Guest Post: Margo Lanagan on Not Writing

Due to boring circumstances beyond my control, I will not be online much for awhile. Fortunately I’ve been able to line up a number of stellar guests to fill in for me. Most are writers, but I also thought it would be fun to get some publishing types to explain what it is they do, teach you some more about the industry, and answer your questions, as well as one or two bloggers.

Margo Lanagan is probably the award winningest Australian YA writer of all time. She deserves every single one. When I’m asked who I think the best living YA writer is, which is a really dreadful question given how many wonderful ones there are and how I know so many of them, I say Margo Lanagan. I am in awe of her writing and never tire of her voice. Even when she says wrong things. If you haven’t read any of Margo’s work you need to fix that.

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Margo Lanagan has written for children, young adults and adults—she’s best known for her YA fantasy writing. She’s put out 3 collections of short stories (White Time, Black Juice and Red Spikes, with Yellowcake to come out next), and her novel Tender Morsels was a Printz Honor Book and won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Margo lives in Sydney all year round, except when her glamorous writing life affords her the opportunity to travel. She has silver hair, brown eyes, a GSOH, and no pets.

Step AWAY from the page

Where did I hear, the other day, that some well-known, well-published writer had decided to give writing away? She’d done so, she said, because she was ‘sick of the sound of her own voice’. And I knew exactly what she was talking about, because there are times when I stop writing, temporarily, for the same reason. (Note: this is not the same thing as writer’s block.)

Tiring of your own voice can happen when, because you’re so darn regular and dutiful in your writing habits, your writing rate overtakes your generation-of-ideas rate. Lots of writers are very fierce about the notion of applying your bum to a chair on a regular basis, and they’re not entirely wrong. There is a time for regular bum-application—when you’re partway through a draft or a revision of a novel, you have to work steadily. You need to keep the entire novel and all its offshoots uploaded to your mind for a sustained period, if you want the story to have integrity at the end.

But there’s also a time for running around outside, or partying-and-then-sleeping-in, or having a glut of reading for several weeks, or just moping off to the day-job and back. There are times, and they’re more frequent than a lot of people like to admit, when it’s a bad idea to sit down, set your jaw and force yourself once again to your story. You learn to judge, after many years of trying to be so determined, of forcing yourself to this uncomfortable duty, when to press yourself into the story’s service, and when to just disengage, banish the thing to your subconscious mind, and leave its problems alone to work themselves out.

But this isn’t about problem-solving. This is about feeling as if you’ve got nothing new to say. You sit down with what you thought was a good idea, and you start out on it, or you’re halfway through, and you find yourself reaching for the same similes or images, the same kinds of phrasing, the same plot turns as you always do. And it’s not reassuring, it’s not interesting, it’s not good. Everything is stale and worn-feeling; nothing makes you sit up and care about what you’re doing. Curses, another wet young protagonist who thinks too much? Can’t you create any other POV character? Can you not stop using the words ‘dark’ or ‘great’ before every damned thing you describe? Does everything you write have to be so sad, or so ambiguous, so qualified by cynical asides? What is wrong with you?

You begin on something else, some idea you’ve been hoarding and really looking forward to. Perhaps if you treat yourself, give yourself free rein, you’ll find new energy; before you know it you’ll be galloping off over the hills, gasping in fresh air and tossing your mane with the sheer joy of creation. And you bang away at it for a while, but then . . . you find yourself just nibbling weeds in the corner of some chewed-flat field again, berating yourself, bored to sobs.

I did this once just after I finished one of the drafts of Tender Morsels. I went off to a 5-day workshop of intensive writing. It was a fine workshop, full of stimulating tasks, full of fellow workshoppers doing wonderful things. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, all over the shop. None of it was useful; none of it came to anything. Not a single story was born of 5 days of solid writing. At the end of it I flipped through the dutiful words, page after page of them, and I knew there was nothing there. Even now I don’t like to look in that notebook; the deadness, the effortfulness of the sentences, the absence of direction, is too dispiriting.

Sometimes you’re just drained; sometimes you’re just used up. Sometimes you’re not the kind of person who can get useful material from writing every day—I’m certainly not, not month in, month out. Sometimes you have to lie fallow for a while, remove yourself far enough from your own words, your own style, that you can come at them afresh later. Sometimes there’s a good story waiting, but your subconscious hasn’t worked out how you’ll approach it yet. Leave it alone; let it grow, unforced, un-angsted-over.

I wonder if she will give it up completely, that writer, whoever she was? Maybe she just needs to move beyond her current self a bit, get out of the shadow of what she’s already written, break out a different part of herself into her writing somehow—use a pseudonym? Try something funny? Have a crack at the lyric poem? Who knows? Maybe her public declaration is just her way of pushing herself far enough away from her past to feel free to move on?

Or maybe she really is done, for good. Maybe she’s said everything that seems to need saying. Maybe no stories are presenting themselves to her any more, and there’s plenty else in her life to fill her days and keep her sane. I can’t imagine what it would be like to run out of story, and it sounds like an awful thing to happen. But perhaps it isn’t; perhaps it feels quite natural; perhaps life is none the poorer for not including writing. Now, there’s a new thought.

What do YOU do when you get sick of the sound of yourself? Have you ever given up writing entirely—for a spell, or forever, or just one particular genre or form? Can you imagine retiring from writing (because I can’t, and I’d be fascinated to know what it’s like)—and if you can, what do you think would fill the gap?


  1. R.J. Anderson on #

    Thank you for this, Margo. I, too, am the kind of author who needs fallow time in order to regenerate and not get sick of my own voice — or sick of the whole writing process in general. I’ve learned from past experience that pushing myself to write every single day for months on end is a one-way ticket to burnout and misery, not to mention just plain bad writing.

    I do find that revision is much more relaxing and refreshing for me than writing a first draft, though. I only really have one good first draft in me a year, but I can revise much more happily because — well — it can only get better, right? Or at least different enough to keep me interested in the story.

    In any case I am just coming to the end of a four month stint of intense, quick drafting and revision, and I am really looking forward to taking at least a few weeks off to relax and read and do all the other things that have gone neglected for my writing’s sake. I think it will help my sanity and make me feel less frazzled if I make it a habit never to write on Sundays (or perhaps Saturdays — haven’t decided which yet), as well…

  2. Dorothy Hearst on #

    This is an excellent reminder! I’m a very dutiful writer, and need to be reminded (loudly and firmly) to step away from the computer. I’m finally learning that doing so allows the good stuff to rise to the surface, and allows my subconscious (which is often much smarter than the rest of me) to play around with my stories. I now make a point of taking at least one full weekend day off (except this weekend, oops) and sometimes both days. I take long hikes, see friend and movies, and play with dogs.

    I can imagine taking several months off of writing to see what bubbles up.

  3. Kaia on #

    I stopped writing for several years due to bad health, big personal mostly boring dramas and rather big life changes of the less exciting variety. During that time I didn’t even write a shopping list, or a journal entry, both which I used to do daily, before all that.

    I thought that I’d never write again, that my ideas were permanently gone, but after a lot of reading and fan fic-ing (I owe fandom that one, big time) I found that the urge to writewritewrite came back.

    That’s about two years ago. I think I’ve written if not every day so at least three days a week, minimum, since. And I feel all kinds of lost if I don’t have the time to do so, so I have no idea how I went all that time without it.

    And hadn’t I found some new friends that are all about the writing I doubt I’d found the energy, urge and self confidence to do it. Friends that share your obsession for making stuff up and writing them down are soooo important.

  4. Jo Treggiari on #

    I absolutely take breaks when writing. More frequently at the beginning when I’m still working things out and getting the basic plot right. I hike every morning without fail (armed with notebook and hopefully a pen that works) and often figure things out during this time. I read all the time and sometimes like a glutton especially after finishing a draft, and I spend quality, fun time with family and friends in between manuscripts. I agree that when I first started I had the idea that I had to work 8 hours or more a day, glued to my chair like a monk, forcing words to come but often I ended up trashing those passages. I think after more time working with betas and editors I can tell when it’s simply not working and walk away for the day or days or week or whatever.
    I make up the time later, thinking in terms of months for a project rather than days.
    I do find that after a week of not writing (and that doesn’t include blogging) I start feeling depressed and irritable. So I guess my feeling is do it as much as you want if it makes you happy.
    BY the way I love these guest blogs esp. when the authors are from Australia or New Zealand. Learning of lots of new books I have to read.

  5. kristin cashore on #

    You need to keep the entire novel and all its offshoots uploaded to your mind for a sustained period, if you want the story to have integrity at the end.

    That’s the best explanation I’ve ever read for why taking 3 or 4 days off in a row while I’m in the middle of a draft or revision always ends in disaster!

    Thanks for this great post, Margo. I also listen closely to my instincts and try to back away from the writing now and then. Like R.J., pushing myself just for the sake of progress leads to burnout and misery. It’s hard to back off, though, when you’ve been working on a project forever and are dying to finish — or when you’re feeling the pressure of readers who keep asking you when you’ll be done.

    I think it’s all about pressure. You can get caught up in money worries and career worries and all kinds of other worries, real and imaginary, and forget that your #1 priority, when you began, was to write the book that’s asking to be written, at the pace and in the manner it requires.

    Sometimes I’ll find myself taking unplanned days off. As in, I’ll wake up intending to write, but find myself reading or walking or feeding myself in one way or another… and the day progresses, and I still intend to write… and finally it’s evening, and I realize that no, there’s no writing today. Today is a rest day.

    Workaholics, unite, and take a break! 🙂

  6. Melinda on #

    Hallelujah! This is the best writing advice I’ve read in ages. Thank you

  7. Karen Mahoney on #

    Margo, thank you so much for this post. It inspired me to write the World’s Longest Comment in response, so I decided not to actually hit ‘Submit Comment’ and take over Justine’s blog with my rambling. 😉

    I’ve turned it into a blog post of my own – it really was ridiculously long! But thanks for making me think about this.


  8. Laura on #

    This is exactly how I have felt about writing for the longest time! Even when I work on it every day, I can only work on it for three or maybe four hours at the most before my brain gets foggy. I also find that I just reach a point when I’m tapped out, and the only way to bounce back is to take a day or two off. Usually I know when it’s time to return to it because the urge to write will be just overwhelming!

  9. Gary Kemble on #

    I powered through 80k in six months last year (which is a lot for me) and by the end of it I felt so demoralised by the thought of rewriting the draft that I decided to take a break. At the time I wondered if it would be a permanent break.

    So I designed t-shirts, watched heaps of Supernatural, tackled the pile of books that had been growing steadily taller, mashed some buttons on the Xbox etc etc.

    Then I won a spot on the One Book Many Brisbanes masterclass. My tutor, Trent Jamieson, convinced me that at the very least I should take a look at the manuscript. So I did… and it wasn’t as bad as I feared (for a first draft).

    So now I’m back to juggling family commitments, writing grant proposals and rewriting my book. It was great to take a break, but it’s excellent to be back!


  10. Lucy Stone on #

    This is a very reassuring post! Thank you for this. When I get to a point of tiredness or my brain enters its regular ‘creative droop’, I used to switch to photography for a few weeks. I had to use my eyes more, I had to get out and move around and create something visual with no words. It really worked. After a few weeks I’d go back to writing.

    Now, since my camera died (alas, woe), I read. I buy new books I’d normally not buy if I can find them for under $10 on cheap booksites, and I just read whatever I can of other people’s ideas. Especially Ursula Le Guin. When everything else fails, I read Le Guin or Tolkien and creativity comes rushing back.

  11. Natasha on #

    Thank you for this post, it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’ve been wondering what in the world is wrong with me, I used to be able to write 20 to 30 pages a day. Now I’m lucky if I get out five. After a few years dedication to one book after another it only makes sense that I need some real down time, but this made things real clear. Will help with some of the guilt when I’m reading rather than filling those pages. Awesome advice all writers should consider. Thanks again! 😉

  12. Lara Morgan on #

    I absolutely agree, great post – although the thought of running out of stories to write makes me feel sick and a bit panicky. I find that I want to be one of the dutiful writers and make an effort to be at my computer every working day but I can’t work every weekend all the time. I make sure I at least take Sunday off. It’s like giving the brain a chance to reboot and process all the words that have been coming out over the past days. Without a short break I can sometimes feel like I can’t even see the page anymore for all the words and that they don’t even make much sense anymore. Besides, a big part of writing is dreaming the story into life and you can’t do that if you’re staring bug eyed at a screen.

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