#105: How Much Backstory Is Too Much

Hello, Story Nurse!

My main focus at the moment is a fantasy novel. I’m only in the planning stages right now but I’m having a hard time figuring out what to do for this. My story is mainly centered on a group of people, and while they may age as it progresses, they are kids/teens. A big part of my story is about recovery and healing and such, so most of these kids have emotional wounds.

While their emotional wounds are obviously going to be present even when not outright mentioned, my question is; how much information of these traumas/wounds is enough? I fear that including too much information on their wounds may make it seem like I’m trying to force the reader to pity them, and that too little will leave the reader confused and in the dark.

How much is too much or too little? Any suggestions on how do I show their wounds and provide details without waving a neon sign?

Thank you,

Struggling (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.


Story Nurse

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#95: The False Competition Between Fanfic and Original Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been writing fanfic for as long as I can remember, since before I even knew fanfic existed. When I got online at age 11, I tumbled into that world and learned so much about writing. I’ve had at least something on the go all the time since then. I’ve now reached the point where I feel I need to be writing something of my own.

It’s not that I lack an understanding of how to transition from fanfic to original on the technical levels of building characters and worlds; it’s that I can’t seem to get the same level of enthusiasm for my original worlds as I do for other people’s. It doesn’t help that a lot of what I like doing as a fanfiction writer is playing with the fact of having a shared canon to do weird postmodern things; I’m obsessed with having characters meet alternatively written versions of themselves from variant incarnations of canon, I’ve written a story which allegorised the lackluster sequel interpretations of two video game characters to my own experience of depression, and so on. But what’s most painful is that it’s making me poor. Inspiration for fanfic comes to me effortlessly and with a big ‘let’s do it!’ feeling—original fic ideas never feel so exciting. It doesn’t help that as I’ve become a better writer the effort required to write fic has increased to the point where it is no longer sustainable for me to write fanfic—I have to write it, because the ideas kill me if I don’t, but then I’ve just written something that won’t get me any validation and certainly won’t improve my career prospects, and the guilt is almost as bad as the guilt of not having written the idea in the first place.

You’ve already given ideas to someone looking to graduate from fanfic to original fic, but please can you provide some advice for someone who needs to quit fanfiction to get money and validation, but can’t keep my heart from obsessing over new things I can do with video game characters?

—Naomi (she/her)

Dear Naomi,

The word “guilt” really jumps out at me from your letter. You’ve gotten yourself into a bind because you’re perceiving your energy as a scarce resource that’s depleted by writing, so no matter where you put that resource, you feel like you’re spending it unwisely. But what’s actually depleting you isn’t the act of writing; it’s the shame you feel about how and what you’re writing. I can’t give you advice on how to quit writing fanfic, because I’m skeptical of your assertion that you need to. What I can advise you on is how to stop pouring your energy into the guilt-pit so you have enough for both fanfic and original fiction, with some to spare.

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?


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

#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.


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.


Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

NaNoWriMo: Keeping the Momentum Going After November

Dear friends,

We’re in the NaNoWriMo home stretch. Whatever your NaNo has been like, it’s nearly over. In a few days, it will be December.

Then what?

If you’re desperately trying to stay focused on your November 30 deadline and keep the words flowing, you may not want to read this just yet. Come back to it when you’re ready (though I do recommend reading it before the end of November). But I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s already looking ahead—sometimes, let’s be honest, as a way of procrastinating—and thinking about how to use the things I’ve learned and the habits I’ve built in November to improve my writing and increase my output in December and beyond.

Continue reading

NaNoWriMo: Time Management Tips

Dear friends,

Welcome to my 2017 NaNoWriMo bonus posts! Thanks again to all the Patreon patrons who are funding this series. If you missed last year’s posts, you can find them here.

The first request I received was for time management tips. This request came from someone who has a couple of other big projects happening in November, but I expect just about everyone doing NaNo has other things going on. If you have nothing better to do than write 1700 words a day, then you’re a career novelist and more power to you! This post is for everyone else. It addresses both planning your time and using your time effectively.

1. Determine your Writing Time Unit (WTU). A Writing Time Unit is an amount of time sufficient for you to get into the writing mindset, make some words happen, and start to run out of steam. Every writer has a different range of WTUs. My minimum WTU is about 20 minutes and my maximum is about an hour, maybe an hour and a half if I’m really in the groove. For planning purposes, I consider a WTU to be 20 minutes and think of longer bouts in terms of multiple WTUs: if I’ve set aside 45 minutes to write, that’s two 20-minute WTUs with a short break in between.

In order to get the most out of your writing time, you want to schedule enough time to rev up and write but not so much time that you run out of juice and then feel bad about not making the most of the time you’ve set aside. Your bout of writing should end when you’re starting to flag, not when you’re completely done in. So when you’re calculating your WTU, remember that it’s a minimum, not a maximum. If you finish one WTU worth of writing and you’re still raring to go, you can always do another!

Take a moment now to think about your writing habits and calculate a minimum WTU. It could be as short as five or ten minutes, or much longer. An easy way to know whether you’ve found your minimum WTU is to complete this sentence: “If I have less than [quantity of time] I’m just not going to make any real writing progress.” If you’re more likely to have a few long stretches of writing time than a lot of short ones, you may also want to think about how many WTUs you can realistically do in a row.

(Does getting into the writing mindset always take a while? Here are some ideas for writing rituals that will help you to shift gears.)

2. Plan to be done by November 25. Before you have a heart attack, hear me out. Every good plan with a deadline allows for schedule creep. You almost certainly won’t finish by November 25, but if you plan to be done by November 25, that gives you 20% leeway. Aiming for November 30 and getting anxious over every shortfall is a much less enjoyable experience than aiming for November 25 and knowing you have a five-day safety net.  Those of you who like dividing numbers by other numbers can also enjoy the nice round numerical goals of 2000 words a day or 14,000 words a week. Just remember that the idea is to make it okay for you to miss a day or fall short one week and not stress over it. Less stress means more productivity and more fun!

3. Block out time. Look at your schedule for November and figure out where you already have (or can make) spaces that writing can fit into. Go through your calendar day by day and ask Is there room for writing here? How much? This is where your WTU comes in. A 20-minute lunch break is enough time for some writers but not for others. A two-hour morning writing session is perfect for some writers and way too long for others. Also make sure it’s at a time of day when your brain is working well enough for writing to happen. Don’t bother setting aside time unless it’s time you can actually use.

Get creative, and enlist assistance! Maybe on Mondays you can fit in a writing sprint while you’re dialed in to a boring phone meeting, or Tuesdays and Wednesdays your partner will handle morning childcare so you can write for an hour. Maybe your Thanksgiving plans involve a plane trip and you can write in the airport or in flight. But be realistic: if you know you’re always too sleepy on your train commute home to get anything done, don’t pretend that that will magically change for the month of November.

Most importantly, block out that time on your calendar, and make sure other people know not to disturb you while you’re writing. If possible, go somewhere quiet and devoid of interruptions. You are making a commitment to yourself to get some writing done. Take it seriously and defend it fiercely.

Once you’ve got all your writing time booked, divide your wordcount goal by the number of WTUs you have scheduled between now and November 25, and you’ll have a rough idea of how much you need to write per session. This is a great time to adjust your goal if you realize you’ve set yourself up to write 4000 words in 40 minutes. (It’s always okay to make accommodations for yourself and choose a different goal or timeline.) And remember to book writing time all the way through to the end of November so you have it if you need it. If you do finish early, you can use that time for reading books, knitting, or basking in your own glory—or for editing your manuscript or starting the next writing project.

4. Don’t expect every day to be the same. The numerical nature of NaNo goals—30 days, 50,000 words—naturally lends itself to ideas about daily writing sprints or daily wordcount goals that inevitably fall apart when they run up against real life. Don’t set yourself up to fail. If your plan is so fragile that a single day of dealing with a work emergency or caring for a sick kid can disrupt it, you need a better plan.

Most of us have fairly regular weekly routines, so it may make sense for you to set up your NaNo writing plan on that basis. For example, Thursday is my long day at the office; I usually work twelve hours or more. When I set up my own modified NaNo plan to write for at least one WTU per calendar day, I thought about that and added “except Thursday.” To balance that out, I’ll aim for two WTUs on a Tuesday or Friday, when I tend to have free time.

If you’re not already a very disciplined butt-in-chair type of writer, and perhaps even if you are, it’s wise to anticipate some pretty big variations in your writing productivity over the course of the month. From what I’ve heard (and I would love to get some hard data on this), the typical NaNoWriMo wordcount curve looks a lot like the Kickstarter funding curve. Expect productivity spikes at the beginning (when you’re excited) and the end (when you’re desperate), and a lull in the middle (when you realize just how much of a challenge you’ve set yourself). Coincidentally, the Kickstarter team determined that 30 days is the optimal duration for a Kickstarter campaign: “sufficient to maximize the burst of activity at the beginning and end, and still have a small trough where you can regroup or allow some momentum to build.” So when you’re in that trough, think about what regrouping and building momentum look like for you. Do you need to revisit your outline? Change your schedule? Reconnect with your early excitement over your concept? Check in with a friend who motivates you, or commiserate with other NaNo participants? Don’t waste time despairing or fretting; have faith that that final productivity spike is coming, and do what you can to prepare for it and encourage it to spike hard and high.

5. Boost your productivity to make the most of your time. NaNo is focused on word generation, so don’t get too caught up in outlining or character sketching or research, but do feel free to spend a couple of your early sessions investing in preparation activities that will genuinely make you more productive later on. Just remember to account for that when setting your intermediate wordcount goals.

Rachel Aaron suggests spending a few minutes at the beginning of each session jotting down notes for the scene you’re going to write next so you’re not slowing yourself down by planning and writing at the same time. Your mini-outline can be as simple as “John and Steve fight, feel bad, and make up” or “The detective interviews three more suspects and starts to follow a red herring.” It’s fine if your eventual writing deviates from that plan; the idea is just to have something to guide and nudge you if you get stuck.

Speaking of getting stuck, there will definitely be times when you hit a wall. If that happens, don’t despair! Try one or two of these five-minute writing-related tasks and see whether that unsticks you. If not, at least you’ll have made some progress on the planning front, and that will make the next session easier.

6. Periodically check in and adjust. In addition to generally staying aware of what’s working and what’s not, and doing more of the former and less of the latter, I recommend doing check-ins on November 5, 15, and 25 to see how your progress compares to your plan. Don’t just look at the numbers; consider the experience of your writing so far, which types of pre-writing prep have been helpful and which have distracted and delayed you, what writing environments have worked well, whether your minimum WTU is what you thought it was, and so on. Then make adjustments to your schedule and expectations.

If you haven’t written on deadline before, one of the things NaNo will teach you is that you can’t lie to yourself about what works for you or doesn’t. The wordcount tells the truth. It may be hard to let go of your idealized notions of how easy it will be to write in a cafe, how much the people in your life will respect your scheduled writing time, or how little planning you need to do before you start to write, but do force yourself to do it. You’ll get much more done and have much more fun if you’re honest about what your conditions for happy writing look like and do your best to create those conditions.

If you’re an old hand at NaNo (or writing fiction on tight deadlines) and have other time management tips, please do share them in the comments. Good luck to everyone doing NaNoWriMo this year!


Story Nurse

This post is part of a special NaNoWriMo 2017 series supported by my fabulous Patreon patronsGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!