#92: How to End a Story

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve been working on a lot of short stories lately and I’ve had the same problem with each of them. I can’t end the dang things! I write beginnings and middles I like, but when I get to the end, the writing becomes more forced as I wrap things up. I have a hard time writing a sentence that signals to the reader “this is the end” but feels natural and isn’t obvious that’s what the story is doing. How can I make my endings read more smoothly?

Yours,

Never Ending (she/her)

Dear Never Ending,

Your deceptively simple question requires a slightly complicated answer. In order to understand how to end stories, we have to get into what an ending is and what it’s for, and what makes it different from a story just stopping.

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#91: Making the Transition Between Writing Projects

Hello Story Nurse,

I’m currently in revisions for a project that has been a major part of my life for a year. While I’m incredibly pleased with it and am excited for its upcoming completion, I feel deflated about other writing work, and apprehensive about working on other things once this is completed.

Due to life circumstances (positive but exhausting travel soon after submitting the complete draft), I didn’t end up having much time to decompress, and I keep obsessively checking my email to see if my editors’ notes have arrived yet! When I try to sort out pitches and writing samples for other projects, my focus slides away, and it’s hard to try to write something small in scale. I want to take advantage of having a sliver of spare time by writing something else (whether for publication or for fun) but there is such broad scope that I don’t know where to start!

How do you switch gears when you’re between projects or waiting for editorial feedback? And how do you deal gracefully with the sudden gap in your life after finishing a big project or milestone?

—Searching for Energy Over Ennui (she/her)

Dear Searching,

I’ve had this Spider Robinson quote in my quote file for a long, long time:

Funny feeling, isn’t it, when you bust a tough one? Triumph, sure. Maybe a little secret relief that you pulled it off. But there’s a fine sweet sadness in there, too, because now the golden moment is behind you. For a moment in there you were God… and now you’re just a guy who used to be God for a minute, and will be again some day.

That is a lot of feelings to feel, and it takes time to sort through them all and come to terms with them. A big project changes you—it develops your skills and makes you think in ways you hadn’t before. A big project can make you feel all sorts of things that you weren’t expecting. You haven’t just brought your reader through emotional catharsis, but experienced it yourself. And you know that stories don’t end with the climax; you need that final chapter or three, the gradual descent from peak intensity (finishing the draft! turning it in!) to your lower-key everyday life.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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#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. Continue reading