#45: Setting Reader Expectations

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m reading yet another Irish lit fic where characters are implausibly rich and how they can afford stuff is handwaved. How do you feel about working financial realities into fiction?

—Susan Lanigan (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

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#44: Self-Promoter’s Block

Dear Story Nurse,

After years of producing first drafts and immediately hiding my work away, never to be seen again, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and put a piece of serial fiction up on my blog. I’m almost five months into the project and I’m slowly chipping away at my fear of editing my work and letting people read it.

My day job’s in marketing, and I love it. I volunteer to promote my friends’ work all the time. There’s just one problem: I’m awful at being my own hype woman. I know exactly what I should be doing to build an audience, but all too often, I find myself stuck in a shame spiral about how I’ll be imposing or annoying if I ever mention my own writing to anybody. I’ve got all these great ideas about how to get my work in front of people who might enjoy it, and then I just… never follow through.

I’ve never been good at seeking out attention. As a young woman, I was socialized to be humble and self-effacing. I know it’s ridiculous to spend so much time worrying about whether people will be annoyed when I offer them a free thing, but I don’t know how to turn that insecurity off! You’re totally awesome at putting your work out there without appearing to break a sweat. How do I achieve that level of badassery?

—World’s Tiniest Megaphone (she/her)

Dear World’s Tiniest Megaphone,

Thanks for your letter, which gave me a good laugh; I am in fact terrible at self-promotion! But, like you, it’s not because I don’t understand the mechanisms of it. It’s more like I have self-promoter’s block: as with writer’s block, what’s getting in the way is not practical but psychological.

I will preface my ideas for self-directed action with the gentle suggestion that you seek some assistance from a therapist or counselor, if you have access to one. It sounds like your insecurity is really doing a number on you, and a professional may be able to help with that.

Beyond that, here’s what’s worked for me and what I think will be of use to you:

  • Forgive yourself. Knowing what to do and being able to do it are different things. Give yourself permission to struggle with this.
  • Separate yourself from your work. No matter how widely your writing is read, no one can judge you simply by reading it, because you are not your work. You’re not promoting yourself; you’re promoting your work, which is a separate entity to be evaluated on its own merits.
  • Integrate some benefit to other people. The project of mine that I found easiest to promote was Long Hidden because it was a collaboration and a lot of people were depending on its success. Maybe you can ease your way into promoting your solo work by working on a shared project with a friend or three and participating in the promotion for it. Or promote your contribution to a charity anthology or your donation to a charity auction, or pledge to donate a portion of your profits—whatever helps you feel like you’re giving back. (There’s nothing morally wrong with promoting your solo work for your own profit, and that’s a useful goal to work towards, but this is a way to practice promotion while dodging some of that internal shame and scolding.)
  • Be your own client. Presumably you have a fairly formalized set of steps you go through with a new client: learn about the product, determine the audience for the promotion, discuss the budget, shape the campaign, and so on. Follow those same steps, explicitly, for your own work. The structure will help keep you on track.
  • Set concrete, achievable goals. The last time I did a big promotion push for Story Hospital, I had 42 Patreon patrons and set a goal of reaching 50. Having that goal really helped motivate me, and even motivated other people to help me by sharing the link around and talking about why they like the blog. And reaching the goal helps me feel more optimistic about setting a higher one.
  • Start small. You have lots of ideas! Pick just one to start with. Trying to do them all at once sounds daunting and overwhelming and will most likely lead to you doing nothing at all.
  • Borrow and imitate judiciously. If you’ve seen good promotion for a project similar to yours, use it as a starting point rather than starting from a blank page. Don’t plagiarize, obviously, but use it for a template or some inspiration. For example, when writing jacket copy for my novels in progress, I consciously borrowed the three-paragraph format that many publishers use for romance novel jacket copy (one paragraph about each of the protagonists’ individual challenges, one about their connection and conflict). You mention worrying that you’re going to annoy people, so ask yourself what kinds of promotion you personally find least annoying to be on the receiving end of, and use that to shape your efforts.
  • Practice in private. Just as you’ve written work for yourself and then hidden it away until you were ready to share it, you can write promotional copy for yourself and then hide it away until you’re ready to share it. Writing positive things about your work is one skill; sharing it with the world is another. It’s fine to build up those skills separately if you need to.
  • Reach out to a sympathetic audience. Once you’ve got some materials, show them to people who already love your work. They’ll help you take out all the self-deprecating parts. Then show it to people who don’t know your work but who know and like you and want to support your writing. Use their positive reactions to motivate yourself to move on and promote your work to people who don’t know you.
  • Do the easiest types of promotion first. If the thought of calling someone to pitch your work is terrifying, start by taking out an ad on a website or in a publication. If you’re most comfortable on social media, chat about your work on Twitter and Facebook before looking at other outlets. It may turn out that the easy promotion is all you need to reach your goals!
  • Build habits, batch work, and automate when appropriate. I paste my Patreon link at the bottom of each blog post without thinking about it. WordPress automatically tweets every post when it goes live. I printed up a big batch of promotional postcards so it’s easy to bring them along to events or tuck them into packages I’m mailing to people. Setting these things up took very little effort, and perpetuating them takes even less. Quick and easy little actions like that don’t generally trigger my anxieties about talking my work up. (But don’t overdo it, especially on social media platforms. Automatically tweeting your buy link once an hour will just irritate people.)
  • Be patient with yourself. You’re pushing yourself really hard on multiple fronts. It sounds like that’s very fulfilling for you, but it can be tiring too. Don’t forget to take breaks from time to time, and be understanding and patient if some parts of the process are harder or slower going than you’d like.

Finally, remember that you can hire someone to do PR for you, just like other people hire you to do PR for them! Self-promotion is useful, but not everyone can do it, and that’s completely fine. So if this just doesn’t work out for you, bring someone else in and liberate yourself by delegating.

Happy promoting!


Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#43: Describing Your Viewpoint Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently writing a story in first person POV and I’m finding it extremely difficult to describe my main character because of it. What are some strategies for getting across character description to the audience in a way that is not cliche?

—Noelle (she/her)

Dear Noelle,

This is a delicious technical question that I’m very happy to sink my teeth into. First-person POV can be a lot of fun but it also definitely presents some challenges, and one of those is conveying who’s speaking without a clunky or clichéd paragraph of self-description.

Continue reading

#42: Writing with a Playful Heart

This week’s column is a little different. The question I want to address is one that author Isabel Yap posted on Twitter. The thread starts here. (And it has lots of great replies, so you should go read it.)

I want to talk a little bit about regaining a playful heart when it comes to writing. I know I need this but I’m not sure how.

It’s on my mind because one of my first pro-published stories got retweeted today. It came out on Tor.com in 2013. It’s probably the story I’m still best known for. I love that story and I’m proud of it and I’m still not over Victo Ngai’s art for it. But after that story came out, or maybe even from the time it was accepted, in addition to exhilaration, I started to feel…pressure.

Pressure to write a good story. Pressure to write a story I can sell. Pressure to write something people will want to retweet. Pressure to try and land work in a good market. Pressure to maybe, juuuuust maybe, write something worthy of award nominations. Pressure to do better than the old me. Pressure to be consistent. Pressure to have a social media presence. Pressure to be someone.

When I wrote that story, I had barely any conception of markets or the sff short fiction/fandom world at large. I was at Clarion and I had this somewhat snicker-y thought of ‘I want to write a story about onsen and maybe a sexy kappa. Hehe.’ I obviously wanted to write a good story. I had some things I wanted to say about grief, and aging, and love in weird forms. But that’s all I really wanted. I wanted to write a beautiful story. I wanted my classmates and teachers to like it. That would be enough.

Some part of me was probably thinking it would be nice to publish it, but that wasn’t my concern. How could it be? I hadn’t even written it yet. So writing it, and failing at the writing of it, was still hard, but it was fun. I fumbled and I tossed around ideas and the sentences started to click. It was playing with a story. It was great.

I’m not sure I remember how to be that way. I’m not sure how to get back there. It’s hard for me to play with writing; the me who writes now feels like I need to be thinking ahead. It’s still fun. I still love it. But the burden is real, sometimes prohibitive.

How do people get out of this? How do people get back to that state of just playing? Is it possible to regain it/trick yourself into it?

My eyes lit up when I saw this because it is so important to be able to play with one’s creative work. And the more your livelihood or identity depends on creative production, the harder that gets.

Continue reading

#41: Finding Beta Readers

Hi Story Nurse,

I am very protective of my in-process writing and it takes a lot of trust for me to ask people to be beta readers. I don’t always want another writer’s advice such as from a critique workshop. Mostly I am looking for things from a reader’s perspective such as: how does that make you feel? Does this need more description? Does it feel finished?

I once sent a short story to a couple of beta readers and they were like, more? One said: there’s more, right? That short story turned out to be a novella/ short novel length.

Any advice for finding new beta readers or places to make reader-writer friends? Have you ever considered hosting a beta reader dating service type deal via a Patreon post or Slack?


Quiet Writer (she/ her)

Dear Quiet Writer,

I love the idea of a beta reader dating service! And in fact such things exist:

  • On Dreamwidth there are the Beta, Please! and Multinational Beta communities; if you’re looking for a beta reader and willing to trust a stranger, post there with the details of your work and see who replies. You need a Dreamwidth account to post, but a basic account is free, and since everyone who replies will also have an account, you can peek at their posts and see what kind of person they are before you take them up on their beta’ing offer.
  • There’s a beta reader group on Goodreads. They specify that beta readers provide a reader’s perspective, not a critique—sounds like exactly what you’re looking for.
  • There’s a beta readers and critiques group on Facebook.
  • There’s beta readers hub on Tumblr, though it looks like no one’s posted there in a while.

Google around a bit, maybe with some genre-specific keywords, and you’ll find more.

As for making friends, try fan communities. Many of those friends will be fellow writers, but I’ve found that most fan writers give critiques of the sort you’re looking for, because they’re used to approaching work from the perspective of a fan first and a creator second. Fans are often very generous in their crits and good at squeeing about the things they love as well as poking at the things they think could be improved. Joining a fanwork community does require you to take a little time away from your original stories to create some fanwork of your own, but writing fanfic can be a lot of fun, a relaxing break when your primary project is stressing you out, and a source of practice projects that teach you new writing skills. I’ve done a few fanfic exchanges recently and the deadline pressure has taught me a lot about writing fiction even when I’m not in the zone.

If there’s a particular fandom you want to be part of, find a community for that fandom. I like to play in a lot of different sandboxes, so I ended up hanging out in Yuletide IRC with other friendly people who like tiny fandoms and rare pairings. There’s often someone looking for a beta there, especially during crunch season for the Yuletide fic exchange. If IRC is your thing, park yourself there for a while, chat with other folks, participate in an exchange or two (if you want a very low-intensity way to dip your toe into the world of fanfic exchanges, I recommend Chocolate Box, which has low requirements and long deadlines), and offer to do a few beta reads of your own, and you’ll make some good connections.

Another way to connect with passionate readers is to join a couple of book clubs, online or offline. Goodreads has over 8800 book club groups of every possible size and flavor; local booksellers and librarians can also point you to groups in your area. After a few rounds of discussing other people’s work, you’ll know exactly which book club members you can trust to read your manuscript and give you the kind of feedback you need.

Happy hunting!


Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!