#94: Unfinished Story Choice Paralysis

Hello! I mostly write realistic/literary type fiction, with some excursions into horror. I have five or six unfinished projects languishing in Google Docs right now, ranging from short stories to novels.

My problem is that every time I sit down to write, I feel paralyzed by all of these options. I can’t decide which project I want to work on. Instead I get distracted by thinking about my aspirations for each story (submit to journals, self publish, whatever) and/or I just sit there with a general sense of panic that I will never get any of this done. Each of my stories has its own mood, so I’ve tried to pick one based on the mood I’m in, but lately my only consistent mood has been “Dammit I need to write something!”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to pick one story to focus on when there are so many begging for attention. Thanks for taking the time to read this!

—Emma (they/them)

Dear Emma,

What you have is something called choice paralysis, a well-known psychological phenomenon. It happens a lot to people in grocery stores: faced with seven thousand varieties of ketchup or toilet paper, we feel totally overwhelmed. We know we’re supposed to weigh all the alternatives and pick the one that best meets our needs, but sometimes it’s just too much, and we go with a familiar brand because it’s familiar, choose at random, or flee the store.

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#89: Countering a Cruel Inner Critic

Dear Story Nurse,

My internal critic is particularly nasty: I usually can’t even get started with writing a draft before I’ve convinced myself that the entire premise is bad and I give up on it altogether.

My inner critic’s attacks on my work rarely take the form of “this is awful/nobody would ever want to read this,” instead they take the form of “this is hurtful/exploitative and you’re a bad person for even coming up with this idea in the first place.”

Another intrusive thought I get a lot is “by writing anything at all you’re taking space away from people whose stories deserve to be told more than yours, because they’re more marginalized than you are.”

This prevents me even from writing stories that are mostly autobiographical, because I know that there are people who’ve had it harder than me that I’m hurting by writing this.

I guess my question is, how do I push past this particular type of internal criticism and actually get a draft written?

—Anxious (xie/xer)

Dear Anxious,

I’m really glad you found a way around your inner critic to write to me. That tells me how important writing is to you, and also tells me that you are able to do things for your own benefit and for the benefit of your writing. That’s essential; when all else fails, come back to that core knowledge that you value yourself more than you value the critic’s opinions.

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GYWO: How to Write When You Don’t Wanna

GYWO is Get Your Words Out, a wonderful writing accountability community. I joined this year and I’m really enjoying it. I wrote this post for the GYWO community, and the moderators have kindly allowed me to mirror it on Story Hospital.

I have a cold. When I have a cold, I feel extremely sorry for myself. I am the worst, whiniest patient; I just want to sit in bed, play phone games, and have everything done for me. This is not conducive to writing. But I said I would make a post for GYWO today, so here I am. And the topic couldn’t be more apropos!

So there you are, a writer with writing to do, but… you don’t want to.

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#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.

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#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.

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#79: Ethical Worldbuilding from Real Places

Dear Story Nurse,

I have an idea for a novel I’m really excited about, but I’ve got overwhelmed by some of the world/character building.

The basic idea is a take-off on a Swords and Sorcery fantasy where, because of the availability of magic, technological development has stalled, and society has become a magocracy. The story then follows a group of inventors who create and spread non-magical technology. The things they actually invent are based on real history of science, but I’ve selected things by a combination of what makes sense with my world building and things I think are cool. It’s going to end up a very anachronistic mix, but it’s also a fairly self-indulgent fantasy story, not historical fiction, so I’m not worried about that. Just in case it’s relevant, currently the plan is that most of the story would take place in a big diverse port city where people are coming and going from around the world, but it’s early days and that may change.

Even though it’s strictly secondary world fantasy the bits of real history of science come from specific places which I would like to carry over into my characters and world building and I’m stuck on how to do that.

So that I have a concrete example, one of the things I know I want to include is the invention of the printing press, which is originally Chinese in real life. The bit I’m having trouble with is coding my printing press inventor from China-inspired-fantasy-land as Chinese in a way that gets the point across without being appropriative. I’m really struggling to figure out what sort of details are good for world-building, vs what is not, how much I can trust my readers to pick up, and generally (especially given there’s a lot of anachronism in my world already) identifying the boundary between diverse world-building and smearing bits of other people’s cultures around willy-nilly.

My printer is one of my better developed characters (I’m still fairly early in the planning stages of this), but I’m seeking general advice for all my non-European characters. Please help me escape the ‘everyone’s from Britain but with the names changed’ fantasy trap.

—Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

That sounds like a very cool project. I understand your concerns about appropriation, especially when you’re working with multiple cultures and doing what amounts to a cultural mash-up. Fortunately, people of color and others with relevant experience have created some great resources on cultural appropriation and cultural sensitivity in writing, and I’m glad to bring some of them together for you.

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#74: A Sympathetic Character Who Resembles a Real-World Villain

Dear Story Nurse,

I know this probably looks like a troll letter, but I swear it’s a real problem I’ve got with one of my characters! Even I had trouble believing it at first. Long story short, I spent ten years working on a manuscript and just now accidentally realized that one of my secondary protagonists sounds a lot like Hitler.

This fellow is an elected monarch who is doing a terrible job of running his kingdom. He’s cut off his citizens from having very much direct contact with him, and he has an art hobby that has taken precedence over his actual duties. Amazingly, over several decades, he barely improves. It’s not the kind of art hobby that can be quickly changed to something else, either.

He was once a refugee from an aggressor continent that frowned upon the arts in general, and his poor artistic abilities directly trigger the driving conflict of the story. I know, this sounds like a neutral character at best, but the main protagonist ropes him into their quest in the third act, when his kingdom’s been taken over and he’s in hiding, because they’re the only person in the kingdom who genuinely likes looking at his art. He’s practically the visual artistic equivalent of Florence Foster Jenkins here. Eventually, the exile, coming clean about his part in accidentally creating the antagonist, and reconciling with some friends he’d abandoned over the years convince him that the townspeople don’t all hate him as much as he thinks they do, and he’s still redeemable as both a monarch and an artist. It doesn’t happen as neatly and easily as it seems to for the purpose of this letter.

I seriously considered turning him into a woman, because that’s solved a lot of quandaries in the past for me, but that would affect another plot point involving (independently of each other) a plot-relevant shirtless scene and a small handful of one-sided romances. I’d really like to keep this as PG as possible, so topless lady NotHitler is out for now. I figured the best way to attack this problem from here was to research Hitler and Nazi Germany and make sure this guy isn’t doing anything else that runs suspect. My browsing history has probably reached full-on “IT’S FOR A BOOK I SWEAR!” saturation.

NotHitler never commits a genocide or any unprovoked acts of aggression towards other world powers or groups of people. If I make him even more of an introvert and significantly more often taking a defensive stance than an offensive one, would that be enough, or would I have to seriously uproot a good chunk of this story’s foundation to make it work? I may not be a troll, but I know a lot of trolls would probably be quick to jump the gun if they see anything even remotely Hitlery. The last thing I’d want in my life is a bunch of readers accusing me of being a Nazi sympathizer because I redeemed a character that reminded them of Hitler.

If you’ve made it this far, I cannot thank you enough for staying with me. I can barely believe this is a real problem I’ve run into. But hey, better to go down as the guy who realized he accidentally wrote Hitler before publication than the guy who had to be told he accidentally wrote Hitler by the readers, right?

—Not a Nazi (he/him)

Dear Not a Nazi,

You are vastly, vastly overthinking this. Leave the character as he is and don’t worry about it. If you really want to be careful, run it past a targeted beta reader who’s an expert on WWII, or show the character enjoying a steak dinner and talking about how much he hates facial hair. But nothing in your description makes me think “whoa, totally Hitler!”, even with the context that you think this character is Hitleresque. I think you’re safe.

This excessive concern over a minor matter sounds like the product of an anxious aversion to declaring the book finished. If you’ve spent ten years on your manuscript and you’re starting to fuss over non-problems, I recommend submitting or self-publishing it as quickly as possible so you can move on. When you’ve worked on one project for that long, it can be hard to imagine your life without it, but both you and the book need some closure. Empty your browser cache with a clean conscience and keep moving toward The End. You’ll be glad you did.

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!

#73: Counteracting Envy of Other People’s Success

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m an unpublished novelist with a number of first drafts and one that is much closer to the endpoint of the process (like, a couple of revisions from done). I’ve been writing for a long time and feel that I’m getting to the stage where I might even be able to get published, but after years of writing privately without any kind of reassurance that my work is worthwhile, I’m really struggling to keep my anxieties from drowning me.

The thing I’m struggling with right now is professional jealousy of my friends—a couple of them have contracts and while I’m pretty good at stopping it from affecting my face-to-face friendship with them, I’ve had to mute their Facebook feeds and I am plagued by feelings that I have failed where they have succeeded. I acknowledge that this is definitely amplified by other life circumstances—SAD and work stress are adding to it—but unfortunately when I’m already having mental health problems, these thought processes are spiralling more and more.

The usual advice I’ve read is that my success isn’t impacted by that of my friends and they’re doing something completely different to me, so it shouldn’t affect me—to just put these thoughts aside and get on with the work. But creative work requires passion and a degree of blind faith that what I’m doing has value, and while I can dismiss these thoughts ten times a day, the eleventh time will still grind me down and cause me to obsess over my failure. That in turn affects my confidence in pushing on with my work.

The parts of writing that have always been hardest for me are consistency of enthusiasm and self-belief, and both of these are taking a fairly hefty hit from these upsetting thoughts right now. On top of that, much as I don’t want my relationship with my friends to suffer, any successes of theirs, even ones that are only tenuously related but indicate that they’re respected as professionals in their field, are causing me to feel resentful and leave the conversation. Since I care about them and want to be supportive, this is proving really tough. I never want to make them feel bad for their success (which is why I don’t want to talk to them about it), but when hearing about it messes with my brain, it’s difficult to maintain those friendships. I feel like I’m so close to success but just falling short, and yet they’re light years ahead.

Your previous posts have been really helpful in understanding why I feel the way I do about my work in the past, so I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this.

—Hopeful (she/her)

Dear Hopeful,

Jealousy is a beast, isn’t it? It’s one of the hardest emotions to handle, along with guilt and grief. And it sounds like you’re maybe feeling some of those things too: grief over the career you don’t have, guilt over your perceived failings.

The idea that you shouldn’t be affected by your friends’ successes is absolute nonsense. If you were thrilled for them and cheering them on, no one would tell you, “Whoa, slow down there—you shouldn’t be so happy! Their success has nothing to do with you!” We all understand that having feelings about what’s happening in our friends’ lives is perfectly normal. But when those feelings aren’t positive, they become less socially acceptable, and then you have another guilt burden laid atop the rest of the things you’re feeling. So let me relieve you of that burden: there’s nothing morally wrong with being envious of people who have things you want, and you’re not a bad person for feeling that way.

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#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: 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:

  • Every manuscript is a unique work of art. We set up competitions and awards and lists of the year’s best books and all those things, but fundamentally, books can’t be compared to one another, because art is itself. Focus on your book, on your craft.
  • NaNo is between you and you. Other people happen to be doing their own self-directed NaNos at the same time. This is coincidence. You have chosen your goal—the 50,000-word standard goal, or another—and your progress toward that goal is yours.
  • Don’t let the similarity of goals trick you into thinking that everyone who does a 50k NaNo is the same. Everyone brings different things to their NaNo. Some people prep beforehand; some go in cold. Some people have day jobs and family commitments and chronic illnesses; some are free of drags on their energy and time. Some people have a dozen books under their belts; some are just starting out. If this were a competition—and it’s not—the playing field would not be remotely level.
  • It is totally okay to step away from places where other people are discussing their progress toward their goals if being in those places makes you feel bad or makes it hard for you to keep working toward your own goal.
  • If you want a writing career, this is great preparation for the career-writer world, in which someone else is always getting an award or landing a deal or hitting a bestseller list or turning out sixty books a year or being reviewed somewhere major or being a keynote speaker or otherwise doing or getting a thing that you wish you were doing or getting. So just as writing your NaNo “book” helps you learn how to write professionally, having feelings about other people’s NaNo progress helps you anticipate the experience of being a professional writer. How will you face that challenge, now and in the future? How will you get around it or past it, or ignore it or argue with it, or do whatever you need to do to keep writing?
  • Keep writing.

That’s all pretty standard anti-insecurity stuff and you may have already tried it and found it’s not enough. So instead of staying with the concept of competition—because arguing with it still buys into it to some extent—let’s talk about collaboration.

In the fanfic writing community I’m part of, sometimes we talk about stories as being like cake. Someone will come into chat and say “I had a story idea but I see someone already wrote it” or “I feel like the audience for this is so tiny” and the rest of us will chorus “MORE CAKE.” Because even if someone else baked a delicious cake, there is no such thing as too much delicious cake! And even if very few people appreciate the unique flavor combinations you come up with, those who do will be so thrilled to find something tailor-made just for their tastes.

I especially love this metaphor because it focuses on the glee not just of making but of sharing, and the delight of the reader getting to savor the story. It is the antithesis of counting and comparing. Who cares how much cake you’re making, or what kind of cake it is, or how much cake anyone else has made? Your cake is MORE CAKE and more is better. Every word you put down is worth celebrating, because any word anyone puts down is worth celebrating. And it keeps you focused on your goal by reminding you of what comes after—no one else can enjoy your cake until you finish baking it.

If you think of NaNo projects this way, suddenly NaNo becomes collaborative rather than competitive. Everyone is going to make so many words until November is full to the brim with them! And no matter how many or how few words you’re writing, no matter how quickly or slowly you’re progressing, you’re doing your part.

What you’re making is going to be incredible. Other people are making incredible things too. How beautiful, how joyous! What an amazing thing to be a part of. Let that amazingness excite and encourage you, all thoughts of competition forgotten. Every word is one more word than there was before. Every word is a win.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

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!