#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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#113: Getting Beyond the Beginning

Dear Story Nurse,

Lately, I keep coming up with setups for stories – complete with hooks and challenges I think will be really fun! – and then I look at all this space afterwards and have no idea what to put there. I guess I give the characters problems, but I get stuck trying to find the actual solutions. I keep trying to plot and getting really tied up in knots, and then writing scenes just to get into the story and losing interest quickly because I realize I’m just building a path as I go and it’s going nowhere in particular.

Any tips for getting unstuck and figuring out middles and ends?

—But to What End (she/her)

Dear But to What End,

That sounds very frustrating. You’re certainly not alone in having trouble getting past the beginning of your stories. On the life and mindset side, I’ve answered similar questions from people who are recovering from stressful events, getting back to writing after a long time away, stuck on “should”, and having trouble staying focused. On the craft side, I’ve helped writers who get carried away with big ideas, can’t choose among several possible endingsdon’t know how to make endings feel smooth, and have protagonists who aren’t active enough to push the story to a conclusion. If any of those sound similar to your situation, those posts may be helpful.

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#92: How to End a Story

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been working on a lot of short stories lately and I’ve had the same problem with each of them. I can’t end the dang things! I write beginnings and middles I like, but when I get to the end, the writing becomes more forced as I wrap things up. I have a hard time writing a sentence that signals to the reader “this is the end” but feels natural and isn’t obvious that’s what the story is doing. How can I make my endings read more smoothly?

Yours,

Never Ending (she/her)

Dear Never Ending,

Your deceptively simple question requires a slightly complicated answer. In order to understand how to end stories, we have to get into what an ending is and what it’s for, and what makes it different from a story just stopping.

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#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?

Thanks!

—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?

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#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?”

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

So here’s a longer version of the nutshell:

I’ve reached the point just before the climax, which has all of the POV characters converging together, along with a detachment of soldiers who are in league with the antagonists. The characters who are not bad guys don’t have any such armed support on their side, although one of the POV characters has some experience in a fight.

I even have an ending in mind, which is mostly a happy one: the antagonists are defeated or at least prevented from maximum antagonizing. I just can’t figure out how the characters get from the climax set-up to the denouement! For some reason, the only options that come to mind are (1) a battle—which is not really in keeping with the rest of the novel, which is mostly women of various ages moving through the setting, doing what they do—or (2) an involved conversation, which seems a bit underwhelming.

One thing I’ve thought about is that, throughout the story, the central-most MC has been yanked this way and that by good guys and bad alike. I feel like the climax is her opportunity to assert herself somehow. All the other MCs have had to make choices throughout the story, but she’s been pretty passive.

So if you have any thoughts as to how I can think through this, what some options outside battle/conversation are, and what you’d want to see in this kind of scene, they would be most appreciated!

—chocolatetort (she/her)

Dear chocolatetort,

Thanks for writing in with such a classic concern! A lot of authors face similar problems. You are definitely not alone. And I’ve got a few different sets of suggestions for you to try on for size. Continue reading