#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.

Figure out why you want to write a novel. Really dig into it. If shorter things are easier, why not just write shorter things? What is it about writing a novel, as a concept, that calls to you? Is it attached to your idea of what it means to be a successful writer, or a functional person? Is it a way to prove that ADHD doesn’t own you or that everyone who called you lazy was wrong? Is it a thing you actually want to do for other people more than for yourself? Do you feel like it’s what you “should” be doing? Do you keep getting ideas that cry out to be developed at novel length? Is it a thing you hunger for so desperately that you can’t begin to explain why, except that it’s deeply rooted in your soul? If you never wrote a novel, how sad would you be?

Spend some time on this step. Until you make your abstract goal more solid and figure out what makes it personally meaningful to you, it will keep losing out to shiny new ideas. If you can’t find that personal meaning in your goal, it may not be the right goal for you. (There is no shame in this at all. Every writer is different, and needs different types of projects.) So think about it, until you’ve either realized it’s time to let go of this goal or become really passionate and determined to see a novel project through to completion.

Got that passion? Good. Write down what this goal means to you, in the most personal terms, and put it someplace where you can refer back to it when your attention starts to drift. This is a letter to your future self, so be persuasive in exactly the ways you know will be most effective for you: “Dear future butterfly, here’s why you should stick with what you’re working on and not let the shiny lure you away.” Again, if you can’t do this in a way that seems likely to work—if there is nothing that would make finishing a novel more attractive than pursuing a new idea—then it’s time to consider different writing goals.

Come up with a shiny-corralling protocol. When an idea hits you, your first impulse will be to start writing it. You need a different thing to do with the idea instead, so you can get it dealt with and then go back to your primary project. Many people who are driven to follow each new idea have a fear of missing out; having a consistent way of dealing with new ideas will help to reassure you that they’ll all be there when you finish this project and want to start the next one. You can write it down in a bullet journal, make a new file for it in your “writing ideas” folder, send yourself a text message or Twitter DM about it—whatever works for you. What’s important is that it is quick (so as not to take too much time or attention away from your primary project), organized or searchable (so you can reassure your anxiety that you won’t lose your ideas), and consistent (so you can make a real practice out of it). Develop this protocol and write it down for your reference. Practice it a few times with ideas you already have, just to make sure that it works well for you. When you have corralled a shiny, you should be able to really let go of it and go back to what you were doing.

Look for patterns in where you’ve dropped past projects. Is there a certain stage in a writing project when you almost inevitably start to feel bored? Getting bored while writing can mean a number of things: you’re feeling anxious and avoidant or uncertain about what’s coming next in the book, you’re feeling critical of what you’ve already written, you’re feeling mentally or physically exhausted and need to take a break, or you’ve let the tension ebb in your story and it’s actually become boring.

Glance through the last 1000 words or so of your five most recent interrupted projects—it’s important to make this finite so that you don’t get too distracted—and see whether there are similarities in your stopping points. That will help you know when to expect boredom to hit as you’re working on this new project, and how to address it when it does: doing a little planning so you feel more confident about tackling the next section of the book, reassuring your inner critic, resting, or fixing your story’s momentum.

Do some warm-ups. If you tend to bottom out at 10,000 words, write a story that’s complete at 10,000 words. Then try for 12,000, then 20,000, then 30,000. This step is optional, but it can help you build confidence and also help you identify what it is about the 10k mark that tends to stop you.

Now you are ready to try writing a novel! Pick a practice project. It should be something you think is fun but don’t feel too strongly about. It should be easy, insofar as any novel is ever easy—write that Butterfly Sue and some cardboard cut-out supporting characters, scribble in that paint-by-numbers setting, steal that plot from another story you love, aim for 80,000 words rather than 150,000. Your goal is not to finish a great novel; it is to finish any novel. Set yourself up to succeed rather than putting more barriers in your own way.

Also pick a passion project that you feel absolutely devoted to and can pour your heart and soul into. You asked how to keep your attention on one idea, but it doesn’t sound like your brain is wired to do that—so don’t do it! Instead, coopt your ADHD by giving yourself a defined second thing to swap over to when the first thing loses your attention. Your practice project is the one with the “finish this” goal attached. Your passion project is there to remind you what makes writing worth the struggle and stress, and to get you invigorated again. What’s key is that you then swap back to the practice project instead of jumping to something new.

Set up a schedule of some kind. Some parts of my NaNoWriMo post on time management won’t be relevant, because you don’t have that tight deadline, but do at least calculate your minimum Writing Time Unit so you know how much time you need to block out for a writing session. Then schedule at least one regular writing session a week, and more if you can swing it. The key word is regular.

Set a session goal. Don’t set wordcount goals if those don’t work for you, but do set the goal of “do something writing-related with this time”. This is especially useful during the planning stage. Once you’re in the drafting stage, if you can’t make words happen, pick a task that will help words come more easily next time, such as focused research, outlining, character sketches, or brainstorming. You can also track your words per hour and try to beat your average. I love this one because my average, by definition, is a thing I’ve already done and therefore a thing I am confident I’ll be able to do again. And if you consistently beat your average, your average will go up, creating a challenge that grows with you and stays within reach as long as you stretch yourself just a little.

Optimize your writing environment. If you live with people, shut your door and put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on it; if you live with pets, make sure they’re well fed and petted before your writing time begins; if you’re at a coffee shop, get your favorite beverage and make sure you’ve got earplugs or headphones if you need to block out crowd noise. Put your phone on silent and out of reach, snooze your Slack notifications, and quit out of distracting apps and websites. If stimming helps you stay focused, keep stim toys handy, put a bumpy mat on your chair, or sit on an exercise ball so you can bounce and rock as you write. Play music or put on white noise or work in pure perfect silence. Do whatever makes writing easier.

If you’re a planner, plan. Make a timeline, draw a map, figure out who your characters are, outline the plot, and so on. Don’t get too caught up in this; you may want to set a finite number of writing sessions for it, after which you start making words even if you don’t feel ready yet. You can always dedicate a later session to filling in the gaps if you really need to, but remember that many many flaws can be repaired in revisions. Your goal is not to write a gleaming perfect gem of a first draft; it’s to write a first draft.

Even if you’re an improviser more than a planner, take two minutes at the start of every writing session to jot down a note about what you intend to write. It can be as simple as “that scene where they do the thing with the stuff”. This is to give you a little initial focus so you ideally start the session feeling purposeful and confident rather than flailing and directionless and anxious.

Write.

Have big feelings about your book and the process of writing it—be mad and sad and excited and scared and enthralled and teary-eyed. Martha Alderson says that every writer goes on their own heroic journey in the process of writing a book, and is transformed by it. Transformation is hard, but keep going. You are strong and you will survive it.

Pause. When you get bored, identify the flavor of boredom and address it. When you lose momentum, switch projects. When you get tired, rest. When you wonder why you’re bothering, reread that letter to yourself.

Keep writing. When you hate the book and think it sucks, keep writing. When you’re in the three-quarters slump, keep writing. When you have no idea what you’re doing, keep writing. When you’re blocked, keep writing. When you’re not inspired, keep writing.

And when you’re done, type “The End”.

If this goal is the right goal for you, then I am absolutely confident you’ll achieve it. Drop me a note when you’ve got a draft done and we’ll throw you a little blog party in the comments.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#80: Adaptation and Creation

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m in the planning stages of a trilogy adapting my Dungeons and Dragons character’s story to a novel format. It follows my character through her training as a knight, her fall from knightly society and loss of her homeland, regaining her honor, gathering allies and assets, and reclaiming her homeland from the rule of her half-brother and stepmother.

The first and last parts were left up to my imagination so I’m having an easier time outlining them. But the “regaining her honor and gathering allies bit” which will make up the bulk of Book 2 was played out in-game. And I’m completely stuck on how to adapt it.

I don’t want to use the campaign story because it belongs to the Game Master and my character didn’t really have a connection to the central conflict besides that fighting the bad guys was the Right Thing To Do. But I can’t think of new villains and new tensions for my character!

I have a feeling that brainstorming, developing my setting and side characters, and reading other fantasy novels for inspiration will help, but if you have any other advice, I would be most grateful.

Yours,

Book 2 Blues (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!

#77: Making Your Story the Length You Want

Dear Story Nurse,

I recently finished the first draft of my novel—a mystery set in a pretty traditional fantasy land. The problem? When I did the final word count, it came out to 27K. I’m doing the first round of editing—well, mostly adding scenes that I missed the first time around—and at the rate I’m going, it’s going to roughly double my wordcount, which still won’t bring me to the 80–90K typical of the genre. And I definitely do want this work to be a novel, not a novella. Retooling it for the typically shorter YA market would involve excising a lot of themes important to the story. So how can I get my wordcount up without adding unnecessary fluff?

—Wannabe Novelist (he/him)

Dear Wannabe Novelist,

There are two ways to approach this dilemma. One is the philosophical approach: the story is the length it wants to be, and there isn’t much that you can do about that. The other is the engineering approach: there needs to be enough story structure to support the story’s length, or the whole thing will collapse and that will be sad. I’m going to get into the engineering approach a bit, but I want you to keep the philosophical one in mind, because there are very good reasons that most of the seasoned writers I know tend to end up thinking of story length in those terms.

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#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.

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#23: Constructing a Satisfying Mystery

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m writing a short murder mystery story, ten people trapped in a house style. I want the murderer to turn out to be another person who was secretly hiding in the house the whole time, but… if I overdo the hinting, it’ll be pretty obvious, and if I don’t talk about him at all it’ll be cheap when it’s revealed at the end.

The main characters are all friends and knew the murderer personally before the story, so there might be good reason for them to mention him casually. I just don’t know how to do that without letting out huge warning bells! Especially since he has the most clear motivations to do the dirty deed, and there aren’t any other (living) outsider characters.

The murderer is the twin brother of the victim, so the characters toss around a few “maybe they swapped places”–style theories, which wouldn’t really work if he was right in front of them. I suppose I could do something like have him be in the house, but in such a state of “shock” that the characters can’t tell which twin he is or extract any information from him? But I don’t know, it still feels like as long as he’s directly around, he’s the most obvious killer.

—Clued Out (she/her)

Dear Clued Out,

You’ve painted yourself into a corner by eliminating all sources of tension from your story. Fortunately that’s pretty easy to fix.

Here’s the setup you have right now:

  • Someone was killed
  • By the person most motivated to do it
  • Who is so obvious a culprit that if he appears in the story he will be immediately identified as the killer
  • So you leave him out of the story

That’s not the setup of a murder mystery, because there’s no mystery to it. You need multiple plausible solutions and perhaps some implausible ones as well. And you’re right that if there’s only one plausible solution and the only reason characters (and readers) haven’t figured it out is that they’re missing information, the revelation of that information will probably be unsatisfying.

Satisfaction comes from sustained tension leading to a climax. The tension in a mystery is usually an unanswered question: whowhy, or how. It sounds like how isn’t so much the issue in your mystery, and right now who and why have only one possible answer. So you need to set up some alternatives. Continue reading

#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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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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#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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#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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