#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?

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!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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

#67: New Ideas Stop Me from Finishing Anything

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m an unpublished writer, and I’d like to start submitting work to magazines and anthologies. I’m having a problem, though: every time I try to write a short story, my ideas for it get way too big. Even when I work on novel-length projects, my brain’s already spinning off plans for sequels before chapter one’s even written. This means that I end up spending a lot of my time starting projects, but they rarely ever get finished because my idea for a one-shot story morphs into yet another massive arc I don’t have the time to work on.

I’m struggling with finding a way to drop into a narrative at the right place, tell an interesting story, and wrap it up in a way that doesn’t demand a sequel. Help me, Story Nurse!

—Shaggy Dog (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!

#65: How (and Whether) to Write a Sequel

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

Dear Story Nurse,

How do you write a sequel? Should I even write a sequel?

I’ve got an essentially-complete YA secondary-world fantasy and a couple months ago I got smacked in the head with the realization that it could easily be book 1 in a trilogy. I’ve got the broad plot strokes and themes of book 2 (and a few in book 3, for that matter), but every time I sit down to start the outline for book 2, I… end up working on something else.

Part of it is that if book 1 is sitting on my hard drive doing nothing, what’s the point of writing a book 2 that will do the same thing? (I’m working on book 1 not just sitting on my hard drive doing nothing, but that’s not necessarily relevant here.) And if book 1 ends up not doing anything, it’s a waste of time to write book 2, right?

The second one is that I have never written a sequel before. I googled “how to write a sequel,” because that’s what the internet is for, but the advice was manifold and contradictory. I did pick up the idea that sometimes you can jump straight into the plot at the beginning because you have all of book 1 as backstory now. But how closely is it expect that book 2 matches book 1 in pacing, tone, themes? Is it strange to jump from sort of a standard fairy-tale-based pseudo-medieval sword-and-sorcery story to something that more closely resembles a portal fantasy? Is it okay if I dump my entire cast of characters from book 1 down to 2 familiar names?

Am I thinking too hard here?

Anyway, any advice you have would be welcome.

Thank you,

Stephanie (she/her)

Dear Stephanie,

The answer to “am I thinking too hard” is almost always “yes.” Also, no writing is a waste of time if it’s writing you want to be doing. It’s fine to just go ahead and write for yourself and see what happens, without stressing about marketing (which is really what these questions are about). It’s also fine to listen to whatever part of you is nudging you away from that possible book two and move on to something else. But if you’d like more detailed advice on sequels, read on.

Continue reading

#64: Kicking the Procrastination Habit

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m having trouble buckling down and writing. It seems like this happens in a few, related ways:

1) When I come home from work, I’m exhausted and can’t muster the energy to write. On the weekends, I have a million things to do and don’t manage to devote time to writing.

2) I’m waiting for the “perfect time” to write—when the sun’s up, and my brain is clear, and I’m not in too much pain/too exhausted.

3) When I do have time and energy to write, I frequently don’t prioritize writing, even though I know I enjoy it and it makes me feel productive and happy.

This is all complicated by the fact that I don’t often have time and energy at the same time, due to the fact that I work full-time and am chronically ill. I struggle with figuring out what the “right” balance (or at least, a good balance) of self-indulgent/happy-making things (writing, video games, reading fic) and Responsible Adult things (financial stuff, laundry, etc).

Do you have suggestions of how to get yourself to write besides just sit in the effing chair, block social media, and stare at your word doc until writing happens? Do you have any thoughts on how to get yourself to not feel guilty when you don’t write, but also to not feel guilty when you do prioritize writing (guilty that you’re not doing “actually important” i.e. Adulting things)?

For context, I write fanfiction, almost entirely for exchanges (my inability to write without a deadline/fic exchange is a separate, possibly related issue). The longest fic I’ve ever written was almost 5k, but most have been in the ~2k range.

I generally find dialogue, character relationships, and emulating the source material to be the easiest part of writing; I struggle with coming up with plots/keeping tension (and your posts have been very helpful with that!). I’m getting better at describing things other than body language (scenery, smells, etc). Also for context, I’m Autistic and queer.

Thank you for all your enormously helpful advice!!

—mlraven (she/her)

Dear mlraven,

Thanks for writing in with a challenge that a lot of writers face. Procrastination is endemic among writers, and it’s hard to know how much of waiting for inspiration or the right circumstances is legitimate and how much is just finding another excuse to not be doing what you feel you ought to be doing.

Continue reading

#63: Confronting the Costs of Writing

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been publishing short fiction for several years, and a few months back, I signed a contract for a long piece. Which is really exciting: I love what I’m working on, the work setup, and my editors.

The problem is that I made the mistake of working on my creative project during my dayjob’s work hours, due to various factors including depression, anxiety, my not thinking through the consequences, and general workplace toxicity. After a very stressful month of investigation and deliberation about this, I’ve been fired.

I accept that I made a big mistake and have taken responsibility, but am feeling raw and anxious about the future, and want to try to make the best of things. I also want to throw myself into completing my project to the best of my abilities, but the stressful events around the whole situation have thrown up a lot of complicated feelings (I am seeing a therapist I trust). How can I put aside my feelings of shame and anger about the lost job and regain my creative enthusiasm?

—Newly Full Time Writer (she/her)

Dear Newly Full Time Writer,

Many sympathies on losing your job. It sounds like this has been a very challenging time for you. I’m glad you have a therapist and I hope Team You includes many other excellent people.

Those of us who don’t choose to write fiction full-time, and even some who do, often have to confront the undeniable fact that writing takes time away from other things that we, or other people, think we should be doing. Many of us write when we should be working or studying, and our work and grades suffer for it. (You are not the first person to get fired in this way or for this reason, I guarantee you.) We eat takeout or microwaved junk food because we write when we should be shopping and cooking. We go bleary-eyed through the day because we stay up late or get up early and write when we should be sleeping. We complain of loneliness and then we write instead of going out with friends, or going on dates, or spending time with our families.

Some writers phrase this as a compulsion: “I can’t not write.” I’m always wary of that, because it sounds to me like giving up ownership of one’s life and choices. The common notion of the domineering muse is a false one, because the muse is you, and you are a conscious being making conscious decisions. They may be costly decisions, but you’re still the one making them, perhaps despite what you know is in your best interests. I can tell from your letter that you’re determined to own your choices (while acknowledging the influence of things you can’t control, like mental illness), and I think that’s a very wise approach that will make it much easier for you to get back to writing.

As I wrote a few months ago, when the person you have injured is you, the person you need to apologize to, and make amends to, is you. In a sense, you have to earn your own trust again. Right now it’s hard for you to believe that you can handle your urge to write in a responsible way. So take some time to decide what responsible writing looks like for you, both while you’re unemployed and after you find another job (where ideally the workplace will not be toxic and you won’t feel the urge to defy it, or escape it, by doing personal tasks while you’re on the clock).

Establish some parameters for yourself that feel plausible and achievable. Aim for “do” rather than “do not”: “write between 9 and 11 p.m.” or “write while I’m on the commuter train” rather than “don’t write at work,” for example. This isn’t about protecting the rest of your life from your writing, but about protecting your writing from the rest of your life. Right now your urge to write feels scary and dangerous. You want to create a space within which you can write safely, without risk.

Then pay the cost of writing up front, in full, by acknowledging that you are choosing to take that space away from everything that isn’t writing. If you’re going to write in the evenings, make a deliberate choice to stop accepting dinner invitations that will cut into that writing time. If you’re going to write in the early morning, understand that this comes in lieu of sleep. If those costs start to feel too steep, nudge your parameters around or look for ways to mitigate your losses. Maybe you’ll end up only writing three evenings a week rather than every evening; maybe your partner is willing to handle childcare in the mornings.

Once you’ve defined a safe space within which writing can happen, earn your own trust back by staying within it. If you constantly find yourself straying outside of it, think about why that is. Are you resenting there being any limitations on your writing? Are you feeling self-destructive? Is writing so intensely therapeutic and reassuring that you want tremendous doses of it? Is there a certain time of day when you feel most creative and don’t want to waste it? Work on understanding those feelings and negotiating with them rather than ignoring them or trying to push them aside. And as you’re doing that, keep writing as responsibly as you can, adjusting your parameters if you need to. It’s important to accept that you are the type of writer you are while also acknowledging the demands of the outside world. Responsible writing lies in finding the happy intersections between the two, being responsible to yourself as an artist as well as to your more worldly needs.

As you create a space where it’s safe for you to write without fearing that you’ll cause yourself harm, and as you build up a good track record of staying within the lines you’ve drawn for yourself, you’ll find that writing gets easier and creative inspiration will come back. Until that happens, if you’re struggling to put words on the page, I suggest spending that time on things that are related to writing so the shoulds don’t come creeping back in. Give yourself time to get back in the groove, and build the habit of writing time being a regular, reliable thing.

You may note that nothing in here makes reference to punishment. You’ve already paid a penalty for your poor choices; those natural consequences are more than sufficient to motivate you to change. What remains is to commit to making better choices in the future, and to clearly define “better choices” so you know when you achieve them and can correct yourself when you fall short.

You can’t change the past. You can only move forward from where you are. I wish you the very best of luck in building a path toward a happy coexistence of writing and the rest of your life.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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

#62: How to Organize Research Material

Dear Story Nurse,

I have many writing problems, but I have finally have isolated one that may respond to advice!

Here is the question: how do you organize a large body of research for a novel?

The book project I’m concerned with is set in a different country from my own, during a couple of years of significant historical events. I have about 45,000 words of a rough draft, though mostly I plan to completely rewrite it.

I have an idea of the basic point-in-time facts I need to acquire—”who did what when” stuff—and the beginnings of what I want to know about the setting—what a cheap flat in [blah decade] in [blah city] smelled like and what sort of kitchen appliances people had in that neighborhood (though I have issues with something like ADHD so it’s very hard for me to organize even that).

But a big part of the story is more psychological and emotional, and trying to figure out how personal and national history shapes a person, and what things come to the surface when you put people under pressure at a moment that is clearly historic: and this is proving very hard to research indeed. I’ve purchased twelve books of history about this country covering periods and topics I thought could be relevant to how a modern person might view themselves (I realize this was a bad idea, please don’t yell at me). I’ve read a couple of these, but I’m struggling to process them into what’s relevant and what’s not.

To be clear, it’s not that I think that there is exactly such a thing as “national character”—but I do think that the stories that we are told about our histories, our countries, our cities, our families, and ourselves over and over and over again do matter to how we think about life and how we see ourselves and others. So I’m looking for facts about what happened and where, but I’m also looking for historical events that have national and personal emotional resonance.

How do you suggest organizing all these layers of research for my story—the purely factual, the experiential, and the spiritual/emotional stuff?

Best regards,

Disorganized Potato (they/them)

Dear Disorganized Potato,

This is a wonderful question. Fortunately you have a lot of flexibility, because any organizational system you come up with will be solely for your use, so you can fine-tune it to suit your needs. And turning those nebulous concepts into organizable chunks of data isn’t as hard as you might think.

Continue reading

An Update on #47

Some of you may recall letter #47, in which an aromantic writer received an unpleasant critique of an aromantic character and felt stymied and blocked by it. She was unable to work further on the story, and worried that she would have trouble selling it. She just wrote to me with a brief update:

I thought perhaps you would like to know, that the story I wrote in about has been accepted for publication.

Thank you.

LW, I’m so thrilled for you that you were able to set that unkind critique aside, revise and submit your story, and find a good home for it. Thank you for letting me know!

Past letter writers, I’m always glad to hear updates from you—how are you doing?

Delightedly,

Story Nurse

#61: Encouraging Beta Reader Follow-Through

Dear Story Nurse,

I just finished a first draft of a novel. I’m fairly happy with the broad strokes of the story and the characters, but I’m at a point now where I really need outside input. I’ve done what I can on my own in terms of editing and refining and letting the thing rest and picking it up again. I need a fresh set of eyes. I’ve been at this point for over a year now.

I’ve contacted just about everyone I know whose opinion I value and asked them to beta-read for me. All of them enthusiastically agreed, then disappeared off the face of the earth. It’s gotten to a point now where I joke that if you want someone out of your life, just ask them to read your damn novel.

I understand that beta-reading is a huge commitment. I always, always mention that if someone changes their mind for any reason, that’s absolutely fine. Just tell me you’re out, no nagging or interrogations from my end, just a no is fine. I’m very happy to repay them any way they see fit if they need help themselves. But not a single person has gotten back to me.

So friends and family are apparently out. I’ve tried online workshops, but while a chapter critique can be very useful, what I really need is for someone to read the entire thing. Again I fall into this cycle of people committing and flaking without explanation. I’ve done a few manuscript swaps, which were very disappointing. Maybe it was bad luck, but I only seemed to get people who clearly weren’t interested in providing thoughtful critique and just wanted their own manuscript read. I must have written hundreds of pages of critique for other people and gotten almost nothing back. I’ll go back to these swaps if necessary, but I’m pretty burnt out on them at this point.

I honestly did some soul-searching to see if the problem was me, and I don’t think it is? I don’t nag people after I’ve sent them the manuscript. I’ll ask once or twice over the course of a month or three, but I’m very careful not to pressure anyone. I try not to come across as desperate, but I am, so maybe it shows? I know the manuscript is rough, but it’s not so shitty or offensive that it should prevent people from reading it through. Dunno. Can’t tell.

Apart from the fact that it breaks my goddamn heart to have people I care about (including my own damn husband) consistently flake on something they know is pretty damn important to me, I can’t for the life of me get this manuscript read by anyone. I am saving up my pennies for a professional developmental edit, but that’s not going to happen anytime soon. I know a professional editor is very important and I need one, but we’re at a stage now where we can barely afford food, so.

Is this the normal process? Am I going about this the wrong way? And since this is so emotionally draining to do all this while also on the rejection treadmill for a bunch of short stories, should I just give up for a while and pick this up later?

—C.S.H. (they/them)

Dear C.S.H.,

That sounds really dispiriting and difficult. I’m so sorry you’ve been having a rough time getting someone to make and keep a commitment or explain to you why they can’t.

Asking beta readers to start reading, finish reading, and talk to you about what they read doesn’t seem like a lot, but it can feel pretty daunting from the other side. In my experience, there are three main reasons beta readers flake on giving crits:

  1. They didn’t finish or like the book and feel bad saying so.
  2. They don’t know how to write a crit or give useful feedback and are embarrassed to admit it.
  3. Other things take priority over unpaid commitments.

Here are some ways to prevent these problems. Continue reading

#60: Starting Small

Dear Story Nurse,

I took a really long break from writing partially due to mental illness and chronic fatigue and partially because I was looking at it as something I *had* to do, and I’d forgotten why I actually love writing. So I’m trying to figure that out, and I’m only really writing fanfic right now because it’s easier for me, but I seem to have run into the same problem I run into with my original fiction.

I really want to write longer works, but as soon as I decide that’s something I want to do, I basically lose all interest on whatever I’ve been working on. I pretty much never finish anything that I want to be longer than 5,000 words. Occasionally, I’ll accidentally make something a little longer, but I get kind of antsy about that too, even things I’m initially really excited about writing. I’m not sure how to fix this.

—Briar (they/them)

Dear Briar,

I’m sorry you’re having a hard time coming back to writing after so long away. That’s something a lot of people struggle with (see my posts on returning to writing after a long hiatus and when creation feels like a chore), especially if you took the break on purpose and for good reasons. Having filed not-writing under mental health self-care for so long, it can be challenging to now believe that writing will be not only safe but actively beneficial.

Continue reading