#111: Habit and Quantity vs. Inspiration and Quality

Dear Story Nurse,

I was wondering what advice you have for someone who knows she produces better writing when she’s “feeling it” but can’t force herself to “feel it”.

Background: I have finished a few novels and am involved in an online workshop. My process is usually a creative phase, where I create an outline, brainstorm ideas, tinker with the structure, determine pacing and so on. I write snippets of dialog to get a feel for the characters and create a basic synopsis. I usually give myself a lot of time for ideas to gestate and only work on them when I feel good about the process. It is not part of the “write every day” regimen.

After that, the second “write every day” phase begins. So I write, every day, even when depression gets the better of me or life gets in the way. I’ve got that part down.

Then, third phase editing, which I really enjoy. I finish my projects to my personal satisfaction. I’m not looking to get published at the moment (my personal life is too fraught lately to be able to emotionally handle the inevitable rejection treadmill) so I am content with finishing solid first or second drafts to keep in the drawer for later, when I’m better equipped to tackle the industry.

My problem exists in the second phase, and it’s becoming a real hurdle.

I have noticed a quality drop when I force myself to write when I’m not really feeling it. I’m glad the words are on the page, but I know the words could have been much, much better if I had been enthusiastically and emotionally involved rather than dutifully hitting my targets for the day. The reason I persist with the schedule even if it produces sub-par work is that “inspiration” and “feeling it” are unreliable things you can’t force. I’d rather get it done than wait around for a flighty muse. But I’ve hit a point now where I feel that producing rote prose is just me creating problems for myself in editing. It’s much harder for me to improve my writing during the editing phase than it is to just get it right the first time around. (I quite literally live for the moment when all the stars align and I just get engrossed in writing to the point of intense personal satisfaction, when the hours fly by and the result turns out every bit as good as I felt it was while working on it. It’s truly like a drug for me and I crave it like you wouldn’t believe.)

I’ve tried to follow advice to get around this: write the less important parts when you’re not feeling it, save the intense moments for when creativity peaks. But that clashes with another piece of writing advice I hold dear: if it’s not important or interesting, scrap it. Besides, I like to write chronologically and not skip around too much. I really need that self-imposed structure or I’d be off writing an encyclopedia of unnecessary fluff and create even more problems in editing.

Is this a situation where I just need to “git gud” and learn to produce quality prose on demand, even if I’m not feeling very connected to the material that day? Should everything I write be super engaging to me by default and is it a bad sign when I’m not connecting? Is “write every day” just not good advice for me? Is this a case where mental illness prevents me from gaining benefit from otherwise good advice? Or is this my well-documented perfectionism sabotaging me again?

After many years of buck wild pantsing and unfinished projects, I really, truly like having actual output for a change, so I hesitate to change my process. But I’m getting sick of reading back over my work and thinking “wow, this could have been so much better if I actually gave a crap that day.”

I’d love your take on this!

—Charlotte (she/her)

Dear Charlotte,

It sounds to me like the clash you’re having is a clash of priorities, where prioritizing any of writing speed, quality, and effort leaves the others wanting. In other words, it’s a classic case of the Design Triangle: “fast, good, and cheap: pick any two.”

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GYWO: Why Every Writer Needs a Style Guide

GYWO is Get Your Words Out, a wonderful writing accountability community. I joined this year and I’m really enjoying it. I wrote this post for the GYWO community, and the moderators have kindly allowed me to mirror it on Story Hospital. My previous GYWO post was on how to write when you don’t want to.

I’ve done a great many things in and around publishing, and one tool that crosses over a lot of different disciplines is the style guide. Ideally a style guide will begin with the writer and carry through all the way to production. When you’re doing the sort of publication that involves a manuscript being passed from writer to agent to editor to copyeditor to designer to proofreader, it’s a really valuable tool for communication of vital information to someone you may never interact with directly. Even if you’re doing the entirety of writing, design, and publication yourself, you’ll want one to keep yourself on track and to share with your editor. In brief, it’s a way of saying “I did it this way on purpose.”

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GYWO: How to Write When You Don’t Wanna

GYWO is Get Your Words Out, a wonderful writing accountability community. I joined this year and I’m really enjoying it. I wrote this post for the GYWO community, and the moderators have kindly allowed me to mirror it on Story Hospital.

I have a cold. When I have a cold, I feel extremely sorry for myself. I am the worst, whiniest patient; I just want to sit in bed, play phone games, and have everything done for me. This is not conducive to writing. But I said I would make a post for GYWO today, so here I am. And the topic couldn’t be more apropos!

So there you are, a writer with writing to do, but… you don’t want to.

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#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.

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#55: Writing for Five Minutes at a Time

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I almost always work in short little bursts of a few minutes. Even when I clear out my schedule and sit down to have a long writing session I get the most done if I work in bursts on a few different works at a time. And, I also tend to have a lot of little 2–5 minute breaks in my day while I’m between tasks at work, or waiting for things. I’ve been frustrated with my lack of writing time lately, so it seemed totally natural that the obvious solution would be to try and write during the breaks I usually waste on the internet.

And for some reason I can’t.

My attempts at writing during my downtime currently just involve me staring blankly at an open document for a few minutes and giving up.

On the rare occasion I can get started in a timely manner I can write a little segment of text then go back to work and it feels really good, but getting started as soon as I open the document is REALLY HARD.

The type of writing I do doesn’t seem to make any difference; it’s equally difficult for fanfic, original fiction, and work-related science writing.

How do I stop needing a ritual 15-minute staring session before I start writing?

Thanks,

Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

Thanks for writing in again—I love answering your letters! (And if any past letter writers are wondering, yes, you’re always welcome to send me another question.) I appreciate that this time you gave me a nice easy question to answer. The answer is: you can’t.

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