Ask me questions! Subscribe to Story Hospital! Become a patron!

Dear friends,

My question queues are running dry. If you’ve ever wanted to ask the Story Nurse something, now is a great time. If you’ve written in before, write in again! (Patreon patrons, don’t forget to use the patrons-only link to jump to the head of the line.)

I’ve also added new subscription options for your friends who aren’t already following Story Hospital. You can:

  • subscribe on WordPress: Follow Story Hospital
  • add the RSS feed to your favorite feed reader
  • sign up for email updates from the sidebar of any Story Hospital page
  • check the “Notify me of new posts” box when leaving a comment

Give someone you love a Story Hospital subscription by sending them to this page and encouraging them to sign up. All these options are free!

Of course, if you become a Patreon patron you will also get every post emailed to you two days early, and get a bunch of other perks, for just $1 a month (or more if you feel like it).

Mid-month progress on the patron drive: we’re at 107 patrons (goal is 120) and $270/month (goal is $300). Please encourage the writers you know to become Patreon patrons so I can make this year’s NaNoWriMo posts happen! If you’re already a patron, you can also increase your pledge. Just 30 people upping their pledges by $1/month would get us there.

Some of my past NaNo posts:

If you’re doing NaNo (in any form) and you think posts like these would be helpful, help me reach my pledge drive goals so I can write four brand new NaNoWriMo posts for you (and all the other NaNoers) in November.

Thank you so much for reading and supporting Story Hospital. I was astonished to see that over 1,000 people have already subscribed through WordPress or email—I never imagined having an audience like that. I’m here for all of you and hope you will all send me 1,000 questions to answer!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

#118: NaNoWriMo and Writing like a Machine

Dear Story Nurse,

I am writing for the November NaNoWriNo, and I’ve done 35,000 words. The goal is 50,000. I am on Part 3 of 4, and getting closer to the climax. The latter half of Part 3, which I am trying to work on now, is supposed to be the build-up for the climax, while also being a flashback of sorts to events that happened earlier in the story. I have been working on this book since Nov. 2, with no breaks. I am ‘running out of steam’ as they say, and the 5,000 for the latter half of Part 3 just isn’t coming to me. I know what happens, but I just can’t seem to write it. Today is sort of a break day, but I want to get some pages done if I can. Any suggestions?

—Tifa Lockheart (they/them)

Dear Tifa Lockheart,

I apologize for taking an entire year to answer this letter! Somehow it slipped past me last November. I’m certain you found your own solution, but I’m responding now in case it helps other readers.

Many people think that NaNoWriMo requires writing every day, but it doesn’t. The only goal is 50k. How you get there is up to you. (And whether you choose your own goal is also up to you, but I have a separate post about that.) If writing every single day doesn’t work for you, don’t do it! Give yourself a break.

Continue reading

#117: Story Beginning Choice Paralysis

Dear Story Nurse,

The first draft of my fantasy novel came out as a messy tangle of scenes. I’m now trying to turn it into something more coherent as I edit, but I’m struggling to pick out which of about three options should be the opening section. Sometimes I think one looks good, sometimes another.

Option 1 is chronologically first, set about three years before the main events, and sets up/reveals a lot of the emotional landscape behind the rest. It’s close to my heart, but other than the emotion shifts, doesn’t have a lot happening.

Option 2 is where the first draft started, an apparently small event with a lot of undercurrents swirling around underneath. It’s the event where the main character’s life is first pulled askew from what she wants it to be, if not quite upside down.

Option 3 is a busy action scene with the main character and her entire village turning out to cope with an immediate disaster. It’s also her first encounter with one of the antagonists.

I’ve had both positive and negative feedback on all of them, which makes it harder to decide. It feels like I need to decide before I go further, because which one I choose is going to have serious implications on how I unknot my tangle of a first draft.

How do I make this sort of decision when all the options seem equally good at different times and I keep second guessing whether I’ve picked right?

—Split Decision (they/them)

Dear Split Decision,

The three options you’ve come up with fall neatly into three very common categories of story opener: prologue, protagonist introduction, and in medias res. All of them can be perfectly fine ways to start a fantasy novel (though these days there isn’t a lot of love for prologues). In order to choose one, you need to understand the narrative purpose of each. You also need to know what kind of book you’re writing. You suggest that choosing an opener will shape your revisions, but I suggest that you need to pick a direction for your revisions and then go with the opener that suits the book you decide to write.

Continue reading

#116: When a Pantser Becomes a Plotter

This question came from the priority request queue for my Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Hi Story Nurse,

(This is my third time writing to you! I love the website so much! You have helped me a lot with figuring out my writing, both when answering my qs, and when answering other people’s qs! Thank you!)

I have a pretty banal question — since graduating college and becoming a Human with a Job, my mental illness has gone from Severe to Manageable. Most of that has been my good work — I went to therapy intensely, I carefully figured out what my best and most healthy coping mechanisms were, I started avoiding obvious stressors etc. This has lead to a variety of realizations about myself — without depression and anxiety, I’m actually a tidy person! I really love baking! etc.

From other mentally ill people I have learned that this is actually pretty common, but it has caused one small snag. I used to be a pantser — I would come up with a plot question, Stephen King-style, and then write a novel based on that. But now, I can’t do that anymore! I need an outline! I need an incredibly detailed outline. But I don’t know how! Especially since sitting with characters and learning their personality through writing was an important part of my process I still seem to need… Help?!

Thank you!!!!!!!

—Space Lesbian (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#115: Getting Started Writing Original Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

A friend and I are co-authors, and we’ve been telling mutual stories forever and a day (long before we learned what fanfic was, or that other people did what we were doing but actually wrote it down and shared it with other people). And now we’re trying to transition into writing original fiction for publication. But we keep getting stuck; partly just the two of us not being the best at motivation, but also because we can’t seem to decide what we want to write or who our audience is (things that are kind of built-in with fanfic).

Do you have any recommendations for getting started on our own (probably fantasy, maybe sci-fi, maybe urban fantasy, yes, indecisiveness is a problem) writing? Recommendations for how to think differently about audience so we don’t fall in the same old rut?

—I guess it can’t be AAAAAAIUGH (she/her)

Dear AAAAAAIUGH,

This is a big change, and it’s no surprise that you’re feeling a little ambivalent and uncertain about it. You’re asking me about how, but my questions back to you are about why. If you can grab hold of why you’re focusing on writing original fiction and confirm that you really do want to be doing it, a lot of these pieces will fall into place.

Continue reading

#114: Exploring Third-Person Point of View

Dear Story Nurse,

I need some help loosening my grip on tight third person point of view. I write mostly fanfic, and tight third works well for shorter works, but I find that it breaks down in longer works. Most of the time, I work around it by occasionally changing POV at scene transitions or chapter breaks.

This leads to confusion for some readers because tight third, at least the way I use it, almost axiomatically creates narrators as unreliable (just in different ways) as first person POV does. First person is culturally coded as unreliable, so readers tend to question what the narrator is omitting or being misleading about. Third person, on the other hand, carries the implication that there isn’t a person withholding information or not understanding what they’re experiencing/observing.

When I write tight third, different POV characters have very different ideas about what the things they see and do mean and make assumptions about what other people think, feel, and intend. Any particular character’s section may contain major conflicts with other characters’ sections.

I like writing this way and enjoy reading things written this way, but the comments I’ve gotten have made me think about the fact that I can write tight third and first but not omniscient third or even a more distant third. I would like to figure out how to approach those.

Thanks!

—Anne (she/her)

Dear Anne,

Learning new writing skills is usually valuable (unless you’re doing it to procrastinate), but I want to caution you against thinking that you have to change the way you write because it doesn’t work for a few readers. If you’re happy writing tight third and you’re reaching at least some readers who seem to really get what you’re doing with it, it may make more sense to work on setting reader expectations around reliability of narrators in that context. For example, you can switch POV more frequently so that the differences between two people’s experiences of a situation show up earlier and establish that this is a thing that can and will happen in your stories, or have side characters argue with your POV characters about how they’re interpreting events, so as to remind readers that the POV character is not infallible. And remember that nothing you write will reach or please every single person who reads it, so you’re best off continuing to write what makes you happy.

But that’s not what you asked! So for general tips on writing looser third-person fiction, read on.

Continue reading

#113: Getting Beyond the Beginning

Dear Story Nurse,

Lately, I keep coming up with setups for stories – complete with hooks and challenges I think will be really fun! – and then I look at all this space afterwards and have no idea what to put there. I guess I give the characters problems, but I get stuck trying to find the actual solutions. I keep trying to plot and getting really tied up in knots, and then writing scenes just to get into the story and losing interest quickly because I realize I’m just building a path as I go and it’s going nowhere in particular.

Any tips for getting unstuck and figuring out middles and ends?

—But to What End (she/her)

Dear But to What End,

That sounds very frustrating. You’re certainly not alone in having trouble getting past the beginning of your stories. On the life and mindset side, I’ve answered similar questions from people who are recovering from stressful events, getting back to writing after a long time away, stuck on “should”, and having trouble staying focused. On the craft side, I’ve helped writers who get carried away with big ideas, can’t choose among several possible endingsdon’t know how to make endings feel smooth, and have protagonists who aren’t active enough to push the story to a conclusion. If any of those sound similar to your situation, those posts may be helpful.

Continue reading

#112: How to Get Characters out of Bed

Dear Story Nurse,

How do I write plot that isn’t porn??? Sometimes the characters have got to get out of bed, or they’ll chafe!!!

—angelsaves (she/her)

Dear angelsaves,

This is a delightful dilemma. My immediate question is, what do the characters want that isn’t sex? I don’t mean instead of, but in addition to. Because even when someone really, really, really wants sex, they want other things too, related or unrelated to the sexual desire.

Continue reading

It’s October Patron Drive Time!

Dear friends,

It’s October, and that means it’s time for the third annual Story Hospital patron drive!* As always, if we meet the patron goal, I will make four extra posts in November for NaNoWriMo. I love writing these posts and am already pondering topics, so I hope you will help me out by spreading the word.

* Last year I seriously considered leaving Patreon, but I have not yet found another good way to make Story Hospital self-supporting. I do love the Patreon idea and ideal, and I love being part of the ecosystem of small creators supporting one another. So, for the nonce, I’m sticking with it.

As some of you may have noticed, I’m no longer on Twitter, and I have never used Facebook. These choices are what’s best for me personally, but they do make it challenging to spread the word about Story Hospital. Therefore, I’m counting on all of you.

My October pledge drive goals are 120 patrons or $300/month. (We’re currently at 102 and $256.) I think these goals entirely attainable. But for a handful of new people to pledge support, many more than that need to visit Story Hospital’s Patreon page.

Between now and the end of October, please share that link with at least one writer you know who you think would benefit from Story Hospital’s advice. Don’t spam anyone; make the connection personal. Share some specific posts, on storyhospital.com or on Patreon, that you think this writer would find useful. And if you’re a patron, tell your friend why you think Story Hospital is worth supporting.

If you do use social media or hang out on writing forums, feel free to post Story Hospital links there too. But sharing directly with a writer you know is the best way for you to support the site.

Here are some popular craft posts to share:

And some about the emotional and psychological side of writing:

Thanks as always to the letter writers and others who inspired these posts. (While I’m here asking for favors, ask me questions! Your letters are vital to keeping Story Hospital going.)

Writing my weekly Story Hospital posts is one of the great joys of my life, and your contributions make it possible for me to keep doing it. If you’re a patron, thank you so much! If you aren’t already a patron, please consider making a pledge of just $1/month. If patronage is not for you for whatever reason, thank you for reading, linking, and commenting. Even if all you do is make my hit counter go up, I see that and appreciate it.

120 patrons. $300 a month. I think we can do this. Let’s go!

Gratefully,

Story Nurse

#111: Habit and Quantity vs. Inspiration and Quality

Dear Story Nurse,

I was wondering what advice you have for someone who knows she produces better writing when she’s “feeling it” but can’t force herself to “feel it”.

Background: I have finished a few novels and am involved in an online workshop. My process is usually a creative phase, where I create an outline, brainstorm ideas, tinker with the structure, determine pacing and so on. I write snippets of dialog to get a feel for the characters and create a basic synopsis. I usually give myself a lot of time for ideas to gestate and only work on them when I feel good about the process. It is not part of the “write every day” regimen.

After that, the second “write every day” phase begins. So I write, every day, even when depression gets the better of me or life gets in the way. I’ve got that part down.

Then, third phase editing, which I really enjoy. I finish my projects to my personal satisfaction. I’m not looking to get published at the moment (my personal life is too fraught lately to be able to emotionally handle the inevitable rejection treadmill) so I am content with finishing solid first or second drafts to keep in the drawer for later, when I’m better equipped to tackle the industry.

My problem exists in the second phase, and it’s becoming a real hurdle.

I have noticed a quality drop when I force myself to write when I’m not really feeling it. I’m glad the words are on the page, but I know the words could have been much, much better if I had been enthusiastically and emotionally involved rather than dutifully hitting my targets for the day. The reason I persist with the schedule even if it produces sub-par work is that “inspiration” and “feeling it” are unreliable things you can’t force. I’d rather get it done than wait around for a flighty muse. But I’ve hit a point now where I feel that producing rote prose is just me creating problems for myself in editing. It’s much harder for me to improve my writing during the editing phase than it is to just get it right the first time around. (I quite literally live for the moment when all the stars align and I just get engrossed in writing to the point of intense personal satisfaction, when the hours fly by and the result turns out every bit as good as I felt it was while working on it. It’s truly like a drug for me and I crave it like you wouldn’t believe.)

I’ve tried to follow advice to get around this: write the less important parts when you’re not feeling it, save the intense moments for when creativity peaks. But that clashes with another piece of writing advice I hold dear: if it’s not important or interesting, scrap it. Besides, I like to write chronologically and not skip around too much. I really need that self-imposed structure or I’d be off writing an encyclopedia of unnecessary fluff and create even more problems in editing.

Is this a situation where I just need to “git gud” and learn to produce quality prose on demand, even if I’m not feeling very connected to the material that day? Should everything I write be super engaging to me by default and is it a bad sign when I’m not connecting? Is “write every day” just not good advice for me? Is this a case where mental illness prevents me from gaining benefit from otherwise good advice? Or is this my well-documented perfectionism sabotaging me again?

After many years of buck wild pantsing and unfinished projects, I really, truly like having actual output for a change, so I hesitate to change my process. But I’m getting sick of reading back over my work and thinking “wow, this could have been so much better if I actually gave a crap that day.”

I’d love your take on this!

—Charlotte (she/her)

Dear Charlotte,

It sounds to me like the clash you’re having is a clash of priorities, where prioritizing any of writing speed, quality, and effort leaves the others wanting. In other words, it’s a classic case of the Design Triangle: “fast, good, and cheap: pick any two.”

Continue reading