#122: When All the Writing Advice Is Wrong (for You)

Dear Story Nurse,

I have some interconnected problems that all together add up to being able to write productively, but not finish pieces.

Practical: because of chronic illness I have very little time to devote to writing, it’s brief stretches once or twice a week at best.

Process: I have a folder of ideas and drafts in various stages. In a writing headspace, material comes for several of them at the same time. A short writing session might include writing a few paragraphs on three different stories, and jotting down a couple of new ideas. The usual advice is to write down the new ideas and get back to the original piece you’re working on, but for me the ratio of what I’m trying to focus on to other ideas is 40/60 at best.

Craft: From what I’ve read some writers have distinct stages of writing and editing, each of which focuses on a specific aspect of the piece. Like in drawing – anatomy first, outlines, large areas of colour and light/shade, fine details. It would be counterproductive and complicated to mix those stages together. But that’s kind of what my writing often feels like. Say polishing a piece and doing line level editing and realising that I need some major revisions to the structure or the worldbuilding.

Also: anxiety and perfectionism probably? I do have a tendency to want to keep doing endless rewrites.

The logical thing to try was
– pick one thing and finish that
– try writing shorter things

But because of the limited time and the wandering brain I’ve spent months trying to finish a short short story, trying to get into the same frame of mind over and over again for a couple of sentences at a time, and it really drained the fun out of writing. Also, shorter things aren’t necessarily less complicated.

I get that a lot of this is just practice, but I also think I might need to shift something in my approach, because it doesn’t feel like more practice with my current process will get me to being able to complete pieces.

I would really appreciate any suggestions!

—Alexis (she/her)

Dear Alexis,

I agree that you need to shift something in your approach. Specifically, you need to shift away from reading one-size-fits-all writing advice, because that advice does not and will not work for you. Your circumstances are different from those envisioned by most writers of advice: your natural process is different, your ability level is different, your available time is different. “All” will almost never mean you. So let all of that go, and focus on learning from yourself through a process of exploration, observation, and iteration.

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#121: Researching by Interviewing Experts

Dear Story Nurse,

Is it okay to contact expert sources for a novel that might never see publication?

We’re often advised to seek outside perspectives when writing about people who have different life experiences than ourselves. But I’m also wary about imposing on people who have no obligation to educate me. Doubly so because as with all creative projects, there’s a good chance it will only ever live on my hard drive. But there’s limits to the info that Googling can provide.

So, is it okay to contact people whose perspective would be valuable to me and ask to interview them? Does it make a difference that I have no book deal, agent or publisher? If it is okay to ask, how do I present the question in a way that would make it worth their time? Can I contact a hematologist for detailed info I need for a vampire novel? Can I contact a sex worker and ask probing and personal questions for an unfinished project? Is there a difference between the two? Or should I wait until I have some published work under my belt before I start bothering people who are quite busy enough as it is?

—Charlotte (she/her)

Dear Charlotte,

It’s perfectly fine to consult an expert in this fashion as long as you behave in a professional fashion and offer to pay them a reasonable amount for their time and expertise. Whether that’s worth it to you if you don’t have a book deal in hand is up to you, but it’s unlikely to make a difference to the person you’re consulting, unless they’re deeply invested in having their name in the acknowledgements of a published book.

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#120: Separation Before Revision, Part Two

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m not the kind of writer who can start editing a draft as soon as I’m done with it. By the time I stumble over the finish line of a novel-length project, I need some time to emotionally detach from the story before I can think about how I want to change it.

This would be fine, except… by the time I feel ready to edit a story, I’m usually no longer interested in it, or I’ve come up with so many new ideas about how to change it that rewriting from page 1 feels easier than editing. Over the years, I’ve amassed a huge number of trunk novels I just don’t feel passionate about cleaning up.

I’ve just finished a new novella, and I really don’t want to hide it away in the dusty depths of my Google Drive. I know it needs changes before I can show it to beta readers, but I’m having a hard time making those changes fresh off writing THE END. How can I strike a balance between letting it marinate and shoving it out the door before it’s ready? What’s the line between a necessary break from a project and unhelpful procrastination on editing?

Thanks for all your great advice,

Trunk Novelist (she/her)

Dear Trunk Novelist,

Thanks for giving me the perfect companion question to the one I answered in #119: Separation Before Revision, Part One. In that post I talked about why that emotional separation from your draft is needed. You’ve got that part down pat. But the reunion can be just as challenging, and requires its own set of tools.

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