#123: Writer’s Mind, Beginner’s Mind

Hello Story Nurse,

I want to write a novel. But I’m stuck. I have previously published non-fiction work in thesis, publication, monograph and script format. To me this kind of writing is, if not easy, intuitive. Pitching what I’m writing to the right audience is my particular strength. I’ve written for experts in my field and scripted shows to be presented to people who have learning disabilities by people who have learning difficulties who may not be able to read well if at all.

I think part of the problem is that I don’t really have a process for fiction. I have the plot sorted. I’ve tongue in cheek described it as World War Z but with lesbians and organised crime instead of zombies. I don’t know what to do to get beyond this plotting point. I’ve seen guides that say to flesh out your characters but I’m not sure how to do that? Especially since the things that people say you should know about your characters seem weird? Blood type? Really? Unless transfusion diagnostics or really picky vampires are major plot points I’m not really sure why it matters! (Although I would definitely read something about a vampire who works in a blood bank because anything other than ABNEG is just dire).

Then there’s the fact that I can almost hear myself reading aloud anything I write. I want several view points in my novel but I can’t seem to get patterns of speech or writing to change in a way that doesn’t feel utterly cringey.

Do I need to start simpler? Should I just stay in my writing lane?

—Too Literal to be Literary (she/her)

Dear Too Literal,

By “stay in my writing lane” I think you mean “give up on writing fiction because I don’t know how to do it.” I encourage you not to give up. It’s challenging to go from being an expert writer to being a novice; you feel like you ought to just be able to transfer your skills. You’ve got a variation on what Ira Glass calls the taste gap, the distance between what you as an amateur are capable of writing and what you as a professional expect to be able to produce (and want to be reading). But the issues you’re highlighting—character development, voice—are some of the issues that are unique to fiction, where experienced writers of nonfiction will struggle just as total beginners do.

You’re correct that you’re taking those gimmicky character development ideas a little too literally. Think of it more like doing divination. Your birth date on its own doesn’t say anything about you, but if you look up your horoscope in today’s newspaper, you will almost certainly find things that feel right to you and things you disagree with; a Tarot card on its own is just a card, but doing a spread of Tarot cards in response to a question will help you find new approaches to the question. Similarly, character development tools that ask you about hair color and the like are intended to help you do character divination.

As you consider each aspect of your character, think about how your character feels about it. For example, if you’re considering hair color, do they dye their hair funky colors for self-expression, or wear a modest wig because their partner is the only one who gets to see their hair uncovered? If your character really doesn’t care about their hair color, that’s characterization too; it’s a rare person who has no thoughts or feelings at all about their hair, which is so intimately tied to major things like gender and ethnicity and class and age and health. Character is who we are both privately and in the context of the world. Placing your character in the context of the world will help you start to understand who they are privately, which in turn will influence their interactions with others and with the events of your story.

That said, if you’ve got a plot, you almost certainly know something about who your characters are, because characters and plot are intertwined. So you may not need to do these fleshing-out exercises right now, or at all. It’s quite possible to write a plot-focused first draft in which characterization is less prominent, and then do a round of character development revisions. Just be prepared for that round of revisions to potentially lead to significant plot changes; as your characters become more nuanced and complex, you may find that it no longer makes sense for them to take some of the actions that your story hinges on.

If it’s challenging for you to write in multiple character voices, I do recommend starting with a single narrator; you’ll still know that that narrator sounds like you, but your readers won’t, because they don’t know you. There’s a sweet spot of making your project challenging enough to be interesting but not so challenging that it blocks you. It sounds like writing one voice is hard enough right now, especially if you don’t want that voice to sound like your voice. Once you’ve leveled up that skill a bit, 

You can also invest some time in studying voices: accents, mannerisms, and so on. It may help to find a parallel to your POV character in an actor or other celebrity who has a distinctive manner of speaking, and then watch some videos of that person being interviewed and try to soak up what makes them sound the way they do. Over time you’ll begin to get a feel for what sounds like a thing they would say and what sounds totally out of character.

For a character whose background has a real-world basis, you can immerse yourself in media from that locale, and once you’ve written your book, hire someone with that background to do a targeted beta read. I recently wrote a story with Australian characters and was very grateful to the Australian beta reader who helped me with nuances of phrasing and terminology. Something as simple as saying “different to” rather than “different from” can go a long way toward making a character’s voice feel authentic.

When your character voices sound weird to you, remember that something in your own writing that makes you cringe may read perfectly well to someone who isn’t you. Rereading your own work can be like hearing your own voice on a recording: it sounds weird and fake, and you notice every awkward phrase and hitch of breath. But to anyone else it’s just an ordinary recorded voice. This is another reason to rely on a beta reader who can give you the reader’s perspective, which is necessarily quite different from the writer’s.

This leads us to your feeling of being stuck. Building skills is all well and good, but it will mostly help you in the long term. Meanwhile, you’re here with a plot and no manuscript and a lot of well-meaning advice that may or may not make sense to you or be suitable for you. You’re a professional writer who’s back to, not square one, but square three or four, and feeling like an amateur is very hard. You also mention that your nonfiction writing is intuitive. If fiction writing doesn’t feel like it flows naturally in the same way, it’s easy to mistake that for fiction writing not being right for you, or vice versa. All of that contributes to the feeling of stuckness.

Take a moment to think back to early in your nonfiction career, and even to reread some of your work from back then if you have it handy. You’ve learned so much since then. You’ve put time and effort into developing that intuition as well as your writing technique. As a beginner, you might not have ever thought you’d end up where you are. If you keep putting effort into your fiction writing, you have just as much potential to succeed, by whatever definition of “success” you have.

It may take just as much time to reach similar levels of achievement with fiction writing—or more time, since you’re not doing it as a career. Don’t let the slowness of the process put you off. In retrospect, all your years of building up your nonfiction writing skills probably feel much shorter than they were when you were living them. Having gone back into your past, now it’s time to go into your future and think about where you want to be a year or three years or five years from now. Then, given what you know from how your nonfiction writing career has developed, think about what will help you achieve that goal, motivating you without the kind of pressure that leads to resistance and avoidance.

My own approach to fiction writing, as a longtime professional writer and editor, was to firmly tell myself that I was a hobbyist, a dabbler, just doing it for fun. Hobbyists can be quite intense, so that didn’t stop me from putting in a fair amount of time when I felt like it, but it did give me permission to take months off from it sometimes, to let go of any idea of making money from it, and to allow other parts of my life to take priority when they needed to. Playing around and trying different things led me to gradually develop a process, a writing community, and a set of tools that work for me; last year I wrote over 40,000 words of fiction and this year I’m very close to 60,000 words. I could never have imagined achieving that even a few years ago, nor could I have imagined that I’d do it primarily by engaging in 25-minute writing sprints with a bunch of fanfic writers. But here I am, staring at those numbers on my spreadsheet and seriously adjusting my own concept of what I’m capable of. I encourage you to give yourself that same leeway and flexibility, take the long view, and let yourself follow the paths that unexpectedly call to you. 

You say you don’t have a process for fiction, and that’s fine! There’s no way you could have one right out of the gate. Process is something you develop through exploration, observation, and iteration. Make space for that, and be patient with yourself. I hope you’ll come back in a year or three or five and tell me how well things have gone for you, and how you’ve learned and grown and surprised yourself.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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