Burnt!

On January 3, 2020, Maddie wrote, Hi, Ms. Levine! I’ve got a bit of a long-winded question. Several years ago, when I was an exceptionally awkward young teenager, you were kind enough to answer a few of my questions. Now I’ve graduated college and am slowly but surely overcoming my writer’s burnout (I’ve got an anthropology degree, so I did almost nothing but write for 4 years). I’ve finally decided that I want to try to write fiction seriously again! But I have a problem that I can’t figure out how to get over.

Back when I was first asking you questions, I believed in my writing. I knew it wasn’t great and that I had lots to improve on, but I had confidence that I was a storyteller and that people would want to read what I had to say. Now that’s completely gone.

A large portion of it comes from having the worst imaginable Comp 2 professor freshman year. She would do things like spend required office hours yelling at me that my work was terrible without giving advice for improvement or ask questions in class and berate me for answering them. I struggled to write all through college after that, and the standard microaggressions from being a Native woman only made it worse.

I still love my characters, but now the only potential I can see in my writing is the potential for people to hate it. I’ve still had encouragement from friends, and even other professors, whose opinions I honestly respect a lot more. Heck, even the tutor I tried to take a Comp 2 paper to told me that the awful professor was just being cruel! But I can’t find it in me to have confidence in any part of my writing anymore.

I was going through some of my old stuff (I still always save what I write!), and I saw a lot of things I had written off of your prompts. I figured that if anyone could help me, it’s the writer who made me believe I could be a storyteller in the first place. How do I get that back?

Three responses came in, one from me.

Me: There’s a book! Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser is about exactly this–the negative voice in our brains that tells us whatever we do stinks. It was more helpful to me than any other book when I started writing seriously, and I’ve gone back to it a zillion times over the years.

When I’m writing, I try to never make judgments about my writing on a global level–just specifics: work on pacing, smooth out this sentence, a little word repetition going on here. Never that what I’m writing isn’t any good.

Christie V Powell: You can also try it NaNoWriMo-style. For one month, you write everything down, good or bad, and you’re not allowed to edit. Our local group leaders print out pictures of little gremlins to represent our “inner editors,” and they lock them up in a box at the beginning. You ignore the critical voice inside you and just throw things out. I’ve heard it described as making a pile of sand. Only once you’ve got a big sand pile do you start shaping it into a pretty castle. It works for some people. You might give it a try.

Song4myKing: When I get discouraged, I remember why I started writing in the first place. So far, most of my stuff has been middle grade and young adult. And when I started, I was that age and those were the stories that fascinated me, the stories I wanted to read. Now when I get to thinking that my book is too far fetched, or has a too perfect ending, or a too cliched premise, I try to put myself back into my twelve-year-old self. If my book would have pleased me as a twelve-year-old, then that’s all it needs to do. And chances are, it will please other twelve-year-olds as well. Their parents might roll their eyes, but what does it matter if the intended audience loves it?

I guess what I’m saying is, write for yourself. Ask yourself if you, or rather, a pre-college version of yourself likes it. If so, that’s all you need for now. And most likely you won’t be alone in enjoying it.

I completely agree with us!

Did I ever talk here about Mr. Pashkin? He was my Creative Writing teacher in high school, and he wrote on the top of one of my stories, “You know your problem. You’re pedestrian.” Pedestrian meaning boring.

He didn’t even say just my story was boring, but that I was. I had the absolute worst response. I was too embarrassed to ask him what he meant. And I believed him. I’m a very practical person and was even then, which I understood as boring.

I stopped writing stories.

For twenty-five years.

Because how could a boring person write an interesting story?

I do not want that to happen to any of you who follow the blog!

What got me back to writing was a job. I worked in the Small Business Division of the New York State Commerce Department, where they had me writing correspondence, meeting notes, and public service announcements. They loved my writing, and I especially loved writing the public service announcements, which had to be a certain number of seconds long. I relished fooling around with the phrasing to pack the most possible meaning and punch into the fewest possible words.

During my nine years of rejection by editors, I might have repeated my response to Mr. Pashkin, because one rejection letter in particular was pointedly unkind. But I was sustained by the encouragement of writing buddies, who were going through the same experience I was. And I loved learning to be a better writer.

I also gained some perspective when an editor rejected a picture book manuscript by saying it was too clever. I understood by that that some editors at least had limitations. Later, after Ella Enchanted was published, my editor asked me to expand that very manuscript into a chapter book, which became The Fairy’s Mistake, the first book in The Princess Tales series.

More recently, as some of you know, I went to poetry school for a Master of Fine Arts, which was a marvelous adventure. However, in one class, a teacher yelled at me. I spoke to the assistant director of the whole program about dropping the class, since it was early in the semester, and I said, “But maybe, at this late stage of my life, I should learn how to deal with a bully.” He said, “I guess, but why should you have to?” I found that single sentence healing. And I dropped the class.

Why should we accept and even internalize teacher and editor cruelty? We shouldn’t. It truly is their problem, just as a stink bomb that pollutes the air isn’t the fault of the person who breathes it in. I hope this analogy is startling enough to be remembered!

Some people, but very few, think more highly of their work than it deserves. Most of us are too hard on ourselves. We need to learn that this is an obstacle, even a flaw that we have to fight.

A few days ago, I sent a manuscript to my editor, who thanked me and said that she’s swamped and it will be a while before she gets to it. I am busy thinking of all the reasons she may find to hate it. However, I managed to keep those thoughts at bay during the writing. They’re unpleasant now, but earlier, they would have made it hard for me to continue. As I say in Writing Magic, we have to tell that negative voice within to Shut up!

Here are three prompts:

• Earth is invaded by tiny worms that crawl into the ear and infect the brain with negativity. The worms’ strategy is to wear people down so that when the entire worm population spaceships in, humanity will believe that even quarter-inch worms are better equipped, smarter, and more qualified to rule the earth than they are. Write the story of the resistance to the worms. Decide who wins.

• Long before Cinderella goes to the ball, she figures out how to deal with her step family. Write the story.

• At the ball, Prince Charming says to Cinderella, “You are lovely. No one else here interests me.” How does she receive this? What happens? Write the story.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. I recently attended a writing conference. Author Sara Ella presented on keeping up your motivation in the face of rejection. Here are some notes I took from her class:

    Rejection doesn’t end once you’ve “made it”. You still have negative reviews and other criticism. Self-criticism continues, and even really good authors, the ones you consider amazing, face criticism and rejection.
    Wally Lamb: “If the book is true, it will find an audience that is meant to read it.”
    Why are you writing? Who are you writing for? If writing is what you were meant to do, don’t let rejection stop you.
    Set boundaries with reviews, when and how you will look at them. Don’t engage with negative comments. Only engage with positive ones if you were personally tagged.
    Set aside your “rejected” project and work on something new.
    Invest in a good editor.
    Enter contests–you get feedback that is helpful but not cruel, whether you win or not.
    If multiple people comment on the same thing, that’s when you listen.
    Hone your craft and keep learning.
    Time is a blessing. Take time to explore new things.
    Be part of a community.

    I was taking notes fast so it’s a bit of a jumble, but hopefully there’s something helpful in there 🙂

  2. To Maddie:

    I don’t normally leave responses or comments, but I feel you might appreciate mine now. While it’s great to overcome negativity, sometimes it comes from within amd not others. I feel that type is exceptionally hard to overcome. I personally struggle, as an avid reader, with the thought “it has been written before.” So I didn’t write for a long time. Then I fell in love with a character in my head. So I told myself, “just write for you.” The freedom that gave me was amazing. Now, my creative process has been unlocked, for public things I work on as well as personal. My favorite result is that I’m constantly having new ideas for my little story. I don’t have to let anyone read it, and it’s my little world I can delve into. And when the thought comes again and again, “it has been written before,” I tell myself, “it doesn’t matter: this is just for me.”

  3. Gail Carson Levine says:

    Thanks for letting me know. What I say here is what I believe most deeply about writing. There’s a related post coming up.

  4. As far as rejection goes, I try to remember this quote from my friend + fellow author David Finkle: “Rejections are trophies. They’re proof that you had the guts to try something.”

  5. Thank you for this post! <3 It was something I needed to read because, even though I've never been in Maddie's situation, I also struggle with feeling that I'm a good storyteller. I used to love my ideas, but now I get worried that no one else will like them or that I'm not skilled enough to carry the story through.

  6. Not quite burnt, but I think I’m psyching myself out with my WIP. I’m writing a story for an anthology call, and it’s sort of an origin story for the MC of my novel-on-sub. I’m painfully aware that this could be people’s first introduction to this world and those characters, and it’s making it hard to write. Any ideas?

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      Can you say more? Is the problem with coming up with the story or with being psyched out? And what is a novel-on-sub?

      • Novel-on-sub is “Malak’s Book”- the book my agent’s trying to find a home for.

        I think the problem is that I’m putting so much pressure on myself of “This could be readers’ first chance to “meet Malak,” and maybe it’ll influence a publisher, and…”

        I keep reminding myself that I’d have to sell the story first, and that I’ve never made it into one of these anthologies yet, but the thoughts of “I must make this story irresistibly dazzling!” are still there.

        • Gail Carson Levine says:

          When I submit poetry to a journal, I never feel I know what they’re looking for, which takes the pressure off. I submit poems I like, and the rejection, if it comes, doesn’t hurt much. You don’t know either. I suggest you write the story, suspending judgment. They’ll either take it or they won’t.

          • That’s my usual attitude. I got 2 rejections last week and shrugged them off. This is less “Will they take it?” (I know they probably won’t) and more IF they take it, will it make a good impression?”

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      If they took it, it MADE a good impression, right? Readers are likely to like it too.

      Aw, about today.

      It’s great you’re getting your work out.

      • That’s true! Of course, I need to FINISH it first. (I had, but then I got an idea for a scene that I wanted to add.)

        Thanks! One good side effect of self-isolating for 6 months: I have a longstanding New Year’s resolution to sub at least 3 things/month, so I usually send out 36-40 things/year.

        This year I’m already up to 53, with 9 out at the moment. (Of course, a lot of it is the same stories “making the rounds”)

  7. On an unrelated note, what do you do when you just get stuck? Like when you know what needs to happen next, but not quite how to get there? In my WIP, I need to clear up a question the characters have, then write about a few battles before setting up a major plot twist and doing something with a subplot that’s been lurking in the background. I can explain what I need to do, I just can’t quite actually make myself do it. (Which was probably a big part of all the rambling in an earlier version.) Any advice?

    • It’s so nice to look through those lists and recognize some of your favorite books and authors (I’ve read 30 of the 100 they listed, and recognized the titles of a few more.) And Ella Enchanted is definitely in my top 5 for this list.

  8. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    This is kind of a random question, but I was wondering what everyone’s plotting process is like? (For those of us that plot, of course) I know I’m a plotter, (pantsing has never worked out for me) but I haven’t quite figured out my plotting method, and I figured it might help to find out how everyone else does it, and test out some different methods.

    • I say this a lot, but I use KM Weiland’s system, which she describes on her blog helpingwritersbecomeauthors. I write down the basic steps that I want, and then use it as an outline.
      Here’s the brief overview I have (hopefully my abbreviated version makes sense).

      Act 1.A: Set up characters, motivations, world rules, Stakes, potential to win
      Hook- inciting question
      Characteristic moment: introduce Main Character (MC)
      Ends with Inciting Incident: story is set in motion

      Act 1.B: Normal World
      Ends with First Major Plot Point- MC commits to act

      Act 2.A:
      Reaction: MC scrambles to understand obstacles, gains skills and weapons
      MC punished for Lie, moves closer to Want but further from Need
      Ends in First Pinch Point: Reminder of BG, MC gains new clues

      Act 2.B:
      Ends at Midpoint: MC discovers the Truth, moves to proactive

      Act 2.C:
      Reactive: MC’s reactions more informed, caught between Truth and Lie.
      Truth is blatantly stated.
      Ends with Second Pinch Point: Reminds MC of Stakes

      Act 2.D:
      False Victory: MC renews attack on BG, seems to win
      Ends in Third Plot Point: Low point, forces to confront the Lie, MC chooses Need over Want, death is often symbolized or used outright.

      Act 3.A:
      Assembles characters/props, Fulfills foreshadowing.
      Ends with Trigger: Up stakes, MC demonstrates change, caught between Truth and Lie. Subplots tied off.

      Act 3.B
      Climax: Confrontation between MC and BG. Lie vanquished.
      Climactic Moment: conflict resolved.

      Resolution: Tie off loose ends, show change, give preview of new life

      I’ve seen several similar systems. Save the Cat (and Save the Cat Writes a Novel) is a popular one. Story Genius by Lisa Cron is another.

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