#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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#108: Writing Through Anxiety

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

Hi,

I used to want to be a writer very badly. It was my childhood dream and my direction in life, etc etc. I never wrote as much as I felt I should have for the ‘title’ of writer, but I wrote poetry, short stories and started terrible novels.

During my time at university, I gave a few stories to a guy I was hoping would become a mentor, or at least some kind of writing peer. He basically ignored them, and after seeing me on campus one time after that said he assumed we would never run into each other again.

My confidence was severely knocked by this, and I decided to basically just concentrate on poetry. I struggled a lot with worrying my poetry was hackneyed, ‘too American’ as one of the people in my uni’s poetry society would have said (she assumed that certain ways of writing poetry, like in more of a slam style, was always affected, as we are British and it’s not our tradition or something?), and just generally not as good as I would have liked. I quickly shelved that too. I’ve lost the majority of my writing from that period, so I have little to check to see if I still feel it’s all terrible.

I realise reading this back I have issues with negative criticism. I had received more positive (or neutral to be honest) feedback than bad about my work up until the points I stopped writing, I just discounted it. Usually my reader wasn’t a writer/editor, or I assumed they were being kind.

I’ve recently begun writing again, trying to do five hundred words a day in a low pressure, write-whatever-feels-good kind of way. I’m writing non-fiction pieces about my life, some article style, some more memoir, and it feels good to write again. The idea of writing a story or poem though makes me feel panicked and like I’m “not ready”, and that everything I write is going to be awful.

I know that writing the terrible words is the only way to get to the good ones intellectually. Translating that into action and pushing through the emotional discomfort is proving really difficult.

How can I get comfortable – or at least not doubled over in emotional pain – with writing creatively again? Is this something I should expect to be able to do again or is this just me discovering I should write non-fiction? And also, how do I stop being so hampered by negative criticism?

Thanks so much for reading this, I really appreciate this blog!

—Writing Again (they/them)

Dear Writing Again,

Your letter reminds me a lot of #106, Writing Through Depression, except that it sounds like what you’re dealing with is a pile of anxiety (perhaps in addition to depression). It’s both undermined your ability to gauge the quality of your own work and made it very difficult for you to accept quality judgments from others: any compliment is minimized and any critique is magnified. Even the absence of meaningful communication, as with the guy who gave your stories to who then blew you off, is interpreted in the worst possible way. And you already assume that any words you write are going to be “terrible” and “awful”.

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#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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