How to Write a Story that Feels Bigger than You

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Brett Henley. Brett is the author of i am convicted, a work-in-progress novel using a blog to transparently tell the story of Andy Dixon, an ex-felon who spent nearly three decades in the Tennessee prison system. You can join the conversation at i am convicted, Twitter and Facebook.

Storytelling is an inherently taxing and frightening process. Writers and our fragile, creative ecosystems are like fish in a barrel, resistance standing at the ready, finger on trigger.

We’re in it to the teeth. I know it, you know it.

So how do you manage an overwhelming feeling that the story you’re writing is much bigger than you’re prepared for?

Big Story
Photo credit: McKay Savage (Creative Commons)

The struggle

Like every writer or artist, I struggle. Despite experience or practice or talent or even the best of intention and commitment, I stumble like a small child most days.

As I willingly dive headlong into the maddening spin cycle each and every morning, my day usually resembles:

  1. Wake at 4am.
  2. Fight urge to use comforter as protective cocoon.
  3. Stumble into living room, where I stretch and offer the morning a few half-pint yoga sequences.
  4. Sit in the dark and stare at laptop for several minutes; it’s comfortably closed and resting on a plastic folding table tray confiscated from the clutches of Walmart’s home section.
  5. Sigh heavily as I bounce between inane tasks (like adding music to Rdio) and actual writing.
  6. Rinse and repeat, then resist urge to vomit in mouth when I see the output.

The more that is at stake, the more resistance will knife its way in, inviting complication and fear and all their nasty little friends along for the party crashing.

Struggle is part of the artist’s DNA, but it’s also largely indicative of how important your creation is to you and the rest of the world.

Accept your struggles willingly, acknowledge their presence, then move on.

Just write

There are implications for unfinished work that hum like a summer thunderclap.

Extreme avoidance, creative paralysis, heightened obsessive tendencies and a few blank stares for good measure – all common systems of resisting your work.

The secretly-good news:

There is no silver bullet.

Expectation, for all artists, is really just the devil hugging your ankles.

So you move, lifting each 100lb. creative limb in front of the other before the cement dries and writer’s block closes its jaws. No waiting for the trigger pull — just constant, wonderful movement.

To ship, to create, to allow the story room to breathe and avoid crushing it with insecurity — this is your best weapon against a story too big to wish away.

The really, really good news:

A truly game-changing story will essentially tell itself. You simply need to guide it home.

Strength in numbers

As someone much wiser once told me, “We are never alone when we choose to share our stories.”

What’s strangely frustrating and comical about writers is that we often fear rejection before we’ve written something to be rejected.

We face this aged paradigm in traditional publishing of content exclusivity — that we as writers need an established platform before our work is ready to be shared with the masses.

So we tinker, we obsess, we stretch our emotional limitations to breaking, all because rejection told us: you’re not ready.

It’s a mythological beast, the worst kind of hype driven by stagnant practices and precedent. In this new age of publishing, where any writer can produce and distribute their work internationally, this particular paradigm is overdue for an early grave.

Stop hiding and hoarding your work; share it. Learn not to fear but seek constructive feedback before your work is polished for consumption.

And finally…

It may feel akin to sleeping with the enemy, but embracing the imperfect creative process, one that simply advocates “do” and not perfection, is crucial to getting out of this alive.

Have confidence in the presence of chaos and ignore expectation, and you will find the right way to tell your story.

So, how do you manage when the weight of a story is too much? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: McKay Savage (Creative Commons)

46 thoughts on “How to Write a Story that Feels Bigger than You

  1. Thank you. I needed this. Three chapters looming right now. Must. Get. It. Out! I appreciated this.

  2. Right now I am not able to write stories due to the incredible demands of writing for my Master’s degree.  It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you are doing, everything you said in this post is experienced.  Some days I’m luck to get three usable paragraphs, other days I can get three usable pages, but each day you must write and write and write.  Great post!

    1. Thanks Stephen, really appreciate it. I agree 100 percent that the concepts above are applicable to any type of writing (really any creative venture). As a writer, you have to come to terms with the variance in output. 

      Some days I can barely squeeze out a sentence, but I keep pushing forward regardless.

  3. thanks for this post – sometimes though a story just has to be told and can spill out very quickly – and probably then can stand alone and proud…. I posted this morning about the St Paul’s Cathedral protestors and the Dean’s resignation – and it flowed out in one go – here’s the result:
    and yes – I took a deep breath and a large gulp of air before I posted something so controversially written…

    and I love your comment ‘A truly game-changing story will essentially tell itself. You simply need to guide it home’ Thanks for inspiring us all

  4. Expections . . .are really just the devil hugging your ankles. Great word picture.  This has been on my mind lately, these unrealistic expectations.  Wrote about it in my blog yesterday.  Thanks for the encouragement for what we sometimes forget is common to writers.

    1. Thanks Shelly, hopefully this will nudge a few boulders in the right direction.

      Expectation is probably the single most dangerous obstacle for a writer, IMO. It’s a matter of sticking it out and focusing on the smaller victories.

  5. Nice thoughts.  I think it’s interesting how many times a topic will come to mind and I’ll think…well that’s not going to go anywhere. or how am I ever going to articulate that?  And, yet, if I take the time to sit down and start the words come out and the story unfolds.  

  6. Writing is not for wimps, that is for sure.  I relate to every word in this article.  I believe all writers struggle with maintaining the fortitude to continue on with writing honest and passionate stories.  It is not always easy, but the rewards of knowing you have written something really good are worth it in the end.

  7. Your post described a common experience among writers of any genre.  Very well said, and makes light of what other people would consider inane.  We do struggle at times, when the muse is nowhere, and the confidence is low.  But we keep going.  That’s why we’re writers. 🙂

    1. You’re dead on Rosanna – it’s definitely a common experience. I think your final statements says everything about where writers are, and where are we going.

      It’s recognition that the struggle is part of the DNA.

  8. The writing process is such a continually changing beast. There are times I sit down to write and what I thought I was going to write about quickly becomes something else. Most of the time its better… but you’re right on, its a matter of doing it and letting those expectations go. Easier said than done.

    Thanks Brett for sharing. (And you too Jeff!)

  9. Well, I just give up. There is a story much bigger than me, that I want to tell for years and because of the awe I feel for it, I have never even tried to write it. I did start once and wrote one page and then gave up. I have been waiting for the time I would feel big enough to cope with it – probably in vain :). I believed that there is the right time for everything, when your heart just tells you that you are ready. The wrong concept, I know, – the story has not been told yet and it still weighs on my heart. One day maybe I grow up :).  

    1. I understand exactly where you are (having been there with other projects myself).

      While there is indeed a time and place in the universe for every story, I’d be cautious of waiting for the “right” time. It may never arrive.

      Sometimes you have to dive in and force the hand. Start with the story structure – in the case of my rather daunting tale, revisiting the structure and how we approached the narrative really helped us gain positive momentum.


      1. Thank you! The fact that somebody understands is really soothing :). And thank you for your advice. I know you are right, I need to write it some day or it will burn out my heart.

  10. So true.  I recently finished writing a nonfiction manuscript and have received about 75 rejection letters. (Feel the pain of rejection!)  However, I recently received an offer from a smaller publisher that is willing to take a chance on a new writer.  Keep the faith!

    PS: While writing the book I posted bits and pieces of it on my blog.  It gave me an opportunity to go public and get my content “out there,” and to see how my community would receive it.  Very worthwhile.  (Oh yeah, and it also provided great fodder for the days I just didn’t feel like blogging/writing anything new.)

    1. Community feedback can provide a sounding board for writer neuroses like no other. We tend to underestimate how strong the instinct is to hide and hoard our work.

      Congrats on the publishing opp!

  11. Great post! This reminds me of what Pressfield had to say about overcoming the Resistance. After Pressfield is done writing in the morning, he just walks away knowing he did his part. He seems to ignore expectation and just simply does the work of a pro. I have to get better at this. 

    1. Much of my process is inspired by Pressfield’s work (big fan), so you’re right on the money. It’s different for each of us – for me, I focus first on movement and action.

  12. Oh man. I can’t tell you how much I needed to read this. Thank you.  I am writing a novel in three months and it’s been a ride.

    It’s one thing for me to know the struggle (resistance, warfare, mental blockage, distraction, self-loathing, hopelessness, whatever form it may take) as a concept, but when I begin experience it to a point of  feeling like every word is a struggle to birth and I am harshly judging every sentence I type, I am still surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t be, but I am.

    I  love your quote about expectation being the devil on your ankles. Some mornings it is all that I can do to shake him off and go outside to pace around my yard for a few minutes, muttering under my breath like an insane woman,

    “Just. one. more. sentence.”

    1. Don’t be surprised at all. What you describe is the exact same feeling I have most days as well. It’s a natural part of the progression. The only option is to fight through it.

  13. I quit! I stew and fret! I restart a few hundred times and stew some more. Am I cut out for this?! My story is starting to scare me. I’m feeling too exposed. I suppose we all have that voice in our heads that says “If people really know me, they would hate me.” So when I write my story, I fear I’m letting people get to really know me. Oh well, better get back to writing my story. Thanks for the words of encouragement!

    1. It’s a constant, ugly battle.

      I’d be cautious of allowing those voices in your head too much levity. You’re story is just as important as the next … you might be a good candidate to write more out in the open.

      Testing the waters as you’re writing the story will help you determine whether it’s the right format/structure/time for this to be told.

      Start a Tumblr, Tweet it, Post as a short serial on Facebook – all are viable options.


  14. i’m brand new to the novel version of storytelling. tonight in fact, is the first night of my first nanowrimo (national novel writing month) experiment.  seems that the “race against the clock” is gonna work pretty well.  i have my own personal word count goal for each night and starting a new word document for the night enables me to watch my word count easily.  all this while The Fray is blaring in one ear. Embrace the chaos. Thanks for your inspiration.

  15. part 2…any suggestions for how to keep up a strong speed?  and what do you think is a reasonable word count for someone new to noveling?  (50,000 is the standard for nanowrimo). i almost didn’t do it for fear of the story being too big.  so i will keep this post handy as i continue my efforts.  Thanks Brett!

    1. Kati,

      I would strongly encourage starting with a simple, achievable word count (as you mentioned below). Something akin to 1,000-1,200 words per day at max for someone just starting the process. If you’re starting with a nano project, then obviously you’ll feel the need to up it a bit if you’re really pushing to meet their objective.

      I’m going to buck the system there and say set your own standards. As far as speed, the only encouragement I can give is to avoid editing while writing. Set your benchmark for word count and just write. Be okay with producing less than polished work at first.

      I find it best to edit each chapter after I’ve finished the first draft of it; some writers prefer to edit each day after they’ve met their goal. That is up to you.

      I used nano last year more as a catalyst to form consistent writing habits. I would recommend setting a goal that you feel confident you can do on a daily basis, even if that is 500 words per day.

      1. this is AWESOME advice, feels like a fit.  it would be a shame to get discouraged just because the arbitrary word count is just too much to accomplish at first.  two more quick questions if you don’t mind: when writing a novel for practice (rather than with an eye toward publishing), is it helpful to shoot for a certain length?  or just let it be over when its done?  and second, do you recommend editing at the end of the writing session, or to sleep on it and catch it the next day?  Thank you again Brett for sharing your expertise!

        1. Q 1 – I think you can still write a novel for publishing, but aim for an easier daily word count that you feel is achievable. What I meant by earlier comment is that I didn’t plan on finishing the entire novel within the 30-day mark, so I used that time to get a good chunk written, and more importantly better habits formed. Shoot for 50,000 and you’ll have a short-ish novel in your hands. I believe the avg. for new authors is somewhere between 80,000-120,000 … but don’t quote me.

          Q2 – I prefer to finish a full chapter draft before editing, but if you want to edit after each writing session, I’d wait until following day so to avoid the temptation to edit as you write. It’s really a matter of preference. Pick a method and try it for a few weeks before determining whether it’s working.

          Hope that helps!

          1. Thanks so much.  Truly appreciate the input, especially the idea to try it on for awhile before deciding what works.  patience.

  16. Break it off into bite size pieces. A novel is a series of small inter related short stories about the same characters.

  17. When I’m in a tizzy – oops, when I’m spinning in my tizzy – I find I write something way off topic and it’s usually something morose, violent, where people are close minded. It seems I lack these drastic skills for some part of the work I’m pushing to complete. 
    At first, I thought I was just wasting time, being flighty, having no b’ness in this world called writing – not to mention I was filling out the width of my chair with the hours of inane story content. 
    Now, I see these “jaunts” as ways my “me-ness” is trying to tell me where my balls are with writing – being smothered in pansy assed expressions that ain’t gettin’ the story across. Stop, my internal writing bee says, and get rid of this schmalzy sounding stuff. Watch, it says, see how we’d do it if you wrote this – shoot ’em up, robbery, lust, etc.

    When the story is weak-kneed all over the place, it’s time to pull back, put my pen to the paper and write deep suppressed stuff to let these creative expressions loose – so I can get back to it.

    That’s my view and I stand by it…


  18. I love the point about thinking we must have an established platform before we can share our work.  That outdated paradigm has been holding me back from blogging for a long time. That, and my perfectionism.  Great reminder to let it go! My blog is still under construction, but I’m posting anyway.

  19. Once I stopped hoarding and started sharing, energy and motivation to keep writing surged. Shhhhh, ego. It’s okay. I could write all day everyday if my ego would stay on vacation. 🙂

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