Content note: This letter and the response mention suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
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.
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.
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.
Dear Story Nurse,
I don’t know if this is too much of a generalized craft question—I am currently working on a short story of about 10k words, but I have problems with this in general.
I use too many semicolons.
I use them correctly, and I am very good at them, but they show up in too many of my sentences and it’s frustrating from a rhythmic perspective. I want to make sure the two clauses are part of the same sentence because the staccato of a period doesn’t seem right and changes the way the story feels when it’s read aloud, but the repetition of the structure gets boring to read.Here are some from the last story I wrote:
- She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
- The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.
- The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.
Do you have suggestions for other basic sentence structures that work well and can be used as stand-in for the typical two-independent-but-related-clauses-joined-by-a-semicolon construction that aren’t just to replace the semicolon with a period?
Thank you so much! (I say as I realize I have written this entire inquiry without a semicolon in sight.)
—Independent Clause (use whichever pronouns you feel like today)
Dear Independent Clause,
This is a wonderful craft question. As you’ve guessed, since you’re asking for other sentence structures, the punctuation mark itself isn’t the issue. I love semicolons; they’re great. The issue is what you’re doing with language and content that leads to the use of so many of them.
Dear Story Nurse,
In post #2, “Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself”, you said:
“I’m working on two novels at once right now; one involves putting characters I’m very invested in through some difficult experiences with strong echoes in my own life, and the other is much more of a technical exercise.”
I’d like to know more about the latter one. What is it like? How is it a technical exercise? I would be interested in trying this approach myself, so any details would be much appreciated. Thank you very much!
Thanks for asking about this; working on a practice project alongside a passion project is something I’ve alluded to in a few posts, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to go into more detail.
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.
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.
Dear Story Nurse,
I’m not sure if it’s beyond your remit but I long for help on the subject of fear of writing. You see, I’d love to write again. I’ve written a couple of books and had them published within the lesfic genre but then I lost confidence. There was a mixture of external feedback, mainly positive, some less so, but nothing as damning as my own machinations.
I think about how much I want to write and try to progress a career in this area but my inner voice shouts me down. The arguments involve how many other people want the same thing, how I lack the talent and how even my best efforts so far have disappointed me. In the face of massive competition, I feel like I would always be a poor wannabe.
I’ve stopped writing because I can’t bear to have something that means so much to me thrown under the train of self-criticism traveling with this much momentum. Now I find myself unsure of my path. Part of me is tempted to stop now while there is still the hope that I could be good enough rather than persist and prove beyond all doubt that I am not. Still, to give up on a dream I have nurtured since childhood feels wrong at the most fundamental level.
Am I alone in feeling this way? Should I just take the hint and retire quietly into obscurity? Is there any way I can reclaim the pleasure of writing for myself without this contamination of self-recrimination?
Whether you answer or not, thank you for reading and for your website.
—Self-Critically Stumped (she/her)
Dear Self-Critically Stumped,
That crash-and-tinkle sound just now was my heart breaking. I’m so sorry you’re having such a hard time. Self-criticism is incredibly painful, because we know where all our own weak spots are. But by that same logic, we can also be our own best allies, cheerleaders, and friends.
Dear Story Nurse,
So, I have no problem writing anything that can be done in one sitting (once I’ve chased the brain weasels off and started typing, that is). I can do some good work in micro and flash fiction and I’m trying to stretch things out. You said some really good things earlier about tying pieces together with plot threads and those were really helpful, but I have a somewhat different problem: If I have to stop, I find it really hard to pick the thing back up again. (My writing time is necessarily fragmented, with job/commute/parenting. I write when I can.)
It seems that I don’t know how to pick up the mood/action of the story and carry those words further out. Note that this only seems to happen with fiction writing: class assignments were easy to pick back up, and most essays are easy to pick the thread back up and carry on with my work.
I have a good idea for a story, I can make decent headway, but once I stop, I’m doomed. How do I restart the engine?
Please Story Nurse, you’re my only hope!
Thanks for bringing up this problem, which I think is a pretty common one. It can have a few different causes, but the one I see most often is a sort of writerly centipede’s dilemma. Something about the process of sitting down to add more words to a half-written work makes you very aware that you are writing, and then you get self-conscious and either feel blocked from writing at all or dislike everything you try to write.
Hey Story Nurse,
I’ve been dabbling in writing since I was 14, and now that I graduated university I decided that it was Time To Get Down To Business. The problem is, whenever I sit down to write anything, I always feel terrible about it once it hits 10k. It’s not that I lack confidence in my writing skills (I studied English lit), but it’s more that I worry that no one in the world would ever want to read my story. Who cares about a novella with two girls trapped on a lonely planet?! How can I get rid of that self doubt? Because I know I want to read that story, and I know that there is such a big market for stories casually featuring queer girls, but I just can’t seem to make the cognitive leap from “people like stories about queer girls in space” to “people will like MY story about queer girls in space”.
I’m going to a retreat for 5 days next week, and I really want to work on this story, but I just feel like I need to find some CONFIDENCE!
Thank you so much for your time,
Space Lesbian (she/her)
Dear Space Lesbian,
I’m sorry I didn’t get to respond in time for your retreat, and I hope it was very helpful to you one way or another. Sometimes sitting alone in a room with your work and no other distractions is the best way to figure out what’s really keeping you from writing.
In this letter, you talk about yourself and your work as though they’re one and the same. One moment you say you don’t think anyone will want to read your work, and the next you say you doubt yourself. Your identification with your work is something I see a lot of in students and recent graduates, because school is a place where you as a person are judged by the quality of your work in a way that’s pretty psychologically terrible. We say that a person is a “straight-A student” when what we mean is that that person’s work is consistently evaluated very highly by their teachers. The person, as a person, does not directly get graded. But that’s how it feels—that the grade for your work is the grade for you.