#81: Your Writing Is Enough

Dear Story Nurse,

I just read your post on original ideas and the derivative nature of all stories, and loved it. I struggle a lot with feeling like I’m writing “unique enough” stories to justify putting the effort into them (it doesn’t help that I can literally go through my folder of ideas/snippets/starters and pinpoint exactly what I must have been reading/watching when I came up with each idea, so I wind up feeling like obviously anyone else would notice it too—even though logically I’m fairly sure it’s not that obvious and I only notice it because it’s my own stuff).

But in similar vein… how do you create unique, original worldbuilding? The hardest part for me is magic systems—I write almost exclusively fantasy, sometimes scifi with fantasy elements—and I love including magic and witches and sorcerers, but I feel like I can’t create a unique, exciting magic system to save my life.

The example I always go back to is the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve never seen anything remotely like the magic system in that setting, allomancy (for those who haven’t read it, some people can ingest different alloys of metals and use those to fuel various mental and physical powers; all the powers come in pairs, like Soothing vs. Rioting people’s emotions). If I could hit on something that unique, that original, just once in my life, I would be thrilled. But in the end, most of my magic systems are either bog-standard elemental-based types of things, or more generic “magic just does what you need it to do, albeit in limited quantities or with skill requirements to make it work so it’s not a complete deus ex machina device” a la D&D.

You say that “originality doesn’t mean rubbing two brain cells together until they spark an idea that bears no resemblance to any idea that anyone’s ever had” but on the other hand it feels like, in this area of things, it does mean basically that—and I’m not sure the “file off the serial numbers” approach would work, if only because if you take a particularly interesting existing system (like allomancy) for your “base” to work from, I think it would still be pretty obvious. How can I either figure out how to spark unique ideas for magic systems, or stop beating myself up for not being able to come up with entirely new, unique, original magic systems for my worlds?

—Jadelyn (they/them)

Dear Jadelyn,

I love this question as a counterpart to the question about worldbuilding from real places. There are so many ways to approach the creation of a fictional place.

As I said in my post on originality, what makes your work original is that you make unique choices that no one else would make. It sounds like that’s where you’re feeling stuck—you know your worldbuilding choices are yours, but feel that they’re not “unique enough”. Instead of looking at the word unique (or original, though those aren’t the same thing), let’s look at the word enough.

Sometimes enough means that you cook the same simple dinner or order the same takeout three nights in a row. That gets you fed and frees you up to do other things, like playing games or getting work done. Is your worldbuilding enough to do the job? Does having a basic, familiar fantasy setting let you focus on characters, plot, and prose, which is where you find joy or know you need to do more skill-building?

Sometimes enough means you have a small meal because you aren’t very hungry. Is your worldbuilding enough for your limited appetite? Are you forcing yourself to do more of it because you feel like you have to, not because it’s what you actually want?

Sometimes enough means that you buy a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card for your beloved, because you know they would rather get a sweet, simple card than a bouquet of flowers (allergies!) or dinner out (so crowded and noisy!). Is your worldbuilding enough for your readers? Are you giving them what they personally want, rather than adhering to generic notions of what a setting ought to be?

Sometimes enough means a grade of 66%, because that lets you pass the 101 class and move on to something more exciting and engaging and challenging. Is your worldbuilding enough to get your career going? Will knocking out some straightforward works now get you established so you can more confidently try more adventurous things down the road, once you’ve got a readership and an agent and a better sense of which envelopes to push?

Sometimes enough means coloring within the lines, doing exactly what’s required of you and nothing more, never sticking your neck out, being cautious, being safe. Is your worldbuilding enough to be comfortingly familiar to you and your readers, without making anyone uncomfortable or risking anything? Does trying something different make you feel like you’re tapping into deep scary parts of yourself, or bring up complicated thoughts or upsetting feelings? Do you worry that more experimental stories are less commercially viable?

Sometimes enough means quiet music and white walls and simple furniture, because that’s what creates the ambiance you want. Someone else might call it boring, but to you it’s peaceful. Is your worldbuilding enough for the mood you’re trying to create in your work? Does it give your characters room to play without being a vast expanse, and set up interesting plots without having an explosion on every corner?

Sometimes enough is drawing a stick figure because you’re new at making art. Over time, your stick figures will gain motion, emotion, dimension, detail—but you’re not there yet. Is your worldbuilding enough because it has to be, because it’s the very most that you’re capable of right now? Can you let that be enough for the projects you currently have, while you work on developing your skills for future projects?

Sometimes enough is about what feels like enough for you. That’s a thing only you can determine. But it doesn’t sound to me like any of your concerns about whether your worldbuilding is original enough stem from your dispassionate assessment of yourself or your work; it sounds like it’s about how other people will judge you. Who are those other people? Are they the people you’re writing for? If they aren’t, why does their opinion matter?

If your work were enough—if you were enough—how would you know? What are the signifiers of sufficiency, for you? Is it something you can point to? Or is it an unattainable mirage? Can you see ways to redefine “enough” and put it within your reach? Can you see ways to feel like enough right now?

Let go of the Mistborn series; your dilemma would be no different if you’d never heard of Sanderson or his books, so right now it’s just a stick you’re using to beat yourself. I guarantee you that he can look at his work and play spot-the-source all the livelong day, to a degree that no one else can because no one else has read all the books and seen all the movies and heard all the songs and lived all the history that he has. This is true of every writer. You really can’t know where someone’s ideas come from unless you live in their head. But I promise you that they come from somewhere—usually a lot of hard work and practice, and also reading and watching and listening and living. All those jokes about writers asking “can I use your tragic/funny/angsty life experience in my work” are jokes only because a lot of the time writers don’t bother to ask.

If you wanted to get very picky, you could say that Sanderson’s use of paired magical forces is drawing on the Aristotelian idea of opposing elements (which was Aristotle building on the work of Empedocles) and/or the Newtonian idea of equal and opposite pairs of physical forces (which, like all scientific advances, owes a great deal to both the observation of the world and the work of other scientists). But both of those concepts are so deeply embedded in Western culture that basing something on them is no more unoriginal than using the word the. At some point you need to decide that caring about a concept’s degree of uniqueness is a distraction from getting your writing done, and set it aside like any other distraction (too bad there are no URL blockers for persistent anxious thoughts), and focus on the work.

If you’re a relatively new writer, much of your problem may simply be that you haven’t developed your worldbuilding skills very far yet. Don’t be fooled by the mysticism of inspiration and spark-striking; those moments of epiphany are backed by a lot of learning and a lot of work. The next time you read a story with interesting worldbuilding, look at it as a craftsperson and see if you can figure out how the author did it and what makes it work so well for you. Work with mentors, critique partners, beta readers, writing teachers, agents, editors, and anyone else who can help you level up. Don’t let your impatience over being a beginner distract you from your ability to learn. See yourself as being on a path, rather than stuck in place, and make a plan for moving further down that path.

You seem to worry a lot about about the notion that “someone” (who?) will find your work lacking. To get away from that, it will help to have two things: personal goals for your work, and a sense of who you’re writing for.

If you know who your audience is (and it can be as general as “epic fantasy fans” or as specific as “my brother Jim” or “teen me”), you don’t need to guess what they like or wonder how your book fits into their personal collection; you can research it! For a genre-based audience, do some market research and see what’s selling now in that genre, what kinds of book deals are being made, who’s getting lots of buzz, who’s headlining conventions, which books get high marks from trade publications and lots of stars from Amazon and Goodreads reviewers.

Once you know your market, find your unique sweet spot between the book of your heart and the book that will reach the audience you want to reach. You might be be over at the “I will write formulaic books that hit all the bestseller buttons because all I care about is reaching the largest number of readers” end of the scale, or the “I am driven to write this specific book and I don’t really care if no one else understands it” end, or somewhere in between. You may decide to write a commercial book now and an avant-garde one later. All the options are fine. The important thing is to make some decisions about your goals for your work, so you can then evaluate whether your work is achieving those goals.

If the target audience still feels like a big looming someone who’s judging you in a mean judgy way, create an ideal reader, the way you’d create a character. Give them a name and a list of books they love (which is a fun exercise: what reading habits would set someone up to like your work?) and an exuberant eagerness for books like the one you want to write. The next time you think “No one will like this” or “Everyone will see how derivative this is”, swap that out for “Would my ideal reader think this is great?” and use your concept of them as your guide. If you’re a visual thinker, you can find a photo of someone looking kind and friendly and supportive, tape it to the corner of your monitor or make it your background image, and chat with it when you need a boost. Would you like this scene, smiling person? You look so happy just at the thought of it! I love writing for you!

For your reader, for the imagined smiling person or the real one who will someday cherish every word you write, your work isn’t merely enough—it’s exactly right. And so are 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!

#80: Adaptation and Creation

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

Dear Story Nurse,

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

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

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

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

Yours,

Book 2 Blues (she/her)

Today is the fifth Tuesday of the month, which means that my answer to this heartfelt letter is available exclusively to my Patreon patrons. If you’d like to see today’s post—and future fifth Tuesday posts—become a Story Hospital Patreon patron at any level, even just $1/month. If that’s not an option for you, enjoy reading through the archives and salivating with anticipation for next Tuesday’s column. I’ll be back before you know it.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#79: Ethical Worldbuilding from Real Places

Dear Story Nurse,

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

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

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

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

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

—Dendritic Trees (she/her)

Dear Dendritic Trees,

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

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

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

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

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

Some important questions to consider about interpretation are:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#78: How Much Should Your Research Show?

Dear Story Nurse,

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

—ASB (he/him)

Dear ASB,

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

Continue reading

#77: Making Your Story the Length You Want

Dear Story Nurse,

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

—Wannabe Novelist (he/him)

Dear Wannabe Novelist,

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

Continue reading

#76: Revision Paralysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy revising!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

This advice is brought to you by my generous patrons on Patreon and donors through Cash.me and Ko-Fi. Got a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#75: Guest Post: Writing Inclusive Erotica

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

Dear Story Nurse,

I’ve started a project that’s purely for fun and low pressure. It’s a collection of short erotica stories with genre flavor. Fantasy, sci-fi, superhero, maybe a dip into some public domain stuff like Arthurian legend.

I want to make my collection diverse and not just feature people like me. It would get boring and unrealistic if only white, bi, depressed cis women were featured! But since I’m writing erotica I’m worried I’ll fetishize people and include harmful tropes. I know about some tropes to avoid like the plague, but I’m not an expert. I don’t want to hurt people with my writing! How do I avoid this stuff?

Yours,

Social Justice Pornographer (she/her)

Dear Social Justice Pornographer,

What a great question! Since this is outside my area of expertise, I invited guest contributor Cecilia Tan (she/her) to write a response.

After over 20 years publishing erotic science fiction with Circlet Press and writing erotic fiction herself whenever she could get the time, Cecilia made a career pivot into erotic romance. She’s now an award-winning romance writer, but her heart remains in erotic SF/F, she’s still the editorial director of Circlet Press, and she’s launching an erotic urban fantasy series with Tor Books in September with the book Initiates of the Blood.

Many thanks to the Patreon patrons and others (including you, letter writer!) whose support enabled me to pay Cecilia an honorarium for her work. (You can also support Circlet on Patreon.) I’m very pleased to be able to bring her words to you.

Cheers,

Story Nurse


Cecilia Tan writes:

Dear Social Justice Pornographer,

I’m honored to be asked to address your question and must confess right off the bat that your collection sounds like the kind of thing I’d love to read. Given that I’ve been reading Circlet’s slush pile and submissions for 26 years, I can assure you your concerns are valid, but by being aware of the issues you’ve already taken the major first step toward being able to address them in your work.

I feel every writer may benefit from the understanding that their work does not exist in a vacuum, and that there is a relationship between writer and reader. Sometimes it’s important to temporarily “forget” that while in the act of creation—if your muse is prone to clam up when you think too much about the reader, for example, or if considering the reader empowers your internal censor to the point that you don’t write anything at all—but ultimately, after the story is written, if you’re thinking about publishing it, you are thinking about sharing it with other human beings who may be affected by it. Fiction has a special ability to slip past internal defenses, which is why it can hurt so deeply if we feel betrayed by a story.

The fact that you are concerned about fetishizing people likely means you already understand that fiction can perpetuate harm. Stereotypes can be a vehicle to perpetuate bias, racism, or misogyny. Fetishization is erotic fiction’s special catch-22, in which stereotypes are not only present in the story, they’re exploited for sexual gratification. And yet… isn’t sexual gratification the point of an erotic story?

Let me say first that I don’t believe exploitation for sexual gratification to be “worse” than exploitation or harmful representation of other kinds. Sex is not a crime, and liking sex or writing erotica is not inherently morally reprehensible, even though some segments of society would like us to think so. However, if fiction already has the power to slip past our defenses and cut deeply, erotic fiction in particular cuts right at the core of many people’s most closely guarded private selves. As an Asian-American woman, I might find some racist caricatures of Asians laughable and ignore them, while Asian fetishization in an erotic story, though equally dehumanizing, might feel much more personal and difficult to ignore.

Likewise, erotic stories often feel especially personal to the author, which can make accepting criticism of them much more difficult, too. When we write down erotic fantasies, it can be a very empowering act, very freeing to the self and the psyche, but it can also make us very vulnerable by exposing such privately held thoughts to the world. But that is also why erotica is crucial writing, and especially important in the midst of our largely sex-negative, sex-judgmental culture. Erotica truly can be social justice work.

That’s all preamble to my actual advice which is, first of all, write. You can’t fix what doesn’t exist, so don’t let the fear that you might do wrong paralyze you into not writing in the first place, nor stop you from trying to do good in the world by writing diversely.

The second step is to examine the stance of your story toward the characters in it who are not like you. “Othering” is a verb that encompasses many possible things, all of them bad. Have you set them on a pedestal as an example of all that is noble? While that might seem laudable on the surface, it’s still dehumanizing and othering. Are you using your trans character as a metaphor for your own desire to remake yourself as a new person? People aren’t metaphors, but it can be argued that all fiction is. If the only reason a trans character is there is to be a metaphorical stand-in, then once again they’ve been dehumanized. Have you portrayed a character as a three-dimensional, realistic human? Then you’re doing well and it’s win-win, because fully three-dimensional characters aren’t just less likely to be harmful representations, they’re also good writing.

The third step, after you’ve examined your perspective, is the hardest part, which is to have others examine your perspective as well. From within we can only expand our vision so much, and it takes the help of others to extend that view. When writing erotica it’s important to find beta readers and sensitivity readers who aren’t of the opinion that all porn is inherently exploitative. (There are still some people who think that.) And ideally, if you’re writing about a member of a certain group, you’ll want feedback from members of that group. Only the people you are writing about can tell you whether they feel respected or disrespected by your representation.

Finally, it’s good to bear in mind that the more marginalized the group or identity of the person, the more likely they are to have been subjected to harmful representation, and so the more likely they are to be critical. When people see the same mistakes again and again, they may get less patient about correcting them. Rather than being defensive if you are called out on a common mistake, try to realize why you made that mistake (from your more privileged position, did you imagine the experience of a marginalized person inaccurately? Did you put yourself in the position of “savior” in a way that dehumanized those you were supposedly aiding? etc.) and don’t just pledge to do better, but examine whether you can improve your perspective to avoid that pitfall in the future.

I truly believe in erotica writing as a form of social justice. Our society heaps so much guilt and shame onto sex and sexuality, but a writer who breaks past that to celebrate and empower their own sexuality can empower their readers to do the same. Imagining and inhabiting spaces free of that shame via fiction is one of the most powerful tools we have toward creating those spaces in real life, and it’s laudable to want that freedom for all.


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!

#74: A Sympathetic Character Who Resembles a Real-World Villain

Dear Story Nurse,

I know this probably looks like a troll letter, but I swear it’s a real problem I’ve got with one of my characters! Even I had trouble believing it at first. Long story short, I spent ten years working on a manuscript and just now accidentally realized that one of my secondary protagonists sounds a lot like Hitler.

This fellow is an elected monarch who is doing a terrible job of running his kingdom. He’s cut off his citizens from having very much direct contact with him, and he has an art hobby that has taken precedence over his actual duties. Amazingly, over several decades, he barely improves. It’s not the kind of art hobby that can be quickly changed to something else, either.

He was once a refugee from an aggressor continent that frowned upon the arts in general, and his poor artistic abilities directly trigger the driving conflict of the story. I know, this sounds like a neutral character at best, but the main protagonist ropes him into their quest in the third act, when his kingdom’s been taken over and he’s in hiding, because they’re the only person in the kingdom who genuinely likes looking at his art. He’s practically the visual artistic equivalent of Florence Foster Jenkins here. Eventually, the exile, coming clean about his part in accidentally creating the antagonist, and reconciling with some friends he’d abandoned over the years convince him that the townspeople don’t all hate him as much as he thinks they do, and he’s still redeemable as both a monarch and an artist. It doesn’t happen as neatly and easily as it seems to for the purpose of this letter.

I seriously considered turning him into a woman, because that’s solved a lot of quandaries in the past for me, but that would affect another plot point involving (independently of each other) a plot-relevant shirtless scene and a small handful of one-sided romances. I’d really like to keep this as PG as possible, so topless lady NotHitler is out for now. I figured the best way to attack this problem from here was to research Hitler and Nazi Germany and make sure this guy isn’t doing anything else that runs suspect. My browsing history has probably reached full-on “IT’S FOR A BOOK I SWEAR!” saturation.

NotHitler never commits a genocide or any unprovoked acts of aggression towards other world powers or groups of people. If I make him even more of an introvert and significantly more often taking a defensive stance than an offensive one, would that be enough, or would I have to seriously uproot a good chunk of this story’s foundation to make it work? I may not be a troll, but I know a lot of trolls would probably be quick to jump the gun if they see anything even remotely Hitlery. The last thing I’d want in my life is a bunch of readers accusing me of being a Nazi sympathizer because I redeemed a character that reminded them of Hitler.

If you’ve made it this far, I cannot thank you enough for staying with me. I can barely believe this is a real problem I’ve run into. But hey, better to go down as the guy who realized he accidentally wrote Hitler before publication than the guy who had to be told he accidentally wrote Hitler by the readers, right?

—Not a Nazi (he/him)

Dear Not a Nazi,

You are vastly, vastly overthinking this. Leave the character as he is and don’t worry about it. If you really want to be careful, run it past a targeted beta reader who’s an expert on WWII, or show the character enjoying a steak dinner and talking about how much he hates facial hair. But nothing in your description makes me think “whoa, totally Hitler!”, even with the context that you think this character is Hitleresque. I think you’re safe.

This excessive concern over a minor matter sounds like the product of an anxious aversion to declaring the book finished. If you’ve spent ten years on your manuscript and you’re starting to fuss over non-problems, I recommend submitting or self-publishing it as quickly as possible so you can move on. When you’ve worked on one project for that long, it can be hard to imagine your life without it, but both you and the book need some closure. Empty your browser cache with a clean conscience and keep moving toward The End. You’ll be glad you did.

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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#73: Counteracting Envy of Other People’s Success

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m an unpublished novelist with a number of first drafts and one that is much closer to the endpoint of the process (like, a couple of revisions from done). I’ve been writing for a long time and feel that I’m getting to the stage where I might even be able to get published, but after years of writing privately without any kind of reassurance that my work is worthwhile, I’m really struggling to keep my anxieties from drowning me.

The thing I’m struggling with right now is professional jealousy of my friends—a couple of them have contracts and while I’m pretty good at stopping it from affecting my face-to-face friendship with them, I’ve had to mute their Facebook feeds and I am plagued by feelings that I have failed where they have succeeded. I acknowledge that this is definitely amplified by other life circumstances—SAD and work stress are adding to it—but unfortunately when I’m already having mental health problems, these thought processes are spiralling more and more.

The usual advice I’ve read is that my success isn’t impacted by that of my friends and they’re doing something completely different to me, so it shouldn’t affect me—to just put these thoughts aside and get on with the work. But creative work requires passion and a degree of blind faith that what I’m doing has value, and while I can dismiss these thoughts ten times a day, the eleventh time will still grind me down and cause me to obsess over my failure. That in turn affects my confidence in pushing on with my work.

The parts of writing that have always been hardest for me are consistency of enthusiasm and self-belief, and both of these are taking a fairly hefty hit from these upsetting thoughts right now. On top of that, much as I don’t want my relationship with my friends to suffer, any successes of theirs, even ones that are only tenuously related but indicate that they’re respected as professionals in their field, are causing me to feel resentful and leave the conversation. Since I care about them and want to be supportive, this is proving really tough. I never want to make them feel bad for their success (which is why I don’t want to talk to them about it), but when hearing about it messes with my brain, it’s difficult to maintain those friendships. I feel like I’m so close to success but just falling short, and yet they’re light years ahead.

Your previous posts have been really helpful in understanding why I feel the way I do about my work in the past, so I’m hoping you have some thoughts on this.

—Hopeful (she/her)

Dear Hopeful,

Jealousy is a beast, isn’t it? It’s one of the hardest emotions to handle, along with guilt and grief. And it sounds like you’re maybe feeling some of those things too: grief over the career you don’t have, guilt over your perceived failings.

The idea that you shouldn’t be affected by your friends’ successes is absolute nonsense. If you were thrilled for them and cheering them on, no one would tell you, “Whoa, slow down there—you shouldn’t be so happy! Their success has nothing to do with you!” We all understand that having feelings about what’s happening in our friends’ lives is perfectly normal. But when those feelings aren’t positive, they become less socially acceptable, and then you have another guilt burden laid atop the rest of the things you’re feeling. So let me relieve you of that burden: there’s nothing morally wrong with being envious of people who have things you want, and you’re not a bad person for feeling that way.

Continue reading

#72: What Is Revision?

Dear Story Nurse,

I finished the first draft of my novel a few months ago, and I really want to get it published soon. But every time I try to revise it, I just end up “polishing” it—line-editing or cutting sentences within scenes. I guess at a basic level, I don’t know what writers mean when they say they “re-write” drafts. Do they literally re-write their entire novel, page by page, from scratch? Or do they only re-write the scenes that don’t work? (I know everyone is different, but I also feel like no one gets it right the first time, so I want to know how people go about fixing it).

It took me years to finish the first draft, so the idea of re-writing the entire thing feels really daunting to me. At the same time, I don’t want to simply rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titanic—I want to save the ship (to borrow from Justine Larbalestier’s metaphor on rewriting). I want to fix any major structural issues. I want the novel to be the best it can be, even before I let beta-readers see it.

What should I do? At its most basic, rudimentary level, what does re-writing a draft mean? What exercises can I do to take baby-steps towards re-writing?

—(Another) Confused Reviser (she/her)

Dear (Another) Confused Reviser,

What a wonderful question, and I’m glad you were willing to ask it! You’re absolutely right that people talk about revising without ever talking about what it can or should entail, and that does a real disservice to writers who are just starting out.

Every draft is different, and every draft needs a different amount and type of rewriting. It often helps to find a good beta reader or three who can point you in useful directions for your specific work. Every writer’s revision process is different too, but I can still make some general suggestions that may help you get a foothold. Continue reading