#90: Writing Inclusive Stories That Are Scary, Angry, Painful, or Sad

Dear Story Nurse,

This is partially applicable to my current WIP, but it’s really a problem I have across the board. I love stories with complex, morally grey characters that make mistakes and act selfishly or obey their own, peculiar moral codes. I like horror, disturbing stuff, and stories that aren’t a simple good/evil dichotomy.

Whenever I try to write that kind of stuff, things get complicated.

See, I was raised in a very strict household – think fundamentalist Christian values, even if that wasn’t technically my parents’ religion. Especially since I was raised as a girl, I was taught to be quiet and polite and Nice and never say anything too shocking. Anything I wrote deemed Morally Wrong in some way was ripped apart. I’m out of that situation now, but the training runs deep. From the very start, I have a hard time putting down the wonderfully weird and horrible stuff I want to.

It’s not helped that I also crave positive feedback, and that’s difficult to find for my id-pleasing work. One of the few sources of positive feedback I had quit reading one of my stories after declaring something I thought was relatively minor disturbed her too much, and although intellectually I know it’s more a matter of her personal taste… it set me back a while. Not to mention the general culture about stories featuring queer & otherwise marginalized characters, in (understandable) pushback against depressing Bury-the-Gays stories, is mainly ‘nobody wants anything difficult, we only want happy cute romance stories’. More power to them, but not my thing, and it makes me feel even more insecure about my work.

So the end result: I come up with ideas and characters I love, but struggle to execute them. I’m constantly plagued by thoughts of ‘Are people going to find this disturbing? Do I need to show more clearly this character isn’t supposed to be right? Maybe I should tone down his behavior.’ Etc, etc, until I tie myself into knots and everything comes out stilted. I struggle to write characters that are even mean, let alone the gloriously terrible sorts I like reading about and privately imagining.

I hesitated to write you because I feel like this might be a difficult problem to advise on, but I thought it might be worth a shot. I feel trapped between the queer/diverse writing community I feel won’t appreciate the strange, dark stories I want to tell, and the dark fiction I love that never seems to leave room for people like me. I want to combine them, but my fear of judgement keeps tripping me up, and I don’t know how to turn it off.

Thank you for your time.

—Strange and Unusual (he/him)

Dear Story Nurse,

In some ways, my question is a follow up question to #36, although I didn’t send in that letter.

I’m a minority in a few ways (disabled, genderqueer but only out to a few, mostly asexual, diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, attracted to women while being AFAB).

If I’m writing a fictional story, I tend to write disabled or chronically ill characters a lot, and also other body-related issues like dysphoria (both gender and body), eating disorders, having an atypical sexuality or wanting to have a “normal” positive sexual experience and struggling.

These are things I struggle with in my own life, but I tend to write fiction because it’s easier to process when the character dealing with these struggles is explicitly not me. They’re someone in a different context, sometimes a fantasy context or just a different sort of family than mine. In many ways, the characters I write feel the same way I do inside my head, but they aren’t me.

I’ve sold a few stories, mostly in the fantasy / horror genre, and often the struggles I deal with are things I metaphor-ize: a person haunted by a ghost, a person who is intangible, an alien disguised as a human, a person who is literally invisible and simultaneously blind. These stories have pretty much gotten completely positive feedback, and one has been anthologized.

The stories I write are not necessarily what I think of as disability stories, especially since they have other elements and themes in them. But, lately, I’ve been trying to write non-metaphor stories about characters with real-world disabilities who struggle with dysphoria or dealing with chronic pain, still in a s/f context. And I’ve been getting a lot of pushback from other disabled writers.

Basically, they think my writing is too dark or “negative.” They keep saying that by writing about disabled characters having body dysphoria, I’m feeding into a negative stereotype. Because the characters are fiction, the critics don’t know (probably) that I’m trying to write about my own experiences with dysphoria; I don’t want to ‘out’ myself. Nor to I really want to write memoir — plots and adventures are part of the fun of writing for me.

But it’s very hard to not take these critiques personally. I feel like I have revealed a very real, vulnerable part of myself and I’m being rejected. I feel very raw and naked in these new stories, and I’m deeply hurt by the reactions I’ve gotten, even though I know, as you say, I can reject a critique. It seems so personal.

Also, I keep worrying that I’m wrong. Maybe I shouldn’t write a disabled character with vaginismus or an eating disorder, even though that’s my life experience, because that belongs in memoir or literary fiction rather than fantasy, which is meant to be escapist. I’ve re-read #36, about how just because you fit a stereotype doesn’t mean you should write it.

I’m so confused. Should I try writing in a different genre? Should I not write characters who are like me in this specific way? Should I try to give characters positive, empowering stories in every genre? Should I ‘out’ myself as someone who experiences dysphoria and disability? Should I try to toughen up and take critiques less personally?

I thought vulnerability was supposed to make stories better,

Anthem (they/them)

Dear Strange and Unusual and Anthem,

I’m sorry you’ve both run up against critiques of the form “stories about marginalized characters should only be positive and happy”. Anthem, I’m especially sorry that post #36 came across as a “you shouldn’t” post. I intended it as a how-to on a particular technique, not as a suggestion that there’s only one way to write stories about marginalized characters, and I appreciate you sending your follow-up question so I could clarify that.

I grouped your letters together in part because I want you to know you’re not alone. I’ve heard a lot of other marginalized writers express similar concerns.

There are many conflicting takes on whether and how to write stories where bad things happen to, or are done by, marginalized characters. I’ve spent a long time thinking about this, and here is my personal approach.

To start with, I want to tackle an issue that neither of you mentioned, but that may come up for some other readers of this post. If you want to write a story that focuses on or significantly features the pain of a group of people that you don’t belong to—don’t. Look for people who are in that group and are writing about their own pain. Support them and encourage others to read their work, and find another story to tell. It’s fine to write about people who are unlike yourself! But it’s very difficult, maybe impossible, to write something that focuses on the pain of people who are unlike yourself without being exploitative and voyeuristic.

This isn’t about whether readers know you’re not a member of that group (I address that below). It’s about the morality of writing on that particular topic as an outsider, while insiders who are also writing about it are almost certainly going unrecognized and unsupported. This is a call you have to make from your conscience. My personal feeling—and of course others may disagree—is that there simply is no ethical way to write and publish non-ownvoices stories that focus on the pain of marginalized people as long as publishing and bookselling privilege outsider work over insider work. If we ever manage to fix (or dismantle and replace) that system, I’ll be glad to reconsider this position.

Of course the boundaries of like/unlike and insider/outsider are fuzzy. I have intermittently unhappy arm tendons, and I consider my story about someone with intermittently unhappy leg tendons to be ownvoices. Someone else might disagree because a leg injury is a mobility disability and an arm injury generally is not (and I do plan to consult with sensitivity readers on the mobility limitation aspects of that character’s injuries). “Focus on” is also an imprecise term, and I’m not going to try to define it as N% of word count or what have you. Again, this comes down to what your conscience tells you. You will know whether you’re mostly writing from your own experience; you will know whether the heart of your story is the pain of a marginalized group.

Ultimately, no one but you can decide whether you should continue with a given project. I’m offering these as ethical guidelines, but you need to make your own decisions.


From this point on, my post assumes that any stories you want to write that are primarily about unpleasant things happening to or being done by marginalized people are, broadly speaking, ownvoices stories.

Let’s start with some axioms.

Stories that explore real pain (physical, psychological, emotional) felt by real people can be very valuable for many reasons. They can be cathartic for the people who are writing them; they can be cathartic for the people they’re about; they can be educational for people who haven’t experienced that pain. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to write stories like that.

There is an enormous corpus of fiction and nonfiction written by marginalized people that digs deep into their most painful and sorrowful experiences. If you want to write stories like that about your own pain, or about the pain of people like you, I strongly encourage you to read the works of others who have done likewise. You aren’t alone in wanting to do this, and the publication and lauding of other non-fluffy ownvoices works will remind you that there absolutely is an audience out there for stories like the ones you want to tell.

The (perceived) scarcity and obscurity of works by and about people like you should not stop you from telling the story you want to tell. There is no tipping point of sufficient happy stories in the world that will make it okay for you to tell sad or scary or angry ones. If your story doesn’t reach a fellow member of your marginalized group, it can be hard to say “Sorry it doesn’t work for you, try reading another one” while knowing that there are not many other ones out there. However:

  1. If your choice is between writing a story that doesn’t please everyone and not writing any stories because you’re stressing about wanting to please everyone—write your stories. Any critique that makes you want to stop writing is a bad critique, and that includes self-critique.
  2. You can always look for and support other writers in your group who are writing other types of work. Collaborate with them on promotions so you can both reach more people who need your different stories.
  3. If you acknowledge that there’s value in writing for a minority group, there is arguably more value in writing for a minority of that minority. If you feel marginalized within your marginalized community because of the stories you want to write, remember that readers who want to read those stories feel the same way. Write for them.
  4. You don’t actually know that only 30 people want your stories until you get your stories out there. You could be writing for a majority of the minority and not even know it until the sales numbers come in.
  5. The most compelling argument, to me, is that a fundamental way of making the world better for people like us is to show that we get to write whatever we want. We get to write bad books, we get to write silly books, we get to write fluffy books, we get to write scary and sad books, we get to write books that other people think are a waste of time. it’s still on us to go about that in an ethical way, but that’s a matter of how we do it, not whether we do it.

In short, we solve the scarcity problem by writing more, and we solve the obscurity problem by boosting one another, and we keep doing these things until there are 60,000 books for marginalized readers to choose from. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our worst problem was too many books on our to-read lists? Let’s make it happen.

Most harm caused by stories about marginalized characters is attributable to failures of craft or audience mismatch. When stories about the pain of marginalization fall short, it’s often because of clichés and stereotypes, insufficient research, clunky prose, and other technical flaws that undermine their value as chronicles of real feelings and experiences. Writers of ownvoices stories have an advantage of knowledge, but all writers need to develop their skills, unpack their internalized biases, and work with sensitivity readers and editors and betas in order to handle readers’ most volatile emotions with the care and skill they require. I’m not saying that either story or writer needs to be perfect, but writing these stories is writing on hard mode, and it takes some time and effort to work up to that.

(I speak from personal experience here. I have a multiply ownvoices novel that’s back-burnered until I feel like a good enough writer to handle the topics it covers. It’s very frustrating to have to focus on less personal projects when I want to be digging into that one, but I know that it’s going to pay off in the long run.)

Audience mismatch means that the story is being read by people who don’t actually want that kind of story. This can happen if you’ve got a regular beta reader who’s not prepared for you to try something very different from what you’ve written before, or if your work’s genre is mislabeled, or even if your cover art doesn’t accurately signal what’s inside. A reader who wants a happy story will think of your angry or sorrowful story as “unsuccessful” no matter how good it is, because it wasn’t successful at meeting that reader’s expectations. With all stories, and these stories in particular, it’s very important to make sure you’re reaching the readers who want what you’re writing, and warning off the ones who don’t.

Any critique of the form “no one wants stories that _____” is wrong. All fiction has an audience somewhere. There is a world of difference between “no one should tell a story like this” (always wrong) and “you aren’t telling this story in a way that works for me” (always worth listening to, even if you ultimately discard the critique).


Finally, some advice. For this section I’m going to use a case study: Elizabeth Hand’s 1991 short story “The Bacchae,” a story in which women respond to patriarchal suppression by treating men as brainless sex objects and becoming casually violent (be warned that there is a lot of blood in the story, including animal harm). At one point, the male protagonist’s female companion says, “I think you just don’t like it when things don’t go as you expect them to. Even if it’s the way things really are supposed to be.” That tension between the reader’s initial expectations and the story’s own deeper logic makes it very disturbing for some readers, and very cathartic for others.

Before you start or as you write, decide whether this is a story you want to share, and if it is, whether it’s a story you want to sell. Some stories that are worth writing have no commercial potential. Some stories that are worth writing don’t even need to be shared with anyone other than the writer. If you are writing a story about pain and intending to sell it or share it, think about who your anticipated audience is and how to balance what you need from writing it with what your audience wants from reading it. The more disturbing or challenging a story is, the harder it may be to find any kind of commercial success with it. However, remember that you only need to find one editor or publisher willing to take a chance on your work.

Write as though no one will ever know whether you belong to the group you’re writing about. Your story has to stand on its own and be worth reading on its own. “It’s ownvoices” can put an interesting additional angle on a story that already works without it, but it can’t cover for failures of craft or defang hurtful words.

Decide whether to make a public claim of affiliation. No reader is owed personal information about you, especially if that’s a matter of safety. There’s a long and honorable tradition of using initials or a pen name or a falsified bio to hide one’s marginalization, and if doing that feels right to you, then by all means do it.

(This should go without saying, but absolutely do not falsely state or imply that you’re part of a marginalized group. It’s one thing to undermine a biased system by claiming access to privilege you don’t usually have. It’s quite another to place yourself in competition with other marginalized people by claiming a marginalized identity that’s not yours.)

Privacy or the lack of it always comes with trade-offs. In this case, privacy may lead readers to feel more free to critique you (and perhaps to do so in pointed and personal ways) because, as a perceived or presumed member of the majority, you are assumed to have the privilege and emotional armor to withstand it, and you may also be seen as intruding into spaces that aren’t yours. You may also be lauded as one of the few people in the majority who really understand how to write minority voices, or receive opportunities that wouldn’t go to someone whose marginalization is apparent—experiences that can be both enjoyable and uncomfortable. It’s up to you to decide how to balance your various risks.

Every story that reflects the messiness of the real world will cause readers some discomfort; your job is to choose which readers to discomfit, and to what end. In an interview about “The Bacchae,” Hand says she deliberately drew parallels between the experiences of women in the real world and those of men in her story, and “exorcised some demons” relating to her own experiences of being violently harmed by men. She was undoubtedly aware that a lot of people would find her story uncomfortable or upsetting to read, and felt it was still worth writing—perhaps because she wanted to upset them, or perhaps because her priority was the process of exorcism for herself and the readers who identify with the rage of her female characters.

Strange and Unusual, you mention craving positive feedback. You may well get it if you write your more disturbing stories, because there’s absolutely a market for those, but you may also get a lot of negative feedback alongside it. It’s up to you to decide whether that’s worth it for you.

When writing about the pain felt by a particular group, center that group as your audience. Even if you’re aiming for mainstream publication to reach a wide range of readers, some of those readers will be in the group you’re writing about, and it’s important to treat those readers with care.

Some readers will feel their unhappy experiences are most accurately reflected by unhappy endings, and some will want a note of happiness or optimism to help them hope for the same in their own lives. Some will be comfortable with explicit depictions of unpleasant situations, and others will prefer metaphor or turned-tables situations. (“The Bacchae” is clearly about sexual violence but never directly depicts it, a choice that in no way undermines the power of the story and may make it safer for readers who don’t want to see their traumatic past experiences on the page.) Some who have internalized self-hating messages will want to see characters like them be brutalized, and others will want to see those same messages undermined and countered. You can’t please or satisfy all of those readers, since they want contradictory things, but you can write in a way that takes them into consideration and doesn’t actively antagonize or scorn those who want something different than you’re interested in providing.

Hand establishes from the very first paragraph of “The Bacchae” that this is a bloody, gory story, giving readers who don’t want that an immediate opportunity to opt out. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, another often grim ownvoices work, does the same thing, opening with a scene of a father killing his young son. These unflinching openers are sort of like content notes or trigger warnings embedded in the text; they say, “If you can’t get through this scene, then this story is not for you.” Any story that wrestles with challenging topics will be suited to some readers and not suited to others. Making your approach clear up front is one way—though not the only way and not a mandatory way—to be respectful of the readers who are in your centered group but not in your target audience.

Gather a team that wants to work on the stories you want to write. Your betas, SRs, and editors need to be passionate about your work and share your goals for it. It may be hard to find the right readers for your darker fiction, but cast your net widely and put in the time and effort to assemble a group of people who are into reading what you’re into writing.

Be prepared for a challenging writing process. When you find yourself struggling with whether you should (or are “allowed” to) write these stories, remember that the real question is when and how to write them. When is about your development of your writing skills and your emotional preparedness; how is about employing your skills as well as your technical and personal support teams. Stories about pain, anger, sorrow, and fear can be incredibly rewarding to tell, and can also be absolutely wrenching. You may never feel fully ready to write them, even as you feel a desperate need to write them. They may take many more drafts than you’re used to. You may have to step away from them for months or years at a time if the emotions are overwhelming or you realize your technical ability just isn’t where you need it to be. Comments from SRs and editors, even very gentle ones, can be devastating. You may need to edit with tweezers instead of your usual bulldozer. That’s part of the nature of writing from your pain. Keep taking care of yourself as you go, and make sure the people you lean on really are supporting you and your work.

Be prepared for strong criticism. Some people are going to judge your work harshly because it’s not what they want or because they find it upsetting. This is an inevitable side effect of writing stories that provoke strong emotions, especially when they’re aimed at people who are already vulnerable because of the collective trauma of marginalization. Only you can decide how to balance your safety and comfort against your desire to write these stories.

You may decide to use a pseudonym; you may decide to start out writing more mainstream works and gradually trend toward writing the stories of your heart; you may decide that you will never read your reviews; you may hire extra sensitivity readers and editors to be absolutely sure that when you send your works out into the world, you do so knowing that they are the absolute best you could make them; you may publish a manifesto explaining why you think it’s important to write what you do. As with the question of identity privacy, preparing for strong criticism is something that everyone will handle differently. But do prepare for it, because it will come your way.


I hope none of this discourages you from telling the stories you want to tell. They are valid, valuable stories about things that really matter, and there is an audience out there for them. It will be difficult, but when you’re ready for that challenge, I know you’re going to knock it out of the park. Hang in there, and keep writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Many thanks to the Story Hospital Patreon patrons who provided invaluable critique of the first draft of this post.

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!

#89: Countering a Cruel Inner Critic

Dear Story Nurse,

My internal critic is particularly nasty: I usually can’t even get started with writing a draft before I’ve convinced myself that the entire premise is bad and I give up on it altogether.

My inner critic’s attacks on my work rarely take the form of “this is awful/nobody would ever want to read this,” instead they take the form of “this is hurtful/exploitative and you’re a bad person for even coming up with this idea in the first place.”

Another intrusive thought I get a lot is “by writing anything at all you’re taking space away from people whose stories deserve to be told more than yours, because they’re more marginalized than you are.”

This prevents me even from writing stories that are mostly autobiographical, because I know that there are people who’ve had it harder than me that I’m hurting by writing this.

I guess my question is, how do I push past this particular type of internal criticism and actually get a draft written?

—Anxious (xie/xer)

Dear Anxious,

I’m really glad you found a way around your inner critic to write to me. That tells me how important writing is to you, and also tells me that you are able to do things for your own benefit and for the benefit of your writing. That’s essential; when all else fails, come back to that core knowledge that you value yourself more than you value the critic’s opinions.

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GYWO: How to Write When You Don’t Wanna

GYWO is Get Your Words Out, a wonderful writing accountability community. I joined this year and I’m really enjoying it. I wrote this post for the GYWO community, and the moderators have kindly allowed me to mirror it on Story Hospital.

I have a cold. When I have a cold, I feel extremely sorry for myself. I am the worst, whiniest patient; I just want to sit in bed, play phone games, and have everything done for me. This is not conducive to writing. But I said I would make a post for GYWO today, so here I am. And the topic couldn’t be more apropos!

So there you are, a writer with writing to do, but… you don’t want to.

If you don’t want to write, the obvious solution is not to write. The vast majority of people go through life this way and do perfectly fine. Those of us who think of ourselves as writers don’t tend to remember that not writing is an option, but it is! We get to choose how we spend our time, and we can choose to spend it doing other things. Give yourself a moment to consider this option.

You may find yourself thinking of all the reasons you do want to write: you enjoy it, you’re in the middle of something you want to finish, you’re under contract or have some other obligation, you get so much satisfaction out of filling out those tracking spreadsheets, you want readers to have the story you’re creating, and so on. Sometimes, just remembering those reasons is enough to help you get past a bout of the don’t-wannas.

You may feel a wave of relief. “I don’t have to write? HOORAY.” If that’s how you feel, and if your obligations permit, give yourself a little time off from writing—or a lot of time off, if that’s what you need. We got into this gig because we enjoy it, but over time, that enjoyment can fade. If your daily routine is making writing feel more like a grind than a delight, take a break.

If you’re still stuck in the conflict between wanting to write (for some reasons) and also not wanting to (for other reasons), think about what kind of reluctance you’re experiencing, because different ailments require different treatments. Here are some examples of don’t-wannas that writers experience.

“I don’t want to write because my body or brain isn’t up for it.” If you have an acute condition (something like a cold or a bruised finger that will go away in a short period of time), give yourself “sick leave” until it gets better, unless you have a deadline you just can’t miss. If you have a chronic condition, make sure your plan for your writing is based on your actual capabilities, not your ideal capabilities or someone else’s ideal capabilities.

Right now my GYWO spreadsheet thinks I can make my wordcount goal by the middle of the year, but the spreadsheet doesn’t take into account my chronic conditions, any of which might flare up and eat a month of productivity. When I was a freelance writer and editor, my standard practice was to quote 50% more time than I thought I needed for a project. If I finished it early, my client was overjoyed! If I hit a snag, I had time to work through it. Pad your own writing goals the same way.

Everyone with a chronic ailment has to learn—with many false steps—how to identify the difference between “today this is hard” and “today this is impossible”. Be gentle with yourself as you figure out when and whether you can write through the pain or brain fog or depression. And while you’re here, make sure your workspace is set up to make writing as easy as possible: good ergonomics, music or silence, fidget toys, time free from interruption.

“I don’t want to write because something’s going on in my personal or non-writing professional life.” I think the acute/chronic framing applies here too. If I have to do an unexpected day of childcare because my kid’s daycare is closed for a snow day, that might mean taking a day off from writing but wouldn’t generally interrupt my groove. If I were starting three months of working overtime or doing a major volunteering project, I’d have to make more serious adjustments to my writing schedule and goals.

“I don’t want to write because I don’t know what comes next in my story.” Sounds like it’s time to do some planning. No need to throw together a full outline if you don’t want to; just sketch out the next scene. Some writers find it helps to retype or rewrite the last paragraph they wrote before taking a break, as a warm-up and a reminder of what’s going on in the story.

“I don’t want to write because I don’t have faith in myself as a writer.” There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for this, but if you take a moment to think about times in the past when you’ve felt this way, you can probably identify things that have helped you. Talk with friends who love your writing, reread fan mail, reread your favorite piece of your own work, and remember that everyone hits a slump now and then, and it doesn’t reflect badly on you as a writer or as a person that you’re having a hard time right now. Do non-writing-related self-care while you’re there: eat something, drink something, get some sleep, do things that feel good and help you unwind a bit.

“I don’t want to write because I just know that as soon as I get into it, I’ll be interrupted.” Maybe it’s time to make a DO NOT DISTURB sign for your door, turn off your phone, and make sure the people around you know that your writing time is an important thing that needs to be respected. To make this stick, you need to value your own time so that you can convincingly tell others they need to value it too. Or you can practice writing for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, if that’s all that your demanding life affords you.

“I do want to write, but I don’t want to write the thing I’m supposed to be writing.” Go ahead and dabble in something else! Unless you’re on the tightest of tight deadlines, it’s more practical to try something else for a few minutes than to keep forcing yourself to hammer away on a project that you’re feeling averse to. Do come back to the original project—unless you realize that it’s just not a good project (for you) (right now) and needs to be shelved—but don’t feel that you need to make yourself miserable. Rediscovering the joy of writing by indulging in a quick little detour can reinvigorate you and make your primary project feel much easier and more fun. This technique also works when you have a stressful assignment or deadline and are feeling avoidant; let yourself indulge the procrastination urge for a little bit before you get back to your obligatory writing.

These situations can be complicated, so consider a two-column exercise: on one side, list all the reasons you don’t want to write, and on the other side, list all the reasons you do want to. That can help you weigh them out and decide whether to push through or to give yourself a pass. I encourage you to be kind with yourself and try to make that decision without bullying or shaming yourself. Everyone hits a patch of don’t-wanna now and then. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or a bad person. It just means you’re human.

What are some don’t-wannas you’ve felt when sitting down to write? How did you handle them?

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!

#88: “My Anti-Queer Cousin Offered to Beta Read My Lesbian Novel”

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

Dear Story Nurse,

My cousin went through an unusual change during college. Rather than becoming a liberal, fire-breathing, intersectional feminist, she turned to evangelical Christianity and takes heteronormative roles very seriously. It saddens me as a feminist and a bisexual woman that she believes what she does. But she seems very happy in her marriage and life, so I’m not going to say anything.

But.

She’s offered to beta-read my novel. I’m happy that she wants to, free feedback is valuable, but my novel centers around a lesbian. I’m worried that at best, she’ll tell me to tone down the gay stuff (don’t worry, there’s no way in hell am I going to do that) and at worst, she’ll reject me and I’ll be blamed for the ensuing family drama. I don’t see this ending well and I don’t know what to do.

Yours,

Worried Author (she/her)

Dear Worried Author,

It sounds to me like there are a couple of options here that could save you both a lot of stress:

  1. Turn her down. “Thanks for your offer, but I’m all set for beta readers.” If she pushes you, repeat yourself: “I really appreciate that, but I’m all set.”
  2. Tell her that your book is about a lesbian and that you’re not open to any feedback regarding the book’s queer content. Then ask whether she still wants to beta read it, reassuring her that it’s fine to say no.

Free beta reading doesn’t mean beta reading without boundaries. You get to decide who sees your book in this draft stage, when you and the story are both very vulnerable. If this cousin isn’t someone whose opinion you want or need right now, then it’s perfectly fine to decline her offer and put your time and energy into finding other beta readers who are a better fit.

Similarly, she should have the opportunity to repeat or retract the offer once you give her more information. Any beta reader should know what type of book they’re signing up to read, just as a reader picking up your book in a bookstore or online will read the blurb and look at the cover art and check the reviews to see whether it’s something they’re likely to be into. (Presumably you’d also warn your cousin if the book was in a genre she doesn’t usually like, contained explicit violence or sex, or had content she was likely to find upsetting for whatever reason.) If you don’t want to turn down your cousin’s offer, describe the book to her so she has the opportunity to give, or withhold, informed consent. Maybe she’ll surprise you and say she’s totally fine with reading a book with a lesbian protagonist. Maybe she’ll be relieved to have the chance to back out. Either way, it’s a better approach than emailing her your manuscript cold and then hiding from your email and all family reunions for the next hundred years.

If you feel awkward saying “My heroine is a lesbian, is that cool with you?”, that’s a good reason to go back to option one and turn down her offer, since her learning that the heroine is a lesbian by reading the manuscript will undoubtedly be even more awkward. You know she’s not a fan of queer people, and she knows you know. She would be quite right to be upset with you for not giving her advance notice of queer content in your book. She doesn’t get to judge you for what you choose to write, but providing her with relevant information is about navigating the beta reading relationship, not about whether there’s anything wrong with writing a queer protagonist.

It’s not clear to me whether your cousin knows you’re bisexual, but I’m guessing not, since you mention being concerned that she will reject not just your book but you. If that’s the case, telling your cousin that your book has a lesbian protagonist may feel tantamount to coming out to her—or she may assume you’re coming out to her even if you’re very clear that you’re talking about a fictional character. If that sounds like the road to mutual misery and possible schisms, turning her down is your best choice. She may be sad or confused, but better a small sadness than a lot of drama. Coming out to her should be a thing you choose to do in your own way and your own time, and ideally without ambiguity or confusion about what you’re trying to tell her.

If you do send the manuscript to her and she writes back with anti-queer comments, you can always reject her critique. You don’t need to tell her anything other than “Thanks, I’ll think about what you said” (a handy phrase borrowed from the mighty Captain Awkward) and then think about it just enough to consign it to the circular file. Or you can get into a fight with her over it, if that’s what feels morally necessary to you, but remember that that’s one option among many.

The best beta reader for your book is one who’s primed to love it, and who can work with you to make it the best possible book on its own terms. If you think your cousin can be that reader, make sure by giving her more info up front. If you don’t think she can, or if you want to minimize your risk, turn her down and move on. What’s important is that you do the best thing for yourself and your work.

Good luck! I hope you come out of this one way or another with a few good beta readers and lots of critique that’s useful and supportive and gets you raring to revise.

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!

#87: How to Add Visual Elements to Tactile Descriptions

On Twitter, @birdinflyte_ (she/they) asked for help with “Trying to translate my kinaesthetic visualisation into s’thng that doesn’t make vision focused folk say Add More Description We Can’t See It.” When I asked for clarification, they wrote:

I seem to get that reaction no matter what I write. Right now it’s farm-based fantasy. I don’t visualise visually, never have, only kinaesthetically. Natural instinct for description is t/f movement/touch/interaction, then smell/taste/sound, then vision sketched in round the edges. And then I get told to add more description bc it’s “action in a bubble of fuzzy grey” – clearest crit of my style.

Ex: MC is plowing. I get the uneven ground under her feet, the feel of the reins + plow handles, the way the jolting plow jars her arms what she says to + about the horse pulling it, the swooping turn at the end of furrows, how the sun warms diff sides as she crosses field. For me that’s enough to make the scene clear, but it doesn’t seem to be enough for readers. Most desc adv I’ve found is less vis more other senses, and I’m going the other way, if that makes sense?

Dear @birdinflyte_,

I love your example, which for me is splendidly evocative! In my mind, I immediately get visuals to go with it, drawn from my own experiences with fields and horses and sun. But I can see how someone who’s more oriented toward the visual—or who doesn’t have personal experiences with the things you’re describing—might want a little more to go on.

I recommend writing your first drafts the way that feels natural to you. You want to get the story out and on the page without worrying too much about this sort of thing. Then go back through and add visual elements wherever you have tactile, kinesthetic, and material ones. Visual elements include:

  • color and pattern
  • size, and relative size
  • shape and outline
  • decoration and embellishment
  • visible indications of age, quality of manufacture, cost, place of origin, upkeep, etc.
  • for a person: skin (color, tattoos, freckles, moles, sunburn, blushing, etc.), hair (texture, color, style), clothing and footwear, jewelry, assistive devices, objects they’re carrying

It will feel incredibly obvious that the cast iron skillet is black or that the stainless steel pot is gleaming. It will feel totally superfluous to say that the heroine is taller than her older sister or that her jacket has a little house charm hanging off the zipper. But all these things help to set the scene by setting up implications and questions: the skillet and pot are owned by someone who keeps them clean and free from rust; the heroine and her sister probably tease each other about relative heights and ages; why specifically a house and not some other kind of charm?

You may have to put the visuals in by rote at first, but you can do it in a way that feels natural by relating them to other elements that you’ve written:

  • The sun warming her arms now warms her tanned, freckled arms.
  • The horse is now a tall black horse with a ragged black mane and tail.
  • The soil is now reddish.
  • The field is now a square two-acre field.
  • The reins are now shabby leather reins held together in a couple of places with silver duct tape.

Then use those visual elements to develop your character or your story:

  • She delights in her freckles; they’re like constellations on her skin.
  • She struggles to mount her horse because he’s tall and she’s short. His black hide gets hot to the touch in the sun.
  • The reddish soil is how she knows she’s home in Australia; she sees pictures in American farming magazines and the dirt just looks all wrong there.
  • When she goes skydiving, she loves being able to immediately spot her square field among the surrounding trees.
  • Every time she sees those make-do repairs to the reins, or the terrible job she did trying to trim the horse’s mane and tail herself, she remembers how broke she is and feels depressed—or gets determined to work harder and bring in more money.

In short, for everything and everyone you describe in some other way, you can ask two questions: “What does this look like?” and “What meaning is carried by its looks?” You don’t have to do this for every visual element, but doing it for even a few will help them feel more real to the reader as well as to you. You might be surprised how much they add to characterization and help to anchor a character and a story in the world.

Sometimes there’s no obvious answer to the second question. I have an ugly brown sofa because it was the only color IKEA had for the specific sofa I wanted, and I cared more about getting the right type of sofa than about what color it was, so the color is genuinely meaningless to me (a rarity in my life, as I care very much about color). But even those meaningless things can acquire meaning. When the ceiling leaked and the sofa got water-stained, I enjoyed not being too fussed by it; the sofa was already ugly, so who cared if it got uglier? And then our shy tan-brown tabby cat started hanging out on the sofa and we kept accidentally almost sitting on her because she was camouflaged. If you were writing about me as a protagonist, the sofa’s otherwise uninteresting color would be a useful way to introduce elements that might be relevant to plot or characterization. Maybe the story is a comedy and there’s a recurring joke about nearly sitting on the cat. Maybe it’s a romance between me and the person who comes to repair my ceiling. Maybe it’s a drama and I get into fights with my partner about whether to spend a lot of money on custom couch covers to hide the water stains. The visual is a hook, a way for the reader to be drawn into the story.

For an exercise, try finding meaning, characterization, or an emotional hook in visual elements of some objects in your house. Did you adopt a black cat because they’re historically less likely to be adopted due to superstition? Do you always wear white socks because you buy them by the dozen so you never have to hunt for a pair that match? Is your fridge covered with last year’s holiday cards because you’re never sure when you’re allowed to recycle them and you’re anxious about being socially judged for doing it too soon? It may take a little effort at first (of course the cardboard box is brown and boxy, what more is there to say about it?) but keep digging and you’ll find something (every time I see the brown grocery delivery box in the middle of my living room, I mean to take it out to the recycling, but I’m easily distracted, so I keep forgetting).

Another exercise is to go through a few books in your genre and highlight all the instances of visual description. Are there patterns in what tends to get described explicitly and what’s left for the reader to fill in? Learning what’s common in your genre will help you meet your readers’ expectations. Which tactile or kinesthetic descriptions have consistent visual implications? You can build a vocabulary of terms that satisfy both your preferences and your readers’ needs.

As a rule of thumb, you will need more visual description for things readers are unfamiliar with (things that only occur in particular locations or cultures, extraterrestrial or fantastical species that you made up from scratch) and for things that have many possible visual descriptions (usually things that come in a lot of colors, shapes, sizes, etc.). You probably don’t need to say that the sun is yellow-white, because most people on Earth have seen the sun, but you do need to describe the sunset, because every sunset is different. Two centuries ago, you wouldn’t have needed to say that an earthworm is pink; now, with so many more people living in cities and having little exposure to nature, it probably wouldn’t hurt to specify.

You’ll generally need more description early on in a story, when you’re introducing a whole lot of new things at once. Integrating it without slowing down the narrative is a topic for another post, but in very brief, prioritize the visuals that are meaningful for what’s happening in that moment, and leave the rest for later. It’s fine to describe someone or something over time rather than all at once. Nothing stops a story in its tracks like a paragraph (or a page, or several pages) of the protagonist looking in the mirror and narrating their detailed self-description.

If all of this sounds absolutely exhausting, you can try writing a protagonist or narrator who’s not a visually imaginative person (or, writing with care and employing the services of a sensitivity reader, write a protagonist or narrator who’s visually impaired). Establishing that up front will let you off the hook for including visual description, because it will remind and encourage the reader to fill in the blanks on their own. But learning how to incorporate visual information is a useful skill, so do give it a shot. An editor or beta reader can help you figure out how much is too much, and with practice, you’ll get a feel 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!

#86: Getting Started in a New Genre

Dear Story Nurse,

I primarily write contemporary romance and erotica. I was solicited to write a speculative fiction story, and I find myself a bit overwhelmed by the prospect. I’ve dabbled a bit in speculative fiction, and read it some, but I am feeling both intimidated and underskilled in the kind of worldbuilding needed to write this story, even if I put speculative elements in a contemporary setting (which feels like the best choice).

I have written to a specific market before, that’s generally when I’ve dabbled in speculative fiction, but this feels different somehow. Or perhaps I feel different in it? More thin-skinned, less certain of my footing, more aware of the importance of being careful in how I worldbuild.

I am struggling at the starting point. I have an idea, but I am not sure how to develop it, what the work is I must do to get to the making words part. Not sure if it’s the right idea, or the idea I can make into a story by the deadline. I am wading in uncertainty and doubt, and generally feeling stuck. If this were a contemporary story, this is when I would start researching, or developing character, or just get some words on the page to get a feel for where I’m at and where I might go, but I am floundering with this.

Thanks for your help.

—Feeling Stuck (they/them)

Dear Feeling Stuck,

It’s very understandable that you’d feel hesitant when working in a new genre. A good first step might be to accept that this is a normal, ordinary feeling, not a sign of some lack on your part. If you’re judging yourself for being a little uncertain of your footing, let that judgment go. Transitions, even very abstract ones like this, can be challenging, and any writer will want to go slowly at first in unfamiliar terrain.

You may also need to accept that this is a project you will need to write while feeling out of your depth. That’s not always the most fun, but it can be done, especially if there’s a deadline in the mix. It’s hard to push forward through the doubt and tempting to try to wait until you feel more confident, but the way to get more confident is to do the thing; confidence comes with experience. Build whatever guard rails you can, absolutely, but eventually you just have to step out on the bridge over the abyss of the unknown. You have undoubtedly needed to do this before, writing works that challenged you in some way or another. How did you get through that? Can you apply some of what you learned on those projects to this project?

It sounds like you’re concerned about meeting genre standards in some way—that you have an idea in your head of what speculative fiction is, and you want to live up to that idea, and you’re worried that you might not be able to. But speculative fiction can be any number of things, just like erotica can be any number of things. The only requirement is that it be at least one degree removed from our world. Some speculative fiction is plot-driven, some is character-driven, some is solid and well-anchored in its setting, some is ethereal and surreal. It’s fine for your worldbuilding to be minimal if that’s not your strength. Speculative fiction readers are very comfortable with suspending disbelief; we are credulous, eager to buy whatever you’re selling. Tell readers that this is just like the present day but with vampires or robots or magic spells, and we will, generally speaking, nod along with it. Trust readers to trust you.

You sound like an experienced writer and I think your instincts are good. If this is the point in the story when you feel like you would start developing character or doing research or getting some words down, then do that. You should be able to integrate your what-if into any of those things. As you build your characters, ask how they’re influenced by the speculative element of your setting; as you do research, look at it through a speculative lens; as you write, give yourself permission to deviate from reality a little, to play fast and loose and write things that wouldn’t usually be possible in your real-world contemporary stories.

Usually I’d suggest doing some reading in the genre that you’re writing in, but it sounds like you may not have time. That said, if you have a friend who does know the genre well—especially the flavors of it that are similar to what you’re trying to do, with a contemporary setting that has some speculative aspect grafted on—I recommend running your ideas past them and getting some reassurance that what you want to try isn’t outlandish by most readers’ standards. You can also talk with the person who solicited the story. They believe in you and want to see what you want to write, so if you have the kind of relationship where you can show them your outline or concept before you start writing, they will ideally be able to provide both personal encouragement and genre knowledge. You don’t have to cross that abyss alone; there are plenty of people who’ve found sound footing on the other side and can throw you a rope.

And as always, I encourage you to get excited about what you’re writing. Find something about it that really hooks you and makes you want to dive in, even though it’s also challenging and scary and hard. No amount of intellectual theorizing can take the place of that emotional investment. If you can awaken your hunger for this specific story, you can find a way to make the story happen.

You can do it! Just keep putting one word in front of another, and you’ll be in the groove before you know it.

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!

#85: Trans Characters Coming Out in Historical Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

How would you go about a character revealing their trans identity in a time period piece? I was writing an urban fantasy set in 1927 about a diverse group of vampires, and I’ve been doing a lot of research on LGBT+ rights during the late 1920s, but I don’t know how to make the trans character reveal it about himself.

Currently I have three scenarios:

1. Character tells his love interest after a heated argument about the love interest’s sudden engagement to a woman overseas. I don’t really like this one as it seems too sudden.

2. Character reveals his identity as a trans male as the other characters reveal their own identities. I’m iffy about this one because I don’t want to make it seem like he was pressured to by everyone else sharing theirs, but on the other hand, it could be that he finally feels comfortable being himself around his fellow vampires. (At first none of them really trusted each other, but in this world, bad things happen to a vampire’s psyche if they just surround themselves with mortals for thousands of years, as watching the people they care about die time and time again messes with their ability to connect to people, and by extension, their ability to control their appetites.)

3. The character lets it slip while he’s drunkenly reminiscing about his past on a balcony with his best friend. Even though I know he can trust his friend not to tell anybody, I don’t like this version because he’s doing while not in full control of his actions and he’ll probably be anxious when he sobers up.

So, how would you go about revealing a character’s orientation during a period piece set in 1927?

—animalpetcel (she/her)

Dear animalpetcel,

There’s a lot going on in this question! It’s actually two questions:

  1. How do I write a trans coming-out scene in a respectful way?
  2. What changes if the scene takes place in a historical period?

All the concerns you have about the scenarios you list would be no different if the book took place in the present day. They’re concerns about the scenario being respectful of the trans character (and, by extension, your trans readers). So let’s address that first. Continue reading

#84: Staying Focused Long Enough to Write a Novel

Hi, Story Nurse,

I want to get this novel written. Badly. Or not necessarily THIS novel, but A NOVEL. (Though THIS novel would be a really good one, except for the bit where the genderfluid protagonist is *really obviously* ADHD-Butterfly Sue. But that’s a different Story Nurse question!)

The problem is the novel beginnings on my hard drive number in the triple digits. Some of them are the same concept because I came back to the idea later and the first version didn’t hold up anymore, but most of them are new shinies that became old and boring when another new shiny came along. None of them are longer than ten thousand words. And yes, that’s pretty obviously one consequence of getting nearly to age thirty with undiagnosed ADHD? But.

I already know the NaNoWriMo format doesn’t work for me, even with a reduced daily goal and a longer time frame. But if I only write when ~*inspired*~, then I know perfectly well I’ll end up writing things that have nothing to do with this novel, and eventually lose track of the novel altogether.

How do I keep my attention on ONE idea long enough to get a whole novel drafted?

Thanks,

ADHD-Butterfly (they/them)

Dear ADHD-Butterfly,

Don’t panic! You are totally capable of writing an entire novel, with some preparation and self-examination (and ideally also with appropriate treatment for your ADHD, now that you have that diagnosis—I hope you’re working with the relevant medical professionals on that). Here’s a plan for you to follow, and to come back to whenever you find yourself wandering astray.

Figure out why you want to write a novel. Really dig into it. If shorter things are easier, why not just write shorter things? What is it about writing a novel, as a concept, that calls to you? Is it attached to your idea of what it means to be a successful writer, or a functional person? Is it a way to prove that ADHD doesn’t own you or that everyone who called you lazy was wrong? Is it a thing you actually want to do for other people more than for yourself? Do you feel like it’s what you “should” be doing? Do you keep getting ideas that cry out to be developed at novel length? Is it a thing you hunger for so desperately that you can’t begin to explain why, except that it’s deeply rooted in your soul? If you never wrote a novel, how sad would you be?

Spend some time on this step. Until you make your abstract goal more solid and figure out what makes it personally meaningful to you, it will keep losing out to shiny new ideas. If you can’t find that personal meaning in your goal, it may not be the right goal for you. (There is no shame in this at all. Every writer is different, and needs different types of projects.) So think about it, until you’ve either realized it’s time to let go of this goal or become really passionate and determined to see a novel project through to completion.

Got that passion? Good. Write down what this goal means to you, in the most personal terms, and put it someplace where you can refer back to it when your attention starts to drift. This is a letter to your future self, so be persuasive in exactly the ways you know will be most effective for you: “Dear future butterfly, here’s why you should stick with what you’re working on and not let the shiny lure you away.” Again, if you can’t do this in a way that seems likely to work—if there is nothing that would make finishing a novel more attractive than pursuing a new idea—then it’s time to consider different writing goals.

Come up with a shiny-corralling protocol. When an idea hits you, your first impulse will be to start writing it. You need a different thing to do with the idea instead, so you can get it dealt with and then go back to your primary project. Many people who are driven to follow each new idea have a fear of missing out; having a consistent way of dealing with new ideas will help to reassure you that they’ll all be there when you finish this project and want to start the next one. You can write it down in a bullet journal, make a new file for it in your “writing ideas” folder, send yourself a text message or Twitter DM about it—whatever works for you. What’s important is that it is quick (so as not to take too much time or attention away from your primary project), organized or searchable (so you can reassure your anxiety that you won’t lose your ideas), and consistent (so you can make a real practice out of it). Develop this protocol and write it down for your reference. Practice it a few times with ideas you already have, just to make sure that it works well for you. When you have corralled a shiny, you should be able to really let go of it and go back to what you were doing.

Look for patterns in where you’ve dropped past projects. Is there a certain stage in a writing project when you almost inevitably start to feel bored? Getting bored while writing can mean a number of things: you’re feeling anxious and avoidant or uncertain about what’s coming next in the book, you’re feeling critical of what you’ve already written, you’re feeling mentally or physically exhausted and need to take a break, or you’ve let the tension ebb in your story and it’s actually become boring.

Glance through the last 1000 words or so of your five most recent interrupted projects—it’s important to make this finite so that you don’t get too distracted—and see whether there are similarities in your stopping points. That will help you know when to expect boredom to hit as you’re working on this new project, and how to address it when it does: doing a little planning so you feel more confident about tackling the next section of the book, reassuring your inner critic, resting, or fixing your story’s momentum.

Do some warm-ups. If you tend to bottom out at 10,000 words, write a story that’s complete at 10,000 words. Then try for 12,000, then 20,000, then 30,000. This step is optional, but it can help you build confidence and also help you identify what it is about the 10k mark that tends to stop you.

Now you are ready to try writing a novel! Pick a practice project. It should be something you think is fun but don’t feel too strongly about. It should be easy, insofar as any novel is ever easy—write that Butterfly Sue and some cardboard cut-out supporting characters, scribble in that paint-by-numbers setting, steal that plot from another story you love, aim for 80,000 words rather than 150,000. Your goal is not to finish a great novel; it is to finish any novel. Set yourself up to succeed rather than putting more barriers in your own way.

Also pick a passion project that you feel absolutely devoted to and can pour your heart and soul into. You asked how to keep your attention on one idea, but it doesn’t sound like your brain is wired to do that—so don’t do it! Instead, coopt your ADHD by giving yourself a defined second thing to swap over to when the first thing loses your attention. Your practice project is the one with the “finish this” goal attached. Your passion project is there to remind you what makes writing worth the struggle and stress, and to get you invigorated again. What’s key is that you then swap back to the practice project instead of jumping to something new.

Set up a schedule of some kind. Some parts of my NaNoWriMo post on time management won’t be relevant, because you don’t have that tight deadline, but do at least calculate your minimum Writing Time Unit so you know how much time you need to block out for a writing session. Then schedule at least one regular writing session a week, and more if you can swing it. The key word is regular.

Set a session goal. Don’t set wordcount goals if those don’t work for you, but do set the goal of “do something writing-related with this time”. This is especially useful during the planning stage. Once you’re in the drafting stage, if you can’t make words happen, pick a task that will help words come more easily next time, such as focused research, outlining, character sketches, or brainstorming. You can also track your words per hour and try to beat your average. I love this one because my average, by definition, is a thing I’ve already done and therefore a thing I am confident I’ll be able to do again. And if you consistently beat your average, your average will go up, creating a challenge that grows with you and stays within reach as long as you stretch yourself just a little.

Optimize your writing environment. If you live with people, shut your door and put a DO NOT DISTURB sign on it; if you live with pets, make sure they’re well fed and petted before your writing time begins; if you’re at a coffee shop, get your favorite beverage and make sure you’ve got earplugs or headphones if you need to block out crowd noise. Put your phone on silent and out of reach, snooze your Slack notifications, and quit out of distracting apps and websites. If stimming helps you stay focused, keep stim toys handy, put a bumpy mat on your chair, or sit on an exercise ball so you can bounce and rock as you write. Play music or put on white noise or work in pure perfect silence. Do whatever makes writing easier.

If you’re a planner, plan. Make a timeline, draw a map, figure out who your characters are, outline the plot, and so on. Don’t get too caught up in this; you may want to set a finite number of writing sessions for it, after which you start making words even if you don’t feel ready yet. You can always dedicate a later session to filling in the gaps if you really need to, but remember that many many flaws can be repaired in revisions. Your goal is not to write a gleaming perfect gem of a first draft; it’s to write a first draft.

Even if you’re an improviser more than a planner, take two minutes at the start of every writing session to jot down a note about what you intend to write. It can be as simple as “that scene where they do the thing with the stuff”. This is to give you a little initial focus so you ideally start the session feeling purposeful and confident rather than flailing and directionless and anxious.

Write.

Have big feelings about your book and the process of writing it—be mad and sad and excited and scared and enthralled and teary-eyed. Martha Alderson says that every writer goes on their own heroic journey in the process of writing a book, and is transformed by it. Transformation is hard, but keep going. You are strong and you will survive it.

Pause. When you get bored, identify the flavor of boredom and address it. When you lose momentum, switch projects. When you get tired, rest. When you wonder why you’re bothering, reread that letter to yourself.

Keep writing. When you hate the book and think it sucks, keep writing. When you’re in the three-quarters slump, keep writing. When you have no idea what you’re doing, keep writing. When you’re blocked, keep writing. When you’re not inspired, keep writing.

And when you’re done, type “The End”.

If this goal is the right goal for you, then I am absolutely confident you’ll achieve it. Drop me a note when you’ve got a draft done and we’ll throw you a little blog party in the comments.

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!

#83: Feeling Unworthy of Your Ideas

Dear Story Nurse,

I have recently realized that the major thing holding me back in my writing is a debilitating fear of failure masquerading as “no ideas.” I have tons of ideas! They’re very cool and interesting ideas! And then I go to write them and I’m staring at a blank page and suddenly all my shining ideas seem boring and cliche and I feel so utterly small and stupid that I abandon the whole endeavor and tell myself I’ll write once I discover a good idea.

Unfortunately, there is no idea on Earth good enough, and if there is a legitimately good idea, I tell myself I’m not good enough to write it.

I love writing! I love coming up with stories in my head! I have dozens of characters all ready and raring to go! I love playing with words and descriptions! I don’t want all of this to be ruined because I’m too scared to do anything with it.

My question is this: How do I breathe through my paralyzing anxiety and actually start to get words on the page?

—Fear, the Mind-Killer (she/her)

Dear Fear,

This is a very, very common fear among writers and would-be writers. So first, take comfort in knowing you’re not alone. Lots of people have found ways to work through, over, around, or past this, and you will too.

Second, take pride in having written to me. I bet that was really hard. You may have heard that same voice telling you that you aren’t worthy to write in, or that I would never answer such an inane question, or any number of other discouraging things. But you wrote in anyway. You wrote in. You had an idea for a thing to write, and you wrote it, and you submitted it. In the very act of telling me that you are struggling to do this, you did it. I don’t say this to poke fun or to suggest that it’s all easy. I am saying: you did the thing, and you have thereby proved that you are capable of doing the thing again. When you’re wrestling with the blank page, you can tell yourself, “I wrote to the Story Nurse, even though it was very hard; I can do this too, even though it is very hard.” You can also think about what made it possible for you to write to me, and see whether it can be applied in some way to your fiction writing.

(And see, your question was not inane, and I am taking it seriously and giving it a complete and thorough answer, like any other question—because I believe in you, dear writer, and you deserve as much of my time and attention as anyone else who writes in.)

If anxiety like this comes up in other parts of your life, that’s a thing that’s probably worth talking with a therapist about, because getting support from someone with a clue is pretty essential to getting out from under anxiety like that. I hope you have good people around you who can help you find the resources you need.

With regard to writing specifically, here are some facts:

  • There are many writers who are terrible people. I don’t think you’re a terrible person, because you worry about whether you’re a terrible person, and in my experience, most genuinely terrible people don’t worry about that at all. But on the off chance that you are a terrible person, that doesn’t disqualify you from writing.
  • You cannot ruin your ideas. To prove this, write the idea down somewhere. Then, in a separate file or on a separate piece of paper, write the worst 200-word story you can think of based on that idea. The worst! Make it awful and boring and trite. Open it with a run-on sentence about a character waking up; end it with rocks falling out of a clear blue sky and killing everyone. Put in extra misspellings and homophones. Then go back to where you wrote down your idea. You will find it untouched and just as ready to be turned into a much better story if you decide that’s what you want to do with it. Or you can just enjoy the idea being a lovely little idea—that’s fine too. All writers have extra ideas kicking around that will never be written.
  • The only way to fail at writing is to fail to write. Your fear of failure is keeping you paradoxically trapped in this state where you write nothing and therefore are failing by definition. But don’t waste time beating yourself up over that; write anything at all, and you will have achieved a measure of success. (If you have a fear of success, this may be its own challenge. It’s also worth thinking about how you define success.)
  • Every story and book you’ve ever read started out as a much rougher draft. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your first drafts with other people’s finished work. Not only does your draft not have to be polished, it’s actually better for you in the long run if it’s not. I’ve been a professional editor on and off for over 20 years, and my first drafts always look extremely polished—which means their inevitable flaws in areas like pacing, characterization, and plotting are hidden and harder to find. So if your drafts are rough and let all their issues hang out, that’s great! You’ll know exactly what you need to work on as you put your work through the revision process that every gleaming, beautiful book has gone through.
  • You are not your work.
  • Playing is wonderful, not a waste of time. You say you love to play, so go ahead and play! Make a list of words that sound nice when you say them, and then read it out loud, savoring the way the words feel in your mouth. Write poetry. Write letters to friends. Write children’s stories. Write terrible puns. Have fun! Remember that you want to write because it’s fun. Rediscover writing with a playful heart.

As for your question of how to start:

  • Write down one word. Good. Now, a second. Maybe a third? Work up to more if you need to. But surely you can write one word, even if it’s “The” or “If” or “A”. And if you’ve written one word, surely you can write another.
  • You say you love writing stories in your head, so write a story in your head and then write down the story that is in your head. It may help to dictate it first and then transcribe the recording. In this way the initial creative action all happens in your head, where it’s safe, and the part that involves typing or writing becomes a little less emotionally fraught, not really any different from transcribing a podcast or a TV episode or something else that you heard somewhere and want to have in written form.
  • Start by writing something based on an idea that you care less about, so the stakes are lower. Give yourself practice projects where you feel more at ease and able to fool around and try new things.
  • If that still feels too fraught, make a practice of regularly doing other kinds of writing—blogging, journaling, news stories, Twitter threads—and periodically come back to fiction to see whether you can transfer the skills you’ve developed.
  • “Yes, and” your inner voice. The “yes” defuses the tension, moving away from argument rather than toward it; the “and” lets you go right on doing what you want to do.
    • “You’re a terrible person!” “Yes, and I’m going to go be a terrible person who writes things.”
    • “This story is crap!” “Yes, and once I finish it I’ll be able to revise it into being less crap. But I can’t do that until I finish it, so I’m going to keep going.”
    • “This is really hard and stressful!” “Yes, and it’s also worth doing because…” [you’re having fun, you’re writing something that matters a lot to you, whatever makes you want to come back to writing even when it’s hard]
    • “You should just give up!” “Yes, and I’m going to take a break as soon as I get to the end of this paragraph. That way I won’t burn myself out and can come back to it tomorrow.”
  • If you’re a social person, do shared writing sprints with other writers. If you don’t know many other writers, you can do mutual accountability with anyone: “Every time you go to the gym, I’ll do a writing sprint.”
  • Try setting time goals rather than word goals; “do as much as you can in 20 minutes” gently makes room for there to be times when you can’t do very much, while encouraging you to build the habit of setting aside time for writing.
  • Redefine the writing process as a revision process. Use Randy Ingermanson’s snowflake method or something similar to minimize the part that feels like making something out of nothing. The “creation” part of the snowflake method, the thing that turns the blank page into the page with writing on it, is writing just one short sentence. Everything after that is adaptation, development, revision—you can call it any number of things that aren’t “writing” and thereby route around the part of your brain that gets anxious about writing. Ingermanson calls his method a tool for “managing your creativity” and it sounds like that might be a useful thing for you to do if your creativity is feeling wild and uncontrollable and scary right now.
  • Or, go the other direction and be WILD and UNCONTROLLABLE and SCARY. Yell your stories out into an empty room. Scrawl all over the page with a crayon, like a child, and then crumple it up and throw it. Write melodrama full of characters who have deep and powerful emotions, who hate one another and love one another and agonize over incredibly difficult decisions, and make yourself weep over their passionate feelings. Become the thing you most fear, and realize that it’s actually not so bad.

You don’t have to be good enough or controlled enough or cautious enough or smart enough or anything enough to write. You already are enough. There is no standard to meet, no test to pass; we encourage tiny children to make up stories, and if they get to do it, so do you.

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!

#82: Getting Bored of Your Own Writing Voice

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

Hi Story Nurse!

I’m hoping you can spend a bit of time talking about voice, and about how we control it. By voice, I don’t mean so much “which character is telling this story,” but more that intangible, know-it-when-you-read-it something-or-other that makes one person’s writing different from anyone else’s.

Here’s my problem/question. I have a pretty clear voice, by which I mean that stuff I write tends to sound like me. It’s not highly stylized; I write fairly straightforward commercial fiction. But there is a me-ness to it—the tone, the details that interest me, the jokes I make, and so on. If you read things I’ve written, even though the topics and time periods are different, it won’t be long before you’ll likely say “ohh yeah, that’s her, I can tell.”

So-o-o… great, right? That’s what we want. Except… not always? Because to be honest, I’m pretty sick of listening to myself.

Context might help—I wrote a novel that’s in the proverbial drawer, I wrote one that got published, and I am halfway through the next. So this current WIP is either my 2nd or 3rd, depending on how you count.

I’ve only published one book, so I have no real fear of my voice being particularly tedious to anyone else. (I mean, except for those who didn’t like it in the first place, but never mind them!) This is less about boring my future readers and more about how bored I am of myself!

I hope this might be a “good problem” in the sense that perhaps it means I’m growing as a writer. That I am aware of my crutches and am holding myself to a higher standard than before.

But the question is… what next? I’m finding that sometimes I dread even starting a new scene because I am already rolling my eyes at how “me” it’s going to be and ugh. Enough of her! At the same time, I write the way I write because that’s how I think. It’s not put on, in other words. I don’t want to fake a voice, that’s clearly going in the wrong direction.

Any thoughts or suggestions on this? How do we shake things up while still staying true to ourselves?

—I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Pipe Down Mermaids! (she/her)

Dear Mermaids,

Voice is a great topic, and a challenging one to tackle because it is so individualized. I’ve done a little bit of vocal training, and I’ve also done a lot of podcasting and used dictation software for writing, so I’m going to draw on those experiences with my literal, physical voice to discuss writing voice and what you can do to change things up a bit.

The first thing I learned from voice lessons is that our physical voices are often more flexible than we think. I knew I could push my range higher, with practice; I was surprised to learn that I could also push it lower. Acting, taking a public speaking course, and reading books to my toddler all taught me just how much I could influence my audience and add nuances of meaning by making small shifts in tone and rhythm.You seem to have this notion that your writing voice is fixed and set in stone and just the way it is, but that’s far from true. Your voice won’t lose its essential character, its you-ness, if you change it, so let go of any worries you might have about being fake or too much of an imitation of others. Voice is a skill to be developed, like any other writing skill. Give yourself permission to stretch it and challenge it and expand it and enhance it. Otherwise you’ll just be stuck in that frustrating rut.

Any singer will tell you that warm-ups and exercises are crucial. They extend your range and make it easier to sing safely, without straining or harming your vocal cords. Writers tend not to do writing exercises very much once they’ve reached a certain level of experience, but you can still get a lot out of them! Try voice exercises specifically: writing ten paragraphs in the styles of ten very different writers, or retyping a page from a book with a distinctive prose style so you can get a tactile sense of how the words fit together, or writing dialogue in the voices of distinctive characters (your own or someone else’s). This isn’t about fakery but about stretching your range and learning new techniques. Once you teach yourself to write like Jane Austen or Kurt Vonnegut, it’s up to you to decide how to incorporate what you’ve learned into your own voice and style when you’re writing original work.

Writing pastiche of other authors has taught me that every writer breaks the rules in their own way. For example, Austen writes hardly any stage directions at all; her scenes of conversation are almost script-like. Yet her work is often turned into films, a testament to how easy it is to visualize her characters. Trying to imitate her style taught me a tremendous amount about how to convey emotion and mannerism in dialogue. Permitting yourself to write pastiche of daring writers will also help you permit yourself to be more daring in your original work—a great way of getting out of that boredom rut.

You say that you write the way you think, but we all think differently under different circumstances. Would deadline pressure change your voice because you’re in a hurry? Would writing for a friend give your work a more intimate tone? What about writing an epistolary story in which you entirely inhabit your characters’ voices, or trying a new genre that has different stylistic conventions? As above, these can all be brief exercises, though you may find you really like that new genre and want to stick with it for a while.

Podcasting always reminds me how weird our voices sound when we play them back to ourselves. What seems obvious to you—or sounds weird to you—when you reread your work may not register at all with your readers. If you frequently reread your own work, especially while it’s in progress, try breaking that habit. Treat your drafts like a game of Exquisite Corpse and don’t let yourself look at anything but the last paragraph. Then pick up where you left off. Inconsistencies will develop, and that’s fine; they can be smoothed out in revisions, and may teach you a few things about your subconscious understanding of the story as opposed to what you consciously intended it to be. If you keep visualizing a character as anxious and fidgety even though he started out as bold and brash, maybe that’s a hint that he’s been hiding something from you. Following it could lead you to all sorts of exciting new subplots.

You can also have your computer read your work to you (most computers have this capability hidden in the accessibility settings) and see how different it sounds in someone else’s spoken voice. The elements that you constantly notice and feel bored by may recede into the background while other elements jump out and surprise you. I know many authors who use this for catching errors like missing words and frequently repeated phrases. They’ll skim over the absent “the” a dozen times while rereading, but when they hear “I took train” they notice it immediately.

I’ve found that my writing style when I dictate is very different from my writing style when I type. When I type, I go back and tweak word choice as I write. (I rewrote that sentence four times—and this sentence twice.) That’s not possible with dictation. I also speak with a lot of comma splices and run-on sentences and digressions. When I use a pen, the difference from typing is less obvious, but I find that I write shorter sentences with simpler words and tend to take a conversational tone, maybe because the last time I regularly wrote with a pen was when I was in elementary school and keeping a diary. This is another indication that “your voice” is not a fixed and singular thing. My dictation voice, my typing voice, and my pen voice are all authentic voices for me; they’re just different. Try shifting your sense of your voice by changing the tools you write with. You may be surprised by what’s consistently you and what’s not.

Finally, you may just need a little bit of a break from writing. Anything gets boring if you’re immersed in it all the time, and you may be feeling so much pressure that you forget how to be playful. Consider taking a week or two away from it, and see if you come back refreshed and ready to spend time in your own company again.

Your inclination to push yourself and try new things is great, and will keep your work vibrant. Keep shaking things up and remembering how to have fun! Rediscovering your joy in writing will make all the boredom disappear.

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!