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The Ups and Downs of a Writer’s Journey


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I could make that title even grander by adding a subtitle: And How to Handle Them. I’ve written on this topic before. One can generalise about rejection, writer’s block, bad reviews, and how hard it is to keep going in tough times. But the journeys of individual writers are many and varied, from the one-hit wonder to the focused career writer to the newbie dipping a cautious toe in the swirling river of self-publishing while wondering whether to wait for the big mainstream deal that may be just around the corner. There are the poets, the dreamers, and the dilettantes, each following their own muse. And more, many more, just as there are many pathways in this world – from eight lane expressway to quiet suburban street, from winding country road to wee crooked track into the deep woods.

Hope, resilience, courage: these are vital for me as a writer and as a human being, and they feature in both my blog posts and my fiction. My characters meet tough challenges. Some find the courage, wisdom and inner strength to overcome their difficulties, though not without losses along the way – fantasy world it may be, but these are real people whose dilemmas are, at heart, much the same as those you or I might be facing. The protagonist may be a lonely troll princess or a medieval warrior bard or a young woman thrust into a perilous position of leadership. But their challenges are to stand up for justice and freedom; to stay strong in a hostile world; to help others; to survive; to do better. Some characters fall by the wayside, unable or unwilling to find the internal resources required. That’s how it is in real life. If I have a mantra in my work and in my life, it is ‘Be brave, wise and good and you can meet any challenge.’ Simple, yes?

Well, no. Not always. The grand title needs a third part: something about listening to your own good advice. My journey over the past year or so illustrates that. I just checked out my WU posts for this time last year and was reminded that I was working frantically on a major rewrite of my completed novel, after my editors requested substantial changes. Seems that job, done while the pandemic was raging and world politics were especially turbulent, had a bigger impact than I realised. I completed the revision on time and to everyone’s satisfaction except perhaps my own. But what came next was … nothing much.

Ever since I began writing full time nearly twenty years ago, I’ve submitted a novel every year, then immediately started something new. Some years I’ve completed a side project as well: an audiobook exclusive; a collection of short stories. So what happened in 2021? It’s July already, and although I’ve written two short stories, one already published, one coming out later, there’s no new novel. Instead I have three different book proposals in front of me, none of them ready to go to my agent yet. What went wrong?

Maybe nothing. The last year and a half has been a difficult time for all of us. I know my life is privileged compared to many. I live in a relatively Covid-safe part of the world, I am fully vaccinated, and as I work from home already, I can earn a living even during lockdown. But such times show us the best and the worst of human behaviour, and as a stressed-out writer it can be hard to do what we should do: take a step back, observe, analyse, use what you learn. Human strength and human frailty are universal, as are wise and foolish leaders, external threats, the forces of nature. Ignorance, wilful or not, is balanced by wisdom. Fear is balanced by fortitude. We see it all around us. No matter what your genre, you can use those observations to create a meaningful story, one that will ring true for your fellow humans. Yes, sometimes you feel that you just can’t do it. Maybe you need to recharge the batteries, leave the field fallow, give your brain a rest. Allow yourself thinking time, as much of it as you need. Then, when you are ready, the words will come.

To be honest, I don’t always practise what I preach. I’m not good at taking true breaks, planned or unplanned. If I’m not writing I beat myself up about it. I should follow my own advice from earlier posts. Here are some basics, useful for helping you get through writer’s block and related mental health issues – with my usual caveat that clinical depression requires expert medical help.

  • Take regular exercise (walking, swimming, dancing, whatever you enjoy – dogs come in handy for this!)
  • Go outside into beautiful nature, even if it’s no further than the local park
  • Listen to beautiful music. Sing or play.
  • Try to keep regular hours; get enough sleep
  • Eat healthy food, drink plenty of water
  • Spend less time on your screen(s)
  • Reduce exposure to news coverage (at times of stress I become a news junkie)
  • Engage in creative activities other than writing (cooking, gardening, knitting, etc)
  • Maintain social interaction with family and friends, pandemic permitting

There was some good news this week. A Song of Flight, the novel I laboured over in 2020, received a truly wonderful starred review in Publishers Weekly. And I saw the first copies of Mother Thorn and Other Tales of Courage and Kindness, an illustrated collection of fairy tale reworkings I created in collaboration with award-winning artist Kathleen Jennings. Mother Thorn will be available more widely later this year. Its road to publication has been long and bumpy, but the final result should be worth the angst.

Write well, folks. Look after yourselves. Take a break if you need it, and come back later. The tribe will still be here.

How do you get through the unproductive times?  Feel free to share your stories and your tips.

Image is the author’s own. Taken at Crom Estate, County Fermanagh, Ireland.

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About Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier has written twenty-four novels for adults and young adults as well as a collection of short fiction. Her works of historical fantasy have been published around the world and have won numerous awards. Juliet's next book is A Song of Flight, the third instalment in her Warrior Bards series. A Song of Flight will be published in August/September 2021. Her collection of reimagined fairy tales, Mother Thorn and Other Tales of Courage and Kindness, will have a trade release in October 2021. Mother Thorn is illustrated by Kathleen Jennings and published by Serenity Press. When not writing, Juliet looks after a small crew of rescue dogs.

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