#80: Adaptation and Creation

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m in the planning stages of a trilogy adapting my Dungeons and Dragons character’s story to a novel format. It follows my character through her training as a knight, her fall from knightly society and loss of her homeland, regaining her honor, gathering allies and assets, and reclaiming her homeland from the rule of her half-brother and stepmother.

The first and last parts were left up to my imagination so I’m having an easier time outlining them. But the “regaining her honor and gathering allies bit” which will make up the bulk of Book 2 was played out in-game. And I’m completely stuck on how to adapt it.

I don’t want to use the campaign story because it belongs to the Game Master and my character didn’t really have a connection to the central conflict besides that fighting the bad guys was the Right Thing To Do. But I can’t think of new villains and new tensions for my character!

I have a feeling that brainstorming, developing my setting and side characters, and reading other fantasy novels for inspiration will help, but if you have any other advice, I would be most grateful.

Yours,

Book 2 Blues (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!

#79: Ethical Worldbuilding from Real Places

Dear Story Nurse,

I have an idea for a novel I’m really excited about, but I’ve got overwhelmed by some of the world/character building.

The basic idea is a take-off on a Swords and Sorcery fantasy where, because of the availability of magic, technological development has stalled, and society has become a magocracy. The story then follows a group of inventors who create and spread non-magical technology. The things they actually invent are based on real history of science, but I’ve selected things by a combination of what makes sense with my world building and things I think are cool. It’s going to end up a very anachronistic mix, but it’s also a fairly self-indulgent fantasy story, not historical fiction, so I’m not worried about that. Just in case it’s relevant, currently the plan is that most of the story would take place in a big diverse port city where people are coming and going from around the world, but it’s early days and that may change.

Even though it’s strictly secondary world fantasy the bits of real history of science come from specific places which I would like to carry over into my characters and world building and I’m stuck on how to do that.

So that I have a concrete example, one of the things I know I want to include is the invention of the printing press, which is originally Chinese in real life. The bit I’m having trouble with is coding my printing press inventor from China-inspired-fantasy-land as Chinese in a way that gets the point across without being appropriative. I’m really struggling to figure out what sort of details are good for world-building, vs what is not, how much I can trust my readers to pick up, and generally (especially given there’s a lot of anachronism in my world already) identifying the boundary between diverse world-building and smearing bits of other people’s cultures around willy-nilly.

My printer is one of my better developed characters (I’m still fairly early in the planning stages of this), but I’m seeking general advice for all my non-European characters. Please help me escape the ‘everyone’s from Britain but with the names changed’ fantasy trap.

—Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

That sounds like a very cool project. I understand your concerns about appropriation, especially when you’re working with multiple cultures and doing what amounts to a cultural mash-up. Fortunately, people of color and others with relevant experience have created some great resources on cultural appropriation and cultural sensitivity in writing, and I’m glad to bring some of them together for you.

Before I begin, I want to gratefully acknowledge that my thoughts on this topic have been significantly informed by the work of many, many writers and activists, most of whom are women of color. I’ve named and linked a few people and resources in this piece; please consider that a starting point, and invest some time in further research.

K. Tempest Bradford has put together a primer on what cultural appropriation is, which I highly recommend reading. It has links to many other useful pieces on the subject, including Nisi Shawl’s beautifully succinct piece on ways to reframe the conversation around cultural appropriation in fiction.

Shawl writes, “[I]t’s unrealistic for an author to expect to be awarded an embossed, beribboned certificate proclaiming the authenticity of her work.” This reminds me of a talk I went to with activists Ajay Chaudry and Eric Ward, where they discussed the idea of people seeking not only plaudits for bravely writing across color lines but absolution or forgiveness for potentially getting it wrong and hurting a reader. If you’ve had thoughts in that direction, I urge you to move away from them and look for other ways to frame your relationship to your work and your readers. No one can tell you “Congratulations, your work is guaranteed harmless!” or “You aren’t one of those white people!” with any degree of certainty, because no one speaks for all members of their cultural group. Even people from within a group can have the “authenticity” of their work questioned (Ken Liu has spoken about this, with regard to his fantasy novels influenced by Chinese history). There is no absolution; there are no clear-cut rules that you can strictly follow and thereby relieve your anxiety. There is only you, doing your best.

Bradford also links to the Australia Council for the Arts’ protocols for working with Indigenous artists. Some elements of these are specific to Indigenous Australian cultures and their history with white colonizers, but reading the guidelines on writing, which include information for non-Indigenous writers writing on Indigenous themes, will give you some idea of the types of pitfalls you might run into as you address any culture not your own, especially those that have been repeatedly appropriated. These bullet points are particularly apropos, I think:

Some important questions to consider about interpretation are:

  • How will your writing affect the Indigenous group it is based on?
  • Does it empower them?
  • Does it expose confidential or personal and sensitive material?
  • Does it reinforce negative stereotypes?

If you want to shift away from worrying about or seeking advance absolution for harm you might potentially cause, try focusing on that second question of whether your work empowers the people you’re writing about. Another approach is Rose Lemberg’s model of “unbreaking the reader”. What would make your portrayal of (your fantasy equivalent of) China healing, satisfying, and empowering for a reader of Chinese descent?

Obviously you will need to do your research; less often discussed is the notion of honoring your sources. Consider including a research bibliography in the back of your novel. You can use the acknowledgments section to highlight teachers, librarians, essayists, sensitivity readers, and others whose assistance made your book a rich and thoughtful and unbreaking portrayal of its various cultures. (Make sure you get permission from anyone you want to name.)

One of the major concerns about appropriation is economic exploitation, the use of another culture’s stories or history to enrich yourself. Donating a portion of your proceeds to one or more appropriate nonprofits is one way to address that concern. (I recommend the Carl Brandon Society, which supports people of color in the SF/F writing field.) Hiring and paying sensitivity readers is another good way to directly support people with roots in the cultures you’re writing about. You can also include writers from those cultures in your promotions for your book, with paired giveaways and joint book signing events, and promote those writers and their work separately from promoting your own work.

Finally, consider Hiromi Goto’s questions for white writers:

1) how many writers from the culture you wish to represent have been published in your country writing in the same language you will use (i.e. English) to write the story, 2) why do you think you’re the best person to write this story? 3) who will benefit if you write this story? 4) why are you writing this story? 5) who is your intended audience? 6) if the people/culture you are selecting to write about has not had enough time, historically and structurally, to tell their story first, on their own terms, should you be occupying this space?

These aren’t rhetorical questions; it is quite possible for you to think hard about them and decide to move forward with your project in an ethical fashion. As Goto and Shawl both observe, saying that white writers can only write about white people is its own contribution to erasure. As I’ve noted in the past, you are absolutely allowed to write outside your own experience. If this is the story your heart longs to tell, by all means tell it! Just be willing to put in the work: do research, hire sensitivity readers, excavate your internalized biases, and keep the marginalized reader foremost in your thoughts. Your book will be all the better for it.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

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!

#78: How Much Should Your Research Show?

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m in the planning phases of a time travel short story, and I find myself wondering how much research is too much. What’s a good way to find the line between authenticity and overdoing it?

—ASB (he/him)

Dear ASB,

There are two people for whom research might be “too much”: you, and your reader. For you, it’s too much if it prevents you from writing, or if your investment in research outweighs its return. For your reader, it’s too much if it it prevents them from enjoying the story.

Continue reading

#77: Making Your Story the Length You Want

Dear Story Nurse,

I recently finished the first draft of my novel—a mystery set in a pretty traditional fantasy land. The problem? When I did the final word count, it came out to 27K. I’m doing the first round of editing—well, mostly adding scenes that I missed the first time around—and at the rate I’m going, it’s going to roughly double my wordcount, which still won’t bring me to the 80–90K typical of the genre. And I definitely do want this work to be a novel, not a novella. Retooling it for the typically shorter YA market would involve excising a lot of themes important to the story. So how can I get my wordcount up without adding unnecessary fluff?

—Wannabe Novelist (he/him)

Dear Wannabe Novelist,

There are two ways to approach this dilemma. One is the philosophical approach: the story is the length it wants to be, and there isn’t much that you can do about that. The other is the engineering approach: there needs to be enough story structure to support the story’s length, or the whole thing will collapse and that will be sad. I’m going to get into the engineering approach a bit, but I want you to keep the philosophical one in mind, because there are very good reasons that most of the seasoned writers I know tend to end up thinking of story length in those terms.

Continue reading

#76: Revision Paralysis

Today’s question—or rather, today’s concern—comes from @MardouLedger on Twitter:

I think this is a very common anxiety, especially among those of us who tend to write first drafts that we really like, or who draft a lot more than we revise. Drafting and revising are two different skills, and if you’re more skilled at drafting, revision can feel very clumsy and awkward by comparison.

To start with, if you’re not sure what revision entails or should entail, take a look at my post on “What is revision?”. That will get you grounded in the basics.

Next, put your work in some format that makes it very easy to save copies. Google Drive keeps a history of all changes made to a file. Scrivener saves history files; this can get a little wonky when used with DropBox or Google Drive, so make sure Scrivener is set to save directly to a folder on your hard drive and then use the DropBox or Google Drive app to automatically back that folder up. Or you can manually save each draft as a separate file. However you go about it, make sure you have a way to go back to where you were. That way, no change you make is permanent, and if you decide you dislike it, you can undo it. Backups render your beautiful draft impervious to ruination.

I almost always recommend finishing a draft before revising it, and I especially recommend that in this case. If revising makes you anxious, and you revise before a draft is finished, that anxiety can get in the way of finishing it at all.

When you do finish a draft, practice revising it, even if you’re pretty happy with it. Revision is a skill, or a set of skills, that you can develop with some time and effort; the more you revise, the less it will stress you. Besides, no draft is perfect.

Getting assistance from someone who’s good at revisions is always a good idea, especially if you know it’s not your strong suit. In addition to talking to editors and beta readers, ask around among your writer friends and see whether you can find someone who feels they’re a much better reviser than drafter. They may be able to give you good tips from a writer’s perspective (and maybe you can share some in return).

Most importantly, less on the technical side than on the relationship-with-work side, get to know the core concepts of your work. If you’re the analytical sort, analyze your draft closely, making notes on what you feel is central to it, what you love about it, what you’re most afraid of ruining with your revisions. If you’re more in touch with your emotions, reread your draft and seek out the parts that make your heart sing, as a reader and as a writer. Revision is ideally done in service to the work. When you have a strong, clear idea of what your work is and what it’s trying to be, you’ll have a much easier time helping it along its path.

Happy revising!

Cheers,

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!