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Dear Story Nurse,
I’ve been working hard the last year on putting my work out there: shopping a fully edited novel round to agents, pitching and submitting short fiction/game writing and putting some stuff up for free. While I’ve had a good response when I have a direct audience (i.e. with my alpha readers, free work and blogging), I’m hitting a huge wall of rejection with anything that requires investment from professionals. I’m very aware that this is exactly the problem plenty of writers have (and there are so many examples of famous writers getting rejected a lot) but it feels like such a roll of the dice every time, without any way of improving the odds. I’m never going to stop writing, but I’m losing confidence in my ability to be more than an amateur.
Right now I’m at a crossroads where I have to choose where to put my energy and time: do I keep hacking away at the cliff-face of novel revisions, knowing it’ll take me at least another year before something else is ready for submission? Do I try and cultivate other outlets I enjoy such as RPG writing or short fiction, which are much more limited in their scope for professional gigs but have a more direct audience reach? Do I focus more on my blogging, which I keep as a background thing right now, but is probably my most successful outlet?
I’m not asking you to decide for me (I’m aware it has to be my decision), but I am frozen with indecision right now. Any one path takes time from the others, and while I enjoy moving between them, taking a dilettante attitude towards writing or editing a novel will mean it takes even more time. None of my choices are wrong exactly, but any of them could be frustrating and fruitless very easily.
Unfortunately I can’t even consider which of these I might find most fun right now – not because it’s a bad idea, but because I can’t relax until I find some measure of professional success. My mental health becomes worse when I’m not making progress towards becoming published, which means I have to keep moving forward. Any tips on facing these kinds of big decisions in the face of rejection and loss of confidence?
Thank you for being such a force of positivity in the world.
Thank you for the kind words! I will be glad to be a force of positivity for you.
First of all, I encourage you to chat with a mental health professional if you don’t already have one on Team You. It’s not great for you to have your mental health so closely linked to something that’s out of your control. I hope you have access to mental health care and can get some help untangling your sense of self-worth from the trajectory of your writing career.
Second, let’s talk about progress and success.
Dear Story Nurse,
I write both fanfiction and original stories. One of the fanfictions that I’ve written, and am about to re-write, is one that I’m very proud of. I love the premise and I’ve worked really hard on the lore and world. While I intend to continue writing it, I am also considering taking this world and premise that I’m proud of and making an original story out of it, too. Let me preface the rest of my question by saying that I don’t intend for the original characters to be based off of the fanfiction ones, because they weren’t even mine to begin with. And while there will be elements from it, and the basic premise, I don’t plan to make my original follow the exact same story of my fanfic.
I plan to self-publish, maybe even make a webcomic, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the publishers. However, is it a bad idea to take something I’ve written for fanfic and make it original? I would at least say something on my fanfiction so that people wouldn’t assume that the original is a copycat, but I feel like maybe there’s something wrong with making it original at all. Is this tacky or ridiculous? Should I not do it because I’ve already written something for those ideas? Something about it makes me feel ashamed but I don’t know what. Is this feeling justified? Please help.
—Don’t Know What to Do (she/her)
Dear Don’t Know,
I completely understand where you’re coming from, but please allow me to put your conscience at ease. It’s absolutely fine to develop fanfic and other derivative ideas into original fiction. Many, many, many people have done it. (I cite a few in my post on how to create original work.)
Hi, Story Nurse!
I’ve created a great cast of characters that I have fleshed out and given a great amount of detail and attention to. While I haven’t fleshed it out completely, I’ve also come up with a world and different species and cultures in it.
The problem is, I don’t have a plot. I know how these characters meet each other and their backstories, but I can’t figure out a plot. I know that conflict is what makes a story. My characters all have different internal conflicts, but I cannot, for the life of me, figure out what external conflict there should be. I originally started with the idea of a war, but I don’t know where to go with that or if it fully fits, and I can’t figure out what role my cast would even play in that.
For reference, my story is a fantasy and many of the characters start out as children, but they age as the story progresses. Any help would be appreciated! I’m desperate to give my characters a story they deserve, but I’m thoroughly stumped. Thank you!
Thank you so much for writing in and allowing me to correct a very common misconception! “Plot revolves around conflict” gets tossed around a lot, and it does at least as much harm as good; you’re not the first writer who’s been discouraged by it. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to do plot—and lots of things that can be meant by conflict.
This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!
Dear Story Nurse,
I’m doing the pre-work/planning/worldbuilding for a novel I’m super excited about. I’ve already written one of the scenes that first showed up in my head and gave me the idea for this story, because I was having a rough time getting into my writing groove the other day and my excitement for that scene helped get me past it.
The problem is the POV. I wrote that scene in 1st person, and there are a bunch of scenes that also beg to be written in 1st person.
But near the end of the novel, there’s going to be a section where my protagonist is out of the action for a little bit (captured by the antagonist), and I know I want to include the scenes of discord and chaos among her followers in her absence, and the planning that leads up to her love interest wrangling the secondary characters into infiltrating the base to break her out. It’s a pivotal moment for the LI, in fact, so I can’t just leave it out.
Which leads to my difficulty, because of course that’s the weakness of 1st person—you’re tied to only what your POV character can see and hear.
Is there a way to reconcile these? Or am I trying to have my cake and eat it too?
I really, really want the sense of immediacy/intimacy afforded by 1st person narration, plus 3rd person would mean playing the pronoun game since the protagonist and her LI are both women and both use she/her pronouns. I hate the pronoun game at the best of times, and the idea of an entire novel full of it is giving me preemptive headaches. But the bit while the protagonist is out of commission is so necessary to the LI’s arc that dropping it entirely leaves me floundering, and the idea of including it via the LI telling the protagonist about it after the fact strips it of a lot of the emotional impact and urgency.
So I’m really stuck trying to find a way to navigate the contradiction here. I’m hoping that with your help I might be able to get everything I want here instead of having to sacrifice some part of it.
If the love interest’s arc is so important, then it sounds like you have two protagonists. One might be a primary protagonist and the other secondary, but approaching it that way from the start will help you ensure you give both characters the development they deserve.
Here we are at the end of 2018. It’s been a challenging year for many of us, and also a year of tremendous achievements for many of us. I invite you to use the comments on this post to share your writing accomplishments and talk about what you have planned for the coming year.
This year I joined Get Your Words Out. (If you’ve enjoyed my GYWO posts, please consider signing up yourself! It’s totally free and you get to join a great community of motivated writers, with multiple posts a week full of useful advice. If you like Story Hospital, you’ll love GYWO.) I pledged to do fiction writing (or directly related tasks) on 120 calendar days, and I just barely made it: today, December 31st, was day #120. Over the course of those 120 days, I wrote 61,586 words of fiction in 33 stories, ranging from 300 to 16,000 words. My informal wordcount goal was 50k and I’m astonished that I blew past it so comprehensively.
I’m pledging 120 days again for 2019, and hoping to manage less of a feast-or-famine approach; I logged two fiction-writing days from May through August, and 74 from October through December, which has been really exhausting. I’m also contemplating what I’ve learned about myself from making and meeting that pledge, and how to apply some of those lessons to the non-writing hobbies I’ll be pursuing next year.
Please join me in celebrating all your writing and revising and publishing milestones from 2018, no matter how big or how small. What are you proud of? What did you learn? How will you build on it? And if you’re looking for a particular type of help or support or collaboration, mention that too; maybe someone else here is just the person you need.
Thank you so much for all your support in 2018. Here’s to a healthy, happy, fruitful year to come.
Hello Story Nurse,
I’ve been writing fantasy for as long as I can remember. I love creating characters, I love building world, and I love the feeling of actually sitting down to write.
But when it comes to actually coming up with a plot, I struggle. I typically come up with a plot about 30K words in, and then… I ignore the plot in order to write vignettes about how the characters interact, examining their quirks and backstories, that sort of thing. I’m about halfway through a project that I absolutely love, and I have probably four words of non-plot for every word of plot. Am I writing the wrong genre? I don’t remember any fantasy books that spend this much time lovingly describing what each character’s childhood was like.
—More of a Therapist than a Plotter (he/him)
Dear More of a Therapist,
I think what’s key here is that you are loving your project. Nothing matters more than that. Your love for it will keep you going through the hardest parts of writing it, and your readers will be able to tell it was written with love, an incredibly potent ingredient that can win a reader over to something they might not expect to like at all.
I can think of quite a number of fantasy authors who have diverged aggressively from what other people thought the fantasy genre was supposed to be. Among the names that come to mind are N.K. Jemisin, Laurell K. Hamilton, Colson Whitehead, Catherynne M. Valente, Jeff VanderMeer, Zen Cho, Stephenie Meyer, Cherie Priest, Naomi Novik, and George R.R. Martin. You may have heard of some of them. Their success stems from their passion, their visions, and their refusal to be put in a box labeled This Is How Fantasy Is. In fact, very few people succeed in the genre by doing just what everyone else has done. Readers do enjoy their familiar tropes, but they also hunger for the thrill of something new.
There will be time later to consider things like how marketable the book is and where to find the readers who will adore it as much as you do. For now, get unstuck from your shoulds and write what’s bringing you joy. There’s no substitute for that feeling and you should feel entirely free to wallow in it.
Happy, happy writing!
This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!
Hello Story Nurse,
I want to write a novel. But I’m stuck. I have previously published non-fiction work in thesis, publication, monograph and script format. To me this kind of writing is, if not easy, intuitive. Pitching what I’m writing to the right audience is my particular strength. I’ve written for experts in my field and scripted shows to be presented to people who have learning disabilities by people who have learning difficulties who may not be able to read well if at all.
I think part of the problem is that I don’t really have a process for fiction. I have the plot sorted. I’ve tongue in cheek described it as World War Z but with lesbians and organised crime instead of zombies. I don’t know what to do to get beyond this plotting point. I’ve seen guides that say to flesh out your characters but I’m not sure how to do that? Especially since the things that people say you should know about your characters seem weird? Blood type? Really? Unless transfusion diagnostics or really picky vampires are major plot points I’m not really sure why it matters! (Although I would definitely read something about a vampire who works in a blood bank because anything other than ABNEG is just dire).
Then there’s the fact that I can almost hear myself reading aloud anything I write. I want several view points in my novel but I can’t seem to get patterns of speech or writing to change in a way that doesn’t feel utterly cringey.
Do I need to start simpler? Should I just stay in my writing lane?
—Too Literal to be Literary (she/her)
Dear Too Literal,
By “stay in my writing lane” I think you mean “give up on writing fiction because I don’t know how to do it.” I encourage you not to give up. It’s challenging to go from being an expert writer to being a novice; you feel like you ought to just be able to transfer your skills. You’ve got a variation on what Ira Glass calls the taste gap, the distance between what you as an amateur are capable of writing and what you as a professional expect to be able to produce (and want to be reading). But the issues you’re highlighting—character development, voice—are some of the issues that are unique to fiction, where experienced writers of nonfiction will struggle just as total beginners do.
Dear Story Nurse,
I have some interconnected problems that all together add up to being able to write productively, but not finish pieces.
Practical: because of chronic illness I have very little time to devote to writing, it’s brief stretches once or twice a week at best.
Process: I have a folder of ideas and drafts in various stages. In a writing headspace, material comes for several of them at the same time. A short writing session might include writing a few paragraphs on three different stories, and jotting down a couple of new ideas. The usual advice is to write down the new ideas and get back to the original piece you’re working on, but for me the ratio of what I’m trying to focus on to other ideas is 40/60 at best.
Craft: From what I’ve read some writers have distinct stages of writing and editing, each of which focuses on a specific aspect of the piece. Like in drawing – anatomy first, outlines, large areas of colour and light/shade, fine details. It would be counterproductive and complicated to mix those stages together. But that’s kind of what my writing often feels like. Say polishing a piece and doing line level editing and realising that I need some major revisions to the structure or the worldbuilding.
Also: anxiety and perfectionism probably? I do have a tendency to want to keep doing endless rewrites.
The logical thing to try was
– pick one thing and finish that
– try writing shorter things
But because of the limited time and the wandering brain I’ve spent months trying to finish a short short story, trying to get into the same frame of mind over and over again for a couple of sentences at a time, and it really drained the fun out of writing. Also, shorter things aren’t necessarily less complicated.
I get that a lot of this is just practice, but I also think I might need to shift something in my approach, because it doesn’t feel like more practice with my current process will get me to being able to complete pieces.
I would really appreciate any suggestions!
I agree that you need to shift something in your approach. Specifically, you need to shift away from reading one-size-fits-all writing advice, because that advice does not and will not work for you. Your circumstances are different from those envisioned by most writers of advice: your natural process is different, your ability level is different, your available time is different. “All” will almost never mean you. So let all of that go, and focus on learning from yourself through a process of exploration, observation, and iteration.
Dear Story Nurse,
Is it okay to contact expert sources for a novel that might never see publication?
We’re often advised to seek outside perspectives when writing about people who have different life experiences than ourselves. But I’m also wary about imposing on people who have no obligation to educate me. Doubly so because as with all creative projects, there’s a good chance it will only ever live on my hard drive. But there’s limits to the info that Googling can provide.
So, is it okay to contact people whose perspective would be valuable to me and ask to interview them? Does it make a difference that I have no book deal, agent or publisher? If it is okay to ask, how do I present the question in a way that would make it worth their time? Can I contact a hematologist for detailed info I need for a vampire novel? Can I contact a sex worker and ask probing and personal questions for an unfinished project? Is there a difference between the two? Or should I wait until I have some published work under my belt before I start bothering people who are quite busy enough as it is?
It’s perfectly fine to consult an expert in this fashion as long as you behave in a professional fashion and offer to pay them a reasonable amount for their time and expertise. Whether that’s worth it to you if you don’t have a book deal in hand is up to you, but it’s unlikely to make a difference to the person you’re consulting, unless they’re deeply invested in having their name in the acknowledgements of a published book.
Dear Story Nurse,
I’m not the kind of writer who can start editing a draft as soon as I’m done with it. By the time I stumble over the finish line of a novel-length project, I need some time to emotionally detach from the story before I can think about how I want to change it.
This would be fine, except… by the time I feel ready to edit a story, I’m usually no longer interested in it, or I’ve come up with so many new ideas about how to change it that rewriting from page 1 feels easier than editing. Over the years, I’ve amassed a huge number of trunk novels I just don’t feel passionate about cleaning up.
I’ve just finished a new novella, and I really don’t want to hide it away in the dusty depths of my Google Drive. I know it needs changes before I can show it to beta readers, but I’m having a hard time making those changes fresh off writing THE END. How can I strike a balance between letting it marinate and shoving it out the door before it’s ready? What’s the line between a necessary break from a project and unhelpful procrastination on editing?
Thanks for all your great advice,
Trunk Novelist (she/her)
Dear Trunk Novelist,
Thanks for giving me the perfect companion question to the one I answered in #119: Separation Before Revision, Part One. In that post I talked about why that emotional separation from your draft is needed. You’ve got that part down pat. But the reunion can be just as challenging, and requires its own set of tools.