#67: New Ideas Stop Me from Finishing Anything

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m an unpublished writer, and I’d like to start submitting work to magazines and anthologies. I’m having a problem, though: every time I try to write a short story, my ideas for it get way too big. Even when I work on novel-length projects, my brain’s already spinning off plans for sequels before chapter one’s even written. This means that I end up spending a lot of my time starting projects, but they rarely ever get finished because my idea for a one-shot story morphs into yet another massive arc I don’t have the time to work on.

I’m struggling with finding a way to drop into a narrative at the right place, tell an interesting story, and wrap it up in a way that doesn’t demand a sequel. Help me, Story Nurse!

—Shaggy Dog (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!

Patron drive SUCCESS

Dear friends,

LOOK AT THIS. LOOK AT WHAT YOU DID.

[image: a snapshot of Patreon’s front page for Story Hospital, showing 83 patrons and $240/month]

You just blew my mind by putting us over the top of the $240 mark. I really thought 90 patrons would be a challenging goal and $240 was impossible. Thank you for proving me wrong! You are fantastic!

I am especially moved that so much of the increase in pledges came from longtime patrons upgrading to higher tiers. I’m truly honored by your support.

In celebration, I’m unlocking all my fifth Tuesday posts through November 1. Share them with your friends now while you can!

#6: returning to writing after a long hiatus. patreon.com/posts/6627426

#19: how to bring your romantic protagonists together when they’d rather be apart. patreon.com/posts/7333404

#28: “Am I too busy to write or just being avoidant?” patreon.com/posts/7919452

#45: How to set reader expectations for the genre you’re writing. patreon.com/posts/11452508

#58: What “show” and “tell” really mean, and how and when to do them. (This is one of my favorites.) patreon.com/posts/14069857

And the post that just went up yesterday, #67, fighting the distraction of the shiny new idea. patreon.com/posts/15114714

Plus I unlocked this $4+ writing craft post, which is full of tips for describing settings when you’re good at dialogue but find description challenging. patreon.com/posts/14614549

I’m beyond thrilled to welcome all my new patrons, and beyond grateful to all of you who boosted your pledges. Your support makes a real difference to me and my family. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Onward to the next year!

Hearts forever,

Story Nurse

Patron drive week continues!

Dear friends,

For just this week, I’m unlocking one of my $4 patron craft posts for EVERYONE to see. The post is full of advice on describing settings for writers who do better with dialogue. Check it out!

Become a patron at $4+ and you’ll get a post like that every month! $4 really isn’t much for a monthly writing craft class, and one of my patrons called it “the best $4 I’ve ever spent.” So tell your friends what an awesome bargain Story Hospital patronage is, and consider pledging at $4 or changing your pledge level for a month or two to try it out. You can always dial back when you need to.

I know writers aren’t generally rich and I appreciate every single one of my $1 pledges. Thanks so much for being a patron, at any level!

Keep spreading the word, and thanks to everyone who’s already done so—I got three new patrons yesterday and the total now stands at 72 patrons and $185. The goal remains 90 patrons and/or $240. Let’s keep going!

http://patreon.com/storyhospital

Cheers,

Story Nurse

It’s October patron drive time!

Dear friends,

As I did last year, I’m running a Patreon patron drive through the end of October. Right now I have 69 patrons bestowing $181/month on me (THANK YOU all SO MUCH). If we can get that to 90 patrons OR $240/month by November 1, I’ll do another series of NaNoWriMo posts, and my patrons will get to suggest the topics!

You can help by telling your friends how much you love Story Hospital, and what you get out of being a patron. Maybe link them to a post or two that helped you, or that you think would help them. Here are some popular ones:

NaNoWriMo: Accommodating Your Disability (and Other Limitations)

#34: What It Means to Be Blocked

#15: How to Create Original Work

And remind your friends that just $1 or $2 a month gets them great patron perks! Just sign up here:

https://patreon.com/storyhospital

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all your support. I’ll be making more posts later in the week with more info on the patron drive and what you can do to help.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

#65: How (and Whether) to Write a Sequel

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

Dear Story Nurse,

How do you write a sequel? Should I even write a sequel?

I’ve got an essentially-complete YA secondary-world fantasy and a couple months ago I got smacked in the head with the realization that it could easily be book 1 in a trilogy. I’ve got the broad plot strokes and themes of book 2 (and a few in book 3, for that matter), but every time I sit down to start the outline for book 2, I… end up working on something else.

Part of it is that if book 1 is sitting on my hard drive doing nothing, what’s the point of writing a book 2 that will do the same thing? (I’m working on book 1 not just sitting on my hard drive doing nothing, but that’s not necessarily relevant here.) And if book 1 ends up not doing anything, it’s a waste of time to write book 2, right?

The second one is that I have never written a sequel before. I googled “how to write a sequel,” because that’s what the internet is for, but the advice was manifold and contradictory. I did pick up the idea that sometimes you can jump straight into the plot at the beginning because you have all of book 1 as backstory now. But how closely is it expect that book 2 matches book 1 in pacing, tone, themes? Is it strange to jump from sort of a standard fairy-tale-based pseudo-medieval sword-and-sorcery story to something that more closely resembles a portal fantasy? Is it okay if I dump my entire cast of characters from book 1 down to 2 familiar names?

Am I thinking too hard here?

Anyway, any advice you have would be welcome.

Thank you,

Stephanie (she/her)

Dear Stephanie,

The answer to “am I thinking too hard” is almost always “yes.” Also, no writing is a waste of time if it’s writing you want to be doing. It’s fine to just go ahead and write for yourself and see what happens, without stressing about marketing (which is really what these questions are about). It’s also fine to listen to whatever part of you is nudging you away from that possible book two and move on to something else. But if you’d like more detailed advice on sequels, read on.

Continue reading

#64: Kicking the Procrastination Habit

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m having trouble buckling down and writing. It seems like this happens in a few, related ways:

1) When I come home from work, I’m exhausted and can’t muster the energy to write. On the weekends, I have a million things to do and don’t manage to devote time to writing.

2) I’m waiting for the “perfect time” to write—when the sun’s up, and my brain is clear, and I’m not in too much pain/too exhausted.

3) When I do have time and energy to write, I frequently don’t prioritize writing, even though I know I enjoy it and it makes me feel productive and happy.

This is all complicated by the fact that I don’t often have time and energy at the same time, due to the fact that I work full-time and am chronically ill. I struggle with figuring out what the “right” balance (or at least, a good balance) of self-indulgent/happy-making things (writing, video games, reading fic) and Responsible Adult things (financial stuff, laundry, etc).

Do you have suggestions of how to get yourself to write besides just sit in the effing chair, block social media, and stare at your word doc until writing happens? Do you have any thoughts on how to get yourself to not feel guilty when you don’t write, but also to not feel guilty when you do prioritize writing (guilty that you’re not doing “actually important” i.e. Adulting things)?

For context, I write fanfiction, almost entirely for exchanges (my inability to write without a deadline/fic exchange is a separate, possibly related issue). The longest fic I’ve ever written was almost 5k, but most have been in the ~2k range.

I generally find dialogue, character relationships, and emulating the source material to be the easiest part of writing; I struggle with coming up with plots/keeping tension (and your posts have been very helpful with that!). I’m getting better at describing things other than body language (scenery, smells, etc). Also for context, I’m Autistic and queer.

Thank you for all your enormously helpful advice!!

—mlraven (she/her)

Dear mlraven,

Thanks for writing in with a challenge that a lot of writers face. Procrastination is endemic among writers, and it’s hard to know how much of waiting for inspiration or the right circumstances is legitimate and how much is just finding another excuse to not be doing what you feel you ought to be doing.

Continue reading

#63: Confronting the Costs of Writing

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been publishing short fiction for several years, and a few months back, I signed a contract for a long piece. Which is really exciting: I love what I’m working on, the work setup, and my editors.

The problem is that I made the mistake of working on my creative project during my dayjob’s work hours, due to various factors including depression, anxiety, my not thinking through the consequences, and general workplace toxicity. After a very stressful month of investigation and deliberation about this, I’ve been fired.

I accept that I made a big mistake and have taken responsibility, but am feeling raw and anxious about the future, and want to try to make the best of things. I also want to throw myself into completing my project to the best of my abilities, but the stressful events around the whole situation have thrown up a lot of complicated feelings (I am seeing a therapist I trust). How can I put aside my feelings of shame and anger about the lost job and regain my creative enthusiasm?

—Newly Full Time Writer (she/her)

Dear Newly Full Time Writer,

Many sympathies on losing your job. It sounds like this has been a very challenging time for you. I’m glad you have a therapist and I hope Team You includes many other excellent people.

Those of us who don’t choose to write fiction full-time, and even some who do, often have to confront the undeniable fact that writing takes time away from other things that we, or other people, think we should be doing. Many of us write when we should be working or studying, and our work and grades suffer for it. (You are not the first person to get fired in this way or for this reason, I guarantee you.) We eat takeout or microwaved junk food because we write when we should be shopping and cooking. We go bleary-eyed through the day because we stay up late or get up early and write when we should be sleeping. We complain of loneliness and then we write instead of going out with friends, or going on dates, or spending time with our families.

Some writers phrase this as a compulsion: “I can’t not write.” I’m always wary of that, because it sounds to me like giving up ownership of one’s life and choices. The common notion of the domineering muse is a false one, because the muse is you, and you are a conscious being making conscious decisions. They may be costly decisions, but you’re still the one making them, perhaps despite what you know is in your best interests. I can tell from your letter that you’re determined to own your choices (while acknowledging the influence of things you can’t control, like mental illness), and I think that’s a very wise approach that will make it much easier for you to get back to writing.

As I wrote a few months ago, when the person you have injured is you, the person you need to apologize to, and make amends to, is you. In a sense, you have to earn your own trust again. Right now it’s hard for you to believe that you can handle your urge to write in a responsible way. So take some time to decide what responsible writing looks like for you, both while you’re unemployed and after you find another job (where ideally the workplace will not be toxic and you won’t feel the urge to defy it, or escape it, by doing personal tasks while you’re on the clock).

Establish some parameters for yourself that feel plausible and achievable. Aim for “do” rather than “do not”: “write between 9 and 11 p.m.” or “write while I’m on the commuter train” rather than “don’t write at work,” for example. This isn’t about protecting the rest of your life from your writing, but about protecting your writing from the rest of your life. Right now your urge to write feels scary and dangerous. You want to create a space within which you can write safely, without risk.

Then pay the cost of writing up front, in full, by acknowledging that you are choosing to take that space away from everything that isn’t writing. If you’re going to write in the evenings, make a deliberate choice to stop accepting dinner invitations that will cut into that writing time. If you’re going to write in the early morning, understand that this comes in lieu of sleep. If those costs start to feel too steep, nudge your parameters around or look for ways to mitigate your losses. Maybe you’ll end up only writing three evenings a week rather than every evening; maybe your partner is willing to handle childcare in the mornings.

Once you’ve defined a safe space within which writing can happen, earn your own trust back by staying within it. If you constantly find yourself straying outside of it, think about why that is. Are you resenting there being any limitations on your writing? Are you feeling self-destructive? Is writing so intensely therapeutic and reassuring that you want tremendous doses of it? Is there a certain time of day when you feel most creative and don’t want to waste it? Work on understanding those feelings and negotiating with them rather than ignoring them or trying to push them aside. And as you’re doing that, keep writing as responsibly as you can, adjusting your parameters if you need to. It’s important to accept that you are the type of writer you are while also acknowledging the demands of the outside world. Responsible writing lies in finding the happy intersections between the two, being responsible to yourself as an artist as well as to your more worldly needs.

As you create a space where it’s safe for you to write without fearing that you’ll cause yourself harm, and as you build up a good track record of staying within the lines you’ve drawn for yourself, you’ll find that writing gets easier and creative inspiration will come back. Until that happens, if you’re struggling to put words on the page, I suggest spending that time on things that are related to writing so the shoulds don’t come creeping back in. Give yourself time to get back in the groove, and build the habit of writing time being a regular, reliable thing.

You may note that nothing in here makes reference to punishment. You’ve already paid a penalty for your poor choices; those natural consequences are more than sufficient to motivate you to change. What remains is to commit to making better choices in the future, and to clearly define “better choices” so you know when you achieve them and can correct yourself when you fall short.

You can’t change the past. You can only move forward from where you are. I wish you the very best of luck in building a path toward a happy coexistence of writing and the rest of your life.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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