#107: How to Write Gripping Headlines

Dear Story Nurse,

It’s a small thing, but I need help understanding how to create compelling titles.

I’ve found a job writing articles and it pays me enough to make a living. Writing as paying gig is a new development for me; until recently, I’d really only written fiction as a private and unpaid hobby. Yet now I’m reporting on local government actions, generating updates on research projects in our area, and crafting biographies on notable residents.

It’s terrifying that I’m actually doing this and also amazing. My editor/boss has helped with the structure and flow of my articles, but I still have some anxiety about my abilities, particularly when it comes to crafting compelling (and concise) titles. I know that I will not lose my job over it, but my ineptitude in this area creates a lot of noise in my head regarding my skills. That head noise puts me on edge, making it difficult to get out of my own way and do my job.

I’ve written and rewritten titles as a writing exercise. It can take me an hour to get something mediocre; my boss can create one in ten seconds. To be fair to myself, he has been doing this years longer than I have. But I don’t have an hour to spare for every article.

Is there a titling manual I missed somewhere? Am I (or my anxiety) making this too difficult? Are there less formulaic exercises I can do? Do you know of a different approach other than rewriting the same thing over and over? An internet search points me to sites relying on formulas. My editor can’t describe his title creating process other than ‘just say what it is without giving it all away’ but also to be interesting while doing so.

For further clarity, my editor prefers titles that give a hint without telling the whole story. The title can be as few as two words and usually no more than eight. Subtitles can be up to another eight to nine words.

Thank you.

—New Here (she/her)

Dear New Here,

I’m guessing from your single quotes that you’re not in the U.S., and perhaps that’s why you’re using title where I would say headline. If you’re writing articles reporting on news, they need headlines (and subheds—yes, that spelling is correct). Your searches for information on writing good headlines may be more fruitful just with this change in terminology.

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GYWO: Why Every Writer Needs a Style Guide

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. My previous GYWO post was on how to write when you don’t want to.

I’ve done a great many things in and around publishing, and one tool that crosses over a lot of different disciplines is the style guide. Ideally a style guide will begin with the writer and carry through all the way to production. When you’re doing the sort of publication that involves a manuscript being passed from writer to agent to editor to copyeditor to designer to proofreader, it’s a really valuable tool for communication of vital information to someone you may never interact with directly. Even if you’re doing the entirety of writing, design, and publication yourself, you’ll want one to keep yourself on track and to share with your editor. In brief, it’s a way of saying “I did it this way on purpose.”

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#106: Writing Through Depression

Content note: This letter and post discuss depression and negative self-talk.

Hey Story Nurse

So I’m like a sad human with Heaps of mental health problems (anxiety, depression and a bunch of less relevant stuff) and I write fanfiction off and on depending on my mood and what I’m watching.

I also sort of write original fiction, but I never even get close to finishing anything. I really want to write some things that work best in long form (like person goes “undercover” as a boy and realizes like halfway through he’s trans is the one I’m working on right now). But I haven’t done anything with it because I know I’m not going to finish it. The only thing I ever finish are short fics. So what I’ve been doing is trying to write progressively longer and longer fics to kind of get a feel for longer writing and to prove to myself that I can finish things.

However, I just started a fic that was supposed to be like up to twenty chapters long, which retrospectively is about 75% longer than anything I’d done before, but I thought it would be better cause I had it all planned out. I was super wrong. I finished three chapters and tossed it because I hate it now, like the whole premise and everything it just felt super flat. And now I feel like I can’t finish anything. Like I haven’t even been able to Try to write like anything at all (original or fic) because I feel like I’m not going to finish it and there’s no point. It’s really frustrating because I really love looking at and rereading things I /have/ finished.

I really wanna write original stuff because I have soooo many ideas, but it feels like as soon as I try nothing works right. The plot is bad, I can’t figure out how to get scenes to work together or the writing just feels flat and I lose interest super quickly. It’s super depressing and now it’s leeched into my fanfic too. :c

Please help.

—Sad Space Gay (they/them)

Dear Sad Space Gay,

I’m sorry you’re having such a rough time. It sounds like your depression is really doing a number on you. It’s really awesome that you’ve fought through that to reach out for help, and I hope you recognize what an amazing act of self-care and determination and bravery that was. Your depression doesn’t own you. If you found a way to write to me, you can find ways to do other good things for yourself, including writing.

Depression is clearly putting a distorting filter between you and your writing and making it very hard for you to accurately judge the quality or potential of your ideas and your work. I can’t treat your depression, and I hope that you’re working with skilled, compassionate professionals who can. What I can do is give you some ways to recognize, mitigate, and bypass the filter.

Important caveat: Some of these techniques will work for some people some of the time. Nothing works for everyone all of the time. Depression is a clever beast and it adapts. It also comes and goes. Something that feels easy or useful one day may be impossible or counterproductive the next. If trying any of these techniques feels bad or harmful to you, stop doing it. Only you can assess what works for you. I’m a professional in the field of writing, not in the field of mental health; I’m not prescribing anything, only making recommendations for writing techniques. If you’re at all uncertain about how or whether to proceed with any of this advice, talk it over with the people who are directly supporting your mental health. Continue reading

#105: How Much Backstory Is Too Much

Hello, Story Nurse!

My main focus at the moment is a fantasy novel. I’m only in the planning stages right now but I’m having a hard time figuring out what to do for this. My story is mainly centered on a group of people, and while they may age as it progresses, they are kids/teens. A big part of my story is about recovery and healing and such, so most of these kids have emotional wounds.

While their emotional wounds are obviously going to be present even when not outright mentioned, my question is; how much information of these traumas/wounds is enough? I fear that including too much information on their wounds may make it seem like I’m trying to force the reader to pity them, and that too little will leave the reader confused and in the dark.

How much is too much or too little? Any suggestions on how do I show their wounds and provide details without waving a neon sign?

Thank you,

Struggling (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!

#104: Blocked When Switching from Fanfic to Original Fiction

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m a mostly-retired fanfic writer trying my hand at original urban fantasy. I would very much like to be able to write from an outline, but I’ve been going completely blank when I try to plan my original stories compared to fic. However, my most typical process has always been to more-or-less happily ‘pants’ through a very very rough draft and then mold what I find into a story shape. That’s worked ok in the past, but now that I’m attempting original fiction in earnest, I’m encountering a problem that I would have found utterly comical to imagine happening to me.

In fanfic circles, I was known for writing doomed star-crossed lovers and other sorts of intense angst from canons that were full of horror and suspense. Villains were frequently my most favorite characters and I wasn’t shy about letting the heroes make enticing yet oh-so-regrettable choices.

Now that I’m writing my own original fic, which is supposed to be about decadent and frightening vampires, everyone’s behaving like a flawless paragon of reasoned maturity and working out their problems and desires in the most responsible ways possible. And so every plot conflict I try to set up is quickly defused, nothing scary or suspenseful ever gets to happen, and not one of my characters is willing to step up and do any of the villainous or catastrophic things I enjoy so much in other people’s stories.

It’d be one thing if I was discovering a heretofore unknown love of writing slowburn coffee shop original universe fic, but that sort of thing has vastly more tension then what I’m generating. I’m boring myself to tears!

I’ve never been unwilling to torture a character I’ve loved (quite the opposite) and I don’t think that’s all or even most of what’s happening here. It almost feels as if I’m afraid to get in some sort of trouble for having any of my characters behave anything less than ideally. I don’t know where that would be coming from, as I’ve never had any anxieties or confrontations regarding that with my fanfic. Perhaps borrowing someone else’s characters allowed me to fearlessly explore their pain, flaws, and terrible decisions because I wasn’t the one responsible for them.

I just want to be able to write stories that are fun for me to write, however dark or fluffy they turn out to be. Instead, all I’ve been writing are pages and pages of bland mush that I had hoped to find quite spicy. Your wisdom is appreciated.

—Defanged (they/them)

Dear Defanged,

There’s a lot going on here! I suspect you’re primarily hampered by two things: a focus on characters as the source of your problems, rather than as a reflection of them, and the habit of comparing your original fiction writing with your fanfic writing. Your letter scratches the surface; now it’s time to dig deeper.

Continue reading

#103: Writing Fluffy Stories in Thorny Times

Hi, Story Nurse,

I just outlined a romance novella and I’m trying to figure out its setting. It’s basically contemporary, with the obvious AU-ness that comes along with a functioning fantasy-genre-style system of magic—but who won in 2016? Has that election even happened yet in this ‘verse?

Can I write a simple fluffball escapist-fantasy romance set in the present-day US without addressing US politics directly? Like, am I capable of it? Separately, is it ethical to make the attempt? Is it ethical to not make the attempt?

How can I portray my protagonists sympathetically if they live in the present-day US and do not at least make a lot of sincere noise backed with some effort about \handflappy\?

But how do I focus on my actual plot—which is political only in the way that personal emotional journeys about minority religion and queer sexuality, both in counterweight to queermisic Catholicism, inherently are—if my characters are spending so many of their non-employment waking hours being actively political & stuff?

—Artist-Activist Butterfly (they/them)

Dear Artist-Activist Butterfly,

This is a great question that I think a lot of writers are struggling with right now, because we live in a very politically aware and active time. When so many of our own waking hours are taken up with thoughts about political activism and power dynamics and related anxiety and stress, it can be hard to remember what fluffy stories even look like.

I encourage you to take a step back and consider this problem through a historical lens. There have always been political and social challenges (especially for minorities), and there have always been fluffy stories that gloss over or steer around those challenges. If Regency romance authors can write happy bouncy funny stories that completely ignore or barely nod to the American and French revolutions (as recent to the Regency as the Vietnam War is to us) and the Napoleonic wars, you can write happy bouncy funny stories set in 2016 or 2018.

Here are a few options for how you might portray your characters as politically aware and engaged without it overwhelming the story:

  • They do activism that doesn’t directly intersect with politics, such as volunteering at a soup kitchen or doing lay leadership with their religious organization (if they have one) or letting a trans teen crash on their couch after she’s kicked out of her house. This builds sympathetic characters and shows them living their political ideals, which frees you from having to reflect those ideals in frequent activism.
  • They donate money rather than time. Make one mention of monthly donations, and then move on to the focus of your story.
  • They talk about taking time off from activism to rest and recover.

Or you can just not mention it. I don’t think you need your characters to be ostentatiously political for them to be sympathetic. I’m sure you can think of any number of real people you like even though they aren’t deeply involved in activism, or their activism happens where you don’t see it. Your readers—who are presumably looking for a fluffy story—will likewise be perfectly happy to enjoy the aspects of the characters you put on the page, and not stress about the rest.

One thing that will help is keeping the scale of the story small. If it only takes place over two days in a cabin in the woods, it’s reasonable that politics wouldn’t be hugely relevant to the characters’ lives during that time. If it takes place over six months in a big city where there are frequently protesters in the streets and every bar has five screens showing CNN, or on a college campus where current events are frequently discussed and student activism is common, more political intrusion would be expected.

You can also write your alternate universe to be alternate enough that the election went a different way. If this setting has always had magic, there’s no reason to think history would have run the same course as it did in our magicless universe. Diverge from reality as much as you like.

As you observe, there are ethical arguments to be made both for and against writing fluffy stories that handwave politics. I’m personally in favor of you writing the story the way you want to write it. There’s room for all kinds of stories, and no shortage of people writing works that are explicitly political and emotionally heavy. I know many readers who are really eager for fluff right now because they’re so stressed out by politics and need a break now and then. Write for those readers, and for yourself.

Any novella needs to leave things out. It’s only a novella! It can’t contain the universe. Draw the lines where you need to in order to tell the story you want to tell.

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!

#102: Writing Sex Negotiations in Polyamory Stories

Hi, Story Nurse!

In a fanfiction I’m writing, I’m working on slowly integrating a polyamorous romance and while your previous polyamory posts have been super helpful, I’m having trouble. I’ll refer to the characters as Z, C and V. C is polyamorous but has no romantic or sexual experience beyond their feelings for Z and V. V and Z don’t strictly identify as either mono or poly but as of now, they’re only in love with C. All three of them are new to the V format of polyamorous relationships. I’m struggling with how to… approach sex within their relationship. I know every relationship is different and communication is key but even with that, the research I’ve done hasn’t typically answered this question of mine. How does a sexually inexperienced person approach or initiate sex with multiple partners? Is there a certain unspoken etiquette I don’t know about? Is it a gradual process with all partners or something that just happens? If it helps, Z is rather possessive but he loves C enough and is fond of V (they’re old friends) and just wants them to be happy. V is very open minded but I think he’d still feel an occasional bout of jealousy. (Which is understandable.) It’s tricky and I’m having trouble balancing it all even with the research I’ve done.

—Apprenty (they/them)

Dear Apprenty,

Thanks for giving me such an easy question to answer! No, there’s no universal polyamory proposition etiquette, any more than there’s universal monogamy proposition etiquette. How it goes depends entirely on the people involved. As with any romance story, your best bet is to put yourself in each character’s shoes as much as possible and write them doing what they’re inclined to do, with commonalities and clashes arising from that.

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#101: Writing Submissions and Competition

Dear Story Nurse,

A really awesome opportunity has come up for a writing submission, but I’m aware that it’s going to involve going up against a friend who is also submitting (and I already have some difficult emotions about due to their comparative success). I don’t know whether it’s better to avoid the chance of direct competition exacerbating my already difficult feelings by not submitting, or to try it knowing that the consequences could be extremely tough to take. At the same time, I’m also aware that if I don’t try for this opportunity, that is still going to have an impact on my mental health. I don’t want to let my bad feelings bully me out of something that I’m really excited about, but I also don’t want to risk my mental wellbeing for one opportunity.

Thank you,

Hopeless Romantic (she/her)

Dear Hopeless Romantic,

I don’t think this is a question someone other than you can answer, so I have some questions in return that might help you clarify what the right choice is for you. Continue reading

#99: Developing a Supporting Cast

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

Dear Story Nurse,

How do I figure out which supporting characters need to be in my story? I’ve read oodles of articles about the importance of secondary characters, how they drive the plot and reveal important things about the protagonist, but none about how to figure out who those characters are in the first place.

My protagonist starts out very much alone—recently discharged from the military and estranged from her family of origin. Over the course of the story, she builds a support network for herself. Some of that will be people who are new to her life; others are people who were already there, but she didn’t realize she could rely on them.

There are quite a lot of ideas that I want to explore in the story, though I’m not sure how many will make it to the final draft. Here’s a short list:

  • the control that money exerts over our lives
  • family, community, and accepting support
  • coming to terms with your own weaknesses and those of others
  • trauma and recovery
  • openness and acceptance as the antidote to shame
  • the importance of telling your own story

I have a solid sense of who the protagonist is as a solitary person, but I don’t know who the people around her are. Who are her friends? Her coworkers? It’s such a broad question that I’m not sure where to start.

—Who’s Next? (he/him)

Dear Who’s Next?,

This is a great question! And you’ve already got the beginning of your answer to it. Just as protagonists in some ways embody the Big Idea of your story, supporting characters are often avatars of those themes you mentioned, as well as vehicles for tone. When you’re looking at the push-pull of plot momentum, supporting characters can provide both the push and the pull. And a well-rounded cast will do a lot to fill out your setting.

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