#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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#19: Love After Angst

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m writing a fan fic as a low-key side project to keep writing fun, as opposed to the writing that I do professionally, which is of course work.

It’s a modern-day, angsty romance, where two people from totally different worlds fall for each other even though they don’t fit well into each other’s lives. They figure they can’t be together, but finally the tension gets too much and they have a wild night together. Then they spend some time angsting and avoiding each other. Your standard piece where the agonizing is part of the appeal.

But I can’t figure out where they go from there. Where should I take it next? I think I’d ultimately like them to get together (though I’m not married to it) but I can’t figure out what new element to introduce to change things. Any suggestions? Thanks so much!

—Beautiful Mistake (she/her)

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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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#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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#16: When and How to Hire a Freelance Editor

Dear Story Nurse,

I wrote a novel (women’s commercial fiction) in 2008, and have spent the intervening years revising/editing/rewriting, including workshopping with a writer’s group. I got the piece to a place where I know it’s not 100%, but it’s as close to 100% as I can get it without serious professional help (editor/agent/similar). So I started trying to find an agent. I got a lot of positive feedback, a couple dozen requests for partial manuscripts, and two requests for the full manuscript. Both full manuscript requesters had the same feedback (writing is good, but there are—specific and clear!—issues, and those issues are too much for an agent).

Now I’m at a standstill while I try to figure out what to do. I think I need someone to tell me, “You need to walk away from this piece” or “You need to hire an editor.” Or SOMETHING. What is the next step when you know you’ve done all you can on a piece and it’s still not quite there?

—Jessica (she/her)

Dear Jessica,

I think a great next step would be for you to take a moment to assess what’s led you to seek outside advice and consider outside editing in addition to what you’ve gotten from your writing group and those helpful agents. You say you need “someone” to tell you what to do next. But you’re in charge. Hiring an editor, or not, is your call. Continuing to work on this book, or not, is your call. “Someone” is you. Sit down and listen to your gut. That process may be as simple as saying out loud “I want to walk away from this book” or “I feel like I should walk away from this book” and then seeing whether that statement rings true or makes you want to shout “NO! I’m sticking with it!” But you have to consult yourself, very directly and seriously, and not just rely on what other people recommend.

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#15: How to Create Original Work

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I have written tens (maybe hundreds?) of thousands of words of fan fiction. Some of it exceptional, some of it terrible. Some of it in forty-thousand-word multi-chapter works about main characters having big adventures, some of it in a couple of hundred word-long drabbles about a micro emotion on a background character’s face.

It’s National Novel Writing Month next month, and I would like to write something that’s all my own. Or at least try to.

I have no idea how to start from scratch. Any advice?

—NaNoWriMo Novice (she/her)

Dear NaNoWriMo Novice,

I have wonderful news for you: every work of art is derivative! That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as original work. But just like fanwork, original work exists in the context of other works, and of the world. This means you can write original work exactly the same way you write fanfic: begin with an existing thing, and then decide how you’d like to change it, build on it, imitate it, and/or argue with it. No need to start from scratch, because there actually is no such thing as starting from scratch.

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#14: Where Do Characters Come From?

Dear Story Nurse,

A recurring problem I encounter in my writing across the board is that I’ll come up with very cool ideas for worlds and settings, but then become completely stumped with inventing characters and stories for them.

I’d hazard that part of this problem stems from the fact that I come from a fanfiction writing background where characters are pre-supplied, though I’ve been working on original stories for several years now. I’ve got no problem worldbuilding, either in an already-extant canon nor an original world of my own.

When I have a story idea come to me already with characters and rudimentary plot, I’m fine—the problem only shows up when I have a world but no story, and then I find myself stumped, brain running in circles as I try to force a plot to happen. I sometimes feel like I’m just picking random plots out of a hat and trying to paste them into the setting, which is obviously not ideal—the plot should be just as interesting as the setting.

Do you have any suggestions for ways to work on these issues, or how to apply the creative juices from worldbuilding to character/plot development? Helpful writing exercises?

Thank you so much!

—Plotless (she/her)

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m coming back to writing after a bit of a hiatus. There’s lots of general skills I’m working on, but most of them are improving. Except for character creation. I used to write original characters all the time as a kid, but I seem to have forgotten how.

I have an idea for a portal fantasy story (probably novel length). I’m really excited about it, and the general world-building is going really well, but I’m struggling to actually start the first draft, because I can only come up with really vague idea of the characters I’m writing about. Conventional advice according to Google is that if I start writing my characters will develop over the course of the first draft, but I can’t develop them enough to figure out how to start.

Is there some way to push through this and get my story started? Or is there something else I can do to get a grip on my characters before I start?

Thanks very much,

Character Catch-22 (she/her)

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been writing scifi/fantasy fiction for fun since I was a kid—for fun, and for sharing with my friends. But recently I’ve been finding a lot less fun and a lot more frustration, because everything I write kind of peters out, and I’d really like, just once, to actually finish something.

I’m one of those people who gets super into worldbuilding. I have stacks of notebooks filled with little ideas, or bits of description, or pages and pages of how this alternate universe could work. Basically, if I were writing an encyclopaedia, I’d be golden. But an encyclopaedia does not a story make, and I want to write something someday that someone might actually want to read.

I think the place where I struggle is characters. I can look at a world I’ve made, and see where the friction points are, like “well hey if that thing is banned, is there someone trying to smuggle it?”. I can look at a formal plot structure and think of things to put in the boxes, more or less. I can write the idea of a character, like where they live and how they grew up and how their background might throw up some threads that could be put into a plot. But when it comes to wants and desires and behaviours and three-dimensionality, well… I’m more likely to end up falling into an existential crisis about what I want out of life, and that helps nobody.

Are there technical exercises to help with this kind of thing? Do I just need to plough through 70,000 words with a cardboard cutout of a character and then look back and… redraft somehow? (I have actually tried that, several times, but I tend to reach a point where I just can’t find the motivation to keep writing something so flat and dull. I think I need something to break this cycle of “shiny idea!/start writing/realise the characters have no character/hit wall/feel miserable/different shiny idea!/…”)

—Dweller in the Well-Painted Doldrums (she/her)

Dear letter writers,

As you can see from one another’s letters, you’re not alone in this! I wanted to include all three of your letters because I think some comparisons will be instructive, and because you all have much more in common than you might realize. You cite different sources of difficulties with character creation: being used to working with other people’s characters, coming back to writing after a hiatus and having rusty skills, and having your own internal anxieties get in the way. But if your circumstances were strongly and significantly affecting your writing, they would affect all aspects of your writing, and you might not be able to write at all. Instead, you’re faulting your circumstances for something that’s actually about you: right now, by training or inclination or some combination, you’re much more comfortable worldbuilding than you are sitting down with some characters and turning them into real people.

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#13: “Should I Just Give Up on Writing?”

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.

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#12: Rediscovering Your Story’s Heart

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently working on the third draft of the first novel I’m seriously thinking of seeking publication for, and it’s giving me no end of trouble. The characters have been in my head a lot lately, bugging me to finally get their story out the door, so I was wondering if you could help me out with at least one particular issue I keep running into again and again.

There are several scenes in the novel that I felt (and others agreed) didn’t quite work in previous drafts because of wonky character motivations, general lack of momentum, etc., and I’ve been finding that I’ll rewrite one of those scenes, feel much better about it, but then realize that I’ve messed with the continuity of the story (for example, by screwing up the timeline or eliminating a problematic/semi-useless character). Then when I’m patching up the continuity in another place something ELSE will change, and I end up caught in a seemingly endless cycle of narrative whack-a-mole. Do you have any suggestions for taming these pesky contradictory story elements?

—Revision Wrangler (he/him)

Dear Revision Wrangler,

This is a very common problem around draft three or four. You’re having a classic “can’t see the forest for the trees” moment, where the forest is an actual ecosystem; cutting down one tree turns out to disturb a vole habitat and fewer voles mean the owls go hungry and so on. But don’t panic! Just take a deep breath and step back. No, further back. Zoom all the way out. You want to see that forest as a forest, or maybe even as an irregular green shape on a map with lots of other shapes around it.

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