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!

Fear of Writing

This is the usage item that I promised last time: You may remember that I’m working on a book based on the Trojan War. Well, women in ancient Greece lived restricted lives and didn’t go out much. They mostly stayed in the women’s quarters, and I wanted to know if women’s quarters can take a singular verb as well as a plural one, since in my book the women’s quarters are a single big room. According my favorite authority, the blog of grammarphobia.com, quarters in any context is always plural. Weird, huh? So a correct sentence is, as before, The women’s quarters are a single big room. And another correct sentence is, A single big room comprises the women’s quarters. Compounding the weirdness, the word headquarters can take either a singular or a plural verb. We’re deep in the weeds here, but English usage is mysterious and wonderful.

Onto the post!

On December 14, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, So… I’ve been having a problem lately.

I’m kind of afraid to write again. After the epic failure that was NaNoWriMo, I’ve been having a very hard time getting myself to write. It’s not just that I failed, it’s that I feel like I failed so badly. I hate my story, I hate my characters, I hate the idea… but I used to love all of those things very much. I’ve always had a difficult time choosing ideas, but I was invested enough in my NaNoWriMo idea to want to finish it, and to think I actually could.

And I know I asked a question about writing past the beginning, and I still need an answer to that, since I’ve always had that problem. But now I can’t even write anything without thinking I’m gonna fail, and end up ruining a really good story/world/characters.

Any advice on how to get over my fear, and write even when I’m 99.9% sure I’ll fail?

I wrote back, I’ve added your question to my list, but I won’t get to it for a while because of all the excellent questions above it. In the meantime, please put your NaNoWriMo project away and don’t look at it for at least a month. At the end of the month, peek at it. If you still despise it, put it away for another month. Repeat. While you’re waiting, write small projects, like poems or letters to imaginary relatives. Treat your writing injury as you would a sprained ankle. Go easy.

And future_famous_author wrote, If it takes you so long to get back to your NaNoWriMo story that you want to start something new, that could be a good idea, too. And, if you don’t stick to that, try going back to your NaNoWriMo. Maybe all you need to do is get away from it for a little bit.

That was seven months ago, so I just went into my blog dashboard and looked at Kit Kat Kitty’s recent comments, and I’m happy to report that she/you are back to writing. The NaNoWriMo novel even got finished. Congratulations!

I also see that it hasn’t gotten its author’s seal of approval, which may come in time. Or not.

The important thing is to keep writing. We learn when we write, whether we’re working on something new or on a revision.

Writing itself is hard, but it isn’t the only hard thing about writing. Harsh, global self-criticism is the other hard part. I used to paint and draw before I started writing, but my self-attack was so relentless that I stopped eventually, which I talk about in Writing Magic. A book that helped me enormously, which I think I’ve mentioned here, is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser. The author theorizes that the nagging voice in our mind comes from outside criticism when we were very young. That evil criticism worms itself inside us until it becomes part of us. Kit Kat Kitty’s fear may be fear of that inner carping voice.

One remedy may be to put aside the art aspect of writing and concentrate on craft. Let’s compare it with something you know how to do or something I know how to do, and for me, let’s take lifting weights, because I’m mighty proud of my brute strength. Often if lifting isn’t going well, the reason is that I’m not tightening my muscles, or maybe my feet are too close together, or I’m not keeping my chest high. It’s never a failure of character, talent, potential, or even, so far, of encroaching decrepitude.

Same with a piece of writing. Say we think we hate our characters. In the aggregate, that isn’t helpful, so we pick a particular character, our MC, for instance, whose name is Janey. Well, what do we hate? We can list everything we despise. I’ll make up a few items:
• She’s whiny.
• She’s always thinking of herself.
• She doesn’t say anything interesting.
• Janey is a terrible name! She isn’t a Janey!

If we apply the craft approach, we’re in for more lists. Take the first item and the third. Both are about dialogue, though the whiny part can also happen in her thoughts. We look at her dialogue and find something she says that we find uninteresting. We consider the circumstances of the boring remark. Maybe what she said is the best anyone could do at that moment. We think about who else is talking. Is this a conversation with her best friend or with someone she doesn’t know well. Why does she say what she says? What does she hope to achieve? Well, what could she say instead that would work in the situation? We make a list! And we remember that nothing on a list is foolish. We banish fear, because no one is going to read our list, and we aren’t going to judge it, either, for two reasons: because it’s just a list and because we’ve sworn off judging.

We can also ask ourselves what she’s thinking while she speaks. Is she aware that she isn’t adding any excitement? Her thoughts can make her speech less boring. For example, she may be dreadfully shy and wildly imaginative. While she’s saying that the tulip is pretty she can be imagine the flower swallowing her and turning her into a person without a mouth.

Or we can look at her whiny thoughts and speech. We can change these too by listing other options for each example. Sometimes we can simply cut. We can make her self-aware. She can check with a friend to see if she’s feeling too sorry for herself.

The trick is, using craft, we eliminate our emotional involvement. This is just a problem, like a weight-lifting one or a math problem, to solve. When fear, hate, or despair surface, we banish them. We don’t have time for them.

I really do this. Sometimes I question what I’m writing in a discouraging way. Then I get back to my WIP. By now, it’s become automatic. The attack isn’t useful.

As soon as I started writing for kids, I realized one of its advantage over drawing and painting: Writing is infinitely revisable. You can paint over oil and acrylics again and again, but you lose what went before, which you may want to go back to, as I often did. This is why I say to save what you write.

My only fear as I write this is that if you’re learning from me, you may become as slow a writer as I am! Lists take time. Do-overs take time. But I don’t know any other way.

Here are three prompts:

• MC James and his best friend Shinara are FaceTiming about the locusts that have descended on their town and the surrounding farms. They are cracking each other up with a list of the pros and cons of locusts, and neither one is whiny. Write their dialogue. (You may want to Google locusts, because in about two seconds of looking, I found something that could go in the pro column–or in both the pro and con columns.)

• For the fun of it, James and Shinara decide to meet halfway between their two houses, even though they’re not supposed to go out. Write what happens.

• Your MC, Princess Shinara, aka Sleeping Beauty, is the guest of honor at the Sweet Dreams palace ball where she is destined to prick herself. She believes nothing interesting ever comes out of her mouth. Her big worry at the ball is that everyone will fall asleep at the magic moment and wake up thinking how dull she is, and they will dream for the hundred years about the uninspiring, insipid monarch they’re stuck with. Write what actually happens at the ball.

Have fun and save what you write!

With friends like me, who needs enemies?

On May 18, 2016, Lady Laisa wrote, I cannot finish anything I start writing. I know lots of people have asked about this and many, many authors have made blog posts and books written from both sides of the plotter/pantser perspective, but my trouble is that I am neither. I am smack dab in the middle, and I cannot seem to get out.

See, in one way I’m a plotter. I can’t write if I don’t know very well where I’m going. (Kind of like my dad on a trip. If he doesn’t have a very, very good idea where he’s going, he won’t go–unlike my mum who doesn’t mind wandering around a bit.) I need to know my destination and how to get there, or I cannot start out.

On the other hand, I find plotting tedious. I will plot out my story until I hate it so much I would rather take a weed whacker to it than a pen. I may write for a while, but the loathing intensifies until I sometimes I literally hurl the manuscript at the wall. I then crumple it into an envelope and leave it to molder in my closet for years. Sometimes I’ll pull it out (not often) and take a peek, and then get excited about it and write on it for a little while, but then I get drained all over again, and try instead to work on a less taxing story.

This has been going on for roughly six and a half years, and it just gets worse over time. I have about three hundred loose stories, all at various stages of completion, (I even have a whole first draft! But it is so hideous it turns my stomach to even look at it) floating around in the abyss of my closet.

Does anyone have any tips for how to write a story without knowing the plot in advance or how to outline a story without becoming desperately bored?

First off, I think congratulations are in order for about 300 stories in one stage or another. That’s a lot of writing! An accomplishment.

Christie Valentine Powell answered Lady Laisa, and an exchange between the two followed, but I’m going to save that for the next post. For now, I want to address part of the question. I’ll start by relating an incident that happened in my writing workshop last week that troubled me.

In class I gave the kids a prompt that combined dialogue and ending and asked them to write for twenty minutes. One of my very few boys finished early, so I asked him to show me what he’d done. He said it wasn’t any good and didn’t want me to read it. I tried to persuade him otherwise but didn’t push it. He said he’d work on it at home, which he may or may not do.

I felt terrible for him. For one thing, how could I be helpful about something I wasn’t allowed to read?

But also, what kind of expectations did he have for himself? In twenty minutes I didn’t expect anyone to create deathless prose. I wouldn’t expect it of myself, and I’ve been writing for a long time.

And I had this thought: He is unlikely to keep writing. Why would he, if it’s the cause of such unhappiness and self-condemnation? Then, I confess, I had a follow-up, evil thought: That’s okay. There are enough writers already. He can just be a reader. We need more of them.

When everyone finished writing, I launched into the spiel I’ve delivered here: that asking whether our work is good or not is the least useful question we can pose. I asked them why, and they got it. If someone tells us we’re wrong, that our story is good, we’re pleased maybe, but we don’t know what made it good, and we may feel suspicious. We see problems, why doesn’t this person? On the other hand, if the judgment confirms our own condemnation, we just feel bad, but we don’t know how to make the piece better, and we’re probably not in a state to work on it then anyway–too painful!

Not long ago, I heard an interview on the radio while I was driving. A woman with a young voice was interviewing a physicist about multi-verses, which are part of a theory that there may be other universes in the deeps of space that are identical to ours and also many others that may vary only in small details. The physicist said that there could be a universe in which the same interview was going forward but with different questions and different answers. And the interviewer, to my astonishment, said something like: “In that other universe, the interviewer would be asking better questions than I have.”

I didn’t crash the car. Reggie didn’t bounce around in the hatch, but he did pop up from his snooze when I pounded the steering wheel and yelled at the interviewer, “Why did you say that? What was wrong with your questions? I didn’t notice anything, and I’m a good noticer.”

In a poetry workshop I took years ago, the teacher said anyone who prefaced reading her poem with a warning that it wasn’t very good would be fined five dollars. No one had to pay up, but a couple of people came close and had to reel their words back in when they started with self-criticism.

Some of you may not agree with this, and my exemplar in the workshop was a boy, but I think girls and women are more prone to the self-put-down than boys and men. Please weigh in with your thoughts.

I’m not suggesting that everything we write is gold. First drafts need improvement. My second and third drafts, too. And no book is perfect. I’ve been listening to a new audio version of FAIREST to see how I like it, and I heard a sentence that I’d like to revise. It’s been out for ten years!

So here is the first strategy to help us finish our stories: Be nice to them. Don’t call them lousy.

But how do we combat this habit of undermining ourselves when we’re just getting started as writers?

∙ We can become self-aware of our self-attack. We can notice when we do it to. We can ask friends and family to point it out. We can pay attention to it in other people, which will help us generally be more alert to it. You may be surprised at how often self put-downs crops up.

∙ The last post was about getting useful criticism. That will help. When we see where the problems are–that they aren’t global–we can set about making matters better. If we’re also critiquing the work of other writers, we see that we’re not the only ones who struggle.

∙ Books about writing may help. I love Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser (at least middle-school level, I’d guess), which spends a lot of pages on the inner critic and how to get it out of the way. As beginning writer, this was my go-to book when I got discouraged. Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott is also great–high school and up.

The point is, it’s hard to finish anything when we’re constantly passing judgment. I’m going to call out on the blog when someone bad mouths her writing, maybe not every time, but beware! You risk being caught!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Let’s re-imagine “Rumpelstiltskin.” Instead of having to spin straw into gold, the miller’s daughter is commanded to, in a single day, create a masterpiece of a painting. Rumpelstiltskin comes along, but neither of them knows what the king considers great art. Does he like still lifes or landscapes or portraits, or is abstract art his thing? Write the story.

∙ Cinderella thinks her stepsisters are right when they criticize her. This may be a tragedy. Write the story.

∙ Your MC’s brother is trapped in a magic tower. Your MC’s stallion has magical powers, but he has ideas of his own, and rescuing the brother isn’t among them. Write the story and rescue the brother.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Sneaky Snake

Before the post, a little news. Some of you may have wondered: I’m restarting my summer workshop this year. For writers from ten through high school age who live not impossibly far from Brewster, New York, it will run on Wednesdays from 1:30 to 3:00 for six weeks starting on July 6th. Interested writers need to commit for the whole time, although if you miss a week the world won’t end. It’s free, my gift to budding writers! If you’re interested, you should call the Brewster library to sign up. You know I’d love to have you.

On December 4, 2015, Nessa wrote, 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…)

Lots of you chimed in.

NPennyworth: 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.

Melissa Mead: 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.

Kitty: I feel you. I had the exact same problem 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: (http://nanowrimo.org/forums/word-wars-prompts-sprints/threads/251242), 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: (http://nanowrimo.org/forums/word-wars-prompts-sprints). 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 on 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 official 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 (http://nanowrimo.org/pep-talks/n-k-jemisin) and this blog post (http://blog.nanowrimo.org/post/134534953571/didnt-win-nanowrimo-here-are-3-reasons-to) 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 (http://ywp.nanowrimo.org/) 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.

Ann: 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).

These are great and encouraging! I particularly like the word-sprint and switching-to-pen ideas, which focus us away from feeling bad about being perfectionists and toward action. I tend to get too much into revising, too, when I’m in first-draft stage. I may try NPennyworth’s and Ann’s suggestions to bypass my bad proclivities, or I may start typing with my nose or gripping a pen with my toes. Any words I get out that way will be good enough!

I’m pretty sure I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: I once read a description of a book–I don’t remember the source, so I can’t quote it exactly–as a long document that has something wrong with it. There are no perfect novels, probably no perfect essays or perfect poems. My next novel, after The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, is going to be set in Ella’s world, so recently I reread Ella Enchanted, which was my first published book, and I’ve learned a few things since then. I’d revise quite a bit if I were starting over. For example, I’ve learned about the placement of the word only. Here’s an example that makes me grind my teeth: Ogres weren’t only dangerous because of their size and their cruelty. It should be: Ogres weren’t dangerous only because of their size and their cruelty. The difference is trivial, but the second is more precise than the first.

The only mistake I learned about from HarperCollins’ copy edits on some manuscript or other. I often see it in the work of wonderful writers, who have less gifted copy editors, but I don’t like to see it in moi! Getting deep into the weeds, I don’t think it’s a mistake when it shows up in dialogue, which reflects how people actually speak–generally with misplaced onlys, but in narration, I like to get it right.

Here’s another foolish move I constantly make as I write a first draft: I fix sentences I’m going to wind up cutting. I don’t know that at the time, but I do know that my most frequent action when I revise is to snip. Perfect sentences on the cutting room floor are useless.

Having said that, though, this may be a necessary part of my process, even a comforting one. I start every writing session by rereading a few of my latest pages, and when I reread, inevitably, I revise. Since I love to revise, since it’s my favorite part of writing, by the time I start on fresh work, I’m in the groove.

For those of you who struggle with this along with me and who are high school age at least, a good antidote may be to read a mystery by Elmore Leonard, whose writing is a marvel of simplicity. I don’t know how much he revised to get there, but he goes for a thing plainly said.

In her comment, Nessa says she doesn’t have an inner critic exactly. I beg to differ. When her thought slithers into her brain: It doesn’t sound quite right, who else is whispering but that reptilian inner critic? And once we recognize him, we can talk back or stuff a sock in his mouth. We can say, You may be right, but let me keep writing and after I type or pen The End, I want to know all about the problems. We can even flatter him by pointing out that he’ll be even more helpful once he knows the whole arc of our story.

Also, by the time we get to the end, he may be so pleased with us (since he is us), that he couches his criticism in an encouraging way.

As many of us have said many times, no two writers write alike. Some of us soldier through a first draft uncritically, without ever coming up for air. Some of us are compulsive nitpickers. We may learn to rein ourselves in, but we may never entirely eliminate our three-steps-forward-two-steps-back methodology. And we should respect that. And let me add that Nessa’s question, even though she took an hour to frame it, was clear enough and poignant enough to elicit the help she got. I say, Good work!

Looking for a title for this post, I googled quotations about perfectionism and found this link: https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/perfectionism. I didn’t find my title, but there are lots of gems. I already knew this quote from Oscar Wilde: “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’ll try a sprint prompt. If I understand right, there needs to be a reward for success. My reward would be a game of Free Cell solitaire, so pick some time sucking pastime you usually feel guilty about and indulge guilt free for up to half an hour. Here’s the challenge: Write an argument between two friends. You can come up with your own starter line, or use this phrase: Your first mistake was… Write for fifteen minutes without stopping or fixing anything.

∙ Write a page about your WIP as if you were describing it to an admiring friend in conversation. There is nothing to correct, because you’re just talking on the page.

∙ Write the next page of your WIP with your eyes closed. I can type with my eyes closed, although the temptation to look is very strong. Don’t give in to it! If you can’t type with closed eyes, write longhand on paper. If your eyes are closed, you can’t correct. When you’re finished, don’t go back to fix it. Just keep going, eyes open or closed.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Buzzkill

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: http://nanowrimo.org/forums/writing-groups-and-clubs/threads/260467. 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!

April 3, 2013

On December 19, 2012, Seaspray Wonderlust wrote, Just in case you were wondering:
A BOB:
Someone who tells you you can’t do something, someone who you want to think good of you. This person criticizes you and haunts you until you no longer believe in your dream. But, being a BOB, them criticizing you, although they don’t know it, and maybe you don’t, makes you want your dream more, often making you succeed. In other words, 
Do it for BOB!
I noticed you have something in Writing Magic about this, but I think this is a bad problem, and you should- not make a whole post about it, but add it in to your next one. Bearing in mind, BOB sits in his comfy chair eating your compassion and belief while you are sitting and thinking that your dream sucks. When you are like this, BOB, who is not a nice guy, wins. SO do your dream, and BOB will fall out of his chair, and have to go make his own food. Don’t Become a BOB, and don’t let a BOB posses you. Refuse to listen to BOB, and he will go. I know I shouldn’t be encouraging this type of behavior, but Kick BOB out of your head. BOB is an impostor, and an idiot. Prove BOB wrong. You will, as long as you don’t believe him. 
Do it for BOB!

Interesting! There are internal and external BOBs.

I tell this story often when I visit schools and kids ask me when I started writing. I can’t remember if I’ve told it here before or if I put it in Writing Magic. Anyway, I wrote stories in elementary school and junior high (no middle school back then), and high school – until I took Creative Writing with Mr. Pashkin, who turned out to be my BOB. Several years ago I found the folder with my writing from that class. In the beginning Mr. Pashkin wrote nice comments on the upper margin of my stories and poems. Then I came to the one on which he wrote, “You know your problem – you’re pedestrian.”

Pedestrian has two meanings, the less well known of which is plodding, dull, boring. Mr. Pashkin didn’t merely say that my story was boring, which would have been bad enough, he said I was. Up until then Mr. Pashkin had seemed really nice – interested in his students, encouraging, etc., and then BOOM!

I remember believing his judgment. I’m very practical, always was, very down-to-earth, which I equated with boring. Since I agreed that I was boring, I felt ashamed at having been found out, and I never asked him what he meant. Probably he didn’t mean much. Maybe he was just trying to get a rise out of me.

For twenty-five years, I didn’t write. Well, I wrote a musical for children, but I thought of it as just a vehicle for my husband’s music. I didn’t think I had any talent as a writer. I thought my writing couldn’t be anything but dull.

A job finally got me past this. I was assigned to writing the public service announcements and meeting notes for my state government office, and people admired my work. Then I tried my hand at picture books and embarked on the nine years it took me to get an acceptance from a publisher.

So Mr. Pashkin is an example of an external BOB whom I internalized. After I graduated from high school I carried Mr. Pashkin around inside me and didn’t dare take a writing class in college.

Defiance is one approach to dealing with BOB. If that works for you, let him be your motivator. You’re writing to prove him wrong, and you get deep satisfaction from doing so. Every well-crafted scene, every thrilling moment, every deft characterization is a screw twisted into BOB’s soul, a nail in his coffin. Hooray!

The other approach, which works better for me, is to fill my writing mind with countervailing, positive voices from people who admire my writing or even from people I think would admire it. And often I remember my younger self and write for that version of me. I write what I would have enjoyed reading.

Unhelpful criticism is pernicious. It poisons what we love, and we have to guard against it, whether the enemy is someone else or, as Pogo said, “The enemy is us.” Many writers who stop writing, artists who stop painting, musicians who stop making music do so because they let BOB strangle them. Let’s not join their ranks!

Be aware of self-put-downs. In a poetry workshop I took, after we finished an exercise, we’d take turns reading what we’d written. Our teacher imposed a $5 fine on anyone who introduced a poem with a derogatory remark, like, “This isn’t very good.” Or, worse, “This is really bad.” The fine brought us up short, woke us up to what we were doing to ourselves. In your writing groups you can do something like this. And you can ask friends to alert you when you’ve been hard on yourself.

The poems in the workshop were all first efforts. We hadn’t revised. There is absolutely no value gained from dumping on work in its early stages. What I think we were saying to each other is, “I’m not stupid enough to think this is any good,” an irrelevant comment. It’s also a warning to other people to go easy, which isn’t what we want. We want helpful, honest, specific criticism that will help us write better, in this case better poems.

So we also need to be able to differentiate between BOBs and people whose criticism is useful. Sometimes BOBs are sneaky. We think we’re getting something useful, so how come we feel so bad? I’d say if you feel rotten three times in a row after showing a piece of writing to a friend who appears to be kind, figure this is a disguised BOB, and don’t continue showing your stories to this person. You can still be friends. Go ice skating together. Go to the movies. Criticize other people’s books together – as long as the BOB doesn’t make you feel dumb doing this.

And here are BOB prompts:

• Your MC is BOB. He is paid by a foreign power or a neighboring kingdom or an alien civilization to stifle creativity at home. If his treachery succeeds, his homeland will atrophy on the world stage. His cover job is as an arts critic. Write a scene in which he interviews a top artist. Get inside his head. Help him along. At the end of the scene, the artist is riddled with self-doubt.

• BOB decides to pen his own book, since no one else can get it right. Does he approve of his own work? Or is he as self-critical as he is critical of others? (Could go either way.) Is he a good writer? Write what happens.

• BOB is lonely, so he decides he’ll feel better if he has a girlfriend. Write a story about his quest for love.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Drops of blood

On November 29, 2010 Bluekiwii wrote, …I always have the problem of actually starting to write. The story I want to write blanks from my mind, and I freeze before I’ve even begun to write a word. Or I’ll write something–realize it’s rubbish–and cross it out and begin again, and I’ll continue on this way through the story until I give it up halfway. Or I sit in front of the page thinking of ideas/possibilities and reject each one. Have you ever felt this way and what have you done to get rid of this feeling in order to write? How do you start the process of writing a story? Do you outline what you are doing first, a simple two-liner that will guide the plot? Do you plan each chapter? How do you visualize what you’re trying to write before you do it? Do you make a rough sketch of what your characters are like before fleshing them out in the story?
I love this quote by Gene Fowler: “Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”

Years ago, before I became a writer, I painted, and my favorite medium was watercolor, which is not forgiving, because you can’t cover your mistakes. Some watercolorists outline in pencil so they know what they’re doing. Some paint so loosely that a mistake just becomes part of the artistry, which I admire the most. I did neither. I just expected myself to get it right, and I disappointed myself again and again. As soon as I started a new painting I’d be all over myself about how I was going to louse it up.

The quality of my painting became a measurement of my worth, not of my financial worth of course, but of whether I was worthy of respect, of being considered an artist, almost of living. There was much too much riding on the outcome every time I picked up a paintbrush. Eventually I stopped painting and started writing.

I didn’t come to writing with the same negativity, and I was lucky in the teachers and the books I found to help me learn. I talk about this in Writing Magic, and I’ve written about it on the blog now and then. The most helpful book I read back then, the most helpful in exactly this regard, which I’ve also mentioned before, is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain (middle school and up) by Henriette Anne Klauser. Even today, when I’m particularly stuck, that’s the book I go to.

If I remember right, there’s an approach in another writing book, Bird by Bird (also middle school and up, I’d guess) by Anne Lamott, that might be helpful. It’s called “Short Assignments.” In short assignments the writer has to write, but for a limited time. Building on Lamott’s idea, Bluekiwii and anyone who feels like Bluekiwii, I’d recommend that you write for fifteen minutes and stop for a while. Don’t evaluate what you’ve written. Just leave it. Then write for another fifteen minutes, without evaluating your new work or what went before. Your job for now is to write without judgment.

I love the computer, because it’s the opposite of watercolor; it’s infinitely forgiving. You can make a million mistakes and a million fixes. Here’s something else to try: Write without crossing out. When you don’t like what went before, just hit Enter twice and write the sentences better or differently or even worse and keep going.

Or try this: When you think you wrote something awful, write the judgment and keep going, as in, Maxine and her brother Isaac left the apartment to buy a carton of milk. What tripe. Who cares? The elevator didn’t come for a full five minutes, so they took the stairs. What difference does that make? I should just cut it all. Maxine told her mother she didn’t want to go to the store. The store was boring. This is boring. I should shoot Maxine.

Keep going. Maybe it will turn out that the elevator was delayed because Maxine’s upstairs neighbor, the one who gives her piano lessons, had a heart attack, and he was being carried into the elevator on a stretcher. Or maybe there will be a unicorn in the store when Maxine and Isaac finally get there. Or you’ll find other characters that interest you more than the two of them.

At the end of every post I write, “Have fun, and save what you write!” I don’t mean you should save only the pieces you approve of. I mean, save it all. You may never look at your old efforts again, but someday you may want to. You may be curious about your progress or about what you were thinking in 2011. Your biographer may be interested in every word you ever wrote.

Recently I bought a book on writing mysteries because I’ve been having so much trouble with my second mystery novel. I hoped that book would give me a formula that I could follow, that I could dress up and disguise, which I would really be happy to do if it made writing easier. I gave up on the book, although some of it was interesting, but it didn’t give me the formula. Probably because there is none for me. My writing process is messy. I muddle along, and some books are harder than others, but eventually I find my way, or so far I have.

I don’t have much trouble starting a story. I spend a few weeks thinking about what I may want to do and writing notes, and then I’m off. No outline, but a rough idea of where I’m going, which may be entirely not where I go. I don’t plan each chapter, but I do have an idea of a scene before I write it, and I have an internal alarm that shrills when things are getting dull and I need to shake them up or throw in a surprise. As for my characters, I discover them as I write. When they feel blank I use the character questionnaire you can find in Writing Magic. The one thing I do do is visualize. I need to see my characters moving through a scene, to know where they are and what they’re seeing, hearing, touching, smelling.

This second mystery, which may or may not be called Beloved Elodie – I’ve now started it four times. The first time I wrote about 140 pages, but I forgot to put in any suspects. (!!!) So I started over with suspects but the same core mystery, which was too complicated and impossible to solve. I told my husband the story, and his eyes rolled back in his head, and I knew it wasn’t working, but I’d written about 260 pages and I’m not getting any younger. Then I made the mystery something that can be solved, but I was taking too long to get the problem going. Remember I mentioned that I was meeting with my new critique buddy? I’d given her the first thirty pages and she picked up on what was wrong immediately. This time, happily, I’d  written only about 45 pages. Now I think I’m on track until I get into trouble again.

I am not a role model, but I could be someone to wallow with in the writing mud.

Here are some prompts:

•    If you’re too self-critical, try the suggestions above. Write in fifteen-minute stretches. Write without crossing anything out. Include your self put-downs in your writing. Read the chapter in Writing Magic called “Shut Up!” and read Writing on Both Sides of the Brain and Bird by Bird.

•    Write a list of ten story ideas. Pick the worst, stupidest one and write twenty minutes worth of notes on where you could go with it. If you get inspired, write the story.

•    Write about Maxine and Isaac and their trip to the store or about their refusal to go to the store. Make something unexpected happen. Then create another surprise. And another.

Have fun, and save what you write!