Dear Story Nurse,
I am in the midst of a year in which mostly-familial requirements on my time make it something like impossible for me to make my slow-but-steady former progress on my novel, for now. (I had chugged along to slightly over the halfway point.)
At least, I think so. The requirements on my time, energies, and attention are genuine, and the nature of the attention required results in my being bored, which for me doesn’t mix well with writing. But am I being avoidant, or is it really all The Year of Hockey and Real Estate?
—I serve the ice (they/them)
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.
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Dear Story Nurse,
Let’s say I made a boo-boo in one of my previous stories, and I handled a sensitive subject a bit badly. Not super badly, but I relied on overused tropes because I didn’t realize how overused (and damaging) they were. Now I know better, and I’m planning to write a sequel to the story where I messed up. Is there anything special I should do in the sequel to sort of “make up” for the mistake and build that trust back with my readership? Or should I just focus on not making it again?
Really Very Sorry
Dear Really Very Sorry,
This is a very kind question. I’m glad you understood where critiques were coming from, took them to heart, and have been working on doing better. Those are the essential things you need to be doing, and to keep doing.
I am committed to giving advice to any writer, anywhere, but today’s post is specifically for those of us in the U.S. and elsewhere who are deeply distressed by the thought of President Trump and deeply anxious about what comes next for the U.S. and the world. It’s a modified version of my post-election piece on goals and deadlines in a time of strong emotions. This one is more general, without the NaNo-specific content, and I hope it will be a post that you can come back to again and again.
As we face difficult times as creators of art, we will face a lot of pressure from different sides, and from within ourselves. We will be pressured to make art. We will be pressured to stop making art. We will be pressured to make different art, to be more radical or more moderate, to be commercial or to never sell out, to reach different audiences who are all in need of artistic sustenance. We will be pressured to depict the past, the present, and many possible futures.
Sometimes circumstances like these make it very easy to make art. Other times they make it very hard.
Dear Story Nurse,
You mentioned in #22, Passion Projects and Practice Projects, that you felt plotting was one of your weak points. I wondered if you had any anecdotes on how you work to overcome this and any advice for the bare bones of creating a plot that keeps moving?
I’ve been told that my writing is best when it focuses on characters and my most successful stories have been tight 1,000 word flash fiction competitions with a time limit of a weekend. I seem to be able to craft memorable moments and interactions pretty solidly. When it comes to working on bigger projects I tend to get stuck because I don’t know how to turn a solid character-based idea or series of moments into a plot that moves along.
It’s not that I don’t have ideas for plots, and I have two longer stories I’ve stalled at. One is a horror story at maybe 4,000 words that is effectively a possession story, but with a past life rather than a demon. The second is a novella or novel length story with an English-village-comedy genre about a flower seller who gets an unusual side job that lands her in trouble.
They have a goal and end point and characters that have good voices and interactions. They have (I hope) decent enough concepts and opening paragraphs to hook in a reader for the ride, but it’s how to add in the turns and beats you need with the plot that trips me up every time until my anxiety makes me freeze up.
In the past I’ve tried the Stephen King approach of ambling without much direction until a plot happens, which didn’t help. When it comes to the opposite approach of plotting in detail I often feel lost as how to begin but for “Start. Middle. End. Some sort of drama somewhere.”
Any advice is much appreciated!
All the best,
This is a great question and one that a lot of people struggle with (definitely including me!). You ask for the bones of plot, but it sounds like you already have those: start, middle, end, some drama. What you need are the muscles and tendons of plot, the pull and thrust and tension that turns a skeleton into something that moves and breathes.
Dear Story Nurse,
How distinct do a writer’s stories need to be from one another?
A lot of authors have recurring themes, or recycle small details like names, or set several stories in the same universe.
But what about if it’s bigger things? If it’s a single change in how the physics of the world works, either way allowing for interesting and distinct things to happen. If it’s alternate endings to a story that could both work, or different story structures that could both fit the one plot.
Sometimes one version is clearly superior, but often not. It just splits off into a separate (but not entirely distinctive) story of its own.
I write science fiction, and short fiction—it’s very idea driven, I think that contributes to this problem. It feels like I have not so much a bunch of separate stories as a story/idea space, where story particles combine and mutate and split off in endless ways.
I find it very difficult to finish a story (instead spawning five new potential ones when I try).
My main concern is getting better at completing stories, but also is it unprofessional to send out stories for publication if they are similar to other stories I’ve written?
—Hydra wrangler (she/her)
Dear Hydra wrangler,
It sounds like you have two very different concerns that are all tangled up together. One is a commercial concern about how it looks to an editor or a reader if you have multiple very similar stories. The other is a craft concern about choosing from among multiple good ways to finish a particular story or develop a particular concept. In some ways these are the same concern: you do writing one way, and you think you should maybe do it a different way.
I have finally created a Twitter account for Story Hospital! It is, unsurprisingly, @StoryHospital, and you can chat with me there whenever you like. I’ll be tweeting links to posts—which will now go up at 10 a.m. Eastern Time on Tuesdays so that the automated tweets go out at a sensible hour, so Patreon patrons will get ten extra hours of exclusive access—and answering quick writing questions and joining Twitter chats about writing and all that sort of thing. Please do follow along and say hello.
Dear Story Nurse,
I don’t know if this is too much of a generalized craft question—I am currently working on a short story of about 10k words, but I have problems with this in general.
I use too many semicolons.
I use them correctly, and I am very good at them, but they show up in too many of my sentences and it’s frustrating from a rhythmic perspective. I want to make sure the two clauses are part of the same sentence because the staccato of a period doesn’t seem right and changes the way the story feels when it’s read aloud, but the repetition of the structure gets boring to read.
Here are some from the last story I wrote:
- She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
- The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.
- The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.
Do you have suggestions for other basic sentence structures that work well and can be used as stand-in for the typical two-independent-but-related-clauses-joined-by-a-semicolon construction that aren’t just to replace the semicolon with a period?
Thank you so much! (I say as I realize I have written this entire inquiry without a semicolon in sight.)
—Independent Clause (use whichever pronouns you feel like today)
Dear Independent Clause,
This is a wonderful craft question. As you’ve guessed, since you’re asking for other sentence structures, the punctuation mark itself isn’t the issue. I love semicolons; they’re great. The issue is what you’re doing with language and content that leads to the use of so many of them.