Levine! I’ve actually been having more inspiration lately! 🙂

  2. First of all, great post! I frequently have problems keeping on writing a story.

    In my WIP, my main character hurts his arm in a well-publicized accident, and needs to wear a splint. By the time he gets out of the hospital, nearly everyone has heard about it. I’ve never had to wear anything like that, so I wanted to ask your opinions. How would people react to seeing him with the sling? Would this be different based on whether they were friends, acquaintances, or strangers?

    I’m honestly getting rather frustrated with this project. I’ve had the basic idea for the past three years, and started this draft a year ago. In that year, I’ve changed all kinds of details, so that the original inspiration is nearly unrecognizable. As I try to write, part of my brain is cataloging all of the edits I’ll need to make once I finish the first draft. I feel like I’ll never actually be able to finish this story, which is a shame, because it’s by far the most ambitious story I’ve ever written. I suppose my other question is: How do you keep writing when it doesn’t feel like you’re making any progress?

    • Oh, I feel that! I’ve been working on one of my WIPs for about three and a half years, and it keeps changing, too. Like you said, the original inspiration is almost unrecognizable.
      I can’t honestly say I have any ideas to help. When I get confused, I put it back on the shelf and work on something else. But I do come back to it. I think that’s the important part.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’ve added your questions to my list. In the meanwhile, I’d suggest tying your arm in a white dishtowel sling and wear it (with you masked, of course) a few places.

        • Good idea! Maybe even bring along someone (appropriately distanced) to catch reactions that you might miss. In grad school, my friends and I did an assignment where we had to pretend to have a disability. Maybe it’s because I’ve already got one, but my friends caught stuff that went right over my head.

        • If I weren’t leaving for a new college next week… Fun idea! I might, once I’ve convinced people I’m not totally crazy. :).

  3. Gail and writing friends, I always gain new insights from this blog that keep me inspired. Thank you always for sharing! Thank you, too, for suggesting Solitaire. I was feeling guilty. Knitting and Solitaire are my relaxing hobbies as I mull over my writing slump leaving myself notes each day.

  4. Another question: is 3000 words too long for a short story? I’m used to writing novella or short novel length, and I’m worried that this short story will be too long due to all the complex philosophical ideas I’m investigating through it. I’m hoping to try and get it published in a newsletter or magazine.

    • Not at all! That’s prime length for some markets. Here are some definitions. (SFWA is the Science Fiction + Fantasy Writers of America):
      Full Length Novel: 100,000 to 120,000 words. (Rogue Clone Series)

      Near Full-Length Novel: 80,000 to 90,000 words. (Stark’s War Series)

      Children’s Novel: 50,000~ words per book. (Water Series by Kara Dalkey; 230~ pages in large type; roughly 5” x 7.5” paperback.)

      Mid-Length Novel: 50,000 to 60,000 words.

      Novella (SFWA): 17,500 to 40,000 words. (Animal Farm has 30,000~ words)

      Novelette (SFWA): 7,500 to 17,500 words.

      Short Story (SFWA): Under 7,500 words.

  5. In my barely-even-sketched-out WIP, my MC’s love interest is based on Commander Riker from Next Generation, and I’m having three main problems with him.
    1) I cannot figure out what his name should be. I want it to be similar to Riker, but not blatantly obvious. Currently, his name is Rykthos, but I’m not satisfied.
    2) I have literally no experience with writing tall characters. (I’m the kind of tiny that can walk under someone’s arm, although I’ve never actually tried.)
    3) I’ve never tried to write any character who was inspired by another one. I know my character needs to be a lot nicer than Riker, but that’s about it.
    Suggestions on any of these would be greatly appreciated.

    • The first question that comes too my mind is: What about Riker makes you want to use him for an inspiration? Hang onto that. (Ex, Is it something about him, personally, that appeals to you, or the fact that he’s a Starfleet Officer?)

      His first name’s William, right? Here are some other forms of the name. Maybe one will give you a direction to go with your character: DiminutivesBill, Billie, Billy, Liam, Wil, Will, Willie, Willy
      Feminine FormsWilhelmina, Willa
      Other Languages & CulturesWilhelm, Willahelm(Ancient Germanic) Gwilherm(Breton) Guillem(Catalan) Vilim, Vilko(Croatian) Vilém(Czech) Vilhelm, Villum(Danish) Wilhelmus, Willem, Jelle, Liam, Pim, Wil, Willy, Wim(Dutch) Vilhelmo, Vilĉjo(Esperanto) Villem(Estonian) Vilhelm, Viljami, Jami, Vilhelmi, Vilho, Vili, Viljo, Ville(Finnish) Guillaume, Liam, Lyam(French) Wilhelm, Willi, Willy, Wim(German) Vilmos, Vili(Hungarian) Vilhjálmur(Icelandic) Uilliam, Liam, Uilleag, Ulick(Irish) Guglielmo(Italian) Vilhelms, Vilis(Latvian) Wöllem, Wullem, Wum(Limburgish) Vilhelmas(Lithuanian) Illiam(Manx) Wiremu(Maori) Wilkin, Wilky, Wilmot(Medieval English) Vilhelm(Norwegian) Wilhelm(Polish) Guilherme, Gui(Portuguese) Uilleam(Scottish) Viliam(Slovak) Viljem, Vili, Vilko(Slovene) Guillermo(Spanish) Vilhelm, Liam, Ville(Swedish) Gwilym, Gwil, Gwilim, Gwillym(Welsh)

      I’m possibly 5′ tall myself, but my 6’4″ ex-husband was always hitting his head on things. You could try Googling “Tall people problems.” (How tall is Riker, anyway)

      I tried writing a story based on Farscape once. I found it easier once I stopped trying to make it like the show and just realized that “Earth guy lost in space and trying to do good” was what I was after. Good luck~

      • Honestly, I want to write him as Riker because Riker was in the dream that inspired the story. I would prefer to use his last name as an inspiration, just because it’s hard to make “William” fit into a fantasy, (my MC is Cena, her daughter is Senya, her dead husband is Darien, and the evil guys are the Neftali) but I kind of like “Vilko.” It seems to almost combine the two names, although I’m not fond of the initial “v”. Rilko, maybe? No, that looks silly. I’ll think about it.
        According to a Google search, the actor is 6’2″. I like the idea of having him hit his head on things, but since they spend a lot of time outside, I’m not sure how well that would work. Maybe tree branches? They spend a lot of time in a boat, so maybe his legs are always scrunched up? Maybe in their escape, he deliberately gets them a bigger boat, so he has room to stretch his legs out all the way. Thanks for the ideas!

    • My sister is really tall, and one of her most griped over problems is that she feels weird next to short people. Especially because when she was younger, she grew REALLY fast, so she was always the tallest in her class, sometimes by over a foot. She doesn’t feel comfortable next to short people, especially in relationships.

      • That’s funny. I don’t always feel comfortable next to tall people. I mean, right next. I’m fine talking with them, just so long as I’m far enough away to be able to look them in the face.

  6. Not usually a double-poster, but I thought of this last night. (Forgive me, I took this poem entirely out of context.)

    This is Just to Say

    I am the one (or one of the ones, really)
    who learned to write
    from Writing Magic
    and found your marvelous blog
    from Writer to Writer.

    I know that here
    I can admit my fears
    and confess to my failures
    without ridicule.

    I know that I will receive
    sage advice from you
    and from the other commenters.
    (whose importance, I think,
    is often neglected.)

    I know that you will rejoice with me,
    muse over problems with me,
    and comfort me if my story collapses.

    Forgive me,
    I think this blog
    deserves a medal.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Oh, my! Thank you! A poem to the blog!

      I agree that the comments are wonderful, and we are all in this together.

  7. Watch tall people. Watch how Riker carries himself, and watch tall people around you to see how they handle their height. A couple of my tall cousins and friends seem to get a real kick out of seeing over everyone’s heads, like it amuses them (come to think of it, they are the younger giants I know. Perhaps their height still feels a bit new to them.). Others carry themselves regally. Still another is a quiet personality who moves with a grace and gentleness that doesn’t call attention to himself. It’s interesting. Watch them and figure out how your character’s personality will affect how he handles his height.

    Also, your idea of cramped legs is spot on. It’s a very real thing.

    As for writing a character based on another character, I’ve never tried exactly that, but I have written characters based on real people in my life. It’s a very helpful start, to have a fully rounded character walking around your page. But the truth is, as soon as you throw that character into situations that the original person has never been in (or you’ve never seen them in) you have to start making things up. Your character will no longer be the original. With every new situation, with every different element in the character’s backstory, you are replacing the original with a new character of your own imagination. And that is a very good thing. Just remember that. It might happen fast or slow, depending on how you write, and how much you want to keep the original. But let it happen. In the end, you might still be able to see the imprint of the original, but readers might not see him the way you do, and that’s okay.

    Changing the name is part of that process, by the way. I’m not great with coming up with fantasy names. But if you have one you partly like, play around with it. Try all the different consonants instead of the V. Try blends: Blilko, Trilko, Stilko, etc. Try switching letters: Livko, Kilvo, Rolki, etc. Try googling, “Names similar to Vilko.” You can do this with any name you kinda like. It will give you real names, but you can choose the exotic sounding ones, or again, switch up letters. I once changed the names of several characters, once I was already pretty attached to them. I created lists of names that I considered very slight possibilities and let them simmer in my brain for a few days. When I came back to them, it was easier to choose. Particular names had grown on me over time. Now I like them. Hopefully you’ll find something you like, too!

    • Thanks for the tips! I think he’s going to be the regal type (like Riker), but he can turn into the quiet type when he needs to stay inconspicuous. I like “Rolki” for a starting point. I was planning to make a list of possible names anyway, and I think I’m going to use that as my starting point.

      As for the cramped legs, I’ve sat in the cab of a moving van for four hours with my feet in a trash can. Even short people can get their legs cramped. 🙂 Seriously, the number of moving stories I could tell…

  8. I just finished Ogre Enchanted and I have a funny story I want to share.
    I’ve been listening to it on audiobook when I drive. Usually I’m alone in the car, but today I had to take my roommates somewhere and the book starts playing automatically. I started the car, and from my sound system, there came a blaring cry of:
    “I WON’T EAT HIM.”
    I then had to explain the book.

  9. Hi Gail, so I was wondering if you could maybe give some advice about how to continue writing when you are dealing with grief. My grandma passed a few weeks ago and I have struggled with keeping my mind focused on things like writing. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

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