The first of many posts geared towards advice for writers (new, old or returning) with a “what I wished I knew when I started out” theme. This particular one discuses maintaining your mental wellbeing while dealing with timelines, accepting criticisms, and engaging with the writing community. This is Writing is a Craft by L. Jo King.
...Always be willing to learn, while always being willing to teach...
There are many things I wish I knew when I started writing: how to write, what to write, genre rules, what in tf a query letter was. But apart from everything I wish I’d known to be better at the process, I wish I’d know both the lift and the blow writing would take to my mental health, and how to avoid it.
Writing has been both the biggest help, and the biggest hurt to my mental health in the past 4 going on 5 years that I’ve been pursuing traditional publication. I’ve had highs. I’ve had lows. I’ve been jealous and lost friends. I’ve lost friends because they were jealous of me.
There is a stigma behind writing...more than one, actually. And I’ve heard both, and both are incredibly harmful. The first, and the worst, is that image on the depressed writer. “You need to feel these horrible emotions in order to create them on the page.” What a load of crock. The 2nd stigma is that writers need to love what they do, wholeheartedly, write EVERYDAY, and write for themselves in order to be happy.” Or that whole “All good writers hate their writing” nonsense. That is also a harmful lie. These stigmas lead to imposter syndrome and burn out...and sadly in a lot of cases including my own, depression.
Let me just put it out there now, for anyone reading who is feeling that pressure: It’s okay to not be okay. It’s okay to feel burn out. It’s okay to feel imposter syndrome. It’s also okay to be okay and love your writing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
But for now, I’m going to focus on those people who don’t feel okay, because that was me (and still is sometime). There are 3 points that were major catalysts for my mood starting out that I’ve learned about and I wish I’d known four years ago. Those being: Timelines, Accepting Criticism, and Writing Communities.
By timeline, I’m referring to writers who go, “I’m going to finish my novel, get an agent, and be published by the time I’m 25.” That was me. I’m talking about me. When I was 16, I wanted to be published by 18. When I was 18, I wanted to be published by 24. When I was 24, I wanted to be published by 28. Now at 28, with an agent and a novel on submission, I’ll be lucky to be published by 30.
These types of goals are not only unrealistic to the actual speed of publication, but also completely out of your control and constantly make you feel like you aren’t working hard enough, long enough, fast enough, well enough. And. You. Will. Burn. Out. I know...because I did.
Being published “young” is some strange fantasy in the writing community. Let me say it clearly: your age does not mean jack in publication or say anything about your writing abilities.
Whatever speed you are writing that is obtainable and stable, that speed is fine. If that’s 15 minutes before bed twice a week, you’re doing great! If that’s 4 hours every single day of your life, you’re also doing great! Don’t judge yourself as a writer by how old you are, or how fast you climb that really tall, really wobbly ladder to publication, because we don’t know your situation, and you don’t know ours. Progress is Progress. Don’t constrain yourself to a timeline.
Setting a timeline was my biggest reason for burn out for years, and I wish everyone could know when they start that the process can be extremely slow...and that’s okay.
This is a hard one for anyone starting out. Criticism...well, it just isn’t fun. Not for anyone, anywhere. But no MS is ever perfect from the start, and so what? That’s why editing exists! A critique is meant to find the full potential in a story. However, there is a big difference between constructive criticism and harmful criticism. Learning that was the first step in being able to accept it without falling into a deep pit of imposter syndrome.
Having come from online writing communities, I received a lot of criticisms that were aimed at making me feel bad and nothing more than that. Mostly, it was by other writers trying to prove they knew more instead of caring about my work and offering feedback to improve my story and my craft. Those types of criticisms will destroy your willpower and scare you away from constructive feedback. I can’t even begin to explain what purposefully harmful critiques did to my mental health starting out. It’s cruel and unfortunately something too many writers deal with.
A good, tough criticism shouldn’t make you feel awful, it should make you feel inspired to work and improve your craft. Handling it, however, can still take some tough skin. But there are some tricks to avoid the frustration that I’ve learned over the years that would have helped me starting out. The most valuable, I’ve found, being the “Root of the Problem” methode.
I could write a whole other essay on how to take harsh criticism well, but I’ll sum this one up in a few sentences: if you receive criticism that you don’t agree with, but feels like a serious issue, try searching for the root of the problem instead of taking the remark at face value. As a personal example, while participating in #RevPit and getting to work with a professional editor on my MS, my editor asked me to combine two characters into one because it gave that single character a better arc than the two separate characters. I didn’t want to do this, but still, a point was raised: these characters felt incomplete. The solution presented wasn’t what I wanted, but the root of the issue (two characters whose arcs didn’t hit right) is fixable in many ways. With a few added lines and some restructuring, those characters were able to be fleshed out so that they worked separately. The problem was fixed, and my vision as an author was not compromised.
The method for finding “the root” of criticism is one of the most valuable skills I learn and one I wish I could teach every blooming writer. It shows you that a critique doesn’t have to be at face value and there is merit in all criticism, even if you don’t agree with it. Solving those problems in your own way becomes satisfying, and then you feel GOOD about receiving advice!
That’s the way it should feel, because you will be receiving criticism throughout the entirety of a writing career. Learning to make it a process you enjoy is worth its weight in gold!
Using the Writing Community
This may be the most important one of all: a sense of community.
Writing is quite lonely. If you are lucky enough to have a writing partner, that’s great! But for the majority of us, it’s a lot of sitting alone in your own made up world talking to your imaginary friends who you love dearly but also kind of want to see suffer a little, ya know?
I had no other writing friends for most of my life. When I started writing seriously, no one understood the effort I put into it. Many people snickered at me. I was made fun of. An old boss literally laughed in my face when I quit and said “Yeah. Uh huh. You go and write that next great american sci-fi!”. Needless to say, imposter syndrome ran unchecked. Everyone made it quite clear that my dreams were silly, pointless, and rather unimpressive.
Then...one magical day…I decided to make a twitter account. I’m not a social media person. I kinda used instagram for a hot few months before that bored me. I didn’t expect much from Twitter. I had maybe 200 followers when I tweeted out that I was quitting my job to pursue writing more seriously...and that tweet blew up. It didn’t just get retweeted and liked a butt-ton, but with so much love and support from the community. I made so many friends from that one single tweet of accomplishment. I’ve been an active member of the #WritingCommunity on twitter ever since, and it’s changed my life as a writer.
Through the writing community, I found the aforementioned #RevPit. I’ve met some of my favorite people on this planet through that event, who support each other like nothing I’ve ever witnessed before. I met other people from Wattpad, where I originally started writing, and I have incredible friends from there. This community I’ve built is the #1 support system for my mental health through the ups and downs of querying, submission, my journey into professional editing and more. And I’ve never even met them in person. I love my online writing friends with all my heart, and I’d never have made it as far as I have without them.
Writing is hard to do alone. Having a community behind you is my most recommended way to protect your mental health while you do it. It’s never too early to start building one, and you won’t regret it.
With all that being said, I have one last piece of advice out there for anyone who feels like they are behind...or moving to slow...or constantly comparing themselves to other, more “successful” writers: Remember writing is a craft.
For some people, writing is a talent, sure. Some people are naturally good wordsmiths, or storytellers—sometimes both—but not everyone is. I am not someone who was born knowing how to write. I always loved it, and I had a passion for it...but that’s it. I was not some prodigy who knew everything about prose (I didn’t know wtf a “prose” was until maybe last year). I struggled. I studied. I got HARSH criticism. I sucked it up. I kept going. I learned. And now it comes pretty easily.
If you are someone who isn’t quite at that publishable level yet, don’t give up. If you keep getting hard criticism from others, don’t let it get to you. It’s okay to still need to learn. I spent 24 years learning before I finished my first novel, then three and a half more years learning before I found my agent. I’m still learning. Don’t let anyone even make you feel bad for not being up to par with someone who is naturally talented, or having to work harder to put words on the page. So what? At the end of the day, you both have a novel. And the hard work makes it all the more impressive!
Be humble, but never give up. Stay strong, and never accept defeat. Always be willing to learn, while always being willing to teach.
Do those things, and you’ll be okay. :)
— L. Jo King.
L. Jo King is a LGBTQIA+ positive SFF and humor writer and freelance editor with a love for all things silly, weird, or bittersweet. But their biggest passion is exploring the harsh realities through the guise of comedy and magic. They are rep'd by Aida Z. Lilly of KT Literary. Follow them on Twitter (@JoKingAuthor).
chasing that creative spark that sets everything in motion...