#60: Starting Small

Dear Story Nurse,

I took a really long break from writing partially due to mental illness and chronic fatigue and partially because I was looking at it as something I *had* to do, and I’d forgotten why I actually love writing. So I’m trying to figure that out, and I’m only really writing fanfic right now because it’s easier for me, but I seem to have run into the same problem I run into with my original fiction.

I really want to write longer works, but as soon as I decide that’s something I want to do, I basically lose all interest on whatever I’ve been working on. I pretty much never finish anything that I want to be longer than 5,000 words. Occasionally, I’ll accidentally make something a little longer, but I get kind of antsy about that too, even things I’m initially really excited about writing. I’m not sure how to fix this.

—Briar (they/them)

Dear Briar,

I’m sorry you’re having a hard time coming back to writing after so long away. That’s something a lot of people struggle with (see my posts on returning to writing after a long hiatus and when creation feels like a chore), especially if you took the break on purpose and for good reasons. Having filed not-writing under mental health self-care for so long, it can be challenging to now believe that writing will be not only safe but actively beneficial.

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#57: Second-Guessing Revisions

Hi Story Nurse,

I’ve completed a full draft of my romance novel with a political/dramatic twist (yay!) and i’m staring on the first round of editing (boo!). It’s my understanding that a lot of editing is about cutting, and I don’t deny there are a lot of sentences that could be shorter and a lot of stuff that is not required to be there. Usually, the cutting feels pretty good – especially when I catch hanging threads I meant to do something with, and dropped.

However, I do have some anxiety with cutting some of the longer threads of the story. When I wrote the story and read it in the earlier processes, I really like them. On this edit pass, they don’t seem that great – kind of awkward and not flowing as well as I remembered. However, the next day, they seem wonderful, and the story is really lacking something without them!

Anyway, the summary of the question is: How do you tell what to cut? Is cutting more better than less, or should you cut less the first time around so and come back and trim again, when you’re more sure?

Now I’m thinking that I should leave it in for now, because it will be hard to put it back if I change my mind. (Unless you have some amazing editor software that allows themes to be matched like Photoshop layers.)

Thanks again,
Confused Editor (she/her)

Dear Confused Editor,

Congratulations on finishing your draft! I’m sorry revisions are stressing you out so much. I promise you and your manuscript will come through them just fine. Here are some straightforward suggestions to help you find your way out of your mental tangle. Continue reading

#44: Self-Promoter’s Block

Dear Story Nurse,

After years of producing first drafts and immediately hiding my work away, never to be seen again, I decided to step out of my comfort zone and put a piece of serial fiction up on my blog. I’m almost five months into the project and I’m slowly chipping away at my fear of editing my work and letting people read it.

My day job’s in marketing, and I love it. I volunteer to promote my friends’ work all the time. There’s just one problem: I’m awful at being my own hype woman. I know exactly what I should be doing to build an audience, but all too often, I find myself stuck in a shame spiral about how I’ll be imposing or annoying if I ever mention my own writing to anybody. I’ve got all these great ideas about how to get my work in front of people who might enjoy it, and then I just… never follow through.

I’ve never been good at seeking out attention. As a young woman, I was socialized to be humble and self-effacing. I know it’s ridiculous to spend so much time worrying about whether people will be annoyed when I offer them a free thing, but I don’t know how to turn that insecurity off! You’re totally awesome at putting your work out there without appearing to break a sweat. How do I achieve that level of badassery?

—World’s Tiniest Megaphone (she/her)

Dear World’s Tiniest Megaphone,

Thanks for your letter, which gave me a good laugh; I am in fact terrible at self-promotion! But, like you, it’s not because I don’t understand the mechanisms of it. It’s more like I have self-promoter’s block: as with writer’s block, what’s getting in the way is not practical but psychological.

I will preface my ideas for self-directed action with the gentle suggestion that you seek some assistance from a therapist or counselor, if you have access to one. It sounds like your insecurity is really doing a number on you, and a professional may be able to help with that.

Beyond that, here’s what’s worked for me and what I think will be of use to you:

  • Forgive yourself. Knowing what to do and being able to do it are different things. Give yourself permission to struggle with this.
  • Separate yourself from your work. No matter how widely your writing is read, no one can judge you simply by reading it, because you are not your work. You’re not promoting yourself; you’re promoting your work, which is a separate entity to be evaluated on its own merits.
  • Integrate some benefit to other people. The project of mine that I found easiest to promote was Long Hidden because it was a collaboration and a lot of people were depending on its success. Maybe you can ease your way into promoting your solo work by working on a shared project with a friend or three and participating in the promotion for it. Or promote your contribution to a charity anthology or your donation to a charity auction, or pledge to donate a portion of your profits—whatever helps you feel like you’re giving back. (There’s nothing morally wrong with promoting your solo work for your own profit, and that’s a useful goal to work towards, but this is a way to practice promotion while dodging some of that internal shame and scolding.)
  • Be your own client. Presumably you have a fairly formalized set of steps you go through with a new client: learn about the product, determine the audience for the promotion, discuss the budget, shape the campaign, and so on. Follow those same steps, explicitly, for your own work. The structure will help keep you on track.
  • Set concrete, achievable goals. The last time I did a big promotion push for Story Hospital, I had 42 Patreon patrons and set a goal of reaching 50. Having that goal really helped motivate me, and even motivated other people to help me by sharing the link around and talking about why they like the blog. And reaching the goal helps me feel more optimistic about setting a higher one.
  • Start small. You have lots of ideas! Pick just one to start with. Trying to do them all at once sounds daunting and overwhelming and will most likely lead to you doing nothing at all.
  • Borrow and imitate judiciously. If you’ve seen good promotion for a project similar to yours, use it as a starting point rather than starting from a blank page. Don’t plagiarize, obviously, but use it for a template or some inspiration. For example, when writing jacket copy for my novels in progress, I consciously borrowed the three-paragraph format that many publishers use for romance novel jacket copy (one paragraph about each of the protagonists’ individual challenges, one about their connection and conflict). You mention worrying that you’re going to annoy people, so ask yourself what kinds of promotion you personally find least annoying to be on the receiving end of, and use that to shape your efforts.
  • Practice in private. Just as you’ve written work for yourself and then hidden it away until you were ready to share it, you can write promotional copy for yourself and then hide it away until you’re ready to share it. Writing positive things about your work is one skill; sharing it with the world is another. It’s fine to build up those skills separately if you need to.
  • Reach out to a sympathetic audience. Once you’ve got some materials, show them to people who already love your work. They’ll help you take out all the self-deprecating parts. Then show it to people who don’t know your work but who know and like you and want to support your writing. Use their positive reactions to motivate yourself to move on and promote your work to people who don’t know you.
  • Do the easiest types of promotion first. If the thought of calling someone to pitch your work is terrifying, start by taking out an ad on a website or in a publication. If you’re most comfortable on social media, chat about your work on Twitter and Facebook before looking at other outlets. It may turn out that the easy promotion is all you need to reach your goals!
  • Build habits, batch work, and automate when appropriate. I paste my Patreon link at the bottom of each blog post without thinking about it. WordPress automatically tweets every post when it goes live. I printed up a big batch of promotional postcards so it’s easy to bring them along to events or tuck them into packages I’m mailing to people. Setting these things up took very little effort, and perpetuating them takes even less. Quick and easy little actions like that don’t generally trigger my anxieties about talking my work up. (But don’t overdo it, especially on social media platforms. Automatically tweeting your buy link once an hour will just irritate people.)
  • Be patient with yourself. You’re pushing yourself really hard on multiple fronts. It sounds like that’s very fulfilling for you, but it can be tiring too. Don’t forget to take breaks from time to time, and be understanding and patient if some parts of the process are harder or slower going than you’d like.

Finally, remember that you can hire someone to do PR for you, just like other people hire you to do PR for them! Self-promotion is useful, but not everyone can do it, and that’s completely fine. So if this just doesn’t work out for you, bring someone else in and liberate yourself by delegating.

Happy promoting!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#42: Writing with a Playful Heart

This week’s column is a little different. The question I want to address is one that author Isabel Yap posted on Twitter. The thread starts here. (And it has lots of great replies, so you should go read it.)

I want to talk a little bit about regaining a playful heart when it comes to writing. I know I need this but I’m not sure how.

It’s on my mind because one of my first pro-published stories got retweeted today. It came out on Tor.com in 2013. It’s probably the story I’m still best known for. I love that story and I’m proud of it and I’m still not over Victo Ngai’s art for it. But after that story came out, or maybe even from the time it was accepted, in addition to exhilaration, I started to feel…pressure.

Pressure to write a good story. Pressure to write a story I can sell. Pressure to write something people will want to retweet. Pressure to try and land work in a good market. Pressure to maybe, juuuuust maybe, write something worthy of award nominations. Pressure to do better than the old me. Pressure to be consistent. Pressure to have a social media presence. Pressure to be someone.

When I wrote that story, I had barely any conception of markets or the sff short fiction/fandom world at large. I was at Clarion and I had this somewhat snicker-y thought of ‘I want to write a story about onsen and maybe a sexy kappa. Hehe.’ I obviously wanted to write a good story. I had some things I wanted to say about grief, and aging, and love in weird forms. But that’s all I really wanted. I wanted to write a beautiful story. I wanted my classmates and teachers to like it. That would be enough.

Some part of me was probably thinking it would be nice to publish it, but that wasn’t my concern. How could it be? I hadn’t even written it yet. So writing it, and failing at the writing of it, was still hard, but it was fun. I fumbled and I tossed around ideas and the sentences started to click. It was playing with a story. It was great.

I’m not sure I remember how to be that way. I’m not sure how to get back there. It’s hard for me to play with writing; the me who writes now feels like I need to be thinking ahead. It’s still fun. I still love it. But the burden is real, sometimes prohibitive.

How do people get out of this? How do people get back to that state of just playing? Is it possible to regain it/trick yourself into it?

My eyes lit up when I saw this because it is so important to be able to play with one’s creative work. And the more your livelihood or identity depends on creative production, the harder that gets.

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#37: When Depression Stops You from Writing

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

Content note: this letter and the response talk in some detail about depression and strong self-critical thoughts.

Dear Story Nurse:

Over the course of many years, in fits and starts, I wrote a novel (actually two but the first was pretty bad!), got an agent, and got myself published last year. The reviews were positive, even the meanies at Kirkus, although I did not get any of those starred reviews that publishing houses seem to live and die by. But nobody was mean to me or anything. The sales were low, but those who did read it seemed to enjoy what I wrote. Some hated it, of course, but others really loved it and even took the time to let me know. The publisher declined the option on my next, but I have a wonderful agent who continues to support me wholeheartedly.

So. In that paragraph I can count roughly a half dozen events that many struggling writers would kill to have happen to them. There are, as Captain Sensible would say, many reasons to be cheerful. And yet I’m not. I feel like a failure.

I never deluded myself about bestsellers or Oprah’s book club or whathaveyou. I actually work in a different type of publishing for my day job, so I have a pretty realistic understanding of how difficult the business is. I had no illusions (or even desire, really) about supporting myself through fiction. And yet there’s this tremendous sense of disappointment and I don’t even know why. I mean, what did I expect? I expected what happened, more or less. And yet I feel like a fuck-up in some way I can’t even explain.

The real problem is that this depression (I guess that’s what it is?) is standing in the way of my ability to finish the next thing. I have two new books started. I have an agent who would love to have something else to sell. And yet I hate everything I write these days and find myself wondering about the point of it all.

What’s more, I’m totally embarrassed by the whole situation. I know that good books get ignored all the time. I know I have many more reasons to be grateful and proud than I do reasons to be unhappy. But knowing it doesn’t seem to help. I can’t seem to Stewart Smalley my way out of this one.

My question is, how do I stop being such a baby and get back to work?

—Captain Insensible (she/her)

Dear Captain Insensible,

I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time right now. I’m very glad you wrote in, because it means that you want to feel better, and wanting to feel better is a crucial first step toward getting better.

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#29: When Creation Feels like a Chore

This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

Some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my life has been when revising and editing my own stories. Unfortunately, I need to produce some kind of draft before I can start polishing, and that has started to feel near impossible to me.

I’m trying to resume writing after several years hiatus due to a tumultuous life event and emotional fallout that left me with no energy to spare for creative pursuits. Now that my mental wellbeing has improved and day to day life has become much less stressful, I’d like to do something nice for myself and have fun writing again. I’ve set aside some hours at my preferred time just for that, and my partner is being wonderfully encouraging.

However, I find myself treating what’s supposed to be an opportunity for creative play as if it’s a chore I’m trying to put off long enough to forget about entirely. I feel like I have no clue what comes next, struggle to commit to what thin threads I have, and both my freewriting and outlining attempts too often turn into long agonizing sessions of tensing my imagination into immobility as I attempt to Make A Really Cool Idea Happen Right Now.

Previously, I mostly wrote romantic vignettes and notes for potential storyworlds without much for plot. I’m trying to resume writing similar short scenes as well as outlining a romantic fantasy novel very loosely based on some earlier work, though plot remains as elusive as before. I’ve considered trying to write nonfiction or a different type of fiction to attempt to get unstuck and perhaps find “what I’m really meant to be writing”, but I still end up unhappily mired early into the “what shall this specifically be about” stage and just end up feeling more directionless than ever. I’ve also spent some time trying to do stream of consciousness warm-up writing, but that has yet to help me produce anything beyond a lot of lines about “I don’t know what to write.”

Any advice for getting through the initial decision and drafting stages for those of us who feel like the fun comes after?

—Stuck at the Start

Dear Stuck at the Start,

I get the sense that you’re trying to make up for lost time by doing years’ worth of writing all at once. You’re trying to write beginnings with your head full of middles and endings and plots and “is this idea good enough” and pressure pressure pressure. You also mention that you love editing and revising, which explains why you’re critiquing your drafts before they even exist. Your brain is desperately trying to escape the pressure by retreating to the part of wordcraft that feels enjoyable and happy and safe. Alas, that part can’t happen until you have a draft, and so the pressure to create a draft increases. It’s a vicious cycle. You need to get out.

Continue reading

#27: Ethics in Fiction Writing

This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

Let’s say I made a boo-boo in one of my previous stories, and I handled a sensitive subject a bit badly. Not super badly, but I relied on overused tropes because I didn’t realize how overused (and damaging) they were. Now I know better, and I’m planning to write a sequel to the story where I messed up. Is there anything special I should do in the sequel to sort of “make up” for the mistake and build that trust back with my readership? Or should I just focus on not making it again?

Sincerely,

Really Very Sorry

Dear Really Very Sorry,

This is a very kind question. I’m glad you understood where critiques were coming from, took them to heart, and have been working on doing better. Those are the essential things you need to be doing, and to keep doing.

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#21: Stopping and Starting

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently living at my parents’ house and working part-time. I’ve been trying to work on my fantasy novel more since I have more free time, but I keep hitting a wall. The first time I tried to write it, it was a disaster. I had no plan, nothing about it was pleasurable. I started again, it went better this time, but eventually it stopped working. Instead of pressing on, I started over again. I started at the point I was most excited about, instead of trying to do back story or following a formula.

I wonder if this stop and restart habit came from my Creative Writing degree. I revised many short stories, so starting over might have become habit.

Now, you’ve probably guessed what I’m going to ask next. How do I stop myself from stopping and starting over again? My novel is never going to get finished if I keep doing this! I want to have this first draft finished by the end of the year.

Thank you for your help,
Third Time’s Hopefully the Charm (she/her)

Dear Third Time,

Novels are definitely a different animal from short stories, and it’s hard to make the jump. It sounds like you’re accustomed to writing short fiction off the top of your head and then revising as needed, but that approach isn’t working for your longer project. And when you’re doing something different from what you’ve done before, nothing gets in your way more than a creative writing degree and a lot of practice doing other kinds of writing, both of which fill your head with all sorts of ideas about what writing should be like—how you should experience the act of writing, what sort of work you should be producing, how long it should take you, and so on.

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NaNoWriMo: Reassuring Your Inner Critic

Dear friends,

It’s hard to believe November’s almost over, and NaNoWriMo with it. By now you’ve ideally got somewhere around 40,000 words under your belt. Take a moment to feel really good about whatever you’ve accomplished writing-wise so far this month. Those words exist because you brought them into existence. That’s amazing! Congratulations.

NaNo is specifically and deliberately about quantity over quality, but as the quantity stacks up, it’s hard not to look back at it and start to fret about the quality. If you’re feeling the urge to go back and fix (or despair over) what you’ve written already, and if it’s getting in the way of powering on toward your goal and your deadline, this post is for you.

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#18: Writing Erotica from the Margins

Dear Story Nurse,

I have this problem, and I can already hear the punchline: “Dear Story Nurse, it hurts when I do this.” “Don’t do that, then.”

I want to write salable Kindle porn. Write something I think a largish category of people will get off on, in a similar structure and length and style to what’s selling currently in that category, format it correctly, pay a designer a fair amount for an appealing and professional-looking cover, put it up, lather, rinse, repeat. I know people who do this. It works for them, and I think that’s great.

I’m disabled and on a limited income, and this seems to be the most promising way to increase my income without doing things that are harmful to me or unethical. I know I can write to order, and write things other people will enjoy—I’ve done that for fanfic exchanges. But whenever I sit down to work on one of these projects, something in me balks.

It’s not that I have an ethical problem with writing what will sell, or with helping to get other people off. I think it’s an entirely fair way to make a living, and more useful to the planet than a lot of other ways. No, what’s bothering me is resentment. There’s no Kindle category for people like me. I’m too niche for that, in too many ways.

And when I set to work on one of these projects, the thoughts start up: they wouldn’t want to help you get off, why should you help them? They probably don’t even think your kink/(a?)sexuality/gender/body type/neurotype is valid! They don’t think you matter. Or, more plausibly: you’re contributing to your own erasure. Why aren’t you using your writing time and skill to help your own communities? (Of course, when I work on a project that is more geared to people like me, a different set of thoughts starts up.)

I don’t know if I need a strategy to deal with the discouraging thoughts, or advice on juggling multiple writing projects at one time while maintaining enough focus to complete any of them, or a kick in the pants about my trite, unoriginal saleability versus creative integrity dilemma. I have a therapist, but “How do I get over myself and write the sex scenes?” isn’t something I can see myself asking her.

Help? Thank you for reading,

A Martian

Dear Martian,

I’m sorry you’re having so much trouble with this. It sounds like you’re caught in a real emotional struggle. You’re right that the easy answer is “Don’t write porn,” but it’s not clear to me that avoiding sex scenes, specifically, would actually resolve anything for you. If you wrote about abled people riding horses, I think you’d feel just as resentful. If you wrote about disabled people riding horses, I think you’d feel just as pigeonholed. Your complicated feelings about dis/ability and marginalization will exist regardless of whether you embark upon this particular career.

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