#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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#110: Writing During Times of Life Upheaval

Dear Story Nurse,

For the past year or so, I’ve been making an effort to develop some good writing habits, progress has been mixed (this is just for framing). But I am now rapidly coming towards the very end stages of my Ph.D. I don’t really want any additional sources of stress right now, and I don’t want to just stop writing for months if I can help it, so I declared writing habit amnesty for myself and gave myself permission to write whatever I want, and take breaks when I need to.

I know this was the right choice for the circumstance, I can pick up my more serious writing goals later, and yet I still feel guilty when I don’t write for a few days or I sit down to write and don’t Focus on my Serious Projects. And that’s after I bludgeon the brainweasels that consider a Thesis a 24/7 project.

Any tips for silencing the jerk-brain?

—Aspiring Slacker (she/her)

Dear Aspiring Slacker,

If you’re feeling guilty and anxious when you don’t write, do write but don’t work on serious projects, or do work on serious projects but not on your thesis, it sounds to me like the anxiety is not about writing but is about you generally being anxious right now. This is totally normal and understandable for someone at this stage of a PhD, as I understand it, so please start by forgiving yourself for being stressed out by a very, very stressful situation.

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#101: Writing Submissions and Competition

Dear Story Nurse,

A really awesome opportunity has come up for a writing submission, but I’m aware that it’s going to involve going up against a friend who is also submitting (and I already have some difficult emotions about due to their comparative success). I don’t know whether it’s better to avoid the chance of direct competition exacerbating my already difficult feelings by not submitting, or to try it knowing that the consequences could be extremely tough to take. At the same time, I’m also aware that if I don’t try for this opportunity, that is still going to have an impact on my mental health. I don’t want to let my bad feelings bully me out of something that I’m really excited about, but I also don’t want to risk my mental wellbeing for one opportunity.

Thank you,

Hopeless Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopeless Romantic,

I don’t think this is a question someone other than you can answer, so I have some questions in return that might help you clarify what the right choice is for you. Continue reading

#73: Counteracting Envy of Other People’s Success

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m an unpublished novelist with a number of first drafts and one that is much closer to the endpoint of the process (like, a couple of revisions from done). I’ve been writing for a long time and feel that I’m getting to the stage where I might even be able to get published, but after years of writing privately without any kind of reassurance that my work is worthwhile, I’m really struggling to keep my anxieties from drowning me.

The thing I’m struggling with right now is professional jealousy of my friends—a couple of them have contracts and while I’m pretty good at stopping it from affecting my face-to-face friendship with them, I’ve had to mute their Facebook feeds and I am plagued by feelings that I have failed where they have succeeded. I acknowledge that this is definitely amplified by other life circumstances—SAD and work stress are adding to it—but unfortunately when I’m already having mental health problems, these thought processes are spiralling more and more.

The usual advice I’ve read is that my success isn’t impacted by that of my friends and they’re doing something completely different to me, so it shouldn’t affect me—to just put these thoughts aside and get on with the work. But creative work requires passion and a degree of blind faith that what I’m doing has value, and while I can dismiss these thoughts ten times a day, the eleventh time will still grind me down and cause me to obsess over my failure. That in turn affects my confidence in pushing on with my work.

The parts of writing that have always been hardest for me are consistency of enthusiasm and self-belief, and both of these are taking a fairly hefty hit from these upsetting thoughts right now. On top of that, much as I don’t want my relationship with my friends to suffer, any successes of theirs, even ones that are only tenuously related but indicate that they’re respected as professionals in their field, are causing me to feel resentful and leave the conversation. Since I care about them and want to be supportive, this is proving really tough. I never want to make them feel bad for their success (which is why I don’t want to talk to them about it), but when hearing about it messes with my brain, it’s difficult to maintain those friendships. I feel like I’m so close to success but just falling short, and yet they’re light years ahead.

Your previous posts have been really helpful in understanding why I feel the way I do about my work in the past, so I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this.

—Hopeful (she/her)

Dear Hopeful,

Jealousy is a beast, isn’t it? It’s one of the hardest emotions to handle, along with guilt and grief. And it sounds like you’re maybe feeling some of those things too: grief over the career you don’t have, guilt over your perceived failings.

The idea that you shouldn’t be affected by your friends’ successes is absolute nonsense. If you were thrilled for them and cheering them on, no one would tell you, “Whoa, slow down there—you shouldn’t be so happy! Their success has nothing to do with you!” We all understand that having feelings about what’s happening in our friends’ lives is perfectly normal. But when those feelings aren’t positive, they become less socially acceptable, and then you have another guilt burden laid atop the rest of the things you’re feeling. So let me relieve you of that burden: there’s nothing morally wrong with being envious of people who have things you want, and you’re not a bad person for feeling that way.

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#71: You Are Allowed to Write Outside Your Own Experience

Dear Story Nurse,

What do I do when my ‘own voice’ is traumatized and I don’t like it?

I write mostly fantasy (what people consider ‘high’ fantasy or ‘swords and sorcery’) and fairy tale variations, and have dabbled in romances; usually those are modern polyamory and/or demisexual/grey-ace focused. I don’t have anything published, but I’m not averse to the idea, I’m just slow and that’s not what pushes me to write.

There has been a lot of talk recently online about ‘own voices’ and how people (especially white people, which I am) should be cognizant of the pitfalls of writing outside our own culture or experiences, especially in nasty tropey stereotypical and demeaning or second-class sorts of ways. I am ALL IN FAVOR of this, and I try to support own voices writing in as many ways as I can, to try and counteract the amazingly sucky continued bias in publishing (and tbh, in life in general).

My question is this: as a corollary, the general view seems to be that as a white writer, my non-colonial, non-appropriative options are to… write only about my own experiences or culture? But my background is unpleasant and traumatic (and unusual: I was essentially raised in a cult until I was 16). My adult life has been boring and pretty white-het-cis-married-privileged (I’m not heterosexual, I’m polyam, and I don’t think I’m cisgender either but I’m still working thru that with myself, but I need to ‘pass’ because of where I live and what my job is.)

I write to escape my history and my current state of having to hide my authentic self, and to create alternatives for myself and for the child I didn’t get to be. Writing about my own childhood is traumatic—sometimes helpful, but it’s a therapy assignment, not me writing for love of writing where the story and characters just flow out of me in a happy relaxing zen. And writing about my own adult life is frustrating because it reminds me how much I have to hide all the time. And writing about ‘white culture’ seems fake to me—I didn’t grow up in it, and it still feels like I’m behind the curve and missing things there too.

So how do I honor own voices and still write when I don’t feel like I have a voice of my own that I can use?

—Rowan (they/them)

Dear Rowan,

I’m honored that you wrote to me with such a personal and painful question. I’m so sorry that people have treated you badly, especially when you were a child, and that your current circumstances force you to hide who you are.

I want to be very clear on this, up front: You are never required to write things that harm youYour writing must be for you first and last. And there is always a way to find stories to write that don’t harm you or anyone else.

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#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.

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#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.

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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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#48: Writing Characters Who Share Your Identities

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently stalled out on both short stories I am writing. While they are both fantasy stories, each one deals with a theme that is important to me. One is a romance with a genderqueer shifter and the other features a character embracing her chronic pain. While both of these topics are important to me, I’ve not been writing them because it’s stirring up unresolved feelings in me on both of these issues.

My question is this: Writing #ownvoices is important, but how do I support myself in exploring hard topics that stir up unresolved feelings in me, and relatedly, how do I manage the fear that I’m not doing #ownvoices stories well enough, sensitively enough, or with enough compassion and good representation?

Thanks for your time, and I understand if you want to split the questions up!

With admiration,

Psygeek (she/her)

 

Dear Psygeek,

I sympathize a lot with this letter. I’ve run into this problem with my own novels in progress. We are surrounded by wonderful conversations about representation, but that can come with an increased feeling of pressure to get it right. That can then get tangled up with internal anxieties around identity, such as the feeling of being not [identity] enough or doing [identity] wrong. So I definitely think these two questions go together.

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#47: When to Reject a Critique

Hi Story Nurse,

I’m an aro ace writer with a few published stories under my belt, now beginning to venture into writing ownvoices stories. I wrote a fluffy fantasy story with an openly labelled aromantic main character and passed it to one of my usual beta readers (who I am not out to).

CN: arophobia
One of the notes in Beta’s response said that “aromantic” didn’t seem like the right word for MC because MC was clearly a nice, kind, warm-hearted person. When I asked cautiously for elaboration, it came with more microaggressions attached. /CN

Now I come to revise the story and the notes drain my energy for doing so every time I have to look at them, and it makes me wonder if I would be believed if I did come out. How do I separate criticism of my story from criticism of myself, when what is actually being marked down is the marginalisation my character and I share?

Thanks for your time
Flat Battery (she/her or they/them)

(For definitions of aromanticalloromantic, and related terms, see this glossary.)

Dear Flat Battery,

I’m so sorry your beta reader responded in such a rude and biased way. Of course those notes will now make you feel bad about yourself and your work!

In this case you don’t need to separate criticism of the story from criticism of yourself. What you do need to do is reject the criticism as based in falsehood and therefore invalid.

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