Dear Story Nurse,
I have some interconnected problems that all together add up to being able to write productively, but not finish pieces.
Practical: because of chronic illness I have very little time to devote to writing, it’s brief stretches once or twice a week at best.
Process: I have a folder of ideas and drafts in various stages. In a writing headspace, material comes for several of them at the same time. A short writing session might include writing a few paragraphs on three different stories, and jotting down a couple of new ideas. The usual advice is to write down the new ideas and get back to the original piece you’re working on, but for me the ratio of what I’m trying to focus on to other ideas is 40/60 at best.
Craft: From what I’ve read some writers have distinct stages of writing and editing, each of which focuses on a specific aspect of the piece. Like in drawing – anatomy first, outlines, large areas of colour and light/shade, fine details. It would be counterproductive and complicated to mix those stages together. But that’s kind of what my writing often feels like. Say polishing a piece and doing line level editing and realising that I need some major revisions to the structure or the worldbuilding.
Also: anxiety and perfectionism probably? I do have a tendency to want to keep doing endless rewrites.
The logical thing to try was
– pick one thing and finish that
– try writing shorter things
But because of the limited time and the wandering brain I’ve spent months trying to finish a short short story, trying to get into the same frame of mind over and over again for a couple of sentences at a time, and it really drained the fun out of writing. Also, shorter things aren’t necessarily less complicated.
I get that a lot of this is just practice, but I also think I might need to shift something in my approach, because it doesn’t feel like more practice with my current process will get me to being able to complete pieces.
I would really appreciate any suggestions!
I agree that you need to shift something in your approach. Specifically, you need to shift away from reading one-size-fits-all writing advice, because that advice does not and will not work for you. Your circumstances are different from those envisioned by most writers of advice: your natural process is different, your ability level is different, your available time is different. “All” will almost never mean you. So let all of that go, and focus on learning from yourself through a process of exploration, observation, and iteration.
The exploration part and the observation part go hand in hand. Try new things and keep track of how well they work. Don’t worry about whether your process looks like any other writer’s process. Every writer has a different way of going about things, and many have habits or superstitions that look totally bizarre to anyone who is not that person. This is normal and fine and all part of being an artist. Let yourself play and try new things and also let yourself go back to doing things that you had stopped doing because a book or a blog post told you you shouldn’t do them. Begin where you are most comfortable.
Also, your sense of what is normal or ordinary for other writers maybe skewed. For example, I know a great many writers who have done what they thought were polishing rounds, only to realize that their story still needed major revisions. This is a very common thing. So don’t take that as evidence that something is weird or wrong about you. If you can, let go of the idea of comparing yourself to other riders at all. The only writer you need to compare yourself to is you, as you go through the process of figuring out what does and does not help you reach the goals that you set.
In order to do science on your writing process, you will need to determine your criteria for success. You talk about wanting to finish stories, so let’s make that your first goal. The first question is, have you ever finished a story? If you have, what did you do in order to get there? If you haven’t, what have you tried that you know does not work? You already have much more evidence than you may think you do, because you’ve been trying new things for quite a while. For example, your letter is full of things that have not worked for you. You know that it doesn’t work for you to work on only one story at a time. You know that it doesn’t work for you to have a very linear process where you do one stage at a time. That’s valuable information.
You should make sure to keep track of things that don’t work for you so that you don’t bang your head on the same wall over and over. You can consider them failures if you want to, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have failed. The process has failed to work for you, and you discard the process rather than trying to change yourself.
You don’t mention whether you tend to outline your stories in advance. If you do, how does that work for you? Do you feel beholden to the outline and frustrated when you deviate from it? Does it help you keep the story moving smoothly and make your eventual revisions go faster? If you don’t an outline, how does that work for you? Do you end up with a lot of false starts and dead ends? Do you feel liberated to explore your story and find the best way to let it flow organically from the starting point? You might try writing stories both with and without an outline, if you haven’t before, and seeing how that feels.
How are you defining “story”? I’m a big fan of making things easy on yourself, especially when you’re starting out or starting from a place of deep frustration. So let us define “story” very generously as being, say, at least 100 words. Obviously a 100-word story will not have a deeply involved plot, but there’s a lot you can do in a small space. If you need inspiration or examples, you can look at the many micro fiction accounts on Twitter, or search ao3.org by word count. (As always, if you find yourself starting to compare yourself negatively to other writers, in a way that makes you less optimistic or less willing to write, step away from what you’re doing. In general with writing, if something makes you feel bad about yourself or your ability to write, don’t do it.)
Try to write a 100-word story, and observe yourself. Don’t just look at what you do, but think about how you’re feeling when you do it, and why you do it. For example, is there a particular point in a story when you want to switch to working on something else? Do you find yourself using that to avoid elements of the story that are or technically or emotionally challenging? Or is it an important part of the rhythm of your writing process, keeping you on your toes and feeling fresh?
When you reach the 100-word point, does your story feel almost complete, or does it feel like it’s just getting started? Is part of what’s getting in the way of finishing stories the way that you’re plotting those stories or defining “finished”? I know many writers who struggle with writing endings; if that’s something you find yourself having trouble with, you can understand that as a craft issue and research ways to write endings, rather than mistaking it for a process issue. For that matter, how are you at finding the start point of the story? The lack of an ending may in part be an issue with the beginning.
If you just can’t make 100 words feel like a full story, try writing something a little longer. These questions will still apply.
You mention anxiety and perfectionism, which get in the way of finishing things for a lot of people. What happens if you only permit yourself a certain number of rewrites, or a certain amount of time spent on rewriting, and then declare the story done by fiat? Can you enlist the help of a beta reader or an editor who can help you determine when a story is as done as it’s going to be? I suggest you work separately on your anxious and perfectionist tendencies as a general thing, since I’m guessing they get in the way of more than just writing. And try to remember that your writing is enough, and so are you.
If this seems overwhelming, don’t stress it. All of this comes down to: What do you do? Why do you do it? How do you feel when you do it? Does it help you get closer to your goals? Use those questions and variations on them to examine the process that you fall into naturally as well as the things that you’ve learned from other writers.
As you accumulate data, do more of what moves you forward and less of what gets in your way. That’s the iteration part. Don’t worry about whether your process looks like somebody else’s process or looks like a process you read about in a book. Stay focused on the practical, and let go of judgment as much as you can. If it’s ridiculous but it works, it’s not ridiculous.
If writing has begun to feel miserable for you, look for ways to rediscover the joy of it. If you start to feel like your issue with endings is a form of writer’s block, check out my writer’s block advice. I also have a post specifically on ending stories, and another on breaking the cycle of second-guessing revisions. Whatever’s slowing you down, you can find a way around it.
I know how tempting it is to consult experts and hope we have all the answers, but you are the world’s best expert on you. By learning more about yourself, and assessing what you learn as gently and nonjudgmentally as possible, you can give yourself far better advice than anyone else could come up with.