#84: Staying Focused Long Enough to Write a Novel

Hi, Story Nurse,

I want to get this novel written. Badly. Or not necessarily THIS novel, but A NOVEL. (Though THIS novel would be a really good one, except for the bit where the genderfluid protagonist is *really obviously* ADHD-Butterfly Sue. But that’s a different Story Nurse question!)

The problem is the novel beginnings on my hard drive number in the triple digits. Some of them are the same concept because I came back to the idea later and the first version didn’t hold up anymore, but most of them are new shinies that became old and boring when another new shiny came along. None of them are longer than ten thousand words. And yes, that’s pretty obviously one consequence of getting nearly to age thirty with undiagnosed ADHD? But.

I already know the NaNoWriMo format doesn’t work for me, even with a reduced daily goal and a longer time frame. But if I only write when ~*inspired*~, then I know perfectly well I’ll end up writing things that have nothing to do with this novel, and eventually lose track of the novel altogether.

How do I keep my attention on ONE idea long enough to get a whole novel drafted?

Thanks,

ADHD-Butterfly (they/them)

Dear ADHD-Butterfly,

Don’t panic! You are totally capable of writing an entire novel, with some preparation and self-examination (and ideally also with appropriate treatment for your ADHD, now that you have that diagnosis—I hope you’re working with the relevant medical professionals on that). Here’s a plan for you to follow, and to come back to whenever you find yourself wandering astray.

Figure out why you want to write a novel. Really dig into it. If shorter things are easier, why not just write shorter things? What is it about writing a novel, as a concept, that calls to you? Is it attached to your idea of what it means to be a successful writer, or a functional person? Is it a way to prove that ADHD doesn’t own you or that everyone who called you lazy was wrong? Is it a thing you actually want to do for other people more than for yourself? Do you feel like it’s what you “should” be doing? Do you keep getting ideas that cry out to be developed at novel length? Is it a thing you hunger for so desperately that you can’t begin to explain why, except that it’s deeply rooted in your soul? If you never wrote a novel, how sad would you be?

Spend some time on this step. Until you make your abstract goal more solid and figure out what makes it personally meaningful to you, it will keep losing out to shiny new ideas. If you can’t find that personal meaning in your goal, it may not be the right goal for you. (There is no shame in this at all. Every writer is different, and needs different types of projects.) So think about it, until you’ve either realized it’s time to let go of this goal or become really passionate and determined to see a novel project through to completion.

Got that passion? Good. Write down what this goal means to you, in the most personal terms, and put it someplace where you can refer back to it when your attention starts to drift. This is a letter to your future self, so be persuasive in exactly the ways you know will be most effective for you: “Dear future butterfly, here’s why you should stick with what you’re working on and not let the shiny lure you away.” Again, if you can’t do this in a way that seems likely to work—if there is nothing that would make finishing a novel more attractive than pursuing a new idea—then it’s time to consider different writing goals.

Come up with a shiny-corralling protocol. When an idea hits you, your first impulse will be to start writing it. You need a different thing to do with the idea instead, so you can get it dealt with and then go back to your primary project. Many people who are driven to follow each new idea have a fear of missing out; having a consistent way of dealing with new ideas will help to reassure you that they’ll all be there when you finish this project and want to start the next one. You can write it down in a bullet journal, make a new file for it in your “writing ideas” folder, send yourself a text message or Twitter DM about it—whatever works for you. What’s important is that it is quick (so as not to take too much time or attention away from your primary project), organized or searchable (so you can reassure your anxiety that you won’t lose your ideas), and consistent (so you can make a real practice out of it). Develop this protocol and write it down for your reference. Practice it a few times with ideas you already have, just to make sure that it works well for you. When you have corralled a shiny, you should be able to really let go of it and go back to what you were doing.

Look for patterns in where you’ve dropped past projects. Is there a certain stage in a writing project when you almost inevitably start to feel bored? Getting bored while writing can mean a number of things: you’re feeling anxious and avoidant or uncertain about what’s coming next in the book, you’re feeling critical of what you’ve already written, you’re feeling mentally or physically exhausted and need to take a break, or you’ve let the tension ebb in your story and it’s actually become boring.

Glance through the last 1000 words or so of your five most recent interrupted projects—it’s important to make this finite so that you don’t get too distracted—and see whether there are similarities in your stopping points. That will help you know when to expect boredom to hit as you’re working on this new project, and how to address it when it does: doing a little planning so you feel more confident about tackling the next section of the book, reassuring your inner critic, resting, or fixing your story’s momentum.

Do some warm-ups. If you tend to bottom out at 10,000 words, write a story that’s complete at 10,000 words. Then try for 12,000, then 20,000, then 30,000. This step is optional, but it can help you build confidence and also help you identify what it is about the 10k mark that tends to stop you.

Now you are ready to try writing a novel! Pick a practice project. It should be something you think is fun but don’t feel too strongly about. It should be easy, insofar as any novel is ever easy—write that Butterfly Sue and some cardboard cut-out supporting characters, scribble in that paint-by-numbers setting, steal that plot from another story you love, aim for 80,000 words rather than 150,000. Your goal is not to finish a great novel; it is to finish any novel. Set yourself up to succeed rather than putting more barriers in your own way.

Also pick a passion project that you feel absolutely devoted to and can pour your heart and soul into. You asked how to keep your attention on one idea, but it doesn’t sound like your brain is wired to do that—so don’t do it! Instead, coopt your ADHD by giving yourself a defined second thing to swap over to when the first thing loses your attention. Your practice project is the one with the “finish this” goal attached. Your passion project is there to remind you what makes writing worth the struggle and stress, and to get you invigorated again. What’s key is that you then swap back to the practice project instead of jumping to something new.

Set up a schedule of some kind. Some parts of my NaNoWriMo post on time management won’t be relevant, because you don’t have that tight deadline, but do at least calculate your minimum Writing Time Unit so you know how much time you need to block out for a writing session. Then schedule at least one regular writing session a week, and more if you can swing it. The key word is regular.

Set a session goal. Don’t set wordcount goals if those don’t work for you, but do set the goal of “do something writing-related with this time”. This is especially useful during the planning stage. Once you’re in the drafting stage, if you can’t make words happen, pick a task that will help words come more easily next time, such as focused research, outlining, character sketches, or brainstorming. You can also track your words per hour and try to beat your average. I love this one because my average, by definition, is a thing I’ve already done and therefore a thing I am confident I’ll be able to do again. And if you consistently beat your average, your average will go up, creating a challenge that grows with you and stays within reach as long as you stretch yourself just a little.

Optimize your writing environment. If you live with people, shut your door and put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on it; if you live with pets, make sure they’re well fed and petted before your writing time begins; if you’re at a coffee shop, get your favorite beverage and make sure you’ve got earplugs or headphones if you need to block out crowd noise. Put your phone on silent and out of reach, snooze your Slack notifications, and quit out of distracting apps and websites. If stimming helps you stay focused, keep stim toys handy, put a bumpy mat on your chair, or sit on an exercise ball so you can bounce and rock as you write. Play music or put on white noise or work in pure perfect silence. Do whatever makes writing easier.

If you’re a planner, plan. Make a timeline, draw a map, figure out who your characters are, outline the plot, and so on. Don’t get too caught up in this; you may want to set a finite number of writing sessions for it, after which you start making words even if you don’t feel ready yet. You can always dedicate a later session to filling in the gaps if you really need to, but remember that many many flaws can be repaired in revisions. Your goal is not to write a gleaming perfect gem of a first draft; it’s to write a first draft.

Even if you’re an improviser more than a planner, take two minutes at the start of every writing session to jot down a note about what you intend to write. It can be as simple as “that scene where they do the thing with the stuff”. This is to give you a little initial focus so you ideally start the session feeling purposeful and confident rather than flailing and directionless and anxious.

Write.

Have big feelings about your book and the process of writing it—be mad and sad and excited and scared and enthralled and teary-eyed. Martha Alderson says that every writer goes on their own heroic journey in the process of writing a book, and is transformed by it. Transformation is hard, but keep going. You are strong and you will survive it.

Pause. When you get bored, identify the flavor of boredom and address it. When you lose momentum, switch projects. When you get tired, rest. When you wonder why you’re bothering, reread that letter to yourself.

Keep writing. When you hate the book and think it sucks, keep writing. When you’re in the three-quarters slump, keep writing. When you have no idea what you’re doing, keep writing. When you’re blocked, keep writing. When you’re not inspired, keep writing.

And when you’re done, type “The End”.

If this goal is the right goal for you, then I am absolutely confident you’ll achieve it. Drop me a note when you’ve got a draft done and we’ll throw you a little blog party in the comments.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#83: Feeling Unworthy of Your Ideas

Dear Story Nurse,

I have recently realized that the major thing holding me back in my writing is a debilitating fear of failure masquerading as “no ideas.” I have tons of ideas! They’re very cool and interesting ideas! And then I go to write them and I’m staring at a blank page and suddenly all my shining ideas seem boring and cliche and I feel so utterly small and stupid that I abandon the whole endeavor and tell myself I’ll write once I discover a good idea.

Unfortunately, there is no idea on Earth good enough, and if there is a legitimately good idea, I tell myself I’m not good enough to write it.

I love writing! I love coming up with stories in my head! I have dozens of characters all ready and raring to go! I love playing with words and descriptions! I don’t want all of this to be ruined because I’m too scared to do anything with it.

My question is this: How do I breathe through my paralyzing anxiety and actually start to get words on the page?

—Fear, the Mind-Killer (she/her)

Dear Fear,

This is a very, very common fear among writers and would-be writers. So first, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Lots of people have found ways to work through, over, around, or past this, and you will too.

Second, take pride in having written to me. I bet that was really hard. You may have heard that same voice telling you that you aren’t worthy to write in, or that I would never answer such an inane question, or any number of other discouraging things. But you wrote in anyway. You wrote in. You had an idea for a thing to write, and you wrote it, and you submitted it. In the very act of telling me that you are struggling to do this, you did it. I don’t say this to poke fun or to suggest that it’s all easy. I am saying: you did the thing, and you have thereby proved that you are capable of doing the thing again. When you’re wrestling with the blank page, you can tell yourself, “I wrote to the Story Nurse, even though it was very hard; I can do this too, even though it is very hard.” You can also think about what made it possible for you to write to me, and see whether it can be applied in some way to your fiction writing.

(And see, your question was not inane, and I am taking it seriously and giving it a complete and thorough answer, like any other question—because I believe in you, dear writer, and you deserve as much of my time and attention as anyone else who writes in.)

If anxiety like this comes up in other parts of your life, that’s a thing that’s probably worth talking with a therapist about, because getting support from someone with a clue is pretty essential to getting out from under anxiety like that. I hope you have good people around you who can help you find the resources you need.

With regard to writing specifically, here are some facts:

  • There are many writers who are terrible people. I don’t think you’re a terrible person, because you worry about whether you’re a terrible person, and in my experience, most genuinely terrible people don’t worry about that at all. But on the off chance that you are a terrible person, that doesn’t disqualify you from writing.
  • You cannot ruin your ideas. To prove this, write the idea down somewhere. Then, in a separate file or on a separate piece of paper, write the worst 200-word story you can think of based on that idea. The worst! Make it awful and boring and trite. Open it with a run-on sentence about a character waking up; end it with rocks falling out of a clear blue sky and killing everyone. Put in extra misspellings and homophones. Then go back to where you wrote down your idea. You will find it untouched and just as ready to be turned into a much better story if you decide that’s what you want to do with it. Or you can just enjoy the idea being a lovely little idea—that’s fine too. All writers have extra ideas kicking around that will never be written.
  • The only way to fail at writing is to fail to write. Your fear of failure is keeping you paradoxically trapped in this state where you write nothing and therefore are failing by definition. But don’t waste time beating yourself up over that; write anything at all, and you will have achieved a measure of success. (If you have a fear of success, this may be its own challenge. It’s also worth thinking about how you define success.)
  • Every story and book you’ve ever read started out as a much rougher draft. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your first drafts with other people’s finished work. Not only does your draft not have to be polished, it’s actually better for you in the long run if it’s not. I’ve been a professional editor on and off for over 20 years, and my first drafts always look extremely polished—which means their inevitable flaws in areas like pacing, characterization, and plotting are hidden and harder to find. So if your drafts are rough and let all their issues hang out, that’s great! You’ll know exactly what you need to work on as you put your work through the revision process that every gleaming, beautiful book has gone through.
  • You are not your work.
  • Playing is wonderful, not a waste of time. You say you love to play, so go ahead and play! Make a list of words that sound nice when you say them, and then read it out loud, savoring the way the words feel in your mouth. Write poetry. Write letters to friends. Write children’s stories. Write terrible puns. Have fun! Remember that you want to write because it’s fun. Rediscover writing with a playful heart.

As for your question of how to start:

  • Write down one word. Good. Now, a second. Maybe a third? Work up to more if you need to. But surely you can write one word, even if it’s “The” or “If” or “A”. And if you’ve written one word, surely you can write another.
  • You say you love writing stories in your head, so write a story in your head and then write down the story that is in your head. It may help to dictate it first and then transcribe the recording. In this way the initial creative action all happens in your head, where it’s safe, and the part that involves typing or writing becomes a little less emotionally fraught, not really any different from transcribing a podcast or a TV episode or something else that you heard somewhere and want to have in written form.
  • Start by writing something based on an idea that you care less about, so the stakes are lower. Give yourself practice projects where you feel more at ease and able to fool around and try new things.
  • If that still feels too fraught, make a practice of regularly doing other kinds of writing—blogging, journaling, news stories, Twitter threads—and periodically come back to fiction to see whether you can transfer the skills you’ve developed.
  • “Yes, and” your inner voice. The “yes” defuses the tension, moving away from argument rather than toward it; the “and” lets you go right on doing what you want to do.
    • “You’re a terrible person!” “Yes, and I’m going to go be a terrible person who writes things.”
    • “This story is crap!” “Yes, and once I finish it I’ll be able to revise it into being less crap. But I can’t do that until I finish it, so I’m going to keep going.”
    • “This is really hard and stressful!” “Yes, and it’s also worth doing because…” [you’re having fun, you’re writing something that matters a lot to you, whatever makes you want to come back to writing even when it’s hard]
    • “You should just give up!” “Yes, and I’m going to take a break as soon as I get to the end of this paragraph. That way I won’t burn myself out and can come back to it tomorrow.”
  • If you’re a social person, do shared writing sprints with other writers. If you don’t know many other writers, you can do mutual accountability with anyone: “Every time you go to the gym, I’ll do a writing sprint.”
  • Try setting time goals rather than word goals; “do as much as you can in 20 minutes” gently makes room for there to be times when you can’t do very much, while encouraging you to build the habit of setting aside time for writing.
  • Redefine the writing process as a revision process. Use Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method or something similar to minimize the part that feels like making something out of nothing. The “creation” part of the snowflake method, the thing that turns the blank page into the page with writing on it, is writing just one short sentence. Everything after that is adaptation, development, revision—you can call it any number of things that aren’t “writing” and thereby route around the part of your brain that gets anxious about writing. Ingermanson calls his method a tool for “managing your creativity” and it sounds like that might be a useful thing for you to do if your creativity is feeling wild and uncontrollable and scary right now.
  • Or, go the other direction and be WILD and UNCONTROLLABLE and SCARY. Yell your stories out into an empty room. Scrawl all over the page with a crayon, like a child, and then crumple it up and throw it. Write melodrama full of characters who have deep and powerful emotions, who hate one another and love one another and agonize over incredibly difficult decisions, and make yourself weep over their passionate feelings. Become the thing you most fear, and realize that it’s actually not so bad.

You don’t have to be good enough or controlled enough or cautious enough or smart enough or anything enough to write. You already are enough. There is no standard to meet, no test to pass; we encourage tiny children to make up stories, and if they get to do it, so do you.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#82: Getting Bored of Your Own Writing Voice

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

Hi Story Nurse!

I’m hoping you can spend a bit of time talking about voice, and about how we control it. By voice, I don’t mean so much “which character is telling this story,” but more that intangible, know-it-when-you-read-it something-or-other that makes one person’s writing different from anyone else’s.

Here’s my problem/question. I have a pretty clear voice, by which I mean that stuff I write tends to sound like me. It’s not highly stylized; I write fairly straightforward commercial fiction. But there is a me-ness to it—the tone, the details that interest me, the jokes I make, and so on. If you read things I’ve written, even though the topics and time periods are different, it won’t be long before you’ll likely say “ohh yeah, that’s her, I can tell.”

So-o-o… great, right? That’s what we want. Except… not always? Because to be honest, I’m pretty sick of listening to myself.

Context might help—I wrote a novel that’s in the proverbial drawer, I wrote one that got published, and I am halfway through the next. So this current WIP is either my 2nd or 3rd, depending on how you count.

I’ve only published one book, so I have no real fear of my voice being particularly tedious to anyone else. (I mean, except for those who didn’t like it in the first place, but never mind them!) This is less about boring my future readers and more about how bored I am of myself!

I hope this might be a “good problem” in the sense that perhaps it means I’m growing as a writer. That I am aware of my crutches and am holding myself to a higher standard than before.

But the question is… what next? I’m finding that sometimes I dread even starting a new scene because I am already rolling my eyes at how “me” it’s going to be and ugh. Enough of her! At the same time, I write the way I write because that’s how I think. It’s not put on, in other words. I don’t want to fake a voice, that’s clearly going in the wrong direction.

Any thoughts or suggestions on this? How do we shake things up while still staying true to ourselves?

—I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Pipe Down Mermaids! (she/her)

Dear Mermaids,

Voice is a great topic, and a challenging one to tackle because it is so individualized. I’ve done a little bit of vocal training, and I’ve also done a lot of podcasting and used dictation software for writing, so I’m going to draw on those experiences with my literal, physical voice to discuss writing voice and what you can do to change things up a bit.

The first thing I learned from voice lessons is that our physical voices are often more flexible than we think. I knew I could push my range higher, with practice; I was surprised to learn that I could also push it lower. Acting, taking a public speaking course, and reading books to my toddler all taught me just how much I could influence my audience and add nuances of meaning by making small shifts in tone and rhythm.You seem to have this notion that your writing voice is fixed and set in stone and just the way it is, but that’s far from true. Your voice won’t lose its essential character, its you-ness, if you change it, so let go of any worries you might have about being fake or too much of an imitation of others. Voice is a skill to be developed, like any other writing skill. Give yourself permission to stretch it and challenge it and expand it and enhance it. Otherwise you’ll just be stuck in that frustrating rut.

Any singer will tell you that warm-ups and exercises are crucial. They extend your range and make it easier to sing safely, without straining or harming your vocal cords. Writers tend not to do writing exercises very much once they’ve reached a certain level of experience, but you can still get a lot out of them! Try voice exercises specifically: writing ten paragraphs in the styles of ten very different writers, or retyping a page from a book with a distinctive prose style so you can get a tactile sense of how the words fit together, or writing dialogue in the voices of distinctive characters (your own or someone else’s). This isn’t about fakery but about stretching your range and learning new techniques. Once you teach yourself to write like Jane Austen or Kurt Vonnegut, it’s up to you to decide how to incorporate what you’ve learned into your own voice and style when you’re writing original work.

Writing pastiche of other authors has taught me that every writer breaks the rules in their own way. For example, Austen writes hardly any stage directions at all; her scenes of conversation are almost script-like. Yet her work is often turned into films, a testament to how easy it is to visualize her characters. Trying to imitate her style taught me a tremendous amount about how to convey emotion and mannerism in dialogue. Permitting yourself to write pastiche of daring writers will also help you permit yourself to be more daring in your original work—a great way of getting out of that boredom rut.

You say that you write the way you think, but we all think differently under different circumstances. Would deadline pressure change your voice because you’re in a hurry? Would writing for a friend give your work a more intimate tone? What about writing an epistolary story in which you entirely inhabit your characters’ voices, or trying a new genre that has different stylistic conventions? As above, these can all be brief exercises, though you may find you really like that new genre and want to stick with it for a while.

Podcasting always reminds me how weird our voices sound when we play them back to ourselves. What seems obvious to you—or sounds weird to you—when you reread your work may not register at all with your readers. If you frequently reread your own work, especially while it’s in progress, try breaking that habit. Treat your drafts like a game of Exquisite Corpse and don’t let yourself look at anything but the last paragraph. Then pick up where you left off. Inconsistencies will develop, and that’s fine; they can be smoothed out in revisions, and may teach you a few things about your subconscious understanding of the story as opposed to what you consciously intended it to be. If you keep visualizing a character as anxious and fidgety even though he started out as bold and brash, maybe that’s a hint that he’s been hiding something from you. Following it could lead you to all sorts of exciting new subplots.

You can also have your computer read your work to you (most computers have this capability hidden in the accessibility settings) and see how different it sounds in someone else’s spoken voice. The elements that you constantly notice and feel bored by may recede into the background while other elements jump out and surprise you. I know many authors who use this for catching errors like missing words and frequently repeated phrases. They’ll skim over the absent “the” a dozen times while rereading, but when they hear “I took train” they notice it immediately.

I’ve found that my writing style when I dictate is very different from my writing style when I type. When I type, I go back and tweak word choice as I write. (I rewrote that sentence four times—and this sentence twice.) That’s not possible with dictation. I also speak with a lot of comma splices and run-on sentences and digressions. When I use a pen, the difference from typing is less obvious, but I find that I write shorter sentences with simpler words and tend to take a conversational tone, maybe because the last time I regularly wrote with a pen was when I was in elementary school and keeping a diary. This is another indication that “your voice” is not a fixed and singular thing. My dictation voice, my typing voice, and my pen voice are all authentic voices for me; they’re just different. Try shifting your sense of your voice by changing the tools you write with. You may be surprised by what’s consistently you and what’s not.

Finally, you may just need a little bit of a break from writing. Anything gets boring if you’re immersed in it all the time, and you may be feeling so much pressure that you forget how to be playful. Consider taking a week or two away from it, and see if you come back refreshed and ready to spend time in your own company again.

Your inclination to push yourself and try new things is great, and will keep your work vibrant. Keep shaking things up and remembering how to have fun! Rediscovering your joy in writing will make all the boredom disappear.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#81: Your Writing Is Enough

Dear Story Nurse,

I just read your post on original ideas and the derivative nature of all stories, and loved it. I struggle a lot with feeling like I’m writing “unique enough” stories to justify putting the effort into them (it doesn’t help that I can literally go through my folder of ideas/snippets/starters and pinpoint exactly what I must have been reading/watching when I came up with each idea, so I wind up feeling like obviously anyone else would notice it too—even though logically I’m fairly sure it’s not that obvious and I only notice it because it’s my own stuff).

But in similar vein… how do you create unique, original worldbuilding? The hardest part for me is magic systems—I write almost exclusively fantasy, sometimes scifi with fantasy elements—and I love including magic and witches and sorcerers, but I feel like I can’t create a unique, exciting magic system to save my life.

The example I always go back to is the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve never seen anything remotely like the magic system in that setting, allomancy (for those who haven’t read it, some people can ingest different alloys of metals and use those to fuel various mental and physical powers; all the powers come in pairs, like Soothing vs. Rioting people’s emotions). If I could hit on something that unique, that original, just once in my life, I would be thrilled. But in the end, most of my magic systems are either bog-standard elemental-based types of things, or more generic “magic just does what you need it to do, albeit in limited quantities or with skill requirements to make it work so it’s not a complete deus ex machina device” a la D&D.

You say that “originality doesn’t mean rubbing two brain cells together until they spark an idea that bears no resemblance to any idea that anyone’s ever had” but on the other hand it feels like, in this area of things, it does mean basically that—and I’m not sure the “file off the serial numbers” approach would work, if only because if you take a particularly interesting existing system (like allomancy) for your “base” to work from, I think it would still be pretty obvious. How can I either figure out how to spark unique ideas for magic systems, or stop beating myself up for not being able to come up with entirely new, unique, original magic systems for my worlds?

—Jadelyn (they/them)

Dear Jadelyn,

I love this question as a counterpart to the question about worldbuilding from real places. There are so many ways to approach the creation of a fictional place.

As I said in my post on originality, what makes your work original is that you make unique choices that no one else would make. It sounds like that’s where you’re feeling stuck—you know your worldbuilding choices are yours, but feel that they’re not “unique enough”. Instead of looking at the word unique (or original, though those aren’t the same thing), let’s look at the word enough.

Sometimes enough means that you cook the same simple dinner or order the same takeout three nights in a row. That gets you fed and frees you up to do other things, like playing games or getting work done. Is your worldbuilding enough to do the job? Does having a basic, familiar fantasy setting let you focus on characters, plot, and prose, which is where you find joy or know you need to do more skill-building?

Sometimes enough means you have a small meal because you aren’t very hungry. Is your worldbuilding enough for your limited appetite? Are you forcing yourself to do more of it because you feel like you have to, not because it’s what you actually want?

Sometimes enough means that you buy a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card for your beloved, because you know they would rather get a sweet, simple card than a bouquet of flowers (allergies!) or dinner out (so crowded and noisy!). Is your worldbuilding enough for your readers? Are you giving them what they personally want, rather than adhering to generic notions of what a setting ought to be?

Sometimes enough means a grade of 66%, because that lets you pass the 101 class and move on to something more exciting and engaging and challenging. Is your worldbuilding enough to get your career going? Will knocking out some straightforward works now get you established so you can more confidently try more adventurous things down the road, once you’ve got a readership and an agent and a better sense of which envelopes to push?

Sometimes enough means coloring within the lines, doing exactly what’s required of you and nothing more, never sticking your neck out, being cautious, being safe. Is your worldbuilding enough to be comfortingly familiar to you and your readers, without making anyone uncomfortable or risking anything? Does trying something different make you feel like you’re tapping into deep scary parts of yourself, or bring up complicated thoughts or upsetting feelings? Do you worry that more experimental stories are less commercially viable?

Sometimes enough means quiet music and white walls and simple furniture, because that’s what creates the ambiance you want. Someone else might call it boring, but to you it’s peaceful. Is your worldbuilding enough for the mood you’re trying to create in your work? Does it give your characters room to play without being a vast expanse, and set up interesting plots without having an explosion on every corner?

Sometimes enough is drawing a stick figure because you’re new at making art. Over time, your stick figures will gain motion, emotion, dimension, detail—but you’re not there yet. Is your worldbuilding enough because it has to be, because it’s the very most that you’re capable of right now? Can you let that be enough for the projects you currently have, while you work on developing your skills for future projects?

Sometimes enough is about what feels like enough for you. That’s a thing only you can determine. But it doesn’t sound to me like any of your concerns about whether your worldbuilding is original enough stem from your dispassionate assessment of yourself or your work; it sounds like it’s about how other people will judge you. Who are those other people? Are they the people you’re writing for? If they aren’t, why does their opinion matter?

If your work were enough—if you were enough—how would you know? What are the signifiers of sufficiency, for you? Is it something you can point to? Or is it an unattainable mirage? Can you see ways to redefine “enough” and put it within your reach? Can you see ways to feel like enough right now?

Let go of the Mistborn series; your dilemma would be no different if you’d never heard of Sanderson or his books, so right now it’s just a stick you’re using to beat yourself. I guarantee you that he can look at his work and play spot-the-source all the livelong day, to a degree that no one else can because no one else has read all the books and seen all the movies and heard all the songs and lived all the history that he has. This is true of every writer. You really can’t know where someone’s ideas come from unless you live in their head. But I promise you that they come from somewhere—usually a lot of hard work and practice, and also reading and watching and listening and living. All those jokes about writers asking “can I use your tragic/funny/angsty life experience in my work” are jokes only because a lot of the time writers don’t bother to ask.

If you wanted to get very picky, you could say that Sanderson’s use of paired magical forces is drawing on the Aristotelian idea of opposing elements (which was Aristotle building on the work of Empedocles) and/or the Newtonian idea of equal and opposite pairs of physical forces (which, like all scientific advances, owes a great deal to both the observation of the world and the work of other scientists). But both of those concepts are so deeply embedded in Western culture that basing something on them is no more unoriginal than using the word the. At some point you need to decide that caring about a concept’s degree of uniqueness is a distraction from getting your writing done, and set it aside like any other distraction (too bad there are no URL blockers for persistent anxious thoughts), and focus on the work.

If you’re a relatively new writer, much of your problem may simply be that you haven’t developed your worldbuilding skills very far yet. Don’t be fooled by the mysticism of inspiration and spark-striking; those moments of epiphany are backed by a lot of learning and a lot of work. The next time you read a story with interesting worldbuilding, look at it as a craftsperson and see if you can figure out how the author did it and what makes it work so well for you. Work with mentors, critique partners, beta readers, writing teachers, agents, editors, and anyone else who can help you level up. Don’t let your impatience over being a beginner distract you from your ability to learn. See yourself as being on a path, rather than stuck in place, and make a plan for moving further down that path.

You seem to worry a lot about about the notion that “someone” (who?) will find your work lacking. To get away from that, it will help to have two things: personal goals for your work, and a sense of who you’re writing for.

If you know who your audience is (and it can be as general as “epic fantasy fans” or as specific as “my brother Jim” or “teen me”), you don’t need to guess what they like or wonder how your book fits into their personal collection; you can research it! For a genre-based audience, do some market research and see what’s selling now in that genre, what kinds of book deals are being made, who’s getting lots of buzz, who’s headlining conventions, which books get high marks from trade publications and lots of stars from Amazon and Goodreads reviewers.

Once you know your market, find your unique sweet spot between the book of your heart and the book that will reach the audience you want to reach. You might be be over at the “I will write formulaic books that hit all the bestseller buttons because all I care about is reaching the largest number of readers” end of the scale, or the “I am driven to write this specific book and I don’t really care if no one else understands it” end, or somewhere in between. You may decide to write a commercial book now and an avant-garde one later. All the options are fine. The important thing is to make some decisions about your goals for your work, so you can then evaluate whether your work is achieving those goals.

If the target audience still feels like a big looming someone who’s judging you in a mean judgy way, create an ideal reader, the way you’d create a character. Give them a name and a list of books they love (which is a fun exercise: what reading habits would set someone up to like your work?) and an exuberant eagerness for books like the one you want to write. The next time you think “No one will like this” or “Everyone will see how derivative this is”, swap that out for “Would my ideal reader think this is great?” and use your concept of them as your guide. If you’re a visual thinker, you can find a photo of someone looking kind and friendly and supportive, tape it to the corner of your monitor or make it your background image, and chat with it when you need a boost. Would you like this scene, smiling person? You look so happy just at the thought of it! I love writing for you!

For your reader, for the imagined smiling person or the real one who will someday cherish every word you write, your work isn’t merely enough—it’s exactly right. And so are you.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!