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!

#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.

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#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.

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#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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