#113: Getting Beyond the Beginning

Dear Story Nurse,

Lately, I keep coming up with setups for stories – complete with hooks and challenges I think will be really fun! – and then I look at all this space afterwards and have no idea what to put there. I guess I give the characters problems, but I get stuck trying to find the actual solutions. I keep trying to plot and getting really tied up in knots, and then writing scenes just to get into the story and losing interest quickly because I realize I’m just building a path as I go and it’s going nowhere in particular.

Any tips for getting unstuck and figuring out middles and ends?

—But to What End (she/her)

Dear But to What End,

That sounds very frustrating. You’re certainly not alone in having trouble getting past the beginning of your stories. On the life and mindset side, I’ve answered similar questions from people who are recovering from stressful events, getting back to writing after a long time away, stuck on “should”, and having trouble staying focused. On the craft side, I’ve helped writers who get carried away with big ideas, can’t choose among several possible endingsdon’t know how to make endings feel smooth, and have protagonists who aren’t active enough to push the story to a conclusion. If any of those sound similar to your situation, those posts may be helpful.

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#99: Developing a Supporting Cast

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

Dear Story Nurse,

How do I figure out which supporting characters need to be in my story? I’ve read oodles of articles about the importance of secondary characters, how they drive the plot and reveal important things about the protagonist, but none about how to figure out who those characters are in the first place.

My protagonist starts out very much alone—recently discharged from the military and estranged from her family of origin. Over the course of the story, she builds a support network for herself. Some of that will be people who are new to her life; others are people who were already there, but she didn’t realize she could rely on them.

There are quite a lot of ideas that I want to explore in the story, though I’m not sure how many will make it to the final draft. Here’s a short list:

  • the control that money exerts over our lives
  • family, community, and accepting support
  • coming to terms with your own weaknesses and those of others
  • trauma and recovery
  • openness and acceptance as the antidote to shame
  • the importance of telling your own story

I have a solid sense of who the protagonist is as a solitary person, but I don’t know who the people around her are. Who are her friends? Her coworkers? It’s such a broad question that I’m not sure where to start.

—Who’s Next? (he/him)

Dear Who’s Next?,

This is a great question! And you’ve already got the beginning of your answer to it. Just as protagonists in some ways embody the Big Idea of your story, supporting characters are often avatars of those themes you mentioned, as well as vehicles for tone. When you’re looking at the push-pull of plot momentum, supporting characters can provide both the push and the pull. And a well-rounded cast will do a lot to fill out your setting.

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#97: Blocked on Book Two

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m running into a problem with starting my second novel. I completed my first novel a few months ago after about a year of work and have been brainstorming and writing scenes for future projects since then. However, I haven’t been able to commit to working on the second novel.

I have plenty of notes and a good idea of the story I want to tell. I’ve got characters, setting, a beginning, some plot—but I’m feeling very stuck. I feel like my first novel just… happened, even though I obviously remember struggling with it at times and putting in the work. A part of me feels like maybe that was it, the one story I have to tell, just a fluke that I can’t repeat. Do you have any strategies to help me get unstuck and get to work?

I realize this problem is a bit abstract. Thanks in advance for any advice you can give!

—Aly (she/her)

Dear Aly,

First, let me reassure you that this is really, really common and you are not alone. Second novels are sort of like second children: you think that this time around you’ll go into the project knowing everything, and then the project turns out to be so different from the first project that you’re back at square one in a lot of ways. But don’t worry! There are definitely ways to unstick yourself.

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#86: Getting Started in a New Genre

Dear Story Nurse,

I primarily write contemporary romance and erotica. I was solicited to write a speculative fiction story, and I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the prospect. I’ve dabbled a bit in speculative fiction, and read it some, but I am feeling both intimidated and underskilled in the kind of worldbuilding needed to write this story, even if I put speculative elements in a contemporary setting (which feels like the best choice).

I have written to a specific market before, that’s generally when I’ve dabbled in speculative fiction, but this feels different somehow. Or perhaps I feel different in it? More thin-skinned, less certain of my footing, more aware of the importance of being careful in how I worldbuild.

I am struggling at the starting point. I have an idea, but I am not sure how to develop it, what the work is I must do to get to the making words part. Not sure if it’s the right idea, or the idea I can make into a story by the deadline. I am wading in uncertainty and doubt, and generally feeling stuck. If this were a contemporary story, this is when I would start researching, or developing character, or just get some words on the page to get a feel for where I’m at and where I might go, but I am floundering with this.

Thanks for your help.

—Feeling Stuck (they/them)

Dear Feeling Stuck,

It’s very understandable that you’d feel hesitant when working in a new genre. A good first step might be to accept that this is a normal, ordinary feeling, not a sign of some lack on your part. If you’re judging yourself for being a little uncertain of your footing, let that judgment go. Transitions, even very abstract ones like this, can be challenging, and any writer will want to go slowly at first in unfamiliar terrain.

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#83: Feeling Unworthy of Your Ideas

Dear Story Nurse,

I have recently realized that the major thing holding me back in my writing is a debilitating fear of failure masquerading as “no ideas.” I have tons of ideas! They’re very cool and interesting ideas! And then I go to write them and I’m staring at a blank page and suddenly all my shining ideas seem boring and cliche and I feel so utterly small and stupid that I abandon the whole endeavor and tell myself I’ll write once I discover a good idea.

Unfortunately, there is no idea on Earth good enough, and if there is a legitimately good idea, I tell myself I’m not good enough to write it.

I love writing! I love coming up with stories in my head! I have dozens of characters all ready and raring to go! I love playing with words and descriptions! I don’t want all of this to be ruined because I’m too scared to do anything with it.

My question is this: How do I breathe through my paralyzing anxiety and actually start to get words on the page?

—Fear, the Mind-Killer (she/her)

Dear Fear,

This is a very, very common fear among writers and would-be writers. So first, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Lots of people have found ways to work through, over, around, or past this, and you will too.

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#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!

#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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#8: You Are Not Your Work

Hey Story Nurse,

I’ve been dabbling in writing since I was 14, and now that I graduated university I decided that it was Time To Get Down To Business. The problem is, whenever I sit down to write anything, I always feel terrible about it once it hits 10k. It’s not that I lack confidence in my writing skills (I studied English lit), but it’s more that I worry that no one in the world would ever want to read my story. Who cares about a novella with two girls trapped on a lonely planet?! How can I get rid of that self doubt? Because I know I want to read that story, and I know that there is such a big market for stories casually featuring queer girls, but I just can’t seem to make the cognitive leap from “people like stories about queer girls in space” to “people will like MY story about queer girls in space”.

I’m going to a retreat for 5 days next week, and I really want to work on this story, but I just feel like I need to find some CONFIDENCE!

Thank you so much for your time,
Space Lesbian (she/her)

Dear Space Lesbian,

I’m sorry I didn’t get to respond in time for your retreat, and I hope it was very helpful to you one way or another. Sometimes sitting alone in a room with your work and no other distractions is the best way to figure out what’s really keeping you from writing.

In this letter, you talk about yourself and your work as though they’re one and the same. One moment you say you don’t think anyone will want to read your work, and the next you say you doubt yourself. Your identification with your work is something I see a lot of in students and recent graduates, because school is a place where you as a person are judged by the quality of your work in a way that’s pretty psychologically terrible. We say that a person is a “straight-A student” when what we mean is that that person’s work is consistently evaluated very highly by their teachers. The person, as a person, does not directly get graded. But that’s how it feels—that the grade for your work is the grade for you.

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#6: Returning to Writing After a Long Hiatus

Dear Story Nurse,

I wrote a lot growing up and in my early 20s—some poetry and also some short stories and novels (most of the latter never finished). In my mid-20s, I was in an emotionally abusive relationship for several years and stopped writing, and I think part of the reason was because I wasn’t ready to face up to what was happening so I didn’t really want to explore my inner world through writing. There was also an element of feeling like I ‘ought’ to grow up, either commit to writing as a career or find something else to do, etc. Still, during this time I worked as a translator, transcriber, summary-writer, editor, proof-reader, etc—all of which involved writing or working with text in some capacity.

I left that relationship and quit my job to do a master’s and a PhD, pursuing a passion for food and environmental activism. I had a few, short periods where I tried to get back into creative writing, but in general I was so busy studying and freelancing to support myself that I didn’t have much time or energy. In particular, I found that after a day of sitting at my laptop, reading and writing, I wanted to do other things with my downtime that were more physically active or used other parts of my brain. Towards the end of my PhD, a toxic combination of stress, lack of money, and physical and mental health issues meant I basically stopped doing anything outside of essential academic or paid work except crashing into bed and watching Netflix.

I finished my PhD earlier this year and am at something of a crossroads, career-wise. I found a job as an academic editor in my field, which is part-time and was supposed to be short-term, but I am slowly realizing that I am finding this fulfilling and satisfying in a way that I wasn’t feeling about my PhD towards the end. The translator/editor/person-who-does-things-with-text identity is one that feels a bit more comfortable to wear than my researcher identity. I’m also enjoying having a flexible work schedule so I can do more of the self-care and hobbies that I was seriously neglecting while studying. With this time, I have started writing fiction again for the first time in years, and am increasingly feeling like this is important to my well-being and sense of self.

My project is a novel, set in the future, in the area where I grew up, and exploring some of the themes I studied during my PhD. Perhaps “climate fiction” is the closest genre description I can think of. Kind of post-apocalyptic but where the apocalypse is less zombies and more, “How do I care for my aging mother/disabled child in a country where the social safety net is being destroyed? What happens to working-class people in rural areas when floods and storms and heatwaves make farming even harder than it is now, and all the land is owned by the super-wealthy?” I have only written a few thousand words so far. I have some ideas for the main characters and plot, but nothing really developed yet.

I guess I have two questions.

1) Where do I even start with this new project? So far, I have been focusing on just allowing myself to write and trying to turn off my inner editor/self-critic. My editing/analytic brain has been massively validated by doing a PhD and now working as an editor, and I feel that right now, the best thing I can do for myself as a writer is encourage myself to have ideas and explore them a bit, and just write some words even if they’re terrible, and be okay with the fact that they’re raw and unpolished. Still, if I ever want to get better as a writer, I can’t keep doing this forever. I have taken out a subscription to a magazine for women who write and will try some of their writing prompts and exercises. Apart from this, what are some ways I can start working on making this an actual novel and not a stream of words? How do I turn interesting ideas about climate change and politics into a plot? How do I write compelling characters who aren’t just versions of me trying to work out some of my issues/thoughts?

2) More generally, my two most likely career options—continuing in academia as a researcher or pursuing work as an academic editor and translator—involve a lot of writing, editing and critical analysis. In the past, when I have done these things full-time, I have found it difficult to do creative writing as well. Is this just a problem of available time? Of having the wrong mindset/priorities? How can I make time for my own creative writing alongside jobs that involve a lot of sitting at my computer and working with words and ideas? Or should I get a completely different job that uses other skills, to leave my writing brain free for creative projects?

—Victoria (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!

#2: Facing the Challenge You Set for Yourself

Hi Story Nurse,

So, I’ve been “working” on a novel for a couple years now. Which is to say, I’ve written around ten pages and haven’t been able to force myself to do any more, and I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve had a reasonable amount of success writing short stories, but this novel just intimidates me. I’m not sure why, but it does—plotting and keeping track of all the details and characters at such length is kind of intimidating.

I think that part of the reason is that this novel is set during and around the Holocaust, and I’m terrified of the research I’ll have to do. I have plenty of books, I know where to find more, but the prospect of reading about all that suffering and horror… well, I haven’t been able to sit down and make myself do it. But nor do I want to start writing when I am ill-informed, because it’s important to me to get this right and not mess it up.

Do you have any tips on how to get myself to work on this novel, write and do the research? I can go into more detail about the plot if that would help. And I’ve researched terrible things before, I’m not sure why I have a block on doing this.

—EG (she/her)

Dear EG,

This sounds really hard. Really, really hard. I think just about any novelist would find it intimidating and difficult to embark on a book-length project and have to do a ton of research and spend both the research and the writing immersed in a time of horrors and feel tremendous moral responsibility for conveying history accurately in a work of fiction. All the more so if you have a personal connection to the Holocaust or reason for writing about it. You don’t say whether this is your first novel, but if it is, that’s going to add to the feeling of intimidation; just about every debut novelist feels that way when starting out.

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