#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!

#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!


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!

#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!


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!

#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!


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!

#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.


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!

#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.

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#71: You Are Allowed to Write Outside Your Own Experience

Dear Story Nurse,

What do I do when my ‘own voice’ is traumatized and I don’t like it?

I write mostly fantasy (what people consider ‘high’ fantasy or ‘swords and sorcery’) and fairy tale variations, and have dabbled in romances; usually those are modern polyamory and/or demisexual/grey-ace focused. I don’t have anything published, but I’m not averse to the idea, I’m just slow and that’s not what pushes me to write.

There has been a lot of talk recently online about ‘own voices’ and how people (especially white people, which I am) should be cognizant of the pitfalls of writing outside our own culture or experiences, especially in nasty tropey stereotypical and demeaning or second-class sorts of ways. I am ALL IN FAVOR of this, and I try to support own voices writing in as many ways as I can, to try and counteract the amazingly sucky continued bias in publishing (and tbh, in life in general).

My question is this: as a corollary, the general view seems to be that as a white writer, my non-colonial, non-appropriative options are to… write only about my own experiences or culture? But my background is unpleasant and traumatic (and unusual: I was essentially raised in a cult until I was 16). My adult life has been boring and pretty white-het-cis-married-privileged (I’m not heterosexual, I’m polyam, and I don’t think I’m cisgender either but I’m still working thru that with myself, but I need to ‘pass’ because of where I live and what my job is.)

I write to escape my history and my current state of having to hide my authentic self, and to create alternatives for myself and for the child I didn’t get to be. Writing about my own childhood is traumatic—sometimes helpful, but it’s a therapy assignment, not me writing for love of writing where the story and characters just flow out of me in a happy relaxing zen. And writing about my own adult life is frustrating because it reminds me how much I have to hide all the time. And writing about ‘white culture’ seems fake to me—I didn’t grow up in it, and it still feels like I’m behind the curve and missing things there too.

So how do I honor own voices and still write when I don’t feel like I have a voice of my own that I can use?

—Rowan (they/them)

Dear Rowan,

I’m honored that you wrote to me with such a personal and painful question. I’m so sorry that people have treated you badly, especially when you were a child, and that your current circumstances force you to hide who you are.

I want to be very clear on this, up front: You are never required to write things that harm youYour writing must be for you first and last. And there is always a way to find stories to write that don’t harm you or anyone else.

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NaNoWriMo: How to Counter Jealousy and Insecurity

Dear friends,

Here we are ten days into NaNoWriMo. Ten days of working hard, struggling sometimes, finding your flow and losing it again. Some people are already posting “I won NaNoWriMo!” banners. Others feel totally at sea. And numbers are flying all over the place—wordcount totals, daily wordcounts, number of writing days missed.

Just as numbers lend themselves to a mistaken sense of orderliness, they lend themselves to mistaken comparisons. It’s very easy to think that someone who’s written 20,000 words is in some way a better person than someone who’s written 10,000 words. It’s very easy to forget that those progress meters are not all there is to life in November. It’s very easy, in this atmosphere focused on numbers and “winning,” to get jealous, and anxious, and insecure.

If the green-eyed monster is sitting on your shoulder, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Every manuscript is a unique work of art. We set up competitions and awards and lists of the year’s best books and all those things, but fundamentally, books can’t be compared to one another, because art is itself. Focus on your book, on your craft.
  • NaNo is between you and you. Other people happen to be doing their own self-directed NaNos at the same time. This is coincidence. You have chosen your goal—the 50,000-word standard goal, or another—and your progress toward that goal is yours.
  • Don’t let the similarity of goals trick you into thinking that everyone who does a 50k NaNo is the same. Everyone brings different things to their NaNo. Some people prep beforehand; some go in cold. Some people have day jobs and family commitments and chronic illnesses; some are free of drags on their energy and time. Some people have a dozen books under their belts; some are just starting out. If this were a competition—and it’s not—the playing field would not be remotely level.
  • It is totally okay to step away from places where other people are discussing their progress toward their goals if being in those places makes you feel bad or makes it hard for you to keep working toward your own goal.
  • If you want a writing career, this is great preparation for the career-writer world, in which someone else is always getting an award or landing a deal or hitting a bestseller list or turning out sixty books a year or being reviewed somewhere major or being a keynote speaker or otherwise doing or getting a thing that you wish you were doing or getting. So just as writing your NaNo “book” helps you learn how to write professionally, having feelings about other people’s NaNo progress helps you anticipate the experience of being a professional writer. How will you face that challenge, now and in the future? How will you get around it or past it, or ignore it or argue with it, or do whatever you need to do to keep writing?
  • Keep writing.

That’s all pretty standard anti-insecurity stuff and you may have already tried it and found it’s not enough. So instead of staying with the concept of competition—because arguing with it still buys into it to some extent—let’s talk about collaboration.

In the fanfic writing community I’m part of, sometimes we talk about stories as being like cake. Someone will come into chat and say “I had a story idea but I see someone already wrote it” or “I feel like the audience for this is so tiny” and the rest of us will chorus “MORE CAKE.” Because even if someone else baked a delicious cake, there is no such thing as too much delicious cake! And even if very few people appreciate the unique flavor combinations you come up with, those who do will be so thrilled to find something tailor-made just for their tastes.

I especially love this metaphor because it focuses on the glee not just of making but of sharing, and the delight of the reader getting to savor the story. It is the antithesis of counting and comparing. Who cares how much cake you’re making, or what kind of cake it is, or how much cake anyone else has made? Your cake is MORE CAKE and more is better. Every word you put down is worth celebrating, because any word anyone puts down is worth celebrating. And it keeps you focused on your goal by reminding you of what comes after—no one else can enjoy your cake until you finish baking it.

If you think of NaNo projects this way, suddenly NaNo becomes collaborative rather than competitive. Everyone is going to make so many words until November is full to the brim with them! And no matter how many or how few words you’re writing, no matter how quickly or slowly you’re progressing, you’re doing your part.

What you’re making is going to be incredible. Other people are making incredible things too. How beautiful, how joyous! What an amazing thing to be a part of. Let that amazingness excite and encourage you, all thoughts of competition forgotten. Every word is one more word than there was before. Every word is a win.

Happy writing!


Story Nurse

This post is part of a special NaNoWriMo 2017 series supported by my fabulous Patreon patronsGot a writing question? Ask the Story Nurse!

#60: Starting Small

Dear Story Nurse,

I took a really long break from writing partially due to mental illness and chronic fatigue and partially because I was looking at it as something I *had* to do, and I’d forgotten why I actually love writing. So I’m trying to figure that out, and I’m only really writing fanfic right now because it’s easier for me, but I seem to have run into the same problem I run into with my original fiction.

I really want to write longer works, but as soon as I decide that’s something I want to do, I basically lose all interest on whatever I’ve been working on. I pretty much never finish anything that I want to be longer than 5,000 words. Occasionally, I’ll accidentally make something a little longer, but I get kind of antsy about that too, even things I’m initially really excited about writing. I’m not sure how to fix this.

—Briar (they/them)

Dear Briar,

I’m sorry you’re having a hard time coming back to writing after so long away. That’s something a lot of people struggle with (see my posts on returning to writing after a long hiatus and when creation feels like a chore), especially if you took the break on purpose and for good reasons. Having filed not-writing under mental health self-care for so long, it can be challenging to now believe that writing will be not only safe but actively beneficial.

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