Monday, May 29, 2017

How to Deal With Hard Seasons as a Writer

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

Here's something I know is true for all writers: If we stay with writing for long enough, we all go through hard seasons.

When I was trying to get published, one of my rough seasons came after a particularly hard rejection. My book had been under consideration for months, had moved through several parts of the process, and then one day in the mail, a form rejection letter came. A form. All that waiting, all that hoping, and I got nothing more than a vague "Dear Author" letter that they had photocopied.

A short time later, I was at Barnes and Noble, and when I walked in, I felt overwhelmed with how many books were crammed onto the shelves. And I thought, "Why would anybody want to publish anything written by me? What can I possibly say that hasn't been said before?"

This was one of many hard seasons before being published, I've had many after being published, and I'm confident there are more dips and twists in the road ahead of me. If you're in such a season right now, I hope these ideas will encourage you. If you're not, I hope you'll tuck them away for a day in the future when you might need them.

Know it and name it.

Those words I spoke at Barnes and Noble over ten years ago? I heard them echo back to me just a few weeks ago.

I have a darling neighbor who has wanted to write for a long time, and as she was preparing to go to a conference, she said to me with a laugh, "I keep thinking it's silly. Who am I? What can I possibly say that hasn't been said before?" She doesn't feel like a "real" writer, and I told her, "Welcome to the club. None of us do. Especially in the beginning."

I think it's powerful when we can say, "Here's what I'm feeling." I think it's especially powerful when we can confess it to another writer:

Don't write alone!

When I've gone through dark creative times (and dark life times in general) my tendency is to shrink up, and close myself off. But I've yet to drag myself out of a funk with my own strength.

We need writer friends we can be vulnerable with. To whom we can say, "I'm struggling." If you don't have writer friends, friends who are creative can do the trick too. Or just friends who love you and understand what writing means to you.

Roseanna White and I have joked that after so many years of friendship and repeating advice back to each other, we should just create a form email for each of the following statements:

  • I thought this book was going to be my best yet, but it's such a mess! How will I ever fix this?
  • I saw so-and-so gave me a negative review...
  • Life is so busy that I hardly ever get to write. And when I do have time, I can't seem to get any words out.
Even if you know your friend so well that you know what they're going to say, it's still reassuring to hear the words.

Learn to celebrate with others.

One rough thing about having writer friends (or being a human being, really) is the tendency to compare. And sometimes, just like in life, we're going through a rough season while a friend is seeing a lot of success.

A few years ago, as I was struggling in both writing and my personal life, Roseanna was getting offers for contracts that she hadn't even asked for. I'm not kidding. Contracts seemed to be raining down on her.

I had to accept that it wasn't My Turn. That it was Roseanna's turn, and that it was my job to be supportive, encouraging, and even happy for her even though I was struggling. And even though Roseanna was receiving a lot of good news, she was still great about empathizing with me during my rough time.

We have to learn how to celebrate with those who are celebrating even when we're mourning, and to mourn with those who are mourning, even when we have a reason to celebrate.

Stay creative, even if it's not writing.

While it's true that sometimes I need to push through my laziness, get my booty in my chair, and write, there are other times when I need to give myself time away from my manuscript. Especially if what's hitting me hard is something like a rough critique or an unexpected rejection.

In Big Magic (which I think is a wonderful read for creatives, if you don't mind some language) Elizabeth Gilbert says it much better than I can:
Einstein called this tactic "combinatory play"--the act of opening up one mental channel by dabbling in another. This is why he would often play the violin when he was having difficulty solving a mathematical puzzle; after a few hours of sonatas, he could usually find the answer he needed. Part of the trick of combinatory play, I think, is that it quiets your ego and your fears by lowering the stakes.
There's something about continuing to pursue creativity, even if it's something different than the area you want to be creative in, that renews your energy.

Don't look to the world to tell you that you're successful.

Often when I'm in a hard season with writing, I find that at least part of my problem is I've lost track of what makes me successful. I've started looking for validation in the wrong places. 

I've talked about this before on the blog, but Shannon Dittemore forever changed my life when she gave me the question, "What kind of writer do I want to be?" 

That question protects me against guilt when I make decisions like limiting my work time so I can be more present to my children over the summer. Yes, there's a lot more I could be doing, but that would keep me from being the kind of writer I want to be. I don't want to be the kind of writer who works crazy hours.

You have to decide what success looks like to you, because the world will always push you to be more, do more, achieve more, want more, and so on.

Review your Ws:

Sometimes for me, my hard season is born out of me trying to ignore the reality around me. But life is full of different seasons with different demands, and it's helpful to review your Ws and see if part of the problem is your expectations.

Where am I in life right now?: Sometimes a hard season in writing is born out of a hard or busy season. There's no sense in pretending like your creativity isn't impacted by being a full-time student, or having health issues, or sharing a computer with five siblings, or having parents who are going through a divorce.

Also, where are you with writing? If you're working on your first book, it's not fair to expect yourself to be Tolkein. There's nothing wrong with being a beginner, and once you acknowledge the gap between your tastes and your abilities that Shannon talked about a few weeks ago, you will hopefully be able to relieve some of the pressure you're putting on yourself.

When can I write?: Few of us have as much control over our time and schedules as we'd like. If you share a computer, or you work, or you're in school and sports and theater, consider that when you set expectations for how much you should be able to produce.

What do I want to write?: When Roseanna had publishers chasing her with contracts, and I had publishers running away from me, I would say things to my husband like, "What's wrong with me? I can't seem to get anything going, and Roseanna gets new contract offers, like, every day."

"Roseanna writes historical romance for adults. Do you want to write historical romance for adults?"


"Okay, then. They're different genres with different demands and markets. Stop acting like that's a fair comparison."

Like he nearly always is, my husband was totally right. I was trying to ignore or shrug away the realities of writing in my chosen genre, and that wasn't fair.

Why do I write?: Sometimes when I'm in a hard writing place, it's because I've forgotten that I don't write for money or attention or critical acclaim or bragging rights. I write because I love it. I write because it's something that makes me more fully alive. 

Maybe that won't always be true. Maybe I will need to write for money at some point in my career. If I do, I'll have to make different choices than the ones I do now, but that's fine. The Ws are not static things, which is why they need reviewing from time to time.

Have you gone through creative dips or struggled with writing at times? What has helped you?


  1. I've had SO much trouble writing lately. Writer's block has attacked me savagely. I'm hoping to get sparks of ideas, but I feel like giving up, and just burning it at times. It\s crazy. (Of course, I know I can't put my hard work to waste. It's too precious.) Though, I DO have some ideas that can build my WIP up....Any ideas on how to get over writer's block? Anyone? Help would be very much appreciated. ;)
    Thanks for the post, Mrs. Morrill! :)

    1. Sometimes nothing seems to help for long. It's so weird with me.

    2. Praise Jesus that I haven't really dealt with major writers block. I know what I'm writing, I just sometimes can't figure out what words to say. However, some things that have helped me are coming here to read articles on the topic I'm on in my book. I also watch YouTube videos made by writers. The one I really watch is Vivian Reis. (I think that's how you spell her name) Also, watching art videos, where people are drawing or painting help to inspire me. Art al a Carte is helpful. She's an amazing artist and she likes to tell stories with her art.

      Sometimes taking a mental break is helpful. Getting up and walking around your house or even your neighborhood. Maybe riding a bike or just sitting on a couch and letting your mind wander by itself can help.

      That's all I can think of for now, but hopefully it helped. Another odd one is drink some water. Water is good for our bodies and might help the brain. (I'm sort of a health nut. Not really crazy because I like sweets, but water is good, lol.)

      God bless

    3. Lucky you! Lol
      Well, my topics are usually depressing, then turning into redemption, so I'm not sure if I should look it up. You know, abuse and all that sad stuff. Though, i did read One For the Murphys, and it has a subject that's the slightest bit like mine, so that kind of helped. also, we watched the Outsiders recently, so that seemed to help me. I need t check that person out! Thanks, PT--Ivie. Lol
      I need to take breaks...I'm bad at stopping when I write. I just want to get it all done in one time, but I know that's impossible. (Especially for me. It just tires out my brain and makes my writing stink when I don't stop.)

      YES! Okay, that is weird, but it really helps. My writing life is s annoying because I usually get ideas for my writing, when I have no time to write it down. It's like my brain is trying to annoy me. Lol

    4. Amen on that last part.
      I understand. I don know of any sources for depressing topics at the moment, so maybe just letting your mind wander a little will help.

    5. Yeah, I think that's the best.
      Lol, I do that all the time. Darn keyboard. ��

    6. Sorry! Those question mark WAS an emoji, but while this was publishing, it turned into question marks. Dang.

    7. Lol, it's fine. I see that happen all the time. I was writing my last comment on my kindle, so I had an emoji button. That's also why it misspelled because for some reason there was a lag in what I was typing to what came on the screen.

    8. Oh, I hate when mine lags behind. lol
      I figured out how to change my smiley faces to emojis, but then it didn't really change it.

  2. Thank you, Mrs. Morrill. This is just what I needed to hear(read). I've been going through a slightly stressful time for the end of the school year and have been putting so much pressure on myself to finish editing my book that I threatened to quit it all together. I knew deep down that there was no way I was quitting. Writing is like breathing to me. I think the reason why we as writers might get stressed about our writing, besides perfectionism, is it's a world where we have control. We can't control the world we live in, but we can control a world we create.

    This post really helped me to see that everyone has moments like this and I'm not alone. Thanks for this amazing article. And thank you for all the inspiration I've gotten from this website over the years I've been using it. :) <3

    (Note: I used to be PT, but now I'm using the pen name of Ivie)

    1. I'm so glad this post was helpful, Ivie! You're certainly not alone.

    2. I agree, Ivie! One of the reasons why I always loved writing was that it enabled me to create a world that I could control. It is more than just an escape for me, though, because designing a plot to guide the characters in their growth reminds me that God is in control of my life and has my best interests at heart. :) Good luck editing, Ivie! I'm glad to hear you still remember the reason you started writing even when your dream starts to feel hazy.

    3. @Mrs. Morrill, thank you for the reminder that as writers, we're all in this together.
      @Olivia, thank you for your kind words. I have a hard time not being in control of my life and accepting that God is. I think that's why writing is so fun for me. I'm in control and decide what happens. But in my life, I'm glad God is in control. God Bless y'all

  3. Seemed like for a few years there, our good times/hard times were opposite each other--which meant we could hold each other up when the other needed it most! Though I'm really hoping we both get some successful seasons at the same time now. ;-)

  4. What I'm struggling with right now is figuring out how my story idea can be converted into an actual story. I have plenty of ideas, but I struggle with actually putting it down on paper.
    Thanks for this post, Mrs. Morrill!

    1. Usually the hardest part is the first sentence. Once you get that down, the words will just flow (for me at least). First and last paragraphs are hard. I suggest maybe reading a book and guessing what their little seed of and idea was and then see how they added onto that. That may sound weird, but I hope it helps. ;)

    2. yeah, what you said LHE! Before you start Allison, come up with the first scene you want to portray, so that you can introduce your character and his/her story. Here are some links from GTW to help you out:

      The only other thing I would suggest is just going with the flow, don't worry if you don't like it at first, but once you've gotten through the first page or so, just re read and edit it! If you don't like it, don't worry, just redo it!

      Hope this helps Allison!
      Love - Keilah

    3. That's really interesting, Allison. I would love to hear more about that. Where do you feel the breakdown is in the process? When do you start noticing a struggle?

  5. Fantastic post, Steph. I think it's about seasons. You said this before and I so agree. It's not always spring. Sometimes it's winter and it's time for some things to die so others can grow. Experience helps. Writer pals help. Writing actually helps. And we get better at the dying seasons as we move forward.

    1. Thanks, Shan. Yes, sometimes those winters stretch on for years. Even when you know it's just a season, it's hard to keep hope sometimes.

  6. For me, it was finding out what kind of writer I was. About 5 years ago, I suddenly had this character talking to me, for the first time in about twenty years (because, you know, university, marrying, having wonderful kids... And I remembered that I loved to write.
    So here I was, with my character and no idea where to start. I found Stephen Kings book On writing in the library and he talked about stories being fossils or something like that (cant't really remember) and I started my story to see what I would find.
    Ehm yeah... that was a disaster. There was no story, no matter how hard I tried. And I almost lost hope and thought I wasn't a writer.
    Until I stumbled on outlining and plotting.
    It resonated with me and I decided to give it another try. And now, it works. Turns out I am just a hardcore plotter...

    Love from the Netherlands,