#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.

Continue reading

#120: Separation Before Revision, Part Two

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m not the kind of writer who can start editing a draft as soon as I’m done with it. By the time I stumble over the finish line of a novel-length project, I need some time to emotionally detach from the story before I can think about how I want to change it.

This would be fine, except… by the time I feel ready to edit a story, I’m usually no longer interested in it, or I’ve come up with so many new ideas about how to change it that rewriting from page 1 feels easier than editing. Over the years, I’ve amassed a huge number of trunk novels I just don’t feel passionate about cleaning up.

I’ve just finished a new novella, and I really don’t want to hide it away in the dusty depths of my Google Drive. I know it needs changes before I can show it to beta readers, but I’m having a hard time making those changes fresh off writing THE END. How can I strike a balance between letting it marinate and shoving it out the door before it’s ready? What’s the line between a necessary break from a project and unhelpful procrastination on editing?

Thanks for all your great advice,

Trunk Novelist (she/her)

Dear Trunk Novelist,

Thanks for giving me the perfect companion question to the one I answered in #119: Separation Before Revision, Part One. In that post I talked about why that emotional separation from your draft is needed. You’ve got that part down pat. But the reunion can be just as challenging, and requires its own set of tools.

Continue reading

#119: Separation Before Revision, Part One

Dear Story Nurse,

I have finished the first draft of my novel (coming of age, romance). It took a year, but I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. The characters became so real that I started to ‘see’ them in the street, and looked forward to getting back to spend time with them every day.

I understand that this draft is just a beginning, and I also understand that I need to leave it alone for a while before starting to revise, revise, revise.

But I am missing my characters, and I am sad that their story is complete, as in I know what happens, even though the novel is far from finished.

So my question is what to I do now? Start another novel (or at least start collecting ideas)? Get revising so that I can get back to my characters? Something else? How long should I leave my draft before getting back to it?

In the early stages of writing the novel, I took time out to write short stories, collect ideas, do writing exercises, but in the last six months, it’s been all consuming and I just don’t know what to do!

—Hazeliz (she/her)

Dear Hazeliz,

Congratulations on finishing your novel! It sounds like you really fell in love with it, which is a wonderful experience.

That depth of emotional connection is exactly why writers are often advised to take time away from their drafts before revising them. A little distance makes it much, much easier to assess a book’s strengths and weaknesses—and that’s what you must do, as dispassionately and thoroughly as possible, when you revise a book. Without a degree of separation between book and self, revision is far more difficult, and may be impossible.

Continue reading

#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.

Continue reading

#106: Writing Through Depression

Content note: This letter and post discuss depression and negative self-talk.

Hey Story Nurse

So I’m like a sad human with Heaps of mental health problems (anxiety, depression and a bunch of less relevant stuff) and I write fanfiction off and on depending on my mood and what I’m watching.

I also sort of write original fiction, but I never even get close to finishing anything. I really want to write some things that work best in long form (like person goes “undercover” as a boy and realizes like halfway through he’s trans is the one I’m working on right now). But I haven’t done anything with it because I know I’m not going to finish it. The only thing I ever finish are short fics. So what I’ve been doing is trying to write progressively longer and longer fics to kind of get a feel for longer writing and to prove to myself that I can finish things.

However, I just started a fic that was supposed to be like up to twenty chapters long, which retrospectively is about 75% longer than anything I’d done before, but I thought it would be better cause I had it all planned out. I was super wrong. I finished three chapters and tossed it because I hate it now, like the whole premise and everything it just felt super flat. And now I feel like I can’t finish anything. Like I haven’t even been able to Try to write like anything at all (original or fic) because I feel like I’m not going to finish it and there’s no point. It’s really frustrating because I really love looking at and rereading things I /have/ finished.

I really wanna write original stuff because I have soooo many ideas, but it feels like as soon as I try nothing works right. The plot is bad, I can’t figure out how to get scenes to work together or the writing just feels flat and I lose interest super quickly. It’s super depressing and now it’s leeched into my fanfic too. :c

Please help.

—Sad Space Gay (they/them)

Dear Sad Space Gay,

I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time. It sounds like your depression is really doing a number on you. It’s really awesome that you’ve fought through that to reach out for help, and I hope you recognize what an amazing act of self-care and determination and bravery that was. Your depression doesn’t own you. If you found a way to write to me, you can find ways to do other good things for yourself, including writing.

Depression is clearly putting a distorting filter between you and your writing and making it very hard for you to accurately judge the quality or potential of your ideas and your work. I can’t treat your depression, and I hope that you’re working with skilled, compassionate professionals who can. What I can do is give you some ways to recognize, mitigate, and bypass the filter.

Important caveat: Some of these techniques will work for some people some of the time. Nothing works for everyone all of the time. Depression is a clever beast and it adapts. It also comes and goes. Something that feels easy or useful one day may be impossible or counterproductive the next. If trying any of these techniques feels bad or harmful to you, stop doing it. Only you can assess what works for you. I’m a professional in the field of writing, not in the field of mental health; I’m not prescribing anything, only making recommendations for writing techniques. If you’re at all uncertain about how or whether to proceed with any of this advice, talk it over with the people who are directly supporting your mental health. Continue reading

#94: Unfinished Story Choice Paralysis

Hello! I mostly write realistic/literary type fiction, with some excursions into horror. I have five or six unfinished projects languishing in Google Docs right now, ranging from short stories to novels.

My problem is that every time I sit down to write, I feel paralyzed by all of these options. I can’t decide which project I want to work on. Instead I get distracted by thinking about my aspirations for each story (submit to journals, self publish, whatever) and/or I just sit there with a general sense of panic that I will never get any of this done. Each of my stories has its own mood, so I’ve tried to pick one based on the mood I’m in, but lately my only consistent mood has been “Dammit I need to write something!”

I’d love to hear your thoughts on how to pick one story to focus on when there are so many begging for attention. Thanks for taking the time to read this!

—Emma (they/them)

Dear Emma,

What you have is something called choice paralysis, a well-known psychological phenomenon. It happens a lot to people in grocery stores: faced with seven thousand varieties of ketchup or toilet paper, we feel totally overwhelmed. We know we’re supposed to weigh all the alternatives and pick the one that best meets our needs, but sometimes it’s just too much, and we go with a familiar brand because it’s familiar, choose at random, or flee the store.

Continue reading

#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.

Continue reading

#91: Making the Transition Between Writing Projects

Hello Story Nurse,

I’m currently in revisions for a project that has been a major part of my life for a year. While I’m incredibly pleased with it and am excited for its upcoming completion, I feel deflated about other writing work, and apprehensive about working on other things once this is completed.

Due to life circumstances (positive but exhausting travel soon after submitting the complete draft), I didn’t end up having much time to decompress, and I keep obsessively checking my email to see if my editors’ notes have arrived yet! When I try to sort out pitches and writing samples for other projects, my focus slides away, and it’s hard to try to write something small in scale. I want to take advantage of having a sliver of spare time by writing something else (whether for publication or for fun) but there is such broad scope that I don’t know where to start!

How do you switch gears when you’re between projects or waiting for editorial feedback? And how do you deal gracefully with the sudden gap in your life after finishing a big project or milestone?

—Searching for Energy Over Ennui (she/her)

Dear Searching,

I’ve had this Spider Robinson quote in my quote file for a long, long time:

Funny feeling, isn’t it, when you bust a tough one? Triumph, sure. Maybe a little secret relief that you pulled it off. But there’s a fine sweet sadness in there, too, because now the golden moment is behind you. For a moment in there you were God… and now you’re just a guy who used to be God for a minute, and will be again some day.

That is a lot of feelings to feel, and it takes time to sort through them all and come to terms with them. A big project changes you—it develops your skills and makes you think in ways you hadn’t before. A big project can make you feel all sorts of things that you weren’t expecting. You haven’t just brought your reader through emotional catharsis, but experienced it yourself. And you know that stories don’t end with the climax; you need that final chapter or three, the gradual descent from peak intensity (finishing the draft! turning it in!) to your lower-key everyday life.

Continue reading

#84: Staying Focused Long Enough to Write a Novel

Hi, Story Nurse,

I want to get this novel written. Badly. Or not necessarily THIS novel, but A NOVEL. (Though THIS novel would be a really good one, except for the bit where the genderfluid protagonist is *really obviously* ADHD-Butterfly Sue. But that’s a different Story Nurse question!)

The problem is the novel beginnings on my hard drive number in the triple digits. Some of them are the same concept because I came back to the idea later and the first version didn’t hold up anymore, but most of them are new shinies that became old and boring when another new shiny came along. None of them are longer than ten thousand words. And yes, that’s pretty obviously one consequence of getting nearly to age thirty with undiagnosed ADHD? But.

I already know the NaNoWriMo format doesn’t work for me, even with a reduced daily goal and a longer time frame. But if I only write when ~*inspired*~, then I know perfectly well I’ll end up writing things that have nothing to do with this novel, and eventually lose track of the novel altogether.

How do I keep my attention on ONE idea long enough to get a whole novel drafted?

Thanks,

ADHD-Butterfly (they/them)

Dear ADHD-Butterfly,

Don’t panic! You are totally capable of writing an entire novel, with some preparation and self-examination (and ideally also with appropriate treatment for your ADHD, now that you have that diagnosis—I hope you’re working with the relevant medical professionals on that). Here’s a plan for you to follow, and to come back to whenever you find yourself wandering astray. Continue reading

#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?

Continue reading