#69: Getting Unstuck from “Should”

Hi Story Nurse!

I’ve found your advice on getting back into writing after a long break really helpful, thanks! At this point I’m having what feels like a related problem. Earlier this year, I got back into a more regular writing habit after many years of not writing, or only writing very rarely and with extreme difficulty. I write mostly fanfiction, though recently I’ve come up with a couple ideas for original short stories that I’m excited to tackle. I still feel out of practice and kind of clunky, which is frustrating – but I want to stick with it and build my writing muscles to the point where the hard stuff is easier, and the fun parts are even more fun. Before that long hiatus, I had a real sense that I was getting better at getting stories out of my head and onto the page, and I want to get there again.

At first, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to come up with enough ideas to keep writing consistently, but actually I’m having the opposite problem. It seems like as soon as I start writing one story, I’ll come up with an idea that feels even more important to get on the page as soon as possible, so I’ll put the first project aside and start working on the bright shiny new one. I’ll mean to get back to the first one, but a lot of the time the same thing happens again, and I’ll end up abandoning the first project.

I think a lot of this comes from wanting to avoid what’s harder for me right now – I love mapping out the bones of a story on notebook paper and planning how all the pieces might fit together, while finishing a first draft and revising feels like hard and confusing work. So it makes sense that the new thing would be that much more tempting to me! But I don’t just want practice at starting stories, I want to get better at the whole process. And the whole reason I love writing fanfic is the sense of collaboration – reading other people’s interpretations of the characters, worlds, etc, and sharing my own. But that isn’t really happening if all of my own are sitting half-written on my hard drive.

When I have a deadline (two of my three finished stories this year have been for fic exchanges) I can finish a story, but because I’m worried about the time pressure, I end up writing stories I know I can finish, not ones I’m very excited about or interested in. The answer seems to be stop doing exchanges for a while, but I’m afraid then I wouldn’t finish anything. Due to the finite nature of time, it’s not going to be possible to write every single idea I come up with, so it’s fine if some are abandoned – but how do I prioritize so that some of them do get finished?

What makes it worse is that in the background, I’m constantly afraid that I’ll abandon my current project and never start writing again (or at least have to re-learn a ton of stuff whenever I do start again). And it’s much easier to abandon a project when it gets boring, so it seems even more important to chase those super interesting new ones. But that’s no way to finish anything! I feel stuck in this pattern – any ideas for how to get unstuck?


—Unfinished Business (they/them)

Dear Unfinished Business,

It sounds like what you’re stuck in is a whole lot of pairs of competing urges and influences:

  • Wanting to push yourself to learn and get stronger but not wanting to do difficult things.
  • Wanting to finish anything at all but feeling that the things you do finish don’t count.
  • Understanding that not every story can be finished but trying to develop every new story idea.
  • Dropping projects when they get boring but dodging the challenges that keep projects exciting.

You need to have a good hard think about your priorities along each of these axes. Think about what you get out of them, what makes them appeal to you in the short and long terms. Also think about, for a lack of a better term, your values—the type of writer you want to be. Which choices are in line with those values? Which paths take you closer to your own personal definition of satisfaction and success?

A lot of this looks to me like conflicts between your inner desires and what you think you should be doing. For example, there’s a very strong cultural idea that you should finish things, and want to finish them. But it’s perfectly okay to write for other reasons besides generating a finished product. Rose Lemberg just wrote a magnificent piece about writing as stimming, and the shame that can accompany not finishing things even if you only want to write for the pleasure of writing. It’s perfectly okay to only do the parts of writing you find fun and easy and exciting; that’s called having a hobby. It’s also perfectly okay to make practical decisions on deadline, like finishing the story you know you can finish rather than the story that excites you; letting that pressure push you in directions you wouldn’t otherwise go in is an excellent way to build your skills. (I definitely don’t know how you got the idea that you should stop doing the only kind of writing that you finish, when finishing stories is what you want to do. You are doing the thing you want to do! Keep doing it! Everything you learn from doing it is absolutely applicable to your original fiction.) It’s perfectly okay to write playfully sometimes and push yourself hard at other times. Every single approach to writing is perfectly okay, as long as it’s in line with the kind of writer you want to be.

So if “should” is keeping you stuck, give yourself permission to let go of it. Let every choice be equally acceptable in the broader sense. If there were an easy decision to be made you would have made it already, so clearly there’s something to genuinely recommend each of these options. Now is also a good time to accept yourself for who you are right now, how you’re inclined to write, and where you are in the never-ending learning process.

Then figure out your values and commit to pursuing them. Whenever you feel stuck, use that commitment and those values as levers to unstick yourself. It may help to write up a series of statements beginning “I want to be a writer who…” and post them prominently in your writing space, always keeping in mind that you can add, change, and remove list items as you learn more about yourself and how you write.

(This technique is cribbed from a psychology approach called acceptance and commitment therapy, which is used to help people find healthy ways to interact with personal experiences that they fear or avoid. I’ve found it extremely useful for getting past inner roadblocks to writing and building better writing habits.)

Finally, a note on boredom. You know that you want to stop doing things when you get bored of doing them, so use that! Indulge your bad habits until you get bored of them and decide to try something else. Flit from idea to idea until you’re so tired of that that you actively want to commit to one and see it through, just for a change of pace. Whenever something challenges you, remind yourself that being challenged is better than being bored.

No one is born with the perfect writing mentality (because there’s no such thing). We all have to figure out our own combinations of carrots and sticks. Keep trying different ways to get yourself to do the things that are short-term difficult but long-term educational, or that feel embarrassing or unproductive but also deeply enjoyable and satisfying, or that make you anxious but also get you closer to your goals. If you sometimes need to give yourself a little kick in the pants or play the occasional mind game on yourself in order to get where you want to go, there’s no shame in that. We all do it. As you build your unique set of writing tools and habits, you’ll find that all these things get easier.

If you decide that a finisher of stories is who you want to be, then I have no doubt that you will finish many and many more stories. And if you decide that right now you just want to write for fun, then I have no doubt that you will have loads of fun. All these possible paths lead to the same place: the concretization of your writing dreams and goals, the maturity of your writing skills, the satisfaction that comes from finding ways to enjoy and achieve simultaneously. Just pick a direction—any direction you like—and go. You’ll be in the groove before you know it.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

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

#40: When to Kill a Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m writing again on my fantasy novel! Your advice about one of my other characters gave some great ideas about making her more proactive. This time I’m writing because I’m seriously thinking I need to axe a character.

I love her character and especially her backstory. I do have a bit of a hard time with her voice, but that’s something I think I could strengthen in revisions.

I’ve toyed with cutting her before, and it’s come up again now that I’m writing an Important Scene for her arc (a Setback). I just can’t make the dramatic tension come together. And when I look back and compare her arc to the other characters’ arcs, it’s much more reactive and plot-driven and contains less actual growth/change. She’s mainly a helping character, and I already have another character whose plot role is largely thwarting/helping the main characters—and the other character gets more character growth out of it. As I conceive of her character now, her character arc occurred more in her past, and now she’s at the place where the other characters are moving toward.

She serves a function in the plot of getting a character from place to place, and she serves as a POV character particularly in a location where none of the other POV characters are. She also is the primary worker of magic in the novel, and without her there’s very little of it (which may be fine, it would just change things). I think I could work around her plot/POV functions by moving other characters and possibly not showing some of these events on screen at all.

And if I do decide to axe her, how on earth do I tackle that? I’m still finishing up the draft. Do you think it makes sense to go forward as if she’s not a character or sort of minimize the whole thing and tackle all of it in revisions?

So I guess I have a two-part question:
1) How do you decide whether to axe characters?
2) If I do axe her, how do I approach the final drafting and then the daunting task of revising her out of the story?

—chocolate tort (she/her)

Dear chocolate tort,

Nice to hear from you again! I’m glad my earlier advice was helpful.

This time around you’ve sent me a classic advice-column letter of the “Should I break up with my partner?” variety. The answer is almost always yes, because by the time you reach the point of writing to an advice columnist, you’ve probably made up your mind to do the deed, and are just looking for external confirmation. I note that you didn’t ask me anything like “How can I keep this character while fixing the problems she creates?”; you went straight for “If I remove her from the book, how do I do it?” This is something like saying “Should I dump my girlfriend, and if I do, do you think email or a text is better?”

Continue reading

#25: Story Ending Choice Paralysis

Dear Story Nurse,

How distinct do a writer’s stories need to be from one another?

A lot of authors have recurring themes, or recycle small details like names, or set several stories in the same universe.

But what about if it’s bigger things? If it’s a single change in how the physics of the world works, either way allowing for interesting and distinct things to happen. If it’s alternate endings to a story that could both work, or different story structures that could both fit the one plot.

Sometimes one version is clearly superior, but often not. It just splits off into a separate (but not entirely distinctive) story of its own.

I write science fiction, and short fiction—it’s very idea driven, I think that contributes to this problem. It feels like I have not so much a bunch of separate stories as a story/idea space, where story particles combine and mutate and split off in endless ways.

I find it very difficult to finish a story (instead spawning five new potential ones when I try).

My main concern is getting better at completing stories, but also is it unprofessional to send out stories for publication if they are similar to other stories I’ve written?

—Hydra wrangler (she/her)

Dear Hydra wrangler,

It sounds like you have two very different concerns that are all tangled up together. One is a commercial concern about how it looks to an editor or a reader if you have multiple very similar stories. The other is a craft concern about choosing from among multiple good ways to finish a particular story or develop a particular concept. In some ways these are the same concern: you do writing one way, and you think you should maybe do it a different way.

Continue reading

#17: The Three-Quarters Slump

Dear Story Nurse,

I am a first-time novelist with a second draft problem. I’ve written +90,000 words of an alternate history/fantasy novel, which, at its outset, was nothing more than me proving to myself that I could, in fact, write a book. I followed a writing plan I found online of 350 words a day every weekday, moving to a new scene whenever I started to get bogged down and coming back to fill in the gaps later. It worked fairly well, but therein lies my problem.

This novel is beyond sprawling, with five locations, plus travel scenes, a first-person narrator who is dealing with both inner guilt and exterior prejudice after the death of her younger brother and mother, eight decently-characterized supporting characters, a minor love triangle, one major supernatural antagonist and three minor human ones, three earthquakes, a house fire, a plague of birds, cross-cultural (mis)understandings, the role of literacy in a society that only somewhat has writing, two gladiator-style Mayan ball games, a riot… you get the idea. I lost steam near the end of the project because I couldn’t justify writing even more new scenes instead of trying to knit together what I already had into a more cohesive whole. I was on track to hit 110k, but I stopped a month early, ostensibly to give myself time to come up with the last few linking scenes. Now, looking at the whole thing, I have the sinking feeling it needs to be disassembled and reorganized (possibly rewritten) completely, since the characters and plot developed as I wrote in my jumping-back-and-forth style, rather than more naturally over the course of the story. It probably could shed a good 10k-15k as well, if I’m brutal.

How do I do this? Where do I start? Usually, I’m a pretty good editor, but for other people’s writing, not my own, where it’s a lot harder to be ruthlessly objective as to whether that very pretty turn of phrase works, no matter how long it took to come up with. The only thing I can think of is to set it to double-space, print out all 280 pages, and go to town with red pen, scissors and tape. But, both practically and psychologically, I balk at that much time and effort for something that is not only a first draft, but incomplete (and being my own work, with all the standard accompanying self-doubt). I tried finding a beta, but the same problem applies. It’s too big for my friends and family to plow through to even tell me if I should keep going to try to make this into a real book or let it go as a mostly-successful experiment. Some part of my brain is insisting that I’m just falling for a sunk-cost fallacy, and another part really wants to see if there’s something good in this gigantic pile of words that another person might want to read.

Thank you,

I Need an Iolaus to Kill This Hydra (she/her)

Dear I Need an Iolaus,

You are in what Maureen McHugh calls the dark night of the soul. 90k words into a 110k-word project sounds like about the right place for that; it usually hits around three-quarters of the way in, which is why I tend to think of it as the three-quarters slump, but later and earlier are both known to happen. Many, many, many writers have felt this way around this point in their books. Some feel it with every book. You are not alone.

The key to escaping this very unpleasant state of despair is to finish the novel. This is extremely important.

Continue reading

#4: When Protagonists Don’t Protag

Dear Story Nurse,

My problem in a nutshell: I don’t know what kind of climax my story needs!

Details: I’m working on a fantasy novel, mostly secondary world with a little magic thrown in. It’s between 80k and 90k long. This is the first novel I’ve really plotted out seriously, and I can tell that it helped a lot in keeping track of the threads and in keeping the story moving when my tendency is to stop and gaze for way too long at the scenery.

A little bit about the story: There are four (thinking of cutting it down to three) POV characters whose plots intersect and come together toward the end of the story. There’s one character in particular who is sort of central to everything, and everybody else’s arc in the story is directly or indirectly pulled by her—some to help her and others to potentially harm her. Of all the characters, she probably has the most growth as a character.

(This letter is on the longer side, so it’s continued after the cut tag.)

Continue reading