#71: You Are Allowed to Write Outside Your Own Experience

Dear Story Nurse,

What do I do when my ‘own voice’ is traumatized and I don’t like it?

I write mostly fantasy (what people consider ‘high’ fantasy or ‘swords and sorcery’) and fairy tale variations, and have dabbled in romances; usually those are modern polyamory and/or demisexual/grey-ace focused. I don’t have anything published, but I’m not averse to the idea, I’m just slow and that’s not what pushes me to write.

There has been a lot of talk recently online about ‘own voices’ and how people (especially white people, which I am) should be cognizant of the pitfalls of writing outside our own culture or experiences, especially in nasty tropey stereotypical and demeaning or second-class sorts of ways. I am ALL IN FAVOR of this, and I try to support own voices writing in as many ways as I can, to try and counteract the amazingly sucky continued bias in publishing (and tbh, in life in general).

My question is this: as a corollary, the general view seems to be that as a white writer, my non-colonial, non-appropriative options are to… write only about my own experiences or culture? But my background is unpleasant and traumatic (and unusual: I was essentially raised in a cult until I was 16). My adult life has been boring and pretty white-het-cis-married-privileged (I’m not heterosexual, I’m polyam, and I don’t think I’m cisgender either but I’m still working thru that with myself, but I need to ‘pass’ because of where I live and what my job is.)

I write to escape my history and my current state of having to hide my authentic self, and to create alternatives for myself and for the child I didn’t get to be. Writing about my own childhood is traumatic—sometimes helpful, but it’s a therapy assignment, not me writing for love of writing where the story and characters just flow out of me in a happy relaxing zen. And writing about my own adult life is frustrating because it reminds me how much I have to hide all the time. And writing about ‘white culture’ seems fake to me—I didn’t grow up in it, and it still feels like I’m behind the curve and missing things there too.

So how do I honor own voices and still write when I don’t feel like I have a voice of my own that I can use?

—Rowan (they/them)

Dear Rowan,

I’m honored that you wrote to me with such a personal and painful question. I’m so sorry that people have treated you badly, especially when you were a child, and that your current circumstances force you to hide who you are.

I want to be very clear on this, up front: You are never required to write things that harm youYour writing must be for you first and last. And there is always a way to find stories to write that don’t harm you or anyone else.

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NaNoWriMo: Keeping the Momentum Going After November

Dear friends,

We’re in the NaNoWriMo home stretch. Whatever your NaNo has been like, it’s nearly over. In a few days, it will be December.

Then what?

If you’re desperately trying to stay focused on your November 30 deadline and keep the words flowing, you may not want to read this just yet. Come back to it when you’re ready (though I do recommend reading it before the end of November). But I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s already looking ahead—sometimes, let’s be honest, as a way of procrastinating—and thinking about how to use the things I’ve learned and the habits I’ve built in November to improve my writing and increase my output in December and beyond.

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#70: Excavating Internalized Biases, Part Two: Catching Bigotry Mid-Draft

Content note: This letter and the response discuss the fictional depiction of violent deaths of black women.

Hello Story Nurse!

You actually answered one of my questions in late 2016, and it helped me hugely, so now that I’m stuck again, I thought I would come back and solicit more advice. I started writing a small science fiction novella set in the future, and the main plotline is a dysfunctional duo trying to solve a murder. My book is #ownvoices for its mentally ill queer lady characters, and I feel really happy with the representation in it. But as I was writing today, I realised that both my murder victims were black women (they are a mother and her daughter), and suddenly I got really freaked out that I was engaging in some damaging tropes. How should I proceed? Should I finish what I have, and then do a close reading, probably with some sensitivity readers? Or should I stop what I’m doing and reevaluate? I know how hurt I get every time I read a story with a dead or dying queer lady, and I’m really worried I’m perpetrating an equally damaging trope for a community to which I have no personal access.

Thank you for all your good work!

—Space Lesbian (she/her)

Dear Space Lesbian,

It’s lovely to hear from you again! I’m so glad the earlier piece was useful to you. Thanks for writing in with an issue that a lot of writers run into. Our cultural consciousness is being raised very rapidly, and that can collide hard with internalized bigotry. Most of us have spent our lives consuming media that was partly or entirely created to perpetuate a skewed status quo. It’s challenging to have the desire to create works that cause minimal harm, paired with the certain knowledge that our writing incorporates our ignorance and erroneous beliefs.

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NaNoWriMo: Why “Bad” First Drafts Are Great

Dear friends,

We’re more than halfway through NaNoWriMo, and that means you’ve got enough written to start feeling stressed about the quality of what you’re writing. Last year I wrote about reassuring your inner critic. This year I’m going to get a little more philosophical.

We talk a lot about lousy first drafts being important and necessary and valuable, but we don’t talk about why they are important and necessary and valuable. This can make it hard to really believe in their value. It’s much easier to fall back on judging a draft in comparison to finished books, and then to view your necessarily slapdash NaNo draft as falling short, and then to feel miserable. Let’s move away from that.

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Hello, Awkwardeers!

Dear friends,

I’m chuffed that my hero and role model Captain Awkward was kind enough to link to Story Hospital from today’s post. If you’re coming over from that post, welcome!

Story Hospital is a letter-based advice site (like CA) that’s specifically for writers. The Captain mentioned my NaNoWriMo posts, which are all linked from my NaNoWriMo tag. In addition to my weekly letter-answering post (which goes up Tuesday), I write one NaNo post every Saturday through November.

The NaNo posts are my thank-yous to my Patreon patrons after my annual October drive, and my patrons get to suggest the topics. Story Hospital is totally Patreon-funded and I’m so grateful to all my backers for making this site possible.

You can also find me on Twitter at @storyhospital. Come say hello! And if you’ve got a question about writing, just drop it in my ask box. Welcome, and I hope you’ll hang around.


Story Nurse

#69: Getting Unstuck from “Should”

Hi Story Nurse!

I’ve found your advice on getting back into writing after a long break really helpful, thanks! At this point I’m having what feels like a related problem. Earlier this year, I got back into a more regular writing habit after many years of not writing, or only writing very rarely and with extreme difficulty. I write mostly fanfiction, though recently I’ve come up with a couple ideas for original short stories that I’m excited to tackle. I still feel out of practice and kind of clunky, which is frustrating – but I want to stick with it and build my writing muscles to the point where the hard stuff is easier, and the fun parts are even more fun. Before that long hiatus, I had a real sense that I was getting better at getting stories out of my head and onto the page, and I want to get there again.

At first, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with enough ideas to keep writing consistently, but actually I’m having the opposite problem. It seems like as soon as I start writing one story, I’ll come up with an idea that feels even more important to get on the page as soon as possible, so I’ll put the first project aside and start working on the bright shiny new one. I’ll mean to get back to the first one, but a lot of the time the same thing happens again, and I’ll end up abandoning the first project.

I think a lot of this comes from wanting to avoid what’s harder for me right now – I love mapping out the bones of a story on notebook paper and planning how all the pieces might fit together, while finishing a first draft and revising feels like hard and confusing work. So it makes sense that the new thing would be that much more tempting to me! But I don’t just want practice at starting stories, I want to get better at the whole process. And the whole reason I love writing fanfic is the sense of collaboration – reading other people’s interpretations of the characters, worlds, etc, and sharing my own. But that isn’t really happening if all of my own are sitting half-written on my hard drive.

When I have a deadline (two of my three finished stories this year have been for fic exchanges) I can finish a story, but because I’m worried about the time pressure, I end up writing stories I know I can finish, not ones I’m very excited about or interested in. The answer seems to be stop doing exchanges for a while, but I’m afraid then I wouldn’t finish anything. Due to the finite nature of time, it’s not going to be possible to write every single idea I come up with, so it’s fine if some are abandoned – but how do I prioritize so that some of them do get finished?

What makes it worse is that in the background, I’m constantly afraid that I’ll abandon my current project and never start writing again (or at least have to re-learn a ton of stuff whenever I do start again). And it’s much easier to abandon a project when it gets boring, so it seems even more important to chase those super interesting new ones. But that’s no way to finish anything! I feel stuck in this pattern – any ideas for how to get unstuck?


—Unfinished Business (they/them)

Dear Unfinished Business,

It sounds like what you’re stuck in is a whole lot of pairs of competing urges and influences:

  • Wanting to push yourself to learn and get stronger but not wanting to do difficult things.
  • Wanting to finish anything at all but feeling that the things you do finish don’t count.
  • Understanding that not every story can be finished but trying to develop every new story idea.
  • Dropping projects when they get boring but dodging the challenges that keep projects exciting.

You need to have a good hard think about your priorities along each of these axes. Think about what you get out of them, what makes them appeal to you in the short and long terms. Also think about, for a lack of a better term, your values—the type of writer you want to be. Which choices are in line with those values? Which paths take you closer to your own personal definition of satisfaction and success?

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NaNoWriMo: How to Counter Jealousy and Insecurity

Dear friends,

Here we are ten days into NaNoWriMo. Ten days of working hard, struggling sometimes, finding your flow and losing it again. Some people are already posting “I won NaNoWriMo!” banners. Others feel totally at sea. And numbers are flying all over the place—wordcount totals, daily wordcounts, number of writing days missed.

Just as numbers lend themselves to a mistaken sense of orderliness, they lend themselves to mistaken comparisons. It’s very easy to think that someone who’s written 20,000 words is in some way a better person than someone who’s written 10,000 words. It’s very easy to forget that those progress meters are not all there is to life in November. It’s very easy, in this atmosphere focused on numbers and “winning,” to get jealous, and anxious, and insecure.

If the green-eyed monster is sitting on your shoulder, here are some things to keep in mind: Continue reading

#68: Creating a Sustainable Self-Publishing Career

Today’s question comes from @thepoetjean on Twitter:

Dear @thepoetjean,

Welcome to the great challenge of self-publishing: being a publisher, with all that entails and implies. Your books don’t have to be pristine, but they do need to be of comparable quality to traditionally published work. As for sustainable income from self-publishing, that has to do as much with quantity as with quality.

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NaNoWriMo: Time Management Tips

Dear friends,

Welcome to my 2017 NaNoWriMo bonus posts! Thanks again to all the Patreon patrons who are funding this series. If you missed last year’s posts, you can find them here.

The first request I received was for time management tips. This request came from someone who has a couple of other big projects happening in November, but I expect just about everyone doing NaNo has other things going on. If you have nothing better to do than write 1700 words a day, then you’re a career novelist and more power to you! This post is for everyone else. It addresses both planning your time and using your time effectively.

1. Determine your Writing Time Unit (WTU). A Writing Time Unit is an amount of time sufficient for you to get into the writing mindset, make some words happen, and start to run out of steam. Every writer has a different range of WTUs. My minimum WTU is about 20 minutes and my maximum is about an hour, maybe an hour and a half if I’m really in the groove. For planning purposes, I consider a WTU to be 20 minutes and think of longer bouts in terms of multiple WTUs: if I’ve set aside 45 minutes to write, that’s two 20-minute WTUs with a short break in between.

In order to get the most out of your writing time, you want to schedule enough time to rev up and write but not so much time that you run out of juice and then feel bad about not making the most of the time you’ve set aside. Your bout of writing should end when you’re starting to flag, not when you’re completely done in. So when you’re calculating your WTU, remember that it’s a minimum, not a maximum. If you finish one WTU worth of writing and you’re still raring to go, you can always do another!

Take a moment now to think about your writing habits and calculate a minimum WTU. It could be as short as five or ten minutes, or much longer. An easy way to know whether you’ve found your minimum WTU is to complete this sentence: “If I have less than [quantity of time] I’m just not going to make any real writing progress.” If you’re more likely to have a few long stretches of writing time than a lot of short ones, you may also want to think about how many WTUs you can realistically do in a row.

(Does getting into the writing mindset always take a while? Here are some ideas for writing rituals that will help you to shift gears.)

2. Plan to be done by November 25. Before you have a heart attack, hear me out. Every good plan with a deadline allows for schedule creep. You almost certainly won’t finish by November 25, but if you plan to be done by November 25, that gives you 20% leeway. Aiming for November 30 and getting anxious over every shortfall is a much less enjoyable experience than aiming for November 25 and knowing you have a five-day safety net.  Those of you who like dividing numbers by other numbers can also enjoy the nice round numerical goals of 2000 words a day or 14,000 words a week. Just remember that the idea is to make it okay for you to miss a day or fall short one week and not stress over it. Less stress means more productivity and more fun!

3. Block out time. Look at your schedule for November and figure out where you already have (or can make) spaces that writing can fit into. Go through your calendar day by day and ask Is there room for writing here? How much? This is where your WTU comes in. A 20-minute lunch break is enough time for some writers but not for others. A two-hour morning writing session is perfect for some writers and way too long for others. Also make sure it’s at a time of day when your brain is working well enough for writing to happen. Don’t bother setting aside time unless it’s time you can actually use.

Get creative, and enlist assistance! Maybe on Mondays you can fit in a writing sprint while you’re dialed in to a boring phone meeting, or Tuesdays and Wednesdays your partner will handle morning childcare so you can write for an hour. Maybe your Thanksgiving plans involve a plane trip and you can write in the airport or in flight. But be realistic: if you know you’re always too sleepy on your train commute home to get anything done, don’t pretend that that will magically change for the month of November.

Most importantly, block out that time on your calendar, and make sure other people know not to disturb you while you’re writing. If possible, go somewhere quiet and devoid of interruptions. You are making a commitment to yourself to get some writing done. Take it seriously and defend it fiercely.

Once you’ve got all your writing time booked, divide your wordcount goal by the number of WTUs you have scheduled between now and November 25, and you’ll have a rough idea of how much you need to write per session. This is a great time to adjust your goal if you realize you’ve set yourself up to write 4000 words in 40 minutes. (It’s always okay to make accommodations for yourself and choose a different goal or timeline.) And remember to book writing time all the way through to the end of November so you have it if you need it. If you do finish early, you can use that time for reading books, knitting, or basking in your own glory—or for editing your manuscript or starting the next writing project.

4. Don’t expect every day to be the same. The numerical nature of NaNo goals—30 days, 50,000 words—naturally lends itself to ideas about daily writing sprints or daily wordcount goals that inevitably fall apart when they run up against real life. Don’t set yourself up to fail. If your plan is so fragile that a single day of dealing with a work emergency or caring for a sick kid can disrupt it, you need a better plan.

Most of us have fairly regular weekly routines, so it may make sense for you to set up your NaNo writing plan on that basis. For example, Thursday is my long day at the office; I usually work twelve hours or more. When I set up my own modified NaNo plan to write for at least one WTU per calendar day, I thought about that and added “except Thursday.” To balance that out, I’ll aim for two WTUs on a Tuesday or Friday, when I tend to have free time.

If you’re not already a very disciplined butt-in-chair type of writer, and perhaps even if you are, it’s wise to anticipate some pretty big variations in your writing productivity over the course of the month. From what I’ve heard (and I would love to get some hard data on this), the typical NaNoWriMo wordcount curve looks a lot like the Kickstarter funding curve. Expect productivity spikes at the beginning (when you’re excited) and the end (when you’re desperate), and a lull in the middle (when you realize just how much of a challenge you’ve set yourself). Coincidentally, the Kickstarter team determined that 30 days is the optimal duration for a Kickstarter campaign: “sufficient to maximize the burst of activity at the beginning and end, and still have a small trough where you can regroup or allow some momentum to build.” So when you’re in that trough, think about what regrouping and building momentum look like for you. Do you need to revisit your outline? Change your schedule? Reconnect with your early excitement over your concept? Check in with a friend who motivates you, or commiserate with other NaNo participants? Don’t waste time despairing or fretting; have faith that that final productivity spike is coming, and do what you can to prepare for it and encourage it to spike hard and high.

5. Boost your productivity to make the most of your time. NaNo is focused on word generation, so don’t get too caught up in outlining or character sketching or research, but do feel free to spend a couple of your early sessions investing in preparation activities that will genuinely make you more productive later on. Just remember to account for that when setting your intermediate wordcount goals.

Rachel Aaron suggests spending a few minutes at the beginning of each session jotting down notes for the scene you’re going to write next so you’re not slowing yourself down by planning and writing at the same time. Your mini-outline can be as simple as “John and Steve fight, feel bad, and make up” or “The detective interviews three more suspects and starts to follow a red herring.” It’s fine if your eventual writing deviates from that plan; the idea is just to have something to guide and nudge you if you get stuck.

Speaking of getting stuck, there will definitely be times when you hit a wall. If that happens, don’t despair! Try one or two of these five-minute writing-related tasks and see whether that unsticks you. If not, at least you’ll have made some progress on the planning front, and that will make the next session easier.

6. Periodically check in and adjust. In addition to generally staying aware of what’s working and what’s not, and doing more of the former and less of the latter, I recommend doing check-ins on November 5, 15, and 25 to see how your progress compares to your plan. Don’t just look at the numbers; consider the experience of your writing so far, which types of pre-writing prep have been helpful and which have distracted and delayed you, what writing environments have worked well, whether your minimum WTU is what you thought it was, and so on. Then make adjustments to your schedule and expectations.

If you haven’t written on deadline before, one of the things NaNo will teach you is that you can’t lie to yourself about what works for you or doesn’t. The wordcount tells the truth. It may be hard to let go of your idealized notions of how easy it will be to write in a cafe, how much the people in your life will respect your scheduled writing time, or how little planning you need to do before you start to write, but do force yourself to do it. You’ll get much more done and have much more fun if you’re honest about what your conditions for happy writing look like and do your best to create those conditions.

If you’re an old hand at NaNo (or writing fiction on tight deadlines) and have other time management tips, please do share them in the comments. Good luck to everyone doing NaNoWriMo this year!


Story Nurse

This post is part of a special NaNoWriMo 2017 series supported by my fabulous Patreon patronsGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!