#19: Love After Angst

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m writing a fan fic as a low-key side project to keep writing fun, as opposed to the writing that I do professionally, which is of course work.

It’s a modern-day, angsty romance, where two people from totally different worlds fall for each other even though they don’t fit well into each other’s lives. They figure they can’t be together, but finally the tension gets too much and they have a wild night together. Then they spend some time angsting and avoiding each other. Your standard piece where the agonizing is part of the appeal.

But I can’t figure out where they go from there. Where should I take it next? I think I’d ultimately like them to get together (though I’m not married to it) but I can’t figure out what new element to introduce to change things. Any suggestions? Thanks so much!

—Beautiful Mistake (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.


Story Nurse

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NaNoWriMo: Reassuring Your Inner Critic

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe November’s almost over, and NaNoWriMo with it. By now you’ve ideally got somewhere around 40,000 words under your belt. Take a moment to feel really good about whatever you’ve accomplished writing-wise so far this month. Those words exist because you brought them into existence. That’s amazing! Congratulations.

NaNo is specifically and deliberately about quantity over quality, but as the quantity stacks up, it’s hard not to look back at it and start to fret about the quality. If you’re feeling the urge to go back and fix (or despair over) what you’ve written already, and if it’s getting in the way of powering on toward your goal and your deadline, this post is for you.

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#18: Writing Erotica from the Margins

Dear Story Nurse,

I have this problem, and I can already hear the punchline: “Dear Story Nurse, it hurts when I do this.” “Don’t do that, then.”

I want to write salable Kindle porn. Write something I think a largish category of people will get off on, in a similar structure and length and style to what’s selling currently in that category, format it correctly, pay a designer a fair amount for an appealing and professional-looking cover, put it up, lather, rinse, repeat. I know people who do this. It works for them, and I think that’s great.

I’m disabled and on a limited income, and this seems to be the most promising way to increase my income without doing things that are harmful to me or unethical. I know I can write to order, and write things other people will enjoy—I’ve done that for fanfic exchanges. But whenever I sit down to work on one of these projects, something in me balks.

It’s not that I have an ethical problem with writing what will sell, or with helping to get other people off. I think it’s an entirely fair way to make a living, and more useful to the planet than a lot of other ways. No, what’s bothering me is resentment. There’s no Kindle category for people like me. I’m too niche for that, in too many ways.

And when I set to work on one of these projects, the thoughts start up: they wouldn’t want to help you get off, why should you help them? They probably don’t even think your kink/(a?)sexuality/gender/body type/neurotype is valid! They don’t think you matter. Or, more plausibly: you’re contributing to your own erasure. Why aren’t you using your writing time and skill to help your own communities? (Of course, when I work on a project that is more geared to people like me, a different set of thoughts starts up.)

I don’t know if I need a strategy to deal with the discouraging thoughts, or advice on juggling multiple writing projects at one time while maintaining enough focus to complete any of them, or a kick in the pants about my trite, unoriginal saleability versus creative integrity dilemma. I have a therapist, but “How do I get over myself and write the sex scenes?” isn’t something I can see myself asking her.

Help? Thank you for reading,

A Martian

Dear Martian,

I’m sorry you’re having so much trouble with this. It sounds like you’re caught in a real emotional struggle. You’re right that the easy answer is “Don’t write porn,” but it’s not clear to me that avoiding sex scenes, specifically, would actually resolve anything for you. If you wrote about abled people riding horses, I think you’d feel just as resentful. If you wrote about disabled people riding horses, I think you’d feel just as pigeonholed. Your complicated feelings about dis/ability and marginalization will exist regardless of whether you embark upon this particular career.

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NaNoWriMo: Journalist Tricks for Writing on Deadline

Dear friends,

By now you have probably fallen behind on your NaNoWriMo writing progress—in my experience, nearly everyone doing NaNo sets initial goals that turn out to be impossible to achieve—and are starting to feel November 30 breathing down your neck. If you’re on target, you’re entering the second half of your book, which is where plots start getting messy, characters start misbehaving, and writers start stressing out. This is not a fun time. And the deadline pressure isn’t making it any more fun.

I spent several years as a medical journalist. Here are some tricks I learned for writing long pieces on tight deadlines without keeling over from stress. Continue reading

#17: The Three-Quarters Slump

Dear Story Nurse,

I am a first-time novelist with a second draft problem. I’ve written +90,000 words of an alternate history/fantasy novel, which, at its outset, was nothing more than me proving to myself that I could, in fact, write a book. I followed a writing plan I found online of 350 words a day every weekday, moving to a new scene whenever I started to get bogged down and coming back to fill in the gaps later. It worked fairly well, but therein lies my problem.

This novel is beyond sprawling, with five locations, plus travel scenes, a first-person narrator who is dealing with both inner guilt and exterior prejudice after the death of her younger brother and mother, eight decently-characterized supporting characters, a minor love triangle, one major supernatural antagonist and three minor human ones, three earthquakes, a house fire, a plague of birds, cross-cultural (mis)understandings, the role of literacy in a society that only somewhat has writing, two gladiator-style Mayan ball games, a riot… you get the idea. I lost steam near the end of the project because I couldn’t justify writing even more new scenes instead of trying to knit together what I already had into a more cohesive whole. I was on track to hit 110k, but I stopped a month early, ostensibly to give myself time to come up with the last few linking scenes. Now, looking at the whole thing, I have the sinking feeling it needs to be disassembled and reorganized (possibly rewritten) completely, since the characters and plot developed as I wrote in my jumping-back-and-forth style, rather than more naturally over the course of the story. It probably could shed a good 10k-15k as well, if I’m brutal.

How do I do this? Where do I start? Usually, I’m a pretty good editor, but for other people’s writing, not my own, where it’s a lot harder to be ruthlessly objective as to whether that very pretty turn of phrase works, no matter how long it took to come up with. The only thing I can think of is to set it to double-space, print out all 280 pages, and go to town with red pen, scissors and tape. But, both practically and psychologically, I balk at that much time and effort for something that is not only a first draft, but incomplete (and being my own work, with all the standard accompanying self-doubt). I tried finding a beta, but the same problem applies. It’s too big for my friends and family to plow through to even tell me if I should keep going to try to make this into a real book or let it go as a mostly-successful experiment. Some part of my brain is insisting that I’m just falling for a sunk-cost fallacy, and another part really wants to see if there’s something good in this gigantic pile of words that another person might want to read.

Thank you,

I Need an Iolaus to Kill This Hydra (she/her)

Dear I Need an Iolaus,

You are in what Maureen McHugh calls the dark night of the soul. 90k words into a 110k-word project sounds like about the right place for that; it usually hits around three-quarters of the way in, which is why I tend to think of it as the three-quarters slump, but later and earlier are both known to happen. Many, many, many writers have felt this way around this point in their books. Some feel it with every book. You are not alone.

The key to escaping this very unpleasant state of despair is to finish the novel. This is extremely important.

Continue reading

NaNoWriMo: Goals and Deadlines in a Time of Strong Emotions

Dear friends,

It’s hard to write this post in a time of such strong feelings. Whatever your reaction to the results of the U.S. presidential election, the intense emotional atmosphere of the moment makes it difficult to face the blank page. Our thoughts are whirling, our hearts are pounding, and our bodies are feeling the effects of two tense days with insufficient food or rest (and, for some folks, a little too much alcohol).

And yet, I have my commitment to write posts for all of you, and you have your commitment to make your writing goals and meet your writing deadlines, whatever those may be.

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#16: When and How to Hire a Freelance Editor

Dear Story Nurse,

I wrote a novel (women’s commercial fiction) in 2008, and have spent the intervening years revising/editing/rewriting, including workshopping with a writer’s group. I got the piece to a place where I know it’s not 100%, but it’s as close to 100% as I can get it without serious professional help (editor/agent/similar). So I started trying to find an agent. I got a lot of positive feedback, a couple dozen requests for partial manuscripts, and two requests for the full manuscript. Both full manuscript requesters had the same feedback (writing is good, but there are—specific and clear!—issues, and those issues are too much for an agent).

Now I’m at a standstill while I try to figure out what to do. I think I need someone to tell me, “You need to walk away from this piece” or “You need to hire an editor.” Or SOMETHING. What is the next step when you know you’ve done all you can on a piece and it’s still not quite there?

—Jessica (she/her)

Dear Jessica,

I think a great next step would be for you to take a moment to assess what’s led you to seek outside advice and consider outside editing in addition to what you’ve gotten from your writing group and those helpful agents. You say you need “someone” to tell you what to do next. But you’re in charge. Hiring an editor, or not, is your call. Continuing to work on this book, or not, is your call. “Someone” is you. Sit down and listen to your gut. That process may be as simple as saying out loud “I want to walk away from this book” or “I feel like I should walk away from this book” and then seeing whether that statement rings true or makes you want to shout “NO! I’m sticking with it!” But you have to consult yourself, very directly and seriously, and not just rely on what other people recommend.

Continue reading

NaNoWriMo: Accommodating Your Disability (and Other Limitations)

Dear friends,

Welcome to the first NaNoWriMo bonus post! I asked my Patreon patrons what topics they’d like me to write about, and a couple of folks suggested discussing doing NaNo while disabled. I think this is a brilliant idea—thank you, wise patrons! Writers have all kinds of limitations and the techniques I’m going to discuss here will be broadly applicable to working with and around those limitations, but I really want to focus on disability, because one-size-fits-all goals, like NaNo’s 50k words in 30 days, come with unspoken assumptions about ability that are particularly hard for disabled people to push back against.

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#15: How to Create Original Work

This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

I have written tens (maybe hundreds?) of thousands of words of fan fiction. Some of it exceptional, some of it terrible. Some of it in forty-thousand-word multi-chapter works about main characters having big adventures, some of it in a couple of hundred word-long drabbles about a micro emotion on a background character’s face.

It’s National Novel Writing Month next month, and I would like to write something that’s all my own. Or at least try to.

I have no idea how to start from scratch. Any advice?

—NaNoWriMo Novice (she/her)

Dear NaNoWriMo Novice,

I have wonderful news for you: every work of art is derivative! That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as original work. But just like fanwork, original work exists in the context of other works, and of the world. This means you can write original work exactly the same way you write fanfic: begin with an existing thing, and then decide how you’d like to change it, build on it, imitate it, and/or argue with it. No need to start from scratch, because there actually is no such thing as starting from scratch.

Continue reading