#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

#121: Researching by Interviewing Experts

Dear Story Nurse,

Is it okay to contact expert sources for a novel that might never see publication?

We’re often advised to seek outside perspectives when writing about people who have different life experiences than ourselves. But I’m also wary about imposing on people who have no obligation to educate me. Doubly so because as with all creative projects, there’s a good chance it will only ever live on my hard drive. But there’s limits to the info that Googling can provide.

So, is it okay to contact people whose perspective would be valuable to me and ask to interview them? Does it make a difference that I have no book deal, agent or publisher? If it is okay to ask, how do I present the question in a way that would make it worth their time? Can I contact a hematologist for detailed info I need for a vampire novel? Can I contact a sex worker and ask probing and personal questions for an unfinished project? Is there a difference between the two? Or should I wait until I have some published work under my belt before I start bothering people who are quite busy enough as it is?

—Charlotte (she/her)

Dear Charlotte,

It’s perfectly fine to consult an expert in this fashion as long as you behave in a professional fashion and offer to pay them a reasonable amount for their time and expertise. Whether that’s worth it to you if you don’t have a book deal in hand is up to you, but it’s unlikely to make a difference to the person you’re consulting, unless they’re deeply invested in having their name in the acknowledgements of a published book.

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

#118: NaNoWriMo and Writing like a Machine

Dear Story Nurse,

I am writing for the November NaNoWriNo, and I’ve done 35,000 words. The goal is 50,000. I am on Part 3 of 4, and getting closer to the climax. The latter half of Part 3, which I am trying to work on now, is supposed to be the build-up for the climax, while also being a flashback of sorts to events that happened earlier in the story. I have been working on this book since Nov. 2, with no breaks. I am ‘running out of steam’ as they say, and the 5,000 for the latter half of Part 3 just isn’t coming to me. I know what happens, but I just can’t seem to write it. Today is sort of a break day, but I want to get some pages done if I can. Any suggestions?

—Tifa Lockheart (they/them)

Dear Tifa Lockheart,

I apologize for taking an entire year to answer this letter! Somehow it slipped past me last November. I’m certain you found your own solution, but I’m responding now in case it helps other readers.

Many people think that NaNoWriMo requires writing every day, but it doesn’t. The only goal is 50k. How you get there is up to you. (And whether you choose your own goal is also up to you, but I have a separate post about that.) If writing every single day doesn’t work for you, don’t do it! Give yourself a break.

Continue reading

#117: Story Beginning Choice Paralysis

Dear Story Nurse,

The first draft of my fantasy novel came out as a messy tangle of scenes. I’m now trying to turn it into something more coherent as I edit, but I’m struggling to pick out which of about three options should be the opening section. Sometimes I think one looks good, sometimes another.

Option 1 is chronologically first, set about three years before the main events, and sets up/reveals a lot of the emotional landscape behind the rest. It’s close to my heart, but other than the emotion shifts, doesn’t have a lot happening.

Option 2 is where the first draft started, an apparently small event with a lot of undercurrents swirling around underneath. It’s the event where the main character’s life is first pulled askew from what she wants it to be, if not quite upside down.

Option 3 is a busy action scene with the main character and her entire village turning out to cope with an immediate disaster. It’s also her first encounter with one of the antagonists.

I’ve had both positive and negative feedback on all of them, which makes it harder to decide. It feels like I need to decide before I go further, because which one I choose is going to have serious implications on how I unknot my tangle of a first draft.

How do I make this sort of decision when all the options seem equally good at different times and I keep second guessing whether I’ve picked right?

—Split Decision (they/them)

Dear Split Decision,

The three options you’ve come up with fall neatly into three very common categories of story opener: prologue, protagonist introduction, and in medias res. All of them can be perfectly fine ways to start a fantasy novel (though these days there isn’t a lot of love for prologues). In order to choose one, you need to understand the narrative purpose of each. You also need to know what kind of book you’re writing. You suggest that choosing an opener will shape your revisions, but I suggest that you need to pick a direction for your revisions and then go with the opener that suits the book you decide to write.

Continue reading

#116: When a Pantser Becomes a Plotter

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

Hi Story Nurse,

(This is my third time writing to you! I love the website so much! You have helped me a lot with figuring out my writing, both when answering my qs, and when answering other people’s qs! Thank you!)

I have a pretty banal question — since graduating college and becoming a Human with a Job, my mental illness has gone from Severe to Manageable. Most of that has been my good work — I went to therapy intensely, I carefully figured out what my best and most healthy coping mechanisms were, I started avoiding obvious stressors etc. This has lead to a variety of realizations about myself — without depression and anxiety, I’m actually a tidy person! I really love baking! etc.

From other mentally ill people I have learned that this is actually pretty common, but it has caused one small snag. I used to be a pantser — I would come up with a plot question, Stephen King-style, and then write a novel based on that. But now, I can’t do that anymore! I need an outline! I need an incredibly detailed outline. But I don’t know how! Especially since sitting with characters and learning their personality through writing was an important part of my process I still seem to need… Help?!

Thank you!!!!!!!

—Space Lesbian (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#115: Getting Started Writing Original Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

A friend and I are co-authors, and we’ve been telling mutual stories forever and a day (long before we learned what fanfic was, or that other people did what we were doing but actually wrote it down and shared it with other people). And now we’re trying to transition into writing original fiction for publication. But we keep getting stuck; partly just the two of us not being the best at motivation, but also because we can’t seem to decide what we want to write or who our audience is (things that are kind of built-in with fanfic).

Do you have any recommendations for getting started on our own (probably fantasy, maybe sci-fi, maybe urban fantasy, yes, indecisiveness is a problem) writing? Recommendations for how to think differently about audience so we don’t fall in the same old rut?

—I guess it can’t be AAAAAAIUGH (she/her)

Dear AAAAAAIUGH,

This is a big change, and it’s no surprise that you’re feeling a little ambivalent and uncertain about it. You’re asking me about how, but my questions back to you are about why. If you can grab hold of why you’re focusing on writing original fiction and confirm that you really do want to be doing it, a lot of these pieces will fall into place.

Continue reading

#114: Exploring Third-Person Point of View

Dear Story Nurse,

I need some help loosening my grip on tight third person point of view. I write mostly fanfic, and tight third works well for shorter works, but I find that it breaks down in longer works. Most of the time, I work around it by occasionally changing POV at scene transitions or chapter breaks.

This leads to confusion for some readers because tight third, at least the way I use it, almost axiomatically creates narrators as unreliable (just in different ways) as first person POV does. First person is culturally coded as unreliable, so readers tend to question what the narrator is omitting or being misleading about. Third person, on the other hand, carries the implication that there isn’t a person withholding information or not understanding what they’re experiencing/observing.

When I write tight third, different POV characters have very different ideas about what the things they see and do mean and make assumptions about what other people think, feel, and intend. Any particular character’s section may contain major conflicts with other characters’ sections.

I like writing this way and enjoy reading things written this way, but the comments I’ve gotten have made me think about the fact that I can write tight third and first but not omniscient third or even a more distant third. I would like to figure out how to approach those.

Thanks!

—Anne (she/her)

Dear Anne,

Learning new writing skills is usually valuable (unless you’re doing it to procrastinate), but I want to caution you against thinking that you have to change the way you write because it doesn’t work for a few readers. If you’re happy writing tight third and you’re reaching at least some readers who seem to really get what you’re doing with it, it may make more sense to work on setting reader expectations around reliability of narrators in that context. For example, you can switch POV more frequently so that the differences between two people’s experiences of a situation show up earlier and establish that this is a thing that can and will happen in your stories, or have side characters argue with your POV characters about how they’re interpreting events, so as to remind readers that the POV character is not infallible. And remember that nothing you write will reach or please every single person who reads it, so you’re best off continuing to write what makes you happy.

But that’s not what you asked! So for general tips on writing looser third-person fiction, read on.

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