#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.

You may also need to accept that this is a project you will need to write while feeling out of your depth. That’s not always the most fun, but it can be done, especially if there’s a deadline in the mix. It’s hard to push forward through the doubt and tempting to try to wait until you feel more confident, but the way to get more confident is to do the thing; confidence comes with experience. Build whatever guard rails you can, absolutely, but eventually you just have to step out on the bridge over the abyss of the unknown. You have undoubtedly needed to do this before, writing works that challenged you in some way or another. How did you get through that? Can you apply some of what you learned on those projects to this project?

It sounds like you’re concerned about meeting genre standards in some way—that you have an idea in your head of what speculative fiction is, and you want to live up to that idea, and you’re worried that you might not be able to. But speculative fiction can be any number of things, just like erotica can be any number of things. The only requirement is that it be at least one degree removed from our world. Some speculative fiction is plot-driven, some is character-driven, some is solid and well-anchored in its setting, some is ethereal and surreal. It’s fine for your worldbuilding to be minimal if that’s not your strength. Speculative fiction readers are very comfortable with suspending disbelief; we are credulous, eager to buy whatever you’re selling. Tell readers that this is just like the present day but with vampires or robots or magic spells, and we will, generally speaking, nod along with it. Trust readers to trust you.

You sound like an experienced writer and I think your instincts are good. If this is the point in the story when you feel like you would start developing character or doing research or getting some words down, then do that. You should be able to integrate your what-if into any of those things. As you build your characters, ask how they’re influenced by the speculative element of your setting; as you do research, look at it through a speculative lens; as you write, give yourself permission to deviate from reality a little, to play fast and loose and write things that wouldn’t usually be possible in your real-world contemporary stories.

Usually I’d suggest doing some reading in the genre that you’re writing in, but it sounds like you may not have time. That said, if you have a friend who does know the genre well—especially the flavors of it that are similar to what you’re trying to do, with a contemporary setting that has some speculative aspect grafted on—I recommend running your ideas past them and getting some reassurance that what you want to try isn’t outlandish by most readers’ standards. You can also talk with the person who solicited the story. They believe in you and want to see what you want to write, so if you have the kind of relationship where you can show them your outline or concept before you start writing, they will ideally be able to provide both personal encouragement and genre knowledge. You don’t have to cross that abyss alone; there are plenty of people who’ve found sound footing on the other side and can throw you a rope.

And as always, I encourage you to get excited about what you’re writing. Find something about it that really hooks you and makes you want to dive in, even though it’s also challenging and scary and hard. No amount of intellectual theorizing can take the place of that emotional investment. If you can awaken your hunger for this specific story, you can find a way to make the story happen.

You can do it! Just keep putting one word in front of another, and you’ll be in the groove before you know it.


Story Nurse

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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.

Second, take pride in having written to me. I bet that was really hard. You may have heard that same voice telling you that you aren’t worthy to write in, or that I would never answer such an inane question, or any number of other discouraging things. But you wrote in anyway. You wrote in. You had an idea for a thing to write, and you wrote it, and you submitted it. In the very act of telling me that you are struggling to do this, you did it. I don’t say this to poke fun or to suggest that it’s all easy. I am saying: you did the thing, and you have thereby proved that you are capable of doing the thing again. When you’re wrestling with the blank page, you can tell yourself, “I wrote to the Story Nurse, even though it was very hard; I can do this too, even though it is very hard.” You can also think about what made it possible for you to write to me, and see whether it can be applied in some way to your fiction writing.

(And see, your question was not inane, and I am taking it seriously and giving it a complete and thorough answer, like any other question—because I believe in you, dear writer, and you deserve as much of my time and attention as anyone else who writes in.)

If anxiety like this comes up in other parts of your life, that’s a thing that’s probably worth talking with a therapist about, because getting support from someone with a clue is pretty essential to getting out from under anxiety like that. I hope you have good people around you who can help you find the resources you need.

With regard to writing specifically, here are some facts:

  • There are many writers who are terrible people. I don’t think you’re a terrible person, because you worry about whether you’re a terrible person, and in my experience, most genuinely terrible people don’t worry about that at all. But on the off chance that you are a terrible person, that doesn’t disqualify you from writing.
  • You cannot ruin your ideas. To prove this, write the idea down somewhere. Then, in a separate file or on a separate piece of paper, write the worst 200-word story you can think of based on that idea. The worst! Make it awful and boring and trite. Open it with a run-on sentence about a character waking up; end it with rocks falling out of a clear blue sky and killing everyone. Put in extra misspellings and homophones. Then go back to where you wrote down your idea. You will find it untouched and just as ready to be turned into a much better story if you decide that’s what you want to do with it. Or you can just enjoy the idea being a lovely little idea—that’s fine too. All writers have extra ideas kicking around that will never be written.
  • The only way to fail at writing is to fail to write. Your fear of failure is keeping you paradoxically trapped in this state where you write nothing and therefore are failing by definition. But don’t waste time beating yourself up over that; write anything at all, and you will have achieved a measure of success. (If you have a fear of success, this may be its own challenge. It’s also worth thinking about how you define success.)
  • Every story and book you’ve ever read started out as a much rougher draft. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your first drafts with other people’s finished work. Not only does your draft not have to be polished, it’s actually better for you in the long run if it’s not. I’ve been a professional editor on and off for over 20 years, and my first drafts always look extremely polished—which means their inevitable flaws in areas like pacing, characterization, and plotting are hidden and harder to find. So if your drafts are rough and let all their issues hang out, that’s great! You’ll know exactly what you need to work on as you put your work through the revision process that every gleaming, beautiful book has gone through.
  • You are not your work.
  • Playing is wonderful, not a waste of time. You say you love to play, so go ahead and play! Make a list of words that sound nice when you say them, and then read it out loud, savoring the way the words feel in your mouth. Write poetry. Write letters to friends. Write children’s stories. Write terrible puns. Have fun! Remember that you want to write because it’s fun. Rediscover writing with a playful heart.

As for your question of how to start:

  • Write down one word. Good. Now, a second. Maybe a third? Work up to more if you need to. But surely you can write one word, even if it’s “The” or “If” or “A”. And if you’ve written one word, surely you can write another.
  • You say you love writing stories in your head, so write a story in your head and then write down the story that is in your head. It may help to dictate it first and then transcribe the recording. In this way the initial creative action all happens in your head, where it’s safe, and the part that involves typing or writing becomes a little less emotionally fraught, not really any different from transcribing a podcast or a TV episode or something else that you heard somewhere and want to have in written form.
  • Start by writing something based on an idea that you care less about, so the stakes are lower. Give yourself practice projects where you feel more at ease and able to fool around and try new things.
  • If that still feels too fraught, make a practice of regularly doing other kinds of writing—blogging, journaling, news stories, Twitter threads—and periodically come back to fiction to see whether you can transfer the skills you’ve developed.
  • “Yes, and” your inner voice. The “yes” defuses the tension, moving away from argument rather than toward it; the “and” lets you go right on doing what you want to do.
    • “You’re a terrible person!” “Yes, and I’m going to go be a terrible person who writes things.”
    • “This story is crap!” “Yes, and once I finish it I’ll be able to revise it into being less crap. But I can’t do that until I finish it, so I’m going to keep going.”
    • “This is really hard and stressful!” “Yes, and it’s also worth doing because…” [you’re having fun, you’re writing something that matters a lot to you, whatever makes you want to come back to writing even when it’s hard]
    • “You should just give up!” “Yes, and I’m going to take a break as soon as I get to the end of this paragraph. That way I won’t burn myself out and can come back to it tomorrow.”
  • If you’re a social person, do shared writing sprints with other writers. If you don’t know many other writers, you can do mutual accountability with anyone: “Every time you go to the gym, I’ll do a writing sprint.”
  • Try setting time goals rather than word goals; “do as much as you can in 20 minutes” gently makes room for there to be times when you can’t do very much, while encouraging you to build the habit of setting aside time for writing.
  • Redefine the writing process as a revision process. Use Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method or something similar to minimize the part that feels like making something out of nothing. The “creation” part of the snowflake method, the thing that turns the blank page into the page with writing on it, is writing just one short sentence. Everything after that is adaptation, development, revision—you can call it any number of things that aren’t “writing” and thereby route around the part of your brain that gets anxious about writing. Ingermanson calls his method a tool for “managing your creativity” and it sounds like that might be a useful thing for you to do if your creativity is feeling wild and uncontrollable and scary right now.
  • Or, go the other direction and be WILD and UNCONTROLLABLE and SCARY. Yell your stories out into an empty room. Scrawl all over the page with a crayon, like a child, and then crumple it up and throw it. Write melodrama full of characters who have deep and powerful emotions, who hate one another and love one another and agonize over incredibly difficult decisions, and make yourself weep over their passionate feelings. Become the thing you most fear, and realize that it’s actually not so bad.

You don’t have to be good enough or controlled enough or cautious enough or smart enough or anything enough to write. You already are enough. There is no standard to meet, no test to pass; we encourage tiny children to make up stories, and if they get to do it, so do you.

Happy writing!


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!

#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.


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)

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#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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